By Brannon S. Howse
Knowing a bit more about the four specific religious groups that Jesus addressed in His Sermon on the Mount should give us pause. I’ll explain why.
Four distinct groups made up the religious professionals of Jesus’ day: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. And to continue answering the question “what would Jesus say to the religious leaders of our day,” we need to understand what Jesus said to the religious leaders of His day. While He clearly directs His remarks in Matthew 5 to believers, these other religious folks are in the audience, and much of what He says goes against their traditions and divergent worldviews. So who were they and how did they view the world?
These guys were the legalists. Tradition and rules dominated everything they thought, said, or did. Does that sound familiar? It should. Many fundamentalists closer in history to us were very much into the external. They focused on how you dressed and how your hair was cut, on the things you did and did not do.
I would not disagree with some of the fundamentalists in the way that a person should act, but conduct and appearance should be an outgrowth of the heart, not a concentration on external things. Similarly, Pharisees didn’t pay much attention to the heart or to people’s motives. They didn’t concern themselves with teaching theology, doctrine, and good discipleship to generate heart-produced righteous living. They taught on the dos and the don’ts: legalism, externals, and tradition.
Sadducees were the liberals of the day. Nowadays, we have Saducees in the form of the emergent church and postmodernism, and in the 1950s and 60s, we had modernists. They thought reason and knowledge could solve all issues. Modernists rejected the essential Christian doctrines, undermined the authority of Scripture, downplayed the cross, and minimized the true Gospel. Scripture, for them, did not offer solutions—that was a realm for human reason. Now we’ve gone even further with post-modernists who say, “What do you mean by reason? Truth and reality are created by man, not by God. Everyone has his or her own idea of truth.”
Like the Sadducees then, we have our religious liberals, modernists, and post-modernists now who make up the religious left. They give us a post-modern-dominated society and the emergent church.
The Essenes were isolationists. They “moved out” geographically to separate themselves from everyone else. They wanted little or no contact with the culture or other people. Essenes pursued what we would think of as religious pietism. They prided themselves on their isolationism, thinking it positioned them as the spiritual elite.
Do we have folks like that today? I think we do. People who move away from big cities sometimes err in their isolationism. “You need to move as far away as possible,” they say, “and live in a small group or commune of like-minded people.” They believe it is a righteousness thing to do, that they are spiritually elite by protecting themselves “in a bubble” from other influences. To that I echo the scripture that says we’re to be in the world, but not of the world (John 17:16). While there are many things we definitely shouldn’t participate in, we’re not called to isolationism. It’s prideful to think that if we live in a bubble, we look a certain way, we dress “just so,” then we’re spiritually okay. Again, that is concentrating on the external, not the internal.
As I write this, there have been recent scandalous stories of at least two religious leaders in America, well known for their long lists of legalistic, isolationist ways—how men should dress, what women should wear, how families should be structured, what parents and their children should and should not do. They seem to teach that “if you follow these formulas, you’ve arrived spiritually.” Yet what good has this concentration on externals done for these leaders? Both have been accused of shameful private, heart-produced behaviors masked by their externals. The Essenes were guilty of the same, dysfunctional, isolationist thinking.
Can you say, “political activists”? That’s who the Zealots were. They wanted power. Their idea of redemption was to reform society through political power or revolution. That sounds a lot like our Religious Right, doesn’t it? Win the next election. Boycott the corporations you don’t agree with. But this approach flies directly in the face of being salt and light. We’re not called to be political agitators. Am I saying we shouldn’t be involved politically? No. But balance is the key. Let me explain.
Someone called my radio program and asked, “Brannon, what is your belief about how much we should be involved politically? Should we vote?” The answer to that is simple: yes, vote. You’d be crazy not to. Too many people have died to give Americans that right. We dare not take it lightly. I’m convinced, however, that some of our election tallies aren’t kept quite like they should be. I read, for instance, that in the 2012 presidential election, more people voted in some districts than actually live in those districts. Concerns like that make me question the validity of how elections are conducted, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t participate.
Should we support measures that uphold the biblical purpose of government? Absolutely. You would be foolish not vote in favor of good ordinances for your town or initiatives on the ballot. And you certainly should encourage elected officials to support legislation that defends the family, keeps the airwaves open for the proclamation of the Gospel, protects parental authority, and guards the pulpit to keep it free. The proper balance, though, is to take care of the internal first.
What to Do and Whom to Avoid
Christians are supposed to light up the world. Christ is the light, and those of us who accept Him as Lord and Savior are meant to exhibit the light of Christ. Yet you will find many religious leaders who do not encourage that. Instead, some undermine the Gospel by mixing with false teachers.
On TV, radio, or the Internet, they interview people from the Word of Faith or the New Apostolic Reformation. They dialog with Roman Catholics. They talk to Mormons. They even enter into spiritual activities with Mormons like Glenn Beck and join in spiritual enterprises with Catholic priests and Catholic groups. They involve themselves in one initiative after the other, one event after another, that undermines the Gospel, and yet they claim to be salt and light. Many of them aren’t even believers, so they can’t be salt and light. They are goats, not sheep.
A quick search online will show you just how many of these folks preach about being salt and light, but it’s always about Christian activism. Their teachings do not line up with Paul’s. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, for example, he says, “For I determine not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Paul didn’t call us to political activism or boycotts. He called us to preach Christ—and thereby to be peacemakers. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, did Paul say, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received—a voter guide”? Not hardly. He said:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. (emphasis mine)
Unlike Paul, many pro-life, pro-family Religious Right leaders try to sell us on Christian activism. But here’s how we’re supposed to understand the role of the believer:
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)
Much preaching today offers only an aroma that stinks. Lost people claim to be saved, just as many leaders of Jesus’ day smelled of religious stench. Christians, though, can offer a sweet aroma if we exhibit The Beatitudes, preach the Gospel of peace, and avoid those who manipulate the Scriptures to further their own political ends. Jesus may have harsh words for people like them, but as true salt and light, you can be among those to whom He repeats Matthew 25:21: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Copyright 2015 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.