“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” groaned Jesus “the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
“See! Your house is left to you desolate;
“for I say to you, you shall see me no more until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Those verses are found in Matthew 23:37-39. I was thinking the other day about Jesus’ words spoken over the holy city, so I opened my Bible to study that passage. Jesus was saying that he would not return to Jerusalem until he was truly welcomed by its leaders and inhabitants. What would it take to make that happen? That led me to think about why Jesus uttered this dire prophecy about the desolation of the Temple (“your house”) in the first place. So I read the rest of the chapter (Matthew 23:1-36).
Jesus was addressing Jerusalem’s inhabitants along with his own disciples (verse 1). He was talking about the spiritual leaders of the city (scribes and Pharisees – verse 2). He agreed with their doctrine and said that his disciples should “observe and do” it (verse 3). At the same time, he warned his audience not to follow the pattern of the two classes of leaders because they “say and do not,” (verse 3b). In other words, they’re hypocrites. They taught right doctrine, but they didn’t practice it.
In addition, in their zeal to “make a fence around the Torah” they “bind heavy burdens hard to bear” on others, but they won’t themselves live by those dicta. Furthermore, they are spiritual exhibitionists – “…all their works they do to be seen by men.” (verse 5a). They love the trappings of importance – prominent seats in synagogues, greetings as they move majestically through the marketplace, etc. etc. (verses 6-7).
Jesus then teaches his disciples to walk in humility and service to others, not accepting grandiose titles or seeking recognition (verses 7-12).
Some of these spiritual leaders “devoured widow’s houses” and then performed ostentatious religious acts to cover their sins (verse 14). For them the gold in the temple was more important than the temple itself (verses 16-19).
The scribes and Pharisees were meticulous in carrying out the physical acts of Torah – like tithing on minutia – spices for example (verse 23a). But they neglected to perform the weightier matters of Torah like justice, mercy and faith (verse 23b).
They were excessively concerned with appearances while being guilty of hypocrisy, lawlessness, the abuse of widows and worst of all, the rejection of the prophets and wise men God had sent to them (verse 34). They whipped God’s representatives in their synagogues and persecuted them from city to city (verse 34b). Then Jesus issued a dire prophecy. “…on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.
“Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come to pass on this generation,” (Matthew 23:35-36).
In 70 AD, about four decades later, it all happened. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and the temple razed. Thousands of Jews died. The judgment of God had fallen upon the city. The leaders had not heeded Jesus’ call to repentance, nor the calls of any of the others God had sent to them.
The Second 23
In the context of studying Matthew 23, I thought of another 23 – Jeremiah 9:23. In our family, we have a minor tradition of me giving our grandchildren a “life scripture.” That is, I give them a passage from the Bible that they can use as a personal theme or motto throughout their lives. Recently, I gave Aiden, our six-year old great grandson, Jeremiah 9:23, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom. Let not the mighty man glory in his might. Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight says the Lord.”
This is a wonderful passage. Many sermons could be developed from it. In the world, people revel in their smarts, physical prowess and wealth. All of these represent power of some sort. The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day rejoiced in their knowledge of Scripture, in their social standing among the Jews and in the wealth that flowed into the temple. They had status, importance and degrees of wealth (though some were dirt poor), but their priorities were wrong. Our desire is to see Aiden get his priorities right as soon as possible.
Had the leaders of Israel lived by the precepts of this verse, they might have avoided the judgments of God. The same is true of any of us individually.
A Third 23
In thinking about Matthew 23 and Jeremiah 9:23, a third 23 came to mind: Jeremiah 23. This chapter is a devastating indictment of any who presume to pastor any part of God’s flock (the word “pastor” means “shepherd.”). God says, through the prophet Jeremiah, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1).
These shepherds have neglected to care for God’s people (verse 2). They have driven them away from God – alienated them. (How many people today are bitter about their experiences with “organized religion”?) In the rest of the chapter, God promises to establish the Messiah – the good shepherd – to care for the flock. Under him will be “shepherds over them who will feed them,” (verse 4). Remember what Jesus said to Peter? “Feed my sheep,” (John 21:15-17).
Then God promises to raise up a “Branch” to David who will be called “The Lord Our Righteousness,” (verses 5 & 60). Under his rule, Israel will at last dwell safely. The time of Diaspora will be ended (verse 8).
Before that time, however, Israel must come to grips with her sins. As did Jesus in Matthew 23, Jeremiah indicts the leadership. Jeremiah says with passion, “My heart within me is broken because of the prophets…
“The land is full of adulterers…their course of life is evil…both prophet and priest are profane…they prophesied by Baal…they commit adultery and walk in lies,
“They also strengthen the hands of evildoers…all of them are like Sodom to me, and her inhabitants like Gomorra…they speak a vision out of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord,” (verses 9 – 16, excerpts).
The prophets prophesy smooth things to the people, positive messages that say “all will be well.” They talk peace and prosperity but they fail to call to account the people for their sins. God says if they had truly represented him, they would have done so and national repentance might have followed (verse 22).
Yet, in Jeremiah’s time, the nation did not repent at his preaching. Instead, just like Jesus later said, they persecuted Jeremiah and all the prophets God sent. Instead of believing God’s true servants, the people chose to embrace the pollyanish messages of false prophets who prophesied lies and false visions in God’s name (Jeremiah 23:25 – 27),
“’Is not my word like a fire?’ says the Lord, ‘and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?’”
In every age and every time, the word of God comes like a massive sledgehammer to the stony heart of evil and complacency. But no one wants to hear about God’s Torah (Instruction or Direction). “…this is a rebellious people,, lying children, children who will not hear the law of the Lord; who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophesy deceits,” (Isaiah 30:9-10).
The pattern is usually the same, no matter the time, no matter the people. True prophets tell the painful truth and are rewarded with ridicule, rejection and persecution. The “talk positive” politically correct false prophets are honored and rewarded. People pay lip service to God and adopt pious postures: “Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from me,” (Isaiah 29:13). Their hearts are not in obeying God.
Study the rest of Jeremiah 23. It contains many warnings that apply in all times and circumstances. Though the words were penned thousands of years ago, they have relevance today. God does not change, nor do his standards of behavior. It means nothing to be religious while living in sin, injustice and evil. It is a great evil to presume to speak in the name of God if God has not sent us (Jeremiah 23:31-33). If our deeds are not consistent with our stated standards, we are no better than the hypocrites of old.
A Message for our time
The words of the “three 23’s” could well apply to our time. Throughout the United States we are witnessing a rising tide of secularism combined with anti-Christian sentiment. “Right wing” Christians are especially the victims of Leftist malice. The words and warnings of the Bible go largely unheeded.
In Europe, the ugliness of anti-Semitism is resurfacing, as it is here. People who seek to live by the Bible are under attack all over the world. Christians have been dying at record rates.
What it amounts to is this: The Western world is losing the Judeo-Christian sense of right and wrong. For “progressives,” the Bible no longer carries moral authority. Those of us who retain a high view of Scripture have become prey (cf. Isaiah 59:15). As our world drifts deeper into moral darkness, the words of God, spoken through Jeremiah, ought to come home to those who profess to be leaders: “If they had stood in my counsel, and caused my people to hear my words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings,” (Jeremiah 23:22).