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Lesson 94: True and False Religion (Luke 20:41-47)

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“At the appointed hour of 9:47 a.m., hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Britons suddenly leaped in the air. They had been convinced by astronomer Patrick Moore on BBC radio that the planet Pluto would pass directly behind Jupiter at that moment, producing a gravitational pull on Earth that would make people feel lighter.

“Minutes after 9:47, the switchboards at BBC lighted up. One woman said that she and 11 guests had floated around the room. A man called in to say he had hit his head on the ceiling.

“The scientist’s report was sheer levity, however. Had any of the bounding multitudes looked at a calendar before they leaped, they would have realized it was the first day of April…” (Reader’s Digest [4/85], p. 42).

That was a harmless and humorous deception. But one area where deception is neither harmless nor humorous is that of religion. Satan is a master deceiver. If he can fool you into thinking that all is right between you and God, when really it is not, the consequences are eternal. Thus it is crucial that you understand what true Christianity is and not be deceived by false religion.

One of the most common complaints that you hear from those who avoid church is that the church is full of hypocrites. Of course, so is the world; but it is true: the church is full of hypocrites. Satan makes sure of that. He deceives many into thinking that they are right with God when really, they are not. He uses these hypocrites to keep others away from true Christianity. And so we need to make sure that we understand what true religion is and that we steer clear of false religion.

Up to this point, Jesus has mostly been on the defense against His critics in Jerusalem. They challenged Him with the source of His authority for cleansing the temple. He responded with the question about the baptism of John and the parable of the wicked tenant farmers. They tried to trick Him with the questions about paying tribute to Caesar and the woman with seven husbands in the resurrection. Each time Jesus deftly answered the skeptics in a way that left them speechless. They no longer had the courage to question Him (20:40).

So now Jesus questions them. He takes up the offense. His intent was to show His audience in the temple courtyard that neither they nor their teachers of the Law understood their own Scriptures. They rightly thought that Messiah would be the physical descendant of David, but they wrongly thought that he would be just a great man, a political Savior, who would bring in an age of peace and prosperity. Jesus wanted them to see that the Messiah (or Christ) would not only be David’s son, but also David’s Lord, God in human flesh. They needed a right view of Messiah so that they would not be deceived by false religion.

That false religion was embodied in the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders in Israel. The common people easily could be deceived into thinking that true spirituality was to be like these leaders. Outwardly, they impressed everyone with their spirituality. They dressed differently in “holy” garb. Everyone gave them respectful greetings in public. They sat at the front of the synagogues and in the seats of honor at public banquets. They could offer long prayers. They seemed far more spiritual than everyone else. And yet their hearts were far from God. They were full of pride, greed, and selfishness. Jesus exposes them and warns of the greater judgment that they would receive.

Thus with His question, Jesus directs us to true religion, which is to know Him as Lord. With His condemnation, He exposes false religion, so that we don’t fall into that deceptive trap.

True religion is to know Christ as Lord; false religion is to be religious to impress people.

1. True religion is to know Christ as Lord (20:41-44).

At its essence, true Christianity is not a system of thought or morals, although Christians have a system of thought and morals. Nor is true Christianity an organization of people into churches, although every Christian should belong to a church. Neither is true Christianity having some sort of spiritual experience, although it must be experiential. The essence of true Christianity is to have a personal relationship with the living God through His Son Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ words, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). True Christianity is knowing Christ as Savior and Lord in daily life. This involves two essentials:

A. Knowing Christ as Lord means having the right understanding of His person.

In asking this question, Jesus wasn’t playing theological games with these men. He wasn’t bringing up an interesting verse to stimulate a good debate. He wasn’t trying to win points with the audience as they watched this theological tennis match between Him and the scribes. Rather, Jesus was doing evangelism. He was going after souls. Even though He knew that these religious leaders would shortly condemn Him to death, He was reaching out to them and to the greater audience, pressing them to consider the all-important question, “Who do you say that I am?” In quoting from Psalm 110:1, He is saying, “This is most essential! You need to recognize that Messiah is not only David’s son, his descendant, but also David’s Lord. The Father has promised to make all of His enemies a footstool for His feet. You will either submit to Him willingly now or against your will in that day, but every knee shall bow before Him. If even the great King David calls Messiah his Lord, then don’t you think that you must do so also?”

Psalm 110 is quoted or alluded to in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament Scripture. The Holy Spirit, who inspired the writers of the Bible, considered this Psalm to be that significant. Jesus here affirms David as the author of the Psalm, showing that the titles of the Psalm are a part of inspired Scripture. The Psalm proclaims Messiah not only as the supreme ruler over all, but also as God’s appointed eternal priest according to the order of Melchizedek and the future judge of all the nations.

In verse 1, there is a conversation between two members of the Godhead. God is one in essence, and yet three in subsistence. The Lord (Yahweh) speaks to David’s Lord (Adonai), the Messiah, revealing the divine plan of bringing all things into subjection to the Messiah. The paradox which Jesus put to the crowd was, “How can Messiah be both David’s son and David’s Lord at the same time?” Sons are normally subject to their fathers. But David calls this son “Lord.” The paradox cannot be resolved unless Messiah is both human (David’s son) and divine (David’s Lord) in the same person. The Jewish scribes acknowledged Messiah as David’s descendant, a great man. They did not understand that He must also be David’s Lord, God in human flesh.

Psalm 110:1 is a reference to the position of Christ after His resurrection and ascension into heaven. At His trial before the Sanhedrin, when they asked Him if He was the Christ, Jesus responded, “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). He was referring to Psalm 110:1. Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus did ascend into heaven and took His place at the Father’s right hand, far above all rule and authority, as the head of His church (Eph. 1:20-22). As proof to Israel of His exaltation, God sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. As Peter explained in his sermon that day, Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit was proof that God had made “this Jesus whom [they] crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32-36).

And yet the verse also shows that Messiah’s enemies are not yet all subject to Him. He did not come the first time “to smite the nations and rule with a rod of iron,” or to tread “the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15), as He will do when He comes the second time.

Steve Yulish recently passed on to me an article by a Jewish rabbi explaining why Jews do not believe in Jesus. The first point was that Jesus did not fulfill the messianic prophecies. Ironically, the rabbi refers to prophecies that Messiah will fulfill in His second coming, when it will be too late for the rabbi to repent and believe in Jesus! And he misses what Scripture proclaims, that it was necessary for the Christ first to suffer these things and then to enter into His glory (Luke 24:26, 46). And Scripture plainly pronounces woe on those who are not subject to Jesus when He comes again! They will call out to the mountains and rocks to fall on them and hide them from the wrath of the Lamb (Rev. 6:16)!

The point is, to know Jesus Christ in the proper sense, you must have the right understanding of His person. Scripture plainly reveals Him to be the risen and exalted Lord, seated on the throne of glory at the right hand of the Father. He is coming again soon, not as the suffering Servant to die for His people (Isaiah 53), but as the conquering King to suppress all opposition. As I noted last week, wrong theology is always mixed up with wrong living. These Jewish leaders were not only mixed up about the resurrection, but also about the person of Christ. Entangled with their wrong theology was the fact that they liked being lords of their own lives. They liked the honor and respect of the people. They needed to de-throne self and to enthrone Jesus Christ as Lord.

If you’ve never done so, I encourage you to read the Gospels and ask, “Who is Jesus Christ? What claims does He make about Himself? Could such a man as this merely be David’s son, or must He also be David’s Lord? And, if He is David’s Lord, should He not also be my Lord?”

B. Knowing Christ as Lord means having the right response to His person.

To know who Christ is—that He is both David’s son, a man born of the flesh; and, David’s Lord, the eternal God—is one thing. But each person must respond to this truth by trusting Christ as Savior and yielding to Him as Lord, even as David did. On this occasion, Jesus did not answer the question He posed nor did He call for a response. He just left His audience to ponder the implications of the question for themselves. But the clear implication is: If Jesus is the Messiah and Messiah is Lord over such a great man as King David, then should not I submit to Him as my Lord?

True Christianity is not just believing intellectually that Jesus is the Messiah or that He is your Savior. True Christianity means believing in Jesus in the sense that you follow Him as Lord, so that in thought, word, and deed you are growing to be more and more like Him. Scripture contains warning after warning that if we claim to know Christ, but continue to live in sin, we are deceived (Matt. 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 6:7-8; Eph. 5:5-6; 1 John 2:4; 3:7-10). As James 2:14-26 argues, faith that does not result in righteous living is not saving faith.

This is not to say that Christians never sin. The Bible explicitly states that believers do sin (Gal. 6:1; 1 John 1:8-10). David himself, the man after God’s heart, sinned terribly in the incident with Bathsheba. As long as we’re in this body, we will fall short of God’s holy standards. But sin is not the course of life for those who truly know Christ. Believers struggle against sin. They have a growing hatred of it, not just in others, but in their own hearts. They confess their sin when God’s Spirit convicts them of it. They don’t excuse their sin by saying, “We’re under grace.” Christians seek to be pleasing to Jesus as Lord in thought, word, and deed.

The question which this first section should leave us with is, “Do I truly know Christ as my Savior and Lord?” Mark’s account (12:37b) says that the crowd “enjoyed listening to Him.” But it’s not enough to enjoy sermons or a good theological debate. The same crowd just a few days later was shouting, “Crucify Him!” True religion means submitting personally to Jesus Christ as Lord.

2. False religion is being religious to impress people (20:45-47).

Jesus addresses the disciples, but so that the crowd could hear. He warns them of the danger of false religion, as practiced by the religious leaders. As noted last week, Jesus wasn’t just positive. He both exhorted in sound doctrine and refuted those who contradict, as pastors must do (Titus 1:9). Here He forcefully confronts the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees in order to warn people not to be enamored with their ways. These two verses are a condensed form of the longer sermon, reported in Matthew 23:1-36. A shepherd is not a good shepherd if he does not strongly warn the sheep about the wolves that prey on the flock.

John Calvin vigorously spoke against the false teachings of the Catholic Church in his day. Some in his congregation didn’t like Calvin’s strong warnings against these false teachers. They were like those in our day who just want church to be a nice, positive, uplifting place. Calvin comments, “How cruel is the mildness of those who dislike our vehemence.” In other words, those who don’t like Calvin’s strong warnings are the cruel ones, not Calvin. He goes on to say that if a pastor doesn’t drive away the wolves, the sheep will be devoured. He concludes that pastors must follow Christ’s example by giving “severe threatenings” against such false teachers, so that the flock will be protected (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], “Harmony of the Gospels,” 3:83).

Note three things about false, hypocritical religion:

A. False religion is rooted in the desires of the flesh.

Jesus says (20:46) that these hypocrites liked to walk around in long robes. They loved respectful greetings in the market places, the chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devoured widow’s houses for their own gain. The words, liked, loved, and devoured point to unrestrained desires of the flesh, rooted in pride and self-love. Because these men were not in submission to Christ, they were living for themselves, even though they covered it with a veneer of religion. Everyone not in submission to Christ is living for self, seeking to fulfill the desires of the flesh.

Contrary to the popular teaching that has flooded evangelical churches, the problem with the human race is not low self-esteem. Our problem is that we all love ourselves more than we love God or others. Most Christian psychologists operate on the premise that low self-esteem is at the root of all our emotional problems. Thus their approach is to build self-esteem in counselees. But to encourage an already self-focused person to work on improving his self-esteem is to pour gasoline on a fire already raging. Jesus says that the starting point of coming after Him is, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). If we are not daily confronting the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life, we are loving the world and the love of the Father is not in us (1 John 2:15-17). Psychology mixed with Christianity is a false religion because it promotes the desires of the flesh rather than confronting them.

B. False religion is manward in focus, not Godward.

These scribes were trying to impress people with how spiritual they were. The common people wore colored clothing, but these scribes wore white linen robes, lined with fringe. They stood out in a crowd because of their religious garb. They were treated with a respect bordering on veneration, even higher than the respect shown to the aged or to one’s parents. When they walked through the marketplace, everyone except a tradesman at work was expected to rise and greet them with the proper title: Rabbi, Father, or Master (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Eerdmans], 2:409).

They loved the chief seats in the synagogue, up front, facing the congregation, so that everyone could see who they were. When the important men of Jerusalem gave a banquet, they thought it prestigious to have a distinguished scribe and his pupils there. But they were practicing their religion to impress men, not to please God, who sees the heart.

Jesus exposed their hypocrisy as a strong warning to others. He said that they devoured widow’s houses and for appearance’s sake offered long prayers. When your prayers are sinful, you’re in real trouble! There are several views of what this means. Calvin thought that they were praying for hire, promising these needy widows that for a fee, they would pray for them. To promise hurting people that if they will give money to the church, you will pray for them or their dead relatives, is to practice false religion.

Others say that in their role as scribes, they would give financial counsel to widows and take a healthy profit for themselves. They persuaded the woman to will them her property for religious purposes and then spent it on themselves. But then they would stand in public and offer lengthy prayers so that everyone thought that they were so spiritual.

The problem was, they were living with a manward focus and disregarding God who knows our hearts. We can fool one another and we sometimes even fool ourselves. But we can never fool God. We all face the danger of manward religion. Like these scribes, we can pray to impress men rather than to talk with God. We want others to hear us pray and think, “My, how deep he is!” Because we’re all prone to this, we need to join David, who after considering the omniscience and omnipresence of God, prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24).

C. False religion is a danger to be avoided because it carries greater condemnation.

J. C. Ryle observed, “No sin seems to be regarded by Christ as more sinful than hypocrisy. None certainly drew forth from His lips such frequent, strong, and withering condemnation, during the whole course of His ministry” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], Luke 11-24, p. 346). He goes on to say that Jesus was always full of mercy and compassion for the chief of sinners, but His righteous soul was full of indignation for those who pretended to be outwardly holy, but whose hearts were full of wickedness. To use religion for personal privilege or financial gain is to misuse it in the worst possible way.

“Greater condemnation” shows that there are degrees of punishment in hell. Jesus’ words remind us that the day is coming when we all will stand before God. These hypocrites got rid of Jesus. They thought that He would never confront them again, but they weren’t thinking about eternity! The same is true for any person who shuts Jesus out of his life. You may get rid of Him for the present, but you will face Him on that terrible day of judgment! Far better to receive His correction now than His condemnation then. On that day, either we will hear the awful words, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23); or, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matt. 25:21).


John MacArthur tells of visiting a seminary president, who drove him around the city. They happened to go by a liquor store and John commented on how large it was. The seminary president replied that the man who owned the whole chain of those liquor stores was in his Sunday School class.

John said, “Really? Has he been there long?” “Yeah, several years.” John asked, “Is he a Christian?” “Yeah.” “Has anybody confronted him about owning all those liquor stores?” “He feels that people are going to buy liquor anyway, so why not buy it from him?” John asked, “Has it ever entered your mind that he might not be a Christian?” The president replied, “I remember when he walked the aisle.” Then, rather pensively, he added, “There’s one thing about him that bothers me. He’s been living with a girl who is not his wife for about two years. Sometimes it’s hard for me to know how a Christian can live like that.” (From a message, also in The Gospel According to Jesus [Zondervan], p. 59.)

MacArthur correctly concludes, “Any message that fails to define and confront the severity of personal sin is a deficient gospel. And any ‘salvation’ that does not alter a life-style of sin and transform the heart of the sinner is not a genuine salvation” (p. 60). True religion is knowing Christ as Lord; false religion is being religious outwardly, to impress people, but not inwardly, before God. Flee hypocrisy like the plague! Walk daily under the lordship of Jesus Christ on the heart level!

Discussion Questions

  1. Can a person truly know Jesus as Savior and yet reject Him as Lord? Give biblical support for your answer.
  2. How can a person who tends to be a man-pleaser learn to be a God-pleaser?
  3. Those who promote self-esteem say that there is a proper, balanced sense of it. Too much is wrong, too little is harmful. What is the biblical answer?
  4. Jesus strongly confronted these hypocrites and yet He did not sin in doing so. How can we know when our confrontation moves from righteous to unrighteous?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

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