In the 1960s I took a course about restoration history under Dr. Earl West. As always happens, final exam came. As did most of my teachers, Dr. West gave essay examinations. He listed several short answer questions. You selected a specific number of questions and gave at least a page answer to each. He also listed several in depth answer questions. You were required to select one and write at least an hour about your answer.

When I selected my "long question," I knew well the answer to one question on the list. I wrote furiously. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Then, about five minutes before exam time was up, I suddenly realized a horrible truth. I started my answer at the wrong place. By starting at the wrong place, I left out some of the core material. Everything I said was true. All my facts were correct. But because I began my answer at the wrong place, my answer did not address the point of the question. Everything I wrote was technically correct, but I missed the point.

I tried to "fix" my answer by adding an explanation, but it did not work. Because I started at the wrong place, my answer missed the point.

  1. Perhaps that is a good way to describe the conflict between Jesus and Israel's religious experts--the place these experts started simply missed God's point.
    1. The religious experts who constantly questioned, ridiculed, and challenged Jesus were the scribes and Pharisees.
      1. They were genuine experts in the scripture, and Jesus never challenged the fact that they were well read and knowledgeable.
      2. Jesus' challenge was simple: these experts missed God's point.
    2. Late in Jesus' life, not long before these religious experts insisted on his crucifixion, Jesus was specific on how these experts in scripture missed God's point.
      1. In all the challenges and criticisms before this occasion, Jesus tried to teach these people.
      2. But on this occasion, Jesus straightforwardly declared exactly how they missed God's point.
      3. Matthew 23 contains Jesus' declaration of how the scribes and Pharisees missed God's point.
        1. In verse 13 Jesus said they used their scriptural expertise to blind the Jewish people to God's kingdom and prevent them from entering that kingdom.
        2. In verse 14 Jesus said they used prayer to create the appearance of spirituality while they took advantage of the helpless.
        3. In verse 15 Jesus said they spared no effort to indoctrinate converts, but, when they finished, the converts were unspiritual people devoted to Satan's purposes.
        4. In verses 16-22 Jesus said in worship they made artificial distinctions God never made.
        5. In verses 23,24 Jesus said they gave God ten percent of absolutely everything, but they ignored central spiritual matters that God regards essential.
        6. In verses 25-28 Jesus said they were very concerned about projecting the appearance of being righteous, and very unconcerned about having righteous hearts.
        7. In verses 29-36 Jesus said they condemned the wicked acts of Israel's past generations while they did the same kinds of evil they condemned.

  2. This morning please give serious consideration to Jesus' condemnation in Matthew 23:23,24.
    Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
    1. If we think carefully about this condemnation, it should terrify us.
      1. First, please note Jesus said not all of God's commands are of equal importance.
        1. They all come from God.
        2. They all are inspired.
        3. They all are scripture.
        4. But God regards some of greater importance--some are "weighty" and some are not.
      2. May I state this in another way that is also accurate?
        1. From God's perspective, some exist at "the heart of the matter"--these are "core" considerations.
        2. Others are "edge" matters; they are important, but they are not devoted to God's "core" matters.
    2. The point is not that core commands should obeyed and other commands should be neglected; both should be obeyed.
      1. However, never make a core teaching out of an edge teaching.
      2. These religious experts gave God ten percent of absolutely everything, even the cooking spices they grew.
      3. But they did little to be just (give everyone fair treatment), to be merciful (to forgive those who made a mistake), or to be faithful (always to be honest and trustworthy).
    3. In fact, their emphasis actually encouraged people to be unfair, to condemn, and to be deceitful.
      1. According to them, giving God ten percent of absolutely everything was extremely important, a core matter.
      2. However, according to them, being just, merciful, and faithful were not core matters.
      3. Jesus said they missed God's point.

  3. On more than one occasion, Jesus stressed the two most important commandments God ever gave (Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28).
    1. Both were a part of the core because all other commandments would be obeyed if a person did these two things.
      1. Love God with all your being.
      2. Love other people like you love yourself.
    2. The fact that people who love God love other people has always been a core matter in God's priorities.
      1. Six of the ten commandments given to Israel are covered by loving other people like you love yourself.
        1. You will take care of your parents.
        2. You will not murder.
        3. You will not have sex with another man's wife--consensual or otherwise.
        4. You will not steal things that belong to someone else.
        5. You will not ruin another person's reputation or lie about what he or she did.
        6. You will not look at anything he or she has and be motivated by greed.
        7. You simply cannot do such things if you love people.
    3. Jesus himself said of all the commandments God ever gave, loving people as you love yourself is command number two.
    4. Paul said the Christian who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law because you cannot have sex with someone to whom you are not married, you cannot murder, you cannot steal, you cannot be motivated by greed, you cannot bring harm to anyone you love as you love yourself (Romans 13:9,10).
    5. As far as God is concerned, that is core material.

So you ask, "David, does that understanding really terrify you?" Yes! "Why?" Because we too often miss God's point. Because we have made "core issues" out of things God does not emphasize. Because we are unconcerned about things God clearly emphasized.

We make "core matters" out of worship, out of worship styles, out of religious systems, out of the use of church buildings, out of procedures, out of every imaginable kind of personal preference.

And then our unrestrained greed flows, and we are sexually active outside of marriage, and we hate, and we lie, and we neglect our families, and we justify any kind of ungodly behavior when it gives us pleasure.

And we miss God's point. And I fear we will hear God say to us, "Woe unto you!" And we will say, "But, God, we sang without an instrument, and we used unleavened bread in communion, and we took communion every Sunday, and we gave, and we had invitation songs, and we were very careful about how we used our auditorium." And God just might say, "And you missed the point! Your answer started in the wrong place! You used your religious lives to strain out gnats while you swallowed camels."

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 18 November 2001

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