Spot empty religion – Luke 11:37-12:12

Jesus knew how to spot empty religion. In truth, there are times when you find it easy too. We can see hypocrisy in all sorts of places, all sorts of people.

It’s often hard to see hypocrisy in yourself, though. 

And there are elements of things that Jesus picks up on and condemns in these verses that can, sometimes, feel close to home, even for those who think they’re doing ok. Hypocrisy is when you say one thing and do another. When you claim to believe something, but you don’t really. All mis-match.

And there’s a kind of hypocrisy that even the godliest among us can be tempted towards.  We’ll see two kinds of religious hypocrisy as we spot empty religion, and be made aware of how even the godly can slip up.

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube. You can find more in the series in our sermon index.

Beware Religion for Show (37-44)

Last time we looked at how the eye is the lamp of the body. As you look to the light (Jesus), your whole body will be filled with light. Luke 11:37 As he was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him.

You’re meant to spot the link. Surely, a Pharisee would be the kind of light you’re to look to for illumination? Nope.

It seems Jesus went in and just sat down to eat. The Pharisee was amazed that Jesus didn’t go through the process of ceremonial handwashing. What follows is a rebuke from Jesus about how the Pharisees are all about what people can see, and not about true hearts for God: Read Luke 11:38-41.

It’s good to give to the poor, but from a clean heart. Not just for show. But religion for show is what the Pharisees are about – and it’s what makes them so toxic for anyone who wants to know God.

Jesus pronounces three “Woes” on them – a word that speaks of how they’re under God’s judgment for their behaviour.

Three woes

Read Luke 11:42.

  • You can imagine them carefully trimming out a tenth of their little herb gardens (as the law demands),
  • And yet at the same time they “bypass justice and love for God” – in other words, they fail to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength, and they fail to love their neighbour as themselves.
  • Like people being seen to do loads for charity, but only really doing it for their own reputation.
  • Who do they love?

Read Luke 11:43.

  • They love themselves, their position, reputation, recognition.
  • Any of us can be tempted into this. Long-time members etc
  • Churches where the pulpit looks more and more like a performance stage are taking dangerous steps towards just this. Pride is dangerous.

And read Luke 11:44.

  • To touch a body made a Jew ceremonially unclean.
  • Likewise, you’d be unclean to touch a grave.
  • The Pharisees were careful to ceremonially wash their hands to be ceremonially clean at mealtimes.
    • So Jesus is being offensive to them to say that they’re like unmarked graves.
    • Anyone who comes near them might not realise it but they’ll become unclean to have anything to do with the Pharisees.

Religion for show

Religion for show is just empty sham. There are plenty of places you can go to for it. Places where people gather and go through a formal liturgy without ever actually engaging with God as revealed to you in Christ. It’s helpful to think about how we do things as a church, and why.

  • We’ve inherited much of what we do from people who’ve gone before us, so it’s right to ask if we’re doing things helpfully or not.
  • Our services and our building are fairly stripped back. No razzmatazz, no fancy architecture, not even a cross.
  • The focus is on Jesus as revealed in his word.
  • We also have a very simple structure of elders and deacons with virtually no hierarchy. 
  • That protects individuals against pride, comparison, ambition, power, etc. We aim not to be for show.

Because here’s the thing: you have to beware religion for show because it’s not always ‘out there’.

Religion for show is toxic. But there’s more:

Beware religion of work (45-54)

An expert in the law took umbrage at what Jesus said: Read Luke 11:45.

He might have been better to keep quiet! Three more ‘woes’ come his way, this time relating to how their teaching of God’s laws was burdensome, graceless, and ultimately as bad as it could be: It kept people away from God.

Three more woes

Read Luke 11:46.

  • There’s a style of preaching and teaching that sounds impressive but isn’t very helpful.
  • In fact, it’s very easy: I can stand here and remind you over and over of how sinful you are. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course you’re sinful.
  • But the answer isn’t, “Try harder. Do more. Be holier.”
  • God knows how sinful you are, and trying harder won’t atone for any of it.
  • So God sent prophet after prophet to call people to repentance – just as he calls you today.
  • Repentance is about turning from sin to God. He calls you to himself.

But over and over, those prophets and that call to repentance to turn to God are ignored.

Read Luke 11:47-48.

  • You might read that and think, “That’s not quite fair. Building monuments and tombs like that doesn’t mean they approve of what their ancestors did, killing the prophets.”
  • And you’re quite right. But, God knew that that generation were actually just the same anyway. So:

Read Luke 11:49-51.

  • And so it proved to be: Jesus’ generation would be the one that killed their Messiah and persecuted and killed anyone who tried to proclaim him.
  • Abel was the first righteous man to be killed and rejected in the OT.
  • Zechariah was the last (in 2 Chronicles 24, the last book of the OT in the traditional Hebrew arrangement).
  • And all that rejection of prophets sent by God to call his people to repentance – to life! – was come to a head in Christ’s own generation.

There’s likely a hint of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70 here. 

So the teachers of the law burdened people with laws, and then failed to preach God’s grace and call to repentance.

The inevitable woe

No wonder the third woe: Read Luke 11:52.

What key? Where to? The key to entrance to the kingdom of God is repentance. You cannot earn your way in. Repentance is the key. Turn from your sin to God, and you’ll find him calling for you to come – and he will save you.

So you can spot empty religion:

  • Sometimes it’s all visible, but with no substance, like leaning on a cobweb for support.
  • Other times it’s all work and burden, without God’s grace or forgiveness.

And people still love it and cherish it.

That dinner party didn’t quite go as planned! And they certainly didn’t part on good terms: Read Luke 11:53-54.

Saved by faith alone

To be 100% clear, let’s spell it out:

  • You are sinful, but no amount of religious stuff will save you. It might impress others, but not God.
  • God calls you to repent of your sin.
  • When you call to him for forgiveness, he will forgive you.
  • He will count Jesus as punished in your place – all your sin is atoned for. All of it. Nothing else for you to do.
  • And you become a child of God; your heart desires are changed and you want to live for him.
  • Saved by faith alone in Christ alone, by God’s grace alone.

The official teaching of the Roman Catholic “church” would declare me anathema for saying that: They condemn me to hell. The official teaching of the Roman Catholics is a religion of works (in conjunction with grace), and they might well keep you out of heaven by causing you to chase down pilgrimages and penances instead of God’s grace in Christ. Don’t mis-hear me: There will be true Christians who attend Catholic places of worship – but that’s because the Holy Spirit has led them to faith in Christ, in spite of official Catholic teaching.

Other religions are the same: Religions of show and works.

Jesus calls you to repentance and faith.

We’re all hypocrites, really

We must also be clear on something else:

  • It may well be that you’ve seen Christians say one thing and do another.
  • You expected love or kindness, but a Christian let you down or sinned against you.
  • If you’re tempted to call such people hypocrites then you need to label us all with that: None of us is perfect, and we will all do things we’re not proud of.
  • But there’s a world of difference between a false religion and a faltering Christian.
  • Small wonder we’re to forgive one another, even as our heavenly father has forgiven us.

That said, there are forms of hypocrisy that any mature Christian can fall into. That’s where Jesus goes next:

Be true to Christ (1-12)

The Pharisees and law experts were berated because they appeared to be godly even though their hearts weren’t right before God. But there are times when it can work the other way for you.

Suppose you’re a Christian. You’ve turned to Jesus and been forgiven all your sin. Your heart longs to do right by him. And yet… there are dangers. Hypocrisy can still lurk.

Harbouring sin

One danger is that you cherish a secret sin that no-one knows about. It’s a variation on what the Pharisees were doing.

They held sin in their heart while putting on a show of holiness.

What sin might you harbour? A bitterness, an envy, a lust?

  • Read Luke 12:1-3.
  • The hypocrisy of the Pharisees and law experts will be exposed, and your heart too.
  • Don’t think your secret sins will be secret forever.
  • And don’t think your Christian maturity will mask it, or even prevent you from such problems. You’re not finished yet.
  • Confess them to God; ask his forgiveness; ask for help.

Under pressure to sin

Another variation is where your heart is actually pure before God but you’re under pressure from people to so something contrary to God’s will. That pressure can be anything from a bit of ridicule to a gun to your head.

Read Luke 12:4-7.

This whole section is about avoiding hypocrisy:

  • To be evil in your heart with a veneer of holiness doesn’t fool God.
  • But equally, if your heart is right with God then your outward actions ought also to be right by him – even if it costs you your life.
  • Under pressure to lie, or cheat, or bend the rules, or break the law – be who you are in Christ, and do right by him.
  • It may cost you; but don’t fear, you’re his.

You might well fear standing out from the crowd, even among friends and family. But when you stand by Christ’s name in this world, he calls out your name in heaven! Read Luke 12:8-9.

How precious is that! Your name on his lips in heaven.

Divine encouragement and enabling

The teachers of the law placed burdens on people’s backs and offered no help carrying them: Jesus has kept God’s laws for you, and now both asks and enables you to proclaim him.

He enables you by the power of the Holy Spirit given to everyone who believes in him, to every Christian.

  • Read Luke 12:10-12.

The Holy Spirit reveals to you your sin and your need of Jesus. He convinces you of the truth of it all.

If you then say, “No. I don’t want it” – can you still be saved?

  • No. The Holy Spirit gives you life to bring you to faith.
  • If you deny that, you reject the only means of salvation there is.
  • People might speak a word against Jesus in ignorance, but to speak against the Holy Spirit wilfully is to reject salvation.
    • That means you can’t “accidentally” commit that sin. It’s a wilful rejection. If you’re bothered about it, you haven’t done it.

The point of what Jesus is saying is one of enabling. You’ll be tempted, under duress, under persecution, under pressure, to deny Christ. Obviously, that’s hypocritical.

Don’t do that. You trust Jesus for eternal life; trust him for daily life. Stand by him, and he will stand by your side. The Holy Spirit will strengthen you to live for him truly, to proclaim him, and live in holiness.

You are worth more than many sparrows; he bought you with his blood. He will keep you.