The more I study the life and ministry of Jesus, the more I appreciate His revolutionary and provocative teachings. If He physically walked among us today, chances are good He would make us very uncomfortable with teachings that would pull away the “figs” with which we covered our spiritual selves while exposing us for what and who we really are. Every time the religious crowd in His day thought they had it all together, His teachings would strip them of the self-righteousness and pious ways they boasted about and held up for all to see. As one author puts it, “In their close scrutiny of the Law and in their best human efforts to keep the minutest details of the Law, they became blind even to the clearest revelation of the living Word of God.” In other words, their outward and diligent observance of the Law could not mask their inner spiritual barrenness.
It is no wonder then that in addressing them, as recorded in Matthew 23, Jesus did not mince words. He called them self-righteous and hypocrites on multiple occasions (e.g., vv. 13, 15), spiritually blind (v. 16, 19, 24), fools and blind men (v. 17). He referred to them as whitewashed tombs (v. 27), serpents and spawn of vipers (v. 33). All to provoke them to repentance and reconciliation with God: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who murders the prophets and stones [to death] those [messengers] who are sent to her [by God]! How often I wanted to gather your children together [around Me], as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (v. 37, AMP).
The last four words of the preceding verse provoke our attention. In the verse we see God desiring to gather His children around Him and the people’s response, “and you were unwilling.” As Matthew Henry observes, “How emphatically is their obstinacy opposed to Christ’s mercy! I would, and ye would not. He was willing to save them, but they were not willing to be saved by Him. Note, it is wholly owing to the wicked wills of sinners, that they are not gathered under the wings of the Lord Jesus. They did not like the terms upon which Christ proposed to gather them; they loved their sins, and yet trusted to their righteousness; they would not submit either to the grace of Christ or to His government, and so the bargain broke off.”
Jesus does not physically walk among us today, but His words live on in the pages of Holy Scripture. These words, which are “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12, KJV), continue to challenge and provoke some of us. There is no area of our lives that the teachings of Jesus do not address. In them, we find what He wants to do in and through us – to transform us spiritually and shape our lives so we become just like Him (Romans 8:28-29a). Our part is to recognize that on our best day, our self-righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and do not count for anything; that the best we can do is to empty ourselves of ourselves as we “exchange” our self-righteousness for His own while submitting to His grace and His government in and over our lives. The religious leaders were not willing to do that. Are you?