In our Sunday studies we’ve been in the Gospel of Matthew. I’ve been struck by how vehemently Jesus speaks against the teaching of the Pharisees, and we are only halfway through.
“Don’t get any of their leaven in your dough,” Jesus essentially says in Matthew 16. And he’s talking about their teaching. Wow! These are the serious students of Scripture. They memorized the Old Testament. All the prooftexts we commonly use for studying the Bible, you know, like “thy word have I hidden in my heart that I might not sin against thee,” or “your word is a lamp unto my feet and a guide unto my path,” are verses they knew better than we do. Even “your word will not return void” is a quotation from Scripture the Pharisees held and cherished.
If we take the position that Bible reading will change you, without further discernment, then we have to account for why that didn’t work for these Scripture-readers.
Logically, we can understand where they were at. I mean, these seriously religious people had read and understood the condition of the nation. They understood the curses of not following the law. They saw the nation exiled because of disobedience. They looked at their situation and saw their own oppression at the hands of the Romans. And they thought they knew the answer: redouble their efforts. Get serious about obedience. Don’t just avoid sin, avoid the situation that sin comes from. So… they washed their hands, they avoided any work on Saturday, they made sure they kept the instructions of the Scriptures.
They searched the Scriptures, in other words, and found principles. They found precepts. They found rules to follow, to stay in the good graces of God. And by their obedience, by their keeping these principles, it would go well with them and they would be blessed. They understood that God had chosen them, and they were kept by their obedience.
They searched the Scriptures to find life, and thought life was in the principles… not in finding Jesus.
They located righteousness in themselves, rather than in Jesus.
This sounds much like modern-day American Christianity in some forms. Obey the principles to be blessed. Stay in the umbrella of protection and blessing by following the rules.
Yet Jesus said – watch out! Avoid their leaven. Don’t even get a drop of their teaching. It will infect the whole lump.
Do you see how surprising this is? Do you start to get a glimpse of the upside-down wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
It is not a both-and. You cannot simultaneously be a Pharisee grounding righteousness in your own actions and be a Jesus-follower grounding righteousness in him. Righteousness is a gift or it is earned. If it is earned a little, it is still earned.
The radical declaration of Jesus is that the Scriptures do reveal eternal life, and it is them that bear witness of him. The Law thunders our inability. As Augustine wrote, “the utility of the law is, that it convinces man of his weakness, and compels him to apply for the medicine of grace, which is in Christ.”
The Scriptures lay out the gracious, beautiful, wonderful standard of what God requires. That standard doesn’t affirm the moral person, it crushes everyone. And to the crushed, the beauty of the perfect Savior is a balm and a wonder.
The Gospel says Jesus has done it all. He is the Lord and Savior. He’s got the power; he redeems. His salvation is more than we can imagine. We aren’t just wiped clean, we are robed in his righteousness, adopted into his family, united to him.
And so we read our Scriptures, we pore over them, because in them we find life: his name is Jesus. O that we might know him more; that we might see the depth of the love God has for us in his Son.
Bible reading will change you. If you find Jesus.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)