Zealous But Wrong - Matthew 23:15

Matthew 23  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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It is always refreshing to be around someone who is enthusiastic.  I tend to be a rather low-key person.  I don’t get too revved up about many things.  Enthusiastic people are often infectious (in a good way) for me.  I love people who sincerely point to a challenge and say, “Won’t this be great?” or “What a fantastic Opportunity!” They are like the “Little Engine that Could”. I feel like they are right behind me saying, “I think you can, I think you can!”

At the same time, when someone is enthusiastic about the wrong things it can be exhausting and aggravating.  Think about a child’s enthusiasm in a toy store when they want you to buy something and you don’t have the money and/or the inclination.  “Can I get this mom? Can I? Huh? Huh? Huh? Pleeeeease…I really neeeed it!”  Their enthusiasm gets annoying in a hurry.  Then there are the salespeople who call or stop to tell you about their exciting new product.  They say it will only take a moment of your time.  You find out quickly that your definition of a moment and theirs is different.

This morning continue our study of the seven woes by looking at Matthew 23:15.  Jesus is the one speaking and says,

15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

In this text Jesus is telling the teachers of the law and the Pharisees that they are zealous but they are zealous in a bad way.  We want to learn from their mistakes.

Before we examine verse fifteen I want to answer the question, “What happened to verse 14?”  If you are reading any version other than the King James Version of the Bible you will see that verse 14 is either missing or is in brackets.  If it is missing there is probably a little footnote marker that takes you to the bottom of the page where you read,

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Therefore you will be punished more severely.

Jesus is condemning the money-grabbing and manipulation used by some even today. They feign interest, promise grand prayers, and use despicable tactics in an effort to fleece the trusting and unsuspecting people.

It’s a good warning. Why is it taken out of the text? There is actually a good answer to that question. First, understand that this is not a “false verse”.  Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 record Jesus saying this exact same thing.  It is not omitted because it is a false statement.

Many of you have notes in your Bible that tell you that verse 14 is not in the oldest manuscripts.  Let me explain what this means. As odd as it seems, the oldest translations of the Bible are not necessarily the most accurate.  The reason is that there have been many significant archaeological finds since the translation of the King James Bible back in 1644 or so.  The King James was a very good translation in its day and is still loved by many who like the English of that time.

However, as new, and older manuscripts were discovered (like the Dead Sea Scrolls) they were examined and it became clear that this verse (and some others) were later additions (most likely added by a copyist). Translators, In an effort to preserve the integrity of the Bible in the belief that the original manuscripts were inspired by God, removed or bracketed the places where it appeared there were additions to the text.  This doesn’t mean these verses aren’t true or weren’t accurate.  In this case it just means this is not something Matthew actually wrote.

Have addressed the question about verse 14, let’s move on to verse 15.

We Should be Zealous and Determined

Jesus observed that the Pharisees and the Scribes traveled over land and sea to win a single convert.  Think about this.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that kind of a passion to win people to Christ?

Some of the non-Christian religions are much more zealous in seeking to win converts than we are.  Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses travel door to door in the hope of winning someone to their beliefs.  Those of the Muslim faith are also very aggressive in seeking to win converts to Islam.  Their example should cause us to take a hard look at our own practices.  We find it difficult to go across the street or next door to the neighbors to share the good news.  The Pharisees and Scribes were more determined than we are.

The zeal of the Pharisees was praiseworthy. Zeal in itself is not bad.  In Romans 12:11, Paul said, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”  Yet of the Jews, Paul wrote, “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”  [Romans 10:2].  After Jesus chased the money changers out of the temple we read, His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” [John 2:17]

We Need to be Zealous in the Right Direction

The problem with the Pharisees was that their zeal was misplaced.  They had a particular goal in the zeal to win converts.  They were interested in turning “God-fearers” (those who were Gentiles and accepted the Jewish God and the moral law but did not participate in the ceremonial law or in circumcision) into full-fledged Jews.  They wanted these people to embrace not only the Scriptures but also all the ritual and all the regulations of what we know as the Mishnah and the Talmud.  In other words, they were zealous to make people like them.

Jesus said they made their converts “twice a Son of Hell as you are.” The Pharisees and the Scribes, by rejecting Christ and seeking to earn their own salvation through laws and regulations, were actually headed for Hell.  When they went out and made converts these new converts became even more zealous for the idea that we can earn our salvation by doing good deeds.

This is easy to illustrate.  If you are a person who is a smoker, drinker, struggle with your weight or battle some other vice, the last person you want to talk to is a reformed smoker, drinker or someone who has recently discovered the key to weight loss.  They have a passion that is exhausting.  The person who has recently switched political parties is the one with whom you don’t want to have a political debate.

The converts the Scribes and Pharisees were embracing the legalistic ways of the Pharisees and were even more zealous than the people who taught them.


The text is not hard to understand.  However, we aren’t finished until we take the next step of saying, “So what?  What are we supposed to learn from this rebuke?” I think there are two primary lessons.

First, we are reminded that we should be more zealous. Everyone is not going to want to hear about Jesus.  Not everyone wants to admit his need for a Savior.  However, there are people who believe they can never be forgiven because of what they have done in the past.  There are people who feel they are so insignificant that they believe God would never care about them.  There are people who are worn out from trying to be “good enough” to get to Heaven.  They feel they are working hard but never seem to be able to measure up.  There are people who are following some earthly leader and hoping they can lead them to eternal life.  Somebody needs to tell these people the good news!

We have a glorious gospel to proclaim!  We must tell people that there is hope!  There is forgiveness!  God has reached out to us!  They need to know that there is new and abundant life . . . and it is found in Jesus Christ.  This is the message the world is dying to hear . . .we should be energetically sharing it with the world.

Imagine if you were fortunate enough to discover a cure for cancer, diabetes, Aids or Alzheimers Disease.  What would be the first thing you’d do (maybe even before you got a patent?)  You would contact the people you love who were dying of this disease and offer them the cure they had prayed for.  I bet you wouldn’t stop there.  Since you know other people who have family members who are suffering, you would tell them.  Next you might go to hospitals, talk to magazines, maybe even make an infomercial.  You would work hard to get the information out to those who needed to hear it.

Sin is the deadliest disease of all.  You may suffer with cancer or some other disease for many years . . . the torment of Hell is forever.  Jesus is the answer to what people have been longing to find.  We should energetically tell our loved ones, acquaintances, neighbors and more.  We should at least be as zealous as the non-Christian religions.

Second, we are reminded that we must not point people to our group but to Jesus.  The sin of the Scribes and Pharisees was that they were guilty of trying harder to make people like them than bring them to the Lord.  I believe we commit this same sin,

When we are more concerned with getting people to our church than bringing them into a personal relationship with Jesus.

When we imply to people that they aren’t a genuine believer unless they  worship as we do, believe as we do, or attend the church we attend.

When we promote the teaching of a particular person more than we promote the Word of God.  Our job is not to give book reports . . . it is to proclaim the message of forgiveness and new life.

We are like the Pharisees when worship becomes more about style than the heart; when we are more concerned with what is done than why it is done.

When we emphasize conformity to a standard of rules saying either directly or indirectly that the keeping of these rules will get you to Heaven.

Do you see this? When we do these things we are no different than what the Pharisees were doing.

I think this is a more difficult challenge than we might at first admit.  I find myself at times trying to get people to come to our church rather than pointing them to Jesus.  I find myself on occasion looking at someone and wondering if they can be a true believer because their experience is different than mine or their view of a secondary theological issue is different from mine.  Aren’t you the same way?

Paul wrote,

do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. 19 He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.  [Colossians 2:16-19]

It is easy to get distracted from the main issue. There at least two reasons why this is wrong.  It adds to the requirements of the gospel. When we focus on peripheral issues we imply that you not only need to repent and trust Christ; you also need to join my church, worship my way, see things the same as I do.  This is not only confusing to people (because churches are pulling them in a different direction), it puts up obstacles on the path of grace.

Second, this partisan approach to the gospel is shortsighted.  People are not made new by joining a group, entering a building, or obeying a list of rules.  They are made new by turning their hearts and lives over to Jesus.  When we push a church, a style, or a doctrinal emphasis we give people the impression that if they join our group or embrace our way of doing things they have become a follower of Christ.  When they do what we want we believe we have fulfilled our responsibility. In truth we have only gotten them to conform to our standards, they haven’t necessarily entered into a relationship with Christ.

So why are we so prone to this kind of zealous foolishness? Why is it so easy to be like the Scribes and Pharisees?  As I have searched my own heart I can see three problems.

First, we are competitive.  We want to be the biggest and the best.  We want people to affirm that we have made the right decision in choosing our church, have the right approach in our style of worship, the normative experience, and the right formula for Christian living.  We view ourselves as competitors with other churches.  We want to “win”.  So, we campaign for our cause and our precious Lord gets pushed to the side.  In our passion to win we may even cut some “spiritual corners”.

Second, we are prone to pursue the world’s idea of success rather than the Bible’s definition of success.  In the world, success is measured by how big you are, how much you make, how many games you win or how much influence you wield.  You see this attitude everywhere.  And it is also in the church.  The successful church is the one with the big congregation, the beautiful building, the high profile Pastor, the high tech gadgets and the big media ministry.

Think about it, does any of that stuff say that a person is successful in God’s eyes?  No. By the world’s standards many of the prophets were failures.  They were ignored, beaten, and by the world’s standards they were unsuccessful. In the Bible, success is seen as being fully committed to Him.  The “successful” saint is the One who stands on the Word of God when everyone else has rejected it.  They hang on to their faith even in difficult times when everyone around them is saying, “Curse God and die!  The person who is successful in God’s eyes is the one that does the work that God gave them to do whether anyone notices or not. We should be led to ask ourselves a pointed question: “Who’s approval are we seeking?”

Third, the sinful nature is still inside of us.  Though we know we can be saved only by God’s grace and we know that we have done nothing to merit our salvation, we still want to set the rules for others.  We like the authority of setting the standard of what is acceptable and unacceptable.  We still want to be “on the throne”.  We want to be in charge.  In a sense, we still want to be God.  That’s sin.

So how do we defend against this tendency?

First, we must deepen our own love for Christ.  It is easy to get sidetracked in our own lives.  We get caught up in our religious activities and lose sight of the fact that our goal is to learn to love and to serve the Lord.  We need to listen to His directions; we must work to get to know His heart.  Daily we must concentrate on building this relationship so we become more in love with Him than we do ourselves, more hungry for His “Well Done” than for the praise of men.  Our prayers should focus less on external comforts and more on internal character.

Second, we need to continually remind ourselves that God works in different ways in different people.  In other words, we need to lighten up!  Just because God is working on my heart in a particular area, doesn’t mean that’s what God needs to do in your heart right now….or ever.  Just because my understanding of a certain doctrine or my practice of a certain discipline has enriched me, doesn’t mean it will do the same for others.  Just because I have had a certain experience doesn’t mean everyone has to have that experience.  It is God’s job to mold us into His image . . . not ours.  He is the master designer not us. He will lead us in the path of discipleship in His way and according to His timing.  Our job is to preach the truth, to seek God’s will for our lives, and to honor Him in all we do.  It’s not that the other stuff isn’t important; its that the other stuff isn’t as important as we want to make it.

Third, we must develop a hunger to be faithful rather than to be successful.  This is hard.  We must remind ourselves again and again that we can be successful in this world and still miss what God has for us.  We need to stop asking, “What will please our friends, our co-workers, or the crowds?” and start asking, “What would please God?”  We can try to do everything and be everything and still widely miss the mark of God’s will for our lives.

In short, we must grow deeper.  We must refuse to settle for the superficial things of life.  Rather than cherishing the trinkets of this world, we must learn to hunger for souls of men and the heart of God.

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