“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:21-22)
“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Romans 8:13-14)
Although Jesus’ ministry began in Judea, and Paul made a point of saying that his gospel was for “everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile,” (Rom 1:16), when we discuss revelation and guidance, all of humanity shares this: “futile thinking” and “darkened hearts.”
As Paul argues in Romans 2:17-29, possessing the law was not a special exemption from this universal spiritual condition:
“If you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” (Rom 2:19-21)
Knowing the law doesn’t mean obeying the law. The latter indicates a disposition to honor God as God. But there are lots of people who know and even admire the law, and they think everyone should obey it. But if they nudge their ball out of the rough and back onto the fairway once in a while, what’s the problem? (As long as no one sees . . )
This was the Pharisees’ attitude, and they knew the law inside out, upside down and with cuffs on it. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1). They wouldn’t have dared to say that out loud, of course, but essentially that’s what they believed.
There was a God, just not one who cared about the contempt for the living God indicated by a “done for men to see” attitude. Their hearts were “darkened” and their thinking “futile,” and they passed it on to the masses.
In this new kingdom, it wasn’t just what you did, but who you did it for that determined the character of your “righteousness”:
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others,” Jesus said.
So the first way he led the people through the wilderness of a corrupt, moribund religion was to make this distinction between the true kingdom of heaven and existing conventional wisdom that was in fact foreign to God’s ways.
There’s a precedent for this. If you read through the law sections of the Pentateuch, you happen upon some very specific commands that seem arbitrary, very limited in application (to the Bronze Age, not the 21st century) or just plain strange.
Some of them have to do with certain cultural customs (clothing, personal adornment), and when you realize they were inextricably tied to the worship of gods other than God, you begin to realize why they were included. These were the customs of the surrounding nations, foreign nations, and would not be permitted among God’s “treasured possession.”
When Ananias and Sapphira were struck down after apparently doing a good thing by contributing to the apostles’ purse, what was the real issue? The amount? Were they so gauche they stood up and asked for a receipt right in the middle of a church service? Did they need to reach the “for a gift of $50 or more Reverend Learjet will send you his study Bible and free bookmark” level?
Peter said no. “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). No, they lied to the Holy Spirit. It was “done for men to see.”
Jesus had announced the end of this corrupt kind of kingdom (Mt 21:43-44) because it bore no fruit. He had taught people for three years about the higher standards of the kingdom of heaven—”Behold, you desire truth in the innermost being,” David wrote (Ps 51:6), anticipating this—then insisted they must live this way to follow him:
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). What part of No Pharisees Admitted do you not understand?
He had gone to the cross to make a brand new kingdom possible, not just a lofty ideal. Why do you think the master was angry enough to condemn the servant who buried his single talent? (Mt 25:26-30). You don’t waste the “riches of his kindness and tolerance and patience” (Rom 2:4) when they’ve been purchased at so great a price.
“For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him” (Ps 22:24, a messianic psalm). If God himself does not despise it, should anyone else be permitted to take it lightly or treat it with contempt? Can anyone honestly believe that lying to the Holy Spirit is anything but foreign to being “led by the Spirit”?