This is the second part in an in-depth study of key themes in the gospel accounts. For ease of reading, we’ve split this long study into several shorter individual posts, so I recommend starting with the intro and theme #1, then reading this and the other posts (linked at the end).
As I mentioned in the introduction to this series on how to understand the gospels, I’ve always struggled to emotionally connect with the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in their entirety. I get lost sometimes in the cultural context, the somewhat sterile ancient writing style, and can overly focus on seeming-contradictions.
So this series is focused on how we can “see the forest for the trees” and survey the gospel accounts together to find the bigger ideas and consistent themes in Jesus’s direct words and actions.
As a reminder, I’m giving some of the scripture references within each point, though in many cases there were so many that I couldn’t capture them all (it got too repetitive). I encourage you to look up and read each passage in the bible yourself as well and have these topics in mind to recognize the patterns when they emerge.
The first theme we looked at (in the previous post), was that God’s calling in this life isn’t easy—and isn’t for everyone—but if we answer His call it DOES come with expectations. And now we’ll dive right into the second theme…
Theme #2: God is concerned with the state of our “heart” (mind, emotions, motivations)
Jesus was constantly probing the underlying thoughts, motivations, and intentions of the people He encountered, and always called out hypocrisy, legalism, and self-righteousness—especially when it came at the expense of showing love and honor to God or other people.
Here are some of the principles He taught and modeled along those lines.
We can think we are doing all the right things and that we’re “right with God”, but be completely off-base.
MANY of Jesus’s teachings expanded on this theme with slight variations. And while His words clearly had implications for the Jews of that day—they saw themselves as God’s only chosen people and their rules for HOW to follow Him as elevated above God’s own instructions—Jesus’s warning should ring just as clearly for God’s elect today.
Jesus cautions that just calling upon His name (“I’m a Christian!”) or doing lots of works (“I tithe, I volunteer, I go to church every sabbath!”) does not “qualify” us for eternal life (Matt. 7:21-23). The meaning of Matthew 7:21 is that we can’t EARN it.
Here are some other aspects of this topic we should take away from His teaching:
- We should not be comparing ourselves to other people, but rather to God’s standards. God despises self-righteousness and loves a humble heart (the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, Luke 18:9-14).
- “Unless your righteousness [justification] exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). His audience would have understood this as a way of saying that it was impossible to “out-righteous” the Pharisees at their own game of legalistic rule adherence (which went far beyond God’s actual commands). Perfect law-following alone cannot gain us access to the kingdom.
- We don’t get credit for just showing up unprepared (the guest without a wedding garment, Matt 22). The “garment” God expects His people to be clothed with is made of righteous character and actions resulting from following His way (Rev. 19:8).
- In a similar vein, “checking the box” (a.k.a. doing only the bare minimum or “what was our duty to do”) makes us an unprofitable servant (Luke 17:10).
- We cannot be complacent—we must be vigilant. Multiple times Jesus spoke of seeing the signs that the time is near (Matt 24). These are spoken to God’s chosen people, and the implication is clearly that if we are not prepared and watching, we can miss out—our victory is not assured.
- The parable of the ten virgins (picturing God’s people) gets quite specific here. We’re told that ALL fell asleep, but only half of them had enough oil (God’s spirit) left when Christ returned…and the others didn’t get another chance to rectify their lack of vigilance (Matt. 25:1-13).
- The parable of the tares makes it clear that God allows the good and the bad to hang out together within the body of Christ for a while, until it’s time for the harvest (Matt. 13:24-30). So we can’t assume that just because we’re showing up, going to church, and doing all the things that outwardly look right, that we’re “good” with God.
Our actions definitely matter, but not if they’re coming from the wrong motivations or thoughts.
Building on the previous point, let’s go back to that part in Matthew where Jesus had just told them that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” or does great works will enter the kingdom.
He sums up that teaching by saying, “Then I will declare to them, ‘Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness [workers of iniquity]’” (Matt. 7:23).
What’s interesting is that He doesn’t deny that they had been obeying God’s commands or doing great works. This indicates that something else was going on here. We don’t know exactly what it was, but I submit that the root cause was that their hearts were not right with God. That they were not in a state of repentance…thus their sins separated them from God despite carrying out the correct actions.
And how often do we fall into the same trap??
Read through the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12)…every single one of the elements mentioned that make a person blessed (or happy) are character, attitude, and mind/heart things.
Now don’t get me wrong, in order to BE pure in heart, be merciful, poor in spirit, etc., we have to be living our lives in a way that will result in that type of character development—a.k.a. we have to be DOING the good things.
To put it bluntly, you can have works (doing stuff) without producing faith, but you CANNOT have faith without the works that faith produces (James 2:26).
But Jesus tells us that the opposite end of the spectrum is true as well, when it comes to our thoughts and motivations. We don’t get a “pass” on sin just because we didn’t go through with the action itself. Sin conceived in the mind is still sin.
He uses a couple examples to expand on God’s law, telling them that having an angry spirit and hatred toward our brother is sin just like murder is (though the outward consequences may differ). Similarly, He says that simply avoiding the act of adultery is not enough—we must also avoid lust, as the sin in the mind gives birth to the terrible action (both in Matt. 5:20-30).
Jesus frequently uses the Pharisees’ hypocrisy to illustrate this idea that it doesn’t matter if you’re following the law perfectly or doing things right outwardly —if your heart, intentions, thoughts, and character are lacking, God does not honor your actions.
- “Laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (Mark 7:1-23). Jesus rips into the Pharisees for how they’ve nullified God’s own commands by elevating their own ideas and added legalistic requirements!
- Read through Matthew 12 and 15, which showcase a number of altercations with the Pharisees where Jesus tears down their adherence to their own traditions and uses it as an opportunity to deepen people’s understanding of God’s laws and what He desires of us.
- Jesus likened them to whitewashed tombs (white and clean on the outside, but full of stinky, rotten, decaying corpses within), and a dish that has been washed on the outside but is still filthy inside (Luke 11:39-44).
These are harsh! And it’s easy for us to read through and just judge the Pharisees, and use them to make ourselves feel better about the state of our lives. But we’d be completely missing the point. It’s worth asking ourselves:
- Are there places where our own traditions or interpretations are taking precedence over what God desires and commands—where we’re justifying ourselves?
- Where am I a “whitewashed tomb”, presenting a righteous face to the world but hiding or ignoring the sins within my heart or mind?
- Are there times when I look at other people as a point of comparison and judgment, to help myself feel better about my own state, rather than comparing myself to God’s word?
You might also like: Occupying Your God-Given Space: Humility in a Self-Esteem World
We should be “little” in our own eyes.
One of the most important aspects of our thoughts and motivations has to do with how we see ourselves in relation to God, and to other people.
- Jesus set the tone for His followers when He instituted the footwashing service at the Passover. This was something the lowest servant did in the household, but He lowered Himself to serve others as an example to us (John 13).
- “He who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt. 23:11).
- “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17). Children are open, trusting, and humble.
- We should not assume that we’re more important than we are, or elevate ourselves (parable of ambitious guest, Luke 14: 7-11); Paul echoes this in Rom. 12:3.
- He rebuked the Pharisees, saying, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts, for what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in sight of God” (Luke 16:15). I certainly don’t want to fall into this trap.
I’ll leave you with some self-reflection questions that I’m meditating on…
- If I’m honest with myself, do I secretly (or subconsciously) believe I’m “doing enough” to have a heart that is “right” with God?
- Where are there areas in my life when I look outward at other people as a point of comparison rather than comparing myself to the standards in God’s word, to avoid feeling bad about myself?
- When talking to God and examining my life, looking for sins to repent of, do I focus more on actions and shy away from asking God to truly show me my inner motivations and thoughts?
- Where am I justifying my thinking and desires at the expense of what God commands?
- Where in my life am I TRULY serving others like Jesus did when He washed the disciples feet—the mundane, unpleasant, or taken-for-granted needs?
So this is theme #2 in this bigger study that covers a LOT of ground. Hopefully they’re illuminating Jesus’s words and actions in a different way and deepening our understanding of what He wants from us.