What do you fear as a Christian? Are there things about being a disciple of Jesus that causes you anxiety, worry, or fear? One of the fears that we often face is the reaction of other people. When we declare ourselves to be Christians, sometimes there are repercussions for that confession. Jesus is going to address our fears while continuing to speak about the need for cleaning our lives from the inside out.
A Heart Free From Hypocrisy (12:1-3)
Jesus has thousands who are gathering to hear Jesus. The throng of people is so great that they are trampling one another. As this massive crowd is pressing in, Jesus continues to teach his disciples. Jesus warns them about hypocrisy. We should find it interesting to note that Jesus describes hypocrisy as leaven. The unique feature of leaven is that a very little bit will spread through the whole lump of dough. Hypocrisy spreads like a contagion. Having an outward appearance of godliness but being full of sinfulness inwardly is like a disease and this is why Jesus continues to issue such strong warnings. Let us not forget the other issue that Jesus identified with the Pharisees as part of their hypocritical nature. Not only were they full of sins on the inside while trying to maintain an outward veneer of holiness, they also lacked the heart and love for God. Notice it again in Luke 11:42. They neglected “justice and the love of God.” In Luke 11:41 Jesus told them that their generosity must come from the heart, not as a mere external action.
I fear that Jesus would have the same condemnation for Christians today. We need to hear these words about our hypocrisy also. It is so easy and tempting for us to elevate obedience to the laws of God to such a point that we ignore the heart and motive behind the obedience that God commands. God never commanded his people to keep the rules. God never asked for the people to just make sure they do what God says. Why do we boil down God’s law to such a checklist? God wants our hearts that lead to our obedience. God wants us to see his love, mercy, and grace that will lead us to love him and obey him. God has always commanded for a grace-driven obedience. Worse, not only do we take God’s commands and make them a bunch of rules, we add to God’s laws and have a bunch of rules that are not found in the scriptures. This is exactly what the Pharisees had done. In thinking that they were helping the people obey God, they had their traditions and rules that had to be kept so that people were considered defiled, sinful, or liberal for breaking the traditions. How true it could be said of us as Jesus said to the religious leaders then that we are straining the gnat and swallowing the camel (Matthew 23:24)!
This danger is grave because hypocrisy spreads like leaven. Left alone this contagion will spread such that people will think Christianity is rule-keeping. People will sing because God commanded it, but will not sing from the heart and with the words pricking the heart. We will pray but we will not pray words from our hearts. We will just offer form prayers with words that we have heard others say. We will partake of the Lord’s Supper, but we will not be moved in the heart as we remember the death of the Lord. We will just be eating funny flat bread and slinging back some grape juice. We will not have the zeal to see souls saved, but will just be concerned about keeping our decorum. We will not be moved in the heart for fear of what others may think. Twice Jesus said to go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (cf. Matthew 9:13; 12:7). Have we learned what these words mean? It means that God wants your heart. If your heart is not in your action, then your action is worthless. The prophet Malachi spoke of this problem as the people were obedient to the Lord, bringing their sacrifices. But they considered their obedience a burden and a weariness. It had become heartless religion rather than grace-driven obedience. God’s response was their condemnation. I am scared for us, brethren, that in our effort to impress upon people the need to do as God says (which is right and we must teach) we have completely forgotten the reason and the motive for obedience. Without zeal, love, devotion, enthusiasm, eagerness, intensity, and fervor our “acts of righteousness” are void.
Jesus declares that the day will come when our hypocrisy will be revealed. Jesus says in verse 2 that there is nothing that we cover up which will not be revealed. Our secrets will be brought to the light. Our hypocrisy will not be concealed forever. We need to constantly examine ourselves. Are the rules that we are keeping God’s rules or our own traditions and rules? Are we keeping God’s rules because we are filled with the love of the Lord or because we have turned worship into heartless religion? How can we fight this hypocrisy? Jesus is going to instruct his disciples in the following verses.
Fear God, Not People (12:4-5)
Jesus is telling his disciples not to be afraid of these religious leaders. The Pharisees, lawyers, and Sadducees had the power to make the disciples’ lives miserable and even to kill them. These were the ones who had Jesus killed and had a significant number of the early church persecuted and killed. Jesus says that we must not fear people who can harm the body. So what if people rebuke you, mock you, or scorn you! I love what Jesus says. Jesus says that the worst thing they can do to you is kill you. No big deal, right? To us, we might think it is a big deal, but it isn’t because they cannot harm your soul. Don’t fear what people can say and do. Fear God who has the authority to cast your soul into hell! What matters is what God can do to us.
Only God has true authority. The only fear that should control our lives is the fear of God. Being a people pleaser is not being a Christian. Be a God-pleaser! Christians are too easily frightened away from doing what is right because of people’s opinions. Peter had this very problem. Remember when he was eating with the Gentile Christians but when the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came, he stopped eating with the Gentile Christians for fear of what they would say? We do the same thing. Too often we do not do what is lawful for us to do as Christians or as a church because we fear what other Christians would think. We are afraid what others churches might say about us. We fear what other preachers might do to us. Preachers and shepherds are very susceptible to this fear. None of us want to be thought of as an outsider. None of us what to be pulled aside and chastised or rebuked. We cannot fear what others think. We cannot be concerned that what we are doing is not done other places. We cannot be fearful because we do something that we have never done before. We must fear God who will cast our souls into hell for not doing what we should have done because we were paralyzed by fear. We must not hold to tradition out of fear. Through grace-driven obedience we must keep God’s laws alone, even if that means retribution.
Fearing God Without Hypocrisy Means God Knows You and Cares About You (12:6-7)
God cares for you. Jesus tells us these words so that we can avoid being cast in hell. God is not trying to cause our mocking and suffering. But we need to clearly understand that pleasing God is not the most important thing, it is the ONLY THING! Notice the picture that Jesus gives. A sparrow was the cheapest thing in the marketplace. Five sparrows could be purchased for two pennies. Even though their value is so low, they are not forgotten by God. God’s people are way more valuable than birds. God will not forget us. God cares about us. God knows what is happening in your life. I love the metaphor that Jesus uses about knowing the hairs on our heads. Knowing the hairs on our heads is not pertinent information. The point is that our Lord absolutely knows what is happening to us. He knows what you are going through. God knows who you are and cares about you. Do not succumb to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Do not succumb to the fear of people or other Christians. The Lord knows those who are his.
Stand Up For Jesus Now (Not Traditions), and Jesus Will Stand Up For You Later (12:8-12)
To acknowledge Jesus before people is to be open and honest about our total life commitment to him. We must live our lives completely for Jesus. We do not live our lives for the opinions of others. We do not live our lives to keep the critics at bay. We live for Jesus regardless of the consequences. If we live for Jesus like this, then when we stand in judgment, Jesus will claim us. If we deny him by cowering to human pressure, then Jesus will deny us. Not only must we not fear telling the world that we love Jesus and are his disciples, but that love for Jesus will lead us to fight against anything that is not a passionate pursuit of him.
Verses 10-12 shows that Jesus is concerned about his disciples not caving in when the religious pressure them to conform to their rules and traditions. Jesus says that the disciples are going to be brought to trial before the synagogues, rulers, and authorities. Jesus tells them not to be nervous or anxious about how they will defend themselves because they will have the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will tell them what to say. The apostles were miraculously given God’s truth so they could teach the world about the new covenant of Christ. We now have the prophetic word given to us by the Holy Spirit through the apostles (2 Peter 1:19-21). Peter commands us to make the same ready defense as Jesus told his disciples to give.
But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14–16 ESV)
We must be prepared to give a defense of the hope we have even when we are slandered or reviled for righteousness’ sake. We must be ready to take a stand for the love of Jesus against people who claim to be the people of God but reveal their hypocrisy through their lack of grace and love driven obedience. We must hold on to the word of God and nothing else. We will overcome by declaring the very words of God. Notice the serious condemnation Jesus gives in verse 10. When we reject the words of God and desire to follow our own rules and traditions, there is no way that we can find grace and mercy. We are relying upon our own supposed way of righteousness, rather than the true way of righteousness revealed by God. Be zealous for the word of the Lord, not for our rules, traditions, or ways.
Jesus paints a strong warning for his disciples. True disciples are God-pleasers, not people pleasers. The only fear that should control our lives is a fear of God and his word. God is looking for zealous hearts who desire to obey him. Our obedience is not what God desires. God wants obedience from our love for him. We need to have pure hearts and rid ourselves of any hypocrisy because the day will come when the real condition of our hearts will be revealed.