April 1, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer

Not a Fan!

#4—Following Jesus or rules?



ILL: When I was in college, I had a summer job that took me all over the Northwest, including to many little off-the-beaten-path communities.  One day, I was in Drain, Oregon.  Ever heard of it?  You can’t get there from here!  I had finished my work and needed to find my way back to I-5, so I asked a clerk at a grocery counter for directions (this was before GPS’s, or cell phones, or computers, or combustion engines; it was just after the invention of the wheel).

    So the helpful clerk said, “Well, you head down this road here a mile or two, and take a left at the pig farm.  Stay on that road until you get to a red barn; go right, then right again, and then a left at the four way stop.  Go a few miles straight, then veer left and then right under the overpass, and over the underpass and you’ll see it.”  

    A man standing next to me overheard and said, “I’m going that way; you can follow me.”

    And I did.  I just fixed my eyes on that guy’s bumper and followed him to the freeway.

Jesus said, “Follow me”. He didn’t offer us a book of rules, but Himself.  It’s all about a relationship, not a performance!  We are following Jesus, not rules.

Introduction and offering:

    Thanks Bob for sharing your story with us.  Bob points out that we can look one way on the outside and be something different on the inside.  He said that the experience of a relationship with Jesus didn’t happen until he really surrendered and invited Jesus into his daily life.  Outside vs. inside; rules vs. relationship.

    Today we continue our series, “Not a Fan”—we’re talking about the difference between being a fan of Jesus or a whole-hearted follower of Jesus.  One of the easiest ways to confuse the two is to reduce Christianity to a set of rules you follow—you confuse following the rules with following Jesus.

The Big Idea: Fans follow the rules rather than Jesus.

In Matthew 23, Jesus takes aim at people who have confused following the rules with following Jesus.  Seven times, He says, “Woe to you,” and corrects the misguided practices of rule-following religionists.  Let’s break it down.


1. We can choose hypocrisy over authenticity.

Matthew 23:1–3 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

Jesus begins by acknowledging that the teachers of the law and Pharisees are teaching God’s law, so you should do what they say.  They were probably thinking, “Alright!  Now he’s talking!  Finally, he says something we agree with!”  But then Jesus says, “But don’t do what they do, for they don’t practice what they preach.”  Ouch—that’s gonna leave a mark.  They talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.  They don’t practice what they preach.  What do we call someone who says one thing and does another?  A hypocrite.  

    Six times in this chapter, Jesus says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites.”  The Greek word, hupokrites, literally meant, “an actor”.  Actors in Greek dramas wore masks; sometimes the same actor would play several parts by simply changing masks.  Off-stage, the word took on the negative meaning of “a pretender”, someone who pretended to something he was not; a poser.  Jesus goes on:

Matthew 23:5–7 Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

It’s all a show.  It’s all done “for people to see”.  They are wearing a religious mask to make people think they are godly; but it’s an act. They are actors putting on a show, concerned only with the outward appearance, not the inner reality. One of the marks of hypocrisy is that we are more concerned with the outside than the inside.  An outward focus usually means we’re paying more attention to following the rules than following Jesus.

    But lets admit it: All of us long for approval and acceptance.  We all want an “attaboy” every now and then.  So it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing good things “for people to see.”  

ILL: When I do something good, I catch myself looking around to see if anyone noticed.  Or if they don’t, I find a way to drop it into a conversation.  “I can’t go to coffee today.  I gave all my money to the poor this week.  It’s no big deal—I do it all the time.”  

This is why Jesus says to do your good deeds in secret—He knows our hearts.  And this is the real test: what do you do when no one is watching?  Who are you when no one is looking?  Are you the same person in private as in public?  Does the inner you match the outer person you show everyone else?

    Jesus doesn’t expect followers to be perfect, but he does expect us to be authentic.  We can choose hypocrisy over authenticity.  


2. We can choose guilt over grace.

Matthew 23:4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

How did they tie up heavy loads on people’s shoulders?

These religious leaders had a highly developed system of rules.  For example, God said to rest on the Sabbath: no work.  So they had to define what constituted work, and they ended up with thousands of tiny rules describing what you couldn’t do on the Sabbath.  You could throw something in the air with one hand provided you caught it with the other.  (This is where juggling came from.  Not really.)  You couldn’t take a bath on the Sabbath.  (Soaking in a hot tub is one of my favorite Sabbath activities.) If someone spilled something, you couldn’t clean it up.  You couldn’t move a chair.  You couldn’t wear your false teeth—that would be carrying something. The list went on and on—thousands of rules that made the Sabbath exhausting, when God simply wanted us to rest! (By the way, sex with your spouse was ok—a restful way to enjoy the Sabbath!)

    The religious leaders taught the people that they had to obey all these rules in order to please God.  They were made to feel guilty that they didn’t measure up.  It was a heavy, cumbersome load that none of them were able to bear.  

    When the gospel first began to be accepted by Gentiles (non-Jews), there was a big debate about whether they had to convert to Judaism first—be circumcised and keep the Jewish law before they could be Christians.  At a meeting of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem, Peter spoke up:

Acts 15:10–11 (NLT) So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? 11 We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.

Any attempt to please God by keeping the rules was “a yoke that we aren’t able to bear.”  Instead, we are saved by the grace of Jesus.  He came to lift the yoke of religious rules, and help us live by grace.

Matthew 11:28–30 (The Message) “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. 29 Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. 30 Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Religion is characterized by guilt; relationship is characterized by grace.  Fans are guilt-motivated—I’ve got to keep the rules to be accepted by God.  Followers are motivated by God’s grace—I know that God has already accepted me because of His grace, not my performance.  


3. We can choose the outside over the inside.

    We already read Matthew 23:5 that says “everything they do is done for people to see.”  It’s all a show; it’s all about appearances.  They chose the outside over the inside.  Jesus goes on to say:

Matthew 23:25–28 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

You clean the outside and leave the inside dirty.  You look beautiful on the outside, but are dead inside.  Clean and beautiful on the outside, but dead and dirty on the inside—that’s a fan.    

    I know people who looked like followers but were really fans.  They went to church every Sunday, but during the week cheated on their spouse.  They sang passionately during worship on Sunday, and during the week angrily cursed their co-workers.  They gave religiously on Sunday, but cheated on their taxes, and stole from their company.  They looked like the model family in public, but were hiding a horrible home life.  They cared about appearances (the outside), but not reality (the inside).

    That won’t work.  God looks at the heart. God cares about what’s inside. Followers know that.

ILL: Here are two balloons: different colors, different shapes.  Which one will rise more quickly?  Let’s see (let them go).  One rises, one doesn’t.  Is it because of the color or shape?  It’s because of what’s inside.  One has helium, the other has somebody’s bad breath!

Are you more focused on the outside than the inside?  Are you letting God change you from the inside out, so that you are a new and different person?


4. We can choose exclusivity over inclusivity.

Matthew 23:13 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

One of the natural results of being rules oriented rather than relationship oriented is that you become exclusive.  You have to keep the rules to be in; if you don’t keep the rules, you’re out.  You shut people out.

    The Pharisees were very religious and also very exclusive. Some scholars say that there were only about 6000 of them in Jesus’ day, but that their influence was much larger than their numbers.  They devoted their lives to keeping every minutia of the Jewish law, and were widely respected in Israel for their piety and devotion.  But they were also exclusive.  The name “Pharisee” means “separated one”.  Positively, they lived a life separated to God—holy to God.  Negatively, they lived a life separated from the common people, whom they often looked down upon.  For example, when the guards who had been sent to arrest Jesus returned empty-handed to the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees said:

John 7:47–49 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

“This mob” or “rabble” was the common people who weren’t able to keep all the rules, and so there was a curse on them.  They couldn’t keep the rules, so they were out, and the Pharisees were in.

    One of the most common conflicts that Jesus had with the Pharisees was over who He let in.  Over and over, they criticized Jesus for accepting irreligious, sinful people into His circle of friends. Just one example: Jesus called Matthew to follow Him.  Matthew was a hated tax collector, a Jewish man who collaborated with the hated Roman oppressors, and got rich doing it.  Matthew was an Outsider.  It was bad enough that Jesus included Matthew, but it gets worse.  The first thing Matthew did was throw a party and invite all his friends.  Who do you think a tax collector hangs out with?  Other tax collectors!  It was a whole party-full of Outsiders and Rule-breakers, and the Pharisees complained to Jesus’ disciples:

Matthew 9: 11-13  “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

When we make Christianity about following the rules, we get exclusive: we’re in, you’re out.  When we make it about following Jesus, we get inclusive: anyone can come!  Jesus came to call sinners!  You are one—so am I!

    Make sure you invite all your friends to the party next weekend when we talk about the radical inclusivity of Jesus.  Anyone!


5. We can choose laws over love.

Matthew 23:16 Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’

What’s going on here?  They were interpreting the law in such a way that they could avoid their responsibilities to people.  

ILL: When you were a kid, did you ever make a promise with your fingers crossed?  What did that mean?  Absolutely nothing.  But we thought it meant that your promise didn’t count.  It was a silly childish deception that made it look like I was promising, but I really wasn’t.  

That’s what is going on here.  If you swore by the temple, it was like you had your fingers crossed; but if you swore by the gold of the temple, you were obligated.  

    Why would anyone do this?  To avoid keeping their promises.  To cheat someone.  They could point to a law, a rule, and justify mistreating a person.  They chose laws over love.  

    There was another example Jesus used in Matthew 15.  It involved a rule known as “Corban”.  God’s law required people to care for their parents.  But they created the Corban rule that said if you declared something to be devoted to God, you didn’t have to use it to help your parents.  It was a nifty legal work-around to avoid caring for your aging parents.  Law over love.  When we are focused on the rules that we lose sight of the people, we’ve lost the plot.

ILL: Kyle Idleman tells the story of the man named John who stopped at a bank to complete a business deal.  The teller informed him that the officer he needed to see wasn’t in and he’d have to come back tomorrow.  He said fine and asked to have his parking validated.  The teller said she couldn’t since he hadn’t technically completed a financial transaction.  When he asked for an exception, she refused, saying, “Rules are rules.”  So John decided to complete a financial transaction; he closed his account.  His last name was Akers; he was the chairman of IBM, and his account had $1.5 million in it.  This qualified as a financial transaction and the teller was able to validate his parking.   

    Do you think she lost the plot?  Do you think she kept her job?  She kept the letter of the law and missed the spirit of it.  I love the point Kyle makes:

The church must constantly fight the tendency to make rules and policies more important than people, because when that happens we are no longer following Jesus.   (p. 80).

I see this all the time in churches.  We become are so worried about our rules that we end up hurting people.  

ILL: My freshman year in college, I traveled with a singing group called The Joyful Noise.  Don’t laugh—we cut an album!  I’m a recording artist!

    One weekend, we were doing a Friday night concert at a church.  We arrived Friday afternoon to set up our gear.  The church was empty so we went to work.  Several of us tossed our coats on the communion table and started setting up the sound system.  One of the elders in the church happened by, and saw our coats on the communion table, and went ballistic.  He charged down aisle, red-faced, yelling at us to get our coats off the communion table.  He gave us an angry lecture about respect for God’s house and holy communion, and then stormed out.

    Were we being disrespectful?  No.  Careless, but not disrespectful.

    Do you know who was disrespectful?  That elder.  Which do you think God cares about more: furniture or people?  Somehow this dear man had lost sight of that.  He beat people so the furniture wouldn’t get scratched.  Rules had replaced relationships.  Law superceded love.  

When we do this, we have lost the plot.  We’ve become fans, not followers of Jesus.


6. We can choose to major in the minors.

Matthew 23:23–24 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

When we put rules over relationship, we usually end up majoring in the minors. We sit splashing in a mud puddle thinking it’s the ocean. We lose the plot.

    The Pharisees were meticulous rule-keepers.  Dot every “i” and cross every “t”.  God said to tithe, to give Him the first 10% of your increase, whether was the increase of your flocks and herds, or the increase of your crops, or the increase of your business.  They applied this to nth degree, down to the spices they grew in their garden: mint, dill and cumin.  

    Have you ever seen dill?  Here’s a picture of dill seed.  They are tiny.  Imagine counting out your dill seeds and setting every tenth see aside for God.  While we’re at it, here’s a picture of cumin seed.  What’s it look like?  Dill.  Same thing—hard to imagine counting out every tenth seed.  Thank goodness that mint doesn’t have seeds, just leaves to count.

    Imagine these people religiously counting their seeds and leaves—all their garden spices—to make sure they tithe.  You have to admire their devotion, but do you think that is what God had in mind?  Jesus didn’t say they were wrong, just that they had lost perspective.  He told them that while they were counting their seeds, they were neglecting the more important matters: justice, mercy and faithfulness.

    Should you tithe?  Jesus said yes.  “Do the latter (justice, mercy and faithfulness) without neglecting the former (tithing).”  But keep some perspective.  Some things are more important than others.  Justice, mercy, faithfulness, and love are more important than tithing.  People are more important than communion tables.  Fans end up majoring on the minors. They strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel!  Jesus was making fun of the Pharisees fastidious habit of straining their drinking water to avoid swallowing an unclean insect.  They strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel!  People were howling with laughter when Jesus said this.  Fans still strain out gnats and swallow camels.

ILL: I could give you lots of examples.  Here’s one:

    I have received criticism—most of it very kind—about the fact that we don’t have a cross in here.  We have one in the commons—long story—but not in here.  

    Friends, I love the cross.  It is the symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial death that saved me.  It is the symbol of my salvation.  I love the cross.

    But did you know that there is nothing in the Bible that says we need to have a cross in our church, or wear a cross around our neck, or put a decorative cross on our wall at home?  There is nothing in the Bible about that.  What the Bible does say about the cross is that you are supposed to take up your cross every day and die to yourself and follow Jesus.  I like to ask those who complain about no cross in the sanctuary if they are carrying their cross every day.  That’s what matters!  If we all did that, the cross wouldn’t be a piece of décor or jewelry; it would be imprinted on our very lives!

Fans who focus on rules end up majoring on minors.  Followers stay close to Jesus.


7. We can choose our own strength over the Spirit’s power.

    This is a separate chapter in the book, Not a Fan, but I added it here because it is related.  The Bible connects these ideas: we can live by the rules, or we can live by the power of the Spirit.  Two examples:

Romans 8:3–4 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4 in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

We couldn’t keep the law on our own, so God came to our rescue.  Now the requirements of the law are fully met in us because we live according the Spirit.  In other words, God has given us His Spirit to empower us to what He wants.  We couldn’t do it on our own, so He gave us the power.

Galatians 5:16–18 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

Notice that last verse.  Here are two different ways to live: under the law, or led by the Spirit.  Rules or relationship.  Trying really hard on my own and failing; or following the Spirit’s lead.  The Galatian Christians were in danger of going back to following the rules rather than following Jesus.  Paul wrote to them:

Galatians 3:3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

That verse stops me in my tracks.  Am I trying to do this on my own, or am I being led by God’s Spirit.  Have I grown self-reliant, religious, a rule keeper.  Or am I a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus?


Conclusion: I want to finish with this powerful story from the book.

ILL: A few months ago I was speaking in Houston, Texas, and a good-sized man, with a good-sized belt buckle, came up to me with tears in his eyes. He began to tell me the story of his prodigal daughter, how she went to college and totally turned her back on the faith. As soon as he started the story I knew how it would go. I’ve heard it so many times, even the details seem predictable. But when he finished, he didn’t ask me why she was doing this or what had gone wrong. He wasn’t looking for an explanation. Instead, with one sentence he put his finger on what he thought happened. Here’s what he said:

We raised her in Church, but we didn’t raise her in Christ.   

You hear what he is saying? We raised her to look right on the outside but didn’t teach her about the inside. We taught her to keep all the rules, but she never really had a relationship. We made her feel guilty for the wrong things she did, but somehow she missed God’s amazing grace. We taught her to be a fan of Jesus—instead of a follower of Jesus. (p. 83).

How about you?  Are you following the rules or following Jesus?  Do you have a relationship with Him?


Song: Spirit of the Living God