True Religion

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Reading the Word

Matthew 24:1–2 (ESV)

1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Parallel Texts: Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6

Understanding and Applying the Word

The temple in Jerusalem was the center of Judaism. It reminded the people of their special relationship with God, who had chosen them through Abraham and brought them out of Egypt through Moses. It reminded the people that the land that they lived in was given to them by the Lord. The temple was the center of Jewish worship and was the place where God had graced the Jewish people with his unique presence. The temple was a grand building and was the pride and joy of the Jewish people. It is no surprise that Jesus’ disciples would comment on the greatness of the structure and be in awe of its size and beauty.

Jesus’ response to the disciples concerning the temple probably was surprising. As the disciples spoke glowingly of the greatness of the temple, Jesus told them that it was going to be destroyed. There would not be one stone left on another. The words of Jesus were fulfilled in A.D. 70 when the Romans entered Jerusalem to put down a revolt. The temple was destroyed in the process.

The disciples, and the Jewish people, saw the temple as the center of their religion. However, Jesus consistently taught that the religious leaders and the religious practices of Judaism had become empty and meaningless. There was no spiritual substance to their religion, only external ritual and show. The temple was going to be destroyed and religious practice would never be the same. This would serve as a reminder that our religion means nothing if it does not issue forth from the depths of our hearts. Our worship must come from changed lives and love for God. Fancy buildings and external rituals are worthless without a heart devoted to the Lord.

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Don’t Be a Hypocrite

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Understanding the Word

Matthew 23:13–36 (ESV)

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

Understanding and Applying the Word

After warning his disciples about the Pharisees and scribes in the first twelve verses, Jesus turned to the religious leaders and told them what he thought of their religion. Jesus pulled no punches and repeatedly called the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites.” Even today, no one would like to be labeled in this way. In Greek culture, the word hypocrite was used to speak of the actor who played many roles in stage performances. An actor would change roles by simply changing masks.

In calling the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites, Jesus condemned them for saying and teaching one thing, but living differently. Often, their external actions may have seemed holy and righteous, but their true inner identities were far from what their external actions indicated. All they did was for religious observance or to be noticed by others. They were not sincere followers of God who were motivated by love. The danger in their teaching and in their own lives was that it was easy to mistake external rule keeping with true devotion to the Lord.

We must be careful even today that we do not fall into the mistake and trap of these leaders. Religious observance for the sake of religion does not please God. Our Lord desires worshipers who follow and obey out of love and a sincere heart. This is only possible when we realize we cannot do that on our own and that we need the Lord to change us from the inside out. When we repent of our sin and call out to be saved, God pours out his Spirit into our lives and gives us new life as a new creation. Through our transformed life and the continual presence of the Holy Spirit, we are able to love the Lord and worship him in sincerity.

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A Tree With No Fruit

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Reading the Word

Matthew 21:18–19 (ESV)

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

Parallel Text: Mark 11:12-14

Understanding and Applying the Word

Jesus was hungry and went to get fruit from a fig tree. Since the tree had leaves, there should have been fruit as the leaves would have come on after the fruit. However, the tree had only leaves. When Jesus saw this, he cursed the tree and said, “May no fruit ever come from you again!”

The barren fig tree served as an object lesson concerning the nation of Israel (often pictured as a fig tree in the Old Testament) and its empty religion. Just like the tree had leaves and there was an expectation of fruit, Israel had its religious systems, but there was no true spiritual fruit. The appearance was there, but that was all there was. As a result of its fruitlessness, the fig tree suffered judgement and served as a warning to Israel that it would suffer the same.

Religious observance is not a bad thing. Religious observance without true love and devotion towards God and others is a bad thing. Religious practices without love and devotion are just empty practices. They are worthless. A person could go to church, sing all of the songs, give offerings, and volunteer to work in the nursery, but still not bear the fruit of a living and growing faith. Ask yourself: Is your religious practice what you do to earn God’s favor? Or, is your religious practice in response to what God has already done for you in Jesus Christ? One is motivated by love. The other is done out of obligation. Which of these pleases the Lord?

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A Matter of the Heart

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Reading the Word

Mark 7:1–23 (ESV)

1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“ ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Parallel Text: Matthew 15:1-20

Understanding and Applying the Word

The Pharisees and scribes complained that Jesus’ followers were eating without washing their hands properly. This is an example of how the religious leaders had established their own rules about how things should be done that were not a part of God’s word. Jesus responded by quoting from Isaiah 29:13 and accusing the Pharisees with going through the outward motions of holiness while their hearts were not in the right place. Jesus then stressed that what goes into the body does not defile it. It is the things that come from the heart that defile a person. Sin is ultimately a heart issue.

With these words, we find a warning against religious activity and legalism. Both of these concern themselves with external actions and measure themselves by adhering to such actions: regular church attendance, financial gifts, not watching TV or going to the movies, not drinking alcohol, not working on Sunday, etc. While there may be good reasons for some of these actions listed, the religious person and the legalist uses lists of dos and don’ts to show they are spiritual and in a right relationship to God. They fail to see that their hearts are desperately wicked and that they are in need of grace and forgiveness.

Religious activity and the ability to keep rules will never save anyone. We must realize our sinfulness and call out to Christ for forgiveness. It is only by the righteousness that he gives to us and the penalty for sin that he pays for us that allows us to stand before a holy God. In this passage we are forced to ask ourselves what we are counting on to make us right with God. Only Christ will do.

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Starving for Attention

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Reading the Word

Matthew 6:16–18 (ESV)

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Understanding and Applying the Word

Fasting is the putting aside of food so a person can spend more time in pursuit of God. In Scripture, it was done in times of distress and great need. It was used as a way to say “God, I need you more than anything to intercede in my circumstances right now. I need you more than even food.” Over time, fasting became a way the religious gauged how spiritual they were. The more one fasted, the more spiritual they were. So, people would fast and let everyone else know about it so they would be recognized as spiritual.

Jesus points this out as hypocrisy. Those who behave in this way are not fasting to appeal to God, they simply want to be seen by others. Jesus says that they have already received their reward (i.e. the recognition of others). Instead of trying to impress others, Jesus says our fasting should be done in such a way that no one even knows that it is happening. Only God should know. In this way, we are not seeking the approval of others, but truly seeking God.

Unfortunately, many are still caught up in performing religious acts for show. Just about everything we do can be done for the wrong reasons. We go to church, we pray, we fast, we ask questions and say all of the right things in our Bible studies. But are we doing them to be noticed by others or are we doing them out of the sincerity of our heart? Are our religious acts for show or are we truly seeking God? Ask yourself today, “Who are you trying to please?”

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Give to Him Glorious Praise

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Reading the Word

Psalm 66:1–5 (ESV)

1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth; 2 sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! 3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you. 4 All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.” Selah5 Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.

Understanding and Applying the Word

Psalm 66 calls for all people to praise God for who He is and for what He has done. His name is glorious and He has displayed His great power for all to see. In the context of this psalm, God displayed His power when He brought the people out of Egypt and led them across the sea on dry ground (Psalm 66:6). He then delivered the people into the Promised Land that was overflowing with abundance (Psalm 66:12).

We too are called to marvel at who God is and to praise His wondrous deeds. We can give praise and thanks for His daily provision in our lives, for how He has brought us through specific trials, or for the promises that He has made to us for the future. These are all great things. But let us not forget our great deliverance. Psalm 66 looks back to the deliverance of the people from bondage in Egypt. We must continually look back to the cross and our deliverance from bondage to sin. Christ died to set us free and to deliver us into eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. Let us praise the name of our great God and remember His awesome deeds!

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The God of Harvest

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Reading the Word

Psalm 65:9–13 (ESV)

9 You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it. 10 You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 11 You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with abundance. 12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, 13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.

Understanding and Applying the Word

As we read these verses we get a picture of God’s generosity. We read of how God waters the earth to provide for an abundant grain harvest and so that the fields yield the growth necessary to provide for the flocks that graze in them. God is pictured as the generous provider.

Verses 9-13 can be taken alone to show how God provides for our daily needs, but there is something greater to be found in these verses. In the opening of Psalm 65, we read of how God has provided for our spiritual needs by making atonement for our sins. Now, at the end of this psalm, we see an concrete example of how God provides for our physical needs. He is the God who meets our every need and we are reminded every time we sit down to eat. Let us remember to give thanks to him for His provision, especially His provision of our Savior.

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The Hope of All the Ends of the Earth

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Thank you for reading Shaped by the Word, a daily Bible reading devotional. I do not publish devotional content on Sundays, but I do include a suggested Scripture reading for the day. Please subscribe to this page so you can follow along as we read through the Book of Psalms in 2018.

Reading the Word

Psalm 65:5–8 (ESV)

5 By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness, O God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas; 6 the one who by his strength established the mountains, being girded with might; 7 who stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples, 8 so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs. You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.

Praise Is Due to You, O God

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Reading the Word

Psalm 65:1–4 (ESV)

1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed. 2 O you who hear prayer, to you shall all flesh come. 3 When iniquities prevail against me, you atone for our transgressions. 4 Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple!

Understanding and Applying the Word

“Praise is due to you, O God.” What great words. This is how Psalm 65 begins. It then goes on to tell us why God is due praise. He hears prayer. He forgives sin. He brings us near to dwell with Him. And he shows us goodness in His house. What a great God!

It truly is amazing to think of the goodness and love of God towards us. Scripture and our hearts tell us that we are sinners, but God, who is holy, shows His grace to us by making forgiveness available through the cross at Calvary. Not only does God forgive us, but he welcomes us into His presence, not as servants, but as children! Amazing! Then He shows us goodness by His loving care for us. He truly is deserving of our praise. Let us lift our hearts and voices to Him. He is the great God!

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Let the Righteous Rejoice in the Lord

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Reading the Word

Psalm 64:7–10 (ESV)

7 But God shoots his arrow at them; they are wounded suddenly. 8 They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them; all who see them will wag their heads. 9 Then all mankind fears; they tell what God has brought about and ponder what he has done. 10 Let the righteous one rejoice in the Lord and take refuge in him! Let all the upright in heart exult!

Understanding and Applying the Word

The world can often seem unfair and even cruel. Wicked and evil people seem to get away with their actions. Swindlers sometimes seem to prosper from their lies and deceit. And the innocent and weak may seem to be taken advantage of.

But Scripture tells us a different story. God’s word tells us that evil will be judged by an all-knowing God. In the end, truth and justice will prevail as God deals with all of mankind with perfect justice. In that day, the righteous will rejoice and the wicked will be brought to ruin. So, today we live by faith in God’s promise to judge evil as we live for him in a world that is always seeking to devour the weak for profit.

As you read this, you may be wondering how anyone will escape God’s judgment. That is a good question. The Bible says we are all sinners and stand condemned by our sin. Yet God in His grace has provided His Son as payment for our sin. He went to the cross as a perfect sacrifice. And Jesus rose from the dead in victory over sin. God’s word tells us that if we repent of our sin and trust in the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, we will find forgiveness and salvation. This is the free gift of a loving and gracious God for all who will believe. Will you trust Him today?

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