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The Insensitivity of Legalism

August 8, 2021 Speaker: Dr. Rick Gregory Series:

Topic: Luke Verse: Luke 20:45–21:4

Theme: No amount of sacrifice will contribute to one’s salvation – only faith in Christ saves.

Introduction: What can I do? Whenever we get into trouble or face a crisis, our immediate reaction is to want to “do something.” Failure is defined by many as to stop trying. Spiritually, this is true as well. The instinct of humanity is to do everything you can to resolve the problem of your personal guilty before God. This is the heart of legalism – a system that provides “what to do” – so that you can help yourself please God. 

Such a self-dependent approach to being reconciled to God will always end in condemnation. Sinners will never make themselves acceptable to God because whatever we offer to God as compensation falls short of His perfection because it is tainted by sin. 

In our text today, we have underscored how “No amount of sacrifice will contribute to one’s salvation – only faith in Christ saves.” It is late Wednesday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours from when He will be arrested. This is the last public statement by Christ re: the hypocrisy of false religion and He warns His disciples of the severity, insensitivity, and hypocrisy of false religion – that being touted by the scribes …

I. The Objection to False Religion – 20:45-47

A. The Caution re: False Religion – v. 46a 

  • Having given the religious leadership the clearest challenge yet to believe the truth – making it obvious that what they thought about Christ was errant, they continued to willfully, rebelliously reject the truth.
  • Their preference was to maintain their prideful arrogance, sanctimony, and self-exaltation – refusing to humble themselves before the Son of God.
  • As if Jesus says: “That’s it! Your opportunity to believe is now past,” He denounces them and warns the crowd of their influence by addressing His disciples – “And while all the people were listening, He said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes …’”
  • “Beware” [προσέχω] – προσ – before | έχω – to have --carries the meaning of being “in a state of alert” or “be concerned about,” conveying the idea of “don’t assume their lives as acceptable or genuine.”
  • The scribes were the specialists who “mined” out of the Law the proliferation of legalistic obligations – incumbering others with obligations that have their origins not in the Word of God but in self-righteousness.
  • In Matthew’s account of this declaration, He extends this to the Pharisees as well and pronounces “woes” upon them – which are declarations of coming judgment upon them – for being: “blind guides, fools, hypocrites, and more.”
  • He then explains His warning by saying their influences: “shut off the kingdom of heaven from people,” “making [others] twice as much son[s] of hell,” and defilement of others – cp. Matthew 23:27.

B. The Characteristics of False Religion – vv. 46b-47a 

  • Here, Luke provides a variety of characteristics of those who assert their own legalistic righteousness but whose lives demonstrate the invalidity of their assertions.
  • There are five characteristics Jesus gives us:
  1. Piety – “… who like to walk around in long robes …” – the display that they are more committed than the ordinary person to being mindful of the commandments – cp. Numbers 15:38-39.
  2. Prestige – “… and love respectful greetings in the market places …”  - unwilling to be familiar with the people as “one of them” – cp. Matthew 23:8-10.
  3. Privilege – “… and chief seats in the synagogues …” – seating was carefully arranged to segregate people – men from women, leaders from people, etc … and hypocrites fixate on privileges. 
  4. Preference – “… and places of honor at banquets …” – the scrambling for significance associated with proximity to the host – something Jesus condemned – cp. Luke 14:10-11.
  5. Pretense – “… who devour widows’ houses …” – “devour” [κατεσθίω] means that they consume or “gulp down” by shrewdly taking advantage of them, cheating them, or obligating them through threats of God’s displeasure – Micah 3:11; 2 Peter 2:3.  
  6. Perception – “… and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers.” – they are not addressing God but addressing people as if speaking to God so that others would perceive them as close to God – cp. Matthew 6:1.
  • None of these things represent true godliness – and in the pursuit of these things, there is nothing that will serve in the establishment of true righteousness – something that comes by grace through faith alone – cp. Colossians 2:18, 23.

C. The Condemnation of False Religion– v. 47b

  • Jesus declares that no level of such self-centered, self-promoting, self-righteous pursuits will help a sinner on the day of judgment – “These will receive greater condemnation.”
  • “greater” [περισσότερος] – a word referring to “being beyond a standard of abundance” – “even more …”
  • God is offended even more greatly by sinners who know they have sinned and attempt to absolve themselves through their own efforts – than by sinners who are ignorant – cp. Matthew 11:21-22.
  • Additionally, when a person steps into the position of leadership he becomes even more accountable – James 3:1.
  • When there is no dependency upon the righteousness of Christ alone, but one seeks to lead people to follow them, they are condemned by God – 2 Peter 2:1-3.

II. The Observation of False Religion – 21:1-2

A. The Ceremony of Legalism – v. 1

  • At this point, Jesus “… looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury.”
  • Jesus didn’t have to look far to see the corruption of legalistic false religion playing out before His eyes.
  • He obviously was in the place where the chief priests had set up the “offering boxes” in order to receive donations from the people.
  • “The treasury” was in the Court of the Women and contained thirteen trumpet-like receptacles – perhaps Shofars – into which people would be offerings according to how they are labeled in order to designate the offering. 
  • There would often be great pomp and ceremony – with designated observers who would shout out what was being given.

B. The Coercion of Legalism – v. 2

  • Then “He saw a poor widow putting in two copper coins” – likely not celebrated or even noted.
  • This is the seventh and final widow mentioned by Luke – a demographic for which he shows particular tenderness as would be expected by the godly.
  • She is identified as “poor” [πενιχρός] – indicating that this widow was needy – and ought to have been cared for.
  • Yet, because of the coercion of the leadership, felt compelled to give these “two copper coins” [λεπτός] – a reference to a coin valued at 1/128th of a denarius.
  • If a denarius was one day of average pay, at $15 per hour for 8 hours – it would be worth $120 – dividing that by 128 = .93 x 2 = $1.86.
  • The context demonstrates for us that this is a heart-breaking event – not at all celebrated by Jesus but grieved over by Him as He sees the “devouring” of a widow’s house before his very eyes.

III. The Oppression of False Religion – 21:3-4

A. The Desperation of the Oppressed - v. 3

  • Jesus does not applaud what this widow did – as she was following the false religious system that He was denouncing -  that such sacrifice would place her into God’s blessing.
  • He merely compares the level of sacrifice that the religious leadership had driven this woman to perform – “And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them;’”
  • This text should never be used to coerce people on how they ought to give – “See how she gave and how Jesus noticed it – He’ll notice if you give sacrificially as well.”
  • No! Jesus is indicting the false religion that caused a widow to do such a thing!
  • Notice the difference between the state of the “poor widow” in v. 2 and the “poor widow” in v. 3:
  1. “χήραν πενιχρὰν” – refers to a widow who is in need
  2. “ἡ χήρα αὕτη ἡ πτωχὴ” – refers to a widow who has become a beggar.
  • She literally gave everything she had left so that she was penniless – “the Old Testament commanded that widows be cared for, … but the religious leaders set aside those commands for the sake of their traditions (and their greed)” – stripping this woman of all she had to line their pockets.
  • This is clearly the opposite of “pure religion” – cp. James 1:27; Isaiah 1:23.

B. The Despicability of the Oppressors – v. 4

  • Jesus denounces them saying: “… for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.”
  • “surplus” [περισσεύω] – describes a person who has “more than enough” or that which “overflows.”
  • This is contrasted with what they demanded of a poor widow who was called upon to give “out of her poverty” [ὑστέρημα] – a term that describes “the lack of what is needed” – and Jesus goes further – “the lack of what is needed ‘to live on.’”
  • False religion always seeks to fleece people of their resources – (Illustration: Dellena’s former pastor)
  • This is the very action that caused the eye-opening questioning of the Roman Catholic church during the campaign by a man named Johann Tetzel in 1517 who traveled through Germany selling “indulgences” in order to fund the construction of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome – claiming that a gift would liberate loved ones from purgatory and the more given the earlier the freedom to enter heaven. 
  • Martin Luther’s reaction to such an abuse by the false religious system of Rome sparked the Reformation.
  • Jesus had a similar response to the false religious system of the chief priests that caused Him to denounce them and ultimately to cast them off into judgement that continues to this very day – as prophesied in the next section of Luke.

So What?

Thinking that one can gain favor with God by means of personal sacrifice renders the work of Christ to be only partial.

Such legalism constantly seeks a place in all of our hearts – therefore Jesus warns us.

Realizing you need to be saved but seeking to do it yourself results in “greater condemnation” because of how it demeans Christ. 

Resist doing righteous deeds in order to be noticed by others – we have one Lord and we must serve Him alone.

Salvation is not accomplished by “works of righteousness,” but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ – He alone can reconcile you to God by means of His work on your behalf on the cross where He died for your sins and rose from the dead to give you life.