21st Century Pharisees: Finding True Prosperity
This is the third post in a series about dealing with the hypocrisy and ‘false-following’ of Jesus in our lives. In those to come, I deal with more ways that we can get back to following Jesus with our whole selves, instead of being followers in appearance only, like pharisees. Please read the intro post, and the others in the series for a full glimpse.
The Chief Sin
We think of the pharisees greatest sin as being mere legalism — the adding to the law of God, creating their own “standard of righteousness” that they thought was more thorough than God’s. Legalism is certainly a great part of their sin, and legalism is certainly still a problem in the church today in obvious and subtle ways (to the usual ‘no alcohol or tattoos or else’ crowd to the legalism that preaches only law but never grace).
However, their greatest sin was not legalism, because legalism doesn’t have its root in itself, but something deeper—self-exaltation.
The true sin behind legalism is the desire to abuse God’s commands in order to get things from God that we want. The deepest root is that we are seemingly following God’s law only so he becomes “forced” to bless us with popularity, wealth, health, and happiness. The core of phariseeism and false-following of Jesus is the desire to follow Christ, not for the sake of Christ, but for the sake of ourselves.
Paths of Righteousness
Psalm 23 is widely celebrated, but it has one little clause that we often undervalue.
“He leads me along paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
— Psalm 23:3 (ESV)
Why does God lead us beside quiet waters and peace? Why does our shepherd lead us in paths of righteousness? For His name’s sake. Not our own. He doesn’t lead us and save us because we deserve to be exalted, nor because we deserve to be the center of attention. This parallels God’s declaration in Ezekiel:
“It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name…“
— Ezekiel 36:22 (ESV)
God acts for His name sake. The bible is not about us, life is not about us, salvation is not about us. It’s about God. It’s all for His name, His fame, His glory. Phariseeism makes following Christ about ourselves. It makes obedience to God a route to prosperity. For some, that prosperity means literal wealth and health. For others, it’s the idols in our lives that we think will make us happy. At all times we must remember something vital: life is for God, not for ourselves. If we fall into legalism, into abusing God’s commands to earn favor or prosperity, we demonstrate our true love to be ourselves not God.
The preeminence of Jesus
Second, we realize that we must prize God over all other things. This goes along with the idol of self, as we will learn that the final sinful love that God must conquer is our love of self. However, if we truly prize God over His creation, over our reputation, over what He might give us, we will be truly on the path of discipleship.
“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.“
— Colossians 1:18 (ESV)
Often, we fall into a very subtle prosperity gospel and we live like God is supposed to be used for pleasing us, instead of us pleasing him. Preeminence is used purposefully in the verse of above. Jesus is not merely important, or one priority on a long list of priorities—Jesus is preeminent. That means His importance is before all other things, greater than all other things, and is never to be diminished by other things.
This is vital to understanding our lives. Jesus is not supposed to be one of our priorities, but preeminent. He is not supposed to be our priority only on Sundays, but on Monday-Saturday too. Our aim in life is not to get things from Jesus, but to get Jesus.
As John Piper said (in a way that changed my life) “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” To that, I would add, “And I am most satisfied when I am most satisfied in Him.”
The truth is that looking to get rest and satisfaction in anything other than God will leave us exhausted. But keep reading, church goer, because we are just as guilty of this as an unbeliever. We often want to tell people outside of the church that they need to be fulfilled by God, nothing else will do. This is 100% true, but we often have just as many idols in our lives that we overlook as they do. We conveniently overlook our idolizing of our families, work, comfort, wealth, health, and identity.
This leaves us anemic for the mission of God. Why—because we don’t actually value god highly enough to actually go and live for His mission. This is the dark side to so much of the American church; we love God’s things so much that our minds are barely occupied with the things of God (i.e. His kingdom and mission).
We need the Holy Spirit to show us how deeply we have been enamored with the idol of the American dream and prosperity so that we can get back to rightly understanding Jesus’ preeminence. Then, we can become true disciples, those that follow Him because of a true love for Him, instead of secretly wanting to use Him for serving our interests.