A Self-Portrait (of Self-Righteousness)
A quick examination of the Pharisee's response to Jesus' miracles reveal a lot about the nature of self-righteousness, and we all can learn from it.
I've always loved the arts. While in the fourth grade, I was introduced to classical music through a program called Music Memory. We listened to a selection of well-known classical compositions, were told the composer's name, and expected to remember them. I had an easy time remembering them, but there was one piece that especially stood out to me: Trumpet Voluntary by Henry Purcell. At that same time, I was learning to play the (dreaded) Recorder. You know, that horrible, cheap, plastic flute-whistle? Being curious about music and believing I could do anything I put my mind to (we were, after all, taught that growing up in grade school), I sat down one night and taught myself how to play the introduction to Trumpet Voluntary on my Recorder, and proudly showed my teacher the next day. By the end of the day, I had been recruited into the school orchestra.
One aspect of the arts that I never really learned, however, is painting. I've always loved to look at portraits. There is so much finesse and technique that I don't even understand, and the emotion that some artists are able to bring out is truly inspiring. Recently at my home church, we examined Matthew chapter 12, and paid particular attention to the Pharisees' response to Jesus and the miracles that He performed, and we figured out how to paint a portrait! Crazy sounding, isn't it? "What," you might ask, "does Matthew chapter 12 teach you to how to paint?" The answer is simple.
A portrait of self-righteousness.
Now, before we go any further, it would be helpful to have a working definition of self-righteousness so that we are all on the same page. You could define it as, "Confidence in one's own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others." Pretty horrible sounding, right? No one exemplified this brand of self-righteousness more than the Pharisees in the New Testament. Jesus' rebuke of them is quite telling:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matt. 23:27-28)
If there were ever anyone to teach us how to paint a portrait of self-righteousness, it's definitely these guys. So! Let's jump in! Get your brushes out! The first thing we must add is a stroke of slander.
A Stroke of Slander
In Matthew 12:22-24, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man. Immediately there is a contrast between the way the crowds and the Pharisees responded. The crowds cry out:
"This man cannot be the Son of David, can He?" (Matt. 12:23)
This is a reference to the Messiah. The title, "Son of David," was a Messianic title. In order for someone to make a legitimate claim as the Messiah, he must have been from the line of David (2 Sam. 7:12). In fact, this is how Matthew begins his Gospel account:
"The genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham." (Matt. 1:1)
Beyond His genealogical claims, He also demonstrated what the prophet Isaiah wrote:
"Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy." (Isaiah 35-5-6)
It wasn't out of line for the crowds to react this way. In fact, they would be crazy to not ask this question. The Pharisees, on the other hand, did not have the same reaction:
"But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, 'This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.'" (Matt. 12:24)
It is interesting, as a side note, that they do not outright deny that a miracle has taken place. It would be crazy to do so. So they take an even lower shot and essentially call Jesus demonic. They slander Him, the perfect Son of God.
Now, it would not be challenging to convince most people that slander is wrong. The real question to consider is, "Why do we do it in the first place?" Consider this:
"Self-righteous people want to be in control, and they use slander to discredit anyone who threatens them."
The Pharisees were the leading authority on Jewish religious matters long before the New Testament era, and they had the largest following out of any of the groups within Judaism, and when Jesus came on the scene and drew the kind of attention He drew, it was a direct threat to their authority and power. If Jesus were the Messiah (spoiler: He is), then surely He would render them obsolete. So they used slander to discredit Him and His works in order to try and maintain control. So here is the first question you need to consider: Do you use slander to try and discredit others around you so that people will stop listening to them and listen to you? If so, you have some self-righteousness to put to death. The first step in painting a portrait of self-righteousness is adding a stroke of slander.
A Brush of Skepticism
What's the next step? Add a brush of skepticism. Later in the narrative, after seeing the miracles and slandering Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes comes to Jesus and ask Him:
"Teacher, we want to see a sign from You." (Matt. 12:38)
You would think the miracles they had already seen would be enough, and truthfully, you'd be right. No amount of signs would convince the Pharisees, and there is an important reason.
They actually really weren't skeptical at all.
I want you to consider this:
"Self-righteousness and skepticism cannot exist together at the same time."
Why? Because at the center of skepticism is the reality that a decision cannot be made until more evidence is presented. If I am skeptical of God's existence, I am unwilling to say one way or the other that I believe because I have not yet seen enough evidence. Once enough evidence has been presented I can then make my decision. But at the core of self-righteousness is the belief that I have all the answers, and therefore I don't need any evidence because I've already decided what is right and what is not.
Perhaps more troubling is that this kind of self-righteousness happens today too, only in the church. You will hear of people leaving their church to go somewhere else where, "more signs" are emphasized. You will hear people speak of their Christian walk and lament, "I wish God would do more miracles! I need to be in a place where miracles are happening!" It's self-righteous thinking. Here's why.
God tells us that everything we need to be followers of Jesus capable of every work God has in store for us is found in the Word of God. Paul writes to Timothy:
"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis added)
In the Scripture, God has made known to us all that there is to know about Him, us, the state of the world, and the way of redemption. As Christians we are to "let the Word of Christ dwell richly within us" (Col. 3:16). There is a word that perfectly describes Scripture in the life of a believer.
It is enough for us. Please, Christian, hear me: "The Word of God is enough for you." So when we emphasize experiencing something over the wealth and treasure found in the Scripture, it is self-righteous, because we are saying that we know our spiritual needs better than God does, and that is simply not true. Are you skeptical of the changing and transformative power of God's Word? If so, you know what that means: self-righteousness strikes again. So, the portrait is coming together! A stroke of slander and a brush of skepticism, and you have yourself one heck of an ugly portrait.
A Coat of Stubbornness
We've worked hard so far on this beauty, and as any painting, we want it to last as long as possible, and the only way that happens is by putting a nice finishing coat on it, and what better way to keep things from changing than to add a little stubbornness to the mix? Stubbornness characterized this, "wicked and adulterous generation" better than almost anything (Matt. 12:39). In Acts 7:51, Stephen tells them:
"You stubborn people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit." (Acts 7:51)
Now, in this Matthew passage, Jesus is setting up a connection here between Himself and Jonah. consider the similarities.
1. They were both prophets
2. They both preached a message of repentance and God's coming judgment
3. They were both in the belly of something for three days and three nights
4. They both had audiences that were despised by the Jewish majority
Jesus and Jonah were very similar, and yet, Jesus is greater because of some marked differences between the two.
1. Jonah's message protected his audience from physical death. Jesus' message led His audience to eternal life.
2. Jonah was in the belly of a sea monster. Jesus was in the belly of the earth.
3. Jonah was only a prophet. Jesus was not only a prophet, but the Messiah and Son of God.
4. The men of Nineveh repented. The Pharisees did not.
That last one is why Jesus says:
"The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matt. 12:41)
The stubbornness of the Pharisees is exemplified by the fact that they did not repent. They did not listen. Even the hated Assyrians listened to Jonah, and Jesus is far greater. If you want to never change, never repent, never see the problem of your sin, always blame others, never let God transform you, then all you need is a nice, coat of stubbornness over the strokes of slander and the brushes of skepticism.
The Painting Under the Painting
Recently, I read a story about a Picasso painting called The Blue Room. The story was that through the years, people have suspected that there was a painting under it. Some of the brush strokes didn't line up, and it wasn't uncommon for painters to paint over paintings that they didn't love because supplies were not cheap and hard to come by. With modern technology, this was proven true. Picasso had indeed painted what appeared to be a self-portrait and then painted his well-known Blue Room over it.
I began thinking about that, and something came to me. The Scriptures teach that every person has self-righteousness in their nature. The testimony of the fall in Genesis 3 and the effects of sin in every person described in Romans 3 is clear, and it is actually the self-righteous mindset that led to those events unfolding to begin with. The serpent said:
"You will be like God." (Gen. 3:5)
That was enough for the first man and woman to rebel against their Creator and the effects are still pummeling us today. But then, the New Testament delivers some incredible news! The Apostle Paul writes:
"Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." (2 Cor. 5:17)
But then, you find other places where Paul dictates some more, not-so-great news:
"For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want." (Rom. 7:18-19).
Again, he writes:
"Oh wretched man that I am! Who deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24)
He presents this epic struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, the law and grace, death and life. It's almost like we are this horrible, hideous portrait that has been painted over with a beautiful new picture, but that sometimes the brush strokes of the old show through the new. If we choose to live by the Spirit, the beauty of Christ shines through us like a brand new, incredible work of art. But, if we choose to live by the flesh, those old brush strokes get pretty visible. There is a great future promise, however, for those who are in Christ. Right now, we have the same old canvas with the new painting over it, but in the future, everything is made new and we will be given new bodies (2 Cor. 5:1-10).
Until then you have a choice: Live by the Spirit or walk in self-righteousness. What will you choose?