Is your church full of hypocrites? Maybe you’ve heard that saying: ‘The church is full of hypocrites.’ Look around. You [singular] sit in a church. You [singular] gather with familiar faces. What do you think? Is your church full of hypocrites?
Give careful thought to your answer because this issue does affect worship. This is why you read on Facebook: ‘I believe in God, but I’m not a Christian.’ This is why you hear on the news report: ‘People are spiritual, but not religious.’ Understand, oftentimes those who say these things tend to have legitimate concerns. If people outside of church claim ‘the church is full of hypocrites’ and we are inside the church, then we want to examine how they reach that answer.
So, to gain understanding we turn to Romans 15:4-13. There, God highlights the core of Christianity and its impact on life. These words demand careful thought and honest reflection. They allow us to begin answering that question— maybe not as you want it answered, but as others need it answered. May Scripture Give Us True Hope in appreciating our unity from God and in strengthening our unity with believers.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. That’s is the number-one purpose of Scripture: to show Jesus, your Savior (John 20:30-31). The tremendous truth of standing without guilt before God is scribbled on every single page. Adam and Eve— people who lived in former times, that is, in the Old Testament— clutched the guarantee of the devil-Slayer (Genesis 3:15). Moses, who lived centuries before Christmas, looked ahead to the day when Jesus would stand on earth and speak as God (Deuteronomy 18:15). Jeremiah and Daniel traced out David’s family tree, watching that little sprout stretch on (Jeremiah 23:5-6; Daniel 7:13-14). So many believers watched for the King who would ride a donkey into Jerusalem, loaded down with their guilt, riding onward to die but then rising! (Zechariah 9:9-10; Isaiah 53). Scripture reveals promises made and promises kept! God used that Scripture to tie your heart to the results of Jesus’ work. God has created in you the conviction, the trust to believe that everything Jesus said and did, he said and did for your benefit!
Still, Scripture does something more: it teaches perseverance and encouragement. Here— God’s not talking about persevering through illness or financial hardship. He’s talking about dealing with each other, fellow believers. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You are not the only Christian in the entire world. All who trust in Jesus as Savior are bound to the one God. That means we each have something in common. You and I live united to God! Even though we share this same faith, you and I are not exact clones of each other! I may not have the same interests as you do and you may not have the same personality as I do. Your standing in the community might not be my standing in the community. My expectations might not be your expectations. Your education is not my education. We may be Christian, but you and I are vastly different from each other!
Because we are different, we will act in different ways. We will act in line with our personality. Some can focus even with children running around, others find it difficult to concentrate with extra noise. You may expect those in worship to sing or follow along, but others may feel uncomfortable doing just that. He might have trouble reading. She might sing off-key and does not want to stand out. I might expect you to have no arguments because you are patient, and have no strife in marriage because you’re forgiving, and that you regularly set aside the best offering you can, and that you trust God in every dilemma— but maybe you’re not there yet. You’re working hard to control a fiery temper, and you know that those marriage problems are partly your fault and you’re addressing them. Your expectations are still growing and my expectations for your needs are still growing too. We have different personalities and different expectations, but still live united to the same Savior.
Unity to Christ trumps every personality difference. Forget this— and you begin emphasizing differences. You (and I) start ranking and enforcing behavior according to personal preference. When one personality stands above another, that is called ‘superiority.’ Superiority never unites, it divides.
Superiority expects everyone to conform to a made-up standard. The religious leaders (from Matthew 3:7-10) strut out towards John for one reason: to look superior. They dressed better, they read more of the Bible, they gave more money— not out of love for God. Rather, their comparison chart was a made-up tool in order to look pleasing in God’s sight. They were hypocrites! They did not worship for the right reason; they do not gather in church not to hear about their need for a Savior. They gather because they thought they could do the Savior’s work! All God saw was a brood of vipers slithering around still soiled and stained with guilt.
What God sees can be seen by others. Is your church full of hypocrites? We gather for the wrong reason if we demand others to conform to our personal preferences. We gather for the wrong reason if we forget that we still desperately need the forgiveness from Jesus. Let’s not lose sight on the reason we gather here.
Let us welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. That’s more than just shaking hands or flashing a smile-wave. Literally: welcome one another just as you welcome your close group of friends. Why? Why be patient with those who might be irritating? Because Christ welcomed you into his group.
Christ welcomed you because of who he is and not because of who you are. Jesus does not embrace you because you have a perfect marriage with two well-behaved children and live in a country house with a white-picket fence. He does not praise you because at least you are not a child molester or a drug dealer, or that you have higher morals than the abuser. In fact, verse 7 makes absolutely no reference to your character at all. It simply says: Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) He flushed pride out of the heart. He removed any need to try to appear superior. He poured purity into our hearts. That is the reason you (and I) can glorify God today. Because Christ has welcomed you. May Scripture Give Us True Hope as we appreciate God uniting us to himself.
That unity to Christ is we see in each other first and foremost. As we see that, it will produce a response. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. For centuries the Jews held the promises of a Savior. God spoke to their ancestors. They held God’s written Word. God sent prophets to proclaim his Word. Everything God promised about the birth of Jesus, his life, his death and resurrection, happened just as God said it would! Yet, God did not intend Jesus for one people-group only. Jesus came for both Jew and non-Jew [Gentile].
That was always God’s plan. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” Aren’t you doing that now? You praise God. On a day many have off, you woke up [earlier], got dressed, and arrived here; you demonstrate God’s high priority in your life. You support the existence of this building; its mere presence preaches that God is found here. You praise God among the many people in your community.
You do even more. Again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” You do not keep Jesus only to yourself, but invite others. You want others to find real answers in the midst of the swirling chaos of life. You want others to find real peace. Realize that invitations take deliberate effort. To call that one person you have not seen in worship. To approach that friend who searches for life’s meaning. To talk with your child so that he anchors spirituality to its Source. What can you say? Well, what is the message in verse 11? ‘Rejoice.’ That’s the message! ‘Come, worship with me this Christmas. I’ll be there. We’ll go through service together. Come and grasp the real peace Jesus brings, a peace the world cannot give.’
As we shine the light on Jesus, God will bind more to himself. Again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” Hasn’t that happened? I have worshipped with new faces each year. Some of you are here because of your parents. Others because of a friend. Still others move here. You are different than I am and I am different than you. Yet, we unite around the one Savior. You (and I) are a fulfillment of this promise.
And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” That is why you (and I) are here. To live under the umbrella of God’s ‘hope.’ Now, when God promises ‘hope’, it does not mean ‘something unsure.’ God does not say, ‘You’ll never know if you got into heaven until you get there.’ Hope does not suggest uncertainty. Instead, ‘hope’ means ‘confidence.’ We can point at some object and label it our ‘hope.’ For example, America’s military is our ‘hope’ of defense. There’s nothing uncertain about that. The military has the ability to defend me from foreign threats. They are my ‘hope,’ my ‘confidence’ for safety. God, in his Word, makes certain that he will provide strength as we keep pointing each other to Jesus. As we gather around Jesus, our Hope, we strengthen our unity with believers.
So, is your church full of hypocrites? Look around. You [singular] sit in a church. You [singular] gather with familiar faces. What do you think?
The answer starts with you. What is the reason you are here? Church does not exist in order to hold each other to a manmade standard. Nothing is gained by looking superior. The one thing we share in common is the fact that none of us stands superior before God. Scripture Gives Us True Hope by pointing each of us to Jesus. We gather here to appreciate our unity from God.
May that move us to live aware of our behavior. When that remains our key focus, then those on the outside will not see a church fighting for feelings of superiority. They will see a group of people who recognize a need for a Savior and want to share that same need filled with the world. By our words and actions the unity among ourselves and with those who will believe will only grow stronger.
In these days before Christmas, May Scripture Give Us True Hope as we work together for the sole purpose of welcoming Christ to the world.
“We’re thankful you are here. After all, we are not that big. We used to be, but many are now gone. There’s not always many on Sunday morning. Someone young like you probably wants more activities. I’m sure one day you’ll be promoted into a larger church.” Those words have hit my ears probably half-a-dozen times each year for the past several years. (And I’m sure I will hear them again.) In those words you find genuine appreciation. Words aware of the past. Words dotted with fear. Why the fear?
You see, when we evaluate ‘church,’ we can find ourselves focusing on nonessential features. That happens when we carry a faulty definition of ‘church.’ So, let’s ask: Is Your Definition of ‘Church’ Right? In Isaiah’s prophecy God highlights two key features to find in this place. (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides and (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.
In order to find these features, we must first define [the word]: ‘church.’ The Bible defines that one little word in two very different ways. You discover both definitions here.
The first definition is what we typically call ‘church-spelled-with-a little-‘c’ (or, the [little-‘c’]hurch). The ‘[little-‘c’]hurch are the churchy items your eyes see. You see a building, an altar, and pews— furnishings associated with a church. You see individual people inside. You see a group of people, also known as a congregation. You see a pastor, Bibles, a message. Your eyes see a religious organization serving people. That’s the [little-‘c’]hurch, the visible church.
Isaiah sees that too. He sees Solomon’s magnificent temple. Glistening white columns tower overhead. Imposing bronze altars consume sacrifices. Smoky incense wafts into the heavens. Isaiah sees people stream into the temple courtyard with animal-sacrifice in hand. He sees priests reading from the books of Moses [the first five of the Bible]. Isaiah sees what you (and I) see: a [little-‘c’]hurch, a visible church.
God is not happy with this sight. Yes, masses stream to the temple—but they arrive for all the wrong reasons. Some come out of empty-minded habit. They stand in the courtyard, the priest reads Scripture, and they stare out the window, daydreaming about the house projects to do after the sacrifice. Others? Well, on the way out the door, they grab the first animal they see, drag it along so that they do not stand empty-handed when it is their turn to give their gift. Still others treat the temple like a good-luck charm. That God must protect Israel because he depends on the existence of this temple. Here stands a [little-‘c’], visible church, but what goes on inside is not good. God is not interested with simple, outward actions. God desires sincere inner motives. So he says: I will choose harsh treatment for them… For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened (Isaiah 66:4). God makes it abundantly clear: the temple exists for God to come to Israel, not Israel coming to God.
Do you catch that? The existence of this [little-‘c’], visible church is not what you do for God. It is not about what you want found here. The [little-‘c’], visible church exists for God to come to you.
Still, inside each of us lies this little ego that seizes the opportunity to make church suit me. I just want everyone to see me step foot into a church. Then I look pretty moral, pretty respectable, pretty trustworthy before my community. I gain pride by being here. I want this place jammed-packed so that I look like I am part of some large movement. Then I feel popular, well-liked, well-respected. I come here Sunday mornings because this is my routine. This is my habit. I might forget every hymn by the end of the day. I cannot remember a lick of what the Pastor taught. But I can point to my church attendance; I can feel good that I do my part. Yes, that ego is even the reason we feel sad inside when what is seen does not match expectations. I want a certain-looking church so that my selfish wish-list is satisfied. At its very core I am ordering God to meet my wants, when the purpose for church is me receiving from God.
So, listen again to verses 10-11: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” You realize that God does not describe the [little-‘c’], visible church here. No. God is using another definition for ‘church.’ This ‘Jerusalem’ is not describing a city on a map. Rather, it pictures every believer gathering in one family of faith (Galatians 4:21-31). We call this the capital, [big-‘C’]hurch. The [big-‘C’]hurch is seen with eyes. The [big-‘C’]hurch is faith.
God uses this [little-‘c’], visible church in order to bring you into his [big-‘C’]hurch. After all, here you receive from God. Just like an infant receives rich nutrients from his mother so that he may grow and remain healthy, you receive God’s Word meant to make you spiritually alive, strong, and healthy.
Sometimes you receive words meant to cut you (and me) down. Words that strip away self-righteous pride: I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine (Psalm 50:9-10). Words that inscribe what God demands from us: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21) because God wants the heart (Psalm 51:17). Yes, you receive words meant to strip away pride. Because when pride is gone, you can see Jesus here.
You can see Jesus come to you and assure you that he has wiped away the demands you made of him. That he has washed you in the waters of baptism. That he has clothed you with his innocent life. That he has set you on the lap of his Father and that the Father cradles you as his adopted child.
That is the right definition of ‘church.’ Here, in this visible building, God comes to you individually so that you can (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides. That you receive spiritual nourishment from the Word. Then when you leave here, you can (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.
For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.” Do you see what you receive? Peace. Do you know what that means? Peace is God standing at-one with you. He does not turn his back, he faces you. He does not plug his ears because you broke your promises to quit doing wrong, he declares your shame removed. You can point at heaven and say, “That’s my home! I know that because God says it!” You can pray and say, “Amen! God hears me because he says he hears me!” You can confront struggles head on, saying, “God does not stand against me, but with me, because he extends peace to me!” Here, in this [little-‘c’], visible church you hear ‘peace.’ Those words hit your heart and keep you in God’s [big-‘C’]hurch. Since you stand at peace with God, your life flourishes.
God does not stop there. He takes his peace and combines it with comfort. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. That is good. The devil will always try to convince you that what matters most about church is what is seen. That’s why you feel down at times, the devil tries to convince you that God lacks power. The devil knows that if he throws you into despair, then the Word does not sound so appealing. Then your time here is not spent growing, but rather spent holding onto past memories of what you once had. Yes, the devil knows that if he can get your mind off of the one thing church is all about, then he has gained the upper hand.
So, seize the upper hand back from him— and you can because Jesus has won. That, my friends, is something Satan has no answer for. He never will have an answer. Because the moment Christ cried out on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ it sealed the devil’s defeat forever. When Christ rose from the dead, he could sigh: ‘Peace be with you’ and the devil could not change the impact of those words. Everything written in Scripture is just another stinging reminder that the devil lost. It does not matter what is seen here, but rather what is heard here. When that Word is proclaimed here, the devil repeatedly hears his defeat.
Set your sights on God’s Word of comfort that tells you the way things truly are. Then you will flourish from the comfort God extends. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants…
Yet, there remains one final line, and it’s almost easy to gloss over it. [H]e shall show his indignation against his enemies. In the midst of this magnificent fanfare stands a sobering reminder: God will punish those who stand opposed to him; he will damn every nonbeliever to hell. That is not a pleasant message. It does not feel right to say that. It sounds harsh. It feels wrong to think that your neighbor, your child, your spouse could go to hell.
Realize that God makes this truth clear so that we can lead others to the comfort God extends to them. Last Thursday, you celebrated your freedom to do just that. The United States of America protects the freedom of religion. That means, you can bring others to your [little-‘c’]hurch so that God can bring them into his [big-‘C’]hurch, his family of believers. The words spoken here are what matters most.
That’s what makes this place so special. The world tends to examine churches by what is seen. Even we look for people, for activity, for success. Yet, that is not what God emphasizes in a church. He uses this place to bring his Word into many hearts, and he works through the Word to bring people into his family of believers.
So, back to those phrases.“We used to be big, but not so much anymore. Someone young like you probably wants more activities. I’m sure one day you’ll be promoted into a larger church.” No. That is not what I look for here. That is not important in life. What matters is that God’s Word is here. That’s what we look for. That’s what we cherish. That is the reason we are here. Let’s keep the Definition of ‘Church’ Right. Here you: (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides and (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.