Religion in Form Only
Outward show is no substitute for inner worth. Especially is this true in religion, for God looks upon the heart. Why, then, do some people practice religion but prove false to its power? Is the present boom in religion a sign of true faith or just a hollow fad? READ THIS ARTICLE AND THE ONE FOLLOWING.
WE ARE living in a world of outward appearances. Outward appearances are often deceptive. This can hardly be illustrated more strikingly than by the case of the Pharisees. After the return from Babylonian captivity, Pharisaism became the faith of the orthodox Jews; in Jesus’ day the profession of Pharisaism became very popular, even a fad. To be a Pharisee meant respectability. Outwardly the Pharisees appeared wholly righteous, indeed, the most religious of men. Always numbered in their ranks were men of sincerity and of the highest standing. Yet what do we find? That the Pharisees took a prominent part in plotting the death of Jesus. How can we explain that? By understanding that the Pharisees were religious faddists; they had religion in form but not in truth.
In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew we read how Jesus scathingly denounced these religious faddists: “All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards, and enlarge the fringes of their garments.” (Matt. 23:5, NW) These scripture-containing cases or phylacteries were leather cases containing strips of vellum on which were written the words of Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21. These phylacteries, worn on the forehead or on the arm, became an important appendage of the Pharisee’s appearance, so much so that some wore them ostentatiously broad. This was either that they might have the more written on them, or that, the characters being larger, they might be the more visible; thus they could acquire greater esteem among the people.
For this reason Jesus said to them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every kind of uncleanness. In that way you also, outwardly indeed, appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”—Matt. 23:27, 28, NW.
Just as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” is more dreadful to the unsuspecting flock, so those outwardly righteous religionists were a great source of peril to others. Jesus emphasized this by using another forceful illustration: “Woe to you, because you are as those memorial tombs which are not in evidence, so that men walk upon them and do not know it!” (Luke 11:44, NW) Since the law of Moses considered unclean those who had touched anything belonging to the dead, the Jews took care to have their tombs whitewashed each year, that, being easily discovered, they might be avoided. But the Pharisees—their uncleanness was not apparent, they were hidden graves, unsuspected tombs! The people stumbled on the Pharisees, not knowing they had touched death and were “defiled.”
Outward show but no inner worth: that was the religion of the Pharisees. They were the kind of religious faddists well described by Christ’s apostle as “men corrupted in mind and despoiled of the truth, thinking that godly devotion is a means of gain.” But not only the Pharisees were faddists. The entire Jewish nation was deeply religious; their form of godly devotion was highly impressive but inwardly their religion was hollow. Most of them stumbled on Jesus, rejecting him as the Messiah; not only that, but in the days of the prophets they showed that their godly devotion rested on a substratum of selfishness. So Jesus told the religious faddists: “You hypocrites, Isaiah aptly prophesied about you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, yet their hearts are far removed from me.’”—1 Tim. 6:5; Matt. 15:7, 8, NW.
The case of the religious faddists in Jesus’ day is most significant now. Why? Because Christ’s apostle foretold as a concrete sign of the last days of this present wicked system of things that there would be a boom in religion—pharisaical religion. Do we see it? Do we see multitudes of people who have religion in their confessions, their catechisms, their prayers, their songs, their books, their oaths and their mottoes but are yet destitute of the power of godly devotion? In short, do we see people who have religion in form but not in truth? For the views of prominent clergymen on these questions see the following article.