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More Than Skin Deep

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                                               More Than Skin Deep

Text: Matthew 23:25-28 (NIV)

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.



The greatest danger in religion is to look the part, but not have any real inward change. Any religion that only affects the outside is useless. There greatest illustration of this is Hollywood. Actors play the part of a certain character and soon we come to identify them with the role they play. We see an actor by the name of Ron Howard and all that comes to mind is the character of Opie Taylor from the Andy Griffith show, or Richie Cunningham from Happy days. The actor plays a role and soon becomes so identified with that role that people can’t separate the person from the role.

The same goes true for those in religious matters. People get so accustomed to playing a role that it becomes difficult for us, and even them sometimes, to tell the difference between the role they are playing and the person they actually are. Just as actors make it their business to be someone they’re not, so do many in the church. Some are sincere in their desire to change, but they find that after all the effort they put in to playing the part, they are not really changed on the inside. The problem is that they try to change themselves instead of letting God change them. They take God’s word as their script and try to apply it to themselves, but with little inward change. The problem is in their application of God’s word. They try to apply it themselves instead of letting God do it. 

In our scripture today, Jesus confronts those who have made it their business to be religious, but have only made a superficial application of the law. God desires to make a supernatural application of the law, so instead of playing the part, we will actually be what He intends on the inside. Our religion has to be more than skin deep.

Have you tried to follow God’s word and found that it is powerless in your life? We cannot be what God wants us to be with a superficial application of the law because it is ineffective. We need a supernatural application of the law. Let’s take a look at why a superficial application of the law is ineffective.

I.                   The Superficial Application of the Law is Ineffective Because:

A. It is man-made. When the man tries to apply the law to himself or others it can not make any real change. You cannot legislate morality. Man has tried it for centuries and has met with failure time and time again. Prohibition tried to stop the flow of liquor in this country, but it was ineffective. Men continued to break the law, and finally, after millions of dollars spent trying to enforce it, prohibition had to admit defeat. You can’t legislate morality. 

*** There is a story told by Newsweek magazine that illustrates this truth. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah existed in heaven before God created the world. The parchment scrolls, containing the first five books of the Bible, are the most cherished objects in Jewish life. Their value is not merely religious: Torahs cost from $10,000 to $20,000, since each must be hand‑lettered by scribes, a process that takes at least a year. Since January, 88 Torahs have been stolen from fourteen New York City synagogues; another 50 have vanished elsewhere in the nation. To stem the thefts, a national computer registry, based on an identifying code stamped invisibly on the scrolls, will begin this month.

   Jewish authorities, in collaboration with Talmudic scholars, struggled to come up with a system that would not violate stringent religious laws governing the handling of the sacred scrolls. Their ingenious solution uses no letters or numerals, which are forbidden, but an array of dots, which is visible only under infrared light and cannot be erased. Investigators speculate that the scrolls are stolen for sale to unsuspecting congregations in Israel, South America or the southwestern United States. Jewish community leaders believe they will be able to put the profiteers out of business if all U.S. congregations log their Torahs, and all potential buyers get on the 24‑hour hot line to the Brooklyn‑based Universal Torah Registry before putting down any cash. No one, they are confident, would wittingly buy a stolen Torah. After all, as Sgt. Joseph Leake of the New York City Police Department's Bias Incident Investigating Unit puts it, "A Torah is the one item that's got to be kosher."

Writing the laws on paper does no good. The law needs to be written on the heart. A man-made law is only as strong as the desire it takes to overcome that law. Man cannot change the desires that drive men to oppose the law; therefore the law cannot be enforced. Change the desire, and the law will need no enforcement. As long as man tries to make and enforce his own laws, he will meet with failure, because he cannot erase the desires that are behind the breaking of the law. The crime rate gives testimony to this as more and more laws are passed, yet the crime rate continues to soar.  

Not only is the superficial application of the law ineffective because it is a man-made application, but it is also ineffective because: B. It works from the outside in. Any law that works on exteriors only cannot be effective. Too many church people are so concerned with appearances, but they forget that appearances are not everything. Appearances can be deceiving.           M. Scott Peck talks about those who try to live by outward appearances. He calls them the “people of the lie.”  

*** Utterly dedicated to preserving their self‑image of perfection, they are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them. They dress well, go to work on time, pay the taxes, and outwardly seem to live lives that are above reproach.

   The words "image," "appearance," and "outwardly" are crucial to understanding the morality of the evil. While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their "goodness" is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. That is why they are the "people of the lie."

   Actually, the lie is designed not so much to deceive others as to deceive themselves. They cannot or will not tolerate the pain of self‑reproach.

The Pharisees were concerned with the ritual of religion, but not the righteousness of religion. Any holiness that is only surface holiness is not holiness at all, but is a lie. 

The superficial application of the law is ineffective because it is man-made, and it tries to work from the outside in, and also because: C.   It fosters hypocritical worship. Jesus condemns the hypocritical worship of the pharisees that has resulted from their superficial application of the law. He says that they worship with their mouth, but not with their heart. Their worship has become worthless in the sight of God. 

***A man sat down to supper with his family, saying grace, thanking God for the food, for the hands which prepared it, and for the source of all life. But during the meal he complained about the freshness of the bread, the bitterness of the coffee and the sharpness of the cheese. His young daughter questioned him, "Dad, do you think God heard the grace today?"

   He answered confidently, "Of course."

   Then she asked, "And do you think God heard what you said about the coffee, the cheese, and the bread?” Not so confidently, he answered, "Why, yes, I believe so."

   The little girl concluded, "Then which do you think God believed, Dad?"

   The man was suddenly aware that his mealtime prayer had become rote, thoughtless habit rather than an attentive and honest conversation with God. By not concentrating on that important conversation, he had left the door open to let hypocrisy sneak in.

How easy it is to rehearse practiced words and say a lie. In fact, if the truth were known, there are probably more lies sung from the pews and the pages of the hymn book every Sunday than we would perhaps like to believe. Making a surface application of the law is an open avenue for hypocrisy to sneak into worship.

The superficial application of the law is ineffective because it is man-made, and it works from the outside in, and it because it fosters hypocrisy in worship, but also because D. It stands in time looking back. It looks to what has been done in the past. The Jews looked back on what God had done in the past. They lived their lives according to what God had done and as time passed, they attached tradition upon tradition to what God had delivered to them. 

The law was not meant to stand in time looking back, but it was intended to look ahead.

The Jews looked back on the trail of history and dropped crumbs of tradition along the way. They were all the time dropping the crumbs, and missed the crumbs of prophesy that God was dropping through history by way of His prophets. By looking back and dropping crumb after crumb, they failed to look ahead and pick up the crumbs left by God. Because of this, many failed to follow the path of history to the Messiah.

The law needs more than a superficial application to our lives to allow us to look ahead.  We can not live in a past tense spiritual life. 

The last reason that a superficial application of the law is ineffective is because E. It seeks to judge others. Instead of trying to work inward, it projects itself outward onto the lives of others. If the outward appearance of the law they apply to themselves is not recognized in others, they assume an inner pollution. It is ironic that those who are most concerned with the outward show of the law are the ones most likely to judge the heart of others by the same law.

*** The story is told of Mr. Jones who picked up the wrong umbrella in a hotel lobby and was about to walk out when the rightful owner called attention to his mistake. Embarrassed, he offered his apologies. Finding his own, he went on his way.

   The incident, however, reminded him that he had promised to buy both his wife and daughter an umbrella. To his delight he found that a local store nearby had them on sale, so he bought two. Just as he was getting into his car with his unwrapped purchases, he saw the man he had encountered earlier. He was eyeing him suspiciously. Seeing the three umbrellas hooked over his arm, the stranger exclaimed sarcastically, "I see you had a good day after all!" Although Mr. Jones blushed, he was not guilty of any wrongdoing.

   Things are not always what they appear to be on the surface. Beware of the sin of misjudging others!

We have seen that the superficial application of the law is ineffective because it is man-made and it seeks to work from the outside. It fosters hypocritical worship, looks to a past experience of God, and looks to judge others. Instead of a superficial application of the law, we need a supernatural application of the law.

II.        The supernatural application of the law is effective because:

A.  It is God-made. Talking of the pharisees, Jesus said that those who aren’t planted by God will be uprooted. The implication is that those planted by God will remain. The work done in us must be done by God if it is to be effective. John 15: 4 says “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” God must be the one who works in us. We cannot do it ourselves. It must be God Paul says “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13 NASB), and “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom.  8:7-8 KJV). Apart from God, we are not able to make the application of the law in such a way as to erase the opposition to God we have in our hearts. The superficial application of the law is ineffective because it is man-made, but the supernatural application is effective because it is God who does the work.

Also, the supernatural application of the law is effective because: B. It works from the inside out. "But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jer 31:33 NASB) When God applies the word to the heart it really changes a man. It is not just appearances that change, but the impulse that drives man to sin changes. The drive to sin is replaced with a desire to please God. When we try to apply the law to ourselves, we just end up trying our hardest to be good. When we allow God to apply the Word to our hearts, He transforms our heart and enables us to be good. It is not so much that we are not able to sin, but that we are able not to sin. It is not in our own power, but it is God working in us.

*** In a 3rd‑century debate on Christianity, Celsus said to Origen, "When most teachers go forth to teach, they cry, 'Come to me, you who are clean and worthy,' and they are followed by the highest caliber of people available. But your silly master cries, 'Come to me, you who are down and beaten by life,' and so he accumulates around him the rag, tag and bobtail of humanity."

   And Origen replied: "Yes, they are the rag, tag and bobtail of humanity. But Jesus does not leave them that way. Out of material you would have thrown away as useless, he fashions men, giving them back their self‑respect, enabling them to stand on their feet and look God in the eyes. They were cowed, cringing, broken things. But the Son has set them free.

The supernatural application of the law is effective also because: C. It fosters harmonious worship. Jesus said "an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. (John 4:23 NASB) "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24 NASB). If our spirit and motivations are not right, then our actions, no matter how religious they appear, are worthless when we come to worship the Lord. If we are to worship in spirit and truth, we need to have a supernatural application of the law upon our hearts and allow God to change us into the kind of people who can bring honor and glory to His name. When God rules in our lives as He wants to, our worship is not just a Sunday experience, but it spills out into the whole week, and our entire lives become an act of worship to Him. The one vital truth of worship is that man cannot worship God properly on his own, but needs God’s help in effecting change that the worship offered might be acceptable to the one it is meant to please.

Not only is our worship made pleasing to God, but it brings fulfillment to our own lives because we were made to worship Him.

Another reason that the supernatural application of the law is effective is because D. It stands in time looking ahead. Instead of looking back at what God has done in the past and dropping crumbs of tradition along the way; adding an interpretive letter to the law, God applies the law to our hearts in a way that allows us to live by the spirit of the law instead of the letter. We are freed from traditions that might have been valid in the place and time where they were written, but in times passage, they become outdated or they simply don’t apply to the conditions as they exist later on. The pharisees had become so bound by tradition that they could not see that the letter of the law was killing what the law was in spirit, meant to do. We face the future, not the past as we meet each new situation, not with the oldness of the letter, but the newness of the spirit, not building tradition, but reaching out to each circumstance as it comes, applying the spirit of the law, not the letter. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. (Rom 7:6 NASB). We grab each moment with a newness and freshness that brings vitality to our lives as we look to God moment by moment.

So, we’ve seen that when we allow God to apply the Word to our hearts, it is effective because He is its Author, and He works from the inside out, and because it allows true worship to take place as we face each moment afresh. Also, it is effective because instead of focusing our attention on others and judging them, it focuses the attention on ourselves, and E. It seeks to make us judge ourselves. This is the hardest part of the operation for us to handle. When God turns our attention to the inward man of the heart and holds up his Word as a mirror for us to look into, sometimes we don’t like what we see. It takes courage to really look at ourselves. It is so much easier to turn our attention outward and measure others than it is to look inside and see that we really don’t measure up. 

***There is a story that shows how easy it is to overlook our own failures and sins while criticizing the faults in others! In fact, our judgment may reflect our own flaws, which usually are more serious than those we see in someone else.

   A woman named Ruth Knowlton told how she came to see this truth. The building across the alley was only a few feet away, and she could easily look into her neighbor's apartment. Ruth had never met the woman who lived there, but she could see her as she sewed and read each afternoon. After several months, she noticed that the figure by the window had become indistinct. She couldn't understand why the woman didn't wash her windows.

   One sunny day Ruth decided to do some housecleaning, including washing her own windows. Later that day, she sat down to rest by the window. To her amazement, she could clearly and distinctly see her neighbor sitting by her window. Ruth said to herself, "Well, finally she washed her windows!" By now you've guessed what really happened: Ruth's own windows were the ones that needed washing.


   Helen Good Brenneman, well‑known devotional writer, speaks of the need of kindness: "There was once a man who had a heart transplant but the operation was a total failure. For the man was a mean man and the heart was a kind heart. His body simply rejected it. The Bible tells us, however, of a heart transplant that was successful. 'And I will give them a new heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take out the stony heart. I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. And they shall be my people and I will be their God.'" (Ezek 11:19‑20)

We simply cannot be good on our own. If we try to follow the law by the letter we fail on several counts. First of all, it is a man-made attempt and doomed to fail, it tries to work from the outside in but only results in hypocritical worship and judging others. It is tied to efforts in the past as traditions are tied to the letter of the past whether they apply to current circumstances or not. We need to allow God to write the law upon our hearts so that we can worship Him in spirit and in truth. Don’t back up from letting God search your heart. Open your heart to Him and let Him write His law upon your heart.


[1] The Holy Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984.

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