I was reminded today, as I read from Acts 22, a statement that Jesus made to the religious leaders as he was teaching them and trying to explain to them how far they had strayed from what God really wanted for them. He quoted Isaiah and said of them:
These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.Matthew 15:8
The Jews had wandered far from what God had desired of them. They knew God’s commands and many times would follow them, but they would look for ways to get ahead at the expense of other people. In the example that Jesus used in Matthew 15, he said that they would call something or some sum of money “devoted to God” instead of using it for their mother or father to help them in their time of need. By calling it “devoted”, it was allowed to stay in their bank account, or allowed to stay with them instead of giving it to their loved ones in their time of need. This clearly showed that they were saying that they were honoring God, but their actions did not at all prove that to be the case.
I was reminded of this because of what I read in Acts 22 today. A rioting crowd of Jews had just seized Paul and were going to kill him except that the Roman soldiers came to arrest him, which in effect saved Paul’s life. Except now, Paul asks to speak to the crowd. He wants to attempt to share his story with them to appeal to them to hear what God is truly doing.
First, he speaks to them in the Hebrew language, showing that he is one of them.
Next, he speaks of being raised there in Jerusalem under the tutelage of the great Gamaliel, trained in the law and zealous for it to the point of persecuting those who belonged to the Way, those that even they are persecuting now.
In other words, he is trying to tell them that he is like them, and even more! He has been down the same path that they are on now.
But then he says that Jesus appeared to him, made him blind but able to see a new reality. As he was praying, Jesus spoke to him and said that he would be used to go amongst all of the peoples. God would use Paul to take the message, to take the Gospel to all of the nations.
“‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”Acts 22:19-21
And this is precisely the point at which the Jews begin to protest so much that they begin throwing dirt and sand into the air saying that Paul is no longer fit to live. He should be killed.
How did the Jewish people’s hearts go so far from God’s heart and his desires? Yes, they are attempting to honor God with their lips, but their hearts, and therefore their actions are so far away from what God wants.
God’s intention from the very beginning of the formation of the nation of Israel has been that God would give blessing so that the blessing would reach people all across the face of the earth. The Jews look back to Abraham calling him their father, but they are forgetting the very thing that God had called Abraham to do. God’s intent was that he would use the Jews to reach the people of the earth. Instead of remembering this, the Jews believe that they are God’s only people on the earth.
Unfortunately, the attitude of the Jews is based on the belief that God is on their side. If if they would honor God and say that their life is about serving God, the truth is that they are really believing that God works and acts for them. What they are missing is that God is for God. Yes, that also means that God acts for the Jews, but he doesn’t act only for them. His intent is to act through them to reach all of the people on the earth. Instead of the Jews being the ends, they are the means through which God is working. Unfortunately, the Jews believe that they are the ends, not the means.
But are we any different? Don’t we do the exact same thing? As we sit in our churches without being obedient to do what God has asked us to do, to live in the way that God is asking us to live, aren’t our hearts actually far from Him? As we go to Bible studies or church potlucks, or whatever other kinds of church activities without being faithful to go and share our faith with others or make disciples among all nations as Jesus said to do, aren’t we forgetting that we are the means, not the end?
Yes, in fact, that is exactly what is frequently happening amongst us as believers. We are honoring God with our lips, but our hearts are far from him. How can I say that? Because Jesus said that if we love him, we will do what he says. Are we remaining close to him? Are we loving God and our neighbors with our whole being, with everything that we have? Are we sharing that love with others, telling them of what God has done and teaching them to walk in the way that Jesus laid out for us? Let’s make sure that we truly following God in the way that he wants so that, like the Jews, our religiosity will not one day be rejected.