One theme that consistently appears throughout Scripture is how much mankind misunderstands God, what He values, and His expectations for His people. To overcome humanity’s misperceptions, God sends messengers throughout the ages – from Old Testament prophets to New Testament apostles – to clearly communicate His identity and truth. His effort to reach (and redeem) mankind with His message of repentance, reconciliation, and restoration culminates with the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
During the three-year ministry that precedes His death and resurrection, Jesus teaches, commands, encourages, instructs, and declares God’s Word on a range of subjects. He places particular emphasis on discipleship and what it means to trust and follow Him as Lord, using a variety of metaphors and parables to depict the lifestyle of His followers.
Jesus also models the attitudes, priorities, and behaviors of this lifestyle on a daily basis, to supplement and reinforce the truths He proclaims to His audience. In doing so He removes any ambiguity as to what a decision to follow Him requires. Casual observers and carefree listeners alike quickly learn that those who place their trust and faith in Christ necessarily undergo a radical lifestyle transformation. The magnitude of this impact is enormous, extending into and influencing every nook and cranny of a Christian’s life.
Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, modern Christianity, as practiced by an increasing number of churchgoers, fails to reflect Jesus’ lifestyle or incorporate many of His teachings. Its adherents suffer the same spiritual sickness that gripped religious predecessors who shared a common pedigree (the Old Testament nation of Israel and the Pharisees). Though the modern churchgoer claims Christ as Lord with his lips, too often his or her life does not mirror the example Jesus taught and lived.
Jesus renounced this inconsistency, calling those who practice it ‘Hypocrites’ and quoting the prophet Isaiah to describe their condition. “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15: 8-9, NKJV). This brief passage conveys several critical truths worth examining.
Jesus uses Isaiah’s portrayal of Israel to describe the Pharisees. They prayed to God, worshipped Him, and studied the Torah. That veneer of religion, however, failed to capture their true spiritual condition (as was the case with the Israelites before them). It simply masked reality. Absent a heart that desires the Lord’s presence and actively pursues His will and righteousness, faith does not exist – at least not in any authentic or meaningful capacity.
That’s why Paul emphasizes the heart when he tells believers in Rome, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus AND believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.” (Romans 10:9-10, NKJV; emphasis mine).
Paul informs his audience that a profession of faith in Christ is meaningless unless it springs from the heart, which leads one to pursue the righteousness of Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. This pursuit is not an effort to earn salvation (which we know is by grace alone) but a manifestation of genuine faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Absent that desire for and pursuit of holiness, one does not truly believe.
The churchgoer who mouths praise for God and claims Christ as Savior on Sunday morning but lives for himself the rest of the week possesses an untenable faith. It will fail on the last day when Christ returns. He will stand in disbelief when Jesus refuses him entry into heaven; he will weep in horror when he finally realizes his faith was constructed on sinking sand that the Living Water has washed away.
That a churchgoer who publically professes Jesus as Lord and actively serves in the church may not experience eternity with Christ is a difficult concept for us to digest. Yet Jesus makes it clear that such a scenario is not only possible but will be the reality faced by untold numbers of churchgoers on Judgment Day.
Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount with these words. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV, emphasis mine).
What’s so shocking about this passage is Jesus’ description of the people He refuses to grant access to heaven; those He casts into the lake of fire with its eternal darkness and suffering. They refer to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and have performed many works in His name, as well as enthusiastically professed their faith in Him for salvation. These are not humanists, secularists, or practitioners of other religions. They are, by all outward measures, Bible-believing, Church-going, Jesus-loving people of God who sit in the pews every Sunday.
Inwardly, however, they have never surrendered their hearts to Christ. They never really know Jesus. The religious externalities they exhibit at church and within the Christian community are rooted in selfish motivations and personal agendas. None of it flows from a substantive relationship with Jesus. It is all an act. An act so compelling it not only fools their fellow churchgoers, it fools them as well.
Sadly, this scenario isn’t limited to a handful of churchgoers in a few isolated churches. Jesus says that “many” face this future when He returns to judge the living and the dead. While impossible to quantify such an imprecise term, it certainly seems possible the figure will reach into the millions, perhaps tens of millions, in the United States alone, where a glaring disconnect between the lips and lives of many churchgoers exists.
It is also important to highlight the fact that in the above passage Jesus links obedience to God’s will with knowing Him. Those who genuinely know Christ on a personal basis pursue His will on a daily basis. That desire to do the Lord’s will represents the evidence of an authentic relationship with Christ; and it is not limited to a few areas of our lives. Jesus expects us to place all areas of life under His authority and follow His leadership in each area. We are not to retain control over some areas of life and yield to Him other areas.
For some Christians, the struggle to abdicate authority of our possessions, pursuits, and passions to Jesus represents one of the greatest challenges of the Christian faith. Countless others never struggle in this area because they never learn of Jesus’ expectations; they attend a church that completely ignores the numerous passages that address the subject. Still others know what Jesus wants but in an act of willful rebellion refuse to obey.
Whatever the case, the fact that millions and millions of Christians fail to yield their lives fully to Christ does not validate that version of Christianity. Jesus repeatedly describes His expectations for those who follow Him and never suggests that a casual, half-hearted commitment is acceptable. He wants our whole heart, our full allegiance, and an unwavering commitment to Him as Lord and Savior. And we evidence this commitment by reordering our priorities, redirecting our income, reevaluating our schedules, and restructuring our agendas to reflect His Lordship.
This transformation is not easy. In fact, it cannot happen without the Holy Spirit. Continual prayer is another essential element to success. And we must familiarize ourselves with biblical passages that address the lifestyle of a disciple, harboring in our hearts the truths that Jesus and the apostles taught.
And we must sever our infatuation with the world. It is not enough to dial back our obsession. Nor is it sufficient to place our love for the world on simmer. We must renounce the relationship completely. We must remove every last vestige of its existence in our lives. We cannot be the bride of Christ and maintain a mistress on the side. Jesus demands full fidelity. He will not share our allegiance with the world.
However, he does understand how easily worldly possessions attract and mesmerize individuals of all economic backgrounds, even the relatively poor people of His day. He knows that as society’s wealth escalates and the availability of goods expands, the temptation to acquire more possessions will increase – even for Christians. Aware that this attraction poses a potentially catastrophic threat to the health and existence of His followers’ faith, He offers this compelling guidance.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, NKJV).
What’s so remarkable about this passage is its simplicity. In three short verses Jesus communicates everything we need to know about collecting worldly possessions, which can be summarized in two words: Avoid it.
Despite the simplicity of the message, Jesus’ counsel contains several powerful truths. First, the obvious: earthly treasures don’t last. At best, they survive until we die. More likely, the elements destroy them, or someone steals them. Either way, we no longer have them to enjoy.
In contrast, the treasures of heaven are eternal. They last forever. No one can steal them and nothing can cause their decay. We will enjoy them for all eternity.
Embedded in this distinction is an important insight. A treasure is either earthly or heavenly. It cannot be both. No investment pays an earthly and heavenly dividend. So we must decide whether we want to enjoy immediate gratification, in which case we invest in earthly treasure, or whether we are willing to delay our enjoyment for some period of years, perhaps decades. The instantaneous pleasure of the former is offset by its limited duration (a hundred years at best). The deferred satisfaction of the latter is enhanced by its unlimited duration (it lasts forever).
When we consider the choice in such simple terms, the decision should be easy to make. I’m certainly convinced Jesus intended it that way. He wanted His followers to resist the temptation to attain earthly treasure and instead seek the kingdom of God. So He spelled out our options in basic terms.
What’s so surprising is how easy the decision is for those who act in their own self-interest. Why would anyone choose a treasure that lasts for 100 years when they can instead have a treasure that lasts forever? And when you consider the fact that the eternal treasure will undoubtedly surpass the temporary treasure in magnificence, there is absolutely no reason to choose the earthly possession. Unless, of course, you don’t believe Jesus.
Maybe that explains why American churches are packed with people who chase, collect, and consume earthly treasures with as much vigor as our unchurched neighbors; churchgoers who willingly forfeit the opportunity to build a broad portfolio of heavenly treasure because they prefer to satisfy their craving for earthly goods instead. It is at once a decision as unfathomable as it is unfortunate.
Of course, losing out on heavenly treasure is not the only consequence faced by those who embrace earthly treasure. A far worse one awaits them. Jesus identifies it in the last verse of the passage. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus informs us how to recognize the object of our heart’s affection. The heart always remains loyal to the treasure. If a man stores up treasure on earth, his heart is loyal to the world. If a woman lays up treasure in heaven, her heart belongs to the Lord.
Which brings us back to two earlier verses we examined. In the context of Romans 10:9-10, we might conclude that the man with a heart loyal to the world does not truly believe. He possesses a false faith. In the context of Matthew 15:8-9, we might conclude that such an individual is the spiritual descendant of the Pharisee. He honors God with his lips and draws near with his mouth, but his heart is far from God; and like the Pharisee is destined for destruction.
Of course, false worship of God predates the Pharisees by hundreds of years. The Jewish people struggled with this issue throughout the Old Testament. One particularly powerful passage occurs in Ezekiel, where God tells the prophet:
“Your people talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors. They say to each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying!’ So My people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts only seek after money. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it!” (Ezekiel 33:30-32, NLT).
Sadly, this message is an accurate representation of what happens in thousands of churches across the United States every Sunday. We express enthusiasm for the Word of God and profess to each other a desire to know God more intimately. We sit in the pews spellbound. We take copious notes and appear attentive.
But like the Israelites we have no intention of doing what God wants if it conflicts with our own desires and agenda. We are merely pretending; putting on an Oscar-worthy performance. Like the Israelites, our hearts seek after earthly treasure and our mouths are filled with idolatry. We find the singing entertaining and commend the pastor on his message but we do not act on it. We will continue to spend our time and income satisfying our own worldly cravings, all the while claiming Christ is Lord.
I have no doubt these words will offend most readers. They will insist I am casting judgment on the Church and individual believers. They will contend that my claims are false and salacious. They will assert that the Church, their congregation, and their individual faith are beyond reproach in this area.
Which leads us to the last point. Following His comments on storing up treasure in heaven and His proclamation, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus makes the following statement:
“Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).
His point? ‘Christians’ who pursue earthly treasure and whose hearts belong to this world actually believe they pursue heavenly treasure. They have convinced themselves they are filled with light and have a healthy faith. In fact, they are filled with darkness and have no faith at all.
They deceive themselves. The darkness that consumes them distorts their view of reality. They are so far from Christ they are spiritually blind, and can’t see they have no real relationship with Him. How great is that darkness indeed.
It is time to awake from our spiritual slumber and return to the Lord.