When I lived in Wyoming, the greenest place in town was the cemetery. When I first began my running exercises, it was in the mazes of roadways that I timed myself, always working on running more and more. I walked there with a book, and even rode through on the bike on several occasions. It was peaceful and beautiful, and surely in our day that is generally the sense that one would assume about such a place of mourning and sorrow.
But in the days when Jesus walked the ground, the cemetery was not the place one would go to relax, for touching a grave would make a person unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:16). It was with such uncleanness in mind that Jesus warns the Scribes and Pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:27-28).
Since walking on a grave could inadvertently make a person unclean, the tombs in that day were whitewashed, not for beauty, but so they would be easily seen and thus avoided. John Calvin wrote: As a painting or engraving on sepulchers draws the eyes of men upon them, while inwardly they contain stinking carcases; so Christ says that hypocrites deceive by their outward appearance, because they are full of deceit and iniquity (Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke Vol 3). Such was the warning of Jesus: The Pharisees and the Scribes looked great on the outside but inwardly, they were not the examples that Jesus wanted the people to follow. Such was His instruction before the woes began in Matthew 23:2-3:
The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
In Luke, a similar woe is described: Woe to you! For you are like concealed tombs, and the people who walk over them are unaware of it (Luke 11:44). In this instance He described the Pharisees just as wicked and able to ruin a person, but hidden from view instead. Though these descriptions could easily be considered a paradox, it is just like those who have eyes yet do not see: in one case, they show their hypocrisy to those who see it and those whom see steer clear of the trap. But those that fall for their shows and their appearance are tainted before they realize what has happened. God does give a greater grace and those that fall into the trap can get out, yet others will blindly follow the ones who look good into destruction.
The Modern Day
In the modern day, the Pharisees in this woe could easily be the 'teachers' on many 'Christian' television programs. Most people possessing a sound understanding of doctrine look to these television preachers and shake their heads with awe that some folks actually watch these people for instruction. Others are blind to the fact that what they are teaching may not be correct and soak up every word they say. Hosea 4:6 declares that God's people are destroyed because of their lack of knowledge, and like newborn babies, some Christians live their life putting every type of 'spiritual' food into their mouth. This is nothing new, for the author of Hebrews wrote:
Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).
This is not a fatal problem and it can be corrected, but it takes some intentional steps; we can revive the church in America that grows in faith and becomes discerning. Here are few practical steps to help in the journey.
Get a Mentor
Timothy had the Apostle Paul as a mentor and that relationship is a good example of how to grow in Christ. We need personal, one-on-one studies and accountability in our life. The mentor role should be the person that teaches you the basics about the Christian walk. Any sound believer should be able to discuss theology in some detail in order to help carry a younger believer further in the faith. The mentor can help with reading plans, prayer, basic questions, and in finding other doctrinally-sound places to learn. Just like a baby has a parent who looks after the needs of that baby, the mentor should be a person who can instruct on what is sound and what is not, at least until the student has a good understanding of some basic theology.
Get Into the Bible
Bible study helps us to understand the mind of God. Paul writes to Timothy that all Scripture is profitable for the Christian living: teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17). A mentor can help to guide some of the difficult teachings and to put together the story, but the power of God is in the Bible to tell us where our hearts and minds need to be. Hebrews 4:12 says, for the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The Word can get into our head and start to tinker around in order to change us from the inside out. Likewise, Paul instructs us to transform ourselves with the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:1-2). The Bible really is the guide for Christian living.
Learn to Pray
If reading the Bible is like getting into the mind of God, prayer is like entering into His heart. Prayer is not a little wishlist, but how we conform ourselves to God by placing our dependance and vulnerabilities in His hands. If we can accept Jesus as our model, He prayed frequently; sometimes with his disciples and sometimes totally alone with God. That should also be the model of our prayer life, but I think that Jesus does make the argument for more prayer alone: But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:6). Allow yourself time to pray each day. When you want to pray, do it. When you do not want to pray, you should pray all the more.
Read and Study
We live in a country where entertainment is in abundance and silence is not tolerated. Polls show that we watch far more television than we read anything at all, let alone the Bible or books about the Bible. While Bible study is very important, there is also some value in learning what other people know. Many books are really expositional goldmines as the author focuses in on key verses to narrow down on specific points of theology. When taken individually, books do not stand up to the Bible, but in mass, reading books about specific points of doctrine and going back to the Bible we can learn the art of discernment to figure out if what a person is teaching is correct; we want to examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good, and abstain from every evil thing (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
If we want to avoid the white-washed tombs of the Pharisees, it takes discernment. We do not want to blindly follow what our teachers are saying, but to test it and examine it. Luke records the account of the trip to Berea where the people there were praised for examining everything that the Apostles had said (Acts 17:11). Like the Bereans, we should be eager to examine the spiritual teachings we find in churches, radio, and televisions. We must, however, do it from a position of knowledge so that we are not just making an opinion of the matter. When we can look at a particular teaching and know whether it is correct or not, we have achieved discernment and will not follow the white-washed tombs into death for their beauty nor will we accidentally step on them because we are not paying attention to the landscape.