It is clear that Jesus took spiritual abuse very seriously.
This can be seen in the words He used to characterize the abusers, which to polite ears sound shocking. He called the religious leaders of His day a “brood of vipers.” In Matthew 12 He said, “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good?” (v. 34). He was even more aggressive in a later confrontation:
"You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?” (23:33). Matthew 3:7 shows us that “brood of vipers” are the first word John the Baptist ever said to the religious leaders who were coming to be baptized.
These were incredibly strong words. Acts 28 gives us some indications why so harsh a phrase was used. On Paul’s way to stand trial in Rome, the apostle’s ship was wrecked on the island of Malta. They were wet and cold, so they built a fire.
Then it says: “But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, ‘undoubtedly this man is a murderer!’” (vv. 3-4)
Vipers were small snakes that looked very much like sticks, and were thus hard to notice. Sometimes while gathering firewood, people would pick up a viper, thinking it was a stick. Since they were often mistaken as sticks, rather than looking dangerous they actually looked useful. Paul was bitten on the hand by a viper that he thought was a stick.
These snakes were very poisonous. A viper bite usually resulted in an extremely painful death. That’s why the natives thought Paul must have been a murderer. Only a murdered would have deserved the agonizing death Paul was about to die. Even worse, vipers didn’t just bite their victims; they latched on and wouldn’t let go! Further, they multiplied quickly and congregated in large numbers. You could fine “broods” of them in cooler places in the desert, such as in caves and under trees.
A desert traveler who was looking for safety and shelter would search out these cooler locations to camp. Unfortunately, the spot that looked as if it offered coolness and rest sometimes offered instead a slow death to the victim who had overlooked a brood of vipers. The place that was supposed to be the safest often turned out to be the least safe place.
Translated into a contemporary metaphor, the word picture Jesus painted would look like this:
When a man or woman is going through a dry time in life, lost and tired and searching out a cool, safe place to rest, they need some good news, some living water. They go to church, the place that is supposed to be the safest - after all, didn’t the Lord say if we came to Him, He would give rest? In church, the weary soul encounters people who look safe, who seem genuinely interested in helping. These people have their relationships with God together; they are the most concerned about what God wants.
But then, they inject their venom of performance-based religion and the seeker finds that their strength, health and very spiritual life is sapped. When the person wants to leave, the “vipers” latch on and won’t let go.
“Where then is that sense of blessing you had?” Paul asks a group of tired Christians who had fallen victim to spiritual “vipers” in Galatia (Galatians 4:15). If you have ever experienced a performance-based religious system , you know the answer to that question. Remember when you first became a Christian – that joyful moment when you knew that you were forgiven? God’s approval was yours, because you were His. You felt light and free. What a relief! Where did that sense of freedom go?
It disappeared when you started believing those people who taught you to measure God’s acceptance by external religious standards instead of by the Cross. You lost your sense of blessing, and now the harder you try, the more tired you become.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:15.
The phrase “ravenous wolves” is being used in the same passage in which Jesus speaks about the wide and narrow gates by which people enter in search of inner life. Most Christians hear sermons on this text that define “entering by the wide gate” as following the ways of the “world” – that is, going to worldly movies, ready dirty magazines and frequenting bars.
Conversely, “entering by the narrow gate” means going to church, reading the Bible, memorizing Scripture, getting perfect Sunday school attendance pins, visiting people in nursing homes, and giving money. The narrow and wide gates are reduced to lists of things we are supposed to do or not do. However, the context reveals a different meaning.
Jesus was talking about false prophets – those who looked like they represented God but spoke falsely. Like the true prophets, those prophets stood in front of a wide gate marked “Find Life Here,” but this was the gate of religious performance and self-effort, and there was no life on the other side, just toil and weariness.
True prophets stand in front of a narrow gate – the one that says “Come to Me, all who labor…” You can only fit through this gate if you drop all of your “works” baggage and come through alone. On the other side you find heavenly rest. If you try to go through with your perfect attendance pins and Bible quiz trophies, (Ed. Note: or clinging to your “church leaders’ coat-tails”) or any of your own righteousness, you simply won’t fit. Jesus is the narrow gate.
Religion always teaches that you can get to God by doing something. Your good standing with God depends on what you do. Do the law, perform religion, do it right, look good, try hard.
Is that the gate through which we are called to find life?
No. Those leading people to it are ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. They look like sheep, and they appear to be the safest, most righteous, but they lead people down the wrong path. Jesus plus anything is not Jesus!
It’s worse than this, however. In Matthew 10:6, Jesus sends the disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Where are the lost sheep? They’re in the house! Then in verse 16 He gives a warning: “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Take note: Where are the wolves? They’re in the house! A concerned apostle Paul, in preparing to leave Ephesus, says in Acts 20, “I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among you own selves men will arise” (v. 29).
The most chilling part of this scenario are the words “in sheep’s clothing.” I used to imagine this as a false sheep that mingles with the flock and occasionally whips off its costume to eat one of the real sheep. Unfortunately, this picture greatly minimizes the damage done by the wolves.
It is true that the destruction is done from within the flock, but IT IS DONE BY FALSE SHEPHERDS, NOT FALSE SHEEP.
True shepherds sheared the sheep in order to weave the wool into garments. But the false shepherds - wolves – devour the flock in order to get their sheep’s clothing. This does not mean merely losing a sheep every once in a while. These false shepherds are leading entire flocks of sheep down the path of destruction!
“There is a conspiracy of her prophets [religious leaders] in her midst; like a roaring lion tearing the prey. They have devoured lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows in the midst of her. Her princes within her are like wolves tearing the prey, by shedding blood and destroying lives in order to get dishonest gain. (Ezekiel 22:25, 27).
“Beware of false prophets,” Jesus warned in Matthew 7:15.
The wolves are in the house, AND SOME OF THEM ARE IN CHARGE.
Little wonder that it was a part of Jesus’ mission to expose an abusive system.
It’s important to remember four things about His confrontations.
First, His confrontations landed on those who saw themselves as God’s official spokespersons – “the most religious,” the best performers. They gave money, attended church and had more Scripture memorized than anyone. They set the standard for everyone else.
Second, Jesus broke the religious rules by confronting those in “authority” out loud!
Third, He was treated as the problem because He said there was a problem.
And fourth, crowds of broken people rushed to Him because His message offered hope and rest.
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