And he said, Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! For ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe unto you! For ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres . . . Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered. (Luke 11:46-48, 52)
Jesus judged the Jewish nation through its leaders such as these lawyers. They had rejected Him although their actions and words were often pious and godly. On this particular occasion, Jesus paints a picture of their denial in a most vivid way. The leaders of the Jewish nation had also killed the prophets of old “from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias” (vs 51). The reason Jerusalem contained sepulchres of the great prophets is because their own leaders, kings and priests, put them to death out of hatred and envy.
An interesting thing happens to historical accounts as time goes by. We can mold and shape historical characters the way our own generation wants. Some of the most persecuted people in history can later be made to be everyone’s heroes. The tragedy is that their message, the one for which they were persecuted, goes forgotten and unheeded.
Jesus knew this to be true of these lawyers and of the prophets of Israel. Their (spiritual) ancestors had hated and killed the prophets in order to silence their message. But that was yesterday, this is today. Today the lawyers are all down at the cemetery building and white-washing beautiful sepulchers for those same prophets! The tragedy remains. The historical circumstance and message is forgotten and unheeded while their good name is used to promote the unbelievers themselves!
This is often the circumstance with the Christmas message in America today. Those who use this holiday for their own profit and promotion are the spiritual ancestors of those who killed the virgin-born Son of God. They are down at the local mall building shrines to that sacred event. But if He were to be born in our world today, they would crucify Him again just as fast as before. How do I know that? Because they full well reject His offer of redemption today, as those lawyers were rejecting Jesus in His day.
We are watching the rewriting of history all around us today. The actual historical characters are not around to set the record straight; the moral imperatives are too old to be convicting; and any urgency that existed then, is not felt by anyone today. We can make historical heroes to be villains, and make historical villains to be heroes. We recast the past to make the present pleasant! That’s what the lawyers did in Jesus’ day.
There was another subtle change taking place between the lawyers of that day and the prophets of old. By rebuilding the sepulchres of those they would have hated (had they been contemporaries), they leveled the moral landscape into a guiltless and harmless memory. We see this today when someone reaches back into history and finds a famous person who was guilty of even the smallest moral failure, and then concludes that it is not wrong, it is even right, to do that and more today.
Here is how I suppose the thinking must have gone: 1) The prophets themselves were human and had faults and failures. This can be demonstrated. 2) They were, therefore, of the same moral stuff as those to whom they spoke, even of us today. 3) Since only one sin shows the potential of the sinner to commit many sins, 4) someone with many sins (then or today) is no worse than they and they are no better than we. 5) Since no one is worse or better, none can properly be considered good or bad, it is all relative.
This, of course, is all true! “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Even the prophets of old. “There is none righteous, no, not one.” So, how do we answer such moral relativism? Is it true that we can’t judge any sin simply because we all sin to some degree? Ah, that is where the real Christmas message comes in! Not one rewritten to eliminate the moral necessity, but one that still speaks about real peace on Earth and real good will toward men. It is an historical message that is as startling today as ever.
Every person who ever sinned at all deserves equal condemnation. This is true. But, if just one man could live without sinning at all, if just one man actually kept a perfectly righteous standard, then that man, by his very existence, condemns us all, just as light condemns darkness and truth condemns error. No longer could we excuse ourselves by saying that “we all do it, at least to some degree.” That man never did! For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh (Romans 3:26).
Consequently there is good news also! Such a sinless life would also satisfy a righteous God who cannot tolerate even the smallest sin. In that one man His holy government finds satisfaction without reason to condemn. God declared of Him, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17).
But how can such an One help the rest of humanity who truly do sin and come under God’s condemnation? In the following way:
1) If this righteous man voluntarily takes punishment he does not deserve, he creates a moral vacuum by which God’s wrath is abated. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many (Romans 5:15).
2) The sinner, by attaching himself to that righteous One, has his own condemnation removed by this moral vacuum and receives the same innocent standing before God. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren (Hebrews 2:11).
3) This attachment must be by faith, not works, to ensure that it cannot be by one’s faulty merits, but by the perfect merit of the Righteous One. Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).
That is the biblical message of Christmas! Christ’s incarnation has thrown out a life-line to our moral failure. No rebuilding of the story will do, only humble acceptance by faith. For He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Hail the hev’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”