Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach. For we have no continuing city here, but we seek one to come.
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God made at least seven comments to Israel through Malachi, to which His people responded with haughty, indignant questions, challenging His wisdom and justice. God's words were simple and true, but by that time in Israel's history, they had been so badly taught by their ministers that even simple truth was too much for them to bear.
One of the principle reasons that God demands that sinners confess their sin is so that sinners can demonstrate before men that they know they have sinned. The word "return", as used by Malachi above, means "repent". God is saying to His people, "If you turn from your sin, then I will turn from the wrath that I feel toward you." He was calling them to repentance, but they responded as if they needed no repentance. They could not confess their sin because they did not know they had sinned.
This is the danger of redefining religious terms. What does God mean when He uses the word "salvation"? What does God mean when He uses the word "sin"? When Jesus came, the leaders of Israel had redefined sin to include things that God did not think were sin, such as failing to wash one's hands before eating a meal, or entering the house of a Gentile for a friendly meal. And they changed the definition of "righteousness" so that God's people considered themselves righteous if they kept the traditions of their elders, not if they simply obeyed God's Law. Because the definitions of "sin" and of "righteousness" were changed, some who were righteous in God's eyes were considered sinful by Israel's leaders, and some who were sinful in God's eyes were considered righteous by them.
When John the Baptist came preaching repentance, the rulers of Israel saw no need of repenting at John's preaching. They would have said to John, "Wherein shall we repent?" Some of the weaker elders felt the pressure of the public enthusiasm for John and went down to the Jordan to be baptized by him, but they made the mistake of coming to John without first repenting of their sins and confessing them. Matthew describes the scene for us: "When John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O children of vipers, who has warned you to flee the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance!"
John was not deceived by appearances. He listened to God, who revealed to John which individual had repented and which had not. Jesus was not fooled, either. In Matthew 23:27-28, he bluntly confronted the Pharisees for maintaining an appearance of righteousness without having the substance of it. "Woe to you Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like white-washed sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and of all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy."
The Pharisees could not see their need of repentance because they were keeping all the religious customs demanded of them at the time. It is just like someone today priding themselves on how many Sunday school classes he teaches, or on how often he goes to church, or how sincerely he has participated in Christian communions, or whether he has "repeated after me" some ceremonial confession of Christ, or whether he has been baptized with water. None of those religious things has anything whatsoever to do with God's righteousness, but that is how righteousness has been redefined in our time. And being a "sinner" has been redefined to include anyone who does not do those things.
This is the sort of error that will damn many a soul. Many will become proud of keeping the religious traditions handed to them and will fail to submit to the righteousness of God, just as the Jews did. While others, made to feel unworthy of eternal life for their lack of interest in such religious activities may be closer to God's heart than anyone imagines. We can judge nothing rightly by what we see or hear with our physical organs, and that is why Jesus commanded us to judge by listening to the Spirit, the way he did (Jn. 7:24; Isa. 11:1-4).
We can become so proud of what we are "doing for God" that we become very unlike God in our hearts. Nobody did more good than Jesus, and yet he was very "meek and lowly". Let's follow his example and avoid the snare of religious blindness and pride.