Whitewashed Tombs

When my sister was in college, she and her friends rented a battered, abandoned church to live in in their small West Virginia town. A rebellious and eclectic streak defined her at this age, so my parents just decided to pick their battles.

A mural of Jesus—arms outstretched in all His traditional-church-overrun-by-hippies glory—greeted visitors at the front double doors, and I’ll never forget the phone conversation I overheard when my sister broke the news of a $900 heating bill one winter. The grace shown that year will give my parents a myriad of sparkling jewels in heaven.

The most unconventional amenity that came with their lease was the backyard cemetery. The town’s transients frequented the cemetery, high school students were dared to spend an hour there alone, and legends told of haunted graves. To call it creepy would be an understatement.

The church had been deserted for decades, and the tombstones that marked the memory of church members from past centuries were nearly unrecognizable under overgrown plants. Dirt snuck into engraved names. Moss crept up the sides of once-white stones. From the looks of the tombs, it was obvious that the skeletons were decaying beneath the ground.

Jesus refers to a different type of grave in Matthew 23. 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
— Matthew 23:27-28

In Jesus’ day, tombs were scrubbed and whitewashed to be distinguishable, for touching a grave meant defilement. These tombs looked good on the outside. Their blinding whiteness ignored the rotting within, and it made them look clean to the world.

We do this. I do this. While my heart worships me and money and people and a good reputation and idols, I post pictures on social media of a steaming coffee mug and highlighted Bible verses. I may have just thrown a 24-year-old tantrum about not getting my way in the car ride over, but the moment we walk into small group, I smile big and pray for the lost.

To an unbeliever, there can’t be anything more defeating than wanting to be in a relationship with Jesus only to discover you don’t measure up to the standards of Christians living as whitewashed tombs.

Brennan Manning said:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

The hypocrisy of our faith is the quickest declaration of one who doesn’t believe. What an incredibly heartbreaking truth.

God created perfection when He created the world. We loved perfectly, we worked perfectly, and we lived perfectly. And then Adam and Eve took a bite of forbidden fruit, making the striving for perfection useless as the fall ruined mankind forever. Our alive bones became dead bones, and we were cast off to our graves.

But Jesus, in all His majestic glory, died on a cross and entered those tombs, shaking our dead bones alive again. And while the exterior of our grave is sometimes beautiful, it's often ragged, like the tombs in my sister's backyard cemetery. We struggle through trials, battle sin, and grow old, as the weeds wind their way up our hypothetical tombs. Within, though, our souls are alive with Christ.

The flip side of the Matthew 23 façade comes with Paul’s encouragement in 2 Corinthians 4. Instead of comparing their lives to whitewashed tombs, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are like jars of clay:

...afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies…Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

There is no more alive soul than Jesus Christ, who lives within us when we invite Him to dwell there. In a masterpiece only He could create, His blood poured out and washed us white as snow. Through His outrageous grace, the Lord allows our bodies to waste away as our souls grow stronger and brighter and more beautiful each and every day that we choose Him to be King of our hearts.

When we as Christians hide the gospel—the good news that Jesus died in our place and made us alive in Him—we proclaim this lie that Christ is not a necessity and that our flesh is capable of being righteous enough on our own. We fake having it all together to showcase a skewed holiness that preaches legality instead of grace.

In vulnerability, we find freedom. Exposing the true dirtiness of our tombs reveals hope in the Savior who made those buried and broken bones come back to life.

If it means His glory, I want my tomb to look like the old, neglected, small town cemetery in my sister’s backyard. Instead of whitewashed tombs, my soul’s deepest longing is to be a cracked and crooked jar of clay that holds within the most perfect King of Glory.