Matthew 23:13-39 Part 2


The Psalmist cries out, “kiss the Son lest His wrath be kindled but a little….”  Seven times the strange sound of “woe” pours from the mouth of Christ like claps of thunder from Mt. Sinai.  And seven times we are reminded of the animalistic wail of lament as human life falls under the judgment of God!

There is no remedy.  Israel and its leadership have no place to hide.  They are under the covenant sanctions, and their end will be like no other before them.

Jesus now turns, verse thirteen, from speaking to His disciples and the crowds of people in the temple complex, to the entire Sanhedrin – robed and regaled in phylacteries and tassels; and who, by now, are completely silenced – they can’t speak a word.

And they hear, one after another, the long, thorough, public exposure of their deepest sin – and with them the howling refrain of anguish and lament.  The first cry of judgmental “woe” from God the Son condemns them generally because they have shut up the Kingdom.  And not only for themselves, but, as the text says, that even those who are entering in can’t enter in!  That’s a reference to the remnant who God has kept for Himself.  Even they have not been able to enter!

These men are the preachers and teachers and elders and leaders of God’s people.  And it was their duty, metaphorically speaking, to exercise the keys of the Kingdom to open the door for the people.  Calvin uses the word “porters”.  The scribes and Pharisees and priests were porters who were to carry the loads and point the way and open the doors!  And the keys to the Kingdom are to admit those who belong to God, and to exclude those who do not… from all expectation of it!

The entire text of the Older Testament Scriptures, which were given to Israel, reveal the salvation of God by His Messiah.  And to preach the knowledge of God and His salvation is to open the gate of the Kingdom to men who would hope and faith in God’s coming Messiah!

But the Scribes and Pharisees and priests of Israel perverted God’s Word and turned the expectations of God’s nation to themselves.  They were the center of attention.  Not Messiah.  And in order to protect themselves they killed the prophets who God sent to call them to repentance.  And then, to further protect themselves and their positions, they murdered the Fullness of the Revelation of God when He came!  Messiah!

Instead of being “watchmen” on the city wall to sound the alarm of danger to God’s people, they killed those who God sent to sound it; instead of doing battle with wolves which would endanger the sheep, they, themselves, were the rapacious wolves; instead of feeding the sheep they took the goodness of the land for themselves and left the sheep destitute; instead of opening the eyes of the people to the coming salvation of God, they further blinded them with false, apostate teaching; instead of salving their wounds and healing the sick and binding up the broken and opening the prison doors as true ministers of God’s Word, they did just the opposite – they left the people imprisoned and blind and deaf and without hope, so that even God’s elect remnant was shut out from coming into the Kingdom.  They caused all the things to God’s people that they were covenantally bound to alleviate!

And while they did that (and this is the second “woe”, verse fifteen), they traversed land and sea to find men who they could make converts to their Pharisaism!  They found promising young men and trained them to become just like them.  And when they found a true convert (like Paul was) they gloried in it for themselves.

And speaking of Paul (Saul was his name then), remember the zeal with which he persecuted the Church during the first few years after the resurrection?  He was a proselyte of the scribes and Pharisees who was doubly zealous to protect the religion of the Sanhedrin.

But their proselytes gave them glory and applause, for while the Pharisees were leaving God’s people destitute they were making hypocrite “sons of Gehenna” twice themselves.  That term indicates “quality”; in other words there are degrees of hellishness – degrees in both extent and intensity.  They would “exceed” their teachers in zeal.

Now, before we go to the third sounding of “woe”, let’s remember that the religion of the Pharisees was an “external” religion.  And that was so because of the philosophy of “dualism”.  Man, they said, was a spiritual being under God; and everything was intrinsically evil!  Therefore there were the external rituals and ceremonial washings.  Since man was good (and all else evil) whatever went inside of man had to be ceremonially cleansed so that a man could avoid being made unclean.  So evil was outside humanity; but man was intrinsically good.

And the hypocrite Pharisees delighted in making themselves more holy and more set-apart than anyone else.  And therefore whatever they said was truth… became truth!

And as with all hypocrites in authority, these men contrived and deceived in order to retain power and glory – and to receive gain.  And since they were the spiritual “fathers” of the nation, their contrivances had to do with worship and piety!  They were deceivers with respect to those things.

So, in verses sixteen through twenty-two Jesus sounds a “woe” against the Pharisees, for they have contrived to pervert the Law of God and His worship in order to further their own purposes!  For example, they have shifted the value and importance of the temple over to the gold in the temple; and the altar is no longer as important as the gift on the altar; and then to avoid using the Name of God they make promises in reference to “heaven”.

And therefore, if it’s not to their benefit to fulfill a promise or an oath to God or to men, they can claim that the oath was invalid to begin with.  (This is manipulation of the language of religion – wryly, crafted, deception)

This sin is so disgusting to God because the spiritual guides and leaders of the people use deception against God’s people for personal gain.  They used it.  And they do so by perverting the worship of God!

But their blindness consists in the fact that God can’t be avoided by using deceptive language!

The temple, which is the earthly representation of God’s Glory-cloud/Throne-room, can’t be avoided by making an oath on the gold with which it’s decorated.

And the altar, which represented the One Place where the sacrifice was to be made for the sin of humanity, could not be avoided by making an oath on the gift.  And Almighty God Himself can’t be avoided by making an oath on the heavens which He made and sustains!

But these are the blind hypocrites of Israel, who, whenever it was to their benefit, made those kinds of distinctions – perverting the very worship of God Himself!

But twisting language to cover up one’s intent is characteristic of hypocrisy, isn’t it?  And we can see many around us today who persist in error because those errors are perceived as a source of gain for them.  And many of those errors have to do with the worship of God – changed and twisted and disfigured so that men might benefit from personal gain.

And then, another peal of thunder comes down on them as their hypocrisy is once again exposed for all to see.  The fourth “woe” is found in verses twenty-three and twenty-four:  the Pharisees make a display of extraordinary zeal at the least possible expense to themselves!

They bring honor to themselves by being very particular concerning the tithe of the smallest garden herbs.  While Jesus says that those are not to be passed over (since the tithe was required in order to sustain the Levite priests and help the poor); but the pretense of appearing holy (to God) and calling attention to their own piety is the issue here!  Tithing is a benchmark of personal goodness to some, or giving large gifts.

The Pharisees made a show of tithing – especially when it didn’t cost very much!  If they were seen being particular with the tithe, then it would be assumed that they were living under the regulations of God, because one who lives under God’s Commandments must be holy and sincere.  (Everything the Pharisees did was to call attention to themselves.)  And they made this a very public show.

But the pretense of holiness was so transparent in these men because, while they made a show of piety in the tithe, they covered up their disobedience in the weightier and more difficult matters of the Law!  Tithing small things is very easy.  But some things in God’s Law are very difficult!

You may remember a former occasion in which Jesus castigates the Pharisees for passing over their responsibility to care for their parents by claiming that the money needed for them was going to the temple.  Well, the money wasn’t really going to the temple, but they wanted people to admire them for putting God first!  But even if it were going to the temple, the indication was that it wasn’t even the tithe – it was a gift!  So the whole avoidance of parental care was to gain admiration for themselves!

So the more difficult and weightier matter of the Law was “passed over”, as Jesus says here – the justice and the mercy and the faithfulness!  The duty to honor and care for ones parents when they’re in need is, indeed, a weighty matter of the Law.  It’s a matter of justice and mercy and faith.  And it’s mostly done in private – so therefore people don’t see it and give praise and admiration for it!

Now, isn’t it interesting that Jesus says that the “weightier” matters of the Law are justice and mercy and faith?  This has to be difficult for some to deal with – there’s no dichotomy between the Law and things like mercy and faith.  Justice and mercy and faith are matters of the Law!

Justice is equity; mercy is relief, assistance and protection of those in need; and faithfulness (as used here) is integrity.  These are the “weightier” matters that God’s Law requires.

These men were truly blind leading the blind, as verse twenty-four suggests.  And Jesus reveals their ludicrous and obvious hypocrisy about tiny things with an equally ludicrous and obvious allegory (verse twenty-four).  The picture here is a Pharisee pouring his wine and scrupulously straining out every tiny impediment in it – for its purity and cleanliness.  But then he quickly gulps down the wine – and with it goes a huge and very unclean beast!

Some might say that this is a good example of the wit and humor or Jesus – to come up with such a comparison; but there is no humor here.  It is a serious illustration of the condition of Israel’s leadership.  They are blind guides; and the allegory illustrates just how apparent their hypocrisy is to God!

And then Jesus sounds the fifth “woe” (verses twenty-five and twenty-six).  The ritual ceremony of baptism of utensils before eating is now taken up as an allegory; for the utensils illustrate the men.

The Pharisees make a show of outward cleansing and having a brilliant appearance before men.  Their outward lives are regulated for the purpose of their effect on people.  As I said earlier, the basic presupposition is that uncleanness and impurity is on the outside; and the man is defiled by putting something unclean inside.  So the very public ritual of utensil baptism is made-to-order for the Pharisees who wished to make a very public show of their cleanliness!

But Jesus says that inside those utensils (metaphorically, the men), there is plunder and rapacity!  (Those two words have been used before in relation to the Kingdom.)  So the reference here is that these blind hypocrites, while making a show of piety and cleanliness, are really the rapacious wolves who have ripped and torn at God’s covenant nation and plundered it in an attempt to snatch away the Kingdom!  And there’s no way to change the nature of a beast of prey by dealing with its outward appearance!

So these men are not what they appear to men to be; from their standpoint, they are not what they, themselves, pretend to be; and, from God’s perspective, their deceptions are absolutely transparent and ludicrous!

And we, too, ought to learn from this that our deceptions, no matter how small they are, and no matter how many others are fooled by our desires to appear one way or another to men, (our deceptions) don’t deceive God at all.  We are transparent to Him.  We can’t cover it up with appearances; we can’t cover it up with language; we can’t cover it up with pretense; and we can’t substitute some other pious act in order to make up for it – we can only do what Jesus commands here in verse twenty-six:  “clean the inside”!  That’s where the sin is!

The sixth time Jesus sounds the “woe”, the metaphor He uses makes the inside condition of the Pharisees even more clear (verses twenty-seven and twenty-eight).  The “tombs” represent the men.  As I suggested last Lord’s Day, it was the Gospel writer Luke who gives us the reason why the Sanhedrin ordered the sepulchers to be whitewashed.  Concerned only with defilement on the outside, the Pharisees wished for all the visitors to Jerusalem during Passover week to be aware of the locations of the tombs.  Close proximity to that which was dead was a defilement which obviated one’s participation in Passover festivities.  So all the tombs in and around the city were whitened so they could be clearly seen.

Matthew simply makes the comparison between the tombs and the Pharisees.  On the outside they had a brilliant appearance, but on the inside there was only uncleanness.  The hypocrisy and lawlessness of the men, stated in verse twenty-eight, resembles the bones and rottenness in the graves (verse twenty-seven).

But Luke goes even further by implying that it’s not the whitewashed tombs that are to be seen and avoided by all the visitors to Jerusalem; it’s contact with the priests and scribes and Pharisees!  Travelers from all the nations of the world need to steer clear of these men if they wished to be ceremonially clean for Passover!  Because that which is dead and rotten is walking around in beautiful robes, bedecked with phylacteries and long tassels!  Be careful! – for they’re pretending to be something they’re not; but that’s how you’ll know them.

The Last “woe” from Christ continues the theme which we’ve heard several times previously – that of the prophets and the Word of God through them (verses twenty-nine through thirty-two).  The point here is that the Pharisees are their fathers’ sons; and they’ve inherited their father’s nature and their guilt – in this case especially with regard to the treatment of God’s prophets.  The evil Pharisees of 30AD are covenantally attached to the evil Pharisees of 750BC and 480BC.

But these Pharisees have built beautiful tombs for the prophets and adorned their monuments.  And the reason they did that was for their own image!  The impression they wished to leave upon the people was that they were the ones who were the loyal and faithful imitators of the prophets!  Their fathers had mistreated and killed the prophets, but they had had no part in that.  And, in fact, if they had been there (they said), they wouldn’t have participated!  They had not inherited the sin – they had inherited the faith of the prophets!  They were not their fathers’ sons!

So, eager to obtain the admiration of the people, the Pharisees had the great tombs built to honor the prophets and their contributions.

But these men were inveterate enemies of the prophets and their doctrines.  Just like their fathers.  And their deceit and hypocrisy will cause them to howl in anguish in the Day of the Lord, because God’s Great Prophet had come at the end of the age.  And they had already planned to murder Him just as their fathers had done to the prophets before them.  So the priests and scribes and Pharisees “filled up the measure of their fathers” (verse thirty-two).  In other words they continued the unbroken line of degeneracy, finishing the work that their fathers began.  They hated the prophets from beginning to end.

But people cannot hate the men who God sends while they’re alive, and then adore them after they’re dead – when the fire of Their preaching is extinguished and it’s safe!  That’s empty, pharisaical religion.

And we’re learning more and more about Pharisaism – that it has nothing to do with keeping the Law of God, as it is often said.  What it is, in its most defining, single word, is pretense.  One might rather admit the fact of his miserable degeneracy than pretend to be something he’s not.  At least that’s the first step toward crying out to God for mercy in the Name of His Son.  Something the Pharisees never did.

We’ll continue to the end of the chapter the next time we meet, as our Lord finishes His public condemnation of the leaders of Israel.  And we’ll have some more to say about hypocrisy – the art of pretending to be what one is not, for personal esteem, satisfaction, and gain.