Matthew 23:1-39; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47
“What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, "He is the son of David." – Matthew 22:42 NLT
Chapter 23 of Matthew is one of the harshest sections of the Scriptures. In it, we find Jesus unloading on the Pharisees in a rather uncharacteristic way. But this is NOT a personal attack. He is dealing with those who had become roadblocks to the Kingdom. By rejecting Him, they were rejecting the Kingdom, rule, and reign of God Himself. These men were supposed to be pointing people to God, but were actually doing just the opposite! Remember what Jesus had said to the Pharisees back when they accused Him of working for and by the power of Satan: “Anyone who isn't with me opposes me, and anyone who isn't working with me is actually working against me. So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven--except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:30-31 NLT).
The religious leaders had positioned themselves against Jesus and therefore, against God. They were denying the work of God manifested by the power of God (Holy Spirit), and attributing it all to Satan. So Jesus pronounces a series of warnings or "woes" against them. But rather than direct His attack directly at the Pharisees, He speaks to the crowd surrounding Him. All of these warnings would have been shocking to the average Jew because they looked up to and admired the religious leaders as icons of virtue and the keepers of religious law. But Jesus gives His audience a few pieces of advice regarding these men:
Don’t follow their lead
The Pharisees had set themselves up as the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. They were the "experts." But they were usurpers to the title – God had not appointed them as such. They certainly KNEW the Law, so Jesus told the people to listen to what the Pharisees SAID. The problem was, they failed to KEEP the Law, so Jesus said don't do what they DO. In other words, don't follow their example. As long as they are talking about the content of the Law, listen. But when it comes to conduct based on the Law, don't use them as a model. “So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3 NLT).
Don’t do what they do
Jesus makes it clear. These men are nothing but hypocrites. The Greek word Jesus uses was a term commonly used when referring to actors in the Greek plays. In the plays of those days, the actors would commonly play multiple roles and simply don a different mask to change characters. So the word became common for referring to anyone who was a "mask-wearer" or hypocrite. They were not what they appeared to be. For the Pharisees, everything was all about appearances. They had perfected the art of performance. “Everything they do is for show” (Matthew 23:5 NLT).
Don’t love what they love
They loved recognition and getting noticed for their “spirituality.” In fact, they were addicted to being the center of attention. It showed up in their obsession with titles. They enjoyed being called "rabbi" and recognized for their knowledge and expertise. They wanted to be served, not serve. They loved themselves more than they loved God or others. In essence, these men were religious exhibitionists! WHICH WOULD NOT BE AS BIG A PROBLEM – EXCEPT FOR THEIR ROLE AS LEADERS
God’s true feelings about false religion
At this point, Jesus makes His message much more direct by turning His attention directly to the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This is the part where He pronounces His seven woes or warnings against them. It is important to recognize that this is all about two distinctly different ways to approach God. What Jesus has to say is less about their behavior than the focus of their ministry.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door on the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.” – Matthew 23:13-14 NLT
They had a false view of the Kingdom of Heaven and how to enter it. It was keeping them out AND everyone else they influenced.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross the land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT
Their failure to accept Jesus as Messiah was condemning others to hell. Their false view of the Kingdom of Heaven was having deadly consequences. They were zealous to convert others to their way of thinking and to their view of the Kingdom, but the result was that these individuals ended up as lost as they were.
“Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’” – Matthew 23:16 NLT
In spite of all their knowledge of the Law, they were blind and couldn’t see the point of it all. They had misunderstood what really was of value in the Kingdom of Heaven. It was the Temple, that God had set apart as His own, that was holy, not the gold used to cover it. It was the altar, the place God had set aside for sacrifice, that was holy, and made anything placed on it holy. Ultimately, it is God who makes heaven holy and gives it its value. They focused their attention on the wrong things. They were materially minded, not spiritually focused.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law – justice, mercy, and faith.” – Matthew 23:23 NLT
They misunderstood the true nature of the Kingdom because they tended to major on the minors. They nitpicked the Law to death, but missed the two most important commandments: Love God and love others (Justice, mercy and faith).
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy – full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT
They had a false understanding of what constitutes righteousness in the Kingdom. It was the INSIDE God was interested in, not the OUTSIDE. Their focus was on the externals rather than the internal. They made behavior modification their goal, rather than heart transformation. But Jesus had taught just the opposite. “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are the things that defile a person; it is not eating with unwashed hands that defiles a person” (Matthew 15:18-20 NLT).
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurities.” – Matthew 23:27 NLT
This one supports the previous one. It reveals their false concept of what it took to become clean or righteous. Again, they had replaced heart transformation with behavior modification. They spent all their time obsessing about outward appearances, while ignoring the internal state of their souls. Rather than heart-felt repentance, they focused on outward reformation. Rather than acknowledge their sin, they simply attempted to cover it up with good deeds and religious effort.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’” – Matthew 23:29-30 NLT
In failing to recognize their own sinful condition, they had become just like their ancestors – rebellious, stubborn and resistant to God. They built tombs and monuments to honor the prophets, but had failed to listen to God’s prophet: John the Baptist. In just a few days, they would arrange to have the very Son of God put to death, just as Jesus had predicted. And after Jesus was out of the way, they would end up persecuting and killing the disciples as well . “Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city” (Matthew 23:34 NLT).
Why was Jesus so upset with these men? What drove Him to treat them so harshly? They were passionate. They were zealous. They were religious. BUT THEY HAD BECOME DANGEROUS! They had become obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven. Their misplaced zeal had led to them becoming stumbling blocks. "Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.’” (Luke 17:1-2 NET).
These men DO NOT represent the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. They don’t even know the directions. But where do we see this today? In the myriad of false and pseudo-Christian religions. We see it in anyone who denies that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. We need to learn to look for these characteristics.
- Posing as spokesmen for God, but denying people access to the Kingdom of God
- Giving people false hope by offering them a false gospel
- Providing easy work-arounds to true holiness and commitment to God
- Judging righteousness based on their own standards, rather than God’s
- Refusing the acknowledge sin, while emphasizing self-righteousness
- Putting undue emphasis on how men see them, rather than God
- Failing to see their status as enemies of God
The spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well today. It’s evident in every religion that refuses to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only way. It’s prevalent in many main-stream denominations that preach a gospel of works, not grace. It can be found anytime legalism and rule-keeping replaces love. It shows up whenever our religion becomes more important than our relationship with Christ. It takes the form of hypocrisy, when what we say we believe fails to impact our behavior. It’s alive and well when we love the praise of man more than pleasing God.
Father, it's easy to follow the lead of the Pharisees and become all about appearances. It is so tempting to try to deny our true condition by putting up a good front and acting the part. But You look for sincerity and integrity of heart. You are not impressed with our performance, because You can see into our hearts. Keep us from following the example of the Pharisees, but help us live humbly, obediently and dependently on You. Amen.