by Paul George
By His triumphal entry, temple cleansing, teaching and healing, Jesus had claimed His rightful title as Israel’s Messiah. The Jewish religious and political leaders of Jerusalem understood this and did everything possible to discredit Jesus and undermine His authority. They failed miserably. Every question they posed proved them to be in error, and Jesus to be in authority. Their final response is stunned silence (Matthew 22:46).
In chapter 23, Jesus directs His attention toward the crowds and His disciples to rectify their mistakes concerning these scribes and Pharisees and reveal their true nature. Second, remove the prejudice which some of the multitude had conceived against Jesus and his doctrine, because it was opposed by the Pharisees and the scribes, it is good to know the true characters of men, that we may not be deceived by their positions in the church and pretensions to power. People must be told of the wolves (Acts 20:20-30), the dogs (Philippians 3:2), and the deceitful workers (2 Corinthians 11:13), that they may know how to identify the deceitful.
The scribes and Pharisees as public teachers and interpreters of the law and the Law of Moses were not the itinerant judges that went from city to city. They heard appeals, handed down special verdicts, or writs of error by the law. They sat in Moses’ seat, not as he was Mediator between God and Israel, but only as he was chief justice. They were so wretchedly degenerated, that it was time for the great Prophet to arise, like unto Moses, to erect another seat. Good and useful offices and powers are not to be condemned or abolished because they fall into the hands of evil men, who abuse them.
The scribes and Pharisees made it their business to study the scripture, and were well acquainted with the language, history, and customs of it, and its style and phraseology. Now Christ would have the people to make use of the helps they gave them for the understanding of the scripture, and do accordingly. As long as their comments did not pervert it and make void the commandment of God. They must be observed and obeyed, but with caution and a judgment of discretion. We must not disregard the truth because of the pretenders in pulpits or the laws because of dishonest judges.
It is the duty of the followers of Jesus to test all doctrines and practices and carefully separate the lies injected from the truth. We must not accept corrupt doctrines perverted practices for the sake of toleration or please those who teach them, regardless of their position in the church. The scribes and Pharisees boasted of their goodness, works, orthodoxy teaching, and hoped to be justified by them; yet the things, which they valued were an abomination in the sight of God.
In the following verses, Jesus identifies the works of the scribes and Pharisees that must not be imitated. In general, Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with hypocrisy and deceit. First, they were teaching one thing and doing the opposite of what they were teaching. The law was their teacher’s manual, but their lives deny what they taught and implied they seem to have found another way to heaven for themselves than what they taught others. The most inexcusable sinners are those who commit the sins they condemn in others. What greater hypocrisy can there be, than to preach or teach something an individual does not believe or obey.
The scribes and Pharisees were imposing upon others those things which they were not themselves willing to submit to (v. 4). They were not only insisting upon the minute circumstances of the law, which is called a yoke (Acts 15:10) they were insisting the observation of them with more strictness and severity than God did by adding to His words, and imposing their own interpretations and traditions, under the highest penalties. The scribes and Pharisees loved to show their authority and to exercise their domineering faculty, which they made the Sabbath a burden on men’s shoulders, which was designed to be a joyful time.
The hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees
First, they would not do those things that they imposed upon others; they pressed upon the people strictness in religion that they themselves would not be bound by; but secretly transgressed their own traditions, which they publicly enforced. They indulged their pride in giving law to others; but disobeyed the law they insisted others obey.
Second, they would not ease the burden they placed upon the people. They added to God’s law making His Law a burden. Third, they were all for show, and nothing for substance, in religion (v. 5). We must do good works, that they who see them may glorify God; but we must not proclaim our good works so that others may see them, and glorify us; which our Savior charged the Pharisees in general, as He had done before in the particular instances of prayer and giving of alms. The form of godliness the scribes and Pharisees exhibited will get them a name to live by, which are all they aimed at and not the godliness that is essential to a life that finds favor in the sight of God.
Third, they made their phylacteries, little scrolls of paper or parchment, wherein were written, with great niceness, these four paragraphs of the law, (Exodus 13:2-11; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21).These were placed in leather pouches and worn upon their foreheads and left arms. It was a tradition of the elders, which had reference to Exodus 13:9; Proverbs 8:3, where the expressions seem to be figurative, intimating no more than that we should bear the things of God in our minds as carefully as if we had them bound between our eyes. Now the Pharisees made large phylacteries, that they might be thought more holy, and strict, and zealous for the law, than others might. It is a gracious ambition to covet to be holier than others are, but it is a proud ambition to covet to appear so. It is good to excel in real piety, but not to exceed in outward acts as the scribes and Pharisees. It is the guise of hypocrisy to make more ado than needs in external service, more than is needful either to prove, or to improve the good affections and dispositions of the soul.
Fourth, they enlarged the borders of their garments. God instructed the Israelites, through Moses, to make borders or fringes upon their garments (Numbers 15:38) to distinguish them from other nations, and to be a memorandum to them of their being a peculiar people. However, the Pharisees were not content to have these borders like other people’s, which might serve God’s purpose they must be larger than ordinary to answer their purpose, they were more religious than others were. However, those who enlarge their phylacteries, and the borders of their garments, while their hearts are destitute of the love of God and their neighbor, though they may now deceive others, in the end will deceive themselves.
Fifth, pride was the reigning sin of the Pharisees.
Jesus describes their pride in verse 6 and 7.
In all public appearances the scribes and Pharisees expected, and had, to their hearts’ delight, the uppermost rooms and chief seats. Jesus does not condemn them because they were seated in place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues. Jesus condemned the value they placed on these positions and the resentment they would express if they were not given these places of honor. This is bad any where, but especially in the synagogues, to seek honor to self where all honor and glory is to be given to God man is to humble himself before God.
Jesus cautions His disciples against doing what the scribes and Pharisees were doing (vv. 8-10). It is not unlawful to give civil respect to those who have been called into the ministry. The problem is using titles of respect as a means of making a distinction between the clergy and the laity. The clergy must not assume the authority and dominion implied in the titles of respect. They must not be domineering over their brethren, as if they had dominion over the faith of Christians. They must not make their opinions and wills a rule and standard to all other people. The reasons for this prohibition are, (1) Christ is our Master, our Teacher, and our Guide. (2) Christ only is the great Prophet, whom we must hear, and be ruled and overruled by; whose word must be an oracle and a law to us. (3) Ministers are brethren not only to one another, but also to the people. (4) The clergy and the laity are disciples of the same Master and as such, should help one another. (5) Disciples are to call no man “father.” (6) God is our Father; He is the Fountain of life. Our spiritual life is derived from Him and depends on Him.
In verse 13, the “woes” begin. In verses 13-15, Jesus reveals the ultimate reason why men should not submit to the leadership and authority of the scribes and Pharisees. They should not follow the scribes and Pharisees because they are headed for condemnation and they will lead their followers after them. The crowds, who are somewhat favorable to Jesus, find the scribes and Pharisees barring the door to the kingdom by utilizing the full extent of their influence to keep people from following Jesus. In addition, the very few whom the scribes and Pharisees invite to join their elite group become twice as much a child of condemnation as their mentors.
Jesus accused His adversaries as saying one thing, but doing another. In verses 16-22 Jesus’ focus is on oaths, “things they not only say, but swear to; verses 23-24 focus on tithing. The scribes and Pharisees make false distinctions, thus providing a way of escape from what they have promised. If one swears by the temple, he is not obligated to keep that vow. However, if one swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to keep his vow. Jesus shows that these distinctions are false, and that one is obliged to keep his vow, without distinction.
In verses 23 and 24, our Lord indicts the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy about tithing. The Law taught tithing. The scribes and Pharisees were meticulous about tithing, when it came to trivial things. However, in making much of small things, they made little of very important things like justice, mercy, and faith. In our Lord’s assessment, they “strained gnats and swallowed camels.” Their attention to little things was a pretext for ignoring the most important things of all. They pay attention to outward appearances, rather than on what is on the inside. This should come as no great surprise to us. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus warned about performing our righteous deeds before men, for their praise. Since the scribes and Pharisees loved to be esteemed as more spiritual than others are, we would expect them to be preoccupied with external appearances, rather than the heart.
In Leviticus 11:31-33, God talked about the defilement of vessels like plates and cups, even here it was what went into the cup that defiled it. Preoccupied as they were with appearances, the scribes and Pharisees were obsessive about the outside of the cup looking clean, so obsessive that the inside could be filled with the most putrid and defiled matter, and it would seemingly be ignored, so long as the outside looked good. They assumed that if the outside looked good, everything else must be good. Hypocrisy is a concerted effort to mask our failures, otherwise known as “sin” by making appearances look good. Jesus tells us that true cleansing begins “in the heart” and expands to the outside.
The next “woe” continues the theme of a discrepancy between the outside, which looks good, and the inside, which is corrupt. However, Jesus changes the images from cups and dishes to tombs. Before Passover, the Jews whitewashed tombs so that a person would not innocently be exposed to the dead, and thus defile himself. Keeping with in the context of the text Jesus is not talking about the poorly marked grave of some pauper, a grave that would hardly be noticeable, apart from whitewashing. He is talking about a very elegant tomb, whose beauty is enhanced by whitewashing. It is so beautiful that it attracts attention and invites people to draw near to admire it. The scribes and Pharisees are like these beautified tombs. They seem so lovely and attractive, if judged solely by outward appearances. However, inside there is the greatest measure of defilement. Outside the scribes and Pharisees look so holy, so pious, so zealous for the things of God, but inside they are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Those who would have others believe that they are zealous for the law is those whom Jesus refers to as being full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Jesus had described the scribes and Pharisees as being like a beautiful tomb. Now, tombs are employed to expose yet another form of hypocrisy. Jesus is in Jerusalem, where the tombs of a number of prophets could be found. True to their hypocritical form, the scribes and Pharisees beautified the tombs of the “righteous” (v. 29) and “the prophets (v. 30). By honoring the prophets of old, who were righteous, the scribes and Pharisees gave the impression that they too were righteous. Many of these prophets had been murdered, however, so the scribes and Pharisees made it very clear that they would have had nothing to do with treating the righteous in such a manner.
Jesus says something very interesting about this; indeed, one might say, something very perplexing. It was by saying that if they would have never have treated the prophets of old in such manner that they, in fact, indicted themselves. They actually prove themselves the “sons of their rebellious fathers,” who murdered the prophets by claiming they would never have joined them in their wickedness. How does this work? How does saying you would never have done what your ancestors did make you guilty with them?
The scribes and Pharisees, like their ancestors, felt they were innocent. Did those who murdered the prophets say, “We are guilty sinners, worthy of the judgment the prophets have pronounced against us, but we do not want to obey God, so we will murder His prophets to silence them”? No! They believed that they were right and that the prophets were wrong. They were innocent, but the prophets were guilty, and worthy of death. The scribes and Pharisees rejected the words of condemnation of John the Baptist and Jesus because they felt that they were righteous. They found words of condemnation harsh and inappropriate, especially when addressed to them. The people of old maintained their innocence in the same way, even as they were putting the prophets to death. Thus, by insisting on their innocence, they only give more substance to the charges against them. The scribes and Pharisees share in the guilt of their ancestors for killing the prophets. They actually “fill up” the measure of the sins of their forefathers. They are snakes, the offspring of snakes, and they will not escape being condemned to hell. Strong words indeed!
There is still another way the scribes and Pharisees will demonstrate that they are the sons of those who killed the prophets. They will prove themselves guilty with their ancestors by repeating the sins of their forefathers. Jesus says that He will send them prophets and wise men and scribes, whom they will persecute and kill, exactly as their forefathers had done. In so doing, they will become guilty for the murders they have committed, and for those of their forefathers. This present generation will be held accountable for the murder of every righteous saint from Abel onward (v. 35-36).
How can this be so? How can one be guilty of crimes that were committed long before they were born? First, they will be guilty for rejecting Jesus, and for killing Him. They will also be guilty for murdering some of the righteous of their own generation. Somehow, there must be a connection between the rejection of the prophets of their own day and the rejection of the prophets of old by their forefathers. Jesus emphasized the connection between His ministry and that of John the Baptist, who was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Since the scribes and Pharisees are aware of the connection Jesus has made between Himself and the Old Testament prophets, then the rejection and murder of Jesus is, in effect, the rejection and murder of all of our Lord’s predecessors. Has this link not already been made by our Lord?
Turn to Matthew 21:33-39, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a pit for its winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went on a journey. When the harvest time was near, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his portion of the crop. But the tenants seized his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other slaves, more than the first, and they treated them the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and get his inheritance!’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”
Who is the landowner?
Who is the vineyard?
Who are the tenant farmers?
Who are slaves or servant?
Who is the son?