“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2).
— Micah Hess
Despite witnessing the ministry of Jesus first‑hand, the hearts of most Pharisees were not moved. Instead, they sought ways to stumble and test him. In Matthew 23 Jesus directly addresses the obstinance of the Pharisees by exposing how their faith had drifted into a mere form of religion. They had transformed the Law into a set of ostentatious rules that could be used to exalt themselves above other men. Jesus pronounced the results of such formalism as devoid of the principles of God. He explained its impact upon both the individuals and the nation of Israel. Brother Russell stated that rules are for children, principles are for men.
Contrasting Righteousness and Religion
The opening of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 23 highlights the difference between true righteousness, which results from the cultivation of virtue, and the mere facade of religion. While the Pharisees had assumed the authority of Moses, their actions revealed their true desires. If their ambitions were righteous they would have guided the people into further obedience to the Old Testament scriptures. They would have built upon the foundations of God’s grace and mercy while pointing them to His promise of salvation. As a result, Jesus rebuked them, telling the people to obey their words and the teachings of Scripture, but not to follow the example of their characters.
Their lives illustrated that being in a favored position, though advantageous, will not by itself lead to righteousness. This poignant lesson is made clear by Jesus in verse 5. “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (NASB95). Their religious formalism was not motivated by a desire to please God. Rather, it was to appear more righteous than others. Although they did many of the right things, it was often for the wrong reasons.
The Matthew account describes seven woes Jesus pronounced that were to come upon the Pharisees. In each of these, he described how they not only failed to bring about righteousness, but actively stumbled others. Strong’s concordance defines the word “woe” as “a primary exclamation of grief.” Thayer says, “an interjection of grief or of denunciation.” The list of complaints against them gives the reason for their rejection of Jesus and the resulting trouble.
(1) Some Bibles may contain an eighth woe. The woe in verse 14, though genuine in Luke 20:47 and Mark 12:40, does not appear in the oldest and best manuscripts of Matthew 23. Therefore, we will not treat it as part of the text herein considered.
First Woe — Shutting Off the Kingdom — Verse 13
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (NASB95). Jesus had previously explained that the Pharisees’ hypocrisy resulted from their desire to be greater than others and appear more righteous. Religion is often reduced to these fallen human desires when not motivated by true faith in love and obedience to God and His word. The Pharisees had built a religious system based upon tradition and the affirmation of men. Their pride prevented them from recognizing the requirements needed to enter the kingdom of God. As a result of their influence, many Israelites were blind to the real requirements of God and failed to develop a faith that would recognize Jesus as their Messiah.
Second Woe — Misguided Conversions — Verse 15
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell (Gehenna) than yourselves.” Instead of bringing hearts and minds to an appreciation of righteousness, they brought new converts into a condition similar to their own, if not worse. A beautiful transformation occurs when the life of a sinner is made more righteous by a knowledge of God and what He stands for. But the Pharisees misrepresented God. It was a tragedy for them to miss the true conversion that would have opened the minds of the people and raised them up, bringing them closer to God. Instead, the Pharisees taught the people self‑righteous moralism. Thus, their religion did not make new followers of God, but rather, brought followers to themselves.
Third Woe — Blindness — Verses 16‑22
“Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, ‘Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!’ Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?” (verses 16, 17). Here, Jesus detailed how the Pharisees incessantly focused on minute technicalities. They taught, for example, that swearing only by certain things could make an oath binding, like swearing by the gold of the temple, but not by the temple itself. They swore by the altar, rather than by the sacrifice that was upon the altar. These examples indicated that they focused on meaningless procedures rather than the worship of God. It was just another ideological discussion while their heart continued to languish.
The Apostle James provides some insight into the discussion of swearing an oath. “Above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (James 5:12). If people are honest in everything they say, the need to swear to their truthfulness becomes unnecessary. The Pharisees did not understand the importance of such integrity.
Fourth Woe — Omit the Weightier Things — Verses 23, 24
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone. Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!” (RVIC).
Jesus here exposed how even their obedience to the Law was tarnished by hypocrisy. They made an outward show of their dedication to the Law in even the most insignificant aspects of their lives. They embellished their own holiness by giving tithes of their herbs and spices. However, they missed the importance of justice, mercy and faith.
This reveals a major fault in any who practice religion only for appearances. It is often used to create a facade of righteousness rather than abiding by the righteous principles emphasized by Jesus. This dangerous form of religion promotes competition and self-aggrandizement. A Christian’s goal must be higher. We must love godly principles and work to incorporate them into our lives. Only when our affections have been properly pruned and trained can we be more conformed to the image of Christ.
Fifth Woe — Inward Corruption — Verses 25, 26
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” Jesus here contrasted the inner condition of the heart with outward conduct. Through the metaphor of a cup, Jesus pointed out that it was wrong for them to think they were cleansed simply because they refrained from any obvious infractions of the Law. The appearance of cleanliness would not necessarily indicate a cleansed heart.
There are two main lessons Christians should learn from this criticism of the Pharisees. First, as sinful beings we often overestimate our ability to refrain from sin. Sin scores a great victory when it has convinced us that it is not even there (1 John 1:8). Second, we can outwardly obey the principles of God while not following them in our hearts. But that is not righteousness. Only love for God’s standard and our commitment to that righteousness will keep our hearts true when the tempter seeks to snare us, or pride wells up within us.
Sixth Woe — Like Whited Sepulchers — Verses 27, 28
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” Under the Law, anyone who touched things belonging to the dead was considered unclean. As a result, the Jews white‑washed their tombs so they would be more easily seen and avoided. Jesus now builds upon the previous point he made when he used the example of the inside and outside of a cup. He compared the scribes and Pharisees to whited sepulchers that appear righteous, but contain sin and hypocrisy. In the previous woe Jesus described how the scribes and Pharisees misunderstood what it meant to be cleansed. Here, the result of neglecting inward purity is sin and death.
While the world may judge by outward appearances, God looks inward. Do we love righteousness? Are our actions motivated by godly principles? Do we examine our hearts to root out their fallen tendencies? These are beneficial exercises for the New Creation as it seeks to grow into the image of Christ.
Seventh Woe — Like Other Killers — Verses 29‑31
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, ‘If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.” Jesus here contradicted their claim to honor the prophets of old. Their lifestyle proved that they were like those who persecuted and killed the prophets. The events soon to transpire would establish this as they continued to persecute our Lord and seek his death. It was evident that while they claimed to be holy, their actions proved otherwise. God’s judgment of the Jewish nation would fall upon that generation once the measure of guilt was full.
The Failure of Mere Religion vs. True Righteousness
This brings us to the final verses of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 23. It was with great anguish that he gave the final verdict, not only on the Pharisees, but upon the Jewish nation as well. “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38 NASB95). As a group, they had rejected him, failing to see that the light of men was walking amongst them. Their outward image of piety did not bring their hearts closer to God. Instead, their religion, full of legalism and ritualistic tradition, blinded them to the presence of the Messiah. It prevented them from seeing their own need for salvation. As a result, the privileges and favors they had enjoyed as a nation were now to be withdrawn.
When Jesus’ message in Matthew 23 is considered, the careful student of God’s word cannot help but give pause to his words. Though his message was focused on the scribes and Pharisees, the principles he extolled have not faded in importance through the long years of the Gospel Age. Nor has the proclivity of the flesh to seek the affirmation of men, rather than of God, changed. Just as the Pharisees’ love of human honor made them prone to legalism and elevated their traditions above the commandments of God, we too must be wary of such a course. Let us each take these fundamental lessons to heart and learn from them. We can memorize everything written in God’s word, but if we do not learn from them, if we do not live by them, and if we do not come to know God by them, then they are not accomplishing their purpose.
Just as Jesus was largely rejected by his own people at the First Advent, he has largely been rejected, or at least not recognized by Christendom, since the beginning of his Second Advent. At his First Advent the Jewish religious leaders failed to cultivate humility and submission to God. This prevented them from recognizing the Messiah. Similarly, many today are blinded by traditions and creeds. Their hearts often seek the affirmation of men instead of God. Those who prefer the trappings of mere religion over true righteousness will not receive the blessings of meat in due season provided to the Church at this time.
We must continually seek to let our hearts and minds be guided and shaped by the truth of Christ as we walk this Narrow Way, taking up the banner of Christ and laying our burdens down at the feet of Jesus.