My father had a phrase he used frequently around the house when I was growing up. It was: “Woe be unto you!” This may sound strange, but not too strange for a preacher who grew up as the son of a preacher. The phrase would usually be used something like this: “Woe be unto you if I go out to the garage and don’t find my hammer in its proper place!”
Today we are going to start into Jesus’ fifth major discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. Remember Matthew structures his Gospel around five major blocks of teaching material from the mouth of Jesus. These five discourses are meant to remind us of the five books of Moses, the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew intends us to see Jesus as a greater Moses.
In Matthew 23 we are going to hear seven woes from the mouth of Jesus which correspond to and contrast with the eight beatitudes of Matthew 5. In fact this fifth discourse in Matthew 23-25 corresponds roughly in length to the first discourse in Matthew 5-7.
One interesting thing to note before we read these seven woes is that Jesus pronounces them against some of the religious leaders of his day. These woes are not directed to society at large, though they have application to broader society as well as to us in the church today.
How often do we hear preachers today decrying the sins of America? Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Jesus’ instruction book and focus on cleaning up our own house, the church, first.
Let’s see what Jesus has to say on this subject from Matthew 23....
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.Before Jesus goes into his seven woes against the Pharisees he has some general comments to make about them. The first thing he says to the crowd and to his disciples is that the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, therefore they should do what the Pharisees say, but not act the way the Pharisees act, for they do not practice what they preach.
5"Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'
8"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are
all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
13"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
15"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
16"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.
23"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
29"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' 31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
33"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.
37"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
The Jews had a saying, “Moses received the Law and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue.” (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible).
The return from Exile was a real turning point for the Jews. Under the leadership of Ezra the Jewish people committed themselves to a serious study of the law. This was eventually undertaken by the Scribes who led a new institution, the synagogue. This re-dedication to the Law of God took place around 450 BC. However, it wasn’t until about 175 BC that the sect of the Pharisees arose in reaction to the foreign rule of Antiochus Epiphanes and his attempt to stamp out the Jewish religion. The name “Pharisees” means “Separated Ones”. The Pharisees sought to separate themselves from the world by their very careful and meticulous following of the Law as worked out by the Scribes.
So, the Pharisees saw themselves as carrying out a tradition which began with Moses, was handed on through Joshua, expounded by Ezra, and worked out in great detail by the Scribes of the synagogue. And Jesus basically says about them, “Look, in so far as they tell you to obey the Law of Moses: do it. But don’t get caught up in all of their petty rules and regulations.”
It is important to note that Jesus and Matthew and the other early Christians weren’t the only ones to criticize the Pharisees. They received criticism from within Judaism itself. The Talmud later distinguished seven different kinds of Pharisees:
- The Shoulder Pharisee who was very careful in his observance of the Law but wore his good deeds on his shoulder.
- The Wait-a-Little Pharisee who could always produce a valid excuse for putting off a good deed.
- The Bruised and Bleeding Pharisee. These Pharisees took their religion so far that they wouldn’t even look at a woman in public so as to avoid temptation. Rather than look at a woman they would shut their eyes and so end up bumping into walls and other obstructions, thus ending up bruised and bleeding.
- The Hump-backed Pharisee walked in such obvious humility that he literally developed curvature of the spine.
- The Ever-Reckoning Pharisee was always adding up his own good deeds.
- The Fearing Pharisee was always afraid of divine judgment and so worked very hard to look good on the outside. This kind of Pharisee would have lived by the motto: “The Messiah is coming soon, so look busy!”
- Then there was the Godly Pharisee who really did love God and sought to obey the law out of loving response to what God had already done for him.
What did Jesus have against the Pharisees? He mentions five things:
- They don’t practice what they preach.
- They may be unwilling to do themselves what they prescribe for others.
- They love to show off.
- They delight in special titles of honor.
- They misunderstand ministry as an opportunity for recognition rather than service.
After mentioning these five negative things and one positive thing about the Pharisees (the fact that they hand on the tradition of Moses) Jesus goes on to pronounce seven woes against them. A woe is literally a funeral lament. These are condemnations of the dead religion of the Pharisees, a spiritual deadness we can all succumb to at times. But in these woes we hear Jesus weeping over spiritual death as much as fulminating against it. Let’s look at these woes one by one.
Woe #1: You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.
First of all, we need to especially notice how Jesus repeatedly calls the Pharisees hypocrites. In Greek society a hypocrite was literally a play-actor on the stage. So we see Jesus condemning the Pharisees and weeping over them because they are merely playing at religion, putting on a show for others to see. There is no inward reality to their faith.
Jesus weeps over the Pharisees because they talk about the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, but they fail to enter it themselves and they keep others from entering. How did the Pharisees do this? By rejecting Jesus as Messiah, that’s how. Here was the One who had come to usher in the kingdom of God and the Pharisees were not recognizing him for who he was. Furthermore, they were deterring others from following Jesus.
We too are liable to this same sin. We must ask ourselves: are we submitting to the rule and reign of Jesus in all areas of our lives and are we encouraging others to do so?
Woe #2: You make your converts into sons of hell.
The Pharisees worked hard to make converts to their version of Judaism. But they were converting people to following the bad news, not good news. They were making people into sons of hell by loading them down with all sorts of petty rules and regulations to follow instead of introducing them to a liberating relationship with God.
Do you know of religious people like that? It is easy to point the finger at groups essentially outside Christianity like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who work hard to make converts but essentially win people to a works-based religion. But how many of our Christian sects and denominations do the same? It is easy for any Christian group to get caught up in legalism, which is basically the practice of trying to be saved by works and adding to the law of God our own rules for behavior.
Woe #3: You swear falsely.
Teachers of the Law had worked out elaborate ways of getting out of having to keep their oaths. We have already seen what Jesus has to say about this. He says in Matthew 5, “Don’t swear at all . . . Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’.” If we have to add anything to that it shows that we cannot be trusted to keep our word.
Are you a person that other people can trust to keep your word?
Woe #4: You tithe scrupulously but neglect justice, mercy, faithfulness.
Tithing on mint, dill and cumin refers to the Pharisees giving a tenth of their kitchen herb garden to the Temple. The Jews were required to give a tithe, a tenth of their produce to the Temple in order to support the priests. The Pharisees went beyond this by even giving a tithe on their herb gardens, a tithe which would have represented a minuscule amount.
The tragedy, Jesus says, is that they did this while avoiding the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. Basically Jesus is saying, “What good is it if you give a tithe of all you have to the Lord’s work but don’t love your neighbor? It’s worthless.”
Jesus tells the Pharisees they should focus on the big issues while not neglecting the smaller issues like tithing. By not doing this the Pharisees were straining out gnats and swallowing camels. This is a reference to the practice of putting wine through a strainer before drinking it so as to avoid the ceremonial contamination of a little gnat. To the Jews both gnats and camels were “unclean”. But Jesus paints a rather humorous picture of the Pharisee avoiding the swallowing of gnats yet consuming camels.
How about us? Do we tend to major on the minors of our faith, or do we concern ourselves with the big issues—like loving God and neighbor?
Woe #5: You clean the outside but not the inside.
The Pharisee spirit always focuses on externals. In an earlier generation the equivalent would have been something like being sure we dressed right for church, but not preparing our hearts for worship ahead of time. Which is more important?
One of the most godly, dynamic churches I have ever seen is one in San Diego where some people come to church in bathing suits, but they worship God with enthusiasm and reckless abandon. I wonder which God cares more about: our outward dress or our inward disposition?
Woe #6: You are like whitewashed tombs.
This sixth woe is like the fifth. Jesus condemns the Pharisees because they are like whitewashed tombs. What is he talking about?
In Jesus’ day the Jews would put whitewash on their tombs around the times of the great festivals so that they would not ceremonially dirty themselves by accidentally touching one of them.
Jesus says that the Pharisees are just like these whitewashed tombs. They look good and clean and pure on the outside, but on the inside they are spiritually dead.
The risen Lord Jesus had these words of warning to a whole church that was spiritually dead in Revelation 3,
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.These were Jesus’ words to the Church at Sardis. I found it humorous but sad at the same time to discover in one city where I once lived that there was a church called Sardis Presbyterian! I think if I had been the pastor of that church I would have changed the name of it.
Once again, it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside, what matters is whether we are spiritually alive on the inside. You can belong to a beautiful church with stained glass windows and marble and fine wood furnishings, but if that church is not preaching and living out the Word of God, it is dead on the inside. By contrast I have worshiped in some churches in very poor parts of the world where there were dirt floors and grey concrete walls and no windows whatsoever, but the people who worshipped there were rich in the Spirit.
Woe #7: You build the tombs of the prophets but your ancestors killed them.
The seventh woe follows on from the sixth. The Pharisees were great memorial-keepers. They did a fantastic job of honoring the great saints of the past by building elaborate tombs for the prophets. They wanted to give others the impression that if they had lived in the days of the prophets they wouldn’t have joined in murdering them. And yet, the Pharisees refused to listen to John the Baptist whom Jesus said was the greatest of all the prophets. And they were at that moment planning how they might kill Jesus. Jesus knew this and so he saw the Pharisees as descendants of those who killed the prophets of old; they were just like their forefathers.
Then Jesus says something absolutely stunning. He says, “Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers.” By that very simple statement Jesus claims to be the God who sent the prophets, wise men and teachers to his people Israel. And yet, he says, some of them you will crucify, others you will flog in your synagogues and chase from town to town. Jesus foresaw the persecution that would come upon his followers. But he also prophesied the judgment that would fall on that generation of Jews for rejecting him as Messiah. Upon them would fall judgment for all the righteous bloodshed from Abel to the prophet Zechariah, from A to Z, beginning to end.
Then hear the pleading note in Jesus’ voice. He longed to gather the people of Jerusalem, to whom he was preaching, under his protective wings, just like a mother hen would do with her chicks to protect them in the case of a fire on a farm. But Jerusalem was not willing. And so Jesus predicted their house would be left desolate—that is the house of the Temple which would be destroyed in AD 70. And they would not see Jesus again until they said those same words pronounced on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
One day Jesus is going to come back to the earth. The question is: will we be ready for him? The Pharisees weren’t ready for him the first time he came. Will we be ready the second time?
One of the greatest descriptions of Pharisaic religion I have ever heard is this one from Tim Hansel. It is when “religion becomes a pattern of rules and regulations, a system that helps us tidy up our behavior, somewhat like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It allows us a better view as we go down.”
Jesus offers us an alternative to dead religion. He offers us a living relationship with the living God through his sacrifice on the cross and through his resurrection from the dead. Which will it be for you: dead religion or living relationship?