Oy!! Jesus Condemns the Pharisees—Part 2
Matthew Lesson #146
November 27, 2016
“Father, we’re thankful we can come together this morning to focus upon You and to focus on Your Word.
Your Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, and as we study Your Word, we learn what You think, we learn who You are, we learn how we are to think as those who are created in Your image and likeness, for we were created to reflect who You are to the world and the universe that You have created.
Father, as we as believers study Your Word, we recognize there is a spiritual dynamic that should take place. A spiritual dynamic meaning that God the Holy Spirit is working in and through the teaching of Your Word to orient our thinking back to reality: to the reality that You originally created before sin entered into human history and corrupted the universe and corrupted mankind.
Father, we pray that You would challenge us with the fact that as we study—whatever we study—it is all designed to orient our thinking back to that original created order that will be restored eventually, that we are being prepared today for an eternity with You, and that means we need to learn to think Your thoughts after You, to think as You would have us to think and to live as You would have us to live.
We pray that we would be challenged by the study of Your Word this morning, and that our understanding of grace versus works would be expanded and opened up a little more.
We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen.”
We are studying in Matthew 23, and we are in a section that demonstrates the righteousness of God and His holiness, as He is in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ outlining His condemnation of the religious leaders of Israel.
This chapter is really ultimately all about Israel, but the implications of what Jesus says relate to every single person in human history because it demonstrates the contrast between grace and works.
This is why Jesus is so harsh in His condemnation of the Pharisees is because what they are offering to mankind is a useless life preserver, and if we were to try to save someone from drowning with that which would not provide any help whatsoever, under the law we would be guilty of causing their death because we had not provided that which we could have provided. It is a serious matter.
As people today come to the Scriptures who are not oriented to the Word of God at all, it seems that this just doesn’t fit their view of Jesus as the so-called Prince of Peace because they misunderstand peace. They misunderstand who Jesus is. They think of Him as sweet Jesus, meek and mild, and there is another side to His character.
Like any human being or any genuine person, there are many different facets and dimensions to the Person of God and the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are those actions which are the result of His love, there are other actions which are influenced more by His righteousness and justice.
Righteousness, justice, and love are not mutually exclusive, which is an assumption by fallen, rationalistic mankind that thinks that God must be a certain way or He can’t be God; that Jesus must be a certain way or He can’t really be the Son of God.
So they take these ideas that are generated from the idolatry of their own soul—where in their mentality, they have manufactured their own idea of what God is, their own idea of what Jesus should be as the Son of God—then they come back and impose that on the text.
It’s difficult at times as believers, when we are interacting with a culture—sometimes they’re our family members, sometimes they’re our friends, sometimes our coworkers—but we all have to interact with people who have seriously distorted views of God and of Jesus.
It is not our place to enter into the kind of condemnation that Jesus has here in this chapter. This is a unique sort of condemnation and it flows from the fact that He is the God of Israel: He is the Second Person of the Trinity—the triune God—who is the God of Israel, who is entered into covenant with Israel, and that covenant is ultimately based upon grace.
It’s a false dichotomy to say that God in the Old Testament is a God of law and in the New Testament He’s a God of grace. He is the Originator and the Giver of the Law to Moses in the Old Testament, but He is still the God of grace.
God tells us in Genesis 6 that Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, and Moses was the recipient of God’s grace in Israel. By the giving of the Law, he’s the recipient of God’s grace. God chose Israel for a purpose. That was His gracious action.
He demonstrated His love for Abraham and His descendants in entering into these covenants with Israel in the Old Testament. So there’s not this false dichotomy between love and justice. The two work together, just as they do with mankind.
Jesus is bringing this condemnation against the Pharisees, and it is building in a crescendo to His condemnation and complete rejection of Israel as a nation and His announcement of the coming judgment that will destroy Jerusalem and the temple and end up with the scattering of the Jewish people throughout the world in fulfillment of God’s promises and prophecies in the Old Testament to bring this kind of discipline and judgment upon Israel if they failed to obey the Law.
That’s what this is all about, but in studying this, we get pictures of the legalism, the different ways in which legalism enters into the thinking of unbelievers as well as believers, so there’s application there, but it also reminds us of God’s grace.
What we’re looking at here is these seven woes as I outlined, to remind you that there is another one that is debated due to a textual issue, but we’re just going to deal with the seven main ones here plus one.
Just to bring us back to where we’ve been since we’ve had our focus changed during the last week a little bit with the holidays, in this last section of Matthew 21–25, just before His arrest, Jesus is presented to Israel as her Messianic King and is rejected. He’s publicly presented to Israel as a Messianic King when He enters in with what is referred to as His triumphal entry on what is traditionally known as Palm Sunday.
He is rejected by the nation, but not by all of the people. In Matthew 21:18–22:46, there’s a whole series of interchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders where He is rejecting them.
He points out through the parables as well as through His other interaction that they have rejected Him, and there will be judgment coming upon them. This section is followed by Matthew 23, where Jesus rejects the nation and announces these seven plus one woes on the religious leaders.
The issue throughout Matthew 23 comes down to this, as I covered the last few weeks, is that religion is man doing the work. There are many people who get caught up in this, that we are to do things and God will bless us. That is the essence of legalism. Man does the work, and it comes from his self-absorption, and that man is basically impressed with his own dignity and the good things that he does, but he doesn’t have an infinite reference point.
A finite reference point does not have meaning without an infinite reference point. When the infinite reference point is the righteousness of God, then we understand that the good things that man does is just a relative righteousness: it’s just relative to what other people do. But in relation to God, it falls short.
Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned,” the Scripture says, “and fall short of the glory of God.” That phrase “glory of God” is a way that the Jews would refer to the entire essence of God: it is a summation of the essence of God. A nuance translation of that verse would be “For all have sinned and fall short of the character of God.”
Since we do not meet God’s standards, then we are without hope, so God has a solution. In Christianity, we believe that God does all the work: provides salvation through the penal substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the Cross; and we simply accept it by faith.
Religion is based on legalism—and there are a lot of Christian legalists—and Christianity is based on a relationship with God that is grounded on faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
Last time we looked at the first two plus one woes.
The first one, Matthew 23:13, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
The word “woe” is important because it goes back to Isaiah 5. It’s a classic Old Testament word that refers to the announcement of divine judgment upon Israel. It’s an onomatopoeic word: it sounds like what it is saying.
In the Greek it’s OUAI, which it sounds just like the Hebrew word ‘oy, which sounds just like the Yiddish word, oy. It’s the interjection or exclamation somebody makes when something bad happens. They make this kind of noise, so it indicates something harsh that is happening.
They’re called hypocrites—a term that comes from Greek drama—but it refers to someone who is wearing a mask. It’s not really the idea in the Scripture of being two faced, it’s the idea of saying you believe one thing and actually doing something else.
It’s really developed in the seven woes that there is a problem with the Pharisees in that they are just talking about external realities with the denial of internal realities. As such they are claiming to believe in a coming Kingdom: in a coming Messiah, whose coming is soon, who will deliver Israel.
But then they are preventing anyone from following the Messiah who came—Jesus—and from entering into the kingdom that He is presenting. So they are saying they believe in a Kingdom and Messiah, but they’re preventing anyone from truly entering into it.
This term also indicates that they are unbelievers. That’s an important issue in interpreting several things coming up in future chapters. The Pharisees are presented here as unbelievers.
This is further substantiated as I pointed out, by Jesus calling them a “brood of vipers” in Matthew 23:33, which indicates they are the seed of Satan.
It indicates that they have no relationship with the Lord, as seen in Matthew 15:7–9: “They draw near to Me with their mouth,” as Isaiah said; they “draw near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips”— it’s just lip service, it’s just superficial—“but their heart is far from Me.”
We looked at the first woe, Matthew 23:13: they kept people from entering into Heaven and eternal life.
Slides 9 and 10
The “other” woe is Matthew 23:14, which echoes Mark 12:40 and a parallel in Luke. This is not found in some manuscripts, so some people say “Well, it’s not in the older manuscripts or some of the best manuscripts.” And for them, older is best; but it is found in the majority of manuscripts, so I believe it is here, but it’s usually not counted.
Since nearly everything you read will talk about the seven woes, I’m not going to try to change that; I’m just going to call the seven plus one, and then we won’t get too confused.
The third woe, Matthew 23:16–22 is where we stopped last time. Some things to learn about this: it’s the third, the longest, and the most developed of the seven woes, and the focus on this woe is on the Pharisees’ superficial rationales that they developed in order to avoid fulfilling a vow or an oath that they had taken.
The first five books of the Old Testament known as the Torah or the Law—meaning instruction—has a lot to say about oaths. They are mentioned in Leviticus 5:4, Numbers 5:19, Numbers 30, and Deuteronomy 6:13.
The Mishnah, which wasn’t written down and organized until about AD 200, has a whole tractate—a whole section—called “The Vows”—“The Nedarim”. That’s followed by a second tractate called “The Nazir” from the Hebrew word that we know as Nazarite: talking about one kind of vow—the Nazarite vow.
There are at least two tractates in the Mishnah that focus on the vows. The Mishnah is a collection of the teachings of the rabbis going back to 200 BC. It’s taking what they taught, that had been handed down through oral transmission for almost 400 years, and codifies that.
That gives us a lot of ideas about what the rabbi said and taught about the vows. Some of it was good and follows what the Scripture says, and some of it we see the kind of thing that Jesus is condemning here, where they’re trying to come up with various sophisticated sounding rationales that are very misleading and are ultimately illogical, but they are designed to give people an out.
If you make a vow, and then sometime later you decide, “Well I was just a little too emotional, enthusiastic, I need a way out,” it would give people an escape clause from these vows.
This is a long section: Matthew 23:16–22. I want to read them to you because I not going to go through them bit by bit; we’re just going to summarize what they are saying.
Matthew 23:16, “Woe to you, blind guides.”
Notice how He will point out several times, how He refers to them as being blind. Again, that emphasizes that they’re spiritually dead. The fact that human beings are spiritually dead is represented by blindness. We have Jesus healing the blind man in John 9 to teach that He is the light of the world. We’ll come back to that in our conclusion.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple.’ ” This is where Jesus is summarizing their type of teaching. “Whoever swears by the Temple, it’s nothing,”—in other words, you can swear an oath by the temple, but it really doesn’t mean anything—“but whoever swears by the gold of the temple”—that’s much more significant; then you’re stuck with it—“he is obliged to perform it.”
“Fools and blind!” Notice how Jesus is again endearing Himself to the Pharisees, calling them fools and blind. Now one thing we ought to note about that is the Old Testament tells us that “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.” So when Jesus is calling them a fool, He is not simply being insulting. He is saying something about their spiritual nature.
Not only does He say they are blind, which indicates they’re spiritually dead, but He calls them fools, which indicates that in their experience they are denying the existence of God because of the way they handle His Word.
They wouldn’t say, “We don’t believe in God.” They do, but the God they believe in is not the God of the Old Testament Torah. It is the God they have manufactured out of their own soul, so that they can avoid what is actually said in the text. That’s a packed spiritual term.
“Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold?” He goes through and uses several different examples of where they are swearing by one thing and trying to artificially distinguish it from something else.
For example, “Whoever swears by the altar, it’s nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.” So they’re drawing an artificial distinction between the altar and the sacrifice.
Matthew 23:19, “Fools and blind!” —again emphasizing their spiritually dead condition—“for which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift?” By asking that question, He’s showing that they’ve made an artificial distinction.
“Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it, and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.”
What we see here if we break it down is a pronouncement of the woe in first part of Matthew 23:16, “Woe”— judgment or condemnation—“to you, blind guides, who say.”
Now not all the Pharisees would have gone along with this, as I pointed out a couple lessons back, we had seven different kinds of Pharisees. The seventh kind was the one who truly loved God.
These would be represented by those who responded to the gospel, both before the crucifixion and after the crucifixion. Before the crucifixion, men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea responded to the gospel. There were some Pharisees, even at that time, which had already trusted in Jesus as Messiah.
But for the most part they fit the patterns of the other six. Now a lot of Christians fit those patterns, too. That’s why I entitled that lesson, “What Kind of Pharisee are You?” A lot of Christians get into very superficial approaches to their spiritual life.
There’s the pronouncement of the woe in verse 16a, and then the second summary of what He is saying is the reason for the woe: why is He announcing this judgment? That is because the Pharisees have made these artificial distinctions in order to avoid being held to an oath or a vow that they have taken.
We see this in the second part of Matthew 23:16, where it says, “Whoever swears by the Temple, it’s nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he’s obliged to perform it.” They make these artificial distinctions between the Temple itself and the gold of the Temple, or in Matthew 23:18 between the altar and the gift that is on the altar.
There are basically four different pairs that are discussed by Jesus. There’s the Temple, and all through this section, the Greek word that used for temple here is the word NAOS.
NAOS always refers to the inner sanctum—the Holy of Holies in the middle of the Temple—not all of the Temple precincts. It wouldn’t include the courtyard of the Gentiles or the court of the women; it’s just that inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies in the Holy Place.
He makes a distinction. “You can swear an oath by the Temple,” is what they were saying; but that didn’t count. If you were really serious, you made an oath by the gold of the Temple. It would sound good if you said, “I swear by the Temple,” but you’re not held to it: it’s an artificial distinction.
Or they would swear by the altar, but if they were really serious, they would have to swear by the sacrifice of the altar. Scripture doesn’t make those kinds of distinctions.
In the second part of that passage, He talks about the fact that they would swear by the Temple, but the Temple is sanctified by the One who dwells there, who’s the Lord, and the word for “dwelling” in Hebrew is shakan, from which we get the other word Shekinah.
Shekinah is a noun form from the verb “to dwell.” It comes across into Greek as the word SKENE, which also is the same word that shows up in Russian and several other languages.
That Greek word SKENE leaks into English as the theatrical term “scene.” The Greeks didn’t have a soft “C,” they only had a hard “C,” so they softened it into English.
They all refer to a dwelling or something of that nature. It’s not the word HIEROS, which is a word that would describe the broader section; He’s really talking about that area where God where God dwells.
Then they would swear by Heaven, but Jesus says what sanctifies Heaven is the throne of God, so you can’t make this distinction.
He asked two rhetorical questions. Notice how Jesus uses questions. They’re designed to get people to think.
We often—I’m am learning to do this—ask people questions, and not force them to hurry their way through the answers. Most people take time because most people don’t think about things too deeply. I’m not being insulting. I find that today, we have people who have a deficit in their education, so they don’t know how to think.
In many cases, they’re people who’ve never ever had anyone around them who asked them a thought-provoking question; it just blows their mind. So you have to give them time to think about things. We’re in too big of a hurry, often, to try to correct people on the gospel and correct people’s understanding of God without letting them go through that thoughtful process of self-discovery.
Jesus is asking them these questions. Of course, Jesus’ context is a little different than when we’re trying to witness to somebody. Matthew 23:17, “Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold of the Temple that sanctifies the gold?”
Well, the way He sets up the question, it’s pretty obvious: there is no distinction. Then He says the second time, Matthew 23:19, “Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift?”
When Jesus is asking these questions, He’s asking them rhetorically to bring out the point. He’s not really waiting for them to give an answer for self-discovery. He’s already condemning them because they’re people who are already set against God. You can ask them every question in the world, and they’re never going to try to probe or think because they’ve already decided in the core of their soul to reject God: that’s where they are.
He concludes this little section with three positive statements where He says, Matthew 23:20–22, “Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.”
The point that He is making is that you can’t come up with these little distinctions that are superficially plausible, but actually are logically flawed. They are misleading and will lead people into divine judgment.
By His argument here He is showing that the significance that the place, the offering and the Person of God are inseparably connected to one another. To swear an oath on one is to swear an oath on the other. Therefore all oaths, He is saying, are equally binding.
Now He doesn’t condemn using an oath here. That’s clearly authorized in the Old Testament. What He is saying is that you have to be extremely cautious and careful and weigh the alternatives to taking an oath because once you take it, you’re bound by it, and you can’t just walk away from it.
What He is saying to the Pharisees isn’t really that difficult. He’s just demonstrating the falsehood of their logic. Another way to look at this is that, by making these false distinctions, they’re profaning the name of God. In effect, by coming up with ways that you can avoid fulfilling an oath, you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain.
We often think, well, taking the Lord’s name in vain is some sort of curse word where you put the name of God or Jesus in front of something. That’s probably the lightest form of taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Often when people get in a pulpit, and they say that God has spoken to me: now they are taking the name of God in vain in the kind of way that the law is prohibiting. When people stand up and say that God is going to do this, God is going to do that, and there’s no direct revelation for either, then once again they are taking God’s name in vain.
There is a lot that happens in Christianity on every single Sunday morning from tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of pulpits in this country, where the pastors are taking the Lord’s name in vain.
But we never call them on that because we’ve sort of misinterpreted and misdefined what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain. We have to be very careful. So Jesus is in effect telling them that by this they’re breaking one of the Ten Commandments and taking the Lord’s name in vain.
By calling them blind guides, He indicates that they’re spiritually dead and blind and have no perception of the truth. This goes back to Matthew 15:7–9, 14. There He calls them hypocrites. He identifies the problem as lip service in verse 8, that their worship of them is vanity, “in vain they worship Me,” so they’re taking the Lord’s name in vain by the way they are worshiping.
In verse 14 He concluded by saying, “Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind”—they’re all spiritually dead—“and if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch”—a picture of eternal condemnation.
He is going to use this metaphor of blindness five times in this section.
- In verse 16, they’re blind guides
- In verse 17, they’re fools and blind.
- In verse 19, they are fools and blind.
- In verse 24, they’re blind guides.
- In verse 26, they are blind Pharisees.
He reiterates this five times for effect: He emphasizes their spiritual death.
In Matthew 5:34–37, Jesus is teaching them that it’s better to avoid taking oaths and simply affirming with a “yes” or “no”. He’s not giving a new principle there, He is simply saying, “let your yes be “yes,” and your no be “no.” So if you take an oath, make sure that you are going to be able to fulfill it.
Underlying the warning against taking oaths is that we, as creatures in the image of God, are to reflect the character of God, and God is not a liar.
Titus 1:2, “In hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie.” Just by this little parenthetical statement, Paul affirms that God cannot lie, and He will fulfill His promises.
1 Samuel 15:29 in Samuel’s rebuke of Saul, which we studied not long ago in our Tuesday night study, “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent.”
In the last two or three Tuesday nights, we’ve studied Psalm 59. In Psalm 59, David refers to God as what? The Strength of Israel. You see that was apparently a common name to refer to God. Samuel used it in 1 Samuel 15, David used it in Psalm 59.
The fourth woe, again, emphasizes their superficiality: that they are majoring in the minors and minoring in the majors. They are rejecting significant issues and spending all their time on minor issues.
The minor issues are irrelevant to their spirituality. The major issues are important to their spirituality, but they would rather talk about that that’s not important, because to talk about that which is, can be rather convicting. I know nobody here would ever do anything quite like that.
It is common in all religion. We don’t want to talk about those things where the Holy Spirit is going to drive it home, and it will be personally convicting—let’s talk about something else, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—that same kind of thing.
In Matthew 23:23, He articulates the woe. He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin”—these are herbs, but they are considered to be part of the crop, part of that which is harvested.
“For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the other undone.”
He’s not saying that you shouldn’t talk about paying the tithe of mint and anise and cumin—you do that—but you also have to talk about the weightier, more significant issues of the Law related to justice, mercy, and faith
“Blind guides,” He calls them, “who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
Two passages in the Old Testament talk about herbs as being part of the harvested crops: Leviticus 27:30 and Deuteronomy 14:22–23.
It’s not that tithing herbs was not important or not correct, it’s just that it is a lower priority than weightier matters, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. This isn’t a hierarchical ethic, it is saying that even within the Law, there are some things that are more significant than others.
“Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel,” Matthew 23:24. I think that this was a common idiom—it is a play on words—especially in the Aramaic. Very possibly, Jesus said this originally in Aramaic, but it was written under inspiration in Greek.
The Aramaic word for gnat, as you see on the board is the word “QALMA” and it sounds like and is very similar to the Aramaic word for camel, which is “GAMLA,” so it’s a play on words.
The Bible is filled with these little puns or paronomasias—even these sayings are written that way, so that it’s memorable—so you can remember it.
Jesus is alluding to Micah 6:8 in this passage, which says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” That’s the background for what Jesus is talking about in the fourth woe.
In the fifth and the sixth woes, we see this emphasis on externals only. It’s more than just a denial, it’s that they’re totally ignorant of the need for an internal transformation as the precursor to an external transformation. So in the fifth and the six woes the focus is on the ultimate spiritual issue of internal transformation.
Matthew 23:25–26: I’ve often seen this applied to sanctification. I don’t think that’s the original meaning of Jesus, He’s not talking about their spiritual life and spiritual growth because in order to have spiritual growth, you have to be born again. I think they’re spiritually dead. I think that’s the issue here, is that they’re spiritually dead; therefore, there can be no genuine external cleansing.
Matthew 23:25, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish …” He’s using a picture that we discover in the Mishnah of the tremendous concern for the externals, for ritual purity in the area of dietary laws, and how to use the right dishes for the right things.
We’ve talked about this in the past that in the Mosaic Law, there is a command that a calf should not be boiled in his mother’s milk. That has direct allusion to practices in the pagan worship of Baal, and what it was communicating was that the Jews were not to worship God in the way the idolaters worship their gods.
In Second Temple Judaism, they got to the point where they were trying to make sure they never ran the risk of violating that original Law, so they reached a point where they completely separated any kind of utensil that would be used in dairy products with those that were used in meat products.
Even today in Israel many of the hotels that cater, not just to a Gentile crowd but also to Jews, will have either a meat kitchen or a dairy kitchen.
One of the nicer hotels where I’ve stayed several times, has a dairy kitchen, and I don’t like to stay there very long because the menu gets rather boring. It’s mostly like pasta and fish—that’s it.
I just I found out since I was there the last time that the room service menu is a meat kitchen. So if you want a hamburger, you have to do it through room service.
But it’s completely separate kitchens, completely separate utensils, and if you go to an Orthodox- observant home, you will discover they have two complete sets of dishes: those for dairy and those for meat.
Because they want to avoid ever using a dish that might have a molecule of dairy on it, and then you put beef there, and it’s possible in some extended sense that that is the calf of the mother from whom the milk came, so to avoid all of that.
They go to an excessive amount to make sure all of these things are done properly, as well as cleansing. He’s using that as an analogy: that they are just so obsessed with this, that they clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside it’s still dirty. It looks good on the outside, but inside it’s filled with extortion and self-indulgence. It is filled with sin. They never correct the core problem.
I think that what this is saying is that in the light of the fact that they’re again called hypocrites, blind guides, etc., they’re not saved. That’s the cleansing of the inside. It’s not talking about experiential cleansing, it’s talking about positional cleansing.
They’re not saved, so He tells them that first you have to cleanse the inside of the cup. That’s what happens when we trust in Christ for salvation. Then the outside can truly become cleansed. If you’re just washing the outside, that would be simple morality, and even unbelievers can be very moral and have a measure of integrity that often outshines believers.
I’ve frequently told the story of when I was in seminary, I would housesit for a family, who went to Northwest Bible Church: they were a solid, Bible-based family. But whenever they needed work done on their home, they would always hire either a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness because they were working their way to Heaven. So they did a much better job than your run-of-the-mill grace-oriented Christian. That’s such a convicting thing. Let’s move on.
“Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup,”—that would be regeneration. Then it’s possible to truly change the outside.
This reminded me of what happens in Matthew 12:43 when Jesus is rejecting the Pharisees. They rejected Him, accused Him of casting out a demon by the power of Beelzebub, He gives this example: “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.”
This is morality. You can morally clean everything up, but if there’s no real internal change, then it’s going to end up being worse later on.
“And when he comes home, he finds everything clean”—this moral reformation—you’ve cleansed the outside of the cup. Then this demon “goes and takes seven more spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there”—because there’s no internal transformation, no internal cleansing that comes from faith in God’s promise of salvation.
The sixth woe in Matthew 23:27–28 continues the same idea of the previous one, which has to do with external cleansing when inside everything is still spiritually dead.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”
According to the Mosaic Law, if you touched a dead body or carcass, then you were rendered ritually unclean. There are a lot of graves in Israel; in order to warn people off so they would not accidentally sit down and have a picnic on top of somebody’s grave, they would put tombstones over these graves. And they would paint them with whitewash, so that it would warn people from coming to the grave and being rendered ritually unclean.
That’s what Jesus is referring to. On the outside it looks very white and very clean, but on the inside, it’s a grave: it’s filled with dead man’s bones. The idea is you look good on the outside with your morals and your ethics and all your ritual activity and religious activity, but on the inside you’re spiritually dead, you’re unregenerate. That has to be solved before you can truly work on the outside.
In verse 28 He says, “Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” You’re still spiritually dead.
These cover the first six. I want to wait and cover the seventh because it goes directly into the final judgment on Israel. We’ll cover that next time and finish the chapter. Then I’m going to take a pause because Matthew 24 takes us into the Olivet Discourse, when we start getting into a lot of prophetic themes.
So it works out nicely according to the calendar that we’ll finish this section up in the next couple of weeks. Then the next three weeks that will conclude with Christmas Day, we will focus on the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and its significance. When we come back on the first of January, we will start into the prophetic section in Matthew 24–25.
What’s our conclusion here? This passage is about condemning legalism—condemning religious activity—instead of genuine spiritual rebirth and grace-based salvation and living.
1. The conclusion is that first of all, there must be an internal transformation before there’s a relationship with God. There has to be a transformation internally from being unclean to being clean.
This compares with the transformation from being blind to receiving sight. The perfect picture of this is in John 9 when Jesus healed a blind man. In John 9:5 Jesus said in reference to what He was doing, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” John 8–9 teaches that Jesus is the Light of the world—He comes in to illuminate. This goes back to John 1: that He is the Light and in Him was no darkness— He brings light into the world.
In John 9:35 after an interchange with the Pharisees again, He is talking to the man who was blind that He healed. Notice the blind man had no idea Jesus was going to heal him. He isn’t believing in Jesus to be healed. He isn’t seeking to be given sight. Jesus just did it out of His sovereign will. Now He’s going to come back and use that as an opportunity to focus on the gospel.
“Jesus heard that they had cast him out”—the Pharisees dumped him, and Jesus went looking for him—“ ‘He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” ’ ” And the blind man “answered and said, ‘Who is He, Lord?’ ”—he’s still not sure. Remember, he was blind, so he never really got a good look at Jesus.
He said, “Who is He”—who is the Son of God—“that I may believe in Him?” He wants to believe—that’s an expression of his positive volition. Jesus said, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking to you.”
Jesus says, “I’m standing right here; I’m the one who healed you.” And “then the blind man said, ‘Lord, I believe!’ ”
Through out the Gospel of John, the only basis for salvation is belief. It’s not asking Jesus into your heart, it’s not walking an aisle, it’s not changing anything. It’s not making a commitment. It’s not even repenting, although I do think that one sense of repentance is to change from not believing to believing.
But in John there’s no mention of the word “repent.” It is simply believe, believe, believe, believe! That is how the internal transformation takes place. It is totally on the basis of grace and not on the basis of works.
2. Secondly, what follows that should be an experiential internal transformation. This is what Paul describes in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
That can’t happen to you unless you have first trusted in Christ as Savior. After that we have to have our mind renewed, so that we can prove or demonstrate that the will of God is good, acceptable, and perfect. That’s the process of the spiritual life. It is an ongoing cleansing process.
3. Thirdly, both of these are based on grace, not on a superficial obedience to an external morality, but an internal transformation that takes place on the basis of grace.
Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “That for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Titus 3:5 says that it’s “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.”
Salvation is based on grace, the spiritual life is based on grace, but that doesn’t mean it’s lawless. It means that we understand that God is the One who does the work, and we accept it.
We don’t do the work and expect God to bless us. God has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies.
“Father, we thank You for this opportunity to study these things this morning, to be reminded that our relationship with You is based on grace. It’s based on our response to Your love and to Your goodness to us, and the fact that You have done everything necessary, that we are not trying to earn Your favor.
We are not trying to gain access on the basis of our own efforts, our own works, our own morality—that is just simply a counterfeit. The reality is that we have to be transformed from the inside out as a result of Your grace, and that can only come as a result of trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior. The issue is believing on Him and we’ll have eternal life.
Father, we pray that if there is anyone listening, that they would be clear that salvation is being freely offered to each and every person, and that we don’t have to do anything to make ourselves savable.
We don’t have to go through any kind of moral reformation, we don’t have to quit anything in order to get saved. We just have to believe that You provided a perfect salvation for us, that we trust in Christ and His death for us on the Cross, and therefore, we will have eternal life once we believe that.
Father, we pray that You would challenge each of us for a need to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen.”