Jesus Condemns the Pharisees—Part 1
Matthew Lesson #145
November 20, 2016
“Father, we are so thankful for Your grace toward us, that as the Scripture announces, You loved us in such a way that You sent Your only begotten Son—Your unique Son, the one-of-a-kind God-man—to come into history where He became flesh and dwelt among us.
He went to the Cross to die for us, to die in our place to pay the penalty for our sin. Father, we thank You that redemption is free, forgiveness is free, and that eternal life is free, that we do not do anything to earn it or deserve it.
Yet, Father, we know that there are many in this world who are under the bondage, the slavery, to religious systems and to false philosophies.
Father, we pray that we as believers in Jesus Christ—those who understand the Word— would continue to pursue our understanding of truth—Your Word—so that we can be prepared soldiers of Christ, prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in us, and to clearly explain the gospel to those who need it.
Father, as we study Your Word today, help us to understand some more of these dynamics.
We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen.”
Open your Bible to Matthew 13. Today we continue in this chapter with Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees. We won’t get through all 7 (or 8) woes, but we will come to understand the first two or three, depending on how far we get.
Matthew 13 is where Jesus harshly, harshly condemns the Pharisees. He totally rejects everything they stand for. He condemns their religious approach because they are responsible for leading the nation of Israel at that time to divine judgment.
They are accountable for this. He condemns them because they opposed the Kingdom of God, which He has come to offer. They reject him as the Messiah.
They believe in the Kingdom of God, they believe there will be a coming Messiah, but they do not believe that Jesus is He or that He can bring in the Kingdom.
Therefore, they prevent the people from either accepting Him as Messiah or entering into the Kingdom themselves. The reason is that they have sold themselves into the bondage of religion.
God hates religion, as I have taught the last few weeks. Religion, though, must be understood properly: religion is man doing the work and God validating and blessing man. Whereas Christianity is God doing all the work and man simply accepting it by faith.
What we have seen in terms of our context is that in these five chapters, just before Jesus is arrested and then taken to the Cross, we see that He has entered into Jerusalem, offering Himself as the King.
A. Jesus is publicly presented to Israel as her Messianic King in Matthew 21:1–17
B. He is rejected by the nation, but not by all of the people. That is covered in the section from Matthew 21:18–22:46.
He is rejected by the nation, as exemplified in the religious leaders—they are the ones who represent the people. The Sadducees, the chief priests, the Pharisees the scribes are the ones that reject Jesus’ claims as Messiah.
In Matthew 23, we see that Jesus, in turn, because they have rejected Him,
C. He rejects the nation and announces eight (seven) woes on the nation, Matthew 23:1–39
The reason there is a discrepancy there is because of a textual problem—as we’ll see with the woe that’s listed as second in the King James Version—that’s covered in this particular chapter.
In the first part of this chapter, Jesus concludes by pointing out that the Pharisees are not motivated by humility, they’re motivated by pride and arrogance: they want to set themselves forward.
I concluded last time, going through seven different types of Pharisees as defined by the Pharisees themselves. They recognize that six of the seven kinds were hypocrites. They were critical. There was a lot of criticism of the Pharisees, both within their ranks and from those outside of the Pharisee ranks at the time that Jesus was there.
The seventh category was those who love God, and it is from those God lovers—I’m sure that you found Pharisees who were responsive to the gospel message—like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
But Jesus’ conclusion here is that religion is grounded in arrogance and not humility. I pointed this out when I defined religion, as man doing the work and God blesses and validates man.
Man is always after human validation and divine validation. They are impressed with what they do, they are impressed with the ritual, and they think that this somehow honors God, but it does not because it’s not on God’s terms.
In arrogance man thinks that they have a good enough idea of God, that God ought to be impressed with their sincerity, with their morality, with their ethics, and their desire to please Him.
But they reject God’s revelation in the process, which says that God does all the work. That is grace: He provides everything for us. We don’t spend enough time, I don’t mean as a church, I mean individually, truly reflecting upon the grace of God.
That should be the prime motivator in the spiritual life, is understanding God’s grace. We receive His work, His blessing, for us by faith, and with regard to salvation, that is faith in Jesus Christ alone.
In Matthew 23, after the first 12 verses of prelude, Jesus then really lowers the boom on them. He is extremely harsh in His condemnation of the religious leaders of Israel.
This is something that doesn’t sit well with modern, contemporary man. We have to think of this a certain way, that God has a viewpoint that is expressed in Scripture. We refer to this as divine viewpoint, and divine viewpoint is how God created things, how He designed things, and what He established in terms of moral, ethical, and spiritual absolutes.
Man comes along and rejects that. From their own arrogance, they develop their own ideas about God, about eternity and about religion: that is human viewpoint.
Man also develops many different philosophies. We live in an era today that, over the past 30 or 40 years, we have developed certain standards within the culture that are not biblical standards, but they clash with biblical standards.
And culture, especially American culture, has a history of developing ideas of social sins that somehow replaces and supplants the ethics of Scripture.
In the 19th century, if you go back to the 1820s and the 1830s, the worst sins that you could commit involved slavery, they involved not treating women right: not giving them equal rights. Also, child labor was another great social sin.
This came out of what gave birth to religious liberalism in the early- to mid-1800s. There were other social sins such as drinking—that gave rise to the Temperance Movement—but sin was defined in these superficial social sins.
In the 20th century, those superficial social sins change, and into the late 20 th century and the early 21st century, the social sins are defined as being politically incorrect, or being intolerant, or being too critical of somebody, saying anything that is negative.
One of the problems that has surfaced in surveys of the millennial generation as they go to church, is they don’t like hearing negatives. They don’t like hearing any kind of criticism.
The problem with that is that Jesus is harshly critical at times. So when you are reared in a human viewpoint culture that says harsh criticism or intolerance is the major sin, then when you read Matthew 23, you say Jesus was a sinner! Jesus is intolerant! Jesus is critical of the sincere religious leaders!
So we have a problem in our culture as Bible-believing Christians trying to communicate truth to believers—untrained untaught believers—and unbelievers who have a reversed polarity on their sense of right and wrong.
We need to come to understand how to approach that, so that we don’t frontload their perception by their easily quickly dismissing us, “Well, you’re just critical and judgmental, so you’re not worth listening to.” That is how the devil blinds people’s minds to the truth, and it’s a part of spiritual warfare.
So we need to be much more engaged in prayer, we need to learn and develop our own skills at asking questions and at thinking through how people respond to things that we say and our own attitudes, so that we do not become an impediment to people’s response to the gospel.
That often happens: that’s how people are. They like to use ad hominem arguments, so they’ll reject a message because of the messenger. So we need to make sure that we get ourselves out of the way and let God deal with the person, and make sure that if they are rejecting the gospel, that they’re rejecting the gospel because they reject the gospel, and not because of some attitude or some other opinions that we might have that distract from the Cross.
This is why Paul said I came to know Christ crucified. That’s the focus of the message: it’s about the gospel, our calling. Our calling as believers is to be witnesses of the gospel. That is our focus, so we need to make sure that we are well trained in that.
In a day when tolerance and any kind of criticism is viewed as being unloving and uncaring and hostile and even sinful, we need to think through how to talk about this.
When you think about what Jesus is doing, Jesus is presenting the one and only way to God. He is giving people a life preserver in the midst of drowning. For someone to come along and say, “Well, any life preserver will do when the others don’t work,” is allowing that person to drown.
Perhaps one way that we can engage conversation about this is to direct the conversation to where we ask, “Well, is it ever valid to be critical?” “Are you ever critical?” ”Aren’t you being critical of those who are critical?” “Aren’t you being judgmental of those who you think are being judgmental?” Thus, trying to get them to think about and discover where there are these internal logic flaws within their thinking.
Somebody sent me a video yesterday that was interesting. It had to do with Second Amendment rights: you had a guy and girl who were dating; she was liberal, and he had a pistol, and she discovered that he was pro-Second Amendment.
It goes through three or four little interchanges where he is pointing out certain logical facts, and then her head explodes and he’s just covered in blood. The concluding thought is her head blew up because of logic.
This is what is happening a lot in our culture. Logic is rejected in mysticism. I’ve gone through how we know the truth so many times with this congregation. That in rationalism and empiricism, logic is the methodology used to arrive at answers.
Rationalism is the idea that reason is the way in which we can arrive at truth. Empiricism is the idea that it is through experience, the scientific method observation that we can arrive at truth. Both are built on logic.
But we live in an era when rationalism is perceived to not offer ultimate solutions, and it doesn’t, not ultimate solution. Empiricism has been rejected as not being able to provide ultimate solutions.
As we have seen once before in history—and that is at the time of Christ—there is a reaction to reason and logic, and in place of it is substituted mysticism, and the means of getting to truth is not through logic and reason, but through irrationalism, through feelings.
We have shifted, as one author titled his book, From Reason to Irrationalism, and that is how we have ended up where we are today. So it’s difficult to talk to people who from their pre-suppositional—their assumption base—say logic can’t get you to truth.
So if you use logic, their head’s going to blow up. I think that brings us back as believers to where we have to focus on the Bible, which means we have to know the Scripture and understand the Scripture.
We have to recognize that there are people who are coming from a cultural human viewpoint background who would automatically say, “Well, this can’t be Jesus.”
In fact, there are liberal scholars—very liberal Bible scholars. There was a group in the 90s called “The Jesus Seminar,” and they came along and decided what in the Gospels Jesus could have said, would have said, or could not have said, and would not have said. They don’t think that any of Matthew 23 could have been said by Jesus. See they have a preconceived notion that being intolerant and judgmental is not godly.
Therefore, Matthew 23 is intolerant and judgmental, so it can’t be godly; therefore Jesus could not have said it. See that’s how human viewpoint reason operates.
So we have to understand that from the Bible’s perspective, that God speaks truth, and that there is One who is the embodiment of truth, and that is Jesus who made the extraordinary exclusive claim that “I am the truth.” We have to think that through, what that means.
You’ve heard me go through this argument that when Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life,” He’s either telling the truth or He’s telling a lie. Now we may have some people’s heads explode from that logic at this point, but that’s your option: He’s either lying or He is telling the truth.
If He is lying, then He is either self-deceived or He’s crazy. And there’s no evidence from Scripture that He is self-deceived; there is no evidence that He is psychotic.
He truly believes what He is saying. So if He’s not deceiving people intentionally, if He’s not crazy, then He must be telling the truth. That’s the standard “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument.
If He is telling the truth, then we should understand that if there’s only one way to God, then anyone who is taking somebody in another direction is dangerous and causing people to go through eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire.
Therefore, it is worthy to be critical and to condemn those who are leading people astray and leading them to eternal death: that is what Jesus is doing here.
In Matthew 23:13 we find the first, and for simplicity’s sake, I am going to call it seven woes plus one. We’ll get into that when we look at the second woe that’s in the King James and the New King James Versions.
The first is, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”
He immediately lets us know that He has never read Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He is not a promulgater of the positive-thinking doctrine of Norman Vincent Peale or possibility-thinking doctrine of Robert Schuller.
In my first church, of which about half was composed of people who had grown up and come out of Bible churches in the Houston area and who wanted to know teaching, and the other half older. There was a gap between ages 35 and 55 because it had had a split about 10 years earlier: the older people ran off all the younger ones. So there was always this kind of undercurrent bubbling within the congregation.
I actually had one sweet little old lady—I mean, she was really sweet. Every Friday morning she brought me one of those cake-pan-size trays of homemade sourdough biscuits to put in the refrigerator. Six weeks and 10 pounds later, I had to stop that. That was terrible, but she was just the sweetest thing.
This was my first church—I hadn’t been a pastor before—and one day she said, “Pastor, you know we would just like you to be more like Robert Schuller.”
You know, that’s what a lot of people think. It’s just positive thinking, possibility thinking, never, never say a harsh word. But Jesus isn’t that way. That doesn’t mean that we should necessarily emulate this by being nasty and judgmental and condemnatory of people.
He’s only this way with people who have locked down their volition into negative, so there’s no hope and no way back. Jesus knew that. By these condemnations—He’s not condemning every Pharisee—He’s only condemning the six out of the seven basically, because the seventh seem to be positive. In fact, we know from Acts that many among the Pharisees and the priests responded to the Gospel after the resurrection.
He says to them, Matthew 23:13, “But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
He picks on the scribes and Pharisees, because they are the dominant party at this time and the most conservative—Bible-based, we would say—party. Now that doesn’t mean they were truly biblical because we’ve seen that they were not, but they were the conservatives.
The Sadducees didn’t believe in the Bible. They didn’t believe in anything but the first five Books, and they rejected the doctrine of resurrection and of the existence of angels. The chief priests and the Herodians were only concerned about either their religious power or their political power.
So the Pharisees were the ones to look to for religious truth—for knowledge about how to go to God—in this late Second Temple period.
There are two words that are critical for understanding the framework for Jesus’ condemnation. The first word is “woe,” and the second word is “hypocrite.” What exactly does Jesus mean by these words? Well, you can see them in their original language up on the screen.
The first word is “woe,” which is pronounced OUAI in the Greek. It doesn’t quite look that way because you have four vowels pulled together, but it is a transliteration that has been brought over from the Hebrew.
That’s the second line in the blue box. Oy is the Hebrew word you find throughout the Old Testament. That’s what you hear often today. It comes down from Hebrew into Yiddish, and so it’s entered into various other languages.
It is an onomatopoeic word; that means it’s a word that sounds like what it is saying, which is an exclamation that comes out of somebody’s mouth when something terrible or horrible takes place.
It represents a guttural outcry of anger or pain, or both. It expresses grief and despair, but the way it is used in the Bible is to express God’s judgment—His harsh discipline—on a people or on a group.
He announces woes in the Old Testament against Israel for their idolatry and because they have rejected His Word, Jesus announces these woes against the Pharisees for these seven-plus-one reasons. And there will be woes that come in the second half of the Tribulation period.
Of the last three trumpet judgments—which are just before the midpoint—the last three are called woes: “the three great woes.” Two of them occur just before the midpoint. That last woe is the seventh trumpet that opens up to become the seven seal judgments. So the seal judgments in the second half [of the Tribulation] that culminate in the Campaign of Armageddon is the third woe. So these are harsh judgments from God.
Then they’re called hypocrites from the Greek word HUPOKRITES which refers to actors who put a mask on their face. That’s the classical meaning. Sometimes we talk about somebody being two-faced: they believe one thing and do something else. That would also apply to the Pharisees.
But Jesus is a little more pronounced in the way He is using this as they are hypocrites because they claim to believe in the Kingdom of God and in a coming Messiah, but they have rejected both, and they are preventing anyone who wants the Kingdom of God or the Messiah from entering also. So that is the essence of this condemnation.
We will learn that this term HUPOKRITES, which is an important term in Matthew, is a term that identifies unbelievers. It is not a term for Christians. It is a term for unbelievers, and we see that He’s talking to them as unbelievers by what He says at the end of this section in Matthew 23:33.
Just scan down to the end of the woe section in Matthew 23:33. Addressing them, He again shows that He doesn’t really understand human viewpoint ways to win friends and influence people. He addresses them as John the Baptist did, “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of Gehenna—literally?”
He calls them serpents, brood of vipers. The term “brood” is an English translation from a Greek word that means “the children” or “the descendants” of vipers.
The Old Testament usually relates that word to the concept of seed, and of course, a viper is a poisonous kind of serpent. This imagery here takes us all the way back to Genesis 3.
After Eve and then Adam have sinned, they go off into the bushes to hide when they hear God come because they’re afraid. They had tried to cover up the fact that they had sinned and that everything had changed by making clothes out of fig leaves, which didn’t quite solve the problem.
God showed up and He doesn’t jump on their case and judge them immediately—that’s important to understand—what He did was He began to ask questions. He said, “Where are you?”
God perfectly well knew where they were, but He wanted them to think through where they were and how they got there. He wants self-discovery here. That’s important when we’re talking in any conversation in evangelism.
I think sometimes the period of questioning or getting people to think things through may last a couple of years in some cases. It’s not going to happen in a 15-minute conversation at Starbucks. It can start there, but sometimes it takes time, especially when people are so programmed and indoctrinated by the human viewpoint culture that we have today.
He asked these questions and that brought them to a point of realizing that they had really messed up. They had disobeyed Him, and they were in a worse position than they could ever imagine. Then God really made it clear by announcing what the consequences for their sin were going to be.
He addresses each of the principles in this temptation scenario. He addresses first the serpent, who was used by Satan. Satan indwelt the serpent to tempt Eve. He addresses the serpent and the serpent’s punishment.
In Genesis 3:15, which is the first evangelistic statement, the first hint of how God would provide the good news—in Latin it’s called the Protoevangelium—God said, “I will put enmity between you”—that is, the serpent, He is talking to the snake—“between you and the woman.”
That isn’t talking about a fear of snakes; that is talking about something that is much greater. He is talking about the Seed of the woman. He said, “And between your seed”—that is, those who follow you—“and her seed”—that is talking about the One who would come and solve the problem. The idea of seed is a critical term that it is traced all through the Old Testament.
That’s why you have all the genealogies that you skip when you read the Bible. You get to Genesis 5 and you read all those names, and you say, “I don’t know who those people were.” So you jump to Genesis 6; or you get to Genesis 10 and 11 and read all those names, you don’t know who any of those people are, so you skip that.
Well that’s tracing the seed: that’s going from Eve all the way to Noah, from Noah all the way to Abraham. Then later genealogies traced that line, so that it culminates—it ends—in Jesus of Nazareth. We can trace that seed.
What God is saying here is there is going to be a case of hostility and an enemy status between the descendants of Satan and her Seed, which is the Messiah.
So when Jesus calls them—and when John the Baptist earlier called them—the seed of serpents, they are making a very profound judgmental statement against the Pharisees. They are identifying them with Satan’s descendants and Satan’s seed, which would indicate they’re not believers.
The term “hypocrites” is used several places in Matthew; in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:2; 6:5; 6:16, as well as in 7:5. In each of those He’s referring to the Pharisees, and He’s treating them as unbelievers.
Matthew 15:7–9 makes this clearer. In a conversation with the Pharisees, He calls them hypocrites, so Matthew 23 isn’t the first time He calls them hypocrites.
Then He quotes from Isaiah, “Well did Isaiah the prophet prophesy about you, saying: These people draw near to Me with their mouth.” They talk a good talk: they talk about how much they love God and how much they love His Word. They can recite Scripture and they live, externally, a very religious moral life.
“They draw near to Me with their mouth, and they honor Me with their lips”—but it’s all talk—a lot like a lot like politicians: it’s all talk. Then we elect them, and they go to Washington, and we wonder what happened to their promises: that’s the idea. They’re all talk and no action. In fact, in Texas, we call them all hat, no cattle.
“They honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me”—that means you can worship God and it is emptiness—that’s what God says. It means nothing and that’s what it was; it was just a lot of action, but no reality—“teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
So it’s very clear that HUPOKRITES refers to unbelievers. That’ going to be important when we get to the end of Matthew 24 and into Matthew 25, but I’m just laying the groundwork now for what we’ll come to.
Then in Matthew 15:14 Jesus says, “Let them alone.” He’s talking to His disciples now about the Pharisees: “They are blind leaders of the blind.”
We’re going to see that idea of blindness come up in Matthew 23 several times. He will twice call them fools and blind, not exactly endearing language. Someone who is spiritually blind doesn’t see any spiritual truth. That again reinforces the meaning of these words as referring to unbelievers. “They are blind leaders of the blind and both will fall into the ditch.”
The first condemnation is outlined here in Matthew 23:13, “But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” So judgment is coming, you’re unsaved. Why is judgment coming? “For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering”—those who have what appears to be positive volition—“to go in.” You are preventing them.
There are two things going on here:
- First of all, they personally reject His Messianic claims and offer of the Kingdom.
- Second, they are leading the nation to reject those claims as well.
As I pointed out, that’s what defines a hypocrite here: they are preventing them.
Now a couple of things to observe:
First of all, this is the primary evil of every religious system. Every false religion and false philosophy seeks to prevent people from knowing the truth and from entering into eternal life. So that is critical: this is why the first woe is important.
Second, false religions always make a person feel good: they feel good about themselves. They feel good about what they’ve done, either their ritual or their morality. It may stimulate their minds. There are some religions that appeal to our intellectual capabilities and cerebral skills, and so they think that they are impressing God by their thinking.
There are other religions that will calm their fears and anxieties and philosophies that make them feel good temporarily. It relaxes them or it gives them something they can hold onto, rather than being depressed and upset. Religions may give them moral standards. It may improve their family life, or it might improve their relationships with people.
In a lot of religious systems, by going to church or whatever passes as church, they build a lot of social and business connections. I’ve always been somewhat negatively impressed by people who go to First, Second, or Third “MethoPresbyBapterian” Church because of who they meet there that they can interact with in terms of business.
It will give them certain standing and contacts and clients in their business. If you pick a church and that has anything whatsoever to do with why you’re going to that church, then you know it’s the poison root that poisons the fruit of the tree. It is a bad motivation and it is not God-honoring.
Religion makes a person feel good and think highly of himself, but it does not bring them to Heaven after death.
Third, like all religious leaders, they pretend to know God. They pretend to know their Bible. They may even quote the Bible. Satan quoted the Bible to Jesus. He misquoted and misapplied it at times, but just because somebody goes to church regularly and quotes the Bible doesn’t mean they understand it or that they are going to Heaven.
Religious leaders are energized by arrogance and self absorption with their own ideas. They are impressed with their own intellect and their own religious inventions. This is basically what Paul says.
Notice the similarities between Paul in Romans 2 and what Jesus has said. In Romans 2:17–21, Paul says, “Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law and make your boast in God,”—see they are relying upon the Law, the Torah, as what gets them to Heaven, and they are able to boast about what they have, they boast in God—“and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness.”
Where did we learn that blind light darkness imagery? Jesus uses that in Matthew 23.
“… an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.”
Paul will later talk about unbelievers as those who hold to a form of godliness—that is a form of spirituality—but deny the power thereof. That is religion.
Romans 2:21, Paul says to these Jews, “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?” He’s pointing out the hypocrisy, the inconsistency of their views.
Fourth point, the Pharisees lived under the delusion that because they were God’s chosen people, they were Israelites and Israelites were custodians of Scripture, that they would therefore automatically receive God’s approval and go to Heaven. That was their idea: if you were ethnically Jewish, you were “in like Flynn.”
Fifth point, in contrast Jesus is saying that He alone is the Messiah, and He alone came to offer the Kingdom and eternal life, and life comes only through Him. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” No one—Pharisees, Sadducee, religious person—no one comes to the Father except by Me.
Sixth, this is why the greatest battle is not the battle between Republicans and Democrats. The biggest battle is not the battle between conservatives and liberals.
The biggest battle is between those who hold to biblical truth and those who do not. The big battle is not against progressivism or socialism or social justice or humanism. It is against anything that will prevent people from learning the truth about how to get to Heaven.
The second woe is what I’m calling “the other woe.” Okay? I wrestled with this a lot, trying to figure how to cover this because in the New King James Version and the King James Version, which is based on the Textus Receptus, there is an insertion of a verse, Matthew 23:14, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, for you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore, you will receive greater condemnation.”
We’ve talked about this many times: there are textual problems in places in the Scripture. None of them affect any doctrine. This isn’t a verse that is inserted that Jesus never said. It is stated very clearly in Mark 12:40 and also in Luke 20:47. They read almost identical, so I just put Mark 12:40 on the screen, “who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”
It isn’t that Jesus didn’t say this, the issue is whether Jesus said it in the context of these woes in Matthew 23; or if some later scribe decided, “Well, that’s left out. I want to put it in there.”
The majority of manuscripts that we have include this in Matthew 23. I’ve looked at the evidence; it’s not totally clear in my mind, but I would default to including it. Because it is Scripture, and it is in parallel passages in Mark 12 and Luke 20, clearly stated by Jesus, I still want to look at it and cover it.
Matthew 23 though has the longest account of this condemnation of the Pharisees. It’s virtually ignored by Luke and Mark. They just summarize it in two verses, in Mark 12:39–40 and Luke 20:46–47. They say almost the same thing, and it’s just a summary.
They don’t say anything else about what is included in Matthew 23, which, as I pointed out a couple weeks ago, is Jesus’ last public sermon before He goes to the Cross. It’s not His last instruction, that’s Matthew 24 and 25, but that’s private to His disciples.
It’s the imagery here again of their failure to apply the meaning of the Law. It says, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayer.”
What’s contrasted here is, on the one hand they are “devouring widows’ houses”, which is a very graphic image that indicates a violent, painful, total destruction. Here you have an older woman who’s incapable of working. She has a home, but everything that she has, all of her possessions are destroyed, and she is left destitute and forgotten.
Historically we’re not sure exactly what that described, but in rabbinical literature, there are at least four different options.
First, the temple authorities managed the property of widows and they arranged that their property would be dedicated to the temple in a way that would allow them to basically foreclose on them and take over the property. That is mentioned in some Second Temple period literature.
Second, the scribes took advantage of widows’ hospitality and abused that hospitality, which led them to becoming broke. And that was a problem also in the Second Temple period.
Third, the scribes took on pledges of debts they knew that could not be repaid. They would say, “Okay, we’ll help you out, we’ll give you a loan,” and then they would put an egregious interest on it, so it couldn’t be repaid, and then they would foreclose.
A fourth possibility is that they took fees for legal advice that were in contrast to the provisions of the Law. That is stated in some literature. The idea is that the scribes in contrast, gave an appearance of being obedient to the Law.
In Matthew 22:39 when He answered the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus said, “The first is loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and second, it is loving your neighbor as yourself”—which is stated in Leviticus 18:19—that they were to love their neighbor as themselves, and this violates that. They are not loving their neighbor, the widow; they are destroying their neighbor, the widow; so this shows their hypocrisy.
The third woe, which is the second woe in most translations, so I will refer to it as the second. The one we just looked at is the other woe, the “plus one.” The second woe comes up in Matthew 23:15, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
We see here again that they are doing one thing and creating a further problem: they are subverting the people through their system of converting Gentiles to Judaism. Judaism for the most part—whether it’s the biblical worship of the Old Testament during that period or what came to be passive Judaism—was not very interested in making proselytes.
Remember Jonah? God sent him to Gentiles. He said, “I don’t want to go. We don’t want Gentiles to be part of the Jews.” So you see the attitude in the Old Testament was that they weren’t really evangelistic. But under this late temple period, they were almost militantly proselyting. So there were two different kinds of proselytes. We’ve studied this when we studied Acts.
One was called a “Proselyte of the Gate.” A Proselyte of the Gate was a Gentile who attended Shabbat services, they went to temple, they worshipped the true God, but they had not committed themselves to a full ritualistic Judaism. That would have been especially painful for men who would’ve had to have undergone circumcision.
So most proselytes, like Cornelius that you read about in Acts, were Proselytes of the Gate. They were not Proselytes of Righteousness. That was one who had become completely religiously Jewish according to all ritual, including circumcision, and they were, in many cases, given Jewish names.
They were very much aggressive in making them proselytes to their pharisaical legalism, and the result is that Jesus said “you make him twice as much a son of hell.” I don’t like that; that is bad translation, “son of hell as yourself.” We’ve studied this; again, we’ll hit it one more time in this chapter when I go in detail.
Literally, it is the “son of the Valley of Hinnom.” In this map, we see that the Hinnom Valley was just to the south of the Old City of David and the City of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. It’s used eleven times in ten verses in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament we learn that this is the place where Judah sinned by committing child sacrifices and burning their sons and daughters alive in the fires of Molech. Thus, Gehenna symbolized the place of Israel’s greatest idolatry and spiritual failure and disobedience to God.
For those sins of idolatry, they were condemned, and they were punished in time, not eternity. What you hear from a lot of people is Gehenna was a place to burn trash, it burned all the time, it was just garbage dump, and so it pictures the eternal Lake of Fire. That is dead wrong. It was always used in the Old Testament as a historical reference to God’s temporal divine judgment on the nation Israel at that time.
In Jeremiah 19:6, Jeremiah predicted that as a punishment for their sins of idolatry and immolating their children in the fires of Molech, that that very same site would be used as a mass burial site for those that were slaughtered in the Babylonian destruction in 586 B.C.: not eternal judgment, but temporal judgment.
That’s seen in Jeremiah 7:32.
The conclusion we reached when we did a detailed study earlier is that the Valley of Hinnom was not used in the Old Testament as a reference to eternal condemnation in the Lake of Fire, but as a place of divine discipline on the nation of Israel for their spiritual failure.
That’s what Jesus is condemning in the Pharisees, “because you are bringing these Gentiles in to be part of your toxic religious system, and this is going to end up bringing the people into divine judgment.”
It’s His first statement of the foreshadowing of what’s coming at the end of this message, talking about because of pharisaical rejection of Him, the nation will be judged in AD 70, and the temple will be destroyed, and the people will go out under the fifth cycle of discipline.
That’s where this whole message goes in Matthew 23:33, “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” [the Valley of Gehenna, temporal judgment?]
When we get to Matthew 23:33, I’ll go back and redo the whole doctrine, so we get there, but that’s what they’re talking about here, is that the Pharisees are making these converts sons of judgment, sons of the divine judgment of Gehenna. They are making them complicit in their spiritual crimes.
Religion is deadly, and it has to be condemned. It may make you feel good now, but the end result is eternal condemnation. That is why Jesus condemns the Pharisees.
The grace of God does not impose a religious system. The grace of God says, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve done it all. Jesus paid it in full. All you have to do to be saved is to believe that Jesus Christ died on the Cross for your sins.
“Father, we’re thankful for this opportunity to study the Word, to get into the details here recognizing the horrors of religion, the horrors of philosophical and religious systems that lead people astray, that teach them that there is life where there is only death, that teaches them that they can have meaning and value in life and happiness apart from complete total obedience to You, which isn’t submission to a religious system.
It’s not the yoke of the commandments that the Pharisees were under, for Jesus said, “Take My yoke for it is easy, it is light.” It is a yoke that is based on faith in Jesus Christ alone. It is not based on works.
It’s not based on a religious system, it doesn’t demand that we clean up our lives and change everything before we can be saved. It is simply: Jesus died for you. All you need do is trust in Him and Him alone, and you will have eternal life.
Father, we pray that you would drive these truths home to us, as we understand more and more fully Your grace and the evils of religion.
We pray this in Christ’s name, Amen.”