Thursday, December 29, 2016

Matthew 23:1-39, Pharisees, and Seven Woes on False Religion

If anyone ever finds himself thinking that in matters of religion all views are relative and any sincere faith and practice will do, that person needs to read Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees’ religion preserved in Matthew 23. People have compared religion to a mountain with heaven on top and with many roads that lead up to it.

Jesus did not accept this kind of easy misconception. He was aware of our faults and understood our failures, but he never suggested for a moment that any faith would do. On the contrary, he taught that there is but one way to God, namely, himself (John 14:6), and that any teaching that masks that way or keeps men and women from it is damnable.

Now, Matthew 23, the chapter under consideration in this post, is the fifth of six collections of Jesus’ teachings in this Gospel. The others are the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7); the commissioning of the Twelve (Matt. 10:5–42); the parables of the kingdom (Matt. 13:1–52); teaching about the character of those who will be part of the kingdom (Matt. 18); and the sermon on the Mount of Olives that follows chapter 23 (Matt. 24–25).

Matthew 23 is probably a collection of things Jesus said not only at this time but on other occasions as well and it is radically different in its theme because it is addressed to a different audience, to the crowds and teachers of the law rather than to the disciples exclusively.  Jesus had spoken against the religion of the Pharisees earlier (Matt. 15:7). He had warned his disciples about their harmful teachings (Matt. 16:5–12). Here his exposure and warnings become public. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law had rejected him. They were even then plotting to have him killed. Now he rejects them and warns those he is about to leave behind of the Pharisees’ deadly influence.

Who were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were a distinct party in Judaism of the late Second Temple period, with their own vision of what Israel’s standing as God’s covenant people entailed. Characteristic of the Pharisaic position was their adherence to a body of traditional material handed down “from the fathers,” which defined correct behavior in a number of ways and which represented both an interpretation of and a supplement to the Law found in the Pentateuch. In the Gospels, Pharisees are generally depicted as opponents of Jesus, critical of his behavior, hostile in their questions, malicious in their deliberations. In turn, their piety is attacked as hypocritical, their spiritual leadership is declared bankrupt, and they are charged with leading the nation to its doom. Through all the polemic the significant role played by the Pharisees in Jewish life in first-century Palestine is apparent.

Let’s talk about the Problem with the Pharisees

Matthew Henry, the author of the magnificent six-volume Commentary on the Whole Bible, says about some hypocritical preachers: “When in the pulpit, [they] preach … so well that it is a pity they should ever come out; but, when out of the pulpit, [they] live … so ill that it is a pity they should ever come in.” This is what Jesus seems to be saying at the start of the chapter, though his words grow more negative as his exposure of the Pharisees proceeds. These men taught the Scriptures; in that they were right. Their teachings, when accurate, should be obeyed. On the other hand, their practices underlying their teaching should not be imitated.

So, what was wrong with the Pharisees? We must remember that they were the most highly regarded figures of their day. They believed the Scriptures and had made it their duty to obey them in even the smallest particulars. Their very name meant “separated,” meaning that they were trying to separate themselves from all contaminations of sin. They were not flagrant sexual offenders nor outright thieves nor murderers. When the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable said he was neither a robber, nor an evildoer, nor an adulterer and that he fasted twice a week and gave a tithe of all he acquired, he was probably being quite honest. This was the way these men actually lived.

So, what was wrong with them then? The answer given in Matt. 23:4–7 is this: Their character was the exact opposite of that required of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom (cf. Matt. 18:1–35), which meant that in spite of their religious professions and stringent legal practices, they did not actually know God and had not been changed inwardly by him. They should have been humble, compassionate, loving, and forgiving, as Jesus was. But they were actually: (1) hypocritical (“they do not practice what they preach,” v. 3); (2) indifferent (“they tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” v. 4); and (3) proud (“everything they do is done for men to see,” v. 5).

One of the biggest problems was that these men wanted to be teachers. This is what “Moses’ seat” refers to. There was actually a stone seat at the front of most synagogues, and rabbis sat down to teach. Jesus had done this himself when he preached his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:20). We preserve the idea when we speak of a professorial “chair” at a university. The Pharisees had been using their position as teachers to get praise for themselves while making it nearly impossible for those they taught actually to learn the Bible’s truths and come to God, and Jesus strongly condemned them for those sins.

So, let’s consider the contrast: Jesus’ Teaching

Jesus’ teaching was a reversal of the Pharisees’ desires for themselves (vv. 8–12). They wanted to be thought important and to be praised by the people for their religious achievements. But Jesus said that his disciples were to be self-effacing and humble, even to the point of declining titles such as “rabbi,” “father,” and “teacher,” and to be servants to other people instead. Jesus did not mean there should never be teachers in the church, for the abilities to minister and teach were some of the gifts to be given to the church by the risen Lord (Eph. 4:11). He only meant that his followers were not to seek such positions in order to be praised by men.

Matt. 23:11–12 are a reiteration of Jesus’ teaching about the character of those who would follow him, already considered in the study of chapter 18: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” This seems to have been Jesus’ favorite text, since he taught it in various forms and on numerous occasions.

So, let’s look at the “Seven Terrible Woes” of Matthew 23…

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had pronounced multiple blessings on the godly. Here, in the latter half of Matthew 23, he pronounces seven woes on the wicked. This follows an established Old Testament pattern, seen for example in Isaiah 5:8–23, where there are six woes, and in Habakkuk 2:6–20, where there are five. A woe is a lament or wail concerning the final end for evil people. Here each woe is followed by a reason for it.

1. For making salvation hard for other people (Matt. 23:13). In the first part of chapter 23, Jesus criticized the Pharisees for wanting to be at the top of the religious pyramid, to lead the parade, as we might say. But in their desire to receive the praise of the people, it is as if they had led the parade to the very doors of heaven but then had refused to go in and had effectively blocked the door for others. The kingdom of heaven is Christ’s kingdom, of course. So Jesus is saying that the Pharisees were standing in the way of others who, apart from them, might find salvation.

This is a terrible thing to say of religious leaders, but it is a true indictment of many in our day as well as in the time of Jesus. Is it not true of ministers who lead Christian congregations but who never really explain the gospel or how people can be saved? Is it not a just indictment of seminary professors who undermine belief in the authority of the Bible, the deity of Christ, miracles, the efficacy of Jesus’ atoning death, and the bodily resurrection, while pretending to serve the church of Christ that pays their salaries? Is it not a proper assessment of professors who write destructive books masquerading as explanations of the Bible’s teaching? I know of countless examples of such Pharisaic evils, and I can echo Christ’s judgment when he calls down woe on such people for their conduct.

2. For corrupting converts (Matt. 23:15). The second of Jesus’ woes goes beyond the first, for now it is not merely a question of false teachers stopping people from entering Christ’s kingdom but of their drawing some into their own corrupt camp and corrupting them by doing so. Over the centuries the Jews had not been a particularly evangelistic people, since being a Jew was usually defined in ethnic terms. Yet there seems to have been a truly evangelistic fervor during the time of Jesus Christ. We see a reflection of this in the Judaizers who opposed Paul, traveling as far as Galatia to corrupt the fledgling faith of his Gentile converts. Jesus acknowledged the Pharisees’ zeal to “travel over land and sea to win a single convert.” But what is the value of doing so if the convert becomes “twice as much a son of hell” as those who have converted him? It is an observable fact that people converted to a fanatical position are often more corrupt in their zeal than those who were in the movement from the start.

3. For trivializing religion (Matt. 23:16–22). The third accusation deals with the use of clever but unsound reasoning by these religious professionals. What the Pharisees were guilty of was making minute distinctions in the law in order to avoid the true meaning of the law or escape its consequences. In explaining this indictment, Jesus used examples of which he had spoken at other times and in other places, chiefly the way in which lawyers distinguished between legally binding and nonbinding oaths. Their position was that only oaths taken in the name of God were binding. But since the Jews did not usually use the name of God in their speech but rather employed euphemisms such as “heaven,” or the “temple,” or God’s “throne,” it became a debatable matter whether a specific oath was in the name of God or not. The Jews would call swearing by the temple invalid, while swearing by the gold of the temple was valid. Swearing by the altar was insignificant, but swearing by the gift that had been placed on the altar counted.

This is a trivialization of truth, and it was countered by Jesus when he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I tell you, Do not swear at all.… Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:34, 37). Jesus called people who handle truth in this useless and corrupting way “blind guides,” meaning that they cannot see spiritual issues clearly and therefore not only lead others astray but fall into a pit themselves (Matt. 15:14). Are we to suppose that there is nothing of this in today’s religious circles? I suggest that this happens whenever teachers make delicate distinctions about things the Bible teaches, arguing, “This may be sin, but this closely related type of misconduct is not” or, “Jesus may be saying this, but again he may be saying something quite different.” They fail to take the Bible’s statements at face value and fail to insist not only that truth is truth but that it is always truth and is binding on everyone. Ministers can be guilty of this failure when they shade the truth of Bible doctrine so as not to offend powerful or wealthy people, etc.

4. For neglecting what is actually important (Matt. 23:23–24). Jesus’ fourth charge is that the Pharisees fretted over the law’s minutia while neglecting matters that were ultimately important. His example is the way the Pharisees handled tithing. The law required tithing of grain, wine, oil, and the firstborn of the flocks (Deut. 14:22–29). But the Pharisees had greatly expanded this to include a tenth of even household spices such as mint, dill, and cumin. These were grown in household plots and existed in small amounts. Jesus’ complaint, therefore, is about their preoccupation with mere trivia. He does not say they are wrong to tithe spices. On the contrary, they should not neglect such tithing (v. 23). What was wrong is that they allowed a concern for minutia to obscure such weightier matters as “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23).

Do we do the same today? We do if we allow small points of theology or religious practice to crowd out the pursuit of justice for every human being, showing mercy to the poor and helpless, and being faithful to God in living for and serving him. Micah asked, “And what does the Lord require of you?” He answered wisely, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

5. For self-indulgence (Matt. 23:25–26). The Pharisees debated about what it means to keep a kosher kitchen, and the rules they devised were many and complex. William Barclay reports on what some of them were like:
An earthen vessel which is hollow becomes unclean only on the inside and not on the outside; and it can only be cleansed by being broken. The following earthen vessels cannot become unclean at all—a flat plate without a rim, an open coal-shovel, a grid-iron with holes in it for parching grains of wheat. On the other hand, a plate with a rim, or an earthen spice-box, or a writing-case can become unclean. Of vessels made of leather, bone, wood and glass, flat ones do not become unclean; deep ones do. If they are broken, they become clean. 
After a few more examples, Barclay concludes: 
The food or drink inside a vessel might have been obtained by cheating or extortion or theft; it might be luxurious and gluttonous; that did not matter, so long as the vessel itself was ceremonially clean.
The obvious application of this is to the concern even most church-going people seem to have for keeping up appearances. As long as we go to church, talk nicely, give a bit of our money to charitable causes, and do our civic duty, it does not seem to matter much whether we are dishonest in business, covetous in money matters, cruel in dealings with our families, selfish, proud, or arrogant. We may even say, “What I do in my own private life does not matter; it’s nobody’s business but my own.” Jesus did not think this way. On the contrary, he said, “You hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (vv. 25–26).

6. For wickedness within (Matt 23:27–28). The fifth woe leads naturally to the sixth, for having spoken of the dirty insides of their lives, like the contaminated inside of an outwardly polished cup, Jesus added the well-known illustration of whitewashed tombs containing “dead men’s bones and everything unclean,” a euphemism for decaying human matter. This was an apt illustration for the moment. This was Passover week, and it was a Jewish practice to use the preceding month of Adar to renew the whitewashing on tombs with the purpose of marking them clearly so the pious who were on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover would not accidentally defile themselves by touching a place where the bodies of the dead were buried. Here Jesus criticizes the Pharisees, first for their hypocrisy, whitewashed without but corrupt within, but also for their fears about outward ceremonial defilement without being profoundly and more rightly troubled by the inward pollution of their lives. If we are troubled by our equally polluted lives, we will flee to the cross of Christ where alone a true cleansing from sin may be found.

7. For the murder of God’s prophets (Matt. 23:29–36). The seventh of these woes is both the climax and the most damning accusation. It was the charge that the Pharisees were the true sons of their ancestral fathers who killed the prophets of God who had been sent to them. Their fathers had murdered all the righteous persons of the past, from Abel, whose death is recounted in the earliest chapters of Genesis, to Zechariah, whose murder is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:21, the last book of the Hebrew Bible. Wicked churchmen always kill the righteous. In verse 34, Jesus switches from the past (“shedding the blood of the prophets,” v. 30) to the future, saying, “Therefore 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. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth” (vv. 34–35). This happened. The early gospel preachers were flogged, pursued, and killed. Paul alone is an example. At last a terrible judgment fell on Israel through the destruction of their capital city and nation by the Romans.

It is important but challenging to rightly apply Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy. Notice that I have not said that Christians are just like the Pharisees and teachers. A true Christian, by definition, cannot be fully and properly guilty of the Pharisees’ sins of hypocrisy. Nonetheless…Let me suggest three practical questions to test for possible hypocrisy. 

First, is your religious practice the same in public and in private? For example, hypocrites pray at set times, but genuine believers pray throughout a day. Second, do you live for the divine audience or the human audience? Third, are you consistent? You are probably polite to your peers and in the presence of authorities. But a hypocrite condescends to children and mistreats those who serve at restaurants and in retail stores. A hypocrite behaves differently when no one “important” (no one but the Lord!) is looking. Or take parents who stand at the gate of an entertainment venue where children enter for reduced prices. Suppose that the price for children up to age eleven is half that of an adult. Suppose that your child is twelve, but is small enough to pass for eleven. What do you do if the attendant asks, “How many adults?” What if the attendant simply rings the lower price? What does a hypocrite do? What does a consistent Christian do?

The woes end gently, with a lament and an invitation to return to the Lord. They end with a note of compassion and an offer of grace. The hypocrites have two choices. They may, Jesus says, “fill up … the measure of the sin of [their] forefathers!” (23:32), or they may turn from them. Yet Jesus will receive them if they repent. He died for some of the very hypocrites who tested and opposed him in his last week. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cries, “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” (23:37). They can avoid the coming desolation, but they must bless Jesus: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (23:39). Then they will see him again. Of course, everyone will see Jesus when he returns, and everyone will call him Lord. Some will tremble before him as judge. But if we turn to him now as Savior and Lord, when he comes we will greet him as king and with joy.