Theme: Be Real
This weeks lesson explains Christs judgments on the Pharisees and how they apply to us today
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had pronounced multiple blessings on the godly. Here, in the later half of Matthew 23 he pronounces seven “woes” on the wicked.1 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. There is something similar in Revelation 19:9-20. A woe is a lament, cry or judgment concerning the final end for evil people.
1. For making salvation hard for other people (v. 13). In the first part of chapter 23 Jesus had 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 have 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 explain the way of salvation through faith in Christ alone? 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 which pays their salaries? Is it not a proper assessment of professors who write destructive books masquerading as explanations of the Bible’s true teaching? I’ve known 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 (v. 15). The second of Jesus’ woes goes beyond the first, for now it is not merely a question of these false teachers stopping people from entering Christ’s kingdom but of their drawing some into their own corrupt camp and corrupting them by doing it.
Over the centuries the Jews have 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 in the time of Jesus Christ. We have a reflection of it 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 that 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 (vv. 16-22). The third accusation deals with the casuistry of these religious professionals. Casuistry is making minute distinctions in law in order to avoid the true meaning of the law or escape its consequences. In explaining this indictment Jesus uses examples that he had spoken of at other times and places, chiefly the way in which the lawyers distinguished between legally binding and non-binding 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 employed euphemisms like “heaven” or the “temple” or God’s “throne” instead, it became a debatable matter whether a specific oath was in the name of God or not. So they would call swearing by the temple invalid, while swearing by the gold of the temple was valid. Or swearing by the altar was insignificant but swearing by the gift that has been placed on the altar counted.
This is a trivializing 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” (Matthew 5:34, 37).
1 The woe that appears as verse 14 in some Bibles does not appear in the oldest manuscripts and seems to be a later insertion drawn from Mark 12:40 or Luke 20:47. This seems the more certain in that the point of insertion is different in some of these Greek texts.
How did the Pharisees “block” people from heaven?
Of whom is the first woe accurate in today’s society?
What example of casuistry did Jesus use?
Read the verses in Isaiah, Habakkuk, and Revelation. Study the implications of the list of woes in each passage.