Daily Family Worship

Matthew 23: Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees!

by | Jan 23, 2024

matthew 23

We are now beginning a chapter which is one of the most remarkable in the four Gospels. It contains the last words which the Lord Jesus ever spoke within the walls of the Temple. These last words consist of a withering exposure of the scribes and Pharisees, and a sharp rebuke of their doctrines and practices. Knowing full well that His time on earth was drawing to a close, our Lord no longer kept back His opinion of the leading teachers of the Jews. Knowing that He would soon leave His followers alone, like sheep among wolves, He warned them plainly against the false shepherds by whom they were surrounded. The whole chapter is a wonderful example of boldness and faithfulness in denouncing error. As long as the world stands, these words ought to be a warning and a beacon to all ministers of the Gospel.

There are many lessons for us in the twelve verses which begin this chap-ter; but among them all, one of them is that we must see the duty of distinguishing between the office and the example of a false teacher. “The scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus said, “sit in Moses’ seat” (verse 2). Rightly or wrongly, they occupied the position of the chief public teachers of religion among the Jews. However unworthily they filled the place of authority, their office entitled them to respect. But while their office was respected, their bad lives were not to be copied! And although their teaching was to be adhered to, as long as it was Scriptural, it was not to be observed when it contradicted the Word of God.

In verses 13-33, the charges of our Lord Jesus against the Jewish teachers are categorized under eight headings. Standing in the midst of the Temple, with a listening crowd around Him, He publicly denounced the main errors of the scribes and Pharisees, in unsparing terms. Eight times, He uses the solemn expression, “Woe unto you.” Seven times, He calls them “hypocrites.” Twice He speaks of them as “blind guides,” twice as “fools and blind,” and once as “serpents and a generation of vipers.” This kind of language solemnly shows how utterly abominable the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees is in God’s sight, no matter what form it may be found in.

The first woe in the list is directed against the systematic opposition of the scribes and Pharisees against the progress of the Gospel. They “shut up the kingdom of heaven.” They would neither go in themselves, nor encourage others to go in. The second woe is directed against their covetousness and self-aggrandizing spirit. They imposed upon the simplicity of weak and unprotected widows; for they put on long outward shows of prayer and worship, until these poor women who did not know any better came to regard these hypocrites as their great spiritual leaders. They did not have any scruples about abusing the influence which they thus unrighteously obtained, for their own temporal advantage; in a word, they did not hesitate to make money by their religion. The third woe in the list is directed against the zeal of the scribes and Pharisees for making converts to their party, for they would “compass sea and land to make one proselyte.” They labored incessantly to make others join their group and adopt their opinions. But they did not do this from any desire to benefit men’s souls in the least, or to bring them closer to God. They only did it in order to swell the numbers of their adherents. The fourth woe is directed against the doctrines of the scribes and Pharisees in regard to oaths. They attached greater importance to oaths that were sworn “by the gold” offered to the temple, than to oaths sworn “by the temple” itself. By so doing, they brought the third commandment into contempt; and by making men overrate the value of gifts and offerings, they again increased their own profits. The fifth woe is directed against the practice of these hypocrites to exalt trifles in religion above serious things. They made great ado about tithing mint and other herbs, as if they could not be too strict in their obedience to God’s law. And yet at the same time, they neglected great and plain duties, such as justice, charity, and honesty. The sixth and seventh woes possess too much in common to be divided. They are directed against a general characteristic of the religion of the scribes. They set outward purity and decency above inward sanctification and purity of heart! They made it a religious duty to cleanse the outside of their drinking cups and dining-platters, but they neglected to purify their own inward selves. And the last woe in the list is directed against the pretended veneration of the scribes and Pharisees for the memory of dead saints, while their own lives proved that they were of one mind with those who killed these righteous servants of God. Their own conduct was daily evidence that they liked dead saints better than living ones. And these very same men who pretended to honor dead prophets could see no beauty in the living Christ.

Verses 34-39 form the conclusion of our Lord’s words concerning the scribes and Pharisees. They are the last recorded words which He ever spoke as a public teacher, in the hearing of all the assembled people. His characteristic tenderness and compassion shine forth in a striking manner, here at the close of His ministry. Although He left His enemies in unbelief, He shows that He loved and pitied them to the end. They could not say that their Father never lovingly told them when they did wrong. This is the way in which God generally deals with unconverted souls. O that many of them may see His merciful hand, and hear His loving voice, before it is too late to repent and find mercy in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ!

Lord Jesus, we pray for the ministers of Your Church, that they may imitate You and not be like scribes and Pharisees! Amen.

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illustration by LUMO – The Gospels for the Visual Age | Lightstock.com