Matthew 23: 1-39, Woe to Hypocrites!
General Idea: The Word of God is our authority! Yet, when we say we follow it, but our actions do not show that we do, we are, in fact, being reprehensible before our Lord and to others around us! It is imperative that when we say we are a follower of Christ, our character and behaviors reflect Him and His call to us to the best of our abilities. If we are in leadership, this is even more imperative! We demonstrate integrity when we do what we say and act out what we believe; if not, we are hypocrites, and woe to us for being one!
Jesus' greatest charge against the Pharisees and Sadducees was that they were blind to their own doings. They were pretenders of the faith, giving a show, but having no real substance behind their extravagant and ornamental robes! They were the "tombs" that looked good on the outside, but inside revealed the wicked and disgusting pride and pretentiousness that Jesus equated to rotting corpses! Their robes were fancy, and they held honor in the town, but their hearts were cold and rotten! They only saw the external; appearances were everything to them. They did not care for what God cared for, which is what is in the heart! It is not where we sit, what we wear, or what rules we follow; it is all about who we are in Him and how we are with others for Him!
1. Here is one of Jesus' great discourses from Matthew (see background material), although some scholars do not list this as one of them. (I wonder why? Perhaps they are prideful, and do not want to be convicted?) The power of Jesus' words and the passion of His emotions show this passage to be one of the most imperative in the entire Bible!
a. Moses seat refers to the prominent seat of honor in the synagogues. Jesus is using this term figuratively; the leaders who were supposed to represent Moses were, in fact, dishonoring him and the Law. Their view of themselves was quite exaggerated! They sought human tradition, not God, in an unreasonable, literal application of the law (Duet. 17:8-13)!
b. Observe but do not do. Some of the Pharisees and Sadducees believed it was important to know Scripture, but, as leaders, not important to follow it; it was only for the masses. So, they could sit and do as they pleased, yet force their constituents into unreasonable rules and regulations! Others taught that one had to know something before one could do it, so knowing was more important than doing. We are called to both know and do-not just do, and not just know!
c. Phylacteries referred to the small boxes containing Scripture written on small pieces of leather that were hung from one's head and hand. Orthodox Jews still have these (Ex. 13:9, 16; 28:36; 39:30; Duet. 6:6-9; 11:18-20; Zech. 14:20-21 (Why "In God we Trust" is on American money)). This practice was heightened, during the exile to Babylon, so as to retain Jewish distinction, and not be mixed in with the Persians. It was also a way to memorize Scripture, recite prayers, and show one's allegiance to God. But, when it is visible on us but not in us, it is useless (Matt. 9:20; 14:36)!
d. Best places. Where one sat, in the most visible, public places, showed one's power and position in the community, as you might see in a wedding today; but, God is more concerned with our hearts!
e. Greetings refers to how people greeted one another; as we say "Hello," they said, "Peace be with you." There were specific rules on how to greet people according to their social status (Esther 6:11).
f. Market places were the most crowded places where people hung out.
g. Rabbi is similar to reverend, but here, it means "my master." They were seeking to honor themselves, ignoring the one true God and the call to honor Him (Num. 20:12; Duet. 6:4-9).
h. Exalted. God, alone, deserves the right to be honored (Prov. 25:6-7; Isa. 2:11-12; 5:15)! Jesus is not forbidding titles, rather, the pride and abuse connected with them (Acts 20:17; 1 Cor. 9:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-12). God's desire is that we repent from our sin and enter His way (Acts 24:14)!
2. This session is an allusion to Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount." It has the form of both a prayer and a judgment oracle (Duet. 27-28). The point is that motives create our actions and show our devotion. If our motives are skewed, then our faith is skewed, and we will be not only of no use to God, but a hindrance to others' knowing Him!
a. Woe to you refers to the curse of "wretchedness." This shows Jesus' anguish and despair, and His disappointment in the people called to represent Him! The listeners would have agreed with Jesus; however, they would not have considered that He meant them! Most people who are hypocrites seem to be blind to the fact that they are so! They seem to be unable to see the sin in themselves-only the sin in others (Matt. 5:17-20)!
b. Hypocrites referred to the mask used by actors in a play who were playing a part that was contrary to their true personality and disposition. Here, Jesus used it to say they are "two faced," insincere, and treacherous. Our behavior must show our belief!
c. Shut up refers to the closing of a door, preventing people from coming in, and preventing people from seeing the real God modeled effectively. It also indicates the preventing of righteousness.
d. Travel. The Pharisees and Sadducees did not normally do mission work, and would only travel to show they cared-when they really did not. Converting a prominent Gentile to Judaism was considered very honorable.
e. Son of hell means a person who is no good and who has the mindset to teach falsehoods about God. The N.T. calls them reprobates or debased minds or of sinful desires (Rom. 1: 24) as they sought to make disciples after themselves, and not God. The word, Hell, in Greek, is Gehenna. It is not the same as Hades, the common name for the place of the dead.
f. Luke 12:5 adds, Fear him-in reverence, majesty, and awe. For us, it is realizing Jesus' authority so we can trust in Him.
g. Swears by the Temple. Jews were not allowed to use God's name to make a pledge, so they used things related to God, such as the temple. They concluded that the gold in the temple was of the most value, and thus good to pledge by. But, real value is not in gold, it is in character!
h. Justice, mercy, and faith. These are the focus and spirit of the law (Duet. 10:12-13; Mic. 6:8). They devoted themselves to the minute details and forsook the essential elements!
3. Jesus was not against the Law, rather, its misuse. The Pharisees and Sadducees missed the point! They debated vigorously on what and how much cumin was to be tithed, and did nothing to help out the poor or needy! They were tithing goods, but not being good! (Matt. 5:19; 9:13; 12:7).
a. Tithes are the pledges to support the temple and priests. Dill, mint, and cumin were very expensive spices. They were only for the rich or for special occasions for the regular folks, such as a wedding banquet. They were considered good, acceptable tithes in Jesus' time.
b. Swallow a Camel. Jesus is using hyperbole and humor to make His point (Lev. 11:32-34). Gnat was the smallest insect, and Camel the largest land animal in the region!
c. Cleanse. Being clean was paramount for Jews, and was what kept them plague-free in the Middle Ages; however, here it refers to ritual baths that consumed time and resources that could have helped others.
d. Whitewashed tombs meant painted and graves covered so they did not appear to be graves. They looked good on the outside, but, inside, they contained rotting corpses. To Jesus, the wickedest and most disgusting of all attitudes was the pride and pretentiousness that He equated to dead bodies (Nub. 19:11; Ezek. 13:10-12; 22:28; Luke 11:44).
e. Tombs. The Jewish leaders build elaborate tombs to honor the prophets who were martyred; they also built ones to David and others (2 Chron. 36:15-16; Jer. 26:20-23).
f. Witness against means that, by persecuting Christ, along with their hypocrisy, they shared in their ancestor's guilt! Also, they would have killed them, too, had they been in their forefathers' place (Ex. 20:5; Duet. 23:2-6; 1 Sam. 15:2-3; Isa. 1:4)!
g. Measure means to look at yourself; Jesus challenges them to look at what their guilt was in it (Isa. 6:9; Eccles. 11:9; Amos 4:4-5)!
h. Vipers is a very harsh name, and referred to a heinous poisonous snake (Psalm 58:4; 140:3).
i. Scourge means to be whipped. Synagogue scourges were to punish sinful members.
j. From the blood of righteous refers to guilt laid upon those who took innocent lives; God is the One who is to avenge (Duet. 32:43; Psalm 70:10). Able was the first martyr, and Zachariah was the last. Both of Zachariah's sons, one by Jehoiada and one by Berechiah, are represented here; this is a Jewish literary device to "Coalesce" (bring together two things or thoughts as one) (Gen 4:8; 2 Chron. 24:20-22; Zech 1:1).
k. This generation. Jesus starts to predict the destruction of the temple which is finalized in the next chapter, and tells why it will be destroyed (Jer. 13:27; 49:22). (Not by the Romans doing, but by the hypocrisy. How is your church in this matter?)
l. Gather…wings. This gives an image of God's love for His people; we are under God's wings, yet we tend to stray. This is a very powerful image if you know about chickens (Duet. 32:11; Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 91:4)!
m. House meant the temple and/or the people of Israel (Jer. 12:7).
n. The difference was between "good" pride, such as advocating for your country, favorite sports team, or a child, versus what Jesus condemns-the "bad" pride, which elevates self. Good pride elevates others! It has the heart of glorifying God, while bad pride has the mindset of only seeking self. (Phil. 2:1-4)!
The Pharisees and Sadducees were experts in majoring on the minors, which means they forgot what was important and placed focus on what was not. When we think we are right and everyone else is wrong, that should be a red flag indicating that possibly something is very wrong! We must be able to see the immense damage this causes. In my 10 year doctrinal research for my Ph.D., I found that the main reason people leave a church and the faith is because of hypocrisy! This is why our Lord is so passionate about it! How strong is your passion to be as you believe?
Our call, in this passage, is to do as we teach, to do as we say, and to act as we teach others to act. Integrity is of the utmost importance for the Christian leader (1 Thess. 2: 10-12)! Why? Because, hypocrisy gives people a false impression of God! Hypocrisy gives people a false impression of who we are called to be; it nullifies integrity and character! Because, God is righteous and just; God exercises grace. The Pharisees were worshipping, not the God of the Jews and the Law, but a made-up god which suited their own thoughts and pride (Psalm 103:1-14; 1 Pet. 5:10)! The willingness to model Christ's character is far more vital for us today than the willingness to preach it. God want us to be authentic-not pretentious (2 Cor. 8:9)!
1. What "buttons" (hot issues), when pushed, get you upset? Why do they upset you? How does God feel about those issues?
2. Why is the Word of God our authority? What happens when it is not?
3. Why is Jesus upset in this passage? What are the issues and why are these issues reprehensible in His sight?
4. How would you explain integrity?
5. Why is it that most prideful people do not want to be convicted? What blocks them from seeking Christ and others over themselves?
6. What is your opinion; is it more important to know Scripture or to follow it? What is the view God wants us to have?
7. Some fundamental religious groups claim that Christianity is only by what their views state. How did they get this unreasonable literalism in applying the Word? What would be an example? Why do they do this? What can we learn from their misguided attempts?
8. Read Proverbs 25:6-7: Why is God alone the only One who deserves the right to be honored? How should you seek honor? When should you not?
9. How and why do motives create our actions and show our devotion? What is an example?
10. How and why do our motives get skewed from our faith in Christ? How does this become a hindrance for others to know Him?
11. Why do most people who are hypocritical seem to be blind to what they are?
12. Read Micah 6:8: Why did the religious leaders then, and some today, devote themselves to the minute details of rules and regulations, yet forsake the essential elements of honoring God and teaching others correctly? Can you give an example?
13. Some Christians teach that Jesus was against the Law, but this passage tells us He was against its misuse. What do you think?
14. Why is it is imperative that when we say we are a follower of Christ, our character and behaviors must reflect Him and His call to us to the best of our ability? How is Christ represented when we do as we please in teaching and modeling Him?
15. Jesus equates pride and pretentiousness to dead, rotting bodies. How does that make you feel?
16. Read Philippians 2:1-4. What is the difference between good pride, such as advocating your county, favorite sports team, or a child, versus the kind of pride that Jesus condemns?
17. Jesus calls us to measure ourselves, that is, to look at ourselves. What is Jesus challenging you to see in yourself?
18. In Church and Christian service, have you ever forgotten what is important and placed the focus on what is not? How so? What can you do to avoid doing that? We do not want to be Pharisees, because they are not "fair, you see!"
19. Do you believe, or have you experienced that the main reason people leave a church and the faith is because of hypocrisy over all other issues? If so, why, and how? What can your church do to prevent this heinous behavior from shooing people away from Christ?
20. The Bible makes it clear that integrity is of the utmost importance for the Christian leader. Why is that? What can you do to be a person who is focused on integrity? (Hint: it has been my observation that real people of the faith, and who have integrity, have the focus to glorify God and not themselves!)
© 2004, Richard J. Krejcir, Ph.D. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership, www.churchleadership.org