Jesus has proved Himself a capable Rabbi. He has warned the crowds not to be like the Pharisees and scribes. Now, He speaks directly to the Pharisees and scribes in order to rebuke them because of their hypocrisy. There are occasions on which one should not be polite but, instead, call out injustice. While it is often difficult for us to discern those appropriate times, Christ is perfect in His timing and His public accusations. Notice from the outset, the Pharisees and scribes set the precedent, and Jesus is responding. It seems we never draw first blood. We answer public accusations, then reason by pointing out the inconsistencies (hypocrisy) we notice—not by asserting some form of condemnation.
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13 Οὐαὶ δὲ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι κλείετε τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων· ὑμεῖς γὰρ οὐκ εἰσέρχεσθε, οὐδὲ τοὺς εἰσερχομένους ἀφίετε εἰσελθεῖν. 15 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι περιάγετε τὴν θάλασσαν καὶ τὴν ξηρὰν ποιῆσαι ἕνα προσήλυτον, καὶ ὅταν γένηται ποιεῖτε αὐτὸν υἱὸν γεέννης διπλότερον ὑμῶν.
16 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, ὁδηγοὶ τυφλοὶ οἱ λέγοντες· Ὃς ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ ναῷ, οὐδέν ἐστιν, ὃς δʼ ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ χρυσῷ τοῦ ναοῦ ὀφείλει. 17 μωροὶ καὶ τυφλοί, τίς γὰρ μείζων ἐστίν, ὁ χρυσὸς ἢ ὁ ναὸς ὁ ἁγιάσας τὸν χρυσόν; 18 καί· Ὃς ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ, οὐδέν ἐστιν, ὃς δʼ ἂν ὀμόσῃ ἐν τῷ δώρῳ τῷ ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ ὀφείλει. 19 τυφλοί, τί γὰρ μεῖζον, τὸ δῶρον ἢ τὸ θυσιαστήριον τὸ ἁγιάζον τὸ δῶρον; 20 ὁ οὖν ὀμόσας ἐν τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ ὀμνύει ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ· 21 καὶ ὁ ὀμόσας ἐν τῷ ναῷ ὀμνύει ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ κατοικοῦντι αὐτόν· 22 καὶ ὁ ὀμόσας ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ ὀμνύει ἐν τῷ θρόνῳ τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ ἐν τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπάνω αὐτοῦ.
The first 3 woes (v. 13-16)
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
In contrast to the crowds, whom Jesus instructed not to be like the Pharisees, Jesus speaks seven woes upon the Pharisees and scribes. “Woe” (Οὐαὶ) is a word used to pronounce distress upon someone else. It is a curse against another. Jesus’s curse is a specific reference to the Pharisees’ place as a son of hell (cf. v. 15). Essentially, Jesus’s woe means, “To Hell with you,” Which shows us the seriousness and weight with which Jesus addresses the Pharisees more understandably in English.
To Hell with you, scribes and Pharisees… Why? Jesus identifies them as hypocrites—those who hold others to standards they do not keep. Jesus doesn’t merely curse them. He explains why to their faces. They shut off the kingdom of heaven from people. They are not entering the kingdom of heaven and are causing people to run after them into Hell’s open mouth. Those who are entering the kingdom of heaven are entering despite the Pharisees and scribes, not as a result of their ministry. We will see more clearly why the Pharisees are Hell bound in verses 17-22. For now, we see a warning for our own lives. To Hell with us if our religion is bad and we are concerned about getting others to follow us in our bad religion. We do, though, see hope. There are some who are under bad teachers, following them, who will enter the kingdom of heaven despite the religious leaders they sit under.
Are you surprised that Jesus speaks like this to overtly religious people? Think about groups that refer to themselves as local churches in our day. A person comes in, says a four-letter word, and some automatically think of that person with disdain. What a potty mouth. The Pharisees and scribes placed their religious burdens on others, too. Jesus curses them to Hell because of their religiosity—exactly what that means will become clearer.
[Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]
Verse 14 is not in the earliest and best manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel and is, therefore, not likely in Matthew’s autograph. It was likely added later by a scribe. Jesus does, however, say these words (cf. Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). The Pharisees and scribes (1) devour widows’ houses, (2) make long prayers for pretense, and will therefore receive greater condemnation.
1) They devour widows’ houses. Instead of making sure widows have everything they need and giving to them, the religious elite only take—much like the health and wealth gospel preachers of our day. They take advantage of the needy, perpetuate superiority and inferiority complexes, and make others dependent on them. Such is the result of unhealthy ministry of any kind.
2) They make long prayers as a pretense. Sincere prayer is short and sweet (cf. 6:7-8). Their prayers are for show, so others might notice how spiritual they are. I am convinced that the church does not need more corporate or public prayer but more sincere prayer. The Pharisees and scribes like to have their religiosity seen by people and cause people to think ostentatious religiosity is holy when, in actuality, it is unholy. To Hell with those who over spiritualize their lives or over promote their own integrity because they need to be perceived as righteous.
What sort of greater condemnation will they receive? Jesus taught in 10:15 and 11:22-24 that it would be worse for some in the judgment. There will be a greater condemnation for some than others, particularly, here, those who lead others into the pit.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
To Hell with you because you travel to make one proselyte, to evangelize. Jesus here condemns the Pharisees and scribes because of their evangelistic focus. First, they are not preaching the gospel, only Law (cf. v. 1-12). Second, when they see a conversion, that person is being converted to them rather than God. Yet, they are fully convinced that they are serving God.
True evangelism is good, but some evangelism is sinful enough to condemn us and those we convert to Hell. The Pharisees and scribes, for instance, seated themselves in the chair of Moses (v. 1). They assumed the responsibility to teach the whole Law and judge the people. They did not devote themselves to learning but teaching. They did not devote themselves to God but to their ministries—especially so in the public eye. There are many times I have seen someone forsake sitting at Christ’s feet and learning from Him, which is what we are invited into (cf. 11:29), in order to do the all important work of evangelism. Thus, their ministries are the idols that condemn them. Instead of being a committed part of the local church body for the purpose of sanctification, like Christ desires, they devote themselves to their work as if God needs them at all. As a result, they lead people to Hell but are convinced that they lead them to salvation like the Pharisees and scribes. Such are many traveling evangelists and those who neglect their calling in the name of “doing God’s work.” Ravi Zacharias was one example—travelled the world making proselytes but never responded to God’s invitation to sit at His feet, which only happens in the context of covenant community.
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.”
To Hell with such blind guides who teach that people must give of themselves (swear by the gold of the temple) rather than trust in the power of unconditional atonement represented by the temple and sacrificial system. To Hell with us if we trust more in the work we do for God than the work He did for us. To Hell with us if we define our spirituality by how much we do, even in our ministries and evangelism, rather than dedicating ourselves to learn from Christ.
If these woes describe you, you would do well to consider whether you are actually in the faith. These are the ways of the scribes and Pharisees. For them, Hell is to pay.
Religious facades (v. 17-22)
You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.” You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
Jesus corrects their aim, though I am doubtful it sticks. He shifts their attention from their own work to the work of God through the temple and the altar and the sovereignty of God. The Pharisees and scribes are blind to their own hypocrisy. They are so convinced that they are serving God by the teaching of the Law and their evangelism that their ministries will dump them straight into Hell. If God is sovereign and works all things together, He does not need us to go get people for Him. That is why He has set our priorities as He has. First, come learn from Him. Then, go share that with others. We value evangelism. We don’t idolatrize it. We value our ministries. We don’t idolatrize them. We want to see people succeed in the particular roles God has for them in His kingdom. We don’t want to see people running into Hell because they use their ministries as an excuse not to learn from Christ in the context of their covenant community for the purpose of their own sanctification.
When we live in sin, we wear our work and ministries over our rotting corpses hoping our lifeless scent won’t waft toward those who can smell. When we live in Christ, we live repentant lives knowing that all things are by grace alone—giving ourselves first to God and then to our service in Him. We don’t have to worry about missed opportunities. God is sovereign and works all things together. He is the one who provides every opportunity. You don’t have to bear the weight of being everyone’s savior because Christ does that. Christian ministry is liberated from the success syndrome.