Eight Charges Against the Teachers of the Law and Pharisees (23:13–33)
We have in these verses the charges of our Lord against the Jewish teachers, ranged under eight heads. Standing in the middle of the temple, with a listening crowd around him, he publicly denounces the main errors of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, in unsparing terms. Eight times he uses the solemn expression, "Woe to you;" seven times he calls them "hypocrites;" twice he speaks of them as "blind guides"—twice as "blind fools"—once as "You snakes! You brood of vipers!" (verse 33). Let us mark that language well. It teaches a solemn lesson. It shows how utterly abominable the spirit of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees is in God’s sight, in whatever form it may be found.
Let us glance briefly at the eight charges which our Lord brings forward, and then seek to draw from the whole passage some general instruction.
1. Opposition to the Gospel
The first "woe" in the list is directed against the systematic opposition of the teachers of the law and Pharisees to the progress of the Gospel. They "shut the kingdom of heaven" (verse 13); they would neither go in themselves, nor let others go in. They rejected the warning voice of John the Baptist; they refused to acknowledge Jesus when he appeared among them as the Messiah; they tried to keep back Jewish inquirers. They would not believe the Gospel themselves, and they did all in their power to prevent others believing it: this was a great sin.
The second "woe" in the list is directed against the covetousness and self-aggrandizing spirit of the teachers of the law and Pharisees. They "devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers" (verse 14, footnote). They imposed on the credulity of weak and unprotected women by pretending to be very devout, until they were regarded as their spiritual directors. They did not scruple to abuse the influence which they obtained in this unjust way to their own temporal advantage, and, in a word, to make money by their religion: this, again, was a great sin.
3. Zeal for Conversion
The third "woe" in the list is directed against the zeal of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for making converts. They "travel over land and sea to win a single convert" (verse 15). They worked unceasingly to make people join their party and adopt their opinions. They did this from no desire to benefit people’s souls in the least, or to bring them to God; they only did it to swell the ranks of their sect, and to increase the number of their adherents and their own importance. Their religious zeal arose from sectarianism, and not from the love of God: this also was a great sin.
The fourth "woe" in the list is directed against the doctrines of the teachers of the law and Pharisees about swearing. They drew subtle distinctions between one kind of oath and another; they taught that some oaths were binding while others were not; they attached greater importance to oaths sworn "by the gold" offered to the temple, than to oaths sworn "by the temple" itself (verse 16). By so doing they brought the third commandment into contempt—and by making men overrate the value of charitable giving and offerings advanced their own interests: this again was a great sin.
[This practice with oaths was well known among the heathen as a feature in the Jewish character. It is a striking fact that Martial, the Roman poet, specifically refers to it.]
The fifth "woe" in the list is directed against the practice of the teachers of the law and Pharisees of exalting trifles in religion above serious things—of putting the last things first, and the first last. They made great ado about tithing "mint" and other garden herbs, as if they could not be too strict in their obedience to God’s law (verse 23); and yet at the same time they neglected great plain duties, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness: this again was a great sin.
6. External Appearances
The sixth and seventh "woes" in the list possess too much in common to be divided. They are directed against a general characteristic of the religion of the teachers of the law. They set outward purity and decency above inward sanctification and purity of heart; they made it a religious duty to clean the "outside" of their cup and dishes (verse 25), while they neglected their own inner being; they were like "whitewashed tombs" (verse 27), clean and beautiful externally, but full of all corruption inside. "In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness" (verse 28): this also was a great sin.
7. Veneration of the Dead
The last "woe" in the list is directed against the affected veneration of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for the memory of dead saints. They built the "tombs for the prophets" and decorated "the graves of the righteous" (verse 29), and yet their own lives proved that they were of one mind with those who "murdered the prophets" (verse 31): their own conduct was a daily evidence that they liked dead saints better than living ones. The very men who pretended to honor dead prophets could see no beauty in a living Christ: this also was a great sin.
[A passage from the Berlenberger Bible on this subject is striking enough to reproduce here: "Ask in Moses’ time who were the good people: they will be Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but not Moses—he should be stoned. Ask in Samuel’s time who were the good people: they will be Moses and Joshua, but not Samuel. Ask in the times of Christ who they were: they will be all the former prophets, with Samuel, but not Christ and his apostles."]
This is the sad picture which our Lord gives of Jewish teachers. Let us turn from the contemplation of it with sorrow and humiliation. It is a fearful exhibition of the morbid anatomy of human nature: it is a picture which unhappily has been reproduced over and over again in the history of the church of Christ. There is much in the character of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in which it might be easily shown that persons calling themselves Christians have often walked in their steps.
[I cannot resist the opportunity of here expressing my firm conviction that our Lord’s sayings in this chapter were meant to be taken prophetically, as applying to corruptions which he foresaw would spring up in his church. Beyond doubt there is a most unhappy similarity between the teachings and practices of the teachers of the law and Pharisees and many of the leading corruptions of the church of Rome.]
1. Deplorable State of the Jewish Nation
Let us learn from the whole passage how deplorable was the condition of the Jewish nation when our Lord was upon earth. When the teachers were like this, what must have been the miserable darkness of the taught! Truly the wickedness of Israel had come to the full. It was high time, indeed, for the Sun of Righteousness to arise, and for the Gospel to be preached.
2. How Abominable is Hypocrisy
Let us learn, too, how abominable is hypocrisy in the sight of God. These teachers of the law and Pharisees are not charged with being thieves or murderers, but with being hypocrites to the very core. Whatever we are in our religion, let us resolve never to wear a cloak: let us by all means be honest and real.
3. Danger of Unfaithful Ministers
Let us learn, too, how awfully dangerous is the position of an unfaithful minister. It is bad enough to be blind ourselves; it is a thousand times worse to be a blind guide. Of all people none is so culpably wicked as an unconverted minister, and none will be judged so severely. It is a solemn saying about such a person that "he resembles an unskillful ship captain: he does not perish alone."
4. Danger of Not Being Committed
Finally, let us beware of supposing from this passage that the safest course in religion is to make no profession at all. This is to run into a dangerous extreme. It does not follow that there is no such thing as true profession because some people are hypocrites. It does not follow that all money is bad because there is much counterfeit coin. Let not hypocrisy stop us confessing Christ, or move us from our firm intention, if we have confessed him. Let us press on, looking to Jesus and resting on him, praying daily to be kept from error, and saying with David, "May my heart be blameless towards your decrees" (Psalm 119:80).