New Testament Study:

Matthew 23:13-24

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“Woe to You”

 

13“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 

15“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

16“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

23“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

 

Earlier in this chapter, Jesus advised His disciples on how to respond to the religious leaders of the time, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.  He warned His disciples, “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt. 23:3).  Here, in these verses, Jesus speaks directly to the religious leaders, severely admonishing them.  Sadly, it is this admonishment of the religious leaders which is the last address to the general public by Jesus.

Throughout His ministry on earth, Jesus was extremely patient with evil-doers, quick to extend grace to sinners.  So, His harsh words here come somewhat as a surprise.  “He came to bless, and loved to bless; but, if His wrath be kindled, there is surely cause for it” [Henry].  We see here the hatred Jesus has for hypocritical religious leaders, those who lead astray people who are trying to live a godly life.  Those who are in positions of leadership in the church must surely take this admonishment to heart, and redouble their efforts to present a godly example to their flock.

Jesus begins:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.  You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (vs. 13).  The primary purpose for ministers of God’s word is to lead people to God.  The religious leaders whom Jesus was admonishing, rather than leading people to God, were “shutting the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.”  Jesus seems to be, here, speaking specifically of the religious leaders’s rejection of the Messiah.  They rejected the Messiah, thus, they themselves “did not enter”, and they discouraged others from accepting Jesus as their Messiah, thus, they did not “let those enter who were trying to.”  “These religious teachers ought to have set men in general the example of promptly and joyfully entering the Messianic kingdom, but they actually prevented others from entering” [Broadus, 469]. 

It is a grievous thing when religious leaders “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.”  Sadly, this happens quite a lot, even today, when Christians focus on condemnation (as the Pharisees did), rather than salvation.  There is a lot of sin in this world.  There are plenty of things to condemn.  However, the best way to get rid of sin, is to turn people to God, to get them to wash away their sins by the blood of Jesus, and to let His Spirit work in their lives.

Jesus continues:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (vs. 15).  It seems the religious leaders were evangelists, of sorts.  However, they weren’t seeking, in their evangelism, to turn people toward belief in the truth of God’s Word.  Rather, they were seeking to “convert” them to their own cause.  “They did this from no desire to benefit men’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” [Ryle, 303].  “Their converts retained the essential faults of the heathen, and took on the faults of the Pharisees” [Broadus, 470].  Evangelism is only a good thing if the purpose of the evangelism is to lead people to God’s truth.  There are many evangelists in the world, who lead people away from God’s truth.  They will, like the Pharisees, receive a “woe to you” from Christ on judgment day.

Jesus continues:  “Woe to you, blind guides!  You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it” (vss. 16–21).  The religious leaders, who were supposed to be teachers of the Law, lacked respect for the Law of God, as seen in these verses.  They made a mockery of the laws that said that men were bound by oaths.  They allowed oaths to be broken, under certain semantic conditions. “Our Lord condemns the subtle distinctions they made as to the sanctity of oaths, distinctions invented only to promote their own avaricious purposes” [JFB, V-109].  “It is preposterous to think that God is going to be concerned with the precise form of words a man uses in swearing an oath, so that He would take seriously an oath sworn by the gold of the temple, but would not regard an oath by the temple itself in the same way.  To maintain such a distinction is both foolish and blind.  Anyone who does so takes insufficient notice of the fact that God demands complete truthfulness in His people so that any pledge is to be discharged.  We cannot escape any legitimate pledge by quibbling about the form of words in which the pledge is expressed, oath or not” [Morris, 581].  The purpose of oaths was to give assurance to the receiver of the promise that one’s word would be kept.  The purpose of oaths was not to allow loopholes to be devised to make it easier to break promises.  Any such use of God’s Law is absurd and blasphemous.  It shows a lack of respect for God’s truthfulness.  Do they think they are fooling God with evasive semantics? 

Jesus continues:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cummin.  But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.  You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (vss. 23–24).  Here Jesus chides the religious leaders for making a show of holiness, while “neglecting the more important matters of the law.”  They made a show of their holiness by publicly tithing their smallest possessions, even the spices they received.  It was easy to (supposedly) prove their holiness in this way.  In their eyes, this was objective, measurable proof that they obeyed God’s law.  But God wants obedience, not only in the objective matters of the law (such as tithing), but also in the subjective matters of the law, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness.  “To be just to the priests in their tithe, and yet to cheat and defraud everybody else, is but to mock God, and deceive ourselves” [Henry].  To be seen as a just man, or as a merciful man, or as a faithful man, requires not just one objective act of obedience to God, but a life-long way of life, lived in obedience to God.  This is much more difficult, and in these “more important matters of the law”, the religious leaders failed.

Many people mistakenly perceive that God wants material gifts, and that material gifts will cover a multitude of sins.  This faulty perception is the result, in many cases, of the over-emphasis given by many ministers of God’s Word to the importance of giving material gifts to the church.  Many ministers, in effect, say “Give money to our church, and God will be pleased with you.”  Such a message is un-Biblical, and misrepresents God as a money-grubbing mercenary.  Through the prophet Micah, in the Old Testament, God expressed His desire that people live a holy life, over His desire that they give gifts to the church:  “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?  Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings with calves a year old?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with you God” (Micah 6:6–8).