New Testament Study:

Matthew 23:25-39

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“Woe to You” - pt. 2

 

25“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

29“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

33“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.

37“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

 

Jesus continues pronouncing woes upon the religious leaders of the time:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee!  First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (vss. 25–28).    Jesus here speaks of the importance of purity of heart, over the outside show of purity.  The religious leaders made a show of purity, but inside were “full of greed and self-indulgence” and “full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”  God, of course, sees the heart, and that’s what counts for Him.  In any case, a corrupt heart will, sooner or later, be manifest in one’s outside actions.  As Jesus taught:  “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).  And likewise, a pure heart most naturally leads to pure actions.  “If due care be taken in first cleaning the inside, the outside will be clean also” [Henry].

The next woe:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets” (vss. 29–31).  Here Jesus points out a specific instance of the religious leaders’ hypocrisy.  They feigned honor for the martyred prophets of the past, claiming that they “would not have taken part… in shedding the blood of the prophets”, and yet, that very week (even that very day), they were scheming to have Jesus arrested (see Matt. 21:46).  “They pretended a deal of kindness for the memory of the prophets that were dead and gone, while they hated and persecuted those that were present with them” [Henry].  “While piously claiming to be different, they were already plotting ways to put an end to Jesus” [Carson, 483].  “They were boasting of superiority to their fathers who killed prophets, and yet they were showing by both actions and attitudes that they were lineal descendants of these same murderers” [Thomas, 340].  This was how they were “testifying against themselves.” 

Now, they revered the dead prophets, not for any respect for the teachings of the prophets, but because their constituents revered the prophets, and also because dead prophets cannot admonish them for their behavior.  “Carnal people can easily honor the memories of faithful ministers that are dead and gone, because they do not reprove them, nor disturb them, in their sins” [Henry].  “This is the way of hypocrites to honor God’s holy ministers and true-living teachers after they have died, but in their lives to abhor them.  This results partly from envy, and partly because dead men’s ashes can no longer give trouble with hard and austere reproof” [Calvin, III-61].  “Ask in Mose’s times who were the good people:  they will be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but not Moses—he should be stoned.  Ask in Samuel’s times who were the good people:  they will be Moses and Joshua, but not Samuel.  Ask in the times of Christ who were such:  they will be all the former prophets, with Samuel, but not Christ and His apostles” [Berlenberger, in Ryle, 304].

Jesus speaks of how the Pharisees and teachers of the Law would imitate the behavior of their forefathers who persecuted and killed the prophets:  “Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!  You snakes!  You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town” (vss. 32–34).  As if in order to prove His estimation of their character, Jesus was to “send them prophets and wise men and teachers.”  Those “prophets and wise men and teachers” would be the early Christian leaders, whom the religious leaders would “flog”, “pursue from town to town”, and even “kill and crucify.”  In this way, they would “fill up the measure of the sin of their forefathers” and be rendered inexcusable before God. 

By the way, note that Jesus said, I am sending you prophets…”  This is an explicit claim by Jesus to be God.  It is He who will guide and direct these prophets of God.

Jesus continues by telling them of the judgment that will befall them: “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation” (vss. 35–36).  Severe judgment would come upon them, and those in Jerusalem whom they lead, for killing the Christian “prophets and wise men and teachers”, and especially, for killing their Messiah.  This judgment did come upon Jerusalem, as foretold, in the year 70 AD, when the Romans utterly destroyed the city.  The Jewish historian Josephus (who was born in 37 AD) wrote of the destruction of Jerusalem:  “When they went in numbers into the lanes of the city, with their swords drawn, they slew whom they overtook, without mercy, and set fire to the houses wither the Jews were fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest…  They ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men’s blood” [Wars, 6.8.5]. 

Though this destruction would be brought upon themselves, nevertheless, Jesus laments over it:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’” (vss. 37–39).  Here we have a glimpse of the heart of God, poured out in verbal terms, full of emotion.  The Lord has shown nothing but love for Jerusalem, expressed in His desire to “gather” His people to Him, yet they had responded by “killing the prophets and stoning those sent to them.”  Perhaps the saddest words in the Bible are found here:  “…but you were not willing.”  The sentiment expressed in those words is the root cause of interminable human suffering, in this life and in the afterlife.  Because we humans “are not willing” to respond to God’s love, to be gathered to Him when He reaches out to us, O how much misery we bring upon ourselves.