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Seven Woes

Matthew 23

Lesson audio

There are said to be seven deadly sins; three of the flesh, three of the world and the most deadly one of all: pride. It is this pious fraud of hypocrisy which is the worst of pride. To look down on someone because you are a better athlete has its antidote in one still better; to look down on someone because you are richer has its antidote in one richer still; but pride in matters spiritual brooks no superior. So it is that our Lord reserved His harshest words and gravest warnings for those who saw themselves above the rest, spiritually.

Spiritual Tyranny

Mat 23:1-12 NASB Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, (2) saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; (3) therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. (4) "They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. (5) "But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. (6) "They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, (7) and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. (8) "But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. (9) "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. (10) "Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (11) "But the greatest among you shall be your servant. (12) "Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

Do as they say, not as they do

You will please note that Jesus does not encourage rebellion against the Law of Moses just because it has fallen into the hands of pious hypocrites. You do not pull down the “chair of Moses” just because there’s a pious hypocrite sitting in it. Doctrines, like spirits, are to be tested.

You may have encountered such people, particularly in the pulpit.[1] I certainly have. I once listened to a preacher so gifted that it was a shame that he ever left the pulpit; his hearers always wanted more. Unfortunately, his life was such that it was a shame he ever entered the pulpit in the first place.

You might well ask why Christ would tell us to follow the words of such a man. Consider the opposite, however. Would you allow an evil man to say, “My teacher is evil – so I am excused from righteousness?” Of course not; you would give him no such exemption.

Do we have such today? I submit that we do. Here are some of the places you might want to look:

  • Those whose favorite (and sometimes only) topic is prophecy, particularly the aspects which promise favor to righteous when our Lord returns.
  • Those who preach “prosperity Gospel” – God wants you to be rich, and the way to get there is by giving money to us.
  • Those who preach the Gospel of Politeness – never offending anyone, and certainly not pointing out their sins.
As they like it

The comment about phylacteries and tassels seems obscure to us. But it is simple to understand: if you are a hypocrite in the great things of God, you will have the self-consistency to by a hypocrite in the small things as well. When imposed on the rest of the world, such little things seem all the more onerous.

Well they should. They are a form of tyranny. Is it not true that tyranny is the misuse of power and authority for one’s own personal profit or pleasure? These people were the spiritual equivalent of fashion cops. They used their position for their greed and pleasure, thinking nothing of the consequences on others.

The call to humility

True humility, it appears, is profitable for the Christian; at least our Lord made Himself an example of it. But what is it? Is it simply a low opinion of oneself? Permit me to describe its symptoms:

  • It is a form of mutual respect. If we are humble, it is easy to look to each other seeking virtue to emulate, not points of pride.
  • It is a form of mutual service. We are all members of the same body; the “same team” as we might say. As we serve each other, pride has no place.
  • It is a form of mutual submission. Each of us is responsible for the instruction and correction of the others. None of us should listen with ears closed.

Even the veneer of humility can be used by the hypocrite. All it takes is a literalist mind. I remember in my youth being taught how superior we were to those poor benighted Roman Catholics – for they call their priests “father.” Taken literally, this passage prohibits this. How then does Paul refer to himself as a father to the Corinthians?[2]

Seven Woes

Blocking the entrance

Mat 23:13 NASB "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.

Permit me to ask you: is there anything more likely to deter a visitor from coming back than the sight of a hypocrite at the door?

Converts worse than the teacher

Mat 23:15 NASB "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.

Please note how difficult (but not impossible) it is for a hypocrite to make a convert. It takes a long time and much effort. But once the convert is made, he immediately strives to become worse than his teacher. Pride is essentially competitive, even in dealing with “holier than thou.”

There is a grave difference between seeking the position for what it is and seeking it for what it gives you. To which doctor do you wish to take your problems: the one who is in medicine to heal, or the one who wants to get rich? I know a doctor who made his fortune, then quit his job with an HMO to move back to Philadelphia, to the Puerto Rican ghetto there, to work in a free clinic. I can also testify that he is a very good doctor; I went to him for years.

Blind Guides

Mat 23:16-22 NASB "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.' (17) "You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? (18) "And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.' (19) "You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? (20) "Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. (21) "And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. (22) "And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.

The picture is rather funny, the blind leading the blind. But understand that these were men who found it very important to split hairs. Today, they split verses instead. They wander off into areas which may be of great appeal, but of little profit. For example:

  • Prophecy – and just whose theory is right.
  • Poetics – not as common these days, but we still hear the Bible praised rather than used.
  • Politics – Satan is not the evil, the Democrats are.
Tiny legalism

Mat 23:23-24 NASB "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. (24) "You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

(Mint, dill and cumin are garden herbs; it was considered devout to tithe them). Sweating the small stuff so you can ignore the big stuff! Deck chairs on the Titanic, anyone?

Clean on the outside

Mat 23:25-26 NASB "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. (26) "You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

It has become a problem of late for the Republican Party. Depending upon evangelical Christians for votes, they find it much more damaging when scandal strikes. (No one expects a Kennedy or a Clinton to be faithful). But despite all scandal, they still believe that only the outside appearance matters. God tells us here that character still counts.

Is this only a political problem? What about plastic smiles on Sunday morning.

Whited Sepulcher

Mat 23:27-28 NASB "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. (28) "So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

One thing about hypocrisy: on the outside it is law-abiding. On the inside? “The rules don’t apply to me.” (The word lawlessness actually means a state without laws at all.)

Decorating the graves

Mat 23:29-31 NASB "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, (30) and say, 'If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' (31) "So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.

This is more common than you think. Have you ever heard something like, “If Lincoln were alive today, he would…” The praise of dead enemies is not only hypocritical, but cruel to those still with us. As one ancient writer put it, “The martyrs joy should not be honored at the expense of alms for the poor.” Some of us would rather buy a chapel window with our names on it than see that money used to feed the hungry.

Prophecy of Doom

Christ has warned us about the hypocrites; He has warned them of their own sinfulness; he now pronounces their doom.

Mat 23:32-39 NASB "Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. (33) "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell? (34) "Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, (35) so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. (36) "Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (37) "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. (38) "Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! (39) "For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, 'BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!'"

Sending the prophets

Vipers beget vipers, it seems. From the sneering heathen who worshiped other gods descend the hypocrites of Christ’s time. From of old the wicked are with us, and Christ tells us that we will continue to have them.

I know it is not fashionable to speak of this, but consider: Character – essential character – counts. When I was a boy we had opportunities to hunt rattlesnakes (a surplus of snakes, a shortage of real estate). Amazingly enough, just because man was building houses nearby (civilization) the rattlers did not become civilized. They continued being rattlesnakes. So it is with human rattlers, too. If they continue, by what possible trick will they fool God and escape hell?

The desire of Christ’s heart

Despite all this, He loves them (and us). The matter is not one of His choice, but of theirs (“you were unwilling”). See, however, the sadness and kindness with which Christ pleads! Consider that example. If the Lord of Lords is kind and merciful, should His teachers be harsh?


Throughout prophecy there is a consistent message: the punishment of the proud and the reward of the humble. It happened to the Jews in AD 70. The entire system of Pharisees was dispersed around the world, not re-entering Jerusalem until AD 1967. The punishment of the Jews was great indeed. As long as it was going on, Christ would not return. Things are different; perhaps we will see Him return in our own lifetimes. The King is Coming – to reward and gather his saints, and bring destruction to the wicked. Sinner, beware.

[1] Kindly let me make it clear: I have no such suspicions (whatever) as relating to our pastor, whose life seems to match his words.

[2] 1 Corinthians 4:14

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