1 - 4 Religious Leaders
1 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.
The opponents are finished talking. Although there are no more hypocritical words on their lips, their hearts are invariably full of hypocrisy. The Lord will now uncover that hypocritical heart. He knows all the deliberations and thoughts of man’s heart. He is the omniscient God. He does according to the word he once spoke to Samuel: “For God [sees] not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1Sam 16:7b).
At the end of this chapter He foretells the destruction of the people. This does not primarily concern the lawless and licentious, not even the unbelieving Sadducees. It concerns in the first place the downfall of those who are generally held in high esteem for their religious knowledge and holiness.
The Lord speaks to the crowds and disciples who are still seen together here. Only after He is captured does a separation take place between the crowds and the disciples. He addresses both groups to warn them about the Pharisees. He does so in no uncertain terms. As we read this section, we must be careful not to think that the Lord is always talking about ‘others’. He also speaks to us. In us there is also hidden something of the Pharisees and scribes. We will experience this if we apply His words that He speaks to the Pharisees to ourselves.
The first thing He says about them is that they accept the place of teacher, a place elevated above the people. They look down upon the people and even ‘curse’ the crowd who in their eyes do not know the law (Jn 7:49). That is how they think about the crowd whose honor they so love. The application for us is obvious. For anyone who has knowledge of the Word of God, there is a great danger that he will take a place above God’s people where there is generally no knowledge of God’s Word.
Despite the posturing of these people, the Lord says that they should be listened to. That is only as far as they teach God’s Word. The Lord does not say that the traditions of these people should be followed. They should not follow their works. The reason, he says, is that these false leaders say something about the law, but do not act according to it themselves. They give their own interpretation to keeping the law. That is, they tell others how to keep the law while not keeping the slightest account of it in their own lives. They don’t even want that. We always find this with religious zealots. They like to tell other people what to do while making things easy for themselves.
5 - 7 For the Eyes of the People
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.
These religious leaders do everything only to be seen by the people. They want prestige among the people. They are not interested in what God thinks about them. When it comes to their prayer life, which happens properly in secret, they are flamboyant about it. They broaden their phylacteries, literally: amulets, so they stand out well. Phylacteries are parchment ribbons, written with texts worn around the forehead and on the hand (Exo 13:9; Deu 6:8). Their prayer life is not marked by being in the presence of God, but by being in the presence of men. It is an evil form of religion to pretend they are approaching God when their intention is for people to honor them for their piety.
The same goes for the ostentation with which they make it clear that they keep the commandments of God. The tassels of their garments, which are cords at the hem of the outer clothes, they lengthen. These tassels are directly related to the commemoration and fulfilment of the commandments of God (Num 15:37-40).
Furthermore, on several occasions they push themselves to the places of honor because they find themselves the most important. Banquets in the houses and religious gatherings in the synagogue are all about them. They also want to draw attention to themselves in public on the markets. Extensive and noisy greetings should serve to make their name and fame known to all bystanders. What they also love and makes them puff out their chests is when people call them ‘Rabbi’. It is a tribute to their elevation over the people.
8 - 12 One Is Your Teacher
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.
The Lord warns His listeners of certain things which should not be so among them. It is thus inappropriate to be called “Rabbi”, for that title belongs only to Him. All others are brothers. They are all on an equal footing, no one is more than the other. What He says of ‘Rabbi’ also applies to “father”. There is only One Who has the right to be so called and that is the Father in heaven. One of the sins of the papacy is that the pope calls himself this and even ‘holy father’ (cf. Jn 17:11). This is hideous posturing.
Nor should we want people to call us “leaders”, for that title belongs only to Christ. All to whom the glorified Lord has given a task as a teacher (Eph 4:11) are therefore no more than others. On the contrary, they are servants of others. Christ is the only Leader. Leaders only lead in what they have learned from Christ. It is not a question of raising oneself above others, feeling better or more important, but of bowing to the other and serving the other. Such a person is truly the greatest.
God will deal with every man according to the choice he makes. Raising oneself up is a choice of one’s own, as is humbling oneself. God’s answer depends on man’s choice. He will humiliate those who exalt themselves, and He will exalt those who humble themselves. The choice is ours.
13 First Woe
13 “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.
[Verse 14 is not found in early mss: 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.]
The Lord now addresses Himself directly to the scribes and Pharisees. He pours out his first “woe” on them and calls them “hypocrites”. Instead of pointing out to people the kingdom of heaven and what is needed to enter it, they shut off the kingdom from people. They do not point to God’s interests, but only have their own interests in mind. Therefore they themselves remain outside the kingdom of heaven, while also preventing others who want to enter from entering. Therefore they raise the people up against the Lord Jesus. All those who receive Him enter the kingdom. They have lost their authority over them. They want to prevent their prestige and influence among the people from diminishing at all costs.
15 Second Woe
15 “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.
The second “woe” comes over their fanaticism to make followers and what they then do with these new followers. Their zeal to make even “one proselyte [that is a Jewish convert, or “companion of the Jew”]”, knows no limits. They travel tirelessly over sea and land for it. People they have brought under their influence are so indoctrinated by them that they become sons of hell and behave twice as badly as they do. “A son of hell” means that they raise their followers, whom they consider to be sons, from and for hell.
16 - 22 Third Woe
16 “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.
In His third “woe” the Lord addresses them with “blind leaders”. Their blindness is apparent from their own theory that they have developed about oaths. They argue that swearing by the temple has no binding power, whereas it does when swearing by the gold of the temple.
The Lord calls them “fools and blind men”. With His explanation He does not mean to indicate the correct form of oaths, but to indicate the folly of their reasoning. They only look at the appearance. They see the gold and that means a lot to them, no matter on which house it is. It may as well be an idol temple. They don’t think at all about what the temple speaks of and what happens there and what value that a sincere service in it has for God. They only see the shimmer of the gold. This makes them blind to the fact that gold derives its meaning from the fact that the temple is decorated with it. For God, gold is not the most important thing, but the temple, His dwelling place.
The Lord mentions another example, the altar, with which He refers to the service itself. The previous example, the temple, concerns the place where the service happens. Just like the temple, the altar also means nothing to them. They only look at the offering.
Again the Lord calls them “blind men”. Also with regard to the altar He asks the question what is greater. Through His questioning He shows that they make the wrong distinction. Here too they only look at the offering and not at the altar. For them it doesn’t matter what kind of altar it is. It may well be an idolatrous altar. As long as there is an impressive offering on it. Then at least you have something to swear by.
In reverse order, the Lord explains what the altar and the temple mean. Swearing by the altar means swearing both by the altar and by everything on it. Altar and offer are inseparable. In their folly and blindness the leaders do separate them.
This is also important in relation to the work of the Lord Jesus. We see that altar and offering are inseparable in Him and His sacrifice. What He offered to God was so very pleasant to God because He offered it. The Lord Jesus is both the Altar and the Offering.
The same applies to oaths by the temple as to oaths by the altar. Oaths by the temple are oaths both by the temple and – not: by the gold, but – by Him Who lives in it.
The Lord adds another aspect to this, in which He goes from speaking about the earth to speaking about heaven. They also swear by heaven. Here again, it is not the outward appearance that matters, but the inward. The throne of God in in heaven, they have to consider that carefully. And God sits on that throne, they also have to consider that well. If they were aware of all this, they would be revising their teaching about oaths.
23 - 24 Fourth Woe
23 “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!
The fourth “woe” the Lord pronounces on the hypocrisy which they reveal in connection with the fulfilment of the command to give tithes. They carry out this commandment down to the very last detail, neglecting what the law is really about, which is “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (cf. Mic 6:8).
Giving tithes is prescribed. They therefore strictly adhere to this. They have given it a meaning that makes them, in their own eyes, the most faithful fulfillers of that commandment. The Lord makes clear to them what are the “weightier provisions of the law” and that it is of no use to them. He accuses them of not being concerned about the “justice” or the assessment by God, what His thoughts are about a certain matter, what He considers important. Also the demonstration of “mercy” is completely alien to them. About “faithfulness” to God and His commandments they know just as little. They themselves are violating the law.
The Lord Jesus does not say that no tithes should be given. What He denounces is the distinction they make in the commandments, by which they prove themselves truly blind. They pay attention to the gnat, that’s the finicky thing they do, while they don’t pay attention to the big, the really important, that’s the camel, and pass it by.
25 - 26 Fifth Woe
25 “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.
The fifth “woe” has to do with their pious appearance that contrasts sharply with their inner depravity. What they do seems very pious, very separated, very pure, but in reality their hearts are predatory and they know no measure. This judgment can be given by the Lord because He knows the inside of man. That inner being is as visible to Him as the actions that we observe (Psa 139:1-4; Heb 4:12-13).
The Lord shows them the way in which they can be freed from this hypocrisy. This can only be done by first cleaning the inside, i.e. repenting internally. By confessing sins a person is purified inwardly. Only then can his actions come from a pure inner being and therefore also be pure.
27 - 28 Sixth Woe
27 “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.
In His sixth “woe” over them, the Lord reveals the smell of death that hangs around all their actions. They are walking coffins. Magnificent coffins, though. But no matter how beautiful the coffin looks, there is nothing beautiful in the coffin; on the contrary, it is lifeless and dirty and it stinks.
The Lord emphasizes how much these people keep up a false appearance that makes them seem righteous to men, while in their hearts there is nothing but deceit. This deceit is that they present themselves differently to what they are and that they do their own will. He says they are “full” of it. There is really nothing else present in these hypocrites and there is no room for anything else. Hypocrisy is contrary to being honest in who you are and lawlessness stands contrary to doing the will of God.
29 - 32 Seventh Woe
29 “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. 32 Fill up, then, the measure [of the guilt] of your fathers.
The seventh and last “woe” concerns their hypocrisy in connection with the honor of the prophets and righteous who have been killed. They pretend great respect for these witnesses who were killed in earlier centuries because of their testimony to the truth. For such witnesses they build monuments and adorn the place where they are buried. In so doing, they dare to distance themselves with big words and a haughty attitude from their fathers who have these crimes on their conscience. They would never have participated.
Then the point of the spear they aim at their fathers is pointed at themselves. They speak of “our fathers”. The Lord declares that thereby they are revealing themselves as true sons of those murderers. As sons of the murderers, they do not bow to the message that the murdered prophets brought either.
That they are sons of their fathers, they will soon prove by killing the true Prophet and Righteous. With that they will fill up the measure of the guilt of their fathers!
33 - 36 The Lord Judges
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.
The Lord explodes against these people. By calling them “serpents, … brood of vipers” He places them on a par with the devil. Just as the devil will not escape hell, neither will these people. This statement is the most terrible indictment from the lips of the Lord Jesus mentioned to us in Scripture. He has never said anything like this to any tax collector or sinner. He has kept these fiery words for religious hypocrites.
With the words “therefore, behold, I am sending you”, He exalts Himself here in His Divine authority as Judge over them. The one they are about to kill is Yahweh, God clothed with power. After being killed by them, He will rise up. After His resurrection and ascension, as the glorified Lord and Christ He will send prophets and wise men and scribes to them.
Sending these servants is a new proof of His great grace. They will also remain blind to this new proof of grace because of the self-interest they will continue to pursue. They will kill several of these new witnesses. In so doing, they will allow the full measure of their iniquity to flow over in the rejection of their Messiah.
In the testimony of Stephen and his murder we have a striking example of this. How this witness acted as a prophet who spoke to their hearts and conscience. The wisdom with which he spoke his opponents could not withstand, and his interpretation of the Scriptures no one could refute (Acts 6:10; 7:53). The result is that they stoned him in rage (Acts 7:57-58a).
The consequence of the rejection of the servants whom the Lord will send in His grace after His ascension is that there will be no more salvation for them. The measure is more than full. All the blood shed by them will come upon them. God will demand the shed blood of every righteous man from them. The first righteous person whose blood has been shed is Abel (Gen 4:8). The last martyr mentioned in Scripture is Zechariah (2Chr 24:20-22). With the latter we have to remember that in the Hebrew Bible the last book of the Bible is not Malachi, but Chronicles.
With a solemn “Truly, I say to you”, the Lord confirms the verdict on “this generation”, that is, this kind of people.
37 - 39 Judgment on Jerusalem, Until...
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!’”
It touches the Lord’s that this privileged city has so turned away from Him. What an effort He has made to take care of and protect all its inhabitants. He has done so “the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”. All the love of His heart goes out to them, but Jerusalem has not listened. The children of Jerusalem did not want it.
The heart of Jerusalem, the temple, was first His house, that is, God’s house. He calls it here “your house”, that is, the home of the religious leaders who have taken it. He had left (Eze 9:3; 10:3-4,18,19; 11:22-23) and no longer lived there. The house is empty and will remain empty and will be left to them desolate.
God cuts the bond with His people because they reject their Messiah. Therefore the city will not see her Messiah anymore. He withdraws into heaven. But not forever. There is an “until”. God will restore the broken connection with His people. The Messiah will come back. When they see Him then, they will acknowledge Him whom they now so scornfully reject (Zec 12:10).
The faithful remnant will welcome Him with the words: “Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord” (Psa 118:26). These words are the introduction to the next two chapters in which the Lord Jesus speaks about this coming and all that goes with it.