25 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may become clean too!
27 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
29 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up then the measure of your ancestors! 33 You snakes, you offspring of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 “For this reason I am sending you prophets and wise men and experts in the law, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, this generation will be held responsible for all these things!
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it! 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate! 39 For I tell you, you will not see me from now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
In the Walt Disney version of the film, “Pollyanna,” Hayley Mills plays Pollyanna Whittier. This young girl has lost both of her missionary parents and has come to stay with her spinster aunt, Polly Herrington, played by Jane Wyman. Karl Malden plays the part of Rev. Paul Ford, the “fire and brimstone” preacher at the church where Polly and Pollyanna attend. At one point, Rev. Ford has a life-changing conversation with Pollyanna. In short, Pollyanna tells Rev. Ford that her father preached only the “happy texts” of the Bible. I feel quite confident that Pollyanna’s father would never have preached Matthew 23, for this could hardly be called a “happy text.”
A number of the commentators are certainly not very “happy” about this chapter. What I found interesting is that while some commentators found much to say against this chapter, some of my most trusted scholarly resources seemed to have too little to say about it. I want to deal with this matter later in this message because I believe the final verses of chapter 24 resolve a number of the issues that trouble some of the critics of this chapter.
Our Text in Context
By His triumphal entry, temple cleansing, possession of the temple, teaching and healing, Jesus had claimed His rightful title as Israel’s Messiah. The Jewish religious and political leaders of Jerusalem understood this and took their best shot at discrediting Jesus and undermining His authority. They failed miserably. Every question they posed proved them to be in error, and Jesus to be in authority. Their final response is stunned silence.
In chapter 23, Jesus now turns the tables, attacking their leadership and authority. He accuses them of usurping the “chair of Moses.” If their assumed role was legitimate, then everything they said should have been followed and preserved. But what they say must be judged by what they do. You might call this the “hypocrisy quotient”: What one says, divided by what one does. Jesus then goes on to show that the scribes and Pharisees are complete hypocrites, and thus they should not be followed.
To begin with, they spend all their energy creating massive burdens to place upon the people, and yet will not lift so much as a finger to help people with these burdens (Matthew 23:4; contrast Matthew 11:28-30). While they do not have any compassion towards those they lead, they delight in the honor and status that these common folks bestow upon them (verses 5-7). They love the places of honor and the titles that set them apart from and above the rest.
Jesus uses the scribes and Pharisees as examples of what not to do. He cautions His disciples not to take titles for themselves that distinguish some above their brethren. He goes even further to warn His disciples of accepting titles which rightly belong only to God the Father (verse 9), or God the Son (verse 10). In His kingdom, it is the humble who are exalted, while those who exalt themselves will be humbled (verse 11).
In verse 13, the “woe’s” begin. In verses 13-15, Jesus reveals the ultimate reason why men should not submit to the leadership and authority of the scribes and Pharisees. They should not follow the scribes and Pharisees because they are headed for hell, and they will lead their followers after them. The masses (who, at this moment, are the only ones who still have respect for our Lord’s authority “ see Matthew 21:45-46), who are somewhat favorable to Jesus, find the scribes and Pharisees barring the door to the kingdom by utilizing the full extent of their influence to keep people from following Jesus. And the very few whom the scribes and Pharisees invite to join their elite group become twice as much a child of hell as their mentors.
Verses 16-24 describe the scribes and Pharisees as playing a game of “Trivial Pursuit.” You will remember that Jesus accused His adversaries as saying one thing, but doing another. Now, our Lord shows just how much of a science they have made of their hypocrisy. Verses 16-22 focus on oaths “ things they not only say, but swear to; verses 23-24 focus on tithing. The scribes and Pharisees make false distinctions, thus providing a way of escape from what they have promised. If one swears by the temple, he is not obligated to keep that vow. But if one swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to keep his vow. Jesus shows that these distinctions are false, and that one is obliged to keep his vow, without distinction. (We know from Matthew 5 that vows should not be necessary at all, for we should be people of our word “ see Matthew 5:33-37.)
In verses 23 and 24, our Lord indicts the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy in regard to tithing. The Law taught tithing. The scribes and Pharisees were meticulous about tithing, when it came to trivial things. They made much of tithing when it came to small things like mint, dill, and cumin. But in making much of small things, they made little of very important things like justice, mercy, and faith. In our Lord’s assessment, they “strained gnats and swallowed camels.” Their attention to little things was a pretext for ignoring the most important things of all.
25 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may become clean too!
27 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25-28).
This brings us to the first verses in our passage for this lesson. Verses 25-28 have something in common “ they call attention to an undue interest in outward appearances, rather than on what is on the inside. This should come as no great surprise to us. In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus warned about performing our righteous deeds (charitable giving, prayer, and fasting) before men, for their praise. Earlier in chapter 23, Jesus has said that “they do all their deeds to be seen by people” (Matthew 23:5). Since the scribes and Pharisees loved to be esteemed as more spiritual than others, we would expect them to be preoccupied with external appearances, rather than the heart.
In Leviticus, God talked about the defilement of vessels like plates and cups:
31 These are the ones that are unclean to you among all the swarming things. Anyone who touches them when they die will be unclean until evening. 32 Also, anything they fall on when they die will become unclean”any wood vessel or garment or article of leather or sackcloth. Any such vessel with which work is done must be immersed in water and will be unclean until the evening. Then it will become clean. 33 As for any clay vessel they fall into, everything in it will become unclean and you must break it (Leviticus 11:31-33).
Even here, it was what went into the cup that defiled it. Preoccupied as they were with appearances, the scribes and Pharisees were obsessive about the outside of the cup looking clean, so obsessive that the inside could be filled with the most putrid and defiled matter, and it would seemingly be ignored, so long as the outside looked good. These fellows would have been great at selling used cars.
Pharisaism assumed that if the outside looked good, everything else must be good. Hypocrisy is a concerted effort to mask our failures (otherwise known as “sin”) by making appearances look good. Jesus tells us that true cleansing begins on the inside “ in the heart “ and expands to the outside.
The next “woe” continues the theme of a discrepancy between the outside, which looks good, and the inside, which is corrupt. But Jesus changes images from cups and dishes to tombs. I am aware of the Jewish practice of whitewashing tombs just before Passover, so that no unsuspecting person would innocently come into contact with the dead, and thus defile himself. But I am not so sure that this helps us a great deal. Jesus does not seem to be talking about the poorly marked grave of some pauper, a grave that would hardly be noticeable, apart from whitewashing. I understand Him to be speaking of a very elegant tomb, whose beauty is enhanced by whitewashing. It is so beautiful that it attracts attention and invites people to draw near to admire it. This outward adornment distracts from the corruption and defilement contained within.
The scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites because they are like these beautified tombs. They seem so lovely and attractive, if judged solely by outward appearances. But inside there is the greatest measure of defilement. Outside the scribes and Pharisees look so holy, so pious, so zealous for the things of God, but inside they are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Those who would have others believe that they are zealous for the law are those whom Jesus refers to as being full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Grave Error Exposed
29 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up then the measure of your ancestors! 33 You snakes, you offspring of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 “For this reason I am sending you prophets and wise men and experts in the law, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, this generation will be held responsible for all these things!” (Matthew 23:29-36)
Notice the almost seamless transition from the previous “woe” to this new “woe” in verses 29-36. Jesus had described the scribes and Pharisees as being like a beautiful tomb. Now, tombs are employed to expose yet another form of hypocrisy. Jesus is in Jerusalem, where the tombs of a number of prophets could be found. True to their hypocritical form, the scribes and Pharisees beautified the tombs of the “righteous” (verse 29) “ the prophets (verse 30). By thus honoring the prophets of old (who were regarded as righteous), the scribes and Pharisees gave the impression that they too were righteous. Many of these prophets had been murdered, however, so the scribes and Pharisees made it very clear that they would have had nothing to do with treating the righteous in such a manner.
Jesus says something very interesting about this; indeed, one might say, something very perplexing. It was by saying that they would never have treated the prophets of old in such manner that they, in fact, indicted themselves. They actually prove themselves to be the “sons of their rebellious fathers,” who murdered the prophets by claiming they would never have joined them in their wickedness. How does this work? How does saying you would never have done what your ancestors did make you guilty with them?
The scribes and Pharisees, like their ancestors, felt they were innocent. Did those who murdered the prophets say, “We are guilty sinners, worthy of the judgment the prophets have pronounced against us, but we don’t want to obey God, so we will murder His prophets to silence them”? No! They believed that they were right and that the prophets were wrong. They were innocent, but the prophets were guilty, and worthy of death.
The scribes and Pharisees rejected the words of condemnation of John the Baptist and Jesus because they felt that they were righteous. They found words of condemnation harsh and inappropriate, especially when addressed to them. The people of old maintained their innocence in the same way, even as they were putting the prophets to death. And thus, by insisting on their innocence, they only give more substance to the charges against them.
In contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, consider these texts, in which godly men of old identified themselves with the sins of their forefathers:
5 Then I said, “Please, O Lord God of heaven, great and awesome God, who keeps his loving covenant with those who love him and obey his commandments, 6 may your ear be attentive and your eyes be open to hear the prayer of your servant that I am praying to you today throughout both day and night on behalf of your servants the Israelites. I am confessing the sins of the Israelites that we have committed against you both I myself and my family have sinned. 7 We have behaved corruptly against you, not obeying the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments that you commanded your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:5-7).
We have sinned like our ancestors;
we have done wrong, we have done evil (Psalm 106:6).
25 Let us acknowledge our shame.
Let us bear the disgrace that we deserve.
For we have sinned against the Lord our God,
both we and our ancestors.
From earliest times to this very day
we have not obeyed the Lord our God’ (Jeremiah 3:25; see also 14:20).
4 I prayed to the LORD my God, confessing in this way: “O Lord, great and awesome God who is faithful to his covenant with those who love him and keep his commandments, 5 we have sinned. We have done what is wrong and wicked; we have rebelled by turning away from your commandments and standards. 6 We have not paid attention to your servants the prophets, who spoke by your authority to our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors, and to all the inhabitants of the land as well. 7 “You are righteous, O Lord, but we are humiliated this day” the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far away in all the countries in which you have scattered them, because they have behaved unfaithfully toward you. 8 O Lord, we have been humiliated”our kings, our leaders, and our ancestors” because we have sinned against you” (Daniel 9:4-8).
This being the case, Jesus has some very strong words of condemnation for the scribes and Pharisees, the strongest so far in this chapter. The scribes and Pharisees share in the guilt of their ancestors for killing the prophets. They actually “fill up” the measure of the sins of their forefathers. They are snakes, the offspring of snakes, and they will not escape being condemned to hell. Strong words indeed!
There is still another way the scribes and Pharisees will demonstrate that they are the sons of those who killed the prophets. They will prove themselves guilty with their ancestors by repeating the sins of their forefathers. Jesus says that He will send them prophets and wise men and scribes, whom they will persecute and kill, just exactly as their forefathers had done. In so doing, they will become guilty for the murders they have committed, and for those of their forefathers. This present generation will be held accountable for the murder of every righteous saint from Abel onward (verses 35-36).
How can this be so? How can one be guilty of crimes that were committed long before you were born? First of all, they will be guilty for rejecting Jesus, and for killing Him. They will also be guilty for murdering some of the righteous of their own generation. Somehow, there must be a connection between the rejection of the prophets of their own day and the rejection of the prophets of old by their forefathers. Here is the way I understand this connection. Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, goes to great links to prove that the events of our Lord’s birth, ministry, and death are the fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures.
Our Lord Himself has emphasized the connection between His ministry and that of John the Baptist, who was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Since the scribes and Pharisees are aware of the connection Jesus has made between Himself and the Old Testament prophets, then the rejection and murder of Jesus is, in effect, the rejection and murder of all of our Lord’s predecessors. Has this link not already been made by our Lord?
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a pit for its winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went on a journey. 34 When the harvest time was near, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his portion of the crop. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first, and they treated them the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and get his inheritance!’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him” (Matthew 21:33-39).
How bone chilling it is to read of these words from the lips of those who advocated the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus:
In reply, all the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25)
And so it would be! And not only His blood, but the blood of all the righteous martyrs before Him.
Judgment on Jerusalem
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it! 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate! 39 For I tell you, you will not see me from now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23:37-39)
41 Now when Jesus approached and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had only known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and surround you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will demolish you” you and your children within your walls”and they will not leave within you one stone on top of another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44, emphasis mine).
I am truly amazed at the amount of whining I find over our Lord’s “woes” in Matthew 23. Frederick Dale Bruner is often a source of real insight, so it was pretty amazing to read his comments at the beginning and at the end of chapter 23:
The pitch of Jesus’ prophetism in this sermon is so high and its attack so bitter that some interpreters have difficulty believing that the historical Jesus ever said much of it … .
In the Foreword his massive third-volume Matthew commentary, Luz, 3:vii, is candid about his own relation to this most problematic of all the Matthean chapters: “In the Woe Speech of chapter 23, I stand as an interpreter next to the text in a state of shock and I sometimes wish that this chapter did not stand in the Bible.”
Most critical commentaries and studies believe that Matthew’s depiction of Jesus’ judgment on Pharisaism in this chapter, in the heat of polemic, was unfair to Pharisaism.
So what do we do with a chapter where Jesus seems to violate his own command to love enemies (5:43-48; cf. 22:34-40; Stanton, Interp., 14)? Increasingly one hears the solution of attributing the chapter’s hateful parts to a surcharged Matthew. For Jesus doesn’t talk this way (e.g., Schnackenburg 2:221; This is not the Jesus we know elsewhere; recently, Hare, 264).
Why is it that the scholars find Jesus’ words so offensive and repulsive? This kind of prophetic condemnation is not new; it is frequently found in the Old Testament prophets. It is likewise found in the preaching of John the Baptist:
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I am” I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12).
The scribes and Pharisees are not only going to play a leading role in the arrest and crucifixion of our Lord, they are the “blind guides,” who are responsible for leading others to hell (Matthew 23:13-15). Jesus not only speaks strongly and with severity to the scribes and Pharisees because they are hypocrites; He speaks strongly in the hearing of the masses, because they must know who it is they are inclined to follow. To choose to follow the scribes and Pharisees is to choose to proceed on the path to certain damnation. This is no time for warm, fuzzy talk when judgment is both certain and near.
I still found myself agonizing as to why the scholars (at least a number of them) had so much trouble with our Lord’s indictments in chapter 23. And then it struck me! They come as close to the scribes and Pharisees as anyone can today. The scribes were scholars and teachers. They are a part of an elite, academic community. They have their academic regalia (their robes, tassels, etc.), and they are often given special titles, recognition, and places of honor. They may lay heavy loads (of homework) on their students, and offer little help. They may, in the name of scholarship and precision, make fine distinctions that are not really valid. They may teach one way and live another. Most importantly, they may teach in a way that turns people from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. No wonder they are most uncomfortable hearing strong words of condemnation and the threat of hell. Unsaved Bible scholars may claim to be men of God, but when they do, they are hypocrites.
The severity of our Lord’s words seems appropriate in the light of these words of warning from James:
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect individual, able to control the entire body as well. 3 And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to get them to obey us, then we guide their entire bodies. 4 Look at ships too: Though they are so large and driven by harsh winds, they are steered by a tiny rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination directs. 5 So too the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it has great pretensions. Think how small a flame sets a huge forest ablaze. 6 And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence” and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. 8 But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in God’s image. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers and sisters. 11 A spring does not pour out fresh water and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a vine produce figs? Neither can a salt water spring produce fresh water. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings (James 3:1-13).
Now let us consider our Lord’s “hard words” in Matthew 23 in the light of the last three verses of this chapter. Allow me to make several observations concerning these verses.
(1) When Jesus speaks here, He speaks as God. Prophets spoke for God, but Jesus spoke as God. Jesus is not merely a prophet, He is the Prophet. He is the One who sends out prophets and wise men (Matthew 23:34). He is the One of whom all the prophets spoke (John 1:45; 1 Peter 1:10-12). He is the One who desires to gather Jerusalem’s children and keep them under His protective “wing” (Matthew 23:37). He is the One who is going to return, and when He does people will say, “‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23:39). Jesus speaks as One having authority, and not as their scribes (see Matthew 7:28-29). You expect one with infinite authority to speak in an authoritative way, especially when judgment is needed.
(2) Jesus speaks severely, but with tears in His eyes. I am reminded of the harsh words with which Joseph addressed his brothers and also of the tears he shed in private (Genesis 42:9-24, 30; 43:30). These last verses inform us that our Lord loved Jerusalem and His chosen people deeply. He takes no delight in the eternal destruction of lost sinners:
For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:32)
(3) Jesus speaks as One whose desire it is to lovingly protect His own people, as a mother hen protects her chicks. The imagery here reveals the heart of Jesus, and of His compassion.
(4) Jesus’ words of condemnation, like those of John the Baptist and other prophets, were strongly stated, but with the goal of calling men to repentance.
6 “I, the Lord, say, ‘O nation of Israel, can I not deal with you as this potter deals with the clay? In my hands, you, O nation of Israel, are just like the clay in this potter’s hand.’ 7 There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or a kingdom. 8 But if that nation that I threatened stops doing wrong, I will forgo the destruction I intended to do to it (Jeremiah 18:6-8).
Jesus, who was the fulfillment of all the prophets of old foretold, was totally in character with those prophets in condemning sin and warning sinners of the coming wrath of God, unless they repent.
(5) Jesus speaks strongly here of judgment that is actually coming upon those who have rejected Him, and this judgment is coming soon. Is it harsh to tell a cancer patient that they will soon die unless they undergo major surgery? Is it harsh to strongly warn motorists that the road ahead is washed out and that unless they turn around they will plunge to their death? The peril of which our Lord speaks is real. The shocking bluntness of Jesus is a measure of how real and how terrible it is.
(6) Jesus speaks here of His return and of the blessings that will accompany Him. It will only be a few hours before the people will cry out, “Away with Him!” (John 19:15). These people know that He is coming back, and His return will mean blessing to those who receive Him for who He is.
(7) Jesus speaks more broadly here, and not just to the scribes and Pharisees, but to all Jerusalem. While the scribes and Pharisees must bear their guilt as leaders, the people of Jerusalem will bear their guilt for choosing to follow the wrong leaders, and thus for their participation in the death of Jesus. Until now, it was the favor of the crowds that kept Jesus alive, but that is about to end. Jesus’ words of imminent judgment include the people of Jerusalem, along with their leaders.
Let us remember that Matthew 23 is our Lord’s final public preaching. These are the last words the scribes and Pharisees and people of Jerusalem will hear from the lips of our Lord. As Matthew 5-7 introduced our Lord’s public ministry to Israel, so Matthew 23 concludes it. Would the scribes and Pharisees dare to presume that they can take “the chair of Moses?” Jesus made it clear in His Sermon on the Mount that their religion would not get them there, and the people rightly grasped that Jesus spoke with much greater authority. Why would we be surprised that Jesus would speak with such authority here, in Matthew 23? Why are we surprised that Jesus speaks of their eternal torment in hell? If Jesus is who He claims to be, the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah, then does He not have the right to speak as He does here? If the scribes and Pharisees have resolved to kill Jesus, just as their forefathers killed the prophets of their time, does Jesus not speak rightly here? Who you are determines what you have the right to say. A general can rebuke a private and can certainly order his punishment. A private dare not speak the same way to a general. Matthew 23 is completely consistent with Jesus’ claims (and those of the Old Testament prophets, including John the Baptist) regarding His identity and authority.
Jesus’ words of condemnation reflect reality. Here is how God feels about sin. Here is how God will judge sin. Here is how seriously God takes the sin of religious hypocrisy. Here is how God will judge ungodly leaders, who not only reject Him, but who lead others to their eternal destruction. Are men uncomfortable with these words? They should be! But these words convey the truth about sin and judgment.
These words of Jesus in verses 37-39 speak of the destruction of Jerusalem, which will come upon that generation that rejected and crucified Him. History tells us that this judgment did come, just as Jesus said it would. If history has verified our Lord’s authority and accuracy regarding that generation, it is only right that we acknowledge His authority and accuracy about the judgment which is still future, the judgment that will come upon all men who reject Him as the Messiah, and as God’s only provision for eternal salvation. Do our Lord’s words in Matthew 23 sound severe? They are, and they are true. His severe words should convey to us how serious the rejection of Jesus is. The rejection of Jesus by Israel’s leaders, and by the people of Jerusalem, led to His crucifixion and to the destruction of Jerusalem. Rejecting Jesus as God’s promised Messiah is a most serious matter. It leads to God’s eternal judgment.
The good news of the gospel is that receiving Jesus as the Messiah leads to eternal blessings. Those who can say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” are those who will have their sins forgiven and who will spend eternity enjoying Him, and the blessings He provides. Let the severity of our Lord’s words serve to indicate how serious the decision is to accept Jesus or to reject Him, as Messiah, as God’s only provision for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.
Is it unduly harsh and unloving to tell condemned people that they are under divine condemnation? The reaction that some have to the severity of Jesus in Matthew 23 is also seen by the way Christians are reviled for speaking against sin today. We are told that it is harsh and unloving for us to tell homosexuals that this behavior is sin and that it results in eternal judgment. But this is what God says:
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes so they can have access to the tree of life and can enter into the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral, and the murderers, and the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood! (Revelation 22:14-15)
26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, 27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. 29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them (Romans 1:26-32).
Does God hate homosexuality as sin? Yes! Will God judge homosexuality as sin? Yes! But notice something. It is not just homosexuality that is sin, sin that God will judge. Homosexuality is not the only sin that will keep men from heaven and condemn them to hell; every sin does that. God condemns homosexuality, alongside adultery and (heterosexual) immorality and greed and drunkenness and murder and envy (and a list of other sins, including hypocrisy). God condemns all sin, and its punishment is eternal torment. But God has also provided a remedy for sin. Jesus Christ came to bear our sins, to suffer our punishment, and to give us His righteousness, so that we can spend eternity with Him. The loving thing to do is to imitate Jesus in Matthew 23 and to warn men of the eternal consequences of sin, foremost of which is rejecting Him as our Savior. Turning hell-bent sinners to Jesus, and thus toward heaven (by trusting in Jesus), is the loving thing to do. Let us never forget this.
Let no one leave this text feeling smug and self-righteous. When judged by Him who knows our hearts, we all fail. All of us are guilty of the sin of hypocrisy, in one way or another. Jesus’ words in this chapter remind us of the words of Romans 3:
9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 10 just as it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one, 11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood, 16 ruin and misery are in their paths, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” … 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:9-18, 23).