Jesus—His Life and Message: Conflict with the Pharisees (Part 3)

November 20, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

Part two of Conflict with the Pharisees explored the first twelve verses of Matthew 23, in which Jesus warned the crowds and His disciples that they should not follow the Pharisees’ example, as they didn’t practice what they preached. He accused them of laying heavy burdens on their followers while being unwilling themselves to help the people carry those burdens. He stated that they did all they could to draw attention to themselves, desired to sit in places of honor, and have people greet them deferentially.

From verse thirteen onward, Jesus spoke directly to the scribes and Pharisees. When He was speaking about the scribes and Pharisees to others, His language, though strong, was fairly objective. However, as He began to speak directly to them, His tone changed and His words became much sharper. Seven times He pronounced a “woe” on them. He called them hypocrites six times, referred to them as being blind five times, as being snakes twice, and made various other statements which would have been very offensive to them.

Jesus wasn’t focusing His condemnation on individual scribes and Pharisees as much as on the nature of the movement they represented and the nature of ego-driven religiosity. His main emphasis was on their approach to religious life. In calling them hypocrites, He wasn’t speaking so much about insincere actions on their part, but about their mistaken belief that they were doing God’s will, when in fact they were missing the main points. They were focused on external behavior, on detailed attention to rules and regulations, and in this they failed to understand God’s priorities. Because their understanding was fundamentally flawed, their religious zeal did more harm than good.1

The term “woe” is found in the mouths of the Old Testament prophets (used 21 times in the book of Isaiah in the KJV), mostly when they pronounced God’s pending judgment on those who were against Him. It is in a sense proclaiming someone to be guilty and declaring that judgment and punishment were coming. We find it used 12 times in the book of Matthew, 14 times in Luke, and 7 times in Revelation.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.2 

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, there are references to entering the kingdom of heaven.

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.3

Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.4

Here Jesus metaphorically pictures the entryway to heaven as a gate or door which is being closed to those who want to enter. As those who participated in the Jewish religious leadership, the scribes and Pharisees were responsible to give guidance on how people could live according to God’s will and thus enter heaven. However, Jesus accused them both of not entering heaven themselves and of shutting heaven’s door to those who followed them. The Gospel of Luke says:

You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.5

Through their teaching, example, and focus on rule keeping, they had made it impossible for themselves and those who followed them to enter God's kingdom.

In many Bible translations (though not the KJV), the next verse, Matthew 23:14, is either dropped and put in a footnote or is put in brackets or italics, to indicate that some of the older New Testament manuscripts considered to be more reliable don’t include this verse. Since it is very similar to Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47, some Bible scholars think it may have been inserted into Matthew at a later time during the process of copying manuscripts by hand. As it isn’t included in the English Standard Version (ESV), I am including the verse from the New American Standard version.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation.6

Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of mistreating some of the most vulnerable people of the time, those who had lost their husbands. The exact meaning of devour widows’ houses can be interpreted several ways. Scribes could do this by (1) accepting payment from widows for legal aid and advice, even though this was forbidden; (2) cheating widows in their roles as guardians of their husbands’ estates; (3) sponging off the hospitality of widows; (4) mismanagement of widows’ estates; (5) taking money from widows for lengthy prayers made on their behalf; (6) taking houses as pledges for debts that could not be paid.

Though it’s not known exactly what the expression means, it’s clear that these religious leaders were in some way taking financial advantage of vulnerable women and not obeying Old Testament scripture which commanded that widows be cared for and not be taken advantage of.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.7

If you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow … then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.8

Jesus continued His condemnation of these religious leaders.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.9

Certainly these men showed enthusiasm for making converts by putting in effort to win them. Travel at that time was arduous, and by stating that they traveled across sea and land, Jesus made the point that they went to a great deal of trouble to gain converts.

A proselyte is a convert from one religion to another—in this case a non-Jewish person who chose to follow and participate in the religion, ethics, and teachings of Judaism. Apparently in Jesus’ time the Pharisees made an effort to convert Gentiles to the Jewish faith. Once converted, the proselyte would have been instructed in the faith according to the Pharisaic teachings, without any other background of the Jewish faith or knowledge of Scripture. Often, a convert to a faith is much more zealous in the faith than one who has held those beliefs all of their life. Jesus describes them as twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. This is a sad fate for someone who was attracted to the faith but who, due to following the example of his or her teachers, was misled, with devastating consequences.

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.” You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.10

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed His followers not to make oaths.

Do not take an oath at all Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.11 

In this case, He was addressing the practices of the scribes and Pharisees, who apparently commonly participated in oath-taking. Oaths involved invoking a deity as a witness to the truth being spoken. Rather than specifically swearing by God, the Pharisees used other words to represent God, in the hopes that by doing so they would avoid judgment if they broke the vow. This is known as casuistry—the use of subtle and sometimes deceptive reasoning in order to justify something. Their casuistry was meant to justify swearing oaths that they might not keep.

The scribes and Pharisees also felt that one could take an oath by swearing on the altar in the temple and that the oath didn’t need to be kept, yet if they swore on a gift put on the altar, it couldn’t be broken. Jesus pointed out the flaw in their reasoning by pointing out that the altar which sanctifies the gift is greater than the gift itself, so to swear by the altar was to swear by everything on it. When someone swore by the temple, they were swearing by God who dwelled there, and when they swore by heaven, they swore by God’s throne and God Himself. Jesus pressed the point that trying to word their oaths in such a way that they could avoid God’s judgment if they failed to keep them was useless, for their oaths were made before God, and He held them to their word.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.12

Jesus again proclaimed woe, this time pointing to their meticulous focus on minor details while ignoring the more important points of their religion. Tithing was a custom for the patriarchs since before the time of the Mosaic Law,13 and later became part of the Mosaic Law.

You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.14

The tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance.15

The scribes and Pharisees took the commandment to tithe very seriously, and they faithfully gave 10% of their increase. Jesus pointed out that they were scrupulous about their tithing, making sure to even tithe mint, dill, and cumin which grew in their gardens. He wasn’t criticizing them for this, as they were obeying Scripture in doing so. His point was that while they were so meticulous with tithing herbs, they were missing the parts of God’s Word that focused on things that mattered far more. Along with tithing, they should have focused on traits which are an outworking of God’s love and care for others—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!16

For the second time, Jesus called them blind guides and then added a humorous word picture. This wasn’t the only time He used humorous comparisons between something very small and something much bigger. For example, He said:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?17

Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.18

Gnats were unclean, as they were among the winged insects which “go on all fours” which were not to be ingested.19 Camels, the largest animals found in Palestine, were also unclean and weren’t to be eaten. Jesus used these two unclean beings to illustrate with a word picture how the scribes and Pharisees could be extremely attentive to the minor details of the Law while ignoring the Law’s weightier matters.

(Continued and concluded in Part Four.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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1 This paragraph is condensed from France, The Gospel of Matthew, 855.

2 Matthew 23:13.

3 Matthew 18:3.

4 Matthew 19:23–24.

5 Luke 11:52.

6 Matthew 23:14 NAS.

7 Zechariah 7:9–10.

8 Jeremiah 7:6–7.

9 Matthew 23:15.

10 Matthew 23:16–22.

11 Matthew 5:34–37.

12 Matthew 23:23.

13 Genesis 14:20.

14 Deuteronomy 14:22.

15 Numbers 18:24.

16 Matthew 23:24.

17 Matthew 7:3.

18 Matthew 19:24.

19 Leviticus 11:20–23.