Jesus—His Life and Message: Conflict with the Pharisees (Part 4)

November 27, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

This is the last in a short series of articles about Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees, focusing on the things Jesus said in Matthew chapter 23. At the end of the previous article, Jesus drew an analogy involving unclean insects and camels,1 which touched on the subject of purity laws. He then addressed those laws directly.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”2

The Pharisees were very careful to meticulously do the outward things required by the Mosaic Law so that others would notice and thus consider them to be pious, righteous, and pure. Jesus, however, addressed true inner purity in contrast to the false show of purity which the Pharisees practiced. The scribes and Pharisees concerned themselves with the ritual cleanness of vessels used for their eating, drinking, and preparing food. The Gospel of Mark tells us:

The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.3

Knowing their concern for the ritual purity of cooking vessels and eating utensils, Jesus used this as an example to once again demonstrate that they were emphasizing the wrong things. There were differences of opinion among the Pharisees as to how to clean these vessels. For example, some considered it important to clean the inside of the cup before the outside, whereas others were less concerned with the order in which it was cleaned. Jesus wasn’t addressing the issue of physically cleaning the surfaces of these vessels, but used this issue as a springboard to address moral uncleanness within one’s heart, similar to what He had said earlier in this Gospel.

What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.4

Jesus used the inside and the outside of the vessel as a metaphor for the inside and outside of a person. One might outwardly obey all the ritual cleanliness laws, but that didn’t mean that person was morally clean within. While the Pharisees may have outwardly looked clean and pure, inwardly they were full of greed and self-indulgence. Other Bible translations use robbery or extortion instead of greed, and excess instead of self-indulgence. The concept of self-indulgence is luxury, high living, and pleasure seeking. Though outwardly religious, the Pharisees and scribes didn’t let their religion get in the way of their greed. Jesus stated that when a person is made clean in his inner being, that will be reflected in their outward actions. He was pointing out that the scribes and Pharisees were wrong to put so much emphasis on the outward show of their rule-keeping instead of focusing on true inward faith.

Jesus continued with the themes of cleanliness and outside/inside in the sixth “woe.”

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.5

The Mosaic Law had specific rules regarding physical contact with the dead. If someone touched a dead body, they were ritually unclean for seven days. If the person died in a tent, then anyone in the tent at the time, or who came into the tent, was also unclean for seven days. If any vessels, such as cups or jars, were in the tent where a person died, and did not have a lid on them, they too became unclean.6 Those who touched a human bone, or who touched a grave, were also unclean for seven days.7

Because people were not necessarily buried in cemeteries as they are today, tombs located in caves or hewn out of rock, usually for the wealthy, as well as graves dug in the ground, could be found in places where after a time they might not be noticeable. People who were passing through an area might not notice the grave and could accidentally touch it, which would make them ceremonially unclean. Once a year, a month before Passover, tombs and graves were whitewashed so that those traveling to Jerusalem for the festival wouldn’t accidentally touch them, lest they become ritually unclean and thus be unable to participate in the religious festival.

These tombs looked bright and clean, yet within them were the unclean bones of the dead. It was to these freshly whitewashed tombs that Jesus likened the scribes and Pharisees. Outwardly, they gave the impression of being righteous through their rigorous keeping of the law; yet inwardly, it was a completely different picture. Jesus claimed that as fastidious as they were in painstakingly obeying the law as they understood it, they were in fact full of lawlessness. They were so focused on the externals, the rules and laws, that they ignored the important demands of justice, love, mercy, and faithfulness.

The seventh and final “woe” likens the scribes and Pharisees to those who killed the prophets of old.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.8

Those who murdered the prophets certainly didn’t honor their burial places, but apparently later generations venerated them by building tombs and monuments in their honor. Some ancient literature refers to the magnificence of the tombs of the Old Testament patriarchs and of the expensive white marble monument erected by Herod at the entrance to David’s tomb (mentioned also in Acts 2:29).9 The scribes and Pharisees honored the prophets and other righteous people by caring for their tombs.

Looking at history, these men understood that the killing of the prophets was evil, and they claimed that if they had been alive in ancient times they would not have participated in the prophets’ deaths. While they were distancing themselves from the evils of their fathers (ancestors), Jesus linked them with those of the past, as they in their turn were rejecting God’s messengers—John the Baptist and Jesus—just as their forefathers had done with the prophets of old.

Jesus spoke ironically, as the Old Testament prophets sometimes did when they told the people to go on sinning,10 when He told them to Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. He was saying that they should go on and finish what their ancestors had started. They had opposed the words of the prophets and killed them, and now their descendants were rejecting the words of God’s Son and would shortly execute Him, thus filling up the measure of their fathers.

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?11

Jesus used the same uncomplimentary term for the scribes as He had for the Pharisees—you brood of vipers—as John the Baptist had.

When he [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”12 

Both John and Jesus referred to these men as snakes. Jesus was even more explicit regarding their final destination, stating that they were destined for hell.

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.13

Prior to Jesus, God had sent prophets and righteous people as His representatives and witnesses to the Jewish people, and they were repeatedly rejected. Jesus said that He would send prophets, wise men, and scribes—His representatives—to them as well, and that like their fathers before them, they would persecute, flog, and crucify the messengers of God.

Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus told His disciples that they would experience persecution:

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.14 

Just as Jesus was persecuted, flogged, and killed, so too were some of those who originally followed Jesus, and many others throughout Christian history have been as well. While Jesus was speaking to the scribes and Pharisees about their persecution of the prophets, wise men, and scribes, He most likely was speaking of the people of Jerusalem in general and not only the religious leaders.

When Jesus said that “all the righteous blood shed on earth” would come upon His hearers, He appeared to be saying that the climax of God sending His prophets and messengers throughout history had now arrived—as He had sent His own Son. Of course, He would continue to raise up prophets and messengers through the ministry of the apostles and the church, but the apex was when He sent His Son. When speaking of the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah, Jesus was using these two martyrs as bookends, as Abel was the first martyr15 in the Old Testament and Zechariah the last,16 and so He was including all the martyrs who had died in between them. In doing so, Jesus also united the people to whom He was speaking with the killers of all the prophets in the past. According to Jewish tradition, Zechariah’s blood, like Abel’s, cried out for vengeance against those who murdered him.

Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.17

Jesus ended with the solemn promise that what He had stated would happen within the lifetime of some of the scribes and Pharisees He was speaking to. In 70 AD, Roman soldiers conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. Throughout this Gospel, we find Jesus condemning “this generation”—those who rejected Him and called for His death.

“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”18

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.19

Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.20

“O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”21

Having proclaimed the seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus then moved beyond their specific failings to the historic hostility the city of Jerusalem had shown to the prophets sent to them by God.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, 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.’”22

The mention of stoning reflects what happened to Zechariah (referred to earlier), as they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the LORD.23 Yet in spite of their rejection of the prophets of old, and their soon coming rejection of their Savior, Jesus spoke with compassion, saying He had affection for the inhabitants of the city and wanted them to find protection in Him, as a hen protects her brood, reflecting how God sheltered His people under His wings.

He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge.24

Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.25

Sadly, most inhabitants of Jerusalem were unwilling, and as such would be destroyed.

When speaking of their house being left desolate, Jesus was referring to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was traditionally referred to as the house of God. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus referred to the temple as “My house,” and then here He referred to it as your house, which would be left desolate as God would abandon it. The Greek word translated as desolate can also be translated as uninhabited. When Jesus said you will not see me again, until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” He was making reference to when the final kingdom of God is set up, after His future return at the end of the world.


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

Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Biven, David. New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. Holland: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2007.

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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994.

Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993.

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Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Flusser, David. Jesus. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1998.

Flusser, David, and R. Steven Notely. The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Gnilka, Joachim. Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Green, Joel B., and Scot McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

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Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

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Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

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Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.

Manson, T. W. The Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957.

Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Morris, Leon. Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

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Spangler, Ann, and Lois Tverberg. Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 See Part Three.

2 Matthew 23:25–26.

3 Mark 7:3–4.

4 Matthew 15:18–20.

5 Matthew 23:27–28.

6 Numbers 19:11–22.

7 Numbers 19:16.

8 Matthew 23:29–32.

9 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 877, footnote 53.

10 “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing,but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive’” (Isaiah 6:9).

Astonish yourselvesand be astonished; blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! (Isaiah 29:9).

11 Matthew 23:33.

12 Matthew 3:7.

13 Matthew 23:34–35.

14 Matthew 10:16–18.

15 Genesis 4:8.

16 2 Chronicles 24:20–22.

17 Matthew 23:36.

18 Matthew 11:16–17.

19 Matthew 12:39.

20 Matthew 12:45.

21 Matthew 17:17.

22 Matthew 23:37–39.

23 2 Chronicles 24:21.

24 Psalm 91:4.

25 Psalm 17:8.