Matthew 23:27 – 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.
It was common for the Jews to use caves as tombs. In addition, they also excavated tombs through hillsides or even through solid rock. Some of these caves or passages were quite extensive. These graves were not in the midst of cities. They were out in the surrounding countryside, in places of solitude.
The outside entrances to these tombs were white washed once a year, shortly before Passover. Why do you suppose that was?
According to the law, if a person had contact with a dead body, he would be unclean for 7 days:
Numbers 19:16 – Whoever in the open field touches someone which was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.
The Jews used to whitewash the outside of these tombs so that anyone traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover would not accidentally touch one of them and be unable to participate in the Passover celebration.
The outside of these places could be quite beautiful, but hidden inside were dead, stinking, rotting corpses.
So imagine that Jesus is standing near the temple, speaking to the crowds. In the distance on Mt Olivet, the crowd can look and see the whitewash of some tombs. Suddenly, Jesus reveals that the religious leaders are just like these repulsive caves!
Their outward appearance was pious and holy, but their hearts were full of hypocrisy, envy, pride, lust and malice. In short, their inward man was stinking and rotting like a dead body!
This is quite a severe rebuke to the religious leaders, who purposely avoided contact with tax collectors and ‘sinners’, lest they become polluted by them!
This is one of the reasons that Christians are commanded never to judge. We can only judge by outward appearances. We are always liable to make mistakes. Case in point, the common people of Jesus’ day judged the religious leaders by outward appearance. They judged them to be pure and holy, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
Only God is able to see what lies below the surface; only he never makes a mistake. He can read the secret life of every man – including us!
Matthew 23:28 – So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
The Scribes and Pharisees valued outward piety above inward sanctification and purity of heart. So did Ananias and Sapphira – how did that work out for them?
What good are mere outward appearances when we stand in front of God? Make no mistake – every one of us will one day bow before him. On that day, what will God find in your heart?
Matthew 23:29-30 – 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’.
This is the eighth and final woe pronounced by Jesus. The Pharisees were happy to build special monuments over the graves of earlier prophets to Israel. They decorated them and kept them neat and clean, much as would care for the graves of our own loved ones today.
They spent time, effort and funds on these projects. They honored the memory of the prophets by speaking well of them or praying near their tombs. Sometimes they even built synagogues in their memories.
All these actions were a way for the religious leaders to profess or demonstrate respect for these men and their message/doctrine. They asserted that their forefathers were wrong to have done them harm, and if they had been alive at the time, they would never have opposed the prophets of God.
But here is the problem – it was all a sham! Again, they were playing the part of a hypocrite.
They claimed to have the utmost respect for the dead saints, while at the same time they persecuted the living ones! The highest respect and honor they could have paid the dead prophets was to practice their doctrine while showing love and respect to their followers.
John Calvin’s verse commentary says it this way:
“It is customary, indeed, with hypocrites thus to honor, after their death, good teachers and holy ministers of God, whom they cannot endure while they are alive… as the ashes of the dead no longer give annoyance by harsh and severe reproofs, they who are driven to madness by the living voices of those men are not unwilling, by adoring them, to make an empty display of religion. It is a hypocrisy which costs little to profess warm regard for those who are now silent. Thus each of the prophets, in his own age, was contemptuously rejected, and wickedly tormented, by the Jews, and, in many instances, cruelly put to death; while posterity, though not a whit better than their fathers, pretended to venerate their memory, instead of embracing their doctrine; for they too were actuated by equal hostility towards their own teachers.”
How is it possible that the religious leaders claimed to adore and venerate the former prophets, yet they persecuted and opposed Jesus with every means available to them? Clearly they loved the mere memory of the prophets, not their message.
Here is something interesting to consider: we know that the Scribes and Pharisees insisted that if they had been alive at the time of their ancestors, they would not have killed the prophets who spoke out against evil and stood for righteousness. There is no indication that they did not mean/believe what they were saying. In their deluded, darkened minds, they believed this to be the truth. It’s an example of ‘unconscious hypocrisy’, which everyone tends to indulge in.
For instance, have you ever read the story of the Jews leaving Egypt and going to the Promised Land? Remember how they spied out the land, then God told them to go in and take it, but they refused? They had a lot of excuses for not taking it, didn’t they? The people were like giants while they were like grasshoppers. The cities had strong walls. The people there would ‘eat them alive’. So that generation lost the opportunity to take the Promised Land.
Now we like to think that we are more righteous then they were. We like to think that if we had been alive at that time, we would have joined with Joshua and Caleb and we would have stormed in and taken that land! We condemn the unbelief of the Israelites who failed and we are adamant that we would never have done such a thing!
But before making such a bold statement, perhaps we should examine our own lives. Are there things that God has called us to do, but we, like the ancient Israelites, have not done them because we don’t have enough faith in God? Have we failed to stand for righteousness in our generation? Have we failed to take ground for the kingdom that we knew God had called us to take? Don’t we (like the Israelites) have excuses for why we haven’t done it?
I suggest that we all contemplate this idea. Ask the Lord if there is an area in which you have made excuses instead of fulfilling your destiny. If so, repent and change your ways. It’s not too late! You want to be like Joshua and Caleb? Excellent! Stand up in faith and do what God has called you to do. Be a righteous example for future generations.
Matthew 23:31 – Thus you witness against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets.
The ancestors of the Scribes and Pharisees slew Isaiah, persecuted Jeremiah and shed the blood of Zacharias between the altar and the temple. Their physical descendants continued to walk in their spiritual ways; they were about to orchestrate a plot to kill the Messiah.
If Jesus came to earth today as the Messiah, would we embrace him or murder him?
Jesus would, no doubt, have many devout followers. But I feel there would also be many religious people who would hate him. Look at the churches that are embracing sin. They are affirming homosexuality. They are dwelling on ‘peaceful thoughts’ instead of preaching the word of God. They have a form of godliness, but deny its power. They want to be just like the world, instead of being different for Christ.
Sadly, I suspect that if Jesus came to earth today as the Messiah, the outcome would be the same as it was 2000 years ago.
Matthew 23:32 – Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.
In the original Greek, the word for ‘fill up’ is not a command. It is a statement of permission. Jesus permits/allows them free will to do as they chose.
‘Measure’ is an interesting word. It implies that there is a certain amount or limit of sin that God has fixed for every nation. Each generation adds to the measure of sin. God allows mankind this buffer for repentance. If they turn from their wicked ways and follow him, nothing is added to the measure of their iniquity. But if the nation continues in wickedness, they add to the measure. Once it reaches the limit, God judges that nation (see Genesis 15:16).
So in this case, Jesus predicts what the religious leaders will do. They will not repent. They will continue the evil practices of their forefathers. They are the generation who will kill the Messiah, but even that will not be enough for them. They will also fiercely persecute the apostles and disciples of Jesus after he has risen. God brought judgment upon them in 70 AD, when their nation, temple and city were completely destroyed.
We might be tempted to think that we are better than the Jews, but are we? How full is the measure of sin for the United States of America? Look around you, brothers and sisters. Sin and wickedness are getting darker and more perverted every day. Despite the warnings, judgments and difficulties we are facing right now, people are not turning to God in repentance. If there has ever been a time to pray for our nation and to pray for revival, it is now!
Matthew 23:33 – You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?
Are you one of those people who think there is no hell because God is a loving God and he would never send anyone there? Newsflash – according to Jesus, there is a very real place called hell. It is a place of judgment and horror; a place of hopelessness and despair.
Jesus warns the Scribes and Pharisees that the evil in their hearts was sending them to hell in a hurry. He is asking them to pause and consider their actions – how are they going to avoid the place of eternal sorrow if they continue on their current path of rebellion?
Picture it this way: The Niagara River inevitably leads to the Niagara Falls, right? The river is very swift and powerful. How can those who insist on rafting in this river avoid the falls? The answer is, they can’t. The powerful current of the river will propel them to only one, inevitable destination – the falls.
In the same way, the river of sin and wickedness that the religious leaders were on was very swift and powerful. They were totally caught up in its current. It was leading them to only one inevitable destination – hell. Jesus is telling them that unless they get off that river of wickedness by repenting, they won’t be able to avoid hell.
Matthew 23:34 – 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…
Jesus speaks historically and prophetically here. Once the church was formed on the day of Pentecost, the power of God fell upon his followers. They continued to proclaim the New Covenant message of repentance to everyone. The wicked religious leaders did everything in their power to silence the voice of truth that rang out in their generation, just as they had done before.
Stephen was stoned, Peter was crucified, James was killed with the sword, John was exiled after a failed attempt to boil him in oil. The list of atrocities goes on and on. Followers of Jesus were imprisoned, publicly beaten and persecuted whenever possible. Evil men will stop at nothing to silence the voice of truth which reveals their wickedness.
Matthew 23:35-36 – …so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Their generation would be the one to fill/overflow the national cup of iniquity that their ancestors had begun.
The practice of killing innocent men who proclaimed righteousness in the face of evil had begun long ago, and God had seen every single drop of blood that was shed. Now, it would be judged (2 Chronicles 24:22).
Again, we must ask ourselves, what is the status of the United States of America? How full is our cup? In our lifetimes, prayer has been taken out of schools. Abortion and gay marriage are now protected by law. Movies continue to push the limits of debauchery.
Our measure is filling at a rapid rate, and the only remedy is repentance. Have you prayed for revival today?
Matthew 23:37 – 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 were not willing!
Jesus shows us the depth of his emotion for his beloved people. He had done everything for them, yet they would not repent and seek his face (Isaiah 5:4, Matthew 21:33-41).
His desire was to gather them from their aimless wandering and bring them home to himself where they would be protected, preserved, loved and cared for, just as chicks are tenderly cared for by their mother (Psalms 91:4, Malachi 4:2).
He desires to unite them, and give them the privilege and honor of being the first to enter his kingdom. He has plans to prosper them and give them hope and a future, but they rejected him and chose to walk in the darkness.
Jesus is sorely grieved by the actions of the Scribes and Pharisees, because he knows how much good he has in store for them, and yet how much heartache evil they are choosing to bring upon themselves.
Matthew 23:38 – See, your house is left to you desolate.
What house is Jesus referring to? When Jerusalem is destroyed, the residential homes of the Jews were certainly demolished, but the real ‘house’ referred to here is probably the temple. This was the house they trusted in and boasted about.
Christ was now departing from that house, never to return. They themselves had forced him out; they had no room for him in their lives! Once the spirit of God left, the house was desolate – it was empty of power, glory, goodness and life.
The bible speaks of us as being the temple of God under the New Covenant:
1 Corinthians 3:16 – Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
Do you have room for Christ in your life? Do you have time to fellowship with him, read his word, converse with him in prayer? If so, you will experience his love and see his power in your life.
If you choose to squeeze him out of his house he will go – but don’t be surprised to find your life desolate without him!
Matthew 23:39 – For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.
The day of mercy for the Jews was fast drawing to a close. Salvation and protection have been rejected. The nation is about to experience dreadful misery and suffering. This would remain upon the people until they had borne the measure of their judgment. Then, they would begin to look for God once again. They would turn to him and seek a deliverer.
This has not yet come to pass. As of the writing of this blog post, the Jews are still experiencing desolation. But a day will come when they once again cry out to the God of their fathers (Romans 11:25-32), and he will deliver them and show them mercy.
Let me offer you some encouragement:
Jesus describes the Scribes and Pharisees as being white-washed tombs. The outside looked holy, but the inside was sinful. This was a very, very dangerous condition for them to be in, because it led to more and more grievous sins. It set them afloat on the ‘Niagara River’ towards destruction.
For this reason, it would be smart for us to take a good look at our own personal holiness. Each of us should pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us the dark, hidden things in our hearts that are still not submitted to God.
Although it can be painful to acknowledge the truth about ourselves (that we still have these sins and we need to expose and remove them from our lives), it is in our best interest to do so. I encourage you to spend time in prayer this week, examining your heart and determining to remove these things from your life.
Let me offer you some relief:
Despite what some people would lead you to believe, the Christian life is not about rules and regulations. It is not about scrupulously following laws, like the Pharisees did. It is not about the things you can’t do.
It is about a wonderful, glorious, fulfilling, creative, loving, amazing relationship with the God of the universe! Nothing is more wonderful than a close relationship with God. So stop concentrating on the rules and focus on the relationship. Stop holding parts of yourself back from God – seek him with abandonment! Experience the relief that comes from letting go of legalism and entering into relationship!
Let me offer you some strength:
We are living in some tumultuous times. Satan would like to sap your strength, fill you with anxiety and cause you to go into hiding. Don’t fall for that trick! We are on the winning side. Satan has no chance to overcome God. So don’t bury your head in the sand. Stand strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Be a shining light for Christ in this generation.