(Delivered Sunday, July 13, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
We've been studying from the twenty-third chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In it, our Lord dealt with the sin of religious hypocrisy in the lives of the scribes and Pharisees—the religious leaders of the day.
He began by describing the nature of this sin to His followers; warning them what to avoid, so they wouldn't fall into the same sins as the scribes and Pharisees were committing. He spoke these words to His followers; but He did so in the hearing of the scribes and Pharisees themselves:
And now, after having spoken these words to His followers, He turns and speaks directly to the scribes and Pharisees themselves;
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I've only read a portion of what our Lord said to them; but look with me at the phrase our Lord used to begin: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees . . ." What an ominous thing to hear from the Judge of all the earth!
A "woe" isn't a curse. Rather, it's a simple statement of fact. It basically means, "Oh, how terrible it will be it will be for you! How horrible your destiny!" If you read this chapter of Matthew's Gospel from the translation I'm using (which is the New King James Version), you'll find that our Lord speaks eight specific and separate "woes" to these religious hypocrites.
Then, consider the next thing He says to them; “Hypocrites!” In ancient times, the word "hypocrite" simply meant "a giver of an answer". It was a way to describe a skilled public speaker. It could refer to someone who was a great orator; or it was often used to describe someone who could give a public interpretation of oracles or of dreams. The ancient Greek statesman Demosthenes was once said to be "an exceptional and many-talented hypocrite"1—and if he had heard it, he would have taken it as a compliment! It later came to be used to describe an actor in a play who wore a mask. And over time, this word took the negative, metaphoric meaning we are familiar with today—that is, of someone who 'play-acts' in front of people; someone who pretends to have a righteousness before God and a religious piety that they, in reality, don't possess. I count seven times in this chapter that our Lord calls the scribes and Pharisees "hypocrites"; and once, in verse 28, He says they are "full of hypocrisy". (And in their case, by the way, it was definitely not taken as a compliment!)
If you were to read on, you'd see that He once calls them "fools and blind" (in verse 19), twice calls them "blind guides" (vv. 16 and 24), and once even characterizes their behavior as that of a "Blind Pharisee . . ." (v. 26). And what's more, in verse 33, He even goes so far as to call them “serpents”, and a “brood of vipers”; and asks how they can “escape the condemnation of hell”.
No wonder the great New Testament scholar A.T. Robertson called this chapter “a thunderbolt of wrath”! And all that we've mentioned so far is just the woes He spoke of them, and the names He gave to them in uttering these woes. We haven't even mention yet the things He charges them with having done!
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Now; you may hear all this and wonder why we're taking the time to study these terrible words! "Why, on such a nice, sunny, pleasant Sunday, are we being dragged through such a dark, dismal, negative portion of Scripture? Can't just make a passing reference to the fact that these words are found in Matthew's Gospel, and hurry on to talk about something nice and positive? I mean, we obviously have to acknowledge that our Lord spoke these harsh words; but I came this morning to receive 'balm for my weary soul'! Do we really have to dwell on this 'thunderbolt of wrath'?"
But that's not the question to ask! Obviously, they are harsh and unpleasant words. But the proper question to ask is, "Why did the Holy Spirit see fit to preserve them for us in His Holy Scriptures?" And when we ask that question, the answer becomes obvious. It's because you and I are in danger of falling into the very same sin of hypocrisy that they fell into—and of receiving the same verdict of condemnation that they received.
On another occasion, Jesus spoke to a large gathering of people; and speaking directly to His disciples "first of all", He said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1). He used the analogy of "leaven" to illustrate that hypocrisy is a sin that, once allowed into just one small area of someone's life, will spread and permeate its influence into every other area of their life. And it's particularly in the spiritual dimension of our lives that hypocrisy finds its easiest entry point.
Think of it, dear brothers and sisters. As soon as we begin to do the sorts of things that Jesus warns us about in the first twelve verses of this chapter—that is, as soon as we begin to preach to others what we will not do ourselves; or begin to put our religious piety up on display for other people to see; or tailor the expression of our faith in Christ in such a way as to gain and protect the greatest social admiration from people; or make religious "titles" and outward "performances" of religion more important than true godly character and the condition of the heart toward God—then we have already begun the slide down the slippery slope of religious hypocrisy.
And once that slide has begun, it won't be long before we're going through the motions of "religion" just to look good in front of people. It won't be long before we're using pious talk, or making long, public diatribes against the sins of others—all so that we can distract attention from the sin that is lodged deeply in our own hearts and lives. And then, once our sin is found out, and our hypocrisy is exposed, we'll soon be blaming other people for the sin that we have committed; or (almost too horrible to say) we'll soon be daring to question the integrity of God and His word in order to justify our disobedience and unbelief.
It's true; this isn't a very pretty, very happy passage of Scripture to study. But the Holy Spirit has preserved it for us because it would be far less "pretty" and "happy" to have the Lord Jesus pronounce these same words of "woe" over you and me!
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let's give the harsh words of this chapter all the attention they deserve! They come to us from the lips of our Lord and Master; and the eternal condition of your soul and mine depends on our learning from them!
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The "woes" Jesus speaks in this chapter over the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees can be divided into three basic themes. The first few woes (in verses 13-15) are spoken because of the harmful impact the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees had on other people. The next two woes (in verses 16-24), are spoken against the impact their hypocrisy had on the their own religious practices. And the last three woes (in verses 25-36) are spoken against the impact that religious hypocrisy had on the scribes and Pharisees themselves!
Here, we have a complete picture of the impact of religious hypocrisy on all spheres of relationship—on others, on God, and on ourselves. We begin this morning with the first section—the woes spoken against the harm religious hypocrisy has on other people. It teaches us that our Lord hates religious hypocrisy because of the ways it hurts people that He loves.
And the first thing we see, the first great “hurt” it causes, is that . . .
1. IT CLOSES DOORS (v. 13).
Jesus says, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (v. 13).
Think of that phrase, "the kingdom of heaven". “The kingdom of heaven” is simply that realm over which Jesus Christ reigns. Way back in chapter 13, our Lord spoke several parables to describe it. His kingdom is a kingdom that is spiritual in nature. It started out small; but is growing and spreading throughout the world. It will be fully realized—in its fullest dimension—at our Lord's bodily return. It was the theme of the preaching of both John the Baptist, and our Lord after John was put into prison; both of whom said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17).
And the pathway to eternal blessing is to become a citizen of Jesus' kingdom. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, Jesus said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Our interest in the kingdom of heaven is something that should occupy our greatest efforts. It's more important than anything else in this world we could lay our hands on. Jesus said, “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
There can't be anything more important than for men and women to enter into the kingdom of heaven. That is why our Lord died on the cross—so that the way would be fully opened for sinful men and women to enter in and have eternal life in Him. And so, one of the most unspeakably dastardly consequences of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees—the religious leaders of the people of Israel—was that they “shut up the kingdom of heaven against men”. They closed the door to eternal life—the very door that our Lord came to open! No wonder they received His “woe” for having done so!
Look at how He describes their hypocrisy. First, He says “[F]or you neither go in yourself . . .” Jesus had spoken to them about this on a previous occasion. They were the experts in the Scriptures; and yet, He once said to them, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 6:39-40). He later told them, “You are from beneath; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24).
This was the nature of their hypocritical unbelief. They handled the things of God; but they didn't believe in His Son. They sat in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2); but they wouldn't heed the voice of the very One that Moses promised would come (Deuteronomy 18:15). They taught everyone to perform the works of God; and yet, Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe on Him whom He sent” (John 6:29). They established themselves to be the 'doormen' of the kingdom of God; and yet, Jesus Christ was proven to them to be the door to that kingdom—and they persistently refused to even go in to the kingdom through Him.
And this is happening even today! Based on what Jesus is telling us, every religious system that sets itself up as a way to God's favor—but that does not point men and women to Jesus Christ exclusively as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)—is, in reality, a spiritual door slammed in people's faces! Its proponents hypocritically claim to offer the kingdom of heaven to men; and yet, in reality, they shut people out of it!
Their hypocrisy is found in the fact that they presume to be custodians of the kingdom of heaven, but won't themselves enter the door to the kingdom by faith in Jesus Christ. They refuse to admit their own need for a Savior from their sins; and they won't humble themselves by placing their faith in the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for sinners. They scoff at the idea of the cross—insisting, instead, that people just need to become more 'moral' and more 'loving' or more 'enlightened'. They scoff at the idea that Jesus is the only way—insisting that there are many “pathways” to God.
And the unspeakable hurt that their hypocrisy causes to other people is that, in their hypocritical unbelief, they actively stand in the way of those who do seek to enter through Christ and do not allow them to go in! They refuse to call sin for what it is, or point to Jesus' sacrifice as the payment for sin, or call people to place their faith in Him.
And here's the warning for you and me: Beware of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees! Don't pretend to stand at the door of the kingdom when you have not really entered it yourself! Don't slam the door to others in that way! Make sure—very sure—that you have humbled yourself before the living God as a sinner; and that you have trusted the cross of Jesus as your only hope for salvation.
Enter the door to the kingdom yourself first; and then, beckon people to enter from the inside!
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Our Lord pronounced His first woe on the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, because it closed the door to the kingdom of heaven to men. And then next woe He pronounces on their hypocrisy is because of the fact that . . .
2. IT CLOAKS INJUSTICES (v. 14).
In the New King James version, verse 14 has our Lord saying “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.”
Now it may be that you're reading from a different translation than I am this morning. And if so, you might find that those words are put in brackets; or you might even find that the fourteenth verse isn't even in the text of your Bible, and is only indicated as a footnote at the bottom of the page. This is because this verse is not found in some of the ancient copies of Matthew's Gospel; and for that reason, many translators thought it best to set it off as of doubtful authenticity.
But while it may be true that the fourteenth verse was not actually a part of Matthew's original account of Jesus' words to the scribes and Pharisees, there's absolutely no doubt that Jesus spoke something like them on this very occasion. In Mark's Gospel, for example, we read;
Jesus said that they "devour widow's houses". Widows, in the Scriptures, are proverbial for the most vulnerable people in society. To “devour widow's houses” would be to commit one of the most heinous acts of injustices a Jewish person could think of. The Bible teaches us that it's the task of "pure and undefined religion" to "visit" them "in their trouble" (James 1:27). God says, in Psalm 68:5 that He is "a defender of the widows". But here, we find the scribes and Pharisees—the religious leaders of Israel—were taking advantage of vulnerable and needy widows; plundering their houses, apprehending and squandering their goods, and leaving them without any means of living. And what is their hypocrisy? What do they do to 'put a mask' over their sin? Jesus says that "for a pretense" they "make long prayers". In other words, their hypocrisy moves them to cloak their sin with pretended piety.
This may be a little like what our Lord spoke of in Matthew 15. Do you remember how the scribes and Pharisees came to Him and demanded to know why He and His disciples didn't follow the religious tradition of washing their hands in a ceremonial way before eating? Jesus responded;
They had created the religious tradition that, if you had money and 'devoted it to the Lord', then your relatives couldn't have any of it. That way, you could keep your money (because you devoted it to God), and could get out of caring for their elderly parent's needs. And the whole while long, you could appear pious and devoted to God while breaking the fifth commandment! And perhaps they were doing a similar thing here—devouring widow's houses; and offering long, drawn-out, pious sounding 'prayers of thanks to God' for what they obtained and used for “religious purposes”.
They covered their acts of injustice through their hypocrisy from the eyes of men—cloaking it over with the pretense of long prayers. And the fact that they used pious prayers to hide their sin caused the Lord to warn that they “will receive greater condemnation”. No wonder Jesus spoke "woe" upon them!
It's a very dangerous thing to get into the habit of covering your steps in front of people. Once you learn to do so, it won't matter to you anymore where you keep putting your feet. And sadly, many people learn to cover their steps with "religious piety". They talk pious talk, and pray long prayers, and quote the Bible, and practice religious rituals, make a show of good deeds, and boast of their devotion to church—and the whole time long, making a mockery of it all by using it as a cloak to cover-up the sinful and unjust things they habitually do to people!
And so, again, heed the warning! Beware of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees! When you do wrong to someone, don't cover it up with religion! Speak the truth! Let it be exposed, repent of it, and make it right! “Pure and undefined religion before God and the Father” is not simply a matter talk. It's “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
Let's perform real religion through action! And when we fail to do so, let's be sure we don't cover it up with false piety!
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So; Jesus showed that He hates religious hypocrisy because it hurts other people. It closes doors to them that He wants open. And it perpetuates injustice to people that He wants stopped! He spoke dreadful woes upon "religious hypocrites" because of such things.
And here's one more point. He hates religious hypocrisy; because . . .
3. IT CORRUPTS OTHERS (v. 15).
In verse 15, Jesus said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."
A proselyte, in this case, meant a pagan from the Gentile world who became converted to Judaism. And the scribes and Pharisees would go to great lengths to “win” or “make” a proselyte to the outward forms of Judaism. They would exert a missionary's effort. They would willingly cross over the sea just to reach one prospect on another shore; or they would traverse the dry stretches of the desert just to reach one prospect in another land.
But once they found such a prospect, they only won him or her over to the outward rules and regulations of a religion that they themselves kept hypocritically. They taught them what they should eat or shouldn't eat. They taught them how to wash before meals. They taught them what feasts to observe, and what unclean things to abstain from, and what holidays to keep. But they didn't teach them to repent of sin. They didn't teach them to enter into a relationship with God by faith in His suffering Servant. They didn't teach them to truly “hunger and thirst for righteousness” that they could only have by grace (Matthew 5:6). They didn't teach them these things, because they didn't do them themselves!
The apostle Paul spoke of this with respect to his own kinsmen. He said,
Jesus once said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24). A religious hypocrite may be able to boast in how many “converts” he has won; but how can a religious hypocrite ultimately teach anyone to be anything else but another religious hypocrite?
And in fact, the matter is even worse than that. Our Lord here says that, when the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees extend themselves to win one proselyte, they make that one proselyte “twice as much a son of hell” as they themselves are! They not only teach their student to be a religious hypocrite; but the student excels the teacher in hypocrisy. New religious forms, without a new heart before God, simply makes 'a perversion of conversion'!
And so, once again, we must heed the warning. Beware of the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees! Don't try to win others to a relationship with God that you don't possess. Make sure that you have a faith in Christ worth seeing reproduced in the lives of others; and make sure that you have a walk with Christ that's truly worth imitating.
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Our Lord hates religious hypocrisy, because it hurts other people. It slams the door to the kingdom of heaven in their faces. It covers up injustices done to them. And it corrupts them and condemns them to even greater acts of hypocrisy. Woe to those who do such things!.
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let's make sure before God that we're the real thing!
1William Barclay, New Testament Words (Philadelphia:The Westminster Press, 1974), p. 141.
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