"The Guiltiest Generation"
(Delivered Sunday, August 31, 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.)
When it comes to defenders of the faith, one of my heroes is a Bible scholar from the last century named J. Gresham Machen. He told a story of how he visited a church once where the unbelieving minister had the habit of mocking the sort of "hell-fire" preaching that he thought characterized the great theologians of the past, such as Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin.
On the particular morning that Dr. Machen visited, this minister chose to get a chuckle from his congregation by quoting something that the great Puritan preacher Cotton Mather had said about hell. And Dr. Machen said that, as he listened, he wondered why the preacher had to go 'so far afield'. "Why should he have had recourse to Cotton Mather,” he asked, “when Jesus would have done just as well? There are words of Jesus about hell, just as terrible as any that can be found in the writings of the theologians; and those words might have obtained as good a smile—from that congregation—as the words of Jonathan Edwards or Cotton Mather might."1
Dr. Machen went on to add, however, that there would be one class of people who would not have smiled and laughed at Jesus' dreadful words concerning hell. That would be those who had felt the terrible experience of the convicted of their sin before a holy God; and who hold the same view of sin and judgment that Jesus held.2
That's the kind of people who would not find such words from Jesus to be funny at all. And I wonder if the words our Lord spoke in this morning's passage would have been the kind of words Dr. Machen had in mind. They are some of the most dreadful words that ever came from our Lord's lips. In Matthew 23:29-36, our Lord spoke to the proud, self-righteous religious leaders of His day; and said to them:
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These dreadful words are a part of a series of "woes" that our Lord spoke against the "religious hypocrisy" of the scribes and Pharisees of His day—just shortly before He went to the cross. We've been studying those "woes" over the past several weeks; and this is the last of those "woes".
And I suggest to you that this final "woe" stands out from those that preceded it. For one thing, being the final "woe", it appears to have received our Lord's longest treatment. What's more, while the other "woes" our Lord speaks in this chapter dealt with hypocritical actions that were being done by the scribes and Pharisees from the perspective of their present actions, this "woe" deals with actions that not only involve the present but also the distant past and the immediate future!
But perhaps the most notable aspect of this final "woe" is the dreadfully chilling condemnations our Lord spoke in it. "Serpents, brood of vipers!" our Lord said to them; "How can you escape the condemnation of hell?" Who would imagine that such words as these would come from the gracious lips of the gentle Savior? And what's more, He told these religious leaders that they would be held guilty for "all the righteous blood shed on the earth"—from God's earliest murdered spokesman to the latest; saying that "all these things will come upon this generation"! And note that these words of the most dreadful hell-fire condemnation and judgment imaginable were spoken by our Lord in the presence of those who had made a great show of honoring God's righteous messengers!
These scribes and Pharisees had built the tombs of the martyred prophets! They had adorned and decorated the monuments of godly men of old who had been slain for their faithful testimony to God's truth! They had affirmed that, if they had been alive in the times of their fathers, they would never have been partakers of such murderous acts! And yet, our Lord does not speak these dreadful words of ultimate condemnation on their fathers! Instead, He speaks them on those very religious leaders who were—even then—boasting of how devoted to God they would have been!
And the reason for His doing so teaches us yet one more lesson about the harm that religious hypocrisy brings upon the soul of the hypocrite. It is a harm that could, perhaps, be considered the most deadly of all. It is that religious hypocrisy enables people to honor God's work in the past while rebelling against God's call for them in the present.
Given the strength of Jesus' words of condemnation in this final "woe", may the Holy Spirit help us to learn from the sin of that generation—and to heed our Lord's warning!
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Now; let's begin by noting that Jesus spoke these words to a particular group of Jewish people—that is, to what He called "this generation".
I believe that certain people have made a dreadful mistake in using these words as an opportunity to condemn all Jewish people. God makes it clear in His word that He has not, by any means, permanently cast the Jewish people away (Romans 11:1-5). He says that He has a plan for their salvation in the future (vv. 25-32). We need to remember that these words were spoken to the religious leaders of the very specific generation of Jewish people who lived in Jerusalem at one of the most privileged times in human history—the years of approximately 30 A.D. to 70 A.D.
It was during those particular years that the Son of God—the Hope of the ages, who came to the world in human flesh—lived among men, and taught and ministered in the regions of Judea and Galilee. It was during that single span of time that He suffered, was crucified, and was raised from the dead just outside the city of Jerusalem. And it was in that period that our Lord sent His spokesmen—the apostles—to testify to the Jewish people that Jesus had been raised from the dead, to teach them about who He is, to explain to them the significance of all that He did and said, and to demonstrate to them that it was all in fulfillment of the Scriptures that had been given to the Jewish people by God.
This "generation" lived in what the New Testament called "the fullness of the time" (Galatians 4:4). Those were the days that, as Scripture says, were "foretold" or "proclaimed" by the prophets of old (Acts 3:24). They were the very times about which "the prophets have inquired and searched carefully . . . searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Peter 1:10-11).
This particular generation, to whom Jesus spoke, lived in those rarest of times! They were among the most remarkable and exciting days to be alive! And yet, it was to them that our Lord spoke the strongest and harshest words of condemnation that any other generation has ever received!
Why? It was because their "religious hypocrisy" enabled them to covered-up and concealed a heart of rebellion against God's will for their lives in those very times. And their religious hypocrisy in those 'outstanding' times made them 'outstandingly' guilty.
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Let's look closer at . . .
I. THE HYPOCRISY OF THAT GENERATION EXPOSED (vv. 29-33).
First, He points it out in the way that the religious leaders were pretending to honor God's murdered spokesmen from the past. He said, "“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets'" (vv. 29-30).
Think of how their fathers—the Jews of previous centuries—had abused some of God's most righteous spokesmen. We read in Scripture of how they had thrown Jeremiah repeatedly into pits and prisons; of how they laughed at the sufferings of Ezekiel; of how they arranged for Daniel to be cast alive into the lion's den. As the writer of Hebrews says, God's Old Testament spokesmen suffered "trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth" (Hebrews 11:36-38).
And here, we see that the offspring of those who abused and slew the prophets and righteous men of God had built tombs for them. They decorated their monuments. And they did it all with the boastful self-assurance that, if they had lived in those days, they would never have done those horrible things to God's spokesmen that their fathers had done.
And by the way; this highlights a peculiarity of fallen human nature. If sinful people show honor and praise to God's boldest spokesmen, they tend to show it after they're dead! God's prophets are far more loved when they're silent—when their bodies are cold and still and in the grave, and when their message can be relegated to the irrelevancy of the past. It's easier to praise them then, because they're no longer present to speak an unwanted message from God.
Nobody, however, throws flowers at the feet of God's boldest spokesmen while they're still walking and speaking—when they're still alive to rebuke us in the present, and call us to repentance from our sins and to the obedience of faith. Nobody builds monument to them while they're still able to speak to us the things from God we don't want to hear.
Sinful people tend to prefer dead saints over living ones. They're happy to sing "Just Gimme That 'Old Time' Religion"; but they hate one that demands anything of their life right now!
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Jesus speaks of how they built tombs to the prophets; and decorated monuments to the righteous; and declared that they would never do what their fathers did. They thought that their religious display somehow separated them from the sins of their fathers.
And it's not that there was anything wrong in building tombs for the prophets in and of itself. There was no sin in honoring the monuments of the righteous as an act on its own. It's that, when they declared that they would never do what their fathers did, they were lying. There was a direct continuity between the murderous acts of the fathers, and the murderous intentions of the sons. Even then, they had already begun to plot how they would put the Son of God to death. In Matthew 12:14, we're told that, "the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him." In Matthew 16:21, Jesus began to show His disciples that "He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day". And in Matthew 21:46, we're told that the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables "and sought to lay hands on Him".
And that's the nature of their hypocrisy. They were pretending to honor God's murdered spokesmen from the past, while perpetuating the murderous acts of their fathers in the present. That's why Jesus goes on to say, "Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets" (v. 31). It was a case of 'like father, like son'. They were the sons of those who murdered God's spokesmen in the past—"sons" in both a biological and a moral sense. And now, they were exhibiting their pedigree by their plans to murder God's Spokesman to them in the present.
Just as He would later send Judas out with the words, "What you do, do quickly" (John 13:27), I take it that no harm could come to our sovereign Savior unless He permitted it. So, He tells these scribes and Pharisees, "Fill up, then, the measure of your father's guilt" (v. 32); and thus releases them to do their murderous work. And so, a few days afterwards, this most privileged of all generations stood and mocked the Son of God as He hung on the cross. As Stephen, while filled with the Holy Spirit, would later tell them;
They immediately killed Stephen for those words, too. They revealed their true character in how they treated him; just as they did in how they treated the Son of God. No wonder Jesus said, "Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?" (v. 33).
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Now; I wonder if you have said to yourself what I have often said to myself, as I have studied this passage: "How could those hard-hearted, hypocritical Jewish religious leaders do such a thing? How could they be so blind? What snakes! What vipers! I know that, if I had been alive in their day, I certainly wouldn't have rejected Jesus' teaching! I know that I would never have done what they did! I would have loved Jesus! I would have loved the apostles! I would have loved their testimony of Him that's recorded for us in Scripture!"
But that's not the great question—what I would have done back then. The great question is, "Do I love Jesus now?" Do I believe what He said about Himself now? Do I take up my cross and follow Him now? Do I obey His commands for my life now?
The great deception of this form of religious hypocrisy is that it allows me to honor God's great works of the past, and to make great declarations of what I would have done in someone else's time, and to think that I've actually accomplished something "spiritual" in saying such things—and yet, the whole time, covering-up and ignoring my own disbelief and sinful rebellion against God's call on my life in my own time!
Our Lord isn't holding His hand out to another generation. He isn't calling for repentance from our fathers. It doesn't matter to Him what honor we may show toward His works in the past, if we are rebelling against His call for our lives in the present. He holds His hand out to you and me—right here, right now—and calls for us to repent of our sins, and to take up our cross, and following Him in His way for us!
This sinful generation, of whom Jesus spoke, pretended to honor God's work in the past, while rebelling against His message to them in the present. And if you and I condemn their hypocrisy in the past, while imitating their rebellion in our own time, then we are guilty of the same hypocrisy they were guilty of!
May God keep us far away from this dangerous form of religious hypocrisy!
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Our need to keep far from the sinful hypocrisy of that generation is made even clearer to us as we see . . .
II. THE GUILT OF THAT GENERATION DECLARED (vv. 34-36).
Look at verse 34. Look at that first word; "Therefore . . ." Jesus is saying that, because of their hypocrisy; because they truly had the same murderous intent in their hearts that their fathers had toward God's spokesmen in former days; because of the fact that, underneath the religious covering, they were snakes and vipers who were doomed to the judgment of hell; Jesus tells them what He is about to allow to happen.
He is about to send them more spokesmen—and what they would do to them would prove what they really are. He said (speaking to them, in the original language, in the future tense); "Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city" (v. 34).
Jesus, in these words, declares Himself to possess the authority of God. He declares Himself to be the one who will send them spokesmen from God. And if you read the record of what happened, as it's recorded for us in the book of Acts, you'll see that everything happened just as Jesus said. The Jewish leaders of that generation drove the apostles and the believers out of the temple, then out of Jerusalem, and then followed them from city to city—persecuting them, scourging them, crucifying them, and killing them.
The apostle Paul put it this way when he wrote to his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica;
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So then; they were about to perpetuate the persecution of God's spokesmen that had characterized their fathers. But because they lived in the most privileged of times of the ages—the times of which the prophets of old spoke—that particular generation procured for itself the blood-guiltiness of the ages. Jesus says that He would allow them to persecute and kill His spokesmen "that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation" (vv. 35-36).
Just think of it! All the righteous blood shed on the earth would be laid upon that generation! What an astonishing judgment! What a dreadful burden of guilt!
They would bear the guilt of the blood of righteous Abel. As the book of Genesis tells us, Abel was murdered by his jealous brother Cain; because God accepted Abel's obedient offering, but rejected Cain's disobedient offering. That generation of Jews to whom Jesus spoke, were behaving like Cain; and so, they too would be charged with Cain's murderous act. And likewise, the blood of righteous Zechariah would be laid on them. As 2 Chronicles tells us, Zechariah was the righteous son of a priest who spoke out in the days of Jewish apostasy; and told the people, "Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, He also has forsaken you" (2 Chronicles 24:20). And so, at the command of the king, the people "stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the LORD" (v. 21). As he died, he said, "The LORD look on it, and repay!" (v. 22). And now, because they were behaving like the murderers of Zechariah, that generation to whom Jesus spoke would also be charged with their act.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Genesis was first book; and the book of 2 Chronicles was last of the historical books. And so, it was as if Jesus was telling that generation that the long history of the blood of every righteous saint who was slain for righteousness sake—from the first book to the last—would be laid on that generation!
And so, this generation of Jewish people lived until 70 A.D.—at which time, the Roman general Titus marched in with his soldiers and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. They lost their city. They lost their nation. They lost their temple. And, as a people group, they were driven out of their land for nineteen centuries—only to return a few years ago, in 1948.
Truly, as Paul said, wrath had come upon them "to the uttermost".
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Now; think back to how we began. Do you remember how, at the beginning of our time this morning, I mentioned the kind of people who would not find such words from our Lord "funny"? They are the ones who have seen something of the dreadful holiness of the living God, and who also feel a genuine conviction of depth of their own sin before Him. They're the one's who take Jesus' words seriously; and believe what He has said about the judgment to come.
And I believe that's what you and I must do to avoid this horrible form of religious hypocrisy. I believe that what we must do is illustrated for us in a parable that our Lord Jesus once told. He said;
Dear brothers and sisters; let's not look at other people—or even other generations—and judge ourselves on how we compare to them! That's a way to avoid looking at ourselves! Genuine favor from God comes through looking at just three things—(1) the majesty-holiness of our righteous God, (2) the terrible sinfulness of our own sins in the light of His righteousness, and (3) the greatness of the mercy He has shown us in sending Christ to pay for those sins.
If we look at ourselves in the light of these three things, and if we respond by placing our faith in the cross of Jesus, then we won't be characterized by the religious hypocrisy of that previous generation.
1J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946), p. 137.
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