Woe to the Hypocrites

December 6, 2021

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 (Matthew 23:13).

In His final words to the false teachers and preachers of His day, Jesus presented a scathing denunciation of their hypocrisy. Matthew 23 is one of the most serious passages in the entire Bible. To understand the depth of His condemnation against the Scribes and Pharisees you must understand two key words used by our Lord in this address.

The word ‘woe’ is a very strong word that is an expression of deep anger and pain. In the Old Testament it expresses grief, despair, sorrow, pain, and fear of losing one’s life (see Isaiah 5:8-30 for the prophet’s use of the term regarding the sins of Judah). In the New Testament it expresses great sorrow but also includes the idea of God’s judgment upon sin. When both Isaiah and Jesus announced ‘woes’ upon the people of God, they were expressing God’s wrath against the unrepentant sinner with the idea that punishment would be forthcoming. In both instances the use of the word was not a personal or profane cursing of the sinner, but rather a declaration of divine judgment upon the sinner who refuses to repent of his sin. Because of that spiritual condition, Jesus used a second term in denouncing the Scribes and Pharisees - ‘hypocrite’.

The word ‘hypocrite’ originally meant to answer back and forth, like actors engaged in dialogue in a scene of a play. It came to mean deceitful pretense or putting on a false front. In the days of Shakespeare, it was used to describe an actor who had to play multiple parts in a play distinguished by the wearing of different masks to hide his/her identity - he/she was ‘two-faced’. Sometimes he/she would use a different ‘voice’ for each role, which also led to the idea that a hypocrite was ‘two-tongued’ or spoke two different things with the same tongue.

In the following ‘woes’ against the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus condemned all false spiritual teachers who said one thing with their tongues but believed another thing with their heart. In other places Jesus called them ‘sons of hell’, ‘blind leaders’, ‘fools’, ‘robbers’, ‘self-indulgent’, and ‘whitewashed tombs’. He said they were guilty of hypocrisy and lawlessness, and were like snakes, and poisonous snakes, and were in fact murders of God’s people. With such denunciations you would think Jesus to be like a madman ranting against those who opposed Him. But He wasn’t. He was always in control of His emotions, yet He was resolute in speaking the truth of God against those who abused their position and authority as ministers of God.

At the end of the discourse (verse 37), Jesus gave a last invitation for the false teachers to repent and turn to Him for salvation if they would only be willing to do so. They did not. Instead, they condemned and crucified the only one who could save them from God’s wrath.

“Lord Jesus, by the presence and power of Your Holy Spirit, break the heart of stone that defies the truth of God and give us a heart of flesh that draws near to You for salvation. Amen.”


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