Matthew 23. Seven Woes to the Pharisees.

Key Notes: God in New Testament vs. Old Testament. Israel and the Church in Acts. Comparing Israel then and the Church now. Hypocrisy is not out of style.

This last address of Jesus was spoken to a mixed audience. It has caused modern commentators much discomfort. Some wonder if it is really Jesus’ words. Others wish He had not said it. Jesus, having started His public ministry to the disciples with eight words of blessing, now completes it with seven woes on the Pharisees. He gives them withering scorn, unmistakable denunciation, condemning them and the nation to Hell.

Those who say that the God of the OT is cruel and judgmental, while the God of the NT is gracious and kind have not read the Bible carefully. The 23rd of Matthew is as fierce in its condemnation as Moses' words to Israel in the desert (Deut.28:15–29:28) or Ezekiel's prophecies to the exiles; nor can we overlook the middle section of Revelation. God is the same in both Testaments. Since Jesus speaks to His disciples and through them to the Christian world of the future, we must take to heart all that is said here.

The Christian Church is the custodian of the Bible and of this teaching, denouncing Israel. There has been animosity between Jews and Christians for centuries, but the Christians were stronger and persecuted the Jews longer and more intensely. It is not a good record. And the lessons we derive from this text are not to remind them of their faults, but to reflect on our own. It was spoken to them but it was also intended for us.

The chapter is in three parts.
23:1–12 Jesus addresses the disciples and the crowd.
23:13–36 Then he appears to turn around and speak to the Pharisees and Scribes
who may have been listening in the back.
23:37–39 Finally He speaks to Jerusalem as if standing to overlook the city. The chapter ends with an unexpected note of hope.

Synopsis of the passage.

23:1–11 Jesus told His followers that the strict religionists were teaching the truth from the Law of Moses, and that the Law should be followed. The problem was not with the information, but the way the teachers behaved.
*The Scribes and Pharisees multiplied the regulations beyond the Law's demands and did not provide assistance to their disciples in carrying them out.
*They were performance-oriented and loved public recognition—places of honor, greetings and titles.
In contrast, Jesus' disciples were not to pin titles on each other—rabbi, father, master. Those titles belong to God. God demands humility, not self-exaltation. They were to be servants of each other.

23:13 The First Woe condemned the scribes and Pharisees for keeping people out of the Kingdom of heaven. They did not hesitate to dissuade people from following Jesus.

23:15 The Second Woe was for making converts that were worse than they were.

23:16 The Third Woe was for finding ways not to honor their commitments. They made a hierarchy of objects to swear by. Jesus illustrated: if you swear by the temple, you are not bound; but if you swear by the gold of the temple, you must keep your promise. The hierarchy of values appears to be that the sacrificial gift is less than ( < ) the altar < the gold of the altar  <  the temple < the gold of the temple < heaven < the throne of God < of God Himself. If they could diminish the value of the thing they swore by, they might escape from the vow. So their word was worthless in itself.

23:23.The Fourth Woe was for straining at gnats—being meticulous about the details of religious observance like tithing the garden herbs--but swallowing the camel--ignoring mercy and justice. They intended to please God in small things like donations of plants, but ignored crucial matters  such as justice and mercy in their dealings with people.

23:25–31 The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Woes are kinds of hypocrisy.
* They were like dishes that were clean on the outside but dirty inside. They looked good but their minds were bent on extortion and ripping people off. A disputed text (23:14) mentions devouring widows’ houses.
*They were like whitewashed tombs. They appeared righteous but were hypocritical and in fact lawless (Gr. "anomia"), spiritually dead.
*They maintained the tombs of the prophets. They deplored what former generations had done to the prophets, but they were in the business of destroying The Great Prophet of God and His disciples.

23:32–36  The last word is damnation of His generation. The punishment of this generation consummates the destruction of the servants of God from Abel to the last prophet in the OT. Crucifying the Son of God was the greatest crime of all time.

23:37–38 Jesus wept over Jerusalem, the graveyard of God’s servants, that He had longed to save and protect. He loved His people Israel, and He loved them to the end.

23:39 Nevertheless, He will come again. Then they will say “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” and mean it.


A farmer went into his barn after a fire to survey the damage. He found a hen sitting on her nest, dead. He lifted her stiff, burnt body and her chicks scurried out, saved by their mother’s sacrifice. That is what Jesus wanted to do for Israel. He would die in the fire, and they could be saved, but they would be lost because they did not come under His wings for shelter.

Some details.

Tassels were to remind Israelites to keep the Law. (Num.15:37). The longer the tassel, the greater importance the wearer attached to the Law.

23:5 Phylacteries were small leather-covered boxes containing Scripture passages. The four passages were written small on very fine paper and the boxes worn on wrist or forehead:
Ex.13:1–10. Remember the Passover. Keep it before you, a sign on your hand and forehead.
Ex.13: 11–16. Redeem the first-born as a reminder of Passover. Keep the memory of Passover on your arm and forehead.
Deut.6:4–9 The Sh’ma: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord." Make the commandments a sign on your hand and forehead.
Deut.11:13–21 A warning to heed the commandment, and put reminders on hand and forehead, on the doorposts and gates.

Who is Zechariah the son of Barachiah? That name matches the author of the book of Zechariah. (Zech.1:1) However, the end of his life is not recorded. The last recorded murder of a prophet in OT history was Zechariah the son of Jehoiada. (IIChron.24:20–22). This question has led to much discussion but no conclusion.

Jesus does not mince words.
“Woe” 7x. “Hypocrites” 7x. “Blind” 4x. “Hell” 2x. “Fools”, “serpents”, “brood of vipers” (John the Baptist ’s expression in 3:17), ‘iniquity, rapacity, hypocrisy’. . .. Someone in the class pointed out that telling the truth to a person is the kindest word we can say. Severe rebuke is intended to shock, reorient, and correct wrong thinking.

The basis of His indictment is the tremendous conflict between proclamation and performance. The spiritual elite loved their exalted place in society. They also knew the Law and loved it. They wanted so much to avoid offending God that they built fences of laws around the Laws. For example “You shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. “ In order to protect this most important Law, they refused to say the Name altogether. And in order not to swear by His Name, they invented all kinds of substitutes to swear by, such as the temple or the alter or the gift. On one hand this frustrated honest efforts to keep the Law, and it also made a mockery of it.

The second part of His indictment is rebellion against God as represented in His prophets. Israel had a long history of abuse of the prophets. There are a dozen recorded attempts on Jesus’ life, and the final attempt will succeed. The Book of Acts can be read as the systematic persecution of the infant church, trying to strangle the baby in its crib.
Acts  4 Peter, John in prison
5 All the Apostles in prison
6–7 Stephen martyred
8 The Church scattered by persecution
9 Saul breathing out threats
12 James killed by Herod
13 Paul, Barnabas persecuted at Antioch
14  “          “             “          “  Iconium. Paul stoned at Lystra
17 Paul, Silas driven out of Thessalonica, Berea
‘ Paul opposed at Corinth
20 Paul plotted against in Greece
21 Paul attacked in Jerusalem
23 Paul assaulted in the Sanhedrin; an ambush planned
24 Paul accused before Felix

Nevertheless, we yearn for Israel’s salvation as Jesus did and Paul did. (Rom.9:1-)


*The Problem of Prominence. In the Church, we must have order, authority and respect. This requires that some will be “leaders” and most of us “followers”. Leadership leads to prominence and advertising leads to excess. Excess leads to vanity and self-indulgence: “renowned speaker, internationally known author, wonderful singer, outstanding message, gifted evangelist, greatly used of God, the right reverend doctor, princes of the church, Vicar of Christ,”  etc.
We need to be constantly reminded of Jesus’ admonition against using and accepting such titles. We are brothers and servants. It is awful to see the fate of celebrated entertainment figures, watching them self-destruct. Then we realize that this happens to  celebrated Christian leaders as well. Our leaders need to be guarded by sober counselors, as Billy Graham was.

*They hindered people from coming into the Kingdom. Do we turn away from people whom we think are not good candidates for salvation, hopeless cases, too far gone?

*They added many “Thou Shalt Nots”  moral burdens, “guilt-trips”, without giving people the power to accomplish good. It is a major criticism of all legal religions. “But the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the Law of Sin and Death.” (Rom.8:2). We must make sure that new believers learn to rely on the Holy Spirit for their growth and their power.

*They evaded their promises and commitments by various hedging. Christians are quite casual in their vows as well. Finance consultants say about 15% of people who pledge money to a church (and to God!) will not fulfill their promise. Almost 50% of Christians who pledge to be faithful to each other in marriage break their vow.
“Therefore, putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” Eph.4:25

*Tithing herbs while being unjust to people is a fine hypocrisy and a great wrong. Justice and righteousness are the same word in Greek. Personal righteousness before God must work itself out in justice toward other human beings. Responsibility for past wrongs? Does God hold us accountable for slavery of Africans, broken promises to American Indians and other helpless, dependent peoples?
We see racial injustice everywhere in our country. Christian parents who adopt multi-racial children feel the pressure from every side. “I don’t want your kids in my yard. “
“Do justice to the afflicted and the needy.” Psa.82:3 KJV

*Looking good but hiding big sin is hypocrisy.
“O God, You know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.” Psa.69:5

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” IJn.1:9 KJV.