Jesus and the religious leaders did not see eye to eye, to put it mildly. The Pharisees (religious leaders) represented the religious establishment that was set in their ways and didn’t appreciate his new ideas. They had a system that wasn’t even based on God’s word or his law, and they didn’t want it disrupted or challenged, or changed. The Pharisees loved what they considered expert knowledge of the Torah and with it the respect of the Jewish community. They were the elites, the privileged, the rule-makers, and the wealthy. As the book of Proverbs teaches, pride comes before a fall, these so-called religious leaders missed the coming Messiah.
Jesus had new ideas, new ways to interpret the law and the prophets, and a totally new way of relating to God as Father. Jesus was the up-and-coming Rabbi with new and exciting ideas of what it means to follow God’s laws. Rather than focusing on the externals, Jesus was focused on the inward transformation of the heart and real change on the inside. The truth is Jesus posed a real threat to the religious establishment and he came head to head, face to face with them constantly offending, challenging, and convicting the religious leaders or Pharisees.
“Sinners,” tax collectors, and prostitutes loved Jesus’ nature, teachings, and interpretation of the law because it wasn’t focused on good behavior but on the mercy and grace of God to change the heart. Jesus introduced ideas of acceptance and love, and this love could change hearts, free from sin, and not just outward behavior which is what the Pharisees were focused on.
Realizing the Pharisees were distancing people from God by their man-made rules and ideas, hindering people from receiving God’s love, and putting obstacles in the way of people to receive grace and mercy, Jesus calls them out in his famous woes to the Pharisees recorded in the book of Matthew.
These 7 woes serve as a wake-up call to the church today – that we heed this warning.
1 They made it difficult to enter God’s kingdom.
God’s amazing grace is a free gift but religious people make it something you need to work for and earn.
Matthew 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in."
2 They were so focused on "working for God" and conversions of others, they forget about love and mercy.
Religious leaders were so focused on conversion and numbers and appearances they missed the heart of God - love and mercy and relationship with him and others. Our discipleship of others needs to lovingly draw people closer to their Creator.
15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
3 They focused on man-made rules and regulations.
Religious leaders put obstacles in the way of relationship and forgot who they were worshipping!
Matthew 23:16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
4 Missing the bigger picture of what’s actually important
Justice, mercy, and faithfulness is what's most important.
Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
5 Focused on externals rather than heart change
Just because they talk the talk doesn't mean they walk the walk. Man looks at the outside, God sees the inside of the heart.
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
6 Outward righteousness instead of inward purity
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. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
7 Rejecting the move of God in their generation
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 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.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 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, 35 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,[f] whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.