Scripture Reading: Matthew 23:1-39, Exodus 10:21-23, Romans 8:22-23
Today’s passage is a doozy. In Matthew 23, Jesus holds nothing back, saving His harshest, sternest rebuke for two groups.
First were the prideful Pharisees, who piled unnecessary burden onto the people. Rather than seeing God’s law as His love, the Pharisees used it as a weapon of position and power. Second were the sidelined scribes. They knew the law, but refused to speak up against the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, and therefore, became a part of the problem themselves. Fearful of the Pharisees’ power, the scribes kept silent, allowing the Pharisees’ perverted message to flourish. They could’ve been a voice for truth, but instead stood by and allowed the Pharisees to abuse the people.
Jesus strongly condemned the Pharisees and scribes—but why?
Jesus saw their passion for position. The Pharisees were obsessed with increasing their own authority. They cared a lot about titles, requiring people to call them “Teacher,” “Master,” or “Father,” and racked up converts—not for the benefit of others’ souls, but for the sake of showing the power of their sect. They exalted themselves with false humility, and Jesus saw right through it.
The Pharisees perverted the Lord’s priorities. They were strict and precise when it came to small matters within the law, while being careless and loose about the things that mattered most. They pointed out small flaws in others while ignoring pervasive sin in their own hearts.
Jesus condemned the powerlessness of the Pharisees’ prescriptions. In their position of influence, Pharisees and scribes could have pointed people to deeper relationship with the Lord. Instead, they paved a road that led to destruction.
The Pharisees were preoccupied with perception. They cared deeply about what other people thought of them, wanting to be followed, trusted, honored, and revered. More concerned with their outward appearance than substance, they dressed to impress. In Deuteronomy, the Lord told His people to impress His commandments on their hearts, to “tie them on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (6:8). Jews took that literally. During times of prayer, they tied small leather boxes called phylacteries onto their foreheads with Scripture verses hidden inside. The Pharisees made their phylacteries as large as possible, as if to say, “Look at how much Scripture I can carry on my forehead! More than you!”
But does it really matter how beautiful you look on the outside, if you’re dying on the inside? Does it matter how beautiful the stone is, when all it marks is a grave?
The Pharisees were persistent in pride. They allowed themselves to carry on in the sin of their day, while still convinced they would’ve opposed the sins of their fathers. Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and self-deception under the microscope of truth. But the rebukes we hear in Matthew 23 aren’t angry rants—they are woes. Jesus feels deep anguish for the Pharisees and scribes, and for the people they are leading astray, to death. He isn’t smug. He’s not pointing fingers. He’s begging them to see the light.
I imagine Jesus’ heart tearing in two as He speaks to them, longing for them to hear and receive the truth. He knows these are the very men whose hardened hearts will soon cry out, “Crucify!” These men and their pride, their empty passions—they will soon lead Jesus to the cross.
Claire Gibson is a writer whose work has been featured in publications including The Washington Post and Entrepreneur Magazine among many others. An Army kid who grew up at West Point, New York, Claire is currently growing roots in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Patrick, their son, Sam, and their dog, Winnie. Her debut novel, Beyond the Point, will be published next year.