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Woe to You

Eight times in Matthew 23, Jesus is quoted as saying, "Woe to you," to the Pharisees.  In this passage, the Lord strongly condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, which He described in specific detail.  These words were spoken as a testimony against the Pharisees and as a warning to others at the time, and they are preserved for our admonition today.  If any of us imitates the deeds of the Pharisees, then surely the Lord will also pronounce woe upon us at the Judgment.  Therefore, let us heed the Lord's words lest we also fall into condemnation.

In Matthew 23:1-12, Jesus exposed the Pharisees for practicing their religion to be noticed by men.  He did not declare woe against them in these verses, but rather He warned His hearers not to imitate their deeds.  The Lord's warning here is similar to the one He gave in Matthew 6:1-18, when He showed that those who practice religion to be seen by men will have no reward from God.

The first woes given by Jesus against the Pharisees addressed their corrupt religion. He said, "You shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in" (Matt. 23:13), and, "You travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" (Matt. 23:15).  The religion of the Pharisees was especially detestable because it pulled others into their condemnation.  Indeed, any religion that makes men worse for having it is detestable. Furthermore, the Pharisees made a pretense of righteousness while at the same time they oppressed defenseless persons, such as widows, for their own gain (Matt. 23:14).  Their religion was the opposite of that described by James, who wrote, "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (Jas. 2:17).

The next woe given by Jesus was for the Pharisees' contrived system of swearing (Matt. 23:16-22).  By their system, they only had to keep their word if they swore on certain things. Any promises they made otherwise could be broken, and they did not consider themselves to be obligated. Jesus rebuked them for this system of dishonesty and deceit and showed that regardless of how they swore they were obligated by their word.  Of course, the same standard applies to us, for we also are obligated to keep our word. In fact, James wrote, "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment" (Jas. 5:12).

Jesus also condemned the Pharisees for their backwards priorities and neglect of God's law (Matt. 23:23-24).  To demonstrate, He said that they were careful to give tithes on even the least of things, but they "neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness."  In contrast, Jesus said that they should have kept all of God's law without exception. This is an important lesson for us, for we also can overemphasize certain issues while neglecting the weightier matters of the gospel, such as love, purity, and compassion.  Therefore, let us keep all of the word of Christ with equal diligence for all matters.

The next two woes given by Jesus concerned the Pharisees' superficial form of righteousness (Matt. 23:25-28).  He compared them to cups and dishes that are clean on the outside but are inwardly filthy. He also compared them to whitewashed tombs that appear beautiful outwardly but are full of uncleanness inwardly. These comparisons applied to the Pharisees because they gave the appearance of righteousness by their words, attire, and ceremonies, but their hearts were filled with robbery, self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and lawlessness.  This invalid standard of righteousness is insufficient for entrance into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20).  If we follow their footsteps by making a mere pretense of righteousness with nothing but eye-service, then we will likewise be excluded from God's kingdom.

Lastly, the Lord declared woe upon the Pharisees because they rejected and persecuted the messengers of God (Matt. 23:29-36).  They claimed that they would have accepted the Old Testament prophets rather than murdering them as their fathers had done.  In reality, they shared their fathers' guilt, for they also mercilessly persecuted the messengers of God, and they would even exceed their fathers by crucifying the Son of God.  Like the Pharisees, we also want to identify with the righteous persons of the past, but the truth is determined by our deeds.  Do we accept the word of God and those who preach it even when the message exposes our sins and calls on us to repent?

To avoid the fate of those Pharisees who did not repent, we need to heed the words of our Lord so that we may stand justified before Him in the Judgment.  It would be a dreadful and terrifying experience to stand face to face with the Lord and to hear Him say, "Woe to you!" Therefore, let us be certain that we have a genuine faith in Christ Jesus and the righteousness that comes through His gospel (Rom. 1:16).  Only then will be given entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

Stacey E. Durham




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