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Jesus' Prophetic Lament Part, 2: Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 4, 1999

Matthew 23:13-36

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If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew 23. God in His providence always shows His word to be timely and seasonable. We have seen this in the last two weeks as our dear brother Derek Thomas has preached to us from the word on the theme of faith on trial. How wise and good God is to speak to us seasonably.

Once again we have been working through Matthew for some time, God has a word that is timely and seasonable as we turn here to Matthew 23. I want to remind you of several things as we come to this passage. You will remember that in Matthew 23 Jesus is speaking in the last few days of His public ministry before He is crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. So these final words are very important words. In Matthew chapter 22 He had spent a good deal of time discussing a range of theological issues with the Pharisees and the scribes and even the Sadducees. In Matthew chapter 23 He turns His attention to the crowds who are in the temple. As far as we know, the scribes and the Pharisees have left Him, by and large. There may have been a few in the crowds, but now Jesus is directing His focus of preaching to the crowds themselves. And as He does so, He brings a withering critique against the ministry and the lives of these who were the key spiritual leaders in Israel in His day.

Now I want you to understand that Jesus is not just waiting for them to get of earshot and then blasting them behind their backs. Jesus had spoken to them very frankly, not only in Matthew 22, but throughout His ministry about His assessment of the deficiencies of their own hearts and of their ministry. What Jesus is doing now is intended as a very important warning for His ministers and His followers that they not fall prey to the temptations to which the Pharisees and scribes had fallen prey. And so the Lord Jesus' words are not simply a reflection of a man who has had enough and has lost his temper and is just flailing away in every direction, blasting in every direction he can, because of his anger with a particular group. No, these words are deliberate, they are calculated, and they are even loving and gracious as we will see later on.

So as we come face to face with some very stern language, let's bear all those things in mind, as we turn to Matthew chapter 23, Beginning in verse 13. Hear God's word.

Matthew 23:13-16

Thus ends this reading of God's holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's pray.

Our heavenly Father, these sober and solemn and shocking words are the very words inspired by the Holy Spirit, meant for the edification of Your people. We ask, this day, that You would help us to see the truth of Your word for our lives, that we would respond to it by Your grace, embracing it, confessing our sins, fleeing to Christ and being built up in Him. Lead us not into temptation, O Lord, but deliver us from evil, and especially the evil spoken of in this passage. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

In this great passage, the Lord Jesus Christ pronounces curses upon those religious leaders of His people who were hypocritical, who were outwardly holy, but who inwardly loved not God and cared not for the souls of His people. He specifically catalogues the chief sins which they had committed. And then He delivers what is simultaneously a gracious response and a terrifying warning. In verses 13-33, you will see Christ, on eight occasions, pronounce a woe, a denunciation, a curse. That curse is against hypocrisy. But you will also see eight particular sins which reflect that hypocrisy denounced by the Lord Jesus Christ. And then finally in verses 34 through 36, you'll see Jesus' response to that hypocrisy, in both a word of grace and a word of judgment. And that's what I would like to look with you about today.

I. We must appreciate that the truly loving thing is not to ignore but to confront/denounce soul-killing error.

If you would turn your attention first to verses 13 through 33, I want you to see a very important truth and that is we need to appreciate that the truly loving thing for a man of God is not to ignore soul-killing error, but to confront it and denounce it. Jesus' words are strong, even in our nonchalant world where we think we have heard every thing and seen every thing, where we have been there and done that, when we read Jesus saying these kinds of things, it's shocking. I had the privilege of preaching a month or so ago at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and I was preaching on this passage or the passage immediately prior to it, and the front of the bulletin had the words, ‘You serpents, you brood of vipers, who will deliver you from the sentence of hell?’ And I thought, boy, what would a visitor think coming to church today? What kind of hellfire and brimstone message is he going to hear? These are the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. He's not name-calling. He's not simply venting anger and frustration. His words are well chosen; and in fact, they are pastorally chosen for the sake of His people. And that's the very first thing I want you to see today. The truly loving thing for the man of God, for the preacher of God's word to do is not to ignore soul-killing error and hypocrisy, but to confront it and to denounce it. It's always easier for the man of God to try and pretend like it is not there, because he gets less criticism. But that's not the kind thing, that's not the loving thing to do for those who are deluded by that kind of error. And the Lord Jesus Christ loved the Pharisees and scribes enough to tell it like it was, to show them their own hearts and to call them to repentance. We see it in this passage.

Let's be frank. This is a brutal denunciation of the most widely respected spiritual leaders in Israel in Jesus' day. What an impact this would have had on them. I can hardly convey to you how the people in the crowds and the multitudes that day might have responded to Jesus' message. If they had heard Jesus before, they would have been familiar with the fact that Jesus was a man who would call a spade a spade. However, if this was the first time they were hearing Jesus, can you imagine someone without credentials from your seminary coming into your midst and denouncing all of the most respected spiritual leaders as hypocrites? What would your initial reaction be to that? Well, surely this man is unloving. This man is unkind. This man is going too far. He is saying mean and unkind things. Surely this man is wrong in the things he is saying. This is precisely what Jesus was doing. He was denouncing those religious leaders who held sway over the people of God in His own time.

But His denunciation is purely pastoral. He is not just venting, He is not just finally fed up and He is going to let them have it. Jesus is calculated and deliberate and ultimately loving in what He says in this passage. Eight times He pronounces woes on the scribes and Pharisees. Seven times He calls them hypocrites. Four times He calls them blind. Once He calls them fools. He calls them the offspring of vipers once. His words are strong.

But He is not engaging in name-calling. This is calculated, spiritual confrontation. What in the world was Jesus doing? Two or things at least. First of all, Jesus was showing God's people God's attitude towards hypocrisy. You see, the people would have thought these men were close to God. In fact, the saying we shared before was if only two people go to heaven, surely one of them will be a Pharisee. That was the estimation of the people of these men. Jesus is saying, I want you to know what God thinks about the hypocrisy of these men. Don't be fooled. God is not mocked. He knows. He sees. He will judge. They can't fool Him. Jesus is first of all showing the people God's opinion of their religious hypocrisy. You see the people might be tempted to think, well, God has allowed these kinds of men to minister in the life of the kingdom of heaven. Well maybe He doesn't know. Maybe somehow they fooled God. And the Lord Jesus is saying, I want you to know that God knows exactly what these men are about.

But secondly, the Lord Jesus Christ is offering another general warning to these scribes and Pharisees. His own disciples are going to preach this same message again to the scribes and Pharisees after the resurrection and after Pentecost. And so the Lord Jesus Christ in His graciousness is once again warning these men to flee from their own sins and to flee to him and to the gospel. And so in denouncing them, He is actually telling them the things that they need to know in order to be saved. Just as the prophets confronted wicked kings in the days of israel, the Lord Jesus Christ is confronting wicked religious leaders and He is doing it, not because He hates them, but because He desires them to turn from their sins and be saved.

And then finally He is telling these things to these scribes and Pharisees because He wants the crowd and His disciples to be warned that we too are susceptible to the same temptations to which they had fallen prey. The Lord Jesus is warning His disciples and all His people against this kind of religious gamesmanship. He doesn't want people who practice religion as if they were actors in a stage play. He wants people whose hearts, from the inside out, have been given over to Him and who love Him with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their strength, and with all their mind. And so He is warning His people against this type of superficial, external practice of religion which the leaders of Israel had fallen into in His day.

Let me also say that by denouncing this hypocrisy and yet affirming the reality of God, affirming the reality of the teaching of Scripture, affirming the reality of a saving relationship with God, Jesus is also not falling into that trap of making a shallow deduction that says because there are hypocrites in the church, therefore Christianity is not true. Jesus Christ speaks more strongly about hypocrisy in the church than anybody in the history of the world. But that does not lead Him to say, therefore, Christianity is all just a fake. No, He says, the presence of hypocrisy is the sign of the evil of the human heart and of the wiles of Satan. And, therefore, you beware of it.

But don't you think it disproves the truth of my Father. We all run into folks who disappoint us from time to time. Jesus said we would. If we didn't, Jesus would not be telling the truth, because He told us we were going to run into this. The last thing Paul told the elders at Ephesus was that people from within their own midst would rise up and like ravenous wolves devour the people of God. Jesus is saying, yes, hypocrisy exists in the church. No, it does not disprove the truth of God or undercut the reality of a saving relationship with God. That is so important for us to remember today.

II. We must examine our own harts and pray for our spiritual leaders in light of Jesus’ words here.

Then as we look at the catalogue of sins that the Lord Jesus lists for us here in verses 13 through 33, we are reminded that we need to examine our own hearts. We need to examine our own hearts in accordance with these things that Jesus says about the scribes and the Pharisees and we need to pray for our religious leaders, our elders, our deacons, our ministers, not to fall prey to these sins and correspondingly to grow in grace in the opposite virtues. Look at the things that the Lord Jesus Christ says about the scribes and the Pharisees.

First, in verse 13 He says, you keep people from eternal fellowship with God and you refuse it yourselves. How? By opposing the gospel message. The Pharisees and the scribes, not only rejected Jesus themselves, they did their dead-level best to keep other people from embracing the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel of the kingdom of heaven. And the Lord Jesus Christ says the Lord will visit curse upon you because of this. And the sad thing is, my friends, there are ministers, ministers of the gospel as it were, who prevent people from coming into the kingdom by their false teaching. I had the privilege just a few weeks ago of hearing the testimony of saving grace of a young man who is an intern at Highlands Presbyterian Church here in Jackson. He had lived a life of debauchery and while he was at a wedding, he heard the minister read the words of I Corinthians 13. And without comment, God's word struck his heart and convicted him of his sin and showed him that there was a greater reality than he had ever imagined and he began the process of seeking for God, simply by hearing the word of God read. And so he went to the minister of his home church. He hadn't been there in many years, but he went to the minister of this church and he said, "What must I do to be saved? What must I do to be born again?" And the man said, "Born again? Don't get caught up in all that stuff. You don't need to be born again." The young man was discouraged and confused and he came across a PCA minister named Bob Cargo who shared with him the truth of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and he was redeemed, saved from his sin. But there was this other minister who was standing in the way of the gospel work in his heart. The Lord Jesus is saying, may the curses of God fall upon every man like that.

Then in verse 14 we see Jesus say, you men, you practice your religion for personal gain. You look holy for the sake of gaining the confidence of God's people and then exploiting them. And so He charges them with practicing religion for personal gain.

In verse 15 He goes on to say, you make your converts into worse hypocrites than yourselves. The Pharisees were very evangelistic. Don't get the idea that the Pharisees didn't care about conversion. They did. They wanted lots of people converted and they wanted them to be just like themselves. And so the Lord Jesus said, you know what. You go out and you convert people and you make them twice as bad as you are. They pick up on all your worse tendencies. They are hypocritical. They are legalistic. They are unbelieving. And yet they attempt to appear to be holy. They become partisans, not lovers of God. And so He condemns them for this.

Notice again in verses 16 through 22. He says, you make subtle distinctions in your teaching to God's people about what kind of oaths are binding and what kinds of oaths are not. And those subtle distinctions undercut the truth and they encourage God's people to be untruthful. Woe to you. Cursed be you. May God's curses fall upon you, He says.

Again in verses 23 and 24 He says, you have majored on questionable minutia. Yes, the Old Testament says that all the produce of the field of the land shall be tithed to the Lord. You're going out into your herb garden and you are looking at the mint and the little patch of mint about that big and the little patch of dill and the little patch of cumin and you are saying, 'well, we must tithe that as well.' And Jesus says, fine, do that. But don't ignore justice and mercy and faithfulness, the central matters of the law. You have become sidetracked in minutia and you have misled the great realities of the faith, and you have misled your followers as well.

In verses 25 and 26, He says, you appear to be holy, but in your heart of hearts, you're self-indulgent. You are hard on everybody else but you are soft on yourself. You'll allow yourself all manner of flexibility and you will be harsh on others.

Verses 27 and 28, you appear to be holy but in your heart of hearts you're hypocritical and you're lawless. You proclaim with your lips that you love the law but in your life you don't.

Verses 29 through 33, you act as though you honor God's messengers, but in fact you hate God's messengers, because you hate God's message.

All eight of those charges the Lord Jesus Christ brings against the Pharisees and scribes. And let me say that that's a prayer list for you. You say, how so? You need to pray that those that God has put in positions of spiritual authority in your life would be delivered from those tendencies, those temptations, those sins. Because I want to say, just studying this passage is a convicting process for any minister of the word. Because we can see in our own hearts the seeds of sin and we need God's people praying that we would be delivered from that kind of hypocrisy. But not only negatively that the Lord would deliver us from this, but He would cultivate in us the opposite virtues. I say you pray through this list and you can see the opposite virtues. Instead of refusing people entrance into the kingdom of heaven, we would pray that our leaders would love the gospel and would long for people to embrace it.

We need ministers of God's word who love that gospel, who know that gospel, and who long for people to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ. We need men who will seek to serve in the gospel ministry only because of their love to God and their zeal for the glory of Jesus Christ. You know, that is one of the ordination vows that you are going to hear our dear brother Ted Wenger take tonight. He's going to vow that He, as best as He knows His heart, is pursuing the gospel ministry because of love to Christ and zeal for His glory and not for any personal gain. We require ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America to vow that before God and man before they enter into the ministry. And we need to pray that our ministry would be characterized by men like that. We need to pray that our ministers would help Christians grow in grace, would be God-honoring in their lips, would be transformed by the great realities of the faith, and would focus God's people on those great realities rather than being side-tracked in minor issues. We need to pray that men would have integrity and contentment and self-control. We need to pray that men would have integrity and that they would love God's word and His law and that they would be guided by it in their own conduct and behavior and that they would love God's messengers and His message. All those positive virtues we need to be praying for in the leaders that God has given us, and we need to be praying that God would raise up people just like that to minister in our midst. You see, this is a prayer list. It's a prayer list for you and me. May God raise up men like this to serve as His ministers.

One last thing we see. In verses 34 through 36, Jesus makes an incredibly gracious response, even in light of the wickedness of the Pharisees and the scribes. But at the same time, He issues a terrifying warning. He makes it clear that those who reject the gospel message, those who reject gospel messengers, do so at their own eternal peril. What is Jesus' response to all the wickedness of the scribes and the Pharisees? He says this, I'm going to send you prophets, I'm going to send you wise men, I'm going to send you scribes. He says, I'm going to send you My own disciples. And I'm doing it because I want you to turn from your sins. But let me tell you what you're going to do to them. You're going to persecute some of them. You're going to reject others of them. You're going to follow and pound others of them and you are going to crucify some of them. And because you do that, God's judgment is going to fall on you. See what the Lord Jesus Christ is saying to this generation, this generation of Jewish people standing before Him. He is saying, God is about to bring a tremendous judgment. You must flee to me and to my gospel now. Because the judgment is coming in your lifetime.

You see, His message transcends that particular challenge for that generation. We know that within 30 years of the Lord Jesus' life, an event occurred in the history of Israel the like of which had never been seen. And the land, the people, the nation of Israel was brought to an end. Utterly decimated. But we also know that the Lord Jesus' warning is a warning for every generation. For all of us will stand before the throne. Will we stand before that throne wrapped in Christ's love and righteousness or will we stand in it in the filthy rags of our own righteousness and our religious humbug and our spiritual hypocrisy? The Lord Jesus Christ desires a people who not only look outwardly holy but who have been transformed by His grace, because they have trusted in him alone for their salvation and by grace through faith they have been justified. And because they have been justified, the Spirit has continued to work in them, transforming them into the very image of the Son.

This, my friends, is what is necessary for eternal fellowship with the living God. The Lord Jesus Christ is warning these religious leaders and us against accepting a false substitute. May God drive that truth home to us today. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, we do not want to play religion. We want to have eternal fellowship with you here and now and always. We know that the only way into saving fellowship with you is through Jesus Christ, through trusting in Him as He is offered in the gospel, through trusting in Him alone as He is offered in the gospel, through saving faith in Him, the glorious promises of the gospel. As we trust in Him alone, we find that we are justified, we are accounted righteous because of His life and death, His finished work. Help us, o Lord, to embrace Him and flee from our own self-righteousness. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

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