Matthew 23:13-38 – 7 Woes of False Religion
Who is Jesus speaking to specifically?
Why is He so aggressive?
What do you think His purpose is in making these statements?
What words or phrases are repeated throughout this passage?
Jeremiah 23:11 – Both prophet and priest are godless.
Luke 6:46 – Why do you call me “Lord” and do not do what I say?
Mark 7:6 – Isaiah prophesied that the people would honor Him with their lips, but not from their hearts.
Titus 1:16 – Some people claim to know God, but by their actions deny Him.
Matthew 6:1 – Beware of practicing your righteousness in front of men.
Matthew 19:14 – Do not hinder the children from entering God’s kingdom.
Galatians 5:7 – Who hindered you from obeying the truth?
Matthew 15:14 – They are like blind leading the blind.
Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:21 – If you make an oath, keep it without delay.
General Verse by Verse Commentary
1. Jesus is speaking specifically to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. These presumed to call themselves the spiritual leaders of the people. He was not speaking to every individual person, but to the group who abused their office.
2. Jesus is very harsh in His comments here, one could even say rude. Why? One can see Jesus’ attitude toward the people of Jerusalem at the end of this passage. He loved them deeply and had great compassion for them. But here we see He speaks in a very angry manner. The reason is simple. The Pharisees and teachers were hindering the people from having a relationship with God. As we will see, their behavior was actually repelling people from having a true relationship with God. Imagine you saw a group of men take a child and throw him in to a river. The child crawls out so this time they tie a heavy object to the child and throw him in again. How will feel? How will act? What will you say? It would be completely right for you to be angry, to speak harshly, to be rude, and to call them “murderers” or whatever other name fit their behavior. Your compassion for the child would actually stir up righteous anger toward these people’s behavior. And that is what we are seeing from Jesus here in this passage.
3. Sometimes doctors must take extreme actions to revive someone who has almost died. These could include shots of adrenaline, bursts of electricity from a machine, or “violent” CPR. Generally a doctor will slowly increase these things in order to “shock” the person awake. Well, the religious leaders were spiritually dead. They were extremely cold to Jesus and not sensitive to anything He said. Jesus was not going to be with them much longer. So He said some very strong things as a last ditch hope to shock them awake from their spiritual apathy.
4. Another reason Jesus said these things was to show the genuine character of the religious leaders to the Jewish people. He did not want them to continue to be deceived or misled anymore. No one else fully saw the hypocrisy of these people and if they did were certainly not willing to make a public stand about it. Jesus’ act is not one of hate. It is one of compassion.
I. First Woe (13-14)
What does Jesus mean by this statement? How did they shut the door of the kingdom of heaven for others?
What similar practices need we be wary of today?
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. Here Jesus calls them out for actively obstructing/hindering others from entering the kingdom of heaven. They themselves did not accept Christ as the Messiah. And they did everything in their power to keep others from following after Him either. On one occasion they banned the man born blind whom Jesus had healed from the synagogue for following after Jesus. They actively sought to thwart Jesus and His ministry.
2. These spiritual leaders were blinded. Most of them actually thought that they were indeed serving God just like Saul did when he aided in Stephen’s murder. But the evidence and the truth was right in front of them so they still had no excuse for their behavior.
3. We need to be wary of false teachers today, people who intentionally or unintentionally mislead the flock. There are many wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. These people may infiltrate the church. They come in seek to gather people around themselves and their own agenda.
4. We also need to be wary of teachers who focus on the wrong things, who push their own agenda rather than the true gospel. Traditions and practices and doctrines could be elevated to take center stage when they are not the most important. Sometimes these lesser matters actually distract us from the important stuff. For example some churches may spend a lot of time debating the types of pews or carpet to buy or emphasizing some historic traditions like “communion” must take place on the third Sunday. We must be careful not to let lesser matters hinder us from a deep relationship with Christ.
II. Second Woe (15)
What was their goal in preaching?
What happened to the people they converted?
What does the phrase “twice as much a child of hell” mean?
What types of practices in this category should we watch out for in the 21st century?
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. These religious leaders were very energetic and diligent in their mission trips and proselytizing. However, they were not winning people to the true gospel, but instead were converting people to a false religion. It was a religion of works, a religion of impressing people, devoid of a Savior and without a heart of love and compassion. “Convert to our religion so that you can carry all the heavy load of sin yourselves and try to pay it off by your own merit.”
2. Twice a child of hell – The people they converted were not saved. They were not adopted into God’s family. They were even worse off than before. Perhaps before they knew they were lost and needed help, but now they thought everything was OK when it wasn’t.
3. There are many false religions and false gospels today. Cults like Mormon and JW also preach a works based salvation. All false religions are the same. They all teach a works based plan of salvation. But we have to be wary of false gospels even inside of the visible church. The social gospel, prosperity gospel, easy-believism, and legalistic merits based salvation are all wrong gospels that are sometimes taught even inside of evangelicalism. Teaching these things give people a false sense of security. People who believe in such stuff are still on their way to hell (a child of hell), but think that everything is OK. Those who teach these lies are just like the Pharisees who came before them.
III. Third Woe (16-22)
What practice does Jesus describe here?
Why would anyone make a system for which kinds of oaths are binding and which are not?
Who might not understand this system well?
How would the Pharisees take advantage of the fact that many people were not in the “know” about which oaths were supposedly binding?
What does this show about their heart and motivation?
How might people try to legally cheat or lie in your culture?
IV. Fourth Woe (23-24)
Why did they tithe even their spices? Was this not a good thing?
Then what is the problem?
Share some examples from Jesus’ ministry of the religious leaders ignoring justice, mercy, or faithfulness?
What does verse 24 show us about their character?
What does it mean to “strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel?”
What warning should we ourselves take from this verse?
Verses on Tithing:
2 Corinthians 9:7 – God loves a cheerful giver.
Malachi 3:8-10 – Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.
Proverbs 3:9-10 – Honor the Lord with your wealth.
Matthew 6:21 – Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. The religious leaders tithed very carefully. They would even go to the extreme of cutting one tenth of spices or herbs that they had and give those to God. But based on everything we have seen about them in this passage, they did not have the right motivation to do this. Instead of being motivated by generosity and sacrifice, they were motivated by appearing righteous before others. Therefore we can infer that they likely boasted to each other about the lengths they went to in their tithing. They were very legalistic in the way that they practiced their religion. To them it was about earning merit with God by careful observance of rules. But rules cannot legislate everything.
2. You have neglected the more important matters – They largely could deceive others into thinking that they were good and righteous, but they could not deceive the Lord. Their heart was not transformed and they still had the heart of stone (Ezekiel 36:26). Mercy was not shown to the people around them, whom they called rabble (John 7:49). People were healed or raised from the dead by Jesus, but they did not celebrate. Instead they wanted to murder the evidence. Justice was not practiced when they freed Barabbas instead of Jesus. What is more, they were not faithful to truly worship or serve the Lord. Partly this was shown by their anger at Jesus for driving away the temple sellers whom they themselves almost surely supported.
Application: As believers, we need to be careful to major on the majors. We must not stray away from the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. We must not pick out or focus on minor things and let these things distract us, divide us, or in any way become the end goal rather than a means to the end. There are many examples of things we can become legalistic about and which may turn us away from the important things we actually need to focus on. Can you give any examples?
Going to church every Sunday. Going to church is good and right, correct? We should worship the Lord together with other believers. However, we should not become legalistic about it. do we judge our brothers or sisters if they miss a Sunday because they are exhausted, on a trip, or chose to listen to a sermon at home instead? We must not raise up “going to church” as the goal. It is the means to an end of worshiping God and encouraging other believers. Yes, we should do it. But neither should we become legalistic about “never missing a service.” This can become a source of pride or division.
Preaching always about some doctrine (perhaps Calvinism or sign gifts or predestination or something else). Perhaps you know someone who always finds a way to sneak these things into the conversation. They might be kind of pushy or judgmental to people who have a different view. They would say, “doctrine is important!” Is it? Yes, it is. But we should not focus on these things to the exclusion of what is even more important, which is the basic gospel message. It is Christ which unites us, not our identical doctrinal beliefs.
Wearing certain clothes to church.
Worshiping with a certain style.
Praying before every meal. Or saying “amen” at the end of a prayer, etc.
Do not focus on the minors. Be well balanced in your faith. Remember 1 Corinthians 13, which says that if we do all kinds of amazing things for God, but do not have love, we are nothing.
Verse 24 – You strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. They very carefully pay attention to some things, but completely ignore other things which are actually far more important. Would you die by swallowing a gnat? No. Would you die by swallowing a camel? Yes, you would choke on it for sure.
Question: So what are some of the most important things we should focus on as followers of Christ? What are some specific ways we can put more energy into those things?
V. Fifth Woe and Sixth Woe (25-26, 27-28)
What does this statement show us about their character? Which things did they focus on (external)? Why (to impress others)?
What was their true spiritual condition? But how were they perceived by others?
How should we too be careful of this?
What kind of habits or practices would tend to result from this type of attitude of wanting to impress others?
What should we do to make sure that our hearts are clean before the Lord and that we are not focusing on external things?
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. The Jewish leaders looked good on the outside, but inside their hearts were rotten. Jeremiah 17:9.
2. How can we clean the inside of the dish? It must be by the grace of God to cleanse us.
3. We should be careful about doing certain things to impress others. Do not try to tell others often about the good things that you did, either the money you gave, the time you spent, or how you helped others. Do not often talk about yourself. Instead ask about others. Do not always try to get the public or “spotlight” position Instead be willing and happy to serve in the background. Do not seek to get appreciation or thanks from others for the tasks that you did or get upset when they didn’t give it. Instead help others with no thought of reward. What are some things which we may tend to do to try to impress others?
4. We need to often examine our own heart and motivation and ask why we do the things that we do. Why are you preaching or leading the study? Why are you helping with the housework? Why are you telling the brothers about your latest service project? Is there any thought of impressing others or getting recognition? Make sure that the reasons you do these things are pure. Ask God to give you a humble heart, a heart of service.
5. We need to often examine our lives and make sure we have no secret sins we are harboring. Here are some examples:
Bitterness against God for not giving us what we hoped for.
Bitterness or lack of forgiveness against other believers.
Pride and reliance on self instead of humble prayer and time in the Word.
Bad temper and anger with your family at home, but cheerful face at church.
Unethical business practices like not paying taxes or cheating customers or cutting corners on your company’s product.
Laziness at your home (like constant movie watching or unkempt house), but clean and good appearance when you go out.
Swearing and complaining in your heart, but often make verbal Christian expressions like “Praise the Lord!”
Proverbs 28:13 – He who conceals a transgression will not prosper.
Psalm 90:8 – Our secret sins are in the light of your presence.
Isaiah 29:15 – Woe too those who deeply hide their plans from the Lord.
VI. Seventh Woe (29-32)
What problem with their behavior does Jesus point here?
Were they in some way guilty merely because they were descended from murderers?
What would make them fully guilty before the Lord?
What would they soon do to confirm what Jesus was saying about them was accurate?
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. The problem was that they said they would not murder the prophets and decorated their tombs, but they then did nothing while John the Baptist was imprisoned and killed and eventually killed Jesus and some of His disciples. So while they verbally distanced themselves from the actions of their ancestors, they would in fact prove themselves to be the same by repeating the same sins.
2. Application: We often look at sins or mistakes of Bible characters and blame them for it, but we ourselves may do the same things. For example, we blame Adam and Eve for the fall. We say that Peter lacked self control in his speech. We criticize Joseph’s brothers. We laugh at Nebuchadnezzar’s prideful claim to have built his own kingdom with no help. We talk about how funny it is that John and James demanded to sit one on each side of Jesus. But do we ever act like these people did? Do we do the same things? Many times we do. The lesson is that we need to learn from the mistakes of others and not repeat them ourselves.
VII. Summary of Their Wrong Behavior (33-38)
What accusation does Jesus make against them here?
How would they make themselves guilty?
Why did Jesus specifically mention Abel and Zechariah (most think that they represent all of the prophets in the Old Testament since Abel was the first recorded murder and Zechariah was likely the last).
How did Jesus feel about Jerusalem and its people? How does this help us to understand His anger and frustration with its leaders?
What does verse 38 mean? How about verse 39?
When will verse 39 be fulfilled?
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. You snakes. You brood of vipers. Jesus pulled no punches. He really laid it on them. He made strong statements to show the crowds who they were dealing with, but also to try to pierce the hard layers around their hearts. These were described by Jesus as snakes, but He still loved them!
2. How will you escape being condemned to hell? I am sending you teachers and prophets. From this we see Jesus’ heart of compassion. He did not want them to be condemned to hell. He desired their salvation. Even though they had proven their disdain for God’s Word and His messengers, God still kept sending them again and again. His patience is extensive.
3. Verses 34-35 – Jesus prophesies that they will continue to reject the message of salvation and its messengers. The disciples and Christian prophets like Paul who shared with the Jews were rejected over and over again. Thus the Jews were guilty of all the prophets’ blood from the very first to the very last.
4. Verse 36 – This generation did this and they would reap the consequences. Only 40 years later Jerusalem was conquered and its people scattered.
5. Verse 37 – We see Jesus’ heart of compassion. Even in the face of their scorn and rejection, He still thought of them as His children. He loved them and wanted to protect them and care for them if they would only have Him. But they didn’t.
6. Consequences – Their house would be desolate. The people would be conquered and scattered. Eventually they would have a change of heart and welcome the gospel message and its messengers and their king. This hasn’t happened yet, but will be fulfilled one day still. What an exciting day that will be.