Jesus' Last Word to the Pharisees
I met with a young guy this past week that I was involved in ministry to. And he told me that he’s walked away from faith in Jesus – faith in God – and doesn’t plan on coming back.
He realised that all of his Christian activity before was actually not heart-felt, and was just a show, and he’s tired of pretending.
How sad that is. But I’m glad that’s he’s not pretending. Pretending gets us nowhere.
The Pharisees were pretenders, and we’re going to see Jesus deal with them tonight in a way unlike He’d ever done before. He’s going to reveal them for who they are, not for who they pretend to be. It’s a long chapter, so let’s begin.
HOW TO BE A PHARISEE
In His final teaching in the synagogue, which we’re reading tonight, Jesus rips off the masks that the Pharisees have been hiding behind in order to make themselves appear impressive. Jesus does this so that they, and those around them, will be able to take a proper look at what’s under the surface, and hopefully to be moved to repentance.
However, we see by the end that the Pharisees have actually passed a point of no return, and Jesus ends with a deep cry of pain and sorrow.
But before we get there, let’s look at just some of the points that Jesus attacks, some of the masks that Jesus rips off the faces of the Pharisees.
And before we start, I want to encourage to hold up a spiritual mirror tonight. Nobody wants to be called a Pharisee – they are a byword for wickedness now – but at the time they thought they were doing pretty well before God. Maybe you feel that way about yourself, and let this be a time to check your own heart and see if you wear some of the same masks that these did.
1. The Danger of Pride (vss. 2-15)
The first thing, and perhaps most obvious thing, that the Pharisees and the TOTL (Teachers of the Law) struggled with was a deep, unyielding pride. They had a deep longing to be seen and applauded by men.
Look at some of the descriptions Jesus gives: They love to sit in Moses’ seat – that means, they loved to teach the people from the Scriptures like I am doing now – because that meant that people looked up to them for wisdom. They loved to make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long. That comes from Deuteronomy 6:8 and Numbers 15 – instructions from God for people to help them to remember and remember to keep His Law. Phylacteries were little boxes which contained Bible passages, as well as a strip of leather which one tied around an arm. Tassels were worn at the end of one’s garment to remind the person of God’s commands. In order to show their devotion, the Pharisees made their leather strips wider and their tassels longer to be seen by more people.
They loved the place of honour at banquets and special seats at special events. Don’t we all? They loved to be called Rabbi, Father, and Teacher.
They loved to be seen, and people loved to see them. Some of these benefits to spiritual leadership they didn’t take by force, they received them from people.
But they were full of pride, and the end result of their pride was what Jesus says in verse 13: You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Pride keeps us and others from entering heaven.
Does your pride keep you and others from entering God’s heaven?
Before you answer, let me define pride for you: Pride is calling people to look at you rather than Jesus. Pride is worrying about what people think about you at a party instead of being God’s light at a party. Pride is getting upset that someone else got special treatment in the Home Affairs line instead of seeking to serve the people around you in the line. Pride is getting upset for not getting your own way when your boss takes the credit for your work.
Pride seeks self, not God. Pride always desperately tries to get attention, tries desperately to be approved by people, tries desperately to appear superior. And pride pulls people away from God.
You see, Jesus was flinging the gates of heaven wide open for anyone who would enter in, but the Pharisees couldn’t handle the focus going off of them, and so they tried to turn the minds onto them, and so turned those minds off of Jesus.
This is why Jesus called them Hypocrites – Hypocrites because they were pretending to hold open the door to heaven while in actual fact it is a door to a dark chasm. Hypocrites because they were standing in filth and calling it glory.
The question for you and I tonight is this: How often do we shut up the way for people to enter God’s glory because we want attention on ourselves and people to glory in us and our abilities rather than Christ?
The danger of Pride.
Let’s look next at
2. The Danger of Blindness (vss. 16-22)
Jesus doesn’t often call people names, but when He does, it’s something we should take note of.
When Jesus calls them blind, what is He actually accusing them of?
The Pharisees had allowed themselves to become blinded by worldliness – seeing things the way that the world sees them, valuing things because the world values them.
Look at what they had done. In their oaths, they had allowed the people to become fickle and only keep the oaths that were made on the things that people see as more valuable: The gold of the temple, the gift or the sacrifice of the altar.
But gold without a temple is just a metal, and sacrifice without an altar is just a braai.
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees; God’s Spirit – God’s presence is what makes the temple anything more than a hall, and the altar anything more than a fire-pit. You’re blind to spiritual matters; you care nothing for the God behind the temple practices.
And here we also fall short, Church.
How often do we put primary importance onto things that are only made of primary importance by God’s Spirit, but remain blind to God’s Spirit?
What do I mean? We can read Bible, run missions trips, preach sermons, say long prayers, plant Churches…and all with it being as dead and empty as an altar unconsecrated by God.
How often do we read out Bibles and not seek the God of the Bible? And then we say we’ve accomplished something, but we haven’t. We’re just as spiritually disconnected and blind as these Pharisees – we’re just less Bible literate than they were. Man, they knew their Bibles well!
Are you blinded by worldly treasures?
The third danger we see was
3. The Danger of Legalism (vss. 23-24)
I want you to notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke them here for paying tithes. In all these matters, Jesus isn’t rebuking the Pharisees for what they’re doing, but for doing them with the wrong heart. Jesus doesn’t tell them to stop doing what they’re doing, He’s simply telling them that there’s more to it than just an outward show.
And here we come to the matter of just how careful the Pharisees were to obeying the minute parts of the Law. Tithing was required in the Law of Moses, but nowhere in Moses’ Law did it specify these herbs had to be tithed – these were just common herbs. Mint was sprinkled on people’s floors to help the room smell nice; it wasn’t an expensive resource.
And here the Pharisees were; tithing not just the resources that are specifically mentioned by Moses, but even the resources that are not mentioned, and yet Jesus rebukes them. Why?
Because they were taking the easy route!
What? Yes – the easy route.
Jesus says that there are some parts of the Law that are more weighty, and some that are less weighty – more important and less important. He doesn’t say to just keep the more weighty parts, He says keep all the parts.
But the Pharisees were only keeping the less weighty parts.
How on earth is tithing down to your smallest cent the less weighty part?
It is easier to do the less weighty things – it is easier to read Bible than to lay our heart bare before God – it is easier to pay tithe than to seek God’s direction for our finances – it is easier to give to the poor than to strive for their benefit – it is easier to swallow and bury hurt done to us by others than to bring that hurt to God and receive healing enough to extend mercy to our offender…
Legalism is easy, because it requires muscle work; surrender is hard, because it requires heart-work.
The TOTL&P made a great show of zeal in doing what was easy, and shirked the serious and more arduous requirements of duty.
And look to what extent they did this: It became a proverb: To strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. Both of these creatures are unclean for the Jew – you can’t eat either and be spiritually clean. But the irony of legalism was that they were keeping the lighter parts of the law – straining out a gnat as it were, while completely neglecting the weightier parts of God’s command: His call for heart work – swallowing a camel as it were.
This is the danger of legalism.
As Christians, we run from legalism. ‘No, I’d better not read my Bible today because then I’m just being legalistic; I’d better not attend Church until I feel like it because if I go when I don’t feel like it I’m being legalistic…’
Legalism is not 'doing spiritual duties' – spiritual duties are good! Legalism is doing them and taking pride in them; legalism is feeding the poor and telling them they should be grateful for you; legalism is waving your tithe around so people see what you’re giving; legalism is doing the physical work that God calls us to do without doing the spiritual work that God calls us to do with it.
That’s the danger of Legalism.
Let’s look at the next danger,
4. The Danger of Externalism (vss. 25-28)
What’s interesting about these first two verses that you won’t understand from the English is that when Jesus speaks about cleaning the inside of the cup and dish, He’s not talking about inside as in the inside surface.
Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have collected their food, as we see in the previous verses, through ungodly practices, through greed and extortion. Then they go and do their ceremonial washing of the plates and bowls and eat the food gained through sinful ways!
That’s why in Luke’s account of this teaching, Jesus also says “But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Lk. 11:39).
Our hearts matter to God. He cares about what’s going on behind the façade. You can do all things right, but if you don’t have the right motives, you’re wasting your time. Isaiah speaks about your most righteous deeds being like filthy rags to God – in fact, he says on behalf of God: “The multitudes of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me….When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. (WHY?) Your hands of full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean…Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow…”
Friends, we can do all kinds of good things – take food to the homeless, go and lay hands and pray for the sick in hospital, play games with orphans, read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew, pray in tongues – but if our hearts are not right before God in it, not only are we wasting our time but we are storing up wrath for ourselves.
God sees our hearts! 1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
The great concern of all people should be inward purity; that principles of holiness be formed in them by the Spirit of God. And then their outward lives will agree with their confessions.
Most people focus on fixing the symptoms rather than the causes of sin – because they want to be applauded by men rather than accepted by God. But if we ask God’s help with the causes of sin then we will be accepted by God and honoured by men.
Be careful of appearing good on the outside when the inside is full of sin – that’s what the Pharisees and the TOTL did. Be careful of carrying a big Bible with a big smile and raising big hands high in the worship service when you have determined in your hearts to sin. There’s nothing wrong with Big Bibles, Big Smiles and raising hands in worship, but don’t do it if that’s not where your heart is because God sees your hearts!
The next danger is
5. The Danger of The Easy Route (vss. 29-32)
Here’s an interesting one.
Here you have a people who, a thousand years after prophets have been killed by their ancestors, have built tombs for those prophets, memorised the words of those prophets and are teaching other people from the Scriptures written by those prophets.
They revere the Scriptures! And they love the prophets! Or so they say. They say that if they had been alive a thousand years prior, they wouldn’t have been stoning the prophets – they would have protected them!
Easy to say so. But what are they doing? They’re about to kill a prophet – the One those prophets had been pointing to.
They say then that they honour and obey the teachings of the prophets, and that they show that by building them tombs.
But it is a great deal easier to build tombs than to hear and be changed by teachings, and a good deal of the posthumous honour paid to God’s messengers means, ‘It’s a good thing they are dead, and that we have nothing to do but to put up a monument.’
You and I uphold the Bible as God’s word. We claim to love these writings and to revere those who wrote it, and to fear God, the Author of these Scriptures. But it is a great deal easier to attend weekly sermons than to hear and be changed by those sermons.
A few weeks ago, my Dad preached about attending countless sermons and remaining unchanged. Have you changed? Some of you have; some of you hear a message and your heart is torn apart and you don’t allow your eyes to rest until you’ve obeyed wholeheartedly what God has instructed. But is that true for you here tonight?
Friends, sometimes I read this Word and I wonder how I can call myself a Christian! There’re things written here I don’t do! Because of fear or pride or selfishness, I read it and build a little tomb in my heart to bury the teaching in. I make the tomb pretty so that I’ll look and say how important that teaching is to me, but it’s dead inside me. It’s easy to memorise teachings and parrot them back to our small group – that’s the easy route; but friend, are you changed, are you moved, are you broken over that teaching?
The Pharisees knew all the teachings of the prophets, and had buried those teachings and had made those teachings look nice, but they hadn’t been moved an inch by all that God said.
What about you?
That’s the final danger I want to look at tonight, but we still have so much to say from this passage. Let’s look at
JESUS' SORROW (vss. 33-38)
It’s easy to read these verses and see the absolute anger in what Jesus said. But His anger was mingled with deep sorrow throughout this chapter. His ‘Woes’ are not just curses and denunciations, they are filled with pity. But He can see their hearts and can see that they have utterly rejected Him and so He cries out a final condemnation: The jar of God’s patient endurance has been filled up with your fathers’ sins for thousands of years, and it’s reaching its tipping point! Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers. Add those last drops. I’ll send you prophets and wise men and teachers, and you’ll push the jar past its capacity and FINALLY, after thousands of years, God’s wrath will be poured out on this generation.
And just so you know, Church, within that generation, Israel was destroyed, the temple broken to ruins.
Yes, there was also an eternal punishment those Jews endured, but that generation also was wiped out of the land just as the Amorites had been before them.
Jesus’ Sorrow – He doesn’t relish this destruction! His heart BREAKS over the hard-headedness of this people.
He’s sent them prophet after prophet after prophet, calling Jerusalem back to Himself.
How heart-rending: Jerusalem, the place God chose to put His temple, His name, His people to whom He gave His law; the place to whom He sent prophet after prophet after prophet – this place was about to be utterly destroyed and wiped out, to become a byword and a reproach. This was the Jewel in God’s crown, but it had rejected Him and would be torn out and thrown away.
What a strong idea do these tender exclamations of our Lord, which can hardly be read without tears, give us of his unparalleled love to that ungrateful and impenitent nation!
For this I want to read some of the words of different commentators who put this so much more eloquently than I could:
"How ineffably grand and melting is this apostrophe! It is the very heart of God pouring itself forth through human flesh and speech. It is this incarnation of the innermost life and love of Deity, pleading with men, bleeding for them, and ascending only to open His arms to them and win them back by the power of this story of matchless love, that has conquered the world, that will yet "draw all men unto Him," and beautify and ennoble Humanity itself."
‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem’, Jesus cries.
Matthew elsewhere names the capital city according to the Greek: Ἱεροσόλυμα [Hierosolyma], he here calls it Ἱερουσαλὴμ [Hierousalem], which is Hebrew, as though, while recording the words used by Jesus, he desired to reproduce the actual sound of the Saviour's affecting address.
‘How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…’
"Was ever imagery so homely [plainly] invested with such grace and such sublimity as this, at our Lord's touch? And yet how exquisite the figure [picture] itself—of protection, rest, warmth, and all manner of conscious well-being in those poor, defenseless, dependent little creatures, as they creep under and feel themselves overshadowed by the capacious [spacious] and kindly wing of the mother bird! If, wandering beyond hearing of her peculiar call, they are overtaken by a storm or attacked by an enemy, what can they do but in the one case droop and die, and in the other submit to be torn in pieces? But if they can reach in time their place of safety, under the mother's wing, in vain will any enemy try to drag them thence [from it]. For rising into strength, kindling into fury, and forgetting herself entirely in her young, she will let the last drop of her blood be shed out and perish in defence of her precious charge, rather than yield them to an enemy's talons."
Sin sorrows the heart of God and He doesn’t desire to punish but He allows people to choose their own way. And if they choose to turn from Him, He allows them.
Church, see the sorrow of Jesus in this text. And so, He leaves them to their own devices: ‘Look, your house is left to you desolate…’ They had wanted a temple, a city, a religion without God – fine, have it.
But friends, that’s not the end of the chapter.
There is hope.
When Jesus says, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,’ that’s also a promise. If you desire to have Him, He will come and dwell with you. Not on your terms, though, careful. But on His terms. If you will bless the One sent by God, if you will surrender your life and heart and mind to Him, if you will accept Him as Lord and Saviour, if you will recognise Him as the One sent by God, if you will confess Him to be your King, then you will have Him as your King.
What a promise!
Then He will dwell in you, just as He dwelt in the temple. No, not as He dwelt in the temple, because that was conditional and temporary – no He will dwell in you eternally. And when your body dies, one day, you will see Him face to face. What a promise!
So tonight’s chapter ends with hope! And there’s hope for you tonight. If you’ve found in yourself some of the qualities of these Pharisees, there’s hope! Don’t continue in your way, as these did – cry out to Jesus, run to Him and be safe.