Woe to Spiritual Hypocrites – Matthew 23:13-36

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Faith Bible Church, NY

December 11, 1994

Woe to Spiritual Hypocrites

Matthew 23:13-36


What is the greatest threat a man or woman faces? It is not the Democrats or Republicans; it is not communism, or any other political entity; it is not uncontrolled crime or a police state; it is not ecological disaster or the projects of environmental extremists; it is not nuclear holocaust or the earth getting hit by an asteroid. All these things could lead to circumstances that we may not like, some would even result in widespread death, but even physical death is not man’s greatest enemy for that is only a transition into eternity. It is what will happen in eternity that is important. Will that man or woman spend eternity under God’s just condemnation in hell, or in heaven by God’s grace?

The greatest threat a person can face is that which will keep them from receiving God’s gift of mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. Certainly things like secularism, materialism, hedonism, humanism and false religions are a great threat because they can keep a person from the truth and locked into systems of belief that are far from the God of the Bible. But the greater threat comes from those that claim to lead to God, but in fact lead away from Him. The greatest threats to the human soul are false prophets and false teachers. They convince people that they have the truth but instead it is a lie that leads to eternal damnation.

This is why Jesus, who is so tender and kind to all others, is harsh and fierce with the false prophets and teachers of His time.

Last week we examined Jesus’ description of the characteristics of these false religious leaders in Matthew 22:1-12  (See: Traits of False Spiritual Leaders). They claim authority for themselves, they make hypocritical demands of their followers, they are loveless and uncaring, they make pretentious displays or their religiosity and they are proud and arrogant. We need to be careful of those who display any of these characteristics.

As Jesus continues in His warning to the people to be wary of these false spiritual leaders he begins to address the false religious leaders directly. Seven times Jesus says to them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” More than any other group, the scribes and Pharisees were false teachers. There were a few that were true, but the majority had traded in the truths and wisdom of God for the traditions and wisdom of men. Jesus said to them, “woe to you.” The word “Woe” is used in several ways, most often as a loud guttural outcry of pain, fear or anger (woe!), or a gentle expression of grief, despair or sorrow (woe is me). Jesus’ use of it here is that of judgement mixed with regret. It is not an exclamation but a declaration of divine judgement pronounced against sinful men who will not turn from their evil ways.

Jesus also calls them, “Hypocrites.” The word had been used of Greek actors who placed a mask over their face as they played their part. It came to mean someone who pretended to be better than they really were. Outwardly and in public they were appearing to be of high virtue, but inwardly and in private proving to be immoral. This was an accurate description of most of the scribes and Pharisees.

Some may ask why we should study this section of Scripture. The scribes and Pharisees are no longer around. True, but they are the models of all the false spiritual leaders who would come later. Jesus warning about them is fitting for us for our world abounds with men and women who are just like the scribes and Pharisees of old. We must be careful of those who have the traits Jesus described in verses 2-12, and we must not be afraid to recognize them and treat them as Jesus does in verse 13-36. We must not shy away from exposing them and giving stern warning about what they are doing and what God says lies in store for them if they do not repent.

In these verses Jesus gives eight more characteristics false spiritual leaders may have. The first in verse 13. They are:


“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those are entering to go in.” The picture given here is of these men standing at the gate of heaven and slamming the gate shut in the face of those who would like to go in. They won’t go in themselves, and they do their best to keep other people out too. This is a key trait of all false religions and cults.

How do they do this? By presenting a religious system or philosophy that leads either to a false god(s) or a false understanding of the true God. The scribes and Pharisees did it by setting aside the grace of God and developing a religion of work’s righteousness for example: if I do enough good things I’ll get to heaven.

There are plenty of these religious charlatans around today. The false religions and major cults are easy enough to spot because of their emphasis earning your salvation by what you do. But what about those who use the Bible and say that Jesus is the only way, yet their message still frustrates God’s plan of salvation? There are many around that will sell you Jesus as a great fire insurance policy. “Pray this prayer and you won’t go to hell”. Do what I tell you and you will have a wonderful life full of health, wealth, prosperity! It is still a system of works righteousness though the number works is less. A prayer, walking an aisle, being baptized, or verbally acknowledging some historical facts might be the path to salvation. Their faith is still in what man has done, not in the grace and mercy of God.

But we do not sell Jesus. We proclaim Him as the truth and the only way to the Father. Salvation is not just escape from hell, but being saved from sin to righteousness (Rom. 6), and it comes only by God’s grace and mercy granting forgiveness to those who place their faith in Christ alone. Jesus said that those who live for Him (the result of true salvation) will be persecuted by the unrighteous of this world. The Christian life is wonderful to Christians, but not from the world’s materialistic and hedonistic point of view. Be careful, there are religious charlatans about and they will sell you Jesus.


False religious leaders are also often pious thieves. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore, you shall receive greater condemnation.”

This verse may have been transposed from either Mark or Luke into Matthew, but since there is not doubt that Jesus did say it at some point and since it fits the context we will comment on it.

The practice is still seen today. In the course of bringing “spiritual comfort” to widows, these false religious leaders used their influence to deceive widows into turning over to them their finances and sometimes their homes. They “devoured” the homes of defenseless widows while appearing to be virtuous because of their long prayers for them. Many of these “pious” thieves have been exposed in recent years, yet more take their places and story after story is still heard of some widow who is taken advantage of and she sends in her money, often her life savings, to one of these characters because they say they care and will pray for them. Con men are bad enough, but these ones pose as spiritual leaders, and so their condemnation will be greater than those who were simple thieves.

SONS OF HELL (vs. 15)

Verse 15 tells of another of their practices. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about 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.” Again, very strong words from our Lord for these people because of damnation they bring on others.

The Jewish nation was always supposed to be mission organiztion to the gentile nations. The promise to Abraham included that “all the families of earth shall be blessed” through him and his descendants (Gen 15). They were to be a “light to all nations” (Isa 49). Often the nation failed at this, but just prior to the coming of Jesus there was a great missionary zeal that took hold of the hearts of many and Lord God was proclaimed among the gentiles. (This helped spread Christianity later).

Tragically, it was not enough for many of the Pharisees to see a gentile come to the synagogues and begin to worship the true God (these were called, “proselytes of the gate”, they were not satisfied until those gentile converts followed all the minutiae of the rabbinical traditions too (these were called “proselytes of righteousness). The self righteousness of scribes and Pharisees was enough of a curse, but these converted gentiles would be zealous for their new religion, and in that zeal would often surpass their teachers in self righteousness, thus ‘twice as much a son of hell.”

True Christianity leads a person to a relationship with Christ, not a religion. We must make sure that is the goal of our evangelism and discipleship. We are to be opening the door to eternal life, not the traditions of men which lead to death.

We also should be bold when representatives of false religions and cults or anyone else tries to present a false gospel to us. If they want to present a message of damnation then we need to treat them accordingly. We offer to tell them of salvation in Christ, but we need not debate them in theology or philosophy. Instead we simply but firmly denounce their teachings for what they are ungodly and damning to the souls of men. That is what both the Lord and the apostles did.


False spiritual leaders also make bogus vows. They make promises they have not intention of keeping. Verses 16-22, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering upon it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore he who swears, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”

Jesus had addressed this question before in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), but here He makes it even more apparent how foolish their practice was and He also calls them “blind guides” showing they were ignorant of the truth. Basically, they treated making promises without any seriousness, like children who say their promise did not count because they had their fingers crossed. They developed an elaborate system of what was binding and what was not. In this way they could sound very devout by making all sorts of promises without ever keeping them. Jesus makes it plain that every vow is binding because ultimately it is made before God Himself and He will hold you to it. Among other verses, Eccl. 5;5 says, “When you vow a vow to God, defer not to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools: pay that which you have vowed.”

Christians are to be people of their word. If they say, then they will do it. Jesus said in Matthew 5:34-37 that we are not to get involved with this sort of promise making where some vows have to be kept and some can be broken. Jesus told us to simply say yes or no and anything beyond that is of evil, so be suspicious of those who do not keep their word.


The scribes and Pharisees were also neglectful legalist. Verses 23,24, “Woe to you, scribes & Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

They were majoring on the minor and neglecting the major! Caught up in minutiae they sought to fulfill the Mosaic command to tithe to the nth degree. There were several tithes commanded in the Mosaic Law, all of which supported the Levitical priesthood, but the one in question here is in Lev. 27:30. It required that a tithe (10%) of the seed and produce of the land be brought to the temple. The Pharisees took this beyond the staple crops such as grains, olive oil, wine, fruits & vegetables to include even potted kitchen herbs such as mint, dill & cumin. Out of every ten leaves or seeds they would set one aside for a tithe. (Don’t ask me how they actually brought it to the temple). They were meticulous about such a minuscule thing, yet they neglected the most important aspects of the law, namely justice, mercy and faithfulness. The prophet Micah had even specifically pointed this out, but they ignored when he said, “He [the Lord] has shown you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of thee, but to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

The scribes and Pharisees thought they were pleasing God by their attention to detail. They would drink their wine through clenched teeth in order to make sure they would not accidentally drink a gnat, an unclean animal, but they would end up eating camel for dinner, another unclean animal.

It was fine that they were concerned about details, but by neglecting the larger issues they only proved to be blind guides that were ignorant of the very truths they claimed to be leaders in. They neglected true righteousness and lead their followers instead into the self-righteousness that legalism brings.

Be careful of those who key in so much on one issue, especially a minor one, that they neglect to preach the whole counsel of God. While it is important to know the details of such subjects as prophecy, the gifts of the spirit, the Bible and science, cult awareness, etc., any time one subject is emphasized to the neglect of the rest of the Scriptures there is a serious problem. The details are important, but not until the major issues are dealt with.

MASKED HARPIES (vs. 25,26)

In verse 25, 26 we read, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.” They were masked harpies. A harpy is a greedy, predatory person. They masked over their true character by making sure they kept all the ceremonial laws. The analogy that Jesus makes is that of washing the outside of a plate and cup while leaving all the filth and putrid food inside. A meal served in these dishes looked great from the outside, but no one would want what was in them.

The Pharisees did a great job of making a show of all their righteous deeds. Among the people it was thought that no one could be as righteous as a Pharisee, but the truth was that no one was as unrighteous. The outward piety only hid what was in their hearts, which was robbery (from the Greek, harpage, or-harpy) and self-indulgence. The true measure of a person is not what they say and do in public, it is what they say and do in private.


They were also spiritual contaminants, verses 27,28, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

While this appears similar to the previous condemnation because it refers to being all cleaned up on the outside but filthy on the inside, it differs in that they were a spiritual contaminant to others. Their heart of robbery made other people their victims as they tried to satisfy their self-indulgence. Here Jesus says they are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Their outward profession of spirituality caused others to follow them, but what they taught was lawlessness. Jesus said of them in Mark 7:13 that by their traditions they invalidated the word of God. Their traditions destroyed the law of God.

There are many around like this today too, and within the professing church. Theological liberals directly deny the Scriptures while maintaining an image of personal spirituality. Within evangelical Christianity many are replacing the authority of the Bible with either their own traditions or some philosophy, especially popular psychology.


Jesus final woe to them starts in verse 29, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Consequently you bear witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the measure of the guilt of your fathers.”

The scribes and Pharisees boasted that they were better than their fathers for they claimed that they would not have killed the prophets of old, which their fathers had killed. They even enlarged and beautified the tombs and monuments made to those their father had killed. But it was all a sham and Jesus charged them directly that they condemned themselves when they said this for they were currently plotting to murder the greatest prophet of all, Jesus Christ (Mt. 12:14). They were truly just like their fathers. Their plan to murder Jesus was the culmination of all the guilt of those who had murdered God’s messengers in the past.

Jesus’ charge against them goes on…

BROOD OF VIPERS (vs. 33-36)

vs 33-36, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell? Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.”

They were snakes. Specifically, they were vipers, which are a small poisonous snake that lived in that region. It was especially dangerous because it would look like a dried stick when they were still, and many people were bitten as they gathered wood, such as Paul was in Acts 28. They were deadly and deceitful, as were the scribes and Pharisees. These false spiritual leaders were in grave danger of God’s eternal judgement and they could not escape it on their own. Jesus was going to send more prophets, wise men, and scribes coming. If they would listen to them they would have a chance, but their character had already been set. They would not listen, they would kill and persecute.

Jesus was crucified, as were a couple of the Apostles. All the Apostles were martyred except John, and he was persecuted. Stephen was stoned to death, and Paul was scourged several times. Persecution by the scribes and Pharisees was a fact of life for the early Christians. By Acts 8 the church scatters from Jerusalem because of the heavy persecution. All this only proved that the scribes and Pharisees were just like there fathers. Contrary to their claim, they agreed with, and so became guilty along with, those of the murder of God’s righteous people, from Abel, who as slain by his brother, to the prophet Zechariah, who was murdered in the Temple itself. They were guilty of all, from the first to the last one, from A to Z.

That generation did suffer the multiplied guilt and judgment they and their fathers had brought upon themselves. About forty years later Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by Titus and the people slaughtered or scattered around the world.

There were false teachers then and there are false teachers now. You can listen to them on “Christian” radio, see them on “Christian” TV and buy their books in “Christian” bookstores. Jesus warns us about them. Let us heed His warning and be very careful of those that display any of these characteristics. We need not live in fear of them, but stand up and rebuke them even as Jesus did by exposing their true nature and warning them of what awaits them if they do not repent. But unless you are a student of the Scriptures, you will not be able to do this, instead, you will be their target.

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