Matthew 23(13–39)


In the passage we studied last week the Lord exposed how the Pharisees and teachers of the law were hypocrites who did not practise what they preached; and they were lacking in sympathy and compassion; and they loved to be praised. They were hypocrites because, though they told everyone to keep the law, they themselves did not keep it. They were lacking in sympathy and compassion because they burdened the people with all their rules and regulations which they had added to God’s law. And they loved it when people made a fuss of them in the market-place.

And having exposed them for what they really were, the Lord goes on in today’s passage to pronounce seven woes on them. He’s saying that sorrow and trouble and distress are going to come on them. That’s all they can expect from God in the future. For now, the people are praising them, but the time will come when God will condemn them. And so, they can only expect sorrow and trouble and distress, unless, of course, they repent.

The Lord pronounces seven woes on them. The first six can be divided into three pairs. The seventh woe is therefore the climax in the series.

Woes 1 and 2

In the first two woes, the Lord’s point is that instead of leading people towards the kingdom of heaven, they are leading people away from it. So, they shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. They themselves do not enter and they prevent others from entering it. And they will make a great effort to win converts to their religion. But their religion is a dead religion and those who follow them will not enter into heaven, but into hell.

What the Lord is saying about them is clearly illustrated for us in Matthew chapter 12. There we read of the time when a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to the Lord Jesus to be healed. And after the Lord healed the man, all the people were astonished and they said: ‘Could this be the Son of David?’ In other words, could this be the Promised King and Saviour? And so, there was a kind of awakening among the people and we might even say that they had come to the entrance to the kingdom; and all they needed was someone to give them a little push in the right direction and to say to them that they were right. He is the Son of David. He is God’s Promised King. And they needed someone to ask them what they will now do in response. So, you have come to see that he’s the Promised King. What will you now do? Will you believe in him? Will you yield your life to him? That’s what they needed. But instead we read that, when the Pharisees heard about this, they said that the Lord was only able to cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub. They were saying that he’s not from God, he’s from Satan. And so, instead of helping the people believe, they kept the people from believing.

And we see something similar in John 9 and the story of the time Jesus healed a man who had been born blind. The man was brought to the Pharisees who wanted to know how he could now see. And when the man explained what the Lord had done for him, the Pharisees denounced the Lord Jesus. He can’t be from God, they said, because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath Day. By healing on the Sabbath, he had broken the Sabbath laws!

The way into God’s kingdom is by believing in the Saviour. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law did everything they could to prevent people from believing in him. And since they did not believe in the Saviour, they themselves — and everyone who listened to them — were on their way to hell.

Woes 3 and 4

In woes 3 and 4, the Lord highlights how they broke God’s law. In Leviticus 19:12 the Lord commanded his people not to swear falsely by God’s name. And Deuteronomy 23:23 says that whatever your lips utter you must do. So, according to God’s law, you must keep your word. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law had worked out a way which allowed people to break their word. So, if you swear by the temple, instead of swearing by the gold in the temple, your promise is not binding. And if you swear by the altar, instead of swearing by the gift on the altar, then your promise is not binding. In other words, they were finding loopholes in what they said in order to get out of what they promised. It’s as if, having made a promise, they said to you that they didn’t really mean it and they had their fingers crossed. What they said didn’t count as a real promise. So, God’s word commanded the people to keep their word. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had found a way around God’s law.

And then the Lord refers to their practice of tithing. God’s law required the people to give a tenth of their produce to the Levites in order to support the work in the temple. So, people would bring a tenth of their sheep and their goats and their cattle. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law were very meticulous about paying their tithe and they tithed even the herbs and spices they grew. They brought to the Levites a tenth of their mint and dill and cumin.

So, they were careful to bring tiny amounts of these herbs and spices to the temple. And no doubt people admired them for being so conscientious. But the Lord points out that they were neglecting the more important matters of the law. While they tithed their herbs and spices, they forgot about displaying justice and mercy and faithfulness in their daily lives.

And the Lord said about them that they strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. He’s referring to the practice of pouring wine through a sieve in order to filter out insects. And the reason they wanted to filter out insects was because whoever swallowed an insect would become ceremonially unclean and risked provoking God’s wrath if they entered the temple while being unclean. And so, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were careful to avoid swallowing a fly, which was the smallest unclean creature. But they were prepared to swallow a camel, which was the largest unclean creature. The Lord means they avoided the small things, but neglected the big things. They were careful to tithe their mint and dill, but they forget the important things like justice and mercy and faithfulness.

Woes 5 and 6

The next two woes are about appearances. He compares them to cups and dishes which are outwardly clean, but inside they’re dirty. In a similar way, they appear to be good and upright and holy, but deep down inside, in their hearts, they are full of greed and self-indulgence. And then he compares them to white-washed tombs. According to Numbers 19:16, anyone who touches a grave will be unclean for seven days. And it seems that in those days, the people would bury their dead all over the place and not in designated graveyards. And so, if you were travelling to Jerusalem to worship God, you might inadvertently step on someone’s grave.

In order to avoid this, people started to paint the graves white. This made the graves stand out. It also made them attractive. But though they were attractive, they still contained dead men’s bones. And in a similar way, the Pharisees and teachers of the law looked as if they were holy and pure and clean. They appeared to be righteous. But on the inside, they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Woe 7

We come to the seventh and final woe. The Lord says they build tombs for the prophets. He’s referring to prophets who had been rejected by the people in the past and who had been persecuted and killed. And the Lord says that the Pharisees and teachers of the law claimed that if they had been alive in those days, when their forefathers killed the prophets, they would not have taken part in the shedding of blood. So, they were saying that they would not have joined their forefathers in killing the prophets.

But the Lord says in verse 31 that they are thereby admitting that they are descended from those who killed the prophets. And his point seems to be that, despite what they say, they’re just like their forefathers.

And then he tells them to ‘fill up the measure of their sin’. In other words, finish what your forefathers began! And the Lord goes on to say how he will send them prophets and wise men and teachers. The Lord Jesus — from his throne in heaven — will send them preachers to declare the word of the Lord. But instead of listening to those preachers, sent from God, they will persecute them. They will kill and crucify some; and they will flog others; and they will pursue others. They are like snakes and vipers who will strike God’s servants, instead of listening to them.

And because they reject God’s preachers, God will hold them just as guilty as those who killed God’s servants in Old Testament times, beginning with righteous Abel, who was murdered by his brother, and ending with Zechariah, whom we read about in 2 Chronicles 24. He was a prophet of the Lord. But the people plotted against him and stoned him to death in the courtyard of the temple.

And according to verse 36 the Lord will not only hold the Pharisees and the teachers of the law guilty for rejecting his preachers, but he will hold the whole generation guilty. It’s not just the leaders who have rejected God and his preachers, but it’s the whole nation of Israel.

Verses 37 to 39

And so, we come to verses 37 to 39 where the Lord addresses the people of Jerusalem as a whole. He describes them as those who kill the prophets and stone those whom God sent to them. Read through the Old Testament and you’ll read how God sent his prophets to the people to appeal to them to give up their wicked ways and to return to the Lord. But they did not listen.

But God has come to them yet again in the person of his Son to appeal to them to turn from their wicked ways and to return to him. Just as a mother hen gathers her chicks under his wings for safety, so the Lord Jesus wants to gather them together in order to keep them safe from the coming wrath. He says he has often longed to gather them. So, he has appealed to them again and again. Come to me. Believe in me. Turn to me. But they were not willing.

And because they refused to believe in him, then the house of Israel will be left desolate. And so, they will not see him again, until he comes in the name of the Lord to destroy them for their sin and rebellion.


The Lord pronounced his judgment, not only on the Pharisees and teachers of the law, but on the whole nation, because they would not believe in him.

And yet, we also need to remember that very soon the Lord Jesus would give up his life on the cross to pay for the sins of all those who would believe in him. Though he pronounced judgment on those who refuse to believe, he offers salvation and eternal life to all who repent and believe in him. And while Jerusalem would be destroyed when the Romans invaded it in AD70, the good news of the gospel is being proclaimed throughout the earth and sinners in every nation are being gathered to Christ to receive forgiveness and eternal life.

And not only do we receive forgiveness and eternal life, but we also receive the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit helps us to live in such a way that everything we do and say makes the teaching about God our Saviour attractive and appealing so that people will be drawn towards the kingdom and not driven away from it. And the Holy Spirit helps us to love God’s law so that our heart’s desire is not to avoid God’s law, but to keep it. And the Holy Spirit cleanses our hearts from sinful and unclean thought and desire and inclination. And the Holy Spirit gives us teachable hearts to receive God’s word with faith and humility and to listen to all that God wants to teach us.