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JESUS’ WOE AND LAMENT

Matthew 23:1-23:39
Key Verse: 23:37

Chapter 23 is a very unique passage in the gospel story of Jesus. It contains seven woes Jesus addressed to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, saying, “Woe to you…” We are reminded of Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are…” Eight blessings and seven woes are specifically written in Matthew’s gospel. We all like to hear the words of blessings, not woes. But he had to speak words of woe. Let’s think about why so that we can understand his heart and learn how to live as his people.

First, human honour and exaltation (1-12). This chapter opens with these words, “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples.” His speech is addressed to the crowds, yet specifically to his disciples. Look at verses 2-3. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, the seat of teaching authority, but did not live according to their teaching. However, Jesus said to his disciples, “You must obey them.” It is somewhat surprising. Jesus said this because when they obeyed before God, they would be blessed by God and the spirit of obedience would grow in them. Jesus was always concerned about his disciples’ obedience spirit in the hope that the obedience character might be formed in them. However, the disciples were not to follow the lifestyle of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, for they did not practice what they preached. Jesus said of one example in verse 4. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” They made many scrupulous rules and told the people to keep the rules. But they did not practically labour to help the people, showing an example.

Look at verse 5. “Everything they do is done for men to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.” Phylacteries are small leather cubical cases that contain Scripture passages written on parchment. They were worn as an attempt to literally obey the admonition in the book of Deuteronomy, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds, tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Deut. 11:18; cf. Ex 13:9,13; Deut 6:8). They were fastened to the left arm and forehead to be worn by adult males in the morning service. And on the four corners of a garment worn by men were “tassels” that had a blue cord, conforming to the admonitions of Numbers 15:37-42 and Deuteronomy 22:12. The tassels reminded the people to obey God’s commandment and to be holy to God (Num 15:40). But they made the phylacteries wide and the tassels long to show their piety.

Look at verses 6-7. “They love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the market places and to have men call them, ‘Rabbi.’” They really wanted to get human recognition and honour. They wanted to be praised in the gathering of people.

Look at verses 8-10. “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anything on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” To be called ‘Rabbi’, ‘father’, or ‘teacher’ was not necessarily wrong. But the problem was that they just wanted to be called with such titles, not actually doing the duty. Even if the duty is done, all should that there is only one Mater, one Father in heaven and one Teacher the Christ, who is the way and the truth and the life (Jn 14:6).

Then Jesus said in verses 11-12, “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Here we can see that the fundamental problem of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees was their proud heart to be exalted. This was the sin of the first man Adam to be like God. This is none other than Satan’s character. Bible warns the sin of being proud again and again: “God opposes the proud” (Ja 4:6a). “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Pro 16:18). On the contrary one major character of our Lord Jesus is his humbleness. He was humble, so humble that he obeyed God unto death, even death on a cross! (Ph 2:8). Then God exalted him to the highest place. Jesus’ disciples are to be humbleness. For this Jesus disciplined them again and again. Jesus really wanted them to be humble before God, which would produce obedience to God and make them useful servants. When they were talking about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he said in Matthew 18:4, “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” When they envied the worldly rulers who exercise their authority over others, he said in Matthew 20:27, “…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

When we think of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, their sitting in Moses’ seat, not lifting a finger, doing everything to show people, and loving the place of honour and being called to be somebody are all related to the proud heart and self-exaltation. Pride is the root of sin. Pride, human honour and self-exaltation were one set to them. However, humbleness, obedience and servantship should be a set to the disciples of Jesus.

Second, seven woes (13-36). Look at verse 13. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! 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.” We know that the key point of God’s message to the people of this world is the kingdom of God, while Jesus’ death and resurrection were process for this ultimate blessing. The first message Jesus proclaimed on earth was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Then what a terrible sin it is that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees shut off the kingdom of heaven from people! This is directly opposing God’s will and purpose. In light of this woe we can see that if we do not make every effort to enter through the narrow door for the kingdom of heaven (Lk 13:23), we unwittingly shut the kingdom of heaven. We should remember Jesus’ words, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Mt 7:13-14)

Look at verse 15. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” The first woe is related to the kingdom of heaven. In the second woe Jesus mentioned hell. “A son of hell” is a terrible expression found here only. They not only blocked the way to the kingdom of heaven but also made a new believer terribly bad. Who can be worse than a son of hell? Jesus once said, “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Mt 18:7) Making a new believer twice as much a child of hell as oneself would be an incorrigible sin. In light of this we should learn how to care for one soul to walk on the right path of life until the person stands firm as a disciple of Jesus through our sincere Bible teaching and life of good influence. This is in accordance with Jesus’ great commission, “…go and make disciples…” (Mt 28:19)

The third woe is about swearing. The word “swear” is written 10 times. The occasion of swearing can be one’s most important moment in life. So swearing should be done in the awareness of God. But the teachers of the law and the Pharisees led people to swear by the gold of the temple or the gift of the altar, instead of by the temple that makes the gold sacred or the altar that makes the gift sacred. In this way they let people value material things more than the things of God and so dishonour and despise God. They were called “blind guides”, “blind fools” and “blind men.” In our times people think Christianity is a just means of becoming rich in this world. They deteriorate genuine Christianity. They are greatly mistaken. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus clearly said, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…You cannot serve both God and Money” (6:20,24). Decisions of faith should be made because of God himself, not because of the things attached to him.

Look at verses 23-24. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Here Jesus pointed out their legalistic superficial life without knowing the spirit of the law. Offering a tenth to God, even a tenth of small possessions is good. Yet it must go together with justice, mercy and faithfulness. And Jesus said, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” This is a sardonic humour. In drinking they tried to strain out a gnat, which was one of many unclean winged creatures (Lev 11:23,41), but they turned out swallowing a camel, the largest land animal in Palestine, which was also ceremonially unclean (Lev. 11:4). It was because their hearts were wrong with God and their motive of keeping the law was not right before God. “Keeping the law scrupulously is fine. But one should not forget the first and greatest command of loving God and the second, loving one’s neighbor (Mt 22: 37-39).

Look at verse 25-26. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisees! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” No one wants to use the cup and dish which are clean outside but dirty inside. God who is holy is concerned about cleaning the inside of man prior to the outside. The outer cleanness cannot affect the inner cleanness. Rather it is vice-versa. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8) He also prayed for the sanctification of his disciples’ inner men, “Father, sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (Jn 17:17).

Look at verses 27-28. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Using the metaphor of cup and dish seems to be proper, but not that of whitewashed tombs and dead men’s bones. The expression is even scary. However, we know that Jesus’ expression is always accurate. No one wants to see on the inside of the whitewashed tombs, which are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. It is disgusting. Anyhow, in this way Jesus exposed hypocritical life of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. They appeared to people as righteous but on the inside are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Living before people seems to be convenient and get immediate benefit. Some are very skillful to live before people. But as time passes by, it becomes one’s habit and the inner person, full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Conversely, living before God seems to be burdensome and not beneficial. But it is a blessed life. It makes one truly free and builds his inner man to be holy and strong. We see in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus earnestly instructs his disciples to live before God, saying, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them…when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt 6:1-6). To live in the sight of God, speaking the truth and trying to please him in every aspect of life, requires godly discipline. So Paul said, “Have nothing to do with godless myths…rather, train yourself to be godly” (1Tim 4:7).

The seventh woe is their murderous spirit coated with sweet lie. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees harbored the spirit of murdering, but they tried to hide it with good deeds of building tombs for the prophets and decorating the graves of the righteous. They said that they would be better than their forefathers who had murdered the prophets. But Jesus let them find themselves who testified against themselves that they were descendants of their forefathers. He said, “Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers”, meaning “kill me” Murdering and lying are two characteristics of the devil. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees became devilish. So Jesus rebukes them, calling them, “You snakes! You brood of vipers!” Jesus never used such strong words to reproach anyone but now to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. He continues to say, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” In Jesus’ woes both the kingdom of God and hell are mentioned. According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is real, and hell is real and vivid. When Jesus said, “How will you escape being condemned to hell”, his heart must have broken seeing their inevitable eternal destiny. Jesus says continually, “Therefore I am going to send you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” This prediction contained the implication that they would crucify and kill Jesus, the very one whom God sent, the prophet, the truly wise man and one Teacher of mankind. This would be their greatest sin. So Jesus said, “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.”

When we think about Jesus’ woes to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, we see that they would receive all the consequences of their sins of opposing God’s will and living before people for human honour and recognition to the point of killing the Son of God. They were proud and murderous. Ultimately they were to be responsible for all the consequences of their sin. When they went too far away, Jesus spoke the words of woes out of his broken heart. At this time he also had to protect his disciples and the innocent crowds.

Third, Jesus’ lamentation (37-39). Jesus did not stop with his woes. Now Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, expressing his deep sorrow. Look at verse 37. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets ad stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” A hen is furious toward those who attack her chicks. She protects and cares for her chicks as a matter of life and death. The chicks are perfectly safe and loved under the wings of their mother hen. All the parents wish that their children may grow well under their loving care being protected from all harms. Jesus was like a parent for the people of Jerusalem, whom God chose out of love them and for whom he had a purpose. Jesus truly loved them, so much that he was willing to risk his life for them. Jesus showed this love throughout his life, and now he was going to die for them. This was none other than the expression of the love of God the Father in heaven. But they rejected this love of God. Rejecting the love of God is the most grievous sin. It would bring total destruction upon themselves. He said, “Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” According to Jesus’ prediction Jerusalem would be trampled and its temple be destroyed by Roman army in AD. 70. Their children would be dashed to the ground. When they see the Messiah’s coming again whom they crucified, it would horrify them.

Our God is not an indifferent God, saying, “Whatever you do, it is okay.” He is a responsive God. His love is true and intense. When his love is rejected, he is really hurt and expresses his holy anger and deep sorrow. In this passage Jesus expressed his deep sorrow and anguish when his genuine was rejected. We can read his pained heart underlying all the woes and lamentation.

We thank and praise God for Jesus whose love is true and genuine and intense. May we dwell in his love and live as his children and his disciples.

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