This passage is one of the hardest passages in the Bible for me—not because it’s hard to understand, but because it is almost universally condemning. Nearly every Christian who reads this passage will be pricked—or should be.
One of the most frequent criticisms leveled against Christians is that of hypocrisy: that they say one thing, and do another. I myself rejected Christianity for a long time as a teenager because I saw people in our church raising their hands and worshiping God, then leaving the service and being horrible to their waiters at restaurants, or gossiping about people I loved when they didn’t know I was within earshot. Hypocrisy is probably the most disenchanting, disillusioning behavior a new believer or someone who is curious about the faith could run across.
And here’s why that’s so scary: we’re all hypocrites.
In today’s passage, Jesus is speaking to Pharisees and experts in the Law. As we’ll see, Jesus is going to criticize both groups in today’s text, and he’s going to criticize them very harshly. But if we would just take a second to think about what Jesus is saying here, we’d see him condemning a good many things we find ourselves doing all the time.
So I hope you brought your helmets; the Holy Spirit’s going to knock us over the head a bit here. But I always get excited when the Spirit gets ready to beat us up, because that means we’ll be more like Jesus after than we were before.
Hypocritical Practice (v. 37-44)
So if you remember from last week, Jesus has been speaking to a crowd of people. And apparently in this crowd there was at least one Pharisee. The Pharisees were an influential group of Jews who emphasized observing the Law of Moses in extreme detail. And this Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner. We see in v. 37:
37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.
So picture the scene here. This Pharisee invites Jesus to dinner, so he comes and begins to eat. And the first thing Jesus does is comes and reclines at table…but doesn’t wash up first. And that’s a big deal—Jesus didn’t just commit a breach in social etiquette. Handwashing was an important ritual of cleanliness for the Pharisees.
The thing is, Jesus knew this wouldn’t go unnoticed. He knew this Pharisee would see that he didn’t wash up, and that he would be shocked by it. It was a calculated provocation on his part, to give him a reason to say what he’s about to say. This Pharisee wanted perhaps to charm Jesus into thinking they were on the same side, that these Pharisees weren’t all that bad after all; but Jesus wasn’t having it. He’s come to say something, and he will say it.
So what does he say? V. 39:
39 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.
Their practice is hypocritical. They pay attention to what can be seen.
You wash your hands before dinner. Great—your hands are clean, but your insides are filthy. You pay attention to what people can see, and completely neglect those things that go unseen. But God made both, so God sees both. That’s a general statement which he’s going to elaborate in v. 42:
42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
In other words, you get lost in the details, and you neglect the basics.
The Pharisees were exemplary tithers. “Tithing” is the practice of giving ten percent of whatever you have to God; and the Pharisees went beyond what the Law called them to give. They didn’t just give out of their income; they gave off their spice rack. Synagogues which had Pharisees in regular attendance did very well.
But they neglected what truly mattered: justice and the love of God. As we see many times in the gospels, the Pharisees thought themselves better than others. They’d look at commoners and pray, Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like that sinner (cf. Luke 18.11). They would unfairly judge others, without ever turning that judgmental eye o themselves.
So what we have here is a case of the details superceding the basics. It’s like a kid trying to master calculus before he’s learned to count to 100, or trying to do parkour before he can walk. The latter is the foundation of the former.
The Pharisees, in essence, were trying to master the details without concerning themselves with the basics. They were working hard on the letter of the Law, but completely neglecting the heart of the Law. The prophet Micah had warned against such behavior—he spoke of all the various sacrifices and rituals the people of Israel followed, and then in Micah 6.8 he says that nevertheless,
8 [God] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The Pharisees knew this verse. They should have known that if they were devoted to justice and kindness and humility with God, then they would want to be generous. They wouldn’t have to force themselves to give to the house of God; it would be their pleasure to do so. That’s why when Jesus talks about their tithing, he says, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Tithing is good! Extravagant generosity is good! Yes! You ought to do these things.
But if they aren’t coming as a natural by-product of the basics—justice and love of God—then you’re just a kid who can’t run trying to do parkour: it’s going to end badly. The only proper response is, Woe to you!
And again, v. 43:
43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.
So we see what motivates these Pharisees in what they do—they want to be seen.
Everyone loves to be admired. Why is Instagram such a big deal? Because on Instagram, everyone gets to be beautiful. You can erase pimples and get rid of red eyes and retake a picture as many times as you have to in order to look just right. It doesn’t matter if in reality you never go to the gym or take care of yourself; it doesn’t matter if you suck in that gut before the picture’s taken and then gasp when you let it out again. As long as everyone thinks you actually look like that, you’re good.
The Pharisees would have loved Instagram.
They did what they did because they knew that if they were seen as righteous and generous, they wouldn’t actually need to be righteous and generous.
And what is the effect of this hypocritical behavior? Jesus says, v. 44:
44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
According to the Law, coming in contact with a grave made you ritually unclean. But if a grave wasn’t marked, you could walk over it and become unclean without even realizing it.
Same thing here. People thought the Pharisees were righteous men; they were admired for their zeal. But those who sought to follow in their footsteps were almost systematically led astray, falling into the same traps, and made unclean before God without even realizing it.
Now at this point the tension in this room would have been palpable. Imagine inviting someone to dinner and hearing him talk like this to you and your guests!
One of these guests, one of the lawyers, speaks up, and gives Jesus a perfect opportunity to set his sights on them. If he accused the Pharisees of hypocritical practice, he’s going to accuse the lawyers of hypocritical handling of the Word of God.
Hypocritical Handling of the Word (v. 45-52)
45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” 46 And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.
The experts in the Law—sometimes called “Lawyers” or “Scribes”—were men who took the Law of Moses and interpreted it for their modern age, explaining how they thought Jews should observe the Law of Moses in their context…and in the process they consistently added regulations that God never intended.
One sort of hilarious example is found in the Mishnah, a book of these interpretations of the Law, carried down by oral tradition. In this book you see detailed what people were allowed to carry on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a day on which the people were meant to do no work; they were allowed to carry no burden. So to help the people out, the authors of the Mishnah said that anything heavier than a dried fig was to be considered a “burden” (M. Shabbath 7:3). So you could carry food on the Sabbath as long as that item of fod weighed less than a dried fig. But if you put that food down, then picked it up again, that doubled the weight, so you’d be breaking the Sabbath Law.
There were all kinds of rules that the scribes and lawyers had, constantly adding their own interpretations of the Law and imposing them on everyone else.
And Jesus calls them out—not only because he came to bring the people rest for their souls (cf. Matt. 11.28-30), but because these lawyers themselves weren’t doing what they told others to do. They know that people assume that those who preach, do what they preach. But these men don’t do what they preach, and they don’t help others to do so either.
Again, if everyone thinks they are righteous, that is enough.
And the result of this perceived righteousness is power. They gave the impression of having great wisdom and self-control, so they became the self-proclaimed arbiters of God’s Word for the people.
And that is the problem we see in Jesus’s next accusation, v. 47:
47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.
What’s he talking about here? He’s talking about a hypocritical handling of God’s Word. The prophets were one of the main ways (in addition to the Torah) that God’s Word came to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. And what did their ancestors do with the prophets? They killed them.
And although these men built shrines to these past prophets in Israel, Jesus says that their forefathers’ murdering ways continue in them. How do we know he’s right?
Well, look how they rejected John the Baptist, the first prophet in generations. Look what they’ll do to Jesus in just a short time. These men want to set themselves up as experts in the Word because they know it will give them power, not because they actually love the Word. As Jesus says in v. 52,
52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.
They made it so that every good Jew was to think they had to be an expert to understand the Word of God. Only a scribe, or a lawyer, or a Pharisee, could possibly grasp the complexities of God’s revelation to man. By adding on this multiplicity of rules and regulations to God’s Law, they made it impossible to comprehend, and impossible to follow. They didn’t follow the heart of the Law themselves, distracted as they were by the details; and the Law became so complex that no one else could follow it either.
Hypocrisy Begets Hypocrisy (v. 53-54)
So Jesus stops talking, and leaves; and the men are left to stew and consider what to do. They could have responded to Jesus’s criticisms by admitting their errors and deciding to change, but—no. V. 53:
53 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
Why didn’t they change? Because dishonest handling of the Word produces hypocritical practice in life…which in turn inclines people to further hypocrisy. These men should have known better. They were experts in the Law; they knew Jesus was right.
But hypocrisy is a hole it is close to impossible to climb out of once you’ve fallen in, because it’s always motivated by the same thought: I want what I want, and what would people think if they knew that? Becoming unhypocritical requires us to let people see what’s actually going on in us, and that’s just too great a burden for many people to bear.
So rather than climbing out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves, we keep digging, deeper and deeper, because as long as everyone else thinks we’re holy, we can go on feeling holy.
Now, what do we do with all of this? Christians have this idea that the fullness of God’s grace is for a kind of spiritual elite—those people who actually do pray without ceasing, who cast out five demons before breakfast every day, whose shadow heals people when they walk by them in the street, who have the entire Bible memorized…while you just try your best to listen to listen to one Christian podcast a week and get to church on time.
If anyone was a member of the religious elite in Jesus’s time, it was these guys—they knew the Bible, they interpreted the Bible, they were meticulously obedient to the Law… And Jesus takes them to task, because for all their grandstanding religiosity, they completely missed the point. And as we'll see in weeks to come, as we've seen so far, for all they thought of themselves, it was not the religious elite who inherit the kingdom...but the lowly, the humble, the weak.
So what is the point? There are two points of call here.
Firstly: Come to the Bible on God’s terms.
The Scribes and lawyers didn’t care a whit about God’s character; they wanted to be seen as the arbiters of salvation. They wanted to be seen as the cultural doorkeepers, hypocritically building tombs for prophets they cared nothing about. In other words, they came to the Word of God with their own agenda, on their own terms, rather than on God’s term, and for God’s agenda.
And we do the same thing. We come to the Word for all kinds of reasons, other than his. We come to the Bible to check chapters off our reading plan, so that we can feel we’ve done our Christian duty for the day. We come to the Bible to get theological ammunition to use against other Christians we disagree with. We come to the Bible because we’re feeling down today, and we’re looking for something uplifting to make us feel better. We come to the Bible as a philosophical exercise (because we enjoy contemplating metaphysical subjects, but don’t actually want to be changed).
We come to the Word for a million possible reasons, and none of them fit into God’s own agenda for his own revealed Word.
What is God’s agenda for his Word? 2 Timothy 3.16:
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
God’s goal in breathing out his Word through his Spirit, in giving us the Bible, is that we may be complete, equipped for every good work. To get us there, God will use his Word to teach us, to reprove (i.e. discipline) us, to correct us, and to train us—like a parent raising his children to be the kind of men and women we should be.
So Jesus calls us to come to the Word humbly, knowing that God is the Master of this exchange; and he calls us to come to the Word obediently, knowing that he is using his Word to change and shape us into his likeness.
Ask God what his intentions were when he inspired this text, what he was trying to say and do through it.
Ask God how you are meant to obey him through this text, and don’t pick and choose which commands you obey—pursue obedience in every area of your life regardless how seemingly small or insignificant, even if no one else thinks it’s a big deal, even if no one will ever see it but you. If he convinces you through his Word that you should do something, then do it.
Come to the Bible on God’s terms, with God’s agenda.
Secondly: Be real.
Christians often have two lives. They have the life they live when they’re with other Christians; and they have the life they live the rest of the week, when no one else can see them as they really are.
We come to church, and become Oscar-caliber actors and actresses, because this is the place where we remember God calls us to be holy, so we’d better not let anyone see how unholy we actually are, or else we won’t belong anymore.
We rarely take someone aside and ask them to pray for us because we’re struggling with sin or doubt or fear. When someone asks how we are, we rarely say, “Honestly, not great.” When we are struggling with sin, or even more so when we’ve failed, we rarely let anyone know about it, we rarely confess that sin. Instead, we keep it to ourselves, determined to do better just through sheer force of will.
Why do we feel the need to hide our brokenness?
Because what will they think of me if I showed them what I’m REALLY like?
We do this because we’re human beings, and like all human beings—Christian or no—we find our value in the opinions of others.
It’s a basic principle of social psychology that our self-worth is in large part determined by the perceived opinions of those who are important to us: by what we think the most important people in our lives think of us.
Think about it. There was a guy who came to the church for a while, who didn’t like me much, because of what I believe and preach, and he let me know he didn’t like me. I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I tried to convince him he was wrong to think the way he did, but his accusations did nothing to actually change how I felt about myself. At the end of the day, I was okay.
But my wife? She can destroy me. And it doesn’t take much. One well-timed sentence out of her mouth can wreck me.
Why? Because she’s more important to me than any other person in my life. Her opinion of me shapes how I see myself.
Now, the Bible knows this; it knows that our identity and worth are very much wrapped up in what we think other people think of us. That is why at every turn, when the gospel is preached, over and over again, the gospel tells us what Jesus did FOR us, and what God says ABOUT us.
Jesus lived a perfect life in our place; and he died a horrendous death in our place. He took our sins and was punished for them; and in exchange, he gave us his perfect life.
And because of that, God’s entire view on us is wildly different from what we imagine.
We think, God is disappointed in me.
He says, in the beginning of nearly every letter Paul writes in the New Testament, “You are saints” (cf. Philippians 1.1).
We think, God won’t possibly forgive me after this.
He says, “For your sake, I made Jesus to be sin, so that in him you might become my righteousness” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.21).
We think, I can’t let anyone see how imperfect I am.
He says, “I predestined you to be conformed to the image of my Son” (cf. Romans 8.29).
God declares us perfect in Christ, and he promises to make us progressively like Christ.
Why does this matter? It matters because if that’s true—if he really has declared us righteous and really will make us like Christ—then we don’t need to be perfect, because Jesus was perfect for us.
This doesn’t mean he’s content to let us stay where we are. This doesn’t mean he will allow us to continue in sin. This means that God doesn’t wait for us to become perfect before loving us and forgiving us and adopting us. He takes us as we are, in order to make us as he is.
And this goes for all of us—from the person who has only the tiniest inkling of faith, to the seasoned saint who has known Jesus for decades.
There was a pastor I had esteemed for a long time, and several years ago I finally got the chance to get to know him. (He was in his fifties at the time.) I remember the first time I spent with him and his team, in their church, in their off time.
I was shocked by what I saw: he was sitting on a chair, his head in his hands, clearly exhausted, and someone mentioned the food would be late. He lifted his head and complained, “Oh come on, you were supposed to order that food an hour ago!”
This angry outburst was surprising enough; what surprised me even more was that one of the young women in the room, not a day over twenty, commented, “Uh-oh—Steve’s grumpy today.”
He realized what he’d said, sat back, laughed and said, “You got me. Sorry everyone, please forgive me.”
And everyone just went back to laughing and talking—even he was in a better mood.
It shocked me because I had never seen a pastor—particularly a well-known pastor I esteemed—let his guard down, get called on by a woman thirty years younger than him, then confess that sin and ask forgiveness. The effect it had on everyone there was amazing: there was a palpable calm in that room, the kind of relaxed feeling you get when you know you can be yourself with these people.
People have this idea that a pastor shouldn’t be “too real,” should put on a good face so that others will trust them to be a good pastor, so that they’ll see him as an example to follow. And that idea is wrong. People should trust their pastor, and they should see him as an example to follow…which is exactly why he should be honest and open about his own sin.
In 1 Timothy 3.2 Paul tells Timothy that an elder should be “above reproach.” Whom did Jesus reproach the most forcefully? Not repentant sinners, but hypocritical leaders who pridefully pretended to be better than they were.
Pastors are not perfect men; we are men who are sinners just like everyone else, who fail just like everyone else. The life we are called to model is a life of repentance and perseverance in holiness. That means pursuing holiness with everything we have, and repenting of our sin and resting in the finished work of Jesus Christ when we fail. That is the example we are called to set; and that is the example you are called to follow.
I’ve said this many times before: if there is one place where we should be able to say we’re not doing well, where we should feel free to not be judged or beaten down for our failures, it should be the church. You can’t change if you’re faking perfection, because change will require you to show others that you need to change.
There was a man last year who came to me, and then the elders, to confess sin in his life. It was serious; he had been struggling with it for a long time, and the Holy Spirit was just beating him up about it. So he confessed it, he repented of it, and he began the very long, hard process of living out that repentance.
But he was terrified that other people would find out. What would they think if they knew? What would they say? What you all thought of him was of massive importance to him.
We told him he was right: some people may judge. Some people may think less of you.
And so what if they do? Who’s more important here? Your friends at church, or the God who saved you? What does he say about you?
He says that Christ bore your wrath, and took your shame, and gave you his righteousness. So as filthy and screwed up and very imperfect as you feel right now, God declares that you are as righteous as Jesus himself. That feeling you get when you think of it—that feeling that this isn’t right, this isn’t fair, it shouldn’t be this way… That’s grace.
No matter what anyone thinks about you, no matter what you may think about yourself, when God saved you, he gave you a new identity, and that identity is found in Christ; and in Christ, God declares you holy, and loved.
That’s what God says about you…and whose opinion really matters? Whose opinion will determine your worth and identity?
Be real. Don’t put up the “Je vais bien, tout va bien” mask when you come here. Don’t tell everyone all your dirty secrets; but make sure you’re known by at least a handful of brothers or sisters in Christ. This is why we have discipleship groups; so that a small number of brothers and sisters can know you well enough to ask you the hard questions, and encourage you when you struggle, and bring you back to the cross when you fail.
If there is one place in this world where it’s okay to not be okay, it’s here. Because here, we all know: we are all sinners, we all need the same Savior, and we have all received the same grace.
If you don’t know Christ, and you want to know him, come to him in faith, repent of your sin, and know him. Look at all these broken, fallible people, and know that there is not a single person in this room who is better or worse off than you. The playing field is level: we all have the same need, and we all have the same Savior to provide for that need. Let’s be real, and run to him.