Matthew 23 records Jesus’ last public sermon. It was not a sermon on salvation, on the resurrection, or on principles for living the kingdom life but rather a vital and sobering message of condemnation against false teachers.
In verses 1-7 He warns the people about false religious leaders in Israel, and in verses 8-12 he admonishes the disciples and other true spiritual leaders not to emulate them.
He then turns His attention directly to the false leaders themselves, epitomized by the scribes and Pharisees, and gives them His final and most scathing denunciation (vv. 13-36).
In His closing comments (vv. 37-39) He expresses His intense compassion for unbelieving Israel and gives the assurance that one day in fulfillment of God’s sovereign promise, His chosen people will turn back to Him in faith.
Since the Garden of Eden , the world has always had false religious leaders, pretending to represent God but representing only themselves. False leaders were active in the rebellious scheme to erect the tower of Babel. Moses came into serious conflict with the religious sorcerers and magicians of Egypt when he demanded the release of God’s people by pharaoh, who probably considered himself to be a god (see Ex. 7:11-12, 22; 8:7).
Ezekiel faced the false prophets in Israel, whom God called “foolish prophets who are following their own spirit and have seen nothing” (Ezek. 13:3).
Jesus referred to spurious religious leaders as “false Christs and false prophets [who] will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). Paul called them preachers of a perverted gospel (Gal. 1:8) and purveyors of the doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Peter spoke of them as those who “secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1). John called them antichrists who deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ (1 John 2:18, 22).
Jude called them dreamers who “defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties” (Jude 8). As Paul declared to the Ephesian elders in his brief and touching reunion with them on the beach near Miletus, false religious leaders are “savage wolves” of the spirit world whose purpose is to corrupt and destroy God’s people (Acts 20:29).
The religion pages of major newspapers in our day are filled with advertisements for every kind of sect and false religion, including deviant forms of Christianity as well as cults and the occult. One writer suggested that a cult is either “Bible plus or Bible minus.”
Many of those groups masquerade as forms of Christianity and claim to teach a new and better gospel. But while purporting to offer spiritual life and help, they instead teach the way of spiritual death and damnation. While claiming to lead people to heaven, they usher them directly into hell.
Dialogue between Jesus and the Temple authorities had ended, because “no one was able to answer [Jesus] a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question” (Matt. 22:46). Although the Lord had frequently spoken against the unbelieving religious leaders (see Matt. 5:20; 15:1-9; 16:6-12; John 8:44), it was necessary to give a final word, a last comprehensive warning, to them and to everyone else, about the eternal danger of their perverse teachings. Jesus also no doubt wanted to give those unbelieving leaders themselves opportunity to turn from their falsehood and follow Him to forgiveness and salvation.
It seems evident that many hearts were softened to the gospel that day including the hearts of some of the leaders. On the day of Pentecost alone some three thousand souls came to the Lord (Acts 2:41), and it may well have been that eight or ten times that number believed within a few more months, as the apostles “filled Jerusalem with [their] teaching” (Acts 5:28). We can be certain that many, and perhaps most, of the converts in those early days had seen and heard Jesus personally and been drawn by the Holy Spirit to His truth and grace. Perhaps for some, this message was the point of initial attraction to Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the best way to deal with these eight “woes” is to contrast them with the eight beatitudes found in Matthew 5:1-12. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord described true righteousness; here He described a false righteousness.
Entering the kingdom—shutting up the kingdom
(Matthew 5:3 NASB) “”Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 23:13 NASB) “”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 who are entering to go in.”
The poor in spirit enter the kingdom, but the proud in spirit keep themselves out and even keep others out. The Greek verb indicates people trying to get in who cannot.
It is bad enough to keep yourself out of the kingdom, but worse when you stand in the way of others. By teaching man-made traditions instead of God’s truth, they “took away the key of knowledge” and closed the door to salvation (Luke 11:52).
Discussion of this first beatitude demands that it be looked at from five perspectives: the meaning of poor in spirit, the location of this virtue in the list, the way to achieve that attitude, how to know if we have that attitude, and the result promised for having it.
False Leaders Are Cursed for Their Exclusion
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 who are entering to go in. (23:13)
Christ said two things in this point.
- The false religionists did not enter heaven themselves. There are three reasons why they did not enter. (These reasons are pointed out in the preceding Scriptures.)
- They rejected God as Messiah, as being the Lord from heaven, the very Son of God (cp. Matthew 22:41-45; John 10:31-39).
- They preferred their own ideas of religion rather than God’s ideas. They preferred a religion that honored man’s ability to do religious things rather than a religion that honored God’s mercy for man.
- They chose the world over God’s demand for self-denial. They chose the things of the world such as position, honor, recognition, esteem, wealth, power, authority, and security.
- The false religionists not only did not enter heaven themselves, they did not allow seekers to enter. They shut the door by misleading people, and thereby doomed them to an eternity apart from God.
- They tried to discredit Jesus Christ, denying that He was the Son of God incarnated in human flesh (Matthew 21:23-22:46).
- They twisted the Scriptures, falsely interpreting them (cp. Matthew 22:41-46).
- They ridiculed and threatened anyone who confessed Christ (John 9:22, 34).
Throughout its pages, Scripture highly honors genuine spiritual leaders who rightly and faithfully represent God and seek no self-glory. God lifts up His true servants and presents them as examples for others to follow and respect. The Christians of Galatia must have greatly pleased God’s heart when they received the apostle Paul “as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself” (Gal. 4:14).
Paul called upon the Philippian church to receive Epaphroditus “in the Lord with all joy and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ” (Phil. 2:29-30). He implored the Thessalonians: “Appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and… esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). He advised Timothy “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).
The writer of Hebrews exhorts believers: “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).
On the other hand, no one in Scripture is more condemned than the religious charlatan who teaches and practices falsehood. God’s most furious wrath is reserved for those men who parade themselves as His servants but who are servants only of evil and falsehood, liars and deceivers whose own spiritual father is Satan himself (John 8:44).
The seventeenth-century Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote, “Many a tailor can go in rags while making costly clothes for others. Many a cook may scarcely lick his fingers when he has prepared the most sumptuous dishes for others to eat” (The Peformed Minister [Portland. Ore.: Multnomah, 1982], p. 28). His point was that many religious leaders supposedly offer spiritual provision for those in their care but are themselves spiritually shabby and starving. Such were most of the Jewish religious leaders in New Testament times.