Jesus continued to go through the region of Judea, preaching and teaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The Scribes and Pharisees continued to accuse Him of being an agent of Satan. Even as Jesus cast out evil spirits and healed the blind and lame with breathtaking miracles that filled the crowds with joy…even in the face of the bright clarity that He brought with every lesson He taught, they refused to repent. Yet He continued to persevere, enduring their hardheartedness and rejection in the hopes that some might be saved.
After one of Jesus’ confrontations with the religious leaders, a Pharisee invited Jesus into His home for lunch. Jesus came and sat down at the table to share a meal with him. In those days in Israel, the tables were very low to the ground so that the diners could sit on pillows on the floor. They would lay across on the pillows, half sitting and half lying down, talking over their food.
When the Pharisee saw that Jesus was reclining at the table, he was surprised. The Pharisees had a whole washing ritual that they had to do before they could eat. Jesus had skipped it completely. Those rituals were the extra rules that the Pharisees had made up. They were not required by the true Law of God, but the pressure the religious leaders put on each other to follow them was intense. If one of them did not follow these made-up rules exactly, the rest felt free to judge him with great smugness and self-satisfaction.
As a group, the Pharisees looked down on the common people who did not hold to their rules with the perfection that they did. Their devotion to the Law…even the laws created by men…blinded them to the fact that their devotion was really to their own pride and accomplishment. It had nothing to do with love for God or love for their neighbors. In many ways, these rules were powerful instruments of sin and isolation. The Pharisees believed it was right to despise those who did not follow their codes instead of seeking to love those in need…and grace was nowhere to be found.
Jesus would not allow Himself to be dragged into false displays of religious fervor. He loyalty belonged to God the Father and His perfect Word. But the Lord also knew exactly what the Pharisee was thinking, so He said, “‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So clean the inside by giving gifts to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.’” Wow.
Imagine hearing the radical, popular young preacher call you out and say your insides were toxic with sin. Jesus certainly wasn’t letting the growing threat against His life stop Him from speaking the truth. Yet Jesus also gave a very simple antidote to cleanse them of that inward poison: Take care of the poor…somehow it has a purifying power…somehow this goodness would do something in them that would change them.
But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He had more to say to these Pharisees. He issued six woes, or severe warnings, that judgment was going to come if they didn’t change their ways:
“‘Woe to you Pharisee, [here comes “woe” #1], because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.’”
“‘Woe to you Pharisees, [this is “woe” #2], because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.. Woe to you, [#3], because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it.’”
As Jesus was saying these things in the Pharisee’s home, the religious leaders were getting more and more uncomfortable. This was an absolute, total confrontation, directly challenging their whole way of life. As religious leaders they felt justified…even obligated, to take the place of honor. They made sure they tithed every last thing…even the seasonings from their garden. They were great at following the technical rules, but they didn’t take care of their people.
If they were were truly seeking God’s will with purity of heart, they would have been humbled by these Words of God.
We can see how Peter did this when Jesus called him to be a disciple. Jesus had done a great miracle by causing boatloads of fish to fill up Peter’s net after a long night of catching nothing. Peter recognized the miracle and fell on his knees before the Lord.
By this time in the story, Jesus had performed many, many miracles, including raising a man from the dead, yet these religious leaders were still treating Christ with contempt.
If their hearts were right, they would have been cut to the heart with Christ’s Words. They would have humbled them and made them want to make their way straight and right and good. But their first devotion was not to Jesus or even to the God of the Bible. Their first love was to their positions of power and their own honor and glory. Honoring what Jesus said would require that they leave behind the sinful patterns of their elite class in order to obey Him. It would mean losing the things that were most precious to them….so they had to fight it.
One of the scribes said, “‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.’”
How interesting that these men were affronted by the honest words of Jesus. These were men who ruled the entire Jewish nation with oppressive laws, demanding that everyone follow the rules they created. Yet their own arrogance and presumption had grown so great that when even God Himself told them they were wrong, they treated it as an insult instead of righteous discipline.
Jesus would not back down. Instead, He turned up the heat:
“‘And you experts in the Law, woe to you [that is “woe” #4], because you load the people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift a finger to help them.
“‘Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them [Woe #5]. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you built their tombs. Because of this, God in His wisdom said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute. Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that have been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yet, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.’”
Wow. Did you catch that? The Pharisees and Scribes spent their whole lives studying the Law of God. They believed they taught it just as God wanted them to. They were certain that they were on the side of all the good guys in the Old Testament stories. They thought they were on the side of Moses who gave the Law to the Israelite people, and the prophets who came and preached to the people when they were not obeying it.
But Jesus said these leaders were mistaken. They were actually on the side of the bad guys who persecuted their heroes! They were on the side of the men who made Moses’ life miserable in the desert. They were like the evil kings and men who put the prophets to death. They wanted all the honor and glory of the prophets of God, so they built tombs for them and claimed exalted respect from the common people of their nation. Yet they did not draw the people to their Lord. In fact, they blocked the way to Him. And now, as the Son of the Living God traveled their nation, they created confusion and doubt. The Messiah had come, and His greatest opposition came from these men who were meant to welcome His message and help Him teach it to God’s people! So Jesus issued one final woe:
“‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered in, and you have hindered those who are entering.’”
As Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, it had no affect on the religious leaders. They didn’t want to honor their God, but stood in the way of the rest of the people in understanding the goodness of God and the beauty of His ways. They were poisoning the people of God with their unrighteousness, and Jesus stood in the power of Truth against them. They gave Him no choice but to blast them with the raw truth of their horrid behavior. Would they allow the Word of God to soften their hearts? Would they listen to these warnings and grieve their sin?
The Bible says that they did not. The rebuke of Jesus only made them treat Him with more contempt before the people. In the secret places, they began to plot against Him, wanting to see Him die for the words He said against them. So they created questions to badger Him with, hoping to catch Him in a lie or a false teaching. Then they could discredit Him before the whole nation and destroy His ministry.
The remarkable thing is that they couldn’t do that. Imagine all the hours Jesus spent with people every day. Imagine the amount He taught! Yet He never said anything that they could accuse Him for. Every Word Jesus spoke was from God the Father, everything He did was in the power of the Holy Spirit. They were going to have to come up with another way to find something to accuse Him.