As Jesus stood in a courtyard of the Temple, He had already begun to declare His indictment against the religious leaders of Israel. It was a mighty confrontation. Here was the Son of the living God, pronouncing God’s rebuke against the leaders of His holy nation…His treasured possession. The abuse of their power over God’s people was great. It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (see Hebrews 10:26-31)
In the last story (see Story 166), Jesus said that while it was right for the common people to follow the teachings of their leaders that came from the Bible, they had to reject their way of life. True followers of God were meant to be people of great humility and service, which was exactly opposite of how those religious leaders lived.
Now Jesus was going to pronounce a declaration of seven woes against the Pharisees and scribes that would utterly expose them as religious frauds. Yet these woes had a far stronger power than mere accusation. Jesus was declaring the judgment of the Most High God on these men. This is what He said:
“‘But 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.'”
Wow. Not only had these leaders failed to repent and worship their Lord, they did everything they could to force others to turn away from the Messiah as well. Instead of inviting the people into the presence of God’s love, they stood in the doorway and blocked the path.
And so Jesus declared the second woe :
“‘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.'”
Can you hear the righteous anger of the Messiah? Can you understand His holy rage? These were the men who had been given the great and precious promises! Out of all the people on earth, they had the privilege of spending their entire lives studying God’s holy Scripture. Yet they used their positions of power for selfish ambition. They were such terrible models of God’s righteousness that everyone they mentored became just as despicable as they were. Jesus went on:
“‘Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the Temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the Temple, he is bound by his oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater, the gold of the Temple, or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if anyone swears by the offering on it, he is bound by his oath.” You blind men! Which is greater; the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.'”
This third woe might seem confusing. Jesus was dealing with some very specific wrongs that the religious leaders were committing against the people of His day. What were these oaths that Jesus was so angry about? Well, the scribes and Pharisees had developed a legal system with oaths. If someone made a promise with a certain kind of oath, it was legally binding. The person who said it had to follow through or receive a penalty. But if they said a different oath that was similar but had a few small changes in the words, then the oath wasn’t binding at all. The oath giver wasn’t legally bound to follow through.
Imagine how confusing that must have been for common people who didn’t understand all the rules. The religious leaders who knew what to say could trick the common people into believing they were making a binding oath that they didn’t really plan to keep. They could say, “I swear by the Temple” instead of “I swear by the gold of the Temple,” knowing that it didn’t count. They wouldn’t have to keep their promise.
Imagine how much this added to mistrust among the people of God’s holy nation. Their own leaders were using the oaths of the Temple to manipulate them! In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus said that a true follower of God who lived in His presence would want to speak the truth as clearly and consistently as possible. When he said, “Yes,” it meant “Yes.” When he said “No,” he really meant “No.” Imagine the trust this would build between people if they knew that whatever the other person said was really what they meant. They could be trusted to keep their promises. That is what the religious leaders should have been teaching the nation of Israel. That is the culture they should have been fighting for with everything they did! That is the way of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus went on:
“‘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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.'”
As Jesus declared the fourth woe, He blasted the religious leaders for their poverty of obedience. It was true that the Old Testament law commanded that they give a tenth of everything to God. The religious leaders were faithful to do that about the smallest things… even garden herbs like dill and cumin. But then they lived as if the great, glorious (and much harder) obedience of showing mercy and establishing justice in their land was as nothing. As leaders with real power, it was their job to protect the vulnerable from mistreatment and shame, but they refused. They made a big deal about the rituals of religious activity from the Law as if they were the most important things, while ignoring the things that were deeply important to God, who loves justice and mercy. They were carefully straining out the gnats of obedience while swallowing the camels of injustice and corruption.
The Lord continued:
“‘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 will be clean.'”
The cup and dish are a metaphor of the lives of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. They made sure that the outside of their lives was squeaky clean. Everything they did in front of people looked very holy and religious. But in their hearts and in the secret places, they were greedy and selfish. They were filthy with their malice and ambition! Jesus commanded them to clean up their insides, to purify their hearts. If everything they did flowed from a heart devoted to their holy, Most High God, then they wouldn’t have to worry about what they looked like on the outside.
The sixth woe Christ spoke was a lot like the fifth. He said:
“‘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.'”
In those days, the Jews would often whitewash with chalk the tombs where they buried their dead. By clearly marking the tombs, they made sure that anyone walking by would not defile themselves by touching them. (According to God’s holy Law, it would make them unclean for seven days if they were to touch one.) This was one of God’s wise codes to help protect His people from disease and degradation…to remind them that death had no part in the holiness of their God. Rather, it was the consequence of the human choice to reject Him, the Author of Life. These tombs that were marked with white chalk looked like something pure and clean…yet they were still the place where the dead were kept. The bodies inside were rotting away, and all that would remain was mere skeleton. The wicked hearts of these religious leaders were filled with the same death and decay. They looked like they were pure and clean, but it was all a cover up for the rot inside.
Christ was using powerful images in these six woes to provoke the scribes and Pharisees and warn the people. There was only one more woe left. Would the seventh woe bring them to repentance?