Jesus is giving his final public sermon as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In this final public sermon Jesus proclaims a series of woes upon the religious leaders. The first three problems that Jesus identified all had to do with their words not matching their actions. They would teach God’s law but not practice those teachings themselves. They did things for the show, trying to promote themselves as religious teachers who should receive the recognition of others. They made is hard for people to enter the kingdom because their lives were so polluted with their hypocrisy. We are now going to look at the final four ways that Jesus says the religious leaders were acting as hypocrites and apply those lessons to our lives.
Do All You Can To Not Keep Your Word (23:16-22)
When you read verses 16-22 it can sound really strange. Jesus says that people were swearing by the temple and the gold of temple. People were taking oaths by the altar and the gifts on the altar. What were people doing swearing by all of these objects and why were they doing this? The teaching was that a vow was only binding based on what you took your oath by. We have in the Jewish writings where it was taught that a vow by the Torah was not binding but a vow by the contents of the Torah was binding (cf. b. Nedarim 14b). Jesus illustrates this in his condemnation. A oath by the temple was meaningless but an oath by the gold of the temple was binding. An oath by the altar was nothing but an oath by the gift on the altar was binding. Now this might sound ridiculous to us. But there are things that we do today that are similar. You might remember some of these from your childhood. Your friend would make you swear that something was true but you had your fingers crossed behind your back. When called out about the falsehood or not doing what you said, you had this perfect excuse. I had my fingers crossed. People will swear on their mother’s grave. This sounds very serious. But then they would later reveal that their mother was not dead yet. There used to be a saying that we would swear on a stack of Bibles to try to convince the person about veracity of our words.
I want you to notice what Jesus calls these leaders who were teaching this and practicing this. Three times in this section Jesus calls them “blind.” He calls them blind guides, blind fools, and blind people. You cannot see how wrong this is and you are leading others into the same sinful way. The problem is believing that what we say is not binding. The problem is believing that we can make a declaration but think it is not binding before God because we did not take an oath. Psalm 15 describes the character of people who can live with the Lord. Listen to one of those characteristics.
Who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind. (Psalm 15:4 NIV)
God’s people keep their words. God’s people do what they say. Jesus made the point that we would be so full of integrity that we would not even need to make oath before people (cf. Matthew 5:34-36). A hypocrite says they will do something, but looks to get out of what they said.
Focus On The Laws You Keep, Not The Laws You Break (23:23-24)
Listen to what Jesus says these religious people were doing in verses 23-24. They paid very careful attention to the details of the tithe. They made sure that they were meticulous in tithing everything that they had received, even down to the mint, dill, and cumin. Even the smallest household plants were enforced by the leaders as needing to be tithed. Now I want you to notice carefully what the problem was. The problem was not that they were meticulously trying to keep God’s law regarding the tithe. Notice that Jesus says that you ought to have done this. Notice the problem was that while they focused on these details, they neglected the more important matters of the law like justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus illustrates the problem in verse 24. It is like straining out your water to make sure you do not swallow a gnat only to end up swallowing a camel. Here is another place where we see Jesus’ humor. The problem is being so focused on one law and its details that you completely miss the other things that God commanded for his people to do.
This is an curious phenomenon that Jesus observes that we have the tendency to do. We can have the tendency to focus on the details so closely that we end up missing key concepts and teachings. Or we can have the tendency to focus on the key concepts and teachings that we neglect the careful details. You see this in the religious world today. So many want to just focus on justice, mercy, love and faithfulness but neglect the details that Jesus said should not be neglected. Some just want to so carefully focus on the details that they miss the importance of justice, mercy, love, and faithfulness.
I am particularly disturbed by this people I have seen so many people who are friends, who are close to me, and who are people I care about seem to miss this key balance. For a time there was a heavy emphasis on making sure that the details were correct. The scriptures clearly show the need for repentance, immersion in water to wash away sins, using the money collected for the church in God approved ways, making sure worship is proper, and looking for God’s authority for all that we do. There was a constant focus on social issues like drinking, dancing, modesty, and the like. But during that time of emphasis, many saw that that the more important matters of the law were being neglected. People were mistreated each other. People were arguing and dividing. People were quarreling and fighting. People even openly proclaimed that it was acceptable to be slanderous and unkind because they were standing for the truth.
So there has been a reaction against this. Of course, the typical problem of a reaction is that it can push too far in its emphasis that it neglects the details of God’s word. So now I see people emphasizing justice, mercy, love, and faithfulness. Friends, we do need to emphasize this. These are so important and are key pieces of God’s word. We need to treat one another fairly and rightly. We need to show compassion and mercy to one another. We need to love each other just as God in Christ has loved us. We need to be show our loyal love to God in our lives and not be hypocrites. But, friends, this emphasis does not mean that we can neglect the details of God’s word. Loving God and loving others does not mean that we proclaim that repentance, baptism, what we do in worship, and social sins all do not matter. Loving God and loving others does not mean that we can ignore seeking God’s authority. There is a reason that there are so many churches, even by the same names. We need to care about what God says how we act as individuals. We need to seek God’s authority for what we do as God’s people together as a church. Jesus does not tell us to just focus on the big things and skip the details. We need to focus on the big things and not skip the details. In fact, the more important matters of the law inform how we are to practice the details that God has taught us. We want to hear about love and grace but we should also want to know exactly what God wants us to do. I would like to make a plea to my friends that you will not leave the details simply because you saw hypocrites emphasize the details and miss the weightier matters.
In either case, what happens is that we like to focus on the laws we like and are keeping and not the ones we do not like and are breaking. We cannot merely focus on the laws we want to keep because this is hypocritical living.
Pretend To Be Righteous When You Are Not (23:25-28)
Jesus also warns about looking righteous on the outside but not cleaning the inside. Jesus says that these religious leaders made sure that the outside looked righteous to all who saw, but the inside was full of greed and self-indulgence. Jesus says that you pretend to be devoted but really you are devoted to your own pleasures. We understand the importance of a clean inside. You probably experienced this with your dishes where you grab a cup from the cabinet and you see something on it. The first thing you are trying to determine is this speck on the inside or the outside because it makes a big difference.
Now I want you to notice how Jesus teaches holiness and cleanliness in verse 26. Notice that Jesus does not say to clean the outside first so that the inside will become clean. I think far too much religious teaching has gone this direction. We tell everyone what external actions they need to be doing for God. We proclaim what righteous living looks like and what sin is. But here is the problem: this does not clean the inside. Jesus says that we need to clean the inside of the cup first so that the outside will also be clean. What does Jesus mean? If we will focus on cleaning the symptoms of our sinning, the filth that we have in our hearts, only then will both the inside and outside become clean. Only a transformation of the heart to love God more than loving the sins of this world will cause the outside and the inside together to be clean. This illustration is the essence of hypocrisy. Worry about cleaning up enough of the outside to fool everyone who sees you but do nothing about the gross uncleanness that you are hiding in your heart. We have to tear out the roots of the weeds or else the weeds in our hearts will just keep growing back.
Condemn Past Sins While Practicing Them (23:29-33)
Listen to what Jesus says these leaders were doing. In verse 29 we read that they were building monuments to the righteous and to the prophets who had died for their faith. They would even say that they would have never done what their ancestors did in persecuting and killing those prophets. They are saying that if they had lived in those days, they would have listened to those prophets and never rejected them. Here’s the problem: while they think they would be different they were living just like those in the past. They were not any different. We sometimes will do the same thing. We will read about the people of Israel in the wilderness on the way to the promised land and think that we would have never complained like they did. We think that if we saw the Red Sea miraculously part that we would never had been weak in the faith or distrusted God. If we had been there we would have never been like those people and did what they did. This is exactly what these religious leaders were saying in Jesus’ day.
Here is the hypocrisy. You see the failures of those recorded in the scriptures but you follow in their footsteps. Rather than learning and transforming, we choose to not learn from them and act the same way. Listen to how the apostle Paul made this point.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4 ESV)
God had given us so much in his word to teach us and give us hope. Notice Paul says that the word of God is written for us so that we can have endurance and encouragement which will result in hope. Hypocrites do not let the word of God transform their lives. Hypocrites read God’s word, know it, and can even tell you about it. But if God’s word does not move us forward and change us, then we are nothing more than hypocrites.
We noted in the last lesson from this chapter that the first three characteristics all revealed a people who were more interested in the show, unwilling to practice what they proclaimed. In these final four pictures of how to be a hypocrite we see another common theme. The theme is to keep your spiritual status quo. Just keep doing what you have always been doing spiritually. Do not make any changes and do not be transformed by God’s glory and goodness. Jesus has identified these people as unwilling to keep their word. Jesus identified these people as only focusing on the laws they are keeping. Jesus has also identified these people as appearing righteous but allowing filthiness to remain in their hearts. Jesus has shown that these people were committing the same sins as the people recorded in the past. So just keep up the façade, focus on keeping the laws you like, and do not be convicted by your sins to make any radical life changes. Friends, hypocrisy is just to never move forward. Do not become comfortable with spiritual mediocrity. We are being transformed into his image as we look with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18).