The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.[a] 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell[b] as yourselves.
Last week’s entry on Matthew 22:23-33 ended with the final verse of that chapter. The Jewish leaders finally stopped challenging Jesus (emphases mine):
46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Matthew 23 has Jesus’s Seven Woes to the scribes and Pharisees, His damning response to them.
Some translations have Eight Woes. Today’s verses show two instead of three. The bone of contention is verse 14, which appears in some Bibles, e.g. the King James Version — Matthew Henry’s — but not in others, e.g. John MacArthur’s:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation
As true as it is, John MacArthur tells us why it is excluded:
… the older manuscripts of the New Testament do not include verse 14, which is to say that if in the early manuscripts you don’t have this verse and it shows up in the later manuscripts, it’s usually evidence that it was added later. That it wasn’t in the original. What is said in verse 14 is true about the Pharisees and scribes. In fact, it looks like a scribe took it out of Mark Chapter 12 and also Luke Chapter 20. Both of those Chapters mention the same kind of things. And probably a well meaning scribe thought that it fit in so well he just took it from Mark and Luke and put it here.
Matthew Henry offers an interesting explanation for this: that the eight woes are
in opposition to the eight beatitudes, Matthew 5:3.
Matthew 23:1-12 recounts our Lord’s condemnation of the scribes and the Pharisees. He does not want His disciples to either follow them or act like them. This can be applied to false teachers in the Church:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi[b] by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.[c] 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
In verse 13, Jesus pronounces the first woe on them. MacArthur explains woe:
The word woe in the Greek is a most interesting word. It’s this word, lie, which doesn’t even sound like a word. It sounds more like a painful guttural cry … It’s an onomatopoetic word. That is it sounds like its meaning. It is a word that just utters similar to the Hebrew word to howl, which is the word hoi. It’s a word used, for example, in the Septuagint to express grief, despair, sorrow, dissatisfaction, pain, and the threat of losing your life. It’s used in the New Testament to speak of sorrow, to speak of judgment. It’s the mingling of punishment and pity, cursing and compassion.
You could almost translate with the word alas; alas. And that’s the word you find in Revelation talking about Babylon in Chapter 18; alas. It’s as if to say inevitable judgment is coming, but oh how sad is that inevitable judgment. Judgment then is mingled with pity in the word woe.
In the same verse, He calls them hypocrites, from:
the word hupokrites. It originally came from a term which meant actor. Someone who played a part on a stage. Someone who pretended to be something he wasn’t.
And it was a good word that I guess etymologically in its origination, but it came to be a very bad word and finally it came to mean deceiver; deceiver. One who pretends in an evil sense, who acts evilly.
MacArthur has an excellent quote from the late professor of Divinity, William Barclay (1907-1978), who taught at the University of Glasgow:
someone who manifests what he calls “theatrical goodness who parades an outward goodness but inwardly is evil. Who wants people to see him give.”
Jesus said that these men were shutting the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. Henry tells us:
that is, they did all they could to keep people from believing in Christ, and so entering into his kingdom.
Jesus added that they do not ‘enter’ — or believe in Him — but, even worse, prohibited others from doing so. This went all the way back to John the Baptist’s ministry, when many Jews were baptised and repented of their sins. The religious leaders never did this and, so, when Jesus began His ministry, dogged him with quarrels and accusations from the start. All of these were designed to discredit Him and discourage the faithful.
In other words, this mass of people in Israel were moving toward the kingdom … Repenting of their sin and trying to get their lives right and listening to the preaching of this prophet who confronted their evil lives and called them to obedience. In fact, it says in Chapter 3 of Matthew verse 5, “Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region round about the Jordan and they were baptized by him in the Jordan confessing their sins.”
And right then the Pharisees showed up and the Sadducees and he said “oh generation of snakes,” you snakes, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bring forth the fruit of repentance.” That’s pretty confront[ational] stuff. But He knew why they were there. Here were all these people getting ready to move toward the kingdom and here came the very guys who would slam the door in their face. The false religious leaders. So the picture is one of movement of flow toward the kingdom and these people slammed the door in the faces.
This is the pursuit of the person who’s looking for religious answers, who’s searching for God, who’s searching for some spiritual reality. And they shut up the kingdom. How’d they do that? By denying the word of God, misinterpreting the word of God, denying that Jesus was the Messiah. Denying His deity. Denying salvation by grace. Denying the need for repentance. They shut it in the faces of the people with a works righteousness system that had no place for Jesus Christ.
Now the point that its making here is that false spiritual leaders damn peoples’ souls to hell. So you don’t deal with this lightly.
In verse 15, Jesus pronounces ‘woe’ on these ‘hypocrites’ a second time, this time for travelling far and wide to make converts to the works righteousness system that He came to abolish by fulfilling the Law.
There were two types of proselytes, or converts, in Jesus’s time. One was a proselyte of ‘the gate’, which meant that the person took part in religious worship with the Jews. The second was a proselyte of ‘righteousness’, which meant that he fully adhered to Mosaic Law and became a full convert, which included circumcision. There were more proselytes of the gate than those of righteousness for obvious reasons. However, this is why the Pharisees widened their net to travel so extensively in search of those who would enter fully into their religious system.
Jesus fully condemned this because of all the zealotry it brings with it:
you make him twice as much a child of hell[b] as yourselves.
Have you ever noticed that a convert to a cult is more zealous and aggressive for the cult than somebody raised in it? That’s pretty much routine. That’s almost true of anything. That can be said of Christianity. Very frequently people saved out of the world and brought into Christ from an ungodly, un-Christlike background are more zealous for their newfound faith than people that are raised up in it.
There’s something about that tremendous transition that is made. That euphoria of coming into the movement that gives you a great amount of zeal. And so here this new convert is filled with more fanatical zeal for his newfound system than even the ones that brought him in. And naturally there’s a euphoria about having discovered what he thinks is the truth and the newness and he’s not been in long enough to find out all the problems with it. And he becomes a double son of hell in the sense that he is perverted even beyond his teachers. And more zealous even than they are. And so they make a spiritual convert who turns out to be perverted instead of finding God, instead of finding heaven, he becomes a son of hell.
This extended into the Apostolic Age, the time of the Apostles’ ministries. Henry reminds us:
In fury against Christianity the proselytes readily imbibed the principles which their crafty leaders were not wanting to possess them with, and so became extremely hot against the truth. The most bitter enemies the apostles met with in all places were the Hellenist Jews, who were mostly proselytes …
However, St Paul was a Pharisee by upbringing and was every bit as zealous. He took his persecution to distant places before his Damascene conversion, effected directly through Christ Himself (verses 14, 15). Acts 26 records his testimony before King Agrippa:
4 “My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. 6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
9 “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. 11 And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
Then Paul’s dramatic conversion occurred:
21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. 22 To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
It’s difficult to imagine how dire that period, with its physical violence, must have been for those early Christians, suffering at the hands of zealots.
In closing, I wanted to look at the Pharisees’ treatment of widows, often taken advantage of. This occurs today as well, including in the Church. Who is more vulnerable than a woman alone, especially one grieving the loss of her husband?
Henry explains what the Pharisees did under the cloak of religiosity and law. They ingratiated themselves to these vulnerable women to gain use or ownership of their property for their own personal gain:
What their wicked practices were they devoured widows’ houses, either by quartering themselves and their attendants upon them for entertainment, which must be of the best for men of their figure or by insinuating themselves into their affections, and so getting to be the trustees of their estates, which they could make an easy prey of for who could presume to call such as they were to an account? The thing they aimed at was to enrich themselves and, this being their chief and highest end, all considerations of justice and equity were laid aside, and even widows’ houses were sacrificed to this. Widows are of the weaker sex in its weakest state, easily imposed upon and therefore they fastened on them, to make a prey of. They devoured those whom, by the law of God, they were particularly obliged to protect, patronise, and relieve. There is a woe in the Old Testament to those that made widows their prey (Isaiah 10:1,2) and Christ here seconded it with his woe. God is the judge of the widows they are his peculiar care, he establisheth their border (Proverbs 15:25), and espouseth their cause (Exodus 22:22,23) yet these were they whose houses the Pharisees devoured by wholesale so greedy were they to get their bellies filled with the treasures of wickedness! Their devouring denotes not only covetousness, but cruelty in their oppression, described Micah 3:3, They eat the flesh, and flay off the skin. And doubtless they did all this under colour of law for they did it so artfully that it passed uncensured, and did not at all lessen the people’s veneration for them.
This reading gives us two practical takeaways for our era.
First, let us not do anything by coercion, forcing people to give their money, property or time to the Church. Leave it for church members to decide if that is what they wish to do. Coercion is no different to works righteousness and legalism.
Secondly, new converts quite rightly are ‘on fire for Christ’, as I so often read online. However, those who are ‘all in’ — another commonly used expression — should take care how they present this to their families, especially wives and children. Many who have come to the church from the occult or addiction display an off-putting tendency to push their faith down other people’s throats. Their approach in its mildest form looks nutty but, when extreme, has the potential to become threatening and violent.
Coercion and threatening behaviour is not in His Name nor is it evidence of the Gospel of Grace. In fact, it often leads to cultlike allegiances and alliances.
Pray for guidance, discernment and a cool head.
Next time: Matthew 23:16-19