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.
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?
This is the seventh and final woe — condemnation — that Jesus pronounced on the scribes and Pharisees.
Today’s reading recounts the worst judgement that Jesus placed on the scribes and Pharisees. Once again, He called them hypocrites (verse 29). This was because they presented themselves as being holy and pure but were filled with sin and hardness of heart inside.
They feigned reverence for the prophets whose graves they rebuilt and decorated, claiming that had they lived in the time of the prophets — when their fathers (ancestors) did — they surely would have followed those Old Testament martyrs.
Jesus rightly called them out on implicating themselves in mentioning their fathers, ancestors, who took part in killing those same prophets they refused to follow (verse 30). He condemned them because here He was, the Messiah whom the prophets foretold, and — once again, like their fathers — they planned to kill Him (verse 31). Let them therefore continue to fulfil that unspeakable sin, ‘the measure of your fathers’, so deeply offensive to God (verse 32).
Matthew Henry observes that it is easy to honour prophets — and, in our time, saints — because, like the scribes and Pharisees, we were not alive back then to heed their warnings against sin. Those warnings would have cut us to the quick and angered us in their truthfulness. As Henry puts it, translating a Latin saying (emphases mine):
Note, Carnal people can easily honour the memories of faithful ministers that are dead and gone, because they do not reprove them, nor disturb them, in their sins … They can pay respect to the writings of the dead prophets, which tell them what they should be but not the reproofs of the living prophets, which tell them what they are. Sit divus, modo non sit vivus–Let there be saints but let them not be living here.
It is easy for us to say that had we been alive when Christ was physically present, we surely would have followed Him. Henry explains why we deceive ourselves with such reasoning. We do not even heed faithful ministers of the Gospel in the present day:
Note, The deceitfulness of sinners’ hearts appears very much in this, that, while they go down the stream of the sins of their own day, they fancy they should have swum against the stream of the sins of the former days that, if they had had other people’s opportunities, they should have improved them more faithfully if they had been in other people’s temptations, they should have resisted them more vigorously when yet they improve not the opportunities they have, nor resist the temptations they are in. We are sometimes thinking, if we had lived when Christ was upon earth, how constantly we would have followed him we would not have despised and rejected him, as they then did and yet Christ in his Spirit, in his word, in his ministers, is still no better treated.
As for the scribes and Pharisees, John MacArthur interprets Jesus’s judgement plainly:
Jesus says, you are a witness to the fact that you indeed are a son of those who killed the prophets … Well, what were they right there, right then plotting to do? … Kill Him. I mean, they were so consumed with their own lying deceit that they didn’t even see the reality of the fact that they were killing one greater than the prophets, the son of God. Verse 32, “Fill up then the measure of your fathers.” What does He mean? Do it. Go ahead. You’re scheming to kill the greatest prophet of all. That’ll fill up the full measure of the murderous attitude of your people against God’s messengers. Do it.
You ought to underline verse 32 …
Jesus concluded His discourse on the woes by calling these truly wretched men ‘serpents’ and ‘brood of vipers’ and asking them how they could escape ‘being sentenced to hell’ (verse 33). ‘Blind’ men, ‘hypocrites’ and now ‘brood of vipers’; all the terms from the seven woes fit perfectly. We would expect no less from our Saviour.
MacArthur says Jesus pointed out that these men were dangerously false teachers. He cautions us against similar men and women who subvert and corrupt the Gospel message:
They kept people out of heaven. What does a true spiritual leader do? What? Brings them into heaven. They did all they could to send people to hell. To make them as evil as possible, double sons of hell. What does a true spiritual leader do? He is used by God to make men not hellish, but what? Righteous. They subverted the truth. What does a true spiritual leader do? Leads people into truth. They appeared pious, but only used people for their own gain. What does a true spiritual leader do? He serves people, meets their needs. They contaminate everybody they touch. What does a true spiritual leader do? He makes holy anyone he touches. And they proudly thought themselves to be better than everybody else. What does a true spiritual leader say? I am the least of all the chief of sinners. God help us to be true spiritual leaders and to avoid these false leaders. People beware[,] would you? Beware. Be thankful God’s given you true leaders.
Therefore, let us pray for divine grace, spiritual fortitude and for discernment.
Understanding what the Bible says, particularly the New Testament, will help us to know false teachers when we see them.
Next time: Matthew 24:1-36, followed by Matthew 26:6-13