The Indictment of the Pharisees

Scripture Reading

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

Matt. 23:13

Three Key Points

In this week’s Bible study called the indictment of the Pharisees, it is important to note three key points for better context of the events that took place. First, the Pharisees were the religious elite of the Jews, they were esteemed for their aristocracy, and apparent knowledge of the law and scriptures. But in reality, they were hypocrites and over time they usurped the law and commandments of God for their own self-imposed traditions and ceremonies. Secondly, they had been persecuting Jesus for some time with the intent to catch him in his own words, to humiliate him with insults and blasphemies and to falsely accuse him in the presence of the Roman rulers. Third, this long coming indictment from Jesus in the above scripture was just the tip of the iceberg. In this study, we shall delve more deeply into the fuller context of his comments against them for it was in these where he unveiled their blatant hypocrisy through countless accusations against them.

Background Context

With that said, let us embark on a brief background surrounding this event. Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees with their somewhat silly questions about marriage in heaven. When the Pharisees heard of this, it was then their turn to try and catch Jesus in his words. First, one of the Pharisees, a lawyer, tried to tempt Jesus with a question about the greatest commandment but as always Jesus was one step ahead of them in his response filled with wisdom and stature. Jesus then asked the Pharisees a question over why David wrote a compelling saying in Psalms, “the Lord said to my Lord,” questioning how this can be David’s son? The Pharisees were unable to answer this question posed by Jesus and it was at this time when Jesus gave a marvelous dissertation to the multitudes with his disciples and the Pharisees present in the audience.

Jesus started out by referencing how the Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses but cautioned people not to follow after their hypocritical works. He accused them of binding people with heavy burdens without helping anyone in the process. He accused them of only doing works for show to impress men even to the point of making their garments and robes overly flashy. He accused them of desiring the uppermost rooms at feasts and sitting in the chief seats in the synagogues and being greeted in the markets with people calling them Rabbi, Rabbi.

But he warned people not to be called Rabbi since they only had one Master which is Christ. Further he warned people not to call men your father since there is only one Father, which is in heaven. He also warned people not to call each other masters, since there is only one Master, which is Christ. Jesus then made the humbling statement that whoever is greatest among you shall be your servant which completely contradicted the lifestyle of the Pharisees. Finally, he stated that whoever exalts himself above others will be brought down and whoever humbles himself will be exalted, again a most contrary expression of words in contrast to the world the Pharisees found themselves in throughout Rome.

The Eight Woes

Then, the indictment begins and first in the line up of “woes” which is an expression of grief or dismay, were Jesus’s accusation against both the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus makes the claim that the actions of these religious groups are closing off the kingdom of heaven for both themselves and for other people to enter into heaven. What an alarming accusation based on their role in the community!

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Matt. 23:33

The second woe cast upon these religious leaders was how they plunder possessions such as widow’s homes, or for pretense make long-winded prayers but Jesus exclaimed that they will receive the greater damnation. Clearly, this was not your warm and fuzzy style of preaching where preachers use caution in every word to tickle the ears of their congregation. Here were the leaders of the Jew’s religion being indicted by the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

False Proselytes

The third woe involved accusations on how these people travel land and sea trying to make one convert to their religion and yet they are so corrupt in their ways, they end up making the person twofold a child of hell than themselves. Truly, this is shocking in accusation and indictment and left no stone unturned in laying claim to their falsehood.

The fourth woe involved labeling them as blind guides who mistook the importance of the gold of the temple versus the temple itself. They lost perspective on what is greater; the gold or the very temple that sanctifies the gold. Furthermore, they would make oaths and swear by the sacrifice on the altar versus the altar itself, which is more honorable and notable than the thing being sacrificed.

Judgment, Mercy and Faith

The fifth woe calls them hypocrites for they tithe with material things like special herbs and yet have forgotten the more important matters like the law of God, with judgment, mercy and faith. Jesus called them blind guides who would obsess over small things the size of a gnat and yet swallow larger things the size of a camel. The indictment of the Pharisees continues with more accusations.

The sixth woe also labeled them hypocrites once again for even though they would ceremonially clean things like cups and platters this was in contrast to the fact that inside they were full of extortion and excess. The seventh woe went so far as to label them like white sepulchers, which is a grave made out of a stone cave. This was because they appeared beautiful on the outside but inwardly they were full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness! This was further expressed by Jesus, “Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” [Matt. 23:28]

The eighth woe in the indictment of the Pharisees involved the scribes and Pharisees building tombs for the prophets and lavishly decorating the sepulchers of the righteous; all the while claiming innocence over their deaths. But Jesus said they were indeed witness to and complicit by their actions and were the children of them that killed the prophets.

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.

Psalm 19:14

Eternal Consequences

Jesus then continued to call them serpents and a generation of vipers, questioning how they can escape the damnation of hell. Even though they were sent prophets and wise men and scribes, some of them they will kill and crucify, some they will scourge in their synagogues, some they will persecute from city to city. But upon them will be the blood of the righteous shed upon the earth from Abel to Zacharias who was killed between the temple and the altar.

Jesus finished his long preaching message upon them by quoting this verse from the Old Testament as shown in this passage, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” [Matt. 23:37-39]

This finally culminates in the words of Jesus against the religious leaders known as the Pharisees and scribes and marks the turning point from which the beginning of the end in the ministry of Jesus is about to begin. With this, let us conclude this Bible study on the indictment of the Pharisees.

Absolute Power

One must wonder how long the scribes and the Pharisees had free reign among the religious circles of the Jews. Perhaps it was a case of absolute power corrupts absolutely, where their long standing positions gave them near demi-god status among the people. Where no one dared challenge their ways, teachings or methods of conducting religious affairs.

Consider how two parents responded to a query from the religious leaders after their son was miraculously healed by Jesus from this passage, “These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.” [John 9:22]

Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities

Psalm 51:9

Or consider the fact that some of the religious rulers actually believed on Jesus but did not confess him as noted in this passage, “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” [John 12:42-43] Clearly, the Pharisees yielded significant influence and power over the multitudes and leveraged this to their own advantage.

Flee from Pharisaism

But how does this relate to us as seekers of faith or as believers in Christ? After all, we are hardly the proverbial Pharisees in the current world right? But perhaps we are in some sense, at least figuratively. Think back on the woes cast upon the Pharisees by the Lord of glory. What if that were us standing before the Lord Jesus Christ? Would we hear perhaps one woe that aligned with our inward sinful thoughts, words or deeds? Would some behavior or conduct that we often tend to justify fall under the woes from the Lord? Would we face the indictment of the Pharisees syndrome?

As this study concludes, it should give time for contemplation in this regard. There were reasons why people of great biblical nobility such as King David wrote pleas to God, in the Psalms “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” [Ps. 139:23-24]  When was the last time we prayed to God to see if there was any wicked way in us?

Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.

1 Pet. 5:7

Consider also how David wrote in the Psalms, “Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” [Ps. 51:9-10] David acknowledged his sinful ways before his holy God. 

To think that the Lord described David as a man after his own heart is surely an indication to us that we are not above reproach from the Lord. Why not take some time now, come to God in prayer and repentance and remove any and all woes from your life for it was written by the apostle who once said, “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. Let us learn this important lesson from the indictment of the Pharisees.” [1 Pet. 5:7]

Bible Study Questions

  1. In this study called the indictment of the Pharisees can you name the three key points from the introduction?
  2. Describe what happened in the background leading up to this message from Jesus to the Pharisees.
  3. Is there one particular woe that Jesus described which resonates with you as something you may be doing?
  4. What is your opinion on why the Pharisees lost their way from the Lord’s way for their lives?
  5. Describe how absolute power corrupts absolutely in view of the Pharisees conduct and behaviour.
  6. For a faith building exercise, memorize Psalm 19:14 over the next week.
  7. If you were convicted from having woes in your life, consider sharing this Bible study with someone you care about in your life.

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