Hellish Religion

It is Fig Monday, and Jesus is speaking seven woes against the Pharisees and scribes according to Matthew’s Gospel. The Pharisees and scribes are woeful because they are children of Hell and, by their examples, make others worse children of Hell than they are (cf. 23:13, 15). When Jesus says, “Woe to you,” it carries the force of our English saying, “To Hell with you.” Jesus has condemned the Pharisees and scribes to Hell because they exalted their own works, ministries, reputations, and finances above the temple of God (cf. 23:13-22). Now, Jesus addresses their hellish religiosity.

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Matthew 23:23-28

23 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι ἀποδεκατοῦτε τὸ ἡδύοσμον καὶ τὸ ἄνηθον καὶ τὸ κύμινον, καὶ ἀφήκατε τὰ βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου, τὴν κρίσιν καὶ τὸ ἔλεος καὶ τὴν πίστιν· ταῦτα ἔδει ποιῆσαι κἀκεῖνα μὴ ἀφιέναι.  24 ὁδηγοὶ τυφλοί, οἱ διϋλίζοντες τὸν κώνωπα τὴν δὲ κάμηλον καταπίνοντες.  

25 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι καθαρίζετε τὸ ἔξωθεν τοῦ ποτηρίου καὶ τῆς παροψίδος, ἔσωθεν δὲ γέμουσιν ἐξ ἁρπαγῆς καὶ ἀκρασίας.  26 Φαρισαῖε τυφλέ, καθάρισον πρῶτον τὸ ἐντὸς τοῦ ποτηρίου καὶ τῆς παροψίδος, ἵνα γένηται καὶ τὸ ἐκτὸς αὐτοῦ καθαρόν.  

27 Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι παρομοιάζετε τάφοις κεκονιαμένοις, οἵτινες ἔξωθεν μὲν φαίνονται ὡραῖοι ἔσωθεν δὲ γέμουσιν ὀστέων νεκρῶν καὶ πάσης ἀκαθαρσίας·  28 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ἔξωθεν μὲν φαίνεσθε τοῖς ἀνθρώποις δίκαιοι, ἔσωθεν δέ ἐστε μεστοὶ ὑποκρίσεως καὶ ἀνομίας.

Hellish Religiosity (v. 23-28)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

With these three woes, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and scribes to hell on the basis of their outward, rather than inward, religiosity.

  • They tithe mint, dill and cumin but have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Neither is to be neglected.

Ritual is easy. If we have checklists in front of us, we can feel righteous or good. Attend church, check. Give ten percent of my paycheck, check. Do my good deed for the day, check. Be cordial, check. Pray, check. The Pharisees and scribes do these types of things yet are condemned to Hell because they neglect the weightier provisions of the Law, which are infinitely more important than the ritual. 1) They are not just. They bear false witness and take advantage of those in need. They do not show mercy (cf. Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). They pile up the burdens of the Law without lifting one finger to lighten the load (cf. v. 4). They are not faithful. They are more concerned about their own ministries, works, statuses, and reputations than they are about their people, the kingdom of heaven, or simply learning from God (cf. v. 13-16). They have neglected those things which require character in favor of those things which can be done by anyone. Jesus affirms the ritual. It is right for the people to tithe. It is not right for them to neglect the weightier provisions of the Law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Ritual is good. Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are better.

  • They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

Both of these animals are unclean (cf. Leviticus 11). Jesus employs wordplay, which is evident in the Aramaic. The Pharisees and scribes make a show out of straining unclean swarming creatures from their wine before ingesting so that they appear to be clean. Though they probably do not literally eat camels, the wordplay insists that they do much worse than accidentally swallowing gnats. Their purity is merely outward.

  • They clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. They are to clean the inside first.

Jesus’s imagery refers to the Pharisees and scribes and not literal cups and dishes. The Pharisees and scribes make themselves to look clean on the outside but are self-indulgent robbers on the inside. Though they appear pious, they are gluttons for recognition, reputation, and superiority. Jesus instructs them to clean the inside first—to focus sincerely on being just, merciful, and faithful. If a person can become just, merciful, and faithful, outward cleanliness will come as a result. 

  • They are like whitewashed tombs full of the dead. Outwardly, the Pharisees and scribes look clean but are actually dirty dead men.

Jesus now cuts a little deeper than the mere need to become just, merciful, and faithful. In fact, there is a reason the Pharisees and scribes are not capable of true justice, mercy, or faithfulness. You cannot be lawful outwardly if you are unlawful inwardly. They are dead, rotting corpses turning to dirt. They are derogating. They desperately try to present themselves as living and thriving. There is only one reason any person is overtly concerned about outward religiosity, reputation, accomplishment, status, or outward success in the world. He or she is dead on the inside. They put clothes and makeup on their rotting flesh so they can mask their dead souls. In order to be fulfilled in this life and the next, one must be born again—be made alive. Only when one is made alive in Christ can he or she become just, merciful, and faithful and consequently be outwardly pure. That is the order of things.

Regeneration precedes faith precedes works. There is no other legitimate ordering of salvation. If we begin with works, status, reputation, or anything outward, we prove to be dead in our sin. We need to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. He promises to give life to those who believe in Him and sit at His feet to learn from Him. His yoke is easy and burden light. Consequently, we cannot judge anyone based on outward appearance or what we perceive or their outward success (even religiously). We cannot see their heart or motivation. God looks at the inward man and judges each based on what is inward (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7). When we condemn others based on what we perceive, we are like the Pharisees and scribes. We are not to be like them (cf. v. 3). People judge me based on what they think they perceive all the time. They are almost always wrong. Our only hope is to repent and believe the gospel. True purity is inward. Inward purity is only possible by the bringing of inwardly dead people to life—a monergistic work of God. Jesus teaches that inward purity produces outward purity, and we should not parade our purity before people to be seen by them (cf. Matthew 6:1). The fruit does reveal the root, but we shouldn’t make subjective observations and judge someone based on those. If a brother or sister is, however, living in sin like the Pharisees and scribes, their uncleanliness is revealed. May our judgment never be superficial or presumptive. May we look at the logs in our own eyes before judging others for their splinters.

I was reminded recently about the damage outward religiosity, and the expectations thereof, does to communities, churches, and ministries. Outward religiosity is difficult to get away from because all we see is what we see, what is on the outside. Yet, Scripture always bids us reject that form of judgmentalism—almost as if we are to deny ourselves and focus on following Jesus instead of condemning others based on what we see outwardly. We also tend judge ourselves based on how we look, what we do, how much work we do, the nature of our works, and so on—thinking we are better than others because others don’t do what we do. This type of religiosity is antichristian. Christ weighs our motivations and priorities, and His word divides soul and spirit. Sin is more inward than outward, and when we judge others based on what is outward we reveal the depth of our own sin and immaturity.

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