Jesus continued speaking critically in Matthew 23:13 - "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in." This is the first woe that Jesus speaks against them - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" "Woe" includes the idea of sorrow and dreadfulness. The language here regarding "the kingdom of heaven" is figurative since at that time the kingdom was yet to come (cf. Mark 15:43; 9:1; Acts 1:8; 2:1ff). It's as if Jesus portrays the kingdom as a house, and the scribes and Pharisees have gathered around the door--not to enter therein themselves--but to block the path of those desiring to enter. They were certainly successful (for the most part) in shutting up "the kingdom of heaven against men" in their opposition to Jesus. They were hypocrites in that while they claimed to be religious, they actually worked against God and His Messiah!
Jesus delivers His second woe in Matthew 23:14 - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation." It is unknown exactly what means they used to accomplish the evil work of devouring widows' houses. It is likely that they did it under the pretense of counseling them in the knowledge of the law or in the management of their estates. Jesus promised that they would receive "greater condemnation." This is always the case for those who sin under the guise of religion (cf. James 3:1). Their "greater condemnation" may also be due to the fact that their sin was against widows (cf. Exo. 22:22-24; Deut. 27:19). Their fraudulent sins were made all the worse by their hypocritical "long prayers" (which they uttered to be seen of men).
Matthew 23:15 contains Jesus' third woe against the religious leaders - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves." It seems most reasonable to understand the word "proselyte" as being used here as a reference to Jews converted to Phariseeism (not heathens converted to Judaism). Jesus declared bluntly - "You make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves." Their students would become even worse than them in that each generation drifted further from the Law of Moses and became more zealously committed to their man-made traditions.
"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.' Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, "Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it." Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it" (Matt. 23:16-22).
This fourth woe is the only one in which Jesus doesn't explicitly label the scribes and Pharisees as "hypocrites." However, the behavior described in these verses is hypocritical (i.e., they would say one thing and do another; specifically, they would make oaths and not keep them), but the fundamental problem here seems to be their ignorance and foolishness. They taught that if oaths were made in a certain way, then they didn't need to be kept (e.g., men still do this today by saying things like: "I had my fingers crossed" or "We didn't shake on it"--as if the presence or absence of such makes one's word more or less valid!). They were ignorant to think that their oaths did not need to be kept if they had only sworn by "the temple" and not by "the gold of the temple." From a logical standpoint, the temple structure itself was more important than the gold that decorated it. This is true because the gold itself would not be significant without the temple. Their "reasoning" pertaining to the altar is likewise lacking. Without an altar, an offering could not be given, so how could anyone rightly reason that the altar is less important than the offering? Jesus wanted them to understand that all oaths were binding, regardless of how the oath was verbally made. He wants us to understand that oaths themselves should not even be necessary for Christians. We ought to be people of our word. A simple "yes" or "no" ought to be sufficient for the Lord's disciples (cf. Matt. 5:37). If one feels compelled to "promise" (i.e., make an oath), what does that imply about the other words spoken by that individual? Are his other words unreliable if not spoken as an oath?
Jesus speaks the fifth woe in Matthew 23:23 - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" The scribes and Pharisees paid tithes of garden herbs such as these, even though they were grown in small quantities. These herbs were generally used as flavoring agents in cooking or for medicinal purposes. Their problem was not in being meticulous with their herbs and making sure God received one-tenth. Their utter failure was that they "neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." The tithing of their herbs was good, but that was no excuse to leave the weightier matters undone! Today, our obedience should include the faithful doing of matters deemed both "large" and "small" (i.e., the very important and the seemingly less significant). It is good to be concerned about the small matters, but not at the expense of the larger. It is good to focus on the very important matters, but this does not excuse one from obedience in those areas that may seem less vital. It is never right to neglect any aspect of one's duty to God. Jesus also accused these religious leaders of being "blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" It is likely that beverages were sometimes strained before consumption to remove any unclean insects (e.g., gnats). However, Jesus is saying that if a camel were in such a drink, the scribes and Pharisees would not remove it! This is a humorous expression that was used to indicate that great care was being taken by them to eliminate small problems (e.g., tithing herbs), but the big problems were being ignored (i.e., justice, mercy, and faith). Let it be emphasized that there is nothing wrong in straining out a gnat; the problem lies in swallowing the camel! Jesus does not want us, because of neglect, to swallow either.
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also" (Matt. 23:25,26). As the sixth woe was delivered, Jesus began to expose the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees as it pertained to their morality. They put on the appearance of righteousness (i.e., they cleansed the "outside of the cup"; cf. Mark 7:1ff), but they were inwardly "full of extortion and self-indulgence." In other words, they didn't bother to clean the inside of the cup--the part that wasn't easily seen by others. The idea in Matthew 23:26 is that a pure inner life will make clean outward conduct possible (and not just the appearance of such; cf. Prov. 4:23).
Jesus' seventh woe is recorded in Matthew 23:27,28 - "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." Since coming in contact with a dead body or a tomb rendered an Israelite unclean (cf. Num. 19:16), measures were taken to prevent this from happening. Namely, the graves and tombs were "whitewashed" annually with lime or chalk. The scribes and Pharisees were perceived by others to be spiritually "beautiful" because of their religious demeanor. However, this beauty was not genuine for inwardly they were "full of dead men's bones and uncleanness." The common Jews, seeing the beautiful, white exterior of the scribes and Pharisees, were deceived into thinking that they were harmless "inside," which was far from the truth. Just like a whitewashed tomb, they appeared beautiful and righteous on the outside, but hidden inside was something vile and repulsive!
The eighth woe, which is the final one Jesus delivers in this context, is the most blistering of them all:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.' Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation" (Matt. 23:29-36).
It's as if Jesus is saying: "Your fathers killed the prophets by violence, and you bury them (i.e., build their tombs) by teaching error (i.e., doctrines which are opposed to the words of the prophets)!" Additionally, to teach doctrines that are against that which the prophets spoke essentially gives approval to the murderous acts of the fathers (cf. Luke 11:47,48). They were indeed filling up their measure of guilt (cf. Gen. 15:16) by continuing to reject God's message from His prophets (as well as persecuting them as their fathers had done).
Jesus labels them as "serpents, brood of vipers!" and wonders how they could escape the fire of hell. This is undoubtedly the harshest verse in the entire speech. Also, the words are very similar to those spoken by John the baptizer in Matthew 3:7. How sad that the religious leaders had changed so very little over the course of Jesus' ministry! They had a chance to change and listen to God's prophets, and they would be given more opportunities--for a while (e.g., John the baptizer, Jesus Himself, and His apostles and prophets in the first century). Tragically, the reception they gave these men of God was persecution and murder (e.g., Acts 5:40; 7:59; 12:2; 22:19-24; II Cor. 11:24,25; etc.). Consequently, they and the nation would be destroyed in AD 70 for their rejection of God's Son and His plan of salvation. That's what Jesus meant when He said - "All these things will come upon this generation."
Jesus spoke some final words before leaving the temple - "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'" (Matt. 23:37-39). Although the Jewish religious leaders had treated Jesus as their enemy and continually tried to undermine His authority and teachings, He had not come to destroy them but to do them good (cf. John 12:47). Had they responded properly to His pleadings, He would have given them comfort, protection, and salvation, but they stubbornly remained unchanged. Sadly, it was no longer even "God's house" but their house! They had "kicked Him out," so to speak, a long time ago.
Dear friends, there is much to consider in this lengthy rebuke that Jesus delivered shortly before His death. There are still those today who behave as the scribes and Pharisees did in Jesus' day and will rightly receive the Lord's condemnation. May we guard our hearts and examine our lives to ensure that we are not living as blind, foolish hypocrites! To teach one thing and do another will lead to our destruction. To do good to be seen of men will not benefit us. To be arrogant, selfish, and speakers of lies will also condemn us to hell. To reject God's message will lead to our eternal destruction. He who has ears to hear, let him hear--repent before it is too late!
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.