January 22, 2023 Seven Woes

Seven Woes

Read Matthew 23:13-36.

The Lord pronounces seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees. At the very beginning he calls them hypocrites. We have seen before that Jesus was not hesitant in calling people names.

Jesus calls them:

  • hypocrites (vs. 13)
  • children of hell (15)
  • blind guides (16)
  • blind fools (17)
  • blind men (19)
  • blind Pharisees (26)
  • whitewashed tombs (27)
  • he says that they are full of dead bones and “all uncleanness” (27)
  • he says that they are full of lawlessness (28)
  • serpents (33)
  • brood of vipers (33)
  • murderers (35)

These are the names he calls them just in this chapter! Earlier in the book, he had called people names too.

 The difference between how Jesus did this and how we often do it can be found both in its motivation and its accuracy. When we call people names it is often simply because we are angry about something. Jesus may have been angry, but his was a righteous indignation and his primary motivation was the glory of God, especially in the coming kingdom. Also, when we call people names it can be that we exaggerate or mischaracterize. Jesus was always accurate in his denunciations. The lesson for us is that we need not refrain from name-calling (even though this is often disparaged in society), but we must be careful about our motivation and the accuracy of the name we use.

We ought not to call people names simply because they have insulted us or possibly called us a name first. We may follow the example of our Lord when someone is fighting against God or what God has revealed. But first we must inform them of what God has actually spoken. Many are ignorant. (The Pharisees were not ignorant. They were willfully blind.)

If one with whom we dialogue persists in contradicting God then it may be appropriate to tell them what they are really like.

Returning to our text, Jesus charges the Pharisees with neither entering the kingdom nor allowing others to enter. In keeping with how our Lord used the phrase,  “kingdom of heaven,” throughout the book of Matthew, he means the kingdom that is coming in the next age. The qualifications for entry are high. To rule in the kingdom with Jesus is only for those who are overcomers – those who have overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil.

  • Despite the scribes and Pharisees knowledge, they were worldly.
  • Despite their outward conformity to God’s laws, they were carnal.
  • Despite their profession of serving God, they served the devil by being filled with pride. Pride was the devil’s great sin and it was the scribes’ and Pharisees‘ too.

How did they prevent others from entering in? By putting burdens on people so that they could not bear up. Whenever we add things to God’s word (forbidding things that God does not forbid and requiring things that God did not ask for), it oppresses people and makes them feel like giving up. The Pharisees did this. But we can be guilty of these same things. Indeed, church history teaches us that this has been a problem. This phenomenon has come to be known as legalism. It is deadly. God does not need our help in formulating behavior. He has already revealed how he desires us to live. We neither need to add to it nor take from it.

Pastors seem to be particularly prone to legalism even if, intellectually, they are aware of the dangers of legalism. For example, preachers will preach against alcohol consumption even though Jesus himself not only drank wine but made wine! It is the abuse of alcohol not the use of alcohol that is a sin. To forbid it is legalism. Likewise, preachers who keep a tight reign on the congregation will often insist on certain kinds of dress either in the church or at the beach. Yet, the Scriptures do not designate dress other than to say that the genders are not to wear one another’s clothing and our attire should be modest. But modesty must be according to the assessment of the wearer not the preacher![1]

In verse 15, Jesus calls them children of hell! Such strong language! We too, can use this kind of language. If we do it with a minimal degree of emotion and with a calm demeanor it can be very effective. I enjoy the story of how Jed and Cindy Smock (campus evangelists for over 40 years!) met. Jed was preaching at the University of Florida and Cindy was heckling him. She had a cigarette in her mouth. He called her a “cigarette smoking sinner” and did so in all seriousness, without any levity. She testifies that this name made her so angry. She fumed about it for days. But the Holy Spirit made her realize that Jed was speaking the truth and she repented and was saved!

The word, “hell,” in verse 15 is Gehenna. Gehenna is the place of temporary punishment before the judgment day. Usually, when people use the word “hell,” they refer to the lake of fire after the final judgment. The lake of fire is permanent. No one will ever leave. Gehenna is temporary, although for the unsaved it is only a prelude of what the lake of fire will be. This is so because once we die our final destiny is sealed. Every person must make sure that they exercise genuine faith and repentance in this life for now is the only opportunity we have to get right with God.

In verses 16 and 17 he calls them blind guides and blind fools!

In verses 19-22 the Lord teaches that the temple, the altar, and everything in the temple represents God Himself. Thus, when people swore an oath to the temple or any part of it, it was really to God. The temple today is the church. God is in the church. The church, if faithful, represents God. Thus, how people treat the church is how they treat God. What they think of the church is what they actually think of God. Almost no one will admit to this. Most, at least in Missouri, will affirm that they are Christians, that they love God, they love Jesus, etc. But, if they neglect the church none of it is true. They are likely not being hypocrites by design (with their own self-awareness of hypocrisy); rather, they are hypocrites by action. They say one thing (“I love God”) but the reality is the opposite (they cannot love God unless they love the church [I John 4:7-12; 19-21]).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! [2]

Again we see that the so-called obedience of the scribes and Pharisees was merely outward. They did things, even small things, that were in conformity with God’s law, but the most important matters, the ones that reflect the condition of the heart, were neglected. As we have seen before, this charge could be brought to many Christians today.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.[3]

Is not greed still a temptation to the follower of Christ? Isn’t self-indulgence still with the child of God as a stumbling block? They are. Let us be alert to them!

Why were the Pharisees this way? Because they did not have the life of God within them (vss. 27-28). Without the life of God coming into a person they are like a tomb full of dead bones.

“Verse 29 says, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you build the graves of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous.’ Monuments here refer to the tombs of the righteous. Outside of Jerusalem there are a number of monuments. The Pharisees remodeled the graves of the prophets and adorned them in order to make a show. The Lord said that by doing this they were proving that they were the sons of those who murdered the prophets (v. 31). Thus, the Lord called them “serpents” and the “brood of vipers” (v. 33). As verse 34 indicates, the scribes and Pharisees later scourged and killed the New Testament apostles sent out by the Lord.


The Lord’s rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees affords us an accurate picture of today’s religion. Everything found in 23:1-36 resembles the situation today. Remember, this rebuke is found in the book of the kingdom. Matthew’s intention is certainly to present the negative in order to reveal the positive. The kingdom life must be the opposite of what is exposed in 23:1-36. It must be an absolute contrast to this black and hellish picture. Only by the mercy and grace of the Lord can we escape the situation portrayed here. Thus, we all need to pray, ‘O Lord, save me! Rescue me! Take me away from this terrible situation.’”[4]


Let’s review what Jesus condemned. He condemned:


  • self-exaltation (vss. 1-12 which we read last week)
  • hypocrisy
  • underestimating the importance of the temple (for us, in this age, it would be underestimating the importance of the church)
  • neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness
  • self-indulgence
  • being lawless (that is, not following the commands of God)
  • persecuting those who speak for God.


Listen! Do not these same sins attach themselves to otherwise conservative Christians today? Remember that the Pharisees were the conservative followers of Yahweh at the time Christ came.


  • We are still tempted to exalt ourselves and defend ourselves. Let God be the one who exalts you or defends you, not yourself.
  • We can play the hypocrite without even realizing it.  Let’s not be so quick to point out the fault in others!
  • Love the church as Christ loves the church. Never see it as something optional.
  • Show mercy to others as we ourselves have received an abundance of mercy!
  • We are a self-indulgent people in this age. Partly because we have so many comforts available to us in a wealthy country. Let us not allow the seeking of our own comfort to cause us to neglect the work of the Lord. Get out of your easy chair!
  • Many today neglect the word of God so that they do not even know all the commands.
  • And, let us never persecute or criticize those who speak about the Lord a lot!


That is a lot, isn’t it? How can we be on guard against these same anathemas for which our Lord condemned the Pharisees?


Depending on where you are will determine how we answer. Have you made perfect peace with God yet? You must know that your sins have placed a wall between you and God. In order for you to have peace with God your sins must be removed. Consider again the sins of the Pharisees. Have any of these been your sins?


  • Have you ever boasted about yourself (self-exaltation)?
  • Have you ever criticized others for the same thing that you have done (hypocrisy)?
  • Have you neglected the church?
  • Have you shown a lack of mercy to others?
  • Have you placed your own satisfaction above others (self-indulgence)?
  • Have you not followed all the commands of God?
  • Have you criticized or persecuted those who have spoken on God’s behalf?


We have already seen how harshly Jesus himself has condemned these actions. Have you done them? Yes, you have! This is why you need forgiveness. Forgiveness, and peace with God comes through the gospel. The word, gospel, means “good news.” The bad news is that we have all played the hypocrite. We have boasted. We have disobeyed God’s laws. These things separate us from God.


The good news is that we can be forgiven. How? By believing in the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Sin must be punished! It must be! There is no getting around it. Either we take the punishment in hell, or Jesus takes the punishment for us.


We appropriate this forgiveness through Christ by believing what he did for us and by believing in his resurrection. We also throw down our rebelliousness, our disobedience, and we submit to the Lordship of Christ. This is called repentance. Repentance is not something we do (like penance in the Roman Catholic religion). It is something that takes place in our mind and heart. Repentance is a change of our mind to forsake sin and follow the Lord.


If you are ready to make peace with God today then believe and repent. If you would like further guidance on this step of faith, just speak with me, or Brian, or Kris after church.


How can we avoid these sins that our Lord Jesus was so animated about if we are already in a covenant relationship with the Lord? I am going to highly recommend for you to practice the two things that you heard the last two Sundays. That is, by loving the Lord more this year than last year. And, by living in his word![5]


If we love him more and if we meditate on his word daily, then these sins will not persist in our lives.


“Lord, deliver us from these sins! And stir our hearts to love you more and to dwell in your word daily.  Prepare us for your kingdom! Amen.”





[1] For young or immature Christians, it may be wise for the more mature to counsel them on the subject of modesty in private and by way of recommendation, not by way of demand.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 23:23–24). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 23:25–26). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] Witness Lee, Life-Study of Matthew, Message 60.

[5] See the sermons at church website for last two Sundays for guidance on these practices.