Throughout His public ministry, Jesus spoke out against the scribes and the Pharisees. Christ sums up His case against them in Matthew 23 as He teaches multitudes and His disciples at the temple on the Tuesday of Passion Week.
Christ begins with an important disclaimer. When the scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses’ seat,” propounding what is taught in God’s Word as delivered by Moses, they are to be obeyed. Jesus’ quarrel is not with Scripture or with the things commanded in the law of God. He affirms what Paul later says: “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12 kjv).
What Christ opposes is the hypocrisy of religious leaders who, despite their confessional orthodoxy and zeal for the law, “say, and do not” (Matt. 23:3). They impose impossible duties on others while exempting themselves, Jesus says. And they perform their devotion in public “to be seen of men” (v. 5), using “supersized” tefillin, or phylacteries, and making the tsit-tsit (fringes on their ritual garments) as long as possible as they compete for the best seats at banquets or the synagogues and hail one another loudly in the marketplaces, crying, “Rabbi, Rabbi!” (v. 7).
This indictment of religious exhibitionism makes us wonder what Christ would say about the celebrity status of many Christian leaders in America today. Christ calls for a different kind of leadership — one that involves self-denial and abasement. He says, “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant…. He that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (vv. 11–12).
Christ then denounces seven specific sins of the Pharisees: spiritual obstructionism; the love of money concealed in a pose of piety; aggressive recruitment of others for their party; ethical hairsplitting and specious exegesis; majoring in minors while omitting “the weightier matters of the law” (v. 23); and promoting a righteousness that is merely external while leaving the corruption of the inner man untouched. Finally, Jesus faults the Pharisees for their devotion to deceased saints and prophets, and He indicts their fathers for resisting and killing the prophets. The Pharisees are no different from their fathers, Jesus says.
Christ concludes with a fearful question: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (v. 33). He predicts what will happen in the days of the apostles, when He, as the risen Christ, will send “prophets, and wise men, and scribes” (v. 34) to confront unbelieving Jews. They will face persecution, scourging, crucifixion, and death, “that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth” (v. 35). He warns the Pharisees that the punishment for the crimes of unbelief will soon overtake them.
Christ leaves Jerusalem with an exclamation that mingles righteous anger with tender love: “O 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!” (v. 37). Clearly, the unbelief of His people has broken Christ’s heart. Sadly, Christians throughout history have often harbored feelings of hatred, suspicion, and resentment against Jewish people — quite the opposite of the love that Christ reveals here. There is a long history of Christian persecution of the Jews, excused or explained away on the ground of Jewish unbelief.
You will find no sanction for such racism and persecution here. Rather, Jesus ends His sermon with a note of hope, speaking of a coming day when the Jewish people will embrace Him as Messiah and Lord and say, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (v. 39, quoting Ps. 118:26). This promised conversion of the Jews has been cherished by Christians for centuries. The Westminster Larger Catechism teaches that when we as Christians pray “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying, among other things, that “the gospel [may be] propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, [and] the fullness of Gentiles brought in” (Q. 191).
The sins, woes, and love described in Matthew 23 warn us to beware of the scribes and Pharisees, who were models of religious pride — pride of knowledge, pride of accomplishment, and pride of reputation.
Pride is a devastating sin and is complex. Most sins turn us away from God, but pride directly attacks God. It lifts us above and against God, seeking to dethrone Him by enthroning ourselves. God hates pride (Prov. 6:16–17). Pride was the first sin in paradise and the last we will shed in death. Declare war on your pride. Count it your greatest enemy. Learn to say every day: “I am a sinner, a servant, a small one, and a saint.” With the Spirit’s help, this exercise will help break down the pride of the scribes and Pharisees within you.