During the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the week known as Passion Week, Jesus confronted and confounded the religious leaders in the city of Jerusalem. After the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple, some of these religious leaders challenged Him, asking, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). This question set off a series of debates with the priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees (21:24–22:46). All of this culminates in Matthew 23, where Jesus pronounces seven oracles of woe against the scribes and Pharisees (vv. 13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). He introduces these oracles of judgment with the following words:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt. 23:1–12)
The scribes and Pharisees have been the main opponents of Jesus since the beginning of His public ministry. In verses 1–12, Jesus condemns them for a number of sins, but the two under which all of the others seem to be subsumed are self-righteous hypocrisy and pride.
Before we examine the characteristic sins of the scribes and Pharisees, we need to make sure we know who these people are. That’s easy, right? The scribes and the Pharisees are the bad guys in the story. If this were an old Western movie, they would be the ones wearing the black hats.
There are numerous examples in the Gospels that demonstrate their hypocritical and arrogant nature. We think, for example, of Luke 18:9–14, which contains the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Many of us read this parable and think to ourselves, “How could anyone be that arrogant as they come before God in prayer?” Quite often, without even thinking about the irony and hypocrisy involved, we find ourselves thanking God that we are not like that Pharisee.
Many other examples can be found in the Gospels where Jesus condemns the thinking and behavior of the scribes and Pharisees. They are obviously His antagonists and opponents, but who were they?
The New International Dictionary of the Bible explains that the scribes were “a class of learned men who made the systematic study of the law and its exposition their professional occupation.” The Pharisees were “the organized followers of these experts in interpreting the Scriptures; they formalized the religion of the scribes and put it into practice.”
In other words, the scribes and Pharisees were those people who devoted their life to the study of Scripture and theology. The scribes and Pharisees, those who opposed Jesus the most and who were those most strongly condemned by Jesus, were the Bible students of their day. Those of us today who are devoted to the study of the Bible and theology must understand this if we are to avoid repeating the sins of the scribes and Pharisees and falling into the same condemnation.
So, why were the scribes and Pharisees condemned by Jesus? Because they were self-righteous and arrogant hypocrites. This is what Jesus is saying in Matthew 23. Look again at the text:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (Matt. 23:1–8)
The first thing for which they are condemned is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy involves pretending to be something you are not and condemning others for things you also do. Jesus has very strong words for hypocrites. For example, in one place He says, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’” (Mark 7:6). In another place, He says, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye’ ” (Luke 6:42).
Hypocrites honor God with their words but not with their hearts. They know all the right things to say when they are around others. They know all the right theology. They know how to look and sound like godly men and women. But their hearts, Jesus says, are far from God. Hypocrites also like to judge. Hypocrites are quick to criticize others without noticing their own faults and failures. These kinds of attitudes and behaviors are among the easiest sins for students of the Bible and theology to commit.
This should not be interpreted to mean that judgment and discernment are not absolutely necessary. We are called by Christ Himself to exercise judgment and discernment. We are to be watchful, for example, of false prophets and false Christs. We must be able to recognize sin when we see it, but if the only place we recognize it is in others, we have a problem.
Jesus also condemns the scribes and Pharisees for their pride—their lack of humility.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt. 23:8–12)
Scripture has much to say on the sin of pride. The Proverbs are a particularly rich source of instruction on the subject. In the Proverbs, we read, for example:
- The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate (Prov. 8:13).
- When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom (Prov. 11:2).
- Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished (Prov. 16:5).
- Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Prov. 16:18).
- Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him (Prov. 26:12).
- Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips (Prov. 27:2).
The New Testament teaches exactly the same principles:
- For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned (Rom. 12:3).
- Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight (Rom. 12:16).
- Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Phil. 2:3).
- God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
- Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Phil. 2:3).
Hypocrisy and pride are both strong temptations for students of the Bible and theology. As we grow in our knowledge, we can easily begin to look down on those who are less knowledgeable about Scripture and theology. We can easily become puffed up with pride in our knowledge of these things. We can become puffed up with pride in academic accomplishment, degrees, and titles. There is no end to the things in which sinful hearts can find a way to boast.
But why are hypocrisy and pride such dangers to those who devote every day of their lives to the study of Scripture and theology? Isn’t the Word a means of grace? Shouldn’t the reading and studying of the Word sanctify us?
Yes—if the reading and studying of Scripture is done with an attitude of love for its divine Author, faith in the truthfulness of what He reveals therein, and humble submission to His authority.
Many of us begin our study of Scripture in this way, but over time we can lose our first love. There are several potential reasons for this. Let’s think about a few of them.
- Scribes of old and Bible students of today can easily come to treat the holy as common. When we study Scripture all day, every day, it is easy to forget that it is the very Word of the living God. We can begin to treat it almost as if it were no different from any other book.
- Scribes of old and Bible students of today can also easily treat Scripture as content to be mastered rather than the Word of our Master. It becomes information to memorize rather than commands to be obeyed, promises to believe, songs to be sung. Those who “master” its content intellectually without letting it affect their heart can then become puffed up with pride in their knowledge.
- Scribes of old and Bible students of today can make grades rather than godliness the goal. While the first-century scribes did not receive “grades,” they did like status, praise, and adulation. Grades for Bible and theology students can become the same kind of thing. When getting the high grade, the high praise, becomes the goal and the pursuit of godliness is forgotten, it is a disaster in the making.
If we are students of Scripture and theology, how can we deal with this ever-present danger? We can deal with it in much the same way that we deal with other known dangers. If you are going out in a boat on a lake or on the open ocean, you know there are dangers. You could fall overboard, for example. What do you do? You wear a life jacket.
If we are aware of the potential dangers of being a student of Scripture and theology, there are things we can do to avoid it. The first and most important step for all of us is simply to be aware of the serious dangers associated with being students of Scripture and theology.
Knowing that there is a danger, what else might we do? This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but here are at least four things to consider.
- We can daily remind ourselves of the danger. Everyone who has a job that involves dangers must remind themselves of this fact on a daily basis to avoid injury or death.
- We can pray before, during, and after our studies, devoting every minute of our study to the glory of God.
- As students, we can collectively pray for and encourage one another. We can warn one another when we see a brother or sister heading toward danger.
- We can repent when we find ourselves falling into hypocrisy or pride.
As we continue to search the Scriptures, let us guard our hearts. May we never forget our first love. May we study the Scripture and the theology revealed therein on our knees with humble, believing, and loving hearts—seeking to know God more in order that we might love God more.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 1, 2019.