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; emphasis mine)
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).