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Lament for Jerusalem

Matthew 23

Dear Christian,

The religious leaders dare not question Jesus anymore because they have heard the wisdom of His answers and seen the authority by which He speaks and performs His mighty works. Now Jesus turns to His disciples and the crowds that surround Him in the temple to proclaim judgment against these evil shepherds who have no compassion for His flock!

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. Matthew 23:1-3

As we read through Jesus' judgment of the character of these leaders, let us consider our own representation of the Gospel in our lives and in the lives of our leaders. Thousands of years may have passed but human nature and human frailty when it comes to sin have not changed.

What do they 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. Matthew 23:4

They have expanded the Law of God to a point beyond grace and pass judgment on the people who fail to meet their high standards. Ironically, they themselves cannot live up to these standards and they do not even try. Have you met a Christian who passes judgment on you because of the outfit you chose to wear to church? What about one who judges you for your tattoos? There are even alleged Christians who will judge you because you don't read the same Bible translation that they prefer. Be careful by what standard you pass judgment!

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. Matthew 23:5-7

When the religious leaders were obeying the Law of God, they were doing so to appear holy in the eyes of the people. They wore exaggerated religious clothing that was in literal obedience to the law but the intent of their heart was not obedience, it was, look at me, look how righteous I am! How many Christians have you met today that wear some symbol of Christianity such as a cross, but could not explain to you the Gospel that the cross is supposed to represent? What about the Christians who post Bible verses and worship song lyrics on their social media, but you haven't seen in any gathering of believers for months if not years?

True Christians are not supposed to look like this at all, but many of us have become the new generation of Sadducees and Pharisees failing to shepherd the flock Jesus left in our care or to go out into the harvest field where those who are waiting for the Good News are withering away to eternal judgment!

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. Matthew 23:8-12

While we know that good works cannot save us, we do not do good to gain the attention and praise of others. Instead, we do good so that we represent our King well and bring glory and honor to His Name. What do we have to be boastful about? We are all sinners who without the grace of God would be just as lost as those who have yet to believe!

What Jesus says next is commonly called the Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees. Woe means bringing great sorrow, trouble, or distress.

1. They Do Not Enter the Kingdom of Heaven and They Keep Those Who Want to Go In, Out.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation. Matthew 23:13-14

The Church today is embroiled in many scandals. Famous pastors have been caught embezzling the money that should have gone toward the work of the church, worse they have been caught sexually abusing both adults and children who attend their churches. Every day it seems there is another viral video of a pastor saying something ludicrous that they claim to be morally right, but contradicts the Word of God. Some of them even teach that the Bible is outdated and no longer matters to be a Christian. They don't believe the Gospel and persuade others that it isn't worth their time either. They will not enter the kingdom of Heaven and they keep those who want to go in from entering as well.

2. They Would Go to Great Lengths to Convert Others to their Interpretation of the Law That Ultimately Leads to Destruction.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Matthew 23:15

A proselyte is simply the word of a convert or someone who changes their religious conviction. For example, this could be someone who changes their affiliation or beliefs (converts) from Islam to Catholicism. This doesn't necessarily mean from one religion to another either, in the case of the Scribes and Pharisees it could be their endless campaign to convince one side or the other that they were the ones who held the most accurate view of Scripture. Here Jesus condemns them both, proclaiming that both sides are leading these converts to greater destruction because they point them only to outward acts which without true repentance and reliance upon the grace of God will only lead to destruction.

3. They Made Empty Oaths By Things That Revealed What They Truly Valued and Worshiped.

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. Matthew 23:16-22

This isn't the first time that Jesus has warned against swearing empty oaths, especially ones where you're looking for any excuse why you didn't keep your word. Back in His Sermon on the Mount, He commanded His followers not to make oaths at all but to simply let their yes be yes and their no be no, anything else comes from evil.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. Matthew 5:33-37

4. They Were Exacting In Their Legalism Including Their Requirements for Tithes but they Missed the Heart of God for His people expressed by the Law's original commands.

“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. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Matthew 23:23-24

God had commanded His people to give 10% of their harvest of oil, grain, and wine as well as the seed of the land, fruit from trees, and fruit from animals. This tithe was meant as a reminder to be thankful for all that God had provided for them and to care for the work of His House. Mint, dill, and cumin are some of the smallest of the garden plants which the religious leaders demanded must be tithed also. Any of you who have grown herbs in your kitchen or garden can probably sense how absolutely preposterous this suggestion is. While requiring the people to follow all these manmade rules to "protect" them from breaking the Law at any point, the religious leaders had neglected the greatest purposes of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

5. They Use Their Legalism to Cover Up Their Inner Sin

“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. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Matthew 23:25-26

Jesus has over and over called these religious leaders hypocrites, Bible Reference points out in their explanation of these verses that the Greek word used here, hypokritēs, literally refers to an actor or pretender assuming a role.

Imagine finishing dinner tonight and doing your dishes. You rinse off the outside of the dishes but leave the leftover crumbs, sauce, and probably germs from your saliva to crust the inside of the dishes and you return them to the cupboard. Tomorrow night you take those same dishes out to eat off of them again. That would be disgusting! But that is exactly how these religious leaders have treated their lives. They live out such an outwardly extreme legalism that no one would ever guess the inward sin and rejection of God that they have let crust and harden their souls.

6. Religious Practices Don't Save Anyone, Especially When Performed for the Praise of Others. You're Still Dead in Your Sin Though You Appear Righteous.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23:27-28

We may not whitewash tombs anymore to make them appear clean and beautiful, but there are certainly many monuments and mausoleums we maintain that are breathtaking. Yet, what is inside of them is still dead, rotting, and useless for any living purpose. If Jesus hasn't made it clear already... Acting spiritual won't get you into the kingdom of Heaven, you've simply fooled yourself and others into thinking that you're righteous, a good person, not deserving of judgment. But inside you are still dead in your sin and no amount of acting is going to raise that corpse!

7. They Murder Those That Bring Them the Word of God and Call Them to Repentance and Acceptance of God's Grace.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Matthew 23:29-36

From Genesis, the first book of the Bible Jesus calls out the first murder known to humanity of Abel by his brother Cain. Then from what was considered the last book of Hebrew Scripture at the time, 2 Chronicles, Jesus calls out the murder of Zechariah the prophet. This bookended accusation of their murder of God's messengers places the full measure of judgment for all the blood of God's prophets in the Old Testament on the hands of these religious leaders. He also says in present tense, "Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of who you WILL kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town,..." These are the Christians He is sending to them with the Gospel of the Kingdom whom He had already warned would suffer these things and Jesus places the blood of even these martyrs on the hands of the evil religious leaders!

These harsh statements of judgment are astounding coming from Jesus who many today believe was always kind, accepting, and compassionate. That belief is clearly a misrepresentation of Jesus' character as we can see clearly here that consistent with God as we know Him in the Old Testament, He is deeply angered by sin and will hold the guilty to account for it. Before we get too excited about the judgment of these so obviously wicked religious leaders, I beg you again to take stock of your own representation of what it means to live as a Christian in your own life. Are you simply a white-washed tomb full of dead rotting things? Or have you allowed Jesus to cleanse you from the inside out, giving you His grace and righteousness where you could never become holy on your own?

Although, Jesus is clearly angry with their sin, and rightly so, He also reminds them of His great love for His people despite their sin.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Matthew 23:37-39

So concludes Christ's public ministry on this earth. He once again quotes from Psalm 118 as He did on the first day that week in the Temple proclaiming to them that because they have rejected the Messiah, the House of the Lord will be empty their land desolate. When He would once more return to them for good, He will not come as their Redeemer but as their Judge and all that He has spoken against them will come to pass.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar! Psalm 118:26-27

Where will you be on Judgment Day? Among the Redeemed or the Condemned?

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