What are the seven woes Jesus pronounced on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23?
Declaring "woe" to a person or group is a pronouncement of the speaker's sorrow and often a warning of trouble to come. It is used as a call to repentance, a desire that a certain person or group would feel sorrow and grief over their actions and decide to change their ways before disastrous consequences occur. In Matthew chapter twenty-three, Jesus pronounced seven woes to the religious leaders of His day, identifying ways they were failing to live according to God's standard.
In the preceding chapters, Jesus had entered Jerusalem amidst an adoring crowd. The religious leaders "were indignant" (Matthew 21:15). When He taught in the temple courts, they publicly questioned His authority (Matthew 21:23). They started "seeking to arrest him" (Matthew 21:46). "Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words" by asking politically charged questions (Matthew 22:15–17, 36). The Sadducees also tried to cast Jesus as a fraud with a tricky theological question (Matthew 22:28). However, Jesus was able to overcome these religious leaders' attempts to trap Him. Only after these repeated attempts when no one would "dare to ask him any more questions," did Jesus pronounce the seven woes (Matthew 22:46).
He first told His crowd of followers to "do and observe whatever [the religious leaders] tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice" (Matthew 23:3). The religious leaders taught Scripture to the people and Jesus wanted to help people learn from and accept Scripture while rejecting the leaders' unbiblical and sinful practices. The religious leaders were speaking truth while living contrary to God's will. Herein lies an opportunity for self-reflection in two different ways. The religious leaders of Jesus' day show that it is possible to know and even teach to others the Scriptures and yet fail to appropriately live according to God's will. It is a warning against hypocrisy. Secondly, Jesus' command to the crowd also shows that it is important to cling to the truth of Scripture even when the religious leaders who taught that Scripture fail in personal and public ways. It is an example of how to disentangle human false teaching from the true teaching of Scripture.
The seven woes all point out ways the religious leaders were being hypocritical. The first pronounced that they "shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces" (Matthew 23:13). Jesus said that they themselves had not entered the kingdom and that they did not "allow those who would enter to go in" (Matthew 23:13). In later manuscripts an eighth woe is inserted after the first that says the leaders were taking advantage of widows but making themselves appear pious by publicly praying extensive prayers. However, most Bibles now include this verse only as a footnote. Thus, the second woe that appears in most Bibles describes how the leaders would travel great distances in order to convert people to their religion. Unfortunately, because their religion was "the tradition of men" rather than "the commandment of God" (Mark 7:8–13), they were making the converts "twice as much a child of hell as yourselves" (Matthew 23:15).
The third woe pointed out how the leaders placed more value on the offered gifts and gold inside the temple than they placed on the presence and power of God "who dwells in it" (Matthew 23:21). Similarly, the fourth woe exposed the fact that they were distracted by tithing every little possession to the point that they "neglected weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness" (Matthew 23:23). The leaders were not living out the more important values of how to love others because they were so consumed with how much of each type of spice was to be tithed to the temple.
The fifth and sixth woes both have to do with the religious leaders' concern for the outward appearance of righteousness while ignoring the inward failings of "greed and self-indulgence" (Matthew 23:25) and "hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:28).
In the final woe, Jesus exposed that the religious leaders' image of themselves as people who "would not have taken part with [previous generations] in shedding the blood of the prophets" was false because they were about to shed His blood a few days later (Matthew 23:30; 27:1). Jesus then asked the rhetorical question, "How are you to escape being sentenced to hell?" (Matthew 23:33). Jesus answered, "I send you prophets and wise men and scribes" (Matthew 23:34). Prophets and wise men spoke the Word of God and the scribes wrote it down and passed it along in Scripture. The Scriptures teach how to enter the kingdom of heaven (avoiding woes one and two), how to love God first and foremost (avoiding woe three), how to love others (avoiding woe four), how to allow God's Spirit to expose internal sin (avoiding woes five and six), and how to recognize true prophets and God's chosen Messiah (avoiding woe seven). Jesus wanted these leaders to repent and gave them everything necessary to do so, but they "were not willing" (Matthew 23:37).
May Jesus' words teach us to rely on Scripture rather than on "the commandments of men" (Mark 7:7). May we be like the Bereans "examining the Scriptures daily" to see if our teachers are speaking the truth (Acts 17:11). May we be like David and ask the Holy Spirit to "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!" (Psalm 139:23–24). May we experience the love and forgiveness of Jesus who, after pronouncing these woes, said, "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" (Matthew 23:37). What a patient, good, and loving God we serve!
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