Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Woe to You Scribes and Pharisees

By Dan & Brenda Cathcart
Moed Ministries International
The video version of this teaching is available at:
The scripture reading is Matthew 23:1-36
In the last days of Yeshua’s ministry prior to His arrest and crucifixion, He spent His time teaching and admonishing His disciples and followers.  Huge crowds gathered around Him and, in a way, afforded Him some protection from the Sadducees and leaders of the Temple who sought to have Him killed because He posed a threat to their power and exposed their corruption.
Matthew 23:1-3 NKJV 1 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3 "Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.
Despite the evil perpetrated by the high priest and his co-conspirators against the common people, Yeshua never cursed these leaders in the same manner in which he addressed the Scribes and Pharisees.  He never said a word against the Sadducees.  He totally ignored the third major sect of first century Judaism, the Essenes.
Why did Yeshua single out the Scribes and Pharisees?  Why did they deserve to be publicly chastised?  Did they perpetrate an evil against the people which was greater than that of the high priest and Sadducees?  What was their sin?
This was to be the last time Yeshua would be teaching in the Temple courts. This long discourse of teaching is recorded in detail in the gospels, particularly in Matthew chapter 23. But as Yeshua begins his teaching, He details several woes or warnings directed against the Scribes and Pharisees.  But why does He single them out?  Who are they exactly?  Alfred Edersheim in his work the life and times of Jesus the Messiah gives us a look and these important people.
“(The Scribe) seems ubiquitous; we meet him in Jerusalem, in Judea, and even in Galilee… Indeed he is indispensable… Everywhere he appears as the mouthpiece and representative of the people; he pushes to the front, the crowd respectfully giving way, and eagerly hanging on his utterances, as those of a recognized authority. He has been solemnly ordained by the laying on of hands; and is the Rabbi… He puts questions; he urges objections; he expects full explanations and a respectful demeanor… There is not measure to his dignity, nor yet limit to his importance. He is the lawyer… (but) more than that, his order constitutes the ultimate authority on all questions of faith and practice.”[1]
Edersheim goes on to explain that although the Scribes are often seen in the company of the Pharisees, they are not necessarily one of them.  The Pharisees represent a kind of religious/political party, while the Scribe holds an office.  The scribe is the Rabbi; the Sage; he is the law! The words of the Scribe were to be absolutely believed. They sit in Moses’s seat of authority teaching Torah to the people, but in practice they elevate their oral traditions above the Torah.
Sound familiar?  In many incidents, Yeshua is referred to as Rabbi or Raboni, which means “my rabbi.”  The people, as well as many of the Pharisees and priests believed the words of Yeshua and recognized His authority as that of a Scribe!
But the Scribes and Pharisees which Yeshua admonishes and warns have corrupted themselves and given into the temptations of the then current political system under Rome.  They had also, and more importantly, corrupted the worship of God by the gradual acceptance of the worship of idols or the more subtle incorporation of Hellenist or Greek religious practices and misused the Torah for personal gain or public prestige.
Matthew 23:4-7 NKJV 4 "For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 "But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 "They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 "greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.'
The Scribes and the Pharisees were the ones who were closest to the people and had the most influence in the Jewish culture and religious practices of the day.  They had the authority and the responsibility to lead the people; to be their servants rather than their dictators and slave drivers.  With their misuse of their authority and responsibility, cam greater judgment.
Yeshua begins His address to these corrupted Scribes and Pharisees by fist issuing a warning to the people to not seek after what they had become.
Matthew 23:8-12 NKJV 8 "But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 "And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 "But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 "And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Why would Yeshua tell His disciples not to call anyone, especially themselves, “Rabbi, Father, or Teacher?” The structure of first century Judaism was such that once a disciple of a Rabbi completed his training, he would then be ordained a rabbi himself and raise up disciples.  Their desire was to become like their Master; to faithfully transmit the teachings of their Rabbi to their own disciples. In Luke’s gospel, Yeshua points out an important principle:
Luke 6:40 NKJV 40 "A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.
It was common for a Rabbi or Teacher to identify themselves by referring to their Rabbi; that they were from the “school of so-and-so,” or the “Academy of such-and-such.”  Yeshua did not intend for them to become the “school of Peter” or the “Academy of Andrew.”
The practice of the day was generally corrupted and had become a system of self-aggrandizement. Rabbi’s sought to attain disciple for themselves. These disciples then became disciples of men rather than disciples of God!
Yeshua ended the admonishment of His own disciples with another call to humility before God and men.  Yeshua called them to be servants rather than masters.
After this, Yeshua began to pronounce a series of woes against the corrupt Scribes and Pharisees.  With each, Yeshua identifies a Torah principle that they are abusing and misusing to their own gain.  The first one being obstructing the kingdom of God.
Matthew 23:13 NKJV 13 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
The Scribes and Pharisees actively worked against the kingdom of God!  In Matthew chapter twenty-one, Yeshua is asked by them, “by what authority” He does these things; “these things” being the miracles and healings he had performed and more specifically raising Lazarus from the dead.
Matthew 21:23-25a NKJV 23 Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?" 24 But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: 25 "The baptism of John--where was it from? From heaven or from men?"
The Pharisees and especially the scribes, being the keepers of the scriptures charged with teaching the people, should have been the ones to embrace the message of John the Baptist and Yeshua.  They refused to heed the message of repentance and that the kingdom of God was at hand. They actively worked against Yeshua and this message, persuading others to also reject both John and Yeshua.  In effect, they shut the door of the kingdom on themselves and prevented others from entering.
The next woe is recorded in Matthew 23:14:
Matthew 23:14 NKJV 14 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore, you will receive greater condemnation.
This is an odd statement and has led scholars to some interesting speculation.  What did Yeshua mean by “for you devour widow’s houses?”  We do not know the specific abuse of power that Yeshua was referencing here, but it was common among the corrupt and powerful leadership to take large percentages of funds given to Temple service for themselves. It is also quite possible that these Scribes and Pharisees may have been neglecting caring for the widows as commanded in the Torah.
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 NKJV 28 "At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. 29 "And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.
Yeshua also once again chastises the Scribes and Pharisees for making long and public prayers in inappropriate situations, making a show of their piety.
Matthew 6:5 NKJV 5 "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
Yeshua’s next woe is a warning to missionaries.
Matthew 23:15 NKJV 15 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
Wow! That is putting it right out there! First century Judaism was not in the general practice of proselytizing Gentiles. On the contrary, many people were drawn to Judaism out of pagan Rome.  Yeshua was most likely referring to the common practice of the religious leaders sending respected scholars to perform sham conversions to facilitate intermarriages and facilitate political alliances. The results were such that the proselyte was made “twice as much a son of hell” because his “conversion” was not out of religious conviction.
Yeshua issues a woe to those who take an oath or vow falsely.
Matthew 23:16 NKJV 16 "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.'
It was common in Yeshua’s time for people to take vows and oaths to the LORD.  A common type of vow was known as a korban. Korban means gift and any gift to God became devoted entirely to God and could not be used for any other purpose. People often livestock, property and other belongings to the LORD.  They became korban to them.
The corrupt Scribes and Pharisees encouraged the people, when taking such a vow, to avoid using God’s name or any of a number of accepted substitutes for God’s name. They would say that swearing by the altar of the Temple or the gold of the Temple, that is its sacred objects, does not bind the man to the oath. Yeshua strongly disagreed with this practice.
Matthew 23:17-22 NKJV 17 "Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18 "And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.' 19 "Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20 "Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. 21 "He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. 22 "And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.
Yeshua’s reasoning is that the Temple, the altar, anything on the altar is tantamount to swearing by Him who dwells in the Temple, that is swearing by the name of God!  The Scribes and Pharisees were encouraging the people to take meaningless, non-binding and showy vows. Yeshua taught His disciples not to take needless and meaningless vows.
Yeshua issued a woe to those who neglect weightier matters of the Torah.
Matthew 23:23-24 NKJV 23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 "Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
Yeshua summarizes the weightier matters of the Torah by pointing out their lack of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  Many of the prophets also speak of the same summary.
Micah 6:8 NKJV 8 He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?
The Hebrew for justice is “mishpat”, number 4941 literally meaning justice or judgment.  It implies more than justice in a judicial sense. Yeshua was telling them that they were neglecting their social justice obligations; taking care of the widows, orphans, and the poor.
The word mercy is “chesed.” Number 2617 most often translated as lovingkindness or mercy.  Yeshua used it most often in relation to extending compassion to others.  The story of the good Samaritan is a prime example.  Yeshua also often quoted Hosea 6:6 to demonstrate that mercy or chesed should take priority over ritual concerns of the Torah.
Faithfulness is emunah, number 530 implying loyalty, fidelity and truth.  God is and acts faithfully toward His people.  Man replies with faithfulness towards God by obeying His commandments and holding to the covenants.
Yeshua’s rebuke of the Scribes and Pharisees was that they directed their attention to the ritual rather than the substance of the Torah.
Matthew 23:25-26 NKJV 25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 "Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.
There was an on-going debate between the two major schools of the Pharisees; that of Hillel and of Shammai. Shammai said that a vessel could be clean on either the inside or the outside, where Hillel stated that the vessel could not be separated as such and if any part was unclean, then it was all unclean. Yeshua sided with the school of Hillel on this matter.
Here Yeshua however was using the debate in a metaphorical way referring to the person, not a vessel.  He used it to illustrate a moral condition, stating that moral purity begins on the inside.  Yeshua asked them, “Why do you wash the outside of the cup?” in other words, why do you make a show of seeming righteousness and piety, visible to others from the outside, when inside you are full of robbery and self-indulgence?
Yeshua goes on to give another illustration of the corruption of the Scribes and Pharisees by comparing them to whitewashed tombs.
Matthew 23:27-28 NKJV 27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. 28 "Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Yeshua was illustrating that these Scribes and Pharisees has honed hypocrisy to a fine art!  The practice during the Passover season was to literally whitewash the graves in and around Jerusalem with white lime.  This was to prevent any pilgrims coming to the feast from inadvertently seeking shelter in a cave, which was in fact, a tomb.  This would render them ritually unclean and prevent them from participating in the Passover.
Yeshua likened these Scribes and Pharisees to graves which were clean and beautiful on the outside but were full of dead men’s bones and unclean on the inside!
Yeshua finishes with one last woe which may hit closer to home than we are willing to admit.
Matthew 23:29-30 NKJV 29 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 "and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.'
Are we not guilty of the same thing?  We constantly look at our own history and honor or vilify individuals and institutions base on judgment in hindsight.  We in the Messianic or Hebrew Roots movement or what ever title you wish to use, often wring our hands in disgust at past sins of the Christian church.  These Scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders of Yeshua’s day believed that, had they themselves been around at the time of the prophets, they would not have persecuted and shunned them. Just as we often believe that had we lived during the time of the Crusades, or more recently had lived at the time of Nazi Germany, we would not have participated in the ritualized slaughter of the Jewish people. But can we be so sure?
There was certain irony in Yeshua’s observation that all the while the Scribes and Pharisees of His generation beautified and honored the tombs of the prophets of old, at the same time they prepared to become party to the shedding of His blood and that of the disciples.  What an ironic self-indictment!
Yeshua’s woes and warnings to the Scribes and Pharisees are just as valid today as they ever were.  We have to watch for the same pitfalls in our lives as well.  Are we so caught up in the “religion” of Torah observance that we miss the entire point?  In our zeal to follow the Master Yeshua, do we fail to practice justice, mercy, and faithfulness?
Yeshua’s continuing message is about a kingdom obtainable here and now!  Yeshua gave us the keys to this kingdom. Our job as disciples of the Master is not to block others from the door, but to lead them there.
Study Questions:
1. In our study today, we opened with Matthew 23:1-3 where Yeshua mentions the seat of Moses.  This seat is obviously a seat of authority.  Yeshua says that we are to obey what they say but be careful not do what they do.  What do the apostles say about this principle?

2. Compare the burdens placed on the people by the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:4-7) with the burden Yeshua places on us (Matthew 11:28-30).

3. Yeshua said we are not to call anyone teacher because we are all brethren (Matthew 28:8-12) What role does the teacher have among believers?  Support with scripture.

4. Yeshua chastises the Scribes and Pharisees for shutting up the kingdom of heaven against men (Matthew 23:13). In what ways do they do so?  How do we open the Kingdom of Heaven?

5. All the woes which Yeshua directed to certain Scribes and Pharisees in this study cover a broad range of behaviors.  What are some of the elements in our society today which can lead us to fall into the same corruption as these Scribes and Pharisees did?

© 2018 Moed Ministries International.  All rights reserved.

[1] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book 1 chapter 8

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