SHUTTING THE DOOR
Matthew 23: 13
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you shut
the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in the face of men! You
yourselves are not going into it; nor do you allow those who are
trying to get into to enter it."
Verses 13-26 of this chapter form the most terrible and the most
sustained denunciation in the New Testament. Here we hear what A.
T. Robertson called "the rolling thunder of Christ's wrath." As
Plummer has written, these woes are "like thunder in their
unanswerable severity, and like lightning in their unsparing
exposure.... They illuminate while they strike."
Here Jesus directs a series of seven woes against the Scribes and
Pharisees. The Revised Standard Version begins every one of them:
"Woe to you!" The Greek word for woe is "ouai;" it is hard to
translate for it includes not only wrath, but also sorrow. There
is righteous anger here, but it is the anger of the heart of
love, broken by the stubborn blindness of men. There is not only
an air of savage denunciation; there is also an atmosphere of
The word hypocrite occurs here again and again. Originally the
Greek word "hupokrites" meant one who answers; it then came to be
specially connected with the statement and answer, the dialogue,
of the stage; and it is the regular Greek word for "an actor." It
then came to mean an actor in the WORSE sense of the term, a
PRETENDER, one who acts a part, one who wears a mask to cover his
true feelings, one who puts on an external show while inwardly
his thoughts and feelings are very different.
To Jesus the Scribes and Pharisees were men who were acting a
part. What he meant was this. Their whole idea of religion
consisted in outward observances, the wearing of elaborate
phylacteries and tassels, the meticulous observance of the rules
and regulations of the Law. But in their hearts there was
bitterness and envy and pride and arrogance. To Jesus
these Scribes and Pharisees were men who, under a mask of
elaborate godliness, concealed hearts in which the most godless
feelings and emotions held sway. And that accusation holds good
in greater or lesser degree of any man who lives life on the
assumption that religion consists in external observances and
There is an unwritten saying of Jesus which says, "The key of the
Kingdom they hid." His condemnation of these Scribes and
Pharisees is that they are not only failing to enter the Kingdom
themselves, they shut the door on the faces of those who seek to
enter. What did he mean by this accusation?
We have already seen (Matthew 6:10) that the best way to think of
the Kingdom is to think of it as a society on earth where God's
will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. To be a citizen of
the Kingdom, and to do God's will, are one and the same thing.
The Pharisees believed that to do God's will was to observe their
thousands of petty rules and regulations; and nothing could be
further from that Kingdom whose basic idea is love. When people
tried to find entry into the Kingdom the Pharisees presented them
with these rules and regulations, which was as good as shutting
the door in their faces.
The Pharisees preferred their ideas of religion to God's idea of
religion. They had forgotten the basic truth that, if a man would
teach others, he must himself first listen to God. The gravest
danger which any teacher or preacher encounters is that he should
erect his own prejudices into universal principles and substitute
his own ideas for the truth of God. When he does that he is not a
guide, but a barrier, to the Kingdom, for, misled himself, he
MISSIONARIES OF EVIL
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, for you range over the sea
and the dry land to make one proselyte, and, when that happens,
you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves! "
A STRANGE feature of the ancient world was the repulsion and
attraction which Judaism exercised over men at one and the same
time. There was no more hated people than the Jews. Their
separatism and their isolation and their contempt of other
nations gained them hostility. It was, in fact, believed that a
basic part of their religion was an oath that they would never
under any circumstances give help to a Gentile, even to the
extent of giving him directions if he asked the way. Their
observance of the Sabbath gained them a reputation for laziness;
their refusal of swine's flesh gained them mockery, even to the
extent of the rumour that they worshipped the pig as their god.
Anti-semitism was a real and universal force in the ancient
And yet there was an attraction. The idea of one God came as a
wonderful thing to a world which believed in a multitude of gods.
Jewish ethical purity and standards of morality had a fascination
in a world steeped in immorality, especially for women. The
result was that many were attracted to Judaism.
Their attraction was on two levels. There were those who were
called the god-fearers. These accepted the conception of one God;
they accepted the Jewish moral law; but they took no part in the
ceremonial law and did not become circumcised. Such people
existed in large numbers, and were to be found listening and
worshipping in every synagogue, and indeed provided Paul with his
most fruitful field for evangelization. They are, for instance,
the devout Greeks of Thessalonica (Acts 17:4).
It was the aim of the Pharisees to turn these god fearers into
proselytes; the word proselyte is an English transliteration of a
Greek word "proselytes," which means one who has approached or
drawn near. The proselyte was the full convert who had accepted
the ceremonial law and circumcision and who had become in the
fullest sense a Jew. As so often happens, "the most converted
were the most perverted." A convert often becomes the most
fanatical devotee of his new religion; and many of these
proselytes were more fanatically devoted to the Jewish Law than
even the Jews themselves.
Jesus accused these Pharisees of being missionaries of evil. It
was true that very few became proselytes, but those who did went
the whole way. The sin of the Pharisees was that they were not
really seeking to lead men to God, they were seeking to lead them
to Pharisaism. One of the gravest dangers which any missionary
runs is that he should try to convert people to a sect rather
than to a religion, and that he should be more concerned in
bringing people to a Church than to Jesus Christ
Premanand has certain things to say about this sectarianism which
so often disfigures so-called Christianity: "I speak as a
Christian, God is my Father, the Church is my Mother. Christian
is my name; Catholic is my surname. Catholic, because we belong
to nothing less than the Church Universal. So do we need any
other names? Why go on to add Anglican, Episcopalian, Protestant,
Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, and so on, and
so on? These terms are divisive, sectarian, narrow. They shrivel
up one's soul."
It was not to God the Pharisees sought to lead men; it was to
their own sect of Pharisaism. That in fact was their sin. And is
that sin even yet gone from the world, when it would still be
insisted in certain quarters that a man must leave one Church and
become a member of another before he can be allowed a place at
the Table of the Lord? The greatest of all heresies is the sinful
conviction that any Church has a monopoly of God or of his truth,
or that any Church is the only gateway to God's Kingdom.
THE SCIENCE OF EVASION
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees! Blind guides! You who say,
'If any one swears by the Temple, it is nothing; but whoever
swears by the gold of the Temple is bound by his oath' Foolish
ones and blind! Which is the greater? The gold? Or the Temple
which hallows the gold? You say,'If anyone swears by the altar,
it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift that is on it, he
is bound by his oath.' Blind ones! Which is greater? The gift? Or
the altar which hallows the gift? He who swears by the altar,
swears by it and all that is on it He who swears by the Temple,
swears by it, and by him who inhabits it. And he who swears by
heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him who sits upon
We have already seen that in matters of oaths the Jewish
legalists were masters of evasion (Matthew 5:33-37). The general
principle of evasion was this. To the Jew an oath was absolutely
binding, so long as it was a binding oath. Broadly speaking, a
binding oath was an oath which definitely and without
equivocation employed the name of God; such an oath must be kept,
no matter what the cost. Any other oath might be legitimately
broken. The idea was that, if God's name was actually used, then
God was introduced as a partner into the transaction, and to
break the oath was not only to break faith with men but to insult
The science of evasion had been brought to a high degree. It is
most probable that in this passage Jesus is presenting a
caricature of Jewish legalistic methods. He is saying, " You have
brought evasion to such a fine art that it is possible to regard
an oath by the Temple as not binding, while an oath by the gold
of the Temple is binding; and an oath by the altar as not
binding, while an oath by the gift on the altar is binding."
This is rather to be regarded as a 'reductio ad absurdum' of
Jewish methods than as a literal description.
The idea behind the passage is just this. The whole idea of
treating oaths in this way, the whole conception of a kind of
technique of evasion, is born of a fundamental deceitfulness. The
truly religious man will never make a promise with the deliberate
intention of evading it; he will never, as he makes it, provide
himself with a series of escape routes, which he may use if he
finds his promise hard to keep.
We need not with conscious superiority condemn the Pharisaic
science of evasion. The time is not yet ended when a man seeks to
evade some duty on a technicality or calls in the strict letter
of the law to avoid doing what the spirit of the law clearly
means he ought to do.
For Jesus the binding principle was twofold. God hears every word
we speak and God sees every intention of our hearts. In view of
that the fine art of evasion is one to which a Christian should
be foreign. The technique of evasion may suit the sharp practice
of the world; but never the open honesty of the Christian mind.
THE LOST SENSE OF PROPORTION
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe
mint, and dill, and cummin. and let go the weightier matters of
the Law, justice and mercy and fidelity. These you ought to have
done without neglecting the others. Blind guides who strain out a
gnat and swallow a camel!"
The tithe was an essential part of Jewish religious regulations.
"You shall tithe all the yield of your seed, which comes forth
from the field year by year" (Deuteronomy 14:22). "All the tithe
of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of
the trees is the Lord's; it is holy to the Lord" (Leviticus 27:
30). This tithe was specially for the support of the Levites,
whose task it was to do the material work of the Temple. The
things which had to be tithed were further defined by the Law.
"Everything which is eatable, and is preserved, and has its
nourishment from the soil, is liable to be tithed." It is laid
down: "Of dill one must tithe the seeds, the leaves and the
stalks." So, then, it was laid down that every man must lay aside
one-tenth of his produce for God.
The point of Jesus's saying is this. It was universally accepted
that tithes of the main crops must be given. But mint and dill
and cummin are herbs of the kitchen garden and would not be grown
in any quantity; a man would have only a little patch of them.
All three were used in cooking, and dill and cummin had medicinal
uses. To tithe them was to tithe an infinitesimally small crop,
maybe not much more than the produce of one plant. Only those who
were superlatively meticulous would tithe the single plants of
the kitchen garden. That is precisely what the Pharisees were
like. They were so absolutely meticulous about tithes that they
would tithe even one clump of mint; and yet these same men could
be guilty of injustice; could be hard and arrogant and cruel,
forgetting the claims of mercy; could take oaths and pledges and
promises with the deliberate intention of evading them,
forgetting fidelity. In other words, many of them kept the
trifles of the Law and forgot the things which really matter.
That spirit is not dead; it never will be until Christ rules in
the hearts of men. There is many a man who wears the right
clothes to church, carefully hands in his offering to the Church,
adopts the right attitude at prayer, is never absent from the
celebration of the sacrament, and who is not doing an honest
day's work and is irritable and bad-tempered and mean with his
money. There are women who are full of good works and who serve
on all kinds of committees, and whose children are lonely for
them at night. There is nothing easier than to observe all the
outward actions of religion and yet be completely irreligious.
There is nothing more necessary than a sense of proportion to
save us from confusing religious observances with real devotion.
Jesus uses a vivid illustration. In verse 24 a curious thing has
happened in the Authorized Version. It should not be to strain at
a gnat, but to strain OUT a gnat as in the Revised Standard
Version. Originally that mistake was simply a misprint but it has
been perpetuated for centuries. In point of fact the older
versions Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Geneva Bible - all correctly
have to strain OUT a gnat. The picture is this. A gnat was an
insect and therefore unclean; and so was a camel. In order to
avoid the risk of drinking anything unclean, wine was strained
through muslin gauze so that any possible impurity might be
strained out of it. This is a humorous picture which must have
raised a laugh, of a man carefully straining his wine through
gauze to avoid swallowing a microscopic insect and yet cheerfully
swallowing a camel. It is the picture of a man who has completely
lost his sense of proportion.
THE REAL CLEANNESS
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you cleanse
the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of
rapacity and lust. Blind Pharisee! cleanse the inside of the cup
and the plate first, that the outside of it also may be clean."
The idea of uncleanness is continually arising in the Jewish Law.
It must be remembered that this uncleanness was not physical
uncleanness. An unclean vessel was not in our sense of the term a
dirty vessel. For a person to be ceremonially unclean meant that
they could not enter the Temple or the synagogue; he was debarred
from the worship of God. A man was unclean if, for instance, he
touched a dead body, or came into contact with a Gentile. A woman
was unclean if she had a haemorrhage, even if that haemorrhage
was perfectly normal and healthy. If a person who was himself
unclean touched any vessel, that vessel became unclean; and,
thereafter, any other person who touched or handled the vessel
became in turn unclean. It was, therefore, of paramount
importance to have vessels cleansed; and the law for cleansing
them is fantastically complicated. We can quote only certain
basic examples of it.
An earthen vessel which is hollow becomes unclean only on the
inside and not on the outside; and it can be cleansed only by
being broken. The following cannot become unclean at all - a flat
plate without a rim, an open coal-shovel, a grid-iron with holes
in it for parching grains of wheat. On the other hand, a plate
with a rim, or an earthen spice-box, or a writing-case can become
unclean. Of vessels made of leather, bone, wood and glass, flat
ones do not become unclean; deep ones do. If they are broken,
they become clean. Any metal vessel which is at once smooth and
hollow can become unclean; but a door, a bolt, a lock, a hinge, a
knocker cannot become unclean. If a thing is made of wood and
metal, then the wood can become unclean, but the metal cannot.
These regulations seem to us fantastic, and yet these are the
regulations the Pharisees meticulously kept.
The food or drink inside a vessel might have been obtained by
cheating or extortion or theft; it might be luxurious and
gluttonous; that did not matter, so long as the vessel itself was
ceremonially clean. Here is another example of fussing about
trifles and letting the weightier matters go.
Grotesque as the whole thing may seem, it can happen yet. A
church can be torn in two about the colour of a carpet, or a
pulpit-fall, or about the shape or metal of the cups to be used
in the Sacrament. The last thing that men and women seem to learn
in matters of religion is a relative sense of values; and the
tragedy is that it is so often magnification of matters of no
importance which wreck the peace.
Matthew 23: 27, 28
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees! for you are like
white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but
inside are full of the bones of dead men, and of all corruption.
So you, too, outwardly look righteous to men, but inwardly you
art full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."
HERE again is a picture which any Jew would understand. One of
the commonest places for tombs was by the wayside. We have
already seen that anyone who touched a dead body became unclean
(Numbers 19:16). Therefore, anyone who came into contact with a
tomb automatically became unclean. At one time in particular the
roads of Palestine were crowded with pilgrims - at the time of
the Passover Feast. For a man to become unclean on his way to the
Passover Feast would be a disaster, for that meant he would be
debarred from sharing in it. It was then Jewish practice in the
month of Adar to whitewash all wayside tombs, so that no pilgrims
might accidentally come into contact with one of them and be
So, as a man journeyed the roads of Palestine on a spring day,
these tombs would glint white, and almost lovely, in the
sunshine; but within they were full of bones and bodies whose
touch would defile. That, said Jesus, was a precise picture of
what the Pharisees were. Their outward actions were the actions
of intensely religious men; their inward hearts were foul and
putrid with sin.
It can still happen. As Shakespeare had it, a man may smile and
smile and be a villain. A man may walk with bowed head and
reverent steps and folded hands in the posture of humility, and
all the time be looking down with cold contempt on those whom he
regards as sinners. His very humility may be the pose of pride;
and, as he walks so humbly, he may be thinking with relish of the
picture of piety which he presents to those who are watching him.
There is nothing harder than for a good man not to know that he
is good; and once he knows he is good, his goodness is gone,
however he may appear to men from the outside.
THE TAINT OF MURDER
Matthew, 23: 29-36
"Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you erect
the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the memorials of the
righteous, and say,'If we had lived in the days of our fathers,
we would not have been partners with them in the murder of the
prophets.' Thus you witness against yourselves that you are the
sons of those who slew the prophets. Fill up the measure of your
fathers. Serpents, brood of vipers, how are you to escape being
condemned to hell fire? For this reason, look you, I send you the
prophets and the wise men and the scribes. Some of them you will
kill and crucify; and some of them you will scourge in your
synagogues, and pursue them with persecution from city to city,
that on you there may fall the responsibility for all the
righteous blood shed upon the earth from the blood of Abel, the
righteous, to the blood of Zacharias, the son of Barachios, whom
you murdered between the Temple and the altar. This is the truth
I tell you - the responsibility for all these crimes shall fall
on this generation."
Jesus is charging the Jews that the taint of murder is in their
history and that that taint has not even yet worked itself out.
The Scribes and Pharisees tend the tombs of the martyrs and
beautify their memorials, and claim that, if they had lived in
the old days, they would not have slain the prophets and the men
of God. But that is precisely what they would have done, and
precisely what they are going to do.
Jesus's charge is that the history of Israel is the history of
the murder of the men of God. He says that the righteous men from
Abel to Zacharias were murdered. Why are these two chosen? The
murder of Abel by Cain everyone knows; but the murder of
Zacharias is not nearly so well known. The story is told in a
grim little in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. It happened in the days of
Joash. Zacharias rebuked the nation for their sin, and Joash
stirred up the people to stone him to death in the very Temple
court; and Zacharias died saying, "May the Lord see and avenge!"
(Zacharias is called the son of Barachios, whereas, in fact, he
was the son of Jehoiada, no doubt a slip of the gospel writer in
retelling the story.)
Why should Zacharias be chosen? In the Hebrew Bible Genesis is
the first book, as it is in ours; but, unlike our order of the
books, 2 Chronicles is the last in the Hebrew Bible. We could say
that the murder of Abel is the first in the Bible story, and the
murder of Zacharias the last. From beginning to end, the history
of Israel is the rejection, and often the slaughter, of the men
Jesus is quite clear that the murder taint is still there. He
knows that now he must die, and that in the days to come his
messengers will be persecuted and ill-treated and rejected and
Here indeed is tragedy; the nation which God chose and loved had
turned their hands against him; and the day of reckoning was to
It makes us think. When history judges us, will its verdict be
that we were the hinderers or the helpers of God? That is a
question which every individual, and every nation, must answer.
We have seen in no uncertain terms in Matthew 23, what Jesus
thought about the Scribes and Pharisees. There are many other
passages in the NT where Jesus lays it all bare before us about
the Scribes and Pharisees. We have seen that He told us to BEWARE
of their "leaven" - their "doctrines." While they like all
"religious" groups have some truth, they also have MUCH error
that they teach as doctrines.
Can anyone with a sensible mind after reading all this think and
say and teach, that Jesus was a Pharisee? For me, reading the
words of Jesus from a child, when I first heard that SOME do
teach that Jesus was a Pharisee, I frankly had to laugh
literally, until I realized they were dead serious about claiming
it, and were teaching it as if it was a fact.
NO! NO! NO! Jesus was NEVER EVER a Pharisee!!
In the next study on this subject, I will answer section by
section what William Dankenbring has written.
TO BE CONTINUED