“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you – but not what 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.” (Matthew 23:2-4)
There’s so much that could be covered in this section of Scripture, but today we’ll focus on two things: hypocrisy and heavy burdens.
Jesus called for respect to these scribes and Pharisees who sit on Moses’ seat, as a given authority, but shed light on the fact that while they preached the law, of which Paul tells us in Romans that the law is holy and good, yet they did not practice the law themselves. The Pharisees were well aware that the law was heavy and hard to bear, and they even ended up adding man made traditions as well, which laid an even heavier burden on the people. This was completely out of line from what God had even given the law for and clouded the view of looking towards Messiah by getting fixated on the burden instead of the One who was coming to remove the burden from us and bridge the chasm that our sin had made.
After this, Jesus went on through the rest of the chapter to call out seven times, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” and give them detailed reason for these woes. Jesus was bold and brutally honest when telling the Pharisees the truth, and yet He did so in love and without sin.
We also see this word “woe” in Revelation 8 and onward, as the last of the seven trumpets are blown and it is over the judgement that is to come. This word “woe” in the Greek is an accusative exclamation of grief. Jesus exclaimed His grief as he rightfully accused the Pharisees of their ongoing hypocrisy. He did this in love as it not only spoke truth but also showed the truth to the people who had come to hold the Pharisees in a religious celebrity status.
I can’t even imagine how this hypocrisy hurt the heart of God. Not only for the sake of the people who were committing the hypocrisy, but also because of the damage it was doing to His people. The Pharisees were misrepresenting God to the people and hindering themselves and the people from understanding God and the purpose of His holy law. That’s a serious accusation by Jesus, and although we know that the Pharisees at large did not repent, something that Jesus said at the end of the chapter likely was something the apostle Paul heard and came back to in his mind after he was converted on the road to Damascus.
“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 innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Matthew 23:34-36)
As Paul sat blind from His experience with Jesus on the road, I wonder if he had heard these woes and recalled his actions of watching Stephen being stoned to death for his faith in Jesus, and actively persecuting Christians from town to town, coming face to face with his own hypocrisy and then the realization that he is the “chief of sinners”, of which he later calls himself in 1 Timothy 1:15. To the rest of the Pharisees, judgement was sure to come for lack of their repentance, of which Jesus said, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:33).
What the Pharisees likely didn’t realize was that in not being willing to lift the heavy burdens of the law they placed on the people, the weight of hypocrisy was even heavier in light of eternity.
Jesus had already said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Had the Pharisees understood the purpose of the law and been looking forward to the Messiah’s coming, searching the Scriptures for true understanding instead of in piety, they would have rejoiced at Jesus’ coming and gone to Him for rest.
Now the Pharisees didn’t do this, but we can and we should. The law was our guardian, but Jesus has come and justified us by faith, releasing us from the burden of the law and instead finding rest in Christ as we take His yoke upon us and learn from Him.
Being burdened by the law, legalism, and the hypocrisy that inevitably comes from trying to be perfect in and of our own works, will never yield pure religion and relationship with God. Abiding in Jesus is the only way to legitimately walk in truth and have abundant and eternal life in Christ.
Today if you hear what the Spirit has said to you and it included a convicting woe, turn from that hypocrisy, and hear and heed Jesus’ words, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.”