The twenty-third chapter of Matthew is unique from all the Gospels. It contains a scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus day. In Matthew’s account (along with the other Synoptic writers), Jesus encounters the Pharisees’ varied attempts to catch Jesus in something he said so as to have a reason to condemn him. But He who is the fount of all wisdom sees through their hypocrisy and has an answer to each of their attempts to foil Him.
In this chapter, Jesus unveils the underlying problem of the scribes and Pharisees—they were hypocrites! The word ‘hypocrites’ used by our Lord here is a word used by stage actors who acted out their parts hidden behind face masks. In this way, they delivered their lines without the audience knowing who they were. For Jesus, this perfectly described the Jewish leaders of his day; they appeared outwardly to be righteous while they kept their real condition hidden. In other words, they placed all of their focus on how people perceived them, giving little or no attention to the real condition of their hearts. In a word, they played to the wrong audience.
It is almost certain the scribes and Pharisees themselves were not conscious of their error. And it is also certain they impressed those who sat under their leadership with their display of godliness and righteousness. Ask someone what holiness is, and they would point you to the scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus saw through them and knew the true condition of their hearts. Their error was that they placed all of their effort on impressing others outwardly, neglecting the true state of their hearts.
What this chapter records is not for their sakes only, but for ours as well. It serves as a warning which, if we are not careful, we can easily fall into the trap of the scribes and Pharisees. We focus on the outward aspects of religion; how much we pray, read our Bibles, go to church, give, etc. Before long, we convince ourselves of our righteousness, based on our performance. We ignore the condition of our heart before God while we put our emphasis on what people see. Jesus warns them (and us) of the error of doing that:
“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.”
Notice how Jesus identifies their real problem: they clean the outside while ignoring the inside. But Jesus also provides a remedy for their condition; “first clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” In other words, true holiness begins in the heart. When we instruct the heart in true holiness, then it will govern the outward life. But if we focus exclusively on the outside of the cup, ignoring the inside, we will fall into playing a role in which we hide from others the true condition of our hearts.
We can easily become play-actors and not know it. All leaders know the temptation of seeking to impress others outwardly while hiding from others their true condition. Jesus describes these men as “whitewashed tombs”; outwardly they appear beautiful, but inwardly they are full of corruption and uncleanness. In another Gospel, Jesus reminds his disciples that nothing that a man consumes will defile him but what comes out of his heart—that is what defiles a person (Mark 7:14-23).