October 18, 1992


Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:14).

History’s harshest sermon came as a shock to the clean, respected, religious people it addressed. When a young preacher thundered against them and called them nasty names, they felt insulted and angry. These churchgoers were an impressive-looking bunch. They were careful: careful about how they dressed, careful about how they lived. They said prayers several times each day. They studied the Bible carefully. They could recite large parts of Scripture from memory. They were experts in debating doctrine and defining morality. They always donated exactly 10 percent of their income to charity. They sent their children to the strictest religious schools. They worked tirelessly to persuade others to become better people and join their group.

On that particular day, they filed into church as usual and settled into their seats. They were looking forward to hearing another nice sermon showing nice people how to be even nicer. And that’s when it happened. A young man–he looked to be about thirty–stood up and began to speak. Before long, though, he wasn’t just speaking–he was roaring like a lion on the attack. And his attack was aimed directly at them!

His tirade had seven points, and each of those points began with the same furious roar: “Woe to you!” Not just once, but seven times. “Woe to you” over and over and over again. And as he was shouting these woes at them, he bombarded them with almost every name in the book. Six times he called them hypocrites (and that was one of the more polite names he used). He also called them sons of hell. He called them “blind guides.” He said they were scum. He compared them to a tomb full of decaying corpses. He called them snakes. He went on and on. It was a withering blast.

One thing it wasn’t: it wasn’t a nice sermon telling nice people how to be even nicer. It was the harshest sermon in history. Who would have the audacity to launch such a vicious attack on such a fine group of people? Well, the young preacher was none other than Jesus himself.

The incident occurred in Jerusalem, in the temple. The objects of Jesus’ attack were the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. They were the most religious, most respectable people around. Many considered them the backbone of society. And yet Jesus reserved his harshest words for them. Not the prostitutes or the drunkards or the extortionists; but the religious elite, the champions of church attendance and clean living and traditional family values–these were the people Jesus attacked so savagely.

Let’s look at what Jesus actually said. The Bible records it in Matthew 23. His indictment includes seven different charges, and we’ll look at each one. The first is the most basic. Jesus said,

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (v. 13).

That’s why Jesus was speaking to the religious establishment so harshly. He was incensed that they were slamming the door to the kingdom of heaven right in people’s faces.

You see, they promoted a religion based on achievement. Their brand of religion had no room for sinners. Their most basic assumption was that God would accept only good people into his kingdom. You get to heaven, they said, by being a good person. Consequently, they simply wrote off the people they considered to be bad, and devoted themselves to telling good people how to be even better, to showing nice people how to be even nicer.

Any religion designed only for good people turns the church into an exclusive club for the successful, not a place for sinful and wounded people to discover God’s forgiveness and healing. The church becomes the place of the pious, the home of the holy, the gathering of the good. Sinners need not apply.

This brand of religion has two very different but equally deadly effects. It produces hypocrisy in some, and despair in others. Those who think they’re basically good will be too busy congratulating themselves on their goodness to ever come to terms with the deadly reality of their own sin. Meanwhile, those who know they’re not so good will conclude that they’re beyond hope, since the door to the kingdom is open only to good people.

A religion designed only for good people blocks the door to the kingdom by blocking the way to forgiveness. Those who feel they qualify as basically good people won’t see their need for God’s forgiveness, and those who know they aren’t good enough won’t see any possibility of forgiveness.

Jesus hated this kind of religion. He was vehement, almost vicious, in his attacks on it. Why did it make him so angry? Because he cared so deeply about the salvation of sinners. He saw phony religion blocking the way to forgiveness and keeping people out of God’s kingdom.

Let’s look now at Jesus’ second charge, which is closely related:

Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are (v. 15).

Jesus recognized that these people had tremendous zeal for evangelism. They were eager to convert other people to their kind of religion. The only problem was, their converts were becoming children of hell.

A religion is in big trouble when it becomes more concerned with making converts than with what it is converting them to. One of our deadliest temptations today is to define success by numbers and by how many people we can attract. Whoever draws the biggest crowd wins. So if people don’t like the gospel according to Jesus, give them something they will like. Do whatever it takes to win another convert.

Now, that approach may get more people to join your religion, but it won’t get them any closer to the kingdom of heaven. Any religion or cult can make converts. But according to Jesus, making converts is a crime, not a virtue, if you’re making those converts into sons of hell. It takes more than zeal for converting others to make a religion authentic. It takes a sincere sorrow for sin, a living faith in the mercy and love of God, a commitment to Jesus Christ, and a firm belief in God’s Word, the Bible. Anything less is a sham, no matter how successful it is in convincing others.

Jesus then issued his third indictment:

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it (v. 16-22).

Jesus charged these people with using silly technicalities to excuse lies and broken promises. When you’re part of a religion designed for good people, you’ll find yourself doing that fairly often. You can’t afford to simply admit your sins and mistakes and ask for forgiveness. You’ve got to show that there was nothing wrong with what you did. And so you wind up playing a silly game like a child who says that his lie wasn’t really wrong because he had his fingers crossed when he told it. “If you make a promise and swear on the temple, God doesn’t mind if you break your promise. But oh, if you swore on the gold in the temple, then God insists that you keep your promise.” Rubbish, says Jesus. A promise is a promise. A lie is a lie. Your silly little loopholes won’t reduce your accountability to the God of truth. He sees right through your little game.

Jesus’ fourth charge is equally devastating. He accuses them of majoring in minors and minoring in majors:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

The religious elitists believed in tithing, the practice of giving 10% of one’s income to God. They were ever so scrupulous about this, down to the exact penny. They even made sure they gave a tenth of any spices that were given to them. Meanwhile, they didn’t know the first thing about justice for the oppressed, mercy for down and out, or faithfulness to those who were

counting on them.

Religious people sometimes become so obsessed with getting the fine points exactly right that they neglect the really important things. Right now, millions still don’t know Christ, our cities are wracked with pain, AIDS is killing millions, children are being aborted and abused. And what are we in the churches doing? All too often, we’re concerned with lesser matters. We want to be sure that we’ve got our rituals and regulations exactly right. Even if we manage to be exactly right on such issues, however, we’ll still be dead wrong in Jesus’ eyes if we “neglect the more important matters–justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” When we become so obsessed with certain details of church life that we neglect to demonstrate the love of Christ to a lost and dying world, then we are straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

Majoring in minors, and minoring in majors: that’s a deadly danger for churches, and it’s also deadly for individuals. There are some people who are admired as generous financial supporters of churches and charities. But they make the money through shady business practices and paying their employees barely enough to get by on. Hey! God isn’t just interested in whether you give exactly 10% of your money to him. He’s also interested in how you make that money in the first place, and whether you pay workers a fair wage. Woe to anyone who forgets that! I’m not saying that all people who are wealthy and generous are guilty of exploiting others–not at all. But I am saying that no amount of charitable giving can make up for business practices that neglect “justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

One more example of majoring in minors and minoring in majors: There are some people who consider it a monstrous sin for their neighbor to mow the lawn on Sunday, yet these same people can hold a grudge for decades without a qualm of conscience. They are straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

Jesus’ fifth charge condemns religion that puts externals over internals, that puts rituals over reality.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First, clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (v. 25-26).

Jesus attacks those who go through all the right rituals, but are nothing but scum on the inside. In particular, Jesus condemns greed and self-indulgence.

475 years ago this month, in October of 1517, Martin Luther launched the protest that became the Protestant Reformation. Luther protested against a church that emphasized regulations and rituals more than the reality of God’s grace and forgiveness. At the same time, Luther was infuriated by a church hierarchy that was full of greed and self-indulgence. Safe passage to heaven had become a commodity that was up for sale. One of the church’s most notorious peddlers and fundraisers was a man named Tetzel. His slogan was, “When the money in the coffer clinks, a soul from purgatory springs.”

Today the Tetzels are still with us. Often they are well-groomed and wholesome-looking, their mouths are full of God-talk, and they guarantee you God’s blessings if only you will write a generous check for their particular ministry. Meanwhile, they pay themselves lavish salaries from the money they raise. Woe to such religious hucksters! They wash the outside of the dish, but inside they are nothing but scum, filthy with greed and self-indulgence.

Jesus’ sixth indictment drives the point home:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside, you appear to people as righteous but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (v. 27-28).

Did you ever notice that a neighborhood bustling with life is never as immaculate as the local cemetery? Children mess up the lawns and leave things lying around. Dead people don’t. With a little whitewash and a good landscaping crew, the cemetery looks perfect. But hey, no matter how great it looks, the place is as dead!

A living, vibrant church is going to have its share of messy situations and embarrassing moments. That’s because it’s helping sinners with their problems rather than forcing them to pretend there aren’t any. When a church becomes more interested in appearances than in the honest sharing of struggles, it is dead. Oh, it may still look very good. Everybody comes to church dressed prim and proper. All the rituals are carried out exactly according to form. All the right words are used, and everyone is careful to make a good impression. But the church is a spiritual cemetery. The monuments are beautiful, the grass is well-manicured, and everything looks just great–but just below the surface lie death and decay.

And speaking of cemeteries: In his seventh and final indictment, Jesus charges that these hypocrites think that the only good prophet is a dead prophet:

Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth… (v. 29-35)

Almost everybody likes a prophet once he’s dead. It’s the ones who are alive right now that we don’t like very much. It’s easy to say we would have repented if we had listened to Jeremiah or Amos or John the Baptist or Jesus. But when we’re confronted by the voice of God in our own time, and challenged to repent of the sins that we enjoy and make excuses for–well, that’s another story. In many of our churches, if a preacher stood up and preached a sermon like Jesus preached, he’d be out looking for a new job. Oh, we admire the great prophets and reformers from a distance–now that they’re dead–but what we want in our own pulpit is a person who is nice, sociable, easy to get along with. We won’t come out and say it, but what many of us really want is a wimp. We want a nice, domesticated religion, not the fierce and invigorating reality of the living God.

A prophet of God is not a nice person telling other nice people how to be even nicer. Zechariah wasn’t stoned to death for saying, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Jeremiah wasn’t thrown into a muddy pit for saying, “Something good is going to happen to you.” John the Baptist didn’t get his head cut off for saying, “Smile, God loves you.” Jesus wasn’t crucified for saying, “What you folks really need is more self-esteem.”

God’s spokesmen in the past weren’t simply “nice” people, and they didn’t always say nice things. Jesus himself wasn’t always a “nice” person. His words were often harsh, bordering on cruel. But he was cruel to be kind. He loved people too much to stand by idly while they destroyed themselves trying to convince themselves that they were already good enough without him.

When Jesus had finished thundering out these seven woes, his eyes began to fill with tears and his voice cracked:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (v.37).

Behind the fierceness of Jesus’ anger lay the tenderness of his love. He saw these people marching toward destruction, and so he sounded the alarm and urged them to come to him. But they refused.

Today I urge you not to make the same mistake. Let me say once again: a true spokesman for God is not a nice person telling other nice people how to be even nicer. The gospel tells you that you are wicked, that your heart is full of corruption and mixed motives, that you need to be forgiven and transformed. If think you’re basically a good person and merit God’s approval, woe to you! You’re still outside the kingdom of heaven, and chances are, you’re also shutting the kingdom in the faces of others. No matter who you are, no matter how good you look, no matter what others may see, your heart is corrupt.

The only way you will ever enter the kingdom of heaven is to repent of your sin and to plead for God’s mercy and forgiveness. You must put your faith in Jesus and in the blood he shed to pay for your sins.

Jesus came to save sinners, and Christianity is a religion for sinners. People who think they are already good enough to merit salvation need not apply. The church of Jesus is the place to be confronted with our sin and comforted by God’s grace, not a place to congratulate ourselves on how good we are. Any church which forgets that needs to be reformed. And any individual who forgets that needs to be reborn.


Lord Jesus, thank you for being painfully honest with us. Help us to see ourselves as you see us. Cleanse us from hypocrisy; make our churches places that proclaim and celebrate the gospel of God’s grace and forgiveness for unworthy sinners.

Help me, Father, and all those listening to me, to realize again the vileness of our sin and the wonder of your love. Free us from the trap of trusting our own goodness, and may we never be an obstacle to others who are seeking a relationship with you. Work the miracle of reformation in our churches and the miracle of regeneration in our hearts, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.