The Scribes and Pharisees

The Scribes and Pharisees’ Leadership (Matthew 23:1-4)

            The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jews. They were the people’s guide (Malachi 2:7), but they were not proper examples in living a religious life. As they taught Moses’ Law, they should be followed, but do not use their lives as a standard for proper practice. Jesus had condemned their traditions (Matthew 15:3-6), so Jesus is not telling the people to follow everything the scribes and Pharisees, but only the things they taught from God’s word.

            The Law was difficult to follow and was seen as a heavy yoke (Acts 15:10), but the scribes made following the Law even harder by their traditions and interpretations (Luke 11:46; Galatians 6:13). Often they made fine distinctions and endless exceptions (Mark 7:11). These distinctions allowed the teachers to do as they please but offered no relief to the followers.

The Scribes and Pharisees’ Motivation (Matthew 23:5-12; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47)

            While being in service to God, the scribes and Pharisee’s primary motivation was to look good to other men. Pleasing God wasn’t their first goal.

            Therefore, they took their religion to the extremes in showiness. The law required tassels on the corners of their garments as reminders that they were to keep God’s commandments (Numbers 15:38-41; Deuteronomy 22:12). The scribes and Pharisees weren’t happy with just any old tassels, they had to have large tassels. Moses mentioned, “Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 11:18; see also Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8; Proverbs 3:3; 6:21; 7:3). Though presented as figurative language (notice the use of the word “as”), the scribes and Pharisees took this literally and made leather cases to contain written copies of four passages: Exodus 13:3-10; 11:1-10; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and 11:13-21, which they then bound with leather straps to their head, arms, or chest in a ritualistic manner. Of course, in their mind the bigger the case, the better. They also wore long robes to indicate their status (Mark 12:38; Luke 20:46).

            The motivation is no different than those who build large, elaborate places of assembly or wear religious symbols or special garments to tell others “I’m religious.” Physical things have nothing to do with the behavior of a person.

            The scribes and Pharisees also sought out prominent seats at dinners and in their religious worship. They wanted to be noticed and respected. It was thrilling to them for people to recognize them in the marketplace and call out to them “Rabbi!” Not only are they being noticed but others are witness to their being recognized. The word “Rabbi” literally means “great” or “master” and was used for teachers of the law. There was three levels of teachers recognized “rabh” (great), “rabbi” (greater), and “rabban” (greatest) – roughly similar to our bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees.

            Jesus’ followers are not to act in this manner. They are not to be called by titles like “Rabbi” because it makes them seem to usurp the position of Jesus. For the same reason using “father” in a religious context is forbidden as it elevates a man to the level of God, the Father. Even titles of teacher (or master) is to be avoided as it violates the concept that the greatest in Christ’s kingdom are those who serve. Sadly this teaching is mostly ignored among the Christian denominations. “Pastor” is used, not to indicate a role but as a title for a preacher who runs a church. The Catholics call their priests “father.” Even “pope” is the Latin word for “father.” Some denominations attach the word “reverend” in front of the name of their religious leaders, despite the fact that the Bible only speaks of God being revered. For some, even this is not enough and they have “most reverend” and “most right reverend.” All of these titles directly violate Jesus teaching for the very reasons Jesus said they were wrong. (See also John 5:44.)

            Some seek to minimize what Jesus said by saying that Paul called himself and others “fathers” (I Corinthians 4:15; Philippians 2:22) and teacher (I Timothy 2:7; II Timothy 1:11). Yet in each case we find that Paul is discussing the role he is playing and not giving a title by which he is addressed.

            Whoever exalts himself has no where to go but down. He will be humbled by God. Whoever humbles himself has no where to go but up. He will be exalted by God (Proverbs 15:33; 29:23; James 4:6; I Peter 5:5).

Woes upon the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-32)

            Jesus begins address the scribes and Pharisees directly bringing eight condemnations (or woes) against their practices.

            They were keeping people from the kingdom. Using the imagery of a house to represent the kingdom of God, or the church, the scribes and Pharisees are described as a mob gathering in front of the door. They don’t enter, but they are also hindering others who want in from reaching the door. This is a charge Jesus has brought against the Pharisees before (Luke 11:52). In their desire to oppose Jesus they were keeping people from serving God.

            They consume widows’ homes and make long prayers for show. “Homes” refer to both the house and the possessions within the house. Jesus was charging them with profiting off the poor while simultaneously pretending to be religious by offering up long prayers. This had long been a problem in Israel (Isaiah 10:1-2). Jesus charges that the scribes and Pharisees with a greater condemnation as promised by God (Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 27:19).

            This charge remains a problem in the church. There are false teachers doing much the same as the scribes and Pharisees (II Timothy 3:6; Titus 1:11).

            They pursue converts, but caused them to be condemned. They sought to bring others into their sect, willing to go to extreme lengths to convert even one. It was supposedly for righteousness, but the result is that these converts were worse than their teachers because there is always a natural drift from teacher to student. Likely the scribes and Pharisees focused on numbers, seeking to swell their numbers without giving much thought to teaching after conversion. Thus these converts were left in a worse state, thinking they had righteousness but having no idea how to live righteously.

            They played games with their promises. This is something Jesus had condemned before in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:33-37 - see the discussion there concerning the Mishna). The Jewish tradition limited binding oaths only when the oath was bound by something tangible and could in theory be redeemed if the oath was broken. An oath was considered non-binding if there wasn’t at least a remote chance for the grieved party to collect on what the oath bound. We can see this Jesus’ examples:



An oath bound by the gold in the Temple.

An oath bound by the Temple.

An oath bound by a sacrifice on the altar.

An oath bound by the altar.


An oath bound by heaven


An oath bound by God’s throne

Obviously those not in on these rules would never know when an oath had to be kept or not. As Jesus points out, the things the scribes and Pharisees and consider non-binding were actually greater things. It is natural for a person to consider a greater thing to be a more important promise. But since the greater sanctifies the lesser, oaths by the lesser are no different than oaths by the greater. A oath by the gold in the Temple was the same as swearing by the Temple, which is the same swearing by God whose presence is in the Temple. And the Old Law taught that vows to God were binding (Deuteronomy 23:21-23; Ecclesiastes 5:4-5). In other words, all vows or promises are binding (Numbers 30:2). There is no such thing as a non-binding oath in God’s sight.

            To make an oath which one does not intend to keep is a form of lying.

            They focused on details while ignoring weightier provisions of the law. The scribes and Pharisees took great pains to fulfill some laws in detail, a charge Jesus had brought against them before (Luke 11:42). The law required tithing of produce (Leviticus 23:30; Deuteronomy 14:22) and they would make sure to give even a tenth from their spice racks. But laws which have greater impact in their lives, such as those concerning justice, mercy, and faith, are completely ignored. Jesus is not saying they shouldn’t be tithing; he says these things should be done. But the small matters of the law should not be done to the exclusion of the greater matters.

            You cannot make up the lack of doing the weightier provisions of the law by fine keeping of the lighter matters (Micah 6:6-8). Jesus compares them to a person trying to strain out a gnat (an unclean insect) from their food while swallowing a camel (an unclean animal).

            They focus on external matters and neglect their souls. The scribes and Pharisees are careful to clean their dishes just in case they may have come in contact with something unclean (Mark 7:4). However, they make no effort to clean up their own lives. Again this is a charge Jesus had brought against the Pharisees before (Luke 11:39).

            They appear to be good on the outside, but inwardly are corrupt. Jesus compares the scribes and Pharisees to whitewashed tombs. The whitewashing make the tombs look good, at least temporarily but the tombs are still tombs. Because they are dealing only with temporary external things they never make a permanent change (Mark 7:20-23).

            They built monuments to the prophets, claiming they would have treated the prophets better than their ancestors. The emptiness of this claim is seen when we realize that even the wicked Herod the Great built a monument to King David. In their mind by building splendid tomb they were honoring the memory of the prophets. But Jesus points out they are testifying against themselves because they are honoring the fact that the prophets are dead. They are honoring what their ancestors had done to the prophets. They are not honoring the prophets’ lives, that is by following what the prophets taught.

            They would take on the full measure of their own ancestor’s guilt. They would have opportunity to show the world that they were just like their ancestors. They would fill God’s cup of wrath against them by their own actions.

The Consequence of Their Sins (Matthew 23:33-39)

            Jesus warns that they would not be able to escape the consequences of their actions. Jesus would send prophets, wise men and teachers among them, whom they will abuse and even kill. As a result God will be justified in holding this generation guilty of the deaths of all the prophets because they prove they are guilty of the same sins as their ancestors. They will have an opportunity to dig their own grave and it would happen within that generation.

            Some confusion comes from the mention of Zachariah, the son of Berechiah. By the nature of the death and the timing, we are certain Jesus is referring to the death of Zachariah, the son of Jehoiada (II Chronicles 24:20-21). Some commentators speculate that Berechiah as another name for Jehoiada since it wasn’t unusual for a Jew to have multiple names. Others note that some early manuscripts are missing the phrase “son of Berechiah” and wonder if some scribe mistakenly inserted a side note pointing to Zechariah the son of Berechiah (Zechariah 1:1; Isaiah 8:2). A third possibility is that Zechariah, the son of Berechiah did perish in a manner similar to Zechariah the son of Jehoiada and this is the man to whom Jesus was referring. An interesting point to note is:

Jesus seems to exclude the Apocrypha in his statement in Luke 11:51 - "from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation" (NKJV). The death of Abel is recorded in Genesis, the first book in the Hebrew canon. The death of Zechariah is included in 2Chronicles, which appears troublesome since Zechariah was not chronologically the last martyr mentioned in the Bible (cf. Jer. 26:20-23). However, Zechariah is the last martyr we read of in the Old Testament according to Jewish canonical order (cf. II Chron. 24:20-22), which was the order recognized by Jesus and his hearers. The traditional Jewish canon was divided into three sections (Law, Prophets, Writings), and an unusual feature of the last section was the listing of Chronicles out of historical order, placing it after Ezra-Nehemiah and making it the last book of the canon. In light of this, the words of Jesus in Luke 11:50-51 reflect the settled character of the Jewish canon (with its peculiar order) already established in his day. [Apocrypha,]

            The punishment of Jerusalem is not something Jesus desired, but it was something required for justice. Despite his people’s evil in killing God’s prophets, Jesus would prefer to protect them, but they were not willing to accept Jesus protection (Psalm 91:4; II Peter 3:9; John 5:40). As a result their house would be abandoned and left empty. Notice that it is singular and thus a reference to the Temple. God would leave His people and remove His presence as he did in the days of Ezekiel.

            Jesus, God in the flesh, visited the people in his Temple (Malachi 3:1). But because of their sins Jesus is leaving the temple and they would not see him again there until they acknowledge him as the one to save them (Psalm 118:26; II Corinthians 3:14-18). Some read this as a prophesy of a mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity, but this is not what Jesus stated. Individuals would not see him until each acknowledged him as the Lord’s anointed. This is fulfilled in the church, Christ’s kingdom, as prophesied (Ezekiel 37:23-28; Zechariah 2:10-13), but ultimately it will be fulfilled in heaven (Revelation 21:3-4).

The Widow’s Mite (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4)

            We next see Jesus sitting across from the temple treasury watching as people put their contributions to the temple. The contribution boxes were kept in the Court of Women in the temple. There were thirteen boxes, each labeled for various purposes. Two were for the temple tax (Exodus 30:12-13). The remainder were for items such as money given in connection with a sin offering, money given in connection with a trespass offering, money given to purchase wood for the altar, money to purchase incense ingredients, and the like.

            Jesus observed wealthy people giving large sums of money, but he also saw a widow putting in two mites. A mite is the smallest coin used in Jewish society. Mark explains to his Roman audience that two mites equals one quadran. There are sixty-four quadrans in a denarius, which is equal to the pay an unskilled laborer would make in a day. So the widow had put in 1/64 of a day’s wage into one of the contribution boxes. If a person made $8 per hour and worked an 8 hour shift, then he would make $64 in a day and this woman gave a $1 to the temple.

            Jesus called his disciples over, told them what he had seen, and told them that this woman had given more than all the wealthy people because they gave a portion of their wealth, but she had given everything she had. The value of the contribution is not in the amount given, but in the amount it cost the giver.

            By giving all she had, she demonstrated faith in God’s care for her. The widow serves as a contrast to the scribes and Pharisees Jesus had just condemned.