This week we continue to look into the
gospel of Matthew to see more about the
righteousness of the kingdom that Jesus brought.
Last week, we saw that kingdom righteousness was radical in its demands--far
more demanding than the righteousness of the
scribes and Pharisees. From
Matthew five, we saw what this righteousness is, but because Jesus wants us to have a comprehensive understanding of this kingdom righteousness,
he also spends a good bit of time in Matthew telling us what it is NOT. My goal is that
today, as we examine Matthew 23, a text on counterfeit, pharisaic righteousness, we will by God’s grace zealously
seek after the genuine article through the gospel.
In Matthew 23 Jesus issues his
most scathing condemnation of the Pharisees, issuing seven woes or words
of judgment to them. Jesus highlights the specific evils of pharisaic,
self-righteousness as he pronounces judgment on these religious leaders
who had so badly missed the kingdom
of God and were leading others
In the Pharisees we see a deadly
degree of self-righteousness. They had advanced degrees in self-righteousness.
There aren’t many people at this level, but as we see the
self-righteousness of the Pharisees in this very extreme form, we must
ask God to use their sin to reveal to us the
self-righteousness within our selves. We are all self-righteous in some ways and I cannot think of any other sin
described in the Bible more harmful to our spiritual health than self-righteousness.
In verse 13, Jesus turns from the
crowds and disciples and addresses the religious leaders, pronouncing
his first woe saying, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” “Hypocrites” is Jesus’ favorite word for these
religious leaders. In
the span of 13 verses, he calls them
“hypocrites” six times. “Hypocrite”
was originally a word used for a person who plays a role in a play—someone who is pretending to be someone they
are not. That
was the fundamental assessment Jesus made of the
religious leaders of his day. He also calls them “blind
guides,” “blind fools,” “serpents,”
a “brood of vipers” and tells
them that they can’t “escape being sentenced to hell.” Other
than being a Judas, being a Pharisee is about the worst thing you can
be in Jesus’ eyes. Tim
Keller is right in his excellent book “The
Prodigal God” when he says that Pharisees and other intensely self-righteous
people are farther from God and more spiritually toxic than even those
who are actively practicing scandalous sins. The reason is because
the scandalous sinner often knows he is in sin, but the Pharisee is
self-deceived and is intent on taking other people with him.
We must hear how much God hates self-righteousness so that when he reveals
our self-righteous actions and attitudes, we treat it with the same
level of concern as we would adultery or stealing.
How many of us do that?
Although Jesus’ sharp words rebuke of the
Pharisees’ self-righteousness are given in part because they were influential
leaders, they are also guilty of an idolatrous love for money and he barely mentions that by comparison. So, it isn’t just
because they were leaders he rebukes their self-righteousness. Jesus never rebukes adulterers, thieves and murderers this harshly—only self-righteous
religious leaders. The first woe is pronounced because—v. 14—“…you shut
the kingdom of heaven in people’s
you neither enter yourselves nor allow
those who would enter to go in.”
This woe is not hard to understand when you think about it.
The Pharisees shut the kingdom
of heaven in people’s faces because they rejected Jesus, the Door that
opens the way to heaven. The
first mark of Pharisaic, self- righteousness is a
rejection of Jesus as the
only way to enter the
The Pharisees operated under the
assumption that they could be acceptable to God by their
own efforts and that required them to dumb down the
law from those radical demands of the kingdom we saw last week—anger
is murder, lust is adultery, love your enemies, put God above everything in this world.
They domesticated those sharp, heart demands of the
Law into merely external rules they could keep and they
did a good job of keeping them.
Paul says of his days as a Pharisee, he was “blameless” “as to the righteousness under the law.”
Therefore, when Jesus came along and called everyone to repent, they
didn’t feel any need to do that because they were fine. They didn’t need
to repent and they surely didn’t need any of his righteousness so they
rejected him and his message.
As foolish as that sounds, we saw
this same sin among the believers in the
Galatian church and we see the same thing in ourselves, don’t we? We would never
outwardly reject Jesus—we mentally accept the fact that we are sinners
and need him and the righteousness that only he can provide. But so often we
live as if God’s acceptance of us is based on whether we are living
up to our own, self-contrived contemporary standard of self-righteousness.
Did I have had my quiet time today?
Did I pray long enough?
Am I breaking that sinful habit?
Do I regularly attend church?
Am I generous enough with my money?
If those kinds of things are what I am basing my standing with God on, then
on a functional, spiritual level, that too is a rejection of Jesus as the
only way into the kingdom.
It’s self-righteous because at the end of the
day, I am looking to my own performance to be acceptable to God.
That’s just what the Pharisees
Another mark of self-righteousness
as practiced by the Pharisees is false
converts who continue the
chain of self-righteousness. In verse 14 we read, “Woe to you, scribes and
Pharisees, hypocrites! For
you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice
as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
The scholars tell us that the
Jews at this time in their history showed a remarkable level of missionary
zeal. They were all about world missions and sacrificed significantly to win converts.
But Jesus says in effect, “you
are just reproducing the same rotten fruit you bear.” Evangelism and
world missions can be done for both good and bad reasons.
The Pharisees were out to reproduce themselves
because when someone else adopted their lifestyle and beliefs, that
This wasn’t about God, it was about proving themselves
to be zealous and worthy of followers. The problem was, as Jesus says earlier in Matthew—a
good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit.
The scribes and Pharisees were bad trees and they reproduced after their
Jesus teaches that the second
generation Pharisee is twice as bad as the first—they
evidently took it to new levels. You sometimes see this in rigid, self-righteous churches.
One self-righteous group breaks off from a local church over stupid little
legalistic differences—the original church just doesn’t have it right—doesn’t
practice Christianity the way they
like—in fact, they’re seriously flawed.
The group splits off from the
first and begins to establish their own, much
improved self-righteous code of spirituality.
What happens in those churches?
They invariably splinter again—a second group within that church doesn’t
think they are strong enough on this point of morality or minor doctrinal
teaching, so they split again—each generation out-doing the
former in their self-righteousness.
This isn’t to say that sometimes believers don’t have to break away from
bad churches. Paul
says in First Corinthians 11:19, “…there must be factions among you in order that
those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
The difference there however
is between those who are true believers and those who are fakes.
That is not about a minor point of doctrine or a difference of opinion regarding
Christian lifestyle. More
to the point, most of the
time, if you meet someone who is manifestly self-righteous—equating Christianity with some sort of piety code--intensely
concerned about keeping the rules—their
self-righteousness was programmed into them by a self-righteous church. Bad trees yield
A third mark of self-righteous Pharisaism is in verse 16.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say,
‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but
if anyone swears by the gold of the temple that has made the gold sacred?
And you say, ‘I anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’
You blind men!
For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.
And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it.
And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.” The reasons Jesus
shreds the logic behind the
Pharisees complicated and ridiculous regulations concerning oaths is to expose their
true intention for doing this. That is--the Pharisees had created this complicated
legal system to answer the question—“when
am I legally bound before God to tell the truth?”
As we saw last week, that’s a stupid and unnecessary question, isn’t it? The intention was
so they could work the loopholes they
had created in the law so that they could justify not telling the truth. If they
weren’t placed under just the right oath, then they
could legally break an agreement or tell a lie without penalty.
A third mark of self-righteousness is that it is marked by a deceptive,
self-serving application of truth for the
purpose of selective obedience.
Kingdom righteousness demands that you tell the
truth every time to everyone to whom you owe it.
The Pharisees wanted some wiggle room there--because
if you told the truth all the
time, that could hurt you—people might not admire you, you won’t make out as well in some business deals if you
tell the other party everything
you owe them.
So they skirted that and came
up with a set of rules that enabled them to appear to be honest, while
preserving their capacity to be dishonest when it served their
selfish purpose. The
Pharisees were lawyers so when they did this, they
expressed this in the kind of legal babble Jesus quotes in verse 16. Instead of looking
at God’s bar for truth--seeing how high it was and humbly crying out for their
need of God’s grace to be truthful, they instead just lowered the
bar to the level where they
were comfortable. But
it was all riddled with deception because they had given themselves
this legal cover to make it look like they were being very precise,
even pious in their application of the
fact, they were just liars—that’s why Jesus calls them
hypocrites because they were trying to justify their
lies through legal maneuvering.
All of us lower God’s bar of righteousness in order to accommodate our selfish
is self-righteousness because it involves establishing an unBiblical, self-serving standard of right and wrong
and then living it out; believing God is pleased with it. For instance, God
has been calling many of you to tithe for a long time—Malachi says not
tithing is robbing God. But
you have lowered that bar in your own mind somehow so that you don’t have to because of A, B, or C—selective obedience. You’ve struck a
deal with God. For
others here, God has called you to do some very radical things with your life, but instead of trusting God and
going for it—you’re playing games with God.
I won’t do that, but I will do this…I know you like this too.”
That’s Pharisaic self-righteousness.
Here’s God’s pattern—God calls us to the
radical obedience that comes from faith.
When we hear or read it in his Word, we fall on our face and cry out to him
for grace and ask others to pray for us.
Then, by God’s grace we take that step of faith and obey. No deception, no selective obedience—just loving God and doing what he says out of that
love. That’s kingdom righteousness—nothing less.
A fourth mark of self-righteousness is in verse 23.
Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes
and Pharisees, hypocrites! For
you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and
have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and
you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” The mark of self-righteousness
the Pharisees show us here is an
upside-down application of Biblical commands.
The Law in Leviticus 27 dictates that all the
tithe from the land—seeds,
fruit--everything belonged to God. The Pharisees had figured out that this included spices and herbs as well so they
gave 10 percent of their mint and dill and cumin to the
Lord and Jesus does not correct their scrupulous interpretation of the
fact, he says “…these you ought to have done.”
wants us to recognize that everything we have belongs to God and at a minimum a tithe
goes back to him.
But the Pharisees had everything
upside down—they didn’t give any thought to huge issues of the
kingdom that involved justice and mercy and faithfulness, but they
were scrupulous to make sure they gave as an offering 2.2 sprigs of
mint from their 22 mint plants coming up next to their
front door. We
see this upside down value system in the Pharisees all the
time in the gospels.
In Luke 13, a woman who had been stricken with a severe demonic disability
and who had been bent over for 18 years is miraculously healed and the
take home message for the Pharisees is--Jesus healed her on the
wrong day of the week.
The SABBATH had been violated!
That’s straining to swallow a little gnat but inhaling a camel. We can be upside
down as well. In
a moment of love-bereft, self-righteous indignation, we can verbally peel the
skin off a brother or sister for whom Christ died and
think nothing of it--and then
in the next moment act as if the
world is coming to an end because our kid hasn’t memorized their AWANA
we get upset about reveals what we care about and what we care about often reveals our self-righteousness.
Churches do this too. In a congregational
meeting, they will vehemently argue for a half an hour over the color
of the paint in the Narthex,
but when the next agenda item comes up, there is no real discussion
about whether to cut the funding for the missionaries—“these
are tough economic times, you know.”
Do we hear how upside-down that is?
The problem is—our hearts are often more concerned about whether
our kid memorizes his verse for the week, or the
color of a room than we are the weightier matters of the
because it takes God’s revelation of what is important and turns it upside down—placing the priority on our own
petty and fleshly agendas.
A fifth mark of self righteousness
is similar and that is a
priority is placed on superficial, external expressions of righteousness to the
exclusion of genuine, heart righteousness.
Jesus says in verse 25, “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.”
At the heart of the Pharisees’
problem was they were far more concerned about appearing to be righteous
in the sight of people, than actually living out genuine heart righteousness
before God. However,
all their efforts to appear outwardly righteous to others did nothing to transform their hearts.
Jesus says in effect, “If
you work on the
internal righteousness of your hearts because you are concerned about God who looks on-- the heart—then your external
acts of righteousness that people see will take care of themselves.” Working
to outwardly impress others will never bring transformation.
It’s as we live our lives with God alone as our audience—living to please
him from the heart—that our hearts change and that will have a profound
impact on the externals that other people see.
Jesus makes this same criticism
in verses 5-7. He
says of the religious leaders, “They
do all their deeds to be seen by others.
For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and
the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in
the marketplaces and being called
rabbi by others.”
Phylacteries were little leather
boxes that had four Bible verses in them that were worn either
on the arm or the forehead
by some Jews in accordance with a wooden interpretation of Exodus 13.
The longer fringes on their garments
were also purely external and designed to impress other Jews with how
spiritual they were. This
kind of external righteousness was rooted in their pride. They wanted people
to know, not only how righteous they were, but that they
were more righteous than almost everyone else.
It wasn’t just about appearing to be good; it was about appearing to be better. This is C.S. Lewis’
point in his chapter on pride in “Mere Christianity.”
Our spiritual pride always ends up expressing itself by showing contempt
for other believers who we think are less observant than ourselves.
This is why the Pharisees looked
down their noses at Jesus for eating with tax-collectors—they would never do that!
One of the sure fire symptoms
of self-righteousness is “contempt
or sister isn’t as nearly committed as you in their church attendance
or their work in the church
or in their prayer life and instead of your heart being broken over their
comparative spiritual shallowness and praying for them; you instead
look down your nose at them in contempt.
This is especially tempting to do if the
lukewarm person in question is younger than you or better looking than you or more educated than you or makes more
money than you. It’s
tempting to try to compensate for those things by smugly affirming that, “I’m
clearly more committed to Christ than he is.”
A sixth mark of self-righteousness
as condemned by Jesus in the Pharisees is in verse 27. Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but
within are full of dead people’s bone and all uncleanness.
So you outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Tombs were sources of ceremonial uncleanness because according to the
Old Testament, contact with dead bodies made Jews unclean. The Jews used to whitewash tombs with lime every year
around Passover to make them more attractive and also to help people
notice them and stay away from them. That helps us see
what Jesus is saying here. That
is—the external acts of the
Pharisees, which they thought were beautiful, were actually an indication
that they defiled people with their
mark of self-righteousness Jesus highlights here is a
spiritually contagious disease wrapped in the
appearance of holiness. Self-righteousness is contagious and toxic to other
point is that when you teach and practice this external expression of self-righteousness, you are not only hurting
yourself—you are defiling others who look to you for what it is to be
Instead of leading others
to the cross and grace by your humility, you are compelling them
to do the same kind of worthless, spiritually lethal acts of external
righteousness you are doing. This mark of self-righteousness is especially important for parents to note. If you hear your
child spouting off about why their classmate in Sunday school isn’t
nearly as committed to Jesus as they are because they don’t do this,
or because they engage in that; chances are they have learned that
from you. That’s
and finally in verse 29 we read, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.
Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered
A final mark of self-righteousness
increasing level of self-deception.
The Pharisees were so deceived that they
believed that had they been alive, they
would have hailed the prophets as heroes and not attacked them
as so many of their Jewish contemporaries did.
Do we see how absurdly self-deceived these
people were? The
Pharisees were–as Jesus spoke--conspiring to kill him—the Great Prophet
to who all the others pointed. Self-righteousness
is so self-deceiving. Some
of the most self-righteous people in this room have barely felt a twinge
of conviction. This
is why we all need people who we will listen to when they speak into
our lives. Some
believers have no one outside their family who they
will allow to speak into their life.
When you lovingly confront a self-righteous person about their
self-righteousness, they will almost go on the
defensive in the area of their
self righteousness—Jesus says they are blind—they
don’t see it. The
problem is always with the one confronting the
deeply self righteous person will very seldom admit to it because they
have invested so much time and energy in this false righteousness, that to admit that it is sinful would tear down
their entire spiritual life.
As we close, the good news is that
Jesus died for the sin of self-righteousness too.
Any self-righteousness we have is an infallible indication that in that area,
we have not internalized the gospel.
Self-righteousness fills the vacuum
created by those areas of our life where we haven’t internalized the righteousness of Christ in the gospel. Because
we aren’t living in faith on the promise of Christ’s righteousness, we try to establish our own by our own set
of rules and regulations that will make us acceptable.
The answer to self righteousness is not to resolve to stamp out any vestige
of it in your life. The
answer to self-righteousness is the grace of humility
as we stand in the shadow of the
cross and humbly concede that Jesus died because we have no righteousness and any attempt we make to be acceptable
to God is an utter sham. That’s
why Jesus says in verse 11, right smack in the middle of this section on self-righteousness, “The
greatest among you shall be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will
be exalted.” The
opposite of self-righteousness is humility—humbly admitting that we are wretched and miserable apart from Christ,
desperately in need of his righteousness and desperately in need of brothers and sisters who we have given freedom
to speak the gospel into our blind spots.
As we embrace God’s righteousness
found in the gospel, we will more clearly see our self-righteousness
and see it for the hideous and ridiculous thing it is. May God grant us
the grace to know the gospel
and humbly embrace and live out the righteousness found only in Jesus.