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The Life of Jesus - Series 11: Episode 12

Jesus denounces the religious authorities

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 23:1-39
Mark 12:38-44
Luke 20:45-21:4

Jesus condemns the religious leaders as hypocrites, stating seven condemnations, and predicting judgement on them and Israel. The widow in Luke's Gospel contrasts this showing the right Kingdom attitude.

Jesus condemns the religious leaders as hypocrites, stating seven condemnations, and predicting judgement on them and Israel. The widow in Luke's Gospel contrasts this showing the right Kingdom attitude.


Hello, welcome to Series 11 and Episode 12, the final episode of Series 11, and we're calling this ‘Jesus Denounces the Religious Authorities’. It's quite a sober passage that we're going to look at, a really tough one actually, in which the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities comes to a climax in terms of Jesus' denunciation, his criticism, and his prediction of everything that they have done. We're going to be studying in Matthew 23: 1 - 39, and at the end we're then going to switch over to Luke's Gospel, and look at another incident that happened just at this time, Luke 21: 1 - 4.

Introduction and Recap

If you've been following Series 11, you'll be aware of the dramatic and intense events that have been taking place in Jerusalem. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the final time, as recorded in Matthew 21 and parallel passages, and there was a wonderful Triumphal Entry of Jesus into the city, which was the starting point of Series 11. Our 12 episodes have only taken up three or four days-worth of time in the life of Jesus. That's really remarkable. The Gospel writers focus tremendously on the last week of Jesus' life and there's a lot of material around his trial, crucifixion and his resurrection. What some people don't think very much about, is the fact that there's a lot of material about the events leading up to those vital moments in Jesus' life. We're in these moments now. We're seeing the days passing and very interesting and complex events unfolding before our eyes. As I've mentioned before, Luke summarises these days in Luke 21: 37 - 38:

37Each day Jesus was teaching at the Temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, 38and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the Temple.’

Luke 21:37-38, NIV

On Sunday, Palm Sunday as it's become known in the Church, there was a wonderful entry of Jesus into the city. Huge crowds gathered. We have to bear in mind, this was a busy time in the city anyway, because it was the feast of Passover, one of the three major religious feasts of the nation of Israel. Pilgrims came from all round the country, and indeed from other nations, in order to celebrate the feasts together. The city would have been crowded but there were extra crowds there who were the followers of Jesus, and people who were just interested in what he was doing; people who travelled with him; perhaps from Jericho where he'd been recently where large crowds gathered; perhaps from Bethany nearby, the village just a few kilometres from the city, where Lazarus had been raised from the dead just a very short time earlier. Many thousands of people gathered and welcomed Jesus into the city. They really anticipated something dramatic was going to happen, but they did not anticipate Jesus' death. They anticipated something rather different; they anticipated that he'd confront the religious authorities, reform the Temple, maybe confront the Romans, maybe overturn the Romans, maybe bring in angelic forces that'd bring in the Kingdom of God in a miraculous way. It's difficult to know exactly what they thought but these were the kind of ideas that were in the minds of the crowds on that great day called Palm Sunday.

The following day was an equally dramatic event: the cleansing of the Temple. We studied it earlier. I've mentioned it in every episode since, just to keep it in mind, because it was a very major moment of confrontation when Jesus challenged the religious authorities, and basically accused them of hypocrisy and corruption, being more interested in making money out of religion than serving the pilgrims, as they came to say their prayers and make their sacrifices in the Jewish Temple.

Then we've come to Tuesday, and we're probably still on the same day. This is the most obvious way to read the chronology, as we've been for quite a number of episodes, as we've seen a series of hostile questions and trick questions being asked of Jesus, and we've seen Jesus respond robustly, with very wise and clever answers. He doesn't fall into any of the traps that are set for him. He also responds by telling parables: the parable of the Two Sons; the parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard; and the parable of the Great Wedding Banquet. These parables were told against the religious authorities, basically exposing their hypocrisy, their unbelief, and warning them that if they persecuted him, and came against him, and even killed him, then a greater judgement would befall them at a later stage. It's been a pretty tough day.

Jesus has been in the Temple, lots of difficult, confrontational questions have been asked, lots of tension in the air, the crowds are watching to see how things will go. There's been something of a conspiracy amongst the different religious factions to pull together, despite their different opinions, to try and undermine and ultimately to eliminate Jesus. As in one or two other earlier episodes, I want to illustrate this, in terms of the questioning, by reading a couple of the verses in Matthew 22, the previous chapter, about the process of trying to trap Jesus. Matthew 22:15 - 16

15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap (Jesus) in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.’ Matthew 22:15-16, NIV

Verse 23:

23That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection,came to him with a question.’

Matthew 22:23, NIV

Verse 34:

34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.’ (and) ‘35One of them, an expert in the law,tested him with this question:’

Matthew 22:34-35, NIV

We have here mentioned the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and earlier in Matthew 21 we have the mention of the chief priests and the elders of the people. All these significant factions of the Jewish religious establishment were desperately trying to find ways to undermine Jesus, and make him say something that would incriminate him, and cause him to be liable to prosecution by the Roman authorities. All this questioning failed entirely to achieve its purpose, and as we saw in the last episode, Matthew 22: 41 - 46, Jesus then asked them a very difficult question. He asked the Pharisees the question

42“What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

Matthew 22:42, NIV

and led them into understanding that they had not fully grasped the Scriptures, the Old Testament Scriptures which showed that the Messiah would be both the human son of King David, and also the divine Son of the God of Israel. He used Psalm 110 to demonstrate how those two themes would come together. That was where we left the action last time. It ended with a very interesting statement, Matthew 22: 46,

46No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on, no one dared to ask him any more questions.’

Matthew 22:46, NIV

Jesus on the Offensive

The day of hostile questioning of Jesus was coming to an end but what happens in today's episode is something quite different. Rather than Jesus being questioned as he was in the Temple, we find that he goes on the offensive: here he's not telling parables; he's not answering questions; he is issuing a tremendously powerful warning to the religious establishment of Israel. This warning takes up the whole text of Matthew 23 - the whole chapter. We're going to look at this chapter in three sections, and briefly overview the things that Jesus said about the religious authorities. Prepare for some tough language. Here is Jesus not mincing his words, not holding back but being quite forthright in what he thought of the religious leaders, and what he predicted would happen to them.

Hypocrisy and the Law of Moses

We're first of all, going to read Matthew 23: 1 - 12:

‘Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2“The Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ (or teacher) by others. 8But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”’

Matthew 23:1-12, NIV

Jesus said that the religious leaders, such as the Pharisees, claimed to have the authority of Moses. They claimed to sit in Moses' seat and to interpret the Law of Moses definitively. The Law of Moses, of course, was the framework for Jewish national life. All Jews officially were under the Law of Moses. The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law interpreted the Law of Moses for people but they also added in lots of their own laws and traditions, in a very authoritative way, which created tremendous burdens of legalism for the people. Jesus said, the basic problem is they're hypocritical. They say one thing but they do another. Their religion is essentially more about public recognition, and popularity, and respect, and status, than about pleasing God. They like the title Rabbi or teacher, and they like to be influential in society. Jesus then goes on to say, Christian leadership is more about servanthood, and not about titles. That's a pretty serious start to his teaching on this occasion.

Seven Condemnations of the Religious Leaders

But it gets more intense than that, because in the next passage, verses 13 - 32, Jesus issues seven condemnations of the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. Seven condemnations of the religious establishment, which has so firmly opposed him, and even now is preparing to get him arrested, tried and executed. I'll read this passage, verses 13 - 32, and then briefly describe those seven condemnations.

13‘“Woe to you, Teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the Kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 15Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. 16Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the Temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the Temple is bound by that oath.’ 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And anyone who swears by the Temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it. 23Woe to you, Teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill , umin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. 25Woe to you, Teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. 27Woe 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 the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. 29Woe to you, Teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30And you say, ‘If we'd lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!”’

Matthew 23:13-32, NIV

It's hard to find a more robust condemnation of the religious leaders anywhere in Jesus' teaching. He accuses them of hypocrisy, and selfishness, and going against the will of God in a most decisive way. I'm not going to spend a lot of time going through the details of these accusations and condemnations but, let's just summarise the seven main points.

Verse 13, they fail to recognise Jesus as Messiah, and as a result they prevent people from entering the Kingdom of God.

Verse 15 particularly, they're doing more harm than good because even as they evangelise and convert people into the Jewish faith from Gentile backgrounds, they're bringing them into spiritual darkness.

Thirdly, verses 16 - 22 particularly, they're misguided in their use of Scripture; they're blind guides who make arbitrary distinctions over obedience.

Fourthly, verses 23 and 24, they fundamentally failed to see the thrust of the teaching of Scripture, so they're hypocrites in obeying some Mosaic laws and ignoring more important ones.

Fifthly, verse 25 and 26, they are hypocrites in being outwardly religious, while being inwardly greedy and self-indulgence.

Sixthly, they're doing more harm than good, by being religiously active but inwardly spiritually dead, like the bones in a tomb.

Seventhly, they are heirs of those in the Old Testament who failed to recognise the message of the prophets, and turned against the prophets.

Here are the seven condemnations of that passage.

Jesus' Predictions

The concluding passage is very significant, and we'll spend a little bit more time on that. Verses 33 - 39:

33“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. 37Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who sent 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. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you'll not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’’”

Matthew 23:33-19, NIV

Jesus here predicts a number of things. The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law are going to be condemned to hell, to eternal judgement, verse 33. He also predicts, in verse 34, that the Jews will persecute the early Christians, which indeed they did. He predicts in verses 35 and 36, a massive, national judgement upon Israel, upon this generation. This is a judgement that will be a culmination of the fact that, all the way through history, the tendency of the nation and its leaders has been to resist what the prophets have said. The blood that's been shed from the time of Abel, who was the first person killed in human history, according to Genesis 4: 8, and Zechariah, the son of Berekiah, who was the last recorded prophet to be killed in the Old Testament, in 2 Chronicles 24: 20 to 21. That's from the earliest righteous person to die, to the last recorded person - all the implications of the sinfulness of killing those people, is going to fall on this generation. ‘All this will come on this generation,’ verse 36. The whole of God's revelation has been building up to this particular point of Jesus coming. If the authorities turn against Jesus, they're merely repeating the type of mistakes that were made in the past, when righteous people and prophets came, and so often the nation rejected them.

Jesus predicts that Jerusalem will suffer, that her house will be left to her desolate, her house being the Temple. The Temple itself is going to be abandoned! What an extraordinary thought! No one could ever have imagined such a possibility at that time. The Temple had been functioning for hundreds of years since it had been rebuilt, at the time when the Jews came back from Babylon, and the nation was restored. The Temple had been operating for hundreds of years but he says, ‘your house will be left to you desolate’. Something's going to happen to the nation, as a result of this wholesale resistance to Jesus as Messiah.

He concludes

39“For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Matthew 23:39, NIV

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ is a quotation from Psalm 118: 26. We've looked in Psalm 118 in a recent episode, and looked at verse 22 particularly. In verse 26, in this messianic Psalm, this Psalm that the Jews believe described the Messiah, there is a prayer here, or a statement,

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.’

Psalm 118:26, NIV

The Jews understood this statement, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ to be a welcoming statement for the king of Israel, and also for the Messiah. They began to see this as a messianic invocation, the Jewish people welcoming the Messiah. That's exactly how it was used in Matthew 21: 9 by the crowds, when Jesus came into Jerusalem, in the triumphal entry. Matthew 21: 9,

9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heavens!”’

Matthew 21:9, NIV

The crowds had welcomed Jesus, but the leaders had not. Jesus says to the leaders, ‘You won't see me again until you are willing to say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”’ This is a difficult verse to understand but a very likely meaning is, that this is a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus. They've rejected his first coming, but Jesus will come again to the earth, at the end of history. Jesus predicts that Jewish people, and the Jewish national leadership at that point in the future, will welcome the coming of the Messiah.

These are very tough words. This is the sort of passage that people in churches rarely preach on but we do need to understand what's going on, because the coming of Jesus and his salvation, is not just a matter of individuals responding and receiving salvation; it's a national event in the life of Israel, and how Israel responds to their Messiah is critical. It also shapes how the Church is going to be formed. It's clear that the religious leaders had turned against Jesus decisively, and he is now washing his hands of them, and saying that divine judgement will follow the events that take place in their engagement with Jesus, and will particularly follow after they arrest him, try him, condemn him, hand him over to the Romans and jeer at him as he's dying on the cross, as we will see in future episodes.

Kingdom Attitude Shown by the Widow

To conclude this episode in Series 11, We're going to turn to Luke 21: 1 - 4. At the end of Luke 20 we have Luke's compressed version of the denunciation of the Pharisees, and Teachers of the Law, and the religious establishment. Luke decides not to give a fuller version of it and in Luke 21 we see the event that happens later on. Matthew's decision to give a fuller version of it, is partly because he writes to a largely Jewish audience, and so the Jews need to understand in more detail what has gone wrong with their national, religious leadership, Matthew 23 gives lots of explanations which help them.

However, this series and this episode ends on a much better note, you'll be glad to know. Luke 21: 1,

‘As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the Temple treasury. 2He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3“Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”’

Luke 21:1-4, NIV

Jesus is in the Temple. He's been in the Temple all day; this is Tuesday almost certainly, and there have been questions, debates, parables, stated by Jesus and then the denunciation of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Jesus is still in the Temple. He's finished talking to the crowds and his disciples and then he's just looking around and seeing what's happening in the Temple. He sees the receptacle, or container, that's used to receive gifts - a huge container where people could throw in their monetary gifts as they came as pilgrims and worshippers to the Temple. He saw a woman give sacrificially, out of a very small income - an example of humility and self-sacrifice. This story, in a sense, is a symbolic contrast to what we've just been looking at, in the earlier part of this episode, and also in the preceding episodes. We've been looking at the rich and the powerful, and their conflict with Jesus but we notice all the way through these stories, and all the way through the life of Jesus, that it's very often the humble, the poor, the weak, and the outsiders and marginalised, who respond most quickly. In Matthew 21, Jesus says that as the religious leaders rejected the Gospel, at the same time the tax collectors and the prostitutes were coming in. Here we have a widow who shows true humility towards God. It's kind of a symbol of the attitude that is needed. It's a symbol of the sort of people who are most responsive to the Kingdom of God.


As we conclude this episode, and as we conclude this series, we can underline, once more, the tragic situation of the nation of Israel. A terrible decision is being made by the leaders and they're going to reject and condemn Jesus. The consequences for the nation will be horrendous. Jesus predicts some divine judgement. We now know, in hindsight, with the benefit of historical knowledge, that within 30 or 40 years of this moment, there was a great rebellion of the Jews against the Romans. The Romans mobilised a huge army, crushed the rebellion, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and sent many Jews into exile, and abolished their national life. What a tragedy that, that should happen. But it did happen. It's always a terrible tragedy when people reject Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world.

This widow is a contrast. She represents those in Israel who truly believed in God, and were open to the Messiah. All the way through history, the powerful and the rich have found it very hard to become true disciples of Jesus. They have a lot to lose but those who are poor, those who are vulnerable, those who know their frailty, those who've been outsiders, often see in the gospel a powerful salvation. This widow would have been one of those people. The tax collectors and the prostitutes were others. Many of the common people heard Jesus and believed in him. The rich and powerful sadly turned against Jesus at this critical moment, with disastrous consequences.

This brings to an end Series 11. Everything is hanging in the balance. The story is only half told, of this final week of Jesus' life. There's a lot more for us to look at. We're going to move now to Jesus teaching about the future, God's judgements, the end of the world, the Second Coming. Some very exciting and important teaching is coming. We're going to look at the Last Supper, Jesus' arrest, and then his trial and crucifixion, and everything that follows in the final series. Thanks for listening.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How important are outward appearances to you?
  • Discipleship
    1. The widow is a contrast to the religious leaders. Why was her gift worth so much more than others? What does that teach you?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What exactly does Jesus condemn the religious leaders for?
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