Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

Matthew 23:1-36: Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ 8 But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Jesus Condemns the Pharisees

13“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. 14 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.

15“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.17 Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18 And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.19 Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20 Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. 21 He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. 24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel !

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’

31 “Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. 33 Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? 34 Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, 35 that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

Commentary: 23:1-12. The hypocrisy and unbelief of the nation’s religious leaders, evidenced in chapter 22, prompted a strong message from Jesus. He turned to the crowds and to His disciples, who were in the temple listening to His debates with the various religious leaders. He warned them about their teachings saying that their authority was to be recognized (they sit in Moses’ seat, they teach the Law), but their practices, being hypocritical, should not be followed. They placed heavy burdens on people but were not righteous themselves. All their works were performed to be observed by men. Their phylacteries, small leather pouches containing strips of parchment with Old Testament verses, tied to their left arms and foreheads, were wide and thus conspicuous. And the tassels of their prayer shawls were long and noticeable. They loved places of honor and to be called Rabbi, implying they were scholars. Such was not to be the attitude of Jesus’ followers. Titles (such as Rabbi . . . father . . . teacher) and position were not to be sought; instead there should be a brotherly relationship among the disciples.

Jesus was not saying there would be no lines of authority among them. But He was emphasizing that service for Him—the one Master (didaskalos, “teacher”) and one Teacher more important than human positions of honor. Leadership positions should never be a goal in and of themselves, but should always be viewed as opportunities to serve others. The Pharisees, who exalted themselves, would be humbled, and Jesus’ followers, by humbling themselves in service, would someday be exalted.


  1. 2. His warnings to the leaders (23:13-39).

23:13. In warning the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees of their ultimate destruction if they continued in their present path, Jesus pronounced seven denunciations, each beginning with Woe to you. “Those woes, in contrast to the Beatitudes, denounce false religion as utterly abhorrent to God and worthy of severe condemnation.” In six of the seven, Jesus called the leaders you hypocrites.

His first (woe) denunciation concerned the fact that the Pharisees were preventing others from entering the kingdom. Their antagonism toward Jesus had caused many to turn away from Him. Many Jews were looking to their leaders for direction. Their failure to accept Jesus as Messiah had placed a stumbling block in the paths of their countrymen. For this they stood condemned.

23:14. The NIV and some Greek manuscripts omit this verse. It may have been added because of Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. If it is authentic here, the number of woes is eight. This “woe” demonstrated the inconsistency of the religious leaders for they made long “prayers” to impress people with their spirituality, but also oppressed widows, whom they should have helped.

23:15. This woe addressed the zealous activity of the religious leaders for they actively traveled not only over land but also over the sea to make even a single convert to Judaism. The problem with this was that by their actions they were condemning many individuals to eternal damnation. By imposing external restrictions of Rabbinic traditions on their converts, they were preventing these people from seeing the truth. In fact, such a convert became twice as much a son of hell as the Pharisees, that is, he became more pharisaic than the Pharisees themselves! “A son of hell” (lit., “of Gehenna”), was one deserving eternal punishment.

23:16-22. In the third woe Jesus pointed out the tricky character of the leaders. (In the first two woes Jesus spoke of the leaders’ effects on others; in the other five woes He spoke of the leaders’ own characters and actions.) When taking oaths, they made fine lines of distinction that could possibly invalidate their oaths. If one swore by the temple, or by the altar of the temple, it meant nothing to them. While thus appearing to be making a binding oath, they inwardly had no intention of keeping it. But if one swore by the gold of the temple or the gift on the altar, he would be bound by the oath. But Jesus said they were wrong in suggesting that gold was greater than the temple and a gift greater than the altar. Jesus pointed out that any oath based on the temple or things in it was binding for behind the temple was the One who dwelt in it. This was parallel to making an oath by God’s throne, for that oath was also binding because of the One who sat on the throne. Such distinctions by the religious leaders were condemned by Jesus, for they were clearly deceptive and dishonest. Jesus denounced those leaders as blind guides, blind fools, and blind men.

23:23-24. The fourth woe related to the pharisaic practice of meticulously tithing all their possessions. They went so far as to carry the practice down to the smallest spices from plants: mint, dill, and cummin. While meticulously following the Law in this area, they failed to manifest the justice, mercy, and faithfulness demanded by the Law. They were majoring on minors, straining out a gnat, while minoring on majors, swallowing a camel. Being so busy with small details, they never dealt with the important matters. Jesus was not saying tithing was unimportant; He was saying they were completely neglecting the one area at the expense of the other. They should have been doing both. Since they were not, they were blind guides.

23:25-26. The fifth woe emphasized the hypocritical nature of the Pharisees. They were concerned with external cleanliness, such as the outside of the cup and dish from which they would eat. But in their hearts were greed and self-indulgence. Their cleansing was primarily for the sake of being seen by men. But they were not above robbery and excesses in their own lives. If cleansing would take place internally, their outside would also be affected.

23:27-28. In the sixth woe Jesus continued the thought of the previous statement about external purification. The fifth woe stressed their actions; the sixth, their appearances. He called the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees . . . whitewashed tombs. A custom then was to keep tombs painted white on the outside so they would appear beautiful. But inside the tombs was the decaying flesh of dead people. Similarly, while the Pharisees appeared beautiful on the outside because of their religious conformity, they were corrupt and decaying inside. They were full of hypocrisy and wickedness (anomias, “lawlessness”).

23:29-32. The final woe also emphasized the religious leaders’ hypocrisy. They spent time building tombs and decorating the graves of the righteous. They were quick to say that if they had lived in the time of the prophets, they would never have been involved in shedding the blood of these righteous men. Jesus knew they were already in the process of planning His death. By that act they would demonstrate they were just like the former generations who murdered the prophets. By rejecting the Prophet, they would be following in the footsteps of their forefathers and “filling up” their ancestors’ sin.

23:33-36. In severe language Jesus condemned the religious leaders, calling them snakes and a brood of vipers, whose eternal destiny was hell (lit., “Gehenna”), the place of eternal punishment. The evidence that they were deserving of hell would be their continual rejection of the truth. The Lord promised to send them prophets and wise men and teachers, but the leaders would reject their words and even kill some and flog and pursue others. Their response to the proclaimed truth would justify the judgment coming on them. Abel was the first righteous martyr mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures and Zechariah was the last martyr, 2 Chronicles being last in the Hebrew Bible. (In this statement Jesus attested the Old Testament canon.) In 2 Chronicles 24:20, Zechariah is called the “son of Jehoiada,” whereas in Matthew he is the son of Berakiah. “Son of” can mean descendant; thus Jehoiada, being a priest, could have been Zechariah’s grandfather. Or Jesus may have had in mind the Prophet Zechariah who was the son of Berakiah. On that generation of Jews, who were guilty because they were following their blind leaders, would fall God’s judgment for their involvement in shedding innocent blood. The Lord was anticipating the nation’s continuing rejection of the gospel. Their refusal of the Messiah ultimately led to the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70, forty years to the day after Jesus death.


Always keep Jesus in your heart and on your mind.

God is testing us every day and has given us the right to make our own choices. Do you know which ones are the right choices in Gods mind?

Fear God, love God, honor God, and trust God with all your heart, mind and soul and you will receive and experience the joy of the promises of God’s blessings in His time.


Prayer:    Father in heaven, I praise You for Your Son and the Holy Spirit.  I praise You for Your grace in sending us Your  wisdom about  “Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees.”  Please bless those who have read this article for they too are seeking Your righteous  truth, love, wisdom and understanding. I pray for those who disagree with Your will or do not follow Your will purposely.

May God, Jesus, The Holy Spirit and Christianity be our guiding lights, our safety nets and our inspiration for loving happiness in all of Your kingdom. Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Not my will, but yours be done. Please come Lord Jesus.

I pray in Jesus sweet name and to His glory through the power of the Holy Spirit,