Search Bible Outlines and commentaries




Jesus reserved his sharpest criticism for the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders of His day. He was not only concerned that their emphasis on religious formalism and external practices had caused them to miss the heart of God’s instruction regarding internal righteousness, but that they were leading others down this legalistic path as well. Not only were they ignorant of God’s truth but they were hiding God’s truth from the multitudes. While claiming to be experts in God’s law, they had substituted their own lifeless man-made religion for the power and vitality of truly knowing God.

J. Ligon Duncan: People in Jesus’ day would have revered the Pharisees. They were religious leaders, lay leaders of synagogues throughout the land who were calling Jewish people back to the Bible, to live by the Book, to not cave in to the cultural corruption of the occupying Romans the way the Sadducees were caving in at every turn and giving cultural ground. And so the people revered the Pharisees as among the holiest of all those in Israel.

And the lawyers in this passage, who are not lawyers in the sense of attorneys practicing law for their vocation, they are law experts — they are scribes in one place called in this passage — that is, people who were specifically devoted to the recording and teaching of the law. They were not identical to the Pharisees but they were associated with the Pharisees and part of what we might call the conservative party in Judaism in Jesus’ day. These people were highly thought of.



“Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him;

and He went in, and reclined at the table.”

This sharp critique takes place on the home turf of this Pharisee who had invited Jesus to join him and a bunch of his respected religious colleagues for lunch; seems like a relaxed setting but the atmosphere is anything but relaxed; you could cut the tension with a knife


A. (:38) Supposed Offense – Regarding External Religious Observances

“And when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal.”

Donald Miller: The handwashing had nothing to do with hygienic cleanliness, but was a Pharisaic prescription to remove the moral uncleanness they felt was acquired by contact with unholy people and things. It had grown out of tradition, and was not prescribed by the Law. It was one of many indications that official piety had degenerated into concern with appearances, rather than with reality.

MacArthur: Their religion was purely external. And what happens is this: In order to live out your religion and put on a convincing show, you elaborate the external. So you expand the emblems; you expand the functions; you expand the ceremonies; you expand the rituals; you proliferate the prescriptions. That’s exactly what the Jews had done, way beyond the Old Testament. That’s what the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox have done, way beyond what the New Testament teaches, adding almost endless rituals, routines, ceremonies, regulations, because there’s nothing on the inside but you can create a bigger illusion that way.

B. (:39) Sharp Rebuke – Regarding Internal Depravity

“But the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness.’”

C. (:40) Superficial External Focus Misses God’s Intention Regarding Internal Righteousness

“You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also?”

D. (:41) Spiritual Lesson Regarding Cleanliness

“But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.”

Donald Miller: The best evidence of a true heart toward God is to share one’s goods with a needy neighbor. This will cleanse the life more than concern with religious ceremonies (vs. 41).

Morris: it seems that Jesus is stressing the importance of the inward over against the outward, and it is better to take the words as referring to the importance of a right inward state when we give alms. We must give our hearts and not just make an outward gesture.

Geldenhuys: Instead of concentrating all attention upon the outward ceremonial cleansing of cups and platters and other articles of use, they should rather exercise true love, and share their possessions with other people who need them. The simile in the first place refers to the distribution of the contents of cups or plates, but also means that all possessions of a person should be placed at the disposal of God in true charitable service for our fellow-men. When a man’s inner life is so purified that he acts in this manner, he will be “clean”, together with everything he possesses – he will stand in the right relationship to God without all kinds of ceremonial purifications.


A. (:42-44) 3 Woes Pronounced Against the Pharisees

1. (:42) Substituting the Lesser for the Greater – Wrong Priorities

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”

Bruce Hurt: Woe (alas) (ouai pronounced “oo-ah’ee,” an eerie, ominous foreboding sound some say is like the cry of an eagle) is an onomatopoeic word (an imitation of the sound) which serves as an interjection expressing a cry of intense distress, displeasure or horror. Jesus uses it to convey a warning of impending judgment and disaster on the Pharisees.

Donald Miller: The tithe was intended as an acknowledgment of God’s provision and an offering of love. Woe on a religion which had become a substitute for justice and the love of God – a means of escaping the full demands of obedience to God by the scrupulous fulfillment of a part of the letter of the law (vs. 42; Micah 6:8).

2. (:43) Self-Promotion

“Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the front seats in the synagogues, and the respectful greetings in the market places.”

3. (:44) Hidden Sources of Death and Defilement

“Woe to you! For you are like concealed tombs, and the people who walk over them are unaware of it.”

Morris: There is irony in the comparison of the religious Pharisees, who thought so well of themselves, to these unsuspected sources of defilement. Men who walked over unmarked graves became ceremonially unclean. And men who walked in the teaching and ways of the Pharisees became morally unclean.

Geldenhuys: According to Numbers xix. 16 everyone who touches a grave in the open is for seven days ceremonially unclean. For this reason the Jews as far as possible tried to mark all graves clearly by whitewashing them. Now Jesus says that the Pharisees are like graves not clearly marked; and just as people unconsciously walk over such graves and thus become ceremonially unclean, the Jews without realizing it become unclean in their imitation of the Pharisees through the pernicious influence of those members of the party who in their hypocrisy profess to be the pious ones in Israel while in reality they are spiritually unclean.

Steven Cole: The application is that the sin of legalism contaminates unsuspecting people. It turns off unbelievers and keeps them from the truth of the gospel, because they can see the hypocrisy of the legalists. It contaminates young believers, who are mistakenly taught that if they do certain things and do not do other things, they will grow in holiness and be pleasing to God. But invariably, the things that they are told to do and not do are not the important issues of the Bible, such as the love of God and neighbor (as summed up in the Ten Commandments). Rather, they are petty things, often things that Scripture does not directly command.

B. (:45-52) 3 Woes Pronounced Against the Lawyers

1. (:45-46) Taskmasters Enforcing Hypocritical, Burdensome Regulations

“And one of the lawyers said to Him in reply,

‘Teacher, when You say this, You insult us too.’

But He said, ‘Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers.’”

Steven Cole: Legalism burdens people with peripheral issues and rules. Biblical holiness frees people by pointing them to the beauty of God’s holiness and love. As 1 John 5:3 states, “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” When we obey out of a heart of love for God, even though it is not always easy, it will always result in great joy and blessing.

2. (:47-51) Killers of God’s Messengers

“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. Consequently, you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs.

For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, in order that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation.’ “

Steven Cole: the underlying problem is that though outwardly they act as if they honor the prophets, inwardly they do not repent of the very sins which the prophets condemned.

3. (:52) Concealers of God’s Truth

“Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.”

Morris: Their methods were such that people could not get at the essential meaning of God’s word. Instead of opening up the treasures of knowledge, the lawyers closed them fast. They turned the Bible into a book of obscurities, a bundles of riddles. Only the experts could understand it. And the experts themselves were so pleased and preoccupied with the mysteries they had manufactured that they missed the wonderful thing that God was saying. They neither entered themselves nor allowed others to enter.

MacArthur: You have no spiritual power (:45-46) because you have no spiritual life (:47-51). You have no life — listen to this — because you have no truth (:52). You took the key of knowledge and you threw it away. . .

He says, you’re no different, you’re embellishing the tombs of the prophets is a kind of hypocrisy that makes you as guilty as your fathers. If you really wanted to show honor to the prophets, you’d obey the message the prophets gave, which they still rejected the message of true heart righteousness. And if you really wanted to honor the prophets, you would honor the one of whom the prophets spoke who stands right here. So they pretend to honor God’s prophets. They pretend to be righteous, to be holier than the generations of the past. But they were no different.

They thirsted for the blood of the greatest prophet ever. And in verse 31 of Matthew 23 Jesus says directly to them, “You are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up then the guilt of your fathers.” You’re in the same line, nothing changed. The history of Israel is just horribly sad. Apostates through the Old Testament all the way, apostates in the New, pretending to honor the prophets while not believing their message nor believing on the One they predicted would come. They were so spiritually blind, they were so spiritually lifeless. That’s the word, they didn’t have any spiritual life and that’s why they couldn’t know who was in their midst, they were so dead. It was as if a live person walked into a mortuary amidst a whole group of corpses. They couldn’t connect. There’s no way corpses would know who was there. They possessed no spiritual life, therefore no spiritual perception. And so they wanted to kill the prophet of all prophets.


“And when He left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile and to question Him closely on many subjects, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say.”

Morris: The word rendered catch at is thereusai, which is used of hunting wild beasts. It is a vivid word for intense opposition.