Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

168. The Great Arraignment (Matt. 23:13-39; Luke 11 :37-54; Mark 12:38-40)*

From warning his disciples Jesus turned to the Pharisees, still present in the crowd round him, and unleashed the full force of his invective against their pseudo-godliness. Some interpreters suggest that this trenchant series of Woes was spoken in quiet sadness or as a solemn judicial verdict and not in scarce pent-up anger; but such attempts to water down the hot indignation of the Son of God are not very successful. The language is too powerful. Searing and savage in its imagery and caricature, it moves on like the surge of an Atlantic roller, to a climax which no reader can interpret as sorrow or gentle reproach: "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell!"

These men, deemed to be the spiritual elite of the nation, were drunk with power and prestige. And in their determination to hold on to the fence and reputation they had acquired, fey were ready to harness any methods of unscrupulous corruption of the law of God, even if this meant deliberately blinding or misdirecting the mass of the nation to such an extent that a true approach to the God of their fathers became almost impossible.

There was no saving these men from themselves. They were past redemption. Underneath their outward trappings of religiosity was a tough core of evil which nothing could change. Instead of a repentant response to the appeal of Jesus there was only consolidated self-justification and a smouldering dislike for One whom they knew to be far above themselves in ability and character alike.

So the blistering exposure which Jesus had already begun, he now continued to their faces with all the biting scorn of an Old Testament prophet. Just as Isaiah's parable of the vineyard had been followed by seven Woes (5 :8—6 :5), so now with Jesus. The first three Woes describe the Pharisees' teaching, the last three their religious character, whilst the fourth partakes of both.

The Lord's purpose in pronouncing these Woes is not difficult to discern. It was necessary that in the days ahead the minds of the apostles should be insulated against the domineering influence of these powerful and unscrupulous men. The twelve would never forget this awesome experience of their Lord's hot indignation.

But neither did the Pharisees! That day Jesus sealed his own fate. The Good Shepherd was giving his life for the sheep (Pr.30 :11-14).


"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, playactors!" That, precisely, is what they were—men hiding their true characters and personalities from view, and with self-interest and skill presenting themselves before the nation in a role of let's pretend.

"Ye lock up the kingdom of heaven in men's faces," using "the key of knowledge" (Lk. 11 :52) for an utterly wrong purpose.

"Ye compass sea and land (nothing was too much trouble) to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him two-fold more the child of hell than yourselves."

What a contrast with Elijah whom they pretended to venerate so much! His influence begat in his disciple a consuming ambition to be two-fold more a child of heaven than his master: "I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me"(2Kgs.2:9).

Since this word "proselyte" normally signified a Gentile convert to Judaism, Jesus probably meant that when brought into close contact with Pharisee hypocrisy the new-made disciple was sure to react strongly against it into a confirmed heathenism. But it may be that Jesus had in mind the conversion of a Jew to extreme Pharisaism, though this is hardly likely, for this exclusive fraternity—Josephus says they numbered only six thousand—cherished its esoteric character.

False oaths

Examples of Pharisaic casuistry now poured in caustic exposure from the lips of Jesus. "Ye blind guides which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple (the inner sanctuary), it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple (the incense altar or the mercy-seat) he is bound by his oath." How Ps.11 :4 condemned them in this: "The Lord is in his holy temple ... his eyes behold, his eyelids try the children of men."

A strange situation, truly, when men of God had become incapable of seeing that any affirmation, whether sworn nor not, must mean what it says. And that certain oaths be binding and others not was surely the quintessence of deceitfulness. But these men were so much given to equivocation and sophistry that in large degree they had lost the power to recognize the falsity of their own conclusions. It was a blindness which defeated the miraculous healing power of Christ. Let a man swear to an undertaking by the altar of burnt offering, and he could thereafter behave as though no word of promise had passed his lips. But if instead he swore by the sacrifice being consumed on the altar, then his commitment was solemnly binding. As though their righteousness, represented by the sacrifice, could impart greater sanctity to the altar of God than it already had! "It shall be an altar most holy," God had expressly declared to His people (Ex.29 :37).

"It is grievous enough that people should be encouraged to think that there are two kinds of truth, one of which is important and the other not—that which is sworn to, and that which is stated without an oath. That leads men to think that, unless they take an oath, they may tell lies with little or no blame. But to tell men that, even when they have sworn, they are not bound to tell the truth or abide by their promise, unless the oath is taken in a particular way, is far worse, and far more destructive of men's sense of honour and love of truthfulness." So comments Plummer.

In any case, could these clever men not see that both altar and sacrifice were inanimate witnesses, of no value at all to the strengthening of an oath? Could they not see that all solemn affirmations had God for their witness, the One whose presence sanctified temple and altar and offering? Were they short-sighted or wilfully blind?

No wonder Jesus four times called them "blind guides" (v. 16,17,24,26). It was evidently common to call these men "guides of the blind" (Rom.2 :19). But in truth it was the blind leading the blind (Mt.15 :14). No wonder, then, that Jesus called them "fools" for thinking that they could deceive God.


It was just the same in other aspects of religious duty. The Law bade the faithful Israelite pay tithe of the increase of the field and of his flocks and herds (Dt.U :22,23). With characteristic ostentation the Pharisee took this to the absurd limit of even measuring out one tenth of the pot herbs grown in a corner of his kitchen garden. The Lord had no censure for this in itself: "These things (the paying of tithes) it was necessary for you to do (under the Law of Moses), and not to leave the other undone." But Jesus did not here counsel tithing of garden herbs, surely. Were these not specifically excluded by Dt.U :22,23? (But note Lk.18 :12: "all"!). How could men with such a lack of sense of proportion pose as leaders and teachers of the nation?

In his exposure of this lop-sided posture the Lord harnessed Micah's great diatribe against the same false religious spirit in Hezekiah's time: "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil (the meal offering? Lev.2 :2) . . . He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (Mic.6 :7,8). The bitter reproof matched these words, phrase for phrase. "Judgment, mercy, and faith (Lk.: the love of God)."

But these Pharisees were more interested in the punctilios of outward observance than in the life of the spirit. They spoke another language, lived a different life, belonged to another world from that of Jesus. This showed at every turn.

Gnat and camel, cup and platter

"Ye blind guides, which strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel." The more familiar "strain at a gnat" came in as a misprint in the 1611 edition of the King James Version. Jesus was probably alluding to another prophetic reprobation in Amos 6:6 (LXX): "which drink strained wine..."

Here, then, is a biting caricature of Pharisaic attitude. This pious fraud is pictured as taking his concern for purity so far that he sieves his drink through muslin to eliminate the tiny midge which has fallen in. Yet he is all indifference to the great hairy camel which flops past his filter into his cup, thence to be gulped down with sublime unconcern for its hair and dirt and fleas and ritual uncleanness (Lev. 11 :3,21).

The picture is as grotesque as Toad of Toad Hall, yet marvellously true to the spiritual facts. With a change of figure Jesus continued his withering denunciation:

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess." This fool of a Pharisee is now seen carefully wiping and polishing with pietistic zeal the outside of the vessels on his meal table, whilst all the time blithely indifferent to the stinking inedible mess which they contain—extortion and excess! Classically this last word described the man who drank his wine unmixed with water so as to get drunk the sooner. As though it is more right to be concerned about the superficial look of things than about their essential character and how they are gotten!

The Lord had used the same sharpness of speech on an earlier occasion when bidden too meal at a Pharisee's house (Lk.ll :38,39;cp, Mk.7 :4). His language then implied that this particular obsession was a new development in their concentration on religious trivialities. "Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also? But rather give alms (instead of practising extortion) ... and behold, all things are clean unto you" (Lk. 11:41) - by which he surely meant: 'Give your meal to the poor, and then whatever you find for yourself God will sanctify, whether scrupulously cleansed or not.' When would these men get their priorities right? "Behold, thou desires! truth in the inward parts (that which is within): and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom" (Ps.51 :6).

Whited sepulchres

The imagery of Christ's hyperbole moved from the grotesque to the ghoulish: "Ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness."

A month before Passover all the caves in the vicinity of Jerusalem which had been used for burial were white-washed so that pilgrims going to the feast would know to avoid defilement through inadvertent contact with them |Num. 19 :16). The simile could hardly be more apt. Like these tombs, the Pharisees were ostentatious in their dedication to holy things, but it was a beauty which was only skin-deep. They were charnel houses, not temples. Within was only a ghastly collection of dry bones (the prophet's figure for a cast-off people; Ez.37:1 -11) - all the defiling corruption of decay with the smell of death upon it.

Men, looking on the outward appearance, reverenced these impostors for their assumed holiness, but the Lord looked on the heart (1 Sam.16:7): "Ye outwardly appear righteous unto men'—the Shekinah Glory of hypocrisy! This Greek word phaino, in every other place, refers to the Glory of God (Study 13). Here it served to put a keener edge to the Lord's irony. "But within (Jesus went on) ye are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (cp. 1 Sam.l6:7b). That last word was a specially keen thrust, for the whole life of these Pharisees was directed towards keeping the Law, down to the very smallest detail. Yet, in fact, they had utterly lost the spirit of it.

In his earlier tirade against them, Jesus had used this figure with a different emphasis; "Ye ore as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them" (Lk. 11:44). For all their holy posturing, they were an unclean influence, for they corrupted the godliness and sincerity of all amongst whom they lived, and that very often without people being aware of the defilement.

The lawyers, those hair-splitting specialists in the interpretation of fine points of the Law of Moses in its application to the everyday business of life, very rightly took Christ's onslaught as involving themselves, and they protested: "Teacher, thus saying thou revilest us also" (a strong word, this, in all its usages).

An angry Christ

But Jesus would not retract a single word. He turned on them too: "Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers." Their entire effort was directed to loading burdens of religious duty on to the backs of others. What a contrast with the easy yoke and light burden of Christ (Mt. 11:29,20).

But the "burden of the lord" against this generation of hypocrites was crushing in its weight and power. "Ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous". An elegant tomb, said to be that of Jeremiah, was almost in sight, down there in the Kidron valley. "And ye say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets." Plenty of zeal for the tombs of holy men—but you have more use for them dead than alive! And remember that the men who treated them so vilely were your fathers. You have inherited the same traits, only worse! And now you plan to slay a greater prophet than any that your fathers persecuted!

"The wrath of the Lamb" (Mk.3 :5; Rev.6 :16) moved on to a mighty crescendo of denunciation: "Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. (Ex.20:5; 1 Th.2 :16). Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" Every phrase of this intense concentration of white-hot indignation had its origin in the Old Testament. Even in his most impassioned moments, this Son of God thought instinctively in terms of his Father's earlier revelation of truth.

They were the seed of the serpent which wrought such damage in Eden, now destined to share the fate of the serpent which the curse of Genesis 3 :15 foretold. (Cp. Ps.140:3, and indeed most of the psalm). In their attempt to destroy the Seed of the woman, they would find themselves "crushed in the head." And "the judgment of Gehenna" was similarly foretold for disobedient Israel, "a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith ... for a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the Land with her increase" (Dt.32 :20,22).

In the days of Abraham the promised inheritance of the Land was held back for four hundred years because "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full" (Gen.15 :16). But now, worse in the sight of God than those God-less brutalized Canaanites, these adversaries of the Lord would fill up the measure of their iniquity in a tenth of the time. Then, with fire and sword, they would be cast out as were their predecessors. Their obdurate hostility to the gospel of Christ would ensure this.

Persecution foretold

"Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles (and wise men and scribes; Mt.23 :34), and some of them ye shall slay and persecute."

By these words Jesus appointed the prophets and leaders and inspired writers of the early church as the spiritual successors of the long line of prophetic witnesses through all human history (cp. 1 Pet.l : 10-12). And the triple repetition of the word "blood" foretold that their work also would often be at the cost of their own lives.

The comment Jesus appended here is remarkable: "so that (Lk.: in order that] the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required (Gen.42 :22) of this generation."

There seems to be here the bewildering implication that God, with patience exhausted, would let the Jews run to the full limit of their wilfulness, in order to justify openly His bringing on them the punishment for all that the nation had already done. There comes a time when men have so flouted God's remonstrations that He ceases to restrain, lets them go the whole hog, so to speak.

All past guilt of this nature incurred "from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias who perished between the altar and the temple" (Lam.4 :13)—for all this the wayward nation was to be held accountable.

It is far from easy to understand why God should choose to exercise judgment in this way. But in this field—and in mercy! (ls.55 :6-8)—the ways of Heaven's wisdom are beyond men's comprehension.

Abel to Zacharias

There has been difficulty in identifying the Zacharias Jesus alluded to. The post-exilic prophet was "the son of Berechiah" (Zech.l :1), but nothing is known of his death, and it is precarious to depend on the assumption of a floating oral tradition about which there is now complete ignorance. Shortly before the Roman War began, there was a Zacharias, the son of Baruch, who was assassinated by the Zealots in the presence of the Sanhedrin for his open rebuke of their excesses (Josephus B.J. 4.5.4). But he was a wealthy citizen and not a prophet. Nor was he slain between the temple and the altar.

In all respects except one the most satisfying identification is equation with Zechariah, the son (grandson?) of Jehoiada the high priest, who was stoned to death in the court of the house of the Lord at the commandment of king Joash (2 Chr.24 :19-22). This explanation is particularly suitable because 2 Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew Bible, and thus Jesus, using a past tense—"murdered"—was bringing together the first and last martyrdoms for righteousness' sake narrated in the Old Testament, a kind of spiritual "Dan to Beersheba". The blood of Abel cried unto God from the ground (Gen.4 :10). And Zechariah,as he died, said: "The Lord look upon it, and require it." It is not unlikely that Jesus referred to Jehoida, the greatest of all high priests, as Berechiah—the blessed of the Lord—because of his long years of faithful service in one of the most difficult epochs of J udah's history. It was his wife who saved the infant Joash from the murderous intentions of Athaliah. Years later the king ill-repaid his debt of gratitude to this godly family.

Abel was slain out of envy of his good standing before God, and Zechariah because of his denunciation of wickedness. One day more, and the same combination of evils would crucify Jesus also. This he well knew, hence his use of an otherwise anomalous present participle: "all the righteous blood being shed,"

There is something very unusual about the way this passage begins. "Said the wisdom of God" seems to be introducing a quotation. But where from? Whose words? If Jesus meant: lam speaking this through a special gift of wisdom, why the past tense "said"?

A somewhat similar allusion: "Wisdom is justified of all her children" (Lk.7:35) comes in a passage full of allusion to John the Baptist. Is it possible, then, that in this later pronouncement Jesus was quoting an impressive utterance made by John in the course of his preaching?

If so, "I will send them prophets and apostles" foretold how the ministry of Jesus would be filled out through the efforts of the disciples. And John's grim prophecy of retribution on Jewry for "the blood of all the prophets" from Abel to the end of the Old Testament is what could be expected from the one who bridged the gap between the two dispensations.

And Jesus, now on the threshold of his own martyrdom, would readily give John's words a further reference to himself and his men, appropriating the "righteous Abel" type to his own imminent death, and the "Zacharias" allusion to the witness of the same name, who died in the midst of the temple for his righteousness shortly before the temple itself died. Thus in two brief phrases—Abel, Zechariah—the whole of Old Testament martyrdom and also New Testament witness is comprehended, and all of it laid at Jewry's door.

This climactic sin of Israel and the recompense it was doomed to bring were long fore-known in the counsels of heaven: "Behold, it is written before me (see Dt.29 :20,21; 32 :34,41): I will not keep silence, but will recompense, even recompense into their bosom, your iniquities and the iniquities of your fathers together, saith the Lard" (ls.65:6,7).

The doom of Jerusalem

The intense outburst of Jesus was blanketed by sadness as he contemplated this melancholy destiny of his people. To think that such a fate must come to this generation! "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together!" (he alluded to ls.49:5).

How often! Yet this is the first time the synoptic gospels tell of Jesus appealing to Jerusalem. And in John's gospel, which concentrates on the Judaean ministry of Christ, it is only the sixth. The lament implies a long sequence of bitter disappointments.

He would have gathered them "as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings" (cp. Ps.91 :4), to save them from being a prey to Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Herods. But all in vain! They were snatched away by the Roman eagle. This dire fate must come upon them because, although he "would", they "would not."

Their ancient history could have taught them something of the regard the God of Israel had for the city of His choice. In the days of Hezekiah, "as birds flying so the Lord of hosts defended Jerusalem; defending also, he delivered it; and passing over, he preserved it" (ls.31 :5). And now, once again "in returning (to God) and rest (in Him) shall ye be saved; in this quietness and confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not" (30 :15).

"Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (Ez.10 :19; 11 :23). That wonderful edifice which a few days earlier had been "the temple of God" (Mt.21 :12; cp.22 :7) was now "your house", disowned by the One for whose glory it was erected: "let their habitation be desolate ... Let their table (the altar of sacrifice) become a snare before them" (Ps.69 :25,22}. In this sombre conclusion Jesus was yet again harnessing the grave warning of Jeremiah: "If ye will not hear these words, I swear by myself, saith the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation" (22:5, where note also v.3,4).

But long before it was reduced to rubble, that majestic pile was deserted by the Son of God: "I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye say, Blessed (cf. Gal.3 :13) is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." During the next few days these very words—part of the Passover Hallel (Ps.118 :26)—would be repeated in Jerusalem. Did these learned men whom Jesus now apostrophized ponder what he had said, as they heard the familiar phrases again in the temple service? Even if they did, the spirit of that Scripture was lacking. It might just as well not have been uttered. Not until hearts are changed in Israel and those words are said in true sincerity will Israel's estrangement be ended and their Messiah appear once again in their midst. There is a remarkable saying in the Talmud (true, for once!): "If Israel were to make repentance for a single day, Messiah son of David would come."

Before that afternoon was out, Jesus left the temple, never to return to it, except to be condemned to death by the men he had condemned to death. The Glory was departed.

Notes: Mt.23:13-39

The Lord's ministry began with 7 Blessings. It ends with 7 Woes. These sevens were spoken from two different mountains: Dt.27:12, 13.

Hypocrites. See the powerful passage in Farrar's "Life of Paul", ch.4.

The kingdom of heaven. Here a present experience or one in prospect? (21 :43).
Omitted by a great many manuscripts. Apparently, at some time it was imported here from Mk. 12 :40.

Greater damnation. So there are varying degrees of punishment!
The child of hell (Gehenna). A son of Hinnom, not of Abraham.
Fools and blind. Fools especially, for thinking they could deceive God. And because blind, unfit for the temple; 2Sam.5:8.
These ought ye to have done. So scrupulousness in religion is right; cp. 1 Cor. 11:16.

Weightier matters, as summed up in 22 :37.
Full of (Gk. from) extortion and excess; i.e. it was extortion and excess by which that food was provided.
Beautiful. In Gen. 3 :7 LXX the same word describes the tree of knowledge.
Witnesses and in Lk. ye allow s.w. Acts7:58; 8:l.
Fill ye up. 1 Th.2 :15 uses the very phrases of Lk.11:49.
And some of them shall ye kill and crucify. In Lk. this describes the fate of "prophets (NT. prophets) and apostles." There is some historical reason to suspect that Peter, crucified in the Nero persecution, died through Jewish instigation. Nero's favourite concubine was a proselyte to the Jewish religion.
Shall come. Once again, as in all its occurrences, this word heko emphasizes God at work
Stonest. Dt.13 :10; Acts 7 :59.

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