Matthew 23:13-15

Sermon preached on January 26, 2014 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

How do we get into heaven? When I was growing up I was given some information on what it meant to be a Christian. I was told some positive things, like a Christian was someone who went to church. But it was mostly negative things that I was taught. I was told a Christian didn't smoke or drink. A Christian didn't go to movies. A Christian didn't play cards or read comics. A Christian didn't go to dances. A Christian didn't play pool. A Christian didn't do anything fun on Sundays—you couldn't go swimming, bike-riding, play games, watch TV or anything like that. If you were a girl you couldn't wear makeup.

I remember a funny story that happened in the church I grew up in. They had a choir and the minister's wife was the choir director. She had a rule that you couldn't wear make-up if you were in the choir. She didn't wear any either. And that's the way it was the whole time she was there. But the minister and his wife left and went to Toronto to work in a church there. I think it was the very next year they came back for a visit and the former choir director was wearing make-up!

But of course, you can obey all of those rules and not be a Christian. You can do all those things and not go to heaven. We all need to be clear on what it means to be a Christian and one of the best ways to do this is to look at the Pharisees—for they show us what not to do. Jesus said about them, (Matthew 23:13–15)

"Woe to you, teachers of the law
and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces.
You yourselves do not enter,
nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Woe to you, teachers of the law
and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
You travel over land and sea
to win a single convert,
and when he becomes one,
you make him twice as much
a son of hell as you are."

In chapter 23 there are a total of seven woes pronounced against the Pharisees. What we learn from this is that

you don't get into heaven by being like the Pharisees.

In our text Jesus said that the Pharisees shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. Their teaching was incorrect. Rather than helping people find God, they shut the door to heaven. In Matthew 16:6 Jesus said to His disciples,

"Be careful. Be on your guard against the yeast
of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

Verse 12 says that a little later His disciples understood what Jesus meant, that he was warning them against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

So who were the Pharisees and what was their teaching?

The Pharisees were a group that were interested in keeping the law. At the time that Jesus lived and in the previous 3 centuries there was a great deal of Greek influence that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great. Some of this influence horrified the Jewish people. Paul F. Yeulett writes, "Jesus and His Enemies."

"The famous Jewish revolt of Judas Maccabeus in 167 BC had been provoked by the atrocities of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, known also to history as Antiochus Epiphanes. This pagan ruler had not only prevented the Jews from living and worshipping according to God's commandments, he had profaned the sanctuary in Jerusalem in the most appalling ways imaginable, dedicating the temple to Zeus and even sacrificing pigs there."

This outraged the Jews. But even after threats like that subsided, Greek culture, philosophy and language were all finding their way into Israel. This process was called Hellenization. Indeed, the New Testament was written in Greek, because it was the common lingua franca of much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East during that time.

But even apart from that great offense, many Jews felt that these foreign influences were a threat to their distinctiveness. A group known as the Hasidim emerged. They were the 'holy ones'. It is probably that the Pharisees emerged from this group.

Paul F. Yeulett writes, "Jesus and His Enemies."

"At the very heart of the Pharisees' creed was the need to maintain the strictest separation from anything that might be classed as defilement—the actual word Pharisee probably comes from a Hebrew root that means 'to set apart.' They searched the law of Moses in the greatest detail in order to work out how to apply its regulations to every area of life. They were concerned about religious conduct not only in and around the Jerusalem temple, but also in the synagogue and everywhere else across the land. From these practical concerns arose a great body of laws, the oral traditions, which we read about in the Gospels, as in Mark 7:3–13. These were seen as a 'fence,' the observance of which would maintain ceremonial cleanness."

But in spite of that, the Pharisees are marked out in the New Testament as being evil.

When they came to John the Baptist, he said to them, (Matthew 3:7)

"You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"

They were one of the main groups that opposed Jesus. In Matthew 9:34 the Pharisees were the ones that said about Jesus,

"It is by the prince of demons
that he drives out demons."

Matthew 12:2 tells us that it was the Pharisees who went out and,

"plotted how they might kill Jesus."

In John 8:13 the Pharisees questioned Jesus' authority and told Him that it was not valid. They claimed that they were Abraham's children. But Jesus said to them, (John 8:44)

"You belong to your father,
the devil, and you want to
carry out your father's desire.
He was a murderer from the beginning,
not holding to the truth,
for there is no truth in him.
When he lies, he speaks his native language,
for he is a liar and the father of lies."

In our text, Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven woes on them. He said,

"Woe to you, teachers of the law
and Pharisees, you hypocrites!"

When Jesus says, "Woe to you Pharisees", He is saying,

"How horrible it will be for you."

Jesus is telling them that they're going to experience God's wrath. God's terrible judgment is coming on them.

So what was wrong with the Pharisees?

The New Testament lists many things. The Pharisees were lovers of money. They loved the praise of men. In verse 5f Jesus said,

"Everything they do is done for men to see:
They make their phylacteries wide
and the tassels on their garments long;
they love the place of honor at banquets
and the most important seats
in the synagogues; they love
to be greeted in the marketplaces
and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'"

But it was certain things about their practice and teaching that Jesus particularly criticized. One of their great problems was that

they thought that they could get to God through obeying God's law.

They were self-righteous. They thought they could be saved by keeping the law. Paul F. Yeulett writes.], "Jesus and His Enemies."

"the Pharisees had perfected human religion. They had turned it into an art form of the highest sophistication. Their outward appearance of devotion to God and their detailed prescriptions of how to show that devotion—especially in the matters of ceremonial washing and of almsgiving—were striking, even impressive."

One of the basic problems of the Pharisees was that they were self-righteous. They looked to the law for salvation.

This is a very common problem today. One of the questions in Evangelism Explosion Evangelism Program is,

"Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and He were to say to you, 'Why should I let you into my heaven?' what would you say?"

Many people answer that with,

"I'm a good person. I've done a lot of good with my life."

Many people think that if there is a God, He will let them into heaven because they're good people. They're good citizens. They do some good works. They certainly do a lot more good things than bad things.

But you can't get into heaven through your works, through your own righteousness.

We see this from Luke 18:9 where Luke writes,

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness
and looked down on everybody else,
Jesus told this parable:"

Jesus then told the Parable of the Pharisees and the tax collector. Both went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee said, (Luke 18:11–12)

"God, I thank you that
I am not like other men—
robbers, evildoers, adulterers—
or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."

He was trusting in his own righteousness.

In contrast, we read this about the tax collector. (Luke 18:13)

"But the tax collector stood at a distance.
He would not even look up to heaven,
but beat his breast and said,
'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'"

Jesus said, (Luke 18:14)

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other,
went home justified before God.
For everyone who exalts himself
will be humbled, and he who
humbles himself will be exalted."

The Pharisee was looking at his good works and was trusting in them. The tax collector was looking for mercy.

The problem is that no matter how good you are, no matter how hard you try, you're still a sinner. As we read in Romans 3:10,

"As it is written:
'There is no one righteous, not even one;' "

The wages of sin is death. So if you trust in your works they're going to fail you. As Romans 3:20 says,

"Therefore no one will be declared
righteous in his sight
by observing the law;"

We see this in the best known Pharisee of them all—

Saul of Tarsus who became the apostle Paul.

In Philippians 3:4–6

"If anyone else thinks he has reasons
to put confidence in the flesh,
I have more: circumcised on the eighth day,
of the people of Israel,
of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;
in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal,
persecuting the church; as for
legalistic righteousness, faultless."

Paul knew what it was like to be a Pharisee. He was one. His life was, as far as the teaching of the Pharisees goes, faultless. But here's how Paul continued, (Philippians 3:7–9)

"But whatever was to my profit
I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
What is more, I consider everything a loss
compared to the surpassing greatness
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,
for whose sake I have lost all things.
I consider them rubbish, that I
may gain Christ and be found in him,
not having a righteousness
of my own that comes from the law, but
that which is through faith in Christ—
the righteousness that comes
from God and is by faith."

There are two things to note in what Paul says.

First, note that he said that he considered all his keeping of the law as 'rubbish'. The Greek word refers to, (BDAG, 932)

"useless or undesirable material that is subject to disposal, refuse, garbage (in var. senses, 'excrement, manure, garbage"

Once Paul saw his true condition and that he needed the righteousness of Christ, he saw what his own works, his supposed righteousness, for what it really was—manure.

We see this same teaching in Isaiah 64:6. It says,

"All of us have become like one
who is unclean, and all our
righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf, and
like the wind our sins sweep us away."

All our righteous acts are in fact filthy rags. John Calvin says the reference to filthy rags,

"it denotes something which is vile and worthless, and which, on account of its filthiness, stinks in the noses of men."

That's what God says about our best works.

John Oswalt writes, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66 (NICOT; p. 626)

"Thus the 'Holy People' are not holy at all; they are as unclean as lepers (Lev. 13:44–46; see also Hag. 2:13–14); what they call righteous acts are as corrupt as menstrual cloths."

Sin has so corrupted us that even the best works that we do are defiled. It's like the prophet Haggai said in Haggai 2:13–14.

" 'If a person defiled by contact with a dead body
touches one of these things, does it become defiled?'
'Yes,' the priests replied, 'it becomes defiled.'
Then Haggai said,
'So it is with this people
and this nation in my sight,' declares the Lord.'
Whatever they do and whatever
they offer there is defiled."

So you see, our works, however good they may be, will do nothing but condemn you. They're not something we should cling to.

So this means that you should recognize that your best works will not stand you in good stead with God. Your best works will not get you into heaven. Your works, if you trust in them, will put you in hell.

But secondly note that Paul said that what he needed was a righteousness from God. Paul said that he consider his works,

"I consider them rubbish, that I
may gain Christ and be found in him,
not having a righteousness
of my own that comes from the law, but
that which is through faith in Christ—
the righteousness that comes
from God and is by faith."

The point is that

you need something other than your righteousness in order to get into heaven. You need the perfect righteousness of Jesus.

The Pharisees shut the kingdom of heaven to men. They directed men to their works, to good deeds, to religious observances.

But in Matthew 5:20 Jesus said,

"For I tell you that unless your
righteousness surpasses that of the
Pharisees and the teachers of the law,
you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Baker New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1973), 293.

"The righteousness demanded by Jesus is nothing less than complete conformity with God's holy law (cf. Matt. 22:34–40, especially verse 37) in all that a person is and does. Such a righteousness means that the heart, not only the outward deed, is right, yes right as the holy God himself views it. This righteousness, moreover, is God-given, here below in principle, hereafter in perfection."

Jesus died for our sins. He lived a perfect life. The righteousness that we need is His righteousness. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 3:21–24,

"But now a righteousness from God, apart from law,
has been made known, to which the Law and
the Prophets testify.
This righteousness from God
comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
There is no difference, for all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God,
and are justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."

If you are to get into heaven you need Jesus. You need to renounce your quest for righteousness from the law. You need to have faith in Jesus. You need God's righteousness—the perfect righteousness of Jesus imputed to us. You need God to declare that you are righteous because of the work of Jesus. Go to Him today.