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Jesus always saw the prevalence and damage of religious hypocrisy in the nation of Israel. This chosen nation of God, where theocracy reigned, was led by religious leaders who were corrupt, but were very good at hiding their true nature. During the last few days of His ministry on earth Jesus was leaving His disciples and general crowds with the most important lessons that would resound in their minds after His departure. One of these was the truth about the hidden nature of religious leaders.

Jesus revealed their scribes’ and Pharisees’  true identity on multiple occasions in the past, but in Matthew chapter 23 we have their most extensive exposure that we have on the pages of Scripture. Jesus organizes His address to the scribes and Pharisees around 7 woes (8 if you count verse 14). Verses 23-28 cover ‘woes’ 5-7. Each of these ‘woes’ show us another facet of religious hypocrisy as it was practiced among scribes and Pharisees. These remain to be applicable today. Both unbeliever and believer can receive lessons from this address.

In verse 23 Jesus proclaims 5th ‘woe’ to the scribes and Pharisees because though they meticulously carried out the lesser matters of the law yet neglected the greater ones. The heart of a hypocrite prides in minute accomplishments, but neglects fundamental matters of the law. Religious hypocrites enjoy making their own checklist of do’s and don’ts. Doing so they are able to assure themselves in their self-worth and boast of their accomplishments to others. But, since the evil unrepentant heart is unable to produce God honoring fruit these hypocrites are unable to fulfil the law at its core with their own ‘righteousness’.

Bringing up their traditional washing ceremonies, Jesus showed that the heart of a hypocrite prides in external purity, yet it is full of immorality. The scribes and Pharisees were full of extortion and self-indulgence. They were able to hide it from people, but God saw their hearts.

In verse 26 Jesus affirms one of the most fundamental truths about human nature. The person is unable to make himself righteous by controlling his outer behavior. He needs help from within. It is the heart that needs to be renewed first in order to produce behavior that is acceptable to God.

Lastly, in verses 27-28, Jesus shows that the heart of a religious hypocrite prides in its external beauty, yet it is dead and defiling on the inside. Jesus compared scribes and Pharisees to the beautiful tombs in the region of Jerusalem. Those were whitewashed for external appearance, but were full of human corpses on the inside. Scribes and Pharisees were spiritually dead. The disgusting stench of their wickedness was repulsive to God. Their iniquity along with hypocrisy was damaging to people around.

Religious hypocrisy is as common today as it was two thousand years ago. The sin is as abominable to the Lord now as it was then. Those wishing to be justified by God must be renewed in their heart first. Those who have placed their trust in the Lord for salvation depend on His Spirit for sanctification and are to flee religious hypocrisy.