37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.
42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” 46 And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. 52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
53 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say. – Luke 11:37-54 ESV
There was no love affair between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. These men found the actions of this Rabbi from Nazareth to be perplexing and irritating. He had burst onto the scene, virtually out of nowhere, capturing the attention and the hearts of the people. From the wilderness of Judea to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, this itinerant Rabbi had regularly drawn huge crowds who gathered to hear Him teach and watch Him perform miracles.
And everywhere Jesus went, a contingent of scribes and Pharisees shadowed His every move. They had been commissioned by their superiors on the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin, and tasked with finding evidence that would convict Jesus of a crime worthy of death. The high priest and his companions on the council had already determined that Jesus was a threat to their authority and needed to be eliminated at all costs.
And, as we have seen, these so-called spiritual leaders of Israel had stooped so low that they had been dessiminating libelous rumors about Jesus. One of the worst was their accusation that He cast out demons by the power of Satan. They had no proof to support their claim, and as Jesus so clearly revealed, it was an illogical assertion that made no sense. If anything, Jesus’ authority over demons provided irrefutable evidence that He had been sent by God. But the religious leaders were not interested in facts. They were obsessed with exposing Jesus as a fraud and labeling Him as a danger to the nation. They had even taken to demanding that He perform some kind of sign that would prove His claim to be the Messiah. If He really was the long-awaited Savior of Israel, He was going to have to do more than heal the sick and cast out demons. To the Pharisees and scribes those were nothing more than parlor tricks. If He wanted to convince them of His Messiahship, He was going to have to do something truly spectacular that would be in keeping with the predictions of the prophets. In other words, Jesus was going to have to show that He could set the nation of Israel free from its subjugation to Rome.
Jesus couldn’t go anywhere without being shadowed by these disingenuous and deceitful men. Their modus operandi was to destroy Jesus, yet they continually tried to act as if they were sincere disciples who were seeking to learn more. On this occasion, one of the Pharisees extended an invitation to Jesus and His disciples to join him for dinner in his home. Interestingly enough, Jesus accepted. And it seems that Jesus knew that this innocent-looking event was all a set-up. Fully aware of His host’s intentions, Jesus purposefully neglected to perform “the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom” (Luke 11:38 NLT). Jesus knew He was in the home of a law-abiding Pharisee and yet He chose to sit down to a meal without having first ceremonially purified His hands. And Luke records that “The Pharisee was astonished” (Luke 11:38 ESV).
Sensing His host’s surprise at this egregious breach of protocol, Jesus used the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
“You Pharisees are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and wickedness.” – Luke 11:39 NLT
It’s likely that this man had faithfully adhered to the hand-washing mandate, and his astonishment stemmed from Jesus’ blatant disregard for their religious customs. But before he could get too worked up over his own display of spiritual superiority, the Pharisee had his pride deflated by Jesus’ harsh-sounding words. Even the disciples must have felt uncomfortable listening to this exchange between Jesus and their host.
But Jesus was simply exposing the hypocrisy of His self-righteous critics. This Pharisee, like all his companions, was guilty of conflating religious rule-keeping with righteousness. They were obsessed with outward adherence to a set of rules, while neglecting the inner condition of their own hearts. That’s why Jesus reminded this man, “But give as alms the things that are within you, and you will see that everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41 BSB).
Jesus was reminding this man that true cleanliness was a matter of the heart. Outward adherence to laws and regulations meant nothing if the inner disposition of the heart remained unchanged and unmoved. This is exactly what Jesus meant when He said:
“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” – Mark 7:20-23 NLT
This is the very same message Jesus had conveyed in His sermon on the mount.
“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:1-4 NLT
And the apostle Paul would later pick up on this same theme.
If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:3 NLT
This self-righteous Pharisee viewed himself as somehow superior to Jesus and His disciples because he had washed his hands. But because he lacked love for others, he was actually filled with greed and wickedness. His outward observance of ceremonial laws may have fooled others, but it had not fooled Jesus.
At this point in Luke’s account, he portrays Jesus as amping up His rhetoric in an unabashed attack on these so-called religious leaders. As Jesus prepares to follow His Father’s will and head to the cross, He goes out of His way to expose the truth about His enemies. But His words are not intended to be a vindictive attack on those who disagree with Him. He is simply pulling aside the veil and revealing the long-hidden truth regarding these men. They are not what they seem to be. And, before He leaves this earth, Jesus wants to ensure that His disciples understood what true religion should look like.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:27 ESV
At this point, Jesus makes His message much more direct by turning His attention directly to the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This is the part where He pronounces His seven woes or warnings against them. It is important to recognize that this is all about two distinctly different ways to approach God. What Jesus has to say is less about their behavior than the focus of their ministry.
Woe #1:They misunderstood the true nature of the Kingdom because they tended to major on the minors. Since they believed that entrance into the Kingdom was based on the keeping of the law, they ended up nitpicking the law to death. Jesus accused them of being meticulously observant of laws concerning the tithing of fruit, grain, and other produce – to the point of absurdity. But in doing so, they conveniently overlooked the more important commandments concerning justice, mercy, and faith.
Woe #2: These men were all about appearances. They lived to impress and were addicted to the praise of men. As long as they looked good, they believed they were good. External appearances and outward behavior were the criteria by which they judged a man’s righteousness, but God looks at the condition of the heart. Matthew records another stinging indictment that Jesus delivered against these men.
“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’” – Matthew 23:5-7 NLT
There were all about being recognized for their outward displays of righteousness. They wanted to be noticed and revered. They were more concerned about the praise of men than they were with the approval of God.
Woe #3: Whether they realized it or not, their actions were deceptive and highly destructive. Jesus accuses them of being like “hidden graves in a field. People walk over them without knowing the corruption they are stepping on” (Luke 11:44 NLT). The true nature of their spiritual state was invisible to those around them. They had successfully disguised their inner moral decay. But anyone who came into contact with them was deemed impure by association.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT
At this point, Luke reveals that there were other religious leaders in the room. A scribe or lawyer interrupts Jesus’ diatribe, stating, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also” (Luke 11:45 ESV). This expert in religious law wanted everyone to know that he had been personally offended by Jesus’ words. But this man would regret having spoken up because he became the focus of Jesus’ attention.
Woe #4: As an expert in the law, this man could parse all the particulars concerning the Mosaic law and meticulously hold everyone accountable to every minute detail found in the law. But he cared nothing for those who were burdened by their inability to live up to this impossible standard.
“…you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT
They were legalists who lacked love for others. In fact, they loved the law more than they loved those for whom God had given the law. They cared more about adherence to a set of rules than they did about those who were burdened down by those rules.
Woe #5: In failing to recognize their own sinful condition, they had become just like their ancestors – rebellious, stubborn, and resistant to God. The Israelites had built tombs and monuments to honor the prophets of God but had failed to listen to their words of warning. In fact, they had killed many of them. And Jesus made it clear that the religious leaders of Israel had done the same thing in His day. They had rejected the most recent prophet of God: John the Baptist. And in just a matter of days, they would arrange to have the very Son of God put to death.
Woe #6: These men had refused to accept Jesus as the Son of God. But their stubborn denial of His identity as the Messiah of Israel had influenced others to reject Him as well. They were passionate. They were zealous. They were religious. BUT THEY WERE DANGEROUS! They had become obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven. Their misplaced zeal had led them to become stumbling blocks.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” – Luke 17:1-2 NET
These men DID NOT represent the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. They didn’t even know the directions. But where do we see this today? In the myriad of false and pseudo-Christian religions. We see it in anyone who denies that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. We need to learn to look for these characteristics.
- Posing as spokesmen for God, but denying people access to the Kingdom of God
- Giving people false hope by offering them a false gospel
- Providing easy workarounds to true holiness and commitment to God
- Judging righteousness based on their own standards, rather than God’s
- Refusing to acknowledge sin, while emphasizing self-righteousness
- Putting undue emphasis on the praise of men, rather than that of God
- Failing to see their status as enemies of God
The spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well today. It’s evident in every religion that refuses to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the only way. It’s prevalent in many mainstream denominations that preach a gospel of works, not grace. It can be found anytime legalism and rule-keeping replace love for God and others. It shows up whenever our religion becomes more important than our relationship with Christ. It takes the form of hypocrisy – when what we say we believe fails to impact the way we behave. When we love the praise of man more than pleasing God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.