Intense is the only word that I can come up with to describe Matthew 23. Jesus holds nothing back in his instruction to the people and in his rebuke of the Pharisees.
Jesus instructs his hearers to be on their guard against the false teachers of the scribes and Pharisees. This is a radical instruction given that these two groups comprised the religious leaders of the day. They were the ones to whom the people went for guidance, instruction, and counsel. The scribes were the interpretive experts on the Torah itself, and the Pharisees were experts on theological issues that the Torah raised.
The people were to reject the teachings of these religious leaders because both the scribes and the Pharisees did not practice what they preached. “They tie up heavy burdens, had to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to them with their finger” (23:4). Belief drives behavior, and behavior has to match belief. Be on your guard against false teachers. Make sure their actions validate their message.
Beginning in verse 13, Jesus turns his attention directly to the scribes and Pharisees. He condemns them because they have “drawn the people away from the kingdom of heaven instead of leading them it.”* The seven woes are:
Examine yourself before the Lord. Make sure that you are not a whitewashed tomb. Clean from the inside out. Jesus calls us to develop a hatred of sin and to live a life of righteousness.
*ESV Study Bible
The scribes (teachers) and other Pharisees were experts in Torah, the law of Moses. They sat on the authoritative seat at the front of the synagogue and taught the written Torah as well as their own traditions that tried to apply the law to life in Israel. And they also enforced that law (and their traditions), spying on the people and punishing transgressors. Since the law was about more than just religious matters, and about many aspects of life in the kingdom of Israel, they were more than just religious leaders. They were ruling authorities in the kingdom, especially on the local level of the towns and villages, where the synagogue ruled supreme.
Thus Jesus is warning against leaders who are politically, socially, and religiously powerful, who use that position for their own selfish glory.
thanks for the comment on my blog post. It brings further explanation to the identities of the scribes and Pharisees. I wanted to be very brief in my treatment of them because my blogs purpose is to be a companion for reading the New Testament through in a year. I am a pastor and primarily write this “commentary” for the edification of our congregation. Thanks for adding to it. I know your comment will be much appreciated.
If you will allow, may I ask who you are? I noticed your blog, and it looks interesting. Are you a biblical scholar or a pastor or both? Are you a layperson? I look forward to hearing from you.
I am an ordained former pastor, but have been mostly a teacher and writer. I have taught in seminaries here and abroad, and have written three ebooks, offered free on my blog.