Jesus spoke seven woes against the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law. Matthew 23 records the harshest criticism that he made of any group of people. This should disturb modern politicians, as there are strong parallels between their activities and style and those attacked so strongly by Jesus.
The cornerstone of Jesus criticism is that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law claim to sit on “Moses seat”.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat (Matt 23:2).
Sitting on Moses seat was a strange expression. I presume that it was a title that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had given to themselves. The problem is that this role does not exist. It is not a legitimate
ministry. When Jesus told the people to obey what they say and not
what they do (Matt 23:3), he must have been kidding to make a point,
because he clearly did not intend the people to obey the Pharisees and
Moses did not have a seat from which he gave out laws. In fact, Moses did not give laws. His was a prophetic role. He stood before God and then spoke and wrote the law that had been revealed to him. Responsibility for defending the law rested with the prophets. They were the ones who challenged Israel for not obeying the law.
The Pharisees and Teachers were not prophets. They claimed an ability to explain and interpret the law. They introduced hundreds of detailed rules and regulation, because they considered that the law on its own did not give enough guidance to ordinary people.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law would not admit it, but their underlying position was that God’s law was not enough. They added extra rules and regulations to help people understand how they should live. This is why they claimed to sit on Moses seat. They were giving extra rules and laws to expand what Moses had given.
Jesus attacked the Pharisees and Teachers, showing that they did not and could not sit on Moses seat, but were hypocrites and impostors. Jesus had no problem with people teaching the law, as he actually blessed those who take this role.
whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:19).
Teaching the law brings great blessings. What Jesus objected to was those who added to God’s law.
God has given his law and it is complete. No one can sit on Moses seat, because no one can add to God’s law. Moses seat does not exist, because there is no ministry of law giving for anyone to fulfil. That task was completed when God gave his law to Moses. There is a need for people to teach the law. There is a need for prophets to urge people to obey and fulfil the law through faith, but there is no ministry of law-giving. Moses seat does not exist in the scriptures.
All members of parliament, congress or law-making assemblies are claiming to “sit on Moses Seat”. They are claiming to be law-makers like Moses. Their problem is that God has already given his law through Moses his prophet, and he does not need anyone to add to it.
Some Christian politicians will claim that they are just explaining God’s law and applying it to modern situations. The problem with this is that they are using the same method as the Pharisees. They would also have said that their regulations updated God’s law to the situation of their time. Unfortunately, Jesus was opposed to this method.
They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:4).
The Pharisees approach does not help people obey the law, it actually makes it harder. This heavy burden makes everyone hostile to the law. God prefers that people think about what the law means and work out for themselves how to live under it. This is more effective than a load of confusing and burdensome regulations.
Jesus critique of the Pharisees applies to all people claiming to sit on Moses seat. His critique is particularly relevant to modern politicians.
The Pharisees and Teachers loved to tell other people what to do, but they did not do what they said that people should do.
do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:3,4).
Stories about politicians falling into immorality are so common that we hardly notice them any more. They are human, so we cannot condemn them for sinning. However, the frailty of the politicians becomes a problem when they think that the can tell other people how they should live.
Most politicians seem to lead fairly dysfunctional lives. If they cannot manage their own lives, how can the make laws that will determine the way the rest of the people should live. We are all capable of making our own mistakes. We do not need politicians forcing us to make their mistakes.
Our government has just passed a law making illegal election over-spending legal. This is normal political behaviour. Here we have politicians who could not keep their own law making laws for the rest of us to obey. Hypocrisy is the only word for it.
Jesus accused the Pharisees and Teachers of being motivated by pride.
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’ (Matt 23:5-7).
Politicians need a fair dose of pride, or they would not take on the job of telling other people how to live. Why would they know better than God or other men, how people should live?
Politicians claim to be humble servants, but they always end up meeting in a lush parliament building, with high salaries, the best cars, and good titles.
Telling other people how they should live is quite arrogant. Being a bible teacher or blogger is fairly arrogant. The teacher claims to understand the Bible better than other people do. The only mitigation is that other people can choose to ignore the Bible teacher or blogger; and they frequently do. Politicians take this arrogance to another level. Not only do they claim to no better than other people how they should live, they also want to force other people to live their way. Politicians pass laws that force other people to live by the politicians’ standards. That is the ultimate arrogance.
The serpent promised Adam and Eve that they would be able to decide the difference between good an evil. This was a lie, as the only way to know the difference between good and evil is to listen to God. Politicians are part of a long line of people who believe they can legislate the difference between good and evil. Their father is the father of lies.
3. Obsession with Detail
The Pharisees and Teachers had an obsession with detail.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matt 23:23-24)
This always happens to those who believe in salvation by law. Some behaviour always escapes their rules, so they have to bring in more and detail in attempt to pin everything down. They always fail, and eventually the law gets so complex and detailed that even those who made it do not understand what it means.
Modern politicians have this same obsession with detail. They produce dozens of new laws every year. Every few years they go back to older laws and add more detail about issues that are not clear. Mostly the additional detail just adds to confusion. In most Western nations the volume of law is so great than even a lawyer cannot understand the law in its entirety. Pity the poor citizen who is expected to understand and obey every law.
The beauty of God’s law is its simplicity. It could be written on two tablets of stone. God knew that it is impossible to cover every possible event. He simply gave the general principles and left the people to apply these to their own situation. Anyone can understand the concept of theft. We do not need hundreds of laws and regulations to explain it to us.
Politicians have a marvellous ability to make trivia seem important, but almost no ability to establish justice, mercy and faithfulness. While they pass laws on trivial issues like fostering sport and purifying speech, injustice continues to flow down like a river.
4. Shutting up the Kingdom
Jesus criticised the Pharisees and Teachers for preventing the people from entering the Kingdom of God.
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 (Matt 23:13)
Politicians create human kingdoms. They offer salvation to everyone who joins their kingdom, but there promises fail, just as human salvation always fails. The kingdom of man always falls short of what it promises.
The worst thing about these human political kingdoms is that they blind people to the kingdom of God. Not only do politicians refuse to enter into the Kingdom of God themselves, but they shut the door in the face of others as well.
Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering (Luke 11:52).
Mediocre human governments lull people into accepting mediocre government. The lose hope that anything better is possible.
5. External Behaviour
The Pharisees and Teachers were with obsessed with external behaviour.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matt 23:25,26).
They concentrated on behaving well. The problem was that they were full of greed and self indulgence on the inside.
Politicians have the same problem. Their only tool for changing the world is more law and regulation, but laws are limited, because they only affect external behaviour. Regulations cannot change people’s hearts.
Christians know that most evil comes out of human hearts, so the only way to get rid of evil is to change hearts. The Holy Spirit can change hearts; the law cannot. Politicians cannot change hearts, so they have to focus on changing external behaviour. This may resolve a few problems, but it does not get to the heart of the issue.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matt 23:27,28).
This sounds like a good description of modern politicians. They look great on television, but when their hearts are revealed, the picture is not so nice.
6. Making things Worse
The Pharisees and Teachers were experts at making bad things worse.
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 (Matt 23:15).
Politicians are experts at creating hell on earth. The twentieth century was a season of democracy and human government. The power of politicians increased enormously. More laws were passed during the century than had been passed in the previous millennium.
The impact of all this government was to make things worse. The world experienced two terrible world wars and many smaller wars. The economy went down as often as it went up. Billions of dollars was spent on social policy, but social problems are now worse than ever. Democracy and government have millions of converts, but they have not made the world better. Instead, they have created many minor hells.
7. Attacking Prophets
The Pharisees and teachers are the descendents of those who killed the prophets. Jesus was a prophet, but while he was speaking, they had resolved to kill him (Luke 11:53).
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! (Matt 23:29-32).
The prophets were killed by kings and politicians, who then tried to rewrite history and make it seem that they are on the side of the good. The truth is very different.
We do not have many staunch prophets in our time. We lack men of courage to challenge the evils of the age. However, we can be certain of one thing. If prophetic voices do arise, they will be attacked by the politicians and powers. Nothing has changed.
The worst woe is the final warning that Jesus gave to the leaders of Jerusalem.
Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (Matt 23:38,39).
This solemn warning was fulfilled in AD 70. Jerusalem was besieged by the Roman armies and destroyed. All the residents of the city were slaughtered, including the Pharisees and Teachers who had challenged Jesus.
The places where the Pharisees and Teachers sat were destroyed. Moses seat is not a safe place to be sitting. The seat from which law is given is God’s seat. He will not let anyone else sit on it.
Politicians and rulers who pretend to sit on Moses seat today are also sitting in a dangerous place. Before the Kingdom of God can come, human kingdoms will have to be swept away. The time will come when the human parliaments and congresses are also left desolate.
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty… hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne (Rev 6:15-16).
Human legislators are not needed in the Kingdom of God, so parliaments and congresses will empty out as the kingdom comes. They will be left desolate and vacant. Those who will not submit to the Spirit will be swept away by the evil they have created.
The people of Jerusalem were so shocked by the suggestion that the temple would be destroyed, that they just could not even understand what Jesus was saying. We feel the same way about the British Houses of Parliament and the American Capitol building. Nevertheless, they will not be needed in the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is totally different from the kingdoms of man.
Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that” (Luke 22:25-26).
We do not get this. In the Kingdom of man, the political rulers lord it over other people while claiming to be their benefactors.
Most Christians find the modern political system acceptable, but they believe that it would work better, if Christians controlled it. They assume that in the Kingdom of God, Christians will lord it over other people and be their benefactors. This implies that the Kingdom can come if Christians gain a majority in Parliament or Congress.
If we believe this, we have missed the point of Jesus statement. When the Kingdom of God comes, the reins of power will not change hands, but will disappear. The kingdom of God means freedom. There will be no “lording over” by anyone, and especially not by Christians. Christians should
not seek to control the political system, because the political system is part of what is wrong with the modern world.
In the kingdom of God, we will not need parliaments to make laws, because we will use God’s law. People will be led by the Spirit, so they will not need politicians to make them do good. If Jesus is Lord, then the political powers are not. As the Kingdom of God grows, the power of the political system must decline and disappear.