In one chapter, Matthew 23, Jesus Christ rips the scribes and Pharisees to shreds. Eight times He pronounces on them woe—defined by Webster's Dictionary as "deep suffering, grief, affliction, ruinous trouble." He dubs them "hypocrites" seven times, "blind guides" twice, "fools and blind" twice, "blind" once, "whitewashed tombs" once, and finishes His name-calling tirade by designating them "brood of vipers"!
He then accuses them of being the children of those who had killed the prophets—a heavy-duty insult considering how proud they were of their ancestry. He predicts they would do the same themselves and declares that He would have nothing to do with them until they accept and bless the ones He sends.
Jesus was really worked up over this! Why? These people were extremely careful in keeping every minor article of the law. They even added many precise rules themselves to ensure they did not overlook the law's details.
Their lives, and the lives of those under their jurisdiction, consisted of endless, mindless details. Endless, for they continued to break branches of the law down to twigs down to leaves. Mindless, because this focus hampered their ability to think and properly weigh what was most important. They became so involved in making sure everyone else obeyed their demands that they no longer remembered the fundamental purpose of the law or kept it properly themselves. Even worse, they used the law against others and took advantage even to the point of "devouring widows' houses" (verse 14). Hence Christ's remonstrance: Hypocrites!
Yet they LOOKED good, publicly counting their mint, cummin and anise. It is not wrong or unlawful to count each seed; tithing should be done, as Christ pointed out (verse 23). But there are far more important issues of the law to consider than counting individual seeds—namely, JUDGMENT, MERCY AND FAITH.
Notice Christ's scathing indictment of the Pharisees' religion and it's effects:
♦ They set a horrid example by not following their own teaching (verse 3).
♦ They abused their office by burdening others with strict requirements while not requiring the same of themselves (verse 4).
♦ What they did do was only for vanity and show (verse 5).
♦ They were social climbers (verse 6).
♦ Their teaching had negative results, driving people farther from the Kingdom rather than closer to it (verse 13).
♦ Their twisted reasoning led them to steal even from the weak (verse 14).
♦ Their misguided zeal made their proselytes twice as bad as they were before they were even "converted" to Pharisaism (verse 16).
♦ Gold, money, and greed became their main focus and god (verses 16-18).
♦ Their perspective was so perverted that they would pay more attention to keep from swallowing a gnat than they would a camel (verses 23-24).
♦ How others saw them was far more important than moral values (verses 27-28).
♦ While they extolled the virtues of past men of God, they were so deeply hateful and murderous that they would kill Christ and any of His followers that they could (verses 29-37).
♦ Their religious house was utterly worthless and desolate, bereft of any contact with or influence of God, though they thought they were perfectly righteous. In a word, they were self-righteous.
We could easily break these attitudes down into many more categories of sin, but the point is obvious: The total of all their religious efforts was zero. Actually, Pharisaism had negative value, for the scribes and Pharisees took what people already had and made them even worse off than before!
The Weightier Matters (Part 1): Introduction
Proselytes were common in the days of the apostles. Acts 2:10 records their presence, with the Jews, in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Nicolas, "a proselyte from Antioch," is numbered in Acts 6:5 as an original deacon. Finally, Acts 13:43, mentions "devout proselytes" who followed Paul in Antioch. In context, these clearly refer to Gentile proselytes to Judaism.
Indeed, Paul's problems with the circumcision party had its roots in the widespread Jewish practice of proselytism in those days. The members of this party - almost certainly (misguided) members of God's church - followed Paul from city to city, telling Gentile converts of their need for physical circumcision. They took their cues from Exodus 12:48 and other scriptures. These Jews were men of their age, and therefore took no exception to the practice of proselytism. Also, they apparently accepted the validity of Paul's commission to carry Christ's "name before Gentiles" (Acts 9:15). Their only issue was physical circumcision. As a result of this controversy, the apostles had to redefine circumcision in its proper New Covenant terms.
In the New Testament, God clearly commissioned some to preach the gospel of God's Kingdom actively. Paul received such a commission, as Acts 9:15 clearly relates. Christ also commissioned His other apostles to "go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . ." (Matthew 28:19). These commissions have their parallel in the commissions received by the Old Testament prophets. Examples include the prophets Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) and Jonah (Jonah 1).
It is important to recognize, though, that neither the Old Testament commissions to the prophets nor the New Testament commissions to the apostles remove the responsibility on the part of the people to be examples. God has always used this means - the example of His people - as a fundamental method of reaching others. As one excellent New Testament example, notice I Thessalonians 1:7-9, where Paul lauds the converts in Thessalonica, pointing out the breadth of their example to other church congregations and to the world at large:
. . . so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything. For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. . . .
So strong was their witness that Paul needed not "to say anything." These people certainly did not hide their light under a basket. Example can speak louder than preaching.
Proselytism Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Part One)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 23:15: