The Pharisee Trap: Matthew 23:1-36

Focus Passage: Matthew 23:1-36 (NASB)

During Jesus’ warning statements to His followers and the crowd regarding the religious leaders, He concludes by drawing our attention onto an interesting statement that reveals a profound insight into human nature. By sharing this statement, Jesus in many ways incriminates everyone in all history who has ever displayed a similar “self-righteous” attitude like these religious leaders had done.

Matthew shares Jesus’ caution towards and against the scribes and Pharisees by saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (v. 29-31)

In this challenge, Jesus essentially puts words in the scribes’ and Pharisees’ mouths, and then He uses those words to discredit their position. However, while this might sound like an underhanded tactic, the only way Jesus could have successfully pulled this off is if this was a legitimate reflection of the attitude these religious leaders had. By claiming they would have acted differently than their fathers, they are subtly associating themselves with the actions of those who went against God’s will many centuries and generations ago.

A few verses later, Jesus emphasizes all the wrong that these leaders are associating with by saying, “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” (v. 34-35)

The claim the scribes and Pharisees were making highlights a trait that most, if not all, humans exhibit. This trait is thinking that we would act differently than someone else if we were placed in the exact same circumstances that they were in. If we were raised in the same way they were raised and if we were placed in the exact same decision they faced – all without knowing the outcome – we maybe would choose something different, but we are fooling ourselves to think or say that we definitely would act differently. There is truly no way of making an accurate comparison between what happened then vs. what we would do knowing what we know.

This understanding highlights how the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day had a very “self-righteous” attitude, and it is this attitude that Jesus is challenging them on. For us living today, pushing back at this characteristic of human nature will help us remain humble and more Christ-like, and it is only by letting the past be the past that we will ever be able to truly move into the future.

God sent Jesus to the earth to help us know Him better, and even though these religious leaders rejected Jesus, they did so because they had a flawed view of God and a self-righteous attitude. While it’s easy for us to fall into the same trap, focusing on Jesus is the only way for us to beat the trap and truly be free.

This thought was inspired by studying the Walking With Jesus "Reflective Bible Study" package. To discover insights like this in your own study time, click here and give Reflective Bible Study a try today!

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