Episode 93 - Woes to the Pharisees - Opening Up the Gospels

this is Episode 93 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last several episodes we’ve been looking at Jesus’ words to the people in Jerusalem and Perea in the events surrounding the Feast of Tabernacles in October of 28AD. We looked at the chronological context for the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11 as well as Jesus’ words to the people who had accused Him of being possessed by a demon and casting out other demons by Satan’s power. In this episode we’re going to keep looking at what Jesus says during this particular period between the Feast of Tabernacles in October and the Feast of Dedication in December. Remember, Luke’s Gospel has a large amount of unique content between Luke 9 and Luke 18 that isn’t just random – it’s a record of Jesus’ activity for the last 6 months of His ministry in the southern regions of Israel before He goes to the cross. Most of His public ministry up to this period has been up in Galilee. But Luke goes on to tell us that the crowds down here in Judea and Perea are actually increasing in number. Let’s continue today in Luke 11: “When the crowds were increasing, he began to say,“This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Luke 11:29–32 ESV) As Jesus’ popularity grows and the crowds are increasing, what Jesus says probably comes unexpectedly to them. However, by this point in the Gospels, we’ve known Jesus to be bold and clear with the people of Israel. It’s no different here. Just like He did in Galilee, Jesus comes before the crowds with an offensive message. Remember what happened back in John 6 in the synagogue in Capernaum? When the crowds were the largest, Jesus said “eat my flesh and drink my blood”, and many turned away because of those words. Well Jesus is now being very offensive here with the crowds in Judea and Perea. Imagine if you were following Jesus everywhere because of His popularity and the miracles He was doing, and then He just goes off about how wicked you are. This is a significant moment for them just like the famous “bread of life” sermon was for the Galileans. Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah, something I’ve already talked about back in Episode 81. Just as Jonah was put in the belly of a whale for three days because He did not believe and obey what God spoke to him about Nineveh, so Jesus will be three days in the grave because of Jewish unbelief. Though there would be a small believing remnant, the nation as a whole wouldn’t bear the fruits of repentance, and they themselves would be the means of Jesus’ death. Jesus would say that on the Day of the Lord at the final eschatological judgment, there would be ones who would rise up and condemn this generation of Jews for their hardness of heart. This is so significant. As we’ve been looking at this whole series, the theme of judgment and division is hugely important to the story of the Gospels. That theme is driving Jesus’ words once again right here. Jesus says that two particular figures would rise up and condemn this generation – first, the men of Nineveh and second, the queen of the South. The Ninevites had repented at the preaching of Jonah and the Ethiopian queen of the South had come to hear the wisdom that the Lord had given Solomon. What is in common between both of these figures? They are Gentiles. Jesus is rebuking the Jews for their hard hearts and saying that even Gentiles had responded to God’s wisdom and God’s call to repentance. This is also yet another major theme we’ve seen several times throughout Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had skipped the Passover feast earlier in the year to go minister to Gentiles in Tyre and Sidon, and they had responded favorably to Him. Even the despised Samaritans were rightly responding to Jesus. So Jesus, the one even greater than Solomon and Jonah, pronounces judgment on the evil generation of Jews who failed to respond to Him. Do you see the continuity here with the themes we’ve developed thus far? Let’s keep reading in Luke 11: “While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 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. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. “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. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”” (Luke 11:37–44 ESV) Here we see Jesus eating with a Pharisee, and right away without any politeness He starts with these severe statements – “woe to you Pharisees, woe to you Pharisees!” He is just relentless and so zealous to have them turn and repent. Now I’ve talked about this a little bit in several past episodes, but I think it’s important to talk about again here. In Israel at the time of Jesus, there were three main groups of extremely religious, pious people. They were the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Essenes. To be one of these was not like holding an office like the office of President, but it was to hold an ideological affiliation, comparable to being a liberal or a conservative or a Democrat or a Republican. In the context of first century Israel, this had massive implications for their whole lives. Now each of these affiliations and belief systems had adherents from people who held certain offices. So for example, the scribes or lawyers and the priests. These were the actual “jobs” that these extremely religious people would have. In the time of Jesus, most of the priests were Sadducees and most of the lawyers or scribes were Pharisees. Does that make sense? Now back in Episode 77 I talked about how the extremely zealous and pious Jews like the Pharisees had set up a “fence” around the Law of Moses so that there was absolutely no chance of breaking any of the commandments of the Law itself. This “fence” was basically traditions that they had created and passed down. In Jesus’ day, many of these oral traditions had become as authoritative as the Law itself was. So when Jesus gets into all these controversies with the Pharisees about the Sabbath or healing on the Sabbath or hand washing here in Luke 11, He is getting angry at them because they had constructed this fence around the Law that kept people consumed with external observance. They had made up rule after rule after rule that was not actually in the Torah and sought to make people follow it under the guise of saying “there’s no possible way for you to break the Law if you follow our rules”. I think the clearest picture of this is in Matthew 15 where Jesus quoted Isaiah and said: “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”” (Matthew 15:9 ESV) The Pharisees were teaching their traditions as though they were doctrines of God themselves, thereby nullifying what God actually taught. That’s why Jesus was so angry at them. This was such a heavy yoke on the people, a yoke that God never intended to put on them. So this is what Jesus is addressing and rebuking the Pharisee for here in Luke 11. Even today, the rabbis barely study the Law. Here’s how it progressed: in seeking obedience to the Law, an oral tradition arise, a set of rules established to ensure they would never break the Law, then the oral tradition turned into what was called the Mishnah, which was simply the oral tradition written down in one formal collection. Then rabbis began to write commentaries on the Mishnah, which was assembled and called the Talmud. The Talmud is what the rabbis would then study and still study today, not the Law itself. Because of this, everything was external and it left the issue of the heart completely untouched. That’s why Jesus said that the outside of the cup looks clean, but the inside was full of greed and wickedness. None of that had been touched in their seeming obedience to the Law, and the whole point of the Law was to expose the unrighteous heart. Jesus wasn’t seeking ritual purity and outside cleanliness from the people, He was seeking a heart that was torn. This is why right after the woes to the Pharisees in the house, Luke tells us that Jesus turns to the crowd and warns them. Look at this in Luke 12: “In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:1–3 ESV) Jesus warned the crowds of the “leaven” of the Pharisees, or their bad, hypocritical teaching. Their doctrine separated life from reality and produced no righteousness whatsoever. Jesus made it clear back in Matthew 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 ESV) Only those who have an internal righteousness and have borne the fruits of repentance and trust in God for righteousness will inherit the promised kingdom. It doesn’t matter if you wash your hands before you eat or if you heal somebody on the Sabbath. The real issue that needs to be addressed is the heart, and that’s what Jesus once again rebukes the Pharisees for here. Well, here’s a couple of points for your meditation this week: 1) Put yourself in the place of one of the Twelve. Jesus had predicted His suffering several times, He had rejected Galilee, and now He continued to anger the Jewish authorities. What would you be feeling? Would you still believe He was the promised King of Israel? 2) Think about the atmosphere in the home of the Pharisee after Jesus rebuked him. What sort of awkwardness and tension would there have been afterwards? What did the Pharisee think after everyone had left and he put his head down to sleep that night? In the next episode we’ll continue working through these final few months of Jesus’ public ministry.