Interpreting the Bible: Woe to You Pharisees!

bible.jpgConsider how Jesus interpreted the Old Testament:

(Matt. 23:16-22) “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

The Law of Moses contained prohibitions against swearing (e.g. Num. 30:2). Jesus makes the point that the Pharisees’ teaching that some oaths are binding and some are not violates God’s will regardless of what you swear by. God’s will is that you keep your word!

Jesus, thus, looks through the command to the purpose behind the command. This is the only way to avoid rationalization.

(Matt. 23:23-35) “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. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Jesus next teaches that some laws as “more important” (KJV: “weightier”) than others. Jesus denies the flat hermeneutic and instead sees some things as more important than others. “Justice, mercy, and faithfulness” are the top of his list.

He was speaking to people in power in First Century Palestine, and he urged them to use their influence to provide justice. In the Prophets, “justice” generally refers to the courts and other government officials treating the poor fairly (e.g., Jer. 22:15-16; Ezek. 45:9ff).

“Mercy” refers both to undeserved forgiveness–grace–and to acts of compassion, such as the work of the Good Samaritan.

“Faithfulness” could equally well be translated “faith.” It refers not only to belief and trust but being trustworthy.

Hence, Jesus tells us which rules matter the most to God. His words closely follow the words of the Prophets. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6).

25 “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. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Of course, God is not impressed by externals. It’s more important that our hearts be obedient than our actions. If our hearts are obedient, then so will our actions, but our actions by themselves cannot defend us before God.

Therefore, it’s far more important that we teach a heart religion than a rule religion.

29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 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.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

Why would building a tomb for the prophets be sinful? What’s wrong with building monuments to great men?

Jesus’ point is that the prophets didn’t prophesy for glory. They prophesied to bring about changed hearts. Giving them glory by building beautiful tombs misses the point entirely. If you want to honor the prophets, live as they taught!

Just so, building beautiful buildings to God may honor their builders but not God. God didn’t give his Son for buildings. He gave his Son to change our hearts.

Jesus’ hermeneutics are based on looking through the words of the Bible all the way into the heart of God. It’s not hard to know God’s heart. Jesus could allude to the Prophets, who were quite clear in teaching the primacy of justice, mercy, and faith. We have the added added advantage of having Jesus’ teachings.

What’s most important? Caring about others. And how shall we show it? By building plush buildings? By teaching rules upon rules? Or by having the heart of Jesus and living accordingly?

Jesus exegetes the heart of God. Want to understand God’s will for worship or church organization? Well, first learn the heart of God. Until then, you’re wasting your time. You see, you can learn a lot more about worship from the Prophets and the Gospel than from Acts and the Epistles, because these most transparently reveal God’s heart.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Woe to You Pharisees!

  1. Jonathan says:


    I have subscribed to your RSS feed and will continue to read in the future. This week has been an education and a shock to my system. I have not been to the the Lipscomb Lectures since I was a teenager (I'm 31 now) and things have really changed! I'm sure you would consider me extremely conservative, and many of your viewpoints are foreign sounding coming from the mouth of an elder in the church of Christ. I like to think I have an open mind and look forward to considering your responses to my questions.

    I heard Michael Whittington from the Antioch Church of Christ deliver a similar lesson to this today at Lipscomb. I noticed you filed this under instrumental music, so I can only assume you believe those getting upset over the inclusion of instruments in worship are straining gnats (and swallowing camels). So does that mean that instrumental music (among other modern worship innovations) are "minor impurities" that are acceptable as long as as the Christian is getting the "camels" out of the wine by practicing justice, mercy and faithfulness?

    I must say I don't agree with all of your conclusions. Jesus does not condemn the Pharisees for "straining the gnats"—in fact, he tells them they should: "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matt. 23:23)

    He condemns them for straining gnats (tithing their herbs) while at the same time swallowing camels (failing to practice justice, mercy and faithfulness). Shouldn't mature Christians attempt to strain all impurities from their wine?

    I resent the comparison of those who prohibit instrumental music in worship to the Pharisees in Matt. 28. I certainly am with you (and Christ) when it comes to the Christian's most important spiritual duties, but just because something is not AS important doesn't mean it is not important. Why shouldn't a mature Christian strive to refine every aspect of his spiritual life—including how he worships his creator?

  2. Jay Guin says:

    First, thanks for pointing out that this was tagged as dealing with instrumental music. That tag actually related to a section of the discussion I've not yet posted. I forgot to fix it when I edited the post. That's not to say that the discussion is irrelevant to the instrumental music question–just that the connection is not sufficiently obvious and so easily misunderstood. I've turned the tag off. Thanks.

    My views on the instrumental question are laid out in a series of posts from a while back. Look in the Index for the icon of an angel playing a harp.

    You see, the question isn't whether we should swallow gnats. I mean, who'd want to? Gnats are wrong, too.

    The question is whether the prohibition of instrumental music is a command at all. Is it even a gnat? Does God–the God who sent his Son to die for us in a desperate effort to bring us into right relationship–does such a heart hide life-or-death rules in the silences?

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