Woe to You

Sermon preached on Luke 11:37-54 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/10/2022 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

The tensions continue to rise in the Gospel of Luke between Jesus and the religious leaders. Here, we see Jesus faced off against the Pharisees and lawyers again. The setting is that a Pharisee invited him into his home for a meal. Apparently, there were other Pharisees and lawyers there too. Remember that the Pharisees were a religious party among the Jews, somewhat similar to a denomination today. They were the most popular religious group too. As for those here described as lawyers, also known as scribes, this would have referred to their career or profession. These were the educated Bible scholars and Bible preachers and teachers of the day. Most of these lawyers would have been of the Pharisee party. That is why when Jesus begins to critique the Pharisees here, a lawyer objects that Jesus’ words would also speak against the lawyers. Jesus didn’t disagree, but instead turned to further direct words specifically against the lawyers. That will be our general outline for today. We’ll consider Jesus’ various rebukes against the Pharisees in general and then his rebukes against the lawyers more specifically.

So then let’s begin with his words against the Pharisees. These start in verse 39. He begins by rebuking their emphasis on external cleanliness while missing the importance that our hearts be clean. There were many ceremonial laws of cleanliness under the Old Testament, but the Pharisees had added many more on top of them. They cleaned anything and everything in the name of religion. But Jesus teaches here that the real concern of religion is clean hearts. That is in fact what they should have understood as the ultimately significance of those many ceremonial laws. Jesus even calls them fools in verse 40 for how they missed this point. It is easy to get caught up in the externals of religion and outward actions. Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees must be a reminder to not miss that the chief aim of godliness is a changed heart. Jesus further makes this point in verse 41 when he says to give as alms those things that are within. The word alms is a fancy word for doing acts of mercy in the name of religion, usually meant in the sense of a gift of food or money given to the poor. Jesus says to have your mercy ministry be things that come from a purified heart. If your religious service to God is coming from that place, everything else will work itself out. But if you are only doing external acts of religion but inside your hearts are wicked, then it doesn’t matter what you do, because you are just a hypocrite at that point.

Jesus then turns to issue three woes against the Pharisees. A woe is a denunciation. It laments the state of someone, usually with the sense of impending doom that will come to them because of it. Back in chapter 6 we saw Jesus speaks woes in contrast to beatitudes. One’s situation could be something of blessedness or of woe. So then, the first woe against the Pharisees here is in verse 38 where he contrasts their diligence in tithing versus their neglect in justice and love of God. Consider the details here. Jesus speaks of how they tithe even things as small as herbs. That fastidiousness is arguably above and beyond the duty even required by the law of God. But Jesus says their problem is that while they are putting so much attention to the one narrow duty of tithing, yet they’ve neglected other more larger duties of the law. When he references their neglect of justice and love of God, we can remember how the law of God can be summarized as love your neighbor as yourself and love God with all your heart, soul, and strength. This neglect of justice is a rather broad word about not treating a neighbor fairly and justly. So a rather key part of obeying God’s law toward neighbor is lacking in them. Likewise, while tithing is a part of love of God, there is clearly a way Jesus can see that they still fail to have the kind of love for God that they have despite giving God so many gifts. You can imagine a husband who buys grand gifts for their wife all the time but otherwise treats her horribly and shows a serious failure to love her. No amount of gifts can change that. And so meticulous attention to some positive duties of God’s law doesn’t mean you are generally keeping God’s law. That’s Jesus’ first woe against them.

His second woe comes in verse 43. He speaks against their love for the best seats at church and for greetings in the marketplace. This is an issue of pride and love of self. These items are things that would be honors bestowed on people. There’s nothing wrong with finding a seat at church, but this was about trying to get yourself a special seat of honor. There is nothing wrong with greeting people when you are at the market, but this was about trying to get people to show you a lot of praise and attention to recognize you in public. Elsewhere Jesus described this in the spirit of people wanting praise from men. We need biblical humility and to seek to please God. If we do that and people do recognize us and praise us and honor us, then that is a blessing. But we ought not to so crave that recognition that we seek it out and that such attention motivates our actions.

Jesus’ third woe to the Pharisees comes in verse 44 where he says that they are like an unmarked grave that someone walks over without realizing it. What is probably especially the imagery here is that Jewish custom would not have walked on top of a grave. This was based out a certain interpretation of Numbers 19:16 which said you would be ceremonially unclean for seven days if you touched a grave. So, Jewish custom at that time would have thought walking on a grave would make you unclean. Connect the dots with this imagery and Jesus says that the Pharisees are making people unclean and they aren’t even realizing it. Running with the analogy, the Pharisees would have thought themselves spiritually alive. In fact, the people would have thought that of the Pharisees too. They didn’t realize that so many of them were actually spiritually dead. Likewise, the Pharisees held themselves out as the experts and leaders in ceremonial cleanliness. As was said at the start, they even added all kinds of extra man-made regulations about washings and cleanliness. They thought they were the leaders on clean. But this last woe brings this point full circle. They weren’t the experts on clean because their hearts were unclean and spiritually dead. In reality, their ways were making people unclean before the LORD.

There is a great warning here when we remember that the Pharisees were the most popular and most well thought of religious sect among the Jews. As Jesus says, people can think their denomination is leading them in godliness and yet they can be duped. We can do lots of religious-looking things but miss the point. We can make the mistake to think religion is about certain external rituals and miss that is about something deeper and broader than that. These failings of the Pharisees can today be realized on a denominational-level as a whole. They can also be realized in the life of any of individual church member. But they can also be realized in the pastors and teachers within a church denomination.

So then, it’s at this point that one of the lawyers or scribes speaks up in objection. He rightly realizes that Jesus’ woes against the Pharisees would also apply to him and the other lawyers. Again, these were the pastors and teachers of their day, and in context they were also members of the Pharisee sect. Jesus then affirms that these woes do apply to these pastors and teachers. Jesus then proceeds to give three more woes, all directed specifically at these lawyers and scribes.

I appreciate that Luke’s gospel records this level of detail for us. Matthew 23 records some very similar teaching of Jesus, probably a similar message given on a different occasion. There Jesus addresses all his woes collectively to both the scribes and the Pharisees. But here, on this occasion, Luke records how he spoke first to the Pharisees but then turned to focus on these teachers. This is so important, because we see how much influence, good or bad, teachers can have in the church. While it is not always the case that the church goes astray because of bad teachers, isn’t that often the cause? Why did the Pharisees as a whole have such problems? Surely it was especially because their pastors and teachers were teaching them and guiding them into such faulty religion. So, Jesus turns to rebuke them specifically here.

Jesus’ first woe against these lawyers then is in verse 46. He speaks against their heavy burdens that they lay on the people, burdens that they themselves don’t even do. This has two related problems. One problem is that teachers of God’s law should only be teaching God’s law. What I mean is that if you get up, and say God requires this or that duty, it needs to be what God’s word actually says that God requires. Otherwise, you are teaching as doctrine the commandments of men. The lawyers were notorious for doing that. We’ve already seen all the extra washings that required beyond what the law demands. They had rules and regulations around various laws, like how far one could walk on the Sabbath, though Scripture doesn’t give such a requirement. Remember how the Pharisees back in Luke 6 accused his disciples of harvesting on the Sabbath because they casually plucked a few heads of grain to eat while they were spending time with Jesus. These lawyers basically took biblical principles and tried to think through any and every possible extended application of those principles and then made those applications into rules that everyone had to follow. To clarify, it is not wrong to think of how to apply biblical principles to all circumstances of life. We should all look to do that in good conscience before the Lord. But pastors and teachers don’t have authority to bind the consciences of others around their own conviction of conscience in areas where the Bible itself does not teach. A pastor’s authority is to declare and explain what God’s Word teaches.

The other problem referenced here by Jesus is that these lawyers don’t even practice what they preach. So, they take these good biblical principles but come up with this super inflated burdensome list of dos and don’ts. They then preach that and demand that from the people, but Jesus says that they themselves don’t even follow all those rules. That is also a form of hypocrisy. It could be accomplished in a sort of double-standard way, where the lawyers expect the people to keep the rules but for some reason think they are above the rules. We know how infuriating that was with all the recent incidents of politicians who implemented COVID protocols and then are spotted not following their own orders. Another way these lawyers can try to avoid keeping all these burdensome rules is through legal maneuvering, where since they’ve written the laws and know them so well, they are written in various loopholes that they take advantage of to regularly skirt all the burdens they’ve imposed on others. Regardless of how they were doing it, Jesus says they were doing it. In fact, by Jesus saying that they don’t even lift a finger at these burden, it shows that they aren’t even making an effort at keeping them.

His next woe against these lawyers was in verse 47. Jesus criticizes them for their treatment of the prophets’ tombs and how it ultimately shows their own guilt concerning those prophets. By the way, the word for tomb here could also be translated as monument. They might have been building monuments to commemorate a past prophet, or in some cases renovating or adding on to existing tombs or monuments. Matthew 23 addresses this topic and mentions how they would decorate the tombs of such prophet. So then, it seems that everyone acknowledged how their forefathers had killed the prophets and that such was wrong. Matthew 23 says that that is why they now build or decorate those prophet’s tombs and monuments, in order to say that if they were living back then they wouldn’t have killed those prophets. Yet, Jesus denies them of that claim. Jesus actually uses their treatment of the prophets’ tombs as evidence of their collaboration with their murderous forefathers. He lays all the guilt of martyred prophets from Abel to Zechariah on their feet. That order is not based on chronology but on the ordering of the Hebrew Bible since the murder of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles is the final recorded murder in the Old Testament based on that order of the books. So, this is like Jesus saying, from A to Z, you’re guilty of them all. Of course, if the lawyers wanted to really show that they didn’t concur with the murder of the prophets, there would be a clear way to show it. That would be to embrace and heed what the prophets spoke. That would be the way to honor and memorialize the prophets of old – to take their writings and finally begin to look to heed then. Then when a new prophet, like John the Baptist, or especially Jesus showed up, preaching what those prophets of old preached, then they should also receive them. But of course, they didn’t. The scribes and Pharisees did exactly what their forefathers did to their prophets. They persecuted and/or murdered them.

The third woe of Jesus to the lawyers is in verse 52. Jesus says that they have taken away the key of knowledge. This is the key which leads to knowledge, the knowledge by which you can be saved and enter the kingdom of heaven and have eternal life. The lawyers didn’t use the key for themselves and therefore they didn’t help others either. This is really the chief job of a Bible teacher. First and foremost, you should be opening up the way of life and blessedness in the knowledge of the Lord. For example, the psalter opens with such a grand vision of the way of the Lord. Pastors and teachers need to be unlocking the way to heaven for people and helping them to enter into glory. But that only happens if you teach and preach God’s Word, rightly understood and applied. Sadly, because they themselves hadn’t known the way, they weren’t able to help others get there either. They had become blind guides leading the blind.

In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I would like us to really take these woes to heart for two reasons. One reason is that Jesus presents here a problem within the visible church not a problem outside the church. Earlier in this chapter Jesus mentioned that a house divided will not stand. Jesus raises grave concerns here about things going on in the church. A second reason to take these woes to heart is that this is a long-standing issue. Jesus mentions how from Abel to Zechariah there has been opposition against godly prophets from within the visible church. The Bible shows that timeline extended to Jesus and then all his apostles. And so, the whole Bible timeline has shown this issue has existed the entire time. And the Bible warns that it will continue to be a threat in the church until Christ returns. We have the ongoing threat of wolves within the visible church who bring the threat of schism, heresy, and apostasy to us. We would be wise to take this passage serious and realize the real threat that still exists.

This would make a great passage for a Reformation Sunday sermon. The church must be aware of this threat so that each generation can seek, by the grace of God, to stay the course. Let me summarize some of the lessons then from Jesus’ teaching here. We must prioritize genuine sanctification of the heart over outward acts of religion. We must not let just a few good but minor positive duties consume us while neglecting the weightier matters of God’s law which can be summarized in terms of love for God and love for neighbor. We must see the importance of humility before God and others, not looking to be praised by men but to faithfully serve God. And we must hold our leaders, our pastors and teachers especially, to the high standard of declaring only God’s word. They must never add to it, nor take away from it. They must preach and teach the whole counsel of God from Genesis to Revelation. They must guide people into a right relationship with God, and that will be through proclaiming the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. They must shepherd people in godliness, not laying on man-made burdens, but helping God’s people to enjoy the freedom of righteousness as taught in the Bible.

This is just a summary of concerns raised by Jesus. The wolves that come in the church today might try to turn us aside in other areas too. We must keep going back to the biblical witness of the apostles and the prophets with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone. That must continue to be our measure for truth. When we face such wolves in the church, we may be persecuted ourselves if we try to stand against them. But let us see that their way as the woeful way that it is, and instead see the true blessedness of God’s way.


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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