As Jesus spoke to His disciples and the multitude gathered in His last public discourse held in the Temple of Jerusalem before His crucifixion, He spoke of those who strain at gnats and swallow camels. He spoke of those who minor on the major, and major on the minor. He spoke of those who clean the outside of the cup while neglecting the filthiness inside the cup. He spoke of the scribes and Pharisees of the day, pronouncing woe upon them for their hypocrisy and iniquity.
In Matthew 23 Jesus’ words of guilt and punishment are recorded upon those in His presence who had laid heavy burdens upon the people but would not lift one finger to help them. He declared, “All their works they do for to be seen of men,” (vs4-5). In denouncing them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (v13), Jesus proceeded to make clear the very nature of their sin.
Jesus rebuked them for promoting false doctrine contrary to the Scriptures (v13); devouring widows’ property and possessions by fraud (v14); making a pretence of long prayers (v14); compassing land and sea to make one false convert to their traditions (v15); giving more credence to an oath sworn on the gold of the Temple or a gift on the altar than by the God of Heaven Whose presence dwelt in the Temple (vs16-22); paying tithes with herbs of little value while omitting “the weightier matters of the Law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (v23).
As Jesus refers to the scribes and Pharisees as “blind guides” throughout the chapter for leading His people astray, He gives word pictures to their actions. He describes how they wipe clean the outside of the plate and cup, observing all the washings and cleansings of their tradition, while neglecting what matters most on the inside (vs25-26). He then turns their attention to the cemetery and the “whited sepulchres” found there, which appear beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones. He tells them of how they build and decorate the tombs of the prophets and righteous who were slain by their forefathers, all the while proclaiming “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” Knowing that it would be by their very hands they would call for His crucifixion, He tells them, “Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers,” (vs27-32).
For such actions by the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus called them “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers,” for their pretending to be pious and devoted to God, but all the while being wicked on the inside with evil intentions. Jesus then asked them, “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (v33). If the scribes and Pharisees continued on their wicked path, their future punishment in eternity would be inescapable.