After the preamble of 23:1-12 that we discussed in the last post, Jesus continued into this passage, often referred to as “The Seven Woes”. In these verses, we reach the very climax of the confrontation that began when Jesus entered the city, in which Jesus, now very much on the offensive, pronounces the judgment of God upon the “teachers of the law and Pharisees”, representing the entire Jewish religious leadership of the day. For best results, please read the passage before you continue…
“Woe” is a noun meaning “great sorrow or distress” and is used in conjunction with the judgment of God in apocalyptic passages throughout the Old and New Testaments, as Jesus, whom you will remember is still on a prophetic mode, does here. It is important that we remember the makeup of the audience He is speaking to as set forth in 23:1 “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples”; for the most part, the religious leaders had retreated to their private lair to lick their wounds, but I’m sure their “eyes and ears” were lurking…
As we read His words, what forms is really the antitype of a disciple, a person who is the exact opposite of what it is to be a follower of Christ. In 23:13-15 we see that they have dedicated themselves to keeping people out of the Kingdom while Jesus invites all to enter. In 23:16-24 we see them characterized as “blind guides” whose fallacious reasoning is focused on their obsession with the minutia of the law instead of things that are truly important, which creates an unbearable burden upon the faithful.
In 23:25-28 we see that their great and awesome piety is nothing more than an external show for the benefit of others and to advance their social standing, while inside they are filthy with corruption. The final “woe” in 23:29-32 connects the leadership of that day with all of those who had come before and tortured and murdered God’s messengers for brining God’s truth to their guilty ears. Oh yes, the “teachers of the law and Pharisees” spoke of their high regard for the prophets of old, whom their ancestors had murdered, but even now they were plotting to murder Jesus: “Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” (23:32)
The next paragraph is huge:
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (23:33-36)
And so it did come to that generation, for the book of Acts is full of this story as the early church was persecuted by the Jewish religious establishment, just as Jesus said it would be, until God stepped in and destroyed Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem was clearly on His mind as Jesus wraps up His address:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (23:37-39)
For centuries God wanted a real relationship with His people, but time and time again they rebuffed Him. They turned their backs on Him, they perverted His laws, they murdered His messengers while pretending to be holy, and now they would murder His Son. Regrettably, they would pay a steep price for their obstinate unbelief. These were Jesus’ last words in a public address.
The harshness of chapter 23 stands in direct contrast to His words in the Sermon on the Mount, for the Sermon was a blueprint for a disciple, and the Woes describe the opposite approach, the approach of an adversary of God. With this, the stage has been set, the actors are all in their places, and Jesus has completed His work in Jerusalem for now. He and the disciples descend from the Temple area, cross the narrow Kidron Valley (more of a gulch than a valley), and ascend the Mount of Olives that overlooks the Temple. It is there where the action resumes a short while later as Jesus and the disciples discuss what has just taken place.