“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (verses 27-28)
The last three “woes” in this chapter all have to do with the stark contrast between outward appearances and inward realities. It’s a lesson for us.
Jesus uses three illustrations to make the same point. The first comes from the kitchen-sink (or whatever the equivalent was back then!). They meticulously cleaned the outside of the cup and dish, while leaving the inside untouched – you can imagine the caked-on remnants of previous meals getting grimier and moldier with each passing day. Secondly, Jesus uses the graveyard as an illustration, saying that these leaders are like tombs that have been freshly slathered with coats of white paint, so that they look clean and pristine, yet inside are full of mouldering carcasses – entirely unpleasant.
The third illustration, although also set in the graveyard, comes directly from current reality. The religious leaders of the day were building memorial monuments to honour the graves of prophets who had been murdered by previous generations, indeed by the forefathers of those now building these very commemorative tombs. It looks good, Jesus says, but in fact the builders are just like their predecessors, for they, too, are rejecting the prophets, wise men, and teachers sent to them by God, as evidenced by their rejection of John the Baptist and their current plotting to kill Jesus, which will shortly reach its fulfilment.
The outside of their lives may look good, but it’s the inside that counts. If their interior lives were truly as godly as their exteriors seemed to indicate, their lives would have been truly in line with the Sovereign Lord, and therefore they would have been attentive and ready to align with Jesus himself when he appeared on the scene. But their hearts have been disconnected, indeed hard, and their response to Jesus has flowed from that place of “hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Again, it’s a cautionary tale for us. What’s happening on the inside?We may sing the songs heartily, we may attend church and fellowship group regularly, we may give and pray and serve like the best of them, but the key issue has to do with our heart. Is it in fact aligned with the Lord? Is it submissive to him? Is it clean?
The unalterably good news in Jesus is that cleansing comes simply by turning to him. We don’t have to scour the dishes ourselves. We don’t have to dig out the rotten bones from the grave, nor somehow change our own past history of turning away from God. We simply turn to Jesus now for cleansing, and he does it, fully and completely.
The leper said to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean,” to which Jesus readily replied, “I am willing – be clean!”(Matthew 8:2-3). And John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, later wrote: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Don’t be like the teachers of the law and Pharisees, pristine on the outside and rotting on the inside. Instead, turn your eyes and heart and life to Jesus. Let him cleanse you. Again and again.
Lord Jesus, I confess my ongoing need to be cleansed within. My interior life – thoughts and perspectives and imaginations – need your sanctifying touch, again and again. My outward actions and words and behaviour, too, so often stain my soul – I need your cleansing work. Thank you that you are willing. Thank you that you have made it possible by the cross. Thank you with all my heart.
Reflect: Spend time in Jesus’ presence, opening your heart to him afresh. He is willing – receive his cleansing, through and through. Give thanks with all your heart.