Dead Preachers Are Easy To Like
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 23:27-28 (Holman) Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Using the imagery of a tomb, Jesus put another nail in the Pharisees’ coffin. People in Israel often chalked graves as a way to keep people from walking on them. Having contact with one would cause a person to be defiled. The tombs, when chalked white, looked beautiful, but their message was, “Look out! Stay away! We will defile you. We are rotten inside.”
Hypocrisy is a beautiful lethal tomb, a thin veneer over spiritual death within. As Shakespeare put it, “A man may smile and smile and yet be a villain.” “Nature, like a beauteous wall, doth oft close in pollution.”
Beware heart-sins. They are extra dangerous because we can commit them yet look respectable. Pride, greed, being overly driven, overlooking the poor, not praying, not reading the Bible–these are dangerous. They make us like Pharisees who outwardly look good, but never outwardly bless anyone.
Matt. 23:29-30 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we wouldn’t have taken part with them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’
The temple budget included funds to build and beautify the tombs and monuments of Israel’s heroes. The leaders took on this duty, motivated not by respect for dead prophets, but to ostentatiously show off their religiosity.
They proudly believed they were more religious than their forebears. It is easy to say what we would or would not have done had we lived when our ancestors did. My family owned slaves. This breaks my heart, but I will not boast I would have done differently had I lived then. Is snobbery shown to predecessors less wrong than proudly feeling better than contemporaries?
Our forebears wrongly hunted witches, let monopolies work people as animals, and did not let women vote. Don’t loudly crow over how we might have responded in their circumstance. We don’t know what we would have done. Be humble toward God and others, and toward time past and future.
Less pride about our own selves can be very helpful for us personally. It could lead us to being less disappointed in others, and thereby to less pain.
For instance, we may dislike the way our parents raised us. I remind us we do not expect people in remote areas to live by our standards. We take into account the fact their environments are different from ours. The same is true of our parents. Don’t think we would have done better in their situation.
Matt. 23:31 You therefore testify against yourselves that you are sons of
those who murdered the prophets.
The leaders felt they were sons of murderers by DNA only. Jesus said they were sons of murderers by disposition too. “Your ancestors killed them; you build their tombs; like father, like son.” The leaders were saying they would not have persecuted any great prophet of yore, yet were plotting to do that very crime themselves, to murder Jesus, the greatest Prophet of all.
The leaders claimed a kindred spirit with the martyred prophets. This nostalgia is common. A dead preacher cannot disturb our comfort by railing against our sins of today. Current truth can be very uncomfortable. Many prophets were deemed troublemakers while alive, but heroes when dead.
“It is easier to build tombs than to accept teachings” (Maclaren). For the Pharisees’ sake, it was good the prophets were dead. This meant all the leaders had to do was build their monuments, and not hear their rebukes.
People sometimes act as if their former preachers were the last ones to know truth. If you don’t believe this happens, you have never followed the tenure of a successful Pastor in a local church. Sometimes a Pastor’s biggest nightmare is the shadow of a predecessor. In St. Louis I stood in the shadow of a giant who had been gone 17 years before I arrived. His wonderful legacy remained strong. To some in our church, I never measured up to him.
Matt. 23:32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ sins!
For generations, the leaders had persecuted the prophets, pouring sin into God’s cup of anger. Jesus said when it filled, a deluge of disaster would spill over. “Measure” implies a limit. God tolerates only so much sin. A day does come when judgment falls, when repentance is no longer an option.
Jesus was telling them they would soon finish what their fathers began. Ancestors killed God’s prophets; descendants killed God’s Son. His death would be the last drop that overspilled the cup of God’s wrath. The same sin, repeated through the ages, finally reached its ultimate measure, culminating all the guilt of those in Israel who had killed God’s prophets.
Matt. 23:33a Snakes! Brood of vipers!
A claim that preachers often hear is, “We like it when you step on our toes.” Lincoln said, “When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.” Robert Morris, the wealthy merchant who financed the American Revolution, told fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, “I like that preaching best which drives a man into the corner of his pew and makes him think the devil is after him.”
All three of these sentiments apply to what Jesus did here. Stepping on toes, and as exuberant as fighting bees, He was driving Pharisees into a corner. Don’t try to soften His words in our text. Let them stand as they are.
He who sees the heart has a right to say harsh things about a person. It is kind to jerk off a mask leading to destruction. They should have thanked Him for revealing to them their true nature. Be sensitive to God’s evaluations of us. “Jesus, reveal me to me. Don’t let me miss what You think of me.”
Matt. 23:33b How can you escape being condemned to hell?
Some do not believe in eternal damnation, but Jesus did. Don’t try to be smarter than Jesus. Believing in the possibility of eternal separation from God helped drive 2000 years of mission passion. We have fervently believed people desperately need a Savior. Harold Renfrow, longtime Southern Baptist missionary to Brazil, may have been responsible for more salvations than anyone else I ever knew personally. He was driven by people’s lostness.
Dr. Renfrow chided me for having John 3:16 as my favorite Bible verse. He adamantly believed John 3:18 was the most important verse, “He that believeth not is condemned already.” He urgently said, “John, people are already condemned here and now. We must save them here and now.”
Universalism sucks the life out of Christianity. Some are calling for the Church to “lighten up” a bit, to compromise core convictions. They think if we become more like the world, we will win more to Jesus. Not true! The very churches that are doing this are the ones dying fastest among us.
The declaration in our text is made most serious by the fact the One speaking is the Judge, the final Arbiter of everyone’s everlasting destiny.
Note exactly what He said. He did not say there was no escape. There was a way, but it required a change in them. They refused His conditions of salvation. It is hard for anyone who believes in works to embrace grace.