Hyperbole is one of the best ways to make one’s teaching memorable, and Jesus, a master teacher, is unafraid to use exaggerated statements to make a point. Matthew 23:24 records one such example; Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that in straining out a gnat they swallow a camel! The gnat is the smallest unclean animal found in Palestine (Lev. 11:20–23), and the Pharisees strain their liquids through a cloth to make sure no tiny gnat is present that would make their drink unclean. This analogy for being concerned with the tiny details of the law (Matt. 23:23) is contrasted with the swallowing of a camel, the largest unclean creature in Palestine (Lev. 11:4). Jesus’ vivid image reveals that an inordinate focus on purity in the lesser things of the Law makes a person unclean in regards to its weightier matters.
Christ’s fifth woe confirms that many of the scribes and Pharisees have put their efforts at godliness in the wrong place (Matt. 23:25–26). All Jewish sects in His day agree on the need to wash their dishes in order to maintain their ceremonial cleanness, and they certainly also agree that it is pointless to cleanse the outside of a cup and leave the inside filthy. Yet this is precisely what the piety of our Lord’s opponents has achieved. Outward behavior is important, but many scribes and Pharisees have not worked also on their souls. Thinking that external conformity to the Law is enough, they have not seen that evil is ultimately a matter of the heart, for all wickedness originates there (Matt. 5:21–30). Those concerned solely with what others see, not the darkness within, are like a cup whose handle is sparkling but has the coffee from three weeks ago inside. No matter how much you polish that handle, the cup is still dirty.
The Law does not deal merely with externals; its goal is purity of heart (Lev. 19:17–18). Repeated washings should remind the washer of his perpetual dirtiness and help him long for a clean heart. The Pharisees have missed this, failing to see that outer cleanliness depends upon inner purity, (Matt. 23:26). Matthew Henry writes, “If renewing, sanctifying grace make clean the inside, that will have an influence on the outside, for the commanding principle is within.”
According to Matthew Henry: “those sins must be conscientiously abstained from, which the eye of God only is a witness to, who searches the heart.” We can easily think we are being obedient if we do many good deeds, however, doing such things while harboring hatred, jealousy, and other such inward sins is to act as a hypocrite. We are hypocrites if we fail to mortify those things only God can see. What inner thoughts and feelings must you put to death?
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