Brood of Vipers, Hypocrites, and Whitewashed tombs: Did Jesus mean to offend the Pharisees?

I was speaking to a group of students and emphasizing to them the importance of doing apologetics with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15) when one student asked whether Jesus had been harsh and disrespectful to the Pharisees in his public sermons. The tension between Peter’s command and Jesus’ words seems clear. A quick reading of Matthew 23 will reveal that Jesus had been harsh and disrespectful to the Pharisees….but it was not born out of self-centred spite.

A surgeon’s scalpel can cause as much injury as a murderer’s knife yet we do not consider the scalpel an instrument of violence. When you look at the motives, you begin to see the difference. A surgeon’s motive to inflict injury is to heal. A murderer’s motive to inflict injury is to kill.

Whenever we look at Jesus’ words to the Pharisees like hypocrites, liars, blind guides, whitewashed tombs – clean on the outside but rotting on the inside, snakes, serpents, and brood of vipers (Matthew 23), we need to look at his motives for using those words. And in Matthew 23:37-38, it was revealed to us. Immediately after his long vitriolic statements against the Pharisees, Jesus said something like “if only you knew how much I want to gather you together, like a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…but you are not willing” (Mt. 23:37-38). Here we see his motives. Behind all his harsh rhetoric was a broken-hearted parent vehemently expressing his love, not self-centred spite, for his rebellious children.

Motive #1: Love for the Pharisees. The Pharisees were in a desperate spiritual condition that they needed to hear such harsh words. By their self-righteous delusions, they have come to believe the lie that says they are perfect and good enough. Truth is…they are not.

Motive #2: Love for the listeners. He also said those words in public out of love for the listeners who may be blindly following these so-called “leaders.” It is for their benefit as well. It is to open their eyes and expose the truth about the Pharisees whom they blindly look up to. It is intended to stop them from being led astray by these people.

It is not that Jesus’ very character and personality were causing the offense. The gospels’ portrayal of Jesus, taken as a whole, suggests that is not the case. Rather, it is the truth of his statements that caused offense. And it is not that Jesus was lying or exaggerating when he uttered those words against the Pharisees. What he said were simply the TRUTH! And sometimes, truth hurts! Sometimes, truth will offend!

There will come a point in your life when you will have to confront a person and you may need to speak truths that may be offensive to that person. People generally don’t want to hear statements such as “What you are doing is wrong” OR “You are wasting your life” OR “You are heading towards the wrong direction” OR “You are believing a destructive lie” and yet there are times when such statements need to be said. This is what some pastors call “tough love.”

You may say things like “I believe marriage is only between a man and a woman and that you shouldn’t be practicing a homosexual lifestyle.” For conservative Christians, that’s plain and simple truth that may cause offense. Yet the reason why you may say those things is out of love for the person who needs to hear it and you always have to make that motive clear to the person.

Yes, Paul encouraged us to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) but doing it will not always be a pleasant experience. Yes, Peter rightly encouraged us to be gentle and respectful in our apologetic discourse (1 Peter 3:15), and we should! But this does not guarantee that we will not offend anyone. In the book Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, Greg Koukl offered a general rule for apologetic discourse: if anyone in the discussion gets angry, you lose. That is why we should try our best to communicate the gospel to others with gentleness and respect. Yet, if the person still gets mad and offended despite our charitable expression of our ideas, there’s little that we can do about it. Jesus’ teachings made people furious but that does not make Jesus the loser. The losers are those who refused to accept the truth! In your evangelistic efforts, if it ever happens that someone gets offended, “make sure that it is your ideas that offend and not you, that your beliefs cause the dispute and not your behaviour.”

“…yet do [apologetics] with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:15-17)

This verse may well be expressed as “…yet do [apologetics] with gentleness and respect, having a good motive, so when someone offended by your statement attacks you, he/she will be put to shame.”

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