The Heart of the Pharisee: Guarding the Gate

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Matthew 23: 13-14

Towards the end of the book of Matthew, Jesus confronts the Pharisees, or religious leaders of His day. From the very beginning of the book, the Pharisees have been frustrated, offended, and threatened by Jesus’s teaching and way of life. From eating with sinners to healing on the Sabbath, Jesus’s behavior flabbergasted the leaders, and they hated him for it, looking for ways to convict Him and condemn Him to death (which they would eventually do). And right before His crucifixion, in the last documented interaction Jesus has with these leaders, He speaks clearly and directly about what about their ministry He finds so wrong.

Throughout Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven “woes” or rebukes. A woe is a declaration of sorrow and distress, a strong rebuke, which highlights God’s righteous judgment and shows His heart. In this passage, Jesus tells the Pharisees how angry He is at the way they have taken their religion and used it to hurt others.

Jesus starts off His woes already throwing punches. He tells the teachers of the law that they are hypocrites (people who claim to have moral standards but don’t actually do the things they claim to) and tells them that they “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. [They themselves] do not enter, nor will [they] let those enter who are trying to.”

For the religious leaders, this would be a terrifying statement to hear. Their entire lives, many from their youth, have been focused on getting to heaven. The problem is that throughout the generations, the Pharisees had added so many extra rules and requirements to God’s law that it was almost impossible for anyone to have a chance.

People were hungry for the kingdom of God; it’s apparent from every time Jesus opened His mouth. Thousands would follow Him, chase Him from town to town, seek healing, and come to believe because of the kingdom of heaven He described. In Jesus’s kingdom, everyone is welcomed: the poor, the sick, the broken, the sinful. In fact, several times Jesus says directly that these people will enter the kingdom of God before the religious leaders who have spent so much time trying to get it right.

This is so convicting to me. As someone who has been a Christian for most of my life, I can fall victim to thinking that there’s no way those people could possibly actually know God, simply because they’re different from me. And my guess is that in your own particular way, you do this too. Whether it’s the way someone dresses, how much money they have, who they vote for, or something else, we can be so quick to judge who is in and who is out according to our own definition of righteous, and that is a dangerous game for us to play.

Only God gets to decide who enters His kingdom, and I wonder what would happen if instead of judging and guarding the gate, we instead threw the gates wide open and offered the beautiful gift of a life with Jesus to everyone we met. Will this feel uncomfortable? Absolutely. It’s uncomfortable to be in relationship with people who are different from us. We are wired to want things to be the same. But Paul puts it clearly in Romans 14:

“Why, then, do you judge your brother? Or why do you belittle your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow before Me; every tongue will confess to God.” So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop judging one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.”

We have been so graciously welcomed into the kingdom of God. Let God change our hearts and help us welcome others in the same way.

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