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Matthew 23:15 meaning

In His third woe, Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees for seeking to make converts to enhance their personal following and status.

Matthew 23:15 is unparalleled in the gospel accounts.

The third woe of Matthew 23 regarded the Pharisee's efforts to spread their corruption through proselytizing. It was addressed to you, the scribes and Pharisees (v 15).

The scribes were religious lawyers. They meticulously searched the Law and the Tradition to create loopholes for themselves and to manufacture more and more rules to control the people. The Pharisees were the teachers of these religious customs. They led the local synagogues and strictly followed their and the scribes' interpretations of the Law and the Tradition. The Pharisees crushed anyone who failed to follow their rules or dared defy them.

The scribes, with the legislative and judicial authority; and the Pharisees, functioning as the religious police, allied together as an unopposable and corrupt force of religious malpractice.

Jesus called them hypocrites. Hypocrite comes from the Greek term for "actor." It is someone who pretends to be one thing but is really another. It describes someone who is fake. Jesus uses this term to brand the scribes and Pharisees as religious frauds.

The reason He called them hypocrites in this woe was because they traveled far and wide to make one proselyte, and once they had converted him, they made him twice as much a son of hell (v 15) as themselves.

A proselyte is a convert from another religion. The scribes and Pharisees, it seems were trying to convert proselytes to the Jewish faith from among the Gentiles. Most likely they were trying to convert Greeks and Romans who lived in Judea and across the Mediterranean Sea to their religion—hence the expression, you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte (v 15).

Judaism had several distinctive appealing attributes to the Roman worldview.

  1. Monotheism: The concept of One God who created, sustains, and rules the world was intellectually superior to the pettiness and bickering of polytheism. Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were monotheists.
  2. Morality: Jewish teachings such as the Ten Commandments grounded the ethics into objective and applicable standards that rose above the arbitrary moral whims of paganism.
  3. Meaning: The Jewish Faith provided substantial answers to the meaning of life. Additionally, it gave a sensible explanation for suffering and provided a compelling vision for redemption.
  4. Stability: The Jewish Religion stood out for its longevity and its ability to withstand conquests, exile, and the ever-changing fads and fashions of the age.

The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56—c. 120) grumbled that Roman proselytes to the Jewish faith "despise all gods" and "disown their country" (The History 5.5). The Roman Centurion Cornelius was likely a proselyte. He was "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually" (Acts 10:2). He later accepted Jesus as the Messiah when Peter visited him (Acts 10).

But the scribes and Pharisees were not trying to enlarge God's family. They were trying to build their own following. Their mission was not to help other people see and live the truth. It was to inflate their own power and ego. And every proselyte they converted was another trophy and member of their tribe. Their proselytizing was sleazy and another instance of their Bad Religion. They were seeking to be the leader rather than bringing people to follow God as their Leader (Matthew 23:10).

Jesus then gave the scribes and Pharisees a stinging rebuke, whenever you make convert, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves (v 15).

The phrase son of hell is better translated as son of Gehenna. Gehenna was the Greek name of the Hinnom Valley, located to the immediate south of Jerusalem's city walls. It served as the city dump where waste and animal carcasses were burned and rotted. (To learn more about Gehenna, see our Tough Topics article "Gehenna, Hell, and Hades.")  

Jesus often used Gehenna as an image to contrast the blessings of His Kingdom. And so, it may be good to understand the phrase son of Gehenna as a contrast to Jesus's oft used phrase, "sons of the kingdom." In broad terms, this expression branded the people of Bad Religion, like the scribes and Pharisees as living in Gehenna instead of participating in the administration of the Messiah's reign. The image would be of someone choosing to live in the filth and corruption of the garbage dump outside the city, rather than in the safety and comfort of the nearby city. The reality of the world's ways is that it is like the city landfill and sewer, while the kingdom is like the city.

The irony is that the scribes and Pharisees boast about ruling the garbage heap as they mock and deride the kingdom of God. They just don't yet realize that they dwell in Gehenna. Talk about "whoever exalts himself shall be humbled" (Matthew 23:12)! They have no humility, so they do not have eyes to see reality.

And apparently the proselytes they make are even more obnoxious in their boasting and mockery. Perhaps this is because a proselyte has an abundance of enthusiasm and inexperience. They are zealous for their cause without the refined etiquette and cunning of the scribes and Pharisees. This may be why Jesus said each proselyte is twice as much a son of Gehenna as the scribes and Pharisees who converted him (v 15).

By pointing out the behavior of the Pharisees' converts, Jesus exposed the corruption of their teaching.

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