The scribes and Pharisees were learned men who studied the Mosaic Law and the sacred texts of the Old Testament with great care and diligence. Having such access to the Word of God, they [of all people], should have recognized Jesus as the Messiah. But they did not. Instead, they strongly opposed the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry and refused to acknowledge Him as the Son of God.
These men were the religious leaders of their day and were respected by the masses for their strict adherence to the Law and their perceived spiritual piety. They sat “in Moses’ seat” and were the authorized interpreters of God’s divine law. Because of this, Jesus said: “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matt 23:2-3). “All their works they do to be seen by men” (v. 5).
The words of our Lord underlined above provide a good working definition of hypocrisy: saying one thing, and doing another. These religious leaders looked good and sounded good (Matt 15:8), having mastered the language and mechanics of their religion, but they had totally missed the heart [will] of God. When seen among the people, they were acting in a way they never intended to become. They were putting on a good show for all to see and admire.
While appearing pious and righteous, these men were actually inwardly corrupt and spiritually destitute. Jesus says of them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness!” (Matt 23:27-28).
We would be wise to take these sobering words of our Lord as a stern warning. The scribes and Pharisees considered themselves to be holy and righteous—acceptable to God and faithful in His service. But Jesus said their heart was far from him and their worship was vain [useless] (Matt 15:8-9). This is a strong indictment. Clearly, even though they appeared devout and pious, their hearts were not in harmony with the will of God. They had missed it! This is a simple and general definition of sin: missing the mark [Greek: n: hamartia; v: hamartano].
The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees had descended into self-deception. And self-deception is perhaps the worst deception of all. May you and I hold fast the sound admonition of our brother James: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).