But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. (Matthew 23:13-15)
In today’s passage, Jesus has harsh words of condemnation for the Pharisees and scribes of his day. Who were the Pharisees? The Pharisees were religious men of their day, mostly of a middle-class economic status. While they were a minority amongst the religious establishment of their day (few of them held the office of priest), they held a position of great prominence because of their contact with the common people of Israel. They held that the oral law tradition of Israel had equal weight with the Scriptures, making a distinction between the oral Torah and the written Torah. This is why in Matthew 15, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that they are “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (v.9).
He goes on to demonstrate their hypocrisy, pride, and lack of compassion. In short, he demonstrates why they are false teachers. It is the work of false teachers to drive people away from the teaching of Scripture, often with subtlety, and towards the vain inventions of men in doctrine, worship, and piety. As you read through this, see how he addresses each of these areas. In their piety, the lack compassion for their brothers (v.2), they show off their religion for the praise of others (v.5), they are vain and prideful (v.6-7). They worship falsely by offering with cold, unregenerate hearts that which God has commanded (v. 23). They reject sound doctrine, for they killed the prophets who came before them yet honor them for show (v.29-33).
False teachers typically have this in common: they drive people away from the truths of Scripture and teach doctrines of their own invention. Matthew Poole, commenting on v.15, says this with regarding to Roman Catholic missions in his time:
Thus priests and Jesuits at this day go to China, Japan, to proselyte men to the Roman faith; and use all imaginable arts to seduce persons born and bred under the profession of the protestant religion in protestant countries, and boast much of their converts; but he who looks upon the Scriptures, and considereth the lives of the most of their converts, will easily see they are but twice more the children of hell, being licensed, by their indulgences, pardons, absolutions, nay, by their very casuists, to live most prodigious impious lives, to say nothing of their damnable errors in matters of faith.
Ideas have consequences. When we teach traditions as doctrines that do not have their foundation in the word of God, we poison souls. We make our disciples twice the children of hell. Let this be a lesson for us all; may we who teach fear greater condemnation as James warns. And may we be diligent to search the scriptures for the truths they reveal, not accepting anything that is not expressly taught by them or may not be concluded by good and necessary consequence (see Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6). May Scripture and scripture alone be our only infallible rule for doctrine and life.