Jesus’ Harsh Words: The Grace of Rebuke


In Luke 11, Jesus offers a series of rebukes to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. These leaders not only had the Word of God but held authority for the Word of God in the lives of others. This should stop us in our tracks as pastors, ministry leaders, elders, or anyone who has some role of authority in the lives of others.

There are certain things about us—things we do and things inside of us—that are distasteful to Jesus. We must hear this side of Jesus’ teaching. We must reconsider whether we only take in Jesus’ loving, gentle words or whether we hear the comprehensive breadth of Jesus’ words. We must open our ears and hear even the words of rebuke as if they were spoken to us.

If our first response to Jesus’ rebuke is to think of how they apply to someone else, then we are likely avoiding the word that Christ is speaking directly to us. We must receive the hard words of Christ with radical humility and openness to correction for our thorough transformation. The spotlight is upon us and we should not be quick to divert it toward another.

The piercing sword of rebuke is a grace and it is vital that we remember that fact. The first step toward healing is an accurate diagnosis. Jesus’ rebuke is the difficult diagnosis that leads to the Soul-physician’s surgical grace in removing sickness from us in order to make our souls whole.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees first of all because there is a different and better type of cleanness than what they are concerned about. They are concerned about external and superficial cleanliness but not the internal and deeper cleanliness. They are concealing deeper uncleanness of soul under the cover of superficial cleanness. They are like whitewashed graves that are clean and beautiful on the outside but hold death and decay inside.

The cure is found through Jesus the Life-giver who points the way through generosity to the poor (Luke 11:41), attention to justice, and practicing the love of God (11:42). Is this a salvation by works? No, it is the fruit of repentance as we turn toward God from self-seeking religion and hypocrisy. As we repent, Jesus leads us beyond ourselves into something stronger and more alive. It is the healing pathway out of soul-sickness.

Jesus secondly rebukes the experts in the Law because they have kept life from others. They weigh people down with religious burdens, locking the door to life by their mishandling of God’s Law. God’s Word intends to bring life but they wield it in such a way that life is snuffed out through incorrect usage.

The anger of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law reflects the reality that Jesus has touched upon a nerve with His rebuke. Do we feel angry or uncomfortable with the words of Jesus? Do we attempt to turn the attention of the difficult diagnosis toward someone else? Is it too painful to hear?

Linger in it. Do not flinch. Open your heart and mind to the rebuke of Jesus. Inside the rebuke is the grace of a loving and healing God.

Contrasting Forms of Righteousness in Matthew 5: how Jesus’ way is different from that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law

This past weekend in my message, “Real Righteousness,” I focused on Jesus’ striking statement in Matthew 5:20:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

While this statement has often plagued interpreters, I believe Jesus is redefining righteousness for his hearers by offering a stark contrast between His agenda and what people often viewed as righteousness. This new righteousness is different than the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was old and deficient. Jesus is bringing a new and surpassing righteousness that is real on the inside and outside.

In his very insightful book, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7, Charles H. Talbert summarizes the contrast between the old and the new righteousness. I have rephrased and summarized here his insights on pages 64-65. The righteousness of the Pharisees and the scribes looked like this:[1]

  • they rely on birth instead of observance of God’s will (John 8:39)
  • they teach but do not practice what they teach (Matthew 23:3)
  • they focus on minor things and neglect major things (23:23-24)
  • they do what they do for human approval (23:5, 27-28)
  • they seek to evade the intent of the Law (23:16-22; 15:1-9)
  • they persecute God’s messengers (23:29-36; 12:14), failing to recognize God’s Spirit or to understand the meaning of Jesus’ ministry

The new, surpassing righteousness of Jesus embodied and taught His disciples was different. It looked like this:

  • instead of formal obedience, it aims for radical obedience (Matthew 5:21-48)
  • this righteousness does not seek human approval, but God’s approval (6:1-18)
  • this righteousness is neither greedy nor anxious but trusts in God’s providential goodness (6:19-34)
  • this righteousness is a lifestyle that walks the talk and is critical, not of others, but of the self as a means toward self-awareness and growth with God (7:1-12)

As Talbert helpful summarizes:

“For Matthew, living with a surpassing righteousness means living faithfully within a covenant relationship that encompasses both vertical and horizontal dimensions, and is only possible if such a life is divinely enabled. Left to our own resources, we cannot be faithful. So living justly is as much a  matter of receiving as it is of giving.”

[1] Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 64-65.