What should we make of Jesus’ harsh language in Matthew 23?

What should we make of Jesus’ harsh language in Matthew 23?

In Matthew 23, Jesus speaks very harshly to the scribes and Pharisees. As he outlines seven woes on them, Jesus calls them “hypocrites” and “blind” quite a few times. He goes much further than this as well, calling them “children of hell” (v15), “whitewashed tombs” (v27) and a “brood of vipers” (v33). This is somewhat disturbing. This is no Jesus meek and mild; this is aggressive and vivid insulting language towards those who many would see as the respectable pillars of first-century Jewish society.

What are we to make of this? There are a few possible directions we could take.

  1. We should note that Jesus’ language matches his accusations.

Jesus’ vivid and descriptive language matched the charges he brought against the Pharisees and scribes. For example, he called those they converted as children of hell like they were. Their rejection of Jesus and their instruction of others to do the same would put them outside God’s favour and heading for hell. This was not simply a description added to bring colour to his argument but an accurate phrase to use.

  1. We should note that Jesus did not only use insulting descriptions, he engaged real arguments with real examples.

So often in our modern world, we see people throw insulting titles at others quickly and repeatedly with little evidence or reasoned argument. Matthew 23 is not like this. In this chapter, Jesus explained the issues he had with the scribes and Pharisees in detail; the titles he used for them were only a small part of this. For example, he called them blind guides in v24 because they tithed their garden herbs and ignored things like justice and mercy. They were blind for not seeing what matters more, and guides because they taught others to do likewise.

  1. As Jesus is without sin, his anger is appropriate and proportionate.

Anger is not a sign of sin. It is right to be angry at what God is angry about. Jesus is in a unique position to judge what is right and wrong as He is God himself. So when Jesus gets angry, the language might seem strong, but Jesus is upset that this group of people have not only rejected Him but led others from the kingdom of heaven as well.


The big follow-up question is: is it OK for Christians to use insulting language when engaging those opposed to the gospel? It is here that we must be very careful. We do have not only the example of Jesus, but also the prophets and apostles at various points, who speak angrily and using descriptive terms about their opponents. However, we must be aware that we are sinful, and as such are likely to express our anger in disproportionate ways. We will be tempted to be defensive if personally criticised or to be angry about personal issues and not the glory of God.

We must strive to be different from those around us who often throw insults with no engagement with the underlying issues. We must be thoughtful; let’s follow the instruction of Paul:

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Col. 4:6 ESV)

Matthew 23 is not prescriptive for us, and we must be careful to show our reasonableness and grace to those we speak to, even those we disagree with. Let’s engage carefully and graciously as we strive to commend the truth of the gospel to those around us.