There are some really hard truths in the Holy Scriptures of the Bible. One of the hardest is the testimony of Yeshua of Nazareth against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Seven times He brings an imprecation of “woe” against them; and in each case, He calls them “hypocrites“.
What is “woe” and how does it relate to “hypocrites“? What is a hypocrite, Biblically speaking?
In this short blog I intend to answer conclusively the questions above, so as to leave no doubts in the mind of any who read this. Let’s begin:
“Woe” is a small Greek word, namely ouai. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible describes it simply as “a primary exclamation of grief“. In the King James Version of the Bible, it is translated only two ways, as either “alas” or as “woe“. But what do those mean, in context?
Alas is a word derived from Latin, eventually coming to us from Old French and Middle English. It is a compound word, made up of two parts. The first is ah-, which functions as “an exclamation of pain, surprise, pity, complaint, dislike, [or] joy“. The second part, or –las, means “wretched“, and comes from the Latin word lassus, which means “weary“. Therefore, when compounded, “alas” is an expression of weariness, in which a person interjects into their speech an exclamation of how something or someone, or some situation, is causing or has caused them grief.
This stands to good reason, especially when one looks to see how Yeshua used the word in Matthew 23. But what about “woe“? Woe is simply any type of grievous distress, affliction, or trouble. As an interjection, to express woe is to exclaim to others how distressed, afflicted, or troubled one is over something or someone. This again makes perfect sense in context. In Matthew 23, the Lord is expressing how much the Scribes and Pharisees grieved, distressed, afflicted, and troubled Him. They are a thorn in His side, if you will. But why? Why did these two groups of men cause Yeshua so much consternation? What about them invited the Son of God to pronounce a weary “woe” against them?
The key is to understand what a Biblical “woe” is. In the Holy Scriptures, both in the Old and the New Covenant, a “woe” was a terrible ordeal, something catastrophic, a calamity. It could be a plague or a war. It could also refer to divine judgment. A woe might also simply be the resultant consequences of one’s own sins, against God, against self, and/or against others.
This then should wake us up to the fact that if the Lord and Messiah of Israel has pronounced a seven-fold woe against the Scribes and Pharisees, it means a perfect calamity of judgment and terror is upon all hypocrites everywhere. What a terrible thing to be, in the eyes of the Son of Man!
What then, is a hypocrite? It must surely be understood that Christ’s condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees wasn’t simply because they were Scribes and Pharisees. In fact, the Lord had some good relations among them (e.g. Nicodemus). To be a scribe, or a copyist and Torah interpreter was and is not an innately evil thing. To pursue holy separation unto God, that is, to be a Perushim or Pharisee is not by any means a bad idea.
The issue resides in the how. How does a scribe interpret the Torah? Faithfully? Justly? Or is there perversion and human tradition intermingled in the interpretation? Are the Words of God used against His people simply because the people are ignorant of the texts of the Bible (e.g. perhaps because, in the days of the Lord, many people were illiterate)?
Is a person pursuing holy separation unto God as a means of achieving self-righteousness (See, e.g. Luke 18:10-14)? Does being separated unto God in holiness cause one to become superior and judgmental in their attitude toward those considered less separated or holy (See, e.g. Isaiah 65:1-5)?
It all comes back to motivation and purity of purpose. In that day, many, perhaps even most of the Scribes and Pharisees were not just in their motives, speech, or actions, thus drawing Yeshua’s ire against them. If their motivations, speech, and actions or conduct would have been pure and right in His sight, the Lord would never have pronounced a woe against them, and He certainly would not have called them hypocrites, or more literally, those “under judgment or condemnation“.
Hypocrite is a rich word, full of meaning, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant. It is a compound word, like alas, made up of two parts. It stems from a Greek verb, used frequently in the Scriptures of the New Covenant, especially in the Gospels.
The modern use of the word hypocrite is defined thus: a person who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives.
This is likewise the basic meaning behind the use of the word in the Bible. But we need to go a little deeper to exegete lexigraphical meaning. As already stated, hypocrite is a compound word, made up of two parts. The first, in Greek, is hupo-, and it simply means “under“. The second part derives from the root krino, meaning “to decide“.
More however is still needed. When thinking about what it means to decide something, one must get a mental picture in their mind. To make a decision is to weigh facts in the balance, separate things or ideas into their respective categories, consider all the different options, then choose. In choosing, one then selects one option to the forfeiture of others. This means a judgment call is made. Whatever one has chosen, it has been judged the best choice, to the detriment of the other options. In this way, krino has come to mean “judgment“. A judgment is simply a decision for or against something. But again, this elicits a mental image, as of a judge in court rendering a verdict (i.e. innocent or guilty).
All of this and more indicates that when the Lord called someone a hypocrite, He was actually telling them that they were under judgment. He as Lord and Judge of All, was holding their lives in the balance, and as the testimony of the Gospels show, He was finding them wanting.
By rendering such a verdict against them, the Messiah was determining their guilt. In so doing, He brought against them accusation and proof of their guilt, as Matthew 23 and other passages demonstrate. In finding them guilty as charged, He condemned them as hypocrites, or those pretending to be something they were not. The Scribes and Pharisees should have been the most righteous, the most holy, the most anointed, the most divinely selected and blessed portion of people in all of Israel, and yet they were not. They were fake, wolves in sheep’s clothing.
They were presuming to be innocent in the eyes of God and man, but inwardly they were the guiltiest of sinners. A careful reading of the Gospels indicates there was no love lost between Yeshua and the Scribes and Pharisees. Yeshua was relentless, even merciless toward them.
And what was His judgment against them? What was the “woe” or calamitous disaster awaiting the Scribes and Pharisees in Christ’s day?
John 8:21 (New English Translation)
21. …Jesus said to them again, “I am going away, and you will look for me but will die in your sin. Where I am going you cannot come.”
We know from later testimony (and even earlier in the Gospel of John) that the Lord was going back whence He came, i.e. from the Father in Heaven (John 16:5, 16). In telling the Scribes and Pharisees that they would “die in their sins“, He was telling them they were doomed, lost eternally, never to be saved.
This is the fate of all hypocrites, or those pretending to be something they are not, thus under judgment awaiting condemnation.
But this isn’t the hard truth mentioned in the opening. Certainly, it is hard, but there is a truth harder still. The question that needs to be asked is, what about us? Are we hypocrites?
I know few willing to admit it. For most believers in Yeshua, it’s automatically discerned by reading the testimony of His words, that hypocrisy is one of if not the least tolerated sins. And so, we all strive to not be hypocrites. Well and good. But how many of us truly succeed?
Here’s the point: If, in your conscience, you routinely experience condemnation, that is, a sense of guilt and shame, as if you are constantly offending God with your life, speech, and actions, feeling like you’re just not good enough, but yet claim to be a saint of God, saved and full of the Holy Spirit, guess what? You are a hypocrite.
To the world and all other believers, you are claiming that Christ saved you, washed and purged you by His own blood (See Hebrews 1:3 and Revelation 1:5), and gave you new life through the Holy Spirit (See John 3:3-5, Romans 6:3-4). But to yourself, to your own inner person, all you see is wickedness, sin, guilt, shame, regret, and unforgiveness. In your heart, you don’t really believe the Lord saved you, hence why you suffer from condemnation. You still believe you are still an unwashed degenerate, and like the Scribes and Pharisees, that you are likewise not going to be able to go where Christ is, and so, are likewise going to die in your sins.
You are wearing a mask that outwardly says one thing to the world, but inwardly, your conscience is singing a different tune. The issue is not that you feel the way you do about yourself, or even that you experience condemnation in your conscience.
The issue is your honesty about it all. As long as you play along, go along to get along, to keep up appearances, to act the part, so no one is the wiser, interpreting God’s Word for others, attempting to live a holy, separated life, and yet, not really trusting the Blood of Christ’ Cross, you’re a hypocrite.
You can’t be quickened by redemption and dead in trespasses at the same time (See Ephesians 2:1, 5). You are either one or the other. If you don’t know which you are, that’s fine, as long as you are pressing toward finding out. But to be living in a constant state of fear and torment about how your trip to the Judgment Seat is going to be, indicates you have not been made perfect in love (See 1 John 4:17-18). You do not have and so, will not have, boldness in the day of your judgment.
The inward voice of your conscience testifies against you. It’s not the devil. It’s you. You are walking in the flesh, and so, cannot please God (Romans 8:8 and Hebrews 11:6). All who suffer condemnation are in the flesh (Romans 8:1). If you have received the Holy Spirit, you ought to be walking in It, sowing to It, in order to reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8). Stop blaming Satan or anyone or anything else. It’s simply a matter of trust, between you and your Savior.
What you need, as the author of Hebrews so eloquently put it, is to be taught again (Hebrews 5:12). Somewhere along the way, someone taught you incorrectly, and you bought into a false idea of self, a false idea of God, a false idea of the Son of God, a false idea of salvation, a false idea of grace, a false idea of works, and/or a false idea of the impartation of righteousness by faith.
Or, perhaps, it’s not that someone taught you wrong, it’s that you refused to truly believe. Faith, my dear reader. Faith!
Yeshua didn’t come into the world to condemn it. Rather, He came to save it (John 3:17). That includes you (John 3:16)! But you have to take the mask off. You have to come into the light and admit to your pretension (John 3:19-21 and 1 John 1:7). Smite your breast and plead for mercy (Luke 18:13). Then, and only then, will you escape the condemnation you feel, and will “go down to your house justified” (Luke 18:14).
Don’t be like a Scribe or Pharisee, outwardly righteous, and inwardly full of dead man’s bones. The Lord doesn’t need, and can’t make use of, white-washed sepulchers.
Be not as the hypocrites are (Matthew 6:5)! Get into your “prayer closet” and allow the Spirit to make intercession for you with groanings that cannot be uttered, until you have victory (Romans 8:26)! Until God’s love is perfected in you! Until all your fear of judgment is cast out! Until you find boldness in the presence of your Savior in this life, so you can have boldness when you meet Him face to face in the life to come (Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10)! Until your faith is built up (Jude 1:20)! Until you know you are walking in the light, as He is in the light, so that the blood of God’s Son can cleanse you from all unrighteousness! Until you can reckon yourself dead unto sin (Romans 6:11)! Until you know you have successfully escaped the wrath to come (Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:7, and Romans 5:9)! Until you believe the testimony of the Lord instead of the testimony of your conscience (John 3:33, 1 Corinthians 1:6, and Revelation 12:11). Until you can receive this hard truth and not be offended! Until finally, you have received and experience the following:
1 John 3:21,
21. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.
 Anyone familiar with the Yiddish phrase oy vey or “woe is me” is familiar with such interjections.
 See, e.g. Numbers 21:29, Job 10:15, Proverbs 23:29, Isaiah 3:9, Isaiah 6:5, Jeremiah 23:1, Matthew 18:7, Luke 6:25, 1 Corinthians 9:16, Jude 1:11, and especially Revelation 8:13 and 9:12. Suffice it to say the use of “woe” is throughout the Old and New Covenant Scriptures. Many more examples abound, but all basically express the same concept, that of difficulty or calamity causing grief, even anguish.
 See, e.g. John 5:22 and 5:27.
 See, e.g. John 9:41.