Why did Jesus call the Pharisees whitewashed tombs in Matthew 23:27?

The condemnation you are like whitewashed tombs was part of Jesus’ indictment of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. It is one of seven woes Jesus pronounced on the religious leaders as He confronted them about their hypocrisy.

Whitewashed tombs means exactly what it sounds like: tombs or mausoleums that have been covered with white paint, so they “look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). This speaks to the spiritual condition of the scribes and Pharisees. Outwardly, they were holy and clean, but inside they were spiritually dead.

The comparison to whitewashed tombs would have been quite offensive because the Mosaic Law states, “Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days” (Numbers 19:11, ESV). For a group of people who prided themselves on ceremonial cleanliness and following the law, the accusation that they were full of dead bodies would be insufferable. That was precisely Jesus’ point, though. They may have been ceremonially clean, but, inside, they were the highest level of unclean—full of the death and decay they tried so hard to avoid.

Such a harsh statement from Jesus reveals His anger at the hypocrisy in the religious leaders, who only cared about appearances. They took care of what people could see—and took pride in it—but they neglected what God could see. They “painted the outside,” leaving the inside full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25). In their eyes, if they followed the law to the letter, they were holy, and the condition of their hearts wouldn’t matter. Jesus needed to confront the superficiality of these dangerous leaders who did not practice what they preached. The whitewashed tombs were leading themselves and others to death and separation from God (Matthew 23:15).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained that the law was less about what to do and not do and more about changing the heart. One analogy is that the law is like a mirror, revealing the flaws in man and how much they need God, like a mirror showing the food stuck between one’s teeth. The law can reveal uncleanness, but it cannot be used to make a person righteous; only God can do that. The Pharisees were taking the mirror off the wall and trying to use it to pick their teeth. It simply does not work.

Whitewashed tombs work as a good contrast to Jesus Himself, the Son of Man, who came to bring life (John 10:10). He offered rest and grace instead of the impossible burden and condemnation of the Pharisees (Matthew 11:28–30). The superficial cleanness of whitewashed tombs cannot compare to the deep-cleaning blood of Christ (1 John 1:7). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

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