Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (Matthew 23:14, NKJV)
What is the “greater condemnation” Jesus spoke of? It must be something because it’s mentioned in three gospels – this one and Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. But what is it? (Before you read on, why not try to answer this question for yourself?)
Is Jesus saying there are degrees of judgment and that the Pharisees and hypocrites are going to get punished more than others? You might think so if you read his words in other translations:
- “You will be punished more severely.” (NIV)
- “You will receive the heavier sentence.” (AMP)
- “Ye shall receive the greater damnation.” (KJV)
The traditional view of damnation is eternal torment in the Lake of Fire. Since Pharisees and hypocrites are fixing for a greater damnation, does that mean the Lake of Fire has a particularly hot end and these poor souls will suffer in it for eternity plus an extra 20 years? That’s ridiculous.
So what is the greater condemnation?
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18)
Condemnation, or judgment, is not something that only happens at Judgment Day. Condemnation is what you have now when you refuse to enjoy God’s love and grace. In Christ, there is no condemnation. Outside of Christ, there is plenty.
We weren’t designed to live alone. Choose the path of self-reliance and yours will be a limited and inferior life (see Jer. 17:5-6). This has nothing to do with divine punishment and everything to do with sowing and reaping. Sow to the flesh and you reap corruption (Gal. 6:8). We simply do not have it within ourselves to live the abundant life we were made for. Left to our own devices, even our best efforts will lead to dissatisfaction, discontentment, and destruction.
Bet on yourself and you cannot win; bet on Jesus and you cannot lose
Jesus said the one who refuses to believe has made up his mind. He has made his final judgment (krino) and it is a negative one (krima) with bad consequences. From this we can identify two kinds of unbeliever:
- Ignorant unbeliever – hasn’t heard the gospel and doesn’t know God loves her
- Hard-hearted unbeliever – has heard the gospel and knows about God, but has rejected him
Reflecting on his early life as a blasphemer and violent man, the apostle Paul said, “I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). Paul, who was formerly known as Saul, thought of himself as a God-fearing man. But when Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, he realized he didn’t really know anything about God. He was the first kind of unbeliever – the ignorant kind.
In contrast, the Pharisees who scorned Jesus were the second kind. They met the Son of God in person and heard him proclaim the good news of the kingdom, yet they rejected him. They mocked him, they hated him, and they tried to kill him. These guys weren’t agnostics. They were murderers and abusive men (Matt. 23:34). They were the original nose-punching preachers. Not only did they refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven, but they hindered others from entering as well (Matt. 23:13).
Every unbeliever is either like Saul (ignorant and unaware of God’s goodness) or like the Pharisees (hard-hearted and violently opposed to it). But here’s the thing: we all start out like Saul.
Saul was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance. God doesn’t show mercy only to some people but to all people, because every one of us is ignorant until we hear the good news. “The grace of God that brings salvation (i.e., Jesus) has appeared to all men” (Tit 2:11).
God loves the Pharisee and the hypocrite as much as he loves Saul. But they don’t love him back. His grace is for everyone, but not everyone receives it. Although God does not discriminate, we do. We judge ourselves by our response to Jesus.
Two kinds of condemnation
Since there are two kinds of unbeliever there are two kinds of condemnation – a lesser and a greater. This condemnation does not come from God but from our unbelieving hearts (1 John 3:20) and the law (2 Cor. 3:9).
What is the lesser condemnation? It is the condemnation or self-imposed judgment that is overturned by grace. Think of Saul, living wretchedly under the law, trying to do his best for the Lord. On the road to Damascus he encountered God’s grace and was set free from condemning religion. He became proof of Jesus’ words that, “Whoever believes in me is not condemned.”
What is the greater condemnation? It is the condemnation that resists grace and denies the Lord. Think of the self-righteous Pharisees who hated Jesus and plotted to kill him. They received the heavenly rain, but produced thorns and thistles. They insulted the Spirit of grace and trampled the Son of God underfoot. They pushed the word of God away and judged themselves unworthy of life (Acts 13:46).
An ignorant unbeliever may yet receive grace, but a hard-hearted unbeliever cannot receive it. Why not? Because grace has already been offered and rejected. It has been tasted and spat out. The condemnation of the Pharisee and the hypocrite is greater because it is resistant to grace. Having heard the gospel and spurned it they are without hope, because there is no other gospel.
Ultimately, everyone responds to Jesus. Some respond like Saul and join the party; others respond like the Pharisees and remain outside in the darkness of their stubborn unbelief.
The condemnation of the ignorant is lesser because it is temporary. It is the predawn haze of a passing night. When the sun rises, poof!, it’s gone.
But the condemnation of the hard-hearted is like concrete. It’s as hard as the soil of their unbelieving hearts. The condemnation of the hypocrite and pretender is greater, not because there are degrees to God’s judgment or because he hates them. He doesn’t! Their condemnation is greater because their stubborn minds are not easily changed.
Let’s say I offer you a plate of green eggs and ham, and you have never tried green eggs and ham. Do you like green eggs and ham? You cannot know until you have tried them. So you may try them. But if you have tried them and disliked them – hated them in fact – then you will never try them again.
It’s the same with Jesus. The Bread of Heaven is infinitely better than green eggs and ham and it is difficult for me to understand how anyone could reject him, yet some do. The Pharisees did and so did Judas. Jesus spent years with these guys. He gave them countless opportunities to receive from him yet they never did.
What does this mean for you?
Some who are confused about grace have turned the words of Jesus into cattle-prods. They say, “Beware the greater condemnation that falls on those who fail to perform.” I hope you can see now that the greater condemnation does not apply to those who are in Christ. Nor does it apply to those who have never heard of him.
Jesus didn’t come to condemn but to save. The greater condemnation is not a Big Stick he uses to whack those who fail to deliver results. The greater condemnation is the self-inflicted judgment some bring on themselves by hardening their hearts to his love and grace.