Dead Men Walking - Matthew 23:25-28

Matthew 23  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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The book and subsequent movie called “Dead Man Walking” was a story about a man who was condemned to die.  The title was brilliant.  It captured the idea of a man who was still alive but who was already dead on the inside.

This is the way Jesus seems to picture the Scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:25-28,

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

 27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

We have been looking at the woes that Jesus pronounced on the Scribes and Pharisees. Our interest in this passage is deepened because these men were the religious establishment of the day.  They were the conservative churchmen.  We have been trying to listen carefully to what Jesus said so we could learn from the mistakes of others.

In my mind Jesus actually repeated the same charge in two different ways in verses 25-28 (which is why I have combined these two woes).  The charge is this: they look good on the outside but are dead on the inside.


The idea of cleanliness was real important to the Jews.  When we think about clean and unclean we tend to think about dishes, laundry or housekeeping.  When the Bible talks about being clean it is referring to our relationship with God. In the Old Testament (especially Leviticus) there are many laws about being clean.  Most of these laws had to do with God’s command for people to be “holy as He is holy”. Since God is holy or pure, those who want to come into God’s presence must also be holy and pure.  It was a matter of respect and honor.  God told Aaron,

8 Then the Lord said to Aaron, 9 “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the Tent of Meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. 10 You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.” (Leviticus 10:8-11)

Imagine two columns.  In one column you have words like holiness, life, vitality, wholeness and at the bottom like a sum of the column you have the word or “clean”.  In the other column you have words like: death, disease and sin and at the bottom is the word “unclean” The opposite of clean is not “dirty”, it is “separated from God”.

You were considered unclean if you ate the wrong kind of food, touched a dead body, or suffered from some kind of sickness or disease.  I believe the many food laws (which animals are clean and which are unclean….cattle was clean, pigs were unclean) was designed to show that Israel was to be a “set-apart” people.  The food laws reminded them that they were called to be different from the rest of the world.  (In the New Testament, when the message of salvation was extended to the Gentiles, the food laws were removed.  The need for a distinction from other nations was removed.)

The Scribes and Pharisees had established a long list of cleansing rituals to help them keep from becoming unclean.  There were all kinds of ritual washings. Before the feast days (like Passover) the tombs would be painted white so that no one would inadvertently touch the tomb and become unclean and therefore disqualified from the feast.

This all seems foreign to our ears but the cleanliness laws were designed to make a point.   They were to remind the people that if they were people of God they were to live differently from the rest of the world.  (I suppose it is not a great deal different from the way the Amish separate themselves from others by the way they dress and live their lives.) The problem with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law was that were very strict in obeying the rules but they were missing the point of the rules.

Jesus said they were like a cup that was clean on the outside but mold infested on the inside.  They were like a tomb that had been whitewashed in the sense that they looked good to those around them but were actually filled with decay and rot.  Today Jesus might have said these men were like,

A great looking car that contained a blown engine

A beautiful cake that was infected by salmonella

A person who was a great physical specimen but is filled with cancer.

A beautiful home that has a cracked foundation and is infested with termites

Our Lord wants us to understand that a faith that is merely superficial is no faith at all.  You can look good; know all the right words; and perform all the required religious deeds and still be unclean in your heart.  You can be a well respected member of a church and still be headed to Hell.


Jesus once again calls these people hypocrites or play-actors. They were concerned about appearances but were not what they seemed. Jesus lists three specific additional charges.

First, Jesus says they are “filled with greed” (which literally means “seizures” in the sense of taking things from others like in the sense of a foreclosure).  These leaders were experts in fleecing the flock!  They stole from widows and unsuspecting persons.  They looked good but they were really scam artists and con men.  They were like the people who call you on the phone to tell you that you have won a wonderful (too wonderful) prize and all that is needed to collect your prize is your credit care number.

Jesus said they were also self-indulgent.  The word means they were controlled by their desires rather than any sense of right or wrong.  Their motivation was not to honor God. . . but to honor themselves.

The third charge is similar to the second.  Jesus said they were filled with wickedness.  The word literally means against or without law.  In other words they lacked any restraint at all.  Remember, Paul is not talking to some group of inmates . . . He is talking to the religious leaders! Paul describes this kind of wickedness in 2 Timothy 3,

People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. 6 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.

The most telling phrase is this one: “they have a form of godliness but deny it’s power.”  It’s another way of saying they look good on the outside but have not been changed on the inside.  We might say they are two-faced or only playing the game.

Now the question I hope you are asking is this one: is my walk with God merely superficial?  Am I more like the Pharisees of more like Jesus?


When a person makes their initial decision to trust Christ they are given a new “heart”.  However, this heart is like that placed in a transplant victim.  It is a heart the body and life must adjust itself to.  The heart needs to be strengthened through exercise.  It needs to be protected through adjustments in diet.  The person who has been sick for a long time must now adjust to not being sick and learn to live like a healthy person.

It’s the same way with the gospel.  We are made new creatures but the old habits are still there.  We have spent our lives controlled by our desires; now we need (and want) to be controlled by the Lord.  We are used to living like a child of sin.  We have to learn to live the new life that comes from Christ.  Consequently, we must give attention to this new life that is in us.  Our new life from God resides in a body that is used to sin.  We must retrain the body.  We must reprogram our thinking.  We must learn to think like a King.

To help you to evaluate your own life here are three simple suggestions:

We must be clear about the problem of sin.  Sin is not a behavior problem; it is a heart problem.  Until we see the true nature of our rebellion, we will never know the cleansing power of God’s grace.  We can never be right with God by merely changing our behavior. . . we must have a new outlook on life.

We are living at a time when everyone wants to blame others for their problems.  We blame the social system, our difficult circumstances, and our family upbringing.  When something bad happens we immediately look for someone to blame or someone to sue.  We demand our freedom but we want nothing to do with the consequences of free choices.  We want to be free without any sense of accountability for our actions.  That is not freedom . . . it is a form of anarchy.

We must accept responsibility for our own choices and the consequences of those choices.  Before we can be right we God we must be able to honestly say, “I am the problem!”  “I am a sinful person.”  “I deserve God’s wrath”.

Second, we must be clear on the issue of salvation.  We spend a great deal of time clamoring for people to conform to our external standards.  We want them to have a certain experience, to perform certain rites, to say certain words and to behave in a certain manner.  We need to understand and constantly remind ourselves that a person can do all those things and still not be a true follower of Christ.  They might look like a Christian and sound like a Christian but still be headed for hell.

The true believer is the one who has accepted responsibility for his own sinful life.  He doesn’t make excuses.  He doesn’t blame others.  He confesses with sorrow the brokenness and rebellion of his life.  He admits his situation and seeks the mercy that Christ alone can extend.

I love this illustration shared by my friend Ray Pritchard.  Lots of people are hooked on watching poker on television.  They enjoy the strategy and the differences in human behavior.  In every game of high-stakes poker, there comes a defining moment that separates the winners from the losers.  At that moment a player says two words – “All in.”  He thinks he has the best hand; so he takes his chips and pushed them to the middle of the table.  He flips his cards over so everyone can see them, and then he stands up.  Going “all in” means you are risking everything on one hand.  If you win, you win it all.  If you lose, you lose it all.  You can’t win a tournament unless you are willing to go “all in” at some point.[1]

Ray goes on to point out that a true believer is one who has decided to go “all in” with Jesus Christ.  I like to say a true believer is one who is willing to bet his life on Jesus.  That means we trust Him to forgive us, to lead us, and to change us.

Please take this opportunity to look at your own heart.  Are you only a Christian on the outside?  Are you merely going through the motions or are you “all in” with Jesus?  Are you merely dangling your feet in the water of His grace or have you dived in?  Is your faith only skin deep?

We must do a regular inventory of our own hearts.  As the heart transplant patient must continue to work at their rehabilitation so must we.  Even those who have truly trusted Christ can drift from the narrow road. It is too easy for us to forget the fact that “without Him we are nothing”.

To help me examine my own life I drew up a list that help me (and I hope will help you) see the battle lines.  I want to compare human desires with the heart of God.

In the Church

·We want crowds – God wants disciples

We want to feel good -  God wants to transform us even if it hurts

We want to have a good time – God wants us to respect Him

We want to feel better – God wants us to BE better

In our Relationships

We want power – He wants us to love

We want to even the score – He wants us to forgive

We want to be superior – He wants us to serve each other

We want what’s easy – He wants us to experience what is deep and satisfying

In our Spiritual Lives

We want God to make things easier – He wants us to be Holy

We want to call the shots – He wants us to trust Him

We’re in a hurry – He wants us to rest in Him

We tell Him what we want – He wants us to listen to what He wants

In our finances

We want to indulge ourselves – He wants us to transform others

We want to gather – He wants us to give away

We view riches as the goal – He sees riches as a means to a greater end

In our priorities

We want immediate satisfaction – He wants us to pursue the eternal reward

We do what feels good – He wants us to do what is right

We seek to please the crowd – He wants us to live for Him

We want to make life more comfortable – He wants our lives to matter

This is the kind of comparison we need to do on a regular basis.  We need to continually remind ourselves that the American Way and God’s way are NOT the same. To truly follow Christ (to have a healthy heart) we need to live as He tells us to live.

Let take this one step further and conclude with a little quiz.  You don’t have to turn in your answers.  That won’t be necessary.  I hope the questions will drive home the point of our Savior.

1.      How much time do you give to making your body look good?  Compare that with how much time you devote to developing your spiritual character.

2.      How much money do you invest in things to appear prosperous?  Compare that with how much you invest in eternity.

3.      How must effort do you give to making contacts with people who can advance your cause (or the cause of your children or organization)?  Compare that with how much time you give to reaching lost people with the message of hope and new life.

4.      How much time do you spend in front of a mirror?  How much time do you spend before God’s Word?

5.      How much time do you talk on the phone?  How much time do you talk to God?

6.      How many times do you step on a scale?  Compare that with how many times you do a spiritual inventory of your heart.

The point that I think the Lord wants us to get today is that we need to listen to His words to the Scribes and Pharisees so that we don’t fall into the trap of becoming superficial followers. We need to heed the warning so that we will not be Dead Men Walking but would be Dead Men Reborn!

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