“You build tombs for the Prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous ...” (Matthew 23:29-33)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the Prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the Prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the Prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:29-33)

Why is Jesus criticizing them for this?

Jesus is pointing out that many Prophets and teachers were murdered or otherwise persecuted by the same institution that was criticizing him. And they would eventually persecute him as well.

According to Jesus' statement, these Prophets were murdered by the forefathers of some of those same temple priests who enforcing their rituals and regulations supposedly based on the Prophets' teachings.

From this statement, we can see that Jesus is quite upset about this. Why was Jesus so upset? Why did Jesus say such terrible things about these temple teachers and officials who were supposedly following the teachings of the same Prophets that Jesus followed and quoted?

Because they were misinterpreting the teachings of the Prophets. They were enforcing institutional rituals and rules that were removed from the heart of the Prophets' lives and teachings.

Jesus is upset because of his love for the Prophets. And because these priests and Pharisees were utilizing their titles and authority in the name of the Prophets to take advantage of their followers.

Jesus is pointing out the irony involved in these priests and Pharisees supposedly representing the Prophets while they were continuing the tradition of persecuting the Prophets by condemning Jesus - after they had also condemned and persecuted John the Baptist.

Which Prophets were persecuted?

Over the centuries, a number of Prophets (or those who worshiped God) were persecuted in one manner or another. Here is a list of the most obvious:

• Abel (killed by Cain)
• Isaiah (mortally cut with a saw)
• Jeremiah (stoned)
• Ezekiel (martyred)
• Zechariah (martyred)
• Amos (killed with a staff)
• Uriah (beheaded)
• John the Baptist (beheaded)
• Jesus (crucified)
• Stephen (stoned)
• James (stoned)
• Antipas (burnt)
• Peter (crucified upside down)
• Andrew (crucified)
• Thomas (stabbed)
• Philip (martyred)
• Matthew (stabbed)
• Bartholomew (martyred)
• Matthais (burnt)

Why did they refuse to accept Jesus?

As is the case with many of the list of martyrs above, the Pharisees and chief priests didn't accept Jesus because they felt threatened by the authority of Jesus' teachings. Why were they threatened by Jesus' teachings even when Jesus strictly followed the teachings of the Prophets?

Because Jesus exposed the fact that they were not teaching the essence of the Prophets' teachings. Rather, they claimed to represent them while their teachings and activities contradicted the teachings of the Prophets.

We often see this in the physical world. In His mercy, God sends His loving servants to the earth in an effort to bring us home to Him. His representative teaches us to love and serve God, and shows how to do this with their life.

Yes, some follow sincerely. But some who occupy positions of power will feel threatened by those teachings because they know their teachings are not pure. So they will criticize and persecute those sincere messengers of God.

We can see this occurred not only in Jesus' life but also in Jesus' teacher's life - John the Baptist. It also occurred among Jesus' disciples, including James and Peter. This also occurred among many of the Prophets as Jesus refers to in his statement.

Jesus is pointing out that this act is the most heinous act of all: To murder the body of one of God's messengers. Further is the hypocrisy of being the descendants of those who killed the Prophets, yet being proud of their heritage and positions of power according to Jesus.

How did the priests and Pharisees gain their positions of authority?

How did they get their positions?

The Pharisees and chief priests of the temple gained their positions by appointment - through politics. By impressing the councils that appointed teachers amongst the institutional temple, these teachers gained their positions. The typical appointment was made by a committee of chief priests, which was headed up by the Temple High Priest - who at that time was Caiaphus.

The priests did not, as Jesus did with John the Baptist, submit themselves to God, and submit to God's messengers as the Prophets before them had.

They did not commit their lives to the service of God without compensation, title or any pomp and circumstance as Jesus did, John did, and Jesus' disciples did. They were appointed by a council of men and embraced their paid positions together with their flowing robes and began to exert authority over their followers.

The true teachers did not gain authority through a council. Nor were they elected through a political process. God's messengers are empowered and chosen by God. They also become students of the teachings of God's messengers before them.

Jesus illustrated this process as he studied under John the Baptist, evidenced by his receiving baptism from John. This means he became a student and disciple) from John.

Then Jesus began teaching and took students and disciples on himself. Jesus then sent his disciples off to teach, just as he had. These are not coincidences. This is how God's empowerment works: Connection with God is gained by learning about God from those who know God. It is not a political process. It is a process of devotion and love.

Previous to Jesus' disciples, Jesus and John the Baptist, we find many other instances of this student-teacher relationship among the Prophets, including Samuel and Eli, David and Samuel, Solomon and David, Joshua and Moses, Abraham and Melchizedek, and many others. 

All of these Prophets were first students who pleased and became enlightened by their teacher, and then were empowered by God to teach on His behalf. None of them were elected by political councils.

Are they deceiving their followers?

Jesus was criticizing the Temple institution and its leaders for essentially deceiving their followers. Is there cause for concern today among those institutions and their leaders that claim to follow Jesus?

Today we find amongst those who supposedly represent Jesus, the same ecclesiastical systems of gaining authority found amongst the Temple teachers and officials that Jesus is criticizing here. We find preachers, priests, ministers, reverends, popes, bishops, and others all being elected to their positions by political councils.

We also find them being well-paid for their teaching services. Lavish salaries, homes, and cars are now among the benefits for those who gain these positions, paid for by those who attend their assemblies.

In some cases, we find charismatic ministers, reverends, and priests who earn millions of dollars every year from their ministries and indulge in many luxuries from salaries paid for by their institutions. Many push people to donate money with prayer towers and handkerchiefs. Many prey on those who seek relief from suffering by claiming healing powers.

Do they teach what Jesus taught? Do they teach love for God and doing God's will? No. Many teach that we can pray to Jesus to gain wealth, health, or a miracle cure. Many teach that Jesus can give us power and prestige. Many promise that we will be saved as long as we claim that we are saved by Jesus' crucifixion.

Is this what Jesus taught? Actually, ironically, many of their activities are being described by Jesus as he criticizes the Temple priests and Pharisees.

Jesus never taught us to pray to him to get wealthy, or to get a miracle cure. Jesus taught:
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
Jesus also taught, just as Moses taught:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'" (Mark 12:30)
This teaching is, according to Jesus, "The most important one," (Mark 12:29) and precisely what the prophet Moses also taught - illustrating how the pure spiritual teachings were passed down through this succession of spiritual teachers:
"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." (Deuteronomy 6:5)