They were busy, but had neglected faithfulness.
--neglect the more important matters of the law: In this fourth woe, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders’ meticulous attention to detail. Their close attention to particulars often went beyond the law, resulting in a disregard for the law’s true heart (see Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3; Zech 7:9–10; Mic 6:8; Hab 2:4). Barry, J. D., Faithlife Study Bible (Mt 23:23).
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The love of the Lord was not in the Pharisees, as evidenced by their neglect of the weightier matters. They tried to buy reputation cheap by being busy tithing exact amounts which in the end, cost them nothing. A few verses later, Jesus charged them with being whitewashed tombs- pretty on the outside but dead inside. (Matthew 23:27)
This is similar to the charge to the Church at Sardis where they had a reputation for being alive, but were dead. Jesus said,
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. (Revelation 3:1a-2)
As with the Pharisees, a group of people were being charged with incomplete works. It's hypocrisy again.
Christ quickly stripped away their reputation of being alive by declaring, you are dead. Like the Pharisees, their outer appearance was a facade hiding their lack of life (cf. Matt. 23:27–28). Christ added, I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of My God. They were falling far short of fulfilling their obligations as believers. [The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures].More from Matthew Henry:
With a reproof, and a very severe one: I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Hypocrisy, and a lamentable decay in religion, are the sins charged upon this church, by one who knew her well, and all her works. (1.) This church had gained a great reputation; it had a name, and a very honourable one, for a flourishing church, a name for vital lively religion, for purity of doctrine, unity among themselves, uniformity in worship, decency, and order. We read not of any unhappy divisions among themselves. Every thing appeared well, as to what falls under the observation of men. (2.) This church was not really what it was reputed to be. They had a name to live, but they were dead; there was a form of godliness, but not the power, a name to live, but not a principle of life.Dictionary of Bible Themes explains hypocrisy
An outward pretence masking an inner reality. Scripture condemns hypocrisy, especially in matters of faith. Believers should express their commitment to God in their words and their deeds, as well as in their inner motivation.I post all this to make a warning I personally take to heart for myself and I hope you do too. People tell me that in the past they have fallen under the spell of "doing church". They mean that they realize they've been coasting along doing ministry or attending as a congregant but without heart, without thought. Suddenly they understand that they are coasting along on a former reputation but have lost the warmth or the motivation for being there in the first place. They say they realize now that they had been "playing church." Sometimes the Lord uses a tragic circumstance to awaken and warm the sleepy Christian. Though it is difficult to go through a tragedy or a trial, this is one way God uses all to the good of those who love Him. Other times, the Spirit gracefully convicts us. Don't ignore those warnings.
The origin of hypocrisy
Jer 17:9 See also Hos 10:2 Israel; Mk 7:21-22 pp Mt 15:19
The expression of hypocrisy
Insincere motives Mt 6:2 See also Mt 6:5,16; 15:7-9; 22:18; 23:5-7
When deeds do not match words Isa 29:13 See also Mt 15:7-8 pp Mk 7:6; Pr 26:24-26; Jer 9:8; 12:2; Eze 33:31; Mt 23:28; Ro 2:17-24; Jas 2:14-26
A tendency to judge others Mt 7:5 pp Lk 6:41 See also Ro 2:1
The alternative to hypocrisy
Heb 10:22 See also Ps 24:3-4; 26:4; 32:2; Jas 3:17; 4:8; 1Pe 2:1-3
It is easy to become a hypocrite and hard to detect it one's self. Unfortunately the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes never did come out from their hypocritical religion, which was the point of the woes Jesus leveled against them in Matthew 23. They were doomed. The church at Sardis was never complimented for one thing but grace was given to them with a personal rebuke to awaken them from their empty machinations. Did they ever awaken? One does not know since it isn't declared in scripture. One this is for sure, there is no longer a church at Sardis.
Have you been playing at church? Has your church been coasting on a reputation, looks busy, but is empty inside? I don't suppose hypocrisy comes on a person or a church like Sardis all at once like a flood, but incrementally. See this from John MacArthur. There were no drastic warnings to alert the church at Sardis that they were dead:
Like the city, the church declined. There was no mention of persecution about Sardis, though there must have been some. There was no mention of corrupt theology on the inside. There's no mention of false teachers. But the church died. It had a good reputation. It had a name that it was alive. The light was still shining even though the star had died. There was no spiritual life. It claimed to be alive. The claim was a lie.A slow decline is the hardest to detect. We don't have the advantage of the Lord personally telling us like He did the church at Sardis that we have slidden from the warmth of a heart rightly motivated in worship, but we do have the Holy Spirit to convict us when we are beginning to hollow out our worship. We have the many warnings in the Bible about hypocrisy. Listen to Him if you feel that church or ministry reputation is all that you have, and have made your works incomplete. Attend to the mint and cumin, but do not neglect mercy and justice.