Matthew 23:27-28 (NIV) “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. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Jesus is continuing on His theme of those who take pains to make themselves look good on the outside, while being corrupt and foul on the inside. In this case, He used the image of whitewashed tombs.
According to Numbers 19:16, anyone who touched a dead body, or a human bone, or a grave would be ceremonially unclean for seven days. This had far-reaching ramifications for the Jewish people, because an unclean person would not be able to eat the Passover feast, or enter the temple courts. Even if they were unaware that they had touched such things, they believed that God would strike them dead if they tried to enter the temple area while unclean.
Because of the large number of tombs in and around Jerusalem, many of them non-descript, looking more like flat ground or a cliff face than a tomb, and the potential for a pilgrim to inadvertently touch one of them without realizing what it was, thus bringing judgment on themselves, many tombs were painted with a coat of whitewash that was renewed before the major feasts and holidays. This made the tombs much more visible, much easier to see and avoid, and much prettier than bare ground or a rock wall. But the beautifying of the exterior of the tombs didn’t change the fact that what was contained in the tomb was rotting corpses, putrid smells, and all manner of insect life assisting in the work of decomposition.
Jesus likened the lives of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees to these whitewashed tombs. Their outsides looked beautiful, but the rot and decay of sin was working insidiously in their hearts.
Just as with the cup illustration, the only solution was to clean out the inside, and the outside would follow suit. If the bodies and bones were removed from the tomb, and the inside of the tomb scoured, then there would be nothing on the inside that would cause contamination to those who touched the outside. If sin were removed from the hearts of those men, there would be nothing in them to contaminate their outer actions and attitudes, and nothing in them that would cause corruption in the hearts of those who followed them.
Father, again, the solution is so straightforward, and much simpler than the self-improvement programs that are pursued by so many Christians. If we allow You to simply take care of the sin problem in our hearts, cleansing us with the fire of the Holy Spirit, there will be nothing in us to corrupt our actions and attitudes; nothing to prevent us from living a genuinely holy life. Thank You! Amen.