One of the imageries that Jesus uses to describe Teachers of the Law and Pharisees is ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matthew 23:27) which ‘look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’ (v27). Jesus continues to explain that, ‘In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness’ (v28). In ancient days, a tomb marked status and distinguished those who were highly esteemed. For instance, when Abraham’s wife, Sarah, died while they lived among the Hittites, he asked the locals to ‘Sell me some property for a burial site here so that I can bury my dead’ (Genesis 23:3). Instead of selling to Abraham the property, the Hittites replied, ‘Hear us, my lord. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead’ (v6). Since Abraham was esteemed, he was given a choice tomb to bury his wife. When Jesus lay dead on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea ‘a rich man’ (Matthew 27:57), a ‘prominent member of the Council’ (Mark 15:43), and a secret ‘disciple of Jesus’ (John 19:38) asked ‘Pilate for the body of Jesus’ (v38). He then laid Jesus’s body, ‘At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one has ever been laid’ (v41). Joseph highly esteemed Jesus and so gave Him a befitting burial, and in a new tomb.
Likewise, kings, royal households, prophets, and righteous men were highly esteemed, and so were given befitting burials. This meant a lot for the Jewish community because burials not only showed status, but also signified legacy. When King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, greatly displeased God, Nathan the Prophet tells Ahab that, ‘dogs will lick your blood – yes yours!’ (1 Kings 21:19) and to his wife, ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel’ (v23). As punishment for their wickedness, they would not die a natural death, or get a befitting burial, even though they served as Israel’s royalty. Same goes for King Saul who continually displeased God, and eventually took his own life and was buried ‘under a tamarisk tree’ (1 Samuel 31:13). It is in this context whereby death and burial signified much to the Jews that Jesus spoke. In fact, Jesus tells the Teachers of the Law, ‘You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous’ (Matthew 23:29). One of the ways that they probably decorated the tombs was by applying whitewash to make them look beautiful on the outside, even though decay was occurring to the dead body laid inside.
By using a reality that the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law knew well, Jesus did so to ensure that the metaphor He used on them hit home. He tells them that they not only whitewash tombs of significant deceased people, but that they also whitewash their dead self. Jesus says, ‘You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean’ (Matthew 23:25-26). The religious leaders saw that grooming their exterior made them appear attractive and worthy, but to Jesus, that act only made them blind because it redirected their focus from the rot happening inside to its lovely exterior, just like a whitewashed tomb housing a corpse. Jesus passes across the message that exterior grooming, acts of righteousness, and all other good deeds done by the flesh without the Spirit is a sure way to blindness. Although many may look and see that such a person indeed does good, speaks well, and looks the part, a decay is actually happening in their inside. They are merely whitewashed; it is a mere cover-up. And so Jesus admonishes us to, ‘Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgement’ (John 7:24).
God also uses the whitewash imagery not just for the religious, but also for false prophets. God puts false prophets in the same category because ‘when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall’ (Ezekiel 13:10). In other words, they apply whitewash on the error of others instead of strengthening their foundation, faith in Jesus. So God says that when He sends torrents of rain, hailstorm and wind, and the wall collapses, ‘Will people not ask you, ‘Where is the whitewash you covered it with?’’ (v12). This shows that God is zealous of scattering and exposing false doctrines. When He eventually exposes them, the first thing people will notice is the missing whitewash, so that the false prophets will be exposed for who they truly are. God says, ‘I will tear down the wall you have covered with whitewash and will level it to the ground so that its foundation will be laid bare’ (v14). The deceived and the deceiver will both also bear the consequences, for God says, ‘So I will spend my wrath against the wall and against those who covered it with whitewash. I will say to you, ‘The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it’ (v15).
Gone. That is the fate of the religious who ‘have a form of godliness but deny its power’ (2 Timothy 3:5); the fate of those who cover-up with whitewash and deceive themselves that they do not need the power of the Holy Spirit to work from within; the fate of those who use God’s Word as a means to cover up their deceit; the fate of those who wear masks of religion, piety, and offer lip service but harbour unbelief inwardly. They do not consider that God says, ‘Faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah’ (Jeremiah 3:11) because ‘unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretence’ (v10). Those who apply whitewash on themselves and on others by urging them on in their wrong ways and wicked doctrines, only operate in pretence. Such are said to build their house on the sand, and when the wind blew and beat against that house, ‘it fell with a great crash’ (Matthew 7:27). It was gone! Meanwhile, God watches them as they apply whitewash and build their façade, ‘like a high wall, cracked and bulging, that collapses suddenly, in an instant’ (Isaiah 30:13). Gone! Both the cover-up and the one being covered.