David Guzik's Commentary on the Bible
MATTHEW 23 - WOES TO THE SCRIBES AND THE PHARISEES
A. Jesus rebukes the scribes and the Pharisees.
1. (Matthew 23:1-4) They lay oppressive burdens on others.
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”
a. Whatever they tell you to observer, that observe and do: Jesus says respect is due to the scribes and Pharisees - not because of their conduct, but because they sit in Moses’ seat. They hold an office of authority, ordained by God.
b. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders: The first accusation against these religious leaders could apply to many religious leaders today. Many still make Christianity a set of burdensome rules to follow.
i. The early church rejected this legalism when it insisted that obedience to the Mosaic Law is not a foundation for the Christian life. Peter told the legalists in Acts 15:10 : “Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
c. Heavy burdens: The burden of the religious leaders contrasts sharply to Jesus’ burden. His burden is light, and His yoke is easy (Matthew 11:30).
2. (Matthew 23:5-10) They do their works to be seen of others, and live for the praise of men.
“But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.”
a. All their works they do to be seen by men: The religious leaders were guilty of advertising their righteousness. Both the phylacteries (small leather boxes with tiny scrolls with scriptures on them, tied to the arm and head with leather straps) and the borders of their garments were worn in supposed conformity to the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 11:18, Numbers 15:38-40).
b. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments: Naturally, like every person in the flesh, the religious leaders figured that broader phylacteries and larger borders on their garments showed them to be more spiritual. There is virtually no end to the way that man’s depravity cannot pervert God’s commands.
c. They love the best places . . . greetings in the marketplaces: Not content to display their “spirituality,” the religious leaders loved it when people admired their “spirituality.” They coveted the seats of honor at banquets and at the synagogue, and they loved the honoring titles such as Rabbi and father.
3. (Matthew 23:11-12) The way of Jesus: service and humility.
“But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
a. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant: In the flesh, we determine greatness by how many people serve and honor us. In Jesus, we determine greatness by how we serve and honor others.
i. Since Jesus truly was the greatest among them, He spoke of Himself as a servant. Unfortunately, for the most part the church has imitated the style of the scribes and Pharisees more than the style of Jesus.
b. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted: This promise is absolutely true, but sometimes needs the measure of eternity to make itself known.
B. The eight woes.
These woes stand in contrast to the eight beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-11. Jesus speaks harshly here, but this is not the language of personal irritation, but of divine warning and condemnation.
1. (Matthew 23:13) Woe to those who shut up the kingdom.
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”
a. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Literally, the word “hypocrites” refers to an actor, someone playing a part. Jesus exposes the corruption covered by the pretty religious exterior.
b. You shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: The religious leaders kept people from the kingdom by obscuring God’s word with human traditions, and by denying Jesus. Empty religion and legalism do the same thing today.
c. You neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in: It is bad for someone to not enter into heaven themselves, but it is far worse to prevent another from going in (Matthew 18:6).
3. (Matthew 23:14) The religious leaders steal from the vulnerable.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.”
a. You devour widows’ houses: They stole widows’ houses in the name of good business and “stewardship”, and made long prayers for the sake of big donations.
b. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation: Jesus reminds us of the concept of greater condemnation; no one will have it good in Hell, but we can trust that some will have it worse than others will.
4. (Matthew 23:15) The religious leaders led their converts on the wrong path.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
a. You travel land and sea to win one proselyte: Zeal in evangelism does not prove that a person is right with God. These religious leaders went to great lengths in their evangelism, but they brought people to darkness, not light.
i. Paul had the same idea in Romans 10:2, where he observed that some of the Jewish people of his day had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
b. When he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves: In this respect, the religious leaders were similar to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses today. They were courageous and energetic messengers, but with a false message.
5. (Matthew 23:16-22) The religious leaders made false and deceptive oaths.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.”
a. Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing: Out of obedience to God’s word, they would not swear by the name of God (Exodus 20:7). But they constructed an elaborate system of oaths - some of which were binding and some were not - a way of making a promise while keeping your fingers crossed.
b. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it: Jesus reminds us that every oath is binding, and God holds the oath-maker to account, even if they excuse themselves.
6. (Matthew 23:23-24) The religious leaders are obsessed with trivialities, and ignoring the weighty matters.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
a. You pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin: Their tithing was meticulous and noteworthy; but not if it only soothed the guilt of their neglect of the weightier matters of the law.
i. Tragically, the church is often distracted with trivialities while the world goes to hell.
b. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel: Jesus illustrates their folly with a humorous picture of a gnat which could not be swallowed because it was not bled properly in accord with kosher regulations, and swallowing a whole camel instead.
7. (Matthew 23:25-26) The religious leaders are impure both inside and out.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.”
a. You cleanse the outside of the cup: Many are satisfied with a superficial cleansing, and the appearance of righteousness before others. God looks for a true cleansing, so we can be clean before God and man.
8. (Matthew 23:27-28) The religious leaders have the appearance of good, but without spiritual life in the inner man.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
a. You are like whitewashed tombs: Before Passover, it was the custom of the Jews of that time to whitewash the tombs in the city of Jerusalem so that no one would touch one accidentally, thus making themselves unclean. Jesus says these religious leaders are like these whitewashed tombs - pretty on the outside, but dead on the inside.
b. You also outwardly appear righteous to men: God is never fooled by what we show on the outside. He sees what we actually are, not what we appear to be to other men.
9. (Matthew 23:29-36) The religious leaders honor dead prophets, but murder the living prophets.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”
a. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous: They professed to venerate the dead, but they rejected the living. In doing so, they show that they really are the children of those who murdered the prophets in the days of old (you are sons of those who murdered the prophets).
i. We express the same thought when we think. “I wouldn’t have denied Jesus like the other disciples did.”
b. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt: Jesus prophesies about how these leaders will complete the rejection of the prophets their fathers started by persecuting His disciples, whom He will send to them.
c. Serpents, brood of vipers: This phrase has the idea of “family of the devil.” These religious leaders took an unmerited pride in their heritage, which was really of the devil, not of Abraham.
i. This is all pretty tough stuff. Why did Jesus utter such scathing rebukes? Because He loved these men. These men were the farthest from God and they needed to be warned of coming judgment. What Jesus really wanted was their repentance, not their judgment.
1. (Matthew 23:37-39) Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’“
a. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem: Luke 19:41 tells us that Jesus wept as He looked over the city of Jerusalem, contemplated its coming judgment, and said these words. Jesus wanted to protect them from the terrible judgment that will follow their rejection of Him.
i. It is written that Jesus wept two times: here, at the pain of knowing what would befall those who reject Him, and at Lazurus’ tomb, weeping at the power and pain of death.
i. This heartfelt cry is another way to see that Jesus didn’t hate these men He rebuked so strongly. His heart broke for them. When we sin, God does not hate us, He genuinely weeps for us, knowing that in every way, our sin and rebellion only destroys our life.
iii. May we share God’s broken heart for a lost humanity!
b. You shall see Me no more till you say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus here reveals something of the conditions surrounding His Second Coming. When Jesus comes again, the Jewish people will welcome Him as the Messiah saying, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
i. It will take a great deal to bring Israel to that point, but God will do it, and Israel will welcome Jesus back - even as Paul said in Romans 11:26 : And so all Israel will be saved.
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