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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
Matthew 23



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Verse 12


‘And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.’

Matthew 23:12

Thus does our Lord sum up the lesson of the preceding verses of this remarkable chapter.

I. The teacher and his office.—‘The scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat’: rightly or wrongly, they occupied the position of the chief public teachers of religion among the Jews; however unworthily they filled the place of authority, their office entitled them to respect. But while their office was respected, their bad lives were not to be copied: and although their teaching was to be adhered to, so long as it was scriptural, it was not to be observed when it contradicted the Word of God. However much we may disapprove of a minister’s practice, or dissent from his teaching, we must never forget to respect his office: we must show that we can honour the commission, whatever we may think of the officer that holds it.

II. Avoid inconsistency, ostentation, and love of pre-eminence.—As to inconsistency, it is remarkable that the very first thing our Lord says of the Pharisees is, that ‘they say, and do not.’ They required from others what they did not practise themselves. As to ostentation, our Lord declares, that they did all their works ‘to be seen of men.’ As to love of pre-eminence, our Lord tells us that the Pharisees loved to have ‘the chief seats’ given them in public places, and to have flattering titles addressed to them. All these things our Lord holds up to reprobation.

III. Honour to Christ alone.—Christians must never give to any man the titles and honours which are due to God alone and to His Christ. We are to ‘call no man Father on earth.’ The rule here laid down must be interpreted with proper scriptural qualification. We are not forbidden to esteem ministers very highly in love for their work’s sake (1 Thessalonians 5:13). But still we must be very careful that we do not insensibly give to ministers a place and an honour which do not belong to them.

IV. Humility the chief grace.—There is no grace which should distinguish the Christian so much as humility. He that would be great in the eyes of Christ, must aim at a totally different mark from that of the Pharisees: his aim must be, not so much to rule as to serve the Church. ‘Church greatness consisteth in being greatly serviceable.’ The desire of the Pharisee was to receive honour, and to be called ‘master’; the desire of the Christian must be to do good, and to give himself, and all that he has, to the service of others.

—Bishop J. C. Ryle.

Verse 23


‘These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.’

Matthew 23:23

It scarcely admits of a question, but that every sin, which was ever committed upon the earth, is traceable, in the first instance, to a sin of omission.

I. Sins of omission investigated.—What will be the subject of inquiry at the end of the world? Will it be the omissions, or the commissions, which will be chiefly investigated at the day of judgment? The answer is plain. The only sins recorded against those who perish are sins of omission. ‘I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat.’

II. Sins of omission condemned.—Why is any man lost, that is lost? Is it because he did certain things? It is the having done those things, he omitted to use God’s way of escape, to go to Christ. In the Old Testament, you will observe, almost all the commandments have a ‘not’ in them. But in the gospel law it is exactly the converse. The precept is not negative. It is direct and absolute. ‘Thou shalt love God’: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour.’ And therefore the transgression must consist in an omission.

III. Chasms in the soul.—It is a wonderful part of God’s method with us, that very often He makes one sin, not only the punishment, but the actual corrective, of another sin. Every sin which can be seen, is only an index of another sin which cannot be seen. In your consciences read first your omissions. Leave the surface, and deal more with those true birth-places of all sin and of all unhappiness—the voids in your duties and the chasms in your souls.

—The Rev. James Vaughan.

Verse 29


‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’

Matthew 23:29

We have to do with what are familiarly known as ‘Pharisaic Sins.’ They resolve themselves chiefly into four:—Pride, Hypocrisy, Superstition, and a Dislike to Real, Spiritual Religion. The rest are offshoots; these are the roots and these are the only sins against which Christ was ever severe. Why? Because the men who committed them were the enlightened ones of the earth.

I. Pride.—‘God is in His holy temple,’ and all creation lies—poor and sinful—at His feet. All glory is God’s. Any glory given to any creature is a robbery of the Almighty! Hence God’s abhorrence of pride. Hence Christ’s detestation of a Pharisee!

II. Hypocrisy.—And the characteristic of our religion, as a test of everything, is reality. We have to do with a very real God—a God of truth—always the same. He abhors hollowness. The unfelt speech—the form, which represents nothing—the act, with no intention—the double face—the smile that covers coldness—the polite word which simulates affection—the prayerless prayer—the praiseless hymn—the fixed eye which looks out from a wandering mind—the self of a seeming worship—the whited sepulchres of black death—God flings them from Him; He cannot away with them; and hence, Christ’s ‘woe’ to a Pharisee!

III. Superstition.—Truth is always simple. Superstition complicates and clouds God’s great, simple plan. It loses the spirit in the letter; and makes more of little externals than of the great principles of our faith. That is superstition! Therefore God repudiates it—and hence, again, Christ’s denunciation of a Pharisee!

IV. Dislike of spiritual religion.—And once more. God is one God—therefore He loves unity, because it is His own reflection. All party spirit; all depreciation of what is spiritual; all that does not put Christ in His own proper place—making the Head one, and the Body one, and Christ all in all—is offensive to God; and this is just what the Pharisees did. Hence, again, the rejection and the curse of a Pharisee.

And Christ walks now this earth, and He confronts everywhere the proud, and the formal, and the superstitious, and the severe. He comes into our churches, and He sees—what?

The Rev. James Vaughan.

Verse 34


‘Behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify.’

Matthew 23:34

This passage occurs in the Gospel for St. Stephen’s Day, and in that connection we may observe that the life of the martyr brings to our mind several lessons.

I. The world’s hatred.—‘Marvel not, My brethren, if the world hate you,’ was a warning of the Master, and soon, in the history of His Church, the penalty of an uncompromising witness for righteousness was to be shown. We are too ready to shrink from this hatred of the world, too ready to forget the warning, ‘woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you!’ Has there ever been an age when popularity was the hall-mark of goodness?

II. The sanctification of business life.—There is a message, too, to the Christian man of business. The first call of St. Stephen to work recorded is his call and ordination to the diaconate, for a work which in these days we would not associate with the ministry at all. The fulness of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, and faith, should then be the equipment of the man of business or of toil. Surely it sets a noble standard to all workers, and it is God’s standard. We realise its dignity and importance as, day by day, we can perform our allotted task as a service to Him.

III. Consecrate your gift.—Again it encourages us to take our gift and lay it upon the altar—to devote some portion of our business ability or of our skill to God’s holy Church. What room there is in parish matters for the sanctified experience and common sense of the layman! Like St. Stephen, to take up a share of the secular work, that the preaching of the Word of God be not hindered.

—The Rev. H. G. Wheeler.

Verse 35


‘The blood of righteous Abel.’

Matthew 23:35

‘The blood of Abel’ speaks in two voices—by contrast and by type.

I. By contrast.—‘The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground.’ Vengeance,—dire vengeance! ‘The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from us all sin.’ Mercy,—all mercy!

II. By type.—Abel was a shepherd, ‘a keeper of sheep’; Christ is a Shepherd, ‘a Keeper of sheep.’ Abel offered ‘a lamb’; Christ offered that ‘Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.’ Abel gave his best; Christ gave His best for the Church. ‘The Lord had respect unto Abel, and to his offering’; the Lord looked to Christ and His offering, and ‘His soul was well pleased.’ Abel was a martyr for truth; Christ was a martyr for truth. Abel was killed by his brother; His brethren killed Christ. Abel was killed for jealousy; Christ was killed for jealousy. Abel’s blood lived before God, and was eloquent after he died; Christ’s blood lives, and is eloquent for ever. The murderer of Abel was ‘a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth’; the murderers of Christ are ‘fugitives and vagabonds upon the earth.’

III. The Blood of Christ.—It was affectingly natural that just as He was approaching His own death, Christ’s thought should travel back to that ‘death of Abel’ upon the horizon of time, which was the prototype of His own. Never forget what the blood of Christ is. If ‘the blood of righteous Abel’ shall cry to God for His avenging hand, how much more will ‘the blood of His righteous servant justify many!’ The blood is the life. And that blood which Christ shed, was the life of His humanity. And He is the human head of a human body, the Church. Therefore that blood is the life—the true life, the only life, the eternal life of every member of the body, the whole Church of the living God.

—The Rev. James Vaughan.

Verse 37


‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’

Matthew 23:37

‘How often!’ Do not let that ‘how often’ be a mere impassioned exclamation. Make it what it is—a distinct definite question put to you this day—‘How often?’ And what arithmetic can write the answer? Let us see some of the different modes in which the rejection of God has been made.

I. ‘Have I been called?’—Some there are who will rise up and say, ‘I do not consider that I have ever yet been called.’ And these divide themselves into two classes—(a) those who wish that they could believe that they had been called; and (b) those who virtually complain that they have not received any ‘call.’ Alas for the unbelief of the one, and the presumption of the other!

II. Indifference to the call.—There are those who, conscious that they have been called, nevertheless treat the matter with indifference. These are your ‘men of ease in Zion’; men (a) of business, men (b) engrossed in a round of money-making toil, and (c) the humble, domestic man, living in his own little circle.

III. Acceptance delayed.—There are more, again, who recognise the importance of a ‘call,’ but who put off the acceptance of it. These are minds which Satan decoys by beautiful pictures of their own future. These men think that they can command the sovereign working of the Holy Ghost. ‘When I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.’

IV. Preparing to accept.—There are others, a large class, quick, impressive, sensitive characters, who, at the time, receive, and welcome, and reciprocate the love of God, but it all dies away like ‘water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.’ It is always ‘I go, sir; I go’: yet they go not.

V. Those who draw back.—There is a fifth class—the saddest, the guiltiest, the most awful of all. They listen—they draw nigh—they ‘taste the heavenly gift’—but the old, carnal nature comes back again, and it prevails. They draw back, and they go out into the distance, and have ‘crucified to themselves the Son of man afresh, and put Him to an open shame’: and they ‘judge themselves unworthy of eternal life.’

VI. ‘Ye would not.’—Now, of all these refusals of God’s grace, the real secret is the same. They may cover themselves with various pretexts—but the cause is one. ‘How often would I have gathered thee—and ye would not.’ It is the absence of the will. And what will be the end of it? Ask Jerusalem. The end will be—the most accurate retribution that the world ever saw.

The Rev. James Vaughan.


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, May 30th, 2020
Eve of Pentecost
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