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Wednesday, September 27th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Matthew 23

Smith's Bible CommentarySmith's Commentary

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Verses 1-39

Matthew's gospel twenty-three. Jesus has been at the temple and He was challenged as to His authority by these priests, and then He was asked questions by the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees. And then Jesus finally asked them a question. "What do you think of Christ, whose son is He?" And when they said, "the son of David." He said, "How can He be the son of David, when David by the spirit called Him Lord?" And no father would ever call his son "lord". That's just so totally against the culture. It's just not done. So they couldn't answer Him. And neither did they dare ask Him anymore questions after that ( Matthew 22:42-46 ).

Now still there in the temple, as we go into chapter twenty-three, we are still there within the temple precinct. Then Jesus turns from these questions and counter questions with the scribes and Pharisees, and He turns to the multitude that is gathered around Him, and to His disciples that are there. And the first part, the first twelve verses of chapter twenty-three are addressed to His disciples and the assembled multitude. And then beginning with verse thirteen, He turns to the scribes and the Pharisees, and really begins to lay a heavy one on them.

But first of all notice,

Jesus then spake to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat [or in Moses' chair] ( Matthew 23:1-2 ):

The Greek word is "cathedra", which is sort of a school, and you hear of a person who chairs the department of philosophy and all, and so it is the sitting there as a teacher, as a lecturer, in the area of Moses.

All therefore whatsoever they bid you to observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not ( Matthew 23:3 ).

Now, Jesus had just given a parable that the scribes and Pharisees had recognized was against them. He asked them, and they caught them or He caught them, and they realized that they were trapped by it. He had said to them: "There was a certain father who had two sons. And to the first he said, go out in the field and work for me. And the son said, okay, Dad, I'll be glad to go. But he didn't go. Or the first one said, no, I won't go, and then later on he repented and went. The second one said, yeah, I'll go, and he never went". Now Jesus said, "which one really did the will of his father?" And they said, "Well, the one that went out." And Jesus said, "That's right. ( Matthew 21:28-31 )"

Now Jesus is, you see, saying here, "Look, they say, but they don't do. Now you observe to do the things that they tell you to do, but don't follow their works, because they say things, but yet they themselves don't do them." The New Testament is quite emphatic in the fact that we are to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving ourselves. Paul as he was writing his epistle to the Romans, spoke of how that the Jews so often felt that they were justified, just because they had the law. Not because they were doing it, but because they had it, they felt that they were justified. It's just like so many people feel that they are Christians, just because they live in the United States. Not because they are actively following Jesus Christ, but after all, "I live in a Christian nation". But Jesus said, "Look, these men are saying it, but they are not doing it. So follow what they say, but don't follow their works".

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and they lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move one of them with their little fingers ( Matthew 23:4 ).

Now it is interesting as you go over to the Holy land and see the laborers and the heavy burdens that they bind, and lay on these laborers' shoulders, it's unreal. We have some fascinating pictures that look like a big bundle of sticks and all, walking down the road. I mean, all you can see are the feet underneath, but these guys are so laden down. They bound so many sticks and altogether, and put them on these guys' shoulders; that's all you can see are the feet underneath. And it looks like sticks are walking.

And so it was a picture that was very common to the people over there. The little donkeys, they really load those little donkeys down. Looks like sometimes you have four legs under the sticks walking. Or under this pile of sheaves or whatever, and they would bind these heavy, heavy burdens, and Jesus said, "and then they lay them on men's shoulders, grievous to be born." Now He is, of course speaking, figuratively.

They could see the figure in their mind. They had seen these fellows just loaded down with loads, just straining to try and carry it because they would lay so much on you. And so Jesus is saying this is what the scribes and Pharisees are doing. They lay these heavy, heavy burdens upon men, yet they themselves won't even move with one of their fingers. They won't lift anything with one of their little fingers. "For all of the works that they do, they do to be seen of men."

Now, you remember the Sermon on the Mount in the sixth chapter, Jesus began by declaring, "Take heed to yourselves, that you do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of men, for verily I say unto you, you have your reward"( Matthew 6:1 ).

And then He talked about how you gave: "Don't sound the trumpet before you like the Pharisees, who like to make a big to-do over what they give, so all men can see what they are giving. But when you give, do it in secret, don't let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. When you pray, don't be like the Pharisees and all who love to stand on the street corners, that they might be seen of men, but go in your closet, shut the door. When you fast, don't be like the Pharisees, who go around with these long faces, and they look so gaunt and all, but anoint your face and all, that you don't appear unto men to fast"( Matthew 6:2-6 ).

Now Jesus is here declaring again the very same thing, that the Pharisees and the scribes, their whole religion was an external, and their whole purpose and motive was that men might see them and look up to them as spiritual leaders. And so the very clothes they wore, the very affectations that they developed were to impress people with how spiritual, and how righteous they were, but it was all an outward show, but inwardly there was nothing there.

Be careful that you don't get caught in a religious sham, where it is just an all outward demonstration, and in your mind you're thinking; "I hope everybody sees me, how righteous I am. I go up on my tiptoes just in case, you know". The whole idea is to affect men with how spiritual and how righteous I am.

Some fellow came up to me Thursday night after service and said, "I stood up tonight while they were singing, and I was worshiping the Lord, and someone came up and told me to sit down, and I was just there worshiping the Lord." I said, "Well, whoever told you to sit down, told you right." I said, "If everybody else is sitting down, and you are standing, then all you are doing is drawing attention to you. We are not here to be attracted to you; we are here to be attracted to Jesus Christ."

Now you've got to be careful that in your worship of the Lord, that in your service to the Lord, that you don't get caught in the trap of doing things so as to draw attention to yourself. Whatever you do in your worship, or in your service, if the net effect is drawing attention to you, and this what's there within your heart, you're in the same category as the scribes and Pharisees. We've got to be very careful of this.

You see, my old nature is totally corrupt. So much so, that even when I am engaged in my spiritual activities, my old flesh would still like to do things in such a way that everybody will know how spiritual I am. I would like people to know just how deeply committed my life is to God. How much time I devote myself into just seeking the Lord and His Word. In fact, in reality I want people to think that I do more then I really do. And so often, I try to give an impression that I am more spiritual than I really am, that I am more deeply committed than I really am, that I have a greater prayer life than I really do.

But whenever I try to give that impression to people, I am a hypocrite. I am guilty of hypocrisy. I am seeking to impress people. I should be interested only in impressing God with my righteous living, and I know that God can't be impressed. But I should only be thinking of God when I am in worship, when I am in prayer, when I am giving. I should never be doing it for the effect that I can create in the mind of men, but I should always just be doing as unto the Lord, in that secret place of fellowship and communion.

Now, Jesus said,

For all of their works they do to be seen of men: and they make broad their phylacteries ( Matthew 23:5 ),

Now the phylactery was the little box that they would bind on their wrist and bind on their forehead. And they were told under the law that they were to take and bind the law of God to the frontlets and their hands and so forth, and so there are these little leather boxes. And every day when they go to pray, except the Sabbath day, because on the Sabbath day you are not to bear any burdens and so forth, so they don't do it on the Sabbath day; but every day as they go to prayer, they go through this ritual. First of all, binding their arm, and tying this little box on their arm.

Now in this little box on the hand there is one chamber in the little box and it has four passages of scripture from the Old Testament, in little scrolls in this little leather box on their hand. The one on their forehead, and they bind another leather thong around their forehead in this little leather box on their forehead, and in that there are four compartments, and these same four passages on little scrolls, only one little scroll in each four compartments. Now, these Pharisees, they would get big boxes, broaden their phylacteries, so everybody can see, "I am really heavy-duty prayer, because, look the big box that I got here". And they would broaden their phylacteries, and of course the whole idea was people might observe them and see them.

And then of course they

enlarged the borders of their garment ( Matthew 23:5 ),

Or these little tassels that they would put on their garments, and again they were to be more or less symbols. There was that law in the Old Testament of these fringes on their garments that they were to make, and so they would enlarge these fringes.

Now today they still have the fringes, but they put them on the prayer shawls that they wear. And of course, going to the Western Wall of the temple is always an interesting experience that you see them come up, and they start binding the phylacteries, and they take their prayer shawls with the fringes, even to the present day, and wrap them around in a traditional way, and then they go up and begin to read their prayers before the Wall. And it's quite a fascinating scene to watch.

And so Jesus is saying though, that with them they were doing it in such a way as to draw attention to themselves, that they might appear before men to be holy, or righteous.


They loved the uppermost rooms at the feast, and the chief seats in the synagogue ( Matthew 23:6 ),

The chief seats were down in the front, but they were facing the congregation, so that the whole congregation can see me going through my little prayers and all, and the whole congregation can see how righteous I am. And they loved those chief seats in the Synagogue. They loved the upper places in the feast and all. And they loved,

The greetings in the markets, to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi ( Matthew 23:7 ).

Doctor, Doctor. Reverend.

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your master, even Christ; [and notice,] all of you are brethren ( Matthew 23:8 ).

Now He is talking to His disciples. He said don't get into that spiritual hierarchy trip. You're all brothers. There is not one above the other. You are all one together. You are all brothers. Don't seek to promote yourself. Don't seek the best places. When you bid onto the feast, He said take the lower place. And if the host says, "oh come, sit up here," He said then you're in good shape. But if you take the upper seat and the host says, "Hey, what are you doing up here? You belong down here at the end of the table" then it's a very embarrassing thing. So better that you take a lower seat, and let them bid you higher, than to take the higher seat, and let them direct you lower. You're brothers. Don't try and develop a hierarchy where oh, you know, Reverend, Rabbi, or whatever.

And then He said,

And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven ( Matthew 23:9 ).

So the title of father was prohibited by Jesus. In my associations I have become acquainted and friends of many ministers within the Episcopalian Church and also within the Catholic Church. And I have extreme difficulty in knowing how to address them, because for the life of me I cannot call them father so-and-so, because Jesus said not to. And so to me it creates a difficult thing as to how to address them, because they are usually introduced, "This is father so-and-so" and I just have a hang-up with this, but I just can't address a man "father" in a spiritual sense. I don't know. Do what you want, but I just have problems.

Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, even Christ ( Matthew 23:10 ).

In other words, Jesus is putting down the idea of titles. These guys love their titles, but you know a title really has an effect, a separation of people, and the elevation. And Jesus is really coming against this idea of the elevating of one man over another by some kind of a title. And that is why I personally disdain titles. I don't want a title. And it's interesting the letters that I get as people are trying to tack titles onto my name. And I always know that they don't know me very well. If they knew me better, they wouldn't tack a title on my name. So Jesus is saying, "Hey, you're all brothers." So "hey, brother Chuck", but even that is sort of a title. Just Chuck is good enough.

Jesus said,

He that is greatest among you shall be your servant ( Matthew 23:11 ).

Not to establish this spiritual hierarchy and oh, oh.

And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that humble himself shall be exalted ( Matthew 23:12 ).

Now having declared that to His disciples, these are the rules for His disciples. He now turns and addresses Himself to these scribes and the Pharisee. And He has an eightfold denunciation against them, pronouncing an eightfold woe. To my disciples, don't follow their example. They say, but they don't do. They exalt themselves. They draw attention to themselves. They love to be exalted and elevated above people, but you are brothers. If you're going to be the chief; be the servant. Humble yourself and God will exalt you. But exalt yourself and God will abase you.

Now woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! ( Matthew 23:13 )

We sang "Jesus what a wonder you are. You are so gentle, so pure and so kind." And for the most part Jesus was a very gentle person, so that when He gets to the place of the strong denunciation, you really take note. Now if some guy has a high temper, and he is going around blowing off all the time, you soon get to where you don't pay attention anymore. "Oh, he is always blowing off steam, don't worry about it". But if a fellow is generally very meek and mild temperament, but suddenly he begins to really let off the steam, then you say; "Wow, what's going on here? He's really heavy." And so Jesus really came down on them.

Now I am interested in the attitude of Jesus towards out-and-out acknowledged sinners, and contrast that with His attitude towards those spiritual leaders. To the woman who was taken in adultery and brought to Him by the Pharisees, and said, "We caught this woman in the very act of adultery, and our law says, stone her. What do you say?" If she was caught in the very act, where was the man? Surely he must have been caught too. But the poor woman didn't have much rights in those days. So they brought the woman to Jesus, and He said, "Well, I say unto you, let him that is without sin throw the first stone"( John 8:7 ). And then He knelt down and began to draw in the dust or write in the dust, and probably wrote out the sins of these various guys were guilty of committing, and one by one, they began to leave the crowd until there was no one left, but the woman. And Jesus finally stood up and He said, "Where are your accusers?" And she said," well, I guess they've all gone." And He said, "Neither do I condemn you, go your way and sin no more"( John 8:11 ). Very gentle, very forgiving, very loving, very kind.

To the woman of Samaria who had had five husbands, and now had just moved in with a man without the benefit of marriage, Jesus talked to her about the glorious water of life that would satisfy that inner need in her life, where she wouldn't be thirsty again. And He spoke with her so gently of eternal life, and the things of God. She was really a very wicked person. Always gentle with the sinners, who were acknowledged sinners. He never turned away one who came repenting. His arms were always open to receive, His words were always kind, and forgiving, and loving. But to those who had this pretense of being so spiritual, those who had the pretense of being so righteous and were trying to foster themselves off on the common people as spiritually superior, I mean Jesus really got heavy.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for neither go ye in yourselves, but you will not allow those who are entering to go in ( Matthew 23:13 ).

Not only have you not really entered in, but you would hinder those who would enter into the kingdom of heaven. Unfortunately this is also true today in many areas of the church, where the ministers of those churches have been caught up into liberalism and modernism. And they do not really enter into the kingdom of heaven, but also they prohibit people; they stand in the way, they make fun of the scriptures. They make light of the scriptures or they seek to declare that the scriptures really aren't the scriptures.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you devour widows' houses, and for a pretence you make a long prayer [but your prayers are only pretensions]: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass the sea and the land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. Woe unto you, ye blind guides which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is guilty. You fools, blind: what is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And you say, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it's nothing; but whosoever swears by the gift that is upon the altar, he is guilty. You fools and blind: whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, swears by it, and all of the things that are on it. And whoso swears by the temple, swears by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, swears by the throne of God, and him that sits thereon. Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! ( Matthew 23:14-23 )

I mean, He is really getting down on them for their traditional teachings. You know if you swear, you are making an oath now, "I swear by the temple, I'll do it." You swore by the temple. Oh well, that's all right. He doesn't have to keep it, it's not a binding oath. "I swear by the gold in the temple." Ho, ho, ho, look out now, that's binding. I mean stupid, ridiculous, traditional things that had been developed and had become a part of their actual belief systems, dogmas that had turned into doctrines, traditions, that were being taught for doctrine.

Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! because you pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin ( Matthew 23:23 ),

Now these are little spices. And everybody had their own spice garden and they would raise their own anise, their own cummin and mint, and they would be careful. Now how much cummin do you use when you're cooking? But they would take out of the spice garden, and they take and give ten percent to God. Very careful to measure out their spices, the mint, the anise, and their cummin to give God His ten percent.

So careful, yet, Jesus said,

you have omitted the way to your matters of the law, you've past over completely, judgement, and mercy, and faith ( Matthew 23:23 ):

Now concerning the tithe, notice, Jesus said,

you ought to have done that [you ought to pay your tithes], but you are not to leave the other undone ( Matthew 23:23 ).

Now Jesus does confirm that. They were correct in paying tithes. But they were very incorrect in not really seeking justices, and mercy, and faith.

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat [or strain out a gnat], and swallow a camel ( Matthew 23:24 ).

Now when they would drink their wine, they would pour it through a cloth, in case a little gnat may have flown into the wine, for if they would drink the wine with a gnat in it, the gnat wasn't kosher. The gnat had blood in it, and they were not to eat anything with the blood; therefore, they would strain their wine, so they would be careful not to drink any gnats. "But they in turn," Jesus said, "you are swallowing camels." Now a camel is also an unclean beast. But it's interesting that when you get into the fine points of picking in religious systems, how picky people can get in small little things, and yet they omit the more important things. And Jesus, of course, goes along with your paying tithes of your spices, but you're not really seeking judgment, or mercy, or faith. You're straining out the gnats, but you are swallowing camels.

You blind guides,

Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! for you make clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but within you're full of extortion and excess ( Matthew 23:25 ).

Now picture this, of a filthy cup inside. Outside your looking, "Oh, I am so thirsty", get a drink of water. You see this beautiful, clean, sparkling cup, and you pick it up, and you look inside, and all this filth and vermin in there, yuck. The outside looks so good, but the inside is so filthy. And Jesus said, "that's the way you guys are. You look so good on the outside, but the inside there is extortion, there is greed, there is all of these excesses.

Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and the platter, that the outside of them may be clean also ( Matthew 23:26 ).

More important that the inside be clean than the outside. Men will start on the outward appearance; God is looking on the heart. And in the New Testament Jesus, and of course through the epistles is also emphasized, that more important than the outward actions or the inner attitudes of a man's heart. It's what's within that the Lord is really counting and looking at. People can have an outward observance of righteousness, of religious rituals, of worship and all, but within it isn't there. The Lord said, "Look, it's got to be inside, that's where you got to start. And from what is inside we'll work out, but the attitude is more important than the actions".

There are a lot of people doing the right things in the wrong ways. What they are doing may be right, but the attitude in which they are doing it is completely wrong. I would rather do the wrong thing and have a right attitude, than do the right thing and have a wrong attitude, because God can change my activities in a hurry. But many times it takes an entire lifetime to change the attitude of a man's heart. What's in your heart is what the Lord says counts.

Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, for you are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful on the outside ( Matthew 23:27 ),

They would go and whitewash the sepulchres, but within-- on the outside they looked so pretty, so clean,

but inside they are full of [just skeletons] dead men's bones, and all of the putrefying rotten flesh. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you're full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! because you've build the tombs of the prophets, and you garnish, [decorate] the sepulchres of the righteous ( Matthew 23:27-29 ),

When you go over to Israel today, you can see in the Kidron Valley, some of the tombs of the prophets that had been build. In fact, they call them the "tombs of the prophets". Also, you can see how they garnish the sepulchres. You can go to what they call "the tomb of David". And there is a big silver casket there in which David's remains supposedly are lying, and all of the garnishing, all of the trappings and all that they have around this. And they come there and sit and pray, there by David's tomb. But oh, they really still garnish so much this tomb of David.

"You honor your fathers," is actually what He is saying. You give honor to your fathers, and you say;

if we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets ( Matthew 23:30 ).

Oh, had we've been there, we would have been righteous, and we would have been pure.

Wherefore you are witnesses against yourselves, for you are the children of those who killed the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell? ( Matthew 23:31-33 )

Hey, He sounds like a hellfire and brimstone preacher.

Wherefore, behold, I sent to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you're going to kill and crucify: and some of them you're going to scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed from upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation ( Matthew 23:34-36 ).

Actually in the crucifying of Christ, they became guilty of the worst of the heinous sins that man has ever committed. Their fathers had killed the prophets, Isaiah, and so many of the prophets were slain by the people in their days. But Jesus said, "you are going to kill the One of whom all the prophets spoke of." Stephen laid on the charge, "you killed the One of whom all the prophets spake"( Acts 7:52 ).

Now Jesus turns after this heavy denunciation and He reveals His heart.

Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and have stoned those that have been sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not! ( Matthew 23:37 )

In spite of all that they had done Jesus said, "Look, I'd still love to gather your children together". The love that God had, had not diminished. He still loved them. But it was they who refused. It wasn't that the opportunity wasn't there, it wasn't that God was not merciful and forgiving, it wasn't that God wouldn't do it still for them, but they would not. And thus as the result,

your house is left unto you desolate ( Matthew 23:38 ).

It has come to an end. It's been left desolate. It's all over. You've received the opportunity of the grace of God, you have refused it, and thus the nation Israel will no longer be the light through which God will shine forth to a dark world. Your house is left desolate.

For I say unto you, You will not see me again, until you are saying, Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord ( Matthew 23:39 ).

You won't see me until the persecution is so heavy, the tribulation so great that you'll be saying," Oh, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." And they'll be crying out and praying for Him before He returns.

Recently in one of my trips to Israel I was speaking at a congress in Jerusalem, which was called "the Peace of Jerusalem Congress". It was a congress in which the churches of the world were expressing towards the people of Israel our love for them and our support for them. And when I arrived at my hotel room, I had a letter there from one of the rabbis from Measheream. And he was saying: "What are you doing here, speaking of support for Israel? Israel has no right to exist as a nation." And he went on and was really taking me to task for speaking at this congress in support of the nation of Israel.

And so I took the letter to some of my Jewish friends there in Jerusalem, and I said: "Look at this greeting that I got from one of your rabbis." And of course these friends had help set up this whole meeting, and we're all gung-ho, because they realized the value of the support of the Christian Church for the nation of Israel. And I said, "Look what one of your rabbis has sent to me." And they read it, and they said, "Oh, don't pay any attention to it. Those guys are fanatics. They're just radical, they're fanatics, don't pay any attention to it." I said, "but he is a rabbi." "Yeah, but rabbis can be fanatics too."

I said, "Oh, really, then you mean that he is no doubt wrong in his idea that Israel shouldn't be a nation, because he is just a fanatic? He's made a mistake in this? "Oh, yeah, yeah." I said, "Do you realize that some rabbis made a serious mistake two thousand years ago? And that unfortunately you're still following their serious mistake." I said, "How do you know?" But they weren't just a bunch of radicals, just like this rabbi that wrote me, who made a tragic mistake. "And here, though two thousand years later, you're still following the advice of those rabbis who rejected Jesus as the Messiah." I said, "They were fanatics. They were radicals." The guys were silent. "

Bibliographical Information
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Smith's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/csc/matthew-23.html. 2014.
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