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Saturday, June 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 23

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

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Verse 1

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

The multitudes Jesus addresses are likely the same festive pilgrims who earlier accompany Him into the Temple area along with the chief priests and elders (21:23). They probably have heard the dispute regarding Jesus’ authority (21:23), His parables against the religious hierarchy (21:28–22:14), His teaching regarding taxes, His defense of the resurrection, and His explanation of the greatest commandment. Moments earlier they also have heard the silence as Jesus stuns the Pharisees with His question about "David’s Son" (22:15–46).

Apparently with the Pharisees still within hearing distance (23:13), Jesus begins to warn the crowd of the Jewish hypocritical hierarchy. Because this is Passover, most of the crowd is from Galilee and other nations. For foreigners unaware of the true character of the Pharisees, the tendency might be to accept their example with unqualified adoration. Jesus wants Israel’s sheep to understand exactly what kind of men their shepherds are. While the Lord never rebuffs their teaching when it is in accord with Mosaic law, He warns of their traditions and hypocrisy. Jesus also warns His disciples. Not even they are immune to the leavening effect of these blind guides (compare 16:5–12).

With the possible exception of Matthew 12:31-32, this passage seems to be the most severe and extended rebuke that Jesus ever gives. In fact, He pronounces at least seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees.

Verse 2

saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.

Scribes are members of the Pharisaic party, but here they are distinguished from other Pharisees because of their special function as professional students of the Old Testament. It is their job to interpret the law so that the other Pharisees can apply it to everyday life. Fowler notes that often their legalistic conclusions are applied with a rigor that requires everyone to follow behind them (288). Jesus does not necessarily condemn the Pharisees because of their strict interpretation of God’s Word, but He does condemn them for their hypocrisy.

These leaders sit in "Moses’ seat." Because Moses was Israel’s lawgiver, his words are authoritative and revered. When one reads or expounds from the Law, he is said to occupy the "seat" or the "chair" of Moses. The idea is that when the Pharisees assume the role of teacher in "Moses’ seat," they hold a position of influence and authority.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day teach while sitting down (5:1). The Greek word from which we get "seat" in this verse is kathedra (seat or chair). The term is the basis for our English word "cathedral," which originally referred to a place or seat of ecclesiastical authority. Even today when the pope of the Roman Catholic Church speaks in his full ecclesiastical authority, he is said to be speaking "ex cathedra"—from the chair. This idea is further illustrated in our schools of higher learning where a professor might be said to occupy the "chair" of philosophy, religion, or some other discipline.

The question that immediately arises about the Pharisees is who gives them this authority? Is it from God or have they assumed it on their own? Until Malachi’s day, it was priests who had the official responsibility of disseminating the Law (Malachi 2:7; Leviticus 10:17; Deuteronomy 17:9-13). With "Ezra the priest and scribe" (Nehemiah 12:26), however, the function begins to shift to professional scribes (Nehemiah 8:4; Nehemiah 8:7-9; Nehemiah 8:13; Nehemiah 8:18; Ezra 7:1-6) (Fowler 288). Apparently by Jesus’ day, the transition is complete.

Jesus is not as concerned with where the Pharisees derive their authority as He is with their attitude and application of the Law. A marked difference exists between the attitude of the Pharisees and that of Moses, whose "chair" they occupied. Moses assumed his "seat" reluctantly, but these false followers relished their position and determined to keep it. Lenski says, "They were self-appointed usurpers and acted as though their dicta were as binding as the revelations God made to Moses, Matthew 15:3-9" (894).

Verse 3

All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

Jesus does not "unseat" the Pharisees. In fact, He grants them their legitimate right to teach. How unnatural it would be for Jesus, a stanch observer of the Law, to set a tone of disrespect toward the reading and teaching of God’s precepts. He condemns their hypocrisy but allows their position in "Moses’ seat." In essence, Jesus says that in spite of these leaders’ flaws and man-made traditions, the Law they read is the Word of God, which should never be disregarded even though the messenger is evil. This verse teaches a profound lesson in reverence toward God and His word.

Jesus quickly adds a warning about the Pharisees’ example. The rest of the chapter will enumerate the variety of hypocrisies these leaders are guilty of. There is nothing more pathetic than a preacher who refuses to live what he preaches. The man whose life is in tune with God’s Law may actually convert more by his actions than by his words. How sad that these leaders of Israel have knowledge of God’s Law, and even teach it correctly to others, but keep their hearts far from Him. This problem is exactly what Jesus had previously warned about (15:8–9).

Verse 4

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders: Jesus does not call God’s Law a "grievous burden," but rather it is what the Jewish leaders have made the law into that discourages and destroys the people. These leaders have added so many man-made traditions and have made observance of the Law such a heartless rigor that it is now impossible to keep it as God intends.

but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers: Does Jesus mean these Pharisees teach things they themselves refuse to obey? Or is He suggesting that these supposed shepherds refuse to aid the flock in the keeping of God’s Law? Perhaps both indictments are true. While the scribes and Pharisees are indeed rigorous law keepers, they are masters at circumventing the law they bind. Recall Jesus’ discussion on "Corban" (15:3–9). In addition, they also refuse to help others in their service toward God. In fact, these leaders’ interpretations lead to impossible legal demands that are so time-consuming only people of means and free time could really hope to observe them all. The net result is a system of elite religionists, an exclusive group of insiders, who alone are the "pure and holy" (Fowler 295).

There is a marked difference between the "yoke" the scribes and Pharisees offer and the "yoke" Jesus offers (11:28–30). What the hypocritical leaders offer is a yoke, weighted with man-made traditions and merciless observances—a burden that each will have to bear on his own. Jesus, however, offers a yolk that is light because the joy of obedience has been restored and because He will help bear the burden. Fowler observes that one major difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is that the Pharisees care more about their rules than they do people, but "Jesus keeps God and people at the center of his concern" (295).

Verse 5

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: Because the scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites (literally, "actors on a stage"), it is natural for them to do their works for show. This situation is similar to the indictment where Jesus previously condemned the Jewish leaders for improprieties in charity, prayer, and fasting (6:2, 5 and 16). They have turned private devotion into a public spectacle for their own glory. Here Jesus mentions two other areas where these leaders pervert the intent of the Law.

they make broad their phylacteries: Four times God instructs the Israelites to bind His law as a sign upon their hand and as frontlets between their eyes (Exodus 13:9; Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11; Deuteronomy 18). They are not to forget God’s law. They must observe it (hand) and remember it (frontlets between the eyes). The Jews eventually converted this metaphor into a literal observance, probably during the inter-biblical period (around 400 B.C.) (Broadus 465).

Phylacteries, also called tephillin from the Hebrew word meaning "frontals" in Deuteronomy 6:8, are small square boxes made of leather from a ceremonially clean animal. MacArthur notes that after being dyed black, the leather is sewn into a box using twelve stitches, each stitch representing one of the twelve tribes of Israel (364). Inside the phylactery are four passages of scripture (Exodus 13:1-17; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21). Each passage, written on a strip of parchment, is tied up with a well-washed hair from a calf’s tail. Robertson says that wool or other threads are not used lest any "fungoid growth should ever pollute them" (179).

Phylacteries are worn in two places: on the forehead and on the arm. The phylactery worn on the head consists of four compartments, each containing one of the biblical texts, while the one on the hand or arm contains a single piece of parchment on which all four texts are written in four columns of seven lines each. The head phylactery is held in place by a string tied round the head with peculiar knots that have mystical meaning (Broadus 465). The arm phylactery is fastened by a black leather strap wound seven times around the left arm (thought to be closer to the heart than the right) and three times around the hand (Robertson 179). So highly regarded are these phylacteries that they are on par with scripture and can even be rescued from the flames on the Sabbath.

The term "phylactery" is a transliteration of the Greek phulakteria which means "to guard." In pagan societies, the concept is sometimes used as a synonym for amulet or charm (MacArthur 364). Naturally, the Jew wears such as an outward sign to show that he is "protecting or guarding" God’s Word. MacArthur makes the interesting observation that although magical protection is clearly condemned in the Old Testament, some Jews came to view phylacteries as magical charms capable of warding off evil spirits and other dangers (364).

The problem Jesus addresses is ostentation. Instead of wearing their phylacteries as a personal, private reminder of their inner piety, the scribes and Pharisees make them larger in an attempt to demonstrate ultra-holiness to onlookers. Rather than wear them only at prayer time, as is the custom, they wear them continually as a sign of superior spirituality (MacArthur 365). Jesus does not necessarily condemn the phylactery in and of itself, but He condemns the abuse of the practice. There is no evidence that Jesus ever wears one.

and enlarge the borders of their garments: The use of borders or tassels has its origin in scripture. In Numbers 15:38, God told Israel to make tassels on the corners of their garments so they would remember all the commands of the Lord, obey them, and not prostitute themselves with paganism (Numbers 15:37-41). It is implied in the story of Jesus’ healing the hemorrhaging woman in Matthew 9:20 that He likewise wore these decorations in keeping with Jewish culture. In later Judaism, the tassels were worn on the man’s inner garments. Today they still can be observed on prayer shawls (tallithim) worn by Orthodox Jewish men.

Obviously, the problem is not the tassel since the Jews must comply with the Mosaic prescription. There seems to be nothing inherently wrong with symbolic reminders of faith as long as they are kept within the proper context. However, they have become objects of Pharisaic pride.

Verse 6

And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

And love the uppermost rooms at feasts: The word "rooms" is better translated as "place" or "seat" and refers to the "table placement" of guests who recline on either side of the host. The place of highest honor is next to the host where the guest’s head can literally rest on the host’s bosom (compare John 13:23 where "one whom Jesus loved" is "leaning on his bosom" during the Passover). Combining John 13:23 and Luke 22:24 seems to indicate that during Jesus’ final meal, the apostles argue over who deserves the seat of honor.

The word for "feast" is deipnon and refers to an evening meal or a party after dark. The Jews are fond of great banquets in which guests recline on cushions around low tables spread with sumptuous food. Tradition holds that the Messiah will hold such a party when He comes. The Jews believe Psalms 23:5 refers to this Messianic banquet.

Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees about their pompous attitude when invited to a feast or dinner party. These leaders want to recline next to the host in hopes that other guests will notice. These are leaders who have an insatiable appetite for the praise of men (compare Luke 14:8-11 where Jesus addresses the same problem).

and the chief seats in the synagogues: As in many churches today, synagogues of Jesus’ day have a raised platform at the front. It is on this podium that various leaders and guest speakers sit facing the audience with their backs to the chest in which is kept the Torah Scrolls. On one occasion, Jesus Himself is asked to take part in such a service in His hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21).

These leaders turn their place of honor into a platform of pride. There is nothing necessarily wrong with honoring those who are learned in the Torah. These leaders, however, are more worried about the praise of men rather than the Word of God. Robertson observes, "People today pay high prices for front seats at the theatre, but at church prefer the rear seats out of a curious mock humility. In the time of Jesus the hypocrites boldly sat up front. Now, if they come to church at all, they take the rear seats" (180).

Verse 7

And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.

And greetings in the markets: This passage refers to recognition these leaders hope to receive in the most public of all arenas. In ancient times, the "marketplace" (or agora, as it is called in the Greek world) of a city is the center of social, economic, and public life. It is here where people sell goods and exchange greetings and gossip. Sometimes judicial proceedings even occur in the marketplace.

and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi: "Rabbi" is a formal and respectful title that is used similarly to how people use the term "doctor" today (MacArthur 366). In fact, the Latin equivalent for "rabbi" is docere (to teach) from which we derive the English word "doctor." MacArthur further notes that in Jesus’ day, "rabbi" carries the exalted idea of "supreme one, excellency, most knowledgeable one, great one" (366).

These leaders are not interested in shepherding the people of God. They simply want to elevate themselves. They wear their titles like badges of honor. How ironic that these "teachers" are ignorant of the very subject they profess to know. The real "Rabbi" and "Master Teacher" stands in their midst, yet they refuse to acknowledge Him.

Verses 8-9

But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

But be not ye called Rabbi: Jesus strictly forbids the use of religious titles for purposes of self-exaltation. Even though Acts 13:1, 1 Timothy 2:7, and 2 Timothy 1:11 use the word "teacher" to describe Paul and others, it is not a religious title per se but a descriptive term denoting function. Paul uses the term "father" in the same way in 1 Corinthians 4:15 as well as when he describes Timothy as his "own son in the faith" (1 Timothy 1:2). None of these cases fall into the same category as that which Jesus condemns in this verse. They are simply descriptions of actual relationships in the gospel (McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew 197).

for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren: Christians are to learn from and follow one Central Authority. To elevate each other detracts from the headship of Christ. Broadus notes that in Jesus’ day, any rabbi could start his own distinct "school" (467). In Christianity, however, Christ is our only teacher. We merely work together as brothers and learners of Him.

And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven: Christians are not to call any man "Father" (that is, as a religious title). The prohibition does not apply to one’s biological father. There is nothing wrong with a child addressing his dad as father. In regard to religious authority, however, there is only one "Father." God is in heaven, and His position is supreme (see 6:9).

Many professed "Christian" organizations give their leaders the kinds of titles Jesus condemns. Titles such as "Father," "Abbot," or "Pope" are all forbidden since they are equivalent to the term "Father." Likewise, titles such as "Reverend" violate the tenor of scripture. Even doctoral degrees such as Ph.D. or Th.D. may violate Jesus’ warning if such are used to elevate a preacher above his audience. While scripture does not condemn higher education, "it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21). The common notion that one needs an advanced seminary degree to preach God’s Word is false. Jesus forbids any religious title designed to elevate oneself above his fellows.

Verse 10

Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

The term "Master" is kathegetes, meaning "guide." Christians have only one guide—the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Teachers in the church are simply under-shepherds who serve the needs of the flock as directed by the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4).

Verses 11-12

But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

In contrast to the scribes and Pharisees, Christians must be humble and a servant to all. Jesus models these characteristics when He, as Master, stoops to wash His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-11). The admonition found here is similar to that given when the envious disciples are angry with James and John for seeking kingdom honors (20:26–27).

Jesus illustrates the beautiful axiom that true greatness is found in serving. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who seek to serve themselves, Christians are caretakers of others. Believers serve God by serving others. James says, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (1:27). Likewise, Jesus warns that when we fail to serve others, we fail to serve Him (25:40).

Jesus promises the man who exalts himself that he will be abased. But how will this abasement come? The answer is twofold. Often a man’s fellows will abase him when he becomes too haughty or proud. This is the exact point of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:8-11. Even more severe, however, is the humility that God brings when one unduly elevates himself. Pride, in God’s scheme, cannot go unpunished because it is an affront to His majesty and His greatness. Man is merely the creation and has no right to elevate himself. When someone like a scribe or Pharisee elevates himself, God might cause circumstances that will drive him to his knees.

On the other hand, when one humbles himself before God, he will be lifted up. Such elevation is not necessarily materially or socially, but rather comes from God in His own time and in His own way.

Verse 13

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites: Like each "blessing" of the Beatitudes (5:1–12), each "woe" Jesus pronounces is emphatic and expressive. Throughout His castigation of these false teachers, Jesus repeatedly uses two words, "woe" and "hypocrite." Woe comes from the Greek word ouai and is not so much a word in the ordinary sense but is more akin to an onomatopoeic interjection, suggesting a guttural outcry of anger, pain, or both (MacArthur 375). In the Septuagint, the word is used to express sorrow, despair, pain, or fear of losing one’s life. Here Jesus uses "woe" to express His divine displeasure (damnation) of the scribes and Pharisees who are abusing their religious power. MacArthur makes the interesting statement that Jesus does not use the term in the sense of the profane phrase "Damn you!" but rather to certify the damnation they already face (375).

The second word that Jesus repeats is "hypocrite." The word hypokritai carries the idea of an actor on a stage (6:2). These scribes and Pharisees are feigning to be someone they are not. While they wear the mask, costume, and makeup of spiritual shepherds, beneath the cloak are the fangs of wolves, ready to devour widows’ houses, steal God’s glory, and scatter the flock of Israel (7:15).

for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in: Before Jesus, John came preaching the kingdom of heaven was near. But while many of the common folks heard John, the religious establishment rejected his warnings. The same reaction occurs when Jesus preaches. While many of the common people hear Jesus gladly and are pressing their way into the kingdom, their "leaders" are doing everything possible to thwart the process (see notes on 11:12). As a result, Jesus places a "curse" or "woe" on these leaders. Their condemnation is for two reasons: they refuse the gospel and they discourage others from accepting it. What a travesty to lose one’s own soul, but how much more harshly shall God condemn those who, by their influence, cause others to be lost!

McGarvey, Broadus, and others note that the picture Jesus draws is one of an ancient walled city with a gate through which people enter. The religious leaders will not enter the gate, and they forbid others to enter as well. Obviously, the "barring" to which Jesus refers is metaphorical since the scribes and Pharisees do not possess the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Someone could still enter in spite of the scribes and Pharisees, yet the illustration is appropriate because these leaders try to do everything possible to pressure the Jews to reject Jesus (compare Luke 11:52).

Verse 14

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses: McGarvey, Broadus, Lenski, and others agree the textual evidence for this verse is slight. McGarvey believes it is interpolated from Mark 12:40 or Luke 20:47.

The basic meaning is that the scribes and Pharisees exploit widows. The phrase "devour widows’ houses" is descriptive, but Jesus does not explain specifically how they devour. Barnes says:

This they did under the pretence of counseling them in the knowledge of the law and in the management of their estates. They took advantage of their ignorance and their unprotected state, and either extorted large sums of money for their counsel, or perverted the property to their own use" (376).

and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation: The scribes and Pharisees say their prayers to be seen by men. How ironic that a prayer with all of the right words ascends no higher than the rafters when the heart is out of touch with God. While there certainly are appropriate times for public prayer, there is never an appropriate time for public prayers of pretense. Men may acclaim our sermons or prayers, but God does not hear them if we are not humble!

Verse 15

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

So zealous are these Pharisees to proselytize men into their traditions and doctrines that they spare no effort or expense. They are willing to travel far and wide and "compass" (literally, "go around") land and sea to make a single convert. But to what avail? The convert becomes more damnable than they are.

We must infer from the Lord’s harsh rebuke that He is not speaking of conversion to Judaism or to the worship of the true God. He is speaking of the conversion to the Pharisees’ man-made, self-righteous traditions. Robertson points out that there are two classes of proselytes (182). First, there are those who are "of the gate." These are not actually Jews in the full sense since they have not submitted to the rite of circumcision. Instead, like one who sits in the gate of the city without becoming a citizen, these are well-wishers of Judaism, sometimes called "God fearers." Cornelius seems to be of this type (Acts 10).

Second, there are "proselytes of righteousness." These are those who are circumcised and formally comply with the regulations of Judaism. Only a small portion of these become Pharisees. It is this group, however, that Jesus probably has in mind (Robertson 182). Although the Pharisees are tireless in their attempts to recruit proselytes to their sect, the end result of such effort is more "children of hell." Often those who are converted become more bigoted and fanatical than the scribes and Pharisees themselves (905). Thus, Jesus says, "twofold more." Robertson explains, "The more converted, the more perverted" (183).

The ironic twist to Jesus’ condemnation is the Pharisees view themselves as more "children of Abraham" and "children of God" than all other Jews. Jesus negates this notion by describing them as they really are. How it must sting these religious leaders to have their masks ripped off by this untrained Rabbi from Galilee.

Verse 16

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 a debtor!

In this third woe, Jesus labels these leaders "blind guides." As brought out in Matthew 15:14, these teachers should be setting an example of piety and honesty to their fellow man. As Jesus will point out, they are ignorant (blind) to the ways of God. Lenski notes that the scribes and Pharisees are willfully blind; hence, they are morally guilty (905).

Jesus uses oaths to illustrate their spiritual blindness and willful rejection of truth. In His sermon on the mount, He briefly addresses the issue, but here, in the face of the grossest offenders, He does so again (compare notes on 5:33–37).

A man’s oath is binding under the Mosaic Law. Oaths or vows are solemn promises taken in the name of God, obligating one to do what he promises. Exodus 20:7 warns against "taking God’s name in vain," an obvious allusion to false swearing (see notes on 5:33–37). In time, however, in an attempt to circumvent the weight of their promises, the Jews have developed a hierarchy of things on which to swear. Barclay observes that to a Jew every oath is binding as long as it is a binding oath. In other words, if an oath employs the actual name of God, it must be kept no matter the cost. Other oaths, however, may be legitimately broken (292).

Eventually other rules develop for oaths that do not use God’s name. If, for instance, one swears by the Temple, he is less obliged to keep his word. If he swears by the gold that plates the Temple, however, he is more obliged because the gold that adorns the Temple is supposedly more valuable than the Temple itself. Broadus notes that the various golden Temple vessels and Temple coinage are probably included in the phrase "gold of the temple." He further notes that "swearing by the gold" comes about because it is so common to swear by the Temple and then break one’s word that something new has to be sworn by (471).

The whole system mocks the principle of truth and legitimate oaths that God established in the law. MacArthur says, "The very fact that they had developed such a double standard for swearing gives evidence that their concern was not for truth but for the evasion of it when it did not suit their selfish interests" (382). These leaders think they can lie with impunity through their system of "hierarchy."

The phrase "he is a debtor" might be better translated, "He is duty bound to perform it."

Verse 17

Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

It absurd to claim that an oath made by the gold of the Temple is more binding than one made by the Temple proper. There is no need for the gold of the Temple without the actual Temple. The Temple is more important than that which adorns it. Broadus says, it "… is the temple that gives the gold such sacredness as to make it the natural subject matter of an oath" (471). The scribes and Pharisees have things backwards. Ironically, they swear by a lesser object (the gold of the Temple) in attempt to make their oaths more binding.

Jesus is not condoning swearing by the Temple or anything else. Had these leaders been honest and had their "Yes" meant "Yes" and their "No" meant "No" (5:37), they would have no need for oaths. Their evil hearts mock the God of truth by such a hierarchy of oaths.

Jesus calls these leaders "fools" (moroi). In Matthew 5:22, Jesus warns against angrily calling a man "moros." His use shows that it is not simply the use of a term that makes it evil but rather the spirit in which it is spoken. On this occasion, Jesus calls these leaders what they are. The assessment is objective and spiritually discerned because Jesus knows their inner hearts.

Verse 18

And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?

Jesus addresses the same faulty logic of verses 16–17. It is absurd to hold the gift of the altar higher than the altar itself. Moses established that God’s altar, and whatever is on it, is holy (Exodus 29:37). Fowler says, "Though the altar was pre-eminently holy and the gift only secondarily so, yet both had meaning only as concrete expressions of respect for the God who ordered both" (332). If these scribes and Pharisees think that by swearing by one or the other their oaths are either more or less binding, they are sadly mistaken. The same God who sanctifies the altar also sanctifies the sacrifice.

Verse 19

Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.

Jesus connects the altar and its sacrifices. To try to avoid responsibility to God by making technical distinctions between the altar and its sacrifice accomplishes nothing. Both the altar and the gift upon it point to God—the same God that demands honesty.

Verse 20

And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.

This verse continues the thought of verses 16–17, but here Jesus switches from the "gold" of the Temple to the "God" of the Temple. He makes the Temple and everything in its construction one with God. Therefore, to swear by the Temple or any part of the Temple is the same as swearing by God. One’s oath is as binding as if he has actually used God as the object of his vow. The Temple does not constitute a loophole for those looking to break their promises.

Every Jew recognizes that the Temple is the dwelling place of God. From the earliest of times, God’s presence dwells in the Most Holy Place within the sanctuary. These leaders should have recognized that to separate the two is to bring reproach on both.

Verse 21

And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.

Every knowledgeable Jew knows that it is ridiculous to mention heaven without assuming its connection with God. Heaven is the dwelling place of God, and to swear by one is paramount to swearing by the other. These leaders cannot escape God no matter how many distinctions they make. They are His people, and even their own gray hairs sing to His glory (5:36).

Verse 22

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin: This fourth woe concerns Pharisaic scrupulosity in the application of the Mosaic Law. While it is right for these religious leaders to insist on strict observance of God’s commands, they make a mockery of the Law by their attitude. They tithe even the smallest of their garden herbs yet overlook the broad principles of morality that affect their fellow man (22:37).

Since Israel is an agricultural nation, tithes are to be paid on all the increase of one’s seed and grain (Leviticus 27:30; Deuteronomy 14:22). The scrupulous Pharisees, in keeping with their perverted theology, apply the principle to even the smallest of plants. Herbs like mint, anise (or dill), and cummin are grown for cooking and medicine. Because of their insignificant quantities, however, they are not generally included in the tithe. With hypocritical zest and exacting accuracy, these leaders count every leaf of their kitchen herbs in order to tithe, yet they fail to offer service to their fellow man. For these leaders, plants are more important than people and seeds than spirituality. MacArthur says that these men magnify the insignificant and minimize the essential (383). While their outward expressions seem honorable, their hearts are far from God. They give a tenth of what can be counted but refuse to give a speck of their spirit, something that cannot be seen.

and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: The rabbis categorize some laws as being weighty or light. Jesus accommodates this line of thought and suggests that those commands with the "most weight" are those that deal with one’s attitude and inner heart. Jesus is not suggesting that one may pick and choose which of God’s commands to obey or ignore, however. His point is that a heart in tune with God balances both personal piety (such as tithing) and one’s duty toward others.

these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone: Jesus does not minimize scrupulous sincerity in obedience; but when balance gives way to hypocrisy, God is not honored.

The lesson of this woe is profound. We learn that it is possible to follow minutely the letter of the Law and still be in violation of it. It is not enough to punctiliously perform certain of God’s commands while ignoring broader principles of scripture. While inner conversion manifests itself in a posture of honorable obedience, it also produces a heart that is in tune with the broad principles that reflect the nature of God and His system. God is a God of justice and mercy. We must develop the same characteristics.

Some seven hundred years earlier, Micah says, "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (6:8). The Pharisees, however, are unjust, unkind, unfair, unmerciful, unforgiving, and in reality, unholy. Despite the minutia of their tithes, they are far from obeying the Law’s commands.

Verse 23

Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

This verse illustrates verse 23. Jesus again rebukes them as blind guides. While they pride themselves as the spiritual leaders of Israel, their own spiritual blindness makes them dangerous to follow. Both they and their students are headed for the ditch (15:14).

Jesus’ statement is a vivid example of hyperbole. He says that while these spiritual leaders strain out gnats, they swallow camels. The gnat and the camel are the smallest and largest, respectively, of the unclean animals (see Leviticus 11:4; Leviticus 11:20; Leviticus 11:23; Leviticus 11:42). The allusion is to the ceremonial practice of carefully straining out one’s beverages before drinking in case an unclean insect has fallen into it. Even the Talmud speaks of straining wine in order to remove the tiniest of unclean creatures (Broadus 473). Such might be accomplished with a straining cloth, but MacArthur notes that some fastidious Pharisees drink their wine through clenched teeth in order to filter out any impurities (385).

Jesus says that while these leaders see the gnat in the cup, they miss the camel. While they worry about a tiny unclean insect, a huge unclean mammal is sliding down their throats. The scribes and Pharisees have reversed values. They painstakingly tend to formal and ceremonial trivialities while they neglect the spontaneity of lavishing justice and love on their fellow man.

Verse 24

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

The Pharisees are concerned about their food becoming ceremonially unclean by touching an impure vessel. They are unaware, however, that the food itself might be the real contaminant. Jesus is teaching that while these leaders are concerned with ceremonies that make

them appear pure, the real source of their impurity is inside their hearts. Robertson says, "These punctilious observers of the external ceremonies did not hesitate at robbery and graft (akrasias), lack of control" (184). The Greek word for "extortion" (harpage—robbery) carries the idea of plundering, pillaging, and extortion while "excess" (akrasia—self-indulgence) carries the idea of a lack of self-control.

What others see on the outside should reflect what has been cultivated on the inside. When the inside is the primary focus, the outside will naturally follow. If one cultivates only a façade for others, he is a hypocrite, an actor, like these Pharisees. Men see the outside, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

Verse 25

Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

Jesus does not call the Pharisees "blind guides" as in verse 24, but simply "blind." Even in matters of personal piety, they are blind to their own hypocrisy. Jesus describes the logical order of cleanliness. Although cleansing the inside of a vessel will not necessarily make its outside clean, such is ordinarily the result. It is uncommon to wash the inside of a utensil and not at the same time cleanse its outside. The outward cleansing is assumed with the inner cleansing.

Jesus’ point to these Pharisees is clear: cleanse your hearts to make your practices acceptable to God. Lenski notes that by using the cup and plate, Jesus makes the indictment concrete (910). These religious leaders are literally guilty of extortion and excess. Lenski says:

They saw to it that the cup from which they drank their costly wine was clean and that the dish from which they had their dainties served was clean, but they altogether disregarded the manner in which they secured the wealth from which they feasted and the extent to which they carried their self indulgence (910).

Verses 26-39

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites: This stinging accusation is one of the most picturesque Jesus gives. He curses these Pharisees for spiritually contaminating everyone they touch.

for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness: Literal "whitened sepulchers" dot the hills of Jerusalem. For the rich, tombs usually consist of caves or artificial chambers hewn into the limestone hillsides. Every spring, after the early rains cease, along with road repair and repair to other structures such as public baths, the tombs are whitewashed. The Mishna states that the Jews begin the process on the fifteenth of Adar (roughly corresponding to March) so as to make their communities attractive for Passover pilgrims (Broadus 474). There is also a practical reason for the whitewashing. Under Mosaic Law, if a person comes in contact with a dead body or even a tomb, he is ceremonially unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:16). Thus, all tombs are carefully whitewashed for the benefit of unwary travelers lest they inadvertently touch a tomb, become defiled, and forfeit participation in the Passover. Broadus notes that sometimes an entire tomb is whitewashed, while at other times, figures of bones are painted on the outside to warn travelers (474). By the time the Passover comes, the city sparkles with a whitewashed purity.

When we recall that Jesus’ rebuke comes in the midst of Passover week, the illustration becomes even more poignant. The external piety of the scribes and Pharisees looks beautiful at first glance, but behind the door to their hearts lies the rot and stench of a false religion. The piety of these Pharisees goes no deeper than the lime-washed façade of Jerusalem’s tombs. The tombs might seem like an attraction, but really they are a warning! What makes it look beautiful is the same thing that warns, "Unclean!"

Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity: The lesson is one that religionists of every age must learn. External piety before God is an abomination unless combined with inner honor and honesty. To appear righteous before men while being full of iniquity and hypocrisy sends a stench heavenward that is more nauseating than a tomb of dead men’s bones.

Verse 28

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous,

The transition from whitewashed tombs to "tombs of the prophets" is a natural one. Jesus again addresses the hypocrisy of these leaders who build monuments to the prophets their fathers murdered. Though the Pharisees attempt to distance themselves from their forefathers’ wicked acts, they are just as guilty. Even as Jesus speaks, they plot to kill Him, the greatest Prophet of all.

The practice of building tombs to past heroes is common among the Jews. In 1 Maccabees 13:27-30, a grand tomb Simon the Macabee built for his father and brothers is described (Broadus 474). Even today, on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives, one can find tombs built in honor of the prophets. Robertson suggests the tombs in the Kidron Valley (now named in honor of Zechariah, Absalom, Jehoshaphat, and St. James) are being built at the time Jesus speaks (185). Building and decorating these tombs is important to the Jews.

Verse 29

And 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.

Realizing that many righteous men were persecuted and killed by their own forefathers, the Pharisees apparently try to distance themselves from past events. They self-righteously erect monuments to previous martyrs and decry their own ancestors’ actions.

Verse 30

Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.

It is ironic that the Pharisees’ disavowal in verse 30 admits an intimate connection to the ones who do such awful and ungodly deeds. These Pharisees are the "offspring" of those who murdered God’s prophets. The adage is true: Like father like son. While these leaders piously and self-righteously claim to be God’s friend, they are plotting to kill His Son—by far the most important Prophet ever given to Israel. What they angrily set about to do to Jesus proves they are as blind and as wicked as their ungodly ancestors.

Verse 31

Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

By murdering Jesus, the Jews are completing the wickedness already set in motion by their unrighteous ancestors. Robertson says they crown their misdeeds by killing the Prophet God sends (185). Ironically, the phrase seems to be an imperative! Jesus seems to be commanding these leaders to get the wicked process over.

Jesus compares their wickedness to a cup. Past generations have poured the blood of righteous prophets into this cup; and when Jesus is murdered, the cup will be brimming. While the blood that fills this cup is the same that cleanses the world, it is also that which calls a halt to God’s patience with the Jewish nation. Once the cup has been filled, God’s day of wrath will come.

Verse 32

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers: This rebuke is similar to the words of both John the Baptist (3:7) and Jesus when He is accused of being in league with Satan (12:34). These leaders are serpents, and like their forefathers, they are all disciples of the serpent Satan. Jesus uses two words in His rebuke. The first word, "serpent," (ophis) is a general word for snakes. The second word, "viper," (echidna) refers to small poisonous snakes that live primarily in the desert regions of Palestine and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. MacArthur notes that because these snakes look like dried twigs when they are still, a person collecting fire wood often picks one up by accident and is bitten. Thus, vipers are both deceitful and deadly (388). Recall Paul’s experience on the island of Malta (Acts 23:3-6).

how can ye escape the damnation of hell: This is a rhetorical question. These leaders cannot escape the punishment of "hell" (gehenna) as long as they maintain such an evil attitude. The similarity of John’s statement in Matthew 3 and Jesus’ condemnation here makes it clear that these leaders are not about to change. In spite of the miracles, teaching, and presence of our Lord, these leaders’ hearts remain hard. John warned that a day of wrath is coming, and now it is nearer than when they first refused to believe.

As noted in previous sections, the name for "hell" (gehenna) is borrowed from the Hinnom Valley just outside Jerusalem where trash and refuse are continually burned. It is a place of extreme heat, stench, filth, and uncleanness and aptly typifies the horrors of eternal punishment. The connection that Jesus makes between "vipers" and "fire" probably also has a cultural connection. Farmers of this period often burn off dry stubble to prepare their fields for planting. As the flames approach a viper’s den, the snakes scurry away and are often burned in trying to escape. Jesus compares the ill-fated attempts of these vipers to these Jewish leaders. They will not escape the fire of God’s retribution.

Verse 33

Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

Wherefore: This word connects this verse to Jesus’ previous warning about the Jews’ brimming cup of wickedness and the punishment God has in store.

behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: God, in His patience, will continue to send His servants to warn the Jews right up until the time that He pours out His wrath.

and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: These leaders reject God’s prophets. Jesus’ words are similar to Matthew 10:16 where He sends out the twelve. After these wicked Jews kill Jesus, they will turn on His apostles and emissaries—prophets and wise men of the New Testament church.

By using both "kill" and "crucify," Jesus might be referring to the differing methods of Jewish and Roman execution, respectively. Jesus is crucified on a Roman cross. Tradition records the same for Peter. Others like Stephen are killed by Jewish hands by stoning (Acts 7:58). James dies by the sword (Acts 12:2). Countless others are persecuted and murdered for their faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ mention of synagogue scourging reminds us of the abuses that Paul suffers during his ministry (2 Corinthians 11:24-25).

Verse 34

That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth: Though these Jews did not literally kill all of those who had ever been killed on the earth, they demonstrated their solidarity with previous murderers. In killing God’s Son, this generation fills the cup of wickedness and is the proverbial "straw that breaks the camel’s back." Broadus says: "Men make the guilt of past ages their own, reproduce its atrocities, identify themselves with it; and so, what seems at first an arbitrary decree, visiting on the children the sins of the fathers, becomes in such cases a righteous judgment" (476).

The point is further illustrated by the use of the present tense verb "shed." Broadus says, "The totality of the righteous blood is conceived as in the process of being shed, the whole past and present thrown together" (476). In other words, the actions of Jesus’ evil generation are part of the same stream of wickedness that flowed from the past.

from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar: Everyone from "A" to "Z" will be required at this generation’s hand—from Abel to Zacharias.

It is not difficult to ascertain the identity of Abel. His account is clearly listed in Genesis 4, where Moses records Abel’s murder at the hands of his jealous brother Cain.

The identity of Zacharias, however, is uncertain. Some suggest he was the Old Testament prophet Zachariah, the son of Berechiah (Zechariah 1:1). The difficulty is that there is no account of his being slain. Others see this as Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, who according to tradition was killed for asserting the perpetual virginity of the mother of Jesus. Broadus notes this account is without historical foundation and is "excessively improbable" (476). The Zacharias mentioned here is likely the one named in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 who is stoned in the court of the house of the Lord. The context fits Jesus’ condemnation of His own generation and is found in the book of Chronicles, at the end of the Jewish canon of scriptures. Thus, Jesus’ allusion to Abel and Zacharias encompasses all of the righteous prophets who are rejected or killed throughout Israel’s checkered history.

The major difficulty is that 2 Chronicles names Zacharias as the son of "Jehodiah" whereas Jesus says "Barachias." If this is the same person, why does Jesus mention a different name? It may be that Jehodiah’s surname is Barachias. Or it may be that Jehoiada, who dies at age 130 (2 Chronicles 24:15), is the grandfather of Zechariah. Furthermore, Broadus notes that both the Jerusalem and the Babylon Talmud contain wild legends about the blood of this Zachariah bubbling from the ground for more than two centuries to the time of the Babylonian captivity. Such legends show that the death of this Zachariah was a well-known event. Jesus, therefore, might have been using this individual to underscore His point of Jewish evils.

"The temple and the altar" refers to the sacred house of God (naos—Temple) and the great altar of burnt offerings that stands in the court of the priests in front of the Temple.

Verse 35

Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

A generation that persists in evil is as culpable as their wicked fathers. God’s patience with Israel is about to end. Within forty years, the Jews will experience a total destruction of Jerusalem and their Temple. The evil that they and the preceding generations have multiplied will be justly visited upon them. The following discourse regarding Jerusalem’s destruction found in Matthew 24:4-34, serves as apt commentary for this verse.

Verse 36

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!

Verses 37–39 serve as Jesus’ final words to Jerusalem. They are filled with emotion, concern, and an unmistakable sense of desperation. We see the tremendous love Jesus has for His people. For more than six months, He has sadly focused on Jerusalem and what must transpire there (16:21; 20:18). Now, as the time approaches, He bursts forth in what Broadus appropriately calls "a mournful apostrophe." At the end of His condemnation and warning, He is overtaken with sorrow. Pained by their overall ungodliness and stiff-necked ways, He cries out. Jesus has expressed similar feelings before—once from a distance (Luke 13:34) and once as He entered the city during the triumphal entry (Luke 19:41-44).

The simile Jesus uses here of a hen and chicks is one that is familiar to Jews in Palestine. All know of the frantic protection a mother hen provides as she scurries her chicks under her wings in the face of danger—danger such as a swooping eagle. Jesus would have offered such a protection from the impending doom. Soon the Roman eagle will descend on Israel. In spite of Jesus’ warning, the Jews will not listen. Their own refusal seals their doom.

Verse 37

Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

There is a dual allusion to both spiritual desolation of the nation as a whole and the specific events that will soon occur in A.D. 70. The glory that Israel once possessed in her Temple and priesthood, her ordinances, and her light to the nations is in the process of decay. God’s vineyard that flourished no longer produces fruit and is fit only to be burned. Plummer suggests that their "house" was being left or abandoned to the consequences of their accumulated misdeeds (325). In other words, this evil generation is the catalyst for its own destruction. McGarvey notes that Israel’s house is soon left desolate because of Jesus’ departure (Commentary on Matthew 202). For a time, the presence of Jesus adorns Jerusalem. When the Jews kill Him, the only thing that can be left is desolation, and so the house falls. It is noteworthy that Jesus says, "Your house." In other words, the holy sanctuary that was once the house of God is no longer His. It was now "their" house, and what a wreck they made of it.

Verse 38

For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

This verse seems to look back to Matthew 21:9, when multitudes and children welcome Jesus into the city with shouts of "Hosanna." In spite of the acclaim the common people give Jesus, the religious leaders reject Him and try to put a halt to such praise. Now Jesus assures these wicked leaders that until they can join in the welcome, His mission as their Savior is over. Plummer notes, "If that relation to them is ever to be renewed, the initiative must come from them" (325). They have had their chance, they have heard His teaching, they have seen His miracles, and they have refused Him. These words end the final discourse Jesus ever gives to the general public and their stiff-necked leaders; they conclude His public ministry. In the next chapter, Jesus will retreat to the bosom of His disciples in preparation for His final hours. Fowler notes, "He would go to the cross, through the empty tomb and on to glory, without ever turning back to plead with Israel, as He had in the past" (380).

There has been much conjecture as to the "coming" of which Jesus speaks. The promise is couched in an ominous threat and thus points to a time when these wicked leaders will be forced to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. This "coming" is not His resurrection, for it is clear that even that phenomenal event has little impact on the religious hierarchy. It does not refer to Pentecost (Acts 2) for the same reasons. The "coming" is Jesus’ final coming (McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew 203). It will be an event when every knee will bow and all will acknowledge Jesus’ sovereignty, and He will appear as God’s anointed Judge (Revelation 1:7; Philippians 2:9-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-12).

Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/matthew-23.html. 1993-2022.
 
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