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Matthew 23

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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D. The King’s rejection of Israel ch. 23

Israel’s rejection of Jesus as her King was now unmistakably clear. Her various groups of leaders had consistently refused to accept Him.

". . . it seems that for Matthew the Pharisees particularly exemplify all that is wrong with Jerusalem’s current leadership." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., pp. 853-54.]

The leaders’ rejection was a rejection of Jesus’ person (Matthew 22:42). It contrasts sharply with the disciples’ confession that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). Consequently Jesus announced His rejection of that generation of unbelieving Israelites. Note the parallels between this situation and that of the Israelites at Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 13-14). That generation would not experience the blessing of participating in the inauguration of the promised messianic kingdom. Jesus’ strong language reflects the seriousness of their error and its dire consequences. It also reflects the conventions of ancient polemic. [Note: See L. T. Johnson, "The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and Conventions of Ancient Rhetoric," Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989):419-41.]

Chapter 23 contains a discourse that Jesus delivered the same day His critics assailed Him: Wednesday. However most students of Matthew’s Gospel have not regarded this discourse as one of the major ones in the book. The primary reason for this is it lacks the structural marker by which the writer highlighted the other major discourses. That marker is the characteristic discourse ending (cf. Matthew 7:28-29). Rather chapter 23 appears to be the climax of the confrontations that preceded it (Matthew 21:23 to Matthew 22:46). The content of this discourse is mainly negative and condemnatory, and its target was a specific group. That it is not part of the discourse in chapters 24 and 25 is clear because Jesus addressed different audiences.

"As Matthew began his rehearsal of Jesus’ ministry at Matthew 4:17, he depicted Jesus as becoming successively involved with three major groups, each of which functions as a character in his story: the disciples (Matthew 4:18-22); the crowds, together with the disciples (Matthew 4:25; Matthew 5:1-2); and the religious leaders (Matthew 9:2-13). As an indication that only the climax of his story (i.e., the passion of Jesus) still remains to be narrated, Matthew now depicts Jesus’ involvement with each of these same three groups as being successively terminated in a reverse order to the initial one, that is to say, in an order that is chiastic in nature. For example, by reducing the religious leaders in open debate to silence, Jesus forces their withdrawal from the scene (Matthew 22:46). With the leaders gone, Jesus publicly addresses the crowds in the temple, together with the disciples (Matthew 23:1). And leaving the temple, Jesus delivers his eschatological discourse to the disciples alone (Matthew 24:1-3). Through the use of this chiastic pattern, Matthew signals the reader that the culmination of his story is at hand." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 84.]

"The attitude attacked in this chapter is a religion of externals, a matter of ever more detailed attention to rules and regulations while failing to discern God’s priorities." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 855.]

Verse 1

As we have seen, there were three groups of people present in the temple courtyard. These were the disciples of Jesus, His critics, namely, the various groups of Israel’s leaders, and the crowds of ordinary Israelites. Jesus now turned from addressing the Pharisees (Matthew 22:41) and proceeded to speak to the multitudes and His disciples primarily.

Jesus had begun to criticize the Pharisees and scribes to their faces about one year earlier (Matthew 15:7). Later He warned His disciples to beware of the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12). Now He denounced these enemies publicly. He did so because the decision the masses and His disciples now faced was whether to follow Jesus or Israel’s established religious leaders. They could not do both.

Verses 1-12

1. Jesus’ admonition of the multitudes and His disciples 23:1-12 (cf. Mark 12:38-39; Luke 20:45-46)

Verse 2

The scribes were the official teachers of the Old Testament. The Pharisees were a theological party within Judaism. Jesus was addressing two different though somewhat overlapping groups when He made this distinction. Some scribes were Pharisees, but not all Pharisees were scribes. The first title addressed the role of some of the leaders and the second the theological beliefs of some of them. A modern illustration might be "preachers" and "evangelicals." Not all preachers are evangelicals though some are. Likewise not all evangelicals are preachers though some are.

According to Old Testament figurative usage a person who sat on a predecessor’s seat was that person’s successor (Exodus 11:5; Exodus 12:29; 1 Kings 1:35; 1 Kings 1:46; 1 Kings 2:12; 1 Kings 16:11; 2 Kings 15:12; Psalms 132:12). When Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees had seated themselves on Moses’ seat He meant they viewed themselves as Moses’ legal successors, possessing his authority. This is indeed how they viewed themselves. [Note: Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:3.] Jewish synagogues typically had a stone seat at the front where the authoritative teacher sat. [Note: E. L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece, pp. 57-61.] Likewise most rabbis sat when they taught. The NASB translation "have seated themselves" hints at the irony that follows in the first part of Matthew 23:3. They presumed to be Moses’ successors with his authority.

Verses 3-4

Jesus’ statement in the first part of Matthew 23:3 contradicts what He said earlier about how the other Jews should respond to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 15:7; Matthew 16:5-12). Assuming the consistency of Jesus’ teaching we should understand His words here as ironical. [Note: J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology, Part I, The Proclamation of Jesus, p. 210.] Another view sees Jesus affirming the authority of the Pharisees in principle, since they taught the Torah, but not endorsing all their teachings (halakhah, legal interpretations of Scripture). [Note: See Noel S. Rabbinowitz, "Matthew 23:2-4 : Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse their Halakhah?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:3 (September 2003):423-47.] The first, preferable interpretation allows the Greek aorist verb ekathisan ("to sit," Matthew 23:2) to have its natural force. This view also explains the chiasm in Matthew 23:2-4 in which the first two statements constitute irony and the second two give non-ironical advice.

A The leaders presumed to take on Moses’ teaching authority. Matthew 23:2

B Do what they say. Matthew 23:3 a

B’ Do not do what they do. Matthew 23:3 b

A’ Their teaching merely binds people. Matthew 23:4

Jesus continued to use irony in this address (Matthew 23:23-28).

Both the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai increased the burden of responsibility on the Jews by adding to the Law. [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:407.]

Verses 5-7

Jesus proceeded to identify more of these leaders’ practices that the crowds and His disciples should not copy (cf. Matthew 6:1-18). "Phylacteries" were small boxes of leather or parchment in which the Jews placed copies of four Old Testament texts written on vellum (fine parchment, customarily Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and Deuteronomy 11:13-21). They then tied these onto their foreheads and or forearms with straps to fulfill Exodus 13:9; Exodus 13:16, and Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18. God probably intended the Jews to interpret these commands figuratively, but the superficial religious leaders took them literally. The Greek word translated "phylacteries" (totapot, lit. "frontlets") occurs here only in the New Testament. It had pagan associations, and Jesus’ use of it here implied that the Jews were using these little boxes as good luck charms. [Note: Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. "phylactery," by J. Arthur Thompson, 4:786-87.] Furthermore they made them big so other Jews would be sure to notice their "piety."

Likewise the hypocritical leaders lengthened the tassels they wore on the corners of their garments (Matthew 23:5). God had commanded the wearing of these tassels to remind His people of their holy and royal calling (Numbers 15:37-41; Deuteronomy 22:12). All the Jews wore these tassels, including Jesus (Matthew 9:20; Matthew 14:36). However the religious leaders characteristically wore long ones to imply great piety and to attract the admiration of the common people.

The leaders wanted to sit as close to the law scrolls as possible in the synagogues. These were the chief seats (Matthew 23:6). The title "rabbi" meant "my teacher" or "my master." It was originally just a title of respect. However eventually the term became a title expressing great veneration. The leaders in Jesus’ day wanted it because it set them off as distinctive and superior to others. Modern people who take this view of an advanced academic degree or a title fall into the same error.

Verses 8-10

These verses applied to all the Jews but particularly the disciples (cf. Matthew 23:1). By placing "you" in the emphatic first position when He spoke to the disciples Jesus was implying that they would take the position of leadership over God’s people that the critics then occupied (cf. Matthew 13:52). They were not to love it when people called them "rabbi" because they had but one teacher (Gr. didaskalos), namely, Jesus. They were to regard themselves as on the same brotherly level as learners rather than as masters over the unlearned.

The term "fathers" (Matthew 23:9) probably referred to their fathers in the faith, the spiritual predecessors of the present generation (cf. 2 Kings 2:12). Apparently the fathers in view were dead. The change in tense of the Greek verbs between Matthew 23:8-10 seems to suggest this. If this is true, the person who now addresses a Roman Catholic priest, for example, as "father" is probably using this term in a slightly different sense than the Jews used it in Jesus’ day (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 John 2:13-14). If a modern Christian uses the term with the idea that the "father" is his or her spiritual superior, however, he or she would be guilty of doing what Jesus forbade here.

The only person worthy of the title of teacher in the ultimate sense is Messiah. He is the only one who can sit in Moses’ seat and continue to interpret and reveal the will of God correctly and authoritatively (cf. Matthew 1:1; Matthew 16:16; Matthew 22:41-46). Jesus used a third Greek word for teacher here, namely, kathegetes. He probably did so to connect it with other key words in this section having to do with authoritative teaching: ekathisan ("they sat down," Matthew 23:2) and kathedra ("seat," Matthew 23:2). Thus He employed the rhetorical device of homophony (similar sounding words).

"Jesus’ enemies, the certified teachers of Israel, could not answer basic biblical questions about the Messiah. Now he, Jesus the Messiah, declares in the wake of that travesty that he himself is the only one qualified to sit in Moses’ seat-to succeed him as authoritative Teacher of God’s will and mind." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 475.]

It would be incorrect to conclude from this teaching that Jesus discouraged all recognition of distinctions between leaders and their roles among His servants. The apostles, for example, had authority in the church that surpassed that of ordinary Christians. Elders and deacons continue to exercise divinely recognized authority in the church, and God has commanded us to respect these individuals (1 Corinthians 16:15-16; Hebrews 13:7; Hebrews 13:17). What Jesus was condemning was seeking and giving honor that transcends what is appropriate since believers are all brethren, since God is our true spiritual Father, and since Jesus is our real teacher and leader. The teachers and leaders of God’s people must remember that they are always fellow learners with the saints. They are still children of the heavenly Father, and they are ever subject to Jesus Christ.

". . . the risen Christ is as displeased with those in his church who demand unquestioning submission to themselves and their opinions and confuse a reputation for showy piety with godly surrender to his teaching as he ever was with any Pharisee." [Note: Ibid.]

Verses 11-12

In concluding these warnings Jesus returned to the subject of humility that He had stressed with His disciples earlier (cf. Matthew 18:4; Matthew 20:20-28). Jesus taught His disciples to be servants of others, not lords over them.

"Leadership positions should never be a goal in and of themselves, but should always be viewed as opportunities to serve others." [Note: Barbieri, p. 74.]

The reversal of fortunes that Jesus predicted here will happen when the kingdom begins. Jesus Himself was the greatest example of what He taught here (cf. Matthew 20:26-28; Philippians 2:5-11).

Verses 13-14

The first woe 23:13-14

"But" introduces the transition from the words to the disciples that preceded (Matthew 23:1-12). The scribes and Pharisees had taken the exact opposite position on Jesus’ person than the disciples had. Consequently their futures would be radically different (cf. Matthew 16:17-28; Matthew 19:27-29).

"Woe" can be a mild exclamation of compassion (Matthew 24:19), a strong expression of condemnation (Matthew 11:21), or both (Matthew 18:17; Matthew 26:24). In this address condemnation is in view as is clear from what Jesus said. However, we should not interpret this word as connoting vindictiveness or spitefulness here. Rather it is a judicial announcement of condemnation from Messiah, the Judge.

"Every one of the seven ’woes’ is an exclamation like the ’blessed’ in the Beatitudes. It does not state a wish but a fact. It is not a curse that calls down calamity but a calm, true judgment and verdict rendered by the supreme Judge himself. Hence six of these judgments have the evidence attached by means of a causal hoti [because] clause which furnishes the full reason for the verdict ’woe;’ and in the remaining judgment (Matthew 23:16) the varied form of expression does the same by means of an apposition." [Note: Lenski, p. 903.]

The leaders were hypocrites because they professed to teach God’s will but kept people from entering the kingdom that was God’s will for His people then to enter. They kept people from entering the kingdom by not preparing to enter it themselves and by discouraging others from doing so (cf. Matthew 18:6-7; Matthew 22:41-46).

Some interpreters believe the syntax of Matthew 23:13 assumes that the kingdom had already begun. [Note: E.g., Carson, "Matthew," pp. 477-78.] However the basis for this conclusion is the presupposition that it had begun more than the requirements of the Greek syntax. The syntax requires that we understand the substantival participle tous eiserchomenous ("those entering") and the present finite verb oude . . . aphiete ("nor . . . do you permit") as describing action happening simultaneous with the speaker’s words. Both actions can and do describe what the leaders were doing in anticipation of the kingdom’s beginning. Jesus consistently referred to the messianic kingdom as future, not as present. The King’s presence does not equate with the kingdom’s presence.

Most of the best and earliest copies of Matthew’s Gospel available to us omit Matthew 23:14. Some of the manuscripts that do contain it place it before Matthew 23:13, and others place it after. Perhaps later scribes inserted it since it occurs in the parallel passages (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47).

Verses 13-36

2. Jesus’ indictment of the scribes and the Pharisees 23:13-36 (cf. Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47)

Jesus now directed His attention toward the scribes and the Pharisees in the temple courtyard (cf. Matthew 23:1). He proceeded to announce a scathing indictment of them in seven parts. Compare the six woes of Isaiah 5:8-23 and the five woes of Habakkuk 2:6-20. He introduced each indictment with the word "woe." Jesus spoke of the scribes and Pharisees, but He spoke to the crowds and His disciples.

"No passage in the Bible is more biting, more pointed, and more severe than this pronouncement of Christ upon the Pharisees. It is significant that He singled them out, as opposed to the Sadducees, who were more liberal, and the Herodians, who were the politicians. The Pharisees, while attempting to honor the Word of God and manifesting an extreme form of religious observance, were actually the farthest from God." [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., pp. 171-72.]

Essentially Jesus was criticizing them for their hypocrisy. [Note: See Andrew R. Simmonds, "’Woe to you . . . Hypocrites!’ Re-reading Matthew 23:13-36," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:663 (July-September 2009):336-49.] As the theme of the Sermon on the Mount was righteousness, the theme of these woes is hypocrisy. There is a common strong emphasis in both addresses on the leaders’ failure to understand and submit to the Scriptures. Jesus gave both addresses to contrast the true meaning of Scripture with the Pharisees’ interpretation and application of it. The Pharisees professed to teach the Scriptures accurately but did not do so. They were therefore hypocrites.

The literary structure of these woes is chiastic.

A Rejection of the kingdom Matthew 23:13

B Effects on others being more harm than good Matthew 23:15

C Misguided use of Scripture affecting conduct Matthew 23:16-22

D Failure to understand Scripture Matthew 23:23-24

C’ Misguided use of Scripture affecting character Matthew 23:25-26

B’ Effects on others frustrating the desired result Matthew 23:27-28

A’ Rejection of the kingdom’s heralds Matthew 23:29-36

Verse 15

The second woe 23:15

The scribes and Pharisees were very zealous to get Jews to subscribe to their doctrinal convictions. Some commentators stress that the Pharisees made disciples to Judaism. This may have been true, but their chief offense was bringing Jews under their corrupt theology. [Note: See Irena Levinskaya, The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting, pp. 36-46.] Jesus did not criticize them for their zeal. He criticized them because of what they taught their converts and the effect that this "conversion" had on their converts.

As noted previously, what marked the teaching of these leaders was that they gave the oral traditional interpretations and teachings of the rabbis at least the same authority as the Old Testament, if not more authority. Practically they twisted the Old Testament when it did not harmonize with the accepted teachings of the rabbis (cf. Matthew 5:21-48).

The converts to Pharisaism became more zealous for the traditions of the fathers than their teachers were. This is often the result of conversion. Students sometimes take the views of their teachers farther than their teachers do. The dynamic nature of the Pharisees’ view of the authority of the fathers’ interpretations increased this problem. When a person believes that Scriptural authority extends beyond the statements of Scripture there is no limit to what else may be authoritative. The Pharisees’ interpretation of Messiah locked Jesus out of this role.

The proselytes were the sons of hell (Gehenna) in the sense that they belonged to hell and would go there eventually (cf. Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:38). Rather than leading them to heaven, the Pharisees and teachers of the law led them to hell. Gehenna represented the place of eternal damnation, the lake of fire (cf. Matt 25:51). Hades is the temporary abode of the wicked from which God will raise them for judgment at the great white throne and final damnation in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).

Verses 16-22

The third woe 23:16-22

Jesus had dealt with the subject of taking oaths in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37). He had called His critics blind guides before too (Matthew 15:14). Here is a specific example of what Jesus condemned in the second woe (Matthew 23:15). By differentiating between what was binding in their oaths and what was not, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were encouraging evasive oaths that amounted to lying. Jesus’ point was that people should tell the truth. Jesus condemned His critics for mishandling the Scriptures that they claimed to defend and expound.

Matthew 23:20-22 provide the rationale for Matthew 5:33-37. Whenever a Jew took an oath he connected it in some way with God. All their oaths were therefore binding. Jesus disallowed all evasive oaths and viewed them as untruthful speech.

Verses 23-24

The fourth woe 23:23-24

The Mosaic Law required the Israelites to tithe grain, wine, and oil (Deuteronomy 14:22-29). How far they had to take this was a matter of debate. Jesus did not discourage scrupulous observance of this law. He directed His condemnation to the leaders’ failure to observe more important "weightier" commands in the Law while dickering over which specific plants, spices, and seeds to tithe. He went back to Micah 6:8 for the three primary duties that God requires. He probably chose the gnat (Gr. qalma) and the camel (Gr. gamla) as examples because of their sizes and their similar sounding names.

"It is usually the case that legalists are sticklers for details, but blind to great principles. This crowd thought nothing of condemning an innocent man, yet they were afraid to enter Pilate’s judgment hall lest they be defiled (John 18:28)." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:85.]

This judgment constitutes the center of the chiasm and the most important failure of the scribes and Pharisees. They were distorting the will of God as He had revealed it in Scripture (cf. Matthew 9:9-13; Matthew 12:1-14). This distortion resulted in erroneous doctrine (woes 3 and 5) that resulted in disastrous practice (woes 2 and 6) that resulted in kingdom postponement (woes 1 and 7).

It is important to recognize that Scripture reveals God’s will and that we should never elevate the authority of human interpretations to the level of Scripture itself. However, it is also important to recognize that within Scripture some commands are more important than others and that we should observe these distinctions and not confuse them. This involves wisdom and balance in interpretation and application.

Modern teachers and preachers of God’s Word can commit many of the errors that marked the Pharisees. However, we need to remember that the Pharisees did not believe that Jesus was the divine Messiah.

Verses 25-26

The fifth woe 23:25-26

Jesus condemned characteristic Pharisaic superficiality with this metaphor. The vessels represent the Pharisees and those they taught. The Jews were to be clean vessels that God could use to bring spiritual nourishment and refreshment to others. The Pharisees taught the importance of being ritually clean by observing the dietary and cleansing ordinances of the Law. Nevertheless they neglected internal purity. The Pharisees were erring in their emphases. They put too much importance on minor matters, especially ritual and external matters, and not enough on major matters, especially those involving spiritual reality. The singular "Pharisee" is probably a generic reference to all Pharisees (Matthew 23:26).

Verses 27-28

The sixth woe 23:27-28

The Jerusalem Jews whitewashed grave markers just before Passover to alert pilgrims to their presence. They did this so these strangers would not unknowingly touch one, become unclean, and therefore be ineligible to participate in the feast. [Note: Mishnah Shekalim 1:1; Mishnah Kelim 1:4; Mishnah Moed Katan 1:2; Mishnah Masser Sheni 5:1.] It was not so much the whitewashing that made them attractive as it was the monuments themselves that were attractive. Jesus compared these whitewashed monuments to the Pharisees. Both appeared attractive, but both also contaminated people who contacted them. Pharisaic contamination precluded participation in the blessings that Passover anticipated, namely, kingdom blessings.

Jesus’ mention of "lawlessness" is significant (Matthew 23:28). The Pharisees prided themselves on punctilious observance of the Law (Gr. nomos). Ironically their failure to understand and apply the Law correctly made them lawless (Gr. anomia) in Jesus’ view. Anomia is a general word for wickedness in the New Testament. Jesus implied that the Pharisees’ whole approach to the Law was really wicked.

Verses 29-30

By building monuments to the prophets and other righteous people that their forefathers had martyred, the Pharisees were saying that they would not have killed them if they had been alive then. These construction projects constituted professions of their own spiritual superiority as well as honors for the dead. The Christian who naively thinks he or she would not have committed the mistakes that the early disciples of Jesus did makes the same assumption of superiority.

Verses 29-36

The seventh woe 23:29-36

Verse 31

"Consequently" refers to the Pharisees’ acknowledgment of themselves as the sons of those who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:30), not to their tomb-building (Matthew 23:29). The Pharisees were the descendants of those who killed the prophets more than they knew, not just physically but also spiritually. They were plotting to kill the greatest Prophet (Matthew 21:38-39; Matthew 21:46).

Verse 32

The Old Testament idea behind this verse is that God will tolerate only so much sin. Then He will act in judgment (cf. Genesis 6:3; Genesis 6:7; Genesis 15:16; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). Here Jesus meant that Israel had committed many sins by killing the prophets. When the Pharisees killed Jesus and His disciples (cf. Matthew 23:34) the cup of God’s wrath would be full, and He would respond in wrath. The destruction of Jerusalem and the worldwide dispersion of the Jews resulted in A.D. 70.

Verse 33

Jesus repeated epithets that He had used before to announce His critics’ condemnation (cf. Matthew 3:7; Matthew 12:34). They would perish in hell for their failure to accept Jesus (cf. Matthew 5:22; Matthew 23:15).

"There is today only one proper Christian use of the woe saying of this pericope. It is found not primarily in the application of the passage to the historical Pharisees, and even less to modern Judaism as a religion, but in the application of the passage to members of the church. Hypocrisy is the real enemy of this pericope, not the scribes, the Pharisees, or the Jews. If, on the model of this pericope, a bitter woe is to be pronounced against anyone today, it must be directed solely against hypocrisy in the church (cf. 1 Peter 2:1)." [Note: Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p. 673.]

Verse 34

The antecedent of "therefore" (Gr. dia touto) is the Jews’ execution of the prophets that God had sent them in the past (Matthew 23:29-30; cf. Matthew 22:3-10). Because the Jews had rejected the former prophets Jesus would send them additional prophets, wise men, and teachers. These the Jews would also reject, filling up the measure of their guilt to the full. This is probably a reference to the witnesses that followed Jesus and appealed to the Jews to believe in Him (Acts 3:19-21; Acts 7:2-53; cf. Matthew 5:10-12; Matthew 9:37-38; Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus would not establish His kingdom then because Israel rejected Him as her Messiah. However, now Jesus revealed that God would punish the generation of Israelites that rejected Him and the apostles who would follow Him in an additional way. This included the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews from the Promised Land. Jesus clarified these events in the Olivet Discourse that follows (chs. 24-25).

Since the Jews did not have the authority to crucify people, we should probably understand Jesus’ reference to them crucifying some of these witnesses in a causative sense. They would cause others, notably the Romans, to crucify them (cf. Matthew 10:24-25).

Verse 35

Jesus was not saying that the Jews who rejected Him were responsible for the deaths of all the righteous martyrs throughout biblical history. They simply were the ones who would add the last measure of guilt that would result in the outpouring of God’s wrath for all those murders.

"In the case of the Jews, the limit of misbehavior had been almost reached, and with the murder of the Messiah and His Apostles would be transgressed." [Note: Plummer, p. 320-21.]

Abel was the first righteous person murdered that Scripture records (Genesis 4:8). We do not know exactly when Zechariah the prophet, the son of Berechiah, died, but he began prophesying as a young man in 520 B.C. and delivered some prophecies in 518 B.C. He may have been the last martyr in Old Testament history. [Note: See Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 425.] However according to Jewish tradition this Zechariah died peacefully at an advanced age. [Note: Lives of the Prophets 15:6.]

Many students of this problem believe that the Zechariah to whom Jesus referred was the priest whom the Jews stoned in the temple courtyard (2 Chronicles 24:20-22). That man died hundreds of years earlier than Zechariah the prophet. Jesus seems to have been summarizing all the righteous people the Jews had slain throughout Old Testament history. Zechariah the son of Jehoiada was the last martyr in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, so Jesus may have been saying the equivalent of "all the martyrs from Genesis to Revelation." Nevertheless that Zechariah was the son of Jehoiada, not Berechiah, and Jesus mentioned Berechiah as the father of the Zechariah He meant (cf. 2 Chronicles 24:22). Berechiah may have been the actual father of this martyr, and the writer of 2 Chronicles may have designated him as the son of his famous grandfather, Jehoiada. The fact that Abel’s name begins with the letter A and Zechariah’s name with the letter Z is simply coincidence. Z is not the last letter in either the Hebrew or the Greek alphabet.

Verse 36

With a strong assertion of certainty Jesus predicted that God’s judgment would fall on the generation of Jews that rejected Him. This is Jesus’ formal, culminating rejection of Israel for rejecting Him as her Messiah. "These things" refer to the outpouring of God’s wrath just revealed (Matthew 23:33; Matthew 23:35). That generation would lose the privilege of witnessing Messiah’s establishment of the kingdom and the privilege of being the first to enter it by faith in Jesus. Instead they would suffer the destruction of their capital city and the scattering of their population from the Promised Land (in A.D. 70). The whole generation would suffer because the leaders acted for the people, and the people did not abandon their leaders to embrace Jesus as their Messiah (cf. Numbers 13-14).

"The perversity of the religious leaders of Israel does not excuse the people of Israel. They were guilty of willfully following blind guides." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 263.]

However notice that it is only that generation that Jesus so cursed. It was not the entire Jewish race. [Note: For defense of the view that "this generation" refers to wicked people of all time, see Susan M. Rieske, "What Is the Meaning of ’This Generation’ in Matthew 23:36?" Bibliotheca Sacra 165:658 (April-June 2008):209-26.] God is not finished with Israel (Romans 11:1). He postponed the kingdom. He did not cancel it.

Jesus’ mention of the suffering of the present generation led Him to lament the coming condition of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39).

Verse 37

Jerusalem was the city of David and the city of peace. It was the city God had chosen to reveal Himself to Israel through the temple and as the capital of His kingdom on earth. However it (personified) had killed the prophets God had sent to His people with His messages. Stoning was the penalty for the worst crimes in Israel, including false prophecy. The people had used this form of execution on those who faithfully brought God’s Word to them. Jesus’ words recall His ancestor David’s sorrow over the death of his son Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33; 2 Samuel 19:4). The repetition of "Jerusalem" reveals the strong emotion that Jesus felt (cf. Luke 10:41; Acts 9:4).

Many times during His ministry Jesus had sought to gather and shelter Jerusalem, used here by synecdoche to represent the whole nation. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which one part stands for the whole or the whole stands for one of its parts. He wanted the people to take refuge in Him as chicks do under their mother hen physically and as God’s people had done under God’s care spiritually (cf. Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalms 17:8; Psalms 36:7; Psalms 91:4; Jeremiah 48:40). In spite of God’s loving initiatives Israel had willfully rejected Him repeatedly. Jesus’ identification with God is very clear in this verse (cf. Ezekiel 18:32). Jeremiah prefigured Jesus as he sadly described Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians in the Book of Lamentations.

Verses 37-39

3. Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem 23:37-39 (cf. Luke 13:34-35)

This lamentation should help us realize that the judgment Jesus just announced in such strong language was not something that delighted Him. It broke His heart. This is also clear in that He personalized the people in Jerusalem in these verses; Jesus spoke of the city as many people, not as an impersonal thing. He also spoke here as Israel’s Savior, not just a prophet but God Himself. These three verses are Jesus’ last public words to the Israelite multitudes that the evangelists recorded.

"Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem revealed that He made a legitimate offer of the kingdom to Israel and that it was His desired will that they would respond. As a result of their having rejected such a contingent offer, their house was destroyed. . . . The time from His rejection to His return is the ’mystery’ phase of the kingdom, as described in Matthew 13. The final phase of that period is outlined in chapters 24-25." [Note: Bailey, in The New . . ., p. 49.]

Most dispensationalists view the "kingdom" as having two phases. Normative (traditional) dispensationalists often refer to the present inter-advent age as the mystery phase of the kingdom and the future millennial age as the messianic kingdom. Progressive dispensationalists refer to the present inter-advent age as the "already" phase of the messianic kingdom and the future millennial age as the "not yet" phase of the messianic kingdom. A few dispensationalists deny any present phase of the kingdom. [Note: E.g., Toussaint, Behold the . . ., pp. 175-80.]

Verse 38

The house in view is probably the temple (cf. 1 Kings 9:7-8). Other views are that it refers to the city, the Davidic dynasty, the nation, or all of the above. Jesus had formerly claimed the temple as His own house (Matthew 5:35; Matthew 17:25-26; Matthew 21:12-16). Now He spoke of it as their house, the house of prayer that they had converted into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13). Jesus and God would leave the temple desolate by removing Jesus’ presence from it. Instead of it becoming the focal point of worship during the messianic kingdom, it would be devoid of Immanuel, God with us, until He returns to it (Matthew 1:23; cf. Jeremiah 12:7; Jeremiah 22:5; Ezekiel 43:1-5). Instead of bringing promised rest and blessing to Israel, Messiah would leave her desolate, uninhabited.

Verse 39

Jesus quoted Psalms 118:26 (cf. Matthew 21:9). He was referring to His return to the temple in power and great glory when He returns at His second coming, not to some return to the temple before His ascension. The negative is very strong in the Greek text (ou me). When He returns, all will acknowledge Him instead of rejecting Him (cf. Zechariah 12:10). Moreover He will come in judgment (cf. Matthew 24:30-31; Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 1:7).

"It is extremely important for one to note that Christ’s rejection of Israel is not an eternal one. The word ’until’ (eos) of verse thirty-nine together with the following statement affirms the fact that Christ will come again to a repentant nation to establish the promised millennial kingdom." [Note: Ibid., pp. 265-66. Cf. Lowery, "Evidence from . . .," p. 180.]

Having said His good-bye to the temple, Jesus left its courtyard where He had spent a busy Wednesday teaching (Matt 21:18-23:46).

"Surprisingly, Jesus’ teaching occasions less conflict in Matthew’s story than one would expect. The reason is that the religious leaders are the recipients of none of the great discourses of Jesus [chs. 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 24-25], and even Jesus’ speech of woes is not delivered to the scribes and Pharisees but to the disciples and the crowds (chap. 23). It is in certain of the debates Jesus has with the religious leaders that his teaching generates conflict." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 63.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/matthew-23.html. 2012.
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