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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 23

Godbey's Commentary on the New TestamentGodbey's NT Commentary

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Verses 1-12


It is still Wednesday, and the last day our Lord ever spoke in the temple. These scribes and Pharisees are thronging Him on all sides, being the great and influential people of the Church. He acquits Himself of all responsibility by publicly exposing their evil example, and warning the people against following them. N.B. All this He did boldly in their presence; meanwhile they got so awfully mad that they laid violent hands on Him and took His life. Two hundred millions of martyrs have traveled the same road to bloody death. Lord, help us to be true, and tell the whole truth, even under the most embarrassing environments, fearless of men and devils!

Luke 20:45-46 ; Mark 12:38-39 . “And He spoke to them in His teaching, Beware of the scribes, who wish to walk about in robes, and receive salutations in the markets, and the first seats in the synagogues, and the first couches in the suppers.” All this pompous display panders to pride, feeds vanity, and grieves the Holy Spirit now as in the days of Christ; and is more abominable in preachers and Church members than in debauchees and prostitutes.

Matthew 23:1-12 . “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, The scribes and Pharisees sat in the seat of Moses. Therefore, all things so many as they may say to you to observe, keep and perform; but do not according to their works; for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and difficult to be borne, and place them on the shoulders of the people; and they do not wish to touch them with their finger.”

How lamentably do we see this identical maladministration on the part of many leading clergymen this day, taxing their members heavily, and even oppressively, while they do not tax themselves! It is a shame for a pastor to enforce the tithe law among his members and not personally lead the way in keeping it. The truth of it is, the tithe is the minimum. We all ought to go vastly beyond it, even to the half of our income in many instances; but the preachers, true to their attitude as leaders of the flock, ought to excel all their members in self-denial, frugality, economy, and consequent liberality to the heathen, the poor, and every laudable philanthropy.

“They do all their works to be seen by the people.” O what abominable pride! Who is guilty? But Jesus is speaking of the preachers. “They broaden their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments.” These phylacteries were strips of parchment, on which passages of Scripture were written, and swinging about as they moved hither and thither, made quite a conspicuous display. Lord deliver us from all needless ornamentation of every sort!

“They love the first couch at the suppers, and the first seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the forums, and to be called by the people, Doctor, Doctor. Be ye not called Doctor: for one is your Teacher, even Christ: and you are all brothers.” Doctor is a Latin word, from doceo, “to teach,” and literally means a teacher. Here you see that our Savior forbids the use of the honorary epithet, as no man has anything to teach, Christ being our only Teacher, while we are all disciples i.e., students; for this is the meaning of disciple. This is certainly a final settlement of all questions appertaining to the honorary appellation of “Doctor” as applied to a minister of the gospel. Of course, we can not control the people in their salutations; but we certainly should never recognize the title, nor use it in its application to ourselves, nor encourage the use of it on the part of others. As Jesus well says, none of us preachers are Doctors i.e., teachers but all students at the feet of Jesus, who is our only Teacher. As Jesus here well says, we are all “brothers.” So let us lay aside all of this Babylonian pomposity, which sacrifices to pride and grieves the Holy Spirit, and henceforth salute one another by the humble and loving appellation of “Brother” and “Sister.”

“Call no one father upon the earth: for one is your Father, who is in the heavens.” This sweeps away the vanity of Romanism, calling their priests “Father;” while the Protestants salute their preachers with “Doctor,” which means teacher. “Be not called teachers: for one is your Teacher, Christ.” Lord, help us all to abide with Thee in loving obedience in this matter as in all others!

“But let him who is the greater of you, be your servant: for whosoever shall exalt himself, shall be abased; and whosoever shall humble himself, shall be exalted.” All these manifestations of pride grieve the Holy Spirit away and ruin religion. The leading preacher should invariably lead the way in self-denial, self-sacrifice, humility, and meekness; otherwise he is utterly unworthy to be a leader. Why will not the preachers and Church members hear the voice of Jesus, and govern themselves accordingly? If we do not learn of Him, and walk in His commandments, we will erelong encounter the awful embarrassment of the guest at the marriage feast without the wedding garment.

Verses 13-39


Luke 20:47 , Mark 12:40 ; Matthew 23:13-39 . “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you devour the houses of widows, and through pretense make long prayers; therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.” You see He withers them awfully for oppressing the widows. You must not here understand a condemnation of long prayers. Jesus Himself sometimes prayed all night. The condemnation is on the hypocrisy, because through pretense they made long prayers. However, we should all take warning and condense our prayers, throwing away all forms and routines, introductories and conclusions, except the simple “Amen,” and by the help of the Spirit focalize and concentrate our prayers, making them multum in parvo; i.e., “much in little.”

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut up the kingdom of the heavens against the people: for you do not come in, neither do you permit those coming in to enter.” What awful preaching to the pastors of the Churches, ruling elders, and leading members, while looking them in the face! How terrible was the grip of Satan on them, that they did not heed the warning, but got violently mad, and killed Him for telling them the truth! Lord help us to walk in Thy footprints! There is a world of truth in this accusation. Those were the very men who would not enter the kingdom nor permit others. If they had repented under the preaching of John the Baptist, instead of getting mad at him for telling them the truth (Matthew 3:7), and received their own Christ with open arms, thus passing exultantly from the Mosaic dispensation into the kingdom of heaven, the people would have followed them in solid columns, the whole Jewish nation receiving their own Christ, turning evangelist, preaching Him to all the Gentiles, and actually bringing on she millennium, far back in the early centuries of the Christian era, the Lord returning on the throne of His glory, as He said He would when the gospel was preached to all nations. The same sad phenomenon you may observe this day. If the leading preachers and Church officers throughout Christendom would receive the Holy Ghost and get sanctified wholly, as Jesus is now calling them, the Churches would follow in swelling multitudes, the revival tide of holiness to the Lord inundate the globe like a mighty swelling sea, and bring on the millennium in the present generation. The rank and file of people will follow their leaders. The climacteric trick of Satan in all ages has been to lead the leaders, and thus populate hell with the downward rush of millions lost.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he may become, you make him twofold more the son of hell than yourselves.” This poor, deluded, heathen proselyte, not only retains his own sins, but takes on those of hypocrisy and formality peculiar to his Jewish leaders. The deader a Church is, the more proselytic, ready to do almost anything to get a member, especially if he has money. Misery loves company. When people have God with them, they are satisfied to walk alone. When they are without God, they seek comfort in all the company they can get, going for the popular Church.

“Woe unto you. blind guides, saying, Whosoever may swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever may swear by the gold of the temple, he is debtor. Ye foolish and blind: for which is the greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold? Whosoever may swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever may swear by the gift which is upon it, he is debtor. Ye blind, for which is the greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he that sweareth by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things which are on it; and he that sweareth by the temple, sweareth by it, and by Him that dwelleth in it; and he that sweareth by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by Him that sitteth upon it.” That our Savior is not here condemning judicial oaths,: we have abundant proof, as He Himself responded to Caiaphas when he administered to Him a solemn oath (Matthew 26:63), and Paul administered a solemn oath to the Thessalonians that the epistle should be read to all the brethren. But Jesus is here speaking of profane swearing, condemning the use of bywords, which is incitive to profanity at least, and all superfluous language, as indicative of evil and conducive to sin, cutting down our phraseology to simple statements of fact. We have in this paragraph a very important specification, certifying that the altar sanctifies the gift, which has in all ages been a prominent battle-cry in God’s holiness movements. Consecration is man’s work, just as the Jew brought the sheep, with his own hands, and placed it on God’s altar, neither daring to take it off nor thinking of a doubt as to God’s acceptance of it, believing unhesitatingly and unwaveringly that everything on God’s altar was thereby sanctified and holy. Therefore consecration is man’s work, assisted by the Holy Ghost. When we make the clear, unequivocal, and eternal consecration, we should never doubt the sanctification, as we know God is infallible. He never fails to do His work, while doubt is grievous and dishonoring to Him. All we have to do is to keep all on the altar, consecrated for this world arid all other worlds, to live or to die. Then believe without a doubt that God accepts and sanctifies, going on undeviatingly in the line of joyful obedience, never again listening to the devil, who would destroy your experience by the injection of doubts. Once you move out on this line, and abide, your life will quickly become a constant sunshine, a sweet heaven in which to go to heaven, victory night and day brightening the escutcheon of your joyful experience, and proclaiming Satan’s signal and perpetual defeat.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites l because you tithe mint, anise, and cumin, and you pass by the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: it behooveth to do these, and not to leave those undone.” When preachers and Church members have no salvation, they are apt to be very particular about little things, and ready to criticize harshly all who do not conform to their little, silly notions punctiliously. Jesus does not object to their tithing everything, even these garden vegetables, giving one-tenth of all their produce to the Lord; but lie commends it. Meanwhile lie denounces them awfully for neglecting the great issues of the law; e.g., judgment i. e., doing right by everybody, vindicating truth and righteousness, at home and abroad, with all classes indiscriminately, exhibiting to the world a life irreproachable from the standpoint of all rectitude. Mercy also must characterize all our deportment, reaching out to man and beast to friends and enemies, Jews and Gentiles, indiscriminately; full of kindness, pity, sympathy, and love for everything that hath feeling; and always holding up the banner of truth. in harmony with the blessed Word of God, enforcing it, not only by precept, but by example, in small matters as well as great, alway and everywhere on the side of truth and righteousness. While those preachers and Church officers were particular about little non-essentials, they were awfully delinquent in the grand and indispensable, item of true and genuine Holy Ghost religion. Our Savior: even charges these scribes and Pharisees with neglecting faith, which is the basis of all salvation, and without which it is impossible to please God. Now, these were the bon tons of the Jewish Church, both clerical and laical, claiming to be paragons of faith, the boasted children of faithful Abraham. But you see they really had no faith. They had plenty of intellectual and doctrinal faith, but were destitute of spirituality. “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness.” (Romans 10:10) None but spiritual faith has any availability, or even possesses the essence of faith, in the Divine estimation.

“Ye blind guides, who are straining out the gnat, but swallowing down the camel.” As the gnat was unclean, and condemned by the Levitical law, they were very careful to strain their wine and milk lest a gnat might happen to be in it; thus straining it out, and not straining at it as in E. V., The camel is an unclean animal, and the largest in that country. Now, what is meant by straining out the gnat and swallowing down the camel? Be sure you understand it. This is a logical conclusion from the preceding verse, in which, calling them hypocrites, He denounces them for tithing mint, anise, and cumin, garden herbs, and at the same time neglecting judgment, mercy, and faith, these grand, cardinal, spiritual graces. If I had the wings: of an angel and the trump of an archangel, I would fly from ocean to ocean, and warn the blind guides in pulpits and Amen-corners who are this clay straining out gnats i. e., very punctilious about all sorts of Church finances and duties harmonical with the popular shibboleth of Church loyalty and at the same time deplorably delinquent with reference to the momentous relations to the Divine government, and the immeasurable obligations arising out of the same; and the poor widows, orphans, and. slumites in the neighborhood, are ready witnesses to their deplorable deficiency of that sweet grace denominated mercy; and as to the faith inspired by the Holy Ghost, the only medium through which we can possibly receive anything from God, and without which all are doomed and lost, it has actually become a dead-letter in their Creed. Those Church bon tons, to whom Jesus did this awful preaching, rejected it as an insult, and killed Him for what they regarded as insolence, and even blasphemy. O how the clergy and ruling elders are this day straining out gnats and swallowing down camels I If you are all right on the gnat question i. e., little Church duties you can be an acceptable member or preacher though you have a devil in you as big as a camel. You see. here the gnat represents the little items of practical obedience to the moral and ritual law, like tithing everything, Small as well as great; while the camel represents your delinquency in the great and momentous graces of the Spirit; i. e., like justice, mercy, and faith. While our Savior says we should do all the former, so as not to swallow gnats, as they are unclean, you see how your deficiency in, the graces of the Spirit is illustrated by swallowing do the great camel, which is unclean as well as the gnat, and a thousand million times larger. Good Lord, help us to see this truth, and preach it fearlessly, like Jesus!

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites because you cleanse the exterior of the cup and the plate, but within they are full of extortion and impurity. Ye blind Pharisee, first purify that which is within the cup, in order that its exterior may also be pure.” The holiness movement is everywhere shouting the battle-cry of a clean heart. You see that is precisely what Jesus is here preaching; i.e., inward purity. O this is the crying need of the Churches heart holiness. They all want their members to be externally obedient, prompt, faithful, and dutiful in every ramification of Church work, interest, and enterprise. This is all right; the outside of a cup ought to be clean. But Jesus charged the Church leaders in His day with neglecting heart purity. When the people want inward purity, you can not preach entire sanctification too forcefully to suit them. Here the Savior commands them to purify the interior, assuring them that in that case the outside would also be clean. The interior is your immortal spirit, the eternal self, that must live with God in heaven forever or with demons in the regions of woe. Hence, when the immortal spirit is clean, the exterior always falls in line, and everything is right.

“Woe unto you. scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites because you are like whited sepulchers, which indeed appear fair without, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all impurity.” It is still customary in that country of whitewash the sepulchers. You can see them a fire at way off, because they are white as snow. What a vivid illustration of a fair external profession and inward rottenness! If the leading preachers of the Jewish Church were in that awful condition, and so blind that they were utterly unconscious of it, should we not all fall on our knees before God, and ask Him for the light needed to see our heads as God sees them? I am witness that the sepulchers in that country, externally, appear most beautiful and fair, while within they are full of putrefying bodies.

“Thus you also indeed appear righteous unto the people; but within, you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” What awful preaching to the pastors and leading members of the popular Churches while looking them in the face. “Yes; but the Churches at the present day are more spiritual than those to whom Jesus preached.” I hope that is so; yet there is no doubt but multitudes of preachers, Church officers, and leading members, this day, stand precisely where those did. The only remedy for this awful state of things is experimental holiness; i.e., entire sanctification. The very fact that preachers and members kick against the plain truth when preached in its purity, is demonstrative proof that they. are not right.

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the tombs of the prophets, and ornament the sepulchers of the righteous; and you say, If we were in the days of our fathers, we were not their comrades in the blood of the prophets. So you witness to yourselves, that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets.” Here Jesus turns on them the homogeneity argument; i.e., the very fact that they build the tombs, shows them up as carrying forward the work which their predecessors began, though they aim it to signify the very opposite. Multitudes of preachers and members who now honor John Wesley, close the doors against the men who preach precisely what Wesley did. The same is true of all the great Protestant Churches. John Bunyan among the Baptists, and John Knox among the Presbyterians, would this day meet a very cold reception.

“You fill up the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, generations of vipers, how can you escape from the damnation of hell?” If the loving Jesus could look people in the face and thus preach, we need not be afraid of using language too strong, if we are sure we are telling the truth. Of course, we can not read their hearts as He did; but the Holy Ghost can, and He will apply the truth Where it belongs.

“Therefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, wise men, and scribes; some of them you will slay and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city.” This awful prophecy was literally verified. Soon afterward those same people murdered Stephen and many others in the bloody persecution which followed, doing their utmost to exterminate the Nazarenes in blood. “In order that all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, the son of the blessed, may come upon you.” The very fact that those people, who, in less than forty-eight hours after that awful sermon, actually killed Him, and subsequently put Stephen and many others to death, showed them up in the same line with their bloody predecessors, and consequently particeps criminis.

“But Jehoiada waxed old, and was full of days when he died; a hundred and thirty years old was he when he died. And they buried him in the city of David among the kings, because he had done good in Israel, both toward God and toward his house. Now, after the death of Jehoiada came the princes of Judah, and made obeisance to the king. Then the king hearkened unto them. And they left the house of the Lord God of their fathers, and served groves and idols: and wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this their trespass. Yet he sent prophets to them, to bring them again unto the Lord; and they testified against them but they would not give ear. And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada the priest, who stood before the people, and said unto them, Thus saith God, Why transgress ye the commandments of the Lord, that ye can not prosper? Because ye have forsaken the Lord, He hath also forsaken you. And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the Lord. Thus Joash the king remembered not the kindness which Jehoiada his father had done to him, but slew his son. And when he died, he said, The Lord look upon it,. and require it.” (2 Chronicles 24:15-21)

King Joash was only seven years old when he began to reign, his life having been preserved from the cruel Athaliah, who had murdered all of his brothers; and through the kindness of Jehoiada the priest, he reigned and did well during the lifetime of Jehoiada, his foster-father. But, as you see, after the death of Jehoiada, he was led into idolatry by the princes of Judah, and when God put the spirit of prophecy on Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, so that he boldly told them the truth, the king encouraged an evil conspiracy against him, and they stoned him to death, as Jesus here says, “between the temple and the altar;” i. e., the brazen altar for burnt offerings, which stood outside of the temple. While this prophet of God was dying, he said, “The Lord look upon it, and require it;” i.e., he turned over the case to the Lord. “Barachias,” in E. V., a proper name, is evidently a mistake, as Zacharias was not the son of a man by that name, but the son of Jehoiada the priest. The plain solution of the matter is, Barachias is a Hebrew word, and simply means “the blessed.” Therefore I translate it, “Zacharias, the son of the blessed,” an epithet of Jehoiada. That bloody scene took place right there on the spot where they were standing when Jesus referred to it.

“Truly I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation;” i.e., the awful Divine retribution for the martyrdoms of God’s prophets and saints, from Abel down, was coming on that generation, because God had sent them all to prepare the people for His Son; and now that He has come, they are rejecting Him, and going to kill Him, thus climaxing all the murders of their predecessors.

Verses 37-39


Matthew 23:37-39. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how frequently did I wish to gather thy children, in the manner in which a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye were not willing!” What a glorious, sweeping revival would have inundated Jerusalem with the very presence, power, and glory of God under the wonderful ministry of Jesus, if she had only opened wide the door, and bade her own long-expected and prayed-for Messiah a hearty welcome! This was the grand opportunity for which she had waited two thousand years, the glorious Antitype to which all her symbolisms, sacrifices, and oblations conspired. If she had received Him with an appreciative and enthusiastic welcome, she might have enjoyed the most exalted honors beneath the skies, in carrying the glad tidings to the ends of the earth. Then all the world would have hailed Jerusalem as the luminary of the nations, the beauty of the ages, and the glory of the whole earth fable emblem of heaven.

“Behold, your house is left unto you desolate!” We can not stand still. Those who will not have God’s blessings, must abide in the retributions of the enemy. That whole country, with all of its cities, soon went into utter desolation, falling into the hands of the vilest enemies to Christianity. After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, a heathen temple to Jupiter was built on the very site of Solomon’s Temple, where Jesus was then preaching. The desolation is still on that land, and will remain till the Lord returns. The cheering omens of revival at the present day are auspicious forebodings of our Lord’s near coming.

“For I say unto you, that you can not see Me any more, until you can say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” What a wonderful leap this utterance gives us into the unseen future! At that time the city was full of Jews, whose awful doom Jesus saw in rivers of blood and mountains of the dead, and actually a million sold into slavery and carried captives into all nations, and the little surviving remnant driven to the ends of the earth, under penalty of death in case of an attempted return. So rigidly was this death penalty enforced against all Jews who attempted to come back, that if a Jew was found in some other country, traveling with his face toward the Holy Land, he was taken up and killed. Yet the omniscient eye of Jesus, looking over seas of blood and fields of desolation, saw the elect remnant

(Romans 11:0), salamander-like, surviving the fires of persecutionary centuries, and finally, in the good providence of God, coming back to repopulate the desolate fields of Zion, and again clothe the fertile mountains and alluvial plains with vineyards and orchards, and rebuild Jerusalem with unprecedented grandeur; saw this remnant wake up to the awful mistake of their ancestors in rejecting their own Christ, and ultimately find in Jesus, whom their ancestors had crucified, the blessed Shiloh of prophecy and the glorious Redeemer of Israel. Thus the bona fide children of Abraham, happily converted to their own loving Brother Jesus, and gloriously sanctified, filled with the Holy Ghost, cultured, posted and delighted with the glorious prophecies confirmatory of His second coming, and consequently ready to receive Him with open arms, will send forth the joyous shout, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!”

Bibliographical Information
Godbey, William. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Godbey's Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ges/matthew-23.html.
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