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Bible Commentaries

Alford's Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary

Matthew 23

Verse 1

1. ] Much of the matter of this discourse is to be found in Luke 11:1-54 ; Luke 13:1-35 . On its appearance there, see the notes on those passages. There can, I think, be no doubt that it was delivered, as our Evangelist here relates it, all at one time, and in these the last days of our Lord’s ministry. On the notion entertained by some recent critics, of St. Matthew having arranged the scattered sayings of the Lord into longer discourses, see Prolegomena to Matthew. A trace of this discourse is found in Mark 12:38-40 ; Luke 20:45-47 . In the latter place it is spoken to the disciples, in hearing of the crowd: which (see Matthew 23:8 ff.) is the exact account of the matter. It bears many resemblances to the Sermon on the Mount, and may be regarded as the solemn close, as that was the opening, of the Lord’s public teaching. It divides itself naturally into three parts: (1) introductory description of the Scribes and Pharisees, and contrast to Christ’s disciples ( Mat 23:1-12 ): (2) solemn denunciations of their hypocrisy ( Mat 23:14-33 ): (3) conclusion, and mournful farewell to the temple and Jerusalem.

Verses 1-39


Verse 2

2. ] Moses’ seat is the office of judge and lawgiver of the people: see Exodus 2:13-25 ; Deuteronomy 17:9-13 . Our Lord says, ‘In so far as the Pharisees and Scribes enforce the law and precepts of Moses, obey them: but imitate not their conduct.’

ἐκάθισαν must not be pressed too strongly, as conveying blame, ‘ have seated themselves ;’ it is merely stated here as a matter of fact . Matthew 23:8 ; Mat 23:10 however apply to their leadership as well as their faults; and declare that among Christians there are to be none sitting on the seat of Christ .

Verse 3

3. πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἄν ] The οὖν here is very significant: because they sit on Moses’ seat: and this clears the meaning, and shews it to be, ‘all things which they, as successors of Moses, out of his law, command you to observe, do;’ there being a distinction between their lawful teaching as expounders of the law, and their frivolous traditions superadded thereto, and blamed below.

ποιήσατε , do, as occasion arises. τηρεῖτε , observe, having respect to them as a constant rule of conduct. The present binds on the habitual practice to the mere momentary act of the aorist .

Verse 4

4. ] The warning was, imitate them not for they do not themselves what they enjoin on others. And this verse must be strictly connected with Matthew 23:3 . The φορτία then are not, as so often misinterpreted (even by Olshausen, i. 834), human traditions and observances, but the severity of the law , which they enforce on others, but do not observe (see Rom 2:21-23 ): answering to the βαρύτερα τοῦ νόμου of Matthew 23:23 . The irksomeness and unbearableness of these rites did not belong to the Law in itself , as rightly explained, but were created by the rigour and ritualism of these men, who followed the letter and lost the spirit: ‘omnem operam impendebant (says Grotius) ritibus urgendis et ampliandis.’

τῷ δακ . αὐτῶν , not αὑτῶν : the emphasis is not on the pronoun, but on the δακτύλῳ . As a general rule, when the pron. is simply reflexive, the smooth breathing should always be printed.

Verses 5-7

5 7. ] But whatever they do perform, has but one motive.

φυλακ ., Heb. Totaphoth, or subsequently and more generally, Tephillin (see Gesen. Thes. Hebr., and Buxtorf, Lex. Rabbin.), were strips of parchment with certain passages of Scripture, viz. Exodus 13:11-16 ; Exodus 13:1-10 ; Deuteronomy 11:13-21 ; Deuteronomy 6:4-9 , written on them, and worn on the forehead between the eyes, on the left side next the heart, and on the left arm. The name in the text was given because they were considered as charms. They appear not to have been worn till after the captivity; and are still in use among the Rabbinical Jews. Their use appears to have arisen from a superstitious interpretation of Exodus 13:9 ; Deuteronomy 6:8-9 . See Jos. Antt. iv. 8. 13. The fringes were commanded to be worn for a memorial, Numbers 15:38 . See note on ch. Matthew 9:20 .

Verses 6-7

6, 7. ] See Mark 12:38-39 ; Luke 20:46-47 .

On πρωτ . ἐν τοῖς δείπ . see Luke 14:7 .

Verses 8-10

8 10. ] The prohibition is against loving, and in any religious matter, using such titles, signifying dominion over the faith of others. It must be understood in the spirit and not in the letter. Paul calls Timotheus his ‘ son ’ in the faith, 1 Timothy 1:2 , and exhorts the Corinthians ( 1Co 11:1 ) to be followers of him as he of Christ. To understand and follow such commands in the slavery of the letter, is to fall into the very Pharisaism against which our Lord is uttering the caution. See (e.g.) Barnes’s note here.

ῥαββί = רַבִּי , my master: an expression used, and reduplicated as here, by scholars to their masters , who were never called by their own name by their scholars. So the Lord says, John 13:13 , ὑμεῖς φωνεῖτέ μεδιδάσκαλος κ . ὁ κύριος , καὶ καλῶς λέγετε , εἰμὶ γάρ . See Schöttgen, Hor. Heb. ii. 900. The Teacher is probably not Christ , as supplied here in the rec [161] ., but the Holy Spirit (see John 14:26 ; Jeremiah 31:33-34 ; Eze 36:26-27 ), only not here named , because this promise was only given in private to the disciples . If this be so, we have God, in His Triunity, here declared to us as the only Father, Master, and Teacher of Christians; their πατήρ , καθηγητής (= ὁδηγὸς τυφλῶν Rom 2:19 ), and διδάσκαλος the only One, in all these relations, on whom they can rest or depend. They are all brethren : all substantially equal none by office or precedence nearer to God than another; none standing between his brother and God . ‘And the duty of all Christian teachers is to bring their hearers to the confession of the Samaritans in John 4:42 ; οὐκέτι διὰ τὴν σὴν λαλιὰν πιστεύομεν · αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀκηκόαμεν , καὶ οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶςσωτὴρ τοῦ κόσμου .’ (Olshausen, Shristuz der einige Meister, p. 10, cited by Stier, ii. 444.)

[161] The Textus Receptus or received text of the Greek Testament. Used in this Edition when elz and Steph agree

πατέρα μὴ κ . ὑμ ., name not any Father of you on earth: no ‘ Abba ’ or ‘ Papa ’ (see the account of the funeral of John Wesley, Coke and More’s Life, p. 441, and the opening of the Author’s dedication of the book).

Verse 11

11. ] It may serve to shew us how little the letter of a precept has to do with its true observance, if we reflect that he who of all the Heads of sects has most notably violated this whole command, and caused others to do so, calls himself ‘ servus servorum Dei .’

Verse 12

12. ] This often-repeated saying points here not only to the universal character of God’s dealings, but to the speedy humiliation of the lofty Pharisees; and as such finds a most striking parallel in Ezekiel 21:26-27 .

Verse 14

14. ] In Luk 11:52 it is added ἤρατε τὴν κλεῖδα τῆς γνώσεως the Key being, not the Key of , i.e. admitting to , Knowledge, but the Knowledge itself , the true simple interpretation of Scripture which would have admitted them, and caused them to admit others, into the Kingdom of Heaven by the recognition of Him of whom the Scriptures testify; whereas now by their perverse interpretations they had shut out both themselves and others from it. See a notable instance of this latter in John 9:24 . They shut the door as it were in men’s faces who were entering. On the interpolated Matthew 23:13 , see notes in Mark ( Mar 12:40 ).

Verse 15

15. ] And with all this betrayal of your trust as οἱ διδάσκαλοι τοῦ Ἰσραήλ ( Joh 3:10 ), as if all your work at home were done , ye περιάγ . τ . θ . κ . τ . λ . This was their work of supererogation not commanded them, nor in the spirit of their law. The Lord speaks not here of those pious Godfearing men, who were found dwelling among the Jews, favouring and often attending their worship but of the proselytes of righteousness , so called, who by persuasion of the Pharisees, took on them the whole Jewish law and its observances . These were rare and it was to the credit of our nature that they were. For what could such a proselyte, made by such teachers, become? A disciple of hypocrisy merely neither a sincere heathen nor a sincere Jew doubly the child of hell condemned by the religion which he had left condemned again by that which he had taken. The expression διπλότερον ὑμῶν occurs in the same connexion, and probably in allusion to this passage, in Justin Martyr, Tryph. § 122, p. 215, οἱ δὲ προσήλυτοι οὐ μόνον οὐ πιστεύουσιν , ἀλλὰ διπλότερον ὑμῶν βλασφημοῦσιν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ .

Verses 16-22

16 22. ] The Lord forbade all swearing to His own disciples, ch. Matthew 5:34 ; and by the very same reasoning because every oath is really and eventually an oath by God shews these Pharisees the validity and solemnity of every oath. “This subterfuge became notorious at Rome. ‘Ecce negas, jurasque mihi per templa Tonantis; Non credo: jura, verpe, per Anchialum,’ = am chai aloh (as God liveth). Martial xi. 94” (F. M.). The gold here is probably not the ornamental gold, but the Corban the sacred treasure. (This Meyer doubts, because the question here is not of vows . But in the absence of any examples of an oath by the gold of the temple , it is just as likely as the other interpretation.) They were fools and blind, not to know and see, that no inanimate thing can witness an oath , but that all these things are called in to do so because of sanctity belonging to them, of which God is the primary source the order likewise of the things hallowed , being, in their foolish estimate of them, reversed : for, the gold must be less than the temple which hallows it , and the gift than the altar not as if this were of any real consequence, except to shew their folly for, Matthew 23:20-22 , every oath is really an oath by God . But these men were servants only of the temple ( ὁ οἶκος ὑμῶν , Mat 23:38 ) and the altar, and had forgotten God.

ὀφείλει , is bound (see Exo 29:37 ).

κατοικήσαντι (not κατοικοῦντι is remarkable: God did not then dwell in the Temple, nor had He done so since the Captivity. (This may perhaps be so: but grammatically it is hardly probable. Rather should I say now, with Meyer, that the aor. refers to the one definite act by which God took possession of the temple as His dwelling-place on its dedication by Solomon; without any allusion to present circumstances.)

Verses 23-24

23, 24. ] It was doubtful, whether Lev 27:30 applied to every smallest garden herb: but the Pharisees, in their over-rigidity in externals, stretched it to this, letting go the heavier, more difficult, and more important (see Mat 23:4 ) matters of the Law. In the threefold enumeration, our Lord refers to Micah 6:8 (see also Hos 12:6 ) where to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God , are described as being better than all offerings.

ταῦτα , these last, are the great points on which your exertions should have ( ἔδει , oportebat ) been spent and then, if for the sake of these they be observed, the others should not be neglected. Stier gives an instance of this, in ( Scripture ) philology , which if it be applied in subjection to a worthy appreciation of the sense and spirit of the Writer , may profitably descend to the minutest details: but if the philologian begin and end with his ‘micrology,’ he incurs the μωρὲ καὶ τυφλέ of the Pharisees (ii. 515, edn. 1).

διυλίζοντες τ . κ . ] The straining the gnat is not a mere proverbial saying. The Jews (as do now the Buddhists in Ceylon and Hindostan) strained their wine, &c., carefully, that they might not violate Leviticus 11:20 ; Leviticus 11:23 ; Leviticus 11:41-42 (and, it might be added, Lev 17:10-14 ). The “strain at a gnat” in our present auth. vers. for “strain out a gnat” of the earlier English vss., seems not to have been a mistake, as sometimes supposed, but a deliberate alteration, meaning, “strain (out the wine) at (the occurrence of) a gnat.” τόν and τήν indicate reference to a proverb or fable. The camel is not only opposed , as of immense size , but is also joined with the other, as being equally unclean.

Verses 25-28

25 28. ] This woe is founded not on a literally, but a typically denoted practice of the Pharisees. Our Lord, in the ever-deepening denunciation of His discourse, has now arrived at the delineation of their whole character and practices by a parabolic similitude.

γέμουσιν ἐξ ] not, ‘ are filled by ’ (Dr. Burton), but, are full of: מָלֵא מִן in Hebrew. The straining out of the gnat is a cleansing pertaining to the ἔξωθεν , as compared with the inner composition of the wine itself , of which the cup is full: see Revelation 18:3 .

ἵνα γέν . The exterior is not in reality pure when the interior is foul: it is not ‘a clean cup,’ unless both exterior and interior be clean: ‘alias enim illa mundities externa non est mundities.’ Bengel.

Observe, the emphasis is on γένηται : “that its exterior also may not appear to be, but really become , pure.”

τάφ . κεκον . ] The Jews used once a year (on the fifteenth of the month Adar) to whitewash the spots where graves were , that persons might not be liable to uncleanness by passing over them (see Num 19:16 ).

This goes to the root of the mischief at once: ‘your heart is not a temple of the living God, but a grave of pestilent corruption: not a heaven, but a hell. And your religion is but the whitewash hardly skin-deep.’

Verses 29-33

29 33. ] The guilt resting on these present Pharisees, from being the last in a progressive series of generations of such hypocrites and persecutors, forms the matter of the last Woe. The burden of this hypocrisy is, that they, being one with their fathers, treading in their steps, but vainly disavowing their deeds, were, by the very act of building the sepulchres of the prophets, joined with their prophet-persecuting acts, convicting themselves of continuity with their fathers’ wickedness. See, as clearly setting forth this view, Luke 11:47-48 . ‘(Sit licet divus, dummodo non vivus). Instead of the penitent confession, “We have sinned, we and our fathers,” this last and worst generation in vain protests against their participation in their fathers’ guilt, which they are meanwhile developing to the utmost, and filling up its measure ( Act 7:52 ).’ Stier (ii. 453). Again notice the emphasis, which is now markedly on νἱοί ; thus bringing out that relation in all its fulness and consequences.

πληρώσατε , imper., fill ye also (as well as they) the measure (of iniquity) of your fathers.

Mat 23:33 repeats almost verbatim the first denunciation of the Baptist in this, the last discourse of the Lord: thus denoting the unchanged state of these men, on whom the whole preaching of repentance had now been expended. One weighty difference however there is: then it was, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ; the wonder was, how they bethought themselves of escaping now, πῶς φύγητε ; how shall ye escape?

On ὄφεις , see Revelation 12:9 .

Verse 34

34. ] From the similar place in the former discourse (Luke 11:49 , see notes there) it would appear that the διὰ τοῦτο refers to the whole last denunciation: ‘quæ cum ita sint’ ‘since ye are bent upon filling up the iniquities of your fathers, in God’s inscrutable purposes ye shall go on rejecting His messengers.’ Notice the difference between ἡ σοφία τοῦ θ . in Luke 11:49 , and ἐγώ , with its emphasis here. These words are no where written in Scripture, nor is it necessary to suppose that to be our Lord’s meaning. He speaks this as Head of His Church, of those whom He was about to send: see Acts 13:1 ; 1 Corinthians 12:8 ; Ephesians 3:5 . He cannot, as some (Olsh.) think, include Himself among those whom He sends the Jews may have crucified many Christian teachers before the destruction of Jerusalem. And see Euseb. H. E. iii. 32, where he relates from Hegesippus the crucifixion of Symeon son of Clopas, in the reign of Trajan. The καί takes out the στανρώσετε , the special, from the ἀποκτενεῖτε , the general; with, of course, somewhat of emphasis. The προφῆται were the Apostles , who, in relation to the Jews, were such the σοφοί , Stephen and such like, men full of the Holy Ghost the γραμματεῖς , Apollos, Paul (who indeed was all of these together), and such. On μαστ . ἐν τ . συν . κ . τ . λ . see Acts 5:40 ; Acts 22:19 ; Acts 26:11 .

Verse 35

35. ] ὅπως , not ‘ in such a way that ’ (?), as Webst. and Wilk.: but strictly ‘in order that.’

αἷμα δίκ . or ἀθῷον is a common expression in the O.T. See 4 Kings Matthew 21:16 ; Matthew 24:4 : Jeremiah 33:1-26 :(26) 15; and more especially Lamentations 4:13 , which perhaps our Lord referred to in speaking this.

πᾶν αἷ . ] Thus in Babylon, Revelation 18:24 , is found the blood of all that were slain upon the earth . Every such signal judgment is the judgment for a series of long-crying crimes and these judgments do not exhaust God’s anger, Isaiah 9:12 ; Isaiah 9:17 ; Isaiah 9:21 .

The murder of Abel was the first in the strife between unrighteousness and holiness, and as these Jews represent, in their conduct both in former times and now, the murderer of the first, they must bear the vengeance of the whole in God’s day of wrath.

Who Zacharias son of Barachias is has been much disputed. We may conclude with certainty that it cannot be (as Aug [162] and Greswell suppose) a future Zacharias, mentioned by Josephus, B. J. iv. 5. 4, as son of Baruch, and slain in the temple just before the destruction of Jerusalem for our Lord evidently speaks of an event past , and never prophesies in this manner elsewhere. Origen has preserved a tradition (in Matt. Comm. Series, 24, vol. iii. p. 846), that Zacharias father of John the Baptist was slain by them in the temple; but in the absence of all other authority, this must be suspected as having arisen from the difficulty of the allusion here. Most likely (see Lightfoot in loc. and note on Luk 11:49 ) it is Zacharias the son of Jehoiada , who was killed there, 2 Chronicles 24:21 , and of whose blood the Jews had a saying, that it never was washed away till the temple was burnt at the captivity.

[162] Augustine, Bp. of Hippo , 395 430

υἱοῦ Βαραχίου does not occur in Luke 11:51 , and perhaps was not uttered by the Lord Himself, but may have been inserted by mistake, as Zacharias the prophet was son of Barachiah, see Zechariah 1:1 ; a circumstance suppressed by Bp. Wordsworth in his elaborate account of the mystical reason of the patronymic being used here, as “signifying Son of the Blessed, which was a name of Christ Himself.” See his note.

μετ . τ . ν . κ . τ . θ . ] He was killed in the priests’ court , where the altar of burnt-offerings was. On Matthew 23:36 , see note on ch. Matthew 24:34 . It is no objection to the interpretation there maintained, that the whole period of the Jewish course of crime is not filled up by it: the death of Abel can by no explanation be brought within its limits or responsibility; and our Lord’s saying reaches far deeper than a mere announcement of their responsibility for what they themselves had done . The Jews stood in the central point of God’s dealings with men ; and as they were the chosen for the election of grace, so, rejecting God and His messengers, they became, in an especial and awful manner, vessels of wrath.

Our Lord mentions this last murder , not as being the last even before His own day, but because it was connected specially with the cry of the dying man , ‘The Lord look upon it and require it .’ Compare Genesis 4:10 . This death of Zacharias was the last in the arrangement of the Hebrew Canon of the O.T., though chronologically that of Urijah, Jeremiah 26:23 , was later.

Verse 37

37. ] These words were before spoken by our Lord, Luke 13:34 ; see notes there. On the construction of αὐτήν , see reff.

Ἱερονσαλήμ , which is Luke’s more usual form, does not occur elsewhere in Matt. This is to be accounted for by these verses being a solemn utterance of our Lord, and the sound yet dwelling on the mind of the narrator; and not by supposing the verses to be spurious and inserted out of Luke, as Wieseler has done, Chronolog. Synops. p. 322. His assertion that Mat 23:39 has no sense here, is implicitly refuted below.

ποσάκις ἠθ . must be understood of all the messages of repentance and mercy sent by the prophets, for our Lord’s words embrace the whole time comprised in the historic survey of Matthew 23:35 , as well as His own ministry. On the similitude, see Deuteronomy 32:11 ; Psalms 17:8 ; Psalms 36:7 ; Psalms 57:1 ; Psalms 61:4 ; Isaiah 31:5 ; Malachi 4:2 , and compare ch. Matthew 24:28 .

οὐκ ἠθ . ] see Isaiah 28:12 ; Isaiah 30:15 . The tears of our Lord over the perverseness of Jerusalem are witnesses of the freedom of man’s will to resist the grace of God .

Verses 38-39

38, 39. ] This is our Lord’s last and solemn departure from the temple the true μεταβαίνωμεν ἐντεῦθεν (‘motus excedentium Deorum.’ Tacitus).

οἶκος ὑμῶν ] no more God’s , but your house said primarily of the temple, then of Jerusalem, and then of the whole land in which ye dwell.

οὐ μή με ἴδητε ] He did not shew Himself to all the people after His resurrection, but only to chosen witnesses, Acts 10:41 .

ἕως ἂν εἴπ . ] until that day, the subject of all prophecy, when your repentant people shall turn with true and loyal Hosannas and blessings to greet ‘Him whom they have pierced:’ see Deuteronomy 4:30-31 ; Hosea 3:4-5 ; Zechariah 12:10 ; Zechariah 14:8-11 . Stier well remarks, ‘He who reads not this in the prophets, reads not yet the prophets aright.’

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Alford, Henry. "Commentary on Matthew 23". Alford's Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary. 1863-1878.