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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 23

Ironside's Notes on Selected BooksIronside's Notes

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Verses 1-39

While the Lord Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save all who would believe in Him, He expressed Himself in terms of great severity against those who, while professedly the guardians of Scripture, lived hypocritically and opposed the truth that He proclaimed, thereby misleading their unwary followers. Yet so long as they were the readers of the Law in the synagogues, He would have the people take heed to the Word of God, which they professed to honor, but to be careful not to imitate the corrupt lives of those who expounded it to them.

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. 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. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 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. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 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, (vv. 1-12)

The term “Moses’ seat” indicates the place that the Pharisees and the scribes occupied as the recognized teachers of the law given by Moses. When they read and explained its precepts, their hearers were responsible to obey, not because of any inherent authority vested in them but because of the truth they made known. But He drew a marked distinction between their words and their ways. They expounded and preached to others what they did not attempt to practice themselves. It is a terrible thing for those who occupy the place of preachers or teachers of the Word when they simply traffic in truth that has never affected their own lives.

These leaders in Israel formed a kind of clerical caste who were most outspoken in denouncing the sins and frailties of the people in general, but they themselves were simply complacent as they gave punctilious attention to the outward signs of religion. They knew nothing of genuine piety and holiness of heart and life.

They were not concerned about the approval of the God they professed to honor but were constantly looking for men’s applause. It is always a snare when one feels he has a certain reputation of godliness to maintain before his fellows. It is so easy to succumb to the temptation of trying to appear more devoted than one really is. The only right thing is to live before God and to be utterly indifferent to men’s praise or blame.

The Pharisees sought to attract attention to their religiousness, even by their garb. Wearing the broad phylacteries that seemed to indicate greater reverence for Scripture than others, and with the fringes on their garments conspicuously enlarged, they delighted in the reverence accorded them. They were given the seats of honor at the appointed feasts and in the services of the synagogue, while in public places generally they were greeted with their highly prized titles of “Rabbi, Rabbi!” Who can fail to see in all this a picture of what is very common today in many ecclesiastical circles?

Against all this outward show of piety Jesus solemnly warned His disciples, “Be not ye called Rabbi.” They were not to seek honorable recognition from their fellows but were to realize that Christ Himself was their Teacher, or Master, and they were but brethren-all of one great family. As born from above, they were to call no man father upon earth, for God Himself was their Father. Is it not strange that this definite command is so flagrantly disregarded by those who call their so-called priests Father?

Because of the readiness with which His disciples were inclined to seek honor one over another, Jesus repeated the admonition, “Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.” The word really means “leader” but was generally understood as teacher or master.

Certainly Jesus did not mean that His followers were to despise the gifts He gives-among which are teachers, though a different word is used-which are to be owned and valued by the saints as given for their edification. But we are not to have men’s persons in admiration because of worldly advantage.

On the part of those thus entrusted with a special ministry there should be no self-seeking but service in love, as following Christ’s own example. For he who exalts himself will be abased in due time, even as he who humbles himself shall be exalted by the Lord who values all service that is done with a single eye to His glory.

Eight woes follow, uttered by the Lord in judgment upon the religious leaders whose spirit and behavior were so opposed to their profession. The first woe is found in 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.

This judgment is pronounced because of opposition to the Word of the kingdom, in which they had no interest, and they endeavored to hinder others who might become concerned. It is a very serious thing to stand in the way of anyone who might otherwise be prepared to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The second woe was against those who used a profession and outward appearance of piety as a cloak.

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, (v. 14)

Solomon tells us that the prayer of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 28:9). How much more when such prayer is used to build up a reputation for godliness while actually living in hypocrisy.

The third woe is against proselytism, when they themselves were so unreal.

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, (v. 15)

It is characteristic of sectarians generally that they are far more concerned about obtaining adherents to their special beliefs than winning lost souls for Christ. Those thus perverted become ardent advocates of the system with which they identify themselves, and as a rule trust in their association for ultimate salvation, so entering into a worse state than before they were proselytized. It is harder to reach and awaken the adherent of a false cult than to bring a godless worldling to see his lost condition and his need of salvation.

The fourth woe is against those who use vain and profane oaths.

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! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? 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? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon, (vv. 16-22)

One of the most striking evidences of anyone’s illogical reasoning is when he lays greater stress upon secondary things than upon those of major importance. These blind guides, as Jesus called them, put more emphasis upon the gold with which the temple building was enriched and adorned than upon the sanctuary itself, so that with them to take an oath on the gold of the temple meant more than to swear by the sacred building in which God had dwelled of old.

In the same spirit, they put the offering above the altar in holiness, whereas it was the altar that sanctified the gifts placed upon it. That altar typified Christ, and the gifts and offerings represented various aspects of His work. But He had to be who He was, the Eternal Son of God become flesh, in order to do what He did. To swear by the altar was therefore to swear by all that was placed upon it, and to swear by the temple was to swear by Him who dwelled therein, even as to swear by heaven (a most frequent thing) is to take an oath by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it. All such oaths were forbidden very definitely by the Lord on a former occasion (Matthew 5:33-37).

The fifth woe was pronounced on those who were inclined to overemphasize trifling details of the law while utterly ignoring the weightier matters with which it dealt.

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. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel, (vv. 23-24)

To tithe even the cheapest of herbs was quite right in itself, but to lay special stress upon this and advertise it as though indicating remarkable scrupulosity, while neglecting matters of a far greater importance, indicated a conscience that was unexercised and a spirit insubject to God. He would have those who professed obedience to His law careful to exercise discernment and mercy and faith. He who is thus exercised will not neglect things of less weight and importance.

The sixth woe was against those who set a great value upon ceremonial cleansings, while overlooking the importance of a clean heart and a pure life.

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. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. (vv. 25-26)

They were likened to a housekeeper who was very careful to have her cups and other vessels clean outwardly, while inside they were filthy and uncleansed. God desires truth in the inward parts. Where the heart is purified by faith the outward behavior will be in accordance with it.

The seventh woe is somewhat similar, but is an even stronger condemnation of the toleration of hidden corruption while pretending to godliness and devotion.

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, (vv. 27-28)

These hypocrites were like beautifully adorned and whitened tombs that appear pleasant and often majestic in the sight of men, but are full of decaying bodies and of all uncleanness. Such are they who appear to be righteous before men but within are full of dissimulation and lawlessness.

The last woe, making a complete octave of denunciation of hypocrisy, was pronounced upon those who honored the memory of the former prophets while refusing to obey their words.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, 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. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (vv. 29-33)

How characteristic was the glaring error of these pretenders to appreciation of the faithful testimony of men of God in past centuries! Just as the descendents of those who vilified Martin Luther in his day and generation now vie with one another in lauding his genius and intrepidity, or the children of those who detested the stand taken by Abraham Lincoln are often loudest in his praise, so these Pharisees honored the memory of Isaiah whom their fathers sawed asunder; or Jeremiah, who was imprisoned in a filthy dungeon by the religious leaders of his times; or Zechariah, slain between the porch and the altar by zealous contenders for that which the prophet denounced. Yet there was no evidence that these scribes and Pharisees accepted and acted upon the admonitions of those whose sepulchers they garnished, but they showed by their attitude toward the King in their midst that they were of the same spirit as their ungodly fathers.

While boasting that if they had been alive in the days of old their response would have been different, their present behavior proved the opposite. It was for them to fill up the measure of their fathers in the final rejection of the Lord of glory.

Condign judgment therefore awaited them. Their words and their behavior proved them to be a generation of vipers, the seed of the serpent-that old serpent which is the Devil and Satan-how then could they escape participation in his judgment?

The Lord then sums up the guilt of that unbelieving generation and pronounces its doom:

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: 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. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation, (vv. 34-36)

Messenger after messenger had been sent by God to Israel, but they had spurned and rejected them all. They would do the same to those who rebuked their sins and hypocrisy. Morally they were no different from those who had shed the blood of all the righteous from Abel to one of the last of the prophets. Their hearts remained unchanged and their consciences seared; therefore, the ire of God must be vented upon them.

Although God could not do otherwise, consistently with His holy character, than to deal with them in judgment because of their wickedness, the heart of the Lord grieved over them and longed even yet for their deliverance. Pathetic indeed is the lament with which He concluded this most solemn discourse.

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! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. 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. (vv. 37-39)

Jerusalem, the city of the great King, knew not the time of her visitation. He who would have saved and brought in the promised kingdom blessings was in their midst and they knew Him not. Had they only turned to Him in repentance, He would have sheltered them from judgment as a hen protects her chickens from the hawk seeking to destroy them. But they would not receive Him. They were responsible, therefore, for their own condemnation.

Because they rejected Him, He rejected them nationally for the present time. They should not see Him henceforth until they were ready to own Him as their King, crying in the words of Psalms 118:0 with which “the poor of the flock” (Zechariah 11:11) had greeted Him as He rode into the city a few days before, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 21:9).

Before that day, this whole dispensation of grace-the period of the revelation of the mystery of the church as the one body of Christ-was to come in. At present, God is gathering out of all nations a people to the name of His Son. Not until that work is completed will Israel as a nation look upon Him whom they pierced and acclaim Him as their Redeemer and King.

Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Matthew 23". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/isn/matthew-23.html. 1914.
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