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MATTHEW CHAPTER 23
Matthew 23:1-12 Christ exhorteth to observe the doctrine, but not to follow the evil examples, of the scribes and Pharisees; and particularly not to imitate their ambition.
Matthew 23:13-33 He pronounces divers woes against them for their blindness and hypocrisy,
Matthew 23:34-39 and prophesieth the destruction of Jerusalem.
Our Lord having now done with the Pharisees, turneth his discourse to the more docible people, who (as we heard before) heard him attentively and gladly, Mark 12:37; Luke 19:48. Our Saviour foresaw that some unwary hearers might make two ill uses of what he had spoke against the scribes and Pharisees.
1. Some might report him an enemy to the law, the interpreters of which the Pharisees were.
2. Others might contemn the authority of the law, because he had represented these men, in whose hand the interpretation of it at present was, so truly contemptible.
Whereas, on the other side, many might run into errors of practice, from the example of the scribes and Pharisees, their magistrates and teachers. Against all these mistakes he cautions them in this chapter, showing that he did not undervalue the law of Moses, nor would have his reflections on the Pharisees prejudice any thing which they taught them of it, and according to it; neither would he have his people take the copy of the law from their actions.
The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat: these men were the ordinary readers and interpreters of the law of God. Moses is here put for the law, as Luke 16:31, If they hear not Moses and the prophets; and so Matthew 23:29, They have Moses and the prophets. Moses’s seat signifieth the seat appointed for those that gave the sense of the law, or judgment upon it; thus, Moses of old time hath in every city those that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day, Acts 15:21; 2 Corinthians 3:15. Their way was, while they read the Scriptures they stood up: (paying a particular reverence to the pure word of God), Luke 4:16; when they had done reading, they sat down and opened it. Their sitting in the seat of Moses did not signify a succession to Moses, for he had no successor, being the Mediator of the Old Testament; but the delivering and interpreting the doctrine and law of Moses. Dr. Lightfoot thinks it is rather to be understood of the chair of magistracy than the doctrinal chair. The Pharisees being exercised in that, it may be understood of both, for the reading and interpreting the law chiefly belonged to the scribes.
All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; that is, whatsoever is in Moses which they bid you observe and do. The term all is to be understood restrainedly, with respect to the subject matter or persons spoken of, in multitudes of scriptures. Our Saviour’s cautioning his disciples so often against the leaven of these men, and their traditions, plainly showeth us that must be here the sense of it: Let not the law of God lose his authority with you because of those wicked men. He doth not command them to hear none but them, for then to what purpose did he himself preach, or send out the twelve, if none might hear them? All that can be concluded from this text is that the law of God, or word of God, is not to be despised, whoever reads or delivereth it. He goeth on,
But do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. We are naturally more led by example than by precept. Men had therefore need be cautioned against ill living teachers. Odi philosophum qui non sapit sibi. A man had need very well know the medicine which he taketh from a physician he seeth sick of the same disease, when he himself refuseth and abominates it. He that says and does not, may be heard, but not imitated. There may be a time when men can ordinarily hear no others, which was the present case.
Our Saviour saith the same of the lawyers, Luke 11:46. The
burdens here mentioned were not their traditions and ritual things, Christ would never have before commanded his disciples to observe and do them, but the things truly commanded by the law of God, especially the ceremonial law, called a yoke, Acts 15:10, which (say the apostles) neither our fathers nor we were able to bear. They are, saith our Saviour, rigid exactors and pressers of the law of God upon others, but will not themselves use the least endeavours (such as the putting to of a finger) themselves to do them.
1. He blames them that their own lives no way answered their doctrine.
2. It may be, he also blames their too rigid pressing the law in all the minute things of it.
There may be a too rigorous pressing of the law. Good teachers will be faithful in delivering the whole counsel of God, yet teaching no more than themselves will endeavour to practise; and being conscious of human infirmity, they will do it with great tenderness and compassion, joining law and gospel both together.
Our Saviour had, Matthew 23:4 blamed the Pharisees for not living up to what they taught, pressing the law of God on others, but not doing nor endeavouring to observe it themselves. Here he blames them for doing what good things they did for ostentation, to be seen of men; and abounding in their ritual performances of more minute concernment, in the mean time neglecting their moral duties.
All their works they do for to be seen of men; this is their main end, to be seen of men; for this he had reflected on them, Matthew 6:1-34.
They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments. For the right understanding of this we must have recourse to Numbers 15:37-40, And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a riband of blue: and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: that ye may remember, and do all my commandments. Deuteronomy 22:12, Thou shalt make thee fringes upon the four quarters of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself. In obedience to this law, the Jews did generally wear such garments that had fringes and blue ribands annexed to them. The Jews at this day do it not, because, as they pretend, they have lost the true way of dying the blue colour, required in the law. The end why God commanded them is expressed, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and be restrained from their own inventions and imaginations in God’s service. They were also a note of distinction of the Jews from other people. Besides these, God commanding that they should bind his laws for a sign upon their hands, and as frontlets between their eyes, Deuteronomy 6:6-8, they made them parchments, in which the precepts of the law were written, which they bound to their foreheads and arms. These were called phylacteries, from φυλαττω, to keep, things wherein the law was kept. The Pharisees, for a boast how zealous keepers they were of the law of God, (than which they did nothing less), made these phylacteries and ribands broader, and their fringes much longer, than other men’s: this is that making broad their phylacteries, and enlarging the borders of their garments, which our Lord here reflects upon, done only for ostentation, and that they might be seen of men.
We have the same applied to the scribes, Mark 12:38,Mark 12:39; Luke 11:43. Mark addeth, which love to go in long clothing. Our Saviour in these words doth not blame a distinction in habits and places, for he himself hath taught us, that those who are in kings’ palaces wear soft raiment; and, being often called Master and Lord, never reflected on them who called him so, as having done amiss: he only blames the Pharisees’ ambition, and silly affectation of these little things, seeking their own honour and glory, or an undue domination. There is therefore an emphasis to be put upon the word love; they might take salutations, and the upper rooms, if offered them as their due, for keeping civil order, but not affect them.
It is most certain that our Saviour doth not here forbid the giving of the titles of masters and fathers to his ministers, for then Paul would not have given himself the title of father, 1 Corinthians 4:15; nor called the Galatians his little children, Galatians 4:19; nor called Timothy his son, and himself his father, Philippians 2:22; nor called himself a doctor of the Gentiles, 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11. That which he forbids is,
1. An affectation of such titles, and hunting after them.
2. Rem tituli, the exercise of an absolute mastership, or a paternal, absolute power; so as to require any to believe things because they said them, or to do things because they bid them, without seeing the things asserted, or first commanded, in the word of God.
For in that sense God alone is men’s Father, Christ alone their Master. Pastors and teachers in the church are all but ministers, ministers of Christ to publish his will, and to enjoin his laws; nor must any be owned as masters and fathers, to impose their laws and doctrines. This is twice repeated, because such is the corruption of human nature, that it is very prone, not only to affect these swelling titles, but also to exercise these exorbitant authorities.
We have what is in Matthew 23:12 twice in Luke, Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14. These verses expound what went before, and let us know;
1. That it was not a title, but the affectation of a title, which he blamed.
2. Not a doctorship, or mastership, but such a doctorship or mastership as made a man too big for the ministry of the church; such honour as lifted up the man’s heart above his work.
He is an infamous doctor in the church of Christ, who thinks himself too high or too great to be a minister in it. For God will abase, and men shall abase, him who exalteth himself. God resisteth, and men usually contemn and despise the proud, especially ministers who are so. Both God shall exalt, and men shall honour, those that humble themselves, both to men, condescending to those of low degree, and to their work, thinking not the meanest ministry to souls a work beneath them.
Our Saviour now cometh to denounce eight woes against the teachers of those times, the scribes and Pharisees. Luke saith, Luke 11:52, Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye enter not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered. It was written of old, that the priest’s lips should preserve knowledge: God hath committed the key of knowledge to the ministers and guides of his church, not that they should take it away, but that the people might seek the law at their mouths, because they are the messengers of the Lord of hosts, Malachi 2:7. Now saith our Saviour, you have taken it away: this Matthew calls a shutting up the kingdom of heaven against men; doing what in them lay to keep men from the knowledge of the mind and will of God, neither themselves teaching them the knowledge of God, which yet was their office and duty, nor suffering others to do it who would. You will neither go in yourselves, neither will you suffer them that are entering to go in. Yourselves are too proud or lazy, to preach the gospel, which is the way to the kingdom of heaven, and when others would, you suffer them not; nor yet will you suffer the people, who have a heart to it, to hear it. For this he calls them hypocrites seven times in this chapter, they pretending to be teachers and openers of the door to the kingdom of heaven, when indeed they did shut it; and denounces a woe to them, comprehending that ruin which soon after came upon them and their city by the Roman armies, and that eternal damnation which slept not, and was due to them. There are no worse men in the world than hypocrites, men pretending highly to God, yet neither themselves doing their duty in embracing the gospel, nor suffering others to do it, but doing what in them lie to hinder people from the means by which they might come to the kingdom of heaven.
Mark hath the same, Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. If any should think that long prayers are here condemned, he will be confuted by Luke 6:12, where he will find that our Saviour continued all night in prayer to God. It is the end of their long prayers which alone our Saviour blames, their making them a pretence to devour widows’ houses; which whether they did as interested in the civil power, (in which it is certain the Pharisees amongst the Jews were employed), or by virtue of their ecclesiastical power or influence, persuading silly women to give them their estates, or at least to give them a great part of them, to the service of the tabernacle, that they might pray for their souls, was an abomination to God, not only for the hypocrisy of such prayers, designed for another end than they pretended, but because God had taken upon him the special care and protection of the widows. As our Saviour had before blamed their religious acts for the ostentation in them, seeking only their own honour and applause, so he here blames them for their covetous design in them.
A third woe followeth, expressed in this verse, because they corrupted their proselytes, both as to doctrine and manners, so as they were twice more the children of the devil, and in danger of hell, than before. A proselyte was one who, coming from some pagan nation, relinquished idols, and worshipped one true and living God. Of these writers tell us there were two sorts; one that only professed to believe and worship one God, though he did not embrace the Jewish religion: such a one they suffered to live amongst them, and called him a proselyte of the gate. Others embraced the Jewish religion, and were admitted into their church, by circumcision, and baptism, and sacrifice (as their writers tell us): these they called proselytes of righteousness. Our Saviour saith the scribes and Pharisees compassed sea and land, that is, would take any pains, (it is a proverbial expression), to make one a proselyte; nor was this blameworthy in them, but that which followeth, that they made him twofold more the child of hell than before; corrupting him with their false doctrine, and setting him examples of an ill life. Their business was not to turn men from sin unto God, but merely to convert them to an opinion, if they had once got them into their church, so as they could make their markets of them; never regarding their souls more, nor to press upon them the reformation of their lives, that they might be saved. Thus priests and Jesuits at this day go to China, Japan, to proselyte men to the Roman faith; and use all imaginable arts to seduce persons born and bred under the profession of the protestant religion in protestant countries, and boast much of their converts; but he who looks upon the Scriptures, and considereth the lives of the most of their converts, will easily see they are but twice more the children of hell, being licensed, by their indulgences, pardons, absolutions, nay, by their very casuists, to live most prodigious impious lives, to say nothing of their damnable errors in matters of faith.
Our Saviour here showeth the false doctrine which the Pharisees, for their own gain, taught the people concerning oaths. God had commanded that they should fear and serve the Lord their God, and swear by his name, Deuteronomy 6:13; Deuteronomy 10:20. He that sweareth by any person, or thing, doth two things:
1. He attributes to the thing, or person, by which he sweareth, a knowledge of the heart and the secret intention.
2. He calleth upon the person, or thing, by which he sweareth, to be his judge, or to take a revenge upon him, in case he doth not believe in his heart what he affirms or denieth with his words to be true or false; otherwise an oath is no security at all.
From whence appeareth, that it is unreasonable for any to swear by any other than God, who alone can have a knowledge of the truth, and security of the heart; and that he who sweareth by any creature committeth idolatry in his heart, and in his heart doth indeed blaspheme, paying a Divine homage to a creature, and attributing to the creature what only agreeth to the Creator. The Pharisees, as it seemeth, had taught the people, that it was lawful to swear by the creature, but all oaths by creatures did not bind to the performance of the thing promised by such oaths: if a man swear
by the temple, or by the altar, it was nothing, no man was bound by such oaths to perform the thing for which such oaths were given as a security. But if any man swear by
the gold of the temple, or by a gift which he brought to the altar, these oaths did bind him. By the gold of the temple is not to be understood the golden vessels used in the temple, nor the golden plates with which the several parts of the temple shined; but the gold which was brought as an offering into the temple, and put into the treasury there; of which, and of the gifts, the priests and officers about the temple had a considerable share, which made them equalize an oath by these to an oath made by the name of God itself.
1. Our Saviour here showed the unreasonable folly of the tradition, and calleth them for it blind guides; for in reason, the temple sanctifying the gold must itself be more especially holy, that is, separate for a holy use. The temple was holy, so was the altar, before the gold was brought into it, but the gold was not holy till it was brought into the holy place, and there offered.
2. He lets them know, that oaths by the creatures once made did oblige, as much as if they had been made by God himself. They were indeed sinfully made, for men ought not to have sworn by creatures; but being made, those who made them were bound to perform them, if the matter of them were not sinful. For he that swears
by the altar, swears by it, and by all the things thereon; and he who swears by the temple, swears by it, and by him that dwelleth therein; and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon. For none who sware by inanimate things could possibly be imagined to call these things, which he knew had no life, no sense, no knowledge, to be a witness to the truth of his heart, as to what he believed, or what he intended. So as though he that sweareth by the creature be a profane swearer, yet he is bound by his oath, he indeed swearing by the God of those creatures. He hath reason to repent of the profane and unlawful form of his oath, but if the matter be what he may without sin perform, he is bound by his oath to the performance of it.
We have much the same Luke 11:42, only there it is, Ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God. It is manifest by our Saviour’s words in the latter part of the verse,
these ought ye to have done, that he doth not blame the Pharisees’ exactness in tithing mint, anise, rue, cummin, and all manner of herbs; but their neglecting the weightier matters of the law, faith and love to God, judgment and mercy. The Levites having no inheritance: God ordained tithes for their maintenance; of which also the poor were to have a share, Leviticus 27:30; Numbers 18:24. The Pharisee boasted, Luke 18:12, that he paid tithe of all he possessed. Christ here acknowledgeth that the Pharisees were exact in their paying tithes; but he blames them,
1. For their partiality, neglecting the weightier things of the law.
2. For their hypocrisy; they were only exact in these little things, that they might be taken notice of as scrupulous observers of the Divine law; while they omitted those things, which were of much more weight, which he reckoneth up: faith, by which some understand faith in God, but the most, faithfulness, and sincere and honest dealings with men, in opposition to fraud, and cheating, and circumventions.
Judgment, by which he means justice, giving to every one what is their own.
Mercy, by which he means a charitable behaviour, in helping such as are miserable and afflicted.
Love to God, which is the true root, out of which all things should flow, and is indeed comprehensive of all our duty toward God, as well as the root of all our good works towards men.
It is a proverbial expression used amongst them, against such as would pretend a great niceness and scrupulosity about, and zeal for, little things, but in matters of much higher concern and moment were not nice and scrupulous at all: and this indeed is both a certain note and an ordinary practice of hypocrites. There is no man that is sincere in his obedience to God, but hath respect to all God’s commandments, Psalms 119:6. Though some duties be greater, of more moment for the honour and glory of God, than others, which a good man will lay the greatest stress upon, yet he will neglect nothing which the law of God enjoins him. But concerning hypocrites, these two things are always true:
1. They are partial in their pretended obedience.
2. They always lay the greatest stress upon the least things of the law, bodily labour and exercise, and those things which require least of the heart, and least self-denial.
Luke hath this, Luke 11:39,Luke 11:40, as occasioned by the Pharisees wondering that he washed not before dinner; instead of extortion and excess, he hath ravening and wickedness, and addeth, Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also? But the same thing might be spoken at two several times. He speaks there to the Pharisee, with whom he dined, Matthew 23:37. Here he speaks to the disciples and the multitude. Our Saviour’s design here seemeth to me not to be a condemning of their legal or traditional washings of pots and cups, which he elsewhere reflects upon, but, by way of allusion only, to blame them that in their whole conversation they rather studied an external purity, than the inward purity of the heart, whereas if they would first have looked at purity of heart, the other would have followed that. A man may be outwardly pure, and inwardly filthy and impure; but no man can have a pure heart, but he will live a pure and holy life, for the external acts are but the impure acts of the soul: Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh, and according to the inclinations and affections of the heart the foot moveth, the hand and all the bodily members act. For our Saviour’s application of this to their traditional washings, I shall speak to it when I come to Luke 11:39.
The similitude is of the same import with the other, to show that the Pharisees had only a vizard of strictness and holiness, when in the mean time their hearts were full of lusts, hypocrisy, and iniquity. The Jews had two sorts of graves; some for ordinary persons, which appeared not (to which our Saviour likened the Pharisees, Luke 11:44); others that were covered with tombs, which were wont to be kept whited, so as they looked very fair outwardly, but had within nothing but rottenness and putrefaction. To these he compares them in this place. They were men that made a great show, but had nothing of any inward purity or cleanness, but were full of iniquity. Thus Paul called Ananias a whited wall; and, Psalms 5:9, the psalmist saith of the throat of the wicked that it is an open sepulchre.
Luke hath it, Luke 11:47, Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. Truly ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres. It is plain by our Saviour’s discourse, that the Pharisees were at great charge oft times to rebuild or adorn the sepulchres of the Lord’s prophets, who had been slain by the Jews in former ages for testifying the truth of God, and the sepulchres of other righteous men dying for their righteousness. This they did like a company of hypocrites, to persuade the world of what they also said, that had they lived in the times of those prophets and other good men, they would have had no hand in their blood.
You (saith our Lord) confess that you are lineally descended from those who killed the prophets: you have not only their blood communicated to you, but their spirit; your behaviours and carriages towards me and my disciples have witnessed, and will yet further testify, that you are the children of those who killed the prophets in a moral as well as a natural sense; you inherit the same spirit, and are full of the same malice and rancour. They killed them, and you bury them: seeing there is no reclaiming you, go you on, fill up the measure of your fathers’ sins. There is something more to be added to make the iniquity of this nation full. You are a company of serpents, vipers, that cannot escape the damnation of hell.
Luke saith, Luke 11:49-51, Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: that the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation. Luke saith, Therefore also said the wisdom of God. Matthew saith, Behold, I send. Christ is the wisdom of God; he here tells them he would send them prophets, wise men, scribes. Luke expounds it by prophets and apostles; men authorized by Christ to reveal unto men the will of God, and men that should be extraordinarily inspired to enable them thereunto.
Scribes, that is, persons instructed to the kingdom of God; a new sort of scribes, but much fitter for their work than the present scribes.
And some ye shall kill and crucify, &c.: our Lord in this only foretells what usage both himself and his apostles should meet with from them, which was fulfilled in what the Scripture telleth us of the scourging of Paul, the stoning of Stephen, the killing of James, &c., beside the crucifying of himself.
That upon you, that is, as he expounds it, Matthew 23:36, upon this generation, may come all the righteous blood, that is, the blood of righteous men, shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, &c. Here arise two questions:
1. Who this Zacharias the son of Barachias was.
2. How it could stand with God’s justice to bring the guilt of the blood of former generations upon that generation.
As to the first, some have guessed the person spoken of to have been one Zacharias the son of Baruch, who was the last slain upon the taking of Jerusalem, as Josephus tells us: but our Saviour here speaks of a thing passed, not to be afterwards done. Others think it was Zacharias the father of John Baptist: but we have no proof that he died a violent death. Others think it was Zechariah, who was one of the small prophets: but there was no temple in his time. It is most probably concluded to be Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, whom the Jews stoned with stones at the commandment of Joash in the court of the house of the Lord, 2 Chronicles 24:21. The father’s name indeed doth not agree; but, first, Jehoiada (as many of the Jews had) might have two names: some think it was this same Zechariah who is called the son of Jeberechiah, Isaiah 8:2. Our Saviour nameth Abel, who lived before the law, and Zacharias, who lived under the law, both slain for righteousness’ sake; that under them he might comprehend all the martyrs slain in those two periods. Others judge, that these two are named because we read of Abel’s blood crying, Genesis 4:10, and Zechariah’s praying (when he died) that the Lord would require his blood. For the other question, it is but righteous with God to punish the sins of parents upon their children; and though such vengeance doth not ordinarily reach further than the third and fourth generation, yet where succeeding generations go on in the same sinful courses, it may reach further, and often does. Isaiah 65:6,Isaiah 65:7, I will (saith God) recompense into their bosom your iniquities, and the iniquities of your fathers together. That was the case here. They filled up the measure of their fathers’ sins. Therefore Christ tells them, that vengeance should sleep no longer, but come upon that generation, which happened in the utter destruction of Jerusalem within less than forty years after. Our Lord concludes with a pathetical lamentation over Jerusalem, and a further confirmation of what he had said about their ruin.
We have the same Luke 13:34,Luke 13:35. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The doubling of the word showeth the vehemency of our Saviour’s affection.
Thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee; that hast killed, and abused, and art yet going on to do the like, not taking notice of the vengeance of God upon thee before for this very sin, 2 Chronicles 36:16,2 Chronicles 36:17; Nehemiah 9:26,Nehemiah 9:27. How often would I have gathered thee, giving thee all external means proper to have reformed thee and reconciled thee to God, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings! Which if thou hadst accepted and embraced, the chickens are not safer under the wings of the hen from the danger of a kite than thou wouldst have been from enemies. But thou wouldst not; instead of hearkening to my prophets, thou killedst them, and didst stone those sent unto thee, and so didst voluntarily reject me, and all my offers and tenders of grace, mercy, and protection, through the mere obstinacy of thy perverse will.
Behold, your house is left unto you desolate; both the temple, in which you place such a confidence, and your own dwelling houses, shall be destroyed, burnt, and razed down, or at least left without you as inhabitants.
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: I will appear no more to you as a public preacher, after two or three days, for ever; and you, that the other day so envied the people’s acclamations to me,
Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, shall be glad yourselves to see one of the days of the Son of man, and shall say the same thing, Blessed is he, & c. For whereas some interpret the term till, & c. of the day of judgment, or the time when the Jews shall be converted, I take them to be strained interpretations.
Till here certainly is to be interpreted, as Psalms 110:1; Matthew 1:25; and this comports with the history, for after this time our Saviour appeared in the temple publicly no more. For the disputes raised from Matthew 23:37, about God’s secret will, whether he seriously willed the salvation of the Jews, &c., I take the affirmative part to have no foundation in this text, for would I is plainly enough here interpreted by the foregoing word, sending them prophets, and other ministers, to persuade them to repentance and reconciliation with God; as the use of means proper to an end appear to us indications of the will of him that useth them.
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Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on Matthew 23". Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
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