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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 23

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Verse 1

‘Then spoke Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples,’

Sitting teaching in the crowded Temple courtyard, filled as it would be with pilgrims and worshippers, Jesus directs His first words at the eager crowds who, along with His own disciples, gathered round Him as potential disciples (compare Matthew 5:1; Matthew 7:28; Matthew 8:1; Matthew 9:36 etc), although He will then turn on the Scribes and Pharisees, who are standing there glowering at Him in the foreground and no doubt heckling and using their influence to seek to turn the crowds against Him. We have His words spoken to them from Matthew 23:13 onwards. But in both cases He no doubt said a lot more than we have here.

He was well aware that these were His last days, and one of His purposes in being there was clearly in order to make one last appeal to the Scribes and Pharisees in the sternest words possible, in the same way as Jonah had made such a strong appeal to Nineveh (see Jonah 3:4, and compare Matthew 12:39-41). Such offerings of a last final chance are typical of the Old Testament (compare Isaiah 6:0. Jesus was no more severe than Isaiah). But at the same time He would want to ensure that the hovering crowds and the disciples interpreted His words to the Scribes and Pharisees correctly. He does not want them to think that by condemning the Scribes and Pharisees He is condemning the Law of God. He thus first prepares His disciples and would be disciples for what He is about to say, by warning them against similar behaviour. And at the same time He gives them a vitally important and unforgettable object lesson that they would never forget, for His scathing words would not be easily forgotten, and they too would in the future be in equal danger of becoming exactly like the Pharisees (as many Christian leaders did in later centuries), something which He had constantly striven to guard against (Matthew 18:1-10; Matthew 19:14; Matthew 20:25-28 compare Luke 22:24-28). We must not therefore see these as just introductory comments. They are making the position clear and giving a dire warning that they too must take heed not to become like the worst of the Pharisees, as they so easily might, and His words are complete in themselves.

Verses 1-12

Exhortation to His Disciples and The Crowds Not To Be Like the Scribes and Pharisees, But to Be Doers and Not Hearers Only, and Rather to Be Humble and Lowly, Treating Each Other As Being As Good If Not Better Than Themselves (23:1-12).

The chapter begins with an exhortation to His disciples, and to the crowds gathered round Him in the Temple courtyard. He wants them to be clear that in indicting the Scribes and Pharisees as He is about to do He is not condemning the Law for which they claimed to stand. Rather He wants His disciples and the crowds to respect and fulfil that Law more faithfully than the Scribes and Pharisees have (compare Matthew 5:17-20). And He especially warns His disciples against succumbing to the dangers revealed in what the Scribes on the whole had become, men who were inward looking and filled with a sense of superiority, of arrogance and of their own importance. Thus He wants to warn the disciples on their part against the danger of feeling superior to, and lording it over, others. When they shortly sit in Jerusalem on their ‘thrones of David’ ministering to the new Israel (Matthew 19:28), they are to do it as equal to equal, brother to brother, and servant to servant, and not as a ‘great one’ might do to inferiors, or as a father might do to sons, or as a master might do to servants. He had seen what it had done to the Scribes whom as a little boy He had admired so much, and He recognised how necessary it was to warn His disciples against it


a Then spoke Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat” (Matthew 23:1-2).

b “All things therefore whatever they bid you, these do and observe, but do not you after their works, for they say, and do not” (Matthew 23:3).

c “Yes, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).

d “But all their works they do to be seen of men (Matthew 23:5 a).

e “For they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi” (Matthew 23:5-7).

e “But as for you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, and all you are brothers” (Matthew 23:8).

d “And call no man your father on the earth, for one is your Father, even he who is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).

c “Neither be you called masters, for one is your master, even the Christ” (Matthew 23:10).

b “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).

a “And whoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled, and whoever shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

Note that in ‘a’ the Scribes and Pharisees proudly sit on Moses’ seat, but in the parallel the disciples are rather to humble themselves. In ‘b’ His disciples and the crowds are to do what the Scribes teach, but not what they do, and in the parallel they themselves are to be as servants when they teach and do. In ‘c’ the Scribes and Pharisees lay heavy burdens on people (as masters do to their slaves) and do not seek to alleviate them, while in the parallel His disciples are not to see themselves as masters, but to recognise that only Christ is their Master. In ‘d’ The Scribes and Pharisees desire to be seen of men, and in the parallel the disciples are to look to their Father in Heaven so as to be seen of Him. Centrally in ‘e’ and its parallel His disciples are not to glorify themselves or to desire to be called ‘Rabbi’, seeing themselves as great Teachers. They are rather to remember to walk in all humility.

Verses 1-25

Jesus Passes Judgment On The Scribes And Pharisees And Describes the Devastations Coming On The World Prior To His Coming Again And The Judgment That Will Follow (23:1-25).

Having made clear that He has come to establish a new ‘congregation’ and a new ‘nation’ Jesus will now reveal what is to happen to the old nation that has rejected Him, and why. In chapter 23 He brings His severe indictment on ‘the Scribes and the Pharisees’. While His words appear to be fierce they are nothing less than we should expect in view of the situation (see below), and we must remember that in fact the Rabbis themselves later said equally fierce things about many of the Pharisees. They also were not unaware of their faults.

But such a huge change as the rejection of a people who are to be replaced by a remnant from among them (‘the congregation’) who would form a ‘new nation’ (Matthew 21:43), required justification, even though it was in fact simply a repetition of their previous history (see Numbers 14:28-32; Deuteronomy 1:35; Deuteronomy 2:14-15) and was in line with what the prophets had forewarned (Isaiah 4:3-4; Isaiah 6:11-13; Hosea 1:9; Zechariah 13:8-9). Thus here in chapter 23 we have Jesus official indictment on those who were seen by the majority of Jews as the cream of the people of Israel, so as to explain why the change is being made, and why He Himself has rejected them. He wants them to know without any doubt that those religious leaders, to whom supremely they had looked for the truth about God, have failed and therefore will have to be replaced (Matthew 21:33-44). And all would have agreed that if these were doomed, Israel also was doomed, for religiously they were the most respected men in Israel. This doom is what Jesus will reveal in chapters 24-25.

This combination of discourses falls into the following pattern;

Final Words in the Temple. Jesus’ Indictment against those who represent the people, explaining what is to result from their attitude and behaviour (Matthew 23:1-39).

Words after leaving the Temple and on the Mount of Olives as He announces the coming destruction of the Temple, and His own coming in Judgment and final Triumph (Matthew 24:1 to Matthew 25:46).

This may be further analysed in detail as follows:

Verses 1-39

Words in the Temple: Exhortation to His Disciples And Indictment of The Scribes and Pharisees (23:1-39).

It is an open question as to whether chapter 23 should be seen as part of the ‘fifth dissertation’ made up of chapters 23-25 (see introduction), or whether it should be seen as a connecting passage between 19-22 and 24-25 made up of secondary dissertations on their own (compare chapter 11; Matthew 16:17-28 for similar dissertations). The fact that it forms a separate chiasmus on its own might be seen as favouring the latter view. But if so that demonstrates that it does stand on its own, for it is not included in the previous Section chiasmus. Yet its importance cannot be doubted for it contains Jesus’ final verdict on the failure of the Scribes and Pharisees to acknowledge Him, and His indictment of them which explains why they are judged and found wanting. It is an explanation to those who will hear Him as to why the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees is not sufficient (compare Matthew 5:20).

But why should He select out the Scribes and Pharisees? It is because they pre-eminently were looked up to by the people as their Teachers and guides, a task in which they had failed. From the point of view of religious teaching they were the heart of the nation. But by taking on themselves such a status they had therefore also taken on themselves a great responsibility, and the result was that when they went wrong, as they had, they carried the people with them.

Analysis of Chapter 23.

a Exhortation to His disciples and the crowds not to be like the Scribes and Pharisees, but to be doers and not hearers only, and rather to be humble and lowly, treating each other as being as good as themselves (Matthew 23:1-12).

b Seven woes/alases (compareMatthew 23:37; Matthew 23:37) directed at the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-33).

b A promise to send to the Scribes and Pharisees witnesses, whom they would maltreat and put to death, bringing on themselves inevitable judgment within their generation (Matthew 23:34-36).

a A wail over what was to happen to Jerusalem with, however, a promise of hope for those who respond (Matthew 23:37-39).

Note how in ‘a’ He speaks to the disciples and the crowds, while in the parallel His final words are addressed to the whole people of Jerusalem. In ‘b’ He declares woes/alases on the Scribes and Pharisees, and in the parallel He illustrates why the Scribes and Pharisees are deserving of them because they have and will be responsible for the persecution His messengers.

Many find Jesus’ words here difficult because they do not fit in with their picture of Jesus. But there is actually nothing here that Jesus has not said previously. The reason that we are brought to a sudden halt when we read it is because it is all portrayed as spoken at the same time, and therefore seems overwhelming. But that is what it is intended to be. It is God’s final break with the old nation.

We are used to His fiercest words coming in short bursts. But we should note in spite of that, that Jesus has in fact continually made clear throughout His teaching, in terms equally as fierce as this, the future that awaits the unbelieving and unresponsive, that is, ‘those who claim but do not do’. There is nothing ‘meek and mild’ about His earlier descriptions of what is to come on those who refuse to believe in and respond to His teachings. He has stated that they are fit only to be cast out and trodden under the foot of men (Matthew 5:13); they are in danger of the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:22); they will be cast into prison without hope (Matthew 5:26); their whole body will be cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:29-30); they are headed for Destruction (Matthew 7:13); they will be cast into the fire (Matthew 7:19); their fall will be great (Matthew 7:27); they will weep and gnash their teeth as they see what they have lost (Matthew 8:12); it will be less tolerable for them in the day of judgment than for even Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15, compare Matthew 11:21-23); their souls and bodies will be destroyed in Gehenna (Matthew 10:28); they will remain unforgiven in the world to come (Matthew 12:32); they will be cast into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42; Matthew 13:50); they will be cast into the eternal fire (Matthew 18:8), the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 18:9); they will be broken and scattered as dust (Matthew 21:44); they will be destroyed (Matthew 22:7). And it will be noted that these warnings are well distributed throughout His ministry and appear imbedded in every large discourse, being especially well represented in the Sermon on the Mount (seven references). It was just that now things were coming to a head.

Furthermore in the light of the above descriptions of judgment He had already previously declared such a doom on the Scribes and Pharisees for His words in Matthew 5:20 can only be seen as themselves clearly guaranteeing their condemnation, unless of course they repented and sought a better righteousness, which they had on the whole shown no signs of doing. And He had even later warned them that they were in grave danger of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit because of their refusal to see the truth that lay behind His miracles, to say nothing of His having declared them to be a part of ‘an evil and adulterous generation’ (Matthew 16:4). In fact when we turn to Luke’s Gospel we learn from Luke that He had already proclaimed ‘ouai’ (woe, alas) against such as these in his equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:24-26). Here, therefore, we find Jesus’ detailed justification for, and bringing together of, the meaning behind all these previous statements that He has uttered, and it is all the more emphatic in the light of the fact that these men are persuading many who sympathised with them not to listen to the truth as revealed in Jesus. Nothing would have grieved Him more than to see ‘almost disciples’ being put off by the activities and words of the Scribes and Pharisees. No wonder that He felt that He had to totally expose them.

Furthermore had we not had what follows we may well have ended up feeling that the Scribes and Pharisees had been a little harshly treated in His previous descriptions of them (Matthew 21:33-42), for all that they had outwardly appeared to do on the surface was to subject His teaching to criticism. (Although compare how He has previously exposed them in Matthew 6:2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:16; Matthew 7:6; Matthew 7:15; Matthew 15:3-9; Matthew 15:14).

We should also perhaps notice to who these words were spoken. They were spoken to those rather fanatical Scribes and Pharisees, some of whom were probably to some extent notorious even among the people, who were gathered there with the crowds, and were there with the sole purpose of bringing Jesus down. With the typical fervour of the Middle Easterner their eyes were filled with anger and hate, as they bristled with almost uncontainable fury, trying by every means to discredit Him (passions ran high in Palestine in that era and there would be much more to all this than we find written down in the Gospels). This in itself made it necessary for Him to discredit them, not for His own sake, but for the sake of those who heard them, for He was well aware that soon they would no longer have Him with them, and would themselves have to face up to and combat these same Scribes and Pharisees, for whom they had previously had such huge respect.

But while these Scribes and Pharisees no doubt to some extent represented the majority of their kind, who had after all almost certainly consented to their coming to oppose Jesus, we do know from elsewhere that there were some who were not like them at all. There was Nicodemus (see John 3:1-6) who was not there, and would not have agreed with their attitude, there was Gamaliel (see Acts 5:33-40) who was also not there, and of whom we can probably, without putting words on his lips, reasonably say the same, and there were certainly other Pharisees who had recently believed, who were also not there, unless as His followers and supporters (John 11:45). And there were no doubt others. But while these we have mentioned, of whom we only know because of brief references, represented the better type of Pharisee, they were not sufficient to buck the trend, and by their teaching they were still tending to buttress the wrong attitude of the Pharisaic ideas. They still placed too much emphasis on ritual observance. Jesus is not, however, to be seen here as condemning all Scribes and Pharisees without exception, but rather as condemning heir whole system and as especially condemning those who fitted in with His criteria, which sadly made up the large majority. In fact many of those who stood there would, in their bitter zeal for what they believed in, and in their heedlessness of what God really wanted, perish in the invasion of Palestine and the fall of Jerusalem, while others would come through it very much changed.

We must remember that most of what we know of the Pharisees at this period, apart from what is found in the Gospels, is from later external sources. It is found in the descriptions given of Pharisees by the later Rabbis, which were undoubtedly biased in their own favour. And yet even there a good majority of the Pharisees came under scathing criticism by the Scribes for their folly, and were at times described in similar terms to these used here by Jesus. The other source was the writings of Josephus, and he too tended to favour them because he had once considered becoming a Pharisee, and we must always remember when we read Josephus that he wrote in order to put Judaism in the best light in the eyes of his Roman master. Nor must we see the later Rabbis as necessarily being similar to these men, for the later Rabbis were inevitably humbled, at least for a time, by what had happened to Jerusalem, and had to rethink their position and strive to build up a new foundation for Judaism. That would undoubtedly have given them a new perspective and a new zeal, accompanied by a greater sense of responsibility. The acceptance of the people had suddenly become crucial. However, even then we must note that many of them would also evince a similar hatred towards Christians. Nevertheless, even so, to some extent their sufferings would have purged them of some of the worst qualities revealed here. And they had also learned very forcefully that their hopes of God’s deliverance, resulting from their fanatical observance of the covenant, had not come to fruition. Clearly a new and more dedicated approach was necessary. (There is nothing like a disaster for forcing a rethink. Compare how the Reformation in Europe resulted in a rethink by the Catholic church resulting in the counter-Reformation and a considerable cleaning up of the worst excesses in the church, even if it was only partially satisfactory. And there is no doubt that most Catholics today who know of the mediaeval excesses of Alexander VI and Julius II would equally condemn their behaviour, even if they do make excuses for them and for dogmatic reasons do not reject them completely).

Nor would we be correct to see in Jesus’ demeanour here an unrelenting condemnation of even these men. We must see Him as aware of the crisis that was about to come on Him, and on them, and as rather taking this last opportunity of making His final desperate plea to these hardened men, as He spoke to them with prophetic fervour. For ‘ouai’ (woe, alas) can equally as well betoken words spoken from a broken heart, as from a remorseless one. Furthermore we must remember that people expected orators to speak forcefully to each other in those days, and certainly expected such forcefulness from a prophet. There is nothing here, however much His words shocked them, that would have caused a frown about the way in which He said them. They expected prophets to speak like this.

Nor must we judge His words by our own reactions. He spoke as the sinless One Who would one day judge all the world from His throne of glory (Matthew 25:31), not as a hurt sinner, upset and disoriented. And we can be sure that He Who would later calmly pray under even greater pressure, ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34), and would bend in mercy, even on the cross, towards a repentant evildoer who had previously cursed Him (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32, compared with Luke 23:42-43), would also have in His heart, even while He spoke these words, a yearning that some of even these might repent before it was too late. So all in all there are sound reasons for Jesus speaking as He did here.

A further question that does arise for us is as to whether we are to see chapter 23 as a finalising of the section from Matthew 21:1 onward (compare Matthew 21:9 with Matthew 23:39, and the portrayal of the failing Temple (Matthew 21:12-16), and the warning that followed (Matthew 21:18-21), with the picture of its final destruction in Matthew 23:37-38), or whether we are to see it as a part of the ‘final discourse’ seen as consisting of 23-25, all of which consists of judgment one way or another. The chiastic structure suggests that it rather lies between them both as a kind of connecting link, leading from one to the other. It can both be seen as a final vivid comment on the attempts by the Jewish leaders to bring Him down revealed in Matthew 19:1 to Matthew 22:46, and why they had done it, and as a necessary explanation for the descriptions that will follow in 24-25. It can be seen as explaining what lies at the heart of the first, and what it is that will trigger the second. For there can be no question that without chapter 23 chapters 24-25 in Matthew would come as something of an unexpected shock. Mark on the other hand has prepared for it in Mark 11:0 by carefully indicating the connection between the withered fig tree and the condition of the Temple, resulting in the necessity for its final destruction. But Mark is mainly writing to Gentiles to whom the Temple was not precious. Matthew’s Jewish Christian readers would be reeling at the thought of the Temple being destroyed and would require a much fuller explanation, and it is therefore given here in the revelation in Matthew 23:13-36 which reveals that the very men to whom the Jews looked as the cream of their religion were on the whole totally rotten within (like the fig tree).

Verse 2

‘Saying, “The Scribes and the Pharisees sat (aorist) on Moses seat,” ’

This verse raises three questions. Who are indicated by ‘the Scribes and the Pharisees’? Why is the aorist of the verb used? And what is Moses’ seat

‘The Scribes and the Pharisees.’ This phrase is unique in Matthew. Previously ‘the Scribes and Pharisees’ have been a combination united by having only one definite article, or alternatively, especially in what follows, as having no definite article. So we have to explain why Matthew made this slight alteration to his usual style. It has been suggested:

1) That we translate as ‘the Scribes, that is, those who are of the Pharisees’, for kai often indicates such an explanatory connection.

2) That we translate as ‘both the Scribes and the Pharisees’ firmly distinguishing between them, for many Scribes were not Pharisees.

3) That Jesus is citing a well known saying, ‘the Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat’ which had been translated into Greek prior to its use by Matthew who retains it as it stands.

4) That the intention is to sum up that section of the people who assiduously follow the Teachings of the Elders, and seek to impress it on others.

In favour of 1) is that it is the Scribes who would be seen as the lawgivers, and not the Pharisees, for the latter were primarily not teachers, but a sect who assiduously followed the Law. In other words a Pharisee was not necessarily a teacher. Against it is that previously, and later in the chapter, Scribes (of the Pharisees) and Pharisees are seen together as one whole.

In favour of 2) is that it represents the most straightforward reading of the grammar, but very much against it is that, as in 1), the Pharisees were not seen as teachers as such.

In favour of 3) is that it explains the unique grammar, for it would simply arise because it was a part of the saying and Matthew would not alter it. Against it is that we know nothing of such a saying. But even if we select this option we still have to decide on the connection of the Scribes with the Pharisees

In favour of 4) is that it ties in with what follows, and it reminds us that the major part of the Scribes, who were Pharisees, together with the Pharisees, were those who dedicated themselves most to the observance of the Law as practised by the Pharisees, at least outwardly. Thus we might paraphrase ‘the Pharisaic Scribes strongly supported by all the Pharisees’, in Israel’s eyes a strong combination.

On the one hand it might suggest that Jesus is indicating that the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees was not to be haphazardly discarded, and that regard had to be taken to the fact that in general they were a strong and reliable source of knowledge about the Law of Moses. But against this suggestion is the fact that even in this very passage Jesus calls them ‘blind guides’, and ‘fools and blind’, and ‘blind’ (Matthew 23:16-17; Matthew 23:19). He points out that they lay on people heavy burdens grievous to be borne (Matthew 23:4). All this does not sit well with Jesus recommending the disciples to pay heed to what they say. This possibly indicates that His recommendation is limited to when they sit on ‘the seat of Moses’.

‘Sat on Moses’ seat.’ It is, however, not certain what Jesus meant by ‘sitting on Moses’ seat’, for the idea is found nowhere else apart from in one Talmudic reference where ‘the seat of Moses’ is seen as a pattern of Solomon’s throne. If we take that hint we may see it as indicating the authority of the Law. Compare Exodus 18:13 where Moses officially sat in order to act as lawgiver and judge for the people. Thus it may be saying that they perform the same function.

It has been suggested that ‘Moses’ seat’ was a chair in the synagogue reserved for the holding of the scrolls of the Law and possibly used by those who in the services read from the Law in Hebrew, and then gave the Aramaic translation/paraphrase. This was a central aspect of the service. Such stone seats have been excavated in ancient synagogues (later than the time of Jesus) which were clearly shaped so as to hold scrolls, and it may well be that the idea was that they held the scrolls of the Law (as ‘Moses’ seat’) and that the reader of the Law for that day would pick up the scrolls and then reverently sit down on the seat to read them out as though he were Moses, following it up, as the custom was, with an Aramaic paraphrase, thus solemnly ‘sitting in Moses’ seat’ as the Law promulgator (compare Exodus 18:13). After that he would equally solemnly and reverently replace the scrolls on the seat. Moses had spoken! The reading from the prophets was possibly dealt with differently, being read standing, prior to the reader then sitting down, probably in a different seat (for the first held the scrolls) to expound on the passage read (compare Luke 4:16-20), the scrolls of the Law having again been previously set down again on ‘Moses’ seat’.

If this was the practise in 1st century AD then what ‘they bade men’ in Matthew 23:3, which had to be listened to and obeyed, were the direct words of the Law of Moses as read in Hebrew and then paraphrased in Aramaic. That would certainly make sense in the context. And it would explain fully why He could tell them to pay heed to the Scribes and the Pharisees.

One problem with this interpretation is that the Pharisees (as opposed to the Scribes) were not particularly involved with this ministry for participants were selected by the ruler of the synagogue and his elders, and the Pharisees had no special prerogative in this regard. The Pharisees were simply a sect of men dedicated to their own special views, even though they were to a certain extent admired and highly respected by the people. It may, however, be that we are to translate Jesus’ words as we saw above as ‘the Scribes, even those of the Pharisees’, describing especially those Scribes present in the Temple courtyard with their Pharisee companions. This would explain the unusual double definite article. The Scribes if present in a synagogue would, as trained Teachers of the Law, naturally be chosen for the task of reading the Law.

Highly in favour of this interpretation is that Jesus goes on to speak of the Scribes as blind guides (Matthew 23:16), continually emphasising their blindness (Matthew 23:17; Matthew 23:19), and as 'hypocrites', whilst elsewhere emphasising that 'they make the word of God void through their tradition' (Mark 7:13). It is difficult to see how Jesus could then tell His Apostles to do what they say other than when reading out the Law of Moses.

On the other hand, as we have seen, an alternative suggestion is that the Pharisaic Scribes and the Pharisees were seen as jointly representing the same teaching, the Scribes then seen as ‘occupying Moses’ seat’ (speaking as his representatives) on behalf of both, and thus also speaking on behalf of all the Pharisees. This would tie in with the way in which Matthew regularly connects them. They would be the main religious arbiters seen in Galilee (Matthew 5:20; Matthew 12:38; Matthew 15:1). (Compare how the Apostles and ‘men of good report’ could be seen as leading the church together in Acts 6:1-4, even if only briefly, although the preaching was initially to be done by the Apostles on behalf of all).

Alternately ‘Moses’ seat’ might be seen as indicating that the Scribes, as it were, deputised for Moses in the expounding of the Law, and that therefore their teaching, in so far as it actually involved the carefully cited Law, should be accepted. If we take ‘all things literally as meaning ‘everything’ this interpretation, fails on the grounds that it is later made quite clear (as it has been previously - e.g. Matthew 15:3-6; Matthew 16:6; Matthew 16:12) that Scribal interpretations were not necessarily acceptable, and could indeed be downright wrong (see also Matthew 23:16; Matthew 23:18). How then could Jesus (or even Matthew) possibly have bid His disciples to observe them? No one who had put together the Sermon on the Mount could possibly have suggested this. Furthermore there were disagreement among the Scribes themselves, as we know from the disputes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. Furthermore the Scribes in Judea did not always see eye to eye with the Scribes in Galilee.

This would then favour the suggestion that the ‘bidding’ of the Scribes was limited to the time when they sat and read the Law and paraphrased it from Moses’ seat. In other words the disciples and the crowds were to listen to the Law being read and expounded and must obey it in full, not despising it simply because it was read out by a Scribe of the Pharisees. At a time when scrolls of the Law were comparatively rare and expensive, and when not all understood Hebrew, such readings with their accompanying Aramaic paraphrase would be one time when all could learn what the Law did actually say. Thus to use a modern saying, ‘they were not to throw out the baby with the dirty bath water’.

The verb in the aorist may indicate that ‘took their seat on Moses’ seat’ indiates how the Scribes had in the past, as it were, in all sincerity, sought to take up their position as expounders of Moses. It may, however, simply indicate that they were at the time in a synagogue and that he was referring to the Scribes who had sat on the platform, seen, with the seat of Moses in the centre, as ‘Moses seat, because any one of them could be called on to read. But the fact that He was speaking to the crowds rather suggests the Temple area. On the other hand the aorist may indicate that they constantly did it as a definite act, but this last, although it does occur, is an unusual use of the aorist.

Further Note On Moses’ Seat.

There have been attempts to relate ‘Moses’ seat’ to the description written down in the Halakah (Jewish Law, written down after 400 AD) of the working of the Rabbinic Sanhedrin. We say the Rabbinic Sanhedrin because strictly speaking it indicates the practise that built up after the fall of Jerusalem. In the days prior to the fall of Jerusalem the one who was ‘head over the Sanhedrin’ was the High Priest, and the Sanhedrin consisted of three sections, the Chief Priests and their fellow-Sadducees, including Scribes; the lay aristocracy; and the Scribes of the Pharisees and fellow-Pharisees.It is doubtful if the Scribes of the Pharisees at that time thought of the High Priest as the one who had greatest knowledge among them. That was clearly a provision added later and was a new innovation.The High Priest had the oversight because of who he was. And this oversight by the High Priest had indeed been the situation from the original commencement of the Sanhedrin which originally consisted of priests and lay aristocracy.

In the Halakah we read, First, a supreme court is established in the Temple. This is called the Great Sanhedrin. It is composed of 71 judges. This is derived from Numbers 11:16 which states: "Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel." And Moses presided over them, as the verse continues: "And they shall stand there with you." Thus there are 71.

(Note: the Jewish tradition that the 70 formed a 'court' with Moses is incorrect. The 70 were appointed to act as minor judges for cases which were seen as too trivial for Moses to deal with. We know of no equivalent of the Sanhedrin in Moses' day, nor indeed throughtout the period of Judges and Kings. It came into being a hundred or so years after the Babylonian exile, made up of priests and lay aristocrats and led by the High Priest).

The one who is of greatest knowledge is placed as the head over them. He acts as the Rosh Yeshivah. And he is called the nasi by the Sages in all sources. He assumes the position of Moses our teacher.

The greatest among the remaining 70 is appointed as an assistant to the head. He sits at his right and is called av beit din. The remaining judges from the 70 sit before them and are seated according to their age and according to their stature. Whoever possesses greater wisdom than his colleague is seated closer than his colleagues to the nasi on his left. The members of the Sanhedrin sit in a semi-circle so that the nasi and the av beit din can see all of them.

(Note: This attempt to grade themselves among the Pharisaic Scribes is taken up from their practise of doing the same at feasts (Luke 14:10). Contrary to the teaching of Jesus they were superiority conscious. It would not apply in the same way in the Sanhedrin prior to the destruction of Jerusalem because too many different parties were involved, who no doubt sat in their own groups. Thus the reference to ‘the Temple’ is a deliberate attempt to backdate the innovations, which reminds us that what we find in the Mishnah and the Talmud cannot simply be assumed to apply in the time of Jesus).

The Halakah then goes on to speak of other ‘courts of judgment’ In addition, two courts of 23 judges each are appointed. One holds sessions at the entrance to the Temple courtyard. and the other at the entrance to the Temple Mount. In addition, in every city in Israel in which there are 120 or more adult males, we appoint a minor Sanhedrin. They hold court at the entrance to the city, as implied by Amos 5:15 : "And you shall present judgment in your gates." How many judges should be in such a court? 23. The one who possesses the greatest wisdom is the chief justice and the remainder sit in a semi-circle so that the chief justice can see all of them.. Once again we detect the later influence of the Rabbis. As will be noted the reference in Amos simply states the well known fact that in towns and cities the justices met in ‘the gate’ in public view. How much of what is written here specifically applies the situation pre-70 AD we cannot now know.

End of Note.

Verse 3

a “All things therefore whatever they bid you,

b These do and observe,

b But do not you after their works,

a Because they say, and do not.”

Note again the chiastic formation. In ‘a’ and its parallel we have a reference to what they say, and in ‘b’ and its parallel a reference to activity. ‘Therefore’ indicates that they are to obey the bidding of the Scribes because they sit in Moses’ seat. In other words they are to ‘do and observe’ the Law of Moses in so far as it was received through the Pharisaic Scribes, and failing them the Pharisees, through the readings in the synagogue. The suggestion that it is through their declarations in general must be ruled out simply because in the same context Jesus refers to them as ‘blind guides’ and three times declares them to be ‘blind’. You do not appoint a blind man to keep watch. One thing, however, that must be said in the favour of the Scribes and many of the Pharisees was that they had a firm grasp of the words of the Pentateuch, and could recite them without difficulty in both Hebrew and Aramaic and were thus constantly able to remind the people of them.

It may have been because of his that they were thus to do whatever the Scribes and Pharisees bid them (‘all things’) from the Law of Moses, as they read them out or recited them from memory. Whatever His disagreement with the Scribes and Pharisees He did not want it to prevent His disciples or His would be disciples from obeying the Law of Moses, or going to hear it read. (They would be spreading far and wide after the feast). And if only the Scribes and Pharisees had genuinely obeyed the Law of Moses that they knew by rote He would have been satisfied with them too. But that was the point, they had not (Matthew 5:20). They had mainly limited their obedience to ritual matters, or had altered the significance pf the Law to suit themselves by subtle interpretation, thus often caricaturing the Law. On the whole the zeal of their predecessors, who had sought to preserve the Law against Hellenisation, had hardened the Law into a harsh religious observance, and into a condemnation of those who did not follow their ideas. This was made even more intense by conditions in Palestine and the sense of insurrection that was constantly in the air. They really did believe that this might be God’s time and they wanted to ensure that they did not come short. But unfortunately they put the emphasis in the wrong place. (We should note, however, that ‘subtle interpretation’ is not just the preserve of the Scribes. We can all be as guilty of it as they were when trying to defend our positions by stretching or paraphrasing the Greek and Hebrew). So His disciples must not follow their behaviour, because what they say when they proclaim the Law of Moses is not what they actually do. They say and do not. The righteousness of His disciples must therefore exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, for they must actually do what the Law says in the way that He has explained it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20).

‘All things.’ There is a question here as to whether ‘all things’ means literally ‘everything they teach’ (which can hardly be true) or whether it is to be read in the light of His other teaching and thus as signifying ‘all things that they cite as reliably based on the Law of Moses’. Some see these words as literally meaning ‘everything they teach’ and see it therefore as indicating biting irony and even sarcasm, e.g. ‘They sit in Moses’ seat. You should do everything that they bid you, for they certainly do not’, or ‘of course if you wish you can do what they say, but do not do what they do’. However most see it as needing to be read in context and therefore as clearly excluding their amplified interpretations and pronouncements, many of which Jesus Himself condemns (compare what ‘was said of old’ in Matthew 5:33; Matthew 5:38; Matthew 5:43; also Matthew 12:7; Matthew 15:3-9; Matthew 15:14; Matthew 16:6; Matthew 16:12; Matthew 23:16-22). What they had to obey was ‘all things that the Scribes and Pharisees told them ‘from Moses’ seat’ which was genuinely in the Law of Moses’. But either way we again have the emphasis on the need to ‘hear and do’ and the condemnation of those who do not (compare Matthew 7:21-27). Hearing is not sufficient. And this applies equally as much to us today (see James 1:22-25).

Verse 4

a “And they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne,

b And lay them on the shoulders of men,

a But they themselves will not move them with their finger.”

For this is an expose of the Scribes and Pharisees. They are revealed as binding grievously heavy burdens on men, and making very little effort to help them carry them. They laid on men heavy religious requirements, especially negative ones (‘binding’ was a word used for ensuring the enforcing negative commandments) which they themselves were able to observe because they had shaped their lives in a way that enabled them to do so, and on the whole had the resources. Indeed they had multiplied laws and expanded on them to such an extent that only an expert could really understand what was required. (Compare Matthew 12:1-2). But they had taken no note of the problems of ordinary people who had to live their daily lives in situations very unlike theirs, and especially those whose occupations prevented them from being able to fit in with their requirements, and yet some of whose services they made abundant use of. Thus they wrote off such people as weavers (women’s work), tanners and dyers (constantly touching dead things), herdsmen and camel drivers (probably unscrupulous and dishonest, and necessarily not punctilious in religious observance), dung collectors (constantly ‘unclean’), bath attendants (undoubtedly immoral), public servants (traitors) and so on, as ‘sinners’, and as not worthy of consideration, because they not only failed to observe the requirements of the Law as laid down by them, but often could not. And they made no attempt to assist such people in their difficulties. They were simply seen by most as riffraff, to be mainly treated with contempt (see Matthew 9:11). The Scribes and Pharisees thus found no difficulty in breaking bruised reeds and quenching smoking flax (see Matthew 12:20). They simply thrust them to one side.

This was in direct contrast with those who took on themselves Jesus’ yoke, for they found that that yoke was ‘easy’ (straightforward and understandable) and the burden was ‘light’ (Matthew 11:28-30), it did not ask of them the impossible. He did not ask of them narrow and detailed requirements connected with ritual which had to be performed in the right way in order to be meaningful, but rather asked of them what they could all achieve in their daily lives if they really wished to do so, by living their lives in love and righteousness. That is why His yoke was ‘easy’, not because it did not make demands (no one who has read the Sermon on the Mount could say that), but because it was clear and was applied in an atmosphere of love and forgiveness on those whose hearts were ready to respond. It was a glad and willing service in response to an all powerful love and compassion revealed towards them. They loved because He first loved them.

We should note here that the very reason that Jesus had spoken of His yoke, and of the lightness the burdens that He placed on men, was because His were in deliberate contrast to the difficult yoke (of their version of the Law) and the heavy burdens placed upon them by the Scribes and Pharisees, of which the people themselves were very much aware, and under which they groaned. Thus even those words in Matthew 11:28-30 had contained an implicit condemnation of the Pharisees, and of the strictness of the synagogues in unnecessary matters.

‘Will not move them with their finger.’ This may have in mind the use of the fingers to help another to balance his pack, or the all too well known picture of an ass driver who piled on the load haphazardly and then did not bother to make his asses life easier by adjusting it with his fingers so as to spread the load, or it may simply mean ‘they will not lift even a finger to help them’. For they had worked out many ways of mitigating the harshest effects of the Laws on themselves, but they rarely bothered to enlighten the common people about these, or to assist them in their struggles of conscience with regard to them. They were good at saying ‘it is not lawful --’. They were not so good at saying, ‘consider this, it is not required’. Many in the crowds would have been nodding their agreement to this. They knew just how heavy they found the burdens heaped on them. Jesus would hardly have dared to say such things before the crowds had He not known that many of them would acknowledge them as true.

Verses 5-7

a “But all their works they do to be seen of men,

b For they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders (or tassels) of their garments,

b And love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

a And the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi.”

Note that in ‘a’ they want to be seen of men and in the parallel they want men to admire them and salute them and call them ‘Rabbi’ (my great one). In ‘b’ and its parallel we have a description of the works that they were good at and put a lot of effort into, which were all for self-aggrandisement.

But not only did they inflict heavy burdens on people, they also did what they did in order to be ‘seen of men’. That had become more important to them than their actual obedience. The emphasis here is thus on the fact that they were mainly all outward show. They did many of the right things, but they did them for totally the wrong reasons (see Matthew 6:1-18). Their whole life was a public display in order that they might obtain credit for themselves, both before God (Luke 18:11-12) and before men (‘to be seen of men’). And yet at the same time they actually convinced themselves that they were being ‘righteous’. For were not the things that they did proof of their obedience to the Law? They did not appreciate the fact that those who are truly righteous are those who are least aware of the fact. Compare here especially Matthew 6:1-2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:16. The ideas in mind here are thus very similar to those in the Sermon on the Mount.

But they worked very hard in one way. ‘They made large phylacteries.’ Phylacteries were leather pouches which contained citations of the Law (e.g. usually Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21, although the texts could vary as we see from examples from Qumran) which they wore on their forehead and on their arm. This was done in literal fulfilment of Exodus 13:9; Deuteronomy 11:18. They were mainly worn at morning and evening prayers, although some had taken to wearing them all the time. But they were not satisfied with simply wearing them. Just small ones would have achieved their purpose of reminding them of God’s law. The point here is that they manufactured and wore large ones so that everyone could see how pious they were, for all would know that they had been able to write the citations in large letters (compare Galatians 6:11 where large letters were used for the right reason, to glorify Jesus), and so be more aware of the need to observe them.

The tassels that every Jewish man wore on his cloak were again intended to be a reminder of the commandments of God (Numbers 15:37-38). So these Scribes and Pharisees wore very large ones so that no one could be in any doubt of their respect for God’s commandments. By this they made their cloaks longer, and those tassels would sway ostentatiously on their cloaks as they went around paradoxically misusing or misrepresenting the Law of God. These were, of course, but two examples of their whole attitude towards life. Compare the idea of their blowing trumpets in order to draw attention to their righteous acts in Matthew 6:2. And Jesus was not just speculating about this. He had seen it.

Some, however, see the enlarging of the borders as referring to some way in which they drew attention to their own distinctiveness by the size of a type of special border on their cloaks. But either way the point is the same. They were trying to draw attention to how righteous they were to be seen to be.

‘They love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues.’ Furthermore they were men of ‘love’. They loved the chief place at the feasts they went to, vying for the top positions (compare Luke 14:7-11), and once they had achieved them they loved sitting there aware that men were looking at them admiringly. The tables were often arranged in a U formation with the bottom of the U indicating the placing of the chief tables, to which all could look. The central table would be occupied by the host with his most important guests on his right hand and his left (compare James’ and John’s request in Matthew 20:21 demonstrating how near to this attitude the Apostles were). And then the places would go in descending order of importance. Thus they were delighted when they were placed near the top. And they loved the chief seats in the synagogues, where chairs would be set in the front, possibly on a platform, so that they could sit in them and face the people. We can no doubt recognise a similarity with our own customs today. But it is not to be so among Christians, for none are more important than any others before God.

‘And the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi.’ And they loved the respectful salutations in the marketplaces as they moved around, especially because of the recognised principle that the lesser saluted the greater. For they loved not only to be seen of men but for their superiority to be verbally acknowledged, and to hear men calling them ‘Rabbi’ (my great one) which was not yet an official title, but was regularly used of respected Teachers (it was used as a courtesy of both John the Baptist and Jesus, although neither sought it or wanted it). One of their main aims in life was thus to be highly esteemed, and to be treated as though they were important, and thus be publicly acknowledged as such. It made all their religious activity worthwhile. It was very much a case of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Verses 8-11

a “But as for you, do not you be called Rabbi,

b For one is your teacher (didaskalos), and all you are brothers.

c And call no man your father on the earth,

d For one is your Father, even he who is in heaven.”

c Nor be you called esteemed teachers (kathegetes),

b For one is your Esteemed Teacher (kathegetes), even the Christ.

a But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.”

Note that in ‘a’ they are not to be called ‘my great one’, but in the parallel are to seek to be the humblest servant, for in that way lies true greatness. In ‘b’ they are to look only to one Teacher, Jesus, and in the parallel only to have one Master. In ‘c’ none is to be called ‘father’ on earth, and in the parallel they are not to be called ‘masters’. Centrally in ‘d’ all emphasis is to be on their Father in Heaven.

Jesus then firmly uses the Scribes and Pharisees as an object lesson. ‘As for you’ He says. The ‘you’ is emphatic. It is contrasting those who serve Him with the Scribes and Pharisees. Those who follow Him are not to be like them, and He gives three examples of what must be avoided:

* They must eschew being seen as great teachers, or as ‘great ones’ (Rabbi means ‘my great one’ and is often translated into Greek as didaskalos) because they are all brothers, from the least to the greatest, and they have only one ‘Great Teacher’ (didaskalos translates Rabbi). This idea of the ‘Great Teacher’ probably has in mind such references as Jeremiah 31:33-34, ‘I will put My Law in their inward parts and in their hearts will I write it, and I will be their God (and thus their Great One) -- and they will no more teach every man his neighbour, saying, “Know the Lord”. For all will know Me from the least to the greatest’ (compareJob 36:22; Job 36:22; Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2; Exo 4:12 ; 1 Kings 8:36; Psalms 25:9; Psalms 25:12; Psalms 32:8; Psalms 71:17; Psalms 94:12; Psalms 119:102; Isaiah 48:17; John 6:45; 1 Thessalonians 4:9). Thus there will be none who have special or esoteric knowledge. All will equally have access to the truth directly from God (1 Corinthians 2:10-16), Who alone is the Great Teacher.

Everyone who teaches must therefore be aware that his own illumination is from God, and that if those who hear them are to be illuminated it is God Who will do it by His Spirit. Thus they can take no credit to themselves. And what is especially forbidden is to accept a title which is seen as giving special distinction and superiority, for that is the road to spiritual disaster. All must rather be as brothers contributing on the basis of the gifts that God gives them without any sense of superiority, each with his own gift, because in the end it is God Who teaches all, and they but teach as His messengers. It is He Who is the Great One, not they. Thus within the ‘congregation’ no one is to be seen as ‘superior’ to the others, and as having special sources of knowledge from God. All have the same source by the Spirit. (The Scribes did in fact consider that they had such esoteric knowledge in the Traditions of the Elders which were passed on secretly from teacher to teacher and was known to no others except as they revealed it). The church is thus to be an equal ‘brotherhood’ with none seen as superior to another.

* They must not call anyone their ‘father’ on earth, that is, ‘fathers’ from a religious point of view. There was a tendency to look back to ‘the fathers’ in the sense of their being esteemed figures of the past whose wisdom was to be acknowledged and treated as sacrosanct, and thus being seen as deserving of special reverence, and possibly even to see especially revered guiding figures at that time as ‘fathers’. This last would naturally follow from their view of past esteemed figures as ‘fathers’, and for example, Shammai and Hillel (1st century BC) were described as ‘the fathers of the world’. But among His disciples there was not to be such a relationship where men were given special and superior recognition. There was to be no special class called ‘fathers’. For they had only One Who was their Father, and with Whom they should have that special relationship, and that was ‘their Father in Heaven’.

This last description is especially emphatic as it is the only definite use of ‘your Father in Heaven’ since Matthew 7:11, and ‘your Father’ since Matthew 10:29 (but see on Matthew 18:14). Since then Jesus has spoken of ‘My Father’ or ‘the Father’. So here He is very much referring back to the ‘community’ of disciples which was in mind in the Sermon on the Mount. And the point is very much that each believer must look directly to his Father in Heaven and not be so dependent on others in that he calls any such his ‘father’ in religious matters. (This is very specific. To seek to get round this in order to justify calling religious figures ‘father’ is to be as guilty in God’s eyes as the Scribes and Pharisees, whatever sophistry we use to justify it. The use of the title of ‘father’ by ministers of a church is to go directly against what Jesus is saying here, and it generally has the same consequences of spiritual conceit and of a sense of superiority. Thank God for those who avoid it!).

* They are not to be called ‘esteemed teacher’ (or ‘master’), for they have only one Esteemed Teacher and that is the Christ. Once again the emphasis is on the fact that they must look to One and not to the many. No one is to take His place as their leader and guide and illuminator. He is their trek leader through life (Hebrews 2:10). Note here the unusual and rare reference to ‘Christ’. It was, of course, necessary in these words spoken in the Temple courtyard to use such a designation. It would have raised a huge outcry had Jesus said openly that He was the only Teacher to Whom men should listen, and He would have laid Himself open to accusations of megalomania and arrogance. But none present would have denied that the coming Messiah could be seen in such a way, while at the same time the disciples (Matthew 16:16) and the readers (Matthew 1:1; Matthew 1:17) know to Whom He is referring, and soon all will know. This is one of those incidental situations where what appears unusual suddenly makes perfect sense.

Jesus whole purpose here therefore is to prevent the giving of ‘titles of exaltation’ to members in His community, titles which could lead on to them being treated with special reverence to their hurt. His aim is rather to turn their whole attention to their Heavenly Father and to Himself, and to ensure that that attitude is maintained. It was especially important as the powers that He has given them might lead to their being seen as ‘gods’. This paralleling of Himself with the Father is again an indication of His unique claim for Himself, compatible with such statements as Matthew 10:32-33; Matthew 11:19-24; Matthew 11:27; Matthew 12:6; Matthew 12:8; Matthew 12:28-29; Matthew 12:41-42; Matthew 13:47 with 41; Matthew 16:16-18; Matthew 19:28; Matthew 20:23; Matthew 21:37; Matthew 21:42; Matthew 22:2; Matthew 22:45. All are therefore to look to a Heavenly Father and to His Christ, and are rather to see each other as servants, and genuinely behave in that way, and the Apostles are to see themselves as the least of all. In all this there is a fine line to be drawn between what is justified and what is not, but any title that gives a person a sense of superiority within the congregation, or makes them be seen as acting in the place of God, is to be eschewed. (‘My Lord Bishop’ never did anyone any good, and the intelligent ones who had any spirituality indulged in self-mockery). For they are to be seen as channels, and not as deserving in their own eyes of any more reverence than every true believer (let each esteem others as better than himself - Philippians 2:3). Nor are they to be exalted by the congregation for what they are in themselves. Indeed once a person becomes proud of his ‘title’, rather than being genuinely humbled by it, he should discard it at once, for whatever it then is to others it has become for him the devil’s tool and will only hinder his ministry.

‘Rabbi.’ This is not evidenced as an officially designated title before 70 AD, but it had already become a means of addressing those considered deserving of special reverence and respect. It was used with regard to both John the Baptist and Jesus, although neither sought it. But already it had clearly begun to do its fatal work of destroying men’s humility.

‘Father.’ To use this title implies ‘fathers and sons’ (authority and those under authority) as opposed to ‘brothers and sisters’, for in those days the father was an authoritative figure as well as the one looked to by the whole family for guidance and instruction and as the source of their life. The latter reason was why Paul could describe his own ministry in terms of being like a father (1 Corinthians 4:15; Philippians 2:22), but his use of the word was defined by the context. It was a sign of affection and love. But he would not have accepted anyone calling him ‘Father’ in any religious sense, for Jesus had here taught that no one was to be put in such a position of authority and superiority.

‘Esteemed teachers.’ (The plural suggests that this was not an official title, but rather a way of seeing someone). The word is used only here in the New Testament. It is used elsewhere of teachers, and especially of personal tutors, and contains within it something of the idea of rulership and of the esteem in which teachers were held, and of the authority that was theirs (teachers and tutors were the equivalent of ‘masters’ of their students, who were as ‘slaves’ to them, and they had great and often painful authority over them). Thus again they were to remember that Christ and no other was to be their authoritative teacher, their Master. He alone had Mastery over His followers. All others were to be as servants without claiming a similar mastery. There is a vital point here that had it been observed would have transformed church history. No one is to ‘stand in’ for Christ on earth. All must look directly to Him. Discipline within the church was to be a discipline of love and forgiveness with account given directly to Him (see chapter 18). Note how by comparison with the above this puts the Messiah (Jesus Himself) on a par with God as the great and esteemed Teacher and Master of all.

‘But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.’ Compare here Matthew 18:3; Matthew 20:26-27; Luke 22:26). Jesus finishes off the list by pointing out why they are to do all this. It is because the truly great among the people of God are those who, like Him, give themselves in service. They genuinely see themselves as humble servants, thus they eschew titles. (Once we put a capital letter on ‘Servant’ it becomes a forbidden title, when Paul called himself the slave of Jesus Christ he did not intend it to become a title). If they therefore wish to be the greatest, and for God to call them ‘great one’, they must humble themselves totally in service (as He did when He washed their dirty and dusty feet from a cheap earthenware jar when no one else would do so - John 13:1-10. There is no humility in it when it is performed as a ceremony from a golden bowl. It has become a gesture like that of the Pharisees). This is Jesus’ constant theme (Matthew 18:4; Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 12:36-37; Luke 12:42-46; Luke 18:14; Luke 22:26-27).

Once again a fine line has to be drawn. Humility and service does not mean always giving in and never standing up for the truth. The servant is responsible to look after his Master’s interests to the best of his ability with the help of God, and that can often mean God’s servants standing together and standing firm, and often being seen as awkward. But while it is done firmly it must also be done in true humility and love, and with no thought of self-interest, at the same time avoiding any individual taking over the Mastery (this last is the bit we find difficult, especially if we are naturally strong-minded) . Christ must ever truly be Master. Here He tells us that while we are to act in His name and in consultation with Him, we are not stand in for Him. We are rather to let Him minister through us.

Verse 12

“And whoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled,

And whoever shall humble himself shall be exalted.”

Jesus finishes these important words off with a saying which sums up the eternal consequences of our attitudes. Colloquially it declares that ‘the way to up is down’ (compare here Matthew 18:3; Matthew 20:26-27; Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14). This is the principle of the Kingly Rule of Heaven both in this world and the next. A very good example of the first part is found in Isaiah 14:9-20. There the King of Babylon sought glory for himself, and was brought crashing down, in that case without hope. Compare Daniel 4:30-36 where a similar thing happened, although that time ending in hope. Jesus Himself exemplifies the second. Under the Kingly Rule of Heaven those who set themselves to seek glory and position and recognition will find that if they are truly His they will have to be humbled (as the Apostles had to be when they were made to reveal their cowardice - Matthew 26:56; and see Luke 22:31; Luke 22:34. See Hebrews 12:5-13), whether it be in this world or the next, while those who maintain a humble attitude and behaviour before God and men, and seek only to genuinely serve, will find that God lifts them up and does great things through them, and their righteousness will be its own reward. They will desire nothing for themselves. But woe betide Christian men and women once they begin to covet titles and position, or to exert their own authority. Their usefulness to God will then be well nigh finished, for their light will no longer be shining before men so as to bring glory to God (Matthew 5:16). It will rather be shining in order to bring glory to themselves. And thus they will have had their reward on earth, and will lose out in Heaven. For God will not surrender His glory to another. Indeed those who find what is now said about the Scribes and Pharisees difficult should consider this well, for it may well indicate that they are following in the same path as them, for the humble will not be surprised. They will rather say, ‘Yes, this is what I deserve too’, and will mean it (compare 1 Timothy 1:15).

In the end, however, the idea behind these words in Matthew 23:12 includes the judgment that is finally coming. Then those who have walked in true humility as servants, will find themselves ‘exalted’ into the Lord’s presence and what they have become will be their great reward. They will shine forth as the sun in the Kingly Rule of their Father (Matthew 13:43). But those who have exalted themselves, (and enter Heaven with high hopes), will find their hopes dashed. What they have been will have diminished them, and even should they enter Heaven, (and not be wailing and gnashing their teeth), their shining forth will be very much dimmed, for they will have already received their glory on earth (Matthew 6:1-2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:16; Matthew 6:19; Matthew 6:22-23).

Verses 13-14

“But woe/alas to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingly rule of heaven against men, for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering in to enter.”

In Matthew 12:28 Jesus had castigated them for not seeing that the Kingly Rule of God had ‘come upon’ them. Here He follows that up by charging them with also preventing others from entering under that Kingly Rule because of their own blindness and obstinacy. They not only do not enter in, but they carefully lock the door in order to prevent others entering in, by means of their persuasive words and clever manipulation of Scripture. As the next verse makes clear it particularly angered Him that they put off seekers after truth from finding that truth, (and thus prevented the Shepherd finding His sheep). No wonder He was ‘angry’.

The word ‘hypocrites’, already used by Him of people like this who could not see beyond their noses and rejected every sign given to them (Matthew 16:3; Matthew 22:18), and of those who did everything for their own glory (Matthew 6:1-18) will now be applied to them continually. They made a great show of godliness, and yet stood in the way of those who would become truly godly.

‘You do not enter in.’ The natural meaning of this is that it expresses their failure to enter under the Kingly Rule of Heaven at that very time. In other words they had failed to respond to the word of the Kingly Rule and become true ‘sons of the Kingly Rule’ (Matthew 13:19; Matthew 13:38), even though they had originally been in line for such a privilege (Matthew 8:12). God had therefore had to remove them and replace them with others (compare Matthew 21:41-43).

‘Shut (lock) the Kingly Rule of Heaven against men.’ The verb kleio is connected with the noun for ‘key’ (kleis) and signifies the same idea as the modern equivalent of ‘bolting the door’ in order to prevent entry. Paradoxically they used their keys of knowledge in order to prevent men from entering the Kingly Rule of Heaven - compare Luke 11:52. (Which was why those keys would have to be taken out of their hands and put into the possession of the Apostles - Matthew 16:18). They had made every effort to interfere with peoples’ interest in what John and Jesus had had to say by the restrictions that they put on people in the name of God, and by exerting their religious authority. No doubt many who had heard Jesus had consulted with the Scribes and Pharisees and had had cold water poured by them on their new found enthusiasm.

Note how in Matthew 5:3 the poor in spirit receive the Kingly Rule of Heaven, while here the hypocrites do not enter it or allow others to enter.

Verses 13-15

Their Failure To Bring Men Under The Kingly Rule Of Heaven (23:13-15).

The first two woes attack the Scribes and Pharisees for actually preventing people from coming under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. By their teaching and their influence they ‘lock them out’ from it, and instead put great efforts into rather making them like themselves, ‘sons of Gehenna’.


a “But woe/alas to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingly rule of heaven against men” (Matthew 23:13 a).

b “For you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering in to enter” (Matthew 23:13 b).

a “Woe/alas to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte” (Matthew 23:15 a).

b And when he is become so, you make him twofold more a son of Gehenna than yourselves” (Matthew 23:15 b).

Note that in ‘a’ the shut the Kingly Rule of Heaven against men, and in the parallel they open up Gehenna for them. In ‘b they refuse to enter and prevent others from entering, while in the parallel what they do strive to accomplish is to make them converts subject to their own teaching.

Verses 13-33

Jesus Faces The Scribes and Pharisees Up To Their Hypocrisy (23:13-33).

It will be quite clear that the words which Jesus has spoken to His disciples and the crowds could hardly have failed to rile the Scribes and Pharisees as they stood bristling among the crowds in the Temple. They were members of a very excitable and fervent people living at a very excitable and fervent time and attending a very excitable and fervent feast, and we can be sure therefore that they would begin to defend themselves with some vehemence and cry out vociferously against Jesus. And while they may well have been feeling somewhat guilty, they certainly did not see themselves as Jesus (and now the crowds) saw them. It would thus be in response to their attempted defence, possibly yelled out while He was speaking, that Jesus spoke the words that follow.

He held nothing back. This was not just another session of challenge. The Scribes and Pharisees had admitted defeat in that regard. This was to be the final denouement. He had given them every opportunity, but they had given no ground at all, simply falling back on silence when their false ideas were shown up, and He knew therefore that it was important that, with His death and resurrection fast approaching, it was made clear to all the people that the Scribes and Pharisees had failed in their responsibilities and were now being replaced by God. Thus He now publicly reveals the full truth about them. Compare Luke 12:39-52 where He had addressed them to the Scribes and Pharisees more privately. The vineyard was about to be let out to other tenants (His disciples), and it was important that all should know why, and should be convinced that it was necessary. We should note that had there not been solid truth in His words they would have been ineffective and would have been waved aside and treated with contempt. It was because of the truth that all saw that they contained that they were so angry and determined that now He must die as soon as it could be arranged.

His words are spoken in seven ‘ouais’, a word meaning ‘woe/alas’ (see its use in Matthew 24:19). They are a combination of plea, heartbreak, sadness and judgment. And in view of the many parallels between this chapter and the Sermon on the Mount there is little doubt that Matthew intends us to parallel them with the seven blessings of Matthew 5:3-9 (note how blessing and woes are paralleled in Luke 6:20-26). For the new tenants (Matthew 21:41) there was much blessing, but for these old, rejected tenants there is only woe. The Sermon on the Mount had been a call to action, spoken to those who were being called, this sermon is a solemn indictment of those who have been rejected, although also taking the occasion to speak to those who are being called, and to warn them against the same failings (Matthew 23:2-10).

A comparison of the two lists is interesting. Thus:

* Theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven --- you shut up the Kingly Rule of Heaven to men.

* They will be comforted (spiritually strengthened) --- you make him (the proselyte convert) a son of Gehenna

* They shall inherit the (new) earth --- you emphasise the man-centred things and miss out on the God-centred.

* They will be filled (with righteousness) --- you strain out herbs and miss out on justice, mercy and faithfulness.

* They will obtain mercy --- you cling on to your inner filthiness.

* The pure in heart -- will see God --- you are outwardly righteous and whitened but inwardly full of hypocrisy and iniquity, and like a dark and bonefilled grave.

* The peacemakers -- will be called sons of God --- you are sons of your fathers who slew the prophets.

For further parallels with the Sermon on the Mount consider the following:

* It was in that Sermon that He had first castigated the Scribes and Pharisees and rejected their righteousness as unacceptable (Matthew 5:20), here we are told in detail why their righteousness is unacceptable, and learn that they appear righteous and are not (Matthew 23:28).

* The reference to ‘your Father in Heaven’, now spoken again to the disciples in Matthew 23:9, is elsewhere only found in the Sermon on the Mount (regularly all through).

* The requirement to ‘do and observe’ (Matthew 23:2) matches the final emphasis in the Sermon (see Matthew 7:21-27).

* The hypocrisies of the Scribes and Pharisees in trying to make themselves noticed which are described here, are parallel to similar ideas in Matthew 6:1-18.

* The behaviour of the Scribes and Pharisees in closing the kingly Rule of Heaven to men contrasts with the opening of the Kingly Rule of Heaven to men in Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:10; Matthew 5:20; Matthew 6:10; Matthew 6:33; Matthew 7:21.

* Reference to swearing by the Temple and the throne of God and Heaven (Matthew 23:16; Matthew 23:22) parallels similar ideas in Matthew 5:34-35.

* The ‘blindness’ of the Scribes and PhariseesMatthew 23:16-17; Matthew 23:16-17; Matthew 23:19; Matthew 23:24; Matthew 23:26 is explained in Matthew 6:22-23, compare Matthew 5:29.

* The emphasis on justice, mercy and faith in Matthew 23:23 parallels Matthew 5:38-48.

* The idea of the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites Matthew 23:13; Matthew 23:15; Matthew 23:23; Matthew 23:25; Matthew 23:27; Matthew 23:29 is paralleled in Matthew 6:2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:16; compare Matthew 7:5. See also Matthew 15:7; Matthew 16:3; Matthew 22:18.

* Their treatment of the prophets (Matthew 23:29-36) and those whom Jesus will send parallels the similar ideas in Matthew 5:10-12.

* Reference to them as serpents and the offspring of vipers (Matthew 23:33, compare Matthew 3:7; Matthew 12:34) parallels the idea of their being like ravening wolves (Matthew 7:15).

* The desolation of their house (Matthew 23:38) parallels the collapse of the house in Matthew 7:27.

The seven ‘woes’ that follow can also be compared with the seven woes in Isaiah 5:8-23 with Matthew 11:1-11 (we have already seen how important Isaiah is to Matthew); the woes in Habakkuk 2:6-20; and the six woes in Luke 11:37-54, where He spoke to them in more privacy hoping that His words might have some effect (compare also Luke 6:20-26). All of these words were spoken when dark clouds were hanging over Israel, and all spoke in anticipation of coming disasters. Jesus clearly felt that the situations facing the people in the days of Isaiah and Habakkuk also applied to the people of His own day (compare Matthew 13:14-15), and, following their example, probably pronounced woes a number of times, thus directly drawing those days to the attention of the people and aligning them with His own day.

The seven ‘woes’ can be analysed as arising as follows:

a Through their failure to recognise that the Kingly Rule of Heaven had broken in on them and at the same time closing the door to others (Matthew 23:13-14).

b Through their misleading others as to what is genuinely important by making their converts become possessed with their own wrong ideas (Matthew 23:15).

c Through their looking at what was superficial with regard to religious matters rather than recognising the reality that lay beneath (Matthew 23:16-22).

d Through their concentration on the minutiae of their interpretations of the Law rather than on what was really important, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness, because they actually in practical terms did see the minutiae as more important (Matthew 23:23-24).

c Through their behaving superficially in dealing with externals rather than recognising the dark reality that lay within (Matthew 23:25-26).

b Through their misleading others as to what is genuinely important, by ‘whitewashing’ themselves by pious behaviour while being spiritually dead underneath (Matthew 23:27-28).

a Through their failure to recognise the messengers of God who had come to them, in the same way as their predecessors had done (Matthew 23:29-33).

The parallels between ‘a’ and ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘b’ and ‘c’ and ‘c’ are clear to see, and it should be noted that Jesus sees as central in ‘d’ their failure to exercise justice, mercy and faith because they are too concerned with over-zealousness about the minutiae of ritual. They were dedicated to the wrong things.

Verse 15

“Woe/alas to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is become so, you make him twofold more a son of Gehenna than yourselves.”

The idea of the prevention of others from entering the Kingly Rule of Heaven is taken a step further by considering their efforts to win even Gentiles to God’s Law, and then to so concentrate their minds on their own one-sided interpretation of it that they made them worse than themselves, and more fitted for Gehenna even than they were. Compare here Matthew 18:6-9. His words to His own disciples had been equally as severe, the only difference being that while for them it was only potential, for the Scribes and Pharisees it had actually happened. They had a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, and had become prisoners of their own emphases, and they had failed to shake themselves out of it when it was drawn to their attention (Luke 11:42-52). There is a warning in this for us all not to become so tied down in detail that we overlook the greater truths.

‘Proselyte.’ A technical term for a convert to Judaism who had been circumcised and had thus become accepted as a Jew. There is possibly an indication here of the fact that the zeal of some of these Scribes and Pharisees was so great that they made great efforts (‘travel over land and sea’ is probably a proverbial saying) to bring the attention of Gentiles to the Law of God, but more probably a specific case is in mind. We can compare here Philo, Josephus and the inter-testamental writers, although how far their efforts were intended to produce conversions rather than just ensure acceptability for Judaism is debatable. However, Jesus may well have had in mind a specific case where a particularly important Gentile (or group of Gentiles) had shown interest in Judaism and had been assiduously courted with much effort, even involving sending leading Teachers abroad in order to advise them. Or it may have in mind that once a Gentile entered a synagogue as a God-fearer because of his appreciation of the moral teaching of the Law, he could count on being immediately surrounded by Scribes and Pharisees who would then seek to ground him in their own ideas. The result would be that the converts, who had originally been attracted by the morality found in the Law, would find themselves given a very one-sided view of the Law with an overemphasis on ritual, and so would become even more fanatical than their teachers (as often happens to converts). If a specific case was in mind in which what Jesus describes had happened it would explain such a generalisation. Josephus mentions the fact that aspects that were often of particular interest to Gentiles were Sabbath keeping, fasting, lighting of lamps and abstention from certain foods, hardly things that God had intended should attract the most attention, but certainly things favoured by the Pharisees.

‘Land and sea.’ Perhaps Jesus had in mind His own outreaches to the Gentiles which had involved longer journeys and crossing the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:23; Matthew 8:28; Matthew 9:1; Matthew 15:21; Matthew 16:5; Matthew 16:13). We must remember that Jesus was rarely outside Palestine. Crossing land and sea must have seemed to Him a huge effort. Or as we have suggested He may well have had a particular example in mind.

‘A son of Gehenna’. Contrast ‘sons of the Kingly Rule’ and compare ‘sons of the evil one’ (Matthew 13:38). They had entered the road that led to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) and had made themselves deserving of it. Gehenna (based on the idea of the burning rubbish dumps in the Valley (ge) of Hinnom) signifies the place of final punishment.

Note that in Matthew 5:4 the blessed will be comforted and strengthened, that is will receive all the good things that God has for them, but these on whom He declares ‘woes’ become sons of Gehenna.

Verses 16-17

“Woe/alas to you, you blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing, but whoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor.’ You fools and blind, for which is greater, the gold, or the temple which has sanctified the gold?”

Jesus is so moved by the idea of how they are turning both Jews and Gentiles from the truth that He changes His description from ‘hypocrites’ to ‘blind guides’, and He gives an example of the way in which they take men’s minds off the essentials and fix them on what is marginal. By what they advise men to swear on they treat the gold in the Temple as more important than the Temple itself. Their eyes are not fixed on the great King himself, to Whom the Temple points, but on the great treasury which contains their gold. In other words they are not on God but on Mammon, even if it is ‘sanctified’ Mammon (Matthew 6:24). But if they had only thought about it honestly they would have recognised that the Temple as the symbol of God’s presence, and as such being the very reason for the gold being offered, was far, far more important than the gold within it. The One to Whom the offerings are made is more important than the offerings. On the other hand their concentration is on their offerings. They have made the creature more important than the Creator. (They have failed to recognise that God is Spirit and that those who worship Him must worship Him in Spirit and in truth - John 4:24). Thus they are ‘fools and blind’.

The use of ‘fools’ had been forbidden in Matthew 5:22 in private conversations. But it was different for the One Who was the Judge of all men when giving His official indictment. These people, who easily called others ‘fools’, had proved to be ‘fools’ themselves in the most important thing of all, their attitude towards God. The use of the term here confirms how carefully the actual words of Jesus were preserved. No one would have put what seems to be such a contradiction onto His lips by accident.

‘Whoever shall swear -- he is a debtor.’ They considered that to swear by the Temple did not make a man liable to perform his oath, but that to swear by the gold of the Temple did. What could more indicate where their hearts were set? It was set on aspects of their own ‘worship’ rather than on the One Whom they claimed to worship. Part of the reason might well have been because these were physical things that the ordinary people participated in, and might therefore be seen as more connected with them, but that was only because their spiritual vision was blurred. Had their hearts been right that would not have been so. Some suggest that the idea was in order to prevent people from swearing on something so sacred as the Temple, but that was probably an idea that grew up later when the Temple was no more. Jesus seems to be suggesting that their attitude towards the Temple here was rather somewhat casual in comparison with their views about their way of worship, possibly because they did not see themselves as closely connected with it (in their view it had been built by an impostor). And the Temple, we should remember, was outside Pharisaic control. We can therefore understand why their concentration was on the Law and the people’s contributions. So it might well have been that they concentrated more on things with which the people were directly involved, and wanted others to do so as well. (We can compare how, as Christianity became more ‘formal’, concentration for many turned on things like ‘relics’ instead of being fixed on God Himself. God became far off. In their formalism they had lost the significance of His words in John 4:24).

‘You blind guides.’ The alteration in address from ‘Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites’ is an indication that we have here Jesus’ own words. Somebody just giving the gist of His words would have used the same formula as on the other woes. But we can see perfectly how Jesus, deeply moved at how they are keeping people out of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, might switch to this description.

Verses 16-22

Their Failure To Discern What Is Truly Holy (23:16-22).

Their next condemnation lies in the fact that they lay greater emphasis on their own gifts and offerings than they do on the God-provided and thus ‘holy’ means of approach to Himself. They emphasise their own works rather than God’s provision. Thus instead of ‘seeing God’ their eyes are filled with their own religious activity.


a “Woe/alas to you, you blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing, but whoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor.’ You fools and blind, for which is greater, the gold, or the temple which has sanctified the gold?” (Matthew 23:16-17).

b “And, ‘Whoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing, but whoever shall swear by the gift that is on it, he is a debtor’ ” (Matthew 23:18).

c “You blind ones, for which is greater, the gift, or the altar which sanctifies the gift?” (Matthew 23:19).

b “He therefore who swears by the altar, swears by it, and by all things that are on it” (Matthew 23:20).

a “And he who swears by the temple, swears by it, and by him who dwells in it. And he who swears by the heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him who sits on it” (Matthew 23:21-22).

Note that in ‘a’ the emphasis is on the greatness and holiness of the Temple as the earthly ‘dwellingplace’ of God, and in the parallel that is emphasised. In ‘b’ reference is made to the altar, and in the parallel the supremity of the altar over against what is offered on it is brought out. Centrally in ‘c’ emphasis is laid on the fact that what sanctifies is greater than what is sanctified.

Verse 18

“And, ‘Whoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing, but whoever shall swear by the gift that is on it, he is a debtor’.”

Jesus gives a further example of their folly. They declare that to swear by the altar signified nothing, while to swear by the gifts on the altar was essentially binding, and made the person a debtor to fulfil their oath. This again revealed the same attitude of concentration on the means of worship (with which they felt closely connected), rather than on the central truth that they could only come to God through the shedding of blood as symbolised by the God-provided altar. We can compare here the great vision of Ezekiel where the Temple on the high mountain away from Jerusalem was a heavenly one. There was no suggestion that it be built. The only thing required to be built was an altar, for that was physically necessary so that they could approach God by the shedding of blood through His heavenly Temple. Once they had this they could worship without an earthly Temple through the heavenly Temple. Thus the altar was seen as having a central place in the worship of God.

Verse 19

“You blind ones, for which is greater, the gift, or the altar which sanctifies the gift?”

Then He passes His verdict and confirms why He considers that they are spiritually blind. Jesus’ point is that they lay too much stress on inessentials, and not sufficient on the reality of the living God. (This was in fact their whole problem all the way through). In His eyes the gifts only become important because of their connection with the Temple and the altar, which point beyond themselves to God. It is through them that the gifts ‘are made holy’, and thus they are of the greatest importance. Jesus recognises that until His own sacrifice of Himself has been completed the altar and the Temple are essential, while on the other hand the gifts and offerings made there are simply man’s participation in it. Thus the problem with the Scribes and Pharisees is that their worship is not based on the spiritual realities, with God filling the vision, but on the physical and the emotional aspects of coming and making their offerings, and therefore they do not encourage men, as it were, to break through to God. They are rather holding men at a distance from God. And as a result they do not thereby come under the Kingly Rule of God. They are rather taken up with what they do themselves, their means of worship, and their participation in it. They too therefore never come to see themselves as ‘sanctified’ (compare Hebrews 2:11), but as sinners afar off.

Verses 20-22

“He therefore who swears by the altar, swears by it, and by all things that are on it. And he who swears by the temple, swears by it, and by him who dwells in it. And he who swears by the heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him who sits on it.”

So now He tries to turn their thoughts Heavenward. Note the advance in thought. First the altar where propitiation can be made and men can approach God, then the Temple from which worship and prayer and incense is offered and where God can be seen as symbolically present, then Heaven where God is present in majesty, and then especially ‘the throne of God’ where, as it were, God Himself is seated in glory. That was where their worship should have led them, rather than simply to admiring and concentrating on their own gifts (compare 1 Kings 8:27). Note the parallels with Matthew 5:34-35, but here the thought is not on whether oaths are acceptable, but on the fact that their attitude to oaths indicates that the whole direction of their thinking is wrong. It is concentrated on the works and contributions of man rather than on the grace and holiness of God.

Note that in Matthew 3:5 that believers will ‘inherit the earth’ (receive God’s fullness of blessing) but these miss out on God’s fullness of blessing because their concentration is on their own giving and not on Him.

Verse 23

“Woe/alas to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith, but these you ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone.”

This then brings Him to the central point in the main chiasmus, which emphasises and expands on the previous point. All their concentration is on the minutiae of religious observance and the Law, rather than on considering the more important matters of justice, mercy and faith. One thing that was unique about the Mosaic Law was its emphasis on the morality that was required by God. And this was the aspect that they should have mainly emphasised, the doing of His will (compare Matthew 7:21; Matthew 12:50). But this was something that, with their emphasis on ritual, they were overlooking and thrusting into the background. Instead of having broad minds, and seeing all in the light of the moral holiness and compassion of God, and recognising that herein was the distinctiveness of the Law of Moses, they rather saw the distinctiveness of Judaism as being found in terms of the peripheries which were intended to point them Godward. The observance of the Sabbath, fasting, washing and waiting on God, tithing, offerings and sacrifices, and all the other rituals were intended to turn their hearts and minds on God, but they got so tied up in what they were doing that God was kept in the background.

He points out that they were perfectly right in seeking to assiduously obey the ritual Law by tithing, even when it went beyond what had not been specifically required. Giving a tenth of their produce as an act of gratitude for deliverance from Egypt was an essential part of God’s commandments, and to go beyond what was required because of love for God would be admirable. But where they were not right was in making that the most important part of their observance of the Law. Far more important was an emphasis on justice and fairplay, on revealing compassion and mercy, and on walking in faith and faithfulness before God (compare 1 Samuel 15:22-23; Isaiah 1:11-18). For it was for such a life as that that He had delivered them from Egypt. Jesus may well have had in mind the words of Micah 6:8, ‘what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy (covenant love) and to walk humbly with your God?’ For His point is that justice, mercy and faithfulness were at the heart of the Law (compare Genesis 18:19; Exodus 34:7; Deuteronomy 1:16-18; Deuteronomy 1:21; Deuteronomy 1:32; Deuteronomy 17:8-13). And in this regard we should note how justice was administered at the outer veil of the inner Sanctuary, and mercy was obtained at the altar and dispensed through the inner veil of the inner Sanctuary, emphasising how important they were. This was where their thoughts should have been, on the otherness, holiness and mercy of God.

‘These you ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone.’ That was not to dismiss the tithes. While the Temple still remained and the priests and Levites still ministered there, the tithes were necessary, and they also provided food for the poor, especially at the feasts. Jesus did not want His disciples to fail in their responsibilities towards the Temple and towards the poor. But they must recognise the tithes for what they were, a contribution, and not the be all and end all of their spiritual lives. They were not intended to be the means of showing how pious they were. The main contribution of the people was to be in justice, mercy and faithfulness.

In the case of these Pharisees they believed that they should tithe even the smallest thing. Well and good. In that case it continued to be right for them to do so. For where a man is convinced that something is right as a result of the way he interprets Scripture, for that person at that time it becomes obligatory. What we think we ought to do, actually becomes our responsibility to do. ‘Whatever is not of faith is sin’ (Romans 14:23). But justice, mercy and faithfulness was even more important.

Verses 23-24

Their Failure To Observe The More Important Aspects Of The Law Because Of Their Concentration On The Detail (23:23-24).


a “Woe/alas to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23 a).

b “But these you ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23 b).

a “You blind guides, who strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!” (Matthew 23:24).

In ‘a’ they concentrate on the minutiae and ignore what matters most, and in the parallel they strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. Centrally in ‘b’ they ought to pay attention to both, especially the weightier matters.

Verse 24

“You blind guides, who strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!”

He summarises their position by a huge contrast. The gnat (qamla) was one of the smallest of creatures, the camel (gamla) the largest in Palestine. Note the play on words in the Aramaic. They are so one-sided in vision spiritually that when they see that a gnat (qamla) has fallen into their drink they carefully strain it out in order not to partake of an ‘unclean’ creeping thing, but when a camel (gamla) falls into the drink (equally ‘unclean’) they swallow it down without even noticing it. The point is that they are such blind guides that they concentrate on dealing with the small things with great care, and practically ignore the big things altogether, without bothering to consider them. They spend hours splitting their dill and cummin into tenths and nine tenths, and ensuring that they have missed none, and even include mint which was not necessarily titheable, and yet they pass over justice, mercy and faithfulness as though they did not matter. They are too busy with the intricate details to spend much time on large matters.

Note that in the fourth blessing (Matthew 5:6) the blessed are to be filled with righteousness, which they hunger and thirst after. But these, while avoiding an unclean gnat, will be filled with an unclean camel which they did not even notice!

Verse 25

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the bowl, but within they are full from extortion and excess.”

Note that this parallels those who lay great weight on their own gifts and offerings, which have a derived holiness, rather than on what is intrinsically holy (Matthew 23:16-22). That prevented them from genuinely approaching the living God. Here their fault lies in cleansing externals while not being concerned about what lies beneath, and thus failing to please God. In both cases it is to miss what is essential for the sake of the inessential. They laid great stress on the ritual cleansing of pottery, and of their own outer bodies, but they ignored what lay within themselves and were thus full of ‘extortion’ (obtaining things by false means) and ‘excess’ (lack of self-control, self indulgence). It is not, of course, that the Scribes and Pharisees were particularly evil men. They simply indulged in the same corrupt practises as many others. The difference lies in the fact that they set themselves up as the standard by which others should be judged, and as the custodians of the people’s morals, and should thus have been a glowing example to others. But they were not. Their light should have been shining before men (Matthew 5:16), but instead it was dimmed and distorted. When we call ourselves Christians we too have to beware that our lives are consistent with what we believe, or we too will come under the same condemnation.

The picture of the Pharisee carefully cleaning the outside of a vessel while at the same time it was full of filthiness, without bothering about the inside, is probably intended to be amusing as well as telling. Jesus constantly uses caricature to get over His point. But in the application the vessel is themselves, keeping their outsides clean with constant washings, and yet not worrying about the inner heart. It was certainly typical of much of what they did, and much of what many of us do.

Verses 25-28

Two Examples Of The Way In Which They Put On A Show But Do Not Deal With What Is Unacceptable Underneath (23:25-28).

Having demonstrated that justice, mercy and compassion, and faithfulness was to enjoy the major focus of their thinking Jesus now demonstrates by illustration where they are falling short. They are concentrating on externals rather than what comes from the inner heart. Fulfilling ritual correctly has become more important than dealing justly with people, revealing compassion and being faithful to His will.


a “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the bowl, but within they are full from extortion and excess” (Matthew 23:25).

b “You blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the bowl” (Matthew 23:26 a).

c “That the outside of it may become clean also” (Matthew 23:26 b).

b “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

a “Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28).

Note that in ‘a’ they cleanse the outside and not the inside, and in the parallel they appear righteous on the outside but are not on the inside. In ‘b’ they are told to cleanse the inside, and in the parallel we have the reason why the inside need to be cleaned. Centrally in ‘c’ we have the main purpose, which is that both inside and outside might be clean.

Verse 26

“You blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the bowl, that the outside of it may become clean also.”

But what they should have done was first ensure that the inside was clean. Then there might be some point in cleansing the outside. For the outside cannot be truly clean until the inside is. Indeed the result of making the inside clean will, in the case of a human being, result in the outside becoming clean as well.

There is possibly in mind here the different views of Hillel and Shammai with regard to cleansing vessels. Hillel stressed the need for the inside to be cleansed. Shammai required both inside and outside to be cleansed.

Note the continual emphasis on their blindness (16, 17, 19, 24, 26). Jesus wants it to be recognised that they are spiritually blind and are merely stumbling along (Matthew 15:14; Luke 6:39; John 9:39; John 12:40), and are therefore not reliable guides. And yet this is the problem. They do not even realise that their own insides are filthy.

In Matthew 5:7 the merciful obtain mercy, for they recognise their own sinfulness, but these who are the opposite of being merciful and pure in heart see nothing, not even their own filthiness, and therefore they do not seek mercy (compare the Pharisee and the Public Servant in Luke 18:9-14), nor are they merciful. They are content with what they are.

A friend of mine who used to visit the old went one day to the house of an old lady who was blind. He was shocked at the state of the house, with dirt lying thick all around, cobwebs everywhere and with its general state of uncleanliness, but he was even more saddened when the old lady turned to him and said proudly, ‘you know, this is my house. It may be poor but at least its clean.’ The sad thing was that her efforts to keep it clean had failed because she was blind, and she could not see it as it really was. Nor could she see what needed cleaning. That was the problem of the Scribes and Pharisees. They saw themselves as they imagined themselves to be and not as they really were (and they are not the only ones, but the point in their case was that they laid claim to be different. They claimed credit for being ‘observers of the Law’, and men thus followed their example).

Verses 27-28

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear beautiful, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

It was the custom in Palestine as the Feast of Passover approached, to generally clear up the highways and especially to mark the graves. This would be done by whitewashing them, so that pilgrims who did not know the district would not accidentally come into contact with them and be rendered ‘unclean’ for seven days (Numbers 19:16), thus missing out on the Feast. Thus for a time they looked sparkling white, they were ‘beautiful’. But it did not obscure the fact that inside the tombs were rotting flesh and dead men’s bones. The same was true of the Scribes and Pharisees. They put on a show on the outside but they were dead and putrefying inside.

We do not need to over-emphasise ‘beautiful’. Jesus is not setting an aesthetic standard but indicating the difference between an unkempt and uncared for grave, and their smartness once they had been cleaned up and painted, and looked respectable. Indeed in many cases the whitewashing would draw attention to their beauty, for the purpose of tombstones and monuments was often in order to be ‘beautiful’ as the resting place of their occupants. It is, however, quite possible that people did tend to try to actually beautify them as well, especially at such times.

Jesus applies the picture to the Scribes and Pharisees. They too ‘whitewashed’ themselves by their ritual activities, but were inwardly unclean, ‘full of hypocrisy and lawlessness’. They were in total contrast with the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8) who saw God. The charge of ‘lawlessness’ is especially poignant, for they prided themselves on observing the Law. But that was their problem. They selected which parts they would keep, and those tended to concentrate on the religious ritual which was observable by God and men. Instead of being pure in heart (Matthew 5:8) they were whitewashed on the outside. There may also be a reference in this ‘whiteness’ to the fact that some wore white robes in order to make an impression of purity.

Verses 29-30

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the sepulchres of the prophets, and garnish the monuments 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’.”

The thought of whitewashed tombs leads on to the way they treat the tombs of the prophets, and the monuments to ‘the righteous’. They honour both prophets and righteous men of the past. They build their tombs and decorate their monuments (Herod the Great had built a new marble monument over David’s tomb. It was an age of such gestures. And the Scribes and Pharisees, as well as the people, heartily approved of it because of their admiration for David, even if they did not like Herod and did not do it themselves. And the wealthier among them would almost certainly have contributed to similar gestures). ‘Righteous men’ are those well known from their history for their faithfulness to God (compare Hebrews 11:0). Once men are dead they very often become seen as respectable and acceptable, and that is what has happened in this case. Once they are safely out of the way and could no longer make accusations or demands they were honoured.

And indeed the Scribes and Pharisees and the people smugly said, (and probably believed it), ‘If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ They were actually convinced that their attitude to prophets and righteous men was the right one, and that had they been alive in their day they would have listened to them and followed them. They totally overlooked their own attitude towards John the Baptist and their plots against Jesus, and their willingness to beat people who disagreed with them. After all, that was different. He could not really be righteous, for He did not agree with them, and all should recognise they only beat people who were in the wrong, (that is who were opposed to or neglected their teaching). And the same attitude would apply to His followers, for while He criticised their righteousness, they criticised His and theirs (Matthew 9:3; Matthew 9:11; Matthew 9:34; Matthew 12:2; Matthew 12:24). And they would continue to do so. They no doubt said that He took things too far, and applied them too literally. What was needed was balance, (that is, to take up their position). Thus they considered that it was probably better for all if He was out of the way. For He was not really ‘a prophet’. He was a false prophet. So rejecting Him was not quite the same thing as rejecting the prophets.

Verses 29-33

In Spite Of Their Claims To Be Otherwise They Should Recognise That They Were Simply As Bad As Their Fathers (23:29-33).

Along with their generation the Scribes and Pharisees made a great fuss about the godly of the past by erecting and decorating their tombs and monuments. It made them feel that they were not like their fathers who had disposed of the prophets and the godly. But at the same time they rejected John the Baptist and were intent on getting rid of Jesus. They did not realise that they were thereby guilty of rejecting Someone greater than the prophets, for they were not spiritually attuned. Thus Jesus points out that they were essentially just like their fathers.


a “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the sepulchres of the prophets, and garnish the monuments of the righteous” (Matthew 23:29).

b “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’.” (Matthew 23:30).

c “Thus you witness to yourselves, that you are sons of those who slew the prophets (Matthew 23:31).

b “Fill you up then the measure of your fathers” (Matthew 23:32).

a “You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how will you escape the judgment of Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33).

Note that in ‘a’ they try to make a great fuss of the righteous dead, and in the parallel they do so because they are like vipers trying to escape the judgment of Gehenna. In ‘b’ they claim not to be like their fathers, and in the parallel Jesus tells them in fact that they really are, and sarcastically urges them to act accordingly (as they were in fact at this moment planning to do). Centrally in ‘c’ is the fact that they are showing all the time that they are the sons of those who slew the prophets.

Verses 31-32

“Thus you witness to yourselves, that you are sons of those who slew the prophets. Fill you up then the measure of your fathers.”

Jesus then points out to them that by all this they are simply drawing attention to the fact that they are the sons of those who slew the prophets. They are of the same blood and, although they may not think it, are demonstrating the same attitude, for they are at this very time plotting His death.

‘Fill you up then the measure of your fathers.’ This was a sarcastic way of telling them to carry on their plots against Him. It was all that could be expected for they were like their fathers and could therefore only be expected to behave like them. ‘The measure’ probably indicates that they will finally fill up what their fathers have commenced, referring to the limit put by God on the amount of sin He will tolerate, which once it is reached causes Him to act (compare Genesis 15:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:16).

Verse 33

“You serpents, you offspring of vipers, how will you escape the judgment of Gehenna?”

Jesus then depicts all their attempts to appear righteous as simply indicating that like snakes and vipers who are concerned to escape from danger, their concern is to escape the judgment of Gehenna. The picture is based on Matthew 3:7, and the snakes escaping from the cornfields as the reapers get to work. Compare also Matthew 12:34. The psalmists likened men to vipers because of the venom of their mouths (Psalms 58:4; Psalms 140:3) and because of their deafness in the face of entreaty (Psalms 58:4), while in the blessing of Jacob the serpent and the adder are pictured as lying in the way waiting to bite their victims and bring them crashing down from their mounts (Genesis 49:17). Thus Jesus is likening them to their fathers, they are venomous and deaf, and deceitfully waylay the unwary, and therefore have little hope of avoiding Gehenna.

Verse 34

“Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city,”

Jesus is aware that He must shortly die and rise again, and that as a result He will send out His messengers (Matthew 28:18-20), in the same way as He has done previously (chapter 10). He defines them in Old Testament and inter-testamental terms, ‘prophets (speakers of inspired words; see Matthew 5:10-12 where it includes the disciples) and wise men (teachers of wisdom from the Scriptures) and scribes (teachers of the Law; compare Matthew 13:52 where again disciples are in mind)’. Note how these cover the three sections of the Old Testament, the prophets, the wisdom literature and the Law. All would be needed in taking out His message.

In the light of the dangers of His time and the problems He would expect His disciples to face once they were out in the world into which He was sending them, He recognised that it was inevitable that some would be crucified at the instigation of the Jewish leadership or because of the suspicions of the authorities. It was the Roman way, and inevitable, and in anticipation of it He had already warned His followers that they were taking up the cross by following Him (Matthew 16:24). He also knew that others would certainly be killed in other ways (Matthew 10:21), for He had come to send fire on earth (Luke 12:49). In turbulent times men with a controversial message would always be in danger of their lives, while deaths from violent mobs out of control were not uncommon. He recognised only too well that many would certainly be beaten in the synagogues (Matthew 10:17). This was a common experience for Jews who displeased the synagogue authorities, for they were responsible for local discipline among Jews. And the greatest certainty of all was that most would at some stage be persecuted from city to city as had happened previously (Matthew 10:23). Those who spent themselves obtaining proselytes for Gehenna (Matthew 23:15) would also spend themselves in persecuting the righteous. It may well be that He was speaking here on the basis of information that had come through about what had already happened to some of His followers, for they were turbulent and violent times. Furthermore He already had the example of what had happened to John the Baptist to go by, to say nothing of His own expectation of being crucified (Matthew 20:19), and He could tell that some of these men were capable of anything. Anyone with spiritual awareness and a knowledge of the Scriptures, of the times and of the men who lived in them could in fact have forecast these things. They were inevitable in a world like ours.

Others see the emphatic ‘I’ in this verse as referring to God, and the words as therefore including the sending of the Old Testament and inter-testamental prophets, wise man and scribes.

Verses 34-36

Jesus Informs Them Of What Their Future Will Be (23:34-36).

Having warned the crowds and the disciples against being like the Scribes and Pharisees in their behaviour, ending with an exhortation to humble themselves and not to exalt themselves (Matthew 23:1-12), and having totally exposed the inadequacies of the Scribes and Pharisees in the seven woes, ending in an accusation that they are simply like vipers, deceitful and deaf to entreaty, lying in wait for their victims (Matthew 23:13-33), Jesus now unfolds the future both for the Scribes and Pharisees and their supporters (Matthew 23:34-36), and for the whole of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39).


a “Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes” (Matthew 23:34 a).

b “Some of them you will kill and crucify” (Matthew 23:34 b).

c “And some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city” (Matthew 23:34 c).

“That on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the righteous to the blood of Zachariah, son of Barachiah, whom you slew between the sanctuary and the altar” (Matthew 23:35).

“Truly I say to you, All these things will come on this generation” (Matthew 23:36).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus is sending to them messengers of every description, and in the parallel it is for the men of this generation. In ‘b’ their response will be to kill and crucify them, and in the parallel they will therefore have to bear the guilt of the blood of all the prophets. Centrally in ‘c’ is the fact that they will persecute His messengers.

Verse 35

“That on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the righteous to the blood of Zachariah, son of Barachiah, whom you slew between the sanctuary and the altar.”

And as a result of this behaviour they would also take the guilt of all the prophets who had died prior to this, on themselves, for all of them had died in preparing the way for the Messiah, so that to reject Him and His disciples would be to take on themselves the whole burden of guilt for those who had died before. For the idea of blood coming on someone in this way see Jeremiah 26:15. The thought has a Hebrew/Aramaic background.

Alternately the point is that God has continually held back His judgment up to this point, but now that the final day of salvation has arrived will release it on the present generation who will reject and crucify His Son. Probably there is an element of both in the words. The sins of the fathers will be visited on the children, because they are like their fathers.

For the blood of Abel the righteous see Genesis 4:0. He too was slain by a man who would not face up to his own sinfulness. For the blood of ‘Zachariah the son of Berechiah’ we probably have to look to the Jewish tradition of the time of Jesus, which sadly is not available to us. For this was probably the Zechariah, son of Berechiah, of Zechariah 1:0. Certainly we know that he had many dangerous opponents whom he had outfaced (Zechariah 10:3; Zechariah 11:8), and his words had undoubtedly stirred up deep antagonism against him (Zechariah 11:8; Zechariah 11:12-14; Zechariah 13:7), as he described them as worthless shepherds (Matthew 11:16-17) so such a death is quite likely to have happened to him and to have been remembered in the tradition. He may thus well have been the last prophet to have been martyred. The description ‘between the sanctuary and the altar’ is specific and suggests some specific and well known tradition. This makes it unlikely that this refers to Zechariah the ‘son’ (probably grandson, and therefore he could have been a son of Berechiah, which was not an uncommon name, compare 1 Chronicles 6:39) of Jehoiada, who while he was slain in the courtyard of the Lord’s house (2 Chronicles 24:21), was not said to have been slain in this specific place (the priestly section of the courtyard). If Jesus had been referring to him why would He not have cited what Scripture actually said about him? Other suggestions include the obvious one that it was an unknown prophet of whom we know nothing. But he was clearly well known in Jesus’ day.

Verse 36

“Truly I say to you, All these things will come on this generation.”

Jesus then makes clear quite forcibly (truly I say to you) that what He has been speaking about (their blood coming on them) will come on the present generation. He knows, as He will shortly explain to His disciples, that after His death God’s judgment will come on Jerusalem, and that that will include all the effects of a major invasion which would set alight the whole of Palestine, beginning in Galilee.

For the importance Jesus places on ‘this generation’ as the generation that faced its greatest opportunity and blew it see Matthew 11:16-19; Matthew 12:38-45; Matthew 17:17. Above all other generations it proved its unworthiness, for it was the only generation in history that had witnessed God made man walking among them. It stands for ever against the lie that if only God would reveal Himself we would believe.

Verse 37

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to her! How often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not!”

In these moving words Jesus sums up the people of Jerusalem the very heart of the Hebrew nation, and to a certain extent representative of the whole. It was a city whose economy was built around the Temple, and very religiously intense. Everything in it was bound up in religion, and it was because of their intensity of feeling that many came to live there as they grew older. But that was the problem. It was so intense that it was not open to the truth. Like the Scribes and Pharisees, who were typical of it, it was so bound up in ritual that it could not see beyond it. It had killed (Matthew 23:34) and stoned (2 Chronicles 24:21) the prophets (compare Matthew 21:35), and now it had rejected the One Who had finally come to take them under His wing. This last picture is a beautiful one. In time of danger the mother hen would call her chicks to hide under her wings, and this was what Jesus had offered Jerusalem (compare Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalms 17:8; Psalms 36:7; Psalms 91:4; Isaiah 31:5; etc). The message is that there was total security in Him. It was another subtle claim to be the Beloved Son. He is acting in the place of God. But they refused to find their shelter in Him (compare Isaiah 30:15).

It is noteworthy that Jesus could never look on Jerusalem without similar words coming to His lips. Compare Luke 13:34. It may well be that He had composed a dirge over Jerusalem which He repeated whenever He saw it.

Verses 37-39

Judgment Is To Come On That Generation Who Will Slay Jesus and His Followers In The Form Of The Destruction Of Jerusalem (23:37-39).

Jesus finishes with a lament over Jerusalem. It is not just the Scribes and Pharisees who have rejected Him, it is Jerusalem. They had been singled out because of their claim to religious significance, but in the end it was the whole of Jerusalem which had turned its back on Him. Time and again He had made His plea to them (note how His words assume a number of visits as portrayed in John’s Gospel) but they had refused Him. Now only desolation could await them in the very house of God which would be left barren, for God was again departing from them as He had before (see Ezekiel 10:18-19; Ezekiel 11:22-23). But nevertheless He would return again, but only to those who welcomed Him in the Name of the Lord (as the pilgrims had welcomed Him into Jerusalem - Matthew 21:9). The idea is twofold. He would return in power after His resurrection through His disciples to all who would receive Him (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1-11), and He would return for His own at the last day (Matthew 24:31).


a “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to her! How often would I have gathered your children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37).

b “Behold, your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38).

a “For I say to you, You shall not see me henceforth, until you shall say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’ ” (Matthew 23:39).

Note how in ‘a’ He would have gathered them under His protection, and in the parallel they will one day say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’. Central in ‘b’ is the certainty of the desolation of the Temple.

Verse 38

“Behold, your house is left to you desolate.”

And because they had refused Him there was nowhere else to turn. They were so intense about their possession of God’s house that they could not see beyond it, and the sad consequence would be its desolation. It would both lose its significance and be destroyed, for God had deserted it. Note that it is the desertion that is emphasised here Compare ‘I have forsaken My house, I have cast off My heritage’ (Jeremiah 12:7). It was His earthly dwellingplace no more. (See 1 Kings 9:6-9; Isaiah 64:10-11; Jeremiah 12:7-8. It is quite remarkable how in a resurgent Israel the rebuilding of the Temple has been made impossible by the presence of the Mosque of Omar. Only God could have thought that one out. There is no future for an earthly Temple).

It is of some interest in the light of this chapter to recognise that the later Rabbis when making their declaration about the reason for the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 AD stated that it was ‘because in it prevailed hatred without cause’. They too recognised that Jerusalem had bought its destruction on itself.

Verse 39

“For I say to you, You shall not see me from now on, until you shall say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

And the people would never see Him again until their hearts were open to receive Him, until they were ready to welcome Him as the pilgrims had welcomed Him into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9), and as had been promised in the Psalms (Psalms 118:26). In other words until they would acknowledge His Messiahship and more. But it should be noted that in the Greek ‘until’ reflects not certainty of fulfilment, but doubt whether it will be fulfilled. It is an offer that is open. There is no guarantee that it will be fulfilled.

For some it would happen within the next few years as His first assault was made on Jerusalem (Acts 1-11) and thousands welcomed Him. They would not only bless Him Who came in the Name of the Lord, but they would also be baptised into His Name (Matthew 28:19). For the ‘henceforth’ (from now on - ap arti) compare Matthew 26:29; Matthew 26:64. In Matthew 26:64 the Jewish leaders are promised that His reception of enthronement would shortly be manifested to them in what would happen after they had sentenced Him to death. Then they would see with their own eyes the manifestation of His power, and the fact that He had been made both Lord and Christ. In Matthew 26:69 the manifestation of His presence was so near that He would not again drink of the fruit of the vine until His Kingly Rule had come, when once again He would drink it with them under His Father’s Kingly Rule. (Luke has ‘until the Kingly Rule of God comes’, and in Luke the ‘coming of the Kingly Rule of God’ regularly indicates its present manifestation rather than its future eternal existence - see Luke 10:9; Luke 10:11; Luke 11:20; Luke 17:20). So ‘from now on’ indicates the crisis of the moment and then points to the continuing nature of what will follow.

For others it would possibly await the end times, for the general impression of the Old Testament is of a turning to God after their times of suffering. We cannot, however, be sure that that will be so because those promises could be referring to ‘the last days’ which began at the resurrection (Acts 2:17; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Hebrews 1:2; Hebrews 9:26-28; 1 Peter 1:20; 1 Peter 4:7). We may distinguish now from then but in Scripture it is all one. However, if Israel is to turn to God it can only be by their repenting and turning to their Messiah. There is no other way. And in the end, however recalcitrant old Israel is, the assurance is that He will triumph. For He is founding a new Israel, which will spring from the old (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 21:43; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; Jas 1:1 ; 1 Peter 1:1; 1 Peter 2:9). That is what this message is promising. It is the future of old, cast off Israel (Matthew 21:43; Romans 11:15) that is in doubt, not His. For one day all His true people will say, ‘Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the LORD’.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/matthew-23.html. 2013.
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