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Matthew 23:1. Then spake Jesus.—The day of grace is over for the leaders of the people; but for the people themselves there may still be hope; so the Lord of the temple turns to the multitude, the general throng of worshippers, mingled with whom were several of His own disciples, and solemnly warns them against their spiritual guides. There is every reason to suppose that many of the scribes and Pharisees were within hearing; for when He has finished what He has to say to the people, He turns round and addresses them directly in that series of terrible denunciations which follow.—(Gibson).
Matthew 23:2. In Moses’ seat.—That is, as interpreters of the law given by Moses (Brown).
Matthew 23:3. Do, but do not.—(See R.V.). His warning is couched in such a way as not in the least degree to weaken their respect for Moses, or for the sacred Scriptures, the exposition of which was the duty of their spiritual guides. He separates sharply between the office and the men who hold it (Gibson).
Matthew 23:5. To be seen of men.—They did works, many works; but they did them theatrically (Morison). Phylacteries.—Passages of the law upon leaves of parchment which the Jews at the time of prayer bound, one on the left arm, one on the forehead, to show that the law should be in the heart and in the head. At first, they were simply remembrancers of the law; the heathen notion, that they were personal means of defence against evil spirits, did not arise till afterward. It is probable that the perversion was not perfect at the time of our Lord; otherwise He would have done more than condemn their enlargement of these phylacteries, i.e. hypocrisy and boastfulness in matters of religion (Lange). The borders of their garments.—The wearing of memorial fringes on the borders of the garments rested on a Divine ordinance (Numbers 15:37-40; Deuteronomy 22:12). In Scripture these fringes are prescribed to be of blue, the symbolical colour of the covenant; but the Mishnah allows them also to be white (Edersheim).
Matthew 23:6. Uppermost rooms.—Chief place (R.V.). The Jews, like the Romans, reclined at meals on couches, called triclinia—each seat containing three seats, and each seat having its special dignity (Carr). Chief seats in the synagogues.—These were at the upper or Jerusalem end of the synagogue, where was the ark, or chest that contained the law. These were given, either by common consent, or by the elders of the synagogue, to those who were most conspicuous for their devotion to the law, and, as such, were coveted as a mark of religious reputation (Plumptre).
Matthew 23:7. Rabbi.—The word Rabbi was just budding into common use about our Saviour’s time. It is a Hebrew word, properly meaning “my Master,” and was originally used not in speaking of a master, but, vocatively. in speaking to a master (Morison). The true teaching on this point is found in the Talmud, “Love the work, but hate the title” (Carr).
Matthew 23:8. Master.—Teacher (R.V.). Even Christ.—Wanting in best MSS. and omitted in R.V. Probably crept into the text from a marginal explanatory note, completing the sense as in Matthew 23:10.
Matthew 23:9. Father.—Abba (father) is a name of honour corresponding to Rabbi (Juchasin, fol. 31, 2). To understand and follow such commands in the slavery of the letter, is to fall into the Pharisaism against which our Lord is uttering the caution (Alford).
Matthew 23:10. Masters.—The word is not the same as in Matthew 23:8, and signifies “guide” or “leader”; the “director” of conscience rather than the teacher. Cf. Romans 2:19 (Plumptre).
Matthew 23:11. Shall be your servant.—This plainly means, “shall show that he is so (greatest) by becoming your servant”; as in Matthew 20:27, compared with Mark 10:44 (Brown).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 23:1-12
The rights of enemies.—In the temporary confusion which follows that overthrow of His enemies which we described in our last, how does Jesus behave Himself towards them? In what language does He speak concerning them to those that stand by? This we are told in the verses before us. He speaks, on the one hand, in the language of testimony. He speaks, on the other hand, in the language of caution.
I. In the way of testimony.—Testimony which is not a little striking regarded in itself. “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). Their duty is to explain and enforce that which Moses has taught. To obey them, therefore, when they do this faithfully, is to obey Moses himself. It is also, He implies, and that with much emphasis, to do what is pleasing to Him. “Whatsoever they bid you” in this manner, that “do and observe” (Matthew 23:3, R.V.). Testimony which is still more striking when taken in connection with certain previous words and actions of His own. Long before He had made the announcement, “I am not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17). Here He upholds the authority of those undertaking to explain it. Some time before He Himself had shown respect to this kind of authority by directing Peter to pay for both of them the temple-tribute at Capernaum (Matthew 17:24-27). Now He goes farthest of all and openly enjoins on all who listen to Him to pay similar deference too. Most striking of all is this testimony when considered in connection with what has just been spoken to Him. What a juncture is that chosen by Him for this declaration of His will! Just after these scribes and Pharisees have been most unscrupulously plotting against His authority, He is thus scrupulous about theirs! Just when they have most disgraced their office, He honours it most! In the time of their confidence He had withstood them. In this time of their discomfiture He upholds them. What forbearance—what mercy—what meekness, are here!
II. In the way of caution.—While it is thus important to both the “multitude” and the “disciples” alike (Matthew 23:1) that they should honour every one to whom honour is due, it is equally important that they should not be seduced thereby into the commission of sin. Hence the counsels which follow. Counsels to all (apparently) about these teachers. Distinguish carefully between their teaching and their example. Their practice is faulty, even when their precepts are right. On the one hand, they “say and do not” (Matthew 23:3). The more onerous and irksome the precepts of Moses, the greater their eagerness in laying these requirements, not on themselves, but on others. On the other hand, in all such outward obedience as they themselves render to Moses there is an evil motive at work. To appear pious before men in their dress and demeanour, and to receive honour from men when appearing before them, are the real aims they pursue. Hence, even when they attain to success, their success is a loss. Special counsels next, on account of these things, to the disciples themselves. Do you who wish to be My disciples indeed, look to yourselves on these points. Look on one another only as brethren in Me (Matthew 23:8). Call no man your father (except in a subordinate sense) upon earth (Matthew 23:9). To you there must be but one ultimate Object of trust and source of command (Matthew 23:8-10). Amongst yourselves let your great object be not to be great. Pride, in short, is the object of those teachers. Humility must be yours. Wisely so, too (Matthew 23:12).
How insidious a thing is the love of human applause! This seems the great lesson to be learned here by ourselves. Our Saviour had dwelt on this much, at the beginning of His ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18). And here again, towards its close, when arrived at Jerusalem, and not far from the cross, He does the same thing. This love of men’s praise—this desire to be “seen” (Matthew 23:5)—this anxiety to be “chief” (Matthew 23:6)—was the thing which lay at the root of all the evil traceable in those teachers who were now seeking His death. It was to be specially avoided, therefore, by those other teachers who were about to go forth in His Name. What had ruined those who sat in Moses’ seat would be equally ruinous, if not avoided, to those who should stand in His place. It would be so because of the insidious and subtle manner in which it wrought on men’s minds. One principal peril of physical stimulants is to be found in the fact that they create a thirst for themselves. The more a man takes, the more he desires. The more, also, he thinks he requires. The like is true of that spiritual intoxicant—the love of distinction and praise. Therefore it is that the wise man has said, as in Proverbs 27:21. Equally mischievous is it also in shutting out the love of that which is better (John 5:44). There are few things, therefore, which the true follower of Jesus must be more careful to avoid.
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 23:1-3. The attitude to be taken towards the Pharisees.—Our Lord, having put His adversaries to silence, endeavours to save His people from their ways.
1. The people must be warned to beware of the contagion of corrupt teachers, when they will not amend their doings; for this is the course which Christ taketh about the Pharisees and scribes.
2. Albeit the faults of teachers must not be spared, yet their authority and office must be guarded, lest the message of God by their mouth be marred; their office must be defended, albeit their persons be corrupt. Therefore saith He, They sit in Moses’ seat, i.e. they succeed to Moses in the ordinary office of teaching the Word of God.
3. What Moses’ successors teach, as Moses’ successors, must be obeyed; that is, the truth which from the warrant of God’s word is recommended unto us from corrupt teachers, clad with lawful authority to teach, we ought to obey, because the message is the doctrine of God, albeit the messenger be corrupt.
4. People are in danger of following the example of the evil life of corrupt teachers rather than the command of God delivered in their doctrine, and therefore have need to be warned. “After their works do not.”
5. Whatsoever commanded works a man doth, and not for the commanded ends before God, it is as good as no doing; therefore, albeit the Pharisees did many works commanded in the law, yet because they did them to be seen of men, and as works meritorious to oblige God, and were more careful of the outward ceremonies of the law than to observe the moral duties of justice and mercy; therefore what they did was counted as if they did it not. “They say and do not.”—David Dickson.
Official relation to the law.—I. It is possible to know the law, and not obey it.
II. It is possible to teach, and not obey; hence:
III. Our duty is to be decided by the law, and not by the example of its teachers.
IV. In Jesus alone is perfect harmony between the teacher and the teaching.—J. C. Gray.
Matthew 23:4-7. Dead traditionalism.—
I. Its hardness.
II. Its falsehood. III. Its selfishness.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Matthew 23:5. Phylacteries.—If the practice of wearing borders with fringes had Scriptural authority, we are well convinced that no such plea could be urged for the so-called “phylacteries.” The observance arose from a literal interpretation of Exodus 13:9, to which even the later injunction in Deuteronomy 6:8 gives no countenance. This appears even from its repetition in Deuteronomy 11:18, where the spiritual meaning and purport of the direction is immediately indicated, and from a comparison with kindred expressions, which evidently could not be taken literally—such as Proverbs 3:3; Proverbs 6:21; Proverbs 7:3; Song of Solomon 8:6; Isaiah 49:16. The very term used by the Rabbis for phylacteries—“tephillin,” prayer-fillets—is of comparatively modern origin, in so far as it does not occur in the Hebrew Old Testament. The Samaritans did not acknowledge them as of Mosaic obligation, any more than do the Karaite Jews, and there is, what seems to us, sufficient evidence, even from Rabbinical writings, that in the time of Christ phylacteries were not universally worn, nor yet by the priests while officiating in the temple. Although the words of our Lord seem only expressly to condemn the making broad of the phylacteries for purposes of religious ostentation, it is difficult to believe that He Himself had worn them. At any rate, while any ordinary Israelite would only put them on at prayer or on solemn occasions, the members of the Pharisaic confraternity wore them all day long. The “tephillin” were worn on the left arm, towards the heart, and on the forehead. They consisted—to describe them roughly—of capsules, containing, on parchment (that for the forehead on four distinct parchments), these four passages of Scripture: Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The capsules were fastened on by black leather straps, which were wound round the arm and hand (seven times round the former, and three times round the latter), or else fitted to the forehead in a prescribed and mystically significant manner. The wearer of them could not be mistaken. But as for their value and importance in the eyes of the Rabbis, it were impossible to exaggerate it. They were reverenced as highly as the Scriptures, and, like them, might be rescued from the flames on a Sabbath, although not worn, as constituting “a burden!” It was said that Moses had received the law of their observance from God on Mount Sinai; that the “tephillin” were more sacred than the golden plate on the forehead of the high-priest, since its inscription embodied only once the sacred name of Jehovah, while the writing inside the “tephillin” contained it not less than twenty-three times; that the command of wearing them equalled all other commands put together; with many other similar extravagances. How far the profanity of the Rabbis in this respect would go, appears from the circumstance, that they supposed God Himself as wearing phylacteries (Ber., 6 a).—A. Edersheim, D.D.
Matthew 23:8. Christ Lord: Christians brethren.—
I. The Lordship of Christ.—
1. Why is Christ our moral Master? His is no arbitrary pre-eminence, but in harmony with Reason, Conscience, Fact. Recall:
(1) What He is.—His nature is Divine, His character perfect, His teaching complete.
(2) What He has done.—He has ransomed us. He has renewed us.
2. How is Christ our moral Master?
(1) He regulates our conduct.
(2) He enlightens our intellect.
(3) He controls our affections.
II. The brotherhood of Christians.—
1. Why are Christians brethren? Not alone on the ground of mere humanity. Nor merely through acceptance of a common creed. Nor merely through union with a common society. Common relationship to Christ creates, and constant communion with Christ sustains, the brotherhood of Christians.
2. How do Christians show that they are brethren? Among the members of a home there is:
(1) A family interest.
(2) A family likeness.
(3) A family life.—U. R. Thomas, B.A.
True churchmanship.—The principles of church organism, arising from the two facts of the Lordship of Christ and the brotherhood of Christians are:—
I. The church must consist of Christian men.—Membership cannot consist in:—
1. Local residence.—He only is a Christian man who calls Christ “Master,” and who feels a brother to Christ’s disciples.
2. Ceremonial observance.—The passing through any form of church membership fails to unite to the true church.
3. Any money relationship.
II. The church must promote the brotherhood of Christians.—There are three great errors at whose root our Saviour’s words here lay an axe; errors that seem greatly to hinder the brotherhood of Christians.
1. The social error of caste and class feeling.
2. The sectarian error of denominationalism.
3. The ecclesiastical error of hierarchism.
Here is a protest on behalf of Christian brotherhood.
(1) To those who might be tempted to haughtiness. To all such as claim infallibility, or the exclusive right of teaching, or absolute power of discipline, Christ says, “Be not called masters; all ye are brethren.” “None by office or precedence is nearer to God than another, none stands between his brother and God” (Alford).
(2) To those in danger of servility. Lest the spiritual Israel should repeat the error of their great type and cry “Give us a king,” Christ enjoins “Call no man master.” The gospel promotes social freedom, mental independence, spiritual liberty.
III. The church must testify to the supremacy of the living, personal Christ.—To the churches still, in authority, oversight, discipline, this one Master remains; for did He not say, “I am with you alway”? etc.—Ibid.
Christ the Master of life.—On the walls of the chapel in Yale College, America, there is the following inscription about Christ: “Dux, Lux, Lex, Rex”—Leader, Light, Law, King.
Jesus is absolute Master in the sphere of religion, which is a science dealing, not with intellectual conceptions, but with spiritual facts. His ideas are not words, they are laws; they are not thoughts, they are forces. He did not suggest, He asserted what He had seen at first sight. He did not propose, He commanded as one who knew there was no other way. One of His chief discoveries was a new type of character, His greatest achievement its creation. It is now nineteen centuries since He lived on earth, but to-day in every country of the Western world there are men differing from their neighbours as Jesus did from His contemporaries. Jesus was a type by Himself, and they are of the same type. He presented to the world a solitary ideal, and in innumerable lives has made it real.—John Watson, M.A., in “Expositor.”
Matthew 23:8-10. Titles of honour.—Not that deserved honour is to be disesteemed and eschewed. Far from that. We are expressly commanded “to render honour to whom honour is due” (Romans 13:7). We are to honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17). And in whomsoever we find any true kingliness of soul, him assuredly we should honour. We are to “honour all men” (1 Peter 2:17), for when we consider the Godlike make of man (see Psalms 8:5 in the Hebrew), and how God Himself has “crowned him with glory and honour,” we cannot but find, even underneath a mass of most dishonouring wickedness, much to honour. And in the more honourable of men, there will be still more that is worthy of honour. Nevertheless, the mind is bent in a totally wrong direction when it is preponderatingly ambitious of honour. It should be far more ambitious of doing honour, than of getting it. And, as to honorary titles—if a man loves them for their own sake, or for the sake of thereby strutting before his fellow-men, or of uplifting himself above his peers, he is altogether unworthy of them, and will be injured, not benefited, by receiving them. In so far as they are coveted, or sought for, and especially if sought for as means of self-glorification, and very especially if sought for by means that are dishonourable, they are to be utterly deprecated. But if they be modest and truthful in their import, on the one hand, and meted out impartially, on the other, then they will but express facts of inward conviction, which facts must have names of one kind or another. If a man is really worthy of being honoured, not merely as a man, but in some particular outcome or effort of his manhood, and if he is in fact honoured according to his worthiness, then there can be no harm in giving expression to the fact in a name. The name, however, ought to be truthful and modest. And hence there was reason to object to Rabbi, “My great One, “Your Highness,” as it were. No wonder that our Saviour, at the time of which He spoke—when the title was just pushing its way into currency—proscribed its use among His disciples. It should never have been used. But it has now lost, we presume, its original immodesty of import, and is tantamount to a mere designation of office. We must ever bear in mind that there are conventionalisms in words, and that these conventionalisms may change; so that, in a living language, the associations and acceptations of a word may change. Barnes objects to the title “Doctor of Divinity,” and thinks that “the spirit of our Saviour’s command is violated by the reception of it.” But he overlooks the fact that the title is modest in its meaning, “Teacher of Theology”; and he also fails to note that, if it be really deserved, there is no reason why men should not think so, and say so.—J. Morison, D.D.
Matthew 23:9. “Pope” and “Father.”—It would seem to be almost in open defiance of His (the Saviour’s) injunction, that, within the limits of the Roman Catholic Church, this designation is universally given to their chief bishop—the “Pope.” The word “Pope” is our corrupted way of pronouncing what the French call Pape, and the Italians Papa, or Father. How strange the designation, as given to the Roman bishop! Strange, when we look at the subject in the light of our Saviour’s injunction! It is strange, too, that every priest, or parish minister, in the Greek Church, is called Papa, or Pope, or Father (πάπας). There are, besides, in the Roman Catholic Church, many professed or professional Fathers under the one great Papa. In some other churches, likewise, there are too many of these professional Fathers; for, as Bishop Wilkins observes, “Father” is a title which assuming priests of all religions have greatly affected (see Doddridge in loc.). And now, though the designation has in great measure got rubbed down into a mere discriminative appellation, marking out a definite ecclesiastical position or office, still its use is unhappy, and has something to do with a wide-spread confusion of ideas on things moral and spiritual. Already, in our Saviour’s time, an element of popery was stealthily lurking, and vigorously germinating, in the use of the designation; and it was, we doubt not, because of this element that the title was greedily courted on the one hand, and too readily accorded on the other, while at the same time, and in the third place, it was earnestly repudiated by our Saviour. It is our Father in heaven who alone has an absolute paternal authority in all things sacred.—Ibid.
Matthew 23:10. Christ our Master.—
1. There is no need of any other dominion over conscience than Jesus Christ exerciseth.
2. The exercise of this Christian liberty cannot possibly be an injury to other Christians.
3. Free inquiry in religion is essential to the virtue of a character.
4. A Christian, who takes Christ for his only sufficient Governor, in religion, is supported by the examples of all genuine Christians, from the days of Christ.—Anon.
Matthew 23:12. Self-exaltation.—A certain king had a gifted minstrel whom he commanded to play before him; and while the cups were flowing with merry wine, the harp was tuned to its sweetest melodies. But the vain minstrel celebrated his own exploits; and when, at the end of the feast, he asked the king for his reward, the stern answer was, “Thine own praises were thy theme; let these by thy paymaster!” And so, if our good works are done that we ourselves may have praise of men, they will count no more in God’s sight than utter barrenness and neglect.—J. N. Norton.
The humble exalted.—“Whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted.” By Me, and by My Father, and, in the end, by the intelligent universe at large. The lowliest will be the loftiest. But he who seeks to be the loftiest will be the lowest. The way up leads down. The way down leads up. Jesus Himself ascended by a descending way.—J. Morison, D.D.
Matthew 23:13. Woe.—There is indignation in the word, and just denunciation; but, as Vatable long ago remarked, there is “deploration” too. There is wailing in it. It is rendered “alas!” in Revelation 18:10; Revelation 18:16; Revelation 18:19 (Morison). Hypocrites.—See note on Matthew 6:2. Shut up the kingdom of heaven.—“Up” omitted in R.V. In allusion to the symbolic “key of knowledge” given to the scribe on admission to the order. They use their keys to shut rather than to open the doors of the kingdom (Carr).
Matthew 23:14. Wanting in many MSS., including the Vatican and Sinaitic. Omitted in R.V. Seems to have been transferred from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47, in both of which places it is genuine.
Matthew 23:15. Twofold more the child of hell.—Lit. “a son of Gehenna,” or, as Sir John Cheke has it, in most expressive slang, “a hell-imp,” i.e. one who derives his peculiarity of character from beneath (Morison). Out of bad heathens they were made worse Jews (Erasmus).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 23:13-15
The results of hypocrisy.—After the misled, the misleaders—after the too-confiding followers, the faithless guides—are admonished. And that, of course, as with greater cause, so with more manifest force. In the two verses before us now—for we follow the R.V. and other leading authorities in regarding Matthew 23:14 as not really part of the text—this is done in two principal ways. These self-deceivers are denounced, first, as being great preventers of good; secondly, as being great aggravaters of evil.
I. Preventers of good.—Hypocrisy prevents men of all classes from learning the truth. As it were, it shuts the door of truth—the very way of access thereto—the beginning of that way—in their faces (Matthew 23:13). This is true, first, of such self-deceivers themselves. How can any one who begins with deception finish with truth? He is wrong from the first. This seems to be why the Saviour said before (Matthew 5:20) “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Such “righteousness” being really unrighteousness, can only effect what unrighteousness does. It cannot help a man to find the way in. Rather, it is like shooting the bolt of a door the wrong way; a thing which necessarily, instead of opening, fastens it up. Hypocrisy also prevents other men from learning the truth. Even so far as such self-deceivers do point to the right door—and that this is true of them to some extent seems implied in Matthew 23:3—they do so in such a way as to deter those who look on. For what is it that such inquirers behold when they do? They see the manifest inconsistencies of these professed dealers in truth—how they “say and do not” (Matthew 23:3-4). They see also the real motives by which such men are moved (Matthew 23:5-7). And they judge of truth, therefore, by these professors of it, and feel equal objection to both. In the case of men not really desirous of learning the truth, the process is swift and direct. Even the semblance of an obstacle is quite sufficient to keep such reluctant ones off. In other cases, if more roundabout, it is none the less sure. Those who desire the truth are repelled by seeing the manifest untruthfulness of such teachers. Consequently they are led to reject the truth, even when it does fall from their lips. The other set never see the door, and so never go in. These men do see it indeed, but do not know what it is; and so are prevented just as effectually from availing themselves of its good.
II. Aggravaters of evil.—Hypocrisy leads to this, first, by means of the great efforts which it induces men to put forth. Those who follow such self-deceiving ways must sometimes surely have some misgivings about them. To gain others over to the same ways is a sort of testimony in their favour—sufficiently like it, in any case, to pass muster with such, and make them crave it with eagerness. On the other hand, to secure such gains is to gain also what such persons so especially value, namely, distinction and praise (Matthew 23:5, etc.). To such truly “sectarian” victors, at all sectarian “feasts,” the very “uppermost rooms” (Matthew 23:6) are assigned. Any one such conquest, therefore, is thought worthy of any amount of exertion, by those whose innermost hearts are set on such small glories as these (Matthew 23:15). Secondly, by means of the especially evil effects which result from such efforts. See, e.g., what such “proselytes” are brought to! To the same level, of course, as is occupied by those by whom they are brought. To the same hypocrisy, therefore, and self-deception; the same grievous errors both in doctrine and life; the same wilful darkness and guilt. See, on the other hand, from what they are brought. From a condition, at any rate, in which they were not committed to wrong; where they were at least open to influences for good; where the sunshine could reach them, if it happened to shine; where their moral constitution had not been damaged by the experience of a “fall.” These were the things which gave “twofold” (Matthew 23:15) seriousness to their condition and case; and which caused such perverts to go even beyond those who perverted them in wrong-doing. Thus using one’s liberty to turn it into bondage is bondage indeed! What abuse of it can be worse?
These considerations help to account for the peculiar severity of the language before us. Nothing was nearer the Saviour’s heart than the salvation of sinners. He came into the world—He gave His whole life—He submitted to death—He endured the cross—for this end. How grievous to Him, therefore, to see this work of His heart thus doubly opposed! To see those inquiring for saving truth either denied it entirely, or else taught deadly error instead! And to see this done, also, by the very hands which were commissioned, in their way, to do the very reverse! Can we wonder at His denouncing such conduct when He thought of those whom it ruined? Can we be surprised at the very depth of His mercy making Him severe on such hands? “Woe is me,” said the Apostle, “if I preach not the gospel.” Why so? Partly because of the disobedience involved in such a refusal. Partly, also, because of the exceeding cruelty involved in such silence. Something the same as would have been true of him in that case was true of the men described here. In their way, they were the pests of their day. Had He spoken of them otherwise, He would have been as cruel and as false as themselves.
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 23:13. Our power to help or harm religion.—We cannot get the full force of these words of Jesus unless we remember that they were spoken to those who called themselves, and who, in some true sense were, religious men. They were hindering His work, not merely as any man might have hindered it, but also in a special way in which none but religious men, none but recognised religious teachers, could have hindered it. They were shutting Him out, not merely as any part of the wall might shut a man out, by mere passive obstinacy and hardness, but as only a door can shut a man out by a bolt, deliberately drawn across the leaves. The words of Christ suggest one truth which evidently lies at the root of the whole subject, which is that every hindrance which any Christian puts in the way of other men’s becoming Christians is associated with an imperfection in his own Christian life. “Ye neither go in yourselves,” etc.
I. I mention the look of unreasonableness which much of the way in which Christians deal with Christianity gives to their faith in the eyes of their fellow-men. Christian faith is made by many Christians to seem fantastic and unreasonable, something wholly distinct and apart from, and even contradictory to, the ordinary laws of thought and life, something that cannot be understood except by a special initiation and the use of wholly different faculties besides those which men use on other things.
II. The lack of connection that there often is between our faith and the facts and duties of our daily life. The facts and duties of life are hard but precious tests of the unseen life of character which lies behind them.
III. The lack of sympathy with the life and activity of men into which some Christians seem to be thrown by their Christian faith. If that new life of yours is really life, it ought to quicken a hundredfold your interest in all the forms of life which are to be found in all the struggling degrees of living men.
IV. Another of the dangers of Christians is lest they lose the essential loftiness of the Christian life, and make it seem to other men a sordid and unworthy thing. Have you never been tempted to value the service of Christ for the merely temporal advantages which it might bring you? Have you never made your religion a mere insurance against future punishment? etc.
V. I hesitate to speak of the doctrinal obstacle which many Christian people put in the way of other men becoming Christians, lest I may seem to fall in with the vulgar and thoughtless denial of the importance of religious dogma which we hear on every side. But one may value doctrine very highly indeed, and yet insist that the making of Christianity to be a system of doctrine is very false to the first intention of Jesus, and very harmful to men’s souls.
VI. The effort to be Christians in silence, without making any profession of faith.—Phillips Brooks, D.D.
Matthew 23:15. The blind zeal of the Pharisees.—
1. Seducers will be more busy to draw others to their err or than teachers of the truth are for drawing others to the truth.
2. The more pains in false zeal, and the more speed a man cometh in perverting others, the more measure of vengeance abideth on him.
3. The more a man do profit in the school of error and superstition, the more he is the child of hell and Satan, for the original of errors is from hell, and Satan is the father of error, superstition, and heresy.
4. Young proselytes, who drink in superstition at the persuasion of learned seducers, are far more taken with the false opinions, and more addicted to these false superstitions, than their teachers are, conceiving them to be truth, when these old deceivers do but laugh to see the credulity of the deluded. “You make them twofold more the children of hell than yourselves,” to wit, in respect of believing these errors which you teach them, for in other respects the deceivers were the elder sons of Satan.—David Dickson.
Matthew 23:16. Gold of the temple.—The exact meaning of this expression is uncertain; but the probability is that it refers to money offered as a gift to God, to which the scribes and Pharisees ascribed peculiar sanctity (Mansel). See R.V., margin.
Matthew 23:18. Guilty.—A debtor (R.V.) as in Matthew 23:16.
Matthew 23:23. Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin.—The language of Deuteronomy 12:17 seems to recognise only corn, wine, and oil, among the produce of the earth, as subject to the law of tithes. The Pharisee, in his minute scrupulosity (based, it may be, on the more general language of Leviticus 27:30), made a point of gathering the tenth sprig of every garden herb, and presenting it to the priest. So far as this was done at the bidding of an imperfectly illumined conscience our Lord does not blame it. It was not, like the teaching as to oaths and the Corban, a direct perversion of the law. What He did censure was the substitution of the lower for the higher (Plumptre). Mint was grown for its pleasant odour; anise, or dill, and cummin for their aromatic flavour. These were cultivated, not for food, but for scents and relishes; and only a small quantity of each would be grown in a private garden for the use of a household (Fraser).
Matthew 23:25. Full of extortion and excess.—From (R.V.). The two words point
(1) to the source from which the viands and the wine came—the cup and the platter were filled with, or out of, the proceeds of, extortion;
(2) that to which they tended—they overflowed with unrestrained self-indulgence (Plumptre).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 23:16-28
The blindness of error.—Five times in succession in these verses we find the epithet “blind”; and every time as a description of those professed “guides” whom the Saviour is addressing. In justifying this application of the term, the Saviour confines Himself to one general line. These men are thus “blind,” according to Him, because they begin in their teaching where they ought to conclude; and treat the important, for the sake of the unimportant, as though it did not exist. In three directions especially, He goes on to show that this description holds good. It does so, first, in the way of reverence and worship; secondly, in the way of duty and observance; and, thirdly, in the way of holiness and sanctification.
I. In the way of reverence and worship.—The true state of things in regard to this part of the question is manifestly as follows. God Himself is to be reverenced first and most; then that, of course—according to its nearness—which is nearer to Him. Amongst such “nearer” things, up above, is heaven itself as His throne (Matthew 23:22). Amongst such “nearer” things, here below, are His temple and altar. The one of these last having been appointed by Himself as His special “dwelling” on earth, and the other as a means of enabling men to approach Him in worship, they both, in consequence, had about them a certain derivative glory and awe. Full of the thoughts of God, they were, in their way, full of His majesty also. Even that, also, which appertained to them—such as the “gold,” for example, which adorned the one, and the “gifts” which were placed on the other—had a certain sacredness in their turn. They also were to be treated with reverence because of the reverence due to that which they touched. First, the Source, in fact; then that which grew out of it; then what grew out of that. This was the reasonable—this, apparently, the only—way to compute. Yet this, at the same time, was the exact opposite of that adopted by these guides (Matthew 23:16). Anything bound by the stronger, according to them, need not be kept. Anything bound by the weaker must not be loosed. So they said in effect (Matthew 23:16; Matthew 23:18).
II. In the way of observance and duty.—Here again the true order of value is not difficult to perceive. The moral, e.g., was before the ceremonial; matters of conscience before those of ritual; and that by a very long way. Also, amongst questions of conscience, some are of greater importance than others. What will make a difference is of more consequence than what will make none. What God expressly requires of us (Matthew 23:23, Micah 6:8; Psalms 15:0) than what we devise for ourselves. Discrimination of His will, imitation of His love, belief in His existence—in other words, “judgment, mercy, and faith”—cannot be made up for by any amount of scrupulosity as to “the dust of the balance.” So it is that both wisdom and sincerity teach—both truth of discernment and truth of aim. But so it was, exactly, that these teachers not only did not teach, but denied. As one has quaintly said, they thought more of the “condiment than of the dish”; they “magnified the little and belittled the great”; they treated the non-essential as though it were all; they “strained out” the “gnat” and left the “camel” behind (Matthew 23:24). What could be worse than such double blindness as this? Only to see what was insignificant; not to see what was huge?
III. In the way of sanctification and holiness.—Who cannot see here, as in the other verses, where this process begins? It begins, of course, where the thoughts begin, and whence they come out. Be clean there; and it will be hardly necessary to clean the outside. Be foul there; and it will not be possible to clean the outside. On the contrary, to pretend to it while leaving the inside impure, will be to be foul throughout, as it were; and to the original foulness of guilt to add that of hypocrisy, which is very much worse. All this is so plain that one wonders that any one should have ever thought the reverse. Yet that these Pharisees did so, is only too plain from what the Saviour says of them here. He describes them here (Matthew 23:25, R.V.) as being “full from extortion and excess”; that is (apparently), “from” the results of injury to others, on the one hand, and of indulgence to themselves, on the other. He describes them, again (Matthew 23:27-28), as being like “whited sepulchres”—outwardly righteous, but inwardly guilty—outwardly “beautiful,” but inwardly vile—and as being so “blind,” therefore, as to make this lowest depth of iniquity the highest peak of their aim. To look upon evil as good, in any case, is not to see very well. To regard the worst as being the best is to see nothing at all as it is.
It is important to note, in conclusion, how such blindness as this was produced. These blind leaders were thus blind because they were hypocrites first. This is why the Saviour uses this apparently harsh term so many times over. It is really a very merciful one, because it points to the secret of all. A hypocrite is a man who knowingly blinds himself to some aspect of truth. In some particular he deliberately refuses to see things as they are. So far—in other words—and in that direction, he believes in deceit. Afterwards the instrument employed by him turns, as it were, on himself. Invented originally to hide from him what he did not wish to perceive, afterwards—without his knowing it—it hides from him what he does wish to perceive. Afterwards still, therefore, there is no saying how much it may hide, or how far, consequently, in the way of foolishness and error such a self-deceiver may ultimately go, and yet suppose himself right. There is nothing more perilous, in fact, and nothing more criminal, than trifling with truth. It would ruin the universe, if allowed to prevail.
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 23:16. Hypocritical teaching as to oath-taking.—
1. Corrupt churchmen do corrupt religion and mislead the people fearfully. They become blind guides, whose office requireth that they should be wise and seeing guides; in which case woe to the people, but chiefly woe to the blind guides.
2. Swearing by the creature is no new sin, for these corrupt hypocrites did foster swearing by the creatures, as by the temple, altar, gold, and gifts.
3. Corrupt churchmen make things to be sin or no sin, as it serveth their purpose: as here, they make an oath by the temple to be none, and an oath by the gold of the temple to oblige.
4. To make light of any oath by the creature, as not obligatory, doth open a door to superstition and perjury; for to swear by the temple, they said, it was nothing, and Christ asketh, “Whether is greater, the gold or the temple which sanctifieth the gold?”—David Dickson.
A corrupt casuistry.—It is not easy to trace the currents of thought that run through a corrupt casuistry, but probably the line of reasoning that led to this distinction was that the “gold of the temple”—not the gold used in its structural ornamentation, but that which in coin or bullion was part of the Corban, or sacred treasure (Matthew 15:5)—had received a more special consecration than the fabric, and involved, therefore, a higher obligation, when used as a formula jurandi, than the temple or the altar. Something of the same feeling is seen in the popular casuistry which makes the binding force of an oath depend on “kissing the Book”; or that of mediæval Christendom, which saw in the relics of a saint that which was more sacred than the Gospels. The principle involved in our Lord’s teaching goes farther than its immediate application, and sweeps away the arbitrary distinction of different degrees of sanctity in the several parts of the same structure. Here the line of reasoning is, as in Matthew 5:33-37, that the temple includes the altar, that the altar includes the gift, that the heaven includes the Throne, and that thus every oath-formula runs up, explicitly or implicitly, into the great thought of God.—E. H. Plumptre, D.D.
Matthew 23:23-24. The gnat and the camel.—A most effective illustration this of a scrupulousness which is extreme and inconsistent. “Ye strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.” We are supposed to look at one drinking water or wine from an open vessel. A gnat or small fly has got into the liquor—a thing that will occur in hot weather among ourselves, and that is sure to occur in the East if a vessel containing any sweet liquor is left uncovered. He who would drink notices the small insect, and passes the sweetened water or wine through a fine cloth in order to strain it out. With gross inconsistency, however, he takes no notice of a far larger object, but gulps down the camel. The mention of this unwieldy creature is of course an instance of hyperbole, as in the other metaphor of a camel going through the eye of a needle. The Lord implied no censure on the pains taken to strain out the gnat. No person of nice habits could act otherwise. Indeed, a Jew had a special reason for being scrupulous in such a matter, for insects, as “flying, swarming things,” were unclean under his law. But then, the camel was unclean also. The point of the reproof lay in the incongruity or inconsistency evinced by one who was extremely scrupulous in a small thing, and extremely unscrupulous in a great matter. Such was the charge which Christ brought against the Pharisees; and it must be brought still against those who combine a very punctilious Christian profession with a lax or unprincipled morality. It appears that the Pharisees were very punctilious about paying tithes of seeds which were grown in small quantities, and were of comparatively little value. A parallel case now would be for a Christian in good circumstances to present to the church one-tenth of the value of the parsley, pepper, and mustard used in his household. Now the Pharisees were observing the letter of the law (Leviticus 27:30). And the Master recognised this when He said that these minute tithings should not be left undone. But the chief matters of obligation should be placed first. The weightier matters of obligation were, and continue to be, these three:—
1. Judgment, including equity in judging and rectitude in performing the duties of life.
2. Mercy in unison with justice, as it is in God Himself. The Pharisees gave alms with a blowing of trumpets, but they did not love mercy.
3. Faith or faithfulness, shown in honest dealing and in adherence to truth. Our Lord’s treatment of this grave error suggests two points for emphatic consideration in Christian doctrine and morals:—
I. Inward qualities count for more than outward observances.—Strange to read of those rough-handed Christians in the past who were unjust and rapacious, and yet imagined that by paying tithes, or taking sacraments, or endowing monasteries at death, they could secure the favour of God. But just as delusive the modern assumption that one may be false to his word, unkind in his family, unfair in his dealings, and yet by attention to Christian rites and ceremonies may find his way to heaven.
II. A just sense of proportion is essential to a well-regulated Christian mind.—It must be recognised that, even among things which are right, some are greater and some less. Some are to be done first and foremost, and come what will; others are to come behind, and not to be left undone. If the Pharisees had not lacked this sense of proportion, they could never have preferred the tithing of mint to justice, tithing of dill to mercy, and tithing of cummin to faith; nor would they have condemned the righteous and merciful Saviour because He led His disciples along a path through a cornfield or healed poor people on the Sabbath. It is no infrequent thing to find a person who seems to be very religious curiously deficient in the sense of proportion. He cannot quité see what is great or what is small. If he be disposed to obstinacy and bigotry, he simply regards all that is plain to him as great; and all his tenets and regulations as equally great. If he be merely small-minded, by natural affinity he fastens keenly on small points. These are of the proper size for him; and he takes them to be quite large. Or if he be of a self-regarding mind, considering religion simply with reference to his own safety, he lays all the stress on the truths which are near himself, and has but a faint appreciation of those which are much more vast but more remote. It marks the wisdom of Jesus Christ that He saw the just proportion of things, and, when He spoke of duty, distinguished the greater elements of godly obedience from the less. And as He taught so He lived, entering into no competition with the Pharisees regarding the minutiae of ceremonial and tradition, but exhibiting a righteousness far exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, a mercifulness with which their haughty temper had no sympathy, and a fidelity to God and to His own Divine mission from which no temptation could beguile or threat deter Him.—D. Fraser, D.D.
Matthew 23:25-26. Sanctified meat.—
1. Such as get their meat by extortion, and use it intemperately unto excess, can never sanctify their table, whatsoever ceremonies they use; for the saying grace at meat by such men is no better than if a man should wash the outside of the cup and platter, and eat of the filthiness of the inside.
2. The way to eat our bread with God’s blessing is to sanctify our hands in our conquering, and our hearts in a wise and moderate using the creatures, for the right end, and so our feeding shall be sanctified.—David Dickson.
Matthew 23:27-28. Whitewashed tombs.—Graves lie thick about Jerusalem. In the valleys and on the hilly slopes about the modern city they everywhere meet the eye. Jews have always buried their dead without, however, lavishing on their tombs such signs of honour and affection as are increasingly conspicuous in Christian cemeteries. But it was an old custom with them to wash sepulchral stones once a year. A day was fixed for the purpose in the month Adar; and at the time when our Lord used this metaphor to characterise the scribes and Pharisees, the tombs about Jerusalem had been recently whitewashed, and so were beautified for a season. As He spoke in the open air, the white stones must have been conspicuous on every side. The object of this whitewashing, however, was not to embellish, but to point out the gravestone to the passer-by, that he might not tread on it or touch it. The law which pronounced unclean him who touched a dead body, or even a dead bone, unwittingly, was extended by the later casuistry so as to count one ceremonially defiled who even stepped unintentionally over a grave or touched a tombstone. The object of Jesus was to mark with emphatic censure the contrast between the outward religious profession of those hypocrites and their inward wickedness. For this end the illustration was most apposite. The Pharisees, like the newly-washed tombs around the city, were fair and white on the surface, but unclean and corrupt within.—D. Fraser, D.D.
Matthew 23:27. Moral whitewash.—Nothing is gained by whitewash or varnish. God is not mocked, and even man is not long imposed on by a vain show of devotion. We once heard Father Taylor, a noted preacher to sailors in America, pray that men who thought themselves good, and were not, might be undeceived; and he cried, “Lord, take off the whitewash!”—Ibid.
Matthew 23:29. Build the tombs, etc.—See R.V. A portion of the temple offerings were devoted to this purpose.
Matthew 23:31. The children.—You inherit their wickedness in compassing the death of the prophet of the Lord (Carr).
Matthew 23:32. Fill ye up, etc.—Or, more literally, “And ye! fill ye up the measure of your fathers!” The Saviour’s heart was heaving, and He felt the inadequacy of all common modes of expression to convey the commotion of His emotions. Hence the brokenness, abruptness, and boldness of His phraseology (Morison).
Matthew 23:33. Generation.—Offspring (R.V.). Damnation of hell, or, judgment of Gehenna. This expression, the “judgment of hell” was not invented by our Saviour. It was current among the Rabbis. See Wetstein in loc.
Matthew 23:34. Wherefore.—Therefore (R.V.). That solemn “therefore” looks back to the whole preceding context, and forward to the whole subsequent. Because the rulers professed abhorrence of their father’s deeds, and yet inherited their spirit, they, too, would have their prophets, and would slay them. Christ’s desire is that all should find in His gospel the savour of life; but His purpose is that, if it be not that to any, it shall be to them the savour of death (Maclaren). Prophets.—Under direct inspiration, like those of old, which may especially refer to the Apostles.—Wise men.—Like a Stephen or an Apollos. Scribes.—Such as Mark and Luke, and many a faithful man since, whose pen has loved to write the Name above every name (ibid.).
Matthew 23:35. Zacharias.—If the reading “son of Barachias” be retained (it is omitted in the Sinaitic MS.) a difficulty arises; for the Zacharias, whose death “in the court of the house of the Lord” is recorded 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, was the son of Jehoiada. The words, however, do not occur in Luke 11:51, and are possibly interpolated. Zechariah the prophet was a son of Barachias: but of his death no record is preserved. Another explanation has been offered. At the commencement of the Jewish war with Vespasian a Zacharias, son of Baruch, was slain in the temple by two zealots (Jos., B. J., IV. Matthew 23:4). Accordingly, many commentators have thought that Jesus spoke prophetically of that event. The coincidence is remarkable, but the explanation is hardly probable (Carr). We need not wriggle and twist to try to avoid admitting that the calling of the martyred Zacharias, “the son of Barachias,” is an error of some one’s, who confused the author of the prophetic book with the person whose murder is narrated in 2 Chronicles 24:0. We do not know who made the mistake, or how it appears in our text, but it is not honest to try to slur it over (Maclaren). Dr. Plumptre says that the omission of the words “son of Barachiah” in the Sinaitic MS. betrays the hand of a corrector cutting the knot of the difficulty. Altar.—Viz., of burnt-offering before the temple.
Matthew 23:36. All these things shall come.—Viz., in their penalty.
Matthew 23:37. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!—See R.V. In the original Jerusalem is not spoken to, but spoken of; and therefore if any interjection should be desired, ah! would be better than O! (Morison). I.—He is a young man of little more than thirty; but His personal consciousness runs back through all the ages of the past, through all the times of the killing of the prophets and stoning of the messengers of God, from Abel on to Zechariah: and not only so, but this Son of Israel speaks in the most natural way as the brooding mother of them all through all their generations (Gibson).
Matthew 23:38. Your house.—The temple, which Jesus was leaving (Matthew 24:1). It was no longer “My Father’s house.”
Matthew 23:39. Till ye shall say.—In the future general conversion of Israel (Romans 11:0; Zechariah 12:10; Isaiah 66:20) (Lange). Blessed, etc.—Psalms 118:26. They would say so when reciting the Hallel at the Passover, but without applying the words to Jesus (Bengel).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 23:29-39
Cumulative transgression.—This last accusation of the scribes and Pharisees is one which stands by itself. Probably, because in some respects it is also the worst. Just there when their true spirit was worst, they declare it to be best (Matthew 23:30). It is with this assertion the Saviour now deals. His way of doing so is marked, first, by great wisdom; secondly, by great faithfulness; thirdly, by tenderest love.
I. Great wisdom.—This is shown, on the one hand, in the way of insight. He sees at once the true value of this idle respect for the dead. On the one hand, there is nothing to be lost by it from the point of view of the scribes. A dead prophet, in some senses, is a prophet no more. He can no longer disturb such men as the Pharisees by the holiness of his life, or the faithfulness of his reproaches, or the success of his mission. There is no reason to them, therefore, against making much of his memory. There is much reason rather, for doing so, with their views and desires. The names in question, by this time, have become popular names. It would cause these men, therefore, to become popular also, if they took up the same line. And that, as we know, was, above all things, the thing they desired (Matthew 23:5-7, etc.). In reality, therefore, they were the same kind of men as their fathers had been; animated by the same spirit, though in different ways, because under a different set of conditions (Matthew 23:31). On the other hand, by great foresight. The Saviour beheld, only too clearly, all that was about to be done. Who were to come in His name, even men equal in every way (Matthew 23:34) to any before. How they would be dealt with, even with at least equal cruelty (ibid.) to any before; and so with even greater pertinacity (“city to city,” etc.) than ever before. And in this, therefore, would appear to be the full answer to the preceding assertion of change. If they were honouring those dead witnesses, as affirmed, they were not treating living witnesses in that way. If they had not used their fangs for a time, it would soon be seen that they were very far from being without them. Both true “serpents” themselves, in short, and the “offspring of vipers” as well, Jesus here both sees and foresees them to be (Matthew 23:33, R.V.).
II. Great faithfulness.—Things being so, these men must be taught clearly all that was implied on their part. All that was implied, on the one hand, in regard to their guilt. Continuance in evil implies not only progression—it implies rapid progression—in sin. To disobey, and be warned, and punished—and then to be delivered and spared for a time—and then to be guilty over again of that same disobedience—is to do more, very much more, than twice as bad as before. And this is true even where the repetition may be regarded as being of a representative kind, as where the children, e.g., have been warned in the person of their fathers; and where the sin of the fathers has been repeated, as it were, in the person of their offspring. Such children are more responsible, and therefore, when they do sin, are also more guilty, than they would have otherwise been. Hence, therefore, the fulness of the guilt resting on the “generation” before Him (Matthew 23:31). Hence, therefore, what He tells them, next, of the awful severity of its doom. The true inheritor (as He has shown) of the spirit of the past, it is also the heir of its judgments. Of all overt sin nothing is like the persecution of God’s representatives in proving enmity against Him. In regard to nothing, consequently, is He wont to exact a stricter account. Never yet had there been a generation which inherited so large an amount of responsibility on this score. Never yet a generation which added to it so much responsibility of its own. So the event would only too fully make plain. Upon it, therefore, is to descend, in all its fulness, what had been held back for so long. This is the rule with the long-suffering judgment of God. The “generation” which finally “fills” the cup (Matthew 23:32) has to exhaust it as well.
III. Tenderest love.—As this meekest of Kings foresees these terrible griefs and foretells them, a sorrow of almost equal intensity seizes on Himself. What a sight is here of the past! What a sight, on His side, to begin! Often and often in bygone ages, with yearning affections—see how much is revealed here of the mysterious depths both of His nature and heart!—would He have gathered together the “children” of “Jerusalem” under His wings. What a sight on their side as well! Just as often, with invincible aversion, had His love been rejected! What a sight, therefore, in both respects, of the future! Never, now, can He make such offers again. Never, either, as things are, will they see Him again. When He does come (for come He will), nothing shall be as it was. Their “house” will be gone! Their spirit changed! And this cry in His ears: “Blessed be He that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:38-39).
See, therefore, at the last, what it is that Jesus asks from the worst! That they should accept His love as it is! Here is the great lesson of all! Here, where the Saviour is the severest, He is also most loving of all. On the other hand, however, we must not cancel the obverse side of this coin. Here, where He is most loving, He is also severest of all (Psalms 101:1; Romans 11:22). Let no man dream, because of Christ’s love, that it is good to continue in sin. Not even that love can cause this to be true!
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 23:29-32. The penalty of prophesying.—It must have appeared to be in itself a very seemly thing, this honouring of the great and good men of former generations, to whom the religion of Israel owed so much. It must, therefore, have been startling to such men to hear Christ’s sarcastic comment upon this apparently praiseworthy movement, and to find Him denouncing it as an aggravation of the sin of those who were promoting it, and basing on it a charge against them of insincerity and hypocrisy. It was true, doubtless, as any cynic in Jerusalem might have pointed out to them, that those prophets, whom they were so eager to honour now that they were dead, had met with very different treatment while they were living. But their answer would have been, “We sorrowfully confess it. That is the very reason for this zeal in sepulchre building. We mean by this to dissociate ourselves from the conduct of our fathers. It is our way of putting on permanent record our protest against their sin, and our conviction that if we had been in the day of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. It expresses a genuine national repentance and desire to make reparation.” And there were obvious and indisputable facts which seemed to go a considerable way to justify such an attitude. They were fairly entitled to say, “Is there not an immense difference between our religious condition ‘to-day and that of our fathers who persecuted the prophets? What were the sins which the prophets rebuked? Were they not idolatry, the worship of Jehovah fearfully corrupted by the admixture of polluted rites adopted from the Canaanite and Phœnician religions, altars on high places and in sacred groves, associated with gross licentiousness? Have we not changed all that? If the prophets were to come back today, is there a single one of these points on which they could challenge our conduct? Are not their demands carried out by us most scrupulously? Where, then, is the insincerity in our honouring them, since we are obeying them?” And so far the defence would have been plausible. Yet our Lord sets it aside. He tells them, “You are labouring under a self-complacent delusion. You have no sympathy with the spirit of those you are professing to honour; you have no true sense of the moral grandeur of those men and of their protest; your reverence is taught by the precept of men, not by the prompting of your own hearts. Your homage is merely conventional. You are manifesting the very same spirit as your fathers, and in this very matter of monument-building, instead of severing yourselves from them you are in reality serving yourselves—heirs to their sin.” With biting irony He says, “There is a peculiar propriety in your building the tombs of those whom your fathers slew. You are completing their work. They killed, and you bury; the spirit is the same.” Christ does not here state explicitly the ground of this condemnatory judgment. But we know the principle on which it was based. Apart from that sure moral insight by which He discerned beneath the smooth and decorous surface of their life the working of the same spirit—the same tempers and vices, the same outwardness and formalism—which had characterised ancient Israel, His condemnation was justified by their attitude towards Himself. The way in which they treated Him, the living Prophet, was an infallible indication of the way in which they would have treated the prophets, whom they professed to honour, if they had been in their day. The spirit and conduct which Christ thus reprobated is not confined to the Pharisees of Jerusalem. It is an exemplification of a constant tendency of human nature.
I. Why were the prophets hated in their own day?—
1. They proclaimed new and unpopular truth.—Mr. John Morley remarks that the popular teacher in any department is he who is most in accord with the average sentiment of his day, who happens to chime in most harmoniously with its prepossessions, or most effectually to nurse and exaggerate them. That is precisely what the prophets were not.
2. They made powerful application of moral and religious truth to human life.—If it is a thankless and dangerous task to attack men’s traditional preconceptions, it is still more dangerous to touch their selfish interests. And that is what the prophets did, not in mere harmless generalities which hurt nobody, but with definite pointed application to particular prevalent sins and social wrongs.
3. The true prophet of God bore no outward sign by which he could be recognised as such.—It needed a heart in sympathy with God to discern a true prophet.
II. Why were they honoured by later generations?—That, too, is in accordance with human nature. It is not only that death softens all animosities. There was more than that in the reaction of feeling towards the prophets. A dead prophet is no longer to be dreaded. He is no longer dangerous in the way of drawing attention to the existing evils or stirring men’s minds to ask inconvenient questions. Truth and real greatness have in them vitality and permanence which compel men at last to recognise them. The true poet sometimes, despite the depreciation of contemporary critics, becomes a classic, and then he is awarded the conventional admiration of those who could never of themselves have discovered in him anything to admire. So it was with the prophets of Israel. Men inspired by the same Spirit which spoke in the prophets and in Christ may come to us, and we may prove as blind to every token of the Divine in them, and as deaf and unresponsive to their message, as did the Israelites in Old Testament history, or the Pharisees in the time of Christ. Our reverence for the past will be proved not by our being mere imitators of those who were great because they imitated none, not by standing immovably on their position and repeating their phrases, but by going forward in their spirit, welcoming all fresh light, proving all things, and holding fast that which is good.—A. O. Johnston, M.A.
Matthew 23:31-32. Judicial abandonment.—
1. Christ’s enemies shall not want a witness of their malicious opposing of Him; yea, from their own words and purposes He shall bring matter of conviction against them—their never-dying worm shall breed in their own bosom. “Ye are against yourselves witnesses.”
2. Christ will give over desperate enemies to their own malicious disposition, and will defy them, as here He saith, “Fill ye up the measure of your fathers.”
3. There is a measure set to be filled up with the transgressions of the Lord’s enemies, and till this cup be full to the lip, they shall be suffered to go on; but when this cup is full, then the cup of God’s wrath shall be full also, and run over upon them to their destruction. Therefore saith He, “Fill ye up the measure”; that is, Go on till you kill Me, as your fathers did the prophets.—David Dickson.
Matthew 23:32. A terrible command!—Then come the awful words; bidding that generation “fill up the measure of the fathers.” They are like the other command to Judas to do his work quickly. They are more than permission, they are command; but such a command as, by its laying bare of the true character of the deed in view, is love’s last effort at prevention.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Matthew 23:33. The sin that hath never forgiveness.—I think that the most awful word which has ever been written by a human pen is, “the wrath of the Lamb.” There is something which always seems very terrible when I open this chapter. These words are doubly awful on the lips of the patient and forgiving Christ. There is a sin which remains unconquerable, even by the love and pity of the Incarnate Word; which remains insoluble even in the menstruum of the grace of Christ; and which defies every effort of the Redeemer to transfigure its hideous form and make it, transformed, the attendant and minister of the eternal triumph of His cross. There is a sin which can draw down on a man, even from the Divine lips, the sentence, “It had been better for that man if he had never been born.”
I. We will endeavour to identify the spiritual condition on which this hateful epithet is branded by John the Baptist and by the Lord. In each case the term is aimed expressly, by name, at the same class, and presents a vivid image of the same sin. This is surely a very important indication to guide us in determining what this unpardonable sin may be. It is the sin of these vipers, be they who they may. It is the spirit which searches for love that it may wound it, for grace that it may poison it, for life that it may kill it, lest the world should live anew by grace, be comforted and cherished by love, and link itself on by hope to the bliss and glory of heaven. It is the spirit which, seeing this love incarnate on its Divine errand, seeing the world’s death-pallor tinged with the rosy glow, and the rigid limbs stirring under the currents of a new-born life, said straightway, “This is of the devil”; and stung the Divine One—though it could not touch the fountain of His power, the love which drew Him from heaven to Calvary—even unto death (see Matthew 3:7; Matthew 12:10-14; Matthew 12:22-24; Matthew 12:34; Matthew 23:13-15). “Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against Him, that they might destroy Him” (Matthew 12:14). Mark the occasion. A man made whole on the Sabbath day—a great healing accomplished, a great burden lifted, a great joy poured into a sad, weary heart, a great ray of the love of God sent streaming into the darkness of the world. But a Pharisaic regulation had been broken. Perish the healing, perish the Healer, but let the rule of the Pharisees live! Do you wonder at the sequel? “Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men,” etc. In this chapter it is precisely the same. It is the wrongs and miseries of others, of hearts bruised under the heel of the Pharisees’ insolence, and bleeding from the strokes of their rods, which stir the Saviour’s indignation.
II. What lies at the root of this state of mind and spirit? Whence does it spring? Not from the perversities, infirmities, lusts, and vices which belong to the prodigal’s character, and are unveiled in the prodigal’s life (cf. 1 John 1:5-10 with the spirit of the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14). The sin which saith, “I have no sin,” remaineth. Even against God’s love it is hard as adamant and cold as death. The Pharisee’s spirit, which would dash fiercely the cup of life from the lips of a dying world, lest its own privilege should perish; which would brand the spirit of the Divine Healer, Teacher, and Saviour of the world, as devilish, and hunt it from the earth, stung to death with its viperous fang; which holds every wide gospel proclamation an intolerable insult, and every healing touch of Divine love a bitter pain—it is this, and nothing which a poor lost soul can brood over in its anguish, which is the unpardonable sin. This was the python on which the sun-bright Saviour rained the arrows of His indignation and hate. “Ye serpents,” etc.—J. Baldwin Brown, B.A.
Holy indignation.—I heartily sympathise with Adam Smith, who said, as a man who had made excuses for a bad character left the company, “I can breathe more freely now. I cannot bear that man; he has no moral indignation in him.” The mind of Christ is far too seldom followed in the conduct of our social relations.—United Presbyterian Magazine.
Faithful preaching.—Said Robert Morris to Dr. Rush, “I like that preaching best which drives a man into the corner of his pew and makes him think the devil is after him.”—Thwing.
Matthew 23:34-35. The process of condemnation.—
1. Our Lord, in the face of His enemies, avowed Himself to be God, having authority to send out prophets, and to bestow gifts on men.
2. Our Lord knoweth how His servants will be served in every place they come unto, and what measure of sufferings each of them will meet with from the wicked.
3. The Lord’s servants (albeit they know that sufferings abide them) must, notwithstanding, go on in their message; for this is the forewarning given unto His servants also, “I send you prophets, and some of them ye shall kill,” etc.
4. They who go on in the course of any sin, do subscribe unto the sins of such as before them did follow that sort of sin, and justly may be condemned and punished as guilty of the sin of others, which they do approve; for so Christ reckoneth, saying, “That on you may come all the blood,” etc.
5. The sufferers for righteousness, from the beginning of the world, are all in the rank of martyrs, and their sufferings are kept in fresh remembrance. “From righteous Abel unto Zacharias,” etc.
6. Raging persecutors look neither to place nor person nor consequence of their cruelty, but as blind beasts do follow forth their own fury; for “betwixt the porch and the altar” was Zacharias slain.—David Dickson.
Matthew 23:35. Nemesis!—In whose mind was the intent or design that is referred to when it is said, “That upon you might come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth”? If we view the subject philosophically, and as regards the theological substrate that underlies the free-and-easy phraseology, we must at once answer, with Calvin, In the mind of God. It would be contrary to sound theology, and to sound philosophy, to ignore the agency of God in the matter—His intentional agency, and thus His intent. He “suffered” them to walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16). He did not deem it right to break in upon the mental and moral constitution. He had given them, that He might arrest the murderous strokes that were about to fall. On the contrary, He had long continued to maintain, and He intended still to maintain, that constitution; and when He foresaw that they would madly persist in abusing it, and bid defiance to His righteousness and grace, He resolved that by “suffering” them meanwhile, as long as wisdom would permit, and then by-and-by bringing on them, after their cup of iniquity was full, the consummation of the doom which was their due, He would turn them to account, as beacons in His universe. There is, however, nothing in all this of the nature of unconditional intent, purpose, or decree. And it is noteworthy, besides, that in the connection of Matthew 23:34-35 the reference to the action of God is only theologically and philosophically implied, not formally expressed. There is, instead, express reference to the action of the scribes and Pharisees themselves. They acted in their own infatuated way, in order that all the righteous blood shed on the earth might come upon them; that is, they acted as if they were intending and desiring that the blood might come on them. They were like those who “love death” and “seek” it—“seek destruction” (Proverbs 8:36; Proverbs 17:19; Proverbs 21:6). They did not, indeed, “formally”—as logicians speak—love, seek, and intend their own death and destruction. But they “formally” loved, sought, and intended that which God had connected with death and destruction. And thus, while dashing along in their loved career, they “materially”—as logicians phrase it—and “virtually” rushed voluntarily upon their deserved retribution.—J. Morison, D.D.
Matthew 23:36. Forewarned!—It is a special motive unto repentance to tell men of the propinquity of judgment.—David Dickson.
National catastrophes.—It takes centuries for the mass of heaped-up sin to become top-heavy; but when it is, it buries one generation of those who have worked at piling it up, beneath its down-rushing avalanche.
“The mills of God grind slowly,
But they grind exceeding small.”
The catastrophes of national histories are prepared for by continuous centuries. The generation that laid the first powder-horn-full of the train are dead and buried long before the explosion which sends constituted order and institutions sky-high. The misery is that often the generation which has to pay the penalty has begun to wake to the sin, and would be glad to mend it, if it could. England in the seventeenth century, France in the eighteenth, America in the nineteenth, had to reap harvests from sins sown long before. Such is the law of the judgment wrought out by God’s providence in history. But there is another judgment, begun here and perfected hereafter, in which fathers and sons shall each bear their own burden, and reap accurately the fruit of what they have sown. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Matthew 23:37. The Saviour’s sorrow over a sinful world.—These words form the concluding portion of our Saviour’s last public discourse. They were the last utterances from His lips in the temple—they mark the end of His ministry. His subject has been the wickedness of the Pharisees, and His words have risen into a vehement and terrible invective. But this stern work is hard for the gentle Christ. He cannot, without pain, go on with this denouncing of doom upon His chosen people. All at once He breaks down; the pentup pity, the infinite compassion, leapt from His aching heart, and the language of His spurned affection, the ineffable sadness of His sympathising spirit, came wailing forth in the melting tenderness of this most sorrowful apostrophe, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! thou that killest the prophets,” etc. The text reveals the heart of Christ.
I. See how earnestly Jesus desires to save the guilty.—Jerusalem is under the shadow of death. But she does not realise it; she does not know her danger. It is not always easy to warn men of their peril. Jerusalem had been warned; the Son of God had pleaded with her, He had wept over her, He had invited her to repent; and the end of all is this confession of defeat: “I would … and ye would not.” You will see how, in His opening words, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” His love shines out.
1. It is not diminished by any wickedness.
2. It is not chilled by perversity.
3. It is not outwearied by delay.—At this very hour if Jerusalem had repented, all heaven would have been jubilant.
II. See how tenderly He gives shelter and rest to those who come.—“Even as a hen,” etc.
III. See how, in spite of all the love of God and Christ, some men will perish.—“I would … and ye would not,” and you have your way. I sometimes think this is the saddest and darkest word in all the Book. Oh! the awful dignity of the human will—this great and dreadful power in me that can flaunt itself in the face of a gracious God and defeat His purpose.—W. J. Woods, B.A.
Christ a Shelter.—I. The first thing suggested by this symbol is the idea of danger.—Great as was the political calamity that menaced them, their greatest danger was spiritual; the danger shared by all, in every age, who have broken the law, but have not accepted the Saviour. Infraction of law must be followed by infliction of penalty.
II. The symbol of a shelter is so presented as to set forth the glory of Him who is thus revealed.—The overshadowing wing of omnipotence is spread in your defence.
III. This symbol of a shelter illustrates in the highest degree the condescending tenderness of Christ.—It does so by its homely simplicity, as well as by its ineffable pathos.
IV. This symbol of Christ is so set forth as to suggest the idea of a shelter, afforded by one who interposes His own life between us and danger.—Christ is a shelter to trusting souls only by interposing His own life between them and the shock of doom.
V. Note the ends to be attained by the sinner’s flight to the Saviour.—It is obvious that the immediate result is safety. But it would be a radical mistake to suppose that the gospel urges men to seek safety only for safety’s sake. Safety in Christ is the first step to practical godliness.
VI. This symbol of Christ is drawn in such a way as to show that man is responsible in the matter of his own salvation.—C. Stanford, D.D.
Matthew 23:38. The departure of Christ from the temple.—
I. The close of a mournful past.
II. The sign of a miserable present.
III. The token of a sad futurity.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
The desolate temple.—Every Christian temple in which Christ is not preached, is empty; so is every heart in which He does not live.—Heubner.
Matthew 23:39. Christ hiding Himself.—
1. It is righteousness with Christ to smite them with judicial blindness who refuse obstinately to acknowledge Him when He offers Himself unto them; as here He saith, “Ye shall not see Me henceforth”; that is, you shall not perceive Me to be the Messiah; for otherwise bodily they did see Him, and did crucify Him, but they saw not who He was; for had they known, they would not have crucified the God of glory.
2. At last, Christ’s most cruel enemies shall see and know and acknowledge Him to be that blessed Messiah; for all knees shall bow to Him, and all tongues shall confess to Him, and these His adversaries among the rest shall say, Now we see that Jesus is the blessed Son of God, and the true Lamb of God, hills and mountains fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of the Lamb; yonder is the blessed Saviour, who came in the name of the Lord.—David Dickson.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Matthew 23". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany