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Bible Commentaries

Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament

Matthew 23

Verse 2

Sit on Moses' seat (επ της Μωυσεως καθεδρας εκαθισαν). The gnomic or timeless aorist tense, εκαθισαν, not the aorist "for" the perfect. The "seat of Moses" is a brief form for the chair of the professor whose function it is to interpret Moses. "The heirs of Moses' authority by an unbroken tradition can deliver ex cathedra pronouncements on his teaching" (McNeile).

Verse 3

For they say and do not (λεγουσιν κα ου ποιουσιν). "As teachers they have their place, but beware of following their example" (Bruce). So Jesus said: "Do not ye after their works " (μη ποιειτε). Do not practice their practices. They are only preachers. Jesus does not here disapprove any of their teachings as he does elsewhere. The point made here is that they are only teachers (or preachers) and do not practice what they teach as God sees it.

Verse 4

With their finger (τω δακτυλω αυτων). A picturesque proverb. They are taskmasters, not burden-bearers, not sympathetic helpers.

Verse 5

To be seen of men (προς το θεαθηνα τοις ανθρωποις). See Matthew 6:1 where this same idiom occurs. Ostentation regulates the conduct of the rabbis.

Phylacteries (φυλακτηρια). An adjective from φυλακτηρ, φυλασσω (to guard). So a fortified place, station for garrison, then a safeguard, protecting charm or amulet. The rabbis wore τεφιλλιν or prayer-fillets, small leather cases with four strips of parchment on which were written the words of Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. They took literally the words about "a sign unto thy hand," "a memorial between thine eyes," and "frontlets." "That for the head was to consist of a box with four compartments, each containing a slip of parchment inscribed with one of the four passages. Each of these strips was to be tied up with a well-washed hair from a calf's tail; lest, if tied with wool or thread, any fungoid growth should ever pollute them. The phylactery of the arm was to contain a single slip, with the same four passages written in four columns of seven lines each. The black leather straps by which they were fastened were wound seven times round the arm and three times round the hand. They were reverenced by the rabbis as highly as the scriptures, and, like them, might be rescued from the flames on a sabbath. They profanely imagined that God wore the tephillin" (Vincent). It is small wonder that Jesus ridiculed such minute concern for pretentious externalism and literalism. These tephillin "are still worn at the present day on the forehead and left arm by Jews at the daily Morning Prayer" (McNeile) . "The size of the phylacteries indexed the measure of zeal, and the wearing of large ones was apt to take the place of obedience" (Bruce). Hence they made them "broad." The superstitious would wear them as mere charms to ward off evil.

Enlarge the borders (μεγαλυνουσιν τα κρασπεδα). In Matthew 9:20 we see that Jesus, like the Jews generally, wore a tassel or tuft, hem or border, a fringe on the outer garment according to Numbers 15:38. Here again the Jewish rabbi had minute rules about the number of the fringes and the knots (see on Matthew 9:20). They made a virtue of the size of the fringes also. "Such things were useful as reminders; they were fatal when they were regarded as charms" (Plummer).

Verse 6

The chief place at feasts (την πρωτοκλισιαν εν τοις δειπνοις). Literally, the first reclining place on the divan at the meal. The Persians, Greeks, Romans, Jews differed in their customs, but all cared for the post of honour at formal functions as is true of us today. Hostesses often solve the point by putting the name of each guest at the table. At the last passover meal the apostles had an ugly snarl over this very point of precedence (Luke 22:24; John 13:2-11), just two days after this exposure of the Pharisees in the presence of the apostles.

The chief seats in the synagogues (τας πρωτοκαθεδριας εν ταις συναγωγαις). "An insatiable hunger for prominence" (Bruce). These chief seats (Zuchermandel) were on the platform looking to the audience and with the back to the chest in which were kept the rolls of scripture. The Essenes had a different arrangement. People today pay high prices for front seats at the theatre, but at church prefer the rear seats out of a curious mock-humility. In the time of Jesus the hypocrites boldly sat up in front. Now, if they come to church at all, they take the rear seats.

Verse 7

Salutations (ασπασμους). The ordinary courtiers were coveted because in public. They had an itch for notice. There are occasionally today ministers who resent it if they are not called upon to take part in the services at church. They feel that their ministerial dignity has not been recognized.

Verse 8

But be not ye called Rabbi (υμεις δε μη κληθητε Ραββε). An apparent aside to the disciples. Note the emphatic position of υμεις. Some even regard verses Matthew 23:8-10 as a later addition and not part of this address to the Pharisees, but the apostles were present. Euthymius Zigabenus says: "Do not seek to be called (ingressive aorist subjunctive), if others call you this it will not be your fault." This is not far from the Master's meaning. Rabbi means "my great one," "my Master," apparently a comparatively new title in Christ's time.

Verse 9

Call no man your father (πατερα μη καλεσητε υμων). Jesus meant the full sense of this noble word for our heavenly Father. "Abba was not commonly a mode of address to a living person, but a title of honour for Rabbis and great men of the past" (McNeile). In Gethsemane Jesus said: "Abba, Father" (Mark 14:36). Certainly the ascription of "Father" to pope and priest seems out of harmony with what Jesus here says. He should not be understood to be condemning the title to one's real earthly father. Jesus often leaves the exceptions to be supplied.

Verse 10

Masters (καθηγητα). This word occurs here only in the N.T. It is found in the papyri for teacher (Latin, doctor). It is the modern Greek word for professor. "While διδασκαλος represents Ραβ, καθηγητες stands for the more honourable Ραββαν, -βων" (McNeile). Dalman (Words of Jesus, p. 340) suggests that the same Aramaic word may be translated by either διδασκαλος or καθηγητες.

The Christ (ο Χριστος). The use of these words here by Jesus like "Jesus Christ" in his Prayer (John 17:3) is held by some to show that they were added by the evangelist to what Jesus actually said, since the Master would not have so described himself. But he commended Peter for calling him "the Christ the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). We must not empty the consciousness of Jesus too much.

Verse 12

Exalt himself (υψωσε εαυτον). Somewhat like Matthew 18:4; Matthew 20:26. Given by Luke in other contexts (Matthew 14:11; Matthew 18:14). Characteristic of Christ.

Verse 13

Hypocrites (υποκριτα). This terrible word of Jesus appears first from him in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:16; Matthew 7:5), then in Matthew 15:7 and Matthew 22:18. Here it appears "with terrific iteration" (Bruce) save in the third of the seven woes (Matthew 23:13; Matthew 23:15; Matthew 23:23; Matthew 23:25; Matthew 23:27; Matthew 23:29). The verb in the active (υποκρινω) meant to separate slowly or slightly subject to gradual inquiry. Then the middle was to make answer, to take up a part on the stage, to act a part. It was an easy step to mean to feign, to pretend, to wear a masque, to act the hypocrite, to play a part. This hardest word from the lips of Jesus falls on those who were the religious leaders of the Jews (Scribes and Pharisees), who had justified this thunderbolt of wrath by their conduct toward Jesus and their treatment of things high and holy. The _Textus Receptus has eight woes, adding verse Matthew 23:14 which the Revised Version places in the margin (called verse Matthew 23:13 by Westcott and Hort and rejected on the authority of Aleph B D as a manifest gloss from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47). The MSS. that insert it put it either before 13 or after 13. Plummer cites these seven woes as another example of Matthew's fondness for the number seven, more fancy than fact for Matthew's Gospel is not the Apocalypse of John. These are all illustrations of Pharisaic saying and not doing (Allen).

Ye shut the kingdom of heaven (κλειετε την βασιλειαν των ουρανων). In Luke 11:52 the lawyers are accused of keeping the door to the house of knowledge locked and with flinging away the keys so as to keep themselves and the people in ignorance. These custodians of the kingdom by their teaching obscured the way to life. It is a tragedy to think how preachers and teachers of the kingdom of God may block the door for those who try to enter in (τους εισερχομενους, conative present middle participle).

Against (εμπροσθεν). Literally, before. These door-keepers of the kingdom slam it shut in men's faces and they themselves are on the outside where they will remain. They hide the key to keep others from going in.

Verse 15

Twofold more a son of hell than yourselves (υιον γεεννης διπλοτερον υμων). It is a convert to Pharisaism rather than Judaism that is meant by "one proselyte" (ενα προσηλυτον), from προσερχομα, newcomers, aliens. There were two kinds of proselytes: of the gate (not actual Jews, but God-fearers and well-wishers of Judaism, like Cornelius), of righteousness who received circumcision and became actual Jews. But a very small per cent of the latter became Pharisees. There was a Hellenistic Jewish literature (Philo, Sibylline Oracles, etc.) designed to attract Gentiles to Judaism. But the Pharisaic missionary zeal (compass, περιαγητε, go around) was a comparative failure. And success was even worse, Jesus says with pitiless plainness. The "son of Gehenna" means one fitted for and so destined for Gehenna. "The more converted the more perverted" (H.J. Holtzmann). The Pharisees claimed to be in a special sense sons of the kingdom (Matthew 8:12). They were more partisan than pious. Διπλους (twofold, double) is common in the papyri. The comparative here used, as if from διπλος, appears also in Appian. Note the ablative of comparison h–mon. It was a withering thrust.

Verse 16

Ye blind guides (οδηγο τυφλο). Note omission of "Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites" with this third woe. In Matthew 15:14 Jesus had already called the Pharisees "blind guides" (leaders). They split hairs about oaths, as Jesus had explained in Matthew 5:33-37, between the temple and the gold of the temple.

He is a debtor (οφειλε). He owes his oath, is bound by his oath. A.V.,

is guilty , is old English, obsolete sense of guilt as fine or payment.

Verse 17

Ye fools (μωρο). In Matthew 5:22 Jesus had warned against calling a man μωρος in a rage, but here he so terms the blind Pharisees for their stupidity, description of the class. "It shows that not the word but the spirit in which it is uttered is what matters" (McNeile).

Verse 23

Ye tithe (αποδεκατουτε). The tithe had to be paid upon "all the increase of thy seed" (Deuteronomy 14:22; Leviticus 27:30). The English word tithe is tenth. These small aromatic herbs, mint (το ηδυοσμον, sweet-smelling), anise or dill (ανηθον), cummin (κυμινον, with aromatic seeds), show the Pharisaic scrupulous conscientiousness, all marketable commodities. "The Talmud tells of the ass of a certain Rabbi which had been so well trained as to refuse corn of which the tithes had not been taken" (Vincent).

These ye ought (ταυτα εδε). Jesus does not condemn tithing. What he does condemn is doing it to the neglect of the

weightier matters (τα βαρυτερα). The Pharisees were externalists; cf. Luke 11:39-44.

Verse 24

Strain out the gnat (διυλιζοντες τον κωνωπα). By filtering through (δια), not the "straining at" in swallowing so crudely suggested by the misprint in the A.V.

Swallow the camel (την δε καμηλον καταπινοντες). Gulping or drinking down the camel. An oriental hyperbole like that in Matthew 19:24. See also Matthew 5:29; Matthew 5:30; Matthew 17:20; Matthew 21:21. Both insects and camels were ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 11:4; Leviticus 11:20; Leviticus 11:23; Leviticus 11:42). "He that kills a flea on the Sabbath is as guilty as if he killed a camel" (Jer. Shabb. 107).

Verse 25

From extortion and excess (εξ αρπαγης κα ακρασιας). A much more serious accusation. These punctilious observers of the external ceremonies did not hesitate at robbery (αρπαγες) and graft (ακρασιας), lack of control. A modern picture of wickedness in high places both civil and ecclesiastical where the moral elements in life are ruthlessly trodden under foot. Of course, the idea is for both the outside εκτος and the inside (εντος) of the cup and the platter (fine side dish). But the inside is the more important. Note the change to singular in verse Matthew 23:26 as if Jesus in a friendlier tone pleads with a Pharisee to mend his ways.

Verse 27

Whited sepulchre (ταφοις κεκονιαμενοις). The perfect passive participle is from κονιαω and that from κονια, dust or lime. Whitened with powdered lime dust, the sepulchres of the poor in the fields or the roadside. Not the rock-hewn tombs of the well-to-do. These were whitewashed a month before the passover that travellers might see them and so avoid being defiled by touching them (Numbers 19:16). In Acts 23:3 Paul called the high priest a whited wall. When Jesus spoke the sepulchres had been freshly whitewashed. We today speak of whitewashing moral evil.

Verse 29

The tombs of the prophets (τους ταφους των προφητων). Cf. Luke 11:48-52. They were bearing witness against themselves (εαυτοις, verse Matthew 23:31) to "the murder-taint in your blood" (Allen). "These men who professed to be so distressed at the murdering of the Prophets, were themselves compassing the death of Him who was far greater than any Prophet" (Plummer). There are four monuments called Tombs of the Prophets (Zechariah, Absalom, Jehoshaphat, St. James) at the base of the Mount of Olives. Some of these may have been going up at the very time that Jesus spoke. In this seventh and last woe Jesus addresses the Jewish nation and not merely the Pharisees.

Verse 32

Fill ye up (πληρωσατε). The keenest irony in this command has been softened in some MSS. to the future indicative (πληρωσετε). "Fill up the measure of your fathers; crown their misdeeds by killing the prophet God has sent to you. Do at last what has long been in your hearts. The hour is come" (Bruce).

Verse 33

Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers (οφεις γεννηματα εχιδνων). These blistering words come as a climax and remind one of the Baptist (Matthew 3:17) and of the time when the Pharisees accused Jesus of being in league with Beelzebub (Matthew 12:34). They cut to the bone like whip-cords.

How shall ye escape (πως φυγητε). Deliberate subjunctive. There is a curse in the Talmud somewhat like this: "Woe to the house of Annas! Woe to their serpent-like hissings."

Verse 35

Zachariah son of Barachiah (Ζαχαριου υιου Βαραχιου). Broadus gives well the various alternatives in understanding and explaining the presence of "son of Barachiah" here which is not in Luke 11:51. The usual explanation is that the reference is to Zachariah the son of Jehoiada the priest who was slain in the court of the temple (2 Chronicles 24:20). How the words, "son of Barachiah," got into Matthew we do not know. A half-dozen possibilities can be suggested. In the case of Abel a reckoning for the shedding of his blood was foretold (Genesis 4:10) and the same thing was true of the slaying of Zachariah (2 Chronicles 24:22).

Verse 37

How often would I have gathered (ποσακις ηθελησα επισυναγειν). More exactly, how often did I long to gather to myself (double compound infinitive). The same verb (επισυναγε) is used of the hen with the compound preposition υποκατω. Everyone has seen the hen quickly get together the chicks under her wings in the time of danger. These words naturally suggest previous visits to Jerusalem made plain by John's Gospel.

Copyright Statement
The Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament. Copyright © Broadman Press 1932,33, Renewal 1960. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman Press (Southern Baptist Sunday School Board)
Bibliographical Information
Robertson, A.T. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rwp/matthew-23.html. Broadman Press 1932,33. Renewal 1960.