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Bible Commentaries

Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels

Matthew 23

Verses 13-33

WE have in these verses the charges of our Lord against the Jewish teachers ranged under eight heads. Standing in the midst of the temple, with a listening crowd around Him, He publicly denounces the main errors of the Scribes and Pharisees in unsparing terms. Eight times He uses the solemn expression, "woe unto you." Seven times He calls them "hypocrites." Twice He speaks of them as "blind guides",—twice as "fools and blind",—once as "serpents and a generation of vipers." Let us mark that language well. It teaches a solemn lesson. It shows how utterly abominable the spirit of the Scribes and Pharisees is in God’s sight, in whatever form it may be found.

Let us glance shortly at the eight charges which our Lord brings forward, and then seek to draw from the whole passage some general instruction.

The first "woe" in the list is directed against the systematic opposition of the Scribes and Pharisees to the progress of the Gospel. They "shut up the kingdom of heaven." They would neither go in themselves, nor suffer others to go in. They rejected the warning voice of John the Baptist. They refused to acknowledge Jesus, when He appeared among them, as the Messiah. They tried to keep back Jewish inquirers. They would not believe the Gospel themselves, and they did all in their power to prevent others believing it. This was a great sin.

The second "woe" in the list is directed against the covetousness and self-aggrandizing spirit of the Scribes and Pharisees. They "devoured widows’ houses, and for a pretense made long prayer." They imposed on the credulity of weak and unprotected women, by an affectation of great devoutness, until they were regarded as their spiritual directors. They scrupled not to abuse the influence thus unrighteously obtained, to their own temporal advantage, and in a word to make money by their religion. This again was a great sin.

The third "woe" in the list is directed against the zeal of the Scribes and Pharisees for making partisans. They "compassed sea and land to make one proselyte." They labored incessantly to make men join their party and adopt their opinions. They did this from no desire to benefit men’s souls in the least, or to bring them to God. They only did it to swell the ranks of their sect, and to increase the number of their adherents, and their own importance. Their religious zeal arose from sectarianism, and not from the love of God. This also was a great sin.

The fourth "woe" in the list is directed against the doctrines of the Scribes and Pharisees about oaths. They drew subtle distinctions between one kind of oath and another. They taught the jesuitical tenet, that some oaths were binding on men, while others were not. They attached greater importance to oaths sworn "by the gold" offered to the temple, than to oaths sworn "by the temple" itself. By so doing they brought the third commandment into contempt,—and by making men overrate the value of alms and oblations, advanced their own interests. This again was a great sin. [Footnote: This practice of tampering with oaths, was well known among the heathen, as a feature in the Jewish character. It is a striking fact, that Martial, the Roman poet, specially referris to it: "Ecce negas, jurasque mihi per templa Tonantis; Non credo: Jura, verpe, per Anchialum." — MARTIAL IX. 94.]

The fifth "woe" in the list is directed against the practice of the Scribes and Pharisees, to exalt trifles in religion above serious things, to put the last things first, and the first last. They made great ado about tithing "mint," and other garden herbs, as if they could not be too strict in their obedience to God’s law. And yet at the same time they neglected great plain duties, such as justice, charity, and honesty. This again was a great sin.

The sixth and seventh "woes" in the list possess too much in common to be divided. They are directed against a general characteristic of the religion of the Scribes. They set outward purity and decency above inward sanctification and purity of heart. They made it a religious duty to cleanse the "outside" of their cups and platters, but neglected their own inward man. They were like whitened sepulchers, clean and beautiful externally, but within full of all corruption. "Even so they outwardly appeared righteous, but within were full of hypocrisy and iniquity." This also was a great sin.

The last "woe" in the list is directed against the affected veneration of the Scribes and Pharisees for the memory of dead saints. They built the "tombs of the prophets," and garnished "the sepulchers of the righteous." And yet their own lives proved that they were of one mind with those who "killed the prophets." Their own conduct was a daily evidence that they liked dead saints better than living ones. The very men that pretended to honor dead prophets, could see no beauty in a living Christ. This also was a great sin. [Footnote: A passage from the Berlenberger Bible on this subject is sufficiently striking to deserve insertion. "Ask in Moses’s times, who were the good people, they will be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but not Moses,— he should be stoned. Ask in Samuel’s times, who were the good people, they will be Moses and Joshua, but not Samuel. Ask in the times of Christ, who were such, they will be all the former prophets with Samuel, but not Christ and His Apostles. The Latin proverbs "mortui non mordent," and "sit divus, dummodo non vivus," are both illustrative of the same truth.]

Such is the melancholy picture which our Lord gives of Jewish teachers. Let us turn from the contemplation of it with sorrow and humiliation. It is a fearful exhibition of the morbid anatomy of human nature. It is a picture which unhappily has been reproduced over and over again in the history of the Church of Christ. There is not a point in the character of the Scribes and Pharisees in which it might not be easily shown, that persons calling themselves Christians have often walked in their steps. [Footnote: I cannot avoid the opportunity of here expressing my firm conviction, that our Lord’s sayings in this chapter are meant to bear a prophetical signification, and to apply to corruptions which He foresaw would spring up in His professing church. Beyond doubt there is a most unhappy similarity between the doctrines and practices of the Scribes and Pharisees, and many of the leading corruptions of the Church of Rome.]

Let us learn from the whole passage how deplorable was the condition of the Jewish nation when our Lord was upon earth. When such were the teachers, what must have been the miserable darkness of the taught! Truly the iniquity of Israel had come to the full. It was high time indeed for the Sun of Righteousness to arise and the Gospel to be preached.

Let us learn from the whole passage how abominable is hypocrisy in the sight of God. These Scribes and Pharisees are not charged with being thieves or murderers, but with being hypocrites to the very core. Whatever we are in our religion, let us resolve never to wear a cloak. Let us by all means be honest and real.

Let us learn from the whole passage how awfully dangerous is the position of an unfaithful minister. It is bad enough to be blind ourselves. It is a thousand times worse to be a blind guide. Of all men none is so culpably wicked as an unconverted minister, and none will be judged so severely. It is a solemn saying about such an one, "He resembles an unskillful pilot: he does not perish alone."

Finally, let us beware of supposing from this passage, that the safest course in religion is to make no profession at all. This is to run into a dangerous extreme. It does not follow that there is no such thing as true profession, because some men are hypocrites. It does not follow that all money is bad, because there is much counterfeit coin. Let not hypocrisy prevent our confessing Christ, or move us from our steadfastness, if we have confessed Him. Let us press on, looking unto Jesus, and resting on Him, praying daily to be kept from error, and saying with David, "let my heart be sound in thy statutes." (Psalms 119:80.)

Verses 34-39

THESE verses form the conclusion of our Lord Jesus Christ’s address, on the subject of the Scribes and Pharisees. They are the last words which He ever spoke, as a public teacher, in the hearing of the people. The characteristic tenderness and compassion of our Lord, shine forth in a striking manner at the close of His ministry. Though He left His enemies in unbelief, He shows that He loved and pitied them to the last.

We learn, in the first place, from these verses, that God often takes great pains with ungodly men. He sent the Jews "prophets and wise men and scribes." He gave them repeated warnings. He sent them message after message. He did not allow them to go on sinning without rebuke. They could never say that they were not told when they did wrong.

This is the way in which God generally deals with unconverted Christians. He does not cut them off in their sins without a call to repentance. He knocks at the door of their hearts by sicknesses and afflictions. He assails their consciences by sermons, or by the advice of friends. He summons them to consider their ways by opening the grave under their eyes, and taking away from them their idols. They often know not what it all means. They are often blind and deaf to all His gracious messages. But they will see His hand at last, though perhaps too late. They will find that "God spake once, yea twice, but they perceived it not." (Job 33:14.) They will discover that they too, like the Jews, had prophets, and wise men, and scribes, sent to them. There was a voice in every providence, "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?" (Ezekiel 33:11.)

We learn, in the second place, from these verses, that God takes notice of the treatment which His messengers and ministers receive, and will one day reckon for it. The Jews, as a nation, had often given the servants of God most shameful usage. They had often dealt with them as enemies, because they told them the truth. Some they had persecuted, and some they had scourged, and some they had even killed. They thought perhaps that no account would be required of their conduct. But our Lord tells them they were mistaken. There was an eye that saw all their doings. There was a hand that registered all the innocent blood they shed, in books of everlasting remembrance. The dying words of Zacharias, who was "slain between the temple and the altar," would be found, after eight hundred and fifty years, not to have fallen to the ground.—He said, as he died, "the LORD look upon it and require it." (2 Chronicles 24:22.) [Footnote: It is remarkable that the Zacharias here spoken of, is described in Chronicles as the son of Jehoiada. Our Lord speaks of him as the sone of Barachias. This descrepancy has led some to suppose that the Zacharias here spoken of could not be the one who was murdered in the days of Joash, but an entirely different person. But there seems no sufficient reason for this supposition. By far the most satisfactory explanation appears to be, that the father of Zacharias had two names, Jehoiada and Barachias. It was not at all uncommon among the Jews to have two names. Matthew was also called Levi, and Jude Thaddeus.] Yet a few years, and there would be such an inquisition for blood at Jerusalem as the world had never seen. The holy city would be destroyed. The nation which had murdered so many prophets would itself be wasted by famine, pestilence, and the sword. And even those that escaped would be scattered to the four winds, and become, like Cain the murderer, "fugitives and vagabonds upon earth." We all know how literally these sayings were fulfilled. Well might our Lord say, "Verily all these things shall come upon this generation."

It is good for us all to mark this lesson well. We are too apt to think that "bygones are bygones," and that things which to us are past, and done, and old, will never be raked up again. But we forget that with God "one day is as a thousand years" and that the events of a thousand years ago are as fresh in His sight, as the events of this very hour. God "requireth that which is past," and above all, God will require an account of the treatment of His saints. The blood of the primitive Christians shed by the Roman Emperors,—the blood of the Vallenses and Albigenses, and the sufferers at the massacre of St. Bartholomew,—the blood of the martyrs who were burned at the time of the Reformation, and of those who have been put to death by the Inquisition,—all, all will yet be accounted for. It is an old saying, that "the mill-stones of God’s justice grind slowly, but they grind very fine." The world will yet see that "there is a God that judgeth in the earth." (Psalms 58:11.)

Let those who persecute God’s people in the present day take heed what they are doing. Let them know that all who injure, or ridicule, or mock, or slander others on account of their religion, commit a great sin. Let them know that Christ takes notice of every one who persecutes his neighbor because he is better than himself, or because he prays, reads his Bible, and thinks about his soul. He lives who said, "he that toucheth you, toucheth the apple of mine eye." (Zechariah 2:8.) The judgment day will prove that the King of kings will reckon with all who insult His servants.

We learn, in the last place, from these verses, that those who are lost for ever, are lost through their own fault.

The words of our Lord Jesus Christ are very remarkable. He says, "I would have gathered thy children together,—and ye would not."

There is something peculiarly deserving of notice in this expression. It throws light on a mysterious subject, and one which is often darkened by human explanations. It shows that Christ has feelings of pity and mercy for many who are not saved, and that the grand secret of man’s ruin is his want of will. Impotent as man is by nature,—unable to think a good thought of himself,—without power to turn himself to faith and calling upon God,—he still appears to have a mighty ability to ruin his own soul. Powerless as he is to good, he is still powerful to evil. We say rightly that a man can do nothing of himself, but we must always remember that the seat of impotence is his will. A will to repent and believe no man can give himself, but a will to reject Christ and have his own way, every man possesses by nature, and if not saved at last, that will shall prove to have been his destruction. "Ye will not come to me," says Christ, "that ye might have life." (John 5:40.)

Let us leave the subject with the comfortable reflection, that with Christ nothing is impossible. The hardest heart can be made willing in the day of His power. Grace beyond doubt is irresistible. But never let us forget, that the Bible speaks of man as a responsible being, and that it says of some, "ye do always resist the Holy Ghost." (Acts 7:51.) Let us understand that the ruin of those who are lost, is not because Christ was not willing to save them,—nor yet because they wanted to be saved, but could not,—but because they would not come to Christ. Let the ground we take up be always that of the passage we are now considering,—Christ would gather men, but they will not to be gathered; Christ would save men, but they will not to be saved. Let it be a settled principle in our religion, that man’s salvation, if saved, is wholly of God; and that man’s ruin, if lost, is wholly of himself. The evil that is in us is all our own. The good, if we have any, is all of God. The saved in the next world will give God all the glory. The lost in the next world will find that they have destroyed themselves. (Hosea 13:9.)

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Bibliographical Information
Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels".