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Matthew 23

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

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Matthew 23:0


The Denouncing of the Scribes and PhariseesWoe to the Scribes and PhariseesWoe to the Scribes and PhariseesJesus Warns Against the Teachings of the Law and the PhariseesThe Scribes and Pharisees: Their Hypocrisy and Vanity
Matthew 23:1-12Matthew 23:1-36Matthew 23:1-12Matthew 23:1-12Matthew 23:1-7
Matthew 23:8-12
Jesus Condemns Their HypocrisySevenfold Indictment of the Scribes and Pharisees
Matthew 23:13 Matthew 23:13-15Matthew 23:13Matthew 23:13
Matthew 23:14 Matthew 23:14Matthew 23:14 (not included)
Matthew 23:15 Matthew 23:15Matthew 23:15
Matthew 23:16-22 Matthew 23:16-22Matthew 23:16-22Matthew 23:16-22
Matthew 23:23-24 Matthew 23:23-24Matthew 23:23-24Matthew 23:23-24
Matthew 23:25-26 Matthew 23:25-26Matthew 23:25-26Matthew 23:25-26
Matthew 23:27-28 Matthew 23:27-28Matthew 23:27-28Matthew 23:27-28
Jesus Predicts Their Punishment
Matthew 23:29-36 Matthew 23:29-36Matthew 23:29-36Matthew 23:29-32
Their Crimes and Approaching Punishment
Matthew 23:33-36
The Lament for JerusalemJesus Laments Over JerusalemLament Over JerusalemJesus' Love for JerusalemJerusalem Admonished
Matthew 23:37-39Matthew 23:37-39Matthew 23:37-39Matthew 23:37-39Matthew 23:37-39(39b)

READING CYCLE THREE (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. The rift between Jesus and the Jewish power structures in Jerusalem was becoming more intense.

B. Jesus had often tried to reach them but they would not give up their traditional, nationalist concepts. They continuously tried to trap Him with questions. Their questions usually focused on the controversies (1) between the rabbinical schools of Hillel (liberal) and Shammai (conservative) or (2) between the Romans and the Jewish people. They hoped that Jesus would alienate one group or the other.

C. Jesus' cleansings of the Temple (cf. John 2:15 and Matthew 21:12-17) intensified the conflict.

D. Jesus' cursing of the fig tree, a symbol of Israel (cf. Matthew 21:18-22), and the two parables of rejection (cf. Matthew 21:28-46 and Matthew 22:1-14) were the final breaking points.

E. This chapter culminates in Jesus' rejection by the religious leaders. It is uncertain if Jesus' words reflect a rejection of Israel as a whole or merely her religious leaders.

F. Some other biblical parallels to His criticism of the religious leaders are Mark 12:38-40, Luke 11:39-54, Luke 20:45-47. Jesus used His most severe language to address these religious leaders.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why is Jesus so critical of the religious leaders of His day?

2. How do we know what to believe and practice?

3. Is attitude more crucial than action?

4. Is tithing a clearly taught New Testament principle?

5. Has Jesus totally rejected Israel?

Verses 1-12

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:1-12 1Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they saythings and do not do them. 4They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. 8But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, he who is in heaven. 10Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

Matthew 23:1 "Jesus spoke to the crowds" This was a public denunciation of the religious leaders. Although the following words do not describe every member of the Pharisees, they do characterize the prevalent attitude of the group.

Matthew 23:2 "scribes" These were experts in the Written Law (OT) and the Oral Law (Talmud) of Israel and were available to make local practical applications. In effect they replaced the traditional OT functions of the local Levites. See Special Topic at Matthew 12:38.

"Pharisees" This was a group of committed Jews which developed during the Maccabean Period. They accepted all of the written Old Testament and Oral Tradition as binding. Not all scribes were Pharisees, but most were. For a full discussion of the origin and theology of the Pharisees see Special Topic at Matthew 22:15.

"the chair of Moses" This referred to a teaching position in the local synagogue or in the local Jewish community.

Matthew 23:3 "all that they tell you, do and observe" Jesus uses two commands.

1. " do," aorist active imperative

2. " keep," present active imperative

Jesus was saying that if they could show you truth in the Law, then you should act on it. The Word of God is true no matter who proclaims it!

"but do not do according to their deeds" Their lifestyles and attitudes revealed their character. In a sense they are the false teachers described in Matthew 7:15-23. They have not acted on God's truth (cf. Matthew 7:24-27), but human tradition (cf. Isaiah 6:9-10; Isaiah 29:13)!

Matthew 23:4 "they tie up heavy burdens" This was a cultural metaphor which referred to the overloading or improper loading of domestic animals (cf. Matthew 11:28-30). The religious leaders did not show any compassion for the common person (cf. Luke 11:46; Acts 15:10). They themselves could not keep their own rules (cf. Romans 2:17-24).

There is a Greek manuscript variation in this verse. It is uncertain whether the phrase "difficult to carry" is original or assimilated from Luke 11:46.

Matthew 23:5 "they do all their deeds to be noticed by men" They were religious exhibitionists (cf. Matthew 6:2, Matthew 6:5, Matthew 6:16).

NASB"they broaden their phylacteries" NKJV, NRSV"they make their phylacteries broad" TEV"Look at the straps with scripture verses on them which they wear on their foreheads and arms, and notice how large they are" JB"wearing broader phylacteries" NJB"wearing broader headbands"

These black leather boxes contained the OT texts of Exodus 13:3-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, or Deuteronomy 11:13-21. They were worn on the forehead just above the eyes. This was an over literalization of Exodus 13:9 and Deuteronomy 6:8 and Matthew 11:18. These texts were to be the guiding light of believers lives, not black boxes on their foreheads!

NASB"lengthen the tassels of their garments" NKJV"enlarge the borders of their garments" NRSV"their fringes long" TEV"how long are the tassels on their cloaks!" NJB"longer tassels"

These were blue ornaments on their robes or prayer shawls which reminded them of the Torah (cf. Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12).

Matthew 23:6 This was the same temptation related to James and John in Matthew 20:20-28.

Matthew 23:7 "Rabbi" This Aramaic term was an honorific title (" my teacher"). These titles (rabbi, father, leader) are criticized because of the pride and arrogance connected with them in first century Judaism. The leaders loved to be called by these honorific titles.

The NKJV following the Textus Receptus doubles the word "Rabbi." This was a cultural way of (1) adding solemnity or (2) showing affection (cf. Matthew 23:37). However the early Greek texts (א and B as well as the Vulgate) have it only once.

Matthew 23:8-10 Note the repeated use of "One." Jesus (and Matthew) did not see a contradiction of monotheism. See the second paragraph at Matthew 22:37-38.

1. One is your Teacher (could be the Father or the Son, Matthew 22:36)

2. One is your Father (twice)

3. One is your Leader, that is Christ

Matthew 23:8 "you are all brothers" Believers are equal in God's sight (i.e., Genesis 1:26-27), therefore, we must be careful of ranks or titles! There is no "clergy" vs. "laity" distinction in the NT. There are also no other distinctions, note Romans 3:22; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11.

Matthew 23:11 "the greatest among you shall be your servant" This is discussed in Matthew 20:25-28 and Mark 10:42-44. What a shocking statement! This is markedly different from the world's attitudes. However, this is the sign of true greatness in the new age.

Matthew 23:12 "whoever exalts himself shall be humbled" This is a recurrent biblical theme (cf. Job 22:29; Proverbs 29:23; Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).

Verses 13-14

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:13-14 13"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves; nor do you allow those who are entering to go in." 14[" Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows'houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation." ]

Matthew 23:13 "woe to you" This passage (Matthew 23:13-36) is known as the "seven woes." Matthew often structured his Gospel using seven things. Woes are the opposite of blessings. In Luke's parallel to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, he added four "woes" to the beatitudes (cf. Matthew 5:3-11 vs. Luke 6:20-26). In the OT the term "woe" introduced a prophetic "dirge" or lament. It was structured (i.e., Hebrew beat or meter, accented lines of poetry) like funeral music to express God's judgment.

"hypocrites" This was a compound Greek term meaning " to judge under." It was a theatrical term used to describe one who played a part or acting role behind a mask. It was used earlier in Matthew 6:2, Matthew 6:5, Matthew 6:16; Matthew 7:5; Matthew 15:7; Matthew 16:3; Matthew 22:18; and also Matthew 24:51.

"you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people" This was the use of "the keys of the kingdom" (cf. Matthew 16:19; Revelation 1:18; Revelation 3:7). What an awesome responsibility it is to know truth! Modern, secular humanity has not so much rejected Jesus as he has rejected the modern church's presentation of Him in our words, lives and priorities! This is what the religious leaders of Jesus day did also. How many Pharisees are in the church today?

This is a shocking and tragic statement (irony).

1. the religious leaders themselves were not right with God (cf. Matthew 5:20)

2. the religious leaders led others astray and kept them from being right with God (cf. Matthew 15:14; Matthew 23:16, Matthew 23:24; Matthew 24:24; Romans 2:19)

"enter in" This verb is used of becoming part of the new eschatological Kingdom of God (i.e., the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34). One enters by their reception of Jesus now! Those who reject Him cannot enter (note Matthew 5:20; Matthew 7:21; Matthew 18:3; Matthew 19:23-24; Matthew 23:13).

Jesus is the only door to the Kingdom (i.e., John 1:12; John 10:7-18; John 14:6; Romans 10:9-13).

Matthew 23:14 Verse 14 is not in the Greek uncial manuscripts A, B, D, or L, nor most versions and, therefore, is probably not original to Matthew. It was probably put here by a copyist from Mark 12:40 or Luke 20:47. It appears in some later Greek manuscripts before Matthew 23:13 and in some after Matthew 23:13. The UBS4 rates its exclusion as "B" (almost certain).

Verse 15

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:15 15"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."

Matthew 23:15 "hypocrites" See Special Topic at Matthew 6:2.

"to make one proselyte" There were two kinds of Jewish converts: (1) those who were circumcised, self baptized and offered a sacrifice-they were called "proselytes of the gate" and (2) those who just regularly attended the synagogue-they were called "God-fearers."

"you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves" This is truly a shocking statement. Jesus is offended by self-righteous legalism! This reenforced His statement of Matthew 5:20. This is a significant reversal of cultural expectations.

▣ "hell" This term Gehenna came from two Hebrew words, "valley" and "Hinnom." This was where the Phoenician fertility fire god was worshiped just south of Jerusalem in the valley of Topheth, by the practice of child sacrifice [molech] (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 2 Chronicles 33:6). It became the garbage dump of Jerusalem. Jesus used it as the earthly metaphor of hell and eternal judgment.

This term was only used by Jesus, except for James 3:6. Jesus' love for fallen mankind did not prevent Him from addressing the awesome consequences of rejecting His words and works (cf. Matthew 25:46). If Jesus asserted the reality of eternal separation from fellowship with God, it is a truth that His followers must take seriously. Hell is a tragedy for mankind, but also an open bleeding wound in the heart of God that will never heal! See Special Topic: Where Are the Dead? at Matthew 5:22.

Verses 16-22

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:16-22 16"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.'17You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.'19You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? 20Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. 21And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. 22And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it."

Matthew 23:16 "blind guides" This was a sarcastic metaphor for the religious leaders (cf. Matthew 15:14; Matthew 23:16, Matthew 23:24).

Matthew 23:16-22 "swears by" The Jews had developed an extensive system of valid and invalid oaths, using God's name (cf. Matthew 5:33-37; James 5:12). It was a way to allow lying while appearing religious (cf. Leviticus 19:12; Deuteronomy 23:21).

"You fools" See Special Topic at Matthew 5:22.

Verses 23-24

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:23-24 23"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"

Matthew 23:23 "you. . .hypocrites" See Special Topic at Matthew 6:2.

"you tithe mint and dill and cummin" In their legalism (cf. Leviticus 27:30-33; Deuteronomy 14:22-29), they counted even the smallest spices so as to give precisely ten percent to God, but they neglected justice, love, and fidelity. The New Testament does not speak of tithing except here. The heart of New Testament giving is not found in a percentage (cf. Matthew 23:2 Cor. 8-9)!

NT believers must be careful of turning Christianity into a new legal performance oriented code (Christian Talmud). Their desire to be pleasing to God causes them to try to find guidelines for every area of life. However, theologically it is dangerous to pull old covenant rules which are not reaffirmed in the NT and make them dogmatic criteria, especially when they are claimed to be causes of calamity or promises of prosperity!


Matthew 23:24 "who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" The Pharisees of Jesus' day would filter their water through cloth to keep from inadvertently swallowing an inclean insect, but in reality their legalistic unlove caused them figuratively to swallow an unclean camel! This was a word play between the Aramaic terms gnat, "galma" and camel, "gamla." This was an Oriental hyperbole. Jesus often used camels in His overstatements (cf. Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25).

Verses 25-28

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:25-28 25"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. 27Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like the whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. 28So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."

Matthew 23:25 "hypocrites" See Special Topic at Matthew 6:2.

"you clean the outside of the cup" They were very concerned with ceremonial cleanliness, but their attitudes and motives were far from God (cf. Isaiah 29:13). They were defiled from within (i.e., the heart, cf. Mark 7:15, Mark 7:20). The new standard of righteousness (i.e., the new covenant, cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-38) was not human performance, but faith in Christ's righteousness to be purchased on Calvary and confirmed on Easter Sunday!

Matthew 23:27 "whitewashed tombs" The citizens of Jerusalem would paint the graves white before feast days lest a pilgrim accidentally touch them and become ceremonially unclean for seven days, and hence unable to participate in the feast even after traveling a long distance (cf. Numbers 19:16; Numbers 31:19). These freshly painted tombs were analogous to the outward religiosity of the Jewish leaders.

Verses 29-33

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:29-33 29"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30and say, 'If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'31So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. 33You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?"

Matthew 23:29 "hypocrites" See Special Topic at Matthew 6:2.

"you build the tombs of the prophets" In the OT God's people would kill God's prophets and then build large tombs for them. The building of monuments to God's spokesmen is not what God wanted. He desires obedience to His message (cf. Matthew 23:34-35). As the leaders of the OT killed the prophets, these leaders would kill Jesus and His followers.

Matthew 23:30 "if" This is a second class conditional sentence, which is called "contrary to fact." A premise is made that is false and, therefore, the conclusion drawn from it is also false.

Matthew 23:33 "You serpents, you brood of vipers" Jesus was not always the meek and mild, "turn the other cheek" man often pictured (cf. Matthew 3:7; Matthew 12:34). Religious self-righteous hypocrisy elicited His harshest condemnation-and still does!

"hell" See Special Topic at Matthew 5:22.

Verses 34-36

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:34-36 34"Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation."

Matthew 23:34 "I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes" God (note Jesus uses "I") continues His activity of revelation through His chosen spokespersons (cf. Matthew 21:34-36; Matthew 23:37). The Jews were not ignorant of God's truth; they chose to reject it for their traditions (cf. Isaiah 6:9-13; Isaiah 29:13; Jeremiah 5:20-29)! See SPECIAL TOPIC: NEW TESTAMENT PROPHECY at Matthew 11:9.

"some of them you will kill and crucify" The prediction of persecution was dramatically fulfilled in the early days of Christianity. God's spokespersons often reap the hostility of fallen mankind, even religious mankind, against God's word and will.

Matthew 23:35 "blood shed" See Special Topic following.


"Abel" See Genesis 4:8ff.

"Zechariah" There has been much discussion here as to which prophet this referred. The only martyr known by this name is found in 2 Chronicles 24:2-22, but his father's name is different from this reference. However the parallel in Luke 11:51 omits the father's name, as does the Greek MSS א in Matthew.

Zechariah, the post-exilic prophet, had this name but was not killed in this manner. There could be another prophet by this name that we know nothing about. However, since Abel is the first martyr in the OT then the Zechariah mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:0 would be the last martyr because Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew canon.

Matthew 23:36 "all these things will come upon this generation" In one sense this showed the preeminence of Jesus (cf. Matthew 10:23; Matthew 23:36; Matthew 24:34). He was God's ultimate spokesman. When the leaders and the general population rejected Him, there was no hope- only judgment. The new age of the Spirit has come!

Verses 37-39

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Matthew 23:37-39 37"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! 39For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!'"

Matthew 23:37-39 Jesus is obviously filled with emotion (cf. Luke 13:34, Luke 13:35). He and the Father both love the covenant people. He longed to restore them to fellowship, but they clung to their legalism (Isaiah 29:13). Only judgment could restart the need for covenant intimacy!

The question remains, when did Jesus speak these words? Was it just before His Triumphal Entry or does it refer to an eschatological entry? One thing is sure, the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10 will come to pass one day! The unification of God's people spoken of in Romans 9-11 will restore the fellowship of the Garden of Eden (cf. Genesis 3:15).

Matthew 23:37 "gather" This verb is also used of an end-time gathering of the elect in Matthew 3:12; Matthew 13:20, Matthew 13:47; Matthew 24:31.

"the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings" YHWH and Jesus often used feminine metaphors to describe their work and attitudes (cf. Genesis 1:2; Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 32:11; Isaiah 49:15; Isaiah 66:9-13). Deity is neither male nor female, but spirit. He created the sexes and has the best qualities of both in Himself.


Matthew 23:38 "your house is being left to you desolate" This appears to be an allusion to Jeremiah 22:5. It could refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or to other future events. God's unique covenant with Israel has been altered by their unbelief! There is a New Covenant (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34), which is not based on racial descent, but on faith and faithfulness in God and His Messiah.

Matthew 23:39 "until you say" This is a reference to Psalms 118:26-27, which was used in the Triumphal Entry (cf. Matthew 21:9). This is similar to the wonderful Messianic prediction of Zechariah 12:10 that the Jews will one day turn to the one whom they pierced (cf. Romans 9-11)! All believers pray for this Jewish revival!

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/matthew-23.html. 2021.
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