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Bible Commentaries

Zerr's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament

Matthew 23

Verse 1

23:1 The audience that heard this remarkable chapter was composed of the multitude and the disciples. The first 12 verses were addressed to that part of the multitude designated scribes and Pharisees, and what should be the attitude of the disciples toward that group.

Verse 2

23:2 Moses wrote the law that was to regulate the Yews during that dispensation. After he died it was the duty of others to teach and enforce it upon the nation, and that was a work done by the scribes and Phari sees which is the meaning of their sitting in Moses' seat.

Verse 3

23:3 The scribes and Pharisees had no authority on their own account, but the law which they enforced was just as binding as was the personal teaching of Moses while he was living. The inconsistency of a teacher does not lessen the force of what he teaches if it is according to the law. These scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites and failed to "practice what they preached," yet the disciples were told to obey the law regardless of the unfaithfulness of these teachers; that was because the law of Moses was still in force at the time Jesus was speaking. Note the two words observe and do that were to be recognized by the disciples. A truth or declaration should be observed or respected although it may not contain any direct command for action. But a practical commandment must be not only observed but also must be done.

Verse 4

23:4 The scribes and Pharisees would apply the duties taught in the law in a severe measure when concerned with others. With one of their fingers is a figure of speech, for a burden that could be moved with one finger would not be very heavy. It means they were not willing to exert themselves in the least toward practicing the commandments of the law. One reason they took such an attitude was the fact that they exaggerated the duties actually required by the law in order to oppress the common people.

Verse 5

23:5 Their works refers to the things these hypocrites did, which were done with a vain motive and that they might be seen of men. "Make broad their phylacteries" may be explained by a quotation from Smith's Bible Dictionary as follows: "Phylacteries were strips of parchment, on which were written four passages of Scripture, Exo 13:2-17; Deu 6:4-9; Deu 6:13-23, in an ink prepared for the purpose. They were then rolled up in a case of black calfskin, which was attached to a stiffer piece of leather, having a thong one finger broad and one and a half cubits long. They were placed at the bend of the left arm. Those worn on the forehead were written on four strips of parchment, and put into four little cells within a square case on which the letter . . . was written. The square had two thongs, on which Hebrew letters were inscribed. That phylacteries were used as amulets [charms] is certain and was very natural. The expression 'they make broad their phylacteries,' Mat 23:5, refers not so much to the phylactery itself, which seems to have been a prescribed breadth, as to the case in which the parchment was kept, which the Pharisees, among their other pretentious customs, Mar 7:3-4; Luk 5:33, etc., made as conspicuous as they could. It is said that the Pharisees wore them always, whereas the common people only used them at prayers." Borders is from KRASPEDON which Thayer defines, "A little appendage hanging down from the edge of the mantle or cloak." He explains his definition, "The Jews had such appendages attached to their mantles to remind them of the law, according to Num 15:37." For more detailed comments on this curious subject, see those at Num 15:37-41 in volume 1 of the Old Testament Commentary.

Verse 6

23:6 Rooms means places at the table while eating, some of them being regarded as more honorable than others. Chief seats means the first or front seats in the synagogues that gave the occupants a prominent view of the audience.

Verse 7

23:7 Markets were places of general interest where men gathered either to buy or to sell their wares, or to converse on various topics. It was usual to see large crowds in such places and they were so public that no one was of any special importance; but these scribes and Pharisees wished to receive special notice by the crowd. The Mosaic system had no officials with the title of Rabbi; the term was created by the Jews to mean one of dignity and respect. It carried with it the idea of some great one deserving special attention. Thayer defines the original, "My great one, my honorable air." The Pharisees wanted it repeated to give it more emphasis.

Verse 8

23:8 The titles of distinction could be used with various intent, hence that of Rabbi could denote a. great leader which was not to be ascribed to private disciples.

Verse 9

23:9 By the process of elimination we know this verse does not mean our fleshly father for that Is a respect all men are commanded to show. Nor can it mean in the sense of one who leads us to be born into the kingdom, for Paul claimed that relationship to Timothy (1Ti 1:1). The conclusion is clear, then, that this verse means not to call any man father as a religious title or one of authority.

Verse 10

3:10 The original for master not only means a leader, but also denotes a great and authoritative teacher. Christ is the only one in the kingdom of heaven that is deserving of that distinction (chapter 28:18).

Verse 11

3:11 This is explained in comments on Mat 18:1-4.

Verse 12

3:12. We have learned that true greatness consists of sincere humility and a desire to be of service to others. But if a man strives for worldly greatness he will be brought down by the Lord under a state of enforced humiliation.

Verse 13

3:13 Up to now Jesus has been talking to his disciples in this chapter, and a part of that conversation has been about the scribes and Pharisees. From here to the close of the chapter he will be speaking directly to them. A hypocrite is one who pretends to be something he knows he is not. (See at chapter 6:2.) These Jews knew that their pretensions were false as their evasive conversations showed. Shut up the kingdom. They not only refused to receive the teaching of John and Jesus and thus get ready for the kingdom that was at hand, but did all they could to keep others from doing so. Eight times in this chapter Jesus pronounces woe upon the scribes and Pharisees. The word is an interjection and means a term of grief or dismay, and when spoken by an inspired man means that great calamity is in store for those referred to.

Verse 14

3:14 Devour is from KATESTHIO which Thayer defines at this place, "To devour i. e., forcibly appropriate." Houses is from OIKIA and the same lexicon defines it in this passage, "Property, wealth, goods." They took advantage of the unfortunate widows who were helpless because of the power of the scribes and Pharisees. After enlarging their own estates at the unjust expense of the widows, they came to the places of devotion and uttered prayers that were unusually long. Greater damnation.. The Bible speaks of only one Gehenna or lake of fire into which the unsaved will be cast after the judgment, therefore the actual punishment will be the same for all who are put into that place. The second word in italics also means condemnation and applies to the estimate that the Lord will place on the wrong deeds of these men. A judge may sentence two men to prison for life, yet he may utter a severer condemnation upon one while in his speech of pronouncing sentence than upon the other.

Verse 15

3:15 The English word "proselyte" means one converted or brought over from one faith to another. The word has virtually the same meaning in the Bible, for the Gentiles were permitted to embrace Judaism, and when they did so they were called proselytes. The Jews recognized a distinction between the extent to which some Gentiles made the change which resulted in such classifications as "proselytes of the gate" and "proselytes of righteousness." The latter went farther than the former and conformed to all of the requirements of the law of Moses. But this distinction need not concern us as far as the present verse is concerned. The point is that the scribes and Pharisees professed great zeal in making proselytes, but through their deceptive methods of pressing their own traditions upon the converts ahead of the written law, they confused them and made them worse characters than themselves. Twofold more the child of hell. This is plainly a figurative statement, for no one can be any more than once a child of another. The word child is used in the sense of one who is worthy of or entitled to a thing. This should be understood in the light of comments on "greater damnation" in the preceding verse.

Verse 16

3:16 The point in this verse is their inconsistency of making a technical distinction between things where there was no difference in principle. It was a usual practice of these pretenders to make a show of importance by performing oaths, yet they evaded their self-assumed obligation by naming the temple in their oaths and claiming it was not binding. But they Verse 26. The activities necessary insisted that if others made their vows for cleansing the inside would also in the name of the gold attached to affect the outside if the process should the temple they would not dare break be carried out completely and sincerely. it since the gold was holy.

Verse 17

3:17 Jesus showed their inconsistency in that if the gold was sacred it was the temple that made it so, being attached to and forming a part of the structure.

Verse 18

8-22 The same argument is made in these verses as that in verse 17 The attachment between the altar and the gift upon it, or between the temple and Him who dwells therein (who is God), or between heaven and the throne therein with its Occupant-that attachment makes the obligation equal all around. The word guilty in verse 18 means the same as debtor in the 16th verse; the person is under obligation to perform the oath.

Verse 23

3:23 The Jews were required by the law to give a tenth of the products of their land to the Lord's service. The plants named were small ones of the mint family and of small value commercially, yet these Pharisees were very scrupulous to turn over the tithe (tenth) as required. At the same time they were so attentive to those comparatively small matters, they were indifferent about such weighty matters as judgment, mercy, and faith. Notice Jesus did not say for them to replace the one by the other, but to observe both the small and great things.

Verse 24

3:24 The point in this verse is the same as in the preceding one but expressed with different terms. Both the gnat and camel were among the creatures classed as unclean by the law of Moses. When the Jews made wine they strained i t through a fine cloth to get out all the objectionable objects. Strain at should be translated strain out, and means they were so particular about having the wine pure they would strain out a gnat, but would swallow a camel (figuratively speaking). The meaning is, they would make a big ado about minor matters but overlook the duties of great importance.

Verse 25

3:25 This verse is intended to teach the same lesson as the preceding one by using the figure of a cup kept for drinking purposes. The inside is where the material is placed that is to be consumed, not the outside. By cleansing the outside instead of the inner part, they showed that their pretended care in the cleansing performance was for the appearance only.

Verse 27

7-28 The inconsistency and hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees is the principal subject of many of these verses, and Jesus uses various figures and comparisons for his purpose. Whited sepulchres is the object used in this paragraph for the comparison, and the occasion of their being whited is explained in Smith's Bible Dictionary as follows: "A natural cave enlarged and adapted by excavation, or an artificial imitation of one, was the standard type of sepulchre. Sepulchres, when the owner's means permitted it, were commonly-prepared beforehand, and stood often in gardens, by roadsides, or even adjoining houses. Kings and prophets alone were probably buried within towns. 1Ki 2:10; 1Ki 16:6; 1Ki 16:28. Cities soon became populous and demanded cemeteries, Eze 39:15, which were placed without the walls. Sepulchres were marked sometimes by pillars or by pyramids. Such as were not otherwise noticeable were scrupulously `whited,' Mat 23:27, once a year, after the rains before the passover, to warn passers-by of defilement."--Article, burial. The beautiful appearance of these whitewashed places contrasted with the decayed and unclean bones within, and the fact was used by Jesus to illustrate the outward fair pretentions of the hypocrites that were opposite to the corruptions of their hearts.

Verse 29

3:29 The prophets had been dead for centuries and were placed in tombs at the time of their death. The word for build is defined at this place by Thayer, "To restore by building, to rebuild, repair." To garnish is defined, "To ornament, adorn." There was nothing wrong in the work of these scribes and Pharisees respecting the treatment of the burial places of the prophets.

Verse 30

3:30 Neither would there have been anything objectionable about what they said regarding the history connected with those prophets, had the remarks been in harmony with their own conduct in the same matters which were the subject of the history.

Verse 31

3:31 The point Jesus made was upon the admission of these pretenders that it was their fathers who had slain the prophets. That fleshly relation would not have placed any blame on them had it not been a prominent practice of them to justify their lives by boasting of their great ancestry.

Verse 32

3:32 This verse is partly in a sense of irony. It is as if Jesus had said: "Since you are the fleshly descendants of those murderers, you may be expected to show their traits in their moral and spiritual character. In so doing you will fully measure up to the wickedness of your ancestors."

Verse 33

3:33 Serpents and vipers are virtually the same creatures as to general classification, being slightly different in variety. The outstanding characteristics of both are deception, poison and filthiness. John the Baptist called those people by the term "vip ers" in chapter 3:7. How can ye escape, eto. The fire of hell (Gehenna) will have been prepared for the devil and his angels (Mat 25:41), hence it will logically be the final destiny of the offspring of such wicked characters.

Verse 34

3:34 Jesus concluded his direct denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, and the rest of this speech is made up of predictions against them soon to be fulfilled. He began it by foretelling how they would abuse the righteous men and prophets that would yet be sent to them in that generation.

Verse 35

3:35 See the comments on verse 32. By filling up the measure of their wicked ancestors, the scribes and Pharisees brought to a climax the long career of murder beginning with the slaying of Abel and including Zacharias in 2Ch 24:20-21.

Verse 36

3:36 All these things means the predictions and charges of the two preceding verses, together with the judgments that were soon to come upon that generation.

Verse 37

3:37 The storm that Jesus just predicted was to have its climax upon the capital city of Jerusalem. Seeing that calamity so near, he uttered the lamentable words of this verse. The many attempts to awaken the city to a sense of its evils and the results to follow are compared to the care that a hen manifests in offering her wings for the protection of her brood. And the refusal of the citizens to accept that warning is compared to a flock of chickens that would not come under the wings spread out for them.

Verse 38

3:38 Desolate is from EREMOS which Thayer defines, "Solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited." The word is used figuratively and represents Jerusalem as a house that has resisted all attempts to save it. The city had continued in its attitude of wickedness, unmindful of all the offers of mercy that Jesus extended towards her, and he then sadly left her to her fate that was to come in 70 A. D. by the hand of the Romans.

Verse 39

3:39 Blessed is he that cometh, etc., was said before (Mat 21:9), so that we may think of the present statement as if it said "till ye shall AGAIN say." However, the other time it was said to him in person, while the next time it will be said to him spiritually. And that cannot be when he cometh in his kingdom on Pentecost, for it was to be after the "house" was left desolate which did not come till 70 A. D. at the destruction of Jerusalem. Hence all conclusions are eliminated except that it means when the Jews accept Christ (Rom 11:26; 2Co 3:14-16). When that time comes the name Jerusalem will be extended to mean the spiritual starting point of the church and hence its citizens (including the Jews), will recognize Jesus as the Messiah of the Old Testament and will thus say "blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."
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Bibliographical Information
Zerr, E.M. "Commentary on Matthew 23". Zerr's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/znt/matthew-23.html. 1952.