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Bible Commentaries

Arno Gaebelein's Annotated Bible
Matthew 23

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-39

11. The Woes of the King and His Lamentation over Jerusalem.

CHAPTER 23

1. The Hypocrisy of the Pharisees.(Matthew 23:1-12.)
2. The Woes of the King upon Them.(
Matthew 23:13-36.)
3. The Lamentation over Jerusalem. (
Matthew 23:37-39.)

For the last time we have seen the Pharisees in the presence of the Lord in the previous chapter. What an important part these ecclesiastical leaders of the professing people of God play in this Gospel. They rejected Him; hated Him without a cause, and after they found they could not ensnare Him they resorted to that which Satan had put into their wicked hearts “that they might kill Him.” That which the Lord had foretold in His parable of the vineyard is now soon to take place. They made their plans and are ready to take their King and deliver Him into the hands of the Gentiles to be crucified. He is now soon to be taken, delivered into man’s hand, going to the cross, where He, who knew no sin, was to be made sin for us. How solemn His words when He stood before Pilate and declared, “Thou hadst no authority whatever against me if it were not given to thee from above. On this account he that has delivered me up to thee has greater sin.” But before we reach the story of the passion of the King, so wonderfully told in this Gospel, we find the King first of all passing judgment upon these evil leaders of the people. In the next place we have recorded, as nowhere else in the Gospel records, the great Olivet discourse, in which the King reveals the future. Here we find prophecy concerning the Jews and Jerusalem, the church and the Gentiles.

The chapter which is before us contains the “Woes” of the King upon the Pharisees. It is one of the most solemn ones in Matthew. Pharisaism is still in the earth; Ritualism, Traditionalism and with it the rejection of the authority of the Lord and His written Word, is Pharisaism, that evil leaven against which the Lord warns. This Christian Pharisaism is far worse than the old Jewish system. And where in Christendom is a little of that leaven lacking? Only the Grace of God, an unbroken fellowship with the Father and His Son in the power of the Holy Spirit, can keep the individual believer from manifesting a Pharisaical spirit.

“Then Jesus spoke to the multitude and to His disciples, saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have set themselves down in Moses’ seat; all things therefore, whatever they may tell you, do keep. But do not after their works, for they say and do not, but bind burdens heavy and hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of men, but will not move them with their finger. And all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place in feasts, and the first seats in the synagogue, and salutations in the market places, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But ye, be ye not called Rabbi; for one is your instructor, and all ye are brethren. And call not any one your father upon earth; for one is your Father, He who is in the heavens. Neither be called leaders, for one is your leader, the Christ. But the greatest of you shall be your servant. And whoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled, and whoever shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Matthew 23:1-12). These are indeed cutting words. Out of His mouth goes a two-edged sword. Well may these words be placed in connection with the church message to Pergamos, in which the glorified Christ saith, “These things says He that has the sharp two-edged sword.” Pergamos shows prophetically that period of the church when Ritualism, Nicolaitanism (Clericalism) came in like a flood and a certain class of men assumed the place of authority in the church, as leaders, priests, and began to dictate and teach the traditions of men. And ever since that time and through that into which Pergamos developed, Thyatira (Roman Catholicism), the leaven of the Pharisees, has worked on in Christendom and is still working. The Lord speaks first of all of the place which the scribes and Pharisees had chosen. They had placed themselves in Moses’ seat. This no doubt He spoke in reference to legislation and not in regard to doctrine.

They had occupied the legislative seat, and when their sect started it was with a zeal for the law, which God had given through Moses. Soon, however, they became corrupt. In that part of the Talmud which is called the Mishnah it is stated that they were to be regarded as if put into that place by Moses himself, taking their places in his seat, and were to be obeyed, so far as outward observations were concerned. [The Talmud is composed of two parts, the Gemara and the Mishna. Mishna means “repetition,” and was a repetition of the written law.]

As far as the God given law was concerned and its observances, they were to do and to keep what the Pharisees said. What a wise exhortation this is! He, the King, fully recognized the position they had taken; if He had spoken otherwise, they might have accused Him of inciting the multitudes to riot against their authority. Romans 13:1-7 contains a similar wise exhortation by the Spirit of God for this present age. Against which the Lord warns is their works. There were two great schools among these Pharisees as we stated before; the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. These were occupied with interpretations of the law. What strange interpretations were given, what tedious burdens were bound upon the people, which God never meant, could easily be illustrated and demonstrated by quotations from that tremendous literary work, the Talmud. “The burdens became intolerable. The blame rested equally on both the great rabbinic schools. For although the school of Hillel was supposed in general to make the yoke lighter, and that of Shammai heavier, yet not only did they agree on many points, but the school of Hillel was not unfrequently even more strict than that of his rival. In truth their differences seem too often only prompted by a spirit of opposition, so that the serious business of religion became in their hands one of rival authority and mere wrangling” (Edersheim). But while they put these burdens upon the people and domineered over them they neither kept them nor did they move a finger to remove them. In connection with this external show of religion, for which the Pharisees stood, the Phylacteries are mentioned. The general Christian reader has little information about the meaning of this word. The word “phylacteries” means “observatories” to keep the remembrance of the Law alive. In different parts of the Pentateuch we read these words, “And thou shalt bind these words for a sign on thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and upon thy gates” (Exodus 13:9-16; Deuteronomy 6:9, etc.). The last named injunction, “Write them upon the posts of thy house,” is literally practised by orthodox Jews, by writing these words upon a piece of parchment, inclosing them in a tin box, and this box is nailed on the door posts. From the same words the phylacteries, or tephillin, were instituted. These are two strips of leather to each of which is attached a small box; in these boxes there are likewise pieces of parchment upon which the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 6:4-8 is written. The one leather strip with this box is wound around the forehead, the box resting in the middle of the forehead, while the second strip is wound around the arm, the left arm, which is nearest to the heart. The ends of this one is made to form the Hebrew letter “shin,” which stands for Shaddai, the Almighty. Strange and curious laws are connected with the preparation of the phylacteries, the wearing of them; the rabbinical writings contain much on the phylacteries which is superstitious. Thus the talmudical tract Berachoth declares, “It is necessary to wear the phylacteries nights in the home as they drive away the demons.” Orthodox Jews use them as their fathers did, and there is no doubt that the wearing of phylacteries in the twentieth century by strictly orthodox Jews and their belief in them is the same as in the days when our Lord spake these words. It is seen that the phylacteries sprung from a literal interpretation of the above passages in the Pentateuch, an outward religious observance for which there was no foundation whatever in the law. The Lord, however, does not attack this, we believe, ancient custom, but He attacks the habits of the Pharisees to wear the phylacteries and the enlarged borders of their garments (Numbers 15:38), so as to be seen of men. They did it all for show; selfishness controlled them and they had no heart for the things of God. They loved the first places, the honor and praise of men; flatterers, they enjoyed and loved to receive honoring salutations from the side of men in market places. “Rabbi, Rabbi,” which means teacher or instructor, they loved to be addressed as well as “Abba,” which is “father.” All these titles simply sprang from their self-seeking. The Lord now gives teaching, telling his hearers that which concerns of course disciples alone, that they are brethren and that they have but one teacher, the Christ Himself; that they should not call man father, but one is their Father, God Himself. The greatest of His own is the One, who is a servant of all. This reaches over into the new dispensation. The instructor, the guide, is the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Alas! how the enemy has succeeded in producing and fostering this distinctive mark of Pharisaism in Christendom, with its man-made institutions, titles, honors, offices and leaderships. It was not so in the beginning, but corruption has entered in and we find at the end of the age a Pharisaism far worse than that which the Lord here condemns. And there is a judgment coming upon that boasting, proud, Pharisaical, ritualistic Christendom. The judgment broke over the heads of the Pharisees, their religious system, and so will it break over Christendom. Then those who exalted themselves will be humbled and those who humbled themselves will be exalted. What an encouragement for every true servant of the Lord Jesus Christ to follow strictly these words of our Lord, to go on under Him as Lord and under the guidance of His Spirit, to have no name among men, but to be known of God. In this there is rest and joy and the power of God rests upon the testimony of such who serve in this spirit.

And there is a deeper meaning still to Matthew 23:8-10. We quote from one who has expressed it in simple as well as beautiful language. “It is a declaration of the essential relations of man to God. Three things constitute a Christian: What He is, what he believes, what he does; doctrine, experience, practice. Man needs for his spiritual being three things: Life, instruction, guidance; just what our Lord declares in the ten words of the Gospel, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life.’ The Roman Catholic ‘church’... has caught these three things with its usual insight and avows its ability to supply them. The office of the Roman Catholic ‘church’ is claimed to be threefold: the priestly office imparting and sustaining life by means of the sacraments; the teaching office endowed with infallibility; the guiding office by spiritual confessors. These three things are just what our Lord forbids in the passage under consideration. Acknowledge no man as Father; for no man can impart or sustain spiritual life; install no man as an infallible teacher; allow no one to assume the office of spiritual director; your relation to God and to Christ is as close as that of any other person.” (Western: The Genesis of the New Testament)

And now the Lord takes up His “Woes.” It is a fearful uncovering of the hearts of the Pharisees and their corruption. And thus He lays bare the hidden things. He will do so again. There are eight woes given in this chapter, though it seems the fourteenth verse does not belong to this chapter. It is, however, found in both the Gospels of Mark and Luke, so that it is evident the Lord also uttered these words. In different respects there is a correspondency between the first discourse of our Lord in this Gospel, the sermon on the mountain and the last one addressed to the multitudes and to His disciples. The Olivet discourse is addressed exclusively to the disciples, who have asked Him. The Sermon on the Mount, as generally the great discourse in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of this Gospel is called, was addressed to the multitudes and the disciples. What this great discourse stands for, the proclamation of the King, we learned in our exposition. He sat there as the great One greater than Moses, expounding and expanding the Law. Here He is upon the seat of judgment; the King is the Judge. In the sermon on the Mount He utters His Blessings, Beatitudes, but here as judge He pronounces His Woes.

We shall not follow these woes in a detailed exposition, but mention the leading thoughts in them.

“But woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye shut up the kingdom of the heavens before men; for ye do not enter, nor do ye suffer those that are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13). The Kingdom has been preached unto them, but they shut willfully their eyes and turned away from the light, which had burst upon them. They did not enter in and kept others away from it. And this is an awful “woe” which falls likewise upon the modern Pharisees, though in a different sense. How many of the man-made “priests” and “teachers,” following the traditions of men, usurping the place of the Lord Jesus Christ, are themselves unsaved and keep others from knowing the truth.

Omitting that which is given as the next verse, we read the second Woe. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye compass the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and when he is become such, ye make him twofold more the son of hell than yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). Coming from such lips, what a condemnation they contain! They were sectarians, and sectarianism is the fruit of the flesh, as clearly taught in the Epistles. They did everything to make proselytes, and that too for selfish motives. Proselytism was condemned by the rabbinical schools. One of the talmudical sayings is, “Proselytes are as a scab to Israel.” It was for selfish reasons they made proselytes to their sect. Is it any different in the proselyting Christendom, down to the smallest party? And after they had attracted some to themselves they made them worse than they were. An awful indictment indeed.

Woe unto you, blind guides, who say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple he is a debtor. Fools and blind, for which is greater, the gold, or the temple which sanctifieth the gold? And, whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gift that is upon it is a debtor. Fools and blind ones, for which is greater, the gift, or the altar which sanctifieth the gift? He therefore that sweareth by the altar swears by it and by all things that are upon it. And he that sweareth by the temple swears by it and by Him that dwells in it” (Matthew 23:16-22.) Without following this woe in every word, it is evident that these leaders loved the gold of the temple more than the temple and the gift which was upon the altar more than the altar. Fools and blind guides they were.

“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin, and ye have left aside the weightier matters of the law, judgment and mercy and faith; these ye ought to have done and not have left those aside. Blind guides who strain out the gnat, but drink down the camel” (Matthew 23:23-24).

Their self-righteousness and piety consisted in being very scrupulous about minor things, while the important matters were completely ignored by them. They strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel. It is not different today. The little unessential things in religious practices are unduly magnified, while the important matters are ignored. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but within they are full of rapine and intemperance. Blind Pharisees, make clean first the inside of the cup and of the dish, that their outside also may become clean. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye are like whited sepulchres which appear beautiful outwardly, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Thus also ye, outwardly ye appear righteous to men, but within are full of hypocrisies and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets and adorn the tombs of the just, and ye say, If we had been in the days of our fathers we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. So that you bear witness of yourselves that ye are sons of those who slew the prophets; and ye, fill up the measure of your fathers. Serpents, offspring of vipers, how should ye escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:25-33).

These are the concluding woes. They need not much comment. Pharisiaism keeps the outside clean, while inside there is corruption and death. There is a self-righteous, religious boasting of being more advanced than the fathers, and more tolerant than they were. But the omniscient One, reads their hearts and declares that they fill up the measure of the fathers. They were unsaved men, not the offspring of God, but of vipers; their father, the devil; and they were facing judgment of Gehenna.

Other words were uttered by the King. These are found in the three verses which follow. He would send them prophets and wise men and scribes, and they were to kill them, crucify them, persecute them, and all the righteous blood shed upon the earth should come upon them. This was to come upon that generation. What they hear from His lips another witness filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen, tells them; with the stoning of Stephen the measure was filled up and judgment came.

And now the sublime, mournful ending. The last word of the King to Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those that are sent to her, how often would I have gathered thy children as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold your house is left unto you desolate; for I say unto you, Ye shall in no wise see me henceforth until ye say, Blessed be He that comes in the name of the Lord.”

What a loving, sublime lamentation this is! The King is a King of Love and His heart yearns over His city Jerusalem. How He did long for them! The illustration He uses is one they fully understood, not alone by its simplicity, a hen gathering her chickens, but also because their elders had mentioned this very fact. The Rabbis spoke of Messiah under the name of the Shekinah and declared that Israel would be gathered under the wings of the Shekinah, where they would find rest and blessing. And now the Shekinah was with them. The promised One has come and they would not have Him. They turned away from Jehovah, their King. Their house -- no longer “the Father’s house” -- is to be left desolate. They would see Him in no wise henceforth. That this has a national significance, the rejection of them is evident. And no sooner were the words spoken than He left the temple and went away.

But the discourse which has nothing but Woes ends with a “Blessed,” and here comes in the bright ray of hope for Israel. “Ye shall in no wise see me henceforth until ye say, Blessed be He that comes in the name of the Lord.” This is the promise of His second Coming, and when He comes He will find a believing remnant of that very people, welcoming Him with the messianic greeting of the 118th Psalm. Then the Shekinah-Glory will spread over Jerusalem and Israel ‘s land, and He that scattered Israel will gather them from the four corners of the earth. It is a strange and evil doctrine which maintains that inasmuch as the woes were spoken upon these Pharisees, that they are also to see Him again. It is claimed that these wicked Pharisees, the offspring of vipers, who could not escape the judgment of hell, are all to be raised from the dead when Christ comes again and have “a second chance” to see Him, and that then they will receive Him. Such Jewish universalism has no Scripture foundation whatever. It is a remnant which will behold the King coming out of the opened heavens in the day of His manifestation.

 


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Bibliography Information
Gaebelein, Arno Clemens. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". "Gaebelein's Annotated Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/gab/matthew-23.html. 1913-1922.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, December 14th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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