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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Matthew 23

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-39

Chapter82

Prayer

Almighty God, thou givest the Holy Spirit unto men, that they may be enlightened and sanctified and made like thyself. If men being evil know how to give good gifts unto their children, how much more will our Father which is in Heaven give the Holy Spirit unto them that ask him. We come to ask for the outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon the Church of the redeemed, bought not with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of the Lamb of God. He promised us another Paraclete, that should abide with the Church forever, even the Holy Spirit that should lead men into all truth, making them quiet with divine peace, beautiful with divine holiness, inspiring them every day with the love of truth and with the spirit of devotion to the highest service of mankind. We now look for the pentecost, we are gathered together with one accord in one place; withhold not thou the gift for which we have come, but multiply it unto every one of us—the great gift of thy love. Holy Spirit, baptize us as with fire, Spirit of the living God, descend upon us, consuming all evil, encouraging all goodness, strengthening within us every vow that is made with an honest purpose and with a good hope, and granting unto us such communications of divine grace as shall give us nourishment and comfort in the day of trial and distress.

Withhold not thy Spirit from us, grant him unto us in such measure as we are able to receive the gift, and may we prove that the Spirit has been given unto us by the newness of our speech, by the nobleness of our behaviour, and by such manifestations as shall put to silence the gainsaying of foolish men. Thou dost not keep back from those who seek it, this great gift of the Holy Spirit: we pray for it with one consent, and look for it with one eager expectation. Give this unto us, and behold we shall be made anew, we shall be born again, we shall enter into thy service with a new consecration, our life shall be made glad by a new hope, and all the outgoing of life shall be in the direction of Christ"s own beneficence.

We bless thee for the Saviour who promised this Holy Spirit: he is our one Priest and Lord and King, the only wise God, who only hath immortality. Potentate over all, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world the Saviour of all men. May we read his character more clearly, apprehend his purpose more completely, and live in his spirit with more entireness of sympathy. We would grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ; we would be no more children, tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, but men, strong, simple, true in heart, honest in purpose, ever striving with all the devotion of love, to become the sons of God in very deed, that by the manifestation of good purpose and good work, we may help to overthrow him who is the evil one. Hear us in these desires, and cause thine answers to be multiplied unto us that we may rejoice in the Lord and have renewal of every sacred hope.

We bless thee for all thy patience, tenderness, and continual goodness of intention towards us. The goodness of God should lead us to repentance, yet do we take thy gifts and set our feet upon them, nor do we understand their value—yea, we have trampled under foot the blood of the everlasting covenant. God be merciful unto us sinners, and give us to feel that all the dispensations of providence are meant to lead us up to the completer dispensation of grace. In thy goodness may we see thy mercy, in thy mercy may we behold thy love of thine own image in every human creature; thus may we be led to the cross, which gathers up in one ineffable expression of tenderness the infinite love of thine heart.

Thou hast led us by ways that we knew not, but all thy leading has been good. When thou hast made us poor we have been rich, when the darkness has been of thy sending, it has been full of stars, when thou hast brought us low thou hast spoken unto us the gospel of future exaltation. Wherein we have brought all mischief and distress upon ourselves, we would mourn the sin which caused the grief, and seek in one unanimous prayer the forgiveness which it is thine alone to exercise. Thou knowest each life, its pain, its want, its heavy load, the aching of every heart, the tears that blind our eyes, the sudden darkness that falls upon our way—regard us in thy tender pity, let the messages of thy truth to us be according to the strain that is put upon us. Regard with Fatherly tenderness all for whom we ought to pray—the sick, the dying, the hearts that are ill at ease—those who are travelling for the good of their health or for the extension of honourable commerce; the young who are full of blessedness and new hope and a song of gladness they never sung before; the prodigal, the wanderer far beyond any prayer of ours, lying as it were barely within the sweep of thine own infinite love, bring home and restore to sonship.

The Lord hear us, the God of Jacob put around us his everlasting arms, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ comfort us with some new degree of grace. Amen.

Matthew 23

1. Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

2. Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses" seat:

3. All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.

4. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men"s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

5. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,

6. And love the uppermost rooms (first places) at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues (Jerusalem end),

7. And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.

8. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.

9. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

10. Neither be ye called masters (directors of conscience): for one is your Master, even Christ.

11. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.

12. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

13. But woe unto (for) you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

14. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows" houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

15. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte (proselytes were regarded as the leprosy of Israel, and hindered the coming of the Messiah), and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell (worthy of hell) than yourselves.

16. Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!

17. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

18. And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.

19. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?

20. Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.

21. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.

22. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.

23. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

24. Ye blind guides, which strain at (out) a gnat, and swallow a camel (an unclean beast, Leviticus 11:4).

25. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

26. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup, and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

27. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men"s bones, and of all uncleanness.

28. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

29. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets (four of which were then visible at the base of the Mount of Olives), and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous (actions good in themselves become wrong in the hands of hypocrites).

30. And 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.

31. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.

32. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

33. Ye serpents, ye generation (brood or progeny) of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

34. Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

35. That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

36. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

37. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

38. Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

39. For I say unto you. Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

A Fourfold Aspect of Christ

Jesus Christ had just received a deputation of the Pharisees and the Herodians. The same day he had received a deputation of Sadducees, and the same day it would appear he had answered a tempting question put to him by a lawyer, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" We have seen that Jesus Christ utterly humiliated all the men that came to him with questions that were meant to tempt him and to ensnare him in his talk. He inflicted upon them the most desperate chastisement. According to the statement of the text, he gagged them. We read, "he put them to silence," literally he put the gag in their mouths, and made them quiet because they could not answer his great expositions.

It might be thought, therefore, that he had cleanly swept out the whole church of his time, had dismantled it and had visited it with complete and perpetual disinheritance, so that he stood before his age as a mere image-breaker, an iconoclast, a man who smote all existing things of a religious kind, and poured upon them and upon their teachers all manner of severe and destructive contempt. Yet how he spreads himself over the whole occasion; he will not allow that inference to be drawn; knowing that in every crowd there is a preponderance of foolish and unreasonable men, he instantly takes up an affirmative and constructive attitude, and says, ere the great throngs break up, "Whatsoever the scribes and Pharisees bid you observe, that observe and do: but do not ye after their works, for they say and do not." Still he is consistent with himself: not one good word will he bestow upon the scribes and Pharisees as such, but he says the law must not suffer because its interpreters are weak or vile men. The law is an eternal quantity, a perpetual dignity that can never be impaired even by the vilest behaviour of those who interpret it and enforce it; that law must stand.

You will see therefore that he was not a mere destructionist: it was not Christ"s purpose to dishonour the law or to enfeeble its application in any sense. He is saying in these latter chapters of the gospel, precisely what he said in the sermon on the mount, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law and the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle of the law shall in no wise pass away." Yet he rebukes with no stinted reproach those who had fallen below the dignity and holiness of their sacred vocation. The line he draws is broad, palpable, never to be confused indeed, and in drawing that line he displayed, if we may speak humanly of him, one of the finest qualities of his spirit and character.

He did more. This was not local talk, this was not a speech spoken to a few people now dead and gone. In this exhortation Christ touches and refutes a sophism that has found its utterance in all ages of civilized history. What is that sophism? That if a man shall do anything bad, everything good that he touches is to be condemned along with himself. Is not that the sophism of today? A man who reads the Bible has been found to do something wrong: instantly there are persons who say, "This comes of your Bible-reading, then no more Bible-reading for me." Such is the witless assault that is made on the eternal Book! The Bible reader is bad, therefore the Bible is bad—such the dishonest logic, the corrupt and consciously corrupt reasoning of men who want to escape Bible morality and Bible discipline.

A man who goes to church has been found to defraud his creditors, to speak profane words, to do some deed accounted bad by social critics, be that deed what it may, and instantly the criticism falls upon the church within whose walls no bad man ever heard one word of encouragement. Put it to yourselves and say whether we may not have sometimes been tempted to say, "If these are your Christians, no more Christians for us." Observe the vacant reasoning, the poor, incoherent, insane form of argument, without the substance or the power thereof. You have found a counterfeit coin, and therefore you give up the currency of the realm. Some man has forged the signature of another, and therefore you will not believe a single letter which your child writes to you. There is falsehood, therefore there is no truth. Who would accept statements so palpably and intolerably absurd? Yet these statements are considered sufficient to pick up sharp stones and throw at the mouth of the Son of God; when he speaks the great gospel of truth and love and redemption, any fist will do to smite that mouth, any staff will do to strike that Teacher. It is because we want to strike him dumb that we avail ourselves of arguments so unsound as to be not lies only but blasphemies.

It may have been so in your house—let me localise the appeal, yea personalize it, after the manner of the Master in this very chapter. When the one professing Christian in your house—there is but one, poor speckled bird—did something wrong, through that wrong-doer you sought to thrust a dagger into his Master"s heart. Remember your taunt, your bitter sneer, your ungenerous and ignoble word: it was not the individual before you that you wounded only, but through that individual you sought to put your sword"s sharp point into the heart of the Son of God.

Let us now—passing from this part of the subject—look at Christ as the centre of the great multitude of scribes and Pharisees whom he addressed in the eloquent maledictions which are recorded in this chapter. It may assist the imagination and may bring the whole scene with its moral suggestions more vividly around us, if we think of Christ standing today in any Christian community, surrounded by men who have been playing falsely with his name. The scribes and Pharisees were present: he was not hurling maledictions upon the absent. When did Jesus Christ ever address persons who were not actually before him? See the great throng of false men, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, blind leaders of the blind, all around him, and then hear this terrible speech. It was a day of judgment in very deed. There was great lightning and thunder that day, the earth palpitated to the resounding eloquence, and the heavens vibrated as the eloquent tones fell from the lips divine. The men could not run away, he fastened them to the earth: they could not lift their fingers to put into their ears, for he held them down, and that day he spoke as he had never spoken before in fulness and breadth and fierceness of moral indignation. The men were fascinated, spellbound—a subtle wizardry held them fast in positions from which they would most gladly have extricated themselves, but not until He who was the Master willed it, were they permitted to lift a foot from the ground and to pass away to their occupations and their homes.

Hearing Christ"s great speech, what do we learn about him? We see in him a devotion to truth which clothed him with sublimest fearlessness. How he talks, how he insults the men, how he beards them, how he lays his great grip upon them and shakes them, and they cannot answer him a word. What is the explanation of this mighty mastery over the leading spirits of his time? Is he speaking resentfully? No, for the men who speak resentfully are weak; strong only for one little moment, but it is a strength of desperation, to be succeeded by most pitiful reaction. Account for that fearlessness. You will find no suggestion that covers the whole occasion but the suggestion now named—devotion to truth, so complete, so profound, as to lift the man above all fear. See if there be not a deep philosophy in that fact Men are not continuously and coherently strong except in proportion to their devotion to truth: such men are sublimated by their devotion, they are lifted up into a new and larger self-hood: it is no longer they that speak, but God that speaketh in them. The action is not to be measured by their personality, they stand as representatives of the majesty and grandeur of truth, they are the heroic expressions of a heroic principle. You will only be strong in proportion as the truth—not some side, point, or aspect of it, but the truth—is in you.

How is it that we have so much breaking down in Christian testimony, so much ambiguity and equivocation and uncertainty? How is it that we have so much paltering with vow and oath and high resolution? Simply because the complete truth is not in us, or our devotion to truth is merely to some side or aspect of it. Jesus Christ could say that he was Himself the truth. The Truth never blushed, never stammered, never apologised, never asked for leave to be. The tone of truth cannot change, it is royal, commanding: if audacious, simply because complete and infallible. We should be on our guard lest we seize only some points of truth, and take, as we sometimes ignorantly phrase it, our stand upon particular doctrines. There are no particular doctrines, in the sense of separate and isolated doctrines, in truth. Truth is one. We call the bigot a strong man simply because he is a narrow one and moves in a special direction, and we call the devotee of truth sometimes a latitudinarian, because he does not live under a ceiling but under a sky; he is not bounded by walls ecclesiastical, but by the infinite horizon drawn by the infinite hand.

Do not be strong on particular doctrines and seek to develop special virtues, and to have pet graces: live in truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When we touch that high region of perfect devotion to complete truth, we shall not know what fear is. This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. The true man does not know when the clouds gather or when the storm roars around him; he says the storm will cry itself to rest, the tornado will blow itself out in silence, and "truth must stand when all things fail."

Looking at Jesus Christ again, standing in the midst of that great seething multitude of scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, and blind teachers, I see in him an insight into truth which gave him infinite pre-eminence as a Teacher. How he destroys the sophisms of the blind men! He says, "Ye blind guides which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, lie is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?"

His all-piercing insight into truth lifts him above all competing teachers. Here we see somewhat of his intellectual breadth and grandeur coupled with a moral indignation, that becomes impatient in the very tones which it utters. How he must have said these words: again and again are they repeated: "Ye fools and blind, how is it that you do not see the right relation and proportion of things? How is it that you mistake the near for the great, the temporal for the eternal? What has become of your common sense, or ordinary natural reason, that you set all things in a row without attention to perspective and distance and light and shadow and expressive and interpreting colour? What has fallen upon you, what dementation is this, what sudden insanity, what moral obliquity? Why, you have lost the first conception of truth, and you have betaken yourselves to metaphysical quibbles and puzzles unworthy of the intellect with which God endowed you."

This is the inevitable course of wrong thinking in religious matters. Men make vain distinctions, they create a series of puzzles, they have so much leisure that it becomes a temptation to them. This is the danger of the church today. We are so overfed with gospel, we are so churched and preached to death, that men are now beginning to turn into mechanical puzzles the immeasurable, impalpable, infinite truth of God. We are now creating sects, schools, denominations, and Song of Solomon -called churches and communions. I would God that some fire of persecution should break out amongst us to force us back to great principles, to a proper distinction between the temple and the gold, the altar and the gift, that we may not be inverting things and putting them into false relations and proportions. If the wolf would come back, the old grey wolf that barked at our heroic fathers, watched for them, showed its gleaming teeth whenever they came in sight, sprang upon them, sucked their blood—we should get back to right ideas of inspiration, truth, prayer, missions, evangelisation, and should cease the small talk about mechanism and fine distinctions and the distribution of labour—so diffuse as to lose its intensity and divest itself of the force that makes wicked kingdoms tremble.

What is our insight into truth? Do we see it—the word that Amos saw? We have only heard it in trembling and fading echoes. The word that Hosea saw, that sight turns a poor man into a rich one, that sight turns a herdman into a prophet, that sight marks the critical point in all human history. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall... SEE God.

Let us consider—are we wood-splitters, are we puzzle-makers in the church, or are we inspired men? Are we the frightened, the timid, the conventional, and those who live only on the surface? The church has lost inspiration. The church—poor, poor fool—she has allowed every thief to take from her what he liked. The felon has taken from her miracles and tongues and prophesyings and gifts of healing, and inspiration and Christ—except as a great historical genius—and the cross, except as it represents a heroic but vain sentiment. And the felon is now cozening her with a view of lifting off her GOD. Poor church! Only insight into truth will bring back her possessions.

Do not be clever on points: do not give yourselves to a kind of nisi prius sharpness. If Burke was right when he said that no man understood the English constitution so little as a merely nisi prius lawyer, surely we are giving legitimate extension to the truth when we say that no man understands Christ so little as the man who makes sects in his name. Christ is not here, nor there, nor yonder, he is not to be localised, he is the breath, the life of all things. There be men who say, "Lo, Christ is here, and lo, Christ is there," and if another man should arise amongst us to say, "Christ is everywhere—Christ is in Hindooism, Christ was in the Pagan philosophy, Christ has been in every civilisation that has rolled its particular course over all languages and nations," he would be accounted latitudinarian. Be it mine to see in every flower a child of the sun, and in every noble deed and heroic impulse an inspiration of the Son of God.

Looking again at that wondrous Speaker as he fastens his hearers around him, I see in him a grasp of truth which enabled him to represent its continuity through the ages. Observe how he goes backward and how he goes forward. He says, "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. Ye would—ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, ye would! Do you suppose that this kind of conduct depends on climate, on particular details of time and space? If you had lived in the days of Zacharias you would have killed him on the very spot where he fell under your fathers" hand. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, ye progeny of hell, ye would!" So does he grasp the truth! He would have pleased the people better if he had said, "You would not have done what your fathers did, you are much better men, much nobler and kinder persons: it would never have occurred to you surely to have imbrued your hands in the righteous blood of Abel: it would never have occurred to your refined sentiment to have had anything to do murderously with Zacharias the son of Barachias." He might have bought himself a cheap popularity by such vulgar lies, but looking at them, piercing them, seeing all history in one grand continuity, he said, "Ye blind guides, evil never changes; a serpent is always a serpent: you have the serpent spirit in you, and until you are born again you would have done just what your fathers did. Fill up the measure of their iniquity—they filled the cup nearly to the brim, pour it full up, till the drops fall on your feet, and when your mission is fulfilled, God will find a place for you in his Gehenna."

We have then to deal with a Man who knows all things, who is not to be betrayed into small sophisms and into narrow deductions, who looks around the horizon. What think ye of the Christ—of his eloquence? How it rolls and scorches like floods of lava. We teach our boys at school the Philippics of Demosthenes, and say, "Look at his interrogations: the mark of interrogation is the chief point of punctuation upon his eloquent pages. How he hurls his questions, how every question sharpens itself like a dagger that is seeking the blood of the accused one." There is nothing, by the common consent of men who are entitled to judge upon the matter, in all eloquence, ancient or modern, to compare, for grandeur of malediction, for moral nobleness, for intellectual insight, with the eloquence of this denunciation of Christ"s.

Then I see in it, last of all, an experience of truth, which made Christ the greatest of evangelists. He would not conclude with objurgation. The truth does not make him stiff, imperious, self-involved: his love of the truth, his experience of it in his own heart, is such that he wants every living man to feel it as he does. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings!" Why? Because he would have all men know the truth as he knew it, feel the truth as he felt it, enjoy the truth as he enjoyed it. That is the secret of evangelisation. Tell me to go and propagate a community, a sect, a denomination, and I may probably tire on the road. There are inspirations that will last but for a period of days. Let me on the other hand feel in my heart that men are dying for want of the gospel of Christ, let me feel what it is to enjoy the grace of Christ in my own heart, let me really feel that Christ can be one with me, in purpose and sympathy and desire, and then the rest will come.

No words suggest themselves to me sharp enough, terrible enough, with which to condemn and blast the sophism which is being taught by some men today, namely, that if we could offer more money, more young men would come forward and offer themselves to the service of the Son of God. I can find no words that will enable me to smite that awful blasphemy as it ought to be struck. We hear it from our Christian platforms that if our churches could offer larger incomes we should have what is called a better class of young men coming forward to give themselves to the ministry. God forbid! God"s own damnation fall upon any man who touches this ministry that he may live by it. That is how the poor church is being divested, impoverished, depleted, ruined—a young man considering whether he will take this sum of money to preach Christ or that sum of money to follow a commercial pursuit—debating or betraying. If he would turn to the pulpit, my prayer would be that God might strike him dumb on the road, and blind and deaf, and lay his hand upon him like a burden. A man must say, "Woe is me if I preach not the gospel, necessity is laid upon me to preach the gospel," but we are making ministers now, tempting them, encouraging them to come forward. Let a man be driven forward, thrust out, impelled. It is not permitted to us to boast or to glorify oneself, but it is permitted to a man to glorify God in any impulse which may have driven him forward to this work.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/matthew-23.html. 1885-95.

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