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Bible Commentaries

L. M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 23

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-39

The Lord now turns to speak to the entire crowd, His disciples being mentioned as included. He warns them against the hypocrisy of scribes and Pharisees, for they sat in Moses' seat as enforcers of the law, but considered themselves exempt from its responsibilities. Yet he does not excuse the people on account of the hypocrisy of leaders. So far as they propounded the law of Moses, He tells the people to obey, but not to follow their example. For they laid heavy burdens on the people's shoulders, but would not ever lend a finger to help them. How empty and cruel is the prejudice of legal - minded men!

Their own works were not those of lowly submission to God, but such things as they thought would impress men. They made broad phylacteries, which were head-bands with the law inscribed in them, taking Exodus 13:9 literally "a memorial between thine eyes"), rather then having their eyes opened to see its moral significance. Numbers 15:38-39 had spoken of a ribbon of blue in the borders of the Jews' garments (not only of leaders), and those they enlarged so that others would notice them. But the true reason for them was that, in seeing the ribbon, the wearer would be reminded of heaven's authority, and therefore to obey the commandments of God.

With the intention of impressing Men, the scribes and Pharisees loved to have the prominent Places at feasts and chief seats in the synagogue. Of course this is nothing but immature vanity, a childish desire to be noticed. It is the same as regards their love for being greeted in places of concourse and of being called "Rabbi," which is 'Teacher.' Well might Romans 2:21 remind such men, "Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?" The teaching of the law should deeply humble those who are taught, but Pharisees used it for their own self exaltation.

Such titles as Rabbi (Teacher) or Father or Master (Leader) are neither to be given to men, nor are men to accept them. The Lord is plainly speaking in a spiritual sense, for of course a natural father is entitled to be called such by his children. But designations which put one in any place of spiritual prominence are to be totally refused. Men may invent variations of these such as "reverend," which is worse, for the title means "worthy of reverence."

On the other hand, scripture is clear that there are those who are in a spiritual way "fathers" (1 Corinthians 4:15), "teachers", "Pastors," "evangelists" (Ephesians 4:11), and "leaders" (Hebrews 13:17 - J.N.D. trans.), but to give or to accept a title as such is strictly forbidden by the Lord. Only Christ has a right to the title "Teacher" or "Leader," and only God the Father in heaven is entitled to being designated "Father." "All ye are brethren," He insists; that is, none are above others, but on the same plane.

In God's eyes therefore the one who takes the lowly place of servant is greater, if comparisons are to be made. If one were to exalt himself, he should be abased; but he who humbles himself shall be exalted. This is a purely divine principle, pre-eminently seen in the Lord Jesus, who humbled Himself to the lowest place of ignominy and suffering, now exalted to the highest place over all the universe.

In total contrast to this, seven solemn woes are now pronounced against scribes and Pharisees (for verse 14 is not found in authentic manuscripts). The Lord does not hesitate to call them "hypocrites," for theirs was a mere pretence of spirituality. First, they were against the truth, deliberately hindering men from entering the kingdom of heaven, refusing it themselves and depriving others of receiving its blessings. To defend their own pride they were willing to make others suffer.

Secondly, they sought by every means to make even one proselyte, for they desired their own authority over men, and if they could proselytise a Gentile to the Jewish religion, this was a great triumph for their pride. Then they made hi m double the son of hell than they were themselves, bolstering men's unseemly pride in their religious zeal and dignity. Pride is the very thing that drags men down to Gehenna.

The third woe (v.16) calls them blind guides, dealing with their perverting the truth to suit their own whims. They gave permission to men to swear by the temple, though forbidding to swear by the gold of the temple. But the temple was the dwelling of God. The gold was sanctified by the temple: it received its importance because connected with the temple. Similarly, the fundamental truth of the altar they degraded, while the gift upon it they considered too sacred to swear by. Yet the altar speaks of the person of Christ, which sanctifies the gift, which speaks of His sacrifice. Certainly His sacrifice is precious, but He Himself is greater than His sacrifice. Therefore one who swore by the altar was thereby swearing by it and by whatever was offered upon it. He was virtually swearing by Christ and by everything connected with him.

If one were to swear by the temple, he was actually swearing by the living God who dwelt in the temple. Men think lightly too of swearing by heaven, and many use the words, "heavens" as an ejaculation, but heaven is God's throne, and such swearing involves swearing by Him who sits upon the throne. All of these things indicate a deficient recognition of the supreme honour to which God is entitled.

The fourth woe is a denunciation of their show of being meticulous in trivial matters while ignoring for more serious matters which the law required, judgment, mercy and faith. Fairness of judgment in discerning between good and evil was to them a matter of no Importance compared to tithing the smallest, most insignificant items of income. Mercy toward others in need was also ignored; and faith, the one principle of any true relationship with God, was forgotten. They ought to have put for more emphasis on these things, while of course not neglecting the small things, but not making them the matter of prime attention. It is evident that blind guides are worse than none at all. But the Pharisees had no excuse, for they were able to find the gnat and strain it out of their diet, but oblivious to the Camel, they swallowed it.

The fifth woe reproves the mere exterior purity the Pharisees assumed, with correct formal observance of religion, while they were inwardly full of extortion and excess, given to dishonest dealings with others and to lustful self indulgence. They are told therefore to cleanse first the inside of the cup and platter, which is by all means the most important; but He adds, "that the outside of them may be clean also." Clearly He does not mean that the mere literal cleansing of the inside of a cup will result in the outside being clean, but rather that this will be the result of one's cleansing of his inner motives. True spiritual cleansing inwardly will have a proper outward result.

The sixth woe is similar, but emphasizes their effort to make themselves attractive to men while inwardly there was only the corruption of death. White washed graves appeared beautiful, but this only concealed the bones of dead men similarly, their show of righteousness was a more cover-up of hypocrisy and wickedness.

The seventh woe now denounces the hypocrisy of their professed regard for prophets and righteous men who had died. They would build memorials to them and decorate their graves, avowing that they, if they had been living when these were, would not have participated in rejecting or murdering the prophets. But they were the sons of these murderers: they had precisely the same attitude, for they still refused their word while pretending to honour them. Their animosity against the Lord Himself was the same as that of their fathers against the prophets. Their own attitude was a clear witness against them. They would fill up the measure of their fathers by their rejection and murder of the Lord Jesus .

His scathing words, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers" ought to, and may have, awakened: some of them to the dreadful seriousness of their being identified with the scribes and Pharisees as a class. At least Nicodemus was delivered from them (John 7:50-51; John 19:39), and later Paul (Philippians 3:5-7), so that they escaped the damnation of hell; though the Lord's question was a gravely serious one for those who clung to the pride of their religious prestige.

These very men would prove themselves sons of the murderers of the prophets, for the Lord Jesus Himself would send to them prophets and wise men and scribes, who would suffer at their hands crucifixion and death in some cases; in others scourging and persecution from city to city. Whether they thought themselves capable of this cruelty or not, they fulfilled these words later.

In verse 35 the Lord declares a Most solemn principle, fastening Upon the Jews the guilt of the blood shedding of all righteous men from Abel to Zacharias. This evidently embraces the whole Old Testament, for it seems clearly to refer to Zechariah the prophet, son of Barachias (Zechariah 1:1). Another Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, was martyred in the court of the temple (2 Chronicles 24:20-21), but the son of Barachias prophesied much later than this, to the returned remnant. It seems an Unusual coincidence that both would be killed in the court. In this case the martyr was apparently engaged in actual priestly service, being the grandson of Iddo, of the priestly family (Zechariah 1:1; Nehemiah 12:1-4), and killed between the temple and the altar. This emphasizes the cold-blooded ruthlessness of his attackers, with no regard for God's glory symbolized in the temple and the altar.

Because "this generation" was still in practical character identified with their guilty fathers, they partook of the same guilt. We cannot escape this principle, that we bear the responsibility of that with which we are identified, though much may have occurred before our day. So today the church of God on earth bears the shame of many disobediences in the past. We cannot lightly ignore this.

However, the Lord's words are not all solemn, stern denunciation. He heart expands in tenderest concern in verse 37, while declaring the fact of Jerusalem's stoning and killing the prophets. His Godhead glory again shines out in His words, "How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen doth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" As the glory of God departed from the temple in Ezekiel's day (Ezekiel 11:23), so that glory would now depart in the person of their true Messiah, for He was about to be crucified. This would leave their house ( not now called God's house) desolate.

That desolation too would remain far longer than anyone would then have imagined. Over 1950 years have passed, and the temple has not even been rebuilt.

The blessed Messiah of Israel, rejected then, will not be revealed to Israel until, coming in great power and glory, He will draw forth their adoring ejaculation, "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord."

 


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Bibliography Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/lmg/matthew-23.html. 1897-1910.

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