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Bible Commentaries

Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments
Matthew 23

 

 

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Verses 1-3

Matthew 23:1-3. Then spake Jesus to the multitude — Leaving all converse with his adversaries; whom he now gave up to the hardness of their hearts. The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat — Or, chair — That is, read and expound the law of Moses, and are the appointed teachers of the people. The Jewish doctors, as is well known, always taught sitting. The name Pharisees being the appellation of a sect, it cannot be supposed that our Lord meant to say of all the party that they sat in Moses’s chair. Such a character was applicable to none but the doctors of the sect; for which reason we must suppose that the name scribes and Pharisees is a Hebraism for the Pharisean scribes. All therefore they bid you observe, &c. — That is, all that they read out of the law, and enforce on the manifest authority thereof, that observe and do — Readily and cheerfully: “All,” says Theophylact, “that they require, εκ των ΄οσεως βιβλων, απο του

θεου νομοου, from the law of God out of the books of Moses.” An interpretation which must be allowed of. Because Christ elsewhere requires his disciples to beware of the leaven, that is, the doctrine, of the scribes and Pharisees; because they taught for doctrines the commandments of men, and by their traditions made void the law of God; and were blind leaders of the blind. But do not ye after their works — By no means imitate their practices; for they say and do not — They give many precepts to their disciples, which they do not perform themselves. As we must not receive corrupt doctrines for the sake of any laudable practices of those that teach them; so we must not imitate bad examples for the sake of the plausible doctrines of those that give them.


Verse 4

Matthew 23:4. For they bind heavy burdens — Not only insisting upon the most minute circumstances of the ceremonial law, called a yoke, Acts 15:10; and pressing the observation of them with more strictness and severity than God himself did; but by adding to his word, and imposing their own inventions and traditions under the highest penalties: witness their many additions to the law of the sabbath, by which they made that day a burden, which was designed to be a joy and delight: but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers — They press upon the people a strictness in religion which they themselves will not be bound by, but secretly transgress their own traditions, which they publicly enforce.


Verses 5-7

Matthew 23:5-7. All their works they do to be seen of men — They have the praise of men in view in all their actions. Hence they are constant and abundant in those duties of religion which come under the observation of men; but with respect to those that are of a more spiritual nature, and lie between God and their own souls, or should be performed in the retirements of their closets, they desire to be excused. As the mere form of godliness will procure them a name to live, which is all they aim at; they therefore trouble not themselves about the power of it, which is essential to being alive indeed. They make broad their phylacteries — The Jews understanding those words literally, It shall be as a token upon thy hand, and as frontlets between thine eyes, (Exodus 13:16;) And thou shalt bind these words for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes, (Deuteronomy 6:8,) used to wear little scrolls of paper or parchment bound on their wrists and foreheads, on which several texts of Scripture were written. These they supposed, as a kind of charm, would preserve them from danger. And hence they seemed to have been called phylacteries, or preservatives. See the notes on these passages. And enlarge the borders (or fringes) of their garments — Which God had enjoined them to wear, to remind them of doing all the commandments, Numbers 15:38. These, as well as their phylacteries, the Pharisees affected to wear broader and larger than other men. And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, &c. — In which guests of the first quality were used to sit; and the chief seats in the synagogues — “There showing their pride, where they ought to have taught others humility.” — Theophylact. And greetings, or salutations, in the markets — And other places of common concourse. And to be called of men, Rabbi, rabbi — A title of honour, which they were fond of having repeated at every sentence. “The word rabbi properly signifies great, and was prefixed to the names of those doctors who had rendered themselves remarkable by the extent of their learning, or who were the authors of new schemes in divinity; heads of sects, whose fame had gained them many followers. This title the Jewish doctors were particularly fond of, because it was a high compliment paid to their understanding, gave them vast authority with their disciples, and made them look big in the eyes of the world. It was the very next thing to infallible.”


Verses 8-10

Matthew 23:8-10. Be not ye called rabbi — Do not affect those titles of reverence and respect which give too much honour or authority to man. The Jewish doctors were called rabbis, fathers, and masters, by their several disciples, whom they required both to believe implicitly what they affirmed, without asking any further reason, and to obey unreservedly what they enjoined, without seeking for any further authority. But our Lord here teaches his apostles, and their successors in the ministry of the gospel, that they were to be very different from these Jewish teachers. They were to decline being called rabbi, because the thing signified by the term belonged solely to their Master, in whom the whole treasures of divine knowledge and wisdom are hid; and who, for that reason, is the only infallible teacher of his church; and also, because they owed none of their knowledge to themselves, but derived it entirely from him, in which respect they were all brethren, and on a level. And they were to call no man father upon earth — To consider no man as the father of their religion, that is, the founder, author, or director of it; to look up to no man with the reverence wherewith a child should regard a father, or so as to yield an absolute subjection to his will and pleasure, or be absolutely swayed and governed thereby; because one was their Father who is in heaven, the source, as of their being, so of all their blessings, and especially of their religion; the fountain and founder of it; the life and Lord of it. Our Lord adds, Neither be ye called masters — Gr. καθηληται, leaders, or guides. That is, of the judgments and consciences of men, because, says he, one is your Master, even Christ — The infallible instructer and guide of his church in all matters of faith and practice; commissioned by his Father to reveal his will, and teach all that is needful to be known, believed, or done, in order to salvation; whose apostles even were only to be regarded as his ministers and ambassadors, and only to be credited because, by their gifts and miraculous powers derived from him, they manifested that they taught men those things which he had commanded, and by his Spirit had revealed to them. Thus our Lord, the more effectually to enforce this warning against an unlimited veneration for the judgments and decisions of men, as a most important lesson, puts it in a variety of lights, and prohibits them from regarding any man with an implicit and blind partiality as teacher, father, or guide. Upon the whole, the things forbidden are, 1st, a vain-glorious affectation of such titles as these, the ambitious seeking of them, and glorying in them; 2d, that authority and dominion over the consciences of men, which the Pharisaical doctors had usurped; telling the people that they ought to believe all their doctrines, and practise all their injunctions, as the commands of the living God.


Verse 11-12

Matthew 23:11-12. But he that is greatest among you, &c. — If any one among you would in reality be greater than another, let him be the more condescending, kind, and ready cheerfully to serve others in love. The words may either imply, 1st, a promise that such should be accounted greatest, and stand highest in the favour of God, who should be most humble, submissive, and serviceable: or, 2d, a precept enjoining the person who should be advanced to any place of dignity, trust, or honour in the church, to consider himself as peculiarly called thereby, not to be a lord, but a minister, and to serve others in love. Thus Paul, who knew his privilege as well as duty, though free from all, yet made himself servant of all, 1 Corinthians 9:19. And our Lord frequently pressed it upon his disciples to be humble and self-denying, mild and condescending, and to abound in all the offices of Christian love, though mean, and to the meanest; and of this he set a continual example. Whosoever shall exalt himself, shall be humbled, &c. — It is observable that no one sentence of our Lord’s is so often repeated as this: it occurs with scarcely any variation at least ten times in the evangelists.


Verses 13-15

Matthew 23:13-15. But wo to you, scribes, &c. — Our Lord pronounced eight blessings upon the mount, he pronounces eight woes here, not as imprecations, but solemn, compassionate declarations of the misery which these stubborn sinners were bringing upon themselves. The reasons of his denouncing these woes are set forth in this and the subsequent verses. The first is here given: For you shut the kingdom of heaven against men — Namely, by the prejudices you are so zealous to propagate among the people, and by taking away, as it is expressed Luke 11:52, the key of knowledge, or the right interpretation of the ancient prophecies concerning the Messiah, by your example and authority; for they both rejected Jesus themselves and excommunicated those who received him. In short, they did all they could to hinder the people from repenting of their sins, and believing in the gospel. Wo unto you, for ye devour widows’ houses, &c. — Here we have the second reason of these woes. They were covetous, rapacious, and committed the grossest iniquities under a cloak of religion; making long prayers in order to hide their villany. Ye compass sea and land — In these words we have the reason of the third wo. They manifested the greatest zeal imaginable in making proselytes, compassing sea and land, that is, making long journeys and voyages, and leaving no means untried to accomplish that end, while their intention in all this was not the glory of God and the salvation of men’s souls, but their own honour and profit; that they might have the credit of making men proselytes, and the advantage of making a prey of them when they were made. Ye make him two-fold more the child of hell — In the heathen countries these interested, worldly- minded zealots accommodated religion to the humours of men, placing it, not in the eternal and immutable rules of righteousness, but in ceremonial observances; the effect of which was, either that their proselytes became more superstitious, more immoral, and more presumptuous than their teachers; or that, taking them for impostors, they relapsed again into their old state of heathenism; and in both cases became two-fold more the children of hell than even the Pharisees themselves, that is, more openly and unlimitedly wicked than they.


Verses 16-22

Matthew 23:16-22. Wo unto you, ye blind guides — Before he had styled them hypocrites, from their personal character; now he gives them another title respecting their false doctrine and influence upon others. Both these appellations are severely put together in Matthew 23:23-25 : and this severity rises to the height in Matthew 23:33. Here we have the fourth reason of the woes denounced. Which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing — It constitutes no obligation to tell the truth or to perform one’s oath. But whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple — That is, by the treasure kept there, he is a debtor — Gr. οφειλει, he oweth, that is, is obliged to perform his oath. “It seems,” says Dr. Doddridge, “the Pharisees taught, that oaths by the creatures might be used on trifling occasions, and violated without any great guilt. But they excepted oaths by the corban,

(the gift,) and by sacrifices; in which it is plain that, without any regard to common sense or decency, they were influenced merely by a view to their own interest; and therefore represented these to the people as things of more eminent sanctity than even the temple or altar itself.” Whoso shall swear by the altar, sweareth by all things thereon — Not only by the altar, but by the holy fire and the sacrifices, and above all by that God to whom they belonged; inasmuch as every oath by a creature, if it has any meaning, is an implicit appeal to the Creator himself. Whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by him that dwelleth therein — Consequently, the oath is a solemn wishing that he, who dwells in the temple, may hinder him from ever worshipping there, if he be telling a falsehood or neglect his vow. He that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, &c. — And therefore his oath is a solemn wishing that God, who dwells in heaven, may exclude him out of that blessed place for ever, if he falsify his oath. For a further explanation of the subject of oaths, see the note on Matthew 5:33-37.


Verse 23-24

Matthew 23:23-24. Wo unto you, for ye pay tithe, &c. — Here we have the fifth wo, which is denounced for their superstition. They observed the ceremonial precepts of the law with all possible exactness, while they utterly neglected the eternal, immutable, indispensable rules of righteousness. Judgment — That is, justice; mercy — Charity, or compassion toward the poor; faith — Fidelity. “The word πιστις has undoubtedly this signification in many places; (compare Titus 2:10; Galatians 5:22; Romans 3:3.) But there are many more in which it signifies, the confidence reposed in another; and it is of great importance to observe this. See Colossians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:21.” Ye blind guides, which strain at [or rather, strain out] a gnat — Namely, from the liquor you are going to drink, lest it should choke you. “In those hot countries, as Serrarius well observes, gnats were apt to fall into wine, if it were not carefully covered; and passing the liquor through a strainer that no gnat, or part of one, might remain, grew into a proverb for exactness about little matters.” And swallow a camel — “The expression is proverbial, and was made use of by our Lord on this occasion to signify that the Pharisees pretended to be exceedingly afraid of the smallest faults, as if sin had been bitter to them like death, while they indulged themselves secretly in the unrestrained commission of the grossest immoralities.” — See Doddridge and Macknight.


Verse 25-26

Matthew 23:25-26. Wo unto you, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup, &c. — This is the sixth wo. They were at great pains to appear virtuous, and to have a decent external conduct, while they neglected to beautify their inward man with true holiness, and a conformity to the divine goodness, or with the graces of God’s Holy Spirit, which in the sight of God are ornaments of great price, and render men dear and valuable to all who know what true religion and virtue are. But within they — Namely, the cup and platter; are full of extortion and excess — Which ye swallow down without the least scruple. Gr. αρπαγης και ακρασιας, rapine and intemperance. The censure is double, (taking intemperance in the vulgar sense.) These miserable men procured unjustly what they used intemperately. No wonder tables so furnished prove a snare, as many find by sad experience. Thus luxury punishes fraud, while it feeds disease with the fruits of injustice. But intemperance, in the full sense, takes in not only all kinds of outward intemperance, particularly in eating and drinking, but all intemperate or immoderate desires, whether of honour, gain, or sensual pleasure. It must be observed, however that instead of ακρασιας, intemperance, very many manuscripts and ancient versions have the word αδικιας, which, says Dr. Campbell, “suits much better with all the accounts we have in other places of the character of the Pharisees, who are never accused of intemperance, though often of injustice. The former vice is rarely found with those who, like the Pharisees, make great pretensions to religion.” Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup, &c. — And is not so much exposed to view. Cleanse first thy mind, thy inward man, from evil dispositions and affections, and of course thy outward behaviour will be righteous and good.


Verse 27

Matthew 23:27. Wo unto you, for you are like whited sepulchres — Here we have the seventh wo. Dr. Shaw, (Trav., p. 285,) gives a genial description of the different sorts of tombs and sepulchres in the East — concluding with this paragraph — “Now all these, with the very walls of the enclosure, being always kept clean, white-washed, and beautified; continue to this day to be an excellent comment upon Matthew 23:27.” The scribes and Pharisees, like fine whited sepulchres, looked very beautiful without, but within were full of all uncleanness, and defiled every one who touched them. This was a sore rebuke to men who would not keep company with publicans and sinners for fear they should have been polluted by them!

Matthew 23:29-31. Wo unto you, because ye build the tombs of the prophets — Here we have the eighth and last wo. “By the pains they took in adorning the sepulchres of their prophets, they pretended a great veneration for their memory; and, as often as their happened to be mentioned, condemned their fathers who had killed them, declaring that if they had lived in the days of their fathers, they would have opposed their wickedness; while, in the mean time, they still cherished the spirit of their fathers, persecuting the messengers of God, particularly his only Son, on whose destruction they were resolutely bent.” Ye build the tombs of the prophets — And that is all, for ye neither observe their sayings nor imitate their actions. And say, We would not have been partakers, &c. — Ye make fair professions, as did your fathers. Wherefore ye be witnesses, &c. — By affirming that if you had lived in the days of your fathers you would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets, ye acknowledge that ye are the children of them who murdered the prophets. But I must tell you, that you are their children in another sense than by natural generation; for though you pretend to be more holy than they were, you are like them in all respects; particularly in that you possess their wicked, persecuting spirit, and cover it by smooth words, thus imitating them, who, while they killed the prophets of their own times, professed the utmost veneration for those of past ages.


Verses 32-36

Matthew 23:32-36. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers’ wickedness — Ye may now be as wicked as they: a word of permission, not of command: as if he had said, I contend with you no longer: I leave you to yourselves: you have conquered: now ye may follow the devices of your own hearts. Ye serpents — Our Lord having now given up all hope of reclaiming them, speaks thus to deter others from the like sins. Wherefore — That it may appear you are the true children of those murderers, and have a right to have their iniquities visited on you: behold, I send — Is not this speaking as one having authority? Prophets — Men with supernatural credentials; Wise men — Such as have both natural abilities and experience; and scribes — Men of learning: but all will not avail. That upon you may come all the righteous blood — The consequence of which will be, that upon you will come the punishment of the blood of all the righteous men; shed upon the earth — Temporal punishment must be intended, because in the life to come men shall not be punished for the sins of others to which they were not accessary. From the blood of righteous Abel — The first prophet and preacher of righteousness, unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias — Most commentators think that Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada the priest, mentioned 2 Chronicles 24:20, (where see the note,) is here meant: and that either the words, son of Barachias, are the officious addition of some early transcriber of this gospel, (who might confound this martyr with Zechariah, one of the twelve minor prophets,) or that Jehoiada was also called Barachiah, having, as was not then uncommon, two names, both which, it may be observed, signify nearly the same thing: the latter word signifying one that blesses the Lord, and Jehoiada one that confesses him. Dr. Blayney, however, is confident that Zechariah, the minor prophet, is here intended, and that he was actually murdered, as is here said, though the Scriptures of the Old Testament are silent concerning the barbarous action. See the argument to my notes on Zechariah. Whom ye slew — So he says, because by imitating their fathers’ conduct, they made the murder, committed by them, their own; between the temple — That is, the house properly called the temple; and the altar — Which stood in the outer court. Our Lord seems to refer to this instance, rather than to any other, because he was the last of the prophets that was slain by the Jews for reproving their wickedness; and we may add, (supposing Zechariah the son of Jehoiada to be meant,) because God’s requiring his blood, as well as that of Abel, is particularly taken notice of in Scripture, that holy man’s last words being, The Lord look upon it, and require it, 2 Chronicles 24:22. All these things — The punishment of all these murders; shall come upon this generation — This Jesus foreknew would be the case; and that though every possible method would be tried in order to their conversion, they would make light of all, and by so doing pull down upon themselves such terrible vengeance, as should be a standing monument of the divine displeasure against all the murders committed on the face of the earth from the beginning of time.


Verse 37

Matthew 23:37. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem — The Lord Jesus having thus laid before the Pharisees and the Jewish nation their heinous guilt and impending ruin, was exceedingly moved at the thought of the calamities coming upon them. A day or two before he had wept over Jerusalem; now he bewails it in the most mournful accents of pity and commisseration. Jerusalem, the vision of peace, as the word signifies, must now be made the seat of war and confusion: Jerusalem, that had been the joy of the whole earth, must now be a hissing, and an astonishment, and a by-word among all nations: Jerusalem, that had been a city compact together, was now to be shattered and ruined by its own intestine broils: Jerusalem, the place that God had chosen to put his name there, must now be abandoned to spoilers and robbers. For, 1st, As its inhabitants had their hands more deeply imbrued in the blood of the prophets than those of other places, they were to drink more deeply than others in the punishment of such crimes: Thou that killest the prophets, &c. And, 2d, Jerusalem especially had rejected, and would persist in rejecting the Lord’s Christ, and the offers of salvation made through him, and would persecute his servants divinely commissioned to make them these offers. The former was a sin without remedy; this a sin against the remedy. How often would I have gathered thy children, &c. — See the wonderful grace, condescension, and kindness of the Lord Jesus toward those who he foresaw would in two or three days maliciously and cruelly imbrue their hands in his blood! What a strong idea do these tender exclamations of our Lord, which can hardly be read without tears, give us of his unparalleled love to that ungrateful and impenitent nation! He would have taken the whole body of them, if they would have consented to be so taken, into his church, and have gathered them all, (as the Jews used to speak of proselytes,) under the wings of the divine majesty. The words, how often would I have gathered, &c.,mark his unwearied endeavours to protect and cherish them from the time they were first called to be his people, and the following words, declarative of the opposition between his will and theirs, but ye would not, very emphatically show their unconquerable obstinacy in resisting the most winning and most substantial expressions of the divine goodness. Thus does the Lord Jesus still call and invite perishing sinners. But alas! the obstinacy of their own perverse and rebellious wills too generally withstands all the overtures of his grace: so that eternal desolation becomes their portion, and they in vain wish for a repetition of those calls when it is for ever too late.


Verse 38-39

Matthew 23:38-39. Behold, your house — The temple, which is now your house, not God’s; is left unto you desolate — Forsaken of God and his Christ, and sentenced to utter destruction. Our Lord spake this as he was going out of it for the last time. For I say unto you — Ye Jews in general, ye men of Jerusalem in particular; shall not see me henceforth απαρτι, hereafter, as the words signify, Matthew 26:64; till — After a long interval of desolation and misery, Ye shall say, Blessed, &c. — Till ye receive me with joyful and thankful hearts; that is, till your nation is converted: for the state of the nation, and not of a few individuals, is here spoken of, as it is also in the parables of the vineyard and marriage-supper. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, was the cry of the believing multitude when Jesus made his public entry into Jerusalem a few days before. Hence, in predicting their future conversion, he very properly alluded to that exclamation by which so many had expressed their faith in him as the Messiah. This was the last discourse Jesus pronounced in public, and with it his ministry ended. From that moment he abandoned the Jewish nation, gave them over to walk in their own counsels, and devoted them to destruction. Nor were they ever after to be the objects of his care, till the period of their conversion to Christianity should come, which he now foretold, and which also shall be accomplished in its season.

 


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Bibliography Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". Joseph Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/rbc/matthew-23.html. 1857.

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