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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Matthew 23

 

 

Other Authors
Introduction

CHAP. XXIII.

Christ admonisheth the people to follow the good doctrine, not the evil example of the scribes and Pharisees: his disciples must beware of their ambition; he denounceth eight woes against their hypocrisy and blindness: and prophesieth the destruction of Jerusalem.

Anno Domini 33.


Verse 1-2

Matthew 23:1-2. Then spake Jesus, &c.— Because our Saviour had mentioned the final conquest and destruction of his enemies, who were to be made his footstool, he turned towards his disciples, and in the hearing of all the people solemnly cautioned them to beware of the Scribes and Pharisees; by which he insinuated, and that not obscurely, who the enemies were, whose end he had hinted at. The name of 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' chair; such a character was applicable to none but the doctors of the sect; for which reason we may suppose that the phrase Scribes and Pharisees, is a Hebraism for the Pharisean Scribes. Some think there is an allusion, Matthew 23:2 to those pulpits which Ezra made for the expounders of the law, Nehemiah 8:4 and which were afterwards continued in the synagogue, from which the rabbies delivered their discourses sitting. It is probably called Moses' Chair, because it was that from which the books of Moses were read and explained; so that he seemed to dictate from thence. It is strange that Lightfoot and others should explain this of a legislative authority, since the Scribes andPharisees, as such, had no peculiar authority of that kind. See Doddridge, and Lightfoot.


Verse 3

Matthew 23:3. All therefore, &c.— The morality of the Pharisees, as appears from many examples mentioned in the Gospel, was of a very loose kind; and as for the traditions which they taught, they often made void the law of God altogether. It is not therefore to be thought, that Jesus would recommend the doctrines and precepts of the Pharisees without exception; and for this reason we must limit the general expressions here made use of, by what goes before in this discourse; thus, "While these men sit in Moses' seat, while they rightly explain the doctrines and precepts of the law, be sure to obey them; but by no means imitate their practices."


Verse 4

Matthew 23:4. For they bind heavy burdens It is well known that the Pharisees gloried in the exactness with which they obeyed the ceremonial part of the law. Nay, they carried matters so high, that, not content with the commandments which God had enjoined, they took upon them to prescribe a variety of traditionary precepts of their own invention. Therefore, if it was this kind of duties that our Lord meant, when he said they bind heavy burdens, &c. their zeal must have shewn itself chiefly in public: or, by the grievous burdens which the Pharisees bound up, may be understood the ceremonial precepts of the law; which are called grievous, not because they were reckoned so by the Pharisees. This interpretation agrees well with the character given of the precepts in question. They were delivered from Moses' seat, that is to say, were taken out of the book of Moses; and the disciples were to observe and do them, which our Lord would by no means have ordained, had he been speaking of the traditionary precepts of the elders. Besides, in this light the character given of the Scribes and Pharisees is palpably just, namely, that they bound up heavy burdens, &c. For while they themselves neglected both the moral and ceremonial precepts of the divine law, as often as they coulddo it with secrecy, they wreathed the ceremonial precepts of it fast about the necks of the people, and would not give them the smallest respite from its most burdensome ceremonies on any occasion whatsoever. The words of our Lord allude to the practice of those who load and drive beasts of burden: they first make, or bind up their loads, then lay them on their backs, and, in driving them through bad roads, support the loads, and keep them steady by taking hold of them. Our Lord's meaning, therefore, was, "They will neither bear these loads themselves, nor will they give the people the least respite from them, even in cases where it is due." See Macknight.


Verses 5-7

Matthew 23:5-7. All their works they do, &c.— "Any good action which they happen to perform, is vitiated by the principle from which it proceeds. They do it with a view to popular applause, and not from a regard to God, or from a love of goodness. They are proud and arrogant, as is plain from their affected gravity of dress, from the anxietywhich they discover to get the principal seats at feasts and all public meetings, as belonging to them on account of their superior worth, and from their courting to be saluted in the streets with particular marks of respect, and to be addressed with pompous and high sounding titles of rabbi, father, and master, thinking such public acknowledgement of their merit due from all who meet them." Concerning the Phylacteries, see the note on Deuteronomy 6:8. What the borders of their garments, or fringes ( κρασπεδα ) were, may be gathered from Deuteronomy 22:12. From this use of the garment on which the fringes were to be put, it is supposed to have been the veil, which they then wore on their heads; and the fringes are thought to have been tufts of twined thread, fastened to the four corners of it with a ribbon, in a manner, that each tuft hung at a little distance from the corner of the veil to which it was fastened. Hence we see the propriety of the expression, they make the fringes of their garments great, or large; hence also we learn that these fringes were considered as badges of holiness, and that the Pharisees wore a larger kind of them than ordinary, to give themselves the appearance of uncommon gravity, piety, and wisdom. The doctors had seats by themselves, with their backs towards the pulpit in which the law was read, and their faces towards the people. These were accounted the most honourable, and therefore these ambitious Scribes and Pharisees contended for them. 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. The Jewish doctors were particularly fond of this title, because it was a high compliment paid to their understanding, gave them vast authority withtheir disciples, and a very significant appearance in the eyes of the world. See Macknight, and Gale's Sermons, vol. 1: p. 80.


Verses 8-11

Matthew 23:8-11. But be not ye called Rabbi The Apostles of Christ were to be very different, both in temper and conduct, from the Jewish teachers. They were to decline being called Rabbi, because the thing signified by it belonged solely to their Master, in whom all the treasuries of knowledge and wisdom are hid; and who for that reason is the only infallible director of men's consciences; 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. Further the Jewish doctors were accustomed to inculcate on their disciples, that existence, except it was improved and ripened by knowledge, was in a mannerno existence at all; and boasted that they who formed men's minds by erudition, gave them a real being; and for that reason were to be considered as their true parents. Hence they arrogantly assumed to themselves the name of fathers, to intimate the peculiar obligations which their disciples, but especially the proselytes from idolatry, wereunder to them for their existence, and for the advantages which accompanied it: the title of father in this sense our Lord absolutely prohibited his Apostles either from taking or giving, because it belongs only to God; for one is your Father who is in heaven. Life, with all its blessings, comes from God; and men wholly depend upon him: for which cause, all praise and thanksgiving should ultimately be referred to him. So that if any one teaches rightly, not the teacher, but the wisdom of God is to be praised, which exerts and communicates itself by him: and with respect to the title of master or leader, καθηγητης, which the Jewish doctors courted, the Apostles of Christ were not to accept, far less to solicit it; because in point of commission and inspiration they were all upon an equality. Neither had they any title to rule the consciences of men, except by virtue of the inspiration which they received from their Master, to whom alone the prerogativeofinfallibility originally belonged. Nevertheless, our Lord did not mean to say, that it is sinful to name men by the stations which they hold, or the relations that they bear in the world. He only designed to reprove the simplicity of the people, who offered high praises to their teachers, as if they owed all to them, and nothing to God; and toroot out of the minds of the Apostles the pharisaical vanity, which decked itself with honours properly belonging to God; but especially to keep them all on a level among themselves, that the whole glory of the Christian scheme might redound to him whose right it was. Withal he shewed them what that greatness was, whereof they were capable, and after which only they should aspire: it was a greatness arising from love and humility; a greatness diametrically opposite to that of the Scribes, Matthew 23:11. He that is greatest, or desires to be greatest, μειζων, alludes to the signification of the word rabbi. See Macknight, Heylin, and Wetstein.


Verse 12

Matthew 23:12. Whosoever shall exalt himself Dr. Doddridge observes, that our Saviour, by the frequent repetition of this maxim, seems to intimate, that he intended it not only for those who were to be the teachers of others, but for all his disciples without exception; and it is well worthy of our observation, that no one sentence of our Lord's is so frequently repeated as this, which occurs at least ten times in the Evangelists.


Verse 13

Matthew 23:13. But wo unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites The above discourse against the Scribes and Pharisees was pronounced in the hearing of many of the order; they were therefore greatly incensed, and watched for an opportunity to destroyJesus: but it was not a time for him now to conceal from them any necessary reproof, this being the last sermon that he was ever to preach in public. It was necessary to use violent remedies, especially as gentle medicines had hitherto proved ineffectual; wherefore, with a kind of severity he threatened them in the most aweful and solemn manner, denouncing dreadful woes against them, not on account of the personal injuries they had done him, although they were many, but on account of their excessive wickedness. They were public teachers of religion,who abused every mark and character of goodness to all the purposes of villany. Under the grimace of a severe and sanctified air, they were malicious, implacable, lewd, covetous, and rapacious; in a word, instead of being reformers, they were corrupters of mankind; so that their wickedness being of the very worst sort, it deserved the sharpest rebuke that could be given. Our Lord pronounced eight blessings upon the mount; here he pronounced eight woes; not as imprecations, but solemn compassionate declarations of the misery which these stubborn sinners were bringing upon themselves. The reasons, why these woes were denounced against the Scribes, are set forth in the subsequent verses, 1. The first is, because they shut up the kingdom of heaven from men, by taking away the key of knowledge, (Luke 11:52.) or the right interpretation of the ancient prophesies concerning the Messiah, by their example and authority; for theyboth rejected Jesus themselves, and excommunicated those who believed in him; in short, by doing all they could to hinder the people from repenting of their sins and believing the Gospel. Dr. Moore, with great propriety, observes, that the word hypocrites, υποκριται, in its most exact application, signifies players, who, according to the unnatural custom of the ancients, acted a part under a mask. See his Theological Works, p. 293. Vitringas' Observ. Sacr. and the note on chap. 6:


Verse 14

Matthew 23:14. For ye devour widows' houses 2. This verse contains the second reason of the woes; because they committed the grossest iniquities, being covetous and rapacious under a cloke of religion; they devoured widows' houses, and at the same time made long prayers in order to hide their villany. "This," says Calvin, "was as if, pretending to kiss the feet of Christ, one should rise up, and audaciously spit in his face." See Mark 12:40.


Verse 15

Matthew 23:15. Ye compass sea and land, &c.— 3. The third woe is denounced, because theyexpressed the greatest zeal imaginable in making proselytes, compassing sea and land; that is to say, using the most indefatigable pains and ardour, and leaving no art unpractised for that end; while at the same time their intention in all this was, not that the Gentiles might become better men through the knowledge of true religion, but more friendly to them; yielding them the direction of their purses, as well as of their consciences. Accordingly, in the heathen countries these worldlings 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 the 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 to say, more openly and unlimitedly wicked than they. The zeal of the Jews in making proselytes was so remarkable, that it was taken notice of by the heathens, and turned into a proverb:

——— Ac veluti te Judeaei, cogamus in hanc concedere turbam. HOR. Lib. 1: Sat. 4 ver. 142.

We'll force you, like the proselyting Jews, To be like us.— FRANCIS.

Upon which St. Ambrose observes, that "this pleasantry of the poet arises from the proselyting spirit of the Jews, who insinuated themselves into families, entered into the courts of justice, disturbed the judges, andwere always more successful in proportion as they were more impudent." To the same purpose is what Justin Martyr said to Tryphothe Jew: "Your proselytes not only disbelieve Christ's doctrine, but blaspheme his name as much again as yourselves." Child of hell, and son of perdition, were terms of reproach made use of among the Jews.


Verse 16

Matthew 23:16. Ye blind guides 4. The fourth woe is denounced for their false doctrine. Our Saviour had before stiled them hypocrites from their personal character; now he gives them another title, blind guides, respecting their influence upon others. Both these appellations are severely put together in Matthew 23:23-25 and this holy severity rises to the height in the 33rd verse. Our Saviour mentions particularly their doctrine concerning oaths, and declares, in contradiction to their execrable tenets, that every oath is obligatory, the matter of which is lawful; because when men swear by the creature, if their oath has any meaning, it is an appeal to the Creator himself: in any other light, an oath by the creature is absolutely ridiculous, because the creature neither has knowledge with respect to the matter of the oath, nor power to punish the perjury. See on ch. Matthew 5:33., &c. It is nothing, means, "it constitutes no obligation to tell the truth, or, to perform one's vow," He is a debtor, means, "he is bound to speak the truth, or, to perform his vow." And in like manner he is guilty, Matthew 23:18 means, he is bound by his oath. The Pharisees taught, that oaths by the creature might be used on trifling occasions, and violated without any great guilt; but they excepted oaths by the corban, 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. The gold of the temple means the treasure kept in the temple, otherwise called corban. See ch. Matthew 27:6.


Verses 17-22

Matthew 23:17-22. Ye fools and blind The Apostle's words, Hebrews 6:16 are a proper comment on the 17th verse, for men verily swear by the greater. Whoso shall swear by the altar, says our Saviour (Matthew 23:20.) sweareth by it, and by all things thereon; consequently the oath is an invocation of his wrath, to whom the altar, and the gifts on the altar, are sacred, in case of falsehood or breach of vows. The particular species of wrath invoked in this oath, is God's rejecting the swearer's sacrifice, and denying him the pardon of sin—He adds, Matthew 23:21. Whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it and by him that dwelleth therein; consequently the oath is a solemn wishing that he who dwelleth in the temple may hinder the person from ever worshipping there, if he is telling a falsehood, or neglects his vow. And lastly, Matthew 23:22. 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 from that blessed place for ever, if he falsifies his oath.


Verse 23-24

Matthew 23:23-24. Ye pay tithe, &c.— 5. The fifth woe is denounced for their superstition. They observed the ceremonial precepts of the law with all possible exactness, while they utterly neglected the eternal, immutable, and indispensable rules of righteousness,—justice, mercy, or charity, and fidelity. Besides the reproof of their superstition in the performance of positive duties, our Saviour condemned it also in the obedience which they gave to the negative precepts of the law; for there likewise this evil root shewed itself, Matthew 23:24. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat,—or rather, who strain out a gnat, (namely, from your drink,) 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 unrestrainedcommissionofthegrossestimmoralities.Serrariusobserves,thatinthose hot countries 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. See Wetstein. "Could any authority be produced, in which Καμηλον signifies a large insect, Iwould with great pleasure (says Dr. Doddridge) follow the translation of 1729, in rendering the latter clause, swallow a beetle." See on Chap. Matthew 19:24.


Verses 25-36

Matthew 23:25-26. Ye make clean the outside, &c.— 6. The sixth woe is denounced for their hypocrisy: they were at great pains to appear virtuous, and to have a decent external conduct, while they neglected to beautify their inward man with goodness, which, in the sight of God, is an ornament of great price, and renders men dear and valuable to all who know them. Within, they—means the cup and platter;—are full of extortion and excess; which you swallow down without the least scruple: instead of extortion and excess, some would read, rapine and intemperance, αρπαγης, και ακρασιας . The last word takes in not only all kinds of outward intemperance, particularlyin eating and drinking, but all intemperate or immoderate desires, whether of honour, gain, or sensual pleasures. Dr. Heylin observes well, that the censure here isdoubled,takingintemperanceinthecommonsense.Thesemiserablemen,procured unjustly what they used intemperately: no wonder tables so furnished prove a snare, as many find by sad experience. Luxury punishes fraud, and feeds disease with the fruits of injustice. Thou blind Pharisee, continues our Lord, Matthew 23:26. Cleanse first, &c. that is, "Take care that what is within the cup, and not so much exposed to view, be clean; and then thou mayest with propriety bestow pains in cleansing the outside of the cup." But though in this clause our Lord still makes use of the metaphor, he reasons according to the thing intended by it, thus, "Cleanse first thy mind, thy inward man from evil dispositions and affections, and of course thy outward behaviour will be virtuous and good."


Verse 27-28

Matthew 23:27-28. Ye are like unto whited sepulchres 7. The seventh woe is denounced for the excess of their hypocrisy. By their care of external appearances, the Pharisees and Scribes made a fair shew, and deceived the simple. Like fine whited sepulchres, they looked beautiful without, but within were full of uncleanness, and defiled every one that touched them. This was a severe rebuke to men, who would not keep company with publicans and sinners, for fear they should have been polluted by them. The truth is, these hypocrites were publicly decent, but privately dissolute: they put on a saint-like look, but in reality were the very worst of men. A French commentator observes, that the Jews used to paint or whiten their sepulchres or tombs at certain seasons of the year; that people might discern that they were polluted places. See Luke 11:44.


Verses 29-31

Matthew 23:29-31. Ye build the tombs, &c.— 8. The eighth woe is denounced, because by the pains they took in adorning the sepulchres of the prophets, they pretended a great veneration for their memory; and as often as they 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, and particularly his divine Son, on whose destruction they were resolutely bent. The meaning of the 31st verse is, "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, you acknowledge that you are the children of them who murdered the prophets;—their children, I must give you to know, in other respects than by natural generation; for though you pretend to be more holy than they were, you are like them in all respects; particularly you possess their wicked persecuting spirit, and testify it by all your actions." See Luke 11:48 and 1 Maccabees 13:27; 1 Maccabees 13:29. What Vitringa tells us, (de Synagog. p. 221.) of the extraordinary honour paid to the sepulchre of Mordecai, is an agreeable illustration of these words. Josephus also, from Nicolaus Damascenus, mentions Herod's repairing in a very splendid manner the sepulchre of David. See his Antiq. lib. 16: cap. 7 and compare Acts 2:29. From the 3rd to the 30th verse of this chapter is exposed every thing that commonly passes in the world for religion; whereby the pretenders to it keep both themselves and others from enteringinto the kingdom of God; from attaining, or even seeking after those tempers, in which alone Christianity consists; as, first, punctuality in attending on public and private prayers merely for the sake of shew; Matthew 23:4-14. Secondly, zeal to make proselytes to our opinion or communion, though they have less of the spirit of religion than before; Matthew 23:15. Thirdly, a superstitious reverence for consecrated places or things, without any for him to whom they were consecrated, Matthew 23:16-22. Fourthly, a scrupulous exactness in little observances, though with the neglect of justice, mercy, and fidelity, Matthew 23:23-24. Fifthly, a cautiousness to cleanse the outward behaviour, without any regard to inward purity; Matthew 23:25-26. Sixthly, a specious face of virtue and piety, covering the deepest hypocrisy and villany, Matthew 23:27-28. Seventhly, a professed veneration for all good men, except those among whom they live, Matthew 23:29-30. See Bengelius. All, from Matthew 23:29 to Matthew 23:32., Grotius has very justly observed, should make one sentence; οτι, because, referring to each member of it; and Matthew 23:31 should be in a parenthesis: woe to you Scribes, because you build—and say—and fill up, &c.


Verse 32

Matthew 23:32. Fill ye up then the measure, &c.— That is, the measure of your fathers' sin, (the measure fixed upon by God for punishment.) See John 13:27. This expression implies, that there is a certain measure fixed for every nation to which its iniquity is allowed to rise; and that before decisive punishment, amounting to excision, or to the entire overturn of their polity, is inflicted on nations, the measure of their iniquity, or of that of their rulers, must be filled up, by the succeeding generations adding to the iniquity of the preceding, till the measure is full; an idea which receives great countenance from Genesis 15:16. According to Glassius, and other critics, — και πληρωσατε, is here the imperative for the future,—you will fill up; but it may be understood as a word of permission, not of command. As if our Lord had said, "I contend with you no longer; I leave you to yourselves; you have conquered; you may now follow the devices of your own hearts."


Verse 33

Matthew 23:33. Ye serpents, &c.— See Luke 3:7. Men of warm tempers are apt to mistake this part of Christ's discourse; they fancy that his giving the Pharisees names expressive of their characters, and his denouncing woes against them, justifies those censorious judgments, which, without reason, or, it may be, contrary to reason, they pass on persons who happen to be at variance with them. It is very true that Jesus pronounced the Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, blind guides, serpents, &c. and declared that they could not escape the damnation of hell; but it is equally true, that they were hypocrites and fools, as wicked as he has painted them, and that he knew them certainly to be such. Wherefore, till we can make it evident that we have the faculty of knowing men's hearts, which Christ possessed, we have no pretensions to imitate him in an action not designed for our imitation, being done by him as a prophet and in virtue of his prophetical gifts, or as God over all, not as an ordinary man. Instead of making free with the characters of others, as too many do, it is far safer, and in every respect better, both for ourselves and for society, that we keep close to the precept forbidding rash judgments, evil surmisings, and all backbitings. See ch. Matthew 7:1-5. The phrase Αποφυγειν κριμα, which is the same in sense with the original, rendered to escape the damnation, properly signifies, to evade conviction in a court of judicature; which is often done by the artifice of the criminal. See Raphaelius and Macknight.


Verse 34

Matthew 23:34. Wherefore Δια τουτο, "for this cause—that ye are serpents, and a brood of vipers, who will fill up the measure of your fathers' iniquities." Our Saviour's meaning was, not that he would send them prophets to be killed, that they might escape the damnation of hell; but that every possible method might be tried for their conversion, though he well knew that 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. For, "even as Sodom and Gomorrah anciently, and the cities about them, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire;" just so the Jewish nation was singled out, and that generation of the nation pitched upon to be the subjects of God's vengeance against murder, and an example of punishment to all generations, as they were the most atrocious bodyof murderers that ever lived. The titles mentioned by our Lord in this verse, prophets, wise men, Scribes, correspond with thatdiversity of gifts mentioned in the first epistle to the Corinthians: they are stiled prophets, because inspired to foretel things to come; wise men, because they were enlightened with the knowledge of heavenly mysteries; and Scribes, from their superior knowledge of the law. Among the first martyrs, whose death verified this prophesy, were Stephen, who was stoned; Paul, who was scourged and killed; and Peter, who was crucified. See Macknight and Hammond. Instead of ye shall kill,—shall scourge, we may read, ye will kill, &c.


Verse 35-36

Matthew 23:35-36. That upon you may came all the righteous blood, &c.— The meaning is, "As by your cruel and persecuting temper you seem to approve of all the murders which have been committed since the beginning of the world, you shall be as severely punished as if you yourselves had been the authors of them." This refers to temporal punishment, because in the life to come men will not be punished for the sins of others to which they were not accessary. But Dr. Campbell makesthe following observation on this passage: "As I understand it, this expression must not be interpreted as implying that those individual crimes, which happened before the time of the people then living, would be laid to their charge; but that, with every species of cruelty, oppression, and murder, which had been exemplified in former ages, they of that age would be found chargeable; inasmuch as they had permitted no kind of wickedness to be peculiar to those who had preceded them; but had carefully imitated, and even exceeded, all the most atrocious deeds of their ancestors from the beginning of the world. There is no hyperbole in the representation. The account given of them by Josephus, who was no Christian, but one of themselves, shews, in the strongest light, how justly they are here characterized by our Lord." The Zechariah here spoken of, is thought by many learned commentators to be that Zechariah who is expressly said to have been slain in so remarkable a manner, between the temple and the altar, 2 Chronicles 24:20-21.


Verse 37-38

Matthew 23:37-38. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Our Lord having laid before the Pharisees andthenationtheirheinousguiltandgrievouspunishment,thethought of the calamities which were comingupon them moved him exceedingly: his bowels were turned within him, and his breast was filled with the gracious meltings of pity to such a degree, that, unable to contain himself, he broke forth into tears; bewailing Jerusalem particularly, on account of the peculiar severity of its lot. For, as its inhabitants had their hands more deeply imbrued in the blood of the prophets, they were to drink more deeply of the punishment due to such crimes. His lamentation for the city was most moving, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! &c. These tender exclamations, which can hardly be read without tears, convey a strong idea of Christ's love to that ungrateful nation. The words, how often, mark his unwearied endeavours to cherish and protect them from the time they were first called to be his people; and the opposition which is stated between his will and theirs, How often would I—but ye would not, very emphaticallyshews their unconquerable obstinacy in resisting the most winning and most substantial expressions of the divine love. The clause, Behold, &c. is a prediction of the punishment which was to be inflicted upon them for their sin in rejecting Christ. Their house, (the temple of God, see 2 Kings 23:27.) was from that time to be desolate. The glory of the Lord, which Haggai had foretold should fill the second house, was departing. Our Lord spoke this as he was going out of his house for the last time. See Howe's Tears of the Redeemer.


Verse 39

Matthew 23:39. Henceforth Απ αρτι, hereafter. "Because you have killed the prophets, and endeavoured to stone me, whom the Father hath sent unto you; because your great men are at this moment plotting against me, who am the Lord of the temple; and because you will assist them in putting me to death; your temple shall be desolate: it shall never be favoured with my presence any more. Nay, your nation shall be deserted by me; For you shall not see me henceforth, &c." In the capacity of a teacher, Jesus had often filled the temple with the gloryof his doctrine and miracles; and, as a kind friend, had tried with unwearied application to gather the nation under his wings, that he might protect them from the impending judgments of God. Therefore, by their not seeing him from that time forth, we are to understand their not enjoying his presence and care as a teacher, guardian, and friend. This was the last discourse that Jesus pronounced in public; with it his ministry ended.

From that moment he abandoned the Jewish nation, gavethem over to walk in their own counsels, and devoted them to destruction; nor were they ever after, as a nation, to be the objects of his care, till the period of their conversion to Christianity should come, which he now foretold: ye shall not see me, till ye shall say, Blessed, &c. that is, tillyour 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 the 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 this. Hence, in predicting their future conversion, he alludes in a very striking manner to that exclamation, by which they had expressed their faith in him as the Messiah. This is by far the most spirited of all ourLord's discourses, and being pronounced no doubt with an elevation of voice, and vehemence of gesture, suitable to the sentiments which it expressed, it could not but astonish the people, who had always looked upon their teachers as the holiest of men. Even the persons themselves, against whom it was levelled, were confounded; their consciences witnessing the truth of what was laid to their charge. They knew not what course to take; and so, in the midst of their hesitation, they let Jesus go away quietly, without attempting to lay hands on him, or stone him, as they had sometimes done before upon less provocation. See Grotius, Macknight, and Olearius. Thus did our Lord pull the mask of hypocrisy from off the teachers of his own times, condemning it in all its forms. He treated hypocrisy with severity, because it is a most enormous sin, rendering men criminal before God, by things which in their own nature are calculated to please him; such as prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and other religious duties. The sharpness with which our Lord spoke now, and on other occasions, against hypocrites, plainly and strongly intimates to us, that we should strive more to be good, than to appear so. But on this subject, I will speak more, when I come to Luke 11.

Inferences.—With what humility, integrity, and contempt of this world, should the ministers of Christ behave! and how should they live the doctrines they preach; and not lord it over their hearers! but if any of his servants act unsuitable to their character, their doctrine is nevertheless to be regarded, as far as it agrees with the word of God; though their disorderly lives are not to be imitated. And woe unto them, who either pervert the sacred oracles, or, under a pretence of piety, are guilty of the vilest abominations; who aim at dominion over men's faith and consciences, and neither embrace the Gospel themselves, nor cease from hindering others, that seem to be well affected towards it; who are fond of specious appearances of external sanctity, but whose hearts are full of all impurity; who are superstitiously scrupulous about trifles, and neglect the most important things of Christianity; and who make light of oaths, and manage all their religion with secular views. How can such as these escape the damnation of hell? Christ will find out every hypocrite, and take vengeance upon them another day. In the mean while, with what faithfulness and compassion, condescension and grace, does he deal with all sorts of sinners in the gospel! but what a deplorable condition are they in, who nevertheless go on in their trespasses, and reject him by unbelief; and especially who indulge a persecuting spirit, which will one time or other bring down the heaviest vengeance upon their own heads! let them that condemn this or any iniquity in others, take heed of practically approving it, by doing the same themselves: for a time is coming, when the iniquity of impenitent sinners will be full, and God will heap upon them the measures of wrath, which they have been treasuring up to themselves against the day of wrath, and revelation of his righteous judgment. Oh that we might all know the things that belong to our peace, before they be hid from our eyes! and that when Christ appears again, we may be glad with exceeding joy!

REFLECTIONS.—1st, Among all the Jewish sects the Pharisees maintained the most distinguished rank for their reputed wisdom and piety. Yet none ever fell under more censures from Christ than these reputed patterns of sanctity, because indeed they were the most inveterate enemies of him and his gospel: as those of a like stamp ever have been and will be. Their religion was all show, their hearts enmity against God, filled with pride, self-righteousness, love of esteem, worldly-mindedness, and hatred to the power of internal vital godliness. Whom the world therefore admired as the best sort of people in it, God abhorred as the worst, as the farthest from his kingdom and righteousness. And the case is the same to this very day. Against these whited sepulchres Christ therefore cautions his disciples.

1. He honours the office which they bore as expositors of the law, who sat in Moses' seat, and read and interpreted in the synagogues the sacred oracles to the people. And so far as they spake agreeably to the Scriptures, they were to be attended to, and their word to be observed and done. Note; (1.) The most sacred and honourable offices in the church have often been filled by the worst of men. Yet ought not this to bring any dishonour upon the ministry itself, or prejudice us against the order—that many, who are a scandal to the name they bear, have thrust themselves into it. (2.) When wicked men preach sound truth, their word is to be received, while their works are abhorred; though example is most forcible to persuade, and it can hardly be expected that they should convince others, who do not themselves appear to believe the very doctrines they preach.

2. He brands the men who lived so unsuitably to the word they taught, and cautions the people to beware of imitating them. Do not after their works: for they say, and do not. They boasted indeed of the purity of their morals, as well as the orthodoxy of their sentiments; but the one was as corrupt as the other was culpable. Several things our Lord charges upon them.

[1.] Their hypocrisy. They were very strict preachers of the law, and rigid also in enforcing their vain traditions, laying upon men's consciences burdens intolerable, while they themselves dispensed with their own observance of them, and their practice gave the lie to their preaching. Note; Many preachers pretend the greatest zeal for morality, whose lives shew the laxest morals; and who must therefore be damned upon their own shewing.

[2.] Their formality, and desire of human applause. Their religion was all outside; and to make a fair shew before men was their great ambition. Instead of internal spirituality, and meditation on God's word, they made broad their phylacteries, which were scrolls of parchment, on which select portions of the law were written, sewed up in the skin of a clean beast, and hung at their arms and over their foreheads; and by their uncommon breadth they meant to insinuate their uncommon zeal for the law. And they enlarge the borders of their garments: not only conforming to the precept, Numbers 15:38-40 but affecting, by the width of their fringes, to shew their distinguished sanctity, and observance of the command. So true it is even to the present day, that the most zealous contenders for the form of godliness, are sometimes the greatest strangers to the power of it.

[3.] Their pride, and affectation of pre-eminence. They coveted always the most distinguished place at an entertainment; and even in the synagogues, where they assembled for religious worship, the same desire of precedency appeared in their choice of the chief seats, as if their business there was more to make a figure themselves, than to pay their humble adorations. In like manner they affected sounding titles of respect, and, when they appeared in public, they loved to have deep homage paid them, and to be addressed with, Rabbi, Rabbi! that others might hear and observe their importance and dignity. Note; (1.) There is no harm in receiving or giving titles of honour to whom honour is due: but to take a pleasure in hearing the sound, to be puffed up with the title, and to be offended at the omission of it, these mark detestable pride. (2.) Nothing can shew a stronger tincture of Pharisaism than coming to God's house to seek our own glory, and to be more anxious in what pew we are placed, than with what spirit we worship.

3. He forbids his disciples to challenge for themselves, or ascribe to others, any such pompous names as the scribes assumed. They must not be called Rabbi, affecting human honour, or any title importing dominion over the faith or consciences of their brethren: nor must they be styled Master, as if upon their own authority they sat up for guides and leaders; but must own one Master only, that is Christ, whose word alone must be their rule; while they, as brethren, arrogated no supremacy over each other, alike submissive to their common head. Nor may they give flattering titles to any; calling no man Father upon the earth. Not that this forbids us honouring our natural parents, or those who have begotten us in the Gospel, or paying due reverence to age or dignity; but we must regard no man as the founder of our religion, or as the head of the church, to whom, in matters of conscience, we owe implicit obedience, this being the sole prerogative of our God and Father, whose throne is in the heavens; but if any man among them excelled in gifts or graces, or was esteemed and preferred to a more honourable place in the church than others, far from being puffed up with his eminence, he is required to be the more condescending and laborious, employing himself the more zealously and humbly for the benefit of his fellow-Christians. And our Lord subjoins the most forcible argument to support what he had advanced: whosoever shall exalt himself, grow proud, imperious, and assuming over his brethren, shall be abased; either in penitent humiliation, when brought to a sight of his sin, in this world; or be covered with confusion in the more aweful day of Christ's appearing: while he that humbleth himself in every work and labour of love, and in a lowly sense of his own deep unworthiness, he shall be exalted in the eyes of God and all good men.

2nd, Like Ezekiel's bitter roll, we have repeated fearful woes, like so many bolts of thunder, levelled against these proud self-righteous Pharisees. The general charge against them is their being hypocrites, proved in a variety of particulars; and this being the character which God especially abhors, we should be the more jealous over our own souls, that this rank weed of bitterness spring not up under the profession of godliness, and mar the whole.

1. Pretending to be teachers of the law, and possessed of the key of knowledge, instead of explaining the spiritual meaning of all the typical rites, as pointing to Christ; or the purport of the prophesies which related to him; they studiously sought to pervert both; commenting upon them in such a way as most intirely to overturn the true nature of the Messiah's office and kingdom, and leading the people to rest on the shadows instead of the substance. Invenomed enemies to the Gospel, they turned a deaf ear to all that Christ advanced in proof of his own divine character and mission, and not only rejected him themselves, but used their utmost efforts, employing all their influence, their examples, and their cunning, to prejudice the people against him and his Gospel; reviling his person, doctrine, and miracles, and thundering out their anathemas against those who should profess to receive him as the Messiah.

2. They made the cloak of religion subservient to the basest purposes of gain and avarice, insinuating themselves into the confidence of helpless widows, on whom, by their long prayers and affected shew of devotion, they imposed; and who, supposing their piety as great as the appearances of it, entrusted them with the management of their affairs, and were directed by their advice; by which means, taking advantage of their superstition and credulity, they fleeced them of their substance, and enriched themselves with the spoil of the most cruel inhumanity, as well as basest injustice; for which, though they might escape the censures of men, God, the all-seeing Judge, would surely give them greater damnation in the day of recompense. Note; (1.) The vilest wickedness may sometimes be so shaded by craft, as to elude the eye of human observation. (2.) The appearance of godliness put on to cover worldly designs, is in God's account the most atrocious of crimes. (3.) Long prayers are not always culpable; it is only when they are for a pretence, that they become an abomination. (4.) There are degrees of misery in hell: some shall receive greater damnation than others; and the most dreadful vengeance of all shall light on the hypocrite's head.

3. They exerted the greatest zeal to make proselytes from the Gentiles, in order to heighten their own reputation, and strengthen their party; and omitted no pains to succeed in their attempts; and then abused the ascendancy which they obtained over the consciences of their converts, to instil the most virulent prejudices into them against Christ and his Gospel; making them more bigotted than themselves to the vain traditions of the elders, and more bitter persecutors of the disciples of Jesus even than their masters. See Acts 13:45; Acts 14:2-19; Acts 17:5; Acts 18:6. Thus their pretended conversion served to render them but two-fold more the children of hell than themselves. Note; (1.) Every impenitent sinner and hypocrite is a child of hell, of his father the devil, and doomed to dwell with him eternally. (2.) The industry which these Pharisees used to gain proselytes in so bad a cause, should condemn our negligence and want of zeal, who take so little pains to make converts to Christ and his Gospel.

4. They were blind guides, erring through greediness after gain, and deceiving others, misleading them into the most dangerous errors respecting the obligation of oaths; distinguishing between the temple and the gold, the altar and the gift; as if they might swear by the former, and break the oath with impunity; but an oath by the latter was conscientiously obligatory: and the reason was clear, because these blind guides made gain of the gold vowed to the temple-service, and of the gifts offered on the altar. But how absurd and foolish this distinction? the temple which sanctified the gold, and the altar which sanctified the gift, must needs be more holy than the gold and gift, which received all their sanctity from being offered there. Indeed these kinds of oaths were in themselves evil and profane; but if a man once made them, he was bound to fulfil them. An oath by the altar included all the gifts thereon; as also to swear by the temple, or by heaven, implied an appeal to him who dwelleth there, manifesting his presence between the cherubim, or sitting on his throne most high; and therefore every breach of such oath was direct perjury. Note;

(1.) It is a dreadful thing for the poor people, when they who undertake to shew them the way to heaven are blind and ignorant; and it is still more terrible for the blind guides themselves, who will perish under the guilt of those souls which they have misled and ruined. (2.) Oaths are sacred; they are an appeal to the heart-searching God: by him alone we may swear; but if any profanely swear by other things, their profaneness will be no plea for their perjury; they are still in conscience bound to fulfil their oath as to the Lord.

5. They were scrupulous about trifles, and negligent of the essential duties of religion. They were most exact in the payment of their tythes, even to the small herbs of their garden, to the mint, and anise, and cummin; but they omitted the weightier matters of the law, such as judgement, the due administration of justice, and protecting the weak and helpless against their oppressors; mercy, the kind relief which they should have shewn to the distressed; and faith, a dependance upon God's care and love, and the grateful return due in consequence thereof. These they should have practised, as the most important and momentous; while matters comparatively trivial deserved but a subordinate regard: but they were such blind guides, corrupt in practice as well as doctrine, they strained at a gnat, or strained out a gnat from their liquors, as if it would choak them; pretended such a scrupulous attention to avoid the least sin, and practise the nicest morality; while they could swallow a camel, making no conscience in secret of the most enormous crimes, to gratify their pride, their covetousness, and their malice. See Matthew 23:14 chap. Matthew 27:6. John 18:28. Note; (1.) The practice of one duty can never be pleaded as a compensation for the neglect of another; and much less can observances merely ceremonial excuse the neglect of those weightier moral precepts, judgement, mercy, and faith. (2.) Many pretend a scrupulous conscience in trifles, who, when any thing important to them is at stake, hesitate not at committing the most flagrant immoralities.

6. Their religion consisted in mere externals, while their hearts continued utterly corrupt and defiled. They were very curious about washing their cups and platters, and placed much purity in this; while they cared little by what oppression they obtained the provision that they ate out of them: at least, their inward parts were very wickedness, whatever specious cloak they threw over their ways. Justly therefore does the Lord Jesus upbraid them, Thou blind Pharisee! dark to the pollution of thy soul; cleanse first thy inmost thoughts, principles, and designs; begin within; be pure in heart, and then you may, with consistency, contend for an exact conformity to the external rites and ceremonies enjoined by the law. But in their present state they were the very reverse of real purity; like whited sepulchres, garnished and glittering without, but within full of pollution and putrefaction; the lively emblem of their hypocrisy and iniquity, lurking under the splendid guise of uncommon piety. Note; (1.) Our hearts are our grand concern; all our services in religion will be acceptable or abominable, as they are truly purified by the blood of Jesus, or left polluted with native guilt and corruption. (2.) They who have never seen, felt, and lamented the plague of their own hearts, must necessarily be blind to all spiritual concerns, since here all vital godliness begins. (3.) The world abounds with whited sepulchres; we need be warned of them, lest, mistaking shew for reality, we esteem those patterns of piety, who are in fact but sinks of pollution, full of pride, worldly-mindedness, and enmity to the power of experimental religion.

7. They pretended a high veneration for the prophets of old, and, in honour of their memories, built sumptuous monuments for them, and kept them with the nicest care. They made great professions of the respect they would have paid them, had they been so happy as to have lived in their days; and condemned bitterly the wickedness of their forefathers in persecuting and murdering them; protesting against such violence, and that they would have never joined in shedding such innocent blood. Thus by their own confession they acknowledged themselves the descendants of those who had murdered the prophets; and how much of their spirit they had imbibed, their behaviour towards John the Baptist, and their past and present malicious designs against Jesus, plainly evinced. Therefore he justly abandons them to the ruin that they have deserved, leaving them to fill up the measure of their iniquities, by crucifying him, the Lord of life and glory, and persecuting, even to death, his Apostles and ministers, till wrath should come upon them to the uttermost. Ye serpents, subtle and poisonous; ye generation of vipers, fierce and malignant; how can ye escape the damnation of hell? In their present temper and conduct, it was impossible but that the eternal wrath of God must abide upon them. Note; (1.) Many pretend respect for past reformers and good men, who persecute with the greatest virulence those who tread in their steps. (2.) The deceitfulness of the heart is great: we are strangely apt to flatter ourselves, how well we should have done and acted, if we had been in other persons' circumstances. Many think that the hard-hearted Jews, who heard the doctrines of the Son of God, and saw his miracles, and yet crucified him, were sinners of a peculiar dye; and had they lived then, they should have welcomed him with rapture to their houses and their hearts; who yet treat his word, his ministers, his people, with the same contempt and enmity. (3.) God's patience waits long with offenders; but their measure of sin will be full, and then shall wrath come upon them to the uttermost. (4.) The damnation of hell is to be freely denounced against the impenitent and hypocrites, how unwilling soever they may be to hear it, or ready to mock at these terrors of the Lord.

3rdly, Their fathers, they allowed, had persecuted and slain the prophets of the Lord, and they would soon prove themselves genuine descendants from them.

1. Christ foretels what would be their behaviour towards his Apostles and Evangelists. Once more he would give them a trial, by sending to them his ministers, invested with divine authority from him their God and king, who in gifts and graces should be no ways inferior to the prophets, wise men, and scribes who went before them. But instead of obedience to their word, or respect for their persons, they would just do as their fathers before them had done, or worse; persecuting them from city to city, scourging them in their synagogues, and putting them to the most ignominious and cruel deaths. See Acts 7:59; Acts 12:2; Acts 26:11.

2. The measure of all their fathers' sins, which thus they imitated, approved, and exceeded, being full, God would not fail to require at their hands all the blood which had been shed for righteousness' sake, from the blood of righteous Abel, the first martyr, to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, or Jehoiada, see 2 Chronicles 24:20-21 whom they slew between the porch and the altar, and who was the last martyr for the truth recorded in the Old Testament. On this generation Christ assures them shall all these things come; all the heavy wrath threatened for their forefathers' guilt and their own. Note; (1.) Every insult and injury shewn to God's righteous ones, shall sooner or later, be severely avenged. (2.) The nearer judgements approach, the louder they call for repentance. 3. Christ pathetically laments over the wickedness of Jerusalem, and denounces her doom. [1.] He laments over her wickedness, upbraiding her with ingratitude and impenitence under all the means and mercies that she had enjoyed: Thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, as blasphemers. Such had been, and would be again her practice; and the great truths of God have been often thus loaded with the severest censures, and the most faithful and zealous advocates for them persecuted under the specious pretence of vindicating God's honour, and punishing those whom these pretended zealots are pleased to brand as enthusiasts. Yet, says Christ, How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not? As a man, and a minister of the circumcision, Christ peculiarly regarded Israel for their fathers' sake; he wished therefore to engage them to attend his ministry, that by acknowledging him as the Messiah, they might prevent the doom with which their rejecting him would be attended. But ye, the Scribes and Pharisees, who prejudiced the people against him, would not; effectually preventing the people from receiving Christ as the Messiah, to do which they in general seem to have been disposed; and thus these false guides brought ruin upon themselves and their deluded followers. Note; (1.) They who have fled to Christ for refuge, will find a sure covert from the storm of divine wrath; whilst all who refuse his salvation will be left exposed to deserved vengeance. (2.) Christ will visit for all the means and mercies that men have abused; and a despised and rejected Gospel will bring down the heaviest condemnation.

[2.] He reads her doom. Your house is left unto you desolate. God was now about to abandon them as incorrigible; to leave his temple; and his presence withdrawn, the gold became dim, the fine gold was changed. Nothing but desolation remained within those once sacred walls, when the divine inhabitant was fled; nor would it be long ere one stone should not be left upon another. When God departed, their glory and defence forsook them: their city and nation with their temple were now devoted to utter destruction.

4. He takes his sad farewel of that temple which he never more would enter; nor would they ever see him after his departure to heaven, till that great day of his appearing and glory, when too late they would be convinced of his being the Messiah. Many suppose this refers to the conversion of the Jews in the latter day, when they shall welcome that Redeemer, whom their fathers crucified, with hosannas, blessing, and praise. See the critical notes. Note; (1.) The day is near, when every eye shall behold the once crucified Jesus on a throne of judgment; and then woe to those who pierced him and repented not. (2.) Those who will not see, are justly given up to the blindness of their hearts; and since they would not bow to the sceptre of a Redeemer's grace, they must perish under the rod of his judgment. (3.) If we welcome Jesus now to our hearts, and he is pleased to make them his temple, and by his spirit to take up his constant residence therein, then shall the day of his appearing and glory be our exceeding great joy, and we shall rise up to welcome and call him blessed that cometh in the name of the Lord, to be glorified in his saints and admired of all that believe.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/matthew-23.html. 1801-1803.

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Thursday, December 5th, 2019
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