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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Matthew 23

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-39

6; Matthew 22:1-46; Matthew 23:1-39

Chapter 17

Conflict in the Temple - Matthew 21:18-46 - Matthew 22:1-46 - Matthew 23:1-39

IT had been written that the Lord should suddenly come to His Temple; [Malachi 3:1] but He would not too hastily assert His rights. The first day He simply "looked round about upon all things," [Mark 11:11] and then withdrew to Bethany. The second day-without, however, even yet assailing the authority of those in power-He assumed His prerogative as Lord of the Temple by casting out the traffickers, healing the blind and the lame, and accepting the hosannas of the children. The scribes and Pharisees showed some displeasure at all this, and raised objections; but the answer they received silenced, if it did not satisfy them. Thus two days passed without any serious attempt to dispute His authority; but on the third day the conflict began. It was a dark and terrible day, and of its fateful history we have a full account in this Gospel.

The day opens with the sight on the-way to the city of the withered fig tree, a sad symbol of the impending fate of Israel, to be decided ere the day closed by their final rejection of their Saviour-King. This was our Lord’s single miracle of judgment; many a stern word of warning did He speak, but there is no severity in His deeds: they are all mercy and love. The single exception, if exception it may be called, makes this great fact stand out only the more impressively. It was necessary for love’s sake to show that in that arm, which was always strong to save, there was also strength to smite if the sad necessity should come; but so tender-hearted is He that He cannot bear to strike where the stroke can be felt, so He lets it fall on an unconscious tree. Thus to the end He justifies His name of Jesus, Saviour, and illustrates the blessed truth of which His whole life is the expression, that "God is love." "The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them." Judgment is His strange work; from the very thought of it He shrinks, as seems suggested to us here by the fact that, in the use He makes of the circumstance in His conversation with the disciples, He refrains from speaking of its dark significance, but rather takes the opportunity of teaching from it an incidental lesson full of hope and comfort regarding the power of faith and the value of prayer (Matthew 21:21-22).

As soon as on the third day He enters the Temple the conflict begins. It would seem that the interval our Lord had in mercy allowed for calm reflection had been used for no other purpose than to organise a conspiracy for the purpose of entangling Him in His words and so discrediting His authority. We gather this from the carefully framed questions with which He is plied by one party after another. Four successive attacks are recorded in the passage before us: the first by the chief priests and elders of the people demanding His authority; the next by the Pharisees, assisted by the Herodians, who endeavoured by means of the difficulty of the tribute money to embroil Him with the Roman power; this was again immediately followed by a third, in which the prime movers were the Sadducees, armed with what they considered an unanswerable question regarding the life to come; and when that also broke down there was a renewed attack of the Pharisees, who thought to disconcert Him by a perplexing question about the law,

We may not discuss the long sad history of these successive attacks with any fulness, but only glance first at the challenge of our Lord’s authority and how He meets it, and next at the ordeal of questions with which it was followed.

I-THE CHALLENGE. [Matthew 21:23-46 - Matthew 22:1-14]

"By what authority doest Thou these things? And who gave Thee this authority?" The question was fair enough; and if it had been asked in an earnest spirit Jesus would have given them, as always to the honest inquirer, a kind and satisfying answer. It is not, however, as inquirers, but as cavillers, they approach Him. Again and again, at times and in ways innumerable, by fulfilment of prophecy, by His mighty deeds and by His wondrous words, He had given proof of His Divine authority and established His claim to be the true Messiah. It was not therefore because they lacked evidence of His authority, but because they hated it, because they would not have this man to reign over them, that now they question Him. It was obvious that their only object was to entangle Him; accordingly our Lord showed how in the net they were spreading for Him their own feet were caught.

He meets their question with a counter-question, "The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?" The more we examine this question, the more must we admire the consummate wisdom it displays. We see at once how it turns the tables on His critics; but it is far more important to notice how admirably adapted it was to lead them to the answer of their own question, if only they would follow it out. They dared not repudiate the baptism of John; and had not John baptised Jesus, and solemnly borne repeated testimony to His Messiahship? Had he not most emphatically borne that very testimony to a formal deputation sent by themselves? [John 1:19-27] Finally, were not the ministry and testimony of John closely associated in prophecy with that very coming of the Lord to His Temple which gave them so deep offence: "Behold, I will send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts." Our Lord’s counter-question, then, was framed with such exquisite skill as to disappoint their malice, while at the same time it was suited to-guide the earnest inquirer to the truth.

The propounders of the question were not true men, but hypocrites. A negative answer they could not give. An affirmative they would not give. So when they refused to answer, our Lord replied, "Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things."

The Lord of the Temple now assumes the offensive, and directs against His opponents a series of parables which He holds up to them as a triple mirror in which from different points of view they may see themselves in their true character, and as a set of danger signals to warn them of their impending doom. He presents them with such marvellous skill that He makes the Pharisees their own judges, and constrains them to pass sentence on themselves. In the first parable He constrains them to declare their own guilt; in the second, He makes them decree their own punishment; in the third, He warns them of the impending fate of the people they were leading to destruction.

We have said that in these parables Christ assumes the offensive; but this is true only in a very superficial sense. In the deepest sense He spoke them not against the Pharisees, but for them. His object was to carry home to their hearts the conviction of sin, and to impress them with a sense of their danger before it was too late. This was what above all they needed. It was their only hope of salvation. And how admirably suited for His purpose were these three parables! Their application to themselves was plain enough after it was stated, but not beforehand; the effect of which was that they were put in a position to give an impartial verdict on their own conduct. It was the same method so effectively employed by Nathan in bringing conviction to the conscience of David. Had Christ charged the sin of the Pharisees directly home upon them they would have been at once thrown on the defensive, and it would have been impossible to reach their conscience through the entanglements of prejudice and personal interest.

Christ wishes to disentangle them from all that was darkening their moral vision, and He uses the parable as the most effective means. It is a great mistake, then, to suppose that Jesus contented Himself with turning the tables on them, and carrying the war, so to speak, into the enemy’s country. It was with them a war of words, but not with Him. He was seeking to save these poor lost ones. He wished to give them His best for their worst. They had come to entangle Him in His talk. He does His best to disentangle them from the meshes of self-deception. The tone of all three parables is exceptionally severe; but the spirit of them is love.

THE TWO SONS. [Matthew 21:28-32]

The parable of the two sons is exceedingly simple; and the question founded upon it, "Whether of them twain did the will of his father?" admitted of but one answer-an answer which seemed, as it was spoken, to involve only the simplest of all moral judgments; yet how keen the edge of it when once it was disclosed! Observe the emphatic word did, suggesting without saying it, that it made comparatively little difference what they said. {see Matthew 23:3} So far as profession went, the Pharisees were all that could be desired. They were the representatives of religion in the land; their whole attitude corresponded to the answer of the second son: "I go, sir." Yet when John-whom they themselves admitted to be a prophet of the Lord-came to them in the way of righteousness, they set his word aside and refused to obey him. On the other hand, many of those whose lives seemed to say "I will not," when they heard the word of John, repented and began to work the works of God. Thus it came to pass that many of these had entered the kingdom, while the self-complacent Pharisee still remained without.

The words with which the parable is pressed home are severe and trenchant; but they are nevertheless full of gospel grace. They set in the strongest light the welcome fact that the salvation of God is for the chief of sinners, for those who have been rudest and most rebellious in their first answers to the divine appeal; and then, while they condemn so very strongly the self-deceiver, it is not for the purpose of covering him with confusion, but in order to open his eyes and save him from the net in which he has set his feet. Even in that terrible sentence which puts him lower down than open and disgraceful sinners, there is a door left still unlatched for him to enter. "The publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you"; but you may enter after them. If only you, like them, would "afterward" repent-if you would repent of your hypocrisy and insincerity, as they have repented of their rudeness and rebellion-you would be as gladly welcomed as they into the kingdom of God.

THE HUSBANDMEN. [Matthew 21:33-46]

The second parable follows hard on the first, and presses the chief priests and Pharisees so closely that they cannot fail to see in the end that it is themselves they have been constrained to judge and condemn (Matthew 21:45). It is indeed difficult to suppose that they had not even from the beginning some glimpse of the intended application of this parable. The vineyard was a familiar symbol with a definite and well-understood meaning, from which our Lord in His use of it does not depart. The vineyard being the nation, the owner is evidently God; the fruit expected, righteousness; the particulars mentioned (the fence, the press, the tower) implying the completeness of the arrangements made by the owner for securing the expected fruit. The husbandmen are the leaders of the people, those who are responsible for their direction and control. The going to a far country represents the removal of God from their sight; so that they are, as it were, put upon their honour, left to act in the matter of the vineyard according to the prompting of their own hearts. All this is contained in the few lines which make up verse 33 [Matthew 21:33], and forms the groundwork of this great parable. Thus are set forth in a very striking manner the high privileges and grave responsibilities of the leaders of the Jewish people, represented at the time by the chief priests and Pharisees He was then addressing. How are they meeting this responsibility? Let the parable tell.

It is a terrible indictment, showing in the strongest light the guilt of their fathers, and pointing out to them that they are on the verge of a crime far greater still. Again and again have prophets of righteousness come in the name of the Lord, and demanded the fruits of righteousness which were due. How have they been received? "The husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another." So have their fathers acted time after time and still the patience of the owner is not exhausted, nor does He even yet give up all hope of fruit from His favoured vineyard; so, as a last resort, He sends His son, saying, "They will reverence my son."

We can imagine the tone in which the Son of God would speak these words. What a sublime consciousness is implied in His use of them! and how touchingly does He in this incidental way give the best of all answers to the question with which His enemies began! Surely the son, the only and well-beloved son, had the best of all authority to act for the father! In the former parable He had appealed to the recognised authority of John; now He indicates that the highest authority of all is in Himself. If only their hearts had not been wholly shut against the light, how it would have flashed upon them now! They would have taken up the cry of the children, and said, "Hosanna! blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord": and the parable would have served its purpose before it had reached its close. But they are deaf and blind to the things of God; so the awful indictment must proceed to the bitter end.

If there was in the heart of Christ an exalted consciousness of His filial relation to God as He spoke of the sending of the Son, what a pang must have shot through it as He proceeded to depict in such vivid colours the crime they are now all ready to commit, referring successively as He does to the arrest, the handing over to Pilate, and the crucifixion without the gate: "They caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him." How appalling it must have been to Him to speak these words! how appalling it ought to have been to them to hear them! That they did feel the force of the parable is evident from the answer they gave to the question, "What will he do to those husbandmen?" and, as we have said, they must surely have had some glimpses of its application to themselves; but it did not disturb their self-complacency, until our Lord spoke the plain words with which He followed up the parable, referring to that very Psalm from which the children’s cry of "Hosanna" was taken. From it He selects the symbol of the stone rejected by the builders, but by God made the head of the corner, applying it to Himself (the rejected stone) and them (the builders). The reference was most appropriate in itself; and it had the further advantage of being followed by the very word which it would be their salvation now to speak. "Hosanna" is the word which immediately follows the quotation He makes, and it introduces a prayer which, if only they will make their own, all will yet be well with them. The prayer is, "Save now, I beseech Thee, O Lord"; followed by the words, "Blessed be He that cometh in the name of the Lord." May we not assume that our Lord paused after making His quotation to give them the opportunity of adopting it as their own prayer? His whole heart was longing to hear these very words from them. Have we not the proof of it further on, in the sad words with which He at last abandoned the hope: "I say unto you, ye shall not see Me henceforth till ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord"? [Matthew 23:39]

Seeing they will not take the warning of the parable, and that they refuse the opportunity given them while yet under its awe-inspiring influence, to repent and return, He must give sentence against them: "Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." This sentence He follows up by setting before them the dark side of the other symbol: "Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder." They were stumbling on the stone now, and about to he broken upon it; but the danger that lay before them if they persisted in their present unbelief and sin, would be far greater still, when He Whom they now despised and rejected should be at the head of all authority and power.

But all is vain. Steeling their hearts against His faithful words, they are only the more maddened against Him, and fear alone restrains them from beginning now the very crime against which they have just had so terrible a warning: "When they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet."

THE MARRIAGE FEAST. [Matthew 22:1-14]

The manner in which this third parable is introduced leaves room for doubt whether it was spoken in immediate connection with the two preceding. The use of the word "answered" (Matthew 22:1) would rather suggest the idea that some conversation not reported had intervened. But though it does not form part of a continuous discourse with the others, it is so closely connected with them in scope and bearing that it may appropriately be dealt with, as concluding the warning called forth by the first attack of the chief priests and elders. The relation between the three parables will be best seen by observing that the first has to do with their treatment of John; the second and third with their treatment of Himself and His apostles. The second and third differ from each other in this: that while the King’s Son, Who is prominent in both, is regarded in the former as the last and greatest of a long series of heavenly messengers sent to demand of the chosen people the fruits of righteousness, in the latter He is presented, not as demanding righteousness, but as bringing joy. Duty is the leading thought of the second parable, privilege of the third; in the one sin is brought home to Israel’s leaders by setting before them their treatment of the messengers of righteousness, in the other the sin lies in their rejection of the message of grace. Out of this distinction rises another-viz., that while the second parable runs back into the past, upwards along the line of the Old Testament prophets, the third runs down into the future, into the history of the apostolic times. The two together make up a terrible indictment, which might well have roused these slumbering consciences, and led even scribes and Pharisees to shrink from filling up the measure of their iniquities.

A word may be necessary as to the relation of this parable to the similar one recorded in the fourteenth chapter of St. Luke, known as "The parable of the Great Supper." The two have many features in common, but the differences are so great that it is plainly wrong to suppose them to be different versions of the same. It: is astonishing to see what needless difficulties some people make for themselves by the utterly groundless assumption that our Lord would never use the same illustration a second time. Why should He not have spoken of. the gospel as a feast, not twice merely, but fifty times? There would, no doubt, be many variations in His manner of unfolding the thought, according to the circumstances, the audience, the particular object in view at the time; but to suppose that because He had used that illustration in Galilee He must be forbidden from reverting to it in Judea is a specimen of what we may call the insanity of those who are ever on the watch for their favourite "discrepancies." In this case there is not only much variation in detail, but the scope of the two parables is quite different, the former having more the character of a pressing invitation, with only a suggestion of warning at the close; whereas the one before us, while preserving all the grace of the gospel as suggested by the figure of a feast to which men are freely invited, and even heightening its attractiveness inasmuch as it is a wedding feast-the most joyful of all festivities-and a royal one too, yet has throughout the same sad tone of judgment which has been characteristic of all these three parables, and is at once seen to be specially appropriate to the fateful occasion on which they were spoken.

As essentially a New Testament parable, it begins with the familiar formula "The kingdom of heaven is like." The two previous parables had led up to the new dispensation; but: this one begins with it, and is wholly concerned with it. The King’s Son appears now, not as a messenger, but as a bridegroom. It was not the first time that Jesus had spoken of Himself as a bridegroom, or rather as the Bridegroom. The thought was a familiar one in the prophets of the Old Testament, the Bridegroom, be it remembered, being none other than Jehovah Himself. Consider, then, what it meant that Jesus should without hesitation or explanation. speak of Himself as the Bridegroom. And let. us not imagine that He simply took the figure, and applied it to Himself as fulfilling prophecy; let us not fail to realise that He entered fully into its tender meaning. When we think of the circumstances in which this parable was spoken we have here a most pathetic glimpse into the sanctuary of our Saviour’s loving heart. Let us. try with reverent sympathy to enter into the feeling of the King’s Son, come from heaven to seek humanity for His bride, to woo and to win her from the cruel bondage of sin and death, to take her into union with Himself, so that she may share with Him the liberty and wealth, the purity and joy, the glory and the hope of the heavenly kingdom! The King "made a marriage for His Son"-where is the bride? what response is she making to the Bridegroom’s suit? A marriage for His Son! On Calvary?

It must have been very hard for Him to go on; but He will keep down the rising tide of emotion, that He may set before this people and before all people another attractive picture of the kingdom of heaven. He will give even these despisers of the heavenly grace another opportunity to reconsider their position. So He tells of the invitations sent out first to "them that were bidden"-i.e., to the chosen people who had been especially invited from the earliest times, and to whom, when the fulness of the time had come, the call was first addressed. "And they would not come." There is no reference to the aggravations which had found place in the former parable. [Matthew 21:39] These were connected not so much with the offer of grace, which is the main purport of this parable, as with the demand for fruit, which was the leading thought of the one before. It was enough, then, in describing how they dealt with the invitation, to say, "They would not come"; and, indeed, this refusal hurt Him far more than their buffets and their blows. When He is buffeted He is silent, sheds no tears, utters no wail; His tears and lamentation are reserved for them: "How often would I, have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" "They would not come."

But the love of the King and of His Son is not yet exhausted. A second invitation is sent, with greater urgency than before, and with fuller representations of the great preparations which had been made for the entertainment of the guests: "Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage." As the first invitation was that which had been already given and which they were now rejecting, the second refers to that fuller proclamation of the gospel which was yet to be made after the work of the Bride-groom-Redeemer should be finished when it could be said, as not before: "All things are ready."

In the account which follows, therefore, there is a foreshadowing of the treatment the apostles would afterwards receive. Many, indeed, were converted by their word, and took their places at the feast; but the people as a whole "made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: and the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them." What was the consequence? Jerusalem, rejecting the gospel of the kingdom, even when it was "preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven," must be destroyed; and new guests must be sought among the nations that up till now had no especial invitation to the feast. This prophetic warning was conveyed in terms of the parable; yet there is a touch in it which shows how strongly the Saviour’s mind was running on the sad future of which the parable was but a picture: "When the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city." Why "city"? There had been no mention of a city in the parable. True; but Jerusalem was in the Saviour’s heart, and all the pathos of His lament over it is in that little word. "Their city" too, observe, -reminding us of "your house" at the close of this sad day. [Matthew 23:38] In the same way the calling of the Gentiles is most skilfully brought within the scope of the parable, by the use of the peculiar word translated in the Revised Version-"the partings of the highways," which seems to suggest the thought of the servants leaving the city precincts and going out in all directions along the main trunk roads to "the partings of the highways," to carry the gospel to all without distinction, wherever could be found an ear of man to listen, or a human heart to welcome the King’s grace and the Bridegroom’s love. Thus, after all, the wedding was to be furnished with guests.

The parable, as we have seen, is one of grace; but righteousness too must find a place in it. The demand for fruits of righteousness is no less rigid in the new dispensation than it had been in the old. To make this clear and strong the parable of the Feast is followed by the pendant of the Wedding Garment.

There are two ways in which the heavenly marriage feast may be despised: first, by those who will not come at all; next, and no less, by those who try to snatch the wedding joy without the bridal purity. The same leading thought or motive is recognisable here as in the parable of the two sons. The man without the wedding garment corresponds to the son who said "I go, sir," and went not, while those who refuse altogether correspond to the son who answered "I will not." By bearing this in mind we can understand, what to many has been a serious difficulty-how it is that the punishment meted out to the offender in this second parable is so terribly severe. If we simply think of the parable itself, it does seem an extraordinary thing that so slight an offence as coming to a wedding feast without the regulation dress should meet with such an awful doom; but when we consider whom this man represents we can see the very best of reasons for it. Hypocrisy was his crime, than which there is nothing more utterly hateful in the sight of Him Who desireth truth in the inward parts. It is true that the representation does not at first seem to set the sin in so very strong a light; but when we think of it, we see that there was no other way in which it could be brought within the scope of this parable. It is worthy of notice, moreover, that the distinction between the intruder and the others is not observed till the king himself enters, which indicates that the difference between him and the others was no outward distinction, that the garment referred to is the invisible garment of-righteousness. To the common eye he looked like all the rest; but when the all-searching Eye is on the company he is at once detected and exposed. He is really worse than those who would not come at all. They were honest sinners; he was a hypocrite-at the feast with mouth and hand and eye, but not of it, for his spirit is not robed in white: he is the black sheep in the fold; a despiser within, he is worse than the despisers without.

Even to him, indeed, the king has a kindly feeling. He calls him "Friend," and gives him yet the opportunity to repent and cry for mercy. But he is speechless. False to the core, he has no rallying point within to fall back upon. All is confusion and despair. He cannot even pray. Nothing remains but to pronounce his final doom (Matthew 22:13).

The words with which the parable closes (Matthew 22:14) are sad and solemn. They have occasioned difficulty to some, who have supposed they were meant to teach that the number of the saved will be small. Their difficulty, like so many others, has been due to forgetfulness of the circumstances under which the words were spoken, and the strong emotion of which they were the expression. Jesus is looking back over the time since He began to spread the gospel feast, and thinking how many have been invited, and how few have come! And even among those who have seemed to come there are hypocrites! One He specially would have in mind as He spoke of the man without the wedding garment; for though we take him to be the type of a class, we can scarcely think that our Lord could fail to let His sad thoughts rest on Judas as He described that man. Taking all this into consideration we can well understand how at that time He should conclude His parable with the lamentation: "Many are called, but few chosen." It did not follow that it was a truth for all time and for eternity. It was true for the time included in the scope of the parable. It was most sadly true of the Jewish nation then, and in the times which followed on immediately; but the day was coming, before all was done, when the heavenly Bridegroom, according to the sure word of prophecy, should "see of the travail of His soul, and be satisfied." No creed article, therefore, have we here, but a cry from the sore heart of the heavenly Bridegroom, in the day of His sorrows, in the pain of unrequited love.

II-THE ORDEAL OF QUESTIONS. [Matthew 22:15-46]

The open challenge has failed; but more subtle weapons may succeed. The Pharisees have found it of no avail to confront their enemy; but they may still be able to entangle Him. They will at all events try. They will spring upon Him some hard questions, of such a kind that, answering on the spur of the moment, He will be sure to compromise Himself.

1. The first shall be one of those semi-political semi-religious questions on which feeling is running high-the lawfulness or unlawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar. The old Pharisees who had challenged His authority keep in the background, that the sinister purpose of the question may not appear; but they are represented by some of their disciples who, coming fresh upon the scene and addressing Jesus m terms of respect and appreciation, may readily pass for guileless inquirers. They were accompanied by some Herodians, whose divergence of view on the point made it all the more natural that they should join with Pharisees in asking the question; for it might fairly be considered that they had been disputing with one another in regard to it, and had concluded to submit the question to His decision as to one who would be sure to know the truth and fearless to tell it. So together they come with the request: "Master, we know that Thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest Thou for any man: for Thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest Thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?"

But they cannot impose upon Him: "Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye Me, ye hypocrites?" Having thus unmasked them, without a moment’s hesitation He answers them. They had expected a "yes" or a "no"-a "yes" which would have set the people against Him, or better still a "no" which would have put Him at the mercy of the government. But, avoiding Scylla on the one hand, and Charybdis on the other, He makes straight for His goal by asking for a piece of coin and calling attention to Caesar’s stamp upon it. Those who use Caesar’s coin should not refuse to pay Caesar’s tribute; but, while the relation which with their own acquiescence they sustain to the Roman emperor implied corresponding obligations in the sphere it covered, this did not at all interfere with what is due to the King of kings and Lord of lords, in Whose image we all are made, and Whose superscription every one of us bears: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s." Thus He not only avoids the net they had spread for Him, and gives them the very best answer to their question, but, in doing so, He lays down a great principle of far-reaching application and permanent value respecting the difficult and much-to-be-vexed question as to the relations between Church and State. "O answer full of miracle!" as one had said. No wonder that "when they had heard these words they marvelled, and left Him, and went their way."

2. Next come forward certain Sadducees. That the Pharisees had an understanding with them also seems likely from what is said both in ver. 15 (Matthew 22:15), which seems a general introduction to the series of questions, and in ver. 34 (Matthew 22:34), from which it would appear that they were somewhere out of sight, waiting to hear the result of this new attack. Though the alliance seems a strange one, it is not the first time that common hostility to the Christ of God has drawn together the two great rival parties. {see Matthew 16:1} If we are right in supposing them to be in combination now, it is a remarkable illustration of the deep hostility of the Pharisees that they should not only combine with the Sadducees against Him, as they had done before, but that they should look with complacency on their using against Him a weapon which threatened one of their own doctrines. For the object of the attack was to cast ridicule on the doctrine of the resurrection, which assuredly the Pharisees did not deny.

The difficulty they raise is of the same kind as those which are painfully familiar in these days, when men of coarse minds and fleshly imaginations show by their crude objections their incapacity even to think on spiritual themes. The case they supposed was one they knew He could not find fault with so far as this world was concerned, for everything was done in accordance with the letter of the law of Moses, the inference being that whatever confusion there was in it must belong to what they would call His figment of the resurrection: "In the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her."

It is worthy of note that our Lord’s-answer is much less stern than in the former case. These men were not hypocrites. They were scornful, perhaps flippant; but they were not intentionally dishonest. The difficulty they felt was due to the coarseness of their minds, but it was a real difficulty to them. Our Lord accordingly gives them a kindly answer, not denouncing them, but calmly showing them where they are wrong: "Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God."

Ye know not the power of God, or ye would not suppose that the life to come, would be a mere repetition of the life that now is, with all its fleshly conditions the same as now. That there is continuity of life is of course implied in the very idea of resurrection, but true life resides not in the flesh, but in the spirit, and therefore the continuity will be a spiritual continuity; and the power of God will effect such changes on the body itself that it will rise out of its fleshly condition into a state of being like that of the angels of God. The thought is the same as that which was afterwards expanded by the apostle Paul in such passages as Romans 8:5-11, 1 Corinthians 15:35-54.

Ye know not the Scriptures, or you would find in the writings of Moses from which you quote, and to which you attach supreme importance, evidence enough of the great doctrine you deny. "Have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?" Here, again, Jesus not only answers the Sadducees, but puts the great and all-important doctrine of the life to come and the resurrection of the body on its deepest foundation. There are those who have expressed astonishment that He did not quote from some of the later prophets, where He could have found passages much clearer and more to the point: but not only was it desirable that, as they had based their question on Moses, He should give His answer from the same source; but in doing so He has put the great truth on a permanent and universal basis; for the argument rests not on the authority of Moses, nor, as some have supposed, upon the present tense "I am," but on the relation between God and His people. The thought is that such a relation between mortal man and the eternal God as is implied in the declaration "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" is itself a guarantee of immortality. Not for the spirit only, for it is not as spirits merely, but as men that we are taken into relation to the living God; and that relation, being of God, must share His immortality: "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." The thought is put in a very striking way in a well-known passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "But now they the patriarchs desire a better country, that is, a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city."

Our Lord’s answer suggests the best way of assuring ourselves of this glorious hope. Let God be real to us, and life and immortality will be real too. If we would escape the doubts of old Sadducee and new Agnostic, we must be much with God, and strengthen more and more the ties which bind us to Him.

3. The next attempt of the Pharisees is on an entirely new line. They have found that they cannot impose upon Him by sending pretended inquirers to question Him. But they have managed to lay their hands on a real inquirer now-one of themselves, a student of the law, who is exercised on a question much discussed, arid to which very different answers are given; they will suggest to him to carry his question to Jesus and see what He will say to it. That this was the real state of the case appears from the fuller account in St. Mark’s Gospel. When, then, St. Matthew speaks of him as asking Jesus a question, "tempting Him," we are not to impute the same sinister motives as actuated those who sent him. He also was in a certain sense tempting Jesus-i.e., putting Him to the test, but with no sinister motive, with a real desire to find out the truth, and probably also to find out if this Jesus was one who could really help an inquirer after truth. In this spirit, then, he asks the question, "Which is the great commandment in the law?"

The answer our Lord immediately gives is now so familiar that it is difficult to realise how great a thing it was to give it for the first time. True, He takes it from the Scriptures; but think what command of the Scriptures is involved in this prompt reply. The passages quoted lie far apart-the one in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, the other in the nineteenth of Leviticus in quite an obscure corner; and nowhere are they spoken of as the first and second commandments, nor indeed were they regarded as commandments in the usually understood sense of the word. When we consider all this we recognise what from one point of view might be called a miracle of genius, and from another a flash of inspiration, in the instantaneous selection of these two passages, and bringing them together so as to furnish a summary of the law and the prophets beyond all praise which the veriest unbeliever, if only he have a mind to appreciate that which is excellent, must recognise as worthy of being written in letters of light. That one short answer to a sudden question-asked indeed by a true man, but really sprung upon Him by His enemies who were watching for His halting-is of more value in morals than all the writings of all the ethical philosophers, from Socrates to Herbert Spencer.

It is now time to question the questioners. The opportunity is most favourable. They are gathered together to hear what He will say to their last attempt to entangle Him. Once more He has not only met the difficulty, but has done so in such a way as to make the truth on the subject in dispute shine with the very light of heaven. There could not, then, be a better opportunity of turning their thoughts in a direction which might lead them, if possible in spite of themselves, into the light of God.

The question Jesus asks (Matthew 22:41-45) is undoubtedly a puzzling one for them; but it is no mere Scripture conundrum. The difficulty in which it lands them is one which, if only they would honestly face it, would be the means of removing the veil from their eyes, and leading them, ere it is too late, to welcome the Son of David come in the name of the Lord to save them. They fully accepted the psalm to which He referred as a psalm of David concerning the. Messiah. If, then, they would honestly read that psalm they would see that the Messiah when He comes must be, not a mere earthly monarch, as David was, but a heavenly monarch, one who should sit on the throne of God and bring into subjection the enemies of the kingdom of heaven. If only they would take their ideas of the Christ from the Scriptures which were their boast, they could not fail to see Him standing now before them. For we must remember that they had not only the words He spoke to guide them. They had before them the Messiah Himself, with the light of heaven in His eye, with the love of God in His face; and had they had any love for the light, they would have recognised Him then-they would have seen in Him, whom they had often heard of as David’s Son, the Lord of David, and therefore the Lord of the Temple, and the heavenly King of Israel. But they love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil: therefore their hearts remain unchanged, the eyes of their spirit unopened; they are only abashed and silenced: "No man was able to answer Him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask Him any more questions."

III-THE HOUSE LEFT DESOLATE. [Matthew 23:1-39]

The day of grace is over for the leaders of the people; but for the people themselves there may still be hope; so the Lord of the Temple turns to "the multitude," the general throng of worshippers, mingled with whom were several of His own disciples, and solemnly warns them against their spiritual guides. There is every reason to suppose that many of the scribes and Pharisees were within hearing; for when He has finished what He has to say to the people, He turns round and addresses them directly in that series of terrible denunciations which follow (Matthew 13:1-58, seq.).

His warning is couched in such a way as not in the least degree to weaken their respect for Moses, or for the sacred Scriptures, the exposition of which was the duty of their spiritual guides. He separates sharply between the office and the men who hold it. Had they been true to the position they occupied and the high duties they had been called to discharge, they would have been worthy of all honour; but they are false men: "they say, and do not." Not only so, but they do positive evil, making that grievous for the people which ought to be a delight; and when they do or seem to do the right thing, it is some petty observance, which they exaggerate for the sake of vain display, while their hearts are set on personal pre-eminence. Such are the leading thoughts set forth with great vigour of language and force of illustration, and not without a touch of keen and delicate irony in our Lord’s remarkable indictment of the scribes and Pharisees recorded by our Evangelist (Matthew 23:2-7).

Then follows one of those passages of profound significance and far-reaching application which, while admirably suiting the immediate occasions on which they were spoken, prove to be a treasury of truth for the ages to come. At first sight it strikes us as simply an exhortation to cultivate a disposition the reverse of that of the scribes and Pharisees. He has been drawing their portrait; now He says, Be ye not like unto them, but unlike in every respect. But in saying this He succeeds in laying down great principles for the future guidance of His Church, the remembrance of which would have averted most of the evils which in the course of its history have weakened its power, hindered its progress, and marred its witness to the truth. With one stroke He abolishes all claims of men to intervene between the soul and God. "One is your Teacher" (R.V), "One is your Father," "One is your Master." Who is that One? He does not in so many words claim the position for Himself; but it is throughout implied, and at the end almost expressed; for, while in speaking of the Teacher and the Father He says nothing to indicate who the One is, when He comes to the Master He adds "even the Christ" (R.V). Standing thus at the end of all, these words suggest that the office of the Christ was to bring God within reach of every soul, so that without any intervention of scribe or Pharisee, priest or pope, each one could go direct to Him for instruction (Teacher), for loving recognition (Father), for authoritative guidance and control (Master).

We must remember, too, that He was speaking to His disciples as well as to the multitude, and to them these words would be full of meaning. When He said, "One is your Teacher," of whom could they possibly think but of Him-self? When He said, "One is your Father," they would recall such utterances as "I and My Father are One," and have suggested to them the truth which was so very soon to be plainly stated: "He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father." It is probable, then, that even before He reached the end, and added the words "even the Christ," the minds of His disciples at least had anticipated Him. Thus we find in these remarkable words an implicit claim on the part of Christ to be the sole Prophet, Priest, and King of His people: their sole Prophet, to teach them by the enlightening and sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit; their sole Priest, to open up the way of access to a reconciled Father in heaven; their sole King, alone entitled to be the Lord of their conscience and their heart.

If only the Christian Church had been true to all this, how different would her history have been! Then the Word of God would have been, throughout, the only and sufficient rule of faith, and the Holy Spirit dealing directly with the spirits of men its sole authoritative interpreter. Then would there have been no usurping priesthood to stand between the soul of men and their Father in heaven, to bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne and lay them upon men’s shoulders, to multiply forms and observances and complicate what should have been simplest of all-the direct way to the Father in heaven, through Christ the great Priest of humanity. Then would there have been no lordship over men’s consciences, no ecclesiastical usurpation, no spiritual tyranny, no inquisition, no persecution for conscience’ sake. How inexcusable has it all been! It would seem as if pains had been taken deliberately to violate not only the spirit, but the very letter of the Saviour’s words, as, e.g., in the one fact that, while it is expressly written "Call no man your father upon the earth," the Church of Rome has actually succeeded age after age in getting the millions under its usurped spiritual control, to give a man that very title; for the word "pope" is the very word which our Lord so expressly forbids. But all clerical assumption of priestly power is just as certainly and as clearly in violation of this great charter of our spiritual liberties.

"And all ye are brethren." This is the second commandment of the true canon law, like unto the first and springing naturally out of it, as naturally as the love of neighbour springs out of love to God. As soon as the time shall come when all Christians shall own allegiance alike, full and undivided, to the one Lord of mind and heart and conscience, then will there be an end to all ecclesiastical exclusiveness; then shall we see realised and manifested to the world the brotherhood in Christ of all believers.

Turning once again to the scribes and Pharisees, the Lord of the Temple denounces them in words perhaps the most terrible in the whole Bible. It is a very thunderstorm of indignation, with flash after flash of scorn, peal after peal of woe. It is "the burden of the Lord," "the wrath of the Lamb." Is this at all inconsistent with the meekness and lowliness of His heart, the love and tenderness of His character? Certainly not! Love is no love at all, unless it be capable of indignation against wrong. Besides, it is no personal wrongs which stir the heart of Jesus, "Who when He was reviled, reviled not again, when He suffered, He threatened not"; but the wrong these hypocrites are doing to the poor sheep they are leading all astray. The occasion absolutely demanded a tempest of indignation. There is this further to be considered, that the Lord Jesus, as Revealer of God, must display His justice as well as His mercy, His wrath as well as His love.

This passage, terrible as it is, commends itself to all that-is noblest and best in us. Who is there who does not thank God for this scathing denunciation of that most hateful of all abominations-hypocrisy? See how He brands it in every sentence-"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" - how piece by piece He shows their miserable life to be a lie. Hypocrites! because you profess to sit in Moses’ seat, to have the key of knowledge, to know the way of life yourselves, and show it to others; and all this profession is a lie (Matthew 23:13). Hypocrites! because your pretended charity is a lie, aggravated by the forms of devotion with which it is masked, while the essence of it is most sordid avarice (Matthew 23:14). Hypocrites! because your zeal for God is a lie, being really a zeal for the devil, your converts being perverts worse than yourselves (Matthew 23:15). Hypocrites! because your morality is a lie, making the law of God of none effect by your miserable casuistry (Matthew 23:16-22). Hypocrites! because your devotion is a lie, consisting merely in punctilious attention to the minutest forms, while the weighty matters of the law you set aside, like those who "strain out the gnat and swallow the camel" (Matthew 23:23-24, R.V). Hypocrites! because your whole demeanour is a lie, all fair without like a whited sepulchre, while within ye are "full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:25-28). Hypocrites! because your pretended reverence for the prophets is a lie, for had you lived in the days of your fathers you would have done as they did, as is plain from the way in which you are acting now; for you build the tombs of the dead prophets and put to death the living ones (Matthew 23:29-31).

The sin branded, sentence follows: "Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers." Since you will not be saved, there is nothing for it but that you go on in sin to the bitter end: serpents, "for ever hissing at the heels of the holy," a brood of vipers, with no hope now of escaping the judgment of Gehenna!

As in the Sermon on the Mount (see page 722) so here, when He speaks as Judge He cannot conceal His personal majesty. All throughout He has been speaking with authority, but has, as usual, avoided the obtrusion of His personal prerogative. Even in saying "One is your Master, even the Christ," it is not at all the same as if He had said, even Myself. All it necessarily conveyed was, "One is your master, even the Messiah," whoever he may be. But now He speaks as from His judgment throne. He is no longer thinking of Himself as one of the prophets, or even as the King’s Son, but as Lord of all; so He says: "Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth," from Abel to Zacharias. And, again, "Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation."

But judgment is His strange work. He has been compelled by the fire of His holiness to break forth into this tempest of indignation against the hypocrites, and to pronounce upon them the long-deferred sentence of condemnation and wrath. But there has been a wail in all His woes. His nature and His name is love, and it must have been a terrible strain on Him to keep up the foreign tone so long. "The wrath of the Lamb" is a necessary but not a natural combination. We may not wonder, then, though well we may adore, when after the tension of these woes, His heart is melted into tenderness as He mourns over the fate which all His love may not avert: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" Again, observe the lofty consciousness shining out in the little pronoun "I." He is a young man of little more than thirty; but His personal consciousness runs back through all the ages of the past, through all the times of the killing of the prophets and stoning of the messengers of God, from Abel on to Zachariah: and not only so, but this Son of Israel speaks in the most natural way as the brooding mother of them all through all their generations-what wonders, not of beauty alone, and of exquisite pathos, but of conscious majesty in that immortal lamentation!

Our Saviour’s public ministry is closed. He has yet many things to say to His disciples-a private ministry of love to fulfil ere He leave the world and go to the Father; but His public ministry is ended now. Commenced with beatitudes, it ends with woes, because the blessings offered in the beatitudes have been rudely rejected and trampled underfoot. And now the Lord of the Temple is about to leave it-to leave it to its fate, to leave it as He counselled His disciples to leave any city or house that refused to receive them: shaking the dust off His feet; and in doing so, as He turns from the astonished hierarchs, He utters these solemn words, which close the time of their merciful visitation and leave them to "eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices"; "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate." Your house. It was Mine. I was its glory, and would have been its defence; but when I came unto My own, Mine own received Me not; and now it is no longer Mine but yours, and therefore desolate. Desolate; and therefore defenceless, a ready prey for the Roman eagles when they swoop on the defenceless brood. "For I say unto you, Ye shall not see Me henceforth till"-till when? Is there still a door of hope? There is, even for scribes and Pharisees-hypocrites; the door ever open here on earth: "Him that cometh unto Me, I will in nowise cast out." The door is closed upon them for ever as leaders of the people; as temple authorities they can never be recognised again, -their house is left to them desolate, but for themselves there is still this door of hope; these awful woes therefore are not a final sentence, but a long, loud, last call to enter ere it be too late. And as if to show, after all the wrath of His terrible denunciation, that judgment is "His strange work" and that He "delighteth in mercy," He points in closing to that still open door, and says, "Ye shall not See Me henceforth, till ye shall say, ‘Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord."’

Why did they not say it then? Why did they not entreat Him to remain? But they did not. So "Jesus went out, and departed from the Temple." [Matthew 14:1] and though eighteen hundred years have rolled away since then, the time has not yet come when as a people they have said, "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord"; accordingly their house is still desolate, and they are "scattered and peeled"-chickens that will not nestle under the mother’s wing.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/matthew-23.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, December 8th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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