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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament
Matthew 23

 

 

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Verse 1

The Scribes and Pharisees, so often mentioned in the gospels, were the great doctors and spiritual guides amongst the Jews. Scribe is the name of an office; Pharisee the name of a sect. They were both learned in the law, and teachers of the law of Moses.

Our blessed Saviour, in the former part of his gospel, held many conferences with these men, and used the most persuasive argument to convince them both of their errors and wickedness. But their obstinancy and malice being such, that neither our Saviour's ministry nor miracles could convince them: hereupon our Lord denounces, in this chapter, eight several woes against them.

But first he charitably warns his disciples and the man, saying, The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat; that is, they teach and expound the law of Moses, which they were wont to do sitting, Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.

That is, "What they teach you consonant to the word of God, and agreeable to the writings of Moses and the prophets: if they go not out of Moses' chair into their own unwritten traditions, follow their doctrine, and obey their precepts; but do not after their works, follow not their example, take heed of their pride and hypocrisy, of their ambition and vain-glory. Obey their doctrine wherein it is sound; but follow not their example wherein it is corrupt."

Learn, 1. That the personal miscarriages of ministers, must by no means beget a disesteem of their office and ministry. Charity must teach us to distinguish betwixt the calling and the crime.

2. That the infallible truths of God, recommended to us by a vicious teacher, ought to be entertained and obeyed by us, without either scruple or prejudice. What the Pharisees themselves, says Christ, bid you observe, that observe and do.

3. That no people are obliged to follow their teacher's pattern and example any farther than it is agreeable to scripture-rule, and conformable to Christ's example: Do not after their works, who say, and do not.


Verse 4

These heavy burdens which the Pharisees laid upon the people's shoulders, were counsels and directions, rules and canons, austerities and severities, which the Pharisees introduced and imposed upon their hearers, but would not undergo the least part of those severities themselves. If we do not follow our own counsels, we must not think to oblige others what he is unwilling to perform himself. It is very sinful to give that counsel to others, which we refuse to take ourselves.


Verse 5

In these words our blessed Saviour admonishes his disciples and the multitude to take heed of imitating the Pharisees in their ostentation and hypocrisy, in their ambition and vain-glory; and he instances, in three particulars, wherein they expressed it:

1. All their works, says Christ, they do to be seen of men. To do good works that men may see them, is a duty; but to do all or any of our works to be seen of men, is hypocrisy.

2. They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments. These phylacteries were certain scrolls and labels of parchment, in which were written the ten commandments, and some sections of the law; these they tied to their foreheads, and pinned upon their left sleeve, that the law of God might be continually before their eyes, and perpetually in their remembrance. This ceremony they judged God prescribed them, Thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes Deuteronomy 6:8. By enlarging the borders of their garments, our Saviour points at the fringes and blue ribbons which the Jews did wear upon their garments, in obedience to the command, wear upon their garments, Numbers 15:37-38. As the threads in those fringes and ribbons close woven together, did represent the connection, complication, and inseparable conjunction of God's commandments among themselves; so the wearing of these fringes was to put them in mind of the law of God, that which way soever they turned their eyes, they might meet with some pious admonition to keep the law of God. Now the vain-glorious Pharisees, that they might be thought more mindful of the law of God than other men, did make their phylacteries broader, and their fringes thicker and longer than other men.

3. They fondly affected and ambitiously contended for the first and uppermost seats in all conventions, as at feast, and in the synagogues, and loved to have titles of honour, such as rabbi, master, father, and doctor, put upon them. Now that which our Saviour condemns, is the Pharisees fond affection of these little things, and unduly seeking their own honour and glory. It was not their taking, but their loving, the uppermost rooms at feasts, that Christ condemns.

From the whole, Note, 1. That hypocrites are fond of affecting ceremonial observations and outward parts of commanded duties, neglecting the substance of religion itself. These Pharisees were carrying a library of God's law on their clothes, scarce a letter of it in their hearts. They wore the law of God, as frontlets before their eyes, but not engraven on the tables of their hearts.

Observe, 2. That the nature of hypocrisy is to study more to seem religious in the sight of men, than to be religious indeed before God. The hypocrite is the world's saint, and not God's: he courts the world's acceptation more than the divine favour and approbation.


Verse 8

The word rabbi signifies a doctor or teacher, eminent, endowed with variety of knowledge, whose place it was to sit in an exalted chair, or chief seat in the synagogue; their disciples and scholars sat upon lower forms at the feet of their teachers. Our Saviour doth not simply condemn the giving or receiving of these titles, of rabbi, master, and father; but the things forbidden, are,

1. A vain-glorious affectation of such titles as these, the ambitious seeking of them, and glorying in them.

2. He condemns that authority and dominion over the consciences of men, which the pharisaical doctors had usurped; telling the people that they ought to believe all their doctrine, and practice all their injunctions, as the commands of the living God. They did in effect assume infallibility to themselves.

Learn, hence, 1. That there have been in all ages of the church a sort of teachers, who, have usurped authority and dominion over the faith and conscience of men.

2. That Christians ought not to sumbit their faith and conscience in matters of religion to any human authority whatsoever, nor give up themselves absolutely to the conduct of any man's judgment or opinion in matters of faith.

3. That Christ alone, the great prophet and infallible teacher of his church, is the only person to whose doctrine and precepts we owe absolute faith and obedience: One is your Master, even Christ.

4. As God will abase, and men will despise the proud, especially ministers who are such; so shall God exalt, and men will honour, them that stoop to the meanest services for the good of souls; Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abused. This was a sentence often used by our Saviour, and was a frequent saying among the Jews.


Verse 13

From the thirteenth verse to the thirtieth, the Pharisees have eight several woes denounced against them by our Saviour; the first is, for perverting the scriptures, and keeping the true sense and knowledge of them from the people. This St. Matthew calls the shutting up of the kingdom of heaven against men. St. Luke calls it, A taking away the key of knowledge from men, which is an allusion to a known custom among the Jews in admission of their doctors; for those that had authority given them to interpret the law and the Prophets, were solemnly admitted into that office, by delivering to them a key and a table-book. So that by the key of knowledge, is meant the interpretation and understanding of the scriptures; and by taking away the key of knowledge is signified, first, that they arrogated to themselves alone the understanding of the scriptures.

Secondly, That they kept the true knowledge of the scriptures from the people, especially the prophecies which concerned the Messias, and so they hindered men from embracing our Saviour's doctrine, who were otherwise well enough disposed for it.

Learn, hence, 1. That the knowledge of the holy scriptures is absolutely and indispensibly necessary in order to salvation. This our Saviour calls the key, which lets men into the kingdom of heaven.

Learn, 2. That great is the guilt, and inexcusable the fault, of those who deprive the people of the knowledge of the scriptures. They shut the kingdom of heaven against men, and do what in them lies to hinder their eternal salvation. Men may miscarry with their knowledge, but they are sure to perish for want of knowledge.


Verse 14

The second woe denounced against the Pharisees, is for their gross hypocrisy, in colouring over their covetousness with a pretence of religion; making long prayers in the temple and synagogues for widows, and thereupon persuading them to give bountifully to the corban, or the common treasure of the temple, some part of which was employed for their maintenance.

Learn, 1. It is no new thing for designing hypocrites to cover the foulest transgessions with the cloak of religion. The Pharisees make long prayers a cover of their covetousness.

2. That to make use of religion in policy for worldly advantage sake, is the way to be damned with a vengeance for religion sake: Woe unto you Scribes &c.


Verse 15

The next woe denounced is for their false-ended zeal and earnestness in proselyting heathens to the Jewish religion; not with a pious intention to save them, but to serve themselves upon them, to have their consciences and purses under their power: and when you have poisoned them, says our Saviour, by your corrupt doctrine, and hardened them in a course of sin by your wicked example, they are more the children of hell than before you practised upon them.

Learn, 1. Great is the diligence and indefatigable the industry which false teachers use in gaining proselytes to their opinion and party: They compass sea and land to make one proselyte.

2. That such as are proselyted to error, are oftentimes faster riveted in their false opinions than their teachers themselves: They are made two-fold more the children of hell than yourselves.


Verse 16

The fourth woe which our Saviour denounceth against Pharisees is for the false and erroneous doctrine concerning oaths.

1. They taught men to swear by the creatures.

2. They taught that some oaths made by the creatures were obligatory and binding, others not; particularly they affirmed, that if a man swear by the temple, or the altar, it was nothing; that is, he was not bound by such an oath: but if a man swear by the gold of the temple and the altar; that is, by the gifts offered to the corban, or treasury of the temple, and by the sacrifices and oblations on the altar; such an oath they affirmed was binding, because it was for their profit that the gifts on the altar, and the gold brought into the treasury, should be accounted most holy, seeing that would encourage the people to be more ready to contribute and offer.

This horrid hypocrisy and covetousness our blessed Saviour here sharply reproves, and shews, that oaths made by the creatures, though unlawful, yet being once made, did oblige, as if the parties had sworn by God himself. For he that swears by the temple, swears by it and him that dwelleth therein.

Learn, 1. That swearing by the creatures is no new sin, but as old as the Pharisees.

2. That swearing by the creatures is a great profanation of the name of God, and a mighty provocation to him.

3. That is notwithstanding, if the matter of such oaths be not sinful, they are obligatory and binding. He that sweareth by the creatures, sweareth indeed by the God of the creatures: for, says our Saviour, he that sweareth by the heavens, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.


Verse 23

The next woe denounced is for the Pharisees ostentation of a precise keeping of the law in smaller matters, and neglecting weightier duties: They pay tythe of mint, anise, and cummin; but at the omitted judgment, mercy and faith; that is, just dealing with men, charity towards the poor, and faithfulness in their promises and covenants one with another. This, says our Saviour, is to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. A proverbial expression, intimating that some persons pretend great niceness and scrupulosity about small matters, and none or but little about duties of the greatest moment.

Hence, Note, 1. That hypocrites lay the greatest stress upon the least matters in religion, and place holiness most in those things where God places it least. Ye tythe mint, &c. but neglect the weightier matters of the law. This is indeed the bane of all religion and true piety, to prefer ritual and human institutions before divine commands, and the practice of natural religion. Thus to do, is a certain sign of gross hypocrisy.

Observe, 2. That although some duties are of greater moment than others, yet a good man will omit none, but perform every duty the least as well as the greatest, in obedience to the command of God. These things ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.


Verse 25

Our Saviour doth not here condemn their legal, or traditional washing of pots of cups, or any external decency and cleanliness in conversation; but his design is to shew them the vanity of outward purity, without inward sancity, and to convince them of the necessity of cleansing the heart, in order to the purifying and reforming the life: plainly intimating,

1. That men's lives could no be so bad, if their hearts were not worse, all the obliquity fo their lives proceeding from the impurity of their hearts and natures.

2. That an holy heart will be accompanied with an holy life. A man may be outwardly pure, and yet inwardly filthy; but he that has a pure heart will live a pure and holy life. Cleanse that which is within the cup, that the outside may be clean also.


Verse 27

Here we have a woe denounced against the Pharisees for cheating and deceiving the people with an outward shew, and external appearance of piety and religion: their lives were seemingly very religious but their hearts were full of hypocrisy and all impurity, like sepulchres painted without, and full of rottenness within.

Whence, Learn, That the great design of hypocrisy is to cheat the world with a vain and empty shew of piety. The ambition of the hypocrite is to be thought good, not to be so; he is the world's saint, not God's.


Verse 29

This is the eighth woe denounced by our blessed Saviour against the Pharisees for their grand hypocrisy, in pretending great honour to the saints departed, building their tombs, and garnishing their sepulchres, and declaring against their fathers impiety, That had they lived in their days, they would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

Now their hypocrisy appeared in three particulars.

1. In that they continued in their own wickedness, and yet recommended the saints departed; they magnify the saints, but multiply their sins, and instead of imitating their virtues, they content themselves with garnishing their sepulchres.

2. In professing great respect to the dead saints, and at the same time persecuting the living. Palpable hypocrisy! And yet as gross as it is, it prevails to this day. The church of Rome, who magnify martyrs, and canonize saints departed, have yet added to their numbers, by shedding of their blood.

3. In taking false measures of their love to the saints departed, from their building their tombs, and garnishing their sepulchres; whereas the best evidence of our love unto them is the imitating their virtues, and cherishing their followers. It is gross hypocisy to pay respect to the relics of saints, and veneration to their images; and at the same time to persecute and afflict their followers.

Learn hence, 1. That the world has all along loved the dead saints better than living ones. Mortui non mordent. The dead saints example, how bright soever, is not so scorching and troublesome at a distance; and he himself no longer stands in other men's light; whereas the living saints example is a cutting reproof to sin and vice.

Observe, 2. That there is a certain civility in human nature, which leads men to a just commendation of the dead, and to a due estimation of their worth. The Pharisees here though they persecuted the prophets whilst alive, yet had they a mighty veneration for their piety and virtue after they were dead, and thought no honour too great to be done unto them.

Note, 3. That it is the grossest hypocrisy to pretend to love goodness, and yet hate and persecute good men. These hypocritical Pharisees pretended highly to piety and religion, and at the same time killed the prophets, and stoned them that were sent unto them.

4. That the highest honour we can pay to the saints departed, is not by raising monuments, and building tombs to their memory; but by a careful imitation of their piety and virtue, following the holiness of their lives, and their patience and constancy at their deaths.


Verse 34

Observe here, A prophetical prediction, and a severe denunciation.

1. A prediction foretelling what cruel usage the apostle should meet with from the Jews, killing and crucifying some, scourging and stoning others; which accordingly was fulfilled in the crucifying of St. Peter, the scourging of St. Paul, in the stoning of St. Stephen, and killing of St. James. The first planters and propagators of the gospel sealed their doctrine with their blood, and the blood of the martyrs has all along been the seed of the church.

Observe, 2. A severe denunciation, That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth from Abel to Zacharias, the son of Jehoiada, 2 Chronicles 24:20, who was the last prophet whose murder is related by name in the Old Testament. These words are not to be understood as if the end and intent of Christ's sending the prophets were that the Jews might put them to death, and bring their righteous blood upon themselves. This was the consequence and intent of it.

Learn, 1. That raging persecutors have no regard either to the extraordinary mission, or eminent sanctity of persons who reprove them for their sins. I send unto you prophets, says our Saviour, wise men and Scribes, and some of them ye shall kill and crucify.

2. That as the piety of the person, so neither can the sanctity of the place discourage and deter bloody persecutors from their rage and fury against the prophets of God. In the temple itself, in the court of the house of the Lord, even betwixt the porch and the altar, was Zacharias slain. That it is a righteous thing with God to punish good men for the impieties of their parents:

this is to be understood, 1. Where the children tread in their fathers steps, and continue in their parents sins; which they do, if they do not confess them, abhor them, and be humbled for them.

2. This is to be understood of temporal evils, not of eternal punishments. No man shall for his father's sins lie down in everlasting burnings. As our fathers faith will not let us into heaven, so neither will their impiety shut us into hell. At the day of judgment every man shall be separately considered according to his deeds.


Verse 37

Our Lord concludes this chapter with a pathetical lamentation over Jerusalem. His ingemination or doubling of the word, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, shews the vehemency of Christ's affection towards them, and the sincerity of his desires for their salvation.

Observe, 1. The great kindness and compassion of Christ to the Jews in general, and Jerusalem in particular, set forth by a lively metaphor and similitude; that of a hen gathering her chickens under her wings. As the hen doth tenderly cherish, and carefully hide and cover her young from the eye of the destroyer; so would Christ have shrouded and sheltered his people from all those birds of prey, and particularly from the Roman eagle, by which they were last devoured.

Again, As the hen continueth her call to her young-ones from morning to night, and holds out here wings for shelter to them all the day long; so did Christ wait for his people's repentance and conversion for more than forty years after they had killed his prophets, and murdered himself, before they met with a final overthrow.

Observe, 2. The amazing obstinacy and wilfulness of this people, in rejecting this grace and favour, this kindness and condescension of the Lord Jesus Christ; I would have gathered you, but ye would not.

Observe, 3. The fatal issue of this obstinacy, Behold your house is left unto you desolate.

Is left; that is, certainly and suddenly will be so. The present tense put for the paulo post futurum, it denotes both the certainty and nearness of this people's ruin.

Learn, 1. That the ruin and destruction of sinners is wholly chargeable upon themselves; that is, on their own wilfulness and obstinacy: I would have gathered you, says Christ, but ye would not.

Learn, 2. How deplorably and inexcusably they will perish, who perish by their own wilfulness under the gospel.

3. That there is no desire like unto God's desire of a people's repentance; no longing like unto God's longing for a people's salvation: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thee? When shall it once be? Christ did very seriously desire the conversion of the Jews, who continued still in their impenitency and unbelief. And consequently they whom he so seriously desired to convert, might have been converted, but they would not be so: I would have gathered you, but ye would not.

 


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Bibliography Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/wbc/matthew-23.html. 1700-1703.

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