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Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary
New American Standard Version
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Nave's Topical Bible - Blindness; Church; Ecclesiasticism; Hypocrisy; Oath; Pharisees; Satire; Teachers; Temple; The Topic Concordance - Blindness; Guidance; Hypocrisy; Torrey's Topical Textbook - Oaths; Pharisees, the;
Verse Matthew 23:20. Whoso - shall swear by the altar — As an oath always supposes a person who witnesses it, and will punish perjury; therefore, whether they swore by the temple or the gold, (Matthew 23:16), or by the altar or the gift laid on it, (Matthew 23:18), the oath necessarily supposes the God of the temple, of the altar, and of the gifts, who witnessed the whole, and would, even in their exempt cases, punish the perjury.
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Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/acc/matthew-23.html. 1832.
129. More about scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-39; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47)
Instead of teaching only the law of Moses, the scribes and Pharisees added countless laws of their own. Instead of making the people’s load lighter, they made it heavier. People could profit from listening to the scribes’ teaching of Moses’ law, but they were not to copy the scribes’ behaviour (Matthew 23:1-4).
Jesus gave two specific reasons for his condemnation of the scribes. First, they wanted to make a display of their religious devotion so that they might win praise from others. Second, they paid strict attention to small details of law-keeping but they ignored the law’s real meaning. Jesus gave a list of examples.
Phylacteries were small leather boxes containing finely written portions of the law that people strapped on their foreheads and arms. Tassels were decorations sewn on the fringes of their clothes to remind them to keep God’s law. The scribes made their phylacteries and tassels extra large to impress people with their devotion to the law (Matthew 23:5; cf. Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 11:18).
In public meetings the scribes tried to get the most important seats, and they loved the feeling of status when their students greeted them respectfully in public. Jesus rebuked them with the reminder that the only true teacher, father and master was God, and he would humble those who tried to make themselves great (Matthew 23:6-12; Mark 12:38-39). They made themselves appear religious with their long prayers, yet they heartlessly took advantage of the poor (Mark 12:40).
Besides not believing in Jesus themselves, the scribes stopped others from believing. If they succeeded in converting a Gentile to Judaism, they usually turned the person into such an extremist that he was more worthy of God’s punishment than they were (Matthew 23:13-15).
Jews were careful in swearing oaths, so that they could have an excuse if they broke their oath. If they swore by certain things they felt obliged to keep their oath, but if they swore by others they felt no guilt if they ignored their oath. Jesus repeated teaching given earlier that all oaths were binding, no matter what people swore by, and God the supreme judge would hold them responsible (Matthew 23:16-22; see notes on Matthew 5:33-37).
Jesus also repeated some of the accusations he had made elsewhere against the Pharisees and scribes. They concentrated on minor details of their own law but ignored the important teachings of God’s law. Their efforts to appear religious were an attempt to hide their inner corruption (Matthew 23:23-28; see notes on Luke 11:37-44). Like their ancestors, they would not be satisfied until they had killed all God’s messengers. They would even kill the Messiah himself. Therefore, all God’s judgment against his murderous people, including that which he had withheld from former generations, would fall on them. They would live to see their city destroyed and their national life brought to an end (Matthew 23:29-36; see notes on Luke 11:47-51).
In rejecting the Messiah who had come among them, the Jews were rejecting their only hope. They would not experience God’s blessing till they turned and welcomed Jesus as their Messiah and Saviour (Matthew 23:37-39; see notes on Luke 13:31-35).
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Flemming, Donald C. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "Fleming's Bridgeway Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bbc/matthew-23.html. 2005.
Matthew's gospel twenty-three. Jesus has been at the temple and He was challenged as to His authority by these priests, and then He was asked questions by the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees. And then Jesus finally asked them a question. "What do you think of Christ, whose son is He?" And when they said, "the son of David." He said, "How can He be the son of David, when David by the spirit called Him Lord?" And no father would ever call his son "lord". That's just so totally against the culture. It's just not done. So they couldn't answer Him. And neither did they dare ask Him anymore questions after that ( Matthew 22:42-46 ).
Now still there in the temple, as we go into chapter twenty-three, we are still there within the temple precinct. Then Jesus turns from these questions and counter questions with the scribes and Pharisees, and He turns to the multitude that is gathered around Him, and to His disciples that are there. And the first part, the first twelve verses of chapter twenty-three are addressed to His disciples and the assembled multitude. And then beginning with verse thirteen, He turns to the scribes and the Pharisees, and really begins to lay a heavy one on them.
But first of all notice,
Jesus then spake to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat [or in Moses' chair] ( Matthew 23:1-2 ):
The Greek word is "cathedra", which is sort of a school, and you hear of a person who chairs the department of philosophy and all, and so it is the sitting there as a teacher, as a lecturer, in the area of Moses.
All therefore whatsoever they bid you to observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not ( Matthew 23:3 ).
Now, Jesus had just given a parable that the scribes and Pharisees had recognized was against them. He asked them, and they caught them or He caught them, and they realized that they were trapped by it. He had said to them: "There was a certain father who had two sons. And to the first he said, go out in the field and work for me. And the son said, okay, Dad, I'll be glad to go. But he didn't go. Or the first one said, no, I won't go, and then later on he repented and went. The second one said, yeah, I'll go, and he never went". Now Jesus said, "which one really did the will of his father?" And they said, "Well, the one that went out." And Jesus said, "That's right. ( Matthew 21:28-31 )"
Now Jesus is, you see, saying here, "Look, they say, but they don't do. Now you observe to do the things that they tell you to do, but don't follow their works, because they say things, but yet they themselves don't do them." The New Testament is quite emphatic in the fact that we are to be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving ourselves. Paul as he was writing his epistle to the Romans, spoke of how that the Jews so often felt that they were justified, just because they had the law. Not because they were doing it, but because they had it, they felt that they were justified. It's just like so many people feel that they are Christians, just because they live in the United States. Not because they are actively following Jesus Christ, but after all, "I live in a Christian nation". But Jesus said, "Look, these men are saying it, but they are not doing it. So follow what they say, but don't follow their works".
For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and they lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move one of them with their little fingers ( Matthew 23:4 ).
Now it is interesting as you go over to the Holy land and see the laborers and the heavy burdens that they bind, and lay on these laborers' shoulders, it's unreal. We have some fascinating pictures that look like a big bundle of sticks and all, walking down the road. I mean, all you can see are the feet underneath, but these guys are so laden down. They bound so many sticks and altogether, and put them on these guys' shoulders; that's all you can see are the feet underneath. And it looks like sticks are walking.
And so it was a picture that was very common to the people over there. The little donkeys, they really load those little donkeys down. Looks like sometimes you have four legs under the sticks walking. Or under this pile of sheaves or whatever, and they would bind these heavy, heavy burdens, and Jesus said, "and then they lay them on men's shoulders, grievous to be born." Now He is, of course speaking, figuratively.
They could see the figure in their mind. They had seen these fellows just loaded down with loads, just straining to try and carry it because they would lay so much on you. And so Jesus is saying this is what the scribes and Pharisees are doing. They lay these heavy, heavy burdens upon men, yet they themselves won't even move with one of their fingers. They won't lift anything with one of their little fingers. "For all of the works that they do, they do to be seen of men."
Now, you remember the Sermon on the Mount in the sixth chapter, Jesus began by declaring, "Take heed to yourselves, that you do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of men, for verily I say unto you, you have your reward"( Matthew 6:1 ).
And then He talked about how you gave: "Don't sound the trumpet before you like the Pharisees, who like to make a big to-do over what they give, so all men can see what they are giving. But when you give, do it in secret, don't let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. When you pray, don't be like the Pharisees and all who love to stand on the street corners, that they might be seen of men, but go in your closet, shut the door. When you fast, don't be like the Pharisees, who go around with these long faces, and they look so gaunt and all, but anoint your face and all, that you don't appear unto men to fast"( Matthew 6:2-6 ).
Now Jesus is here declaring again the very same thing, that the Pharisees and the scribes, their whole religion was an external, and their whole purpose and motive was that men might see them and look up to them as spiritual leaders. And so the very clothes they wore, the very affectations that they developed were to impress people with how spiritual, and how righteous they were, but it was all an outward show, but inwardly there was nothing there.
Be careful that you don't get caught in a religious sham, where it is just an all outward demonstration, and in your mind you're thinking; "I hope everybody sees me, how righteous I am. I go up on my tiptoes just in case, you know". The whole idea is to affect men with how spiritual and how righteous I am.
Some fellow came up to me Thursday night after service and said, "I stood up tonight while they were singing, and I was worshiping the Lord, and someone came up and told me to sit down, and I was just there worshiping the Lord." I said, "Well, whoever told you to sit down, told you right." I said, "If everybody else is sitting down, and you are standing, then all you are doing is drawing attention to you. We are not here to be attracted to you; we are here to be attracted to Jesus Christ."
Now you've got to be careful that in your worship of the Lord, that in your service to the Lord, that you don't get caught in the trap of doing things so as to draw attention to yourself. Whatever you do in your worship, or in your service, if the net effect is drawing attention to you, and this what's there within your heart, you're in the same category as the scribes and Pharisees. We've got to be very careful of this.
You see, my old nature is totally corrupt. So much so, that even when I am engaged in my spiritual activities, my old flesh would still like to do things in such a way that everybody will know how spiritual I am. I would like people to know just how deeply committed my life is to God. How much time I devote myself into just seeking the Lord and His Word. In fact, in reality I want people to think that I do more then I really do. And so often, I try to give an impression that I am more spiritual than I really am, that I am more deeply committed than I really am, that I have a greater prayer life than I really do.
But whenever I try to give that impression to people, I am a hypocrite. I am guilty of hypocrisy. I am seeking to impress people. I should be interested only in impressing God with my righteous living, and I know that God can't be impressed. But I should only be thinking of God when I am in worship, when I am in prayer, when I am giving. I should never be doing it for the effect that I can create in the mind of men, but I should always just be doing as unto the Lord, in that secret place of fellowship and communion.
Now, Jesus said,
For all of their works they do to be seen of men: and they make broad their phylacteries ( Matthew 23:5 ),
Now the phylactery was the little box that they would bind on their wrist and bind on their forehead. And they were told under the law that they were to take and bind the law of God to the frontlets and their hands and so forth, and so there are these little leather boxes. And every day when they go to pray, except the Sabbath day, because on the Sabbath day you are not to bear any burdens and so forth, so they don't do it on the Sabbath day; but every day as they go to prayer, they go through this ritual. First of all, binding their arm, and tying this little box on their arm.
Now in this little box on the hand there is one chamber in the little box and it has four passages of scripture from the Old Testament, in little scrolls in this little leather box on their hand. The one on their forehead, and they bind another leather thong around their forehead in this little leather box on their forehead, and in that there are four compartments, and these same four passages on little scrolls, only one little scroll in each four compartments. Now, these Pharisees, they would get big boxes, broaden their phylacteries, so everybody can see, "I am really heavy-duty prayer, because, look the big box that I got here". And they would broaden their phylacteries, and of course the whole idea was people might observe them and see them.
And then of course they
enlarged the borders of their garment ( Matthew 23:5 ),
Or these little tassels that they would put on their garments, and again they were to be more or less symbols. There was that law in the Old Testament of these fringes on their garments that they were to make, and so they would enlarge these fringes.
Now today they still have the fringes, but they put them on the prayer shawls that they wear. And of course, going to the Western Wall of the temple is always an interesting experience that you see them come up, and they start binding the phylacteries, and they take their prayer shawls with the fringes, even to the present day, and wrap them around in a traditional way, and then they go up and begin to read their prayers before the Wall. And it's quite a fascinating scene to watch.
And so Jesus is saying though, that with them they were doing it in such a way as to draw attention to themselves, that they might appear before men to be holy, or righteous.
They loved the uppermost rooms at the feast, and the chief seats in the synagogue ( Matthew 23:6 ),
The chief seats were down in the front, but they were facing the congregation, so that the whole congregation can see me going through my little prayers and all, and the whole congregation can see how righteous I am. And they loved those chief seats in the Synagogue. They loved the upper places in the feast and all. And they loved,
The greetings in the markets, to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi ( Matthew 23:7 ).
Doctor, Doctor. Reverend.
But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your master, even Christ; [and notice,] all of you are brethren ( Matthew 23:8 ).
Now He is talking to His disciples. He said don't get into that spiritual hierarchy trip. You're all brothers. There is not one above the other. You are all one together. You are all brothers. Don't seek to promote yourself. Don't seek the best places. When you bid onto the feast, He said take the lower place. And if the host says, "oh come, sit up here," He said then you're in good shape. But if you take the upper seat and the host says, "Hey, what are you doing up here? You belong down here at the end of the table" then it's a very embarrassing thing. So better that you take a lower seat, and let them bid you higher, than to take the higher seat, and let them direct you lower. You're brothers. Don't try and develop a hierarchy where oh, you know, Reverend, Rabbi, or whatever.
And then He said,
And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven ( Matthew 23:9 ).
So the title of father was prohibited by Jesus. In my associations I have become acquainted and friends of many ministers within the Episcopalian Church and also within the Catholic Church. And I have extreme difficulty in knowing how to address them, because for the life of me I cannot call them father so-and-so, because Jesus said not to. And so to me it creates a difficult thing as to how to address them, because they are usually introduced, "This is father so-and-so" and I just have a hang-up with this, but I just can't address a man "father" in a spiritual sense. I don't know. Do what you want, but I just have problems.
Neither be ye called masters; for one is your master, even Christ ( Matthew 23:10 ).
In other words, Jesus is putting down the idea of titles. These guys love their titles, but you know a title really has an effect, a separation of people, and the elevation. And Jesus is really coming against this idea of the elevating of one man over another by some kind of a title. And that is why I personally disdain titles. I don't want a title. And it's interesting the letters that I get as people are trying to tack titles onto my name. And I always know that they don't know me very well. If they knew me better, they wouldn't tack a title on my name. So Jesus is saying, "Hey, you're all brothers." So "hey, brother Chuck", but even that is sort of a title. Just Chuck is good enough.
He that is greatest among you shall be your servant ( Matthew 23:11 ).
Not to establish this spiritual hierarchy and oh, oh.
And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that humble himself shall be exalted ( Matthew 23:12 ).
Now having declared that to His disciples, these are the rules for His disciples. He now turns and addresses Himself to these scribes and the Pharisee. And He has an eightfold denunciation against them, pronouncing an eightfold woe. To my disciples, don't follow their example. They say, but they don't do. They exalt themselves. They draw attention to themselves. They love to be exalted and elevated above people, but you are brothers. If you're going to be the chief; be the servant. Humble yourself and God will exalt you. But exalt yourself and God will abase you.
Now woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! ( Matthew 23:13 )
We sang "Jesus what a wonder you are. You are so gentle, so pure and so kind." And for the most part Jesus was a very gentle person, so that when He gets to the place of the strong denunciation, you really take note. Now if some guy has a high temper, and he is going around blowing off all the time, you soon get to where you don't pay attention anymore. "Oh, he is always blowing off steam, don't worry about it". But if a fellow is generally very meek and mild temperament, but suddenly he begins to really let off the steam, then you say; "Wow, what's going on here? He's really heavy." And so Jesus really came down on them.
Now I am interested in the attitude of Jesus towards out-and-out acknowledged sinners, and contrast that with His attitude towards those spiritual leaders. To the woman who was taken in adultery and brought to Him by the Pharisees, and said, "We caught this woman in the very act of adultery, and our law says, stone her. What do you say?" If she was caught in the very act, where was the man? Surely he must have been caught too. But the poor woman didn't have much rights in those days. So they brought the woman to Jesus, and He said, "Well, I say unto you, let him that is without sin throw the first stone"( John 8:7 ). And then He knelt down and began to draw in the dust or write in the dust, and probably wrote out the sins of these various guys were guilty of committing, and one by one, they began to leave the crowd until there was no one left, but the woman. And Jesus finally stood up and He said, "Where are your accusers?" And she said," well, I guess they've all gone." And He said, "Neither do I condemn you, go your way and sin no more"( John 8:11 ). Very gentle, very forgiving, very loving, very kind.
To the woman of Samaria who had had five husbands, and now had just moved in with a man without the benefit of marriage, Jesus talked to her about the glorious water of life that would satisfy that inner need in her life, where she wouldn't be thirsty again. And He spoke with her so gently of eternal life, and the things of God. She was really a very wicked person. Always gentle with the sinners, who were acknowledged sinners. He never turned away one who came repenting. His arms were always open to receive, His words were always kind, and forgiving, and loving. But to those who had this pretense of being so spiritual, those who had the pretense of being so righteous and were trying to foster themselves off on the common people as spiritually superior, I mean Jesus really got heavy.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for neither go ye in yourselves, but you will not allow those who are entering to go in ( Matthew 23:13 ).
Not only have you not really entered in, but you would hinder those who would enter into the kingdom of heaven. Unfortunately this is also true today in many areas of the church, where the ministers of those churches have been caught up into liberalism and modernism. And they do not really enter into the kingdom of heaven, but also they prohibit people; they stand in the way, they make fun of the scriptures. They make light of the scriptures or they seek to declare that the scriptures really aren't the scriptures.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you devour widows' houses, and for a pretence you make a long prayer [but your prayers are only pretensions]: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass the sea and the land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. Woe unto you, ye blind guides which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is guilty. You fools, blind: what is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And you say, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it's nothing; but whosoever swears by the gift that is upon the altar, he is guilty. You fools and blind: whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, swears by it, and all of the things that are on it. And whoso swears by the temple, swears by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, swears by the throne of God, and him that sits thereon. Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! ( Matthew 23:14-23 )
I mean, He is really getting down on them for their traditional teachings. You know if you swear, you are making an oath now, "I swear by the temple, I'll do it." You swore by the temple. Oh well, that's all right. He doesn't have to keep it, it's not a binding oath. "I swear by the gold in the temple." Ho, ho, ho, look out now, that's binding. I mean stupid, ridiculous, traditional things that had been developed and had become a part of their actual belief systems, dogmas that had turned into doctrines, traditions, that were being taught for doctrine.
Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! because you pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin ( Matthew 23:23 ),
Now these are little spices. And everybody had their own spice garden and they would raise their own anise, their own cummin and mint, and they would be careful. Now how much cummin do you use when you're cooking? But they would take out of the spice garden, and they take and give ten percent to God. Very careful to measure out their spices, the mint, the anise, and their cummin to give God His ten percent.
So careful, yet, Jesus said,
you have omitted the way to your matters of the law, you've past over completely, judgement, and mercy, and faith ( Matthew 23:23 ):
Now concerning the tithe, notice, Jesus said,
you ought to have done that [you ought to pay your tithes], but you are not to leave the other undone ( Matthew 23:23 ).
Now Jesus does confirm that. They were correct in paying tithes. But they were very incorrect in not really seeking justices, and mercy, and faith.
Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat [or strain out a gnat], and swallow a camel ( Matthew 23:24 ).
Now when they would drink their wine, they would pour it through a cloth, in case a little gnat may have flown into the wine, for if they would drink the wine with a gnat in it, the gnat wasn't kosher. The gnat had blood in it, and they were not to eat anything with the blood; therefore, they would strain their wine, so they would be careful not to drink any gnats. "But they in turn," Jesus said, "you are swallowing camels." Now a camel is also an unclean beast. But it's interesting that when you get into the fine points of picking in religious systems, how picky people can get in small little things, and yet they omit the more important things. And Jesus, of course, goes along with your paying tithes of your spices, but you're not really seeking judgment, or mercy, or faith. You're straining out the gnats, but you are swallowing camels.
You blind guides,
Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! for you make clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but within you're full of extortion and excess ( Matthew 23:25 ).
Now picture this, of a filthy cup inside. Outside your looking, "Oh, I am so thirsty", get a drink of water. You see this beautiful, clean, sparkling cup, and you pick it up, and you look inside, and all this filth and vermin in there, yuck. The outside looks so good, but the inside is so filthy. And Jesus said, "that's the way you guys are. You look so good on the outside, but the inside there is extortion, there is greed, there is all of these excesses.
Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and the platter, that the outside of them may be clean also ( Matthew 23:26 ).
More important that the inside be clean than the outside. Men will start on the outward appearance; God is looking on the heart. And in the New Testament Jesus, and of course through the epistles is also emphasized, that more important than the outward actions or the inner attitudes of a man's heart. It's what's within that the Lord is really counting and looking at. People can have an outward observance of righteousness, of religious rituals, of worship and all, but within it isn't there. The Lord said, "Look, it's got to be inside, that's where you got to start. And from what is inside we'll work out, but the attitude is more important than the actions".
There are a lot of people doing the right things in the wrong ways. What they are doing may be right, but the attitude in which they are doing it is completely wrong. I would rather do the wrong thing and have a right attitude, than do the right thing and have a wrong attitude, because God can change my activities in a hurry. But many times it takes an entire lifetime to change the attitude of a man's heart. What's in your heart is what the Lord says counts.
Woe unto you scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, for you are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful on the outside ( Matthew 23:27 ),
They would go and whitewash the sepulchres, but within-- on the outside they looked so pretty, so clean,
but inside they are full of [just skeletons] dead men's bones, and all of the putrefying rotten flesh. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you're full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Woe unto you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites! because you've build the tombs of the prophets, and you garnish, [decorate] the sepulchres of the righteous ( Matthew 23:27-29 ),
When you go over to Israel today, you can see in the Kidron Valley, some of the tombs of the prophets that had been build. In fact, they call them the "tombs of the prophets". Also, you can see how they garnish the sepulchres. You can go to what they call "the tomb of David". And there is a big silver casket there in which David's remains supposedly are lying, and all of the garnishing, all of the trappings and all that they have around this. And they come there and sit and pray, there by David's tomb. But oh, they really still garnish so much this tomb of David.
"You honor your fathers," is actually what He is saying. You give honor to your fathers, and you say;
if we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets ( Matthew 23:30 ).
Oh, had we've been there, we would have been righteous, and we would have been pure.
Wherefore you are witnesses against yourselves, for you are the children of those who killed the prophets. Fill up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of hell? ( Matthew 23:31-33 )
Hey, He sounds like a hellfire and brimstone preacher.
Wherefore, behold, I sent to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you're going to kill and crucify: and some of them you're going to scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed from upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation ( Matthew 23:34-36 ).
Actually in the crucifying of Christ, they became guilty of the worst of the heinous sins that man has ever committed. Their fathers had killed the prophets, Isaiah, and so many of the prophets were slain by the people in their days. But Jesus said, "you are going to kill the One of whom all the prophets spoke of." Stephen laid on the charge, "you killed the One of whom all the prophets spake"( Acts 7:52 ).
Now Jesus turns after this heavy denunciation and He reveals His heart.
Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and have stoned those that have been sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not! ( Matthew 23:37 )
In spite of all that they had done Jesus said, "Look, I'd still love to gather your children together". The love that God had, had not diminished. He still loved them. But it was they who refused. It wasn't that the opportunity wasn't there, it wasn't that God was not merciful and forgiving, it wasn't that God wouldn't do it still for them, but they would not. And thus as the result,
your house is left unto you desolate ( Matthew 23:38 ).
It has come to an end. It's been left desolate. It's all over. You've received the opportunity of the grace of God, you have refused it, and thus the nation Israel will no longer be the light through which God will shine forth to a dark world. Your house is left desolate.
For I say unto you, You will not see me again, until you are saying, Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord ( Matthew 23:39 ).
You won't see me until the persecution is so heavy, the tribulation so great that you'll be saying," Oh, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." And they'll be crying out and praying for Him before He returns.
Recently in one of my trips to Israel I was speaking at a congress in Jerusalem, which was called "the Peace of Jerusalem Congress". It was a congress in which the churches of the world were expressing towards the people of Israel our love for them and our support for them. And when I arrived at my hotel room, I had a letter there from one of the rabbis from Measheream. And he was saying: "What are you doing here, speaking of support for Israel? Israel has no right to exist as a nation." And he went on and was really taking me to task for speaking at this congress in support of the nation of Israel.
And so I took the letter to some of my Jewish friends there in Jerusalem, and I said: "Look at this greeting that I got from one of your rabbis." And of course these friends had help set up this whole meeting, and we're all gung-ho, because they realized the value of the support of the Christian Church for the nation of Israel. And I said, "Look what one of your rabbis has sent to me." And they read it, and they said, "Oh, don't pay any attention to it. Those guys are fanatics. They're just radical, they're fanatics, don't pay any attention to it." I said, "but he is a rabbi." "Yeah, but rabbis can be fanatics too."
I said, "Oh, really, then you mean that he is no doubt wrong in his idea that Israel shouldn't be a nation, because he is just a fanatic? He's made a mistake in this? "Oh, yeah, yeah." I said, "Do you realize that some rabbis made a serious mistake two thousand years ago? And that unfortunately you're still following their serious mistake." I said, "How do you know?" But they weren't just a bunch of radicals, just like this rabbi that wrote me, who made a tragic mistake. "And here, though two thousand years later, you're still following the advice of those rabbis who rejected Jesus as the Messiah." I said, "They were fanatics. They were radicals." The guys were silent. "
Copyright © 2014, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca.
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "Smith's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/csc/matthew-23.html. 2014.
And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.
This verse continues the thought of verses 16–17, but here Jesus switches from the "gold" of the Temple to the "God" of the Temple. He makes the Temple and everything in its construction one with God. Therefore, to swear by the Temple or any part of the Temple is the same as swearing by God. One’s oath is as binding as if he has actually used God as the object of his vow. The Temple does not constitute a loophole for those looking to break their promises.
Every Jew recognizes that the Temple is the dwelling place of God. From the earliest of times, God’s presence dwells in the Most Holy Place within the sanctuary. These leaders should have recognized that to separate the two is to bring reproach on both.
Contending for the Faith reproduced by permission of Contending for the Faith Publications, 4216 Abigale Drive, Yukon, OK 73099. All other rights reserved.
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ctf/matthew-23.html. 1993-2022.
2. Jesus’ indictment of the scribes and the Pharisees 23:13-36 (cf. Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47)
Jesus now directed His attention toward the scribes and the Pharisees in the temple courtyard (cf. Matthew 23:1). He proceeded to announce a scathing indictment of them in seven parts. Compare the six woes of Isaiah 5:8-23 and the five woes of Habakkuk 2:6-20. He introduced each indictment with the word "woe." Jesus spoke of the scribes and Pharisees, but He spoke to the crowds and His disciples.
"No passage in the Bible is more biting, more pointed, and more severe than this pronouncement of Christ upon the Pharisees. It is significant that He singled them out, as opposed to the Sadducees, who were more liberal, and the Herodians, who were the politicians. The Pharisees, while attempting to honor the Word of God and manifesting an extreme form of religious observance, were actually the farthest from God." [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., pp. 171-72.]
Essentially Jesus was criticizing them for their hypocrisy. [Note: See Andrew R. Simmonds, "’Woe to you . . . Hypocrites!’ Re-reading Matthew 23:13-36," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:663 (July-September 2009):336-49.] As the theme of the Sermon on the Mount was righteousness, the theme of these woes is hypocrisy. There is a common strong emphasis in both addresses on the leaders’ failure to understand and submit to the Scriptures. Jesus gave both addresses to contrast the true meaning of Scripture with the Pharisees’ interpretation and application of it. The Pharisees professed to teach the Scriptures accurately but did not do so. They were therefore hypocrites.
The literary structure of these woes is chiastic.
A Rejection of the kingdom Matthew 23:13
B Effects on others being more harm than good Matthew 23:15
C Misguided use of Scripture affecting conduct Matthew 23:16-22
C’ Misguided use of Scripture affecting character Matthew 23:25-26
B’ Effects on others frustrating the desired result Matthew 23:27-28
A’ Rejection of the kingdom’s heralds Matthew 23:29-36
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/matthew-23.html. 2012.
The third woe 23:16-22
Jesus had dealt with the subject of taking oaths in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37). He had called His critics blind guides before too (Matthew 15:14). Here is a specific example of what Jesus condemned in the second woe (Matthew 23:15). By differentiating between what was binding in their oaths and what was not, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were encouraging evasive oaths that amounted to lying. Jesus’ point was that people should tell the truth. Jesus condemned His critics for mishandling the Scriptures that they claimed to defend and expound.
Matthew 23:20-22 provide the rationale for Matthew 5:33-37. Whenever a Jew took an oath he connected it in some way with God. All their oaths were therefore binding. Jesus disallowed all evasive oaths and viewed them as untruthful speech.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/matthew-23.html. 2012.
SCRIBES AND PHARISEES ( Matthew 23:1-39 )
If a man is characteristically and temperamentally an irritable, ill-tempered and irascible creature, notoriously given to uncontrolled outbursts of passionate anger, his anger is neither effective nor impressive. Nobody pays any attention to the anger of a bad-tempered man. But when a person who is characteristically meek and lowly, gentle and loving, suddenly erupts into blazing wrath, even the most thoughtless person is shocked into taking thought. That is why the anger of Jesus is so awe-inspiring a sight. It is seldom in literature that we find so unsparing and sustained an indictment as we find in this chapter when the wrath of Jesus is directed against the Scribes and Pharisees. Before we begin to study the chapter in detail, it will be well to see briefly what the Scribes and Pharisees stood for.
The Jews had a deep and lasting sense of the continuity of their religion; and we can see best what the Pharisees and Scribes stood for by seeing where they came into the scheme of Jewish religion. The Jews had a saying, "Moses received the Law and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue." AH Jewish religion is based first on the Ten Commandments and then on the Pentateuch, the Law.
The history of the Jews was designed to make them a people of the Law. As every nation has, they had their dream of greatness. But the experiences of history had made that dream take a special direction. They had been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and Jerusalem had been left desolate. It was clear that they could not be preeminent in political power. But although political power was an obvious impossibility, they none the less possessed the Law, and to them the Law was the very word of God, the greatest and most precious possession in the world.
There came a day in their history when that preeminence of the Law was, as it were, publicly admitted; there came what one can only call a deliberate act of decision, whereby the people of Israel became in the most unique sense the people of the Law. Under Ezra and Nehemiah the people were allowed to come back to Jerusalem, and to rebuild their shattered city, and to take up their national life again. When that happened, there came a day when Ezra, the Scribe, took the book of the Law, and read it to them, and there happened something that was nothing less than a national dedication of a people to the keeping of the Law ( Nehemiah 8:1-8).
From that day the study of the Law became the greatest of all professions; and that study of the Law was committed to the men of the Great Synagogue, the Scribes.
We have already seen how the great principles of the Law were broken up into thousands upon thousands of little rules and regulations (see section on Matthew 5:17-20). We have seen, for instance, how the Law said that a man must not work on the Sabbath day, and how the Scribes laboured to define work, how they laid it down how many paces a man might walk on the Sabbath, how heavy a burden he might carry, the things he might and might not do. By the time this scribal interpretation of the Law was finished, it took more than fifty volumes to hold the mass of regulations which resulted.
The return of the people to Jerusalem and the first dedication of the Law took place about 450 B.C. But it is not till long after that that the Pharisees emerge. About 175 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria made a deliberate attempt to stamp out the Jewish religion and to introduce Greek religion and Greek customs and practices. It was then that the Pharisees arose as a separate sect. The name means The Separated Ones; and they were the men who dedicated their whole life to the careful and meticulous observance of every rule and regulation which the Scribes had worked out. In face of the threat directed against it, they determined to spend their whole lives in one long observance of Judaism in its most elaborate and ceremonial and legal form. They were men who accepted the ever-increasing number of religious rules and regulations extracted from the Law.
There were never very many of them; at most there were not more than six thousand of them; for the plain fact was that, if a man was going to accept and carry out every little regulation of the Law, he would have time for nothing else; he had to withdraw himself, to separate himself, from ordinary life in order to keep the Law.
The Pharisees then were two things. First, they were dedicated legalists; religion to them was the observance of every detail of the Law. But second--and this is never to be forgotten--they were men in desperate earnest about their religion, for no one would have accepted the impossibly demanding task of living a life like that unless he had been in the most deadly earnest. They could, therefore, develop at one and the same time all the faults of legalism and all the virtues of complete self-dedication. A Pharisee might either be a desiccated or arrogant legalist, or a man of burning devotion to God.
To say this is not to pass a particularly Christian verdict on the Pharisees, for the Jews themselves passed that very verdict. The Talmud distinguishes seven different kinds of Pharisee.
(i) There was the Shoulder Pharisee. He was meticulous in his observance of the Law; but he wore his good deeds upon his shoulder. He was out for a reputation for purity and goodness. True, he obeyed the Law, but he did so in order to be seen of men.
(ii) There was the Wait-a-little Pharisee. He was the Pharisee who could always produce an entirely valid excuse for putting off a good deed. He professed the creed of the strictest Pharisees but he could always find an excuse for allowing practice to lag behind. He spoke, but he did not do.
(iii) There was the Bruised or Bleeding Pharisee. The Talmud speaks of the plague of self-afflicting Pharisees. These Pharisees received their name for this reason. Women had a very low status in Palestine. No really strict orthodox teacher would be seen talking to a woman in public, even if that woman was his own wife or sister. These Pharisees went even further; they would not even allow themselves to look at a woman on the street. In order to avoid doing so they would shut their eyes, and so bump into walls and buildings and obstructions. They thus bruised and wounded themselves, and their wounds and bruises gained them a special reputation for exceeding piety.
(iv) There was the Pharisee who was variously described as the Pestle and Mortar Pharisee, or the Hump-backed Pharisee, or the Tumbling Pharisee. Such men walked in such ostentatious humility that they were bent like a pestle in a mortar or like a hunch-back. They were so humble that they would not even lift their feet from the ground and so tripped over every obstruction they met. Their humility was a self-advertising ostentation.
(v) There was the Ever-reckoning or Compounding Pharisee. This kind of Pharisee was for ever reckoning up his good deeds; he was for ever striking a balance sheet between himself and God, and he believed that every good deed he did put God a little further in his debt. To him religion was always to be reckoned in terms of a profit and loss account.
(vi) There was the Timid or Fearing Pharisee. He was always in dread of divine punishment. He was, therefore, always cleansing the outside of the cup and the platter, so that he might seem to be good. He saw religion in terms of judgment and life in terms of a terror-stricken evasion of this judgment.
(vii) Finally, there was the God-fearing Pharisee; he was the Pharisee who really and truly loved God and who found his delight in obedience to the Law of God, however difficult that it might be.
That was the Jew's own classification of the Pharisees; and it is to be noted that there were six bad types to one good one. There would be not a few listening to Jesus' denunciation of the Pharisees who agreed with every word of it.
Making Religion A Burden ( Matthew 23:1-4)
23:1-4 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The Scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses's seat. Therefore do and observe everything they tell you; but do not act as they act; for they speak, but they do not do. They bind burdens that are heavy and hard to bear, and place them on men's shoulders; but they themselves refuse to lift a finger to remove them."
Here we see the lineaments of the Pharisees already beginning to appear. Here we see the Jewish conviction of the continuity of the faith. God gave the Law to Moses; Moses handed it to Joshua; Joshua transmitted it to the elders; the elders passed it down to the prophets; and the prophets gave it to the Scribes and Pharisees.
It must not for a moment be thought that Jesus is commending the Scribes and Pharisees with all their rules and regulations. What he is saying is this, "In so far as these Scribes and Pharisees have taught you the great principles of the Law which Moses received from God, you must obey them." When we were studying Matthew 5:17-20 we saw what these principles were. The whole of the Ten Commandments are based on two great principles. They are based on reverence, reverence for God, for God's name, for God's day, for the parents God has given to us. They are based on respect, respect for a man's life, for his possessions, for his personality, for his good name, for oneself. These principles are eternal; and, in so far as the Scribes and Pharisees teach reverence for God and respect for men, their teaching is eternally binding and eternally valid.
But their whole outlook on religion had one fundamental effect. It made it a thing of thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations; and therefore it made it an intolerable burden. Here is the test of any presentation of religion. Does it make it wings to lift a man up, or a deadweight to drag him down? Does it make it a joy or a depression? Is a man helped by his religion or is he haunted by it? Does it carry him, or has he to carry it? Whenever religion becomes a depressing affair of burdens and prohibitions, it ceases to be true religion.
Nor would the Pharisees allow the slightest relaxation. Their whole self-confessed purpose was to "build a fence around the Law." Not one regulation would they relax or remove. Whenever religion becomes a burden, it ceases to be true religion.
The Religion Of Ostentation ( Matthew 23:5-12)
23:5-12 They perform all their actions to be seen by men. They broaden their phylacteries; they wear outsize tassels. They love the highest places at meals, and the front seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the market-place, and to be called Rabbi by men. You must not be called Rabbi; for you have only one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one upon earth father; you have one Father--your Father in Heaven. Nor must you be called leaders; you have one leader--Christ. He who is greatest among you will be your servant. Anyone who will exalt himself will be humbled; and whoever will humble himself will be exalted."
The religion of the Pharisees became almost inevitably a religion of ostentation. If religion consists in obeying countless rules and regulations, it becomes easy for a man to see to it that everyone is aware how well he fulfils the regulations, and how perfect is his piety. Jesus selects certain actions and customs in which the Pharisees showed their ostentation.
They made broad their phylacteries. It is said of the commandments of God in Exodus 13:9: "It shall be to you as a sign on your hand, and a memorial between your eyes." The same saying is repeated, "It shall be as a mark on your hand, or frontlets between your eyes" ( Exodus 13:16; compare Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18). In order to fulfil these commandments the Jew wore at prayer, and still wears, what are called tephillin or phylacteries. They are worn on every day except the Sabbath and special holy days. They are like little leather boxes, strapped one on the wrist and one on the forehead. The one on the wrist is a little leather box of one compartment, and inside it there is a parchment roll with the following four passages of scripture written on it-- Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The one worn on the forehead is the same except that in it there are four little compartments, and in each compartment there is a little scroll inscribed with one of these four passages. The Pharisees, in order to draw attention to himself, not only wore phylacteries, but wore specially big ones, so that he might demonstrate his exemplary obedience to the Law and his exemplary piety.
They wear outsize tassels; the tassels are in Greek kraspeda ( G2899) and in Hebrew tsiytsith ( H6734) . In Numbers 15:37-41 and in Deuteronomy 22:12 we read that God commanded his people to make fringes on the borders of their garments, so that when they looked on them they might remember the commandments of God. These fringes were like tassels worn on the four comers of the outer garment. Later they were worn on the inner garment, and today they are perpetuated in the tassels of the prayer-shawl which the devout Jew wears at prayer. It was easy to make these tassels of specially large size so that they became an ostentatious display of piety, worn, not to remind a man of the commandments, but to draw attention to himself.
Further, the Pharisees liked to be given the principal places at meals, on the left and on the right of the host. They liked the front seats in the synagogues. In Palestine the back seats were occupied by the children and the most unimportant people; the further forward the seat, the greater the honour. The most honoured seats of all were the seats of the elders, which faced the congregation. If a man was seated there, everyone would see that he was present and he could conduct himself throughout the service with a pose of piety which the congregation could not fail to notice. Still further., the Pharisee liked to be addressed as Rabbi and to be treated with the greatest respect. They claimed, in point of fact, greater respect than that which was given to parents, for, they said, a man's parents give him ordinary, physical life, but a man's teacher gives him eternal life. They even liked to be called father as Elisha called Elijah ( 2 Kings 2:12) and as the fathers of the faith were known.
Jesus insists that the Christian should remember that he has one teacher only--and that teacher is Christ; and only one Father in the faith--and that Father is God.
The whole design of the Pharisees was to dress and act in such a way as to draw attention to themselves; the whole design of the Christian should be to obliterate himself, so that if men see his good deeds, they may glorify not him, but his Father in Heaven. Any religion which produces ostentation in action and pride in the heart is a false religion.
Shutting The Door ( Matthew 23:13)
23:13 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you shut the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in the face of men! You yourselves are not going into it; nor do you allow those who are trying to get into it to enter it."
Matthew 23:13-26 form the most terrible and the most sustained denunciation in the New Testament. Here we hear what A. T. Robertson called "the rolling thunder of Christ's wrath." As Plummer has written, these woes are "like thunder in their unanswerable severity, and like lightning in their unsparing exposure.. . . They illuminate while they strike."
Here Jesus directs a series of seven woes against the Scribes and Pharisees. The Revised Standard Version begins every one of them: "Woe to you!" The Greek word for woe is ouai ( G3759) ; it is hard to translate for it includes not only wrath, but also sorrow. There is righteous anger here, but it is the anger of the heart of love, broken by the stubborn blindness of men. There is not only an air of savage denunciation; there is also an atmosphere of poignant tragedy.
The word hypocrite occurs here again and again. Originally the Greek word hupokrites ( G5273) meant one who answers; it then came to be specially connected with the statement and answer, the dialogue, of the stage; and it is the regular Greek word for an actor. It then came to mean an actor in the worse sense of the term, a pretender, one who acts a part, one who wears a mask to cover his true feelings, one who puts on an external show while inwardly his thoughts and feelings are very different.
To Jesus the Scribes and Pharisees were men who were acting a part. What he meant was this. Their whole idea of religion consisted in outward observances, the wearing of elaborate phylacteries and tassels, the meticulous observance of the rules and regulations of the Law. But in their hearts there was bitterness and envy and pride and arrogance. To Jesus these Scribes and Pharisees were men who, under a mask of elaborate godliness, concealed hearts in which the most godless feelings and emotions held sway. And that accusation holds good in greater or lesser degree of any man who lives life on the assumption that religion consists in external observances and external acts.
There is an unwritten saying of Jesus which says, "The key of the Kingdom they hid." His condemnation of these Scribes and Pharisees is that they are not only failing to enter the Kingdom themselves, they shut the door on the faces of those who seek to enter. What did he mean by this accusation?
We have already seen ( Matthew 6:10) that the best way to think of the Kingdom is to think of it as a society on earth where God's will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. To be a citizen of the Kingdom, and to do God's will, are one and the same thing. The Pharisees believed that to do God's will was to observe their thousands of petty rules and regulations; and nothing could be further from that Kingdom whose basic idea is love. When people tried to find entry into the Kingdom the Pharisees presented them with these rules and regulations, which was as good as shutting the door in their faces.
The Pharisees preferred their ideas of religion to God's idea of religion. They had forgotten the basic truth that, if a man would teach others, he must himself first listen to God. The gravest danger which any teacher or preacher encounters is that he should erect his own prejudices into universal principles and substitute his own ideas for the truth of God. When he does that he is not a guide, but a barrier, to the Kingdom, for, misled himself, he misleads others.
Missionaries Of Evil ( Matthew 23:15)
23:15 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, for you range over the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and, when that happens, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves!"
A strange feature of the ancient world was the repulsion and attraction which Judaism exercised over men at one and the same time. There was no more hated people than the Jews. Their separatism and their isolation and their contempt of other nations gained them hostility. It was, in fact, believed that a basic part of their religion was an oath that they would never under any circumstances give help to a Gentile, even to the extent of giving him directions if he asked the way. Their observance of the Sabbath gained them a reputation for laziness; their refusal of swine's flesh gained them mockery, even to the extent of the rumour that they worshipped the pig as their god. Anti-semitism was a real and universal force in the ancient world.
And yet there was an attraction. The idea of one God came as a wonderful thing to a world which believed in a multitude of gods. Jewish ethical purity and standards of morality had a fascination in a world steeped in immorality, especially for women. The result was that many were attracted to Judaism.
Their attraction was on two levels. There were those who were called the god-fearers. These accepted the conception of one God; they accepted the Jewish moral law; but they took no part in the ceremonial law and did not become circumcised. Such people existed in large numbers, and were to be found listening and worshipping in every synagogue, and indeed provided Paul with his most fruitful field for evangelization. They are, for instance, the devout Greeks of Thessalonica ( Acts 17:4).
It was the aim of the Pharisees to turn these god-fearers into proselytes; the word proselyte is an English transliteration of a Greek word proselutos ( G4339) , which means one who has approached or drawn near. The proselyte was the full convert who had accepted the ceremonial law and circumcision and who had become in the fullest sense a Jew. As so often happens, "the most converted were the most perverted." A convert often becomes the most fanatical devotee of his new religion; and many of these proselytes were more fanatically devoted to the Jewish Law than even the Jews themselves.
Jesus accused these Pharisees of being missionaries of evil. It was true that very few became proselytes, but those who did went the whole way. The sin of the Pharisees was that they were not really seeking to lead men to God, they were seeking to lead them to Pharisaism. One of the gravest dangers which any missionary runs is that he should try to convert people to a sect rather than to a religion, and that he should be more concerned in bringing people to a Church than to Jesus Christ.
Premanand has certain things to say about this sectarianism which so often disfigures so-called Christianity: "I speak as a Christian, God is my Father, the Church is my Mother. Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname. Catholic, because we belong to nothing less than the Church Universal. So do we need any other names? Why go on to add Anglican, Episcopalian, Protestant, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, and so on, and so on? These terms are divisive, sectarian, narrow. They shrivel up one's soul."
It was not to God the Pharisees sought to lead men; it was to their own sect of Pharisaism. That in fact was their sin. And is that sin even yet gone from the world, when it would still be insisted in certain quarters that a man must leave one Church and become a member of another before he can be allowed a place at the Table of the Lord? The greatest of all heresies is the sinful conviction that any Church has a monopoly of God or of his truth, or that any Church is the only gateway to God's Kingdom.
The Science Of Evasion ( Matthew 23:16-22)
23:16-22 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees! Blind guides! You who say, 'If any one swears by the Temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the Temple is bound by his oath.' Foolish ones and blind! Which is the greater? The gold? Or the Temple which hallows the gold? You say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift that is on it, he is bound by his oath.' Blind ones! Which is greater? The gift? Or the altar which hallows the gift? He who swears by the altar, swears by it and all that is on it. He who swears by the Temple, swears by it, and by him who inhabits it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him who sits upon it."
We have already seen that in matters of oaths the Jewish legalists were masters of evasion ( Matthew 5:33-37). The general principle of evasion was this. To the Jew an oath was absolutely binding, so long as it was a binding oath. Broadly speaking, a binding oath was an oath which definitely and without equivocation employed the name of God; such an oath must be kept, no matter what the cost. Any other oath might be legitimately broken. The idea was that, if God's name was actually used, then God was introduced as a partner into the transaction, and to break the oath was not only to break faith with men but to insult God.
The science of evasion had been brought to a high degree. It is most probable that in this passage Jesus is presenting a caricature of Jewish legalistic methods. He is saying, "You have brought evasion to such a fine art that it is possible to regard an oath by the Temple as not binding, while an oath by the gold of the Temple is binding; and an oath by the altar as not binding, while an oath by the gift on the altar is binding." This is rather to be regarded as a reductio ad absurdum of Jewish methods than as a literal description.
The idea behind the passage is just this. The whole idea of treating oaths in this way, the whole conception of a kind of technique of evasion, is born of a fundamental deceitfulness. The truly religious man will never make a promise with the deliberate intention of evading it; he will never, as he makes it, provide himself with a series of escape routes, which he may use if he finds his promise hard to keep.
We need not with conscious superiority condemn the Pharisaic science of evasion. The time is not yet ended when a man seeks to evade some duty on a technicality or calls in the strict letter of the law to avoid doing what the spirit of the law clearly means he ought to do.
For Jesus the binding principle was twofold. God hears every word we speak and God sees every intention of our hearts. In view of that the fine art of evasion is one to which a Christian should be foreign. The technique of evasion may suit the sharp practice of the world; but never the open honesty of the Christian mind.
The Lost Sense Of Proportion ( Matthew 23:23-24)
23:23-24 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint, and dill, and cummin, and let go the weightier matters of the Law--justice and mercy and fidelity. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others. Blind guides who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"
The tithe was an essential part of Jewish religious regulations. "You shall tithe all the yield of your seed, which comes forth from the field year by year" ( Deuteronomy 14:22). "All the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the trees is the Lord's; it is holy to the Lord" ( Leviticus 27:30). This tithe was specially for the support of the Levites, whose task it was to do the material work of the Temple. The things which had to be tithed were further defined by the Law--"Everything which is eatable, and is preserved, and has its nourishment from the soil, is liable to be tithed." It is laid down: "Of dill one must tithe the seeds, the leaves and the stalks." So, then, it was laid down that every man must lay aside one-tenth of his produce for God.
The point of Jesus' saying is this. It was universally accepted that tithes of the main crops must be given. But mint and dill and cummin are herbs of the kitchen garden and would not be grown in any quantity; a man would have only a little patch of them. All three were used in cooking, and dill and cummin had medicinal uses. To tithe them was to tithe an infinitesimally small crop, maybe not much more than the produce of one plant. Only those who were superlatively meticulous would tithe the single plants of the kitchen garden.
That is precisely what the Pharisees were like. They were so absolutely meticulous about tithes that they would tithe even one clump of mint; and yet these same men could be guilty of injustice; could be hard and arrogant and cruel, forgetting the claims of mercy; could take oaths and pledges and promises with the deliberate intention of evading them, forgetting fidelity. In other words, many of them kept the trifles of the Law and forgot the things which really matter.
That spirit is not dead; it never will be until Christ rules in the hearts of men. There is many a man who wears the right clothes to church, carefully hands in his offering to the Church, adopts the right attitude at prayer, is never absent from the celebration of the sacrament, and who is not doing an honest day's work and is irritable and bad-tempered and mean with his money. There are women who are full of good works and who serve on all kinds of committees, and whose children are lonely for them at night. There is nothing easier than to observe all the outward actions of religion and yet be completely irreligious.
There is nothing more necessary than a sense of proportion to save us from confusing religious observances with real devotion.
Jesus uses a vivid illustration. In Matthew 23:24 a curious thing has happened in the King James Version. It should not be to strain at a gnat, but to strain out a gnat as in the Revised Standard Version. Originally that mistake was simply a misprint but it has been perpetuated for centuries. In point of fact the older versions--Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Geneva Bible--all correctly have to strain out a gnat The picture is this: A gnat was an insect and therefore unclean; and so was a camel. In order to avoid the risk of drinking anything unclean, wine was strained through muslin gauze so that any possible impurity might be strained out of it. This is a humorous picture which must have raised a laugh, of a man carefully straining his wine through gauze to avoid swallowing a microscopic insect and yet cheerfully swallowing a camel. It is the picture of a man who has completely lost his sense of proportion.
The Real Cleanness ( Matthew 23:25-26)
23:25-26 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of rapacity and lust. Blind Pharisee! cleanse the inside of the cup and the plate first, that the outside of it also may be clean."
The idea of uncleanness is continually arising in the Jewish Law. It must be remembered that this uncleanness was not physical uncleanness. An unclean vessel was not in our sense of the term a dirty vessel. For a person to be ceremonially unclean meant that he could not enter the Temple or the synagogue; he was debarred from the worship of God. A man was unclean if, for instance, he touched a dead body, or came into contact with a Gentile. A woman was unclean if she had a haemorrhage, even if that haemorrhage was perfectly normal and healthy. If a person who was himself unclean touched any vessel, that vessel became unclean; and, thereafter, any other person who touched or handled the vessel became in turn unclean. It was, therefore, of paramount importance to have vessels cleansed; and the law for cleansing them is fantastically complicated. We can quote only certain basic examples of it.
An earthen vessel which is hollow becomes unclean only on the inside and not on the outside; and it can be cleansed only by being broken. The following cannot become unclean at all--a flat plate without a rim, an open coal-shovel, a grid-iron with holes in it for parching grains of wheat. On the other hand, a plate with a rim, or an earthen spice-box, or a writing-case can become unclean. Of vessels made of leather, bone, wood and glass, flat ones do not become unclean; deep ones do. If they are broken, they become clean. Any metal vessel which is at once smooth and hollow can become unclean; but a door, a bolt, a lock, a hinge, a knocker cannot become unclean. If a thing is made of wood and metal, then the wood can become unclean, but the metal cannot. These regulations seem to us fantastic, and yet these are the regulations the Pharisees meticulously kept.
The food or drink inside a vessel might have been obtained by cheating or extortion or theft; it might be luxurious and gluttonous; that did not matter, so long as the vessel itself was ceremonially clean. Here is another example of fussing about trifles and letting the weightier matters go.
Grotesque as the whole thing may seem, it can happen yet. A church can be torn in two about the colour of a carpet, or a pulpit-fall, or about the shape or metal of the cups to be used in the Sacrament. The last thing that men and women seem to learn in matters of religion is a relative sense of values; and the tragedy is that it is so often magnification of matters of no importance which wreck the peace.
Disguised Decay ( Matthew 23:27-28)
23:27-28 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees! for you are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of dead men, and of all corruption. So you, too, outwardly look righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."
Here again is a picture which any Jew would understand. One of the commonest places for tombs was by the wayside. We have already seen that anyone who touched a dead body became unclean ( Numbers 19:16). Therefore, anyone who came into contact with a tomb automatically became unclean. At one time in particular the roads of Palestine were crowded with pilgrims--at the time of the Passover Feast. For a man to become unclean on his way to the Passover Feast would be a disaster, for that meant he would be debarred from sharing in it. It was then Jewish practice in the month of Adar to whitewash all wayside tombs, so that no pilgrims might accidentally come into contact with one of them and be rendered unclean.
So, as a man journeyed the roads of Palestine on a spring day, these tombs would glint white, and almost lovely, in the sunshine; but within they were full of bones and bodies whose touch would defile. That, said Jesus, was a precise picture of what the Pharisees were. Their outward actions were the actions of intensely religious men; their inward hearts were foul and putrid with sin.
It can still happen. As Shakespeare had it, a man may smile and smile and be a villain. A man may walk with bowed head and reverent steps and folded hands in the posture of humility, and all the time be looking down with cold contempt on those whom he regards as sinners. His very humility may be the pose of pride; and, as he walks so humbly, he may be thinking with relish of the picture of piety which he presents to those who are watching him. There is nothing harder than for a good man not to know that he is good; and once he knows he is good, his goodness is gone, however he may appear to men from the outside.
The Taint Of Murder ( Matthew 23:29-36)
23:29-36 Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you erect the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in the murder of the prophets.' Thus you witness against yourselves that you are the sons of those who slew the prophets. Fill up the measure of your fathers. Serpents, brood of vipers, how are you to escape being condemned to hell fire? For this reason, look you, I send you the prophets and the wise men and the scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify; and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and pursue them with persecution from city to city, that on you there may fall the responsibility for all the righteous blood shed upon the earth from the blood of Abel, the righteous, to the blood of Zacharias, the son of Barachios, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar. This is the truth I tell you--the responsibility for all these crimes shall fall on this generation."
Jesus is charging the Jews that the taint of murder is in their history and that that taint has not even yet worked itself out. The Scribes and Pharisees tend the tombs of the martyrs and beautify their memorials, and claim that, if they had lived in the old days, they would not have slain the prophets and the men of God. But that is precisely what they would have done, and precisely what they are going to do.
Jesus' charge is that the history of Israel is the history of the murder of the men of God. He says that the righteous men from Abel to Zacharias were murdered. Why are these two chosen? The murder of Abel by Cain everyone knows; but the murder of Zacharias is not nearly so well known. The story is told in a grim little cameo in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. It happened in the days of Joash. Zacharias rebuked the nation for their sin, and Joash stirred up the people to stone him to death in the very Temple court; and Zacharias died saying, "May the Lord see and avenge!" (Zacharias is called the son of Barachios, whereas, in fact, he was the son of Jehoiada, no doubt a slip of the gospel writer in retelling the story.)
Why should Zacharias be chosen? In the Hebrew Bible Genesis is the first book, as it is in ours; but, unlike our order of the books, 2 Chronicles is the last in the Hebrew Bible. We could say that the murder of Abel is the first in the Bible story, and the murder of Zacharias the last. From beginning to end, the history of Israel is the rejection, and often the slaughter, of the men of God.
Jesus is quite clear that the murder taint is still there. He knows that now he must die, and that in the days to come his messengers will be persecuted and ill-treated and rejected and slain.
Here indeed is tragedy; the nation which God chose and loved had turned their hands against him; and the day of reckoning was to come.
It makes us think. When history judges us, will its verdict be that we were the hinderers or the helpers of God? That is a question which every individual, and every nation, must answer.
The Rejection Of Love's Appeal ( Matthew 23:37-39)
23:37-39 "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of the prophets, stoner of those sent to you, how often have I wished to gather your children together, as a bird gathers her nestlings under her wings--and you refused. Look you, your house is left to you desolate, for I tell you from now you will not see me until you will say, 'Blessed in the name of the Lord is he that comes.'"
Here is all the poignant tragedy of rejected love. Here Jesus speaks, not so much as the stern judge of all the earth, as the lover of the souls of men.
There is one curious light this passage throws on the life of Jesus which we may note in the passing. According to the Synoptic Gospels Jesus was never in Jerusalem after his public ministry began, until he came to this last Passover Feast. We can see here how much the gospel story leaves out, for Jesus could not have said what he says here unless he had paid repeated visits to Jerusalem and issued to the people repeated appeals. A passage like this shows us that in the gospels we have the merest sketch and outline of the life of Jesus.
This passage shows us four great truths.
(i) It shows us the patience of God. Jerusalem had killed the prophets and stoned the messengers of God; yet God did not cast her off; and in the end he sent his Son. There is a limitless patience in the love of God which bears with men's sinning and will not cast them off.
(ii) It shows us the appeal of Jesus. Jesus speaks as the lover. He will not force an entry; the only weapon he can use is the appeal of love. He stands with outstretched hands of appeal, an appeal which men have the awful responsibility of being able to accept or to refuse.
(iii) It shows us the deliberation of the sin of man. Men looked on Christ in all the splendour of his appeal--and refused him. There is no handle on the outside of the door of the human heart; it must be opened from the inside; and sin is the open-eyed deliberate refusal of the appeal of God in Jesus Christ.
(iv) It shows us the consequences of rejecting Christ. Only forty years were to pass and in A.D. 70 Jerusalem would be a heap of ruins. That disaster was the direct consequence of the rejection of Jesus Christ. Had the Jews accepted the Christian way of love and abandoned the way of power politics, Rome would never have descended on them with its avenging might. It is the fact of history--even in time--that the nation which rejects God is doomed to disaster.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/matthew-23.html. 1956-1959.
Whosoever therefore shall swear by the altar,.... Not that Christ allowed of swearing by the altar, or by the temple, or by heaven, or by any creature, animate or inanimate; for such swearing is elsewhere disapproved of by him, and forbid, but if a man did swear by the altar, he ought to know, and consider that he not only
sweareth by it, but by all the gifts, and offerings that are brought, and laid upon it,
and by all things thereon; whatever gifts and sacrifices are offered upon it; which, by being put there, become holy, as the altar itself: so that he that swears by the altar, swears also by the gifts of the altar; and consequently, according to their own traditions, such oaths must be binding.
The New John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible Modernised and adapted for the computer by Larry Pierce of Online Bible. All Rights Reserved, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario.
A printed copy of this work can be ordered from: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1 Iron Oaks Dr, Paris, AR, 72855
Gill, John. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/matthew-23.html. 1999.
|The Crimes of the Pharisees.|
13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. 14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. 15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. 16 Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! 17 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? 18 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. 19 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? 20 Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. 21 And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. 22 And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon. 23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. 24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. 25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. 28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. 29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, 30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. 31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. 32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. 33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
In these verses we have eight woes levelled directly against the scribes and Pharisees by our Lord Jesus Christ, like so many claps of thunder, or flashes of lightning, from mount Sinai. Three woes are made to look very dreadful (Revelation 8:13; Revelation 9:12); but here are eight woes, in opposition to the eight beatitudes, Matthew 5:3. The gospel has its woes as well as the law, and gospel curses are of all curses the heaviest. These woes are the more remarkable, not only because of the authority, but because of the meekness and gentleness, of him that denounced them. He came to bless, and loved to bless; but, if his wrath be kindled, there is surely cause for it: and who shall entreat for him that the great Intercessor pleads against? A woe from Christ is a remediless woe.
This is here the burthen of the song, and it is a heavy burthen; Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. Note, 1. The scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites; that is it in which all the rest of their bad characters are summed up; it was the leaven which gave the relish to all they said and did. A hypocrite is a stage-player in religion (that is the primary signification of the word); he personates or acts the part of one that he neither is nor may be, or perhaps the he neither is nor would be. 2. That hypocrites are in a woeful state and condition. Woe to hypocrites; so he said whose saying that their case is miserable makes it so: while they live, their religion is vain; when they die, their ruin is great.
Now each of these woes against the scribes and Pharisees has a reason annexed to it containing a separate crime charged upon them, proving their hypocrisy, and justifying the judgment of Christ upon them; for his woes, his curses, are never causeless.
I. They were sworn enemies to the gospel of Christ, and consequently to the salvation of the souls of men (Matthew 23:13; Matthew 23:13); They shut up the kingdom of heaven against men, that is, they did all they could to keep people from believing in Christ, and so entering into his kingdom. Christ came to open the kingdom of heaven, that is, to lay open for us a new and living way into it, to bring men to be subjects of that kingdom. Now the scribes and Pharisees, who sat in Moses's seat, and pretended to the key of knowledge, ought to have contributed their assistance herein, by opening those scriptures of the Old Testament which pointed at the Messiah and his kingdom, in their true and proper sense; they that undertook to expound Moses and the prophets should have showed the people how they testified of Christ; that Daniel's weeks were expiring, the sceptre was departed from Judah, and therefore now was the time for the Messiah's appearing. Thus they might have facilitated that great work, and have helped thousands to heaven; but, instead of this, they shut up the kingdom of heaven; they made it their business to press the ceremonial law, which was now in the vanishing, to suppress the prophecies, which were now in the accomplishing, and to beget and nourish up in the minds of the people prejudices against Christ and his doctrine.
1. They would not go in themselves; Have any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed on him?John 7:48. No; they were to proud to stoop to his meanness, too formal to be reconciled to his plainness; they did not like a religion which insisted so much on humility, self-denial, contempt of the world, and spiritual worship. Repentance was the door of admission into this kingdom, and nothing could be more disagreeable to the Pharisees, who justified and admired themselves, than to repent, that is, to accuse and abase and abhor themselves; therefore they went not in themselves; but that was not all.
2. They would not suffer them that were entering to go in. It is bad to keep away from Christ ourselves, but it is worse to keep others from him; yet that is commonly the way of hypocrites; they do not love that any should go beyond them in religion, or be better than they. Their not going in themselves was a hindrance to many; for, they having so great an interest in the people, multitudes rejected the gospel only because their leaders did; but, besides that, they opposed both Christ's entertaining of sinners (Luke 7:39), and sinners' entertaining of Christ; they perverted his doctrine, confronted his miracles, quarrelled with his disciples, and represented him, and his institutes and economy, to the people in the most disingenuous, disadvantageous manner imaginable; they thundered out their excommunications against those that confessed him, and used all their wit and power to serve their malice against him; and thus they shut up the kingdom of heaven, so that they who would enter into it must suffer violence (Matthew 11:12; Matthew 11:12), and press into it (Luke 16:16), through a crowd of scribes and Pharisees, and all the obstructions and difficulties they could contrive to lay in their way. How well is it for us that our salvation is not entrusted in the hands of any man or company of men in the world! If it were, we should be undone. They that shut out of the church would shut out of heaven if they could; but the malice of men cannot make the promise of God to his chosen of no effect; blessed be God, it cannot.
II. They made religion and the form of godliness a cloak and stalking-horse to their covetous practices and desires, Matthew 23:14; Matthew 23:14. Observe here,
1. What their wicked practices were; they devoured widows' houses, either by quartering themselves and their attendants upon them for entertainment, which must be of the best for men of their figure; or by insinuating themselves into their affections, and so getting to be the trustees of their estates, which they could make an easy prey of; for who could presume to call such as they were to an account? The thing they aimed at was to enrich themselves; and, this being their chief and highest end, all considerations of justice and equity were laid aside, and even widows' houses were sacrificed to this. Widows are of the weaker sex in its weakest state, easily imposed upon; and therefore they fastened on them, to make a prey of. They devoured those whom, by the law of God, they were particularly obliged to protect, patronise, and relieve. There is a woe in the Old Testament to those that made widows their prey (Isaiah 10:1; Isaiah 10:2); and Christ here seconded it with his woe. God is the judge of the widows; they are his peculiar care, he establisheth their border (Proverbs 15:25), and espouseth their cause (Exodus 22:22; Exodus 22:23); yet these were they whose houses the Pharisees devoured by wholesale; so greedy were they to get their bellies filled with the treasures of wickedness! Their devouring denotes not only covetousness, but cruelty in their oppression, described Micah 3:3, They eat the flesh, and flay off the skin. And doubtless they did all this under colour of law; for they did it so artfully that it passed uncensured, and did not at all lessen the people's veneration for them.
2. What was the cloak with which they covered this wicked practice; For a pretence they made long prayers; very long indeed, if it be true which some of the Jewish writers tell us, that they spent three hours at a time in the formalities of meditation and prayer, and did it thrice every day, which is more than an upright soul, that makes a conscience of being inward with God in the duty, dares pretend ordinarily to do; but to the Pharisees it was easy enough, who never made a business of the duty, and always made a trade of the outside of it. By this craft they got their wealth, and maintained their grandeur. It is not probable that these long prayers were extemporary, for then (as Mr. Baxter observes) the Pharisees had much more the gift of prayer than Christ's disciples had; but rather that they were stated forms of words in use among them, which they said over by tale, as the papists drop their beads. Christ doth not here condemn long prayers, as in themselves hypocritical; nay if there were not a great appearance of good in them, they would not have been used for a pretence; and the cloak must be very thick which was used to cover such wicked practices. Christ himself continued all night in prayer to God, and we are commanded to pray without ceasing too soon; where there are many sins to be confessed, and many wants to pray for the supply of, and many mercies to give thanks for, there is occasion for long prayers. But the Pharisees' long prayers were made up of vain repetitions, and (which was the end of them) they were for a pretence; by them they got the reputation of pious devout men, that loved prayer, and were the favourites of Heaven; and by this means people were made to believe it was not possible that such men as they should cheat them;, and, therefore, happy the widow that could get a Pharisee for her trustee, and guardian to her children! Thus, while they seemed to soar heaven-ward, upon the wings of prayer, their eye, like the kite's, was all the while upon their prey on the earth, some widow's house or other that lay convenient for them. Thus circumcision was the cloak of the Shechemites' covetousness (Genesis 34:22; Genesis 34:23), the payment of a vow in Hebron the cover of Absalom's rebellion (2 Samuel 15:7), a fast in Jezreel must patronise Naboth's murder, and the extirpation of Baal is the footstool of Jehu's ambition. Popish priests, under pretence of long prayers for the dead, masses and dirges, and I know not what, enrich themselves by devouring the house of the widows and fatherless. Note, It is no new thing for the show and form of godliness to be made a cloak to the greatest enormities. But dissembled piety, however it passeth now, will be reckoned for as double iniquity, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men.
3. The doom passed upon them for this; Therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Note, (1.) There are degrees of damnation; there are some whose sin is more inexcusable, and whose ruin will therefore be more intolerable. (2.) The pretences of religion, with which hypocrites disguise or excuse their sin now, will aggravate their condemnation shortly. Such is the deceitfulness of sin, that the very thing by which sinners hope to expiate and atone for their sins will come against them, and make their sins more exceedingly sinful. But it is sad for the criminal, when his defence proves his offence, and his pleas (We have prophesied in thy name, and in thy name made long prayers) heightens the charge against him.
III. While they were such enemies to the conversion of souls to Christianity, they were very industrious in the perversion of them to their faction. They shut up the kingdom of heaven against those that would turn to Christ, but at the same time compassed sea and land to make proselytes to themselves, Matthew 23:15; Matthew 23:15. Observe here,
1. Their commendable industry in making proselytes to the Jewish religion, not only proselytes of the gate, who obliged themselves to no more than the observance of the seven precepts of the sons of Noah, but proselytes of righteousness, who addicted themselves wholly to all the rites of the Jewish religion, for that was the game they flew at; for this, for one such, though but one, they compass sea and land, had many a cunning reach, and laid many a plot, rode and run, and sent and wrote, and laboured unweariedly. And what did they aim at? Not the glory of God, and the good of souls; but that they might have the credit of making them proselytes, and the advantage of making a prey of them when they were made. Note, (1.) The making of proselytes, if it be to the truth and serious godliness, and be done with a good design, is a good work, well worthy of the utmost care and pains. Such is the value of souls, that nothing must be thought too much to do, to save a soul from death. The industry of the Pharisees herein may show the negligence of many who would be thought to act from better principles, but will be at no pains or cost to propagate the gospel. (2.) To make a proselyte, sea and land must be compassed; all ways and means must be tried; first one way, and then another, must be tried, all little enough; but all well paid, if the point be gained. (3.) Carnal hearts seldom shrink from the pains necessary to carry on their carnal purposes; when a proselyte is to be made to serve a turn for themselves, they will compass sea and land to make him, rather than be disappointed.
2. Their cursed impiety in abusing their proselytes when they were made; "Ye make him the disciple of a Pharisee presently, and he sucks in all a Pharisee's notions; and so ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." Note, (1.) Hypocrites, while they fancy themselves heirs of heaven, are, in the judgment of Christ, the children of hell. The rise of their hypocrisy is from hell, for the devil is the father of lies; and the tendency of their hypocrisy is toward hell, that is the country they belong to, the inheritance they are heirs to; they are called children of hell, because of their rooted enmity to the kingdom of heaven, which was the principle and genius of Pharisaism. (2.) Though all that maliciously oppose the gospel are children of hell, yet some are twofold more so than others, more furious and bigoted and malignant. (3.) Perverted proselytes are commonly the greatest bigots; the scholars outdid their masters, [1.] In fondness of ceremony; the Pharisees themselves saw the folly of their own impositions, and in their hearts smiled at the obsequiousness of those that conformed to them; but their proselytes were eager for them. Note, Weak heads commonly admire those shows and ceremonies which wise men (however for public ends they countenance them) cannot but think meanly of. [2.] In fury against Christianity; the proselytes readily imbibed the principles which their crafty leaders were not wanting to possess them with, and so became extremely hot against the truth. The most bitter enemies the apostles met with in all places were the Hellenist Jews, who were mostly proselytes, Acts 13:45; Acts 14:2-19; Acts 17:5; Acts 18:6. Paul, a disciple of the Pharisees, was exceedingly mad against the Christians (Acts 26:11), when his master, Gamaliel, seems to have been more moderate.
IV. Their seeking their own worldly gain and honour more than God's glory put them upon coining false and unwarrantable distinction, with which they led the people into dangerous mistakes, particularly in the matter of oaths; which, as an evidence of a universal sense of religion, have been by all nations accounted sacred (Matthew 23:16; Matthew 23:16); Ye blind guides. Note, 1. It is sad to think how many are under the guidance of such as are themselves blind, who undertake to show others that way which they are themselves willingly ignorant of. His watchmen are blind (Isaiah 56:10); and too often the people love to have it so, and say to the seers, See not. But the case is bad, when the leaders of the people cause them to err,Isaiah 9:16. 2. Though the condition of those whose guides are blind is very sad, yet that of the blind guides themselves is yet more woeful. Christ denounces a woe to the blind guides that have the blood of so many souls to answer for.
Now, to prove their blindness, he specifies the matter of swearing, and shows what corrupt casuists they were.
(1.) He lays down the doctrine they taught.
[1.] They allowed swearing by creatures, provided they were consecrated to the service of God, and stood in any special relation to him. They allowed swearing by the temple and the altar, though they were the work of men's hands, intended to be the servants of God's honour, not sharers in it. An oath is an appeal to God, to his omniscience and justice; and to make this appeal to any creature is to put that creature in the place of God. See Deuteronomy 6:13.
[2.] They distinguished between an oath by the temple and an oath by the gold of the temple; an oath by the altar and an oath by the gift upon the altar; making the latter binding, but not the former. Here was a double wickedness; First, That there were some oaths which they dispensed with, and made light of, and reckoned a man was not bound by to assert the truth, or perform a promise. They ought not to have sworn by the temple or the altar; but, when they had so sworn, they were taken in the words of their mouth. That doctrine cannot be of the God of truth which gives countenance to the breach of faith in any case whatsoever. Oaths are edge-tools and are not to be jested with. Secondly, That they preferred the gold before the temple, and the gift before the altar, to encourage people to bring gifts to the altar, and gold to the treasures of the temple, which they hoped to be gainers by. Those who had made gold their hope, and whose eyes were blinded by gifts in secret, were great friends to the Corban; and, gain being their godliness, by a thousand artifices they made religion truckle to their worldly interests. Corrupt church-guides make things to be sin or not sin as it serves their purposes, and lay a much greater stress on that which concerns their own gain than on that which is for God's glory and the good of souls.
(2.) He shows the folly and absurdity of this distinction (Matthew 23:17-19; Matthew 23:17-19); Ye fools, and blind. It was in the way of a necessary reproof, not an angry reproach, that Christ called them fools. Let it suffice us from the word of wisdom to show the folly of sinful opinions and practices: but, for the fastening of the character upon particular persons, leave that to Christ, who knows what is in man, and has forbidden us to say, Thou fool.
To convict them of folly, he appeals to themselves, Whether is greater, the gold (the golden vessels and ornaments, or the gold in the treasury) or the temple that sanctifies the gold; the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Any one will own, Propter quod aliquid est tale, id est magis tale--That, on account of which any thing is qualified in a particular way, must itself be much more qualified in the same way. They that sware by the gold of the temple had an eye to it as holy; but what was it that made it holy but the holiness of the temple, to the service of which it was appropriated? And therefore the temple cannot be less holy than the gold, but must be more so; for the less is blessed and sanctified of the better, Hebrews 7:7. The temple and altar were dedicated to God fixedly, the gold and gift but secondarily. Christ is our altar (Hebrews 13:10), our temple (John 2:21); for it is he that sanctifies all our gifts, and puts an acceptableness in them, 1 Peter 2:5. Those that put their own works into the place of Christ's righteousness in justification are guilty of the Pharisees' absurdity, who preferred the gift before the altar. Every true Christian is a living temple; and by virtue thereof common things are sanctified to him; unto the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15), and the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife,1 Corinthians 7:14.
(3.) He rectifies the mistake (Matthew 23:20-22; Matthew 23:20-22), by reducing all the oaths they had invented to the true intent of an oath, which is, By the name of the Lord: so that though an oath by the temple, or the altar, or heaven, be formally bad, yet it is binding. Quod fieri non debuit, factum valet--Engagements which ought not to have been made, are yet, when made, binding. A man shall never take advantage of his own fault.
[1.] He that swears by the altar, let him not think to shake off the obligation of it by saying, "The altar is but wood, and stone, and brass;" for his oath shall be construed most strongly against himself; because he was culpable, and so as that the obligation of it may be preserved, ut res potius valeat quam pereat--the obligation being hereby strengthened rather than destroyed. And therefore an oath by the altar shall be interpreted by it and by all things thereon; for the appurtenances pass with the principal. And, the things thereon being offered up to God, to swear by it and them was, in effect, to call God himself to witness: for it was the altar of God; and he that went to that, went to God, Psalms 43:4; Psalms 26:6.
[2.] He that swears by the temple, if he understand what he does, cannot but apprehend that the ground of such a respect to it, is, not because it is a fine house, but because it is the house of God, dedicated to his service, the place which he has chosen to put his name there; and therefore he swears by it, and by him that dwells therein; there he was pleased in a peculiar manner to manifest himself, and give tokens of his presence; so that whoso swears by it, swears by him who had said, This is my rest, here will I dwell. Good Christians are God's temples, and the Spirit of God dwells in them (1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19), and God takes what is done to them as done to himself; he that grieves a gracious soul, grieves it and the Spirit that dwells in it. Ephesians 4:30.
[3.] If a man swears by heaven, he sins (Matthew 5:34; Matthew 5:34); yet he shall not therefore be discharged from the obligation of his oath; no, God will make him know that the heaven he swears by, is his throne (Isaiah 66:1); and he that swears by the throne, appeals to him that sits upon it; who, as he resents the affront done to him in the form of the oath, so he will certainly revenge the greater affront done to him by the violation of it. Christ will not countenance the evasion of a solemn oath, though ever so plausible.
V. They were very strict and precise in the smaller matters of the law, but as careless and loose in the weightier matters, Matthew 23:23; Matthew 23:24. They were partial in the law (Malachi 2:9), would pick and choose their duty, according as they were interested or stood affected. Sincere obedience is universal, and he that from a right principle obeys any of God's precepts, will have respect to them all, Psalms 119:6. But hypocrites, who act in religion for themselves, and not for God, will do no more in religion than they can serve a turn by for themselves. The partiality of the scribes and Pharisees appears here, in two instances.
1. They observed smaller duties, but omitted greater; they were very exact in paying tithes, till it came to mint, anise, and cummin, their exactness in tithing of which would not cost them much, but would be cried up, and they should buy reputation cheap. The Pharisee boasted of this, I give tithes of all that I possess,Luke 18:12. But it is probable that they had ends of their own to serve, and would find their own account in it; for the priests and Levites, to whom the tithes were paid, were in their interests, and knew how to return their kindness. Paying tithes was their duty, and what the law required; Christ tells them they ought not to leave it undone. Note, All ought in their places to contribute to the support and maintenance of a standing ministry: withholding tithes is called robbing God,Malachi 2:8-10. They that are taught in the word, and do not communicate to them that teach them that love a cheap gospel, come short of the Pharisee.
But that which Christ here condemns them for, is, that they omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith; and their niceness in paying tithes, was, if not to atone before God, yet at least to excuse end palliate to men the omission of those. All the things of God's law are weighty, but those are most weighty, which are most expressive of inward holiness in the heart; the instances of self-denial, contempt of the world, and resignation to God, in which lies the life of religion. Judgment and mercy toward men, and faith toward God, are the weightier matters of the law, the good things which the Lord our God requires (Micah 6:8); to do justly, and love mercy, and humble ourselves by faith to walk with God. This is the obedience which is better than sacrifice or tithe; judgment is preferred before sacrifice, Isaiah 1:11. To be just to the priests in their tithe, and yet to cheat and defraud every body else, is but to mock God, and deceive ourselves. Mercy also is preferred before sacrifice, Hosea 6:6. To feed those who made themselves fat with the offering of the Lord, and at the same time to shut up the bowels of compassion from a brother or a sister that is naked, and destitute of daily food, to pay tithe-mint to the priest, and to deny a crumb to Lazarus, is to lie open to that judgment without mercy, which is awarded to those who pretended to judgment, and showed no mercy; nor will judgment and mercy serve without faith in divine revelation; for God will be honoured in his truths as well as in his laws.
2. They avoided lesser sins, but committed greater (Matthew 23:24; Matthew 23:24); Ye blind guides; so he had called them before (Matthew 23:16; Matthew 23:16), for their corrupt teaching; here he calls them so for their corrupt living, for their example was leading as well as their doctrine; and in this also they were blind and partial; they strained at a gnat, and swallowed a camel. In their doctrine they strained at gnats, warned people against every the least violation of the tradition of the elders. In their practice they strained at gnats, heaved at them, with a seeming dread, as if they had a great abhorrence of sin, and were afraid of it in the least instance; but they made no difficulty of those sins which, in comparison with them, were as a camel to a gnat; when they devoured widows' houses, they did indeed swallow a camel; when they gave Judas the price of innocent blood, and yet scrupled to put the returned money into the treasury (Matthew 27:6; Matthew 27:6); when they would not go into the judgment-hall, for fear of being defiled, and yet would stand at the door, and cry out against the holy Jesus (John 18:28); when they quarrelled with the disciples for eating with unwashen hands, and yet, for the filling of the Corban, taught people to break the fifth commandment, they strained at gnats, or lesser things, and yet swallowed camels. It is not the scrupling of a little sin that Christ here reproves; if it be a sin, though but a gnat, it must be strained at, but the doing of that, and then swallowing a camel. In the smaller matters of the law to be superstitious, and to be profane in the greater, is the hypocrisy here condemned.
VI. They were all for the outside, and not at all for the inside, of religion. They were more desirous and solicitous to appear pious to men than to approve themselves so toward God. This is illustrated by two similitudes.
1. They are compared to a vessel that is clean washed on the outside, but all dirt within, Matthew 23:25; Matthew 23:26. The Pharisees placed religion in that which at best was but a point of decency--the washing of cups,Mark 7:4. They were in care to eat their meat in clean cups and platters, but made no conscience of getting their meat by extortion, and using it to excess. Now what a foolish thing would it be for a man to wash only the outside of a cup, which is to be looked at, and to leave the inside dirty, which is to be used; so they do who only avoid scandalous sins, that would spoil their reputation with men, but allow themselves in heart-wickedness, which renders them odious to the pure and holy God. In reference to his, observe,
(1.) The practice of the Pharisees; they made clean the outside. In those things which fell under the observation of their neighbours, they seemed very exact, and carried on their wicked intrigues with so much artifice, that their wickedness was not suspected; people generally took them for very good men. But within, in the recesses of their hearts and the close retirements of their lives, they were full of extortion and excess; of violence and incontinence (so Dr. Hammond); that is, of injustice and intemperance. While they would seem to be godly, they were neither sober nor righteous. Their inward part was very wickedness (Psalms 5:9); and that we are really, which we are inwardly.
(2.) The rule Christ gives, in opposition to this practice, Matthew 23:26; Matthew 23:26. It is addressed to the blind Pharisees. They thought themselves the seers of the land, but (John 9:39) Christ calls them blind. Note, those are blind, in Christ's account who (how quick-sighted soever they are in other things) are strangers, and no enemies, to the wickedness of their own hearts; who see not, and hate not, the secret sin that lodgeth there. Self-ignorance is the most shameful and hurtful ignorance, Revelation 3:17. The rule is, Cleanse first that which is within. Note, the principal care of every one of us should be to wash our hearts from wickedness, Jeremiah 4:14. The main business of a Christian lies within, to get cleansed from the filthiness of the spirit. Corrupt affections and inclinations, the secret lusts that lurk in the soul, unseen and unobserved, these must first be mortified and subdued. Those sins must be conscientiously abstained from, which the eye of God only is a witness to, who searcheth the heart.
Observe the method prescribed; Cleanse first that which is within not that only, but that first; because, if due care be taken concerning that, the outside will be clean also. External motives and inducements may keep the outside clean, while the inside is filthy; but if renewing, sanctifying grace make clean the inside, that will have an influence upon the outside, for the commanding principle is within. If the heart be well kept, all is well, for out of it are the issues of life; the eruptions will vanish of course. If the heart and spirit be made new, there will be a newness of life; here therefore we must begin with ourselves; first cleanse that which is within; we then make sure work, when this is our first work.
2. They are compared to whited sepulchres,Matthew 23:27; Matthew 23:28.
(1.) They were fair without, like sepulchres, which appear beautiful outward. Some make it to refer to the custom of the Jews to whiten graves, only for the notifying of them, especially if they were in unusual places, that people might avoid them, because of the ceremonial pollution contracted by the touch of a grave, Numbers 19:16. And it was part of the charge of the overseers of the highways, to repair that whitening when it was decayed. Sepulchres were thus made remarkable, 2 Kings 23:16; 2 Kings 23:17. The formality of hypocrites, by which they study to recommend themselves to the world, doth but make all wise and good men the more careful to avoid them, for fear of being defiled by them. Beware of the scribes,Luke 20:46. It rather alludes to the custom of whitening the sepulchres of eminent persons, for the beautifying of them. It is said here (Matthew 23:29; Matthew 23:29), that they garnished the sepulchres of the righteous; as it is usual with us to erect monuments upon the graves of great persons, and to strew flowers on the graves of dear friends. Now the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was like the ornaments of a grave, or the dressing up of a dead body, only for show. The top of their ambition was to appear righteous before men, and to be applauded and had in admiration by them. But,
(2.) They were foul within, like sepulchres, full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness: so vile are our bodies, when the soul has deserted them! Thus were they full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Hypocrisy is the worst iniquity of all other. Note, It is possible for those that have their hearts full of sin, to have their lives free from blame, and to appear very good. But what will it avail us, to have the good word of our fellow-servants, if our Master doth not say, Well done? When all other graves are opened, these whited sepulchres will be looked into, and the dead men's bones, and all the uncleanness, shall be brought out, and be spread before all the host of heaven,Jeremiah 8:1; Jeremiah 8:2. For it is the day when God shall judge, not the shows, but the secrets, of men. And it will then be small comfort to them who shall have their portion with hypocrites, to remember how creditably and plausibly they went to hell, applauded by all their neighbours.
VII. They pretended a deal of kindness for the memory of the prophets that were dead and gone, while they hated and persecuted those that were present with them. This is put last, because it was the blackest part of their character. God is jealous for his honour in his laws and ordinances, and resents it if they be profaned and abused; but he has often expressed an equal jealousy for his honour in his prophets and ministers, and resents it worse if they be wronged and persecuted: and therefore, when our Lord Jesus comes to this head, he speaks more fully than upon any of the other (Matthew 23:29-37; Matthew 23:29-37); for that toucheth his ministers, toucheth his Anointed, and toucheth the apple of his eye. Observe here,
1. The respect which the scribes and Pharisees pretend for the prophets that were gone, Matthew 23:29; Matthew 23:30. This was the varnish, and that in which they outwardly appeared righteous.
(1.) They honoured the relics of the prophets, they built their tombs, and garnished their sepulchres. It seems, the places of their burial were known, David's sepulchre was with them, Acts 2:29. There was a title upon the sepulchre of the man of God (2 Kings 23:17), and Josiah thought it respect enough not to move his bones,Matthew 23:18; Matthew 23:18. But they would do more, rebuild and beautify them. Now consider this, [1.] As an instance of honour done to deceased prophets, who, while they lived, were counted as the off-scouring of all things, and had all manner of evil spoken against them falsely. Note, God can extort, even from bad men, an acknowledgment of the honour of piety and holiness. Them that honour God he will honour, and sometimes with those from whom contempt is expected, 2 Samuel 6:22. The memory of the just is blessed, when the names of those that hated and persecuted them shall be covered with shame. The honour of constancy and resolution in the way of duty will be a lasting honour; and those that are manifest to God, will be manifest in the consciences of those about them. [2.] As an instance of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, who paid their respect to them. Note, Carnal people can easily honour the memories of faithful ministers that are dead and gone, because they do not reprove them, nor disturb them, in their sins. Dead prophets are seers that see not, and those they can bear well enough; they do not torment them, as the living witnesses do, that bear their testimony viva voce--with a living voice,Revelation 11:10. They can pay respect to the writings of the dead prophets, which tell them what they should be; but not the reproofs of the living prophets, which tell them what they are. Sit divus, modo non sit vivus--Let there be saints; but let them not be living here. The extravagant respect which the church of Rome pays to the memory of saints departed, especially the martyrs, dedicating days and places to their names, enshrining their relics, praying to them, and offering to their images, while they make themselves drunk with the blood of the saints of their own day, is a manifest proof that they not only succeed, but exceed, the scribes and Pharisees in a counterfeit hypocritical religion, which builds the prophets' tombs, but hates the prophets' doctrine.
(2.) They protested against the murder of them (Matthew 23:30; Matthew 23:30); If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them. They would never have consented to the silencing of Amos, and the imprisonment of Micaiah, to the putting of Hanani in the stocks, and Jeremiah in the dungeon, to the stoning of Zechariah, the mocking of all the messengers of the Lord, and the abuses put upon his prophets; no, not they, they would sooner have lost their right hands than have done any such thing. What, is thy servant a dog? And yet they were at this time plotting to murder Christ, to whom all the prophets bore witness. They think, if they had lived in the days of the prophets, they would have heard them gladly and obeyed; and yet they rebelled against the light that Christ brought into the world. But it is certain, a Herod and an Herodias to John the Baptist, would have been an Ahab and a Jezebel to Elijah. Note, The deceitfulness of sinners' hearts appears very much in this, that, while they go down the stream of the sins of their own day, they fancy they should have swum against the stream of the sins of the former days; that, if they had had other people's opportunities, they should have improved them more faithfully; if they had been in other people's temptations, they should have resisted them more vigorously; when yet they improve not the opportunities they have, nor resist the temptations they are in. We are sometimes thinking, if we had lived when Christ was upon earth, how constantly we would have followed him; we would not have despised and rejected him, as they then did; and yet Christ in his Spirit, in his word, in his ministers, is still no better treated.
2. Their enmity and opposition to Christ and his gospel, notwithstanding, and the ruin they were bringing upon themselves and upon that generation thereby, Matthew 23:31-33; Matthew 23:31-33. Observe here,
(1.) The indictment proved; Ye are witnesses against yourselves. Note, Sinners cannot hope to escape the judgment of Christ for want of proof against them, when it is easy to find them witnesses against themselves; and their very pleas will not only be overruled, but turned to their conviction, and their own tongues shall be made to fall upon them,Psalms 64:8.
[1.] By their own confession, it was the great wickedness of their forefathers, to kill the prophets; so that they knew the fault of it, and yet were themselves guilty of the same fact. Note, They who condemn sin in others, and yet allow the same or worse in themselves, are of all others most inexcusable, Romans 1:32-2. They knew they ought not to have been partakers with persecutors, and yet were the followers of them. Such self-contradictions now will amount to self-condemnations in the great day. Christ puts another construction upon their building of the tombs of the prophets than what they intended; as if by beautifying their graves they justified their murderers (Luke 11:48), for they persisted in the sin.
[2.] By their own confession, these notorious persecutors were their ancestors; Ye are the children of them. They meant no more than that they were their children by blood and nature; but Christ turns it upon them;, that they were so by spirit and disposition; You are of those fathers, and their lusts you will do. They are, as you say, your fathers, and you patrizare--take after your fathers; it is the sin that runs in the blood among you. As your fathers did, so do ye,Acts 7:51. They came of a persecuting race, were a seed of evil doers (Isaiah 1:4), risen up in their fathers' stead,Numbers 32:14. Malice, envy, and cruelty, were bred in the bone with them, and they had formerly espoused it for a principle, to do as their fathers did,Jeremiah 44:17. And it is observable here (Matthew 23:30; Matthew 23:30) how careful they are to mention the relation; "They were our fathers, that killed the prophets, and they were men in honour and power, whose sons and successors we are." If they had detested the wickedness of their ancestors, as they ought to have done, they would not have been so fond to call them their fathers; for it is no credit to be akin to persecutors, though they have ever so much dignity and dominion.
(2.) The sentence passed upon them. Christ here proceeds,
[1.] To give them up to sin as irreclaimable (Matthew 23:32; Matthew 23:32); Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. If Ephraim be joined to idols, and hate to be reformed, let him alone. He that is filthy, let him be filthy still. Christ knew they were now contriving his death, and in a few days would accomplish it; "Well," saith he, "go on with your plot, take your curse, walk in the way of your heart and in the sight of your eyes, and see what will come of it. What thou doest, do quickly. You will but fill up the measure of guilt, which will then overflow in a deluge of wrath." Note, First, There is a measure of sin to be filled up, before utter ruin comes upon persons and families, churches and nations. God will bear long, but the time will come when he can no longer forbear,Jeremiah 44:22. We read of the measure of the Amorites that was to be filled (Genesis 15:16), of the harvest of the earth being ripe for the sickle (Revelation 14:15-19), and of sinners making an end to deal treacherously, arriving at a full stature in treachery, Isaiah 33:1. Secondly, Children fill up the measure of their fathers' sins whey they are gone, if they persist in the same or the like. That national guilt which brings national ruin is made up of the sin of many in several ages, and in the successions of societies there is a score going on; for God justly visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children that tread in the steps of it. Thirdly, Persecuting Christ, and his people and ministers, is a sin that fills the measure of a nation's guilt sooner than any other. This was it that brought wrath without remedy upon the fathers (2 Chronicles 36:16), and wrath to the utmost upon the children too, 1 Thessalonians 2:16. This was that fourth transgression, of which, when added to the other three, the Lord would not turn away the punishment,Amos 1:3; Amos 1:6; Amos 1:9; Amos 1:11; Amos 1:13. Fourthly, It is just with God to give those up to their own heart's lusts, who obstinately persist in the gratification of them. Those who will run headlong to ruin, let the reins be laid on their neck, and it is the saddest condition a man can be in on this side hell.
[2.] He proceeds to give them up to ruin as irrecoverable, to a personal ruin in the other world (Matthew 23:33; Matthew 23:33); Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? These are strange words to come from the mouth of Christ, into whose lips grace was poured. But he can and will speak terror, and in these words he explains and sums up the eight woes he had denounced against the scribes and Pharisees.
Here is, First, Their description; Ye serpents. Doth Christ call names? Yes, but this doth not warrant us to do so. He infallibly knew what was in man, and knew them to be subtle as serpents, cleaving to the earth, feeding on dust; they had a specious outside, but were within malignant, had poison under their tongues, the seed of the old serpent. They were a generation of vipers; they and those that went before them, they and those that joined with them, were a generation of envenomed, enraged, spiteful adversaries to Christ and his gospel. They loved to be called of men, Rabbi, rabbi, but Christ calls them serpents and vipers; for he gives men their true characters, and delights to put contempt upon the proud.
Secondly, Their doom. He represents their condition as very sad, and in a manner desperate; How can ye escape the damnation of hell? Christ himself preached hell and damnation, for which his ministers have often been reproached by those that care not to hear of it. Note, 1. The damnation of hell will be the fearful end of all impenitent sinners. This doom coming from Christ, was more terrible than coming from all the prophets and ministers that ever were, for he is the Judge, into whose hands the keys of hell and death are put, and his saying they were damned, made them so. 2. There is a way of escaping this damnation, this is implied here; some are delivered from the wrath to come. 3. Of all sinners, those who are of the spirit of the scribes and Pharisees, are least likely to escape this damnation; for repentance and faith are necessary to that escape; and how will they be brought to these, who are so conceited of themselves, and so prejudiced against Christ and his gospel, as they were? How could they be healed and saved, who could not bear to have their wound searched, nor the balm of Gilead applied to it? Publicans and harlots, who were sensible of their disease and applied themselves to the Physician, were more likely to escape the damnation of hell than those who, though they were in the high road to it, were confident they were in the way to heaven.
These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
Henry, Matthew. "Complete Commentary on Matthew 23:20". "Henry's Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/matthew-23.html. 1706.
We now enter on the Lord's final presentation of Himself to Jerusalem, traced, however, from Jericho; that is, from the city which had once been the stronghold of the power of the Canaanite. The Lord Jesus presenting Himself in grace, instead of sealing up the curse which had been pronounced on it, makes it contrariwise the witness of His mercy towards those who believed in Israel. It was there that two blind men (for Matthew, we have seen, abounds in this double token of the Lord's grace), sitting by the wayside, cried out, and most appropriately, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David!" They were led and taught of God. It was no question of law, yet strictly in His capacity of Messiah. Their appeal was in thorough keeping with the scene; they felt that the nation had no sense of its own blindness, and so addressed themselves at once to the Lord thus presenting Himself where divine power wrought of old. It is remarkable that, although there had been signs and wonders given from time to time in Israel, miraculous cures wrought, dead even raised to life, and leprosy cleansed, yet never, previously to the Messiah, do we hear of restoring the blind to sight. The Rabbis held that this was reserved for the Messiah; and certainly I am not aware of any case which contradicts their notion. They appear to have founded it upon the remarkable prophecy of Isaiah. (Isaiah 35:1-10) I do not affirm that the prophecy proves their notion to be true in isolating that miracle from the rest; but it is evident that the Spirit of God does connect emphatically the opening of blind eyes with the Son of David, as part of the blessing that He will surely diffuse when He comes to reign over the earth.
What appears further here is, that Jesus does not put the blessing off till His reign. Undoubtedly, the Lord in those days was giving signs and tokens of the world to come; and it was continued by His servants afterwards, as we know from the end of Mark, the Acts, etc. The miraculous powers which He exercised were samples of the power which would fill the earth with Jehovah's glory, casting out the enemy, and effacing the traces of his power, and making it the theatre of the manifestation of His kingdom here below. Thus our Lord gives evidence that the power was in Himself already, so that they need not lack because the kingdom was not yet come, in the full, manifest sense of the word. The kingdom was then come in His own person, as is said by Matthew (Matthew 12:1-50) as well as Luke. Still less did the blessing tarry for the sons of men. Virtue went forth at His kingly touch: this, at least, did not depend on the recognition of His claims by His people. He takes up this sign of Messiah's grace the opening of the eyes of the blind, itself no mean sign of the true condition of the Jews, could they but feel and own the truth. Alas! they sought not mercy and healing at His hands; but if there were any to call on Him at Jericho, the Lord would hearken. Here, then, Messiah answers to the cry of faith of these two blind men. When the multitude rebuked them, that they should hold their peace, they cried the more. The difficulties presented to faith only increased the energy of its desire; and so they cried, "Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David!" Jesus stands, calls the blind men, and says, "What will ye that I should do?" "Lord, that our eyes should be opened." And so it was according to their faith. Moreover, it is noted that .they follow Him, the pledge of what will be done when the people, by-and-by owning their blindness, and turning to Him for eyes, receive sight from the true Son of David to see Himself in the day of His earthly glory.
Matthew 21:1-46. The Lord thereon enters Jerusalem according to prophecy. He enters it, however, not in the outward pomp and glory which the nations seek after, but according to what the prophet's words now made good literally: Jehovah's King sitting on an ass in the spirit of humiliation. But even in this very thing, the fullest proof was afforded that He was Jehovah Himself. From first to last, as we have seen, it was Jehovah-Messiah. The word to the owner of the ass and colt was, "The Lord hath need of them." Accordingly, on this plea of Jehovah of hosts, all difficulties disappear, though unbelief finds there its stumbling-block. It was indeed the power of the Spirit of God that controlled his heart; even as to Christ "the porter opened." God left nothing undone on any side, but so ordered that the heart of this Israelite should yield a testimony that grace was at work, spite of the lamentable chill that stupefied the people. How good it is thus to raise up a witness, never indeed to leave it absolutely lacking, not even on the road to Jerusalem alas! the road to the cross of Christ. This, as we are told by the evangelist, came to pass that the word of the prophet should be fulfilled: "Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek [for such meekness was the character of His presentation as yet], and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass." All must be in character with the Nazarene. Accordingly, the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded. The multitudes, too, were acted on a very great multitude. It was, of course, but a transient action, yet was it of God for a testimony, this moving of hearts by the Spirit. Not that it penetrated beneath the surface, but was rather a wave that passed over men's hearts, and then was gone. For the moment they followed, crying, "Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!" (applying to the Lord the congratulations of Psalms 118:1-29)
Jesus, according to our evangelist's account, comes to the temple and cleanses it. Remark the order as well as character of the events. In Mark this is not the first act which is recorded, but the curse on the barren fig tree, between His inspection of all things in the temple and His ejection of those who profaned it. The fact is, there were two days or occasions in which the fig tree comes before us, according to the gospel of Mark, who gives us the details more particularly than any one, notwithstanding his brevity. Matthew, on the contrary, while he is so careful in furnishing us frequently with a double witness of the Lord's gracious ways toward His land and people, gives only as one whole His dealing with both the fig tree and the temple. We should not know from the first evangelist of any interval in either case; nor could we learn from either the first or the third but that the cleansing of the temple occurred on His earlier visit. But we know from Mark, who sets forth an exact account of each of the two days, that in neither case was all done at once. This is the more remarkable because, in the instances of the two demoniacs, or the two blind men in Matthew, Mark, like Luke, speaks only of one. Nothing can account for such phenomena but design; and the more so as there is no ground to assume that each succeeding evangelist was kept in ignorance of his predecessor's account of our Lord. It is evident that Matthew compresses in one the two acts about the temple, as well as about the fig tree. His scope excluded such details, and, I am persuaded, rightly so, according to the mind of God's Spirit. It may render it all the more striking when one observes that Matthew was there, and Mark was not. He who actually saw these transactions, and who therefore, had he been a mere acting human witness, would peculiarly have dwelt on them; he, too, who had been a personal companion of the Lord, and therefore, had it been only a question of treasuring all up as one that loved the Lord, would, naturally speaking, have been the one of the three to have presented the amplest and minutest picture of the circumstance, is just the one who does nothing of the kind. Mark, as confessedly not being an eye-witness, might have been supposed to content himself with the general view. The reverse is the fact unquestionably. This is a notable feature, and not here alone, but elsewhere also. To me it proves that the gospels are the fruit of divine purpose in all, distinctively in each. It establishes the principle that, while God condescended to employ eye-witness, He never confined Himself to it, but, on the contrary, took full and particular care to shew that He is above all creature means of information. Thus it is in Mark and Luke we find some of the most important details; not in Matthew and John, though Matthew and John were eyewitnesses, Mark and Luke not. A double proof of this appears in what has been just advanced. To Matthew, acting according to what was given him of the Spirit, there was no sufficient reason to enter into points which did not bear dispensationally upon Israel. He therefore, as often elsewhere, presents the entrance into the temple in its completeness, as being the sole matter important to his aim. Any thoughtful mind must allow, if I do not greatly err, that entrance into detail would rather detract from the augustness of the act. The minute account has its just place, on the other hand, if it be a question of the Lord's method and bearing in His service and testimony. Here I want to know the particulars; there every trace and shade are full of instruction to me. If I have to serve Him, I do well to learn and ponder His every word and way; and in this the style and mode of Mark's gospel is invaluable. Who but feels that the movements, the pauses, the sighs, the groans, the very looks of the Lord, are fraught with blessing to the soul? But if, as with Matthew, the object be the great change of dispensation consequent on the rejection of the divine Messiah, (particularly if the point, as here, be not the opening out of coming mercy, but, on the contrary, a solemn and a stern judgment on Israel,) the Spirit of God contents Himself with a general notice of the painful scene, without indulging in any circumstantial account of it.
To this it is I attribute the palpable difference in this place of Matthew as compared with Mark, and with Luke also, who omits the cursed fig tree altogether, and gives the barest mention of the temple's cleansing (Matt. 19: 45). The notion of some men, especially a few men of learning, that the difference is due to ignorance on the part of one or other or all the evangelists, is of all explanations the worst, and even the least reasonable (to take the lowest ground); it is in plain truth the proof of their own ignorance, and the effect of positive unbelief. What I have ventured to suggest I believe to be a motive, and an adequate motive, for the difference; but we must remember that divine wisdom has depths of aim infinitely beyond our ability to sound. God may be pleased to vouchsafe us a perception of what is in His mind, if we be lowly, and diligent., and dependent on Him; or He may leave us ignorant of much, where we are careless or self-confident; but sure I am that the very points men ordinarily fix on as blots or imperfections in the inspired word are, when understood, among the strongest proofs of the admirable guidance of the Holy Spirit of God. Nor do I speak with such assurance because of the least satisfaction in any attainments, but because every lesson I have learnt and do learn from God's word brings with it the ever accumulating conviction that Scripture is perfect. For the question in hand, it is enough to produce sufficient evidence that it was not in ignorance, but with full knowledge, that Matthew, Mark, and Luke wrote as they have done; I go farther, and say it was divine intention, rather than, as I conceive, any determinate plan of each evangelist, who may not himself have had before his mind the full scope of what the Holy Ghost gave him to write about it. There is no necessity to suppose that Matthew deliberately designed the result which we have in his gospel. How God brought it all to pass is another question, which, of course, it is not for us to answer. But the fact is, that the evangelist, who was present, he who consequently was an eyewitness of the details, does not give them; while one who was not there states them with the greatest particularity thoroughly harmonious with the account of him who was there, but, nevertheless, with differences as marked as their mutual corroborations. If we might rightly use, in this case, the word "originality," then originality is stamped upon the account of the second. I affirm, then, in the strictest sense, that divine design is stamped upon each, and that consistency of purpose is found everywhere in all the gospels.
The Lord then goes straight to the sanctuary. The kingly Son of David, destined to sit as the Priest upon His throne, the head of all things sacred as well as pertaining to the polity of Israel, we can understand why Matthew should describe such an One visiting the temple of Jerusalem; and why, instead of stopping, like Mark, to narrate that which attests His patient service, the whole scene should be given here without a break. We have seen that a similar principle accounts for the massing of the facts of His ministry in the end of the fourth chapter, and also for giving as a continuous whole the Sermon on the Mount, although, if we enquired into details, we might find many and considerable intervals; for, as undoubtedly those facts were grouped, so I believe also it was between the parts of that sermon. It fell in, however, with the object of Matthew's gospel to pass by all notice of these interstices, and so the Spirit of God has been pleased to interweave the whole into the beautiful web of the first gospel. In this way, as I believe, we may and should account for the difference between Matthew and Mark in this particular, without in the smallest degree casting the shadow of an imperfection upon one any more than on the other; while the fact, already pressed, that eye-witnessing, while employed as a servant, is never allowed to govern in the composition of the gospels, bespeaks loudly that men forget their true Author in searching into the writers He employed, and that the only key to all difficulties is the simple but weighty truth that it was God communicating His mind about Jesus, as by Matthew so by Mark.
Next, the Lord acts upon the word. He finds men selling and buying in the temple (that is, in its buildings) overthrows their tables, and turns out themselves, pronouncing the words of the prophets, both Isaiah and Jeremiah. But at the same time there is another trait noted here only: the blind and the lame (the "hated of David's soul,"2 Samuel 5:8; 2 Samuel 5:8) the pitied of David's greater Son and Lord) find a friend instead of an enemy in Him who loved them, the true beloved of God. Thus, at the very time He showed His hatred and righteous indignation at the covetous profaning of the temple, His love was flowing out to the desolate in Israel. Then we see the chief priests and scribes offended at the cries of the multitude and children, and turning reproachfully to the Lord, who allowed such a right royal welcome to be addressed to Him; but the Lord calmly takes His place according to the sure word of God. It is not now Deuteronomy that is before Him ( that He had quoted when tempted of Satan at the beginning of His career). But now, as they had borrowed the words of Psalms 118:1-29 (and who will say they were wrong?), so the Lord Jesus (and I say He was infinitely right) applies to them, as well as to Himself, the language ofPsalms 8:1-9; Psalms 8:1-9. Its central truth is the entrance of the rejected Messiah, the Son of man by humiliation and suffering unto death, into heavenly glory and dominion over all things. And this was just the point before the Lord: the little ones were thus in the truth and spirit of that oracle. They were sucklings, out of whose mouth praise was ordained for the despised Messiah soon to be in heaven, exalted there and preached here as the once crucified and now glorified Son of man. What could be more appropriate to that time, what more profoundly true for all time, yea, for eternity?
Matthew, as we have seen, crowds into one scene all mention of the barren fig tree (ver. 18-22), without distinguishing the curse of the one day from the manifestation of its accomplishment on the day following. Was it without moral import? Impossible. Did it convey the notion of a hearty and true reception of the Messiah, with fruits meet for His hand who had so long tended it, and failed in no care or culture? Was there anything answering to the welcome of the little ones who cried Hosanna, the type of what grace will effect in the day of His return, when the nation itself will contentedly, thankfully take the place of babes and sucklings, and find their best wisdom in so owning the One whom their fathers rejected, the man thereon exalted to heaven during the night of His people's unbelief? Meanwhile, another picture better suits them, the state and the doom of the fruitless fig tree. Why so scornful of the jubilant multitude, of the joyous babes? What was their condition before the eyes of Him who saw all that passed within their minds? They were no better than that fig tree, that solitary fig tree which met the Lord's eyes as He comes from Bethany, entering once more into Jerusalem. Like it, they, too, were full of promise; like its abundant foliage, they lacked not fair profession, but there was no fruit. That which made its barrenness evident was the fact that it was not yet the time of figs. Therefore, the unripe figs, the harbinger of harvest, ought to have been there. Had the season of figs been come, the fruit might have been already gathered; but that season having not yet arrived, beyond controversy the promise of the coming harvest should, and indeed must, have been still there, had any fruit been really borne. This, therefore, represented too truly what the Jew, what the nation, was in the eye of the Lord. He had come seeking fruit; but there was none; and the Lord pronounced this curse, "Henceforth let no fruit grow on thee for ever." And so it is. No fruit ever sprang from that generation. Another generation there must be; a total change must be wrought if there is to be fruit-bearing. Fruit of righteousness can only be through Jesus to God's glory; and Jesus they yet despised. Not that the Lord will give up Israel, but He will create a generation to come wholly different from the present Christ-rejecting one. Such an issue will be seen to be implied, if we compare our Lord's curse with the rest of the word of God, which points to better things yet in store for Israel.
But He adds more than this. It was not only that the Israel of that day should thus pass away, giving place to another generation, who, honouring the Messiah, will bear fruit to God; He tells the wondering disciples that, had they faith, the mountain would be cast into the sea. This appears to go farther than the disappearance of Israel as responsible to be a fruit-bearing people; it implies their whole polity dissolved; for the mountain is just as much the symbol of a power in the earth, an established world-power, as the fig tree is the special sign of Israel as responsible to produce' fruit for God; and it is clear that both figures have been abundantly verified. For the time Israel is passed away. After no long interval, the disciples saw Jerusalem not only taken, but completely torn as it were from the roots. The Romans came, as the executioners of the sentence of God (according to the just forebodings of the unjust high priest Caiaphas, who prophesied not without the Holy Ghost), and took away their place and nation, not because they did not, but because they did, kill Jesus their Messiah. Notoriously this total ruin of the Jewish state came to pass when the disciples had grown up to be 'a public witness to the world, before the apostles were all taken away from the earth; then their whole national polity sunk and disappeared when Titus sacked Jerusalem, and sold and scattered the people to the ends of the earth. I have no doubt that the Lord intended us to know the uprooting of the mountain just as much as the withering of the fig tree. The latter may be the simpler application of the two, and evidently more familiar to ordinary thought; but there seems no real reason to question, that if the one be meant symbolically, so too is the other. However this may be, these words of the Lord close that part of the subject.
We enter upon a new series in the rest of this chapter and the next. The religious rulers come before the Lord to put the first question that ever enters the minds of such men, "By what authority doest thou these things?" Nothing is more easily asked by those who assume that their own title is unimpeachable. Our Lord answers them by another question, which soon disclosed how thoroughly they themselves, in what was incomparably more serious, failed in moral competence. Who were they, to raise the question of His authority? As guides of religion, surely they ought to be able to decide that which was of the deepest consequence for their own souls, and for those of whom they assumed the spiritual charge. The question He puts involved indeed the answer to theirs; for had they answered Him in truth, this would have decided at once by what, and by whose, authority He acted as He did. "The baptism of John, whence was it (asks the Lord), from heaven, or of men?" There was no singleness of purpose, there was no fear of God, in these men so full of swelling words and fancied authority. Accordingly, instead of its being an answer from conscience declaring the truth as it was, they reason solely how to escape from the dilemma. The only question before their minds was, what answer would be politic? how best to get rid of the difficulty? Vain hope with Jesus! The base conclusion to which they were reduced is, "We cannot tell." It was a falsehood: but what of that, where the interests of religion and their own order were concerned? Without a blush, then, they answer the Saviour, "We cannot tell;" and the Lord with calm dignity strikes home His answer not, "I cannot tell," but, "Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things." Jesus knew and laid bare the secret springs of the heart; and the Spirit of God records it here for our instruction. It is the genuine universal type of worldly leaders of religion in conflict with the power of God. "If we shall say, From heaven, he will say unto us, Why did ye not, then, believe him? But if we shall say, Of men, we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet." If they owned John, they must bow to the authority of Jesus; if they rejected John, they feared the people. They were thus put to silence; for they would not risk loss of influence with the people, and they were determined at all cost to deny the authority of Jesus. All they cared about was themselves.
The Lord goes on and meets parabolically a wider question than that of the rulers, gradually enlarging the scope, till He terminates these instructions inMatthew 22:14; Matthew 22:14. First, He takes up sinful men where natural conscience works, and where conscience is gone. This is peculiar to Matthew: "A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work today in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went." He comes to the second, who was all complacency, and answers to the call, "I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto Him, The first. Jesus saith unto them [such is the application], Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him." (Matthew 21:28-32.) But He was not content with merely thus touching conscience in a way that was painful enough to the flesh; for they found that, spite of authority or anything else, those who professed most, if disobedient, were counted worse than the most depraved, who repented and did the will of God.
Next, our Lord looks at the entire people, and this from the commencement of their relations with God. In other words, He gives us in this parable the history of God's dealings with them. It was in no, way, so to speak, the accidental circumstance of how they behaved in one particular generation. The Lord sets out clearly what they had been all along, and what they were then. In the parable of the vineyard, they are tested as responsible in view of the claims of God, who had blessed them from the first with exceeding rich privileges. Then, in the parable of the marriage of the king's son, we see what they were, as tested by the grace or gospel of God. These are the two subjects of the parables following.
The householder, who lets out his vineyard to husbandmen, sets forth God trying the Jew, on the ground of blessings abundantly conferred upon him. Accordingly we have, first, servants sent, and then more, not only in vain, but with insult and increase of wrong. Then, at length, He sends His Son, saying, They will reverence my Son. This gives occasion for their crowning sin the utter rejection of all divine claims, in the death of the Son and Heir; for "they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him." "When the lord therefore of the vineyard comes," He asks, "what will he do unto these husbandmen?" They say unto Him, "He will miserably destroy these wicked men, and let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons."
The Lord accordingly pronounces according to the Scriptures, not leaving it merely to the answer of the conscience, "Did ye never read in the Scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?" Then He applies further this prediction about the stone, connecting, it would appear, the allusion inPsalms 118:1-29; Psalms 118:1-29 with the prophecy ofDaniel 2:1-49; Daniel 2:1-49. The principle at least is applied to the case in hand, and, I need hardly say, with perfect truth and beauty; for in that day apostate Jews will be judged and destroyed, as well as Gentile powers. In two positions the stone was to be found. The one is here on the earth the humiliation, to wit, of the Messiah. Upon that Stone, thus humbled, unbelief trips and falls. But, again, when the Stone is exalted, another issue follows; for" the Stone of Israel," the glorified Son of man, shall descend in unsparing judgment, and crush His enemies together. When the chief priests and Pharisees had heard His parables, they perceived that He spake of them.
The Lord, however, turns in the next parable to the call of grace. It is a likeness of the kingdom of heaven. Here we are on new ground. It is striking to see this parable introduced here. In the gospel of Luke there is a similar one, though it might be too much to affirm that it is the same. Certainly an analogous parable is found, but in a totally different connection. Besides, Matthew adds various particulars peculiar to himself, and quite falling in with the Spirit's desire by him; as we find also in Luke his own characteristics. Thus, in Luke, there is a remarkable display of grace and love to the despised poor in Israel; then, further, that love enlarging its sphere, and going out to the highways and hedges to bring in the poor that were there the poor in the city the poor everywhere. I need not say how thoroughly in character all this is. Here, in Matthew, we have not only God's grace, but a kind of history, very strikingly embracing the destruction of Jerusalem, on which Luke is here silent. "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king which made a marriage for his son." It is not merely a man making a feast for those that have nothing that we have fully in Luke; but here rather the king bent upon the glorification of his son. "He sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again he sent forth other servants, saving, Tell them which were bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage." There are two missions of the servants of the Lord here: one during His lifetime; the other after His death. On the second mission, not the first, it is said, "All things are ready." The message is, as ever, despised. "They made light of it, and went their ways." It was the second time when there was this most ample invitation which left no excuse for man, that they not only would not come, going one to his farm, and another to his merchandize, but "the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully and slew them," This was not the character of the reception given to the apostles during our Lord's lifetime, but exactly what transpired after His death. Thereupon, though in marvellous patience the blow was suspended for years, nevertheless judgment came at last. "When the king heard thereof, he was wroth, and sent forth his armies and destroyed those murderers, and burnt up their city." This, of course, closes this part of the parable as predicting a providential dealing of God; but, besides being thus judicial after a sort to which we find nothing parallel in the gospel of Luke ( i.e., in what answers to it), as usual, the great change of dispensation is shown in Matthew much more distinctly than in Luke.
There it is rather the idea of grace that began with one sending out to those invited, and a very full exposure of their excuses in a moral point of view, followed by the second mission to the streets and lanes of the city, for the poor, maimed, halt, and blind; and finally, to the highways and hedges, compelling them to come in that the house might be filled. In Matthew it is very much more in a dispensational aspect; and hence the dealings with the Jews, both in mercy and judgment, are first given as a whole, according to that manner of his which furnishes a complete sketch at one stroke, so to speak. It is the more manifest here, because none can deny that the mission to the Gentiles was long before the destruction of Jerusalem. Next is appended the Gentile part to itself. "Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests." But there is a further thing brought out here, in a very distinctive manner. In Luke, we have no judgment pronounced and executed at the end upon him that came to the wedding without the due garment. In Matthew, as we saw the providential dealing with the Jews, so we find the closing scene very particularly described, when the king judges individually in the day that is coming. It is not an external or national stroke, though that too we have here a providential event in connection with Israel. Quite different, but consistent with that, we have a personal appraisal by God of the Gentile profession, of those now bearing Christ's name, but who have not really put on Christ. Such is the conclusion of the parable: nothing more appropriate at the same time than this picture, peculiar to Matthew, who depicts the vast chance at hand for the Gentiles, and God's dealing with them individually for their abuse of His grace. The parable illustrates the coming change of dispensation. Now this falls in with Matthew's design, rather than Luke's, with whom we shall find habitually it is a question of moral features, which the Lord may give opportunity of exhibiting at another time.
After this come the various classes of Jews the Pharisees first of all, and, strange consorts! the Herodians. Ordinarily they were, as men say, natural enemies. The Pharisees were the high ecclesiastical party; the Herodians, on the contrary, were the low worldly courtier party: those, the strong sticklers for tradition and righteousness according to the law; these, the panderers to the powers that then were for whatever could be got in the earth. Such allies now joined hypocritically against the Lord. The Lord meets them with that wisdom which always shines in His words and ways. They demand whether it be lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not. "Show me," says He, "the tribute money . . . . . And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Thus the Lord deals with the facts as they then came before Him. The piece of money they produced proved their subjection to the Gentiles. It was their sin which had put them there. They writhed under their masters; but still under alien masters they were; and it was because of their sin. The Lord confronts them not only with the undeniable witness of their subjection to the Romans, but also with a graver charge still, which they had entirely overlooked the claims of God, as well as of Caesar. "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." The money you love proclaims that you are slaves to Caesar. Pay, then, to Caesar his dues. But forget not to "render to God the things that are God's." The fact was, they hated Caesar only less than they hated the true God. The Lord left them therefore under the reflections and confusion of their own guilty consciences.
Next, the Lord is assailed by another great party. "The same day came to him the Sadducees" those most opposed to the Pharisees in doctrine, as the Herodians were in politics. The Sadducees denied resurrection, and put a case which to their mind involved insuperable difficulties. To whom would belong in that state a woman who here had been married to seven brethren successively? The Lord does not cite the clearest Scripture about the resurrection; He does what in the circumstances is much better; He appeals to what they themselves professed most of all to revere. To the Sadducee there was no part of Scripture possessed of such authority as the Pentateuch, or five books of Moses. From Moses, then, He proved the resurrection; and this in the simplest possible way. Every one their own conscience must allow that God is the God, not of the dead, but of the living. Therefore, if God calls Himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is not an unmeaning thing. Referring long afterwards to their fathers who were passed away, He speaks of Himself as in relationship with them. Were they not, then, dead? But was all gone? Not so. But far more than that, He speaks as one who not merely had relations with them, but had made promises to them, which never yet were accomplished. Either, then, God must raise them from the dead, in order to make good His promises to the fathers; or He could not be careful to keep His promises. Was this last what their faith in God, or rather their want of faith, came to? To deny resurrection is, therefore, to deny the promises, and God's faithfulness, and in truth God Himself. The Lord, therefore, rebukes them on this acknowledged principle, that God was the God of the living, not of the dead. To make Him God of the dead would have been really to deny Him to be God at all: equally so to make His promises of no value or stability. God, therefore, must raise again the fathers in order to fulfil His promise to them; for they certainly never got the promises in this life. The folly of their thoughts too was manifest in this, that the difficulty presented was wholly unreal it only existed in their imagination. Marriage has nothing to do with the risen state: there they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. Thus, on their own negative ground of objection, they were altogether in error. Positively, as we have seen, they were just as wrong; for God must raise the dead to make good His own promises. There is nothing now in this world that worthily witnesses God, save only that which is known to faith; but if you speak of the display of God, and the manifestation of His power, you must wait until the resurrection. The Sadducees had not faith, and hence were in total error and blindness: "Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God." Therefore it was that, refusing to believe, they were unable to understand. When the resurrection comes, it will be manifest to every eye. Accordingly this was the point of our Lord's answer; and the multitudes were astonished at His doctrine.
Though the Pharisees were not sorry to find the then ruling party, the Sadducees, put to silence, one of them, a lawyer, tempted the Lord in a question of near interest to them. "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" But He who came full of grace and truth never lowered the law, and at once gives its sum and substance in both its parts Godward and manward.
The time, however, was come for Jesus to put His question, drawn fromPsalms 110:1-7; Psalms 110:1-7. If Christ be confessedly David's Son, how does David in spirit call Him Lord, saying, "Jehovah said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?" The whole truth of His position lies here. It was about to be realized; and the Lord can speak of the things that were not as though they were. Such was the language of David the king in words inspired of the Holy Ghost. What was the language, the thought of the people now, and by whom inspired? Alas! Pharisees, lawyers, Sadducees it was only a question of infidelity in varying forms; and the glory of David's Lord was even more momentous than the dead rising according to promise. Believe it or not, the Messiah was about to take His seat at the right hand of Jehovah. They were indeed, they are critical questions: If the Christ be David's Son, how is He David's Lord? If He be David's Lord, how is He David's Son? It is the turning point of unbelief at all times, now as then, the continual theme of the testimony of the Holy Ghost, the habitual stumbling-block of man, never so vain as when he would be wisest, and either essay to sound by his own wit the unfathomable mystery of Christ's person, or deny that there is in it any mystery whatever. It was the very point of Jewish unbelief It was the grand capital truth of all this gospel of Matthew, that He who was the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, was really Emmanuel, and Jehovah. It had been proved at His birth, proved throughout His ministry in Galilee, proved now at His last presentation in Jerusalem. "And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions." Such was their position in presence of Him who was so soon about to take His seat at the right hand of God; and there each remains to this day. Awful, unbelieving silence of Israel despising their own law, despising their own Messiah, David's Son and David's Lord, His glory their shame!
But if man was silent, it was the Lord's place not merely to question but to pronounce; and in Matthew 23:1-39 most solemnly does the Lord utter His sentence upon Israel. It was an address both to the multitude and to the disciples, with woes for Scribes and Pharisees. The Lord fully sanctioned that kind of mingled address for the time, providing, it would appear, not merely for the disciples, but for the remnant in a future day who will have this ambiguous place; believers in Him, on the one hand, yet withal filled, on the. other, with Jewish hopes and Jewish associations. This seems to me the reason why our Lord speaks in a manner so remarkably different from that which obtains ordinarily in Scripture. "The scribes," He says, "and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. All, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen of men." The principle fully applied then, as it will in the latter day; the Church scene coming in meanwhile as a parenthesis. The suitability of such instruction to this gospel of Matthew is also obvious, as indeed here only it is found. Then, again, our souls would shrink from the notion, that what our Lord taught could have merely a passing application. Not so; it has a permanent value for His followers; save only that the special privileges conferred on the Church, which is His body, modify the case, and, concurrently with this, the setting aside meanwhile of the Jewish people and state of things. But as these words applied literally then, so I conceive will it be at a future day. If this be so, it preserves the dignity of the Lord, as the great Prophet and Teacher, in its true place. In the last book of the New Testament we have a similar combination of features, when the Church will have disappeared from the earth; that is, the keeping the commandments of God and having the faith of Jesus. So here, the disciples of Jesus are exhorted to heed what was enjoined by those who sat in Moses' seat to follow what they taught, not what they did. So far as they brought out God's commandments, it was obligatory. But their practice was to be a beacon, not a guide. Their objects were to be seen of men, pride of place, honour in public and private, high-sounding titles, in open contradiction of Christ and that oft-repeated word of His "Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall bumble himself shall be exalted." Yet, of course, the disciples had the faith of Jesus.
Next the Lord* launches out woe after woe against the Scribes and Pharisees. They were hypocrites. They shut out the new light of God, while zealous beyond measure for their own thoughts; they undermined conscience by their casuistry, while insisting on the minutest alliteration in ceremonializing; they laboured after external cleanness, while full of rapine and intemperance; and if they could only seem righteously fair without, feared not within to be full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Finally, their monuments in honour of slain prophets and past worthies were rather a testimony to their own relationship, not to the righteous, but to those who murdered them. Their fathers killed the witnesses of God who, while living, condemned them; they, the sons, only built to their memory when there was no longer a present testimony to their conscience, and their sepulchral honours would cast a halo around themselves.
*The most ancient text, represented by the Vatican, Sinai, Beza's Cambridge, L. of Paris (C. being defective, as well as the Alexandrian), and the Rescript of Dublin, omits verse 14, which may have been foisted in from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. This leaves the complete series of seven woes.
Such is worldly religion and its heads: the great obstructions to divine knowledge, instead of living only to be its channels of communication; narrow, where they should have been large; cold and lukewarm for God, earnest only for self; daring sophists, where divine obligations lay deep, and punctilious pettifoggers in the smallest details, straining at the gnat and swallowing the camel; anxious only for the outside, reckless as to all that lay concealed underneath. The honour they paid those who had suffered in times past was the proof that they succeeded not them but their enemies, the true legitimate successors of those that slew the friends of God. The successors of those that of old suffered for God are those who suffer now; the heirs of their persecutors may build them sepulchres, erect statues, cast monumental brasses, pay them any conceivable honour. When there is no longer the testimony of God that pierces the obdurate heart, when they who render it are no longer there, the names of these departed saints or prophets become a means of gaining religious reputation for themselves. Present application of the truth is lacking, the sword of the Spirit is no longer in the hands of those who wielded it so well To honour those who have passed away is the cheapest means, on the contrary, for acquiring credit for the men of this generation. It is to swell the great capital of tradition out of those that once served God, but are now gone, whose testimony, is no longer a sting to the guilty. Thus it is evident, that as their honour begins in death, so it bears the sure stamp of death upon it. Did they plume themselves on the progress of the age? Did they think and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets? How little they knew their own hearts! Their trial was at hand. Their real character would soon appear, hypocrites though they were, and a serpent brood: how could they escape the judgment of hell?
"Wherefore, behold," says He, after thus exposing and denouncing them, "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." It is most eminently a Jewish character and circumstance of persecution; as the aim was the retributive one, "that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel, unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily, I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation." Yet, just as the blessed Lord, after pronouncing woes on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, that had rejected His words and works, turned at once to the infinite resources of grace, and from the depth of His own glory brought in the secret of better things to the poor and needy; so it was that even at this time, just before He gave utterance to these woes (so solemn and fatal to the proud religious guides of Israel), He had, as we know from Luke 19:1-48, wept over the guilty city, out of which, as His servants, so their Lord could not perish. Here, again, how truly was His heart towards them! "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! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate." It is not "I have," but your house is left unto you desolate; "for I say unto you, ye shall not see me henceforth [what bitterness of destitution theirs Messiah, Jehovah Himself, rejecting those who rejected Him!] till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."
Thus we have had our Lord presenting Himself as Jehovah the King; we have had the various classes putting themselves forward to judge Him, but, in fact, judged themselves by Him, There remains another scene of great interest, linking itself on to His farewell to the nation just noticed. It is His last communication to the disciples in view of the future; and this Matthew gives in a very full and rich manner. It would be vain to attempt an exposition of this prophetic discourse within my assigned limits. I will, therefore, but skim its surface now, just enough to indicate its outlines, and specially its distinctive features. It is evident that the greater completeness here exhibited beyond what appears in any other gospel is according to special design. In the gospel given by the other apostle, John, there is not a word of it. Mark gives his report very particularly in connection with the testimony of God, as I hope to show when we come to that point. In Luke there is peculiar distinctness in noticing the Gentiles, and their times of supremacy during the long period of Israel's degradation. Again, it is only in Matthew that we find direct allusion to the question of the end of the age. The reason is evident. That consummation is the grand crisis for the Jew. Matthew, writing under the Holy Ghost's direction for Israel, in view both of the consequences of their past unfaithfulness and of that future crisis, furnishes alike the momentous question and the Lord's special answer to it. This, too, is the reason why Matthew opens out what we do not find in either Mark or Luke, at least in this connection. We have here very comprehensively the Christian part, as it appears to me ( i.e., what belongs to the disciples, viewed as professing Christ's name when Israel rejected Him). This suits Matthew's view of the prophecy; and the reason is plain. Matthew shows us not only the consequences of the rejection of the Messiah to Israel, but the change of dispensation, or what would follow on their fatal opposition to One who was their King, yea, not only Messiah, but Jehovah. The consequences were to be, could not but be, all-important; and the Spirit here records this portion of the Lord's prophecy most appropriately to His purpose by Matthew. Would not God turn the Jewish rejection of that glorious Person to some wondrous and suitable account? Accordingly this is what we find here. The order, though different from that which obtains elsewhere, is regulated by perfect wisdom. First of all, the Jews are taken up, or the disciples as representing them, where they then were. They had not got beyond their old thoughts of the temple, those buildings that had excited their admiration and awe. The Lord announces the judgment that was at hand. Indeed, it was involved in the words said before "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate." It was their house. The Spirit was fled. It was no better than a dead body now. Why should it not be carried out speedily to burial? "See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down." All would soon be over for the present. "And as He sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto Him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" In answer the Lord sets before them a general history so general, indeed, that one might hardly gather at first whether He did not contemplate even here Christians as well as Jews. (vv. 4-14.) They are viewed really as a believing but Jewish remnant, which accounts for the breadth of the language. Then, from verse 15, come the details of Daniel's special last half week, whose prophecy is emphatically appealed to. The establishment of the abomination of desolation in the holy place would be the sign for the instant flight of godly ones, like the disciples, who will then be found in Jerusalem. For this is to be followed by great tribulation, exceeding any time of trouble since the beginning of the world up to that day. Nor will there be outward affliction only, but unparalleled deceits, false Christs and false prophets showing great signs and wonders. But the elect are here warned graciously of the Saviour, and far, far beyond any guards afforded in the prophecies of the Old Testament.
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall, the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven shall be shaken: and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory."Matthew 24:29; Matthew 24:29. The appearing of the Son of man is a grand point in Matthew, and indeed in all the gospels. The once rejected Christ will come in glory as the glorious Heir of all things. His advent in the clouds of heaven will be to take the throne, not of Israel only, but of all people, nations, and languages. Returning thus, to the horror and shame of His adversaries, in or out of the land, the first thing spoken of here is His mission of His angels to gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. There is no hint of resurrection or of rapture to heaven here. The elect of Israel are in question, and His own glory as Son of man, without a word of His being Head; nor of the Church His body. What we find here is a process of gathering the chosen, not merely of the Jews, but of all Isaiah, as I suppose, from the four winds of heaven. This interpretation derives support, then, if that be needed, from the parable that immediately follows (verses 32, 33). It is the fig tree once more, but used for a far different purpose. Be it curse in one connection, be it blessing in another, the fig tree typifies Israel.
Then comes, not what may be called the natural, but the scriptural, parable. As that alluded to the outside realm of nature, so this was taken from the Old Testament. The reference here is to the days of Noah, applied to illustrate the coming of the Son of man. So should the blow fall suddenly on all its objects. "Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left, Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left." They must not imagine that it would be like an ordinary judgment in providence, which sweeps here, not there, and sweeps here indiscriminately. In such the guiltless suffer with the guilty, without any approach to an adequate personal distinction. But it will not be so in the days of the Son of man, when He returns to deal with mankind at the end of the age. To be without or within will be no protection. Of two men in the field; of two women grinding at the mill, the one shall be taken, and the other left. The discrimination is precise and perfect to the last degree. "Watch therefore," says the Lord, in conclusion of it all; "for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh."
This transition, in my judgment, leads from the part particularly devoted to the destinies of the Jewish people, and opens into that which concerns the Christian profession. The first of these general pictures of Christendom, which drop all reference to Jerusalem, the temple, the people, or their hope, is found in verses 45-51. Next follows the parable of the ten virgins; then, last of these, is that of the talents. Let me observe, however, that there is a clause in Matthew 25:13 which has a little falsified the application. But the truth is, as is well known, that men, in copying the Greek New Testament, added the words, "Wherein the Son of man cometh," to this verse, which is complete without them. The Spirit really wrote, "Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour." To those versed in the text as it stands in the best copies, this is a fact too familiar to demand many words said about it. No critic of weight considers that these words have any just claim to be in the text that is founded on ancient authority. Others may defend the clause who accept what is commonly received, and what can only be defended by modern or uncertain manuscripts. Surely those I now address are the last men who ought to contend for a mere traditional or vulgar basis in anything which pertains to God. If we accept the traditional text of the printers, we are on this ground; if, on the contrary, we reject human meddling as a principle, assuredly we ought not to accredit such clauses as this, which we have the strongest grounds to pronounce a mere interpolation, and not truly the word of God. But this being so, we may proceed to notice how strikingly beautiful is the effect of omitting these words.
First, then, in the Christian part, came the parable of the household servant. He who, faithful and wise, met the wishes of his Lord that set him over His household to give them meat in due season, being found so doing, when He comes, is made ruler over all His goods. The evil servant, on the contrary, who settled in his heart that his Lord was not coming, and so yielded to overbearing violence and evil commerce with the profane world, shall be surprised by judgment, and have his portion with the hypocrites in hopeless shame and sorrow.
It is an instructive sketch of Christendom; but there is more. "Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept." Thus Christendom entirely breaks down. It is not only the foolish who go to sleep, but the wise. All fail to give a right expression to their waiting for the Bridegroom. "They all slumbered and slept." But God takes care, without telling us how, that there shall be an interruption of their slumber. Instead of remaining out to wait, they must have gone in somewhere to sleep. In short, the original position is deserted. Not only have they not discharged their duty of awaiting the return of the Bridegroom, but they are no longer in their true posture. When the hope revives, the position is recovered, not before. At midnight, when all were asleep, there was a cry, "The bridegroom cometh: go ye out to meet him." This acts on the virgins, wise and foolish. So it is now. Who can deny that foolish people enough speak and write about the Lord's coming? An universal agitation of spirit goes on in all countries and all towns. Spite of opposition, the expectation spreads far and wide. It is in no way confined to the children of God. Those who are in quest of oil, going hither and thither, are disturbed by it as certainly as those who have oil in their vessels are cheered to go out once more while waiting for the, Bridegroom's return. But what a difference! The wise were prepared with oil beforehand; the rest proved their folly in doing without it. Let me particularly call your attention to this, The difference consisted not in expecting the Lord's coining or not, but in the possession or the lack of oil (i.e., the unction from the Holy One). All profess Christ; they are all virgins with their lamps. But the want of oil is fatal. He who has not the Spirit of Christ is none of His. Such are the foolish. They know not what has made the others wise unto salvation, whatever they may profess; and their restless search, after that which they have not, finally severs them even here from the company of those they started with as looking for the Lord.
The notion that they are Christians who lack intelligence in prophecy seems to me not false only, but utterly unworthy of a spiritual mind. Is the possession of Christ less precious than a correct chart of the future? I cannot conceive a Christian without oil in his vessel. It is clearly to have the Holy Ghost, whom every saint that submits to the righteousness of God in Christ has dwelling within him. As John teaches us, the least members of God's family are said to have that unction not the fathers and young men but expressly the babes. Of course, if the youngest in Christ are so privileged, the young men and fathers do not want. Therefore I do assert, with the fullest conviction of its truth, that, as the oil in the parable sets forth, not prophetic intelligence, but the gift of God's Spirit, so every Christian, and no other, has the Holy Ghost dwelling in him. These, then, are the wise virgins who make ready for the Bridegroom, and go in with Him to the marriage at His coming. As that hour draws near, the others, on the contrary, are more and more agitated. Not resting on Christ for their souls by faith, they have not the Spirit, and seek the inestimable gift among those who sell it, asking who will show them any good of whom they may buy this priceless oil. The Lord meanwhile comes, they that were ready go in with Him to the wedding, and the door was shut; the rest of the virgins are excluded. The Lord knew them not.
Let me say in passing, that these virgins are distinguished from those who will be called in the end of the age by broad and deep differences. There is no ground to believe that the sufferers in that crisis will ever become heavy with sleep, as saints have done during the long delay of Christendom. That brief season of unprecedented trial and danger does not admit of it. Next, as little ground is there in Scripture to predicate of these latter-day sufferers the possession of the Holy Ghost, which is the peculiar privilege of the believer since the rejected Christ took His place as Head in heaven. The Holy Ghost is to be poured out on all flesh for the millennial day, no doubt; but no prophecy declares that the remnant will be so characterized till they see Jesus. And, again, there is the third point of distinction, that these sufferers are nowhere set forth as going out to meet the Bridegroom. They may flee away because of the abomination that makes desolate, but this is a contrast rather than a similar feature.
The third of these parables presents another phase again. During the absence of the Lord, before He appears to take the kingdom of the world, He gives gifts to men different gifts, and in different measures. This pre-eminently belongs to Christianity and its active testimony in peculiar variety. I am not aware of anything exactly answering to it in its full character in the latter day (which will be distinguished by a brief energetic witness of the kingdom). These gifts ofMatthew 25:1-46; Matthew 25:1-46 seem to me the thorough expression of the activity of grace, that goes out and labours for a rejected and absent Lord on high. However, I may not dwell upon minuter points, which would, of course, frustrate the desire to give a comprehensive sketch in a short compass.
The latter scene of the chapter is, to a simple mind, evident enough. "All the nations" or Gentiles are in question: there can be no mistake as to this. The Jew has already come before us, and at the beginning of the Lord's discourse, because the disciples were then Jews. Next, as disciples emerged from Judaism into Christianity, we have in this very distinctly the reason why the Christian parenthesis comes second in order. Then, in the third place, we find "all the nations" who are formally designated as such, and distinguished in the clearest manner from the two others, both in terms and in the things said of them. They come up and are visibly dealt with as Gentiles at the close, when the Son of man reigns as king over the earth. The question which comes before His throne, and decides their eternal lot, does not consist of the secrets of the heart then laid bare, nor their general life, but of their behaviour to His messengers. How had they treated certain persons that the King calls His brethren? It is an appraisal then, founded on their relation to a brief testimony rendered at the close of the present dispensation (I doubt not, by Jewish brethren of the King, when all the world wonders after the beast, and in general men go back to idols, and fall into Antichrist's hands); a testimony suited to the crisis, after the Christian body has been taken to heaven, and the question of the earth is raised once more. Thus these nations or Gentiles are dealt with according to their behaviour to the messengers of the King, just before and up to the time that the King summons them before the throne of His glory. To own His despised heralds when the time of strong delusion comes, will demand the quickening work of the Spirit; which, indeed, is needful for receiving any and every testimony of God. It is not a question of any general issue that would apply to a course of ages, as to the present preaching of God's grace, or to the ordinary current of men's lives. Nothing of the sort appears to be the ground of the Lord's action with either the sheep or the goats.
Matthew 26:1-75. Formal teaching is over now, whether practical or prophetic. The scene above all scenes draws near, on which, however blessed, I cannot say much at this time. The Lord Jesus has been presented to the people, has preached, has wrought miracles, has instructed disciples, has met all the various classes of His adversaries, has launched into the future up to the end of the age. Now He prepares to suffer, to suffer in absolute surrender of Himself to the Father. Accordingly, in this scene it is no longer man judging Him in words, but God judging Him in His person on the cross. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. So it is here. He maintains, too, every affection in its fulness. Here, aside from the crowd, the Lord for a season takes whatever of rest might be vouchsafed to His spirit. The active work was done. The cross remained a few brief hours, but of eternal value and unfathomable import, with which indeed nothing can compare.
At the house of Bethany Jesus is now found. It is one of the few scenes introduced by the Spirit of God into all the gospels save Luke, in contrast with, yet in preparation for, the cross. Was the Spirit of God then acting mightily in the heart of one who loved the Saviour? At this very time Satan was pushing on the heart of man to dare the worst against Jesus. Around these were the parties. What a moment for heaven, and earth, and hell! How much, how little was man seen! for if one feature be prominent in His foes more than another, it is this, that man is powerless, even when Jesus was the victim, exposed to every hostile breath as it might appear. Yet does He accomplish everything, when He was but a sufferer; they nothing, when free to do all (for it was their hour, and the power of darkness) nothing but their iniquity; but even in their iniquity doing the will of God, spite of themselves, and contrary to their own plans. They did their will in point of guilt, but it was never accomplished as they desired. First of all, as we are told, their great anxiety was, that the deed on which their heart was set, the death of Jesus, should not be at the passover. But their resolution was vain. From the beginning God had decided that then, and at no other time, it should be. They assembled, they consulted, "that they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill him." The upshot of their deliberations was only "Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people." Little did they foresee the treachery of a disciple, or the public sentence of a Roman governor. Again, there was no uproar among the people, contrary to their fears. Yet did Jesus die on that day according to God's word.
But let us turn aside to the company of our Lord for a little while at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. There was poured out the worship of a heart that loved Him, if ever there was one. She waited not for the promise of the Father; but He who was soon after given to overflowing, even then wrought in the instincts of her new nature. "There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head as he sat at meat." This, John lets us know, she had kept; it was no new thing got up for the occasion; it was her best, and spent on Jesus. How little it was in her eyes, how precious in His, spent on one whom she loved, for whom she felt the impending danger; for love is quick to feel, and feels more truly than man's most sharpened prudence. So it was, then, that this woman pours her ointment on His head. John mentions His feet. Certainly it was poured upon both. But as Matthew has the King before him, and it was usual to pour on, not the feet of a king, but his head, he naturally records that part of the action which was suitable to the Messiah. John, on the contrary, whose point is that Jesus was infinitely more than a king, while lowly enough in love for anything John most appropriately tells us that Mary poured it on His feet. It is interesting, too, to observe, that love, and a profound sense of the glory of Jesus, led her to do that which a sinner's heart, thoroughly broken down in the presence of His grace, prompted her to do. For Luke mentions another person. In this case it was "a woman in the city, who was a sinner," a totally different person, at another and earlier time, and in the house of another Simon, a Pharisee. She too anointed the feet of Jesus with an alabaster box of ointment; but she stood at His feet behind, weeping, and began to wash His feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed His feet. There are thus many added circumstances in harmony with the case. All I would point out now is, the kindred feeling to which is led a poor sinner that tasted His grace in presence of her proved unworthiness, and a loving worshipper, filled with the glory of His person, and sensitive to the malice of His foes. However that may be, the Lord vindicates her in the face of murmuring disaffected disciples. It is a solemn lesson; for it shows how one corrupt mind may defile others, incomparably better than its own. The whole college of the apostles, the twelve, were tainted for the moment by the poison insinuated by one. What hearts are ours at such a season, in the face of such love! But so it was, alas! is. One evil eye may too soon communicate its foul impression, and thereby many be defiled. It was Judas at bottom; but there was also that in the rest which made them susceptible of similar selfishness at the expense of Jesus, although there was not in them the same allowance of diabolical influence which had suggested thoughts to Judas. The example is surely not without serious admonition to ourselves. How often care for doctrine cloaks Satan, as here care for the poor! Morally, too, this connects itself with Christ's sufferings that should follow. The devotedness of the woman is used of Satan to push Judas into his last wickedness, so much the more determined by the outflow of what his heart could not in the smallest degree appreciate. Thence he goes to sell Jesus. If he could not manage to get the box of precious ointment, or its worth, he would, while he could, secure his little profit on the sale of Jesus to His enemies. "What will ye give me," says he to the chief priests, "and I will deliver him unto you?" Accordingly the covenant takes place a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell. "They covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver" man's, Israel's, worthy price for Jesus!
But now, as the woman had her token for Jesus, and in it her own memorial, wherever, whenever the gospel of the kingdom is preached in the whole world, so Jesus next institutes the standing, undying token of His dying love. He founds the new feast, His own supper for His disciples. At the paschal feast He takes up the bread and the wine, and consecrates them to be on earth the continual remembrance of Himself in the midst of His own. In the language of its institution there are some distinctive features which may claim a notice when we have the opportunity of looking at the other gospels. From this table our Lord goes to Gethsemane, and His agony there. Whatever there was of sorrow, whatever there was of pain, whatever there was of suffering, our Lord never bowed to any suffering from men without, before He bore it on His heart alone with His Father. He went through it in spirit before He went through it in fact. And this, I believe, is the main point here. I say not all that we have; for here He met the terrors of death and what a death! pressed on Him by the prince of this world, who nevertheless found nothing in Him. Thus at the actual hour it was God glorified in Him, the Son of man, even as, when raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, He forthwith declares to His brethren the name of His Father and their Father, of His God and their God, both nature and relationship. Here His cry still is simply to His Father, as in the cross it was, My God, though not this only. However profoundly instructive all this maybe, our Lord in the garden calls upon the disciples to watch and pray; but this is precisely what they find hardest. They slept, and prayed not. What a contrast, too, with Jesus afterwards, when the trial came! And yet for them it was but the merest reflection of that which He passed through. For the world, death is either borne with the obduracy that dares all because it believes nothing, or it is a pang as the end of present enjoyment, the sombre portal of they know not what beyond. To the believer, to the Jewish disciple, before redemption, death was even worse in a sense; for there was a juster perception of God, and of man's state morally. Now all is changed through His death, which the disciples so little estimated, the bare shadow of which, however, was enough to overwhelm them all, and silence every confession of their faith. For him who most of all presumed on the strength of his love, it was enough to prove how little he yet knew of the reality of death, spite of his too ready boasts. And yet what would death have been in his case compared with that of Jesus! But even that was incomparably too much for the strength of Peter; all was proved powerless, save the One who showed, even when He was weakest, that He was alone the Giver of all strength, the Manifester of all grace, even when He was crushed under such judgment as man never knew before, nor can know again.
Matthew 27:1-66. We next see our Lord, not with the disciples, failing, false, or traitorous, but His hour come, in the power of the hostile world, priests, governors, soldiers, and people. What was attempted by man completely broke down. They had their witnesses, but the witnesses agreed not. Failure everywhere is found, even in wickedness failure not in men's will, but in its accomplishment. God alone governs. So now Jesus was condemned, not for their testimony, but for His own. How wondrous, that even to put Him to death they needed the witness of Jesus; they could not condemn Him to die but for His good confession. For His testimony to the truth they consummated their worst deed; and this doubly, before the high priest as well as before the governor. Warned of his wife (for the Lord took care that there should be providential testimony), as well as too keen-sighted to overlook the malice of the Jews and the innocence of the accused, Pontius Pilate acknowledges his prisoner to be guiltless, yet allowed himself to be forced to act contrary to his own conscience, and according to their wishes whom he wholly despised. Once more, ere Jesus is led out to be crucified, the Jews showed what they were morally; for when the coarse-minded heathen put before them the alternative of releasing Jesus or Barabbas, their instant preference (not without priestly instigation) was a wretch, a robber, a murderer. Such was the feeling of the Jews, God's people, toward their King, because He was the Son of God, Jehovah, and not a mere man. With bitter irony, but not without God, wrote Pilate the accusation, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." But this was not the only testimony which God gave. For from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And then when Jesus, crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost, that ensued which particularly would strike the heart of the Jew. The veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent. What could be conceived more solemn to Israel? His death was the death blow to the Jewish system, struck by one who was unmistakably the Maker of heaven and earth. But it was not the dissolution of that system only, but of the power of death itself; for the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after His resurrection, the witness of the value of His death, though not declared till after His resurrection. The death of Jesus, I hesitate not to say, is the sole groundwork of righteous deliverance from sin. In the resurrection is seen the mighty power of God; but what is power for a sinner, with God before his soul, compared with righteousness? What with grace? And this is precisely what we have here. Hence, it is the death of Jesus alone that is the true centre and pivot of all God's counsels and ways, whether in righteousness or in grace. The resurrection, no doubt, is the power that manifests and proclaims all; but what it proclaims is the power of His death, because that alone has vindicated God morally. The death of Jesus alone has proved that nothing could overcome His love rejection, death itself, so far from this, being only the occasion of displaying love to the uttermost. Therefore it is that, of all things even in Jesus, there is none that affords such a common and perfect resting-place for God and man as the death of Jesus. When it is a question of power, liberty, life, no doubt we must turn to the resurrection; and hence it is, that in the Acts of the apostles this necessarily comes out most prominently, because the matter in hand was to afford proof, on the one hand, of manifested but despised grace; on the other hand, of God's reversing man's attainder of Jesus by raising Him from the dead and exalting Him to His own right hand on high. The death of Jesus would be no demonstration of this sort. On the contrary, His death was what man appeared to triumph in. They had got rid of Jesus thus, but the resurrection proved how vain and short-lived it was, and that God was against them. The object was to make evident that man was wholly opposed to God, and that God even now manifested His sentence on it. The raising up Him whom man slew renders this unquestionable. I admit that in the resurrection of Christ God is for us, for the believer. But the sinner and the believer must not be confounded together, for there is an immense difference between the two things. Whatever the witness of perfect love in the gift and death of Jesus, for the sinner there is not, there cannot be, anything whatever in the resurrection of Jesus save condemnation. I press this the more strongly, because the recovery of the precious truth of Christ's resurrection exposes some, by a kind of reaction, to weaken the value which His death has in God's mind, and ought to have in our faith. Let those, then, who prize the resurrection, see to it that they be exceedingly jealous for the due place of the cross.
The two things we find remarkably guarded here. It was not the resurrection, but the death of Jesus, that rent the veil of the temple; it was not His resurrection that opened the graves, but His cross, though the saints rose not till after He rose. It is just so with us practically. In point of fact, we never do know the full worth of the death of Christ, until we look upon it from the power and results of the resurrection. But what we contemplate from the side of resurrection is not itself, but the death of Jesus. Hence it is that in the Church's assembling, and most properly, on the Lord's day, we do in the breaking of bread show forth, not the resurrection, but the death of the Lord. At the same time, we show forth His death not on the day of death, but upon that of resurrection. Do I forget that it is the day of resurrection? Then I little understand my liberty and joy. If, on the contrary, the resurrection day brings no more before me than the resurrection, it is too plain that the death of Christ has lost its infinite grace for my soul.
The Egyptians would have liked to cross the Red Sea, but they had no care for the doors sprinkled with the blood of the lamb. They essayed to pass through the watery walls, desiring thus to follow Israel to the other side. But we do not read that they ever sought the shelter of the Paschal Lamb's blood. No doubt, this is an extreme case, and the judgment of the world of nature; but we may learn even from an enemy not to value resurrection less, but to value the death and blood-shedding of our precious Saviour more. There is really nothing towards God and man like the death of Christ.
Then, in contrast with the poor but devoted women of Galilee that surrounded the cross, we behold the fears, the just fears, of those who had accomplished the death of Jesus. These guilty men go full of anxiety to Pilate. They feared "that deceiver," and so had their watch, and stone, and seal in vain! The Lord that sat in the heavens had them in derision. Jesus had prepared His own (and His enemies knew it) for His rising on the third day. Women came there the evening before to look at the place where the Lord lay buried. (Matthew 28:1-20) That morning, very early, when there were none there but the guards, the angel of the Lord. descends. We are not told that our Lord rose at that time; still less is it said that the angel of the Lord rolled away the stone for Him. He that passed through the doors, closed for fear of the Jews, could just as easily pass through the sealed stone, despite all the soldiers of the empire. We know that there the angel sat after rolling away the great stone which had closed the sepulchre, where our Lord, despised and rejected of men, nevertheless accomplished Isaiah's prophecy. In making His grave with the rich. The Lord then had this further witness, that the very keepers, hardened and bold as such usually are, trembled, and became as dead men, while the angel bids the women not to fear; for this Jesus which was crucified "is not here: He is risen. Come, and see the place where the Lord lay, and go and tell the disciples, Behold, He goeth before you into Galilee." This is a point of importance for completing the view of His rejection, or its consequences in resurrection, and so Matthew takes particular care of it, though the same fact may be recorded also by Mark for his purpose.
But Matthew does not speak of the various appearances of the Lord in Jerusalem after the resurrection. What he does dwell upon particularly, and of course with his special reasons for it, is, that the Lord, after His resurrection, adheres to the place where the state of the Jews led Him to be habitually, and shed His light around according to prophecy; for the Lord resumed relations once more in Galilee with the remnant represented by" the disciples after He rose from the dead. It was in the place of Jewish contempt; it was where the benighted poor of the flock were, the neglected of the proud scribes and rulers of Jerusalem. There the risen Lord was pleased to go before His servants and rejoin them.
But as the Galilean women went with this word from the angel, the Lord Himself met them. "And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him." It is remarkable that in our gospel this was permitted. To Mary Magdalene, who in her desire to pay her wonted obeisance probably was attempting something similar, He altogether declines it; but this is mentioned in the gospel of John. How is it, then, that the two apostolic accounts show us the homage of the women received, and of Mary Magdalene refused, on the same day, and perhaps at the same hour? Clearly the action is significant in both. The reason, I apprehend, was this, Matthew sets before us that while He was the rejected Messiah, though now risen, He not only reverted to His relations in the despised part of the land with His disciples, but gives, in this accepted worship of the daughters of Galilee, the pledge of His special association with the Jews in the latter day; for it is precisely thus that they will look for the Lord. That is, a Jew, as such, counts upon the bodily presence of the Lord. The point in John's record is the very reverse; for it is the taking one, who was a sample of believing Jews, out of Jewish relations into association with Himself just about to ascend to heaven. In Matthew He is touched. They held Him by the feet without remonstrance, and thus worshipped Him in bodily presence. In John He says, "Touch me not;" and the reason is, "for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." Worship henceforth was to be offered to Him above, invisible, but known there by faith. To the women in Matthew it was here that He was presented for their worship; to the woman in John it was there only He was to be known now. It was not a question of bodily presence, but of the Lord ascended to heaven and there announcing the new relationships for us with His Father and God. Thus, in the one case, it is the sanction of Jewish hopes of His presence here, below for the homage of Israel; in the other gospel, it is His personal absence and ascension, leading souls to a higher and suited association with Himself, as well as with God, taking even those who were Jews out of their old condition to know the Lord no more after the flesh.
Most consistently, therefore, in this gospel, we have no ascension scene at all. If we had only the gospel of Matthew, we should possess no record of this wonderful fact: so striking is the omission, that a well-known commentary, Mr. Alford's first edition, broached the rash and irreverent hypothesis founded upon it, that our Matthew is an incomplete Greek version of the Hebrew original, because there was no such record; for it was impossible, in the opinion of that writer, that an apostle could have omitted a description of that event. The fact is, if you add the ascension to Matthew, you would overload and mar his gospel. The beautiful end of Matthew is, that (while chief priests and elders essay to cover their wickedness by falsehood and bribery, and their lie "is commonly reported among the Jews until this day,") our Lord meets His disciples on a mountain in Galilee, according to His appointment, and sends them to disciple all the Gentiles. How great is the change of dispensation is manifest from His former commission to the same men in Matthew 10:1-42. Now they were to baptize them unto the name of the Father, etc. It was not a question of the Almighty God of the fathers, or the Jehovah God of Israel. The name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is characteristic of Christianity. Permit me to say, that this is the true formula of Christian baptism, and that the omission of this form of sound words appears to me quite as fatal to the validity of baptism as any change that can be pointed out in other respects. Instead of being a Jewish thing, this is what supplanted it. Instead of a relic of older dispensations to be modified or rather set aside now, on the contrary, it is the full revelation of the name of God as now made known, not before. This only came out after the death and resurrection of Christ. There is no longer the mere Jewish enclosure He had entered during the days of His flesh, but the change of dispensation was now dawning: so consistently does the Spirit of God hold to His design from the first to the very end.
Accordingly He closes with these words, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world [age]." How the form of the truth would have been weakened, if not destroyed, had we then heard of His going up to heaven! It is evident that the moral force of it is infinitely more preserved as it is. He is charging His disciples, sending them on their world-wide mission with these words, "Lo, I am with you always, all the days," etc. The force is immensely increased, and for this very reason that we hear and see no more. He promised His presence with them to the end of the age; and thereon the curtain drops. He is thus heard, if not seen, for ever with His own on earth, as they go forth upon that errand so precious, but perilous. May we gather real profit from all He has given us.
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Kelly, William. "Commentary on Matthew 23:20". Kelly Commentary on Books of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/wkc/matthew-23.html. 1860-1890.
the Fifth Week after Epiphany