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Matthew 23:1-39

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v.1       It is important in reading this chapter to notice the audience at the outset. The Lord is talking to the crowds and his disciples about the Pharisees.  The crowds are at least potentially his disciples and the Lord is appealing to them over the heads of the religious leadership.  He hopes to break them free from the legalism of the Pharisees, from their fatal way of thinking about God and salvation.  Even when, in v. 13, he begins to employ direct address to the scribes and Pharisees, the object of his interest is the understanding of the crowds who are listening to him.

v.2       “Moses’ seat” is a figurative way to refer to their authority to interpret and apply the law of God to the life of the church.  Those interpretations were regarded in mainstream Judaism as having an equal authority to the Law of Moses itself.  The Mishnah can even say, “Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance of] the words of the [written] law.”  [Sanh. 11:3 in Morris, 572]

v.3       This is a surprising statement given the large number of times the Lord has attacked the teaching of the Pharisees and the scribes and repudiated their legal traditions.  Perhaps the “therefore” at the beginning of the verse, which connects the thought of v. 3 to that of v. 2, means “only when expounding Moses.”  Other commentators think that the Lord is being sarcastic here.  “Yeah, right!”

v.4       We might paraphrase this verse by saying, “They have multiplied the number of ways a man can offend God but have failed to help him to please God.”  [Garland in France, 324]  Here the Lord condemns the legalism of the Pharisaic regulations which give no relief to the sinner.

v.7       The Lord has already referred at length to the Pharisees’ ostentation in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6.

v.8       The following remarks are clearly addressed to the disciples.

v.10     The Lord, once again, is making an astonishing claim: he alone sits in Moses’ seat.  There is a context here, of course, when the Lord says call no man father or teacher.  Paul would later refer to himself as the father of his churches and the Christians in them and the rest of the NT will refer positively to teachers in the church.  The warning is against an excessive deference that interferes – as it did in the Pharisees’ case – with a proper dependence upon God and his Word.

v.12     There is to be none of the Pharisees’ consciousness about status; instead a desire to serve in the humble spirit of a sinner saved by grace.

Now what follows are seven separate denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees.  “Woe to you…” means that the Pharisees will be judged for their having taught others and followed themselves the wrong way.

v.13     “Entering the kingdom of heaven” is another way in Matthew of speaking of a saving relationship with God.  But the Pharisees by their teaching and, especially, by their systematic opposition to Jesus Christ and his ministry have placed a barrier in the way of people finding this salvation.

v.14     You’ll notice that there is a missing verse, which you can read in your margin.  That verse is found in a similar context in Mark 12:40 and was imported into some later manuscripts of Matthew. It seems quite clear that it was not part of Matthew’s Gospel originally.

v.15     If their teaching is false then by winning others to it they serve only to populate hell.  They seem to be motivated by zeal for their sect and its name, not by the love of God or love for men.

v.22     The Lord has already, earlier in the Gospels, spoken about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees’ practice of oaths.  They used oaths to escape obligations while all the while appearing pious.  The Lord’s view is that if a man has reverence for God he will care less about elaborate rules for making vows and much more about an honest heart and honest speech.  He will realize that all oaths place him before God himself who looks upon the heart.  There will be none of this pettifogging and, instead, straightforward, honest speech.

v.24     Characteristic of all legalism is a lack of proportion, an emphasis on the trivial at the expense of the momentous.

v.26     Another characteristic of legalism is its emphasis on the external at the expense of the internal.  But God looks upon the heart.  Out of the heart flow the issues of life and it is there that God finds the true self.

v.28     This woe virtually repeats the point of the previous one, viz. the contrast between outward impressiveness or attractiveness and inward defilement.

v.31     Their resistance to God’s messengers in their own day (John the Baptist and Jesus especially) proved that they were of one mind with their forefathers who killed the prophets in their day.  And all of this despite their protestations of reverence for God’s prophets as illustrated in their erecting monuments to honor them.  They were aware that Israel had often rebelled against the Lord but would not see their own rebellion for what it was.

v.32     In fact, it is in their own generation that Israel’s rebellion against God, which had a long painful history, will reach its culmination and fulfillment.

v.34     This is clearly a reference to the Lord’s disciples.

v.35     Abel and Zechariah were regarded as the first and last martyrs of the Old Testament because Abel was the first, he being the first human being to die and his death being reported in Genesis 4 and Zechariah’s martyrdom being reported in 2 Chron. 24:20-22 and, in the Hebrew Bible, 2 Chronicles is the last book.  In both biblical accounts there is an explicit call for vengeance.  The Lord’s contemporaries, the Scribes and Pharisees, are regarded as Zechariah’s murderers because they share the spiritual outlook and attitude of those who actually murdered him.

v.36     This promise of judgment upon Israel will be taken up and expanded in the following two chapters.  The cumulative effect of Israel’s unbelief and rebellion meant that judgment could no longer be delayed.

v.37     “Jerusalem,” as the capital, stands for the entire nation.  The Lord had worked to avert this judgment by bringing the people to repentance, but they would not turn.  John Duncan, the Rabbi Duncan of the 19th century Scottish Free Church, once made the comment, “The older I grow, the subject of the human will seems more awful to me – the power to forsake God.”  [Colloquia Peripatetica, 168]

v.38     “House” here probably refers to the temple where Jesus was then standing and teaching.  To be desolate means that God will have departed it.  The temple was the symbol of God’s relationship with his people and when they broke that relationship he abandoned the temple. [1 Kings 9:6-9]  And the result of that would be seen in all its horror in the temple’s destruction and Jerusalem’s in A.D. 70, a subject taken up in the next chapter.

v.39     It is unclear and so a matter of debate whether this statement actually suggests the future conversion of Israel, as Paul seems to teach in Romans 11, or whether it is simply stating a condition that may or may not ever be fulfilled.  In that case the sense would be that Israel will never see the Lord again unless she repents, which she may never do.

Now, as you can imagine, nowadays Jews are not likely to warm to the Lord’s stern and unrelenting condemnation of the Jewish religious leadership of his time. Jewish scholarship has frequently commented on the Lord’s scathing denunciations of the Pharisees and almost universally characterizes them as grossly unfair, even libelous. [France, 323]  In our day when tolerance is widely regarded as the supreme virtue, when modern minds find almost incredible the fact that a person’s religious opinions could determine his eternal destiny, when the prospect of divine judgment has largely faded from the consciousness of most people in the West, and when firm and unyielding religious conviction is likely to be thought a form of bigotry, it is not surprising that the Lord’s “woes” sound terribly harsh and unkind to modern ears. Ours is not a society that approves of Matthew 23.  The Jews are not alone in that.

But it is worth our remembering certain things before we judge too quickly.

  • First, modern Jewish scholarship, indeed the largest part of the Jewish people alive in the world today and certainly the vast majority of American Jews, don’t follow the Pharisees either and, in fact, have nothing but scorn for a religious life taken so seriously and for religious regulations allowed so to dominate one’s daily life. In Israel today only a small fraction of Jews are religiously observant in anything like the sense of first century Pharisaism and a great many of them have nothing but contempt for the scruples of the orthodox and Pharisaical Jews whose political clout is due wholly to their being the swing vote between the two far larger parties of secular Jews.  So, if Jesus repudiated the Pharisees understanding of God, life, and salvation, most of Judaism today has done the same.
  • Second, it is important, very important to observe that the term “hypocrite” in the Lord’s usage has a broader range than we typically give to the word. The emphasis in these denunciations falls less on conscious insincerity – living life as a pose – than on a failure to understand and appreciate the inconsistency between their expressed aim – to please God – and their actual teaching and living.  The Lord’s attack is upon their failure as the religious leaders of Israel, as interpreters of the Bible, and as teachers of the way of salvation.  We are not to suppose that Jesus meant that these men were all fakes and frauds, making money or gaining power by their religious manipulation of people.  The Pharisees were, by and large, much admired by the common people of Palestine, much more so than were the Sadducees.  They didn’t refuse to help little old ladies across the street nor did they kick dogs.  They didn’t regularly foreclose on the mortgages of the poor.  No doubt they were sincere in their religious beliefs.  But sincerity is an over-admired virtue in our day and age.  As Pascal reminds us, most of the real damage done in the world is done by sincere people.  It is the sincere who persuade people to follow them, even over the cliff.  It is sincere people who, through history, have succeeded in persuading people that evil was good and good was evil.

It is often the case that when biblical theology is forsaken, as it was by the Pharisees, duty and moral obligation become the surrogate for true faith.  You often find a deep moral earnestness, even a relentless moralism in those who have abandoned real faith in God, whether that abandonment takes place in or outside of the church.  The one is a substitute for the other.  Men made in the image of God cannot escape the moral seriousness of life.  If it is not expressed in a personal, loving, faithful, humble, relationship with God, it will often be expressed in some form of determined pursuit of morality.

The Pharisees were not like Jean Jacques Rousseau, for example.  Rousseau is an idol of the Enlightenment, an icon of the modern secular religion of our time.  He was, like the Pharisees, given to earnest exhortations on morality.  He was confident that he knew how men should live.  But he was personally a pig.  One scholar described him as a “masochist, exhibitionist…hypo-chondriac…afflicted by the typical urge for repeated displacements, incapable of normal or parental affection, incipient paranoiac, narcissistic introvert rendered unsocial by his illness, filled with guilt feelings, pathologically timid, a kleptomaniac, infantilist, irritable, and miserly.”  [In Thomas Reeves, The Empty Church, 74]  He made a long-time sex-slave of one poor woman and calmly sent their five illegitimate children to virtually certain death in an institution for unwanted children.  And yet his influential novel, Emile, contained instructions about the moral education of young people.  There have been many such men in history who have had the sheer gall to tell others how to live.

Much the same sort of thing could be said about Voltaire or Karl Marx, also founders of modern secularism, who were likewise self-obsessed, hate-filled, bitter, and cruel men who posed as champions of a higher morality.

But this is not how Jesus described the Pharisees.  He condemns them for the falsehood of their teaching, for the grand errors that they made in representing God and the way of salvation to the people under their care, and for the inevitable religious hypocrisy that must result when the way of religious regulation is substituted for the way of trust in God and love for man, when performance replaces faith in Christ.  Their errors were the inevitable errors of their system.  Christ’s criticism of them is more objective than subjective and the more powerful and important for that reason.  Their great danger was not that they failed to live up to their teaching but that they lived up to it perfectly well!  It was teaching bound to make them care more for the outward than the inward, the trivial than the important.

  • That leads us to the third thing that may be said about the Lord’s denunciations of the Scribes and Pharisees. He says nothing that is not also said about false teachers later in a Christian context.  Read, for example, Peter’s scathing denunciation of Christian false teachers in 2 Peter 2.  It is stronger, harsher than what the Lord said here.  It is not their being Jews that is the problem here in Matthew 23.  There were other Jews of the time that saw through the errors of the Pharisees.  It is not even their being Pharisees, for there were some of that party that had a better understanding and, indeed, some who became followers of Jesus.  It is that their teaching is false and that so many were relying on that teaching and were being destroyed by it.  That is what accounts for the Lord’s stern language and unrelenting condemnation.  We have no difficulty talking about drug dealers this way, and they can only ruin a person’s life in this world.  A false teacher in the church can destroy a life for eternity or keep a person from ever finding the way to everlasting life.
  • And fourth, and finally, there is the counterpoint to these denunciations in the Lord’s sorrowful regrets and tender feeling expressed in vv. 37-39. People may well wonder how someone who could be so fierce in his condemnation of the religious life of the church in his day and of its religious leadership could, nevertheless, be so tender-hearted toward those who refused to heed his warnings, but such is love when it is directed by truth or truth when it is directed by love.  We have all wondered how God can say, as he does often enough in the Bible, that he wishes for all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth when he has not chosen in his infinite wisdom and by his almighty power to make all men come to him – something he certainly could have done – but such is the mystery of life and so high are God’s ways above our own.  The fact is, Christ loved his contemporaries and did everything within his power to draw them to the truth and to give them eternal life.  That so many refused him broke his heart.  We know that.  He himself says it.  There are condemnations here in Matthew 23.  But there are tears along with them.  That must not be forgotten.

The fact is, everything depends upon whether what Jesus said about the Pharisees is actually true.  If, in fact, their teaching sent people to hell who might have gone to heaven; if, in fact, they were blind guides leading the people astray; if, in fact, they made a mockery of God’s grace by ignoring it to make of salvation a matter of their own performance – as they most certainly did and as generations of so-called Christians have done after them – and if, in fact, they crucified the Lord of Glory, murdered the Savior of the World rather than submit to God’s way of salvation and his rule in their lives – as they most assuredly did, a fact of history that no one disputes – then what Jesus said about them is not only true, his condemnations are not only just, we may well wonder that he was not more violent in his denunciation of these upright, moral, religious men who destroyed the souls of multitudes.

What is more, it is the teaching of the entire Bible that nearness to God and a summons to divine service will either make a man better or make him very much worse.  C.S. Lewis reminds us that

“Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.  Of all created beings, the wickedest is one who originally stood in the immediate presence of God.”  [Reflections on the Psalms, 32]

There is a special badness that the Lord detected in these religious leaders; a pride, a self-absorption, a spiritual carelessness, a stubbornness that had lethal consequences not only for themselves but for many others.  Theirs was a particular heinous form of a very typical human error precisely because they were called to teach God’s ways to men. These men had a special responsibility before God, a responsibility they betrayed, a privilege they despised.  No wonder that the Lord singled them out for condemnation.

And that leads us to the last observation: viz. that we will never really understand the Lord’s condemnations in this chapter if we allow ourselves to think only of those long-ago Pharisees, whether in our minds we join in the Lord’s denunciation or, on the contrary, like many today, wish to defend them as not as bad people as he made them out to be.  Fact is, virtually everything the Lord says about the Pharisees, we can apply in one way or another and to one degree or another to ourselves.  In this the Pharisee is everyman.  And once anyone sees these evils in himself or herself, the Lord’s denunciations not only ring true but hit home.  We know how evil this spirit is, how dangerous this attitude, how utterly contrary this outlook to the mind and heart of God as he has revealed himself in his Word and especially in his Son.  We are well aware of what this spirit, this spiritual principle of self, of pride, of performance would do to us and others if the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ were not brought in to check us and to humble us. We know all this because we see it and feel it within ourselves!

We know, for example, all about tithing mint, dill, and cumin and neglecting the weightier matters of the law.  We can be so precise about little things, comfort ourselves with our observance of many duties while largely forgetting how little we really love God or our neighbor.  How polite and genial we can be in public and how harsh and cruel to our wives or husbands or children or the clerk in the store. How meticulous we can be in paying our tithe or going to church while keeping our mouths firmly shut about Christ and salvation in the presence of those who are heading to hell. How exercised we can be about what we take to be false doctrine or philosophy in the church or in the world around us while we ourselves are often given over to the crudest forms of lust or worldliness or pride.

We know all too well, don’t we, what different people we are inside than we are outside; what a world we live in in our hearts; what an inner self, our true self, we hide from others.

After all, the history of the church is full of the stories of people who were religious and seriously so, who, like the Pharisees were enemies of the gospel of Christ, but who, by God’s grace and the working of his Holy Spirit, became followers of Christ.  When they looked back on what they had been, they saw not some benign, genial, and honest mistake.  They saw darkness, and evil, and a shuddering unconcern about everything important and precious.  They saw themselves as having been rebels against God and enemies of other human beings.  And above all else they saw themselves as having been the center of their universe.  What they were, what they had been, was thoroughly, disgracefully wrong!  And they shuddered to think they might have remained that forever! They don’t think that Jesus was too hard on the Pharisees.  They had been Pharisees and know full well how wrong, how bad they were.

When Etta Linnemann, the first ever New Testament professor in a German university, became a Christian, when her life was transformed by the grace of God, she asked people to burn her books, so sternly did she repudiate what she had been and what she had thought and what she had taught.

It is this reality that animates Jesus’ condemnations of the Pharisees.  They were all about themselves.  They were, however high-sounding their religious teaching, resting their hopes upon themselves, were concerned about themselves – their status, their achievements, their recognitions, their place in this world – and were, above all, highly satisfied with themselves.  However common this state of mind, however natural to human beings, however prevalent in our own day, it is a fatal error, a lethal misunderstanding of a human being’s true situation and true need.

A polite, middle class, comfortable, worldly, pleasure-seeking, proud and unserious culture like ours has great trouble digesting Matthew 23.  And that is because at bottom people think pretty much as the Pharisees did whether they are religious or not.  They are all about themselves and about what they do, not about God and what he and he alone can do.

On the other hand, people who see the world in biblical terms – see in every human life a great struggle going on between good and evil – and who know the dismal reality of the human heart in sin, the subtlety of evil, the power of self, these people know full well not only what Jesus meant but why he was so condemning of the outlook and the conduct of the Pharisees.  They were, in effect, telling people to look to themselves and not to Christ.  They were, in effect, with a smile on their face, directing the unsuspecting straight to hell.

I defy anyone to read the Gospels, to listen carefully to the teaching of Jesus, and to search his own heart with honest intention to find what is there, and then to conclude that Jesus did not know what he was talking about when he pronounced these woes against the Pharisees.

Remember, Jesus was speaking to the crowds.  He was saying, “don’t be like these men, the Pharisees.  They tell you to look to yourselves and to do it yourselves. You cannot.  That is why God sent his Son into the world, that those who believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life.”  The day is coming, I promise you in the name of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, when we will see with crystal clarity the true, the eternal issue of human life, the terrible difference between the saved and the lost, and he will wonder if Jesus was as stern as he should have been with the Pharisees.