Matthew 23

Matthew 23:5

“But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.

Phylacteries were small leather boxes containing quotes from the law that religious Jews strapped to their left hands and foreheads.

Matthew 23:13

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

(a) Woe does not mean “God will punish you!” It’s an expression of distress or deep sorrow. When Jesus says, “Woe to those who are pregnant and nursing babies in those days” (Matt. 24:19), he’s expressing grief.

(b) The kingdom of heaven; see entry for Matt. 3:2.

(c) You do not enter. In pronouncing woe over the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is lamenting their disastrous choices. “You’re not entering the kingdom of heaven.” This is terrible. “Nor do you allow others to enter.”

Matthew 23:14

[“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]

Greater condemnation. Jesus is not saying there are levels to God’s judgment and they will be getting the maximum amount of smiting. Condemnation of any sort is self-inflicted (see John 3:18). “For by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37). The greater condemnation is that inflicted by the hardened and grace-resistant heart.

There are two kinds of unbeliever: The ignorant unbeliever hasn’t heard the gospel and doesn’t know God loves her, while the hard-hearted unbeliever has heard the gospel and rejected it. Since there are two kinds of unbeliever there are two kinds of condemnation.

The lesser condemnation is the condemnation or wretchedness that comes from a graceless life. Think of Saul, living under the law, trying to do his best for the Lord and failing.

The greater condemnation is the condemnation that resists grace and denies the Lord. Think of the self-righteous Pharisees who hated Jesus and plotted to kill him. They received the heavenly rain, but produced thorns and thistles. They insulted the Spirit of grace and trampled the Son of God underfoot. They pushed the word of God away and judged themselves unworthy of life (Acts 13:46).

Further reading: “What is the greater condemnation?

Matthew 23:15

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

(a) Woe to you. “You’re hell-bound, and you’re taking others down with you. This is terrible!” See entry for Matt. 23:13.

(b) A son of hell. The Pharisees and scribes were supposed to be the sons of the kingdom but they had become sons of the evil one (Matt. 13:38). They bragged about having Abraham for their father, but Jesus said their father was the devil (John 8:39, 44). By this he meant they acted like the devil. They twisted the words of God and hindered people from entering the kingdom (Matt. 23:13).

Keep in mind Jesus knows these guys. He’s been preaching in the courts of their temple and fielding their questions for years. If he doesn’t know their names, he surely knows their faces. And he knows they are more lost than the tax collectors he dines with. Their smug superiority is nothing but a mask. Underneath they are real people with aches and needs just like the rest of us. Jesus knows the depths of their lostness, and this is why he is distressed.

(c) Hell; see entry for Matt. 5:22.

Matthew 23:16–17

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?

Fools. “This religion you’ve invented – it doesn’t even make sense! Your folly is breathtaking. Your ignorance is monumental.”

Matthew 23:23

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

(a) Woe is an expression of grief, not judgment; see entry for Matt. 23:13.

(b) Mint and dill. “You’ve got life back to front. You’re hung up on the small things – herbs, for pity’s sake! – and you’ve missed the big things.”

(c) You have neglected the weightier provisions of the law. The self-righteous man takes pride in his law-keeping, but in truth he only obeys those rules which are easy. The hard laws he dismisses. “They was for another time and place.” Thus the self-righteous man is a lawbreaker and a hypocrite (Jas. 2:10). Being lukewarm, he is further from grace than the sinners he despises.

(d) Justice and mercy. To a nation burdened with the heavy yoke of law, the cry for mercy was never far away. The law makes us acutely aware of our shortcomings and needs. Mercy is God showing compassion to those in need.

Matthew 23:29

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous,

Hypocrites! The scribes and Pharisees tended the tombs of the prophets and martyrs, but Jesus was unimpressed. Their attempts to honor the dead were a sham. In their hearts they had more in common with the killers than the prophets they killed.

Matthew 23:33

“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?

(a) You serpents. Jesus’ grief turns to anger and his anger is justified for their religion is pernicious. It’s keeping people from the love of God (Matt. 23:13).

(b) You brood of vipers. John the Baptist referred to the Pharisees and Sadducees as a brood of vipers and Jesus adopted the phrase. See entry for Matt. 3:7.

(c) How will you escape? Reject life and you’ll reap death.

Those who scorned grace received repeated warnings from Jesus (e.g., Matt 21:19, Luke 13:6-8, John 15:6).

(d) Hell; see entry for Matt. 5:22.

Matthew 23:34

“Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city,

(a) Scourge. Jesus told the religious leaders that they would scourge and persecute those he sent, then he told his disciples that they would be scourged and persecuted. See entry for Mark 13:9.

(b) Kill and crucify. Self-righteous, rule-keeping religion ministers death to those who practice it and those who oppose it (2 Cor. 3:7).

Matthew 23:35

so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.

(a) Upon you may fall the guilt. “You’re going to pay for the blood of Abel and Zechariah.”

The murderous Jews of the first-century did not kill Abel and Zechariah, but they paid for the crime. Within a generation, Jerusalem was wiped off the face of the earth. This has nothing to do with divine punishment and everything to do with reaping what you sow. When Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that a day of reckoning was coming, he was saying their chickens were coming home to roost.

Further reading: “The blood of Righteous Abel

(b) Righteous Abel. Before the cross, no one could be made righteous. The gift of righteousness had not been given and the “one act of righteousness” had not be done (Rom. 5:18). Yet Old Testament saints such as Abraham were credited with righteousness on account of their faith in God (see entry for Rom. 4:3). Abel had some understanding of God’s path of salvation and was judged righteous on account of his faith (1 John 3:12, Heb. 11:4).

Matthew 23:36

“Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

(a) Truly, as in listen up and pay attention. This is for real. Your lives depend on you heeding what I have told you.

In Matthew 23 Jesus warned the crowds, and in Matthew 24 he warned the disciples. “Truly I say to you” (Matt. 24:34). Jesus is the truth. One truly from him ought to convince us; two trulies should remove any shadow of doubt. “Truly, truly, these things will happen within a generation.”

(b) All these things. It is not entirely clear, yet, what these bad things are. But in the next chapter Jesus will spell them out in detail. See entry for Matt. 24:33.

(c) This generation. Jesus’ prophecy about the great tribulation and the destruction of Jerusalem were not for a future generation; they were for the disciples’ generation. Jesus said the temple would fall within 40 years, or one Biblical generation, and it did. See also the entry for Matt. 24:34.

Matthew 23:38

“Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!

Desolate: “Your temple, your religion – it’s empty. There’s nothing there. God has left the building.”

Matthew 23:39

“For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’”

In Luke’s account these words come before Palm Sunday (Luke 13:34–35), but in Matthew’s gospel they come after. Palm Sunday was the day the crowds welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 21:9). In the old days, to say a prophet came in the name of the Lord was to recognize him as a true prophet of God (Deut. 18:22). So when the people of Jerusalem hailed Jesus as coming in the name of the Lord, while singing the salvation song of Psalm 118, they were saying, “We recognize you as the true Savior.”

The Pharisees did not recognize Jesus as Savior so they were offended by the singing (Matt. 21:15). So Jesus told them, “You will not see me again until you sing the same tune.”

For three years the religious rulers of Jerusalem had seen Jesus up close, yet they did not believe he was who he said he was. So Jesus tells them, “You have seen me and not believed. Now you will not see me unless you believe.” They would not see him again except by faith. The religious leaders had rejected Jesus, but he had not rejected them. If they were to cry, “Lord, save us,” he would be there. The moment they saw him as a blessing from the Lord, they would be blessed.

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