Thanks for continuing to read the gospel of Matthew. Today Jesus teaches that the Tithe (or practice of giving 10%) is something that we should do in Matthew 23:23. He also gives us other helpful teaching as he warns against the attitudes and practices of the religious leaders of his day such as hypocrisy.
Matthew has extensive coverage (Mark has only three verses) of Jesus warnings against the religious establishment of the day. In this section, the theme continues that Jesus’ true opponents were not the common people, but the Jewish leaders. Jesus made many scathing remarks to the religious leaders, but not all of them were evil (consider Nicodemus in John 3 and Joseph in Mark 15:43). Jesus attacked their legalism that had become a stumbling block for the Jews.
23:1-2 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.”NRSV Jesus turned his attention to the crowds and to his disciples as he spoke to them about the religious leaders. Pointing to their pride and hypocrisy, Jesus showed them to be far from the type of followers God desires. The scribes (also called teachers of the law) were the legal experts and the professional copiers of God’s Word. Most scribes were also Pharisees, the strict religious group who made a lifetime profession of keeping all the minute regulations in the law and, especially, in their oral traditions. The problem came because their interpretations and applications of the laws had become as important to them as God’s law itself. Some of their laws were beneficial, but they ran into trouble when they (1) took man-made rules as seriously as God’s laws, (2) told the people to obey these rules but did not do so themselves, or (3) obeyed the rules not to honor God but to make themselves look good. Usually Jesus did not condemn what the Pharisees taught, but what they were—hypocrites.
To sit on Moses’ seat had both literal and metaphorical meanings. Jesus referred to an actual seat in a synagogue on which a rabbi sat when teaching. It also referred to the authority that came down to them from Moses himself—as keepers, teachers, and interpreters of the law. But Jesus’ words most likely carried a sarcastic meaning, for the religious leaders had assumed more authority than they actually possessed.
|LIFE APPLICATION – ALOOF INSTRUCTION|
|The Pharisees laid impossible burdens on the people. What parent tells a child to “fix that bike,” then refuses to show how to do it? That would be setting up that child for sure failure.|
|Likewise in spiritual growth. To teach Bible truths but then refuse to help along the way is to (1) accentuate your own importance in contrast to others’ failures, (2) make students needlessly dependent upon you, and (3) create frustration with and eventually resignation from spiritual growth.|
|If you volunteer to teach, be prepared to help. Yes, it will take time and will create schedule problems for you. If that’s unacceptable, give the teaching assignment to someone else.|
23:3-4 “Therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”NRSV Jesus explained that because of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ authority as teachers of the law, the Jews ought to do whatever they teach you and follow it. This seems strange at first because of Jesus’ denouncement of much of their teaching (see 12:1-14; 15:1-20; 16:6-12; 19:3-9). Yet Jesus did not toss aside the religious leaders as worthless; he understood the need for their function when they taught correctly. But he did question their actions. Some scholars see irony, even sarcasm, in Jesus’ words, “do whatever they teach you.” Jesus was now attacking the very system of the Pharisees that stressed minutiae of the law over obedience to God himself. For all their teaching, they did not practice what they taught. The Pharisees were notorious for adding minute details and requirements to the law that made it impossible for the average person, whose life did not revolve around the law, to keep the law. These were the heavy burdens, hard to bear. After giving the people all these impossible commands, the leaders were unwilling to lift a finger to move them. In other words, they lived in their “ivory towers,” teaching their lofty commands and interpretations. Yet, they offered the people no practical advice in working these out in their lives or in building a relationship with the heavenly Father. The scribes and Pharisees misused application. They distorted the law by reducing it to pointless practices and trivial pursuits. In their hands, the law ground people down instead of bringing them up to grace.
The Lord described his way as narrow and hard (7:13-14). But instead of laying an impossible burden on the shoulders of others, he carried the burden of the Cross on his own. He didn’t just lend a helping finger; he lifted the load.
23:5-7 “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”NRSV As they made their living keeping all their tiny laws, the scribes and Pharisees were very aware of the attention they received from the people—and they loved it. They performed all their deeds so that they might be seen by others. They did not keep the laws because they loved God, but because they loved human praise.
|LIFE APPLICATION – FOR SHOW|
|Jesus held up both the mixed motives and the hypocritical behavior of his opponents for scrutiny. He accused them of overconcern with appearance and prestige. They expected to be noticed. They relished the perks of their positions. They gave superficial attention to God’s demands in order to enjoy special privileges. Their behavior was exactly opposite from what Jesus expects of his followers.|
|What parallels might we find today? Any time we settle for appearance over truth, we tread a time-worn path. Our culture has made image a higher priority than character. In modern terms, Jesus’ charges sound like this: “Contrary to popular opinion, image isn’t everything. You are far too concerned with how you look and how others see you. You are not concerned with how your heavenly Father sees you.” When Jesus holds up a mirror to our character and we see nothing deeper than our image, we need to repent. We need to again read carefully what Jesus expected of his disciples (23:8-12). His directions will lead to character development.|
“For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”NRSV Phylacteries were little leather boxes containing Scripture verses. Very religious people wore these boxes on their forehead (tied around the head by a strap) and on their arms so as to obey—literally—Deuteronomy 6:8 and Exodus 13:9, 16. While it is difficult to know for sure how many of the details in these verses were practices in Jesus’ day, the general outline here probably was still the case. To “make their phylacteries broad” could refer either to widening the strap around the forehead (so as to make it more noticeable) or to wearing the phylacteries all day long (instead of just during prayer times). But the phylacteries had become more important for the status they gave than for the truth they contained.
To make “fringes long” referred to the fringe that the law said men should attach to the four corners of a garment (Deuteronomy 22:12). The religious leaders lengthened this fringe (or tassels), again simply to make them more noticeable.
“They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”NRSV The place of honor at banquets is the seat to the right of the host. Those seated there received special treatment during the meal. The best seats in the synagogues were where the elders sat, at the front, near the place where the scrolls of the Torah were kept. Those seats faced the congregation and were reserved for the most important people. To be greeted with respect in the marketplaces was a highly treasured honor. Greetings in the Near East then (today as well) meant more than they do in the West today. Custom called for those less learned to greet their superiors; thus, these religious leaders would receive many greetings. To be called rabbi (meaning “teacher”) was treasured for the status it gave a person as a leading teacher of the Torah. In short, the scribes had lost sight of their priority as teachers of the law and were enjoying their position merely because of the “perks” it offered. Jesus condemned this attitude.
People desire positions of leadership in the community, at work, and in the church. It is dangerous when love for the position grows stronger than loyalty to God. This is what happened to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus is not against all leadership—we need Christian leaders—but against leadership that serves itself rather than others.
|LIFE APPLICATION – TITLES AND HONORS|
|Who loves honor today? In churches across the world, it has become courteous (even obligatory) to refer to Christian leaders by their highest titles, often academic or honorary doctorates. Christian leaders have even been known to actively seek an honorary doctorate, in order to be called “Doctor” at the next missions conference. But Jesus wants all that role-playing put aside.|
|If you hold a title, don’t depend on it for self-respect. (Billy Graham, for example, was often introduced as “Doctor Graham,” to which he would typically respond, “I’m just Billy.”) If you don’t hold a title, don’t covet one. Leadership in God’s kingdom goes to servants first.|
23:8-10 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.”NIV In these words, Jesus described true discipleship. “You are not to be called ‘rabbi'” did not mean that Jesus refused anyone that title. Rather, this means that a learned teacher should not allow anyone to call him “rabbi” in the sense of “great one.” Why? Because there is only one “Great One,” one Master, and all rabbis are under his authority. Rabbis of Jesus’ day tended to have independent spirits, each establishing his own school. True disciples, however, are united under one authority (and you are all brothers) and do not establish a hierarchy of importance.
“Do not call anyone on earth ‘father'” does not mean that we cannot use the word for a parent. Again, Jesus was speaking in the context of the rabbi and disciple relationship. Disciples would call their rabbi “father,” and the relationship could be compared to that between a father and son. This command gives the flip side of the first one. While rabbis must not accept homage from disciples, the disciples were not to revere any rabbi or put him on a pedestal.
The third command repeats the first one, but adds the emphasis of the Christ, the Messiah. All rabbis (all learned teachers) fall under the authority of one Teacher. Jesus, of course, was referring to himself.
23:11-12 “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”NRSV The heart of discipleship is not found in outward appearances or long tassels or places of honor. It comes from servanthood and humility. Jesus had explained in 20:26 that true greatness comes from being a servant. The true leader places his or her needs last, as Jesus exemplified in his life and in his death. Being a servant did not mean occupying a servile position; rather, it meant having an attitude of freely attending to others’ needs without expecting or demanding anything in return. Trying to exalt oneself by seeking honor, respect, and the attention of others runs contrary to Jesus’ requirements for his servants. Only those who humble themselves in an attitude of service will find true greatness in God’s kingdom. This completely opposed the attitudes and actions of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus challenged society’s norms. To him, greatness comes from serving—giving yourself to help God and others. Service keeps us aware of others’ needs, and it stops us from focusing only on ourselves. Jesus came as a servant. What kind of greatness do you seek? (See also 5:1-3; 20:25-26.)
JESUS CONDEMNS THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS /23:13-36
Matthew included seven “woes” (or denunciations) against the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus unhesitatingly called “hypocrites.” Being a religious leader in Jerusalem was very different from being a pastor in a secular society today. Israel’s history, culture, and daily life revolved around its relationship with God. The religious leaders were the best known, most powerful, and most respected of all leaders. Jesus made these stinging accusations because the leaders’ hunger for more power, money, and status had made them lose sight of God, and their blindness was spreading to the whole nation.
23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”NRSV “Woe” is a term that warns of judgment to come but also conveys a feeling of regret because the listeners refuse to repent.
|The formula that begins each “woe” ends in calling the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites (a favorite term that Jesus used for his opponents). It then describes their failure to live up to their responsibility as interpreters and teachers of the law.||Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-racking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It is a whole-time job.
W. Somerset Maugham
The word “hypocrite,” as used against these Pharisees, refers to those who scrupulously obey the small details of the law but have no thought or concern about people’s right relationship with God. This first “woe” to the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees concerns the fact that they were locking people out of the kingdom of heaven. Their rejection of Jesus and emphasis on their petty demands had the effect of locking people out of the kingdom and keeping themselves out as well. Anyone who might have gotten in through a saving relationship with God (see also 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24) was stopped by these Pharisees. They made God seem impossible to please, his commands impossible to obey, and thus heaven an impossible goal.
23:14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.”NKJV This verse is not present in the older manuscripts and is probably borrowed from Mark 12:40, a parallel verse. As such, it should not be considered the second “woe,” which occurs in 23:15.
|LIFE APPLICATION – SELECTING TEACHERS|
|Who will teach you and your family about the Scriptures? This is one of the most important decisions you make. Jesus offers some helpful hints at the beginning of the “seven woes”:|
|People schooled and devoted to the Scriptures deserve our ear. To the degree that they teach the Scriptures, we can learn from them, even if their own faith is weak or their practice of faith is faulty.|
|When it is necessary, separate the teaching of a person from the example of his or her life.|
|Whenever possible, select teachers whose words illuminate the Scriptures and who live in faithful service to God. When a teacher lives what he or she teaches, you will learn by word and example.|
23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”NRSV This second “woe” focuses on the scribes and Pharisees perverting their own converts. There were two stages for someone converting to Judaism. The first step was for the person to understand the concept of one God (as opposed to many gods) and to accept the basic tenets of Judaism. The second step was to become circumcised—circumcision was the unmistakable and irrevocable mark of joining God’s people. The Pharisees restricted their zealous missionary efforts to God-fearing pagans. “God-fearing” referred to Gentiles who followed the beliefs of Judaism. They didn’t want to mix with the “unclean” Gentiles. But the Pharisees’ zeal was real. They would go to Jewish communities in other lands, and in addition to handling legal matters and teaching, they would try to talk the God-fearers into undergoing the final rite of circumcision.
Unfortunately, many of the Pharisees’ converts were attracted to status and rule keeping, not to God. By getting caught up in the details of the Pharisees’ additional laws and regulations, they completely missed God, to whom the laws pointed. A religion of deeds pressures people to surpass others in what they know and do. Thus, a hypocritical teacher was likely to have students who were even more hypocritical. Making converts was laudable. But when the ones doing the converting are “children of hell,” then their converts will likely meet the same end.
23:16-19 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred?”NRSV This third “woe” concerns the binding power of oaths. These were vows or binding promises made to God to dedicate service or contribute property. Jesus had used the term “blind guides” for the Pharisees in 15:14. They should have been guides for the blind but instead were blind themselves. Two examples were given of the ridiculous lengths to which the overly legalistic system had gone—swearing by the temple or the gold, and swearing by the altar or the gift: “And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”NRSV In the Near East, people often would “swear by” something or make oaths. However, they would avoid making oaths using God’s name or a sacred object (such as the temple or the altar) because they believed that then the oath was binding. Moses’ law kept them from swearing by God’s name, so an elaborate system was created to make vows less binding. The closer the basis of the vow was to God’s name, the more binding it was. The Jew then would swear an oath by peripheral objects, like the sanctuary (meaning the temple) or the altar in the temple, so he could break his oath if needed. The idea was that a person would be bound if he swore by something greater than himself; so there was an ascending scale of values and of binding power. Jesus illustrated the minute (and ridiculous) distinctions. They were saying that the gold was more sacred because it covered the temple and the gift was more sacred because it was offered to God.
|LIFE APPLICATION – MAJORING IN THE MINORS|
|The Pharisees confused the externals for the essentials. Likewise, many Christian churches today make major issues of minor personal choices and divert new Christians from Christ to their own version of cultural essentials.|
|With a group of friends, describe experiences in your past where minor issues were elevated to major concerns. What happened? How did you respond? How did you recover (or did you?) a relationship to Christ amid the pressure to conform to “the list”?|
|Many Christians need help recovering from the legacy of the Pharisees that many churches practice today. Let your small group be a place where such help is eagerly given.|
23:20-22 “So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.”NRSV Jesus had explained that his followers should not need to make any oaths at all, for to do so would imply that their word could not be trusted (5:33-37). The scribes were completely blind (23:16-19)—by attempting to make distinctions in oaths, they had lost sight of the fact that all oaths are made before God and should be equally binding. To try to outwit God by swearing by peripherals cannot work even by their own logic. To swear by the altar and the temple and heaven is still to swear by God, for he is the one who receives the gifts on the altar, lives in the temple, and is enthroned in heaven. In other words, anyone making a vow should fulfill that vow, for all vows are binding. No oath should be made with a loophole.
23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”NRSV The fourth “woe” points to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ hypocrisy concerning their lack of mercy. There is no evidence in God’s law demanding a tithe of cooking herbs or medicinal spices, although the Israelites would tithe agricultural products such as fruit (Leviticus 27:30; Deuteronomy 14:22). But since these spices were edible, the scribes and Pharisees carried the law to its extreme and tithed even mint, dill, and cummin. Jesus did not condemn this practice, but he condemned their complete neglect of the weightier matters of the law, for example, justice and mercy and faith. The hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees lay in their careful obedience to the small details of the law while they ignored larger issues that were far more important—such as dealing correctly with other people and building a relationship with God.
It is possible to carefully obey certain details of God’s laws but still be disobedient in our general behavior. For example, we could be very precise and faithful about giving 10 percent of our money to the church but refuse to give one minute of our time in helping others. Tithing is important, but giving a tithe does not exempt us from fulfilling God’s other directives. The last phrase sums up all the “woes.” They ought to have practiced the weightier matters without neglecting others, such as tithing. Jesus was not negating faithfulness to God’s law; rather, he was condemning a concern for minor details that replaced true piety and discipleship.
23:24 “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”NRSV How blind these religious leaders were—guides who were leading the people astray! Jesus used a play on words here—the Aramaic words for “gnat” and “camel” are very similar. The Pharisees strained their wine so they wouldn’t accidentally swallow a gnat—an unclean insect according to the law. Meticulous about the details of ceremonial cleanliness, they nevertheless had lost their perspective on the matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23), symbolized by the camel. The camel was not only the largest creature in the Near East but was also unclean. As the Pharisees took great care of the smallest details in order to remain pure, they had become unclean in the most important areas. Ceremonially clean on the outside, they had corrupt hearts.
|LIFE APPLICATION – STRAINED OBEDIENCE|
|What did Jesus have in mind when he used the terms “gnats” and “camels”? His statement identifies three items in each category. “Gnats” were like tithing mint, dill, and cummin. “Camels” were justice, mercy, and faith. Two millennia later, the camels remain the same, but the gnats have undergone a remarkable transformation. Jesus did not condemn meticulous obedience. He affirmed the validity of the tithe, saying that the leaders should have practiced these “without neglecting the others.”|
|An application of Jesus’ statement would have to address our wider lack of obedience. We disregard the biblical guidelines from “light to weighty.” In our case, Jesus might well say, “You strain out nothing, but swallow everything whole!” We can respond positively by giving more thought and taking more specific action in living out our faith. How and what do we tithe? In what ways are we concerned with justice, mercy, and faith? Do we make them part of conversation? The Christian movement becomes anemic when believers overlook the details of faithful living and forget the priorities God holds dear.|
23:25-26 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”NRSV The fifth “woe” focuses on inner defilement and the scribes’ and Pharisees’ failure to distinguish between external “correctness” and internal “cleanness.” The Pharisees were so obsessed about having contact with only “clean” things that they not only washed the kitchen utensils but also made certain that the utensils were ceremonially clean. Staying ceremonially clean was the central focus of the Pharisees’ lifestyle. Jesus pointed out that they had taken care of the external purification but neglected their own internal defilement, for they were full of greed (literally “robbery” and “extortion”) and self-indulgence. These words describe a strong self-interest that cares only for personal needs. Jesus condemned the Pharisees and religious leaders for outwardly appearing saintly and holy but inwardly remaining full of corruption and greed. If the Pharisees’ lives were clean from within, they wouldn’t need to worry so much about ceremonial cleanness.
|LIFE APPLICATION – SOLVING PROBLEMS|
|How easy it is for us to keep the outside appearances looking good, while ignoring our inside condition. Is your marriage dissolving? Are your friendships hurting? Is your job on the line? Is your attitude toward life disintegrating?|
|Two routes toward problem solving lie open to you: (1) Live as though nothing were wrong and behave as though all were well, or (2) get to the core issues and deal with them.|
|Your sense of purpose and direction. What are you living for? What are you trying to do? Evaluate your life’s direction.|
|Your conceit, self-centeredness, and jealousy. Whom do you really love? Whom do you despise? Get honest about your feelings.|
|Your connection to authority. Whom are you willing to listen to? to obey? Is God the Lord on the inside of your life, or just window dressing?|
|Christian friends and pastors can help you. Counselors, too. The issues are too important to gloss over. Make a call today, set up an appointment, and start solving those problems. God has some wonderful surprises ahead for the person who will take a step toward honest change.|
23:27-28 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”NRSV The sixth “woe” describes the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs. Jesus may have been referring to the whitewashing of the tombs before Passover. Tombs were located in various places in the hilly countrysides (usually in caves). While the natives might know the locations of these tombs, pilgrims coming from many other cities and nations would not. To keep them from becoming unclean by inadvertently touching a tomb, the tombs were plainly marked by whitewash. Another possibility is that Jesus was referring to tombs that people had decorated with ornamental plaster and whitewash in order to make them look more attractive. In both cases, the beauty on the outside could not change the death and corruption on the inside.
Building on the image of “clean” in the last “woe” (23:26), Jesus used it to contrast internal and external cleanliness. Like a whitewashed tomb, the religious leaders had put on a beautiful appearance, but inside they were full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. Jesus referred to the filth of their desire to put him to death, just as leaders of the past, who followed the Pharisees’ way of thinking, had killed the prophets. Jesus prepared for his indictment in the verses to follow. Jesus explained, “In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”NIV Jesus called his enemies “hypocrites” in each “woe” because they were supposed to be the holy men and instead were filled with hypocrisy (in their wrongful application of God’s law and their attempts to make others live up to their standards) and wickedness (in their evil deeds, such as those described in 15:5-6 and 23:14).
23:29-32 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'”NRSV This final “woe” condemned the scribes and Pharisees for murdering the prophets. Continuing the imagery of the whitewashed tombs in 23:27-28, Jesus centered on the tombs of the prophets and the graves of the righteous. The graves of saints, prophets, and martyrs were revered. People even decorated the graves of those long dead who seemed worthy of such honor. Herod the Great built a marble monument at Solomon’s and David’s tombs. The veneration of the martyrs’ graves was ironic because these martyrs had, in most cases, been killed by the religious establishment of the day. For example, the prophet Zechariah was executed (2 Chronicles 24:20-22) and the prophet Uriah (or Urijah) was killed (Jeremiah 26:20-23). While the current religious leaders said that they would not have taken part with their ancestors in murdering God’s prophets, Jesus pointed out that they were no different from their ancestors at all. Jesus explained, “Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.”NRSV In these words, Jesus showed that the religious leaders were no different from their ancestors who had killed God’s messengers, for they were plotting to kill another messenger from God—the Messiah himself. “Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors” means, “Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started by killing me too” (see 23:34). These words may also reflect the Jewish belief that the kingdom will come when the sins of the people have “filled” the cup of God’s wrath. Therefore, it is a promise of judgment to come and looks forward to Jesus’ further discussion of the future in the Olivet Discourse (chapter 24).
23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”NIV In 3:7 and 12:34, these leaders were also called brood of vipers. Here Jesus also added snakes to give his accusation greater impact. By using this description, Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees contemptible and obnoxious creatures. Their punishment evokes the imagery of Gehenna, hell and its eternal fires. There will be no escape for these men, for they had already cast aside any hope of salvation.
23:34 “Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.”NIV These prophets, wise men, and teachers were probably leaders in the early church who eventually were persecuted, scourged, and killed, just as Jesus predicted. Flogging in the synagogues was a common Jewish punishment. The people of Jesus’ generation said they would not act as their fathers did in killing the prophets whom God had sent to them (23:30), but they were about to kill the Messiah himself and his faithful followers. Thus, they would become guilty of all the righteous blood shed through the centuries.
23:35-36 “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”NIV Jesus gave two examples of Old Testament martyrdom. Abel was the first martyr (Genesis 4); Zechariah was the last mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, which ended with 2 Chronicles. Zechariah is a classic example of a man of God who was killed by those who claimed to be God’s people (see 2 Chronicles 24:20-21). In both cases, the call for vengeance is explicit (Genesis 4:10; 2 Chronicles 24:22). The righteous blood of the prophets, also mentioned in 23:30, now came upon them, for Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.”NRSV The current religious establishment would be guilty of all of their deaths, for they would be guilty of murdering the Messiah and would face judgment for that act. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 a.d. was a partial fulfillment of Jesus’ words.
JESUS GRIEVES OVER JERUSALEM AGAIN / 23:37-39
These verses bridge the gap between Jesus’ denunciation of the Judaism of the religious leaders (that had become horribly corrupt) and his explicit prediction of the destruction of the temple in chapter 24.
23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”NKJV Jerusalem was the capital city of God’s chosen people, the ancestral home of David, Israel’s greatest king, and the location of the temple, the earthly dwelling place of God. It was intended to be the center of worship of the true God and a symbol of justice to all people. But Jerusalem had become blind to God and insensitive to human need. Jerusalem here stands for all the Jewish people, but this prophecy specifically looks to the city’s destruction. The Jewish leaders had stoned and killed the prophets and others whom God had sent to the nation to bring them back to him. By their constant rejection of God’s messengers, they had sealed their fate. Jesus wanted to gather the nation and bring it to repentance, but the people were not willing. Here we see the depth of Jesus’ feelings for lost people and for his beloved city that would soon be destroyed. Jesus took no pleasure in denouncing the religious establishment or in prophesying the coming destruction of the city and the people that rejected him. He had come to save, but they would not let him.
|LIFE APPLICATION – GOD’S SOFT HEART|
|Matthew 23 is so full of denunciation and honest criticism that some find it hard to believe these were Jesus’ words—they seem so out of character. But at the end of these “woes,” Jesus shows how tenderly he cares for the very people whose religious attitudes he has just criticized. God’s plan always includes love, reconciliation, and peace.|
|Jesus also wants to protect us if we will just come to him. Many times we hurt and don’t know where to turn. We reject Christ’s help because we don’t think he can give us what we need. But who knows our needs better than our Creator? Those who turn to Jesus will find that he helps and comforts as no one else can. Never think that you are so bad, so undeserving, so much a failure that God could not possibly love you. If such thoughts trouble you, read Matthew 23 again. It’s filled with bad guys, but Jesus would gather all of them in. He wants to gather you too. Never doubt that.|
23:38-39 “Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”NIV Jesus may have been alluding to Jeremiah 12:7, “I will forsake my house, abandon my inheritance; I will give the one I love into the hands of her enemies” (niv). Jeremiah had prophesied the coming destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. The nation’s sin sealed their punishment, and God’s presence left the temple. When Jesus Christ came, God himself again stood in the temple. But the people’s refusal to accept him would have severe consequences, for he would again leave the temple. The temple stood for the people’s relationship with God; a desolate temple meant separation from God.
The words “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” echo the words of the crowd during Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city (21:9), taken from Psalm 118:26. The words “until you say” could be related to what is said in Romans 11:25-26, where it is said that some of the Jewish nation will recognize Jesus as their true Messiah.
Source: Life Application Bible Commentary – Matthew.