Gospel of Matthew Chapter Twenty-Three Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Are We Ready?
Verses 1-3: "Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples,2 saying:'The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.'" The saying, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is attributed to the British Lord Acton, but it's even more accurate to say: We are all corrupt, and power brings corruption to the surface. That can be seen in Romans 3:23—"ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God." When we were babies, we wanted to be changed, fed and held whenever we wanted, and the selfish, demanding part of our personalities hasn't gone away... it's simply masked behind what is called "maturity." Power tends to bring out the immaturity of our childhood once more. That's what happens to leaders everywhere, such as the "scribes and the Pharisees" of these verses. However, as it says in Romans 13:1, "the authorities that exist are appointed by God," and the response of Jesus can be summed up by: "Do what they say but don't do what they do."
Verses 4-7: "They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men." If you possess humanly important symbols like titles, badges, special clothing, acknowledged abilities, authority or whatever... you probably like it. It feels good. Being called Doctor, Rabbi, Imam, Pastor, Professor, Reverend, Chief, King, Father, boss, or whatever, can be like a drug that seduces us. It gives the illusion of IDENTITY, reinforced by those around us—that we really are someone after all. We'll see what we are supposed to be in Verse 11, but for right now, do you like ordering others around, getting them to do what you want? Do you like being noticed, respected by them? How much do you like your special I.D. or business card? How does it feel when others give you recognition?
Verses 8-10: "But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.10 Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ." The word "Rabbi" essentially means "Teacher," and if you think about it, those who legitimately have the spiritual gift called "teaching" don't really teach in the way people do—God is the One who Teaches and we are merely the ones who transmit the information to other people. And that's the way it is with all the spiritual gifts—God gives what He, in His wisdom, chooses to give to us, and we share it with others. We are all "brothers" and sisters in the Lord, and everyone who places their faith in the Lord Jesus is "gifted" in some manner or another. God is our Teacher, our Father in heaven, our Leader, the Christ (Anointed King) over all. Let's encourage one another, but give praise to the Lord.
Verses 11-12: "But the greatest among you shall be your servant.12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted." Through the years, I've held titles like Supervisor, Managing Director, President and Pastor. When you have titles and people treat you with respect, it becomes more difficult to also see that you are actually the servant of those you are supposed to lead. We are really like butlers or maids within a royal setting, helping others with—everything. I've personally experienced the difficult reality that, losing focus and deciding we actually are something, God will bring us very low, until we begin, once more, to understand. The author of James 4:10 expressed it this way: "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up."
Verses 13-15: "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.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.) 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." The word "woe" here, can also be translated as "horror" in response to pain, distress and suffering. If we are in a place of religious leadership, it is worse than wrong to mislead the people we are supposed to serve. It will destroy us and it will destroy them, as well. These leaders were adept theologians. They knew the Old Testament and taught it with passion. But they also cheated widows out of their homes, at the same time as they uttered long, windy, beautiful prayers, resulting in condemnation because God does not in any way approve of hypocrisy. And what good does it do to win somebody to your theology, if you and your religion are false.
Verses 16-22: "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.’17 You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?18 And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’19 You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering?20 Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it.21 And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it.22 And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it." God's Temple had become a place of business where religion was bought and sold, and superstition had taken the place of faith. Secular contracts were supposedly authenticated by the abundant gold in that Temple, but the Temple itself was a holy place, God's parable of so much that was to come. Gold is really just shiny rocks by comparison. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus told the people to "make no oath at all," with the idea that a simple "yes" or "no" is sufficient for any honest person. But here, the religious leaders had come up with a whole theology about how to swear oaths that would authenticate contractual agreements. We need to look at what we believe, and not be (or follow) "blind guides" like the Pharisees.
Verses 23-28: "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.24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.28 So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." God sees us with a depth of understanding that is beyond our ability to imagine it. The religious leaders, like many today, had become adept at ritualistic outward religion, but neglected what was really important. They tithed effectively from the proceeds of the sale of herbs, but were not just, merciful and faithful. They didn't eat "unclean" foods, loudly coughing up a gnat that flew into their mouths but swallowing false doctrine whole. From God's perspective, which is the only true perspective, they were self-indulgent robbers. They looked good on the outside, like beautiful tombs, but they were dead inside where it counts. They were lawless hypocrites, and WE are not to be smug, but fearlessly look, confess our own hypocritical indulgence and become right with God.
Verses 29-33: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’31 So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.32 Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers.33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?" People tend to take credit for the accomplishments of predecessors, and that's what we see here. The reality is seen in "Foxe's Book of Martyrs," and in the sad concluding verses of Hebrews 11. God's people, His prophets, have been mistreated and murdered for centuries, and the religious leaders Jesus was speaking to at the moment, were part of the plot to murder the Son of God. We need to look at ourselves, for we are all human after all, and wonder: Why do we dislike that person, that group, that organization so much? They may be wrong in what they do, but the even greater problem might be our own attitudes and actions. Paul encouraged Christians in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to—"Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith." We need to take a hard look at who and what we are.
Verses 34-36: "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, 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.36 Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation." Such prophets would indeed be sent to that nation, speaking of the Lord as they had done for centuries; the Lord who has many names, such as: "Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). And those prophets the Lord would send, right before being beaten and killed, would shout out the Name by which so many know Him today—Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God. What would we do if a true prophet of God appeared in the midst of our denomination, our church today, and spoke about our doctrines, our practices? Would we embrace them in love? Or would we call the police?
Verses 37-39: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!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!’" Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Catholics, non-denominationals and more: What is God the Son saying to us today? Are we listening? Can we even hear? We do not, can not, see the future or even accurately imagine it. It was about 30 or so A.D. at the moment. Jerusalem and its leadership would be destroyed, killed and enslaved in the then-future of 70 A.D., as a direct result of the unfaithfulness of Israel and its leaders. Some were faithful, as it is true among us today... but God is watching... are we ready for His Return?
Lord, I love You, but I have sinned in my attitudes and actions. I am to love You, love other people, but all too often I have disliked them and displeased You. I am truly sorry, Lord. Please heal my wayward heart. In Jesus Name. Amen.