The Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 23:1-39 (Matthew 23:1-39)

Denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, and lamentation over Jerusalem which followed their guidance to her own destruction. (Peculiar to St. Matthew.)

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Matthew 23:2-12 (Matthew 23:2-12)

The moral character of the scribes and Pharisees, and warning to Christ ' s disciples.

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Matthew 23:12 (Matthew 23:12)

Whosever shall exalt himself shall be abased ( ταπεινωθη ì σεται , shall be humbled ); and he that shall humble ( ταπεινω ì σει ) himself shall be exalted. It is not clear why the rendering of the verb is not uniform in this verse. The antithesis certainly requires it. The gnome, so often repeated (see references), seems to be, as it has been called, "an axiom in the kingdom of God." It is indeed a universal law in God's dealings with men. Olshausen quotes a saying! of Hillel to the same purport, "My humility is my exaltation, and my exaltation is my humility." The first clause was prophetic of the speedy overthrow of the haughty Pharisees; the second is grandly illustrated in the example of Christ, who humbled himself to the death of the cross, and is now highly exalted; who "for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" ( Hebrews 12:2 ). St. Peter draws the lesson, "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time" ( 1 Peter 5:5 , 1 Peter 5:6 ).

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Matthew 23:1-12 (Matthew 23:1-12)

The scribes and Pharisees.


1 . Their position . "They sit in Moses'seat." The scribes were the recognized teachers of the Law. The Pharisees exercised the greatest influence in the council and among the nation at large. Moses sat to judge the people ( Exodus 18:18 ); now the scribes taught and expounded the Law. Therefore the Lord enjoined obedience to their precepts. But we must mark the word "therefore." They were to be obeyed because they sat in Moses'seat—as the successors, in some sense, to his authority, as the expounders of his Law. So far they were to be obeyed; but not, the Lord himself elsewhere cautions us, in their misinterpretations, in their contrivances for evading the plain meaning of the Law, in their many quibbles and their endless distinctions. We see here that the Lord bids us obey constituted authorities in all things lawful. Those who are set over us may not always be orthodox in their opinions; their characters may not always command our respect; but the very fact that they are set over us makes it our duty to treat them with respect and to obey their directions, whenever such obedience is not inconsistent with our duty to God. Submission to our superiors, even if they are unworthy of their position, is an exercise of humility, and agreeable to the will of God; for "the powers that be are ordained of God: whosoever therefore resisted the power, resisteth the ordinance of God." We observe that the Lord does not here condemn the priests. They do not seem, as a body, to have taken a prominent place in the opposition to his teaching. The chief priests, who were Sadducees, did so. But we are told, early in the history of the Acts of the Apostles, that "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." "The priests' lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the Law at his mouth." But in our Lord's time a separation had been made between the duties of the teacher and the priest. The scribes taught the people; the priests ministered in the temple. The scribes, puffed up with their minute knowledge of the letter of the Law, were intensely antagonistic to the holy Teacher who brought out its spiritual meaning. The priests, excepting always their Sadducean leaders, do not seem to have been so hostile. They were occupied with their temple ministrations; they were, as a body, not recognized as public teachers, and were probably not so influential as the scribes, not brought so prominently before the eyes of the people. The Lord came to fulfil the Law. He attended the great festivals; he bade the leper whom he healed to show himself to the priest, and offer the gift which Moses commanded. He did not interfere with the ministrations of the priests, nor does he here censure their life and conduct. The chief priests were hostile to him, probably because he exercised authority in the temple which they regarded as their own domain, and diminished their revenues by expelling the traffickers from the sacred precincts. The scribes opposed the Lord, so did the chief priests; in both cases from selfish motives. Let us beware of selfishness, and fight against it. It poisons the very life of the soul; it sets men against the Lord; it leads them to say in their hearts, "Not thy will, but mine be done."

2 . Their conduct.


1 . The disciples of Christ must not seek for titles of honour. "Be not ye called Rabbi," the Lord said. There is one Teacher, one Father, one Master. The Lord's people must not seek for distinctions, for pre-eminence; they are all brethren. We are not to take the words literally. To do so would be to follow the Pharisees. They were slaves of the letter; the Lord's lessons are spiritual. St. Peter speaks of Mark as his son; so does St. Paul of Timothy and Titus; he describes himself as the spiritual father of his Corinthian converts ( 1 Corinthians 4:15 ). St. John addresses some to whom he writes as "fathers" ( 1 John 2:13 ). In the Epistle to the Hebrews ( Hebrews 13:7 , Hebrews 13:17 ) we are bidden to obey them that have the rule over us, where the Greek verb is that from which the word rendered "master" in verse 10 is derived. But Christian men are not to seek after these and such-like titles; they are not to set store by them. If they come to us in the course of God's providence, we may accept them. To reject them might be no true humility, but only the affectation of it. The difficult lesson is to be humble in heart, in lowliness of mind to esteem others better than ourselves.

2 . They must be truly humble. The greatest, the most advanced Christians, will readily consent to be last of all and servants of all; forevery advance in holiness brings us nearer to him who took upon him the form of a servant, and came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. It is a first principle in Christ's religion that "whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted." The Lord uses these words again and again ( Luke 14:11 ; Luke 18:14 ). His apostles echo them ( James 4:6 ; 1 Peter 5:5 ). The Lord Jesus had taught the blessedness of humility in the first of the Beatitudes. He illustrated his lesson in his own holy character, in the meekness and lowliness of his life. But the lesson is very high and difficult, hard for human nature to learn. Therefore it is enforced constantly in Holy Scripture, that this frequent repetition may help us to feel its deep importance, and urge us to cultivate that precious grace of lowliness without which we can make no real progress in the narrow way that leadeth unto life. The Pharisees exalted themselves. They loved sounding titles, high place, the praise of men. The Christian must learn of Christ to abase himself. Self-exaltation leads to spiritual ruin; for "God resisteth the proud."


1 . Obey in all things lawful those who are set over you, not only the good and gentle, but also the froward.

2 . Better to do and say not, than, like the Pharisees, to say and do not.

3 . Flee from the love of display; it poisons the life of the soul.

4 . Pray earnestly for constant growth in humility.

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Matthew 23:2-33 (Matthew 23:2-33)

Pharisees and Sadducees.

The Pharisees first appear under this name in Jewish history about the year B.C. 160. There had been Separatists, or Puritans, as far back as the Captivity, but it was alter the return to Palestine that events gave an impulse to the Separatist idea so strong as to consolidate what might otherwise have remained a tendency. The Jews had learned the value of commerce, and it was found impossible, in dealing with foreign merchants, to observe the minute regulations prescribed by the more zealous. The minority, who even pretended to this, were obliged to become Separatists, not only from the Gentiles, but from their own less scrupulous coreligionists. Hence their frequent connection with the scribes. There had always been scribes in Israel, men who could draw state or legal documents. But after the influence of Ezra had stimulated, if it had not created, a desire to know the Law, synagogues were to be found in every town. And a synagogue implied a copy of the Law and a person who could read it. The scribes therefore necessarily became a profession, with just such a curriculum for pupils and candidates as distinguish professions among ourselves. It was inevitable that they should acquire great influence among the people. For in their best days they were the guardians of the Law, and strove unceasingly to make it supreme over every act of every person. Not only did the scribe discharge all the functions of a modern lawyer, but he was appealed to in all circumstances where the application of the law might seem obscure. They were both the makers of the law and its administrators, and they did not scruple, sitting apart; from active life, to enforce on men engaged in it all the wire drawn and fantastic distinctions which their minds, imbecile with attention to the letter of the Law and with unpractical pedantry, could contrive. It was this inconsiderate exercise of their authority which provoked our Lord's rebuke. But burdensome as was the teaching of the scribes, two causes operated to make them the most popular members of the community.

1 . To them was committed the key of the kingdom of heaven; they had power to bind and loose—they alone could give a man assurance that he had actually attained to the righteousness required by the Law.

2 . The people were at one with them in their grand aim to give the Law absolute sway over the life of every Jew. The Pharisees who did live as the scribes enjoined, were in the eyes of the people the true Israel, the pattern Jews . The scribes and Pharisees, then, though not identical, were closely related, so closely that our Lord subjects them to one common rebuke. The Zealots, who repudiated any king but Jehovah, and refused to pay tribute to Caesar, were the natural result of Pharisaic teaching. And indeed the Pharisees did themselves refuse to swear allegiance to Herod. They may be looked on, therefore, as the national party. Their influence was not solely and throughout evil, for to them and to the scribes was due the knowledge of the Law to which our Lord so often appealed. But the grave defects of their teaching, and its ruinous influences on the religious character, are so distinctly enounced in the Gospels that they need not be dwelt on. The origin of the Sadducees explains their position in the state. It is generally agreed that they take their name from Zadok, who was elevated to the high priesthood by Solomon. It was the same line which inherited the office after the Exile, and through all the changes in the Hebrew state the high priests maintained great influence, and in our Lord's time we find them still sitting as presidents in the highest court, the Sanhedrin. Still, also, there were grouped round them the Sadducees! It was to this party that men of wealth, men in office, and men of pure priestly descent, attached themselves, although many of the priests leant more to the Pharisees. They lived in luxury, and their morality was not high. At the same time, whether from envy of the popularity of the Pharisees, or from common sense, they resisted the Pharisaic additions to the Law. Thus they refused to accept the doctrine of the resurrection, not being able to find it in the Books of Moses. They are rarely mentioned in the Gospels, because they were mostly in Jerusalem, and their ideas had found no acceptance with the people. From the leaven of Pharisaism, or ultra-legalism, three mischievous results follow.

1 . The minute regulations which are extended to the whole of life leave no room for conscience to exercise itself, and accordingly it pines and dies.

2 . Minute observances obtain a magnified importance.

3 . The bare performance of the duty enjoined is reckoned everything, while the state of heart is overlooked. We shall escape the leaven of the Pharisee if we learn to pay more attention to the heart than to the conduct; if we have so true a delight in pleasing the Lord that we do not consider what men think of us. The leaven of the Sadducees is perhaps even more certainly fatal to true religion. The Pharisee has sincerity, though it is quite superficial; he has zeal, though misdirected; but the Sadducee has neither. He is all for this world, and, save to forward him in it, religion is an encumbrance. His heart is not gladdened with any loving thoughts of God, nor his spirit refreshed by fellowship with the unseen world. If we escape these influences we shall do what few have done. For all men are under the temptation either to make too much of the observances of religion or to make them a mere form. Worldliness deadens a man's spirit to spiritual impressions, and gradually saps his faith till he ceases to believe in anything but the palpable world with which he has now to do. On the other hand, if the leaven of the Pharisee prevails to the extent of making us fear God more than we love him, and do by constraint what we ought to do because we delight in it, we are in as unwholesome a state as the Sadducee we reprobate.—D.

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Matthew 23:1-12 (Matthew 23:1-12)

Ethics of authority.

After Jesus had put the Jewish sectaries to silence, he addressed his disciples and the people, who had witnessed his encounters, as to how they should deport themselves in respect to the scribes and Pharisees.


1 . Jewish magistrates were to be obeyed.

2 . Pagan rulers are to be obeyed.


1 . As inconsistent teachers.

2 . As inconsistent workers.

3 . As examples of pride and ostentation.


1 . By refusing the arrogance of his enemies.

2 . By cultivating true humility.

3 . Christ will abase the proud, and exalt the humble.

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