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 23:13-32 (Matthew 23:13-32)

Eight woes pronounced on the Pharisees for their conduct and teaching. (Comp. Luke 11:42-52 .)

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Matthew 23:15 (Matthew 23:15)

Third woe— against evil proselytizing. Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte . The word προση ì λυτος is used in the Septuagint to signify "a stranger" or "sojourner" ( Exodus 12:48 , Exodus 12:49 , etc.), and at this time was applied to a convert to Judaism ( Acts 2:10 ; Acts 6:5 ), whether circumcised, "a proselyte of righteousness;" or uncircumcised, "a proselyte of the gate." To compass sea and land is a proverbial expression, denoting the employment of every means, the exercise of the utmost effort. One might have thought that, in its proud isolation and exclusiveness, Judaism would not have exposed itself to this reproach. But what says Josephus? In more than one passage of his histories he testifies to the zealous propagation of the Jewish religion, and in some cases the enforcement of circumcision on vanquished enemies (see 'Ant.,' Matthew 18:3 . 5; Matthew 20:2 . 4; 'Bell. Jud.,' Matthew 2:17 . 10; 'Vita,' § 23). Tacitus ('Hist.,' Matthew 5:5 ) gives a most unfavourable account of the numerous converts which Hebrews made throughout the Roman provinces; and St. Augustine ('De Civit.,' Hebrews 6:11 ) quotes Seneca saying, " Cum interim usque eo sceleratissimae gentis consuetudo convaluit, ut per omnes jam terras recepta sit, victi victoribus leges dederunt " (Edersheim). For similar testimony, we may refer to Horace, 'Sat.,' 1.4. 142, 143; and Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 6.541, etc. But it was not proselytizing in itself that the Lord censured. As possessing revelation and the only true religion in the world, the Jews might well have deemed it their business to enlighten the gross darkness of heathenism, and to endeavour to shed abroad the pure light which was confided to their care to tend and cherish. That they were not expressly commanded to do this, and that little blessing attended their efforts in this direction, was dependent upon the transitory and imperfect character of the old covenant, and the many evils which would be consequent upon association with alien peoples. In making converts, the Pharisees sought rather to secure outward conformity than inward piety, change of external religion than change of heart. There was no love of souls, no burning zeal for the honour of God, in their proselytism. They were prompted only by selfish and base motives—vain glory, party spirit, covetousness; and if they converted men to their own opinions, with their false tenets, gross externalism, and practical immorality, they had far better have left them in their irresponsible ignorance. When he is made; when he is become a proselyte. Twofold more the child of hell; a son of Gehenna ; i.e. worthy of hell fire. So we have 2 Samuel 12:5 , "a son of death;" John 17:12 , "the son of perdition". The converts became doubly the children of hell because, seeing the iniquities of their teachers, they learned an evil lesson from them, "engrafted the vices of the Jews on the vices of the heathen," distrusted all goodness, discarded their old religion and disbelieved the new, making utter shipwreck of their moral life. "Ita natura comparati sumus," says an old commentator, "ut vitia potius quam virtutes imitemur, et in rebus malis a discipulis magistri facile superentur."

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Matthew 23:13-31 (Matthew 23:13-31)

Condemnation of their hypocrisy.


1 . The first. The reiterated "Woe unto you!" is an expression of holy indignation. Christ, the righteous Judge, denounces the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He knew the hardness, the impenitence of their hearts, and in his awful justice he pronounces their condemnation. Yet those very woes are also utterances of holy sorrow. The word is thrice rendered "alas!" in Revelation 18:1-24 . (see also Matthew 24:19 ). The Lord grieves over the sinners (see verse 37) while he condemns them. The woe must come upon the impenitent; the Lord knew it in his Divine foreknowledge; he foretells it now. His words are stern, very terrible; but it is the sternness of holy love. He cared for the souls of those scribes and Pharisees; he had wept over them as he drew near to the city two days before; he closes this awful denunciation of the Divine wrath with the most touching outburst of grief. He spoke in tones of warning, if so be that even now these hard-hearted men might learn to know the terrors of the Lord, might repent and be saved. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" The awful words come again and again, like the refrain of a dirge of intense sadness. It was this hypocrisy that was killing their souls. God requireth truth in the inward parts; he searcheth the hearts; he knoweth all things; he is the God of truth; he hateth falsehood. These men were acting a part; their whole life was a lie; they eared only for the appearance of piety; they had no wish to be really holy. They said their prayers; they did not wish to have the things for which they prayed; they did not even try to live as they prayed. They read their Bibles; they pretended to honour them and to believe in them; they had no real faith; they made no attempt at all to regulate their lives according to God's Holy Word. Nothing is more hateful in God's sight than hypocrisy; it is unbelief; the hypocrite does not really believe in God's omniscience, that he readeth the hearts of men. Hypocrisy is an acted lie, and it is the devil who is the father of lies. God loveth truth. These hypocrites, the Lord said, shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. The kingdom of heaven was the Christian Church which the Lord had come to establish upon earth. There were multitudes willing to listen to the gospel of the kingdom, ready to enter in. But the Pharisees closed the way; they brought all their great influence to bear upon the work of obstruction. They would not enter into the kingdom themselves; they were like the guests first bidden in the parable of the marriage supper. And they hindered them that were entering in, who were on the point of becoming Christ's disciples. When the people were amazed at his mighty works, and said, "Is not this the Son of David?" the Pharisees interfered with their envious and malicious suggestions, and dared to attribute the miracles of the blessed Saviour to the agency of Satan. They agreed that if any man did confess that he was the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. So they shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. They set themselves in direct opposition to the gracious will of God, to the Saviour's work of love, opposing him now, as afterwards they opposed his apostles—"forbidding us," says St. Paul ( 1 Thessalonians 2:16 ), "to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." Upon those who fight against God, who hinder the work of his servants, who try to check the progress of the gospel, the woe must come, the heavy wrath of God must surely fall upon them.

2 . The second woe. Revelation 18:14 has apparently been inserted here from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 , where it is certainly genuine. The scribes were like those false teachers described by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:6 . They made a profit of their reputation for knowledge and sanctity, imposing upon weak women. They were not what the Lord bade his apostles to be, fishers of men's souls, but they fished for their money. They made long prayers, but their prayers were mere acting; they were addressed in reality not to God, but to men, to those widows and others whose favour they sought for filthy lucre's sake. Therefore, the Lord said, they should receive greater condemnation. They were not only hypocrites; they were covetous, dishonest. The condemnation of the hypocrite would fall upon them, and the condemnation of the thief. The affectation of piety for the sake of selfish gain is awful guilt in the sight of the all-holy Lord. We were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ. That tremendous ransom ought to give depth, reality, zeal, to our religion. It is grievous sin to substitute earthly motives for that one only Christian motive, grateful love for our Redeemer.

3 . The third woe. The Pharisees were not without zeal; they had zeal enough; they were fanatics; they would compass sea and land to make a single proselyte. But their zeal was party zeal. Party spirit had taken the place of religion in their hearts; they would work hard for their party; they would not deny themselves to please God. Their missionary zeal, such as it was, brought no glory to Almighty God, saved no souls. The proselyte, once made, became twofold more the child of hell than his teachers, more bigoted, more devoted to party, narrower and more exclusive, prouder of the privileges of Judaism than even those who had been born Jews. They should have been children of the kingdom; alas! they were children of hell; for there is no place in the kingdom of heaven for hypocrites, but only for the true worshippers, who worship God in spirit and in truth. The devil is the father of lies; those whose worship is a lie must have their place with him.

4 . The fourth woe. They were blind guides, fools and blind. They professed to be teachers; they despised the untaught. "This people," they said, "who knoweth not the Law are cursed" ( John 7:49 ). But they were ignorant themselves; they did not understand the very ritual which they prized so highly. Their teaching was full of puerile and false distinctions. An oath by the temple, they said, was not binding, neither an oath by the altar; but he was a debtor who swore by the gold of the temple or by the gift that lay upon the altar. They who taught such untruth, such folly, were fools and blind indeed. They did not understand the order of consecration; the gold was sacred only because it belonged to the temple, which was the house of God; the gift was sacred only because it was offered upon the altar, which was the table of the Lord. The gold derived its sacredness from the temple, the gift from the altar. The Lord recognizes the reverence which is due to consecrated things and places. We may find God everywhere; we may worship him everywhere, not only at Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim; but in the present limitations and conditions of our human nature it is necessary for us that special places should be dedicated to his service, and associated in our thoughts with his presence and his worship. The sacredness of things or places is derived entirely from that association with God's presence and service. Then to swear by them—by the altar, or by the temple, or by heaven his dwelling place, is to swear by him whose presence alone giveth consecration even to the heavens. Every oath is in reality an appeal to God; the omission of his name does not avoid the awfulness of reference to him. Then the Lord's disciples may not swear, save under those solemn circumstances when an oath is required by the magistrate and sanctioned by Holy Scripture. No evasions, no pitiful distinctions, like those of the scribes, no substitution of less sacred words, can make the ordinary use of oaths lawful, or even harmless.

5 . The fifth woe. Their religion consisted in small outward observances; it had no inner truth; they affected a scrupulous conscientiousness in things infinitely little, while they omitted the weightier matters of the Law. Scrupulous exactness in the payment of tithes and in Levitical purifications were the distinguishing characteristics of the Pharisaic fraternity. It was well enough to pay the insignificant tithe on common garden herbs; but ostentatious carefulness about this and such-like trifles, combined with carelessness about the great inner realities of personal religion, showed the hollow hypocrisy of their lives. They would strain out the gnat, the small ritual offence, and swallow the camel, the huge uncleanness of soul-defiling sin. Judgment, mercy, and faith were the weightier matters of the Law, unspeakably more important than the details of outward ordinances. To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, were, the prophets said, better than thousands of burnt offerings. The Lord Jesus Christ enforces the teaching of the Law and of the prophets. Obedience in small things is right; obedience in great things is necessary for salvation. The exactest ritual and the strictest orthodoxy are of no value without justice and mercy and faith. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ." This is the precious fruit—the fruit of the Spirit; without this, the husk, the rind, are worthless.

6 . The sixth woe. The Pharisees were especially scrupulous in avoiding all occasion of Levitical defilement; they heeded not the uncleanness of their hearts. It profits little to cleanse the outside of a cup or platter, if the inside is filthy and pollutes the food. A fair outside may hide the evil heart from the sight of men, but the eye of God sees through; to that all-seeing eye the wicked soul lies open in awful clearness. The Pharisees were blind. Be our prayer, "Lord, that I may receive my sight." We want to see the condition of our souls, to know the whole truth, the whole sad wretched truth. Then we shall begin with that which most needs cleansing—the inside, the inner life of thought and feeling and motive. God desireth truth there. "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." If that is clean, made white in the blood of the Lamb, the outward life will be clean also. "Blessed are the pure in heart." But the outward show of purity without the inner truth is vain, worthless, contemptible .

7 . The seventh woe. They were like the sepulchres around Jerusalem, which, according to Jewish custom, had been whitened a month ago, and still looked bright and clean in the sunlight; within they were full of all uncleanness; their very whiteness was a warning, that men might avoid defilement. So was it with the Pharisees; they made a great show of religion; but that outward show, like the whiteness of the sepulchres, spoke of inward corruption. The true man is humble in heart; he knows his own shortcomings; he makes no display of religion; he walks humbly with his God. Much talk, much show, is an evil sign; it is often an index of an unclean, unconverted heart.

8 . The eighth woe. They built and garnished the tombs of the prophets and the righteous. The Lord may possibly have pointed to some of the conspicuous sepulchres which lay before him on the Mount of Olives. They condemned their fathers' crimes; but they owned that they were the children of them which killed the prophets. And, the Lord said, they were like their fathers, they had inherited their fathers'spirit. They would have slain the prophets, had they lived in their time, as now they were about to slay the Christ of God. They honoured the prophets in the distance; they would have hated them in the present. Stier quotes a striking passage from the Berlenberger Bibel: "Ask in Moses times, 'Who are the good people?' They will be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but not Moses,—he should be stoned. Ask in Samuel's times, 'Who are the good people?' They will be Moses and Joshua, but not Samuel. Ask in the times of Christ, and they will be all the former prophets with Samuel, but not Christ and his apostles." May the Lord save us from this spirit of unworthy jealousy, and teach us to honour goodness, not only in the remote distance, which is easy, but in immediate proximity to us, which is sometimes, alas for our miserable selfishness! very hard indeed. "Charity envieth not:" follow after charity.


1 . Christ is an awful Judge, as well as a most loving Saviour. Take we heed unto ourselves.

2 . His wrath must fall on those who oppose his blessed work. Let us help it with all our might.

3 . Christ hates hypocrisy. Seek above all things to be real.

4 . Party spirit is a poor substitute for true religion. Seek to save souls.

5 . Is your outward life blameless? It is well. But it is a small thing in comparison with the infinite preciousness of purity of heart.

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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 23:13-15 (Matthew 23:13-15)

The credit of the Church.

The Church of God is a unity throughout the ages. It is more proper to speak of the Christian dispensation of the Church than of the Christian Church as opposed to the Jewish. This unity exists, not only through the ages, but also throughout the universe. While its headquarters are in heaven, there has ever been a visible representation upon the earth. This is sometimes called "the Church;" in the Gospels it is distinguished as "the kingdom of heaven." In this sense we now speak of it. Note, then—


1 . They enter it for selfish ends.

2 . In it they are obstructive to good.

(a) In Jacob's departing sceptre of Judah.

(b) In Moses' Prophet.

(c) In Daniel's weeks. They shut their eyes.

(a) They were hindered by their example (see John 7:48 ).

(b) By their doctrine, in cavilling against Christ (see Matthew 12:24 ; John 9:16 ).

(c) By their authority, in the threat of excommunication (see John 9:22 ).

(d) Therefore only the violent could force an entrance into the kingdom (see Matthew 11:12 ; Luke 16:16 ).

3 . They promoted evil.

(a) Hypocrisy is itself the offspring of hell, for it originates with the "father of lies."

(b) "Twofold more." The Hellenist Jews, who were mostly proselytes, were the bitterest enemies of the apostles (see Acts 13:45 ; Acts 14:2 , Acts 14:19 ; Acts 17:5 ; Acts 18:6 ). Truth falsified is worse than simple falsity. Half-truths are the most vicious lies.

(c) The proselytes were trained by the Pharisees in wicked sophistry, which palliated vice and substituted ceremony for piety. They were also taught to practise evil with less remorse and greater subtlety than they had been accustomed to in their former condition.


1 . Unbelief seeks to fasten their scandal upon it.

2 . But this is manifestly unfair.


1 . By separating the hypocrites from it.

2 . By dooming them to perdition.

(a) There are degrees of damnation

(b) Pretences of religion will aggravate the torments of the lost.

(c) The gospel curses are the sorer (cf. Hebrews 10:29 ).

Who can entreat for him against whom the great Intercessor pleads? A "woe" from Christ has no remedy. No such wrath as that of the Lamb! " Three woes are made to look very dreadful (Rev 8:13-9:12); but here are eight woes, in opposition to the eight Beatitudes ( Matthew 5:4 )" (Henry).

3 . By rebuking their accomplices. The open sinner is an accomplice with the very hypocrite he affects to scorn, in rejecting and crucifying the Just One. All sinners will have "their portion with the hypocrites" (see Matthew 24:51 ).—J.A.M.

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Matthew 23:15 (Matthew 23:15)

The peril of making proselytes.

The term "proselytes" is used, and not "converts" or "disciples." it is employed when the idea to be conveyed is "persuasion" to accept some particular opinion or hobby, or to join some particular system or party. "Conversion" suggests an inward change and renewal; "proselyting" suggests outward association with a party. "Conversion" is full of hope; "proselyting" is full of peril. The word was used by the Jews for persons who had been heathen, but had accepted Judaism, and they distinguished between


1 . A man must exaggerate sectarian differences before he can try to win proselytes to an opinion.

2 . A man must make more of the outward form than the inward spirit.

3 . A man is only too likely to use bad means in gaining such an end.

4 . A man who makes proselytes honours himself rather than God.

5 . And such a man is only too likely to be deceived in the result he attains.


1 . Men may be overpressed to accept opinions on which they have really formed no judgment.

2 . Perverts notoriously exaggerate the formalities of the new creed they adopt, and become bitterest partisans.—R.T.

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