Matthew Chapter 23 Woe to Scribes and Pharisees; Jerusalem Rejected

Introduction and outline for Matthew 23

  1. This discourse or teaching by Jesus brings to a head the religious leaders rejection of Jesus. He condemns them. It was delivered on Wednesday before his crucifixion.
  2. In Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus teaching the crowds and his disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees say when they read the Scripture, but do not follow them in their application.
  3. In Matthew 23:13-33 Jesus pronounces eight woes upon the scribes and Pharisees.
  4. In Matthew 23:34-39 Jesus follows up on the woes by predicting that he will send prophets, wise men, and scribes, and the Pharisees and scribes will persecute and kill many of them.
  5. In Matthew 23:37-39 Jesus states his sadness that Jerusalem, the city of Israel, has rejected both the prophets who ministered God’s word to her and him, who came to renew Jerusalem’s life because he was the messiah king.

Exposition of Matthew 23

  1. In Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus teaching the crowds and his disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees say when they read the Scripture, but do not follow them in their application. Verses 1-3 give the teaching and 4-12 give illustrations.
    • The scribes and Pharisees follow in an authoritative line of transmission of the Scriptures. God gave the Law to Moses; Moses gave it to Joshua; Joshua gave it to the elders; the elders gave it to the prophets; the prophets gave it to the scribes and Pharisees. They now sit in the seat of Moses—the authoritative teaching position in a synagogue. Luke 4:20 refers to this teaching chair.
    • Here we see a distinction between the lawful teaching of God’s word and the frivolous traditions. We see it in our day: teaching the Scripture from the Scripture as opposed to teaching one’s personal biases, prejudices, and legalisms without any biblical check brought about by other Scripture and by other teachers and readers of Scripture. The cults begin this way and continue without any check from Scripture or other students of the Word. High handed pastors and teachers can get this way. Usually it is a combination of narrowed study, ego, insecurity, and desire for authority. The Pharisees, though students, were often narrowed to the traditions instead of letting the text speak. They were guilty on all counts.
    • A further comment on communicators of God’s word. The goal is to bring people to a clear understanding of the text. In brief, the teacher must always keep in the forefront of his thinking that his job is to transfer what he has learned from the Bible to the listener so the listener can also understand the Bible and act upon what he has learned. The scribes and Pharisees lost their way here.
    • The Pharisees were one of the religious parties in Judaism. Pharisee reflected the theological party beliefs. Scribe reflects the role or job one did. Some Pharisees were scribes and some scribes were Pharisees. In the same way some evangelicals may be teachers, and some teachers may be evangelicals.
    • We in the English speaking world have many opportunities for reading, hearing, studying, and serving God’s word. We have Bible schools, seminaries, local churches, parachurch organizations, and missions. We need to watch out for the scattered mine fields of Christianity. There are Sadducees (liberals), Pharisees (legalists), Herodians (religious political activists), Essenes (the separatists), and then the Jesus-apostles (biblical believers). To help us learn the Scripture we have books, CD’s, DVD’s, magazines, and many study Bibles (over 50 different study Bibles). Are we discerning like Jesus told his disciples to be discerning? Do we listen and study the word and then make right applications of the word as he taught them to do in Matthew 23 and elsewhere?
    • Matthew 23:4. The religious leaders make rigorous rules for the people to obey—rules that are not biblical and that they themselves are unwilling to obey. The “you do it, but I do not have to.”
    • Matthew 23:5. Religious activities, clothes, and jewelry become all show for public consumption without honest activity or belief.
      • Phylacteries are small leather cases or boxes that contain four strips of parchment that have Scripture from the Torah. They were worn on the left arm and on the forehead. This custom is from an interpretation of Exodus 13:9, 16 and Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18. Was this to be literally done? Proverbs 3:3, Proverbs 6:20-21, and Proverbs 7:1-4 indicate that this was probably a figure of speech for keeping God’s word in one’s mind and obeying it. Nevertheless, this became a religious routine for many Jewish people.
      • Tassels or fringe on the clothes were to be reminders of God’s word and that the Israelites were to obey God (Numbers 15:38-40; Deuteronomy 22:12). The tassels on the four corners of the clothes were literal. Jewish people wore these, even Jesus (Matthew 2:20). But the show off religious leaders out did themselves in an attempt to show off their piety.
      • The point is that religious rules, clothing, jewelry, or anything that has the purpose of drawing attention to one’s piety is simply religious show. These articles in themselves are not wrong. But if used to show off they can distract from one’s spiritual life and witness and become sin.
    • Matthew 23:6-12 bring out this point of self importance and pride.
      • Matthew 23:6-7, the religious leaders love the place of honor at banquets, chief seats in the synagogue, respectful greetings, and the title Rabbi. They are impressed with themselves, with their learning, with their morality, with their needed leadership. All of this is useless in the spiritual battle. Places of honor are not wrong; chief seats in the synagogue are not wrong; respectful greetings are not wrong; and appropriate titles are not wrong. The motive and use of these can be wrong. The scribes and Pharisees had wrong motives and uses.
      • Matthew 23:8-12 can be misleading. Jesus is condemning spirituality superiority based upon a title. Jesus is not saying that one cannot use appropriate titles. We know this because these titles are used in other contexts of Scripture and there is no indication that it is inappropriate or sinful (Matthew 15:4-6, “honor your father and mother”; 19:5 “father,” 29 “father”; 1 Corinthians 4:15 “father”; Galatians 4:2 “father”; Hebrews 12:9 “earthly fathers”; 2 Kings 2:12 “my father, my father”). Another point: Jesus is not condemning biblical and rightful authority. We have many examples of proper authority such as 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 (subjection to those rightfully serving God) and Hebrews 13:7 and 17 (teachers and spiritual leaders). This submission and obedience is not blind submission based on a title. The submission must always be monitored by God’s word and the direction of the Holy Spirit.
        • NASB “leader” is the authoritative teacher καθηγητής .The KJV translates this word as master. Jesus is the authoritative teacher of the disciples and the people at this time. Compare this with verse 2. The scribes and Pharisees considered themselves the authoritative teachers, yet they repeatedly could not answer Jesus questions as in Matthew 22:46; Luke 14:4-6 and Luke 20:40).
        • Matthew 23:11-12 give the emphasis in this context. Titles can be helpful and necessary, but religious titles should not obscure that believers are servants of God and of each other, and humility is required of a genuine servant. Servanthood and humility are the spiritual requirements for believers, not spiritual superiority or lording over people as Peter calls it. Jesus teaches the lesson of being servants in John 13 and states it in Mark 10:42-45.
        • Matthew 23:12 gives the consequences of self promotion and of humility. You are rewarded with what you did not work for.
  2. In Matthew 23:13-33 Jesus pronounces eight woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. These are not curses on someone in the opposition. They are righteous judgments by Jesus the creator and righteous judge of all mankind. The cause is the scribes’ and Pharisees’ teaching and practice and its effect on others. Look closely at the woes and you see they are against professional religion—external religion. They are true today as they were in the first century. The professional religionist (theological liberals, many TV and radio preachers, and cult followers) walk in the Pharisees and scribes footsteps.
    • Woe is a word expressing sorrow, affliction, or grief. It is used on both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament prophets often used it to express dismay at someone or something. The Greek word here is ouai and indicates pain, displeasure, hardship, and distress. Illustrations include Isaiah 3:9, 11; Jeremiah 10:19; and Amos 5:18. In the New Testament Jesus pronounced woe upon Chorazin and Bethsaida (Matthew 11:21), the scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, and lawyers (Matthew 23:13-36; Luke 11:42-44) and on Judas (Mark 14:21). When Jesus pronounces woe he is telling them that their future is not a good one.
    • The woes are varied and pointed to the scribes and Pharisees who are hypocrites.
      • Matthew 23:13. They keep people from understanding about the kingdom of heaven and from gaining access to it. They do so by their false doctrine and practice which plays into Satan’s hand so he continues to blind people to the gospel as we see in 2 Corinthians 4:4. Mankind’s religion prevents people from recognizing God’s savior and God’s grace. Religion makes people hardened toward God.
      • Matthew 23:14. They take money from widows under religious claims—they say they will pray for them. Devour, κατεσθίω, κατέσθω 2719 means to consume by eating, to squander or waste, and can come to mean to forcibly take property. This, too, is common today. Radio and TV Religionists persuade older people to sacrifice by sending in money to them.
      • Matthew 23:15. They are traveling salesmen for false religion. When they make a sale, the person becomes more hardened against Messiah than they are.
        • We see this today. False teachers win people to themselves and in doing so turn people against God’s word, God’s plan, God’s church, and against fellowship with God.
      • Matthew 23:16-22. To swear by something is to say something is true and what you swear by is the witness, or to promise to do something and what you swear by is the witness. The witness must be credible. Furthermore, the witness must be alive to be able to witness. Every oath is actually an oath by God since he is the creator and the Lord. When speaking of the temple and the altar, God is even more evident as the witness to the oath. The scribes and Pharisees have confused the credibility and importance of the temple and the altar by placing more value on the human gift than the reason for the gift. Gold is only a part of the temple. The sacrifice is nothing without the altar.
        • In this section Jesus is condemning the loose view of oaths that the scribes and Pharisees when they rank oaths by various objects. In the final analysis, the scribes and Pharisees are condoning an indifference to keeping one’s oath and condoning dishonesty.
        • Jesus, in Matthew 5:33-37, discussed oaths and said do not make them because we do not have the ability to control or monitor God and he is the one to whom oaths are ultimately made.
        • Matthew 23:22 sums up the argument. Ultimately one swears by God. Therefore do not make unimportant oaths and oaths that you do not intend to keep. Safer yet, do not make oaths. Simply speak clearly.
      • Matthew 23:23-24. They major on the minors and ignore the majors. Israelites were to tithe grain, wine, and oil (Deuteronomy 14:22–29).
        • Mint, dill, and cummin are plants. Mint is a sweet smelling garden mint that people would scatter on their floors. Dill or anise is a plant used for spice and medicine. Cummin is a plant of that area with seeds that have a bitter warm taste and an aromatic flavor. The value of these was low and to tithe them means that one’s giving to the Lord is from things of low value.
        • The important things to tithe—to give to the Lord—are justice, mercy, faith or faithfulness. The scribes and Pharisees did not give these to the Lord. Note then, that they majored on the minors and neglected the important areas of worship, obedience, and service.
        • We often do the same. We gauge our spiritual life around the lesser things and ignore the more important areas. What do we value? We should value justice, mercy, and faith or faithfulness. These would come under the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We should value obedience to God. We should value coming to know Jesus Christ better. We should value fellowship with God. We should value God’s word. We should value communication with God—prayer. We should value the assembly of believers. We should value our Christian service opportunities.
        • Things that are of lesser value include circumcision, religious ritual, man made religious ritual, false humility, mistreatment of our bodies for religious reasons, and others.
        • Matthew 23:24 condemns them for missing the main points and being overly occupied with meaningless details.
      • Matthew 23:25-26 are the woe against preoccupation with externals while ignoring the inner life—the thoughts, attitudes, motives. How people are inside is more important. The scribes and Pharisees need to be cleansed on the inside. They need regeneration by faith in Messiah.
      • Matthew 23:27-28 are woe against showing off so that people see the clothes, prayers, giving, and self-promotion. They are hypocrites—actors putting on a play for an audience.
    • Matthew 23:29-33 continue on with Jesus’ judgment against the professional religionists. These scribes and Pharisees honored the biblical prophets by building tombs or grave markers to them. They also place mementoes at the monuments to righteous people. All this is to publicize an identification with the heroes of the past so that people would consider the scribes and Pharisees heroes of the present.
      • Matthew 23:30. They claim that they would not have persecuted the prophets of old. Their fathers did, but they would not have if they had lived then. “Partners” is koinonos, related to the word koinonia, which is often translated fellowship.
      • Matthew 23:31. They are caught in their own argument. They are indeed sons of those who murdered the prophets. And they act as their fathers did by persecuting followers of Messiah and trying to kill Messiah.
      • Matthew 23:32. Jesus challenges them to finish playing out the actions started by their fathers. The fathers did so much against God’s men; now the scribes and Pharisees will continue and finish what they started. Unbelieving religionists have a pattern. That pattern is to persecute God’s word and God’s people and God’s grace. Paul wrote of this in Galatians 4:29, “But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.”
      • Matthew 23:35. They will not escape judgment if they continue the course they are follow. Serpents is a name used for people who are dangerous. A viper is another word for snake and refers to a poisonous snake, possibly the sand viper as in Acts 28:3. Recall the serpent that talked to Eve and convinced her to disobey God. Religious people without God’s word and God’s grace are just like poisonous snakes. They hurt people and destroy people.
  3. Matthew 23:34-36. Jesus predicts that he will send prophets, wise men, and scribes to teach them God’s word. The scribes and Pharisees, like their fathers, will persecute these men. Kill, crucify, scourge in synagogues, and hound them from place to place indicate the long lasting and varying kinds of rejection of Jesus’ sent servants. Jews of Jesus’ day could not crucify someone. Rome had to do it.
    • Note the use of the pronoun “you.” Jesus classed the current scribes and Pharisees with those murderers of the prophets.
    • Abel was the first person murdered and recorded in the Bible. Cain killed him because Cain rejected God’s kind of sacrifice—a living animal to be killed.
    • Zechariah, the son of Berechiah. There is no reason to think that the Bible is in error. There were many Zechariahs. We just need to identify the correct one.
      • This Zechariah likely was the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 1:1) the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo, who ministered around 520 BC (Ezra 5:1; Nehemiah 12:4). Nehemiah 12:4 mentions Iddo in a list of those who those who went with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem around 538 BC. Gleason Archer wrote in his OT Introduction, “We have no further information concerning Zechariah’s personal career, except the reference in Matt. 23:35, which seems to indicate that he was martyred by mob action in the temple grounds (since the Zechariah that Christ mentions is said to be the son of Berechiah rather than of Jehoiada, who however met his end in a like manner back in the days of King Joash, according to 2 Chron. 24:20–21).” (Gleason Leonard Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1998, c1994. 472.)
      • This may be the priest who lived in the time of Joash, king of Judah (2 Chronicles 24:20-22). This is the view of the Nelson Study Bible and the Ryrie Study Bible. Joash reigned 40 years, from 835-796 BC. There Zechariah is called the son of Jehoiada. Jehoiada may have been his grandfather and Berechiah is father. The Israelites often used son of referring to father, grandfather, great grandfather, and so on. Also, people often go by different names.
      • It is possible that Jesus was referring to neither of these. Regardless, the Pharisees are condemned by Jesus for their rejection of his prophets.
  4. Matthew 23:37-39. This section is the record of Jesus’ grief over Israel’s rejection of him. Jerusalem is the center of Israel’s spiritual and national life.  Because of that rejection he now leaves the temple. It is no longer “my house” (Matthew 21:13), but “your house.” Jerusalem (and the Israeli nation) will not see him as prophet, priest, and king until his future return to earth as ruler. Zechariah 12:10, Matthew 24, Acts 1:6-11, and Revelation 20:11-16 are representative passages that tell of his return to earth.
    • “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” is like 2 Samuel 18:33 and 19:4 (O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom…O Absalom, my son, my son”). This form is also in Luke 10:41 (Martha, Martha) and Acts 9:4 (Saul, Saul). Repeating the name indicates strong grief and emotion.
    • When Israel or when we, by application, rejects God’s voice we push him away. This grieves God. Pushing God away by rejecting him and his word hardens us against God and his word. Paul writes of this in Ephesians 4:17-19 where he warns the believers not to imitate the unbelievers (Gentiles). It is dangerous to reject God’s word. We know what happened to Israel as a result of her rejection and hard heart. We also have Romans 10-11 in which Paul documents Israel’s rejection and the results.
  5. Summary and application
    • Promotional and professional religious people are always the same. They want money, fame, power, praise. They preoccupy themselves with themselves. This not only hurts themselves, it also hurts other people by preventing others from understanding God’s word, by taking advantage of widows and others who have little to spare, and by hardening people against God and God’s grace.
    • Promotional and professional religious people preoccupy themselves with non essential externals and ignore the inner person and his own spiritual life.
    • Promotional and professional religious people preoccupy spend time, effort, and money to promote themselves as righteous leaders, as society’s guardians, and society’s leaders.
    • Rejection of Jesus and God’s plan brought national discipline on Israel and individual hardness of heart. In like manner, rejection of God’s word and plan brings self induced personal hardness of heart and divine discipline. This rejection also affects nations because believers—who should be the light, strength, and stability of their nation—turn away from God. The national result is national deterioration and divine discipline.
    • Even though people reject God, God’s grace, and God’s plan, he continues to hold to his outworking of history. Israel still has as future (“until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”) and we believers have a future (“The dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord”).