Warning against Seeking Earthly Glory (Matthew 23:1-12)
The Lord Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save all who would believe in Him. However, He expressed Himself in terms of great severity against those who professed to be the guardians of the Scriptures, but lived hypocritically and opposed the truth that He proclaimed, thereby misleading their unwary followers. The term “Moses’ seat” indicates the place that the Pharisees and the scribes occupied as the recognized teachers of the law given by Moses. When they read and explained its precepts their hearers were responsible to obey, not because of any inherent authority vested in these teachers, but because of the truth they taught. But He drew a marked distinction between their words and their ways. They expounded and preached to others what they did not attempt to practice themselves. It is a terrible thing for those who occupy the place of preachers or teachers of the Word when they simply traffic in truth that has never affected their own lives.
These leaders in Israel formed a kind of clerical caste and were most outspoken in denouncing the sins and frailties of the people in general. But they themselves were simply complacent as they gave punctilious attention to the outward signs of religion. They knew nothing of genuine piety and holiness of heart and life.
They were not concerned about the approval of the God they professed to honor, but were constantly looking for men’s applause. It is always a snare when one feels he has a certain reputation of godliness to maintain before his fellows. It is so easy to succumb to the temptation of trying to appear more devoted than one really is. The only right thing is to live before God and to be utterly indifferent to men’s praise or blame.
The Pharisees sought to attract attention to their religiousness even by their garb. Wearing the broad phylacteries that seemed to indicate greater reverence for the Scriptures than others had, and with the fringes on their garments conspicuously enlarged, they delighted in the respect accorded them. They were given the seats of honor at the appointed feasts and in the services of the synagogue. In public places generally they were greeted with their highly prized titles of “Rabbi, Rabbi.” Who can fail to see in all this a picture of what is very common today in many ecclesiastical circles?
Against all this outward show of piety Jesus solemnly warned His disciples, “Be not ye called Rabbi.” They were not to seek honorable recognition from their fellows but were to realize that Christ was their teacher, or Master, and they were but brothers—all of one great family. As born from above they were to call no man “father” on earth, for God alone was their Father. Is it not strange that this definite command is so flagrantly disregarded by those who call their priests “Father”?
Because of the readiness with which His disciples were inclined to seek honor one over another, Jesus repeated the admonition, “Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.” The word really means “leader,” but was generally understood as teacher or master.
Certainly Jesus did not mean that His followers were to despise the gifts He gives—among which are teachers. His gifts are given for edification and are to be appreciated and valued by the saints. But we are not to admire people because of worldly advantage.
Those entrusted with a special ministry should not be self-seeking, but serve in love, following Christ’s own example. For he who exalts himself will be abased in due time, even as he who humbles himself will be exalted by the Lord, who values all service that is done with a single eye to His glory.
Woes against the Religious Leaders (Matthew 23:13-33)
The Lord pronounced judgment on the religious leaders whose spirit and behavior were so opposed to their profession. The first woe (verse 13) was a judgment pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees because of their lack of interest and opposition to the word of the kingdom. They endeavored to hinder others who might become concerned. It is a very serious thing to stand in the way of anyone who might otherwise be prepared to enter into the kingdom of Heaven.
The second woe (verse 14) was against those who used a profession and outward appearance of piety as a cloak. Solomon told us that the prayer of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 28:9). How much more when such prayer is used to build up a reputation for godliness for one who is actually living in hypocrisy.
The third woe (verse 15) was against hypocritical leaders who proselytized. It is characteristic of sectarians generally that they are far more concerned about obtaining adherents to their special beliefs than winning lost souls for Christ. The new adherents become ardent advocates of the system with which they now identify themselves. As a rule, those thus perverted trust in their new association for ultimate salvation, so entering into a worse state than before they were proselytized. It is harder to reach and awaken the adherent of a false cult than to bring a godless worldling to see his lost condition and his need of salvation.
The fourth woe (verse 16) was against those who used vain and profane oaths. When anyone lays greater stress on secondary things than on matters of major importance, he gives striking evidence of his illogical reasoning. These blind guides, as Jesus called them, put more emphasis on the gold with which the temple building was enriched and adorned than on the sanctuary itself. To take an oath on the gold of the temple meant more to them than to swear by the sacred building which God had inhabited.
In the same spirit they ranked the offering above the altar in holiness; although it was the altar that sanctified the gifts placed on it. That altar typified Christ, and the gifts and offerings represented various aspects of His work. But He had to be who He was—the eternal Son of God become flesh—in order to do what He did. To swear by the altar was therefore to swear by all that was placed on it. To swear by the temple was to swear by Him who dwelt therein, even as to swear by Heaven (a most frequent thing) is to take an oath by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it. All such oaths were forbidden very definitely by the Lord on a former occasion (Matthew 5:33-37).
The fifth woe (verse 23) was pronounced on those who were inclined to overemphasize trifling details of the law while utterly ignoring the weightier matters with which it dealt. To tithe even the cheapest of herbs was quite right in itself. But to lay special stress on this tithe and advertise it as though indicating remarkable scrupulosity, while neglecting matters of far greater importance, indicated a conscience that was unexercised and a spirit insubject to God. He would have those who profess obedience to His law careful to exercise discernment and mercy and faith. The person who practices these greater virtues will not neglect things of less weight and importance.
The sixth woe (verse 25) was against those who set a great value on ceremonial cleansing, while overlooking the importance of a clean heart and a pure life. They were likened to a housekeeper who was very careful to have her cups and other vessels clean outwardly, while inside they were filthy. God desires truth in the inward parts. Where the heart is purified by faith, the outward behavior will be in accordance with that faith.
The seventh woe (verse 27) is somewhat similar, but was an even stronger condemnation of those who tolerated hidden corruption while pretending to godliness and devotion. These hypocrites were like beautifully adorned and whitened tombs that appear pleasant and often majestic in the sight of men, but are full of decaying bodies and of all uncleanness. Such are they who appear to be righteous before men but within are full of dissimulation and lawlessness.
The last woe (verse 29), making a complete octave of denunciation of hypocrisy, was pronounced against those who honored the memory of the former prophets while refusing to obey their words. How characteristic was the glaring error of these pretenders. The Pharisees honored the memory of Isaiah, whom their fathers sawed asunder; Jeremiah, who was imprisoned in a filthy dungeon by the religious leaders of his times; and Zechariah, who was slain between the porch and the altar by zealous opponents. In the same way the descendants of those who vilified Martin Luther in his day and generation now vie with one another in lauding his genius and intrepidity. And the children of those who detested the stand taken by Abraham Lincoln are now often loudest in his praise. Yet there was no evidence that the scribes and Pharisees accepted and acted upon the admonitions of those prophets whose sepulchers they garnished. They showed by their attitude toward the King in their midst that they were of the same spirit as their ungodly fathers.
While boasting that if they had been alive in the days of old their response would have been different, their present behavior proved the opposite. It was for them to fill up the measure of their fathers in the final rejection of the Lord of glory.
Deserved judgment therefore awaited them. Their words and their behavior proved them to be a generation of vipers, the seed of the serpent—that old serpent which is the devil and Satan. How then could they escape participation in his judgment?
Doom of the Unbelieving Generation (Matthew 23:34-39)
Messenger after messenger had been sent by God to Israel, but they had spurned and rejected them all. They would do the same to those who rebuked their sins and hypocrisy. Morally they were no different from those who had shed the blood of all the righteous from Abel to the last of the prophets. Their hearts remained unchanged and their consciences seared; therefore, the ire of God must be vented on them.
To be consistent with His holy character God could not do otherwise than to deal with them in judgment because of their wickedness. Nevertheless the heart of the Lord grieved over them and longed even yet for their deliverance.
Pathetic indeed is the lament (verse 37) with which He concluded this most solemn discourse. Jerusalem, the city of the great King, knew not the time of her visitation. He who would have saved and brought in the promised kingdom blessings, was in their midst and they knew Him not. Had they only turned to Him in repentance He would have sheltered them from judgment as a hen protects her chickens from the hawk seeking to destroy them. But they would not receive Him. They were responsible, therefore, for their own condemnation.
Because they rejected Him, He rejected them nationally for the present time. They would not see Him henceforth until they were ready to own Him as their King and cry (in the words of Psalm 118 with which “the poor of the flock” had greeted Him as He rode into the city a few days before), “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”
Before that day this whole dispensation of grace was to come in— the period of the revelation of the mystery of the church as the one body of Christ. At present God is gathering out of all nations a people to the name of His Son; not till that work is completed will Israel as a nation look on Him whom they pierced and acclaim Him as their Redeemer and King.