IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 8, February 21 to February 27, 2000

Commentary on Matthew 23:1-39

by Dr. Knox Chamblin


We come to the last of the five great discourses, 23:1-25:46 (cf. 26:1a, "When Jesus had finished saying all these things..."). This discourse "balances the first one [chs. 5-7] in its length, in its association with a mountain (24:3), in Jesus' taking the seated position of a teacher (24:3; cf. 23:2), in the contrast between woes (here) and beatitudes (in the Sermon on the Mount), and in the closing judgmental scenes, each of which includes the addressing of Jesus as 'Lord' by the condemned (7;22-23; 25:44-46)" (Gundry, 453). Mt 23 presupposes the mounting conflict between Jesus and the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (cf. 15:1, and comments on 22:15-17). This chapter, with its woes upon the Jewish religious leadership, and finally upon Jerusalem itself (23:37-38), climaxes the section begun at 21:18-19 (the cursing of the fig tree), and continuing through the five controversies (21:23-27; 22:15-46) and the three parables of judgment (21:28-22:14).


A. Their Hypocrisy.

On the nature of hypocrisy, and the pride that causes it, see introductory comments to 6:1-18.

1. Their practice contradicts their teaching, vv. 2-4. Insofar as they rightly represent Moses, they are to be obeyed (vv. 2-3a). The "everything" of v. 3b means the true OT law in its totality - not that law together with the "tradition" of 15:1-9! (Cf. B. below.) Their problem is that "they do not practice what they preach" (v. 3b). Cf. the portrait of the second son in 21:30. They place heavy responsibilities upon the shoulders of others, but they are willing neither to help them bear the loads, nor to bear such loads themselves (v. 4; cf. Gal 6:13, Rom 2:1-29; contrast 11:28-30).

2. Their outer piety conceals inner wickedness, vv. 5-7, 25-28. "Everything they do is done for men to see" (v. 5a). The "phylacteries" (v. 5) are parchments containing OT passages (Ex 13:1-16; Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21), placed in leather containers and worn on the forehead and left arm in literal fulfillment of Deut 6:8. The "tassels" are those prescribed in Num 15:38-39; Deut 22:12. "Extra-large phylacteries and tassels (like an extra-large Bible carried under the arm) might be regarded by unthinking people as signs of exceptional piety" (Bruce, Matthew, 74). Naturally "they love" the places of honor and the respectful addresses (vv. 6-7; "rabbi" means "my great one"), for pride delights in being above others. In vv. 25-28 Jesus brings to light the contrast between the outer appearance and the inner reality. As might happen by contact with a grave (Lev 21:11; Num 6:6), one could become spiritually defiled by contact with the Pharisees (v. 28) - since what the person is makes a stronger impression than what the person says.

3. They appear to champion God's cause but are really his enemies, vv. 29-36. Even as they honor the OT saints (v. 29), they betray their descent from "those who murdered the prophets" (v. 31) by assaulting God's servants in the present generation - Jesus and his followers (v. 34, cf. 10:16-23). Thus what they say (v. 30) bears further witness to the kind of hypocrisy described under 1. V. 35 encompasses the whole Hebrew canon, from Gen 4:8 ("righteous Abel") to 2 Chron 24:20-22 ("Zechariah son of Jehoiada"). (The name "Berekiah" comes from Zech 1:1. On this difference, see Carson, 485-86; Gundry, 471.)

B. Their Teachings. 23:13-22.

We now consider aspects of their teaching beyond that represented in 23:2-3.

1. They reject Jesus, and turn others against him (v. 13). "You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." The previous chapters of Mt amply document the Pharisees' aggressive opposition to Jesus (and his message of "the kingdom of heaven," 4:17, 23), and their attempts to discredit him in the minds of the crowd.

2. They promote human traditions in place of God's Word (v. 15; with NIV we omit v. 14); cf. comments on 15:1-9. It is not the Pharisees' missionary zeal which Jesus censures, but the effects of the Pharisees' teaching upon their converts (the same can be said of today's Mormon missionaries). Not merely is the convert kept from the true gospel. So zealous does he become for his teachers' doctrine that he "out-Pharisees" the Pharisees in promoting it - making him "twice as much a son of hell" as they (v. 15b; cf. Carson, 479).

3. They are blind to ultimate reality (vv. 16-22). "Behind the Pharisaical teaching on oaths lies the rationale that a creditor cannot place a lien on the Temple or the altar. The Temple and the altar provide no surety, therefore, and make oaths taken in their name meaningless. But a creditor might well claim the gold dedicated by his debtor to the Temple or the gift offered by his debtor on the altar" (Gundry, 463). Arguing from the lesser to the greater, Jesus reverses that position. The temple makes the gold sacred, and the altar the gift (23:17, 19); so swearing by temple or altar is a genuine oath, and a more meaningful one than swearing by gold or gift. But not only are the distinctions of v. 16 invalid. The whole viewpoint is far too limited, for it takes no account of God - who gives the temple and its contents their meaning (v. 21). The near-sightedness and the fine distinctions of v. 16, neither free a person from the responsibility of oath-keeping, nor enable him to avoid a reckoning with God, the sovereign Judge. Thus Jesus amplifies 5:33-37 (where however he instructs disciples not to swear at all).

By all three means - repudiating Jesus, promoting human traditions, and looking no higher than the temple and its contents - the teachers of the law and the Pharisees turn the common folk away from God.

C. Their Preoccupation with Minutiae. 23:23-24.

1. The tithing. In addition to the "grain, new wine and oil" of Deut 14:23, the Pharisees tithed garden herbs in accord with (their view of) Lev 27:30. Jesus does not condemn this practice, but on the contrary affirms its correctness (v. 23b).

2. The "weightier matters of the law." "The weightier matters" (ta barutera) are not the more difficult but the more important (thus NIV) - namely "justice, mercy, and faithfulness." Jesus here echoes a major theme of OT prophecy: e.g. Mic 6:8 ("To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" - i.e. to have faith in him and be faithful to him) and Zech 7:9 ("Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another"). As in 22:37-40, Jesus makes it clear that one shows love for God by loving his neighbor.

3. The relationship between them. Within the context of the Age of Moses, there was no contradiction between tithing (even the strict variety of the Pharisees) and being just, merciful, and faithful. Indeed tithing afforded a superb means of expressing faithfulness to God, and generosity to others (Mal 3). But severed from the theology and morality expressed in the law's "weightier matters," tithing lost its raison d'être (cf. the comments on 15:1-20). The offenders' intensive preoccupation with tithing, blinds them (v. 24a) to the need for the other, and becomes a substitute for it. Their very zeal to avoid sin in tithing, prevents their avoiding a far graver sin (has their zeal for tithing become a subtle means of justifying the neglect of the other?): Having carefully "strained out a gnat" (Aramaic qalma), they "swallow a "camel" (gamla). "The rabbinic practice of filtering wine had the purpose of avoiding unclean insects" (Gundry, 464). Ironically, the camel was a ceremonially unclean animal (Lev 11:4)!


A. The Coming Doom.

Judgment catastrophic, unprecedented, and irretrievable, is about to befall Israel - her leaders, her people, her capital, and her temple. Such will be God's response to the nation's accumulated sins, and her repeated and consistent rejection of his servants and his Word - culminating now in her repudiation of his Son and those allied with him. Jesus calls the temple "your house" (v. 38), because it is now to be abandoned by God (cf. 24:1, "Jesus left the temple"; Ezek 8:4; 9:3; 10:4, 18-19; 11:23). On God's waiting for sins to "accumulate" before he judges, cf. Gen 15:16; 1 Thess 2:16. For further attention to the destruction of the temple, see 24:1-2 et seq. That the judgment on Jerusalem and the temple (23:37-38) is foretold immediately after the seven "woes" against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (23:13-32), is a sobering reminder of the effects of the leaders' sins on the whole nation.

B. An Ongoing Appeal.

Even amid the prophecy of certain judgment, there is a note of hope. While Jesus begins the discourse by addressing crowd and disciples (23:1-12), the "woes" are directed to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees themselves. The "woes" are not irreversible sentences of condemnation ("woe to you" is different from "damn you"), but anguished warnings of judgment - calling the leadership to repentance and faith before it is too late (cf. 3:7-10).

Moreover, beyond the judgment that is to befall the present generation, there is hope for Israel. The mission to Jews is to continue right up to the time of Jesus' Return (10:23; cf. Rom 9-11). The judgment that climaxes in the destruction of Jerusalem, A.D. 70, is itself meant to jolt Israel out of her indifference and unbelief, to move her to sober reflection, to awaken her to the enormity of her sin and bring her to repentance and faith. Thus stirred into spiritual awareness, Israel shall be ready to welcome Jesus upon his Return, and to utter the words of Ps 118:26 with far deeper understanding and far greater joy than was the case at the Triumphal Entry (v. 39; cf. 21:9). Note also, in view of Ezekiel's references to the departure of Yahweh's glory from the temple (cited under A.), that the prophet also foretells the day when Yahweh's glory will again fill the temple (43:1-5).


By severely denouncing the way of thinking and living exemplified and taught by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, Jesus holds up for his disciples a model steadfastly to be avoided. He also presents to them - in that light - a model steadfastly to be cultivated.

A. The Way of God-centeredness.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees are man-centered (15:1-9) and self-centered (23:5-7). By contrast, disciples are to be God-centered in their whole outlook - whether that attention is centered on God the Son (vv. 8, "you have only one Master," and 10, "you have one Teacher, the Christ") or on God the Father ("you have one Father, and he is in heaven," v. 9). The prohibitions of vv. 8-10 strongly affirm the Father's sovereignty, and the Son's Lordship, over the whole church, leaders included.

Verse 9 applies to "the kingdom of heaven" and does not forbid using "father" of one's earthly parent (cf. 11:11; 12:46-50) - so long as he is not given an allegiance due God alone. V. 10 does not prohibit the office of "teacher" in the church (cf. 28:20, "teaching them"; Eph 4:11, "pastors and teachers") - but it does warn church leaders against lording it over those under their care (cf. ch. 18), and against trying to wield authority independently of Jesus' lordship over them.

B. The Way of Humility.

A God-centered outlook is the surest way to conquer pride and hypocrisy on the one hand, and to become genuinely humble on the other (cf. comments on 6:5-6). Unlike the hypocrite (see II. A.), the humble person is marked by authority (because his practice matches his preaching), integrity (because the external expresses rather than obscures the internal, cf. v. 26; 15:10-20; 5:13-16), and allegiance to God (as shown by his being numbered among God's servants rather than God's enemies). It is precisely this person whom God exalts, says Jesus (v. 12, where the passives "will be humbled" and "will be exalted" point to divine activity) - the person least intent upon being exalted. See the comments on 20:20-23.

C. The Way of Service.

The person who has been humbled is prepared for service. "The greatest among you will be your servant" (v. 11). If the servant is genuinely humble, then he is not in the least concerned about his status, not always thinking about moving as quickly as possible beyond the service into the position of master, not concerned to change from being "the least" to being "the greatest" - which is why Jesus acclaims him the greatest. The greatness lies precisely in the service; cf. comments on 20:20-28; see also Phil 2:1-11.