1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
Jesus begins to speak to the crowds concerning the scribes and Pharisees. These are the teachers of the law for the people of Israel. They are the leaders, those who “sat in the seat of Moses,” or were in a place of authority over the people. They were seen as those who had succeeded Moses, who himself was the great teacher over the Israelites.
Although they are elsewhere accused of teaching the doctrines of men (Matthew 15:9), Christ tells them to observe all that they tell them, but not according to their deeds. Certainly, when Matthew penned this gospel, he did not write one thing in Matthew 15, and disregarded it here only 8 chapters later. So, we must understand that these ought to observe those things which are agreeable with God’s word, using the discernment that Christ outlines in Matthew 15 concerning the doctrines the Pharisees teach which are nothing but the commands of men. These are damnable.
Christ says that the Pharisees say things and don’t do them. So, on top of their mixing error with truth – doctrines of men with doctrines of God, even those things they teach correctly, they still don’t do. It is important that we allow all of Scripture to speak, and that we harmonize all of those things that Scripture discloses concerning the Pharisees. Otherwise, we will have an unbalanced view.
Keep in mind that Luke 10:18 begins Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and publican. And it points to the root of the problem. If we were to isolate Matthew 23, we might believe that Christ is telling us that we are justified by good works. Think of how often we say things and do the opposite. After all, even the apostle Paul, in his first epistle to Timothy, identified himself as the worst sinner. Paul also tells us that the things he wants to do, he doesn’t, and the things he doesn’t want to do, he does (Romans 7). We might also be able to say the same of him. But Luke 18 tells us that ultimately, the problem of the Pharisee is that he has no understanding of the righteousness of God. If he did, he would see no place for his own righteousness. Unofrtunately, Luke 18 shows is that he considered himself better than the publican and other “sinners,” whereas the publican couldn’t even look at the sky and could only ask for forgiveness for he knew he was a wretched sinner. Christ tells us that it was the publican who went home justified.
There were certainly commands that were given through Moses that God expected the people to abide by. But these things never justified them. Justification has always come through faith in the gospel. In fact, Paul tells us that doing the law doesn’t even require faith. As we consider the rest of Matthew 23, evidence of this will certainly make itself known.
4 “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
Christ mentions the burdens that the Pharisees laid upon the shoulders of men. These were the doctrines they added to the law. Christ does not mean to say, “They should be doing these works.” Rather, he points out their hypocrisy in that they say one thing and doing another. they ought not be said at all, as He points out in Matthew 15, but they do point them out, and STILL don’t even do what they add to the law.
5 “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. 8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.
Here we have further testimony to the fact that the leaders of Israel loved to exalt themselves before others. They loved for others to think they were amazing. The phylacteries were boxes they wore on their heads that held Scriptures, and they’d pray while wearing them. Obviously, the bigger the box, the more you appear to be contemplative of Scripture. You appear more prayerful. And it’s not as though they simply crack open their “prayer closet” so others can witness them praying long or emotionally. They put it all out there. You can’t miss a big box on their head. They loved being placed in chief seats and in honorable places. They loved people noticing them in the markets, and not just noticing them, but calling them out of the crowd. Their lack of faith in the gospel kept them in enslavement to sin. And it blinded them from seeing the righteousness of God, whom they served with their lips. But their hearts were far from Him. They didn’t know Him, not because they didn’t try hard enough at the law. It was because they had no faith. And this was ultimately evidenced in that they believed themselves to be righteous. And as a result, they constantly and unrepentantly placed themselves in positions of honor and circumstances in which their depravity could be celebrated.
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. 14 [“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]
This will become more evident at the close of the chapter. The leaders of Israel were like their fathers before them who killed the prophets and those sent to them. They hated the gospel and hated truth, and would ultimately kill Christ. It wasn’t as though Christ really wanted people to come to him but the leaders were standing between them. And it wasn’t as though people were running to Christ, but the leaders were holding them by the belt. Whoever Christ desires to save, will be saved. No doubt about that. The kingdom of God can not be resisted by anyone. Not even the “gates of hell will prevail against it.”
The issue is that what the leaders want and what Christ wants are two different things. In their enslavement to sin, they oppose Christ, and do what they can to continue to oppose Him because their sinful minds are hostile to God (Romans 8:7). They also take advantage, perhaps financially, of widows – taking from them whatever they can. These widows have no husbands, no guidance, are vulnerable, and open prey in their weakness.
15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
They make proselytes with their false message. It is a message that is all law, and no gospel. It is burdensome and bad news without the good news of the gospel. And the harder they work, the deeper they dig their graves. Paul tells us that the purpose of the law was to expose our sins, giving strength to them. It was not intended to give life, only to point us to the One Who does. And so, the more these leaders scrub with the law, the more filth they spread.
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ 17 “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ 19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? 20 “Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. 21″And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. 22″And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
Aside from incorrectly judging the importance of the temple with those things brought into it, Christ is pointing out their untruthfulness. In Matthew 5, Christ also spoke to this issue. He said to “let your yes be yes and your no be no” and that anything more than that “comes from evil.” (Matthew 5:37). There should be no need to “add weight” to what you say by swearing on anything, or by anything.
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
“Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” illustrates how particular these leaders were at some things but not others. Sure, they made sure that they tithed extremely well. That’s something people can see, and praise you for – even if it is behind your back. Praise is praise. But we know these guys loved hearing it. Anyhow, when it came to issues like justice, mercy, and faithfulness, they turned a blind eye – straining out one law with such detail, and yet no straining necessary on these other issues.
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
They made sure that folks new how holy they were and how obedient they were. Christ compares it to a cup that looks really clean on the outside, but as soon as you tip it to look inside, you realize it’s filthy. In other words, there was obedience, but no faith. He also compares it to a tomb that is painted white. It’s pretty on the outside, but totally dead on the inside.
What’s ironic in all of this is that Christ has identified them as those who take advantage of widow’s houses, being unjust, full of robbery, and self-indulgence. Yet, in Luke 18, the Pharisee thanks God that he is “not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers…” He certainly had no idea who he really was.
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. 33 “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
34 “Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 “Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Here Christ is charging them with being just like their fathers before them. Sure, these leaders may adorn the tombs of the prophets, and say they wouldn’t have killed them if they had the chance. But Christ, of whom those prophets spoke – the very message, will be murdered by these leaders. And they will put to death those He sends to them. Stephen, for instance, didn’t die by the hands of the Romans. He was stoned to death by the Jews.
The guilt of their fathers had filled the cup of God’s wrath, but these leaders would fill it to the brim. And it was soon to spill. Christ tells them the purpose that He sends these prophets and wise men is so that they are persecuted by the leaders. And Christ says that the reason for this is that the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth from Abel to Zechariah would fall on them. These individuals didn’t kill from Abel to Zechariah, but they would have. And so they are given the sentence by Christ. They would die. Notice it says, “this generation.”
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 “Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! 39 “For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’”
Jerusalem was the holy city in which God would meet His people in the temple. Here, Christ isn’t speaking to the geography. He isn’t even speaking to the individuals that live inside Jerusalem. He is still speaking to the leaders. Notice He says, “How often I wanted to gather your children.” Only, the leadership was not willing. They were like their fathers who hated the gospel.
It is a common misreading here to say, “Jerusalem, how often I wanted to gather you, but you were not willing.” That’s not what is said here. Christ said he wanted to gather the children of Jerusalem, but Jerusalem was not willing. Nothing here is mentioned about the children not coming or Christ being stopped. Check out the following link to read an article on verses 37-39 concerning the willingness of Christ versus that of the leadership: [here]. Again, it is the plain statement that what Christ purposed and what the leadership purposed were two different things. And they would pay for it.
Their house was going to be left to them “desolate” within that generation. The Jews once screamed to Pontius Pilate, “And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25) And that blood would be upon them. Christ died in the early 30s AD, and about 40 years later (a generation) this “house” (Jerusalem / the temple) was left desolate by the Roman armies.
Christ spoke of this in Matthew 21:
33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who PLANTED A VINEYARD AND PUT A WALL AROUND IT AND DUG A WINE PRESS IN IT, AND BUILT A TOWER, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. 34 “When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. 35 “The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. 36 “Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. 37 “But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 “But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ 39 “They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” 41 They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” [Matthew 21:33-41]
The Old Covenant age of types and shadows was about to pass away, and Christ, the substance of these shadows, would be left.