In this chapter, Jesus says his disciples should not pursue titles. He pronounces seven woes on the teachers of the law and Pharisees. He then laments over Jerusalem. A table of events during Passion Week is again presented here, at the end.
As I write in the introduction to every chapter:
This translation and commentary is offered for free, gratis, across the worldwide web to Christians in oppressive (persecuting) or developing countries, who cannot afford printed commentaries or Study Bibles, though everyone can use the commentary and entire website, of course.
The commentary has a practical application (GrowApp) at the end of each section, for discipleship.
The Greek terms with brief definitions can be looked up at biblehub.com. However, I hope to bring different nuances to the few words I focus on. A pronunciation guide is also offered. But I keep things nontechnical.
The translation is mine. I do not offer it in competition with the excellent published ones or because I think mine is better or necessary. I wrote it to learn what the Greek text really says. The translation tends to be literal, but complete literalism and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
Links are provided for further study.
Jesus Warns against Teachers of the Law and Pharisees (Matt. 23:1-12)
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, 2 saying, “The teachers of the law and Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses. 3 Do and keep everything they may tell you, but do not do according to their actions, for they preach but do not practice. 4 They bind and place on people’s shoulders heavy burdens which are difficult to carry, but they are unwilling to lift their finger to move them. 5 All of their works they do in order to be seen by people, for they widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels; 6 they love the first place at dinners and the first seats in the synagogues, 7 and the greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people. 8 But you should not be called ‘Rabbi,’ for one is your teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. 9 And you should not be called your ‘father’ on earth, for one is your Father in heaven. 10 Neither should you be called ‘tutor’ because your tutor is one, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you is your servant. 12 The one who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This entire hard-hitting chapter has a purpose. It may be difficult for a modern, tolerant, sleepy audience to see an entire class of people coming under God’s judgment in real time (so to speak), but God through his Son does not hold back. Be brave in reading this chapter, as you have from Matt. 21 (Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem), and all the way through Matt. 24 (he predicts the temple’s destruction). You are about to witness the prophetic Messiah taking down an entire, obsolete religious system.
Jesus lived in an honor and shame society. And he is about to denounce the teachers of the law and Pharisees in public, so the crowds of people and his disciples can move on past the Old Order of the Old Temple and its caretakers. The old regime was about to collapse and be left behind.
The teachers of the law and Pharisees were seemingly righteous. Do you remember what Paul said in Phil. 3:4-6? He was zealous for the law; he said he was blameless in law keeping. Preachers today say that it’s impossible to keep the law. Perhaps. But Paul said he was blameless. Paul also said he had persecuted the church. That was very righteous, from his limited point of view. So how does true righteousness go beyond the external righteousness of those two devout groups?
Righteousness has to be internal. The teachers of the law and Pharisees were going in the wrong direction. They put on outward shows. They were oppressive. Jesus finally denounces them, saying they were confused about sacred things and loved the gold of the temple (23:16-17); they kept the letter of the law, but neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness (or justice) (23:23). They were full of greed and self-indulgence, like cups washed on the outside, but not in the inside (23:25-26). They were like whitewashed tombs, looking good on the outside, but full of death on the inside; application: they look good to people, but they are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (23:27-28). Behind the façade, they did awful things. Their ancestors killed God’s prophets, and the Pharisees and teachers claim they never would, but they were wrong. “Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” (v. 32). They were about to push for the death of the Messiah. He is going to send them prophets and sages and teachers, but they will kill them too (23:33-36).
Therefore kingdom righteousness has to be planted in the soul when someone first acknowledges his bankruptcy, enters the kingdom, receives mercy, and operates through kingdom strength to work out what God is working in. A new covenant is coming. The King of heaven is launching it through the Messiah King. Righteousness has to flow from it, from the inside out.
Now let’s do a quick review of the Pharisees and teachers of the law:
“teachers of the law”: They can also be called scribes.
You can learn more about both groups here:
Both groups were the Watchdogs of Theology and Behavior (David E. Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Zondervan, 2011], p. 243). The problem which Jesus had with them can be summed up in Eccl. 7:16: “Be not overly righteous.” He did not quote that verse, but to him they were much too enamored with the finer points of the law, while neglecting its spirit (Luke 11:37-52; Matt. 23:1-36). Instead, he quoted this verse from Hos. 6:6 (ESV): “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” … (see Matt. 9:13; 12:7). Overdoing righteousness, believe it or not, can damage one’s relationship with God and others.
They may sit in the seat of Moses, and God may have had a plan for them, but they failed to live up to his purposes. The proof is that they cannot see the Messiah standing right in front of them. Two commentators say that this announcement of their seat of authority is ironical, because the next verses tell them how far off they are. In other words, God did not send them or set up this system of legalism (France and Carson).
Osborne, in agreement with France and Carson, says that the two best interpretations is first Jesus is using sarcasm or irony. The second interpretation is to read 3a in light of 3b—the teachers talk the talk (3a), so approval (only in principle) but do not walk the walk (3b)” …. (comment 23:3).
Now Jesus lists the inconsistencies of the teachers of the law and Pharisees, which boil down to their saying one thing and doing another. Two quick points before we return to the bigger picture. Phylacteries were tiny leather boxes that they bound on their arms and forehead with leather straps, particularly during prayer, which the Torah commanded them to do (Deut. 6:8; 11:18). They contained texts of Scripture. They could be made more conspicuous by enlarging the boxes. The tassels were on the corner of the Jewish cloaks and required by the law (Num. 15:38-39; Deut. 22:12). They were worn on top of the outer garment, as Jesus did (Matt. 9:20; 14:36), so he was not condemning the fibers of cloth, but the fake attitude behind them. (Only in later Judaism did they wear fringed shawls especially for prayer.) The fringes or tassels were intended for a visual aid (Num. 15:39). Lengthening them was a way to show off (France pp. 861-62).
The rest of the verses exposes ostentatious displays and love of people’s favor. They lost track that one is supposed honor and fear God, not seek people’s approval and respect. God’s favor over people’s applause.
Jesus now instructs his budding kingdom community on how to be and not to be. They are not to be like the teachers of the law or the Pharisees who love titles. The members of the kingdom community are equal. Yes, Paul and the other apostles offer the various office ministries for the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:28; Rom. 12:6-8; Eph. 4:11), but the goal here in these verses is to contrast the attitude of lusting after titles, like the teachers of the law and Pharisees did, with simply ministering in the church, as the first generation of disciples did.
“teacher”: Jesus does not use the verb form of this noun for his disciples until he is ascended and commands them to go out and teach (Matt. 28:20). Before then, he tells them to proclaim (Matt. 10). So he allowed the post-Resurrection church to develop teaching roles, which soon developed into the office / function / ministry of teachers. So things changed after the resurrection and ascension. From heaven, he was guiding his church in the apostolic community, and even today.
“tutor”: it is the Greek noun kathēgētēs (pronounced kah-thay-gay-tayss), and it is a rare word, never used in the Septuagint (LXX), and not often used in the larger Greek world (today in modern Greek it means “Professor”). It is someone who leads or guides. In the verb form it means “one who goes before,” “to be the first to do, to establish, institute.” In Jesus’s day it supposedly came to be known as “instructor” or even “tutor.” But I believe that when Matthew’s Greek readers-listeners heard the noun, they did not think of an ordinary teacher. They knew it was a rare word, certainly rarer than the standard noun didaskalos (pronounced dee-dahs-kah-loss), which is used in v. 8 and in this context is a synonym with Rabbi. So Matthew’s readers-listeners must have heard something different in it. It could be that they heard these connotations built into the noun: “teacher who first institutes” or “instructor who leads the way” or “leader-teacher-guide.” Only Jesus could fill this role. This is no ordinary teacher whom Jesus raised up in the church after his resurrection and ascension, called a didaskalos (Rom. 12:7 [cognate participle], 1 Cor. 12:28, and Eph. 4:11).
Jesus’s criticism of all these titles—Rabbi-teacher, father, and tutor—is about seeking them and being arrogant about them (vv. 11-12), just like the leaders whom Jesus is criticizing. So be warned, people of God today. Don’t lust after titles. Let your place or office or role in the Body of Christ evolve over time and in God’s calling. His gift in you will be clear to people, without your self-promotion.
“Of course there are not absolute prescriptions, for both ‘father’ and ‘teacher’ are used often in the NT for Christian leaders and the teaching office was highly prized (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor 12:29; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim 3:2). Jesus is saying such an office should never be sought for the self-glory it will give (cf. Phil. 2:3; Jas. 3:1)” (Osborne, comment on 23:10).
“one”: it could be translated broadly “one and unique” or “one and only.” The point is that Jesus the Messiah and the heavenly Father were the kingdom community’s one and only leader and guide; kingdom citizens should not pursue men and women as quasi-divine, authoritative substitutes for the true leaders: God and his Messiah.
The bottom line: Verses 7-9, are about seeking titles for ostentatious displays. God exalts people (v. 12). They are not to believe that titles exalt them and not insist on them. So the idea is not titles themselves, but in craving them. In v. 12 we once again see the divine passive, because the verbs are in the passive voice. This means that God is working behind the scenes exalting and humbling people according to his evaluation of them. As noted, don’t seek for and insist on titles.
Let’s have Blomberg summarize this section:
All [titles] commonly referred in Judaism to those who expounded the law. “Rabbi” etymologically meant my great one. “Father” was apparently reserved for the patriarchs and revered teachers from the past (cf. the allegedly oldest portion of Mishnaic tradition—the Pirqe Aboth or “Sayings of the Fathers”). “Teacher” (kathēgētēs) referred especially to a tutor. As with many of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, texts elsewhere in the New Testament make it clear that he is not promulgating absolute commands. People are properly called teachers in Acts 13:1; 1 Tim 2:7; and Heb 5:12. Paul will even refer to a spiritual gift that enables some people to be so identified (Eph 4:11; 1 Cor 12:28–29; cf. Jas 3:1). It remains appropriate to call a biological parent one’s father, and even one’s spiritual parent may be addressed with this term (1 Cor 4:15; cf. also 1 John 2:13; Acts 22:1). So the point of vv. 8–12 must be that such titles are not to be used to confer privilege or status. (comment on 23:8-12)
GrowApp for Matt. 23:1-12
A.. Jesus says no to inconsistent (hypocritical) living. How is your life in Christ? Inconsistent or steady? Be honest.
Jesus Pronounces Woes on Teachers of the Law and Pharisees (Matt. 23:13-36)
13 “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you slam the door to the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, because you do not enter it, nor do you allow those who enter to go in!
[14 Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you devour the houses of widows and for a pretext you offer long prayers. Because of this, you shall receive greater judgment!]
15 Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you travel around, across the sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one, you make him twice the child of Gehenna as you!
16 Woe to you blind guides who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing! But whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he owes!’ 17 Fools and blind men! Which is greater? The gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the sacrificial altar, it is nothing! But whoever swears by the gift on it, he owes!’ 19 Blind men! For which is greater? The gift or the sacrificial altar which sanctifies the gift? 20 Therefore, the one who swears by the sacrificial altar swears by it and everything on it! 21 And the one who swears by the temple swears by it and the one who inhabits it! 22 And the one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it!
23 Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you tithe mint, dill, cumin but have dismissed the weightier matters of the law, like justice, and mercy and faithfulness. You should do these things and not dismiss those things! 24 Blind guides, who strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
25 Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you wash the outside of the cup and dish, but inside it is full of violent greed and self-indulgence! 26 Blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup, so that it also becomes clean on its outside!
27 Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you are like whitewashed tombs which from the outside appear beautiful, but on the inside they of full of the bones of the dead and all sorts of uncleanness. 28 In this way also you appear righteous to people on the outside, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
29 Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we were in the days of our ancestors, we would not share with them in the blood of the prophets.’ 32 And you fill up the measure of your ancestors! 33 Snakes! Offspring of vipers! How would you flee from the judgment of Gehenna? 34 Because of this, look! I am sending to you prophets and the wise and teachers of the law; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will flog in your synagogues and pursue them from town to town, 35 in order that on you may come all the righteous blood spilled on the ground, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth: All these things shall come upon this generation.”
There are seven woes (eight if you count v. 14). Seven may indicate a complete and encompassing number. Jesus is taking down the whole religious system.
Woes are not curses, but sorrowful words, indicating lost opportunities and disappointments.
Woe ≠ Curse. Jesus was not pronouncing curses on people.
Instead, Woe = Pity.
Or woe = divine judgment
Jesus was pronouncing pity on them who stand under divine judgment.
However, some commentators say he was speaking in righteous anger at religious leaders. I say it could be both anger and pity. Anger, because they were leaders who were abusing the people with overbearing laws, and pity because they were about to come under divine judgment. But one thing is certain: the woes were not curses.
Turner is right:
In oracles of woe, the prophet’s attitude is anger tempered at times by grief and alarm at the horrible price Israel will pay for its sin. Prophets are angry because they are speaking for God against sin. But prophets are also stricken with grief because this anger is directed towards their own people. The palpable pathos of woe oracles is due to the prophet’s dual solidarities. The prophets must speak for God, but in announcing oracles of judgment, the prophets know that they are announcing the doom of their own people (p. 550).
Note v. 34, which says that because of this (all of the foregoing), Jesus is sending to them prophets, sages, and teachers of the law, but sadly he predicts that the religious leaders will reject and hound them too. At least, however, he sent them warnings, which is an act of mercy.
Also, many Jews, even priests, converted to the Messiah after Pentecost (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7; 21:20), so this chapter is not about them or Jews generally. It’s the religious system that had been built up over centuries and had lost its way. Jesus is not denouncing the little people, but the religious Watchdogs who confused people about the kingdom of God. One scholar discovered that Jesus’s “woes” were standard for that day (France p. 854, n. 5); yes, these words are very polemical to our ears but not entirely to their ears in those days. However, let’s not sugarcoat them. The whole temple system and old Judaism is about to come crashing down. The early Christian kingdom community is making a sharp break with the old religion, and Jesus is leading the way, first. His long diatribe is part of the pulling down of the old regime.
However, Keener warns that Jesus includes members of his own community: “For Matthew, the judgments on Jesus’ opposition at his first coming prefigures judgment on the leaders at his second coming (23:12-23; 24:25-25:30). Jesus’ own professing servants could belong among the ‘hypocrites’ (24:51; cf. 6:2; 15:7; 22:18). Like Paul in Romans 1-2, and Amos in chapters 1-3, Matthew forces leaders in his own community to see themselves through the prism of a disobedient religious establishment that opposed their Lord, thereby summoning them to take warning” (p. 537).
People who want to enter the kingdom have the door slammed in their faces by the teachers of the law and Pharisees. Implied: these religious leaders don’t even know what it is; and what little they know is wrongheaded. Their righteousness was external and inconsistent, yet they wore the clothes of religion and did externally righteous deeds.
So how did the legal experts and Pharisees slam the door shut? By withholding deeper teaching about knowing God. The various classes of religious leaders had held the Torah in their sole possession that only they were privileged to interpret it authoritatively. It is similar to the Medieval Church. Only they could interpret Scripture. And when an innovator like John the Baptist or Jesus himself comes along, then the Watchdogs of Orthodoxy and Purity oppose them.
If v. 14 is genuine—it does not appear in the best manuscripts—then the religious leaders had really lost their way. It is awful to take away the houses of widows and make long prayers to hide behind. As a side note, Luke 20:47 says the teachers of the law devoured widows’ houses and used long prayers as a pretext.
We already discussed the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in v. 2. Now let’s look at the term hypocrites. Originally it comes from the Greek play actor on the stage. They wore masks and played roles. There were stock characters, such as the buffoon, the bombastic soldier, or the old miser. The Septuagint (pronounced sep-TOO-ah-gent and abbreviated LXX for the “seventy” scholars who worked on it) is a third to first century translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It uses the term hypocrite to mean the godless. However, in Matthew’s Gospel (it is used only once in Mark 7:6 and three times in Luke 6:42; 12:56; 13:15, so it is not a major theme), it is more nuanced. Hypocrites appeared one way, but in reality they were different. They appeared outwardly religious, but inwardly they were full of dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27). They wore religious masks. They actually did many things that the law required, but they failed to understand God’s view of righteousness. They were more self-deceived than deceivers, though here in Matt. 23, Jesus denounced the Pharisees and teachers of the law for teaching one thing but living another. Here in Matt. 23, one scholar adds the dimension that the Pharisees failed in their leadership, because they missed the mark on the other aspects of God’s character, as Jesus is about to point out (France, p. 869, n. 24). They were religious show-offs who act out their righteousness to impress others but are out of touch with God’s mercy and love. As noted, Eccl. 7:16 says not to be overly righteous, but that is what they were and displayed it publicly.
“kingdom of heaven”: Matthew substitutes “heaven” (literally heavens or plural) nearly every time (except for 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43, where he uses kingdom of God). Why? Four possible reasons: (1) Maybe some extra-pious Jews preferred the circumlocution or the roundabout way of speaking, but this answer is not always the right one, for Matthew does use the phrase “kingdom of God” four times; (2) the phrase “kingdom of heaven” points to Christ’s post-resurrection authority; God’s sovereignty in heaven and earth (beginning with Jesus’s ministry) is now mediated through Jesus (28:18); (3) “kingdom of God” makes God the king (26:29) and leaves less room to ascribe the kingdom to Jesus (16:28; 25:31, 34, 40; 27:42), but the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” leaves more room to say Jesus is the king Messiah. (4) It may be a stylistic variation that has no deeper reasoning behind it (France). In my view the third option shows the close connection to the doctrine of the Trinity; the Father and Son share authority, after the Father gives it to him. The kingdom of heaven is both the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom of the Messiah (Carson). And, since I like streamlined interpretations, the fourth one also appeals to me.
Now let’s go for a general consideration of the kingdom of heaven / God. As noted in other verses that mention the kingdom in this commentary, the kingdom is God’s power, authority, rule, reign and sovereignty. He exerts all those things over all the universe but more specifically over the lives of people. It is his invisible realm, and throughout the Gospels Jesus is explaining and demonstrating what it looks like before their very eyes and ears. It is gradually being manifested from the realm of faith to the visible realm, but it is not political in the human sense. It is a secret kingdom because it does not enter humanity with trumpets blaring and full power and glory. This grand display will happen when Jesus comes back. In his first coming, it woos people to surrender to it. We can enter God’s kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), by repenting (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:5), by having the faith of children (Matt. 18:4; Mark 10:14-15), by being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom God loves (Col. 1:13), and by seeing their own poverty and need for the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; Jas. 2:5). The kingdom has already come in part at his First Coming, but not yet with full manifestation and glory and power until his Second Coming.
1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)
This verse talks about the missionary efforts of these leaders. Give them credit. I wonder whether Paul’s father learned about the Pharisees, because Paul said he was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6), yet he was from Tarsus (Acts 22:3). Did a Pharisee land there years ago and persuade some Jews of Tarsus to join his cause? Or maybe Paul’s father lived in Jerusalem for a while and joined the cause. Yet let’s not dwell here in speculation.
But the religious leaders were so self-deceived that they could not see that they were making disciples “from hell.” Paul was actually so self-deceived that he persecuted the church. His religious and misguided zeal deceived him and blinded him from God.
“child of Gehenna” was a Semitic way of saying “destined for gehinnom” (Keener, p. 549).
“Gehenna”: it is related to the Valley of Hinnom, which over the centuries was a garbage heap where things rotted and burned, even bodies. Evil acts were done there, like sacrificing children. It was outside Jerusalem. At this dump wicked kings of Israel / Judea worshipped Baal-Molech, including offering children in fiery sacrifices—they put children to the flames (2 Kings 16:3; 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Is. 66:24; Jer. 7:31-32; 19:4-6; 32:34-35). Over the centuries, the name got tweaked into “Gehenna,” and in Jesus’s day it was an image or metaphor for punishment and a hellish place. So it is apt to say that Gehenna is the place where people go who have done wicked deeds nd are not saved, after final judgment.
See my post about the Bible basics on hell:
Now for even more theology: punishment in the afterlife at judgment. There are three main theories.
First, eternal conscious torment, which says unredeemed people burn forever in the fires of hell, even Hitler and your kind and generous but unredeemed grandmother, bobbing up and down, next to each other. This is the traditional or standard view.
Second, terminalism or conditionalism, which says the eternality of the soul depends or is conditional only on God. The soul is not automatically eternal by virtue of being a soul. Unredeemed people are punished in hell for a time suitable to their good or bad deeds, but then they pass out of existence or their soul is destroyed. The ending may not be a happy one, but this theory eliminates the eternal torment.
Third, universal reconciliation or restoration, which says that each unredeemed person is punished in hell for a duration suitable to their good or bad deeds; then they are brought into God’s presence and restored and reconciled to him.
Please read a three-part series, which have plenty of Scriptural support:
Whichever theory you choose, please don’t call the other two heretical or make this doctrine a test for orthodoxy. All three have Scriptural support. Personally, I believe that the topic of punishment in the afterlife is secondary or nonessential, so I like this saying:
“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity (love)”
Give people space to choose one of these nonessential, Bible-supported theories.
One last word about punishment in the afterlife.
Charismatic and Presbyterian theologian J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008) says fire and darkness are just metaphors, which cannot be taken literally, for separation from God and punishment:
These two terms, “darkness” and “fire,” that point to the final state of the lost might seem to be opposites, because darkness, even black darkness, suggests nothing like fire or the light of a blazing fire. Thus again we must guard against identifying the particular terms with literal reality, such as a place of black darkness or of blazing fire. Rather, darkness and fire are metaphors that express the profound truth, on the one hand, of terrible estrangement and isolation from God, and on the other, the pain and misery of unrelieved punishment. It is significant that Jesus in His portrayals of darkness and fire often adds the statement “There men will weep and gnash their teeth.” This weeping and gnashing … vividly suggests both suffering and despair. So whether the metaphor is darkness or fire, the picture is indeed a grim one, even beyond the ability of any figure of speech to express.
One further word: both darkness and fire refer to the basic situation of the lost after Last Judgment. However, we have already observed that there will be degrees of punishment; hence in some sense the darkness and fire will not be wholly the same. Some punishment will be more tolerable than other punishment: some people will receive a greater condemnation, while some (to change the figure) will be “beaten with few blows” [Luke 12:48]. Thus we should not understand the overall picture of the state of the lost to exclude differences in degree of punishment. Even as for the righteous in the world to come, there will be varying rewards, so for the unrighteous, the punishment will not be the same. (Renewal Theology, vol. 3, 470-71).
For the record, Williams did not believe in annihilationism (or terminalism or conditionalism) or universal reconciliation (or restorationism).
However, if you want to take the imagery of fire and darkness literally, you certainly can. It’s up to you.
Jesus actually and more fully taught not to swear oaths:
34 But I tell you not to swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; 35 neither by the earth because it is the footstool for his feet; neither by Jerusalem because it is the city of the great King; 36 neither should you swear by your head because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 But let your word be “yes, yes, no, no.” Anything beyond them is from the evil one. (Matt. 5:34-37)
I wrote at my comments on 5:34-37, first that it is all right not to swear oaths.
22 But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. 23 You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth. (Deut. 23:22-23, ESV)
At the end of this pericope (pronounced puh-RIH-koh-pea) or unit or section of Scripture, Jesus endorses Deut. 23:22. Don’t make an oath or swear at all.
The Rabbis developed a hierarchy of solemnity and binding for oaths. Swearing by Jerusalem was not binding, but swearing toward Jerusalem was (Carson). The hierarchy got very complicated, needlessly so.
The list of objects in the oath go downward in importance. First-century Jews swore oaths to make people believe their word. Jesus, on the other hand, sweeps all of this aside and tells people that there must be a match between the kingdom citizen’s word and his integrity.
“I swear by the gold in temple that I will repay you in one month, sir!” Or “I swear by heaven that if God brings me safely home, I will sacrifice these animals and bring this food stuff to the temple!” In the kingdom of God that Jesus is ushering in, no one needs to make a deal with God. Just trust him to bring you home safely and pray during your trip. And thank him when he does.
On the other hand, God swears oaths (Gen. 9:9-11; Luke 1:68, 73; Ps. 16:10 and Acts 2:27-31). He does this to make people believe and increase their faith in his promise, not because he is dishonest (of course not!).
The Torah allowed oaths, but as we saw in Deut. 23:22, it was better not to swear. Jesus agrees with 23:22.
Also, kingdom citizens don’t have to swear to make their words believable to another kingdom citizen; instead, they keep their word out of the integrity that the kingdom had already worked within them.
Finally, note how Jesus drove the point home by saying that if they swear, they should be consistent. However, it would be better not to swear at all.
In v. 21, God was believed to dwell in the temple with his shekinah glory.
Keener says of v. 19 that this verse is really talking about inconsistently evaluating standards of holiness dishonors God. So this is hypocrisy.
In these verses we have another example of the requirement of matching up and being consistent in true righteousness and not external, fake righteousness. The Pharisees fuss over giving plants as their tithe, but they skip over or avoid the weightier matters of the law, like justice, and mercy and faith or faithfulness (either translation works). The religious duty of tithing on the one side and the weightier matters on the other must match up.
At this point, pastors use this verse (and Luke 11:42) to impose tithing on the New Covenant people of God. However, Jesus was merely illustrating the general principle of inner and outer consistency. Plus, Jesus spoke before the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. Of course he would mention to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees the theocratic national tax of ten percent to support the (soon-to-be obsolete) temple. He made other such pronouncements to his fellow Jews, like paying the temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27). However, he was about to predict the temple’s destruction (Matt. 24:2 and Luke 21:20-24). Therefore the ten-percent national tithe-tax would never be brought forward to the new covenant church. For many Renewalists today, this is difficult to believe, since they have been taught (not to say browbeaten) for decades to pay this old national tax imposed on theocratic Israel. And no, the fact that patriarchs tithed before the law is not decisive, either. They were still supporting old rituals and religious systems. And no, Heb. 7 does not help, either.
Please see my long post on why the tithe teaching is wrongheaded, and why the New Covenant authors had a better plan, a God-inspired plan:
Turner says that the Aramaic word for gnat is qalmā’, and the word for camel is gamlā’, so there’s a word play going on (comment on 23:23-24). I don’t know Aramaic, so I will take his word for it.
Osborne: Gnats and other unclean insects got into the sweet wine (Lev. 11:23, 41), so the temple authorities would strain them out with a cloth. Avoiding unclean minutiae, they had no problem swallowing a camel, the largest animal in Israel (comment on 23:24).
Here Jesus makes the obvious point that it is silly to wash the outside of the cup and the underside of the dish, but not wash the inside or the food side. Wash the whole thing, and then your life will be consistent and nonhypocritical.
Jesus states an obvious truth. The maker made the inside and outside of the cup and dish. Similarly, our Heavenly Maker made both our body (external appearance) and our soul (inner being). May the two match up!
“violent greed”: the grammarians Culy, Parsons, and Stigall, who wrote the Baylor Greek Handbook on Luke’s Gospel, suggest this translation (p. 401), because of the noun harpagē (pronounced hahr-pah-gay), which has to do with a violent or forcible snatching. The noun is related to the verb harpazō (pronounced har-pah-zoh) which can be translated “catch up” or “snatch up” (1 Thess. 4:17). Jesus will denounce the grammateis (plural for grammateus) for devouring widows houses (Luke 20:47), so there was a violent greed of sorts.
“self-indulgence”: it comes from the noun akrasia (pronounced ah-krah-see-ah), which literally means “uncontrolled,” for the –a– prefix is the negation (not) and krasia means control or power over oneself. Akrasia in Greek philosophy meant to follow one’s lower or baser instincts. It meant to be “powerless” or “not having power or a command over a thing.” In later writings it meant a “bad mixture” or “ill temperature” (Liddell and Scott). In the NT, it means “lack of self-control” or “self-indulgence” (BDAG). It is startling that Jesus would choose this term since the teachers of the law and Pharisees seemed to control themselves by obeying religious law. This was Paul’s testimony in Phil. 3:6, where he says he was blameless in terms of obeying the law. Evidently, the religious leaders liked to be at the big feasts and chow down. Who knows? Maybe they secretly indulged in sexual sins.
The obvious and hard-hitting truth is that the teachers of the law and Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs outwardly, but inwardly they were full of dead men’s bones. Dead things were unclean for the religious leaders (Num. 19:11-14), so these words were hard to hear.
Then Jesus draws the inference: they appeared righteous on the outside, but inwardly they were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. This latter term was startling because the two religious leaders would have seen themselves as law keepers. But apparently righteousness is supposed to be planted there by the kingdom of God and then to proceed outwardly from a right understanding of who God is and what he requires.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God. (Mic. 6:8, NIV)
Those three latter things were more important than law keeping, as Paul the former Pharisee discovered. He even went further and said that this is the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ, as follows.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:7-11, NIV)
In v. 33, I translated it literally, but it means being condemned to Gehenna. Their judgment and Gehenna go together, one (Gehenna) resulting from the first (judgment).
The logic is powerful and decisive. The experts build—maintain and refurbish—the tombs of the prophets, but their ancestors are the ones who killed them. Then the experts testify against themselves and approve of the old prophets’ and righteous people’s (unjust) deaths when they build up the murdered men’s tombs! It is as if the experts told their ancestors, “You kill ‘em, and we’ll welcome ‘em into our tombs! The whole process is like a conveyor belt at a factory! We like it!”
“Employing irony in a manner typical of the prophets (who sometimes told people to go on sinning but to expect God’s judgment for it—1 Kings 18:27; Is 6:9; 29:9; Jer 23:28; 44:25-26; Ezek 3:27; Amos 4:4-5; Eccl 11:9; Rev 22:11 …—Jesus tells his adversaries to fill the brim the role of prophet murderers that they had inherited, and that the judgment collecting generations would finally be poured out in their generation (23:36; cf. 2 Kings 21:10-15); 22:16-20; 24:2-4)” … (Keener, p. 554). “Filling up the cup to the brim refers to meriting all the ‘blood,’ that is, bloodguilt, saved up among past generations, never punished as was deserved (cf. Is 40:2; Deut 32:43; Ps 79:10; Rev 6:10 …)” (Keener, p. 555)
Israelite national solidarity is key here. All the self-righteous religious leaders of all generations will be held accountable for the murder and persecution of the God-sent messengers.
The blood of all of them will be charged or exacted from this generation, because the greatest Prophet and Emissary is here now, and he embodies all of the earlier ones.
“fill up the measure:” it can mean to complete their ancestors’ task or mission. Picture a cup that is half full. Fulfilling the measure means to fill it up. Each generation until these teachers of the law and Pharisees committed violence against the prophets whom God sent; now it is these religious leaders’ turn to take their shot and complete the ungodly mission!
I get the feeling that Jesus is stacking up the OT prophets against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, and the prophets were mighty men of God, who called down fire and spoke authoritatively to kings with “thus saith the Lord” and prayed for the rain to stop and return again. They saw miracle after miracle. In contrast, who were those two religious groups whom Jesus is now calling out, along with the experts in the law and the Sadducees and the chief priests and humble priests? The teachers of the law and the Pharisees loved feasts and broadened their phylacteries and lengthened their tassels; they were super-fastidious about the finer points of the law. But where were the miracles? Even John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, was better than these current, dry old religious leaders who committed all the sins that Jesus is now enumerating against them. Compared to the prophets of old, they were powerless and pathetic. Judaism had degraded to these legalists, so it was time for it to end and God to move on with a new community, the Jesus Movement, the kingdom community, blessed by the fulness of the Spirit.
The fact that Jesus says the Pharisees and teachers of the law inherited the murderous traits of their ancestors is like our sayings: “chip off the old block” and “an apple does not fall far from the tree” (Turner, comments on 23:31-33).
Zechariah: he is a prophet in 2 Chron. 24:20-25 who was killed in the temple precincts. His position in in Chronicles makes him the last prophet to be murdered, according to the canonical order of the Hebrew Bible.
Now what about the phrase “son of Barachiah / Berechiah” (spelling variations from Hebrew to Greek to English)? Some manuscripts omit this name, and this would solve any problem between Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest and Zechariah’s death (2 Chron. 24:22) and Zechariah the son of Berechiah, the son of Iddo (Zech. 1:1). In the parallel passage, Luke 11:51 omits the father’s name. Textual scholars insert Zechariah’s father’s name in 23:35 but this is merely a manuscript judgment call on the scholars’ part. The father’s name may not be original in 23:35. Another answer says Matthew deliberately conflated the two Zechariahs because he is about to quote from Zech. 11:12, 13 in Matt. 27:10. Further, Bible translator Jerome (born 382-87 and died in 420) says that he saw a Hebrew version which omitted the father’s name. Still another answer says that “son of” can be translated as “descendant of,” which extends the possibilities to “grandson of” or even “great-great-grandson of” (and so on).
Blomberg summarizes possible answers to the puzzle:
“From Abel to Zechariah” suggests the entire sweep of history from the creation of humanity to the time of Christ. Many have assumed that the Zechariah in view here is the murdered prophet of 2 Chr 24:20–21, in which case Berekiah would be a mistaken reference to Jehoiada. Second Chronicles was the last book in the order of the Hebrew canon, so this interpretation creates a nice inclusio [bookend] with the martyrdom of Abel at the beginning of Genesis. But it is more likely that the historical overview is strictly chronological, with Zechariah being truly the son of Berekiah and the prophet who wrote the second to the last book of the Old Testament (cf. Zech 1:1). There are no independent pre-Christian traditions of his martyrdom, but certain post-Christian Jewish texts seem to hint at it. And there are still other options. Very recently J. M. Ross [“Which Zachariah?” Irish Biblical Studies 9 (1987): 70–73.] has made a plausible case for the view that this is an otherwise unknown Zechariah martyred just prior to Jesus’ lifetime. (comments on vv. 33-36)
Go to this youtube video for a fuller explanation of the discrepancy from a Messianic Jewish perspective and search this title: “Did Jesus Confuse Two Zechariahs? Dr. Brown …” He has examples of Jewish writings that mix up names.
In the bigger picture, our faith must not be so brittle. If there is a seemingly unsolvable discrepancy, then so be it. This one has nothing to do with our faith in the resurrection of Christ and his Sonship and Lordship. It’s just an ancient manuscript dispute. Further, there are about thirty Zechariahs in the OT. The overall message of the Bible—redemption, salvation, love, mercy, covenants, righteousness, holiness, judgments, and so on—is not threatened. The Bible itself is not brittle, just because “total inerrantists” make it seem that way. Just read the Bible to understand who God is in the bigger themes and wonderful and inspiring individual verses.
My view of Scripture. It’s very high:
Begin a series on the reliability of the Gospels. Start with the Conclusion which has quick summaries and links back to the other parts:
The Gospels have a massive number of agreements in their storylines:
Celebrate them, instead of obsessing over and being anxious about some differences.
See this part in the series that puts differences in perspective (a difference ≠ a contradiction):
Now let’s move on.
Jesus is the Apex, the Highest Prophet and Messenger, and these classes of religious leaders are about to do to him what their ancestors did to the earlier prophets and wise men and teachers of the law. Jesus had earlier predicted that the religious leaders would flog his emissaries: “Be on your guard against people, for they shall betray you to their councils, and in their synagogues they shall flog you” (Matt. 10:17).
Abel was regarded by the Jews of Jesus’s day—and by Jesus himself—as living at the very beginning, the foundation of the world. In my view, however, let’s not take this pronouncement as a scientific statement. He is simply interpreting an existing, authoritative story that his listeners could relate to and understand. He was speaking to his Jewish culture.
In any case, from the beginning (Abel) to the end (Zechariah), these teachers of the law and Pharisees are like their ancestors, by solidarity. But Jesus is not saying that Jews literally killed Abel. Why would Jesus say this when Abraham was not even born yet?
What does it mean that the blood of the prophets will be charged to this generation in vv. 35-36? It is the principle of sin accumulation, and the later generation is held responsible for the historic sin: “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:16). No, the ancient Israelites were not like the Amorites / Canaanites, but the principle of accumulating sins all the way to “this generation” is the same. When Jesus came on the scene, the stakes got higher and the consequences severer. He brought in new standards, and the time was up. All of it is about to come crashing down, after hundreds of years of rot infiltrating and weakening the entire edifice.
Let’s see how Jesus fulfilled his promise to send them prophets, wise persons, and teachers of the law (my tentative translation of Acts):
Agabus was a prophet:
27 In those days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and indicated through the Spirit that there was about to be a severe famine in the whole world (which happened during the reign of Claudius). 29 In proportion to anyone of the disciples who prospered, each one of them determined to send aid to the brothers and sisters residing in Judea. 30 This they did and sent it by the hand of Barnabas and Saul to the elders. (Acts 12:27-30)
Here he is again in action:
10 While we stayed there several days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 He approached us and took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “The Holy Spirit says this: ‘In this way the Jews in Jerusalem shall bind the man whose belt this is and turn him over to the hands of the Gentiles.’” (Acts 21:10-11)
Philip had four unmarried daughters who prophesied:
8 The next day we departed and came to Caesarea and entered the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. (Acts 21:8-9)
Stephen and six others were full of wisdom:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, select seven men who are well attested and full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint for this office. 4 For we will devote ourselves persistently and continually to prayer and serving the Word.” 5 This reasonable proposal was satisfactory to the entire community. And they selected Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, the proselyte from Antioch. 6 They stood in front of the apostles, who prayed and laid hands on them. (Acts 6:3-6)
Here is Stephen using such powerful wisdom that he was martyred:
8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs in front of all the people. 9 Certain members of the Freedmen Synagogue (as it was called), comprising Cyrenians and Alexandrians and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen, 10 and they were unable to counter the wisdom and Spirit, by whom he was speaking. (Acts 7:8-10)
Here’s a general teaching about wisdom:
“wisdom”: Let’s define it broadly and biblically. BDAG is considered the authoritative Greek lexicon, and it translates the noun sophia (pronounced soh-fee-ah and used 51 times) as “the capacity to understand and function accordingly—wisdom.”
So biblical wisdom is very practical. It is not like the wisdom of the Greek philosophers, which was very abstract. But let’s not make too much of the differences. In the classical Greek lexicon, sophia can also mean: “skill in handcraft and art … knowledge of, acquaintance with a thing … sound judgment, intelligence, practical wisdom.” In a bad sense it can mean “cunning, shrewdness, craft” (Liddell and Scott).
The adjective is sophos (pronounced soh-fohss and used 20 times) and according to BDAG it means (1) “pertaining to knowing how to do something in a skillful manner, clever, skillful, experienced”; (2) “pertaining to understanding that results in wise attitudes and conduct, wise.”
Wisdom is really lacking in our society. What is the clever saying I’ve heard several times recently? “You may have a smart phone, but not a wise one. You don’t have a wisdom phone.” Wisdom is discernment or seeing through appearances and making the right decision, at the right time, at the right place, and in the right spirit (disposition), with the right people.
Teachers of the law or “scribes”:
This term could be translated as scribes, and Jesus said, “Because of this, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings forth from his storehouse new and old things.” (Matt. 13:52)
It is not clear who these teachers were, but see my comments at 13:52 for more discussion.
In any case, Jesus has fulfilled and is fulfilling his promise to send a variety of proclaimers to the Jewish community, then and now.
Whoever wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews qualifies to be a kingdom teacher of the law.
Of course Paul knew how to teach the OT as it should be taught, in his epistles.
As noted, Jesus said a teacher of the law will know how to bring out good things from the Scriptures (our Old Testament):
He said to them, “Because of this, every teacher of the law who has become a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings forth from his storehouse new things and new things.” (Matt. 13:52)
In Stephen’s sermon (Acts 7), he gave a long overview of Israel’s history and how the ancient Israelites misunderstood God’s ways. Here Stephen repeats what Jesus is saying in his denunciation of the religious establishment in his time:
51 “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised of hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit, as your forefathers did and you! 52 Which one of the prophets did your forefathers not persecute? And they killed forerunners who announced the coming of the Righteous One, and you have become his betrayers and murders, 53 who received the law as the ordinances of angels, which you have not kept!” (Acts 7:51-53)
Apollos particularly was a powerful teacher of the law:
24 A Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, a learned man, powerful in Scripture, landed at Ephesus. 25 He was teaching the path of the Lord, and alive in the Spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the story of Jesus, understanding only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Pricilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and laid out before him the path of God more accurately. 27 When he intended go through Achaea, they encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. He arrived and greatly helped those who had believed by grace. 28 He powerfully refuted the Jews publicly, demonstrating from the Scriptures that the Messiah was Jesus. (Acts 28:24-28)
Maybe a few priests who converted became teachers of the law:
And the Word of God was increasing, and the number of disciples was growing strongly in Jerusalem, and a large group of priests obeyed the faith. (Acts 6:7)
In addition to the above-named disciples, we’ll never know how many unnamed Jesus followers filled the three roles of prophets, the wise, and teachers of the law in the early kingdom community.
“I tell you the truth”: Matthew uses this expression thirty times in his Gospel. “Truth” comes from the word amēn (pronounced ah-main and comes into English as amen). It expresses the authority of the one who utters it. The Hebrew root ’mn means faithfulness, reliability and certainty. It could be translated as “truly I tell you” or I tell you with certainty.” Jesus’s faith in his own words is remarkable and points to his unique calling. In the OT and later Jewish writings is indicates a solemn pronouncement, but Jesus’ “introductory uses of amēn to confirm his own words is unique” (France at his comment on 5:18). The authoritative formula emphasizes pronouncements which are noteworthy and will be surprising or uncomfortable to the listener.
What does it mean that all these woes shall come on this generation? As I note in Matthew 10:23, where the same puzzle came up, what does it mean that the disciples won’t complete their task of going through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes? The best solution is found in Matt. 26:64, where Jesus proclaims before Caiaphas the high priest and the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish Court and Council in Judaism, that from now on they will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. This confession refers to the Son of Man in Dan. 7:13-14, when he comes in clouds of heaven:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV)
The Ancient of Days is God. Jesus was about to ascend and be enthroned on high, sitting next to God. So his coming here in v. 23 refers to his ascension and then coming back (invisibly) in judgment over Jerusalem, which happened from 66-70 A.D. In that latter year, the Romans sacked the city and destroyed the temple. It is simply a fact that the disciples did not complete their task of going through the towns of Israel before this “coming” happened.
And no, this does not refer to the grand and glorious Second Coming when the whole earth will be “sacked” and overtaken by his glorious appearing. The coming in judgment over Jerusalem is just a small dress rehearsal for the earth-shattering Second Coming.
Jesus weeping over Jerusalem:
41 Then as he was approaching and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you—yes, you!—recognized this day and the things leading to peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes! 43 Days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up barricades and surround you and hem you in from every direction! 44 Then they will destroy you and throw the children in you to the ground and not allow one stone on another stone in you because you did not recognize the day of your visitation! (Luke 19:41-44)
Jesus again prophesies judgment on Jerusalem:
20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you know that its desolation is near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains and those inside it must get out and those in the countryside must not enter it, 22 because these are the days of judgment, fulfilling everything that has been written. (Luke 21:20-22)
These passages clearly refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, by the Romans. It must be noted, however, that after Pentecost thousands of individual Jews did convert (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 6:7 [priests]; 21:20). So the judgment did not fall on everyone; “this generation” is a generalization.
See my post with some photos of the Arch of Titus:
God’s wrath is judicial.
It is not like this:
But like this:
That is a picture of God in judgment.
Finally, let’s apply the entire discourse of denunciations to our lives today.
As I noted in other chapters, first-century Israel was an honor-and-shame society. Verbal and active confrontations happened often. By active is meant actions. Here the confrontation is verbal. Jesus shamed the leaders to silence. He won. It may seem strange to us that Jesus would confront human opponents, because we are not used to doing this in our own lives, and we have heard that Jesus was meek and silent.
More relevantly, for many years now there has been a teaching going around the Body of Christ that says when Christians are challenged, they are supposed to slink away or not reply. This teaching may come from the time of Jesus’s trial when it is said he was as silent as a sheep (Acts 8:32). No. He spoke up then, as well (Matt. 26:64; Mark 14:32; Luke 23:71; John 18:19-23; 32-38; 19:11). Therefore, “silence” means submission to the will of God without resisting or fighting back. But here he replied to the religious leaders and defeated them and their inadequate theology. Get into a discussion and debate with your challengers. Stand toe to toe with them. In short, fight like Jesus!
Of course, caution is needed. The original context is a life-and-death struggle between the kingdom of God and religious traditions. Get the original context, first, before you fight someone in a verbal sparring match. This was a clash of worldviews. Don’t pick fights or be rude to your spouse or baristas or clerks in the service industry. Discuss things with him or her, when appropriate. But here Jesus was justified in denouncing to these oppressive religious leaders.
GrowApp for Matt. 23:13-36
A.. Jesus was not quarreling with his family relations but denouncing religious leaders who kept people from a walk with God. Have you ever had to make a break with old religious beliefs?
Jesus Laments over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37-39)
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem who kills the prophets and stones the ones sent to you! How often I wanted to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! 38 See! Your house is left to you desolate! 39 For I tell you that you will certainly not see me from now on until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
Let’s take this pericope as a whole. Jesus continues his denunciation of the city, which stands in for the chief priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, elders and teachers of the law (et al.). Now, however, he shifts his mind from righteous anger to compassion and disappointment in a holy city that held out so much promise. He yearns to gather its children or citizens as a hen gathers her chick. This mother imagery is sweet. However, the city was unwilling. Desolate means devastation. This happened when the Romans sacked the city and stomped all over the city and the temple.
“how often”: This phrase indicates that Jesus had been in Jerusalem before his triumphal entry, just as the Gospel of John says. The synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) trimmed those visits, as they were inspired by the Spirit to angle the life of Jesus from their own perspectives and research or memory.
“For I tell you”: this clause also denotes a solemn and authoritative pronouncement that may surprise his listeners and make them uncomfortable.
So how do we interpret the rest of v. 39? Two options, the simplest comes first.
(1). This refers to the Parousia or Second Coming in the distant future, which has not yet happened. Some people will welcome him in Jerusalem because Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:25-32). Carson favors that one.
(2). Greek grammar says that Jesus speaks a conditional hypothetical built into the word until. “Until you might say.” The negation before the clause is emphatic: “You shall in no way see me until” … or “You shall not—not!—see me until ….” So the conditional plus the emphatic negative adds up to a conditional that will not be fulfilled. Therefore, we could more fully translate the verse as follows: “I tell you that you shall in no way see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (which will not happen).
Commentator R.T. France favors this view.
Osborne lays out the options: (1) It’s the judgment and the defeated enemies are compelled to say this. (2) It is about the ultimate repentance seen in Rom. 11:25-32. Taking place during the church’s mission. (3) It’s conditional: Jesus won’t return until (the one condition) Israel repents. Osborne prefers the first two.
Turner says that the fact that Jesus says they will not see him again until they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” indicates that the Lord will return only when “Israel in true repentance utters the words that were uttered without adequate understanding in Matt. 21:9” (comment on 23:38-39).
France’s view is interesting because Jesus in the next chapter is about to predict that the temple shall be destroyed, which means Judaism will forever change and which actually happened in A.D 70. No more animal sacrifices, to cite just one example. Also, God has moved past the temple, and now the church is the temple. The replacement of the temple with the church is a clear teaching of the apostolic community (1 Cor. 3:17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph. 2:21; 1 Pet. 2:5). They taught this truth while the temple was still going strong, so how much more did they believe this truth after the temple was destroyed!
I like Osborne’s first two views, which are related to Carson’s.
Whichever one you choose, please understand that Israel still has a place in God’s plan. So let’s get busy and preach the gospel in Israel!
Summary and Conclusion
As I did in Matt. 21 and 22, let’s first look at a table that lays out the events of Passion Week:
|Friday||Arrival in Bethany (Jn 12:1)|
|Saturday||Mary’s anointing of Jesus (Jn 12:2-8; Mt 26:6-13 // Mk 14:3-9)|
|Sunday||Triumphal Entry (Mt 21:1-11 // Mk 11:1-10 // Lk 19:28-38); surveying temple (Mk 11:11), return to Bethany (Mt 21:17 // Mk 11:11)|
|Monday||Clearing temple (Mt 21:12-17 // Mk 11:15-19 // Lk 19:45-48); cursing fig tree (Mt 21:18-22; // Mk 11:12-14); miracles and challenge temple (Mt 21:14-16); return to Bethany (Mk 11:19)|
|Tuesday||Disciples’ question about fig tree (Mk 11:20-21); debates with leaders of temple (Mt 21:23-22:46 // Mk 11:27-12:40 // Lk 20:1-44); Olivet Discourse (Mt 24-25; Mk 13; Lk 21:1-36); return to Bethany, but Lk 21:37 says he lodged on Mount of Olives|
|Wednesday||Little recorded in Gospel—Jesus and disciples apparently remain in Bethany; Judas arranges for Jesus’ betrayal (Mt. 26:14-16 // Mk 14:10-11 // Lk 22:3-6); I say he could be teaching in the temple or praying privately|
|Thursday||Preparation for Passover (Mt 26:17-19 // Mk 14:12-16 // Lk 22:7-13); after sundown, Passover meal and Last Supper (Mt 26:20-35 // Mk 14:17-25 // Lk 22:14, 21-23, 15-20); Farewell Discourse (Jn 13-17); Gethsemane (Mt 26:30-46 // Mk 13:32-42 // Lk 22:40-46)|
|Friday||After midnight, betrayal and arrest (Mt 26:47-56 // Mk 14:43-52 // Lk 22:47-53);
Jewish trials—Annas (Jn 18:13-14); Caiaphas and partial Sanhedrin (Mt 26:52-75 // Mk 14:53-72 // Lk 22:54-71); full Sanhedrin (Mt 27:1-2);
Roman trials—Pilate (Mt 27:2-14 // Mk 15:2-5 // Lk 23:2-5); Herod Antipas (Lk 23:6-12); Pilate (Mt 27:15-26 // Mk 15:6-15 // Lk 23:17-27);
Mocker by soldiers (Mt 27:27-31 // Mk 15:16-20);
Road to Golgotha (Mt 27:32 // Mk 15:21 // Lk 23:26-32);
Crucifixion 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. / 15:00h (Mt 27:27-56 // Mk 15:22-41 // Lk 23:33-49);
Burial (Mt 27:57-61 // Mk 15:42-47 // Lk 23:5-56)
|Grant R. Osborne, Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2010), who got it from Michael J. Wilkens, Matthew: NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2004). I modified it.|
Now Jesus is about to rain down his warning and denunciations on a group of leaders who misunderstood who God is. The Sadducees may have run the temple (for the most part), but it is the entire Jerusalem and temple establishment whom Jesus is going to verbally fight. This is where Matt. 21 to 28 has been heading, when he entered Jerusalem, and it could be said that it was launched when Jesus was born. (And it could be said to have been launched before the foundation of the world, but let’s not go there in this commentary.)
The bottom-line and big message is this:
Follow God and His Son or Clear Out of the Way
Here is a summary table of what Jesus was observing as he wanted to take Jerusalem in his arms as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. This table sums up his criticism and denunciation when the establishment refused.
|Prophets of Old||Chief Priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, Elders, Teachers of the Law|
|They experienced miracles
They said authoritatively, “Thus saith the Lord”
They received revelations directly from God
They saw the heavenly world in visions
They saw angels and other spirit beings
The enforced the law of Moses and righteousness, but their words came from the throne room of God
They called people back to God with signs and wonders
The authorities and the establishment throughout Israel’s history persecuted and killed these godly men, but these men persevered (Heb. 11)
The prophets of old (and John the Baptist) did not have two sets of behavior: righteousness in public and unrighteousness in private; they were consistently righteous
|They got rich from the temple system
They were proud of their oral traditions and exalted them to the highest degree
They piled up interpretations of the law
Some did not believe very much of the OT
Some did not even seek miracles for their day, as they read in the OT
They were rigid legalists
Some sneered at John the Baptist and may have been happy when they heard Herod executed him
They piled law and traditions on the masses of people but did not really keep them
They behaved unrighteously in private, but extra-righteously in public
In effect, Jesus denunciation of the whole religious leaders and their system followed these contrasts: “How dare you sneer at the people in the first column! How dare you condescend towards them by not following their example! How dare you exalt the temple system above a personal and right relationship with the heavenly Father! How dare you take over my Father’s house, the temple, with your fastidious rules and taxes that enrich your coffers! How dare you take over the leadership of the Chosen People and shove aside the ones who hear from God! You are nothing but dead bones who follow lifeless traditions built on an old law which I fulfill! How dare you criticize the men who touched the throne of God!”
A major change is in the air, and God himself is about to see it to the end—the death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement of his Messiah and Son.
I refer to a community of Bible scholars. They are excellent; they humble me. But they are also very technical. I hope I have simplified their views. I also write from a Renewal perspective.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth and Helways, 2001).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans, 1999).
Olmstead, Wesley G. Matthew 15-28: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).
Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008).