Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/The Gospel of Matthew/Chapter 23

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Introduction to Matthew 23[edit | edit source]

The 23rd chapter in the book of Matthew is a notorious chapter that is commonly referred to as The Seven Woes, and entails Jesus criticizing the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (basically the leaders of the Jewish faith). In this chapter we see Jesus with quite a different attitude than he portrays usually. In this chapter, Jesus is openly critical of the Pharisees and seems to have somewhat of an angry demeanor.


    This chapter in Matthew is the beginning of what is known as the "Judgment Discourse" in which Jesus gives a speech that stretches through Matthew 25:46. During this chapter, Jesus is believed to be in the Temple, where he has been since Matthew 21:23, and will stay until Matthew 24:1. Throughout this chapter, Jesus is talking to the crowds and his disciples, not actually to the Pharisees and teachers of the law themselves.
    Here in the Temple, in chapter 23, we find Jesus challenging the actions Pharisees and the religious leaders. In verse one, we find Jesus speaking “to the crowds and to his disciples.” Jesus is issuing a warning to the people about the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees.” In verses two and three He tells the people to obey these leaders in what they say, because they “sit upon the seat of Moses.” 
    Here it seems that Jesus is actually accrediting their ability to teach and interpret the Law, and says that the people are to listen to them in this regard. Immediately after this though, Jesus starts in his criticism of the teachers and Pharisees by telling the people not to do as they do, for they are hypocrites. Jesus is basically saying that what they say is good (it is the law of Moses), but they do not do as they say, instead “they tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (v4). That is to say they hold others extremely accountable to the Law, but they themselves to not hold to it nor help others out. 
    Jesus accuses the Pharisees of doing things in a greedy manner in order to be seen and revered, from the way they dress to the seats they choose at banquets and in the synagogue. It seems that these men also love to be called “Rabbi”, and at this Jesus tells the people and his disciples not to call anyone “Rabbi”, “father”, or “teacher”, for they are all equal like brothers with only one Master, only one Father who is God, and only one Teacher who is Christ. Jesus, in verse 12, then says the well known line, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
    All of this now leads to the beginning of “The Seven Woes,” in which Jesus begins to list the misdeeds of the Pharisee, and which starts in verse 13 with the first of the seven. In each of these “woes,” Jesus charges the teachers and the Pharisees with a different wrong doing. All of these begin with Jesus stating “"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!”, with the exception of the third woe which begins, “Woe to you, blind guides!” The literary form of this section of the chapter is known as apostrophe (addressing somebody who is not actually present).
    Following the seven woes, Jesus then laments Jerusalem in verses 37-39. These words include Jesus telling the people how their sins fit hand in hand with the destruction of the Temple. This is referred to in verse 38 when he says "Look, your house is left to you desolate". In verse 39, he says "you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This comes from the fact that the people of Israel were about to reject Jesus as the Messiah and sentence him to crucifixion.

Commentary Matthew 23[edit | edit source]

Verses 1-4

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

In the first the verses of chapter 23, Jesus is talking to the crowds and disciples (note how he is not speaking to the Pharisees and leaders directly). Jesus states that they "sit in Moses' seat", which is symbolic of the authority that a rabbi has to teach. In verse 3, it seems as though Jesus wants the people to recognize their authority, and to "obey them and do everything they tell you", but he warns them not do as they do. Here, Jesus makes the acknowledgement that the leaders have the authority and have the ability to interpret the Torah, but the example that the leaders set do not follow their teachings. In verse 4 Jesus speaks about the leaders and how they "tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them". This is dealing with how the leaders would not help out those people that were burdened with the rules they enforced. It is important to realize that Jesus is not saying that the leaders did not follow the rules themselves, just that they refused to help those weighed down by them. This way of acting is contradictory to Jesus as seen in Matthew 11:28-30 which says, "28Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30for my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Verses 5-7

5“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’

In verse 5, Jesus says that the Pharisees and leaders do things so that other men will see them, that is that they are trying to gain praise from others. It says that "they make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long". Phylacteries are small cases or boxes that contain slips on which passages were written. The passages used were Ex 13:3-10, 11-16 (as rememberance of the deliverance of Israel from Eygpt and the start of the Passover), Deut. 6:4-9, and Deut. 11:13-21. These phylacteries were attached with straps to the forehead and left arm as reminders to follow God's law. In widening these straps and the tassels of their garments, the Pharisees and leaders stood out and they looked as if they followed the laws very well and were devout men. In verse 6, Jesus says that they love the places of honor and the most importants seats, which were places that were places of honor, and spots where one could be seen by all. As verse 7 says, they loved to be greeted and to be called 'Rabbi', which in Hebrew mean "my lord". The Pharisees and leaders demanded respect everywhere they went and thought of themselves as prestigious individuals.

Verses 8-12

8“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

In verses 8-11 we find Jesus saying that it is wrong for the Pharisee and teachers of the law from trying to be honored by having the term "Rabbi" as a title. He prohibits the term "Rabbi" from being used for the leaders, for there is only on "Master" (or Lord), and "you are all brothers", meaning that they are all equals. The term "father", which was also sometimes used in recognition of a teacher of the law, was also not to be used, as there is only one "Father" (God), as well as the title "teacher" for Christ is the one true Teacher.

Verses 13-32: The Seven Woes

The 1st woe (v. 13): Jesus tells the teacher and Pharisees that they “shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces.”

Here, the "kingdom of heaven" is often thought of being the Gospel of Christ and the teachings of Jesus. Not only do the Pharisees not accept this, they also prevent the people from acquiring this knowledge. There is a conflict between the traditional laws of Jewish leadership and the movement that comes along with Jesus.

The 2nd woe (v. 15): “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”

Verse 15 is referring to how hard the Pharisees would try to win a Gentile convert and make them into a proselyte. A proselyte was a pagan convert who was very zealous for the law. These converts that the Pharisees won were referred to as sons of hell because they were hostile towards the followers of Jesus who were less attentive to the law.

The 3rd woe (v. 16-22): To the blind guides, “You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.' 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.”

In the 3rd woe of Matthew 23, Jesus is reference the casuistic approach of oaths and vows that was enforced by the Pharisees. These rules, which included avoiding oaths made by holy things because is was as binding as making an oath directly to God, were efforts made by the Pharisees to make sure people correctly followed the law.

The 4th woe (v. 23-24): “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

In this woe, Jesus is explaining how the teachers and Pharisees try to make themselves look good by tithing seasonings, which were above and beyond what the law required of them, but they neglected the things that really matter such as treating people justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They tithed above what was required in order to look good. Verse 24 makes a reference to straining out a gnat, a practice done to drinks to make them pure. Here Jesus is saying that the Pharisees worry about the small things but neglect the important (swallow a camel).

The 5th woe (v. 25-26): “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”

Here we see the simple case that even though the leaders appear righteous and clean on the outside, they are greedy and corrupt on the inside. Jesus tells them to first take care of the inside and the outside will follow.

The 6th woe (v. 27-28): “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

In this 6th woe, Jesus is making the same point as that in the 5th, that is that the teachers and Pharisees outward appearance gives the impression that they are righteous people, but in their hearts they are wicked. In that time, tombs were whitewashed in order to make them more noticeable so that people could avoid their contact, as contact with the dead was considered impure.

The 7th woe (v. 29-32): “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' 31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!

In this 7th and final woe, Jesus refers to Israel's rejection of prophets that God had sent them, and tradition had said that these prophets had been murdered. The Pharisees tried to atone for their fathers' sins by building monuments to commemorate the prophets and they claimed that they would have not participated in the killing of prophets like their fathers did. It seems that Jesus, though, is telling them that they are in reality just like their fathers.

The Lament of Jerusalem (v. 33-39): 33“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.

37“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

At the end of this chapter Jesus laments Jerusalem and her people. Jesus says that he is sending them profits, wise men, and teachers, which many believe refer to himself and his disciples that bring the message of Jesus. These men will undoubtedly be persecuted by many and the Gospel will be rejected by the people, just as the Pharisees have rejected it. Because the Israelites will reject Jesus and his teachings, their "house" (believed to be the Temple), will be left desolate. To conclude this chapter, Jesus says, "you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This is most likely referring to Jesus' second coming, when the people have rejected Jesus will say this, not in joy but in distress for they know they will have to face judgement.

{Meaning of words}


    The Pharisees were people from a religious group called Chasidim, which was brought about after the resettling of Jewish people in Judea after Babylonian captivity. The Chasidim followed the Law of Moses, as well as added traditions and observerances to be followed. The Pharisees were the main religious sect in the time of Jesus, and Pharisees thought of themselves as holier than the common people.


    Phylacteries were boxes that contained parchment on which parts of the Law were written. These boxes were attached to the forehead and left arm (because it is near the heart) and served as reminders to Jews to keep the Law.


    It is easy to read Matthew 23 and think that it cannot apply in our lives today. 
    Jesus’ speech took place in a culture much different than ours, and today we do not have the Law, or religious leaders such as the Pharisees. 
    It is important to realize the implications this chapter in Matthew can have for our lives though. 
    For Christian people, it is important that they do not view themselves as better than and deserving of praise from other people. 
    Christians should be careful not to boast and they should not believe that they are better humans than the non-believers. 
    Oftentimes people in the church and leaders in the church act like they are on pedestals and act very selfishly. 
    Remember, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." 
    So in all actuality, this verse is a very good reminder that we should be humble and follow the example of Jesus Christ.