Matthew chapter 23

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13But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. 14Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. 15Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. 16Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! 17Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? 18And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. 19Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? 20Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. 21And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. 22And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon. 23Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. 24Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. 25Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. 28Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. 29Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, 30And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. 31Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. 32Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. 33Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

What does Matthew chapter 23 mean?

Other than the introductory sentence, this passage is entirely the words of Christ, as with John chapter 17. This begins a stretch in Matthew's gospel running through the beginning of chapter 26, which is almost entirely words spoken by Jesus. In the prior chapter, Jesus silenced the religious leaders with His astonishing responses to their questions. Here in chapter 23, He begins to describe various ways in which the scribes and Pharisees have failed in their God-given roles in leading the people.

Jesus begins by acknowledging that the scribes and Pharisees carry a certain level of legitimate authority. They sit, metaphorically speaking, on "the seat of Moses." Jesus does not tell the people to rebel against these leaders. Rather, He warns Israel not to imitate their hypocrisy. This begins a systematic take-down of their heart motives and spiritual blindness (Matthew 23:1–3).

Many people were impressed by the Pharisees' religious deeds. Christ condemns how the scribes and Pharisees behave, however, since they do everything for the wrong reasons. Their motive is not sincere, humble service to God, but to be seen and approved of by other people. Above all, Jesus says, these religious leaders live to be noticed, respected, and praised. They show off by making their wearable articles of worship ostentatious. They jockey for the most prestigious seats at feasts and in the temple. They love to be called by their official titles in the marketplace. Jesus bluntly condemns these attitudes and tells His followers not to make the same mistakes (Matthew 23:4–12).

At this point, Jesus pronounces God's judgment on these men. This comes through a series of seven "woe" statements about their hypocrisy. The term "woe" is more or less kept intact from the Greek ouai. The word is like other exclamations, such as "alas!" or "oh!" English speakers might image Jesus shaking His head while saying "ooh…this is bad," to capture the feel of this term. Just as sounds like "hah!" express triumph, the word ouai expresses grief.

First Woe

This is the first of many times in the chapter where Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees "hypocrites." This is derived from the Greek term hipokritēs, which literally refers to stage actors. These are people who behave in pretending, artificial ways, entirely different from their real thoughts. In this case, these are leaders who tell people to do something, while they themselves do the opposite. Their faulty leadership slams the door of eternity in people's faces. Their choices will not lead them to heaven, and those who follow their example will be lost, as well (Matthew 23:13).

Verse 14, as seen in some translations, is not found in the older manuscripts of Matthew. It repeats a sentiment Jesus expressed in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. The statement expressed in that verse is true, but not likely original to Matthew's text (Matthew 23:14).

Second Woe

Israel's religious leaders put considerable effort into convincing others of their views. The "proselytes," referred to here might be Gentile converts to Judaism, or Jewish converts to the Pharisaical set. All this accomplishes, ultimately, is that the converts are also damned. Jesus says such people are "twice the children of hell," since they're following false teachers and following a false faith (Matthew 23:15).

Third Woe

Jesus now calls the Pharisees and scribes "blind guides." This is a criticism He has used before (Matthew 15:12–14; John 9:39–41). Blindness is often used in Scripture to symbolize those who reject God's message, making it impossible for them to perceive what is spiritually true. In this case, Christ points to their irrational approach to vows. Logically, swearing by any of the sacred objects would amount to swearing by God in heaven. Instead, the scribes and Pharisees imply that some oaths can easily be broken, a practice Jesus has also condemned (Matthew 5:33–37). Attempting to create loopholes in one's integrity is not only dishonest, but also foolish (Matthew 23:16–22).

Fourth Woe

These religious leaders carefully give ten percent of their crops, even the tiniest herbs. This was not wrong, as it means applying the law of Moses to the tiniest details of their lives. However, the other details of the scribes and Pharisees' teachings left enormous aspects of God's law unresolved. Their emphasis was on legalism, technicalities, and wooden literalism. Instead, they should have put equal emphasis on justice, mercy, and faithfulness. This error is as absurd as using a screen to clear insects out of drinking water, while swallowing a massive animal (Matthew 23:23–24).

Fifth Woe

The scribes and Pharisees are committed to their public image; they go to great lengths to "look good" to other people. However, their spiritual state is one of hypocrisy and death. This is like wiping the outside of cups and dishes while leaving the insides filthy. Echoing His other teachings on the subject (Matthew 15:11), Jesus tells them to clean inside first and the outside will follow (Matthew 23:25–26).

Sixth Woe

Using a second, even more graphic analogy, Jesus contrasts the Pharisees' and scribes' outer appearance with their inner spirits. Grave sites in that era were often covered in lime, and some had decorative objects. These were appealing to the eye but did not change the decay and death under the surface. In the same way, the hypocrites in Israel's religious leadership used pious outward actions to cover inner hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:27–28).

Seventh Woe

Jesus concludes the "woes" by showing that the Pharisees claim to honor the prophets of old, but they are just as guilty as their own forefathers who persecuted and killed messengers from God. God's measure of wrath eventually reaches a tipping point. For that reason, Jesus declares that this generation of Israel's religious leaders will suffer the consequences of the many righteous people unjustly killed throughout their history. Far from changing their ways, this hateful persecution will continue in the years after Jesus is crucified and raised from the dead (Matthew 23:29–36).

Matthew 23 ends with Jesus' lament over Jerusalem. Speaking from His divine perspective, He mourns over how He would have protected the people, but they refused (John 5:39–40). This is the end point of Jesus' public ministry. The following chapters contain extensive teachings given to the disciples, but no more public lessons or encounters. There will be no more opportunities for the people to hear directly from Him. Worse, the city will soon experience horrific wrath as the protection of God is removed (Matthew 24:1–2). The next time the people of Jerusalem will see Jesus, openly, will be when He returns (Revelation 19:11–15) as a conquering Judge and King (Matthew 23:37–39).
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