What does Matthew 23 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
Matthew 23:1–12 begins Jesus' condemnation of Israel's religious leaders, summarized with the phrase "the scribes and the Pharisees." He warns those listening not to follow their example, since they don't practice what they preach. Their words imply heavy burdens, but their actions don't reflect the same. They make no effort to help others fulfill those requirements. In fact, everything they do is for show: only to be seen and approved of by others. They make a great show of religious clothes and symbols, jockey for the seats of honor everywhere they go, and take enormous pride in their prestigious spiritual titles.
Matthew 23:13–36 contains seven layers of condemnation, from Jesus, towards the religious leaders of His era. Each of these is introduced with the word "woe," which is an exclamation like "oh!" or "alas!" Pronouncing God's judgment on these men, He repeatedly describes them as "blind" and "hypocrites." Convincing others of their views only adds victims to hell. They follow the letters of manmade law to the tiniest detail but miss the real meaning of Scripture: God's heart for justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Their outer appearance of righteousness hides inner lives full of greed, self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and lawlessness. Those in Jesus' generation will pay for many of the righteous people unjustly killed in the past.
Matthew 23:37–39 contains Jesus' cry of mourning over Jerusalem's unfaithfulness and impending ruin. He describes a devastating legacy of killing prophets and stoning God's messengers. Christ speaks from His divine perspective as a member of the Trinity. He expresses the longing God shows, in both the Old and New Testaments, to protect Jerusalem's children. Yet they have rejected Him. Now He will withdraw, and God's judgment will come. Jesus' public ministry in Jerusalem is now over: the city at large will not see Him again until they are ready to apply the words of Psalm 118: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"
Chapter Summary:
After thoroughly dismantling scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees in debate, Jesus even more thoroughly condemns these religious leaders for their religious hypocrisy. They do all their religious acts and works to be seen and approved of by other people. Jesus pronounces God's judgment on the scribes and Pharisees in a series of seven "woe to you" statements. He repeatedly calls them "blind" and "hypocrites." He concludes with a lament for Jerusalem and her children who rejected His protection. God's judgment is coming.
Chapter Context:
Matthew 23 concludes Matthew's multi-chapter account of all of Jesus' interactions in the temple during the last week before His arrest and crucifixion. After silencing the religious leaders with parables and brilliant responses (Matthew 21—22), He pronounces God's judgment on the scribes and Pharisees in a series of seven "woe to you" statements. Jesus mourns for the judgment that will come on Jerusalem for her rejection of God. This leads Jesus to leave the temple, sadly remarking on its impending destruction (Matthew 24:1–2). As the disciples ask about this, Jesus begins an extended teaching on the end times in chapter 24.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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