Seven Woes, 1-36

23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 23:2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 23:3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 23:4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 23:6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 23:7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’
Mt 23:1–7 = Mk 12:38,39; Lk 20:45,46

‘Let not Satan persuade us to think the worse of the pure Word of God because of his corruption who delivers it. For what were this but to refuse a comfortable embassage from a gracious prince, because we dislike the qualities of the ambassador?…Yes, what is it but to cross our Saviour Christ’s express commandments, who commanded all to hear even the Scribes and Pharisees who sat on Moses’ chair, and to do after their words though not after their words?’ (George Downame)

‘It is good to know the true characters of men, that we may not be imposed upon by great and mighty names, titles, and pretensions to power. People must be told of the wolves, (Ac 20:29,30) the dogs, (Php 3:2) the deceitful workers, (2 Cor 11:13) that they may know here to stand upon their guard.’ (MHC)

‘No man preaches that sermon well to others that does not first preach it to his own heart. He who does not feed on, and digest, and thrive by, what he prepares for his people, he may give them poison, as far as he knows; for, unless he finds the power of it in his own heart, he cannot have any ground of confidence that it will have power in the hearts of others.’ (Owen)

“They make their phylacteries wide” – ‘It is said of the commandments of God in Ex 13:9 “It shall be to you as a sign on your hand, and a memorial between your eyes.” The same saying is repeated, “It shall be as a mark on your hand, or frontlets between your eyes” (Ex 13:16; compare Deut 6:8 Deut 11:18). In order to fulfil these commandments the Jew wore at prayer, and still wears, what are called tephillin or phylacteries. They are worn on every day except the Sabbath and special holy days. They are like little leather boxes, strapped one on the wrist and one on the forehead. The one on the wrist is a little leather box of one compartment, and inside it there is a parchment roll with the following four passages of scripture written on it-Ex 13:1-10; Exo 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9; Deut 11:13-21. The one worn on the forehead is the same except that in it there are four little compartments, and in each compartment there is a little scroll inscribed with one of these four passages. The Pharisees, in order to draw attention to himself, not only wore phylacteries, but wore specially big ones, so that he might demonstrate his exemplary obedience to the Law and his exemplary piety.’ (DSB)

“The tassels on their garments long” – ‘In Nu 15:37-41 and in Deut 22:12 we read that God commanded his people to make fringes on the borders of their garments, so that when they looked on them they might remember the commandments of God. These fringes were like tassels worn on the four comers of the outer garment. Later they were worn on the inner garment, and today they are perpetuated in the tassels of the prayer-shawl which the devout Jew wears at prayer. It was easy to make these tassels of specially large size so that they became an ostentatious display of piety, worn, not to remind a man of the commandments, but to draw attention to himself.’ (DSB)

Principles of Church Government

‘Five general principles can be deducted from the NT teaching as a whole:

  1. all authority is derived from Christ and exercised in his name and Spirit;
  2. Christ’s humility provides the pattern for Christian service; (Mt 20:26-28)
  3. government is collegiate rather than hierarchical; (Mt 18:19 23:8 Acts 15:28)
  4. teaching and ruling are closely associated functions; (1 Thess 5:12)
  5. administrative assistants may be required to help the preachers of the word.’ (Ac 6:2-3)


23:8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 23:9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 23:10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 23:12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

With regard to the titles ‘Rabbi’, ‘father’ (v9) and ‘teacher’ (v10) Morris comments: ‘All 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.’

“Do not call anyone on earth ‘father'” – This is to be understood in the light of the explanation that immediately follows, and the following verse.  The conflict with 1 Cor 4:15 (and, indeed, Mt 19:19) is apparent, not real.  The prohibition is against giving that honour to even those we ought to respect highly (fathers and teachers), which belongs to God.

In context, ‘Jesus is denouncing the use of titles that exalt human religious leaders in a way that reduces God’s glory and creates a high priestly class of religious professionals.’ (Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible)

‘The whole design of the Pharisees was to dress and act in such a way as to draw attention to themselves; the whole design of the Christian should be to obliterate himself, so that if men see his good deeds, they may glorify not him, but his Father in Heaven. Any religion which produces ostentation in action and pride in the heart is a false religion.’ (DSB)

23:13 “But woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You keep locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! For you neither enter nor permit those trying to enter to go in.

“Woe to you…Pharisees, you hypocrites!” – ‘Matt 23:13-26 form the most terrible and the most sustained denunciation in the New Testament. Here we hear what A. T. Robertson called “the rolling thunder of Christ’s wrath.” As Plummer has written, these woes are “like thunder in their unanswerable severity, and like lightning in their unsparing exposure…They illuminate while they strike.”‘ (DSB)

‘Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees (Matt 23) should not be taken as applying to all Pharisees and thus by extension to all Jews. The Pharisees were in the main a pious sect seeking to live out the will of God as best they could. That Jesus strongly disagreed with some of them is clear but he also seems to have been friends with others of this sect (see Chapter 4).’

23:15 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You cross land and sea to make one convert, and when you get one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves!
23:16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple is bound by nothing. But whoever swears by the gold of the temple is bound by the oath.’ 23:17 Blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 23:18 And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing. But if anyone swears by the gift on it he is bound by the oath.’ 23:19 You are blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 23:20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 23:21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and the one who dwells in it. 23:22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it.
23:23 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others. 23:24 Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel!

“The more important matters of the law” – ‘An older fundamentalism often seemed obsessed with railing against inappropriate sex, drink, and drugs. Today some Christians seem to revel in the degree to which they tolerate others who overindulge in any or all of these areas or actually themselves have sexual partners to whom they are not (heterosexually) married, or get drunk or are addicted to non-prescription drugs. But I wonder, have both groups overestimated how “weighty” these matters are compared with the neglect of social justice, concerning which Micah berated Israel?’ (Blomberg)

“You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel!” – ‘This refers to the practice of straining out the lees and other foreign matter from wine that had been allowed to mature on the lees (cf. Is 25:6). The Pharisees meticulously attended to the minutia of tithing while neglecting “the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Mt 23:23). The blatant hyperbole of Jesus’ statement highlights the absurdity of the Pharisees’ misplaced priorities and exposes their hypocrisy.’ (A. J. Köstenberger, DJG (2nd ed.), art. ‘Wine’)

23:25 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 23:26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may become clean too!
23:27 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. 23:28 In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

‘Sin, in the reign and power of it, may cohabit with the most excellent natural gifts under the same roof—I mean in the same heart. A man may have the tongue of an angel and the heart of a devil.… The learned Pharisees were but painted sepulchers.’ (Flavel)

23:29 “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 23:30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have participated with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 23:31 By saying this you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 23:32 Fill up then the measure of your ancestors! 23:33 You snakes, you offspring of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

The words ‘of the sin’ have been supplied. Alternatives are:-

1. ‘of the guilt’ (NASB)
2. ‘Go on, then, finish off what your fathers began.’ (NEB)
3. ‘You too must come up to your fathers’ standards.’ (NEB marg.)

The idea is that ‘God can only tolerate so much sin; then, when the measure is “filled up” he must respond in wrath (cf. Ge 15:16; 1Th 2:14–16).’ (Carson)

‘The charge to fill up then what their ancestors started reflects the Jewish view that the judgment of God comes only after people have sunk to the depths of sinfulness.’ (Mounce)

As France (NICNT) says, the ‘measure’ will be ‘filled up’ when they execute Jesus the Messiah.

‘I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offence in it. We cannot blink the fact that gentle Jesus meek and mild was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger. Whatever his peace was, it was not the peace of an amiable indifference.’ (Dorothy L. Sayers)

23:34 “For this reason I am sending you prophets and wise men and experts in the law, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 23:35 so that on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 23:36 I tell you the truth, this generation will be held responsible for all these things!

From the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah – Mounce cites J.S. Wright, who says that this is equivalent of saying, ‘From Genesis to Revelation.’

Judgment on Israel, 37-39

23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it! 23:38 Look, your house is left to you desolate! 23:39 For I tell you, you will not see me from now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”
Mt 23:37–39 = Lk 13:34,35

As a hen gathers her chicks under her wings – This imagery may be suggestive of a farmyard fire, in which a hen might shelter her chicks under her wings and save them, while herself perishing.  If this is the case, there is a foreshadowing of the crucifixion here.

In Deut 32:11f, the Lord is likened to a mother eagle.  ‘Whereas the magnificent eagle is associated with light, sun, height, mobility and exteriority, the lowly hen is “associated with the shadows and darkness of the henhouse, and with depth and stillness and interiority beneath the mothering wings”‘ (Margo Houts, quoting V. Mollenkott, The Divine Feminine).

Mt 23:38 Look, your house is left to you desolate.

Mt 23:39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

“You will not see me again” – “From now on”, which is, as France (TNTC) remarks, an important phrase in Matthew, occurring also in Mt 26:29, 64.  ‘In each case, together with the introduction I tell you, it points to a new situation now beginning, an eschatological change. Jesus is now leaving the scene of Jewish public life, in which he has made his unheeded appeal; the next meeting will be very different.’

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” – Citing Psa 118:26.  Jesus had very recently been welcomed into Jerusalem with these very words (Mt 21:9).  Morris regards that welcome as ‘no more than a momentary enthusiasm. It was not a lasting reception of what he was and what he stood for.’

Carson explains that this is a reference to the parousia.  In that day, the inhabitants of Jerusalem will join in the universal acknowledgement of Jesus – whether as ‘consuming judge’ or ‘welcomed king’.  Cf. Phil 2:10f.

Some (Osborne cites Plummer, Schlatter, Schweizer, Gundry, and Blomberg) think that this hints at the eventual conversion of Israel (cf. Rom. 11:26). Mounce remarks that, ‘in any case, it would be contingent upon Israel’s recognition of the messiahship of Jesus. This is always true individually and may happen corporately.’

‘Though many have seen this acclamation as merely forced worship, nothing in the context implies that it should not be taken in a more straightforward way. So there may be a hint here of something like Rom 11:25–27, which apparently describes an outpouring of faith in Jesus among Jews at the end of the church age. The people on Palm Sunday acclaimed Christ without understanding; one day they will praise him with understanding.’ (Blomberg)

France (TNTC) thinks that although Jesus’ words here specify the condition on which Israel will see its Messiah, they do not amount to a definite prediction that this will actually happen.

Concern for the lost

‘Would that all Christians displayed this depth of concern for the lost, especially among those closest to them! Would that we made plain with this boldness the eternal jeopardy those without Christ face. Probably only with the former emotion is the latter boldness justifiable. It is equally crucial to stress that the responsibility for their fate rests squarely with the lost, even when we do not always speak out with the boldness we ought (cf. Rom 1:18–32).’ (Blomberg)