Living with Christ in the Shadow of the Cross (Matt. 23:13-34)

Living with Jesus in the Shadow of the Cross
Matthew 23:1-12

You and I tend to take baths or showers fairly frequently. Maybe daily - some take showers more than once a day. Maybe every other day. It’s pretty frequently. We like to be clean on the outside, get rid of the smell of sweat and dirt.

How much thought do we put into being clean on the inside? How much thought do we put into making sure our heart is healthy? And our liver? Our kidneys?

An even more important question is: How much thought do we put into making sure our spirit is clean? That our spiritual heart is pure and holy?

Once a month, we take a look at some event from the life of Christ, from the last week of His life on earth, to see what He has to teach us on His way to the cross. Matthew 23 is somewhat surprising in the sense that Jesus does not “make nice” with His enemies. He is not ultimately interested in unity. He is always ultimately interested in faithfulness - faithfulness and dedication to Jehovah God.

Matthew 23 is the last public sermon Jesus will give and He unleashes His wrath, mixed with disappointment, against the religious leaders, specifically the Pharisees.

The Pharisees appeared at John’s baptism in 3:7. Jesus warned His followers that their righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees (5:20). In chapter 9 (9:11, 14, 34), chapter 12 (12:2, 14, 24, 38), chapter 15 (15:1, 12), chapter 16 (16:1, 6, 11-12), chapter 19 (19:3), chapter 21 (21:45) and chapter 22 (22:15, 34, 41), the opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus has gotten increasingly antagonistic. In this chapter, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for a number of sins: selfishness, pride, and hard-heartedness.

We do not have time to cover all 39 verses of this chapter in this lesson, so I will limit our study to the eight statements of “woe” found in verses 13-33. However, let’s get a few of the “preliminary” ideas in front of us.

Notice that Jesus is speaking to the crowd and His disciples (ver. 1). While His main thoughts are directed at the crowd, and specifically at the Pharisees, He wants His disciples to take note of what He is saying.

The “chair of Moses” was not a phrase used in the synagogues before Jesus, but it was used after His time. Here, it refers figuratively to the rabbi in the synagogue who taught the Law of Moses. Jesus tells His disciples, as long as they were Jews religiously, they were to do what the scribes and Pharisees taught, from the Law of Moses, as long as they were teaching the Law accurately. The disciples were to “do as they say” (from the Law), but not to do as they do, because they were hypocrites (a term He will use seven times in this text).

Jesus says they made their phylacteries broader than normal and lengthened their tassels longer than normal. The phylactery was a small prayer box containing the text of Exodus 13:2-16 and Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. This practice likely began during the Babylonian exile or thereafter and was a literal application of texts such as Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18. The boxes were then tied to the forehead or the arm.

The tassels were sewn onto the edges of robes (Jesus might have worn these, according to 9:21). These are mentioned in Numbers 15:38-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12.

The Pharisees loved greetings in the marketplaces which elevated them above others and inflated their ego. They loved to be called “Rabbi,” the Aramaic term for “teacher.” However, Jesus warned His own disciples to refuse such titles and terminology. Only One is the teacher who is Jesus Christ. Christians are all “brothers,” and there ought not to be any effort, neither titles nor clothing, which distinguish those of equal rank. Additionally, Jesus warned His disciples not to allow themselves to be called “Father” in a religious sense because there is only one Father, God in heaven. The principle of this text, then, warns us not to have titles or other distinctions - even clothing - in the church of Jesus Christ.

If Christians desire to be great, they must be servants. In a text Jesus has stated before, one who exalts himself will be humbled and one who humbles himself will be exalted.

WOE #1 - 23:13-14:
Verse 14 [“Woe to you, scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour the houses of widows, and for pretense, much you are praying; on account of this, you will receive greater judgment”] is not found in the oldest and best manuscripts. It seems to have crept into this text from scribes influenced by Mark 12:40 and / or Luke 20:47. In those manuscripts where it is found, it is often found in different places. Therefore, The Textual Commentary suggests its location here is not authentic.

The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is elaborated in this paragraph. The Pharisees claimed to be “teachers of the law” (see John 3:10) but they “shut off” the kingdom of heaven from others, refusing to enter (through faith in the gospel and repentance as well as baptism, see Luke 7:29-30) and not allowing others to enter through their discouragement, threats, and false teaching (see 9:33-34; 11:19; 12:23-24; 21:15; John 9:22).

Verse 14 is legitimate teaching from Christ, even if it does not belong in this text. The Pharisees “devoured” widows’ houses through bribery, extortion, exploitation or some other dishonest means, even as they loved to make long prayers. But, teachers will receive a greater condemnation (see James 3:1).

WOE #2 - 23:15:
While the Pharisees kept others from entering the Messiah’s kingdom, they themselves traveled all around the sea of Galilee and the land in order to make a single proselyte. There is not much evidence that Jews actively proselyted Gentiles. This might refer, rather, to Pharisees trying to make Pharisees out of others, both Gentiles and Jews, a problem with which Paul dealt, especially in Galatians. Once this new “Pharisee” is made, he is “twice as much a son of hell” as the teacher. “Son of” denotes one who has the quality or characteristics of something. These proselytes had the characteristics of hell twice as worse as their teachers!

WOE #3 - 23:16-22:
In verses 16-22, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their oaths, as He did in 5:33-37. Jesus had warned in 15:14 that the Pharisees were blind leaders of those who were also blind. The Pharisees had created a hierarchy of oaths so that if they so desired, they could choose not to fulfill the “lower” oaths while holding others accountable for swearing a “higher” oath. Jesus, rather, points out that all oaths are connected to God, His heaven, or His temple (see, for example, Exodus 29:37). If a man swears an oath, he is obligated to fulfill that oath if it is at all possible. God is truth as we discussed last week and lying has no place in God’s nature nor in the nature of God’s followers.

WOE #4 - 23:23-24:
The OT could easily be interpreted to say that garden herbs ought to be tithed, with 10% going to the use of the priests. In fact, Jesus agrees with this interpretation as He states, “these things it was necessary to do.” However, in focusing on the physical act of tithing, the Pharisees had neglected what Jesus referred to as “weightier matters of the law,” such as judgment (fairness), mercy, and faith (or faithfulness). They were hypocrites in their behavior and blind leaders. They were willing to be careful about the “little things” such as the tithe and in doing so, they would strain out the gnat, an unclean animal, from their water or wine. But in the process, they neglected broader, more important principles, such as fairness, mercy, and faithfulness and, in doing so, they swallowed a larger unclean animal, the camel. Scholars also point out that the Aramaic words for these two animals sound very much alike so that Jesus might have been making a play on the words: qalma' (gnat) versus gamla’ (camel).

Observe here that Jesus expected the Jews to: 1) Know their OT; 2) Interpret accurately their OT, including; 3) Recognizing what was most important.

WOE #5 - 23:25-26:
To further illustrate the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were meticulous about cleaning the outside of cups and platters but the inside was filthy and perhaps impure. From a spiritual perspective, the inside was full of robbery (see verse 14) and self-indulgence. The Pharisees are noted by Luke as being “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). Jesus challenges the Pharisees to be consistent, to be people of integrity: clean the inside of the cups and platters so that it can be clean inside and out. Spiritually speaking, the Pharisees’ hearts should be aligned with God’s word and then their behaviors should be aligned with their hearts. That is a person of character.

WOE #6 - 23:27-28:
If a Jew touched a tomb, he would be unclean for his religious ceremonies (Num. 19:16). Whitewashing the tombs before Passover would have alerted visitors to the location of these tombs which they could avoid, so as to avoid uncleanness. Just before Passover, in the month of Adar, the Jews would whitewash the tombs.

The mismatch in the Pharisees between the outward appearance and the inward character is brought to the crowds’ attention again here. They were like tombs having been whitewashed; they appeared externally as if they were holy and righteous and good. But, as with the cup and platter before, on the inside, they were actually full of hypocrisy and lawlessness, performing acts or behaviors which did not have God’s authority behind them.

WOE #7 - 23:29-33:
In the next paragraph, which is long (23:29-36), Jesus condemns the Jewish leaders for their persecution of the prophets. He had already alluded to the persecution of the prophets in the beatitudes in 5:10-12. Here, He says that they build graves for the prophets and beautify the tombs of the righteous people of their past. They also brag that if they had lived during those days, they would not have had “fellowship” in the “blood of the prophets,” that is, they would not have killed the prophets. Yet, they were testifying against themselves because, in their character, they were sons of those who had killed the prophets. This use of “sons of” reflects the same Jewish idiom mentioned in verse 15. That is, they had the nature or character of those who had, literally, killed the prophets.

Jesus is directly applying the parable of the farmers (21:35-39) and the parable of the wedding celebration (22:3-5). Subsequently, the application of each parable (21:41, 44; 22:7) will be made to Jerusalem and her temple (23:38). Indeed, the Jews had already been conspiring to destroy Jesus (12:14; Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47; John 5:18; 7:1, 19, 25; 8:37, 40; 11:53). Consequently, they were bringing to a completion (“filling up the measure˝) of their fathers. The full wrath of God, which had been delayed for centuries for the sake of bringing Jesus into the world, was now going to be poured out in full upon the Jewish nation for all their past sins and evils against God and His prophets, most notably against His Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus echoes the thoughts of John the baptizer from 3:7 as well as a previous speech given in 12:34 in verse 33. They were a generation of dangerous, venomous snakes. John had asked them if they would flee from the coming wrath (3:7). Jesus asks how they would be able to escape from the judgment “of hell,” the judgment which would assign them to hell.

Again, alluding to the prior parables, in verse 34, Jesus says, “I Myself am sending to you prophets and wisemen and scribes.” In the parables, it was the householder or king who sent the servants, which were metaphors for God the Father. Here, Jesus makes Himself equal with God by stating that He was sending the servants. Out of that number, some, the Jews would kill, some they would crucify (perhaps hinting at His own death at their hands), and some they would scourge in their synagogues. They would even pursue them and persecute them from city to city, illustrating the hatred the Jews had for the Christians. The book of Acts will testify to Jesus’ prediction.

The judgment of God the Father, in fulfillment of the two parables, will fall on that generation of Jews. The “blood of all the prophets” (punishment for their murders) who had been shed on the ground will be laid on the heads of that generation. Basically, Jesus illustrates the totality of that judgment by saying the reckoning will begin with the blood of Abel, whose murder is recorded in the first book of the OT (Genesis 4), to the blood of Zechariah, whose murder is recorded in the last book of the OT (2 Chronicles 24 if it is the same Zechariah). The totality is easily envisioned in English: “From A (Abel) to Z (Zechariah).” Yet the name “Zechariah” does not begin with the last letter of the alphabet in either Hebrew or Greek. Yet, if Jesus is referring to the Zechariah mentioned in 2 Chronicles, then the idea of “A to Z” is still appropriate; He is just referring to the first book of the OT (Genesis) and the last book of the OT (2 Chronicles, according to the Jewish order).

Jesus emphasizes in verse 36 that this promise is going to fall on that exact generation of Jews!

One’s outward behavior must reflect his inward moral compass, which must be aligned with the word of God. Many people can go to church / worship, can pray, or perform other acts of “religious service,” but if their actions are not authorized by Jesus Christ, they are condemned as “lawless” ones.

Take home message: The sins Jesus rebukes in the Pharisees are not unique to the Pharisees. We could easily be guilty of the same sins. We need to make sure that our outward behavior matches the inward convictions, which match the expectations of God’s word.

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