A Bible Lesson on Matthew 23:1-36

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapters 23-26 of Matthew constitute the 5th and last section of Jesus’ teaching in the book. The Sermon on the Mount is the 1st section of teaching, describes life in His kingdom, and pronounces blessing. This last section describes life outside His kingdom and pronounces woe. It begins in Chapter 23 with Jesus’ plain and public condemnation of Pharisaical religion. Where Jesus has before disputed with the Pharisees and warned His disciples about their attitudes, this is now open teaching in the temple plainly condemning their religion. James Boice commenting on this chapter correctly says that anyone who is tempted to make all religions equal as long as there is sincerity involved needs to read Matthew 23.

Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,

This is public. It’s in the temple and both His disciples and the crowds are here. (See 24:1 regarding location.)

2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,

In the temple there was literally a stone bench from which the Law was taught. So it was the seat of Moses both figuratively and literally. God’s law is perfect. It is right that it be taught. It is an important thing to teach it, and the people should have respect for the office held by the teachers. But …

3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.

The word of God is perfect and to be obeyed. But Jesus says that these religionists have it wrong at heart, and that shows in how they live. A Pharisee’s life was consumed with meticulous worrying about elaborations on elaborations on elaborations of the written commands. Pharisees considered that they had “built a fence” around the law, to keep themselves so far from transgression of any of the commands that they could count themselves keepers of the law. They split the finest hairs about every detail, defining (so they thought) matters so carefully that they could be righteous in action. But in that, they missed the whole point. The law told them what some good things are, but it could not be exhaustive, and the requirement of God is to be good (as Jesus has plainly said to the Pharisees in Matthew 21:34-40), not just to do some good things. And in full time obsessing on and splitting hairs concerning rules, they failed to have time for mercy, charity, humility.

4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

They were good at naming and interpreting rules, so many that it was a 24 hours per day occupation keeping them checked off. But they cared not for ordinary people who had sense enough to know that they were undone before a completely holy and just God. Garland put it this way: “Jesus here castigates the legalism which can impose regulations but cannot or will not give relief to the law breaker.” How could a full time obsession with religious process deal with the soul-sickness of ordinary people who must carry on ordinary lives? Indeed the “law” as the Pharisees taught it was an impossible burden, and no real help at all in dealing with our basic human guilt. In contrast Jesus promised us rest.

Mat 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,

6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues

7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.

A more or less natural part of religion focused on keeping rules is a desire to have others know and admire the fact that the rules are being kept. Loving God and being in awe of His great person and ways, and desiring to please Him fully produces humility and awareness of our frailty and our failure to fully honor Him. It is not something that desires to be noticed by other humans. And to the extent that religion is self-conscious and prideful it is unreal.

The title “rabbi” derives from a word meaning “great.” It is an honorific title, effectively meaning “great one.”

8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.

There is no room in the Kingdom of God for veneration of those who teach God’s word. A genuine citizen of the Kingdom must guard his or her heart concerning attitudes toward those who teach. There is proper respect and gratitude to God for His word and for ones who teach it accurately. But it almost always ends badly for all concerned when God’s people identify and become particularly enamored with a particular “rabbi.”

9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.

Christians do not have mere humans through whom they legitimately approach God. There is no human father/priest who stands between a Christian believer and God. As the catechisms correctly put it, Jesus fulfills the roles of prophet, priest, and king. And God Himself in three person is approached directly.

10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.

Jesus is eternal teacher/prophet. He worked through the Holy Spirit to inspire the Bible. He directs His true servants who teach it. But they have nothing of any value outside of His work. Making too much of a human being who serves Christ is dangerous for both the servant who teaches and for those who pay too much attention to the person.

11 The greatest among you shall be your servant.

A real “rabbi” in the real Kingdom is a servant of others. A religion that is about “me” is no real religion. Rule keeping for the supposed purpose of establishing righteousness is ultimately about me. A real love for God who loves people will evidence itself in a desire to please Him and be like Him and will spill over to humans He loves. Again, there is the very clear statement of this to the Pharisees earlier in Matthew 22:34-40.

12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

This is not a crazy convoluted 21st century statement about technique or form … as if it were “one step to exaltation.” It is a statement about the way things really are. God is the center of all and there is no room for you or me there. To effectively act as if we are the show must bring getting put in our place, in this life and/or the next. A life of humility, lived in proper relation to God and others is a life lived consistent with what really is. It is a life that God, ever true to His own nature, blesses both now and forever.

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Jesus now begins to speak directly to the Pharisees in the crowd. Remember that this is in the temple and it’s Passover. These guys are already quite put out with Jesus. Jesus in prophetic fashion pronounces 7 “woes” on them. In our fallen state, we have a tendency to read these without any regret, figuring that “they” are getting what “they” deserve. Verse 37 tells us clearly that this wasn’t the attitude of Christ. These are strong and serious, but they are full of sorrow and grief for these lost men.

Truly, the Pharisees were living a false religion that cannot save. Their teaching didn’t help. It only made things worse for any who would know the way to God. That was true of them. That is true of teachers of every non-Christian religion conceived by man. Teachers of religion XXX may in some cases help make people easier to live around (not always!), but in any case they do nothing to bring them into the Kingdom of God. In fact, by promoting a false system they make it harder to understand real faith in God.

A hypocrite is a play actor. One who is about keeping the rules as a means to an end is acting. He or she is participating in an unreality to get what he or she wants. That is true even if the heart of the rules is good and it is true no matter how earnestly and vigorously it is done. And going through the motions (even good ones) does not save.

15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

The Pharisees surely couldn’t be faulted for lack of zeal. But misplaced zeal is no good thing. They were evangelists for a false religion. Jesus refers to the fact that preachers of false religions often don’t themselves do stuff half as nasty as those they incite. That’s perfectly obvious in our time when the teachers of false religions rarely themselves wear the bombs or torch the dormitories or shoot up the malls.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’

17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?

18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’

19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.

21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it.

22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

The Pharisees were famous in the ancient world for splitting hairs over when an oath is binding. They were masters at lawyering around having to keep a promise. But just how exasperating is that? How untrue to the nature of the God they purported to represent could they have gotten? The God of the Bible is completely true and reliable. He has from the very beginning made and faithfully kept promises. The whole business of saying something with one plain meaning in words engineered to allow for another is absolutely not in keeping with the God who is. It is corrupt and absurd, and Jesus says so. He has already in the Sermon on the Mount told all who would hear “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'” Indeed, those who play with words so as to allow themselves to do as they please are “fools.”

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

The Pharisees apparently kept accounts of everything they owned down to the smallest planting in their herb gardens. Can you imagine this? Truly one would have no time for anything else. You can’t possibly be thinking about the genuinely big stuff of life, about what really matters, if you are obsessing about how many mint leaves you “owe” on what has been grown outside the back door.

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

There were (fantastically detailed and ridiculous) rules about what vessels and utensils the Pharisees held to be capable of becoming unclean, having to do with the material(s) from which they were made, their shape, etc. Jesus has spoken earlier (in Matthew 15) about defilement not coming from eating with unwashed hands, but from within. Again, obsess over the smallest details of how one eats and there can be no time to consider the things that matter in life: one’s desperate need of God’s mercy, dealing with the real evil impulses of our fallen natures, self-control, generosity, kindness, etc.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.

28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Many commentators think that an image standing behind this woe is the practice of whitewashing the tombs around Jerusalem every Passover, so that they were visible and visitors didn’t accidentally contact one and become ceremonially unclean and ineligible to celebrate Passover. The point here is that what’s corrupt about a tomb isn’t the exterior, but rather what’s inside. That’s effectively the same point Jesus made in Chapter 15 about defilement from lack of ceremonial hand washing. The Pharisees were focused on keeping the rules “completely” in the external. But that doesn’t address the reality of motivation of one’s heart. It doesn’t address the fundamental of whether one really loves God, is humble before Him and wants in all matters (not “just” those specifics laid out in the Law) His will, His honor, His purposes. Again, the technical attempt to be justified by law keeping is corrupt play acting.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous,

30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.

False religion is blind to itself. The very fact that the Pharisees don’t see that their version of Judaism was condemned by the prophets is proof that they would have been part of the persecution of the prophets. Real religion is humble and unassuming. It knows personal human frailty and the personal need of mercy and forgiveness. It doesn’t act as if the problem is external/is with others, but rather acknowledges personal guilt. To be cocksure that one is righteous in oneself is proof that one is personally unrighteous. Jesus addressed this kind of heart when the men were ready to stone the woman caught in adultery.

32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.

These guys are blind and He now tells them to take their thinking to its logical end. The forbearers of the Pharisees killed the prophets, they will go on in a couple of days to kill the Messiah.

33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

This is language like that of John the Baptizer. The difference is that there, there was some movement toward repentance. Here there is none. John was surprised to see some come out to the Jordan. Jesus sees no acknowledgment of need and asks aloud what can possibly be done.

34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town,

In a very short time, Christian missionaries will flood the known world. Very often, their stiffest and most violent resistance will come from Jews. Paul’s modus operandi was to go first to the synagogue in a city before preaching to gentiles. And he always found himself quickly rejected (sometimes violently so) and speaking to gentiles. This mission to the Jews was evidence of Christ’s mercy and concern for the Jewish people.

35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.

But mercy and warning rejected becomes a self-chosen implied judgment. Choose to reject mercy and fail to repent, and the guilt is complete. The guilt is equivalent to that for every human murder from the first to the last recorded in 2 Chronicles, the last book in the Old Testament as ordered by the Jews of the time. Reject and persecute the bringers of Good News and stand guilty of the persecution of all the saints of God.

36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

This is huge misery coming on the Pharisees and all of Jerusalem. This people is about to murder the Lord of Glory, God’s Son, Messiah. In less than 40 years, the Romans are going to lay waste to Jerusalem, having had more than enough of the hassle of dealing with the Jews. Of course. Murder Christ and then go on down the road as if nothing has happened? Continuously misrepresent the true nature of the God of glory to the known world and hide the real nature of Biblical redemption and have that go on unabated forever? Those couldn’t be if God is both powerful and just.

The chapter ends with the deep sorrow of Christ over what is coming on this people. That should be our reaction as well. A Christian’s passion for the glory of God and real relationship with Him ought to be also marked with deep longing that others turn from blindness to real faith.

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!


Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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