The Inordinate Ambition of the Pharisees. Matt..23, 1-12.

Hypocrisy in high places: V. 1. Then spake Jesus to the multitude and to His disciples, v. 2. saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. V. 3. All, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do ye not after their works; for they say, and do not. V. 4. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. The evangelist has here recorded the most relentless, scathing denunciation from the mouth of Jesus of which we have knowledge. It is an arraignment of spiritual wickedness in high places, a treatise on the use and abuse of the Law, which is without equal in the gospels. Jesus addressed this discourse to the people and to His disciples, although the scribes and Pharisees were present. He had definitely turned from these hopeless enemies, in whose case every new effort to win their love only resulted in greater hatred. He defines their position. The scribes and Pharisees formerly sat in Moses' seat by God's appointment; they now sit in the place of the teachers of the people by divine permission. Although many of their explanations of the Old Testament were insufficient, inadequate, sometimes even false, yet they held their office as teachers for the time being. "For God had instituted the office of the Levitical priesthood and ministry of the Word, in order that the people might learn the Ten Commandments given by Moses. The entire tribe of Levi was ordained for that purpose, to wait upon Holy Scriptures. That is what the Lord calls the seat of Moses, that is, the ministry of the Word, that they should preach Moses. He says: If you hear the preaching, This the Law and Moses have commanded, then do and observe it, for it is not the word and work of the Pharisees, but that of God and Moses." 176) If in this sense they enjoin and bid the people something which is plainly stated in the Word of God, if they use their official position and authority in a proper, legal manner, teaching and expounding the Law and the prophets, then the people should do exactly according to their doctrine, make the observance of their precepts a regular habit. But the people should beware of following their example, of patterning their lives after the hypocritical works of these leaders. For they were far from practicing what they preached and exhorted. They bound together, like fagots in a big bundle, grievous burdens, and laid them upon the backs of other people, but they themselves had no desire to touch them with so much as a single finger. They were very severe over against others, but very lenient and indulgent with themselves. The manifold precepts and commands which they added to the Law of Moses, with the expressed or implied order that they were to be placed and regarded as being on a level with the written injunctions of the lawgiver, were an intolerable burden, which they were very careful to omit from their own private life.

Their passion for honor from men: V. 5. But all their works they do for to be seen of men; they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, v. 6. and love the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogs, v. 7. and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. In public, where they were before the eyes of the people, the Pharisees and scribes were models of piety and virtue. Their works, all their public acts, were done with that object in mind, for they were actors that performed beautifully. A few instances of such hypocritical behavior are given. God had commanded the Jews, Deut. 6, 8, that they should bind His words for a sign upon the hand and as frontlets between the eyes. This the Jewish leaders explained in the literal sense. Hence the phylacteries, or remembrancers, strips of vellum or parchment, about an inch wide and from twelve to eighteen inches long, on which were written Deut. 11, 13-21; 6, 4-9; Ex. 13, 11-16; 13, 1-10. These were placed in tiny chests or boxes, one of which was fastened to the forehead, for the intellect and mind, the other to the left arm, for the heart. The Pharisees made these remembrancers of the Law exceptionally large, either in the size of the parchment or of the letters in which the texts were written. In the same way the Pharisees exaggerated in the matter of the borders, tassels, or fringes on their garments, which the Jews wore according to Num. 15, 37-40, to remind them of the commandments of the Lord. They were fastened to the garments with blue ribbons, since blue was the symbolical color of God, of heaven, of His covenant, and of faithfulness. Verses from the Law were usually woven into these strips. In making these borders very wide and conspicuous, the scribes and Pharisees wanted to parade their zeal for the Law of God. In the same way they dearly loved, and always tried to get for themselves, the highest seat, the first sofa, the place of honor at a festive meal; they always chose the seat reserved for the elders in the synagog; their vanity craved the formal address of the public teacher, when the lay people deferentially called them Rabbi. It was an inordinate, a sickening ambition.

Humility required: V. 8. But be not ye called Rabbi; for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. V. 9. And call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven. V. 10. Neither be ye called masters; for one is your Master, even Christ. V. 11. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. V. 12. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. With emphasis Christ singles out His disciples for this section of His discourse. They should stand out in shining contrast to such disagreeable craving for honor and cheap glory; they should not seek such sops of vanity. Especially then will titles become a nuisance of the first rank if they are to denote distinction and rank in the Church. So far as the believers are concerned, there are no superiors and inferiors before Christ, no Rabbis, no fathers, no masters. He is the only one that holds that rank, that bears that title; His disciples, whether men or women, are all equal, brethren and sisters on the same level, Gal. 3, 28; Col. 3, 11. Titles in the Church can never be more than appellations of courtesy, indicating a measure of learning and service, but never an honor by divine right. The true measure of greatness before Christ is humility of service toward Him and one's neighbor. He that, in the sincerity of his heart, renders such service flowing from, true faith, is accounted great in the sight of the Master. Any one, therefore, that strives for honor before men, that seeks rank in the Church of Christ, will be placed very low, in the most humble position; his inordinate ambition may even take the Christianity from his heart; while the truly humble, that has only service in mind, will be exalted by the Lord in due season, 1 Pet. 5, 6.

The Woes upon the Hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Matt. 23, 13-33.

The first woe: V. 13. But 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. This passage of denunciations does not represent a mere opinion of Jesus, but it is the judgment of the Holy One of God upon people that were making all religion a mockery and a pretense. The "Woe!" signifies the eternal fire of hell; that will be their punishment, as Luther says. In their hypocrisy, their acting, they have reached a point where they are deceiving themselves as well as others. They pretend, with a great show of zeal, to be opening the doors of heaven to their fellow-men, by teaching them the way of self-righteousness, salvation by works. But in doing so, they actually shut the doors or gates of heaven in their faces. They thought that they were sure of heaven and had but to enter whenever they chose, but they only deceived themselves, and are now deceiving others and keeping them from entering.

The second woe: V. 14. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayer; therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. The Pharisees had little love for manual or mental labor, by which they might earn their living in an honest manner. As their religion was a mere cloak, so their religious observances were used for money-making schemes. Long prayers were their strong suit, such as were actually made, produced for the purpose, of which they informed the people that they possessed unusual merits and power. Women deprived of their natural protectors, widows whose feelings might easily be swayed, gladly paid for the service of long prayers made in their behalf. Such was the flimsy pretext by which the scribes and Pharisees gained property and riches. Is. 5, 8. This form of graft was especially damnable because it included the abuse of God's name, and was thus both blasphemy and robbery.

The third woe: V. 15. Woe 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. In their eagerness to make an impression upon the people, the scribes and Pharisees were zealously active in gaining proselytes for the Jewish Church. They crossed the seas, they traveled into deserts seeking men and women that might be gained for the Jewish religion, and the number of proselytes of the gate and proselytes of righteousness, those that accepted the Jewish doctrines without and with circumcision and baptism, was at times notable. But in adding people to the Church outwardly, they harmed their souls for all eternity by teaching them the religion of hypocrisy. Many of the proselytes of righteousness were far more fanatical than the Jews themselves. Thus the Pharisees again proved themselves adepts at dissimulation, for it appeared before men as though they were zealous for God, and gained many people away from their idolatry, while, as a matter of fact, they introduced them into far greater, though more hidden, idolatry than before — the faith in their own good works.

The fourth woe: V. 16. Woe 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! V. 17. Ye fools and blind! For whether is greater, the gold, or the Temple that sanctifieth the gold? V. 18. And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. V. 19. Ye fools and blind! For whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? V. 20. Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar sweareth by it and by all things thereon. V. 21. And whoso shall swear by the Temple sweareth by it, and by Him that dwelleth therein. V. 22. And he that shall swear by heaven sweareth by the throne of God, and by Him that sitteth thereon. A typical example of the senseless distinctions that were allowed, because tradition had so spoken. Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees blind guides, such as undertook to lead other people, while they themselves lacked proper knowledge and understanding, Rom. 2, 17-24. He that swore an oath by the gold of the Holy Place or by the sacrifice upon the altar, things that were sanctified to God, was considered a flagrant transgressor, if he did not consider his oath as fully binding. But to swear by the Holy of Holies itself or by the altar of sacrifice, that was nothing, signified nothing, and was not binding. Small, insignificant details were bolstered up in the interest of human precepts and for the purpose of holding men's souls by fear, but the fundamental matters were ignored. Stupid, blind fools the Lord calls them, that have no understanding of true values. It is the altar that hallows, that gives value to the sacrifice; it is the Holy Place that imparts its sanctity to the ornamentation; it is God, the King of the heavens, that gives to the throne above dignity and worth. For the Jews, therefore, it was time for the readjustment of values. All oaths are sacred and valid, and it will never do to cloud the issue by man-made distinctions.

The fifth woe: V.23. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, 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. V. 24. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Another instance of the religious observance of insignificant things. So strictly did they interpret the law of tithes, Lev. 27, 30. 31, that they were very careful to include even the smallest herbs and vegetables of the garden, the sweet-smelling mint, the dill, the aromatic cumin, used for medicinal purposes, according to an explanation of the Rabbis. In other words, they were most rigidly scrupulous in the observances of even the minutest details of their religion. But, in doing this, the weightier matters of the Law were omitted, judgment, and mercy, and faith. Justice and equity toward all, mercy and love toward those that were in need of compassion, faith in God as the Fountain of all true religion: of these great virtues they knew nothing; they omitted them, they disregarded them. It was well and good in itself to pay tithes, if the interpretation of the teachers included even the garden herbs, but what was punctiliousness in this small matter in comparison with the far more important necessity of cultivating the greatest virtues? Their attitude could well be compared to the proverbial choking in the attempt to swallow a gnat, but performing the same act in the case of a camel with the greatest ease. They carefully strained out any small insect out of the wine, in order not to be defiled, but the swallowing of a camel would have given them little compunction. The tiniest omission of a secondary rule hurt their consciences, but the infringement of the fundamental precepts of God as they should obtain among men made no impression upon them.

The sixth woe: V. 25. Woe 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. V. 26. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. A picture taken from the well-known strictness of the Pharisees in the matter of washings and purifications prescribed by law. In all such outward forms, also in the precepts concerning eating and drinking, they took care to maintain an unblemished appearance before men. But incidentally the results of robbery and incontinence filled their pockets. In true purity it is essential that the inside of the platter and cup be clean first; the purity of the exterior will follow as a matter of course. There can be no real piety, no true righteousness of life, unless the inward man is first renewed. Conversion must precede sanctification. A person may train himself to observe the outward semblance of proper form and even of Christian virtues, but without a change of heart all this avails nothing. "He says: Externally everything is so clean that it could not be better. But how is it in your heart? He does not speak of the cup or of the platter, but of the heart that it is full of uncleanness. He does not reject their purity altogether. For they should clean first of all what was inside. This purity which ye not only observe, but also teach, when ye think if the garment of purple is brushed, and everything, bed and dress, is clean, that is your righteousness, and do not hinder this purity, but even teach it, and are still inside full of robbery, devouring, uncleanness, and even defend this doctrine and life. It cannot be sin that ye rob and steal everything they have from the poor people! "177)

The seventh woe: V. 27. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. V. 28. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. It was a custom among the Jews, derived by the Rabbis from Ezek. 39, 15, and said to extend back to the time of Joshua, that every year on the fifteenth of Adar, one month before the Passover, the graves of such as were buried on the hillsides or near the highways had to be whitened with a sort of chalk. They thus became conspicuous both by day and night, and the pilgrims to the great festival that were not acquainted with the country could avoid Levitical contamination by going around such graves, for the contact with a grave would defile a Jew. Exactly like such graves, according to Christ's judgment, are the scribes and Pharisees. Their life, as they present it in the view of the multitude, was fair, inviting nothing but commendation, but its actual loathsomeness, when one penetrated beyond the outside shell and examined the heart, was so great as to provoke nothing but condemnation. Hypocrites they are, whose very boast of the Law is resolved into lawlessness and opposition to the Law.

The eighth woe: V. 29. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, v. 30. and 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. V. 31. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. V. 32. Fill ye up, then, the measure of your fathers. V. 33. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? The actual and reputed graves of the prophets of the Old Testament were held in great veneration by the Jews of the time of Christ, a sign which usually characterizes a dead orthodoxy: building tombs and decorating graves while actually rejecting the words of the prophets thus honored by an outward show. And all this is accompanied by much show of sanctimoniousness. They bitterly deplore the fact that the fathers showed so little discrimination and were so hasty in their actions — a trait found to this day in a generation that imagines itself far beyond the people of a few centuries ago in the matter of understanding and knowledge, especially of the Scriptures, and in humaneness. All of which only went to show that they had their fathers' spirit as well as their blood, that as children of murderers of prophets they would have little compunction, and no hesitation, about filling up the measure of their fathers, exceeding them in cruelty and bloodthirstiness, in killing the Savior. In view of such baseness and hypocrisy, the Lord can hardly find epithets to express His contempt of such wickedness. Serpents, offspring of vipers, He calls them, for whom it will be impossible to escape the damnation of hell.

The Peroration and the Lament over Jerusalem. Matt. 23, 34-39.

V. 34. Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets and wise men and scribes; and some of them ye shall kill and crucify, and some of them ye shall scourge in your synagogs, and persecute them from city to city: v. 35. that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the Temple and the altar. V. 36. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. It is the beginning of the judgment upon the Jewish nation for their consistent refusal to accept the Messiah, visited first of all upon their leaders. With great seriousness Jesus states this fact, because the present generation is about to fill up the measure of iniquity to the very brim. He would send His messengers again, but their hearts would be hardened by their message, against the message and against the bearers. Their false worship would not want to permit the worship in spirit and in truth. They would kill, and crucify, and scourge, and persecute the messengers of Christ. No form of inquisition and cruelty is too horrifying when people vent their spite against the messengers of the true Gospel. And so the Jews, in being punished for the murder of Christ and the messengers of the New Testament, in having their blood come upon them, would incidentally receive punishment for the murders of the prophets of the Old Testament. They have their fathers' spirit, the same hatred for the truth and its bearers; and so the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children. Abel was the first one to die, a martyr of his convictions, of his faith. And the hatred of the children of God continued down through the ages, one of the most conspicuous cases being that of Zacharias, the son of Jehoiada, also called Barachias, 2 Chron. 24, 20. 21, not to speak of other murders recorded in history. All the accumulated wrath of God was visited upon the Jews of the generation of Jesus, because they rejected the Messiah Himself. "As though He would say: It is one people, one kind, one generation; as the fathers, so the children. For the stubbornness that resisted God and His prophets in the fathers, resists in the same way in the children: the child is like the mother…. All the blood that they have shed is bound to come upon them." 178)

The lament: V. 37. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! V. 38. Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. V. 39. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see Me henceforth till ye shall say, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! A most touching cry of merciful solicitude, wrung from a heart full of the Savior's sincere love. "It is evident that our blessed Lord seriously and earnestly wished the salvation of the Jews; that He did everything that could be done, consistently with His own perfections and the liberty of His creatures, to perfect this; that His tears over the city, Luke 19, 41, sufficiently evince His sincerity; that these persons nevertheless perished; and that the reason was, that they would not be gathered together under His protection; 179) they would not accept His salvation. It is a beautiful picture which the Lord here uses; cp. Ps. 91, 1-7. "Now behold how the hen acts; there is hardly an animal that takes such an interest in its young ones; she changes her natural voice and assumes a sorrowful and lamenting call; she seeks, she scratches in the ground, she coaxes the chicks; whenever she finds anything, she does not eat it, but leaves it for the chicks; with all seriousness she fights and calls against the hawk, and extends her wings so willingly, and permits the chicks to crawl under her and upon her; it is a fine, pleasing picture. Thus also Christ assumed a sorrowful voice, has lamented for us and preached repentance, has shown to every one his sin and woe with all His heart. He opens up the beauties of Scripture, coaxes us in and permits us to eat, and spreads His wings with all His righteousness, merit, and mercy over us, and takes us under Him in such a friendly manner, warms us with His heat, that is, with the Holy Ghost who comes only through Him, and fights for us against the devil in the air." 180) But they would not, the Lord tells the Jews; that accusation stands. And therefore their house would become desert, desolate, their country be given into the hands of the enemies. For He would now remove His Messianic presence from them. Their day of grace is at an end. They will not see Him again until He comes in His glory, when even His enemies will have to confess that He is the Lord over all, when the great Hallel will be sung, world without end.

Summary. Jesus exposes the inordinate ambition of the Pharisees, rebukes their hypocrisy in a series of eight woes, predicts the coming of the punishment, and laments the stubbornness of the Jewish nation.