First two woes - entering the Kingdom and conversion to Pharisaism
Second two woes - inverting values
Third two woes - inner cleanliness
Seventh woe - the judgment about to fall
The first twelve verses of Matthew chapter 23 have seen Jesus turn His attention away from the religious leaders which have occupied Him intermittently during Mtw 22:15-46 (by ‘intermittently’ I mean that what’s recorded here are the intrusions into His teaching of the crowds which were listening to Him, not that we can only sporadically see the leadership behind them) and onto a denunciation of them addressed to both the crowds and His disciples (Mtw 23:1) in which He’s upheld their right to teach the Law (23:2-3) but not their interpretation of it (23:3-4).
The final eight verses (23:5-12) have dealt with scribal and Pharisaic self-exaltation and instructions concerning what His followers mustn’t do that they might both safeguard themselves against creating distinctions of importance within their own ranks and sincerely choose the life of service rather than the one of honour.
The passage dealt with on this web page, however, sees another shift in the people addressed and, by the phrases which begin each of the seven passages, we see that Jesus now speaks directly to the religious leaders themselves. There doesn’t appear to be any reason why they wouldn’t have heard at least some of what was being said and, besides, their disciples may still have been in the crowds, gleaning what was being said in case there was something which could be used against Him (Luke 20:20).
And quite some indictment the passage is against religious leadership! Never was Jesus ever recorded as sustaining so vehement an attack against a would-be follower or a wayward disciple but He almost saves up all His words for one final denunciation before their ultimate sentence of death upon Him which resulted in His crucifixion.
There are parallels to the things which Jesus says in this passage but not in the same context and time in which they’re here recorded. For instance, on an occasion when a Pharisee invited Jesus to be a guest at a meal, He spoke at length against the scribal and Pharisaical hypocrisy with many words which are here repeated in a more logical order (Luke 11:39-52).
But, as I’ve made mention repeatedly in earlier web pages, we shouldn’t think of one of the synoptic authors as compiling Jesus’ speeches into more logical groups always and that what is recorded as having been spoken on different occasions must always be considered to have been uttered just the once and that the writers have placed it where they saw best. A good teacher tailors his teaching to suit his present audience and there’s no reason to think that Jesus was any different.
The only possible parallel with our current passage which is recorded as taking place at the same time and in the same place is that recorded in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 which is the normally rejected as unoriginal Mtw 23:14 and which I, also, will be ignoring (Mark 12:38-39 and Luke 20:46 run as parallels to the earlier two verses of Mtw 23:6-7 also but I’ve dealt with this on the relevant web page).
In the parallel passages, both verses are phrased as if spoken to the crowds and disciples as Mtw 23:1-12 are whereas, in Matthew’s record, they appear directed specifically at the religious leaders. Although, therefore, being contained in the same place and time, they’re actually very different and for this reason alone the doubt about their authenticity in Matthew’s Gospel is sufficiently warranted, though Matfran’s statement that
‘The verse...is not in the best manuscripts of Matthew’
could be construed as being a purely subjective criteria by which to judge the problem. How a scribe could have included the additional verse in Matthew’s Gospel from a manuscript of Mark or Luke is difficult to imagine seeing as the copying procedure appears to have concentrated only on reproducing what was before them and, though we may note that an additional word or a repeated line might have found its way into a reproduction of the Gospel as appears on other occasions, such a long verse seems to be a deliberate retrieval of the words from another manuscript which lay close at hand.
If this is the case - and it appears to be the only explanation possible - it would be that just such an attempt at harmonisation must have occurred in another copying of Matthew’s Gospel for the verse is also found after verse 12, a wholly more logical place for it to be found (where it appears textually identical to its inclusion after Mtw 23:13).
Incidentally, if such criteria are used here with certainty that a lengthy verse has been added randomly in two different places, doubt is thrown onto John 7:53-8:11 which also appears in various places in the Gospels. I noted in my comments on the Feast of Tabernacles that the placing of the passage in its traditional setting actually undermines the flow of the record of the events of the Feast in Jerusalem and adds an extra day which gives a serious problem to interpretation and that, for this reason, there seemed no value in presuming that it’s normal location is chronologically sound, the passage seeming to be an attempt by the early Church to record an event which they knew to be true but which they wanted to integrate into the main text of one of the Gospels.
Therefore, just like Mtw 23:14, John 7:53-8:11 shouldn’t be thought of as unoriginal but additional and, though the former text is noted as being out of place, it cannot be considered to be untrue.
Their position, however, also make it uncertain as to their originality. As the reader will no doubt have seen my divisions of the woes (as headers to the following sections) into three pairs each with its own particular theme and a final one which speaks of the ensuing judgment to come upon the religious leadership but which is destroyed if Mtw 23:14 is inserted into this, dividing the first and second points by an unrelated statement.
Indeed, if the verse is considered as being original, it would be best to insert it after Mtw 23:12 making a 1-2-2-2-1 division rather than a whole lot more messy 1-1-1-2-2-1 or 3-2-2-1 breakdown.
Matcar, however, sees the divisions as forming a chiastic pattern where the first and seventh, second and sixth woes are seen to be parallels. Therefore, he breaks the passage up as
A - First woe (23:13) - failing to recognise Jesus as the Messiah
B - Second woe (23:15) - superficially zealous yet doing more harm than good
C - Third woe (23:16-22) - misguided use of the Scripture
D - Fourth woe (23:23-24) - fundamental failure to discern the thrust of Scripture
C - Fifth woe (23:25-26) - misguided use of the Scripture
B - Sixth woe (23:27-28) - superficially zealous yet doing more harm than good
A - Seventh woe (23:29-32) - heirs of those who failed to recognise the prophets
but, although this could be accepted with a little application, parallels C don’t quote or cite Scripture at all and the divisions seem to be more discernible by our own interpretations than they are by the clear meanings of the words being spoken which pair successive woes up. It’s best to accept the general divisions I’ve presented above and to see in the seventh woe the summation of the scribes and Pharisees’ religious lives which will reap for them the judgment of God, a fitting conclusion to the severity of the words spoken against them.
The structure of a passage which deals with successive denunciations of conduct by the prefix ‘woe’ is not unknown in the OT and was used by both Isaiah and Habakkuk (Is 5:8-23, Hab 2:16-19) so that it’s far from unique and represents a way to gather together concepts which can be more easily remembered and seen to be specific points being given by succession.
The woes could also be considered to be the antithesis of the blesseds of Mtw 5:3-12 where the first occurring passage would be instruction on the correct way of living out the Kingdom life and, here, a condemnation of following after the wrong way. This is a nice comparison to make but, when considered, there isn’t too much similarity by the points made.
Finally, a word needs to be said about the word translated here by the English ‘hypocrites’ which occurs in six of the seven opening statements of the woes. I noted on a previous web page that the term ‘hypocrite’ had parallels in the Greek acting world and was used to denote a ‘play actor’ who took upon himself a different character than his own in order that a play might be performed, being used to denote religious actors who also put on a great outward show when they had little inwardly which could commend themselves to God.
Here, Matfran makes a distinction of its use, insisting that it means something with a different shade of meaning, commenting that
‘The overall emphasis falls less on conscious insincerity than on their failure to perceive that their religious practice and teaching are in fact inconsistent with the desire to please God which is their (no doubt sincerely) professed aim’
but, although such a position is defensible, Matmor takes the word as meaning almost the same as when it occurred previously, stating that
‘It is a word which denies that those so described are sincere: they do what they do for its effect on those who observe them, not because deep down they think of it as right’
and Mathag points out that
‘The hypocrisy mentioned generally in v.3c...is now illustrated through specific examples’
finding justification for its use and continued meaning in what’s preceded. Although insincerity is not obvious in the words which Jesus here speaks, there doesn’t appear to be any reason why the word ‘hypocrites’ cannot be taken as inferring this.
Whether or not this is correct, however, doesn’t pull away from the plain observations which Jesus is laying before His hearers.
First two woes - entering the Kingdom and conversion to Pharisaism
The first pair of woes spoken by Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees concern entry into the Kingdom of Heaven both in their personal refusal to submit themselves to the message and of their opposition to the message that others may not feel at liberty to give themselves over to obey it (Mtw 23:13) before going on to look at how they promote their own kingdom through proselytising, thus sealing men and women’s fate to be diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospel (Mtw 23:15).
Jesus’ opening remarks that they
‘...shut the Kingdom of Heaven against men...’
is a summary of both clauses of the first verse where ‘men’ are both themselves (the leadership) and others. First, however, Jesus looks at the cause of their closure of the doors of the Kingdom to those who would go in when He states that they refuse to enter themselves. This is by no means a new idea and we find places in the Gospels where their rejection of the new move of God is stated plainly.
When the man born blind had his eyes opened, the religious leaders found it impossible to accept the sign had been done for they would have had to have also accepted Jesus as being the Messiah, their insistence that the miracle couldn’t have taken place culminating in the ex-blindman’s frustration and with probable sarcasm in saying to them (John 9:27-28)
‘Do you too want to become His disciples?’
and their reply that he was obviously His disciple (which the Scriptures show that he wasn’t until after His meeting with the leadership - John 9:35-38) but that
‘...we are disciples of Moses’
showed their abhorrence for the way which Jesus was expounding. But, even if they had been faithful to what Moses had written, they should have been able to plainly perceive that Messiah was to be none other than a person similar to Jesus rather than One who was to be conformed to their own concepts. Jesus brings this to their attention in a previous passage in John 5:45-47 where He warns them that
‘If you believed Moses, you would believe Me for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?’
A simply stated belief in anything, therefore, can be an illusion when that belief is taken to be an interpretation of an original statement which moves the original on to a place that it was never intended that it should go.
The definitive statement of their rejection of the Gospel of the Kingdom, however, is reserved for a passage in Luke where Jesus magnifies John the Baptist’s ministry and declares it to have been imparted to him by none other than God Himself, the author putting a comment in for the reader (Luke 7:29-30) that
‘When [the crowds] heard this, all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him’
Notice here that the purpose of God spoken of is singular which refers to their entry into the Kingdom of God by acceptance of the Good News. But, if the messenger and forerunner is rejected, it was almost an inevitable consequence that the One who he pointed towards must also be rejected. In a parable that Jesus tells as He approaches Jerusalem a final time (Luke 19:11-28), He notes that the citizens of the nobleman who went into a far country to receive a kingdom sent after him, saying (Luke 19:14)
‘We do not want this man to reign over us’
by which Jesus was able to show beforehand the rejection not just of the leaders but of most of those who were experiencing the move of God through Himself through the proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven in both word and deed.
When the religious leaders saw Jesus performing great signs and wonders, they saw in Him a threat to their own empire that they’d built for themselves. Their dependence on a legalistic externalism prevented them from entering into the blessings of the Kingdom, refusing to accept anything that fell outside their incorrect interpretations of Scripture, outworked in their adherence to the oral law, the tradition of the elders (Mtw 15:2).
Far from looking to these Scriptures and joining in the condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, we should, rather, ask ourselves searching questions as to whether there might be traditional and man-made systems of belief and conduct within ourselves that would restrict us from advancing into the full provision of the Gospel for, throughout Church history, the recipients of the previous move of God have often been the ones who have taken it upon themselves to actively oppose the new wave as it rolls in to a generation who are willing to throw away what is restrictive for that which liberates them into a right relationship with God.
And this is where a personal rejection of the message of the Kingdom leads - into an attempt to stop others who would enter in from doing so by undermining the authenticity and authority of the new move and of slandering what is happening as being against the purposes of God. This is exactly where Jesus’ condemnation goes, as well, for He continues by noting that the religious leaders also forbid
‘...those who would enter to go in’
while the earlier remarks in Luke 11:52 record Jesus’ meaning as being (my italics) that they
‘...hindered those who were entering’
and this is done in many ways. Firstly, by insisting that they are the way, the truth and the life, many would fear to move out against their interpretations in case they be seen to be angering God and of rejecting the clear promises which they claim rest upon them. The oral law went a fair way to doing this which was imposed upon their disciples and which became a burden that bound the adherent into a way of life that was found to be difficult to break free from without feelings of erring (Mtw 12:1-2, 15:1-2).
Having obscured the correct meaning of the Mosaic Law, it began to take pre-eminence and to replace the original manuscripts as being the sum total of all that needed to be both known and practised (Sanhedrin 11:3). Of course, the charge could be laid at the door of any religious movement that it’s insular in its insistence on right conduct which justifies acceptance into the heaven which is being promised and so we would do well to consider carefully our own structures which can hinder men and women from moving from one denominational set up to another because they feel that where they would leave is the font of all wisdom and grace.
Their announcements that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the long-awaited Messiah would immediately suffer excommunication (John 9:22) shows that just such a fear would have been brought upon them for there would have been many who would have gladly followed Jesus had not their exclusion from the body of YHWH’s people been a natural consequence of just such an action. Only if the cult is strongly bound together would such a declaration produce fear in those who were considering going over to become His disciple. Mattask observes that it was the leaders’ insistence
‘...on works of the Law as the sole ground of acceptance with God...’
which constituted their failure to allow those seeking after God to enter in to the Kingdom of Heaven, but this seems not to be the primary intended meaning here for it’s a direct action of diverting men and women from accepting the perceived message which appears to be the issue rather than what the new convert was to be converted into. This will certainly become the subject of Mtw 23:15 but it doesn’t appear to be what’s intended here, even though Mathag’s observations that the teaching of the Law from the lips of the Pharisees should have had the affect of pointing hearers to Jesus rather than of pointing the other way.
Their opposition of the message, then, went beyond a natural propensity of their own adherents to hold fast to the way of life which had been enjoined upon them - they also took active steps to hinder the message by insisting that deliverance was nothing more than the operation of evil powers at work rather than the presence of God (Mtw 9:32-34, 12:22-24), and to undermine the regard in which the people held Him by asking for answers which, if it had missed that mark, would have provided a provable charge of treasonable before the Roman authorities (Mtw 22:15-22).
In the Temple also, we see them indignantly complaining about the children who are declaring the praise of Jesus as the blind and the lame are being healed (Mtw 22:14-16) and, following more miracles, we find the Sanhedrin trying to prevent the apostles from bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom to the people by forbidding them to speak in the name of the Christ (Acts 4:1-2,18, 5:16-17,40).
The early Church also had problems with Pharisaic converts in its early years (Acts 15:5) for they insisted on the Mosaic Law being made compulsory for all the Gentile converts, a problem which Paul had to consistently preach against (Gal 5:2-4,12). By demanding from converts adherence to those things which were external, stumbling blocks were put in their path in a very similar manner to modern day christians who impose fearful demands upon the newly saved by stating traditional interpretations that teach man-centred instructions as being the rule and law of God.
There’s a sense in which a new convert must be warned concerning certain pitfalls but to announce to believers that they are free in Christ should mean just that! We shouldn’t impose our own choices upon them such as cinema-attendance, music-listening and the like which are different in their interpretation depending on which people one listens to.
This, as we noted at the beginning, has the effect of producing a cult rather than developing a relationship with God and which a believer will find it difficult to break free from when a new move of God begins which contravenes some of their man-made beliefs.
Instead of simply saying that the Gospel wasn’t for them, therefore, the scribes and Pharisees also took an active role in opposing the move of God that others who would have entered in would be fearful of so doing.
Jesus next turns His attention to the zeal with which the leaders strove to make even so much as one more adherent to their own religion but that, in the end, they were just as much destined to eternal condemnation as they themselves were (Mtw 23:15).
Such proselytising of non-Jewish people is well-attested both in Josephus and the Jewish writings contained in the Mishnah while Acts also contains a couple of examples. Firstly, though, Josephus in the Jewish War (page 378 lines 3-5) refers to a long period of time which began with the Greek domination of the area in the latter years before the beginning of the first century AD, noting that
‘All the time [the Jews] were attracting to their worship a great number of Greeks making them virtually members of their own community’
and, upon the rebellion of the Jews before the Roman army arrived to march on the land, the Damascenes were scared of the consequences which might be brought upon them and so planned to exterminate the entire population of Jews in their midst, having rounded them up and contained them in the gymnasium. But they were fearful not of committing mass murder (page 179 lines 15-16) but of
‘...their own wives, who had almost all gone over to the Jewish religion...’
We can see plainly, therefore, that proselytising was part and parcel of the Jewish religion (without us stating whether that was a good thing or bad - that point is not our concern at this moment) and the references to them in the Mishnah (for example, Peah 4:6, Bikkurim 1:4, Pesahim 8:8 and Shekalim 1:3 - but there are numerous more) make it plain that they were provided for as a matter of course that they might also know what the Rabbis said the Law demanded from them.
The mention of such people in the Book of Acts (2:10, 13:43) should also make us realise that the Jewish religion was by no means a guarded one that was only applicable to resident or genealogically proven Jews but to whosoever was willing to take upon themselves the commands which the religious leaders were laying upon them.
Jesus speaks of the proselytes as being ‘twice’ as much a child of hell which seems to refer to the increased zeal with which new converts displayed when they first came to accept Judaism (or, perhaps, ‘Pharisaism’ would be a better label), a point which cannot be doubted - circumcision would have inevitably have been a requirement so it probably goes without saying that zeal for the precepts of Judaism must have been fairly strong! Mathag, however, sees the statement as
‘...hyperbolic rhetoric that need not be taken literally’
and, though this may be the case, there appears to be sufficient grounds for doing just that.
But both proselyte and Jew were ‘children of hell [Gehenna]’ in the sense that they were destined for it when their lives ended and not in the modern day interpretation of the word ‘hell’ which implies a dominion over which satan rules (a concept which is wholly lacking from the NT). Mattask correctly interprets the phrase as meaning
‘...worthy of suffering punishment in the afterlife’
Like blind guides, the leaders were leading their followers over the precipice that they themselves were destined to step over (Mtw 15:1,14, 23:16).
Jesus didn’t speak against proselytising (see, for instance, His instructions to His disciples in Mtw 28:19) but is showing, rather, that death produces more death and is incapable of regenerating anyone that comes to such a source to learn how to please God. If the scribes and Pharisees have qualified themselves for the fires of hell, then that is all that they can qualify their disciples for. Mattask’s observation here that
‘The result was that the converted tended to become the perverted’
is true to the general thrust of what Jesus is saying. Death in one can only produce death in another, but the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God is the experience by which vitality, life, provision and power can be brought to an individual that is either talked or ministered to - whether that be considered to take place for the present day believer in the church meeting or in the local supermarket when the price of a can of beans is being queried!
The devotion to the precepts of Pharisaism had naturally precluded the converts from ever being able to embrace the message of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Second two woes - inverting values
Having dealt with the scribes and Pharisees’ rejection of the message of the Gospel, their action in restricting its influence in the lives of those who would give heed to the message and their committing of men and women into their own fold who would become more committed to storing up wrath for themselves, Jesus turns His attention to a couple of areas - oaths and tithing - where the inversion of their values caused them to adhere strictly to minor commandments of the Law while neglecting to observe the more important and vital areas which would show where their hearts lay.
First, Jesus deals with the oath (Mtw 23:16-22) and it must be immediately pointed out that it seems that Jewish records which have come down to us make no mention of such a differentiation between an oath sworn by the gold of the Temple and the Temple itself (Mtw 23:16-17,21) or between an oath sworn by the gift on the altar and the altar itself (Mtw 23:18-20).
The Pharisees have preserved in the tractate Shebuoth in the Mishnah, however, their deliberations as to which oaths should be considered as binding on a person and which ones should be considered vain, meaningless and not obliged to contain the truth - but the specific examples given by Jesus are omitted from the text.
Jesus has already given His position and teaching on oaths in Mtw 5:33-37 and commented that His disciples should be concerned not to use any verbal formulae to prove to the listener that what’s coming out of their mouths is true but that their simple affirmation or negation should be sufficient. However, Pharisaism still insisted that a verbal oath needed to be defined that the Jew might be able to know what he could say and be held to it and what he could utter - possibly deceitfully - and get away with.
The specific examples given by Jesus make perfect sense to the reader as well as the listener at the time. The first one deals with the Temple and its gold (Mtw 23:16-17,21) where the gold of the Temple is taken to be of more importance than the Temple which it covers. If the gold didn’t exist, however, the Temple would remain standing and the gold is only relevant as long as the Temple exists. It was the presence of the Temple that provided a place for the God of Israel to inhabit - the gold was merely a decoration or ornamentation for the ultimate King’s palace of residence.
But the religious leaders had undermined the importance of the Temple by elevating the gold above it, even though the gold was also considered sacred (that is, made holy) by God’s presence within the Temple (I Kings 8:13, Ps 26:8) and not the other way round.
That which was secondary was considered to have far more importance than the foundation upon which it was laid and it would be natural for the Jew to expect that an oath as to honesty which cited the Temple might be the more solemn rather than one which mentioned only that which adorned it.
So, too, we see an inversion of values when we approach the second oath which deals with the altar and the sacrificial gift thereon (Mtw 23:18-20). It was the altar that caused the gift to God to become sacred (Ex 29:37, 30:22-29 - the altar made holy whatever it touched). It was by the use of the altar that the gift was offered to God through the fire and ascending smoke and, if the altar had not been there, it would have made the gift to be irrelevant and unofferable. But, on the other hand, if the gift wasn’t there, the altar would still be relevant and important for the offering of any other gift that was brought to God.
The altar was primary and fundamental to the sacrificial system but the gift was secondary and reliant upon the altar for it to become holy. In this way, again, the scribes and Pharisees emphasised that which was less important and exalted it over that which was fundamental.
As I’ve previously noted, there appears to be no text I can find where such a statement actually exists in Jewish writings but we shouldn’t doubt that such an example was a true one. The examples given by Jesus (and Mtw 23:22 is a similar summation which lacks a prior statement but which also chips away at practices which we can only surmise as happening) point the reader to realise that the leaders had become so careful to hedge the Mosaic Law about and to define exactly what did and didn’t cause a Jew to become guilty, that they’d begun to forget about the more important matters of the Law for, in so defining what wasn’t an oath, they made the way for men to exploit the definition and get away with murder (probably literally, too!).
Jesus’ stance, however, that the words which came out from the mouth should always be truthful cut at the very heart of the internal attitudes which would scheme to be legally correct, and called each person to be accountable for every false word which was being spoken - not just the ones which were associated with the correct verbal formulae.
This principle of oath making was equally applicable to the Law of Moses and the rules surrounding tithing. By exalting and extending the tithing commandments, they’d caused them to become more important than the Laws they were founded upon (Lev 27:30-33 esp v.30, Deut 14:22-29 esp v.22 which referred to the agricultural produce of the land - that is, the large field crops such as wheat and barley and not the small quantities of mint, dill and cummin which weren’t, in themselves, foodstuffs but herbs used in the preparation of food in order to add flavour and cause the finished product to be more palatable. Dill flavoured bread and cakes, cummin seeds were used to spice stewed meat and give flavour to bread and mint was used as a flavouring in salads, cookery and possibly as the bitter herbs for Passover for some).
The Law was established upon much more important matters such as justice, mercy and forgiveness and for these to rule the Jew’s heart and life. But these values had been inverted so that it was the external and least important which they vehemently adhered to while neglecting the ‘weightier matters’.
Mtw 22:24-40 has already seen Jesus state clearly that the entire Law can be seen to be established upon two fundamental and important principles of love for God and love for man - but these had been put to one side that the minutiae of legal observance might serve in place of affairs of the heart. Not only were the religious leaders blind (Mtw 23:16), therefore, but they were also fools (Mtw 23:17).
The concluding verse, Mtw 23:24, is a humorous statement and meant to be so.
To put some flesh on the bare bones of this statement we should, perhaps, envisage that, in order not to swallow a gnat in one’s drink, the scribes and Pharisees were straining it out to remove all traces, thereby endeavouring not to contract ceremonial uncleanness (Lev 11:20-23). Having removed the tiniest speck of uncleanness, they then proceeded to swallow and digest a camel - infinitely larger and just as unclean (Lev 11:4).
Although this sentence is not to be taken literally as I have done above (for it’s unlikely that such a scenario was taking place in the religious leaders’ lives), it showed figuratively the absurdity of tithing herbs if the really important matters of the Law were being neglected.
Again, the Pharisees had inverted God’s values and were priding themselves in having been careful to observe the smallest requirements of the Law while the fundamental ones were being trampled in the dirt. When Jesus said (Mtw 23:23) that the scribes and Pharisees should have been concerned to aim for the foundational principles of the Law
‘...without neglecting the others...’
‘...without neglecting the laws of tithing...’
which it was obligatory for every Jew in Israel to observe and He’s not necessarily agreeing with the minuteness and exactness of the scribes and Pharisees’ tithe of herbs which were not foods in themselves and to which it’s doubtful that the Mosaic Law referred. But we’ve seen this above previously when we dealt with phylacteries (Mtw 23:5) where, although it remained doubtful that such a structure was ever literally commanded, it’s the principles at stake which cause the comment to be made. Mattask, on the other hand, refuses to accept the last few words of Mtw 23:23 because
‘...they contradict His argument’
and see them rather as an early marginal comment by a
‘...stringent Jewish christian which subsequently became inserted in the text’
even though there’s no textual support for his assertion. It’s best to retain the words, though, and see in them an argument based upon what the scribes and Pharisees were doing rather than on the correct interpretation of the minutiae of the Law. Matfran summarises Jesus’ words well when he paraphrases
‘Observe your meticulous rules if you like but don’t therefore neglect the things that really matter’
Here also, then, the justification and necessity of having to tithe herbs which weren’t foodstuffs is secondary to the inversion of values between their tithing and the neglect of the foundational issues of the Law itself.
There was sufficient evidence in the OT for the scribes and Pharisees to realise that the foundation of the Mosaic Law wasn’t in literal externalism and that simple conformity to a sacrificial code would never satisfy their God if the inner recesses of the heart went unreached and unpossessed by God.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to the nation of Israel on at least two separate occasions about the inability of external demonstrations of religion to satisfy His requirements of the people. In Is 58:1-9, we read of the rejection of the nation’s fasting on the grounds that it doesn’t match the contents of the heart and not because it’s been done the wrong way (that is, that they’d decided to drink water, for instance, instead of a total abstinence). Therefore God calls the fast no fast at all and demands, instead of an external show of religion (Is 58:6-7)
‘...to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke...to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh’
These were matters which would get the nation heard - not abstinence from food and an appeal to God to act because of the sincerity of their pleading. Again - and probably at a much earlier time in the prophet’s ministry - God spoke through him, saying that the people’s appearing before Him was beginning to grate even though they offered both sacrifice and incense, kept the celebration of the new moon and the sabbaths (Is 1:13), the appointed festivals (Is 1:14) and that they spread their hands out in petition to God, showing their earnest desire for an answer (Is 1:15).
The formalism of their external religion was unacceptable to Him, God said, even though it was done in accordance with the requirements of the Law because, internally, their attitudes were overflowing in deeds which were opposed to God.
There was no point expecting to call upon Him to act on their behalf when they were doing things which were displeasing to Him. Therefore, Isaiah records YHWH’s words in conclusion (Is 1:16-17) which are a command to His people to
‘Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow’
and only then would their external celebrations find acceptance before Him. Even from just these two passages, the scribe and Pharisee should have been able to see that the internal workings of the heart was what God was looking for and that, no matter how much they strove to be perfect in their external observances, it could never be sufficient to please Him.
But Isaiah wasn’t the only prophet to observe this. Hosea, prophet to the northern Kingdom of Israel before it’s exile by the hands of the Assyrians, recorded God’s words to His people (Hosea 6:6 - and cited by Jesus previously in Matthew’s Gospel in 9:13 and 12:7) that He desired
‘...steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings’
and the example of king Saul who spared the best of the sheep and oxen to sacrifice to YHWH instead of carrying out His instructions to totally destroy all the Amalekites (I Sam 15:3) was asked by Samuel the prophet (I Sam 15:22)
‘Has the Lord as great a delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’
and, although this obedience is evidenced externally as is the offering of sacrifice, it nevertheless demonstrated that even though internal reasoning might force one to presume to disobey a direct command of God, the same internal workings of a man’s heart should safeguard Him to be careful to regard God first above everything else.
A believer cannot pick and choose which of the Laws of God he’ll obey perfectly and choose to ignore the others. As in the case of both Isaiah and Hosea, it was observed that concepts such as justice and righteousness had been ignored when that meant that the fellow believer was to be looked after and not exploited - in their case, religion could be made to become distinct and separate from their dealings with those around them, but a true relationship with God must deal also with the way that a believer relates within the society in which they find themselves.
They may attend all the services required of them by their local church but, if they live lives of disobedience when they leave the building, they are only deceiving themselves that God’s hand rests upon them. At least one scribe came to a realisation of the truth in that final week (Mark 12:32-33) but, whether he went one step further and applied it to his life and what he was living is impossible to say.
But the important matters of the Law were not the sacrificial system, the observance of feasts and festivals, the perfect tithing of herbs or the correct formulation of binding oaths - in short, any external righteousness based upon works of the Law. But, rather, the existence of love in a believer’s heart, both for man and for God, which found expression through their own lives.
This inversion of values, then, was what ultimately condemned the religious leaders, by insisting on the minutiae of the Law rather than the essential and fundamental dynamic principles upon which it was built.
From these two woes, Jesus will now move on to emphasise the importance of internal righteousness and why the scribes and Pharisees had fallen foul of the requirements of the very same Law to which they proclaimed they were being faithful.
Third two woes - inner cleanliness
Having spoken about the reception of and entry into the Kingdom of Heaven in various ways (Mtw 23:13-15) and dealt with the way in which spiritual values are being reversed by the religious leaders in their emphasis of minor issues (Mtw 23:16-24), Jesus moves on to give observations concerning the state of the scribes and Pharisees’ life before God where their external show of piety is shown to be insufficient for inner and necessary cleanliness before God.
Firstly, Jesus begins by considering the cleansing of cups and plates in words which have some commentators insisting that what is being spoken is absolute and literal.
The tractate Kelim in the Mishnah runs to forty-five pages in its translated form and is an ‘instruction booklet’ concerning the ceremonial cleanness of all types of vessels and of how they can contract uncleanness. This section appears in the sixth division of the work entitled ‘Tohoroth’ (meaning ‘cleannesses’) which teaches the Rabbinic follower about all types of ceremonial purity and is the longest of the six divisions of the Mishnah taking up somewhere around one quarter of the entire length of the translated text (188 pages of the 789 page total), with tractates which are headed ‘vessels’, ‘tents’, ‘leprosy signs’, ‘the red heifer’, ‘cleannesses’, ‘immersion pools’, ‘the menstruant’, ‘predisposers’, ‘they that suffer a flux’, ‘he that immersed himself that day’, ‘hands’ and ‘stalks’.
It’s obvious, therefore, that the Rabbis had debated at some lengths about the correct ceremonial purity of most things including how to recover their cleanness in the sight of God by various religious applications, including - in the tractate Kelim - the subject of vessels. Jesus here uses their debates to bring out His own point that outward cleanliness is obnoxious to God if the internal parts of lives have remained unclean.
I’ve been unable to determine whether just such a practice was observed by the scribes and Pharisees when it came to pot washing or whether the Mishnah holds to the instruction that only the outside of cups and plates should be cleansed but, in a very real sense, this is totally irrelevant as the application of the teaching passage is directed towards the religious leaders’ lives in language that they should have been able to understand (and which I’ll deal with briefly below).
Firstly, however, we should note Mathen’s interpretation of the passage which is probably the most inaccurate one I’ve ever read of any passage to date - not that we can’t all make such an easy slip of interpretation but that the commentator seems to have totally missed the point of the passage, seeing as it’s one half of a twin teaching which continues to the end of Mtw 23:28.
There’s no doubt that, when Jesus turns to speak of ‘they’ being full of extortion and rapacity that He must be referring to the cups and plates that He’s just mentioned in the previous breath but that the cup is to be interpreted as the life of the scribe and Pharisee seems equally obvious. But Mathen takes Jesus’ words as being literally applicable and writes that
‘What the Lord is saying, then, is that His opponents pay far more attention to ritualistic cleansing of these vessels than to a. the origin of the things that go into them and b. the manner in which the contents are consumed. The cup and the dish may have been made ever so clean ceremonially and physically but if what they contain was obtained by means of extortion, how can this compliance with a tradition avail the scribes and Pharisees?...[they were] guilty because of the manner in which they obtained the contents of cup and dish...’
and he sees Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders at this point on the grounds that they had obtained their drink (and food, no doubt) by evil and underhanded means and were therefore eating and drinking condemnation upon themselves.
His advice to them to cleanse the inside, therefore, was a plea to put aside their wicked ways and to reform their character to be more God-like. Mattask also adds to the possibility of this interpretation by commenting that the phrase ‘full of extortion and rapacity’ actually means
‘full of produce gained by sweated labour and profiteering’
but the expression appears to be indicative not of specific acts of wickedness but of an evil heart in general.
I don’t believe, therefore, that such an interpretation is the correct one for a moment for it makes much more sense that Jesus is using the religious words which would have been commonplace amongst them and turned them around to speak of their own impurity within their lives and of how they had everything very neat and tidy on the outside of their lives through the ceremonies and religious observances when they could never be accepted before God on this basis. Matcar notes Jacob Neuser in his commentary on this passage and writes that, according to this work
‘...pre-70AD Judaism was divided on the issue of clean vessels. The Hillelites thought the inside of a vessel declared it clean. The Shammaites, predominant before 70AD, held it was necessary to cleanse both inside and outside; the one did not affect the status of the other’
concluding with a statement which is a parallel to Mathen though it would appear that Mathen is the origin of such an interpretation and that Neuser has simply put flesh on its bare bones. Matmor concludes his words by stating, similarly, that
‘Jesus is saying that their attention to the outside of the cup and the plate is useless because all that is in these vessels has been contaminated by the way it was acquired’
But, again, this hardly appears to be the point of the passage and Jesus appears to be more concerned to almost speak in a parable that can be worked out by His opponents than to give a plain and simple statement that is easily discernible - having said that, this is exactly what He’ll do in the next ‘woe’ (Mtw 23:27-28). As we shall see below, also, the Pharisee knew to cleanse both the inside and outside of the cup and that the inner cleanness of a vessel was of greater worth than external - therefore, such a practice which is assumed that would have the religious leaders simply cleansing the outer part of a vessel is unfounded. They were as concerned with the inside as they were without with physical objects.
But there are two part verses in the Mishnah which show us how this statement would have been applied by the scribes and Pharisees if the statements made here were what were generally accepted in first century Israel. Firstly, Kelim 25:1 makes the statement (my italics) that
‘In all utensils, an outer and an inner part are distinguished as in mattresses, pillows, sacks and packing bags’
which is applied by Danby in a footnote but which is commented on in the actual pages of the Mishnah very soon afterwards in Kelim 25:6 where it’s written that
‘If a vessel’s outer part was rendered unclean by [unclean] liquid, its inner part...remain[s] clean. But if its inner part becomes unclean, the whole is unclean’
In other words, the Rabbis believed that one could have an externally unclean vessel which bore within itself ceremonially pure drink and food but that the inner recesses of the vessel, if unclean, would render the external surfaces also unclean and, therefore, able to impart uncleanness to those who came into contact with it.
When Jesus spoke to the religious leaders, He began to argue and apply their own position on vessels to the vessel of the human body, showing them that it was pointless attempting to remove the external uncleanness of their own lives through the ceremonies they were practising because, internally, there was still uncleanness and that this would contaminate their external actions no matter how much they tried to reform.
Rather, there was a need to cleanse the very core of the believer that the external surface of a man’s life might be rendered clean and acceptable to God. Jesus isn’t bothered about the correct method of ceremonial purity of vessels, therefore, but is using such procedural terminology to bring His point across that (Mtw 15:11,18)
‘...what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man...what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man’
and, as such, they were approaching ‘religion’ from a totally wrong perspective.
Secondly, Jesus goes on to speak of whitewashed tombs and applies it to the scribes and Pharisees that, inside their lives, they’re full of all manner of uncleanness (Mtw 23:27-18), a declaration which may owe its relevance to a specific religious safeguard which had begun to be performed less than a month before throughout Israel.
The Nazirite was told specifically not to go near a dead body all the days of His separation to the Lord to the extent of attending the mourning which was to accompany even the closest of relatives such as his mother and father (Num 6:6-7).
Of course, for the ordinary Jew, this would be impossible to keep for then no one would ever have been buried, so it was expected that some people would become unclean at certain times of the year simply because there were familial needs which had to be attended to.
But the Mosaic Law made specific provision for these people and gave specific instructions concerning them, commanding (Num 19:16 - my italics) that
‘Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword or a dead body or a bone of a man or a grave shall be unclean seven days’
and (Num 19:22) that
‘...whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean; and any one who touches it shall be unclean until evening’
This had extreme ramifications for the Jewish pilgrims who were making their way to Jerusalem to attend and celebrate the Passover festival for, if any of them made contact with a tomb, it would render them unclean for a full seven days and they would be disqualified from participating in the Passover until the second month (Num 9:9-11). But, worse than this, if a pilgrim should touch a tomb unwittingly (in first century Israel, the dead were buried ‘wherever’ and weren’t confined into one specific geographic location called a ‘cemetery’ which could have been easily marked off) and impart that uncleanness to others, then Israel’s Passover celebrations could be unclean in God’s sight and the nation would stand before Him in shame - or, rather, such would be the logical extreme of the ceremonial purity laws.
The Rabbis, therefore, instituted laws to prevent this possibility. Shekalim 1:1 specifically notes that
‘On the 15th [of Adar - the month before Nisan in which Passover fell] they...mark the graves...’
with Ma’aser Sheni 5:1 telling us that
‘...a grave [must be marked] by whiting [according to Danby, this is lime] mingled with water and poured over the grave’
the procedure preventing the person who marks the tomb from himself becoming unclean by contact with the grave. Had they just taken dry lime and painted it on, the tomb would have imparted uncleanness to them. Incidentally - and this is nothing whatsoever to do with the passage in question - I remember walking passed the Golden Gate and outside the eastern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 1986 and observing the rich density of tombs which were gathered all around. I was told that this array wasn’t a Jewish graveyard as some might have assumed but an Arab one because it was seen as a sure prevention to the Messiah when He comes because He couldn’t walk through the place without becoming unclean!
Even so, there appeared to be some doubt in the Arabs’ minds for we also noted sentries sitting atop the gate with guns - just in case, I presume, their theology was errant. When Jesus returns, of course, He’ll raise the dead and, even if the graveyard stands in His way and the ceremonial laws were expected to apply, it would be an interesting Rabbinical debate to overhear that discussed whether a vacated tomb was still unclean when life had been imparted to its inhabitant who made the ground unclean by their death.
I digress - sorry.
So, anyway, one month before Passover, all the graves were marked - especially surrounding Jerusalem - with a form of whitewash so that the pilgrims who were coming to observe Passover wouldn’t step on them and contract ceremonial uncleanness.
If this procedure is in mind (and there may be a doubt concerning this - see below), then Jesus isn’t simply saying that, like whitewashed tombs, the inner places of the religious leaders’ hearts (just like all men) are unclean and in need of cleansing, but that their lives are a source of spiritual defilement to others who reach out to them for some impartation of life through the observance of their rules and regulations.
The principle is equally applicable to NT believers, though, where a follower of Jesus must be careful what his life touches - not physically but spiritually, not in the sense of externals but with regard to participation of the spirit in matters pertaining to death. If a believer embraces spiritual death, they become unclean and in need of cleansing.
However, as noted above, Jesus’ words may be referring to the tombs that were beautified with a marble and lime plaster not for warning but for decoration and which would have been observable most times during the year (though the rains of the winter and spring would possibly have lessened the impact of their brilliance) - the inference from Jesus’ words that these tombs appear ‘outwardly beautiful’ would tend to suggest this. However, Jesus isn’t saying that men and women are drawn to their attractiveness, only that they have an appearance of beauty that can be recognised because of their brilliance. Commentators who point out that the Jew looked upon them with fear rather than pleasure tend to miss the point for something can, at the same time, be both a point of beauty and an item of death. After all, isn’t that what sin is?
There also remains the possibility that it isn’t the actual graves which are being mentioned but the ossuaries (the vessels in which the rotted bones of the dead were placed) that could be ornate and considered to have beauty - that ‘whitewashing’ is mentioned, however, would seem to preclude this.
But, even if either of these two possibilities are what Jesus is mentioning, the recently whitewashed tombs would have served Jesus as a fitting example to His hearers, a great proportion of whom would no doubt have travelled to the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the festival.
Matcar comments on Josephus’ description of the Essenes (War 2.8.3) that they went about
‘...clothed in white garments’
and sees Jesus’ mention of an outward appearance of righteousness as being indicative of this practice (Mtw 23:28). But there’s no indication in the text that Jesus has in mind the Essene sect and it seems unlikely that such an inference can be retrieved from Jesus’ words when He’s concerned to speak against the scribal and Pharisaical lifestyle rather than to incorrectly assign to them a rite which doesn’t appear to have been of their making - there’s mention in the Talmud of such white garments but reference to them in the Mishnah appears to be lacking. Besides, such an assertion attempts to substitute the righteous deeds of the Pharisees for a garment and would undermine a correct interpretation.
As I noted above, Jesus has already spoken about the condition of man’s heart (Mtw 15:11,18) but here he applies it to the religious leaders and we must be careful to note that He isn’t saying that it’s only the religious that are bad at heart but that He’s using the teaching to show them that, whereas they’ve aimed at external perfection, the real desire of God for man is to be clean within - a statement which should have showed them immediately the impossibility of being pleasing to God through what they were practising.
The blood of bulls, goats and the ashes of the red heifer were sufficient to cleanse ceremonial uncleanness and contamination that was contracted by OT believers but something far greater than this was needed in order to satisfactorily cleanse the moral uncleanness of men’s hearts and spirits - such a thing was the blood of Jesus Christ (Heb 9:13-14) which transforms the individual who experiences it into a believer who becomes alive to God.
The concept of atonement in the OT was a temporary religious rite where the word from which we get our translation means ‘to cover’ (Strongs Hebrew number 3722) and the idea seems to be that sins were ‘covered’ but could not be finally dealt with (Heb 7:19, 10:1, 10:4) until the once-for-all-time perfect sacrifice was offered that would not ‘cover’ but ‘forgive’ and deal with all the types of inner uncleannesses which the Mosaic Law could do nothing for (Heb 9:12, 10:10-22 esp v.10,14).
Being clean before God is certainly a paradox for, on the one hand, it’s the command of God that each person should be clean (I Peter 1:14-16, Is 1:16) and up to individuals to make it so (Rev 7:14, II Cor 7:1, James 4:8) and, on the other, it’s only the mercy of God that has been made known to the believer which can cleanse the person for, being unable to cleanse themselves, it’s God who alone has made the provision by the blood of the Christ so that they can be cleansed (Mtw 26:28, Heb 13:12, Rev 1:5, Rom 5:9, I John 1:7) and it is only He who can apply that work and cleanse them (Jer 33:8, Ezek 36:25).
Seventh woe - the judgment about to fall
Jesus has dealt with numerous scribal and Pharisaic traits before He arrives, here, at the seventh and final woe against the religious leadership. The italicised words are important to remember for we’re here going to be dealing with the judgment which is about to fall upon the Jewish leadership and not on the nation as a whole. In Mtw 23:37-39, we’ll see what Jesus has to say about the city of Jerusalem but neither of these two passages deal with the nation of Israel initially and it’s this that we must be careful to be faithful to. Matcar, on the other hand, writes that
‘...the teachers of the law and the Pharisees have been Jesus’ primary target. Now the reference is to “this generation” because the leaders represent the people...and the people, despite Jesus’ warnings, do not abandon their leaders for Jesus Messiah’
but, although this may ultimately be the outworking of the judgment of God upon the leadership, it doesn’t appear to be in mind here and the word ‘generation’ used (Mtw 23:36) is more properly interpreted as meaning ‘this generation of religious leaders’ rather than ‘this generation of Jews’ (or else the phrase would have to be taken as referring to ‘this nation’ with no time restriction of being within a forty year period) as Mathag also comments even though the shift from one thought to another appears to be totally unwarranted by the text. Those who share the same spirit as the leadership will reap the same consequences, no doubt, when judgment comes but, for now, the condemnation lies solely at the leadership’s door.
Judgment will imminently fall on the religious leaders, however, not because God the Father has decided that the time has come to do something new and wishes to remove the old leadership, but because they have been aiming for a mere formalism in their service of God, an outward demonstration of piety that didn’t rely upon internal cleanliness and, consequently, refusing to accept the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom that had been proclaimed through both John the Baptist and Jesus the past three to five years (depending how long John the Baptist ministered to the nation).
As such, the leadership stand in a dangerous position before God and the final statement here that God is about to act against them is paralleled in the OT passage of Jeremiah chapter 7 (esp v.21-29) where the nation at that earlier time had stood opposed to the will of God. As such, it will be beneficial to consider the two passages side by side as we work through Jesus’ words in Mtw 23:29-36.
Firstly, there’s the prophetic voice where Jeremiah records God’s words as stating that (Jer 7:25)
‘From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day’
and where Jesus states also personally (Mtw 23:34) that
‘...I send you prophets and wise men and scribes...’
It wasn’t as if the nation was without its warning messengers who moved through the land and declared to it the will of God but that the nation had singularly failed to give heed to their message and to turn round their own way of living to hold fast to the way revealed to them. Jesus, also, is the Messenger of the New Covenant, the head of all the OT prophets who declares the message of the dawning Kingdom of Heaven to all the nation but whose leaders reject the message.
Notice also that one aspect of both Jeremiah and Jesus’ message was the adherence to externalism as being capable of pleasing God and of satisfying the requirements of His will (Jer 7:22, Mtw 23:23a,25-28) and the neglect of the important foundational aspects of the Law (Jer 7:5-6,23, Mtw 23:23b,25-28). Just as in the current situation, the religious had provided themselves on their observance to a written code which was outworked in the sacrificial system.
Jer 7:22 needs to be fully considered here for YHWH says that
‘...in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices’
a clear indication that the sacrificial system and the service of the Tabernacle wasn’t the prime mover for God that He came upon the nation in the bondage of Egypt and delivered them. Rather, it was His promise to Abraham and their obedience to the word of God spoken by Moses which had ultimately delivered them out of the grasp of Pharaoh and away into a time of preparation before entering Canaan. The sacrificial system, therefore, was a secondary observance where obedience was considered primary (I Sam 15:22).
Secondly, and following on, the message was met with a rejection of its instruction and a persecution of the bearers of the news from God. In Jer 7:26, YHWH says simply that the nation
‘...did not listen to Me or incline their ear but stiffened their neck...’
while Jesus makes it more personal by speaking of the persecution of the prophets who came in God’s name and, therefore, probably inferring a reference to Himself who the religious leaders had been seeking to destroy for some time (see, for instance, Mtw 12:14 for an early record of their will in the matter). He notes, again personally (Mtw 23:34), that
‘...I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town’
where man and message cannot be separated (Mtw 5:11-12, 10:40-41, 25:41-46, Mark 9:37) Matmor sees Jesus’ use of the first person as Him speaking directly under the inspiration of God the Father and of declaring His will rather than speaking as Himself with the imparted authority given to Him as the Son. There seems to be little difference whichever is chosen - the point is that Jesus stands in the line of a long series of attempts by the Father to get His will done and each one has been greeted with rejection by the nation to whom they’ve been sent.
The crucial connection is that, in both cases, it was happening in the nation and to the religious leaders as it had done in the lives of their fathers where the present day proverb ‘like father, like son’ holds true. The God of Israel is simple in His observation in Jer 7:26 when He states that the current generation
‘...did worse than their fathers’
a point which sees the nation as not simply a mirror image of what’s preceded them but a degeneration, while Jesus speaks at length (Mtw 23:29-31) observing that, while they built (probably ‘maintained’ would be a better interpretation but Herod the Great had certainly taken it upon himself to build at least one memorial over the place of a patriarchs’ known or supposed final resting place - Antiquities 16.8.1) the tombs and monuments of the righteous and mourned that if they’d lived in the days of the fathers of the nation they wouldn’t have put their hand to kill God’s servants, they were confessing themselves to be the sons of murderers - perhaps the parallel is to be seen in that many of the prophets had been persecuted and killed by those who held positions of leadership within the nation and that, even now, it was the same leadership over the nation which was actively opposing the stirring of God’s Spirit in calling men and women back to Himself through the Gospel.
This appears to be an inspired way of calling them to account for the succession in which they sat and of imparting responsibility not only for the acts of the fathers but for the duplication of their work through their rejection of both John the Baptist a couple of years previous and, presently, of Jesus Himself (John 11:45-53), to be followed by their persecution of Jesus’ followers (Mtw 10:17-18, Acts 6:8-8:1).
The scribes and Pharisees are sons of the ‘fathers’ in the sense that they’re of the same spirit even though some of them may have been able to trace their genealogical line directly back to the fathers who had murdered the former prophets.
Neither generation (that is, those people mentioned in both Jeremiah chapter 7 and Matthew chapter 23, the nation in the former and the religious leadership in the latter) had learnt by the disobedience and errors of their fathers as God had intended them to do (Ezek 18:14-18).
Stephen, the first recorded martyr in the New Covenant, accused the Jewish Sanhedrin as being the literal descendants of the murderers when he was being tried before them and asked them (Acts 7:52)
‘Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered...’
words which seem to have been the final straw which incensed them to such an extent that they failed to carry through the formal decision which was required of their court meeting rather than to allow the mob rule which ensued (Acts 7:54-58).
If they shared the same spirit, they would do the same things. And, that they were doing the same things, showed that they were living under the same imminent judgment. Therefore, YHWH’s pronouncement in Jer 7:28-9 (my italics) that
‘...This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips. Cut off your hair and cast it away; raise a lamentation on the bare heights, for the Lord has rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath’
is similar to Jesus’ declaration that, upon the present generation of religious leaders (Mtw 23:35-36 - my italics) would fall
‘...all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation’
The end result of both generations was to be the same (Jer 7:14-15,20,33-34, Mtw 23:35-36) that judgment was to fall upon them because they’d refused to hear the Word of the Lord (Jer 7:3,26). Notice that, even before the start of Jesus’ ministry, John had spoken to them warning them to change their ways but significantly not saying that judgment was certain and irrevocable (Mtw 3:7-10 - the statement that they were to ‘bear fruit that befits repentance’ gives opportunity for repentance to take place and judgment to be revoked). But here the judgment is spoken of as being certain (Mtw 23:33-36) and it was rejection not just of the message of the Kingdom but of the King Himself that had caused the change.
Notice that both Jeremiah and Matthew’s Gospel record the description of the people present at the time of the message as being ‘the generation’ (Jer 7:29, Mtw 23:36) and which must necessarily refer to the people who were alive rather than to a people who were as yet unborn. So Mathag notes quite rightly that it must be taken to refer to
‘...the lifetime of those listening to Jesus’ words...’
This might seem like a superfluous and meaningless point to the reader but, as we will eventually see when we reach Matthew chapter 24, it’s of fundamental importance for, in Mtw 24:34, the same word is employed (Strongs Greek number 1074) but, because of the problems it causes in the minds of commentators, many choose to interpret it differently to its use here.
As we’ll point out there, the difference of meaning attributable to the word isn’t necessarily a result of a doctrine that undermines the testimony of other Scripture but of one which is normally run away from with regard to prophetic utterances which accepts all prophecy as pre-written history and inevitable.
Jesus’ statement concerning the righteous blood being shed ‘from Abel to Zechariah’ (Mtw 23:35) where Abel’s murder is recorded in Gen 4:8 and Zechariah’s in II Chron 24:21 can cause a little confusion seeing as the latter is by no means last in the present day binding and arranging of the books of the OT.
However, the arrangement in the Jewish Bible causes Genesis to be placed first while II Chronicles is put last. In this way, Jesus is summarising the full history of the OT and saying that all the righteous blood shed ‘on earth’ (and even before the formation of the nation took place), symbolised by that which is recorded in the Scriptures from beginning to end, would come upon that generation of scribes and Pharisees because, in them, the motives for all such murders were present.
This isn’t just Jesus going over the top and attributing His bitter opponents with guilt that they couldn’t possibly have had a hand in but calling the attitude of heart as necessary to be judged because it resided in the religious leaders who professed to be true and obedient followers of God.
Textually, there’s a problem with Jesus’ statement that the last righteous man to be slain was ‘Zechariah, the son of Berechiah’ because it has to be taken as being a reference to II Chron 24:21 even though the name is only exactly paralleled by Zech 1:1, the OT prophet of the returned exiles. Indeed, this prophet of God is mentioned in II Chron 24:20 as being
‘Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest’
and an explanation needs to be found for the apparent discrepancy. Numerous explanations have already been given in my introduction to the Book of Zechariah under the title ‘Who was Zechariah?’ and I shall just summarise them here. It’s not unusual for a man to be regarded as the son of his grandfather (thereby having, apparently, two fathers) and which I noted in my notes on the Genealogy of the Messiah as occurring on some occasions. There’s also the possibility that the rendering ‘son of Berechiah’ is an early scribal error in the transmission of the NT text but there’s certainly no evidence in the manuscript record to support this assertion save the lack of the term in Luke 11:51. It could even be that Jesus chose to speak of Zechariah in this way to directly relate it to His hearers that they would understand what He meant because there were many Zechariahs and they were often confused for one another.
Therefore, although there are possible explanations, there is nothing which can be said with any real certainty.
Finally, a word needs to be said about Jesus’ mission to the scribes and Pharisees for this is often pushed to the back of our minds when we come to this passage and think, almost, that all that ever happened was that Jesus condemned them whenever He encountered the group.
Jesus had repeatedly spoken to both groups as they were a part of the multitudes and as individuals. He’d given them every opportunity to repent and to turn to Him for forgiveness and healing but they’d taken the attitude of hardening their hearts against the message of the Kingdom that was being brought to them and plotting to kill the Messenger Himself.
Therefore, judgment hung over their generation which was shortly to be poured out upon them.
Yet, even now, prophets were preparing to be sent (Mtw 23:34) before that day, because God’s mercy is ever present alongside His judgment (Ezek 18:23, II Peter 3:9).
God knew full well that there was no way that the entire group would turn from their own religion but He still brought the message to them that they might be given the opportunity in order that the ‘full measure’ of their sins begun by their spiritual fathers would come about (Mtw 23:32). Besides, just because the judgment was to fall upon the Jewish religious leadership didn’t mean that it had to fall upon the Jews who lived under their authority. This matter was not, as yet, fixed.
A similar idea comes in the OT in Gen 15:16 where God chose not to drive the Ammonites out from Canaan at that time and give the land to Abraham and his descendants because the full measure of their sins had not yet reached the point where God’s wrath would be poured out upon them through the advancing and conquering nation of Israel.
Joshua’s conquest of the land should be seen not as an act of aggression and of God’s overpowering strength against finite man, but as an act of justice and the dispossession of the owners of the land that a people’s sin had caused them to forfeit.
Paul, a Jew, was also not backward in condemning his own countrymen in I Thess 2:14-16 where he wrote that the Thessalonians
‘...suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved - so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last [the RSV notes that the last two words could also be rendered “completely” or “forever” where the former is to be preferred)!’
This initial persecution of the early Church, then, is the final straw, so to speak, which filled up what was lacking to cause God’s judgment to fall upon them. It would be wrong to simply equate this with the events of 70AD (though, if we did, God’s wrath would have been demonstrably shown to have been poured out and satisfied) but it does show that Jesus’ words are fulfilled in the continued persecution of the message.
Paul stops short of stating that judgment was about to fall upon the nation but it’s difficult to interpret the term ‘Jews’ in many other ways and what was true about the leadership seems to have been transferred over to the nation itself through it’s rejection of the message of the Gospel which was proclaimed to them through those subsequent forty years following the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
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