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Matthew 23:1-39

Last Updated 11/27/00

CHAPTER 23:1-39 TEXT:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. 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. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. 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. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. 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. 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! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, 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. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. 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. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, 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. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? 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 shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: 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. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. 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! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. 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.

2  The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat

By using the phrase "seat of Moses," Yeshua indeed designates that authority is with the Pharisees.

3  All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do, but do not ye after their works ...

It would appear that Yeshua is telling the people to obey the Pharisees, while at the same time telling them not to follow them. In order to understand this passage, it is important to recall that much of Yeshua's criticism of the Pharisees was because they taught commandments of men that made void the commandments of God (Matthew 15:13). Hence, the problem is not with the Pharisees teaching Torah, but with anything that contradicts Torah.

The human ordinances of the Pharisees placed emphasis on outside observance and not on what would change the inner man (see verses 24-28 below). Yeshua considered these teachings to be as "leaven," (Matthew 16:11-12), which if left unchallenged, would corrupt all the people.

Certain manuscripts of the Hebrew Shem Tob1 book of Matthew offer a different translation to this section, making a distinction between what Moses said and what the Pharisees taught:

Upon the seat of Moses the Pharisees and Sages sit, and now, all which he (Moses) will say unto you-keep and do; but their ordinances and deeds do not do, because they say and do not.

The key thing to note here, is that even though the Pharisees were teaching Torah, they were also promoting "lawlessness" as their teachings were not based in a humble faith in God but in self-righteouseousness that misused the Torah and often negated it.

Verses 7-12 

The key to this section is verse 12:  "And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."

Yeshua is teaching not to seek leadership (as many are often too eager to do), as this places a person under greater responsibility. As He points out in verse 14, there is a "greater condemnation" for such leaders who err.

This is consistent with the teachings of "James":

James 3:1 - My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

And also the Talmud:

Talmud, Avot 1:10 - Despise the position of Rabbi.

15  ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves

The Pharisees were not shy about evangelizing. However, as Yeshua points out, many of them interpreted the Scriptures in their own (self-righteous) way, that was not in accordance to the truth of Torah. Not much has changed to this day, with countless church denominations sending missionaries all around the world, teaching people to follow a Messiah who tells them that "they are not under the Law" - a message alien to the true gospel message.

17  whether is greater, the gold, or the temple ...
19  whether is greater, the gift, or the altar ...

This is a continuation of the rebuke of the Pharisees who had their priorities out of order, following the traditions of men over the Torah of God.

23  these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone

Again Yeshua throws His support behind Torah, in this case telling the Pharisees that they should have continued giving the tithes they chose to give, but not at the expense of judgment, mercy and faith, which are the "three pillars" of the godhead that the Torah directs us toward.2

30   If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers

Here is yet another verse with a worrisome lesson for today. These religious leaders were condemned, as future generations would be, for not having a proper regard for God's Torah. If the Pharisees had been following Torah in its proper context, they would have recognized Yeshua as the Messiah.

35  Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

Here is one of those cases that causes a problem for those who insist that the "New Testament" texts, as we have them, are absolutely free from any scribal error. According to 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, it was another Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada that was slain as such, not Zacharias the son of Barchias. (See the comments on this verse in the, Jewish New Testament Commentary, by David Stern, for possible reasons for this error. Also see the footnote to this verse in the DuTillet Hebrew Matthew, translation by James Trimm, www.nazarene.net.)

37  even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,

It is easy to overlook the fact that Yeshua uses a feminine analogy here. The "feminine" aspect of God is something we discuss fully in our Revelation study. Yeshua's sad words relate back to the previous parables, which though spoken more directly to the Pharisees, were also a condemnation of the people who blindly followed them.

It is interesting to note that Yeshua, who says he broods like a hen in this verse, was instrumental in creation. (John 1:3). The language of the Genesis account similarly states that the Spirit of God also "brooded" over the waters at creation. Bringing these two together, is the Talmud, that says this Spirit of God is the spirit of Messiah:

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis II:4 - AND THE SPIRIT OF GOD HOVERED: this alludes to the spirit of Messiah, as you read, And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him (Isa. XI, 2).

38  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

A final rebuke, tying back to the metaphor of the fig tree in 21:19.


1. There are several versions of the Shem Tob. The majority follow the common interpretation of "they" in this verse, but two manuscripts have the singular "he."

2. Our Revelation study explains these various aspects/emanations of God in our world.


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