The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Matthew 23

Mat 23:3

YOU MUST OBEY THEM AND DO EVERYTHING THEY TELL YOU: "Act according to the law they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left" (Deu 17:11).

Mat 23:4

All their efforts are bent toward making their brethren's burdens heavier... but... they will make no effort to ease the burden, once it is imposed.

Ct Moses, who held up both his hands all day, to ease the burden of his people Israel (Exo 17:12).

Mat 23:5

THEY MAKE THEIR PHYLACTERIES WIDE: Cp Exo 13:3-16; Deu 6:4-9; 11:13-31.

Mat 23:13

Vv 13-31: 8 curses, here; 8 blessings: Mat 5:3-10. Cp Ebal and Gerizim: Deu 27:12,13.

Mat 23:15

CONVERT: "Proselyte" in KJV.

HELL: "Gehenna".

Mat 23:19

Once placed upon the altar, the sacrifice was holy and could not be removed and rendered common again, even if discovered to be blemished.

Mat 23:23

YOU GIVE A TENTH OF YOUR SPICES: Tractate Maaseroth opens with a ruling on what is liable to the tithe, "all that which is food", and then defines when that food is liable -- not in its early stage but in its later stage (1:1). The determinations become more detailed in the eight mishnot that follow: "figs" (1:2); "carabs" (1:3); "greens -- cucumbers, gourds, melons..." (1:4); etc. The attention given every plant reflects the rabbinic concern to legislate on every detail of life, to leave nothing unaddressed. The Lord condemns the scribes and Pharisees as "hypocrites" because they tithed "mint, dill, and cummin" but neglected the "more important requirements of the law."

Maaseroth 4:5 gives instruction on dill and seed. In the Law of Moses none of these are listed for tithing, but evidently because these were herbs and seed used as seasoning in food they were considered tithable. It may be that the rabbis went beyond the intent of the law with such concern for detail, but it was not their meticulous observance of tithing that Jesus condemned but their lack of equal or greater attention to "justice and mercy and faithfulness." In Maaseroth 5:7 the exact rulings reach the absurd with legislation regarding ant-holes alongside a heap of corn. "The corn inside of them is also liable" to be tithed.

YOU HAVE NEGLECTED THE MORE IMPORTANT MATTERS OF THE LAW -- JUSTICE, MERCY AND FAITHFULNESS: "The Pharisees were deliberately blind when it came to ritual. They appear completely ignorant and insensitive to the clear-sighted criticism of the Lord, who saw through the façade of their deception and was moved to great indignation by their legalistic approach to the worship of Yahweh. While they behaved correctly and were scrupulous in their meticulous keeping of the Law in its smallest details, Christ was more interested in testing their inward motives rather than merely observing their outward performance.

"Sometimes we can put on a show, pretending good behaviour for a while, but sadly the danger is that it can become an habitual, ritualistic lifestyle without us even realising. We may regularly support our ecclesia, assist weaker brethren and sisters, dress appropriately, partake of the emblems each Sunday and be diligent in our attendance of study nights and special events. Our level of service to god can be based on an evaluation of works and deeds that we have done, so that we become so proud of our 'voluntary humility' that we defend ourselves against any criticism concerning our lack of spiritual attitude. Unless an outward expression of the responsive development of a progressive relationship with God, the 'rite becomes wrong!'

"How thankful we should be that the weekly memorial meeting is an opportunity to examine the heart and analyse our inward motives to see if we are truly demonstrating a love for God -- or is ours simply a desire to impress others? Ecc 10:2 says, 'A wise man's heart is at his right hand; but a fool's heart at his left.' In this unusual expression (because, in fact, the heart is positioned slightly to the left in the human body) is demonstrated that the heart, emotion and intellect of a spiritually-minded individual has an 'unnatural' inclination! It is centrally positioned with harmonious desire to give pleasure to Yahweh, rather than at a left-handed inclination to please self. Let us have the courage to thoroughly examine our true motives so that our service to Yahweh may not be 'rite' by 'right'!" (SJ Mansfield).

"After all that the prophets had said, Christ needed to explain the law of justice again. His contemporaries were zealous for their traditions but they neglected the weightier matters of the law of God, justice, faith and love. They were eager to lade men with heavy and unnecessary burdens but they could not apply the just balance and just measure to the affairs of spiritual life. So has it been in later days. There has often been a passionate zeal for rectitude in little matters of form and expression, resulting in bitter criticism and often injustice to fellow labourers. We have a strong conviction that when the Just One passes final judgment, some well-meaning but self-centred men will be reproved because they have rigorously enforced so many rules of their own and have been neglectful of justice, mercy, faith and the love of God" (PrPr 186). See Lesson, Weightier matters.

THE MORE IMPORTANT MATTERS: "The weightier matters". Herbs have a weight, although it is very little. Principles have no "weight", literally, at all! Nevertheless, they are far more "weighty" than herbs! Cp Mic 6:7,8.

Mat 23:24

YOU STRAIN OUT A GNAT: The KJV has "strain AT a gnat" -- a printer's error that crept in after 1611, and remained!

Mat 23:25

INSIDE THEY ARE FULL OF GREED AND SELF-INDULGENCE: That is, the food and drink put therein were obtained by greed and self-indulgence, and in turn are enjoyed in more greed and self-indulgence.

Mat 23:27

WHITEWASHED TOMBS: "During the month of Adar, just before Passover, it was customary to whitewash with lime graves or grave-sites that might not be instantly identified as such, in order to warn pilgrims to steer clear of the area and avoid ritual uncleanness from contact with corpses. Such uncleanness would prevent participation in the Passover" (EBC).

Thus the Pharisaical traditions, like the whitewash, showed them up for what they were -- sites of uncleanness. They might have a superficial appearance of cleanness -- like the whitewash -- but inside they were a very different story!

By contrast, in Luk 11:44, Jesus uses the same basic idea, and applies it again to the Pharisees, but this time he compares them to UNMARKED graves, "which men walk over without knowing it."

Mat 23:29

Vv 29-31: Cp Luk 11:47,48: "How? Why? Might not the Pharisees have replied that, by honoring their remains and their memory, they condemned their murderers? The greatest sin of Israel and of the world was and is, apostasy from the true God and His worship by idolatry; and the most prevalent mode of this apostasy is sacrilegious reverence for dead men's tombs and bones... Now, it was for rebuking this and other kinds of idolatry, that 'the fathers killed the prophets'; and those who built their tombs would, in like manner, kill anyone who condemned their idolatrous reverence for these very sepulchers. Thus the Pharisees, by the very act of building those tombs of the prophets, and 'honoring' them as they did, showed plainly that they were activated by the same spirit that led their fathers to kill them; and, to make this matter self-evident, they very soon proceeded to crucify the Lord of the prophets because of his faithful rebukes. Nor has this spirit changed in the least during the subsequent eighteen hundred years. Now, here, in Jerusalem, should the Savior reappear, and condemn with the same severity our modern Pharisees, they would kill him upon his own reputed tomb. I say this not with a faltering perhaps, but with a painful certainty. Alas! how many thousands of God's people have been slaughtered because of their earnest and steadfast protest against pilgrimages, idolatrous worship of saints, tombs, bones, images, and pictures! And whenever I see people particularly zealous in building, repairing, or serving those shrines, I know them to be the ones who allow the deeds of those who killed the prophets, and who would do the same under like circumstances" (LB 639,640).

Do we "build up" the "tombs" of our Christadelphian "prophets"? If so, is there any danger in doing so?

Are dead "prophets" less threatening than living ones? Seems to me that dead "prophets" (and I use the term loosely here -- whether referring to Isaiah and Jeremiah, or John Thomas and Robert Roberts) can be shut up in books, closed between the covers, and "controlled"... whereas living "prophets" go walking around sticking their noses into our business when we least like it, encouraging us more directly by word or deed to DO something when we would rather do nothing, and generally kicking us out of our "comfort zones". They can't be as easily "shut up" or "put on a shelf". Maybe that's why we don't care for the living "prophets". Maybe that's why we sometimes hasten their demise! Jesus also said, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor" (Mar 6:4).

Mat 23:32

THE MEASURE OF THE SIN: Cp the ephah of Zec 5:6, filled with wickedness.

Mat 23:33

YOU BROOD OF VIPERS: "Brood" = "seed", pointing to Gen 3:15: the seed of the serpent. The same figure used by John the Baptist in Mat 3:7; cp Mat 12:34.

Mat 23:35

ABEL... ZECHARIAH: For Zechariah, see 2Ch 24:20,21. Thus the first and last martyrdoms in OT. (By Jewish reckoning, Chronicles is the last book of the Scriptures.)

This is probably Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (2Ch 24:20-22). His murder took place in the courtyard of the temple and is related toward the end of what was probably the last book in the Hebrew canon. The sweep runs (to use Christian terms) "from Genesis to Revelation." The problem is the name of his father. There is a possible solution -- that Jehoiada was the grandfather (not father) of the Zechariah of 2Ch 24 -- a suggestion that Jehoiada's living to be 130 years old (2Ch 24:15) makes more plausible, since Zechariah's ministry immediately followed Jehoiada's death. An otherwise unknown Berekiah would therefore have had time to sire Zechariah, live to a good age, and die before the death of his own father gave him opportunity to serve as chief priest. That would allow time for a father named Berekiah. But we cannot know for sure.

Mat 23:37


AS A HEN GATHERS HER CHICKS UNDER HER WINGS: Cp thought, Isa 31:5: God "passing over" and sheltering Jerusalem.

Mat 23:38

YOUR HOUSE: Previously called "My Father's house" (Luk 2:49; John 2:16), but no more!

DESOLATE: "But if you do not obey these commands, declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin" (Jer 22:5). As at Passover, when Egypt was left desolate of its firstborn. Now Jerusalem is pictured as God's firstborn, but unsprinkled with the blood of Christ the lamb of God. So, when the avenging Roman "angel" comes, he will not spare her! Cp Eze 10:19; 11:23; Psa 69:22,25.

Mat 23:39

The blindness of israel will be the rule until the time of Christ's return: Rom 11:25-27; Zec 12:10. A set time for Israel's punishment: Psa 102:13.

UNTIL: See Lesson, AN, Conditional deferment.
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