William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Matthew 23:1 - 23:39

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - Matthew 23:1 - 23:39

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Matthew Chapter 23

They were all silenced, those who pretended to most light! Not believing in Christ, they were destitute of the only key to Scripture; and Psalm 110, bright as its testimony is to their own Messiah, was a thick cloud, not only to Egyptians now as of old, but to Israel. They saw not His glory, and were therefore hopelessly puzzled how to understand that David, speaking by the Spirit, should call his son his Lord.

In this chapter the Lord pronounces the doom of the nation, and most of all - not those whom man would chiefly denounce; not the openly lawless, licentious, or violent; nor the ease-loving, sceptical Sadducees, but - of those who stood highest in general esteem for their religious knowledge and sanctity. Conscience, man, the very world, can with more or less exactness judge of immoral grossness. God sees and eschews what looks fair to human eyes and is withal false and unholy. And the word of God is explicit that so it is to be. The heaviest woes yet in store for this world are not for heathen darkness, but, as for rebellious Judaism, so for corrupt Christendom, where most truth is known and the highest privileges conferred, but, alas, where their power is despised and denied. .Not that, when God arises to judge, the pagan nations will go unpunished. They too shall drink of the cup. Yet, "Hear this word that the Lord hath spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying, You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." Even so with professing Christendom: the fuller the light bestowed, the richer the grace of God revealed in the gospel, so much the graver reasons for unsparing judgments on hypocritical profession, when the knell of divine vengeance tolls for those "who know not God and obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." The Lord sees not as man seeth, whether in grace or in judgment; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. Thus did Jesus speak in the scene before us.

It is remarkable, however, that in the first instance He spoke "to the multitudes and to His disciples." They were yet to a great extent viewed together - this till the death and resurrection of Christ; and even then the Holy Ghost slowly breaks one old tie after another, and only utters His last word to the Jewish remnant (then Christian, of course) by more than one witness not long before the destruction of Jerusalem. But separation there was not, nor could be, till the cross.

It was, then, part of our Lord's Jewish mission to say that "the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do" (vers. 2, 3). But there was the careful warning against making the scribes and Pharisees in anywise personal standards of good and evil. "Do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not." They were in themselves beacons, patterns of wrong, not of right (vers. 3-7). Still, not only were the disciples classed with the multitude, but in the very strongest denunciations of these religious guides they were bound as yet by the Lord to acknowledge those who sat in Moses' seat. There they were in fact, and the Lord maintains, instead of dissolving, the obligation to own them and whatever they set forth, not of their own traditions, but from the law. This was to honour God Himself, spite of the hypocrites who only sought man's honour for themselves, and it affords no warrant for false apostles or their self-deceived successors now. For the apostles had no seats like that of Moses; and Christianity is not a system of ordinance or formal observance like the law, but, where real, is the fruit of the Spirit through life in Christ, which is formed and fed by the word of God.

It has been urged, confidently enough of late, and in quarters where one might have hoped for better things, that as the saints in Old Testament times looked for Christ, and eternal life was theirs by faith, though they were under the law, so we who now believe in Christ are nevertheless, and in the same sense, under the law like them, though, like them, we are justified by faith. Plausible, and even fair, as this may seem to some, I have no hesitation in pronouncing it extremely evil. It is a deliberate putting souls back into the condition from which the work of Christ has extricated us. The Jews of old were placed under the law for the wise purpose of God, till the promised Seed came to work a complete deliverance; and the saints in their midst, though they rose above that position by faith, were all their lifetime subject to bondage and the spirit of fear. Christ has set us free, by the great grace of God, through His own death and resurrection; and we have thereon received the Spirit of sonship whereby we cry, Abba, Father. And yet, spite of the plainest testimony of God to the momentous change brought about by the coming of His Son, and the accomplishment of His work, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, it is openly, seriously proposed, as if it were part of the faith once delivered to the saints, that this wondrous working and display of divine grace should be set aside, with their results to the believer, and that the soul should be replaced under the old yoke and in the old condition! Doubtless 'this is precisely what Satan aims at, an effort to blot out all that is distinctive of Christianity by a return to Judaism. Only one maybe amazed to find so barefaced an avowal of the matter in men professing evangelical light.

The true answer, then, to such misunderstandings of Matthew 23 and the misapplications of similar portions of Holy Writ, is that as yet our Lord was adhering (and so He did to the last moment) to His proper Messianic mission; and this supposed and maintained the nation and the remnant under the law, and not in the delivering power of His resurrection. Which of the disciples could yet say, "Henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation." Now, on the contrary, this is the normal language of the Christian. It is not a question of special attainment nor of extraordinary faith, but of simple present subjection to the full Christian testimony in the New Testament. Even were we Jews, the old tie is dissolved by death, and we are married to another, even to Christ raised from the dead. Thus to have the law as well as Christ for our guide and rule is like having two husbands at one time, and is a sort of spiritual adultery.

Surely also we can and ought to take the moral profit of our Lord's censure of the scribes and Pharisees: for what is the heart! We have to beware of imposing on others that which we are remiss to observe ourselves. We have to watch against doing works to be seen of men. We have to pray against the allowance of the world's spirit - the love of pre-eminence, both within and without (vers. 4-7). Hence the word is, "Be not ye called Rabbi; for One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no one 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." The question here is not of the various gifts which the Lord confers by the Holy Ghost on His members in His body the Church, but of religions authority in the world and a certain status and respect by virtue of ecclesiastical office or position. But the great moral principle of the kingdom (which is always true) is enforced here: "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" (vers. 8-12). The cross and the heavenly glory would but deepen the value and significance of these words of the Saviour; but even before either, and independently of the new order of things in the Church, they bore His stamp and were current for the kingdom.

In marked contrast with this pattern of true service for the disciples were the scribes and Pharisees, on whom the Lord next proceeds to pronounce eight solemn woes (vers. 13-33).* What else could He say of men who not only entered not the kingdom of heaven, but hindered those disposed to enter? What else could be due to those who sought religious influence over the weak and defenceless for gain? Granted that their proselyting zeal was untiring, what was the fruit in souls before God? Were not the taught, as usual, the truest index of such teachers, as being more simple and unreserved as to their ways and aim and spirit? Then the Lord lays bare their hair-splitting distinctions, which really made void the authority of God, insisting, as they did, on the pettiest exactions to the neglect of the plainest everlasting moral truths. Next is detected the effort after external look, whatever might be the impurity within; and this both in their labour and in their lives and persons, which were full of guile and self-will, crowned by affected great veneration for the prophets and the righteous who had suffered of old, and no longer acted on the conscience. This last gave them the more credit. There is no cheaper nor more successful means of gaining a religious reputation than this show of honour for the righteous who are dead and gone, especially if they connect themselves with them in appearance, as being of the same association. The succession seems natural, and it sounds hard to charge those who honour the dead saints in this day with the same rebellious spirit which persecuted and slew them in their own day. But the Lord would put them to a speedy and decisive test, and prove the real bent and spirit of the world's religion. 'I 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 to the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar" (vers. 34, 35). It was morally the same race and character all through. In righteous judgment the Lord adds, "Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation." Thus should be judged in the full measure what was begun by their fathers and completed by themselves. Hypocrites and serpents, how could such escape the judgment of hell?

*Verse 14 is generally omitted by the editor's as having no sufficient MSS. authority here, though found in Mark and Luke. The "woes" here pronounced upon the scribes and Pharisees therefore are seven, not eight. - [Ed.

But, how touching! Here is the Lord's lament over the guilty city - His own city: "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" (vers. 37, 38). His glory shines out more than ever; the rejected Messiah is in truth Jehovah. He would have gathered (and how often 1) but they would not. It was no longer His house nor His Father's, but their's, and it is left unto them desolate. Nevertheless, if it he a most solemnly judicial word, there is hope in the end: "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." Israel are yet to see their King, but not till a goodly remnant of them are converted to welcome Him in Jehovah's name.