The Adam Clarke Commentary

Chapter 23

The character of the scribes and Pharisees, and directions to the people and the disciples to receive the law from them, but not to follow their bad example, 1-7. The disciples exhorted to humility, 8-12. Different woes pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees for their intolerance, 13; rapacity, 14; false zeal, 15; superstition in oaths and tithes, 16-23; hypocrisy, 24-28. Their cruelty, 29-32. Their persecution of the apostles, foretold, 33-36. Christ's lamentation over Jerusalem, 37-39.

Notes on Chapter 23

Verse 2. The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat
εκαθισαν.-They sat there formerly by Divine appointment: they sit there now by Divine permission. What our Lord says here refers to their expounding the Scriptures, for it was the custom of the Jewish doctors to sit while they expounded the law and prophets, 5:1; ; Luke 4:20-22,) and to stand up when they read them.

By the seat of Moses, we are to understand authority to teach the law. Moses was the great teacher of the Jewish people; and the scribes,

Verse 3. All therefore whatsoever
That is, all those things which they read out of the law and prophets, and all things which they teach consistently with them. This must be our Lord's meaning: he could not have desired them to do every thing, without restriction, which the Jewish doctors taught; because himself warns his disciples against their false teaching, and testifies that they had made the word of God of none effect by their traditions. See Matthew 15:6, in the past tense-whatsoever they HAVE commanded, οσαειπωσιν, he may refer to the teaching of a former period, when they taught the way of God in truth, or were much less corrupted than they were now.

Verse 4. They bind heavy burdens
They are now so corrupt that they have added to the ceremonies of the law others of their own invention, which are not only burdensome and oppressive, but have neither reason, expediency, nor revelation, to countenance them. In a word, like all their successors in spirit to the present day, they were severe to others, but very indulgent to themselves.

Verse 5. All their works they do for to be seen of men
In pointing out the corruptions of these men, our Lord gives us the distinguishing characteristics of all false teachers, whether Jewish or Christian.

1. They live not according to the truths they preach. They say, and do not, Matthew 23:3.

2. They are severe to others, point out the narrowest road to heaven, and walk in the broad road themselves. They bind on burdens, Matthew 23:4.

3. They affect to appear righteous, and are strict observers of certain rites, They make broad their phylacteries, Matthew 23:5.

4. They love worldly entertainments, go to feast wherever they are asked, and seek Church preferments. They love the chief places at feasts, and chief seats in the synagogues, Matthew 23:6.

5. They love and seek public respect and high titles, salutations in the market-place, (for they are seldom in their studies,) and to be called of men rabbi-eminent teacher, though they have no title to it, either from the excellence or fruit of their teaching. When these marks are found in a man who professes to be a minister of Christ, charity itself will assert he is a thief and a robber-he has climbed over the wall of the sheepfold, or broken it down in order to get in.

φυλακτηρια, from φυλασσω, to keep or preserve. These were small slips of parchment or vellum, on which certain portions of the law were written. The Jews tied these about their foreheads and arms, for three different purposes.

1. To put them in mind of those precepts which they should constantly observe.

2. To procure them reverence and respect in the sight of the heathen. And

3. To act as amulets or charms to drive away evil spirits.

The first use of these phylacteries is evident from their name.

The second use appears from what is said on the subject from the Gemara, Beracoth, chap. 1., quoted by Kypke. "Whence is it proved that phylacteries, (, tephilin,) are the strength of Israel?-Ans. From what is written, Deuteronomy 28:10. All the, people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name {of Jehovah}-and they shall be afraid of thee.

The third use of them appears from the Targum, on Cant. Song of Solomon 8:3. His left hand is under my head, hath said, I am elect above all people, because I bind my phylacteries on my left hand, and on my head, and the scroll is fixed to the right side of my gate, the third part of which looks to my bed-chamber, that DAEMONS may not be permitted to INJURE me."

An original phylactery lies now before me. It is a piece of fine vellum, about eighteen inches long, and an inch and quarter broad. It is divided into four unequal compartments: in the first is written, in a very fair character, with many apices, after the mode of the German Jews, the first ten verses of Exod. 10, 13:1-10); in the second compartment is written, from the eleventh to the sixteenth verse of the same chapter 13:11-16), inclusive in the third, from the fourth to the ninth verse 6:4-9), inclusive, of Deut. 6., beginning with, Hear, O Israel, in the fourth, from the thirteenth to the twenty-first verse, inclusive, of Deut. 11 11:13-21).

These passages seem to be chosen in vindication of the use of the phylactery itself, as the reader will see on consulting them: Bind them for a SIGN upon thy HAND-and for FRONTLETS between thy EYES-write them upon the POSTS of thy HOUSE, and upon thy GATES; all which commands the Jews took in the most literal sense.

Even the phylactery became an important appendage to a Pharisee's character, insomuch that some of them wore them very broad, either that they might have the more written on them, or that, the characters being larger, they might be the more visible, and that they might hereby acquire greater esteem among the common people, as being more than ordinarily religious. For the same reason, they wore the fringes of their garments of an unusual length. Moses had commanded 15:38,39) the children of Israel to put fringes to the borders of their garments, that, when they looked upon even these distinct threads, they might remember, not only the law in general, but also the very minutiae, or smaller parts of all the precepts, rites, and ceremonies, belonging to it. As these hypocrites were destitute of all the life and power of religion within, they endeavoured to supply its place by phylacteries and fringes without. See Clark's note on "Ex 13:9".

Verse 7. To be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
i.e. My teacher! my teacher! The second rabbi is omitted by several excellent MSS., by most of the ancient versions, and by some of the fathers. Griesbach has left it in the text, with the note of doubtfulness.

There are three words used among the Jews as titles of dignity, which they apply to their doctors-Rabh, Rabbi, and Rabban; each of these terms has its particular meaning: rabban implies much more than rabbi, and rabbi much more than rabh.

They may be considered as three degrees of comparison: rabh great, rabbi greater, and rabban greatest. These rabbins were looked up to as infallible oracles in religious matters, and usurped not only the place of the law, but of God himself.

Verse 8. But be not ye called Rabbi
As our Lord probably spoke in Hebrew, the latter word rabbi, in this verse, must have been in the plural; but as the contracted form of the plural sounds almost exactly like the singular, the Greek writer would naturally express them both in the same letters.

None of the prophets had ever received this title, nor any of the Jewish doctors before the time of Hillel and Shammai, which was about the time of our Lord; and, as disputes on several subjects had run high between these two schools, the people were of course divided; some acknowledging Hillel as rabbi,-infallible teacher, and others giving this title to Shammai. The Pharisees, who always sought the honour that comes from men, assumed the title, and got their followers to address them by it. See on Matthew 19:3.

One is your Master
Instead of καθηγητης, guide or leader, (the common reading here, and which occurs in Matthew 23:10,) the famous Vatican MS., upwards of fifty others, and most of the ancient versions, read διδασκαλος, master. The most eminent critics approve of this reading and, independently of the very respectable authority by which it is supported, it is evident that this reading is more consistent with the context than the other,- Be not ye called MASTERS, for one is your MASTER.

Even Christ
Griesbach has left this out of the text, because it is wanting in many of the most excellent MSS., versions, and fathers. Mill and Bengel approve of the omission. It might have been brought into this verse from Matthew 23:10. Our Lord probably alludes to Isaiah 54:13, All thy children shall be taught of the Lord. Ye are brethren.
No one among you is higher than another, or can possibly have from me any jurisdiction over the rest. Ye are, in this respect, perfectly equal.

Verse 9. Call no man your FATHER
Our Lord probably alludes to the AB, or father of the Sanhedrin, who was the next after the nasi, or president. See on Matthew 20:21. By which he gives his disciples to understand that he would have no SECOND, after himself, established in his Church, of which he alone was the head; and that perfect equality must subsist among them.

Verse 10. Neither be ye called masters
καθηγηται, leaders. God is in all these respects jealous of his honour. To him alone it belongs to guide and lead his Church, as well as to govern and defend it. Jesus is the sole teacher of righteousness. It is he alone, (who is the word, light, and eternal truth,) that can illuminate every created mind; and who, as Saviour and Redeemer, speaks to every heart by his Spirit.

Though the title of Rabbi, mentioned above, was comparatively recent in the time of our Lord, yet it was in great vogue, as were the others-father and master, mentioned in this and the following verse: some had all three titles, for thus in Bab. Maccoth, fol. 24. It is feigned," says Dr. Lightfoot, "that when King Jehosaphat saw a disciple of the wise men, he rose up out of his throne, and embraced him, and said, Abbi, Abbi! Rabbi, Rabbi! Mori, Mori!-Father, Father! Rabbi, Rabbi! Master, Master!" Here then are the three titles which, in Matthew 23:7,8,10 our blessed Lord condemns; and these were titles that the Jewish doctors greatly affected.

Verse 11. Your servant.
διακονος, deacon. See on Matthew 20:26.

Verse 12. Whosoever shall exalt himself, arrive at the highest degree of dignity, in the sight of God, is by being willing to become the servant of all. Nothing is more hateful in his sight than pride; to bring it into everlasting contempt, God was manifest in the flesh. He who was in the likeness of God took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man, and humbled himself unto death. After this, can God look upon any proud man without abasing him? Spiritual lordship and domination, ecclesiastical luxury, pomp, and pride, must be an abhorrence in the sight of that God who gave the above advices to his followers.

Another lesson, which our blessed Lord teaches here, is, that no man is implicitly to receive the sayings, doctrines, and decisions of any man, or number of men, in the things which concern the interests of his immortal soul. Christ, his Spirit, and his word, are the only infallible teachers. Every man who wishes to save his soul must search the Scriptures, by prayer and faith. Reader, take counsel with the pious; hear the discourses of the wise and holy: but let the book of God ultimately fix thy creed.

Verse 13. - 14. Wo unto you, scribes
I think the fourteenth and thirteenth verses should be transposed. This transposition is authorized by some of the best MSS., versions, and fathers. The fourteenth is wanting in the BDL., and in many others of inferior note, as well as in several of the versions. Griesbach has left it out of the text, in his first edition; I hesitated, and left it in, thus transposed. I am happy to find that a more extensive collation of MSS., it should be restored to its place. In the second edition, he has transposed the two, just as I had done. The fifteenth reads best after the thirteenth.

In ancient times the rabbins carried a key, which was the symbol or emblem of knowledge. Hence it is written in Semachoth, chap. 8.," When Rab. Samuel the little died, his key and his tablets were hung on his tomb, because he died childless." See Schoettgen.

The kingdom of heaven here means the Gospel of Christ; the Pharisees would not receive it themselves, and hindered the common people as far as they could.

Verse 14. See Clarke on Matthew 23:13.

"This sect," says Josephus, (Ant. l. xvii. chap. 3,) "pretended to a more exact knowledge of the law, on which account the women were subject to them, as pretending to be dear to God. And when Alexandra obtained the government, (Jewish War, b. I. ch. 4,) they insinuated themselves into her favour, as being the exactest sect of the Jews, and the most exact interpreters of the law, and, abusing her simplicity, did as they listed, remove and dispose, bind and loose, and even cut off men. They were in vogue for their long prayers, which they continued sometimes three hours; that perhaps they sold them, as do the Roman priests their masses, or pretended others should be more acceptable to God for them; and so might spoil devout widows by the gifts or salaries they expected from them. Now this being only a hypocritical pretence of piety, must be hateful to God, and so deserve a greater condemnation."

Long prayer
For proofs of long prayers and vain repetitions among Jews, Mohammedans, and heathens, See Clarke on Matthew 6:7.

Verse 15. Compass sea and land
A proverbial expression, similar to ours, You leave no stone unturned; intimating that they did all in their power to gain converts, not to God, but to their sect. These we may suppose were principally sought for among the Gentiles, for the bulk of the Jewish nation was already on the side of the Pharisees.

προσηλυτος, a stranger, or foreigner; one who is come from his own people and country, to sojourn with another. See the different kinds of proselytes explained in Clarke's note on "Ex 12:43".

The child of hell
A Hebraism for an excessively wicked person, such as might claim hell for his mother, and the devil for his father.

Twofold-the child of
The Greek word διπλοτερον, which has generally been translated twofold, KYPKE has demonstrated to mean more deceitful. απλους is used by the best Greek writers for simple, sincere, απλοτης for simplicity, sincerity; so διπλους, deceitful, dissembling, and διπλοη, hypocrisy, fraudulence, and διπλοτερον, more fraudulent, more deceitful, more hypocritical. See also Suidas in διπλοη.

Dr. Lightfoot, and others, observe, that the proselytes were considered by the Jewish nation as the scabs of the Church, and hindered the coming of the Messiah; and Justin Martyr observes, that "the proselytes did not only disbelieve Christ's doctrine, but were abundantly more blasphemous against him than the Jews themselves, endeavouring to torment and cut off the Christians wherever they could; they being in this the instruments of the scribes and Pharisees."

Verse 16. Whosoever shall swear by the gold
The covetous man, says one, still gives preference to the object of his lust; gold has still the first place in his heart. A man is to be suspected when he recommends those good works most from which he receives most advantage.

Is bound thereby, i.e. to fulfil his oath.

Verse 20. Whoso-shall swear by the altar
As an oath always supposes a person who witnesses it, and will punish perjury; therefore, whether they swore by the temple or the gold, 23:16,) or by the altar or the gift laid on it, 23:18,) the oath necessarily supposes the God of the temple, of the altar, and of the gifts, who witnessed the whole, and would, even in their exempt cases, punish the perjury.

Verse 21. Whoso shall swear by the temple
Perhaps it is to this custom of swearing by the temple, that Martial alludes, lib. xi. epist. 95.

Ecce negas, jurasque mihi per templa Tonantis; Non credo; jura, Verpe, per Anchialum. "Behold, thou deniest, and swearest to me by the temples of Jupiter; I will not credit thee: swear, O Jew, by the temple of Jehovah." This word probably comes from heical Yah, the temple of Jehovah. This seems a better derivation than im chai Elohim, as God liveth, though the sound of the latter is nearer to the Latin.

By him that dwelleth therein.
The common reading is κατοικουντι, dwelleth or INHABITETH, but κατοικησαντι, dwelt or DID inhabit, is the reading of CDEFGHKLM, eighty-six others; this reading has been adopted in the editions of Complutum, Colineus, Bengel, and Griesbach. The importance of this reading may be perceived by the following considerations. In the first Jewish temple, God had graciously condescended to manifest himself-he is constantly represented as dwelling between the cherubim, the two figures that stood at each end of the ark of the covenant; between whom, on the mercy seat, the lid of the ark, a splendour of glory was exhibited, which was the symbol and proof of the Divine presence. This the Jews called Shekinah, the habitation of Jehovah. Now the Jews unanimously acknowledge that five things were wanting in the second temple, which were found in the first, viz., 1. The ark; 2. The holy spirit of prophecy; 3. The Urim and Thummim; 4. The sacred fire; and 5. The Shekinah. As the Lord had long before this time abandoned the Jewish temple, and had now made the human nature of Jesus the Shekinah, (see John 1:14, the Logos was made flesh, εσκηνωσεν, and made his tabernacle-made the Shekinah,-among us,) our Lord could not, with any propriety, say that the supreme Being did now inhabit the temple; and therefore used a word that hinted to them that God had forsaken their temple, and consequently the whole of that service which was performed in it, and had now opened the new and living way to the holiest by the Messiah. But all this was common swearing; and, whether the subject was true or false, the oath was unlawful. A common swearer is worthy of no credit, when, even in the most solemn manner he takes an oath before a magistrate; he is so accustomed to stake his truth, perhaps even his soul, to things whether true or false, that an oath cannot bind him, and indeed is as little respected by himself as it is by his neighbour. Common swearing, and the shocking frequency and multiplication of oaths in civil cases, have destroyed all respect for an oath; so that men seldom feel themselves bound by it; and thus it is useless in many cases to require it as a confirmation, in order to end strife or ascertain truth. See Clarke on Matthew 5:37.

Verse 23. Ye pay tithe of mint, scrupulous in the performance of all the rites and ceremonies of religion, but totally neglected the soul, spirit, and practice of godliness.

Acting according to justice and equity towards all mankind. Mercy-to the distressed and miserable. And faith in God as the fountain of all righteousness, mercy, and truth. The scribes and Pharisees neither began nor ended their works in God, nor had they any respect unto his name in doing them. They did them to be seen of men, and they had their reward-human applause.

These ought ye to have done, their paying tithe even of common pot-herbs-this did not affect the spirit of religion; but while they did this and such like, to the utter neglect of justice, mercy, and faith, they showed that they had no religion, and knew nothing of its nature.

Verse 24. Blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
This clause should be thus translated: Ye strain out the gnat, but ye swallow down the camel. In the common translation, Ye strain AT a gnat, conveys no sense. Indeed, it is likely to have been at first an error of the press, AT for OUT, which, on examination, I find escaped in the edition of 1611, and has been regularly continued since. There is now before me, "The Newe Testament, (both in Englyshe and in Laten,) of Mayster Erasmus translacion, imprynted by Wyllyam Powell, dwellynge in Flete strete: the yere of our Lorde M.CCCCC.XLVII. the fyrste yere of the kynges (Edwd. VI.) moste gracious reygne." in which the verse stands thus: "Ye blinde gides, which strayne out a gnat, and swalowe a cammel." It is the same also in Edmund Becke's Bible, printed in London 1549, and in several others.-Clensynge a gnatte.