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Matthew Henry's Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew Henry's Commentary

Matthew Chapter 23

In the foregoing chapter, we had our Saviour's discourses with the scribes and Pharisees; here we have his discourse concerning them, or rather against them. I. He allows their office, ver. 2, 3. II. He warns his disciples not to imitate their hypocrisy and pride, ver. 4-12. III. He exhibits a charge against them for divers high crimes and misdemeanors, corrupting the law, opposing the gospel, and treacherous dealing both with God and man; and to each article he prefixes a woe, ver. 13-33. IV. He passes sentence upon Jerusalem, and foretels the ruin of the city and temple, especially for the sin of persecution, ver. 34-39.

The Scribes and Pharisees Condemned; Cautions against Pride.

1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 2 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: 3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. 4 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. 5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

We find not Christ, in all his preaching, so severe upon any sort of people as upon these scribes and Pharisees; for the truth is, nothing is more directly opposite to the spirit of the gospel than the temper and practice of that generation of men, who were made up of pride, worldliness, and tyranny, under a cloak and pretence of religion; yet these were the idols and darlings of the people, who thought, if but two men went to heaven, one would be a Pharisee. Now Christ directs his discourse here to the multitude, and to his disciples (v. 1) to rectify their mistakes concerning these scribes and Pharisees, by painting them out in their true colours, and so to take off the prejudice which some of the multitude had conceived against Christ and his doctrine, because it was opposed by those men of their church, that called themselves the people's guides. Note, It is good to know the true characters of men, that we may not be imposed upon by great and mighty names, titles, and pretensions to power. People must be told of the wolves (Acts xx. 29, 30), the dogs (Phil. iii. 2), the deceitful workers (2 Cor. xi. 13), that they may know here to stand upon their guard. And not only the mixed multitude, but even the disciples, need these cautions; for good men are apt to have their eyes dazzled with worldly pomp.

Now, in this discourse,

I. Christ allows their office as expositors of the law; The scribes and Pharisees (that is, the whole Sanhedrim, who sat at the helm of church government, who were all called scribes, and were some of them Pharisees), they sit in Moses' seat (v. 2), as public teachers and interpreters of the law; and, the law of Moses being the municipal law of their state, they were as judges, or a bench of justices; teaching and judging seem to be equivalent, comparing 2 Chron. xvii. 7, 9, with 2 Chron. xix. 5, 6, 8. They were not the itinerant judges that rode the circuit, but the standing bench, that determined on appeals, special verdicts, or writs of error by the law; they sat in Moses's seat, not as he was Mediator between God and Israel, but only as he was chief justice, Exod. xviii. 26. Or, we may apply it, not to the Sanhedrim, but to the other Pharisees and scribes, that expounded the law, and taught the people how to apply it to particular cases. The pulpit of wood, such as was made for Ezra, that ready scribe in the law of God (Neh. viii. 4), is here called Moses's seat, because Moses had those in every city (so the expression is, Acts xv. 21), who in those pulpits preached him; this was their office, and it was just and honourable; it was requisite that there should be some at whose mouth the people might enquire the law, Mal. ii. 7. Note, 1. Many a good place is filled with bad men; it is no new thing for the vilest men to be exalted even to Moses's seat (Ps. xii. 8); and, when it is so, the men are not so much honoured by the seat as the seat is dishonoured by the men. Now they that sat in Moses's seat were so wretchedly degenerated, that it was time for the great Prophet to arise, like unto Moses, to erect another seat. 2. Good and useful offices and powers are not therefore to be condemned and abolished, because they fall sometimes into the hands of bad men, who abuse them. We must not therefore pull down Moses's seat, because scribes and Pharisees have got possession of it; rather than so, let both grow together until the harvest, ch. xiii. 30.

Hence he infers (v. 3), "Whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do As far as they sit in Moses's seat, that is, read and preach the law that was given by Moses" (which, as yet, continued in full force, power, and virtue), "and judge according to that law, so far you must hearken to them, as remembrances to you of the written word." The scribes and Pharisees made it their business to study the scripture, and were well acquainted with the language, history, and customs of it, and its style and phraseology. Now Christ would have the people to make use of the helps they gave them for the understanding of the scripture, and do accordingly. As long as their comments did illustrate the text and not pervert it; did make plain, and not make void, the commandment of God; so far they must be observed and obeyed, but with caution and a judgment of discretion. Note, We must not think the worse of good truths for their being preached by bad ministers; nor of good laws for their being executed by bad magistrates. Though it is most desirable to have our food brought by angels, yet, if God send it to us by ravens, if it be good and wholesome, we must take it, and thank God for it. Our Lord Jesus promiseth this, to prevent the cavil which some would be apt to make at this following discourse; as if, by condemning the scribes and Pharisees, he designed to bring the law of Moses into contempt, and to draw people off from it; whereas he came not to destroy, but to fulfil. Note, It is wisdom to obviate the exceptions which may be taken at just reproofs, especially when there is occasion to distinguish between officers and their offices, that the ministry be not blamed when the ministers are.

II. He condemns the men. He had ordered the multitude to do as they taught; but here he annexeth a caution not to do as they did, to beware of their leaven; Do not ye after their works. Their traditions were their works, were their idols, the works of their fancy. Or, "Do not according to their example." Doctrines and practices are spirits that must be tried, and where there is occasion, must be carefully separated and distinguished; and as we must not swallow corrupt doctrines for the sake of any laudable practices of those that teach them, so we must not imitate any bad examples for the sake of the plausible doctrines of those that set them. The scribes and Pharisees boasted as much of the goodness of their works as of the orthodoxy of their teaching, and hoped to be justified by them; it was the plea they put in (Luke xviii. 11, 12); and yet these things, which they valued themselves so much upon, were an abomination in the sight of God.

Our Saviour here, and in the following verses, specifies divers particulars of their works, wherein we must not imitate them. In general, they are charged with hypocrisy, dissimulation, or double-dealing in religion; a crime which cannot be enquired of at men's bar, because we can only judge according to outward appearance; but God, who searcheth the heart, can convict of hypocrisy; and nothing is more displeasing to him, for he desireth truth.

Four things are in these verses charged upon them.

1. Their saying and doing were two things.

Their practice was no way agreeable either to their preaching or to their profession; for they say, and do not; they teach out of the law that which is good, but their conversation gives them the lie; and they seem to have found another way to heaven for themselves than what they show to others. See this illustrated and charged home upon them, Rom. ii. 17-24. Those are of all sinners most inexcusable that allow themselves in the sins they condemn in others, or in worse. This doth especially touch wicked ministers, who will be sure to have their portion appointed them with hypocrites (ch. xxiv. 51); for what greater hypocrisy can there be, than to press that upon others, to be believed and done, which they themselves disbelieve and disobey; pulling down in their practice what they build up in their preaching; when in the pulpit, preaching so well that it is a pity they should ever come out; but, when out of the pulpit, living so ill that it is a pity they should ever come in; like bells, that call others to church, but hang out of it themselves; or Mercurial posts, that point the way to others, but stand still themselves? Such will be judged out of their own mouths. It is applicable to all others that say, and do not; that make a plausible profession of religion, but do not live up to that profession; that make fair promises, but do not perform their promises; are full of good discourse, and can lay down the law to all about them, but are empty of good works; great talkers, but little doers; the voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau. Vox et præterea nihil—mere sound. They speak fair, I go, sir; but there is no trusting them, for there are seven abominations in their heart.

2. They were very severe in imposing upon others those things which they were not themselves willing to submit to the burthen of (v. 4)

They bind heavy burthens, and grievous to be borne; not only insisting upon the minute circumstances of the law, which is called a yoke (Acts xv. 10), and pressing the observation of them with more strictness and severity than God himself did (whereas the maxim of the lawyers, is Apices juris son sunt jura—Mere points of law are not law), but by adding to his words, and imposing their own inventions and traditions, under the highest penalties. They loved to show their authority and to exercise their domineering faculty, lording it over God's heritage, and saying to men's souls, Bow down, that we may go over; witness their many additions to the law of the fourth commandment, by which they made the sabbath a burthen on men's shoulders, which was designed to be the joy of their hearts. Thus with force and cruelty did those shepherds rule the flock, as of old, Ezek. xxxiv. 4.

But see their hypocrisy; They themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. (1.) They would not exercise themselves in those things which they imposed upon others; they pressed upon the people a strictness in religion which they themselves would not be bound by; but secretly transgressed their own traditions, which they publicly enforced. They indulged their pride in giving law to others; but consulted their ease in their own practice. Thus it has been said, to the reproach of the popish priests, that they fast with wine and sweetmeats, while they force the people to fast with bread and water; and decline the penances they enjoin the laity. (2.) They would not ease the people in these things, nor put a finger to lighten their burthen, when they saw it pinched them. They could find out loose constructions to put upon God's law, and could dispense with that, but would not bate an ace of their own impositions, nor dispense with a failure in the least punctilio of them. They allowed no chancery to relieve the extremity of their common law. How contrary to this was the practice of Christ's apostles, who would allow to others that use of Christian liberty which, for the peace and edification of the church, they would deny themselves in! They would lay no other burthen than necessary things, and those easy, Acts xv. 28. How carefully doth Paul spare those to whom he writes! 1 Cor. vii. 28; ix. 12.

3. They were all for show, and nothing for substance, in religion (v. 5)

All their works they do, to be seen of men. We must do such good works, that they who see them may glorify God; but we must not proclaim our good works, with design that others may see them, and glorify us; which our Saviour here chargeth upon the Pharisees in general, as he had done before in the particular instances of prayer and giving of alms. All their end was to be praised of men, and therefore all their endeavour was to be seen of men, to make a fair show in the flesh. In those duties of religion which fall under the eye of men, none ere so constant and abundant as they; but in what lies between God and their souls, in the retirement of their closets, and the recesses of their hearts, they desire to be excused. The form of godliness will get them a name to live, which is all they aim at, and therefore they trouble not themselves with the power of it, which is essential to a life indeed. He that does all to be seen does nothing to the purpose.

He specifies two things which they did to be seen of men.

(1.) They made broad their phylacteries. Those were little scrolls of paper or parchment, wherein were written, with great niceness, these four paragraphs of the law, Exod. xiii. 2-11; xiii. 11-16; Deut. vi. 4-9; xi. 13-21. These were sewn up in leather, and worn upon their foreheads and left arms. It was a tradition of the elders, which had reference to Exod. xiii. 9, and Prov. vii. 3, where the expressions seem to be figurative, intimating no more than that we should bear the things of God in our minds as carefully as if we had them bound between our eyes. Now the Pharisees made broad these phylacteries, that they might be thought more holy, and strict, and zealous for the law, than others. It is a gracious ambition to covet to be really more holy than others, but it is a proud ambition to covet to appear so. It is good to excel in real piety, but not to exceed in outward shows; for overdoing is justly suspected of design, Prov. xxvii. 14. It is the guise of hypocrisy to make more ado than needs in external service, more than is needful either to prove, or to improve, the good affections and dispositions of the soul.

(2.) They enlarged the borders of their garments. God appointed the Jews to make borders or fringes upon their garments (Num. xv. 38), to distinguish them from other nations, and to be a memorandum to them of their being a peculiar people; but the Pharisees were not content to have these borders like other people's, which might serve God's design in appointing them; but they must be larger than ordinary, to answer their design of making themselves to be taken notice of; as if they were more religious than others. But those who thus enlarge their phylacteries, and the borders of their garments, while their hearts are straitened, and destitute of the love of God and their neighbour, though they may now deceive others, will in the end deceive themselves.

4. They much affected pre-eminence and superiority, and prided themselves extremely in it.

Pride was the darling reigning sin of the Pharisees, the sin that did most easily beset them and which our Lord Jesus takes all occasions to witness against.

(1.) He describes their pride, v. 6, 7. They courted, and coveted,

[1.] Places of honour and respect. In all public appearances, as at feasts, and in the synagogues, they expected, and had, to their hearts' delight, the uppermost rooms, and the chief seats. They took place of all others, and precedency was adjudged to them, as persons of the greatest note and merit; and it is easy to imagine what a complacency they took in it; they loved to have the preeminence, 3 John 9. It is not possessing the uppermost rooms, nor sitting in the chief seats, that is condemned (somebody must sit uppermost), but loving them; for men to value such a little piece of ceremony as sitting highest, going first, taking the wall, or the better hand, and to value themselves upon it, to seek it, and to feel resentment if they have it not; what is that but making an idol of ourselves, and then falling down and worshipping it—the worst kind of idolatry! It is bad any where, but especially in the synagogues. There to seek honour to ourselves, where we appear in order to give glory to God, and to humble ourselves before him, is indeed to mock God instead of serving him. David would willingly lie at the threshold in God's house; so far was he from coveting the chief seat there, Ps. lxxxiv. 10. It savours much of pride and hypocrisy, when people do not care for going to church, unless they can look fine and make a figure there.

[2.] Titles of honour and respect. They loved greetings in the markets, loved to have people put off their hats to them, and show them respect when they met them in the streets. O how it pleased them, and fed their vain humour, digito monstrari et dicier, Hic est—to be pointed out, and to have it said, This be he, to have way made for them in the crowd of market people; "Stand off, here is a Pharisee coming!" and to be complimented with the high and pompous title of Rabbi, Rabbi! This was meat and drink and dainties to them; and they took as great a satisfaction in it as Nebuchadnezzar did in his palace, when he said, Is not this great Babylon that I have built? The greetings would not have done them half so much good, if they had not been in the markets, where every body might see how much they were respected, and how high they stood in the opinion of the people. It was but a little before Christ's time, that the Jewish teachers, the masters of Israel, had assumed the title of Rabbi, Rab, or Rabban, which signifies great or much; and was construed as Doctor, or My lord. And they laid such a stress upon it, that they gave it for a maxim that "he who salutes his teacher, and does not call him Rabbi, provokes the divine Majesty to depart from Israel;" so much religion did they place in that which was but a piece of good manners! For him that is taught in the word to give respect to him that teaches is commendable enough in him that gives it; but for him that teaches to love it, and demand it, and affect it, to be puffed up with it, and to be displeased if it be omitted, is sinful and abominable; and, instead of teaching, he has need to learn the first lesson in the school of Christ, which is humility.

(2.) He cautions his disciples against being herein like them; herein they must not do after their works; "But be not ye called so, for ye shall not be of such a spirit," v. 8, &c.

Here is, [1.] A prohibition of pride. They are here forbidden,

First, To challenge titles of honour and dominion to themselves, v. 8-10. It is repeated twice; Be not called Rabbi, neither be ye called Master or Guide: not that it is unlawful to give civil respect to those that are over us in the Lord, nay, it is an instance of the honour and esteem which it is our duty to show them; but, 1. Christ's ministers must not affect the name of Rabbi or Master, by way of distinction from other people; it is not agreeable to the simplicity of the gospel, for them to covet or accept the honour which they have that are in kings' palaces. 2. They must not assume the authority and dominion implied in those names; they must not be magisterial, nor domineer over their brethren, or over God's heritage, as if they had dominion over the faith of Christians: what they received of the Lord, all must receive from them; but in other things they must not make their opinions and wills a rule and standard to all other people, to be admitted with an implicit obedience. The reasons for this prohibition are,

(1.) One is your Master, even Christ, v. 8, and again, v. 10. Note, [1.] Christ is our Master, our Teacher, our Guide. Mr. George Herbert, when he named the name of Christ, usually added, My Master. [2.] Christ only is our Master, ministers are but ushers in the school. Christ only is the Master, the great Prophet, whom we must hear, and be ruled and overruled by; whose word must be an oracle and a law to us; Verily I say unto you, must be enough to us. And if he only be our Master, then for his ministers to set up for dictators, and to pretend to a supremacy and an infallibility, is a daring usurpation of that honour of Christ which he will not give to another.

(2.) All ye are brethren. Ministers are brethren not only to one another, but to the people; and therefore it ill becomes them to be masters, when there are none for them to master it over but their brethren; yea, and we are all younger brethren, otherwise the eldest might claim an excellency of dignity and power, Gen. xlix. 3. But, to preclude that, Christ himself is the first-born among many brethren, Rom. viii. 29. Ye are brethren, as ye are all disciples of the same Master. School-fellows are brethren, and, as such, should help one another in getting their lesson; but it will by no means be allowed that one of the scholars step into the master's seat, and give law to the school. If we are all brethren, we must not be many masters. Jam. iii. 1.

Secondly, They are forbidden to ascribe such titles to others (v. 9); "Call no man your father upon the earth; constitute no man the father of your religion, that is, the founder, author, director, and governor, of it." The fathers of our flesh must be called fathers, and as such we must give them reverence; but God only must be allowed as the Father of our spirits, Heb. xii. 9. Our religion must not be derived from, or made to depend upon, any man. We are born again to the spiritual and divine life, not of corruptible seed, but by the word of God; not of the will of the flesh, or the will of man, but of God. Now the will of man, not being the rise of our religion, must not be the rule of it. We must not jurare in verba magistri—swear to the dictates of any creature, not the wisest or best, nor pin our faith on any man's sleeve, because we know not whither he will carry it. St. Paul calls himself a Father to those whose conversion he had been an instrument of (1 Cor. iv. 15; Phil. 10); but he pretends to no dominion over them, and uses that title to denote, not authority, but affection: therefore he calls them not his obliged, but his beloved, sons, 1 Cor. iv. 14.

The reason given is, One is your Father, who is in heaven. God is our Father, and is All in all in our religion. He is the Fountain of it, and its Founder; the Life of it, and its Lord; from whom alone, as the Original, our spiritual life is derived, and on whom it depends. He is the Father of all lights (Jam. i. 17), that one Father, from whom are all things, and we in him, Eph. iv. 6. Christ having taught us to say, Our Father, who art in heaven; let us call no man Father upon earth; no man, because man is a worm, and the son of man is a worm, hewn out of the same rock with us; especially not upon earth, for man upon earth is a sinful worm; there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not, and therefore no one is fit to be called Father.

[2.] Here is a precept of humility and mutual subjection (v. 11); He that is greatest among you shall be your servant; not only call himself so (we know of one who styles himself Servus servorum Dei—Servant of the servants of God, but acts as Rabbi, and father, and master, and Dominus Deus noster—The Lord our God, and what not), but he shall be so. Take it as a promise; "He shall be accounted greatest, and stand highest in the favour of God, that is most submissive and serviceable;" or as a precept; "He that is advanced to any place of dignity, trust, and honour, in the church, let him be your servant" (some copies read esto for estai), "let him not think that his patent of honour is a writ of ease; no; he that is greatest is not a lord, but a minister." St. Paul, who knew his privilege as well as duty, though free from all, yet made himself servant unto all (1 Cor. ix. 19); and our Master frequently pressed it upon his disciples to be humble and self-denying, mild and condescending, and to abound in all offices of Christian love, though mean, and to the meanest; and of this he hath set us an example.

[3.] Here is a good reason for all this, v. 12. Consider,

First, The punishment intended for the proud; Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased. If God give them repentance, they will be abased in their own eyes, and will abhor themselves for it; if they repent not, sooner or later they will be abased before the world. Nebuchadnezzar, in the height of his pride, was turned to be a fellow-commoner with the beasts; Herod, to be a feast for the worms; and Babylon, that sat as a queen, to be the scorn of nations. God made the proud and aspiring priests contemptible and base (Mal. ii. 9), and the lying prophet to be the tail, Isa. ix. 15. But if proud men have not marks of humiliation set upon them in this world, there is a day coming, when they shall rise to everlasting shame and contempt (Dan. xii. 2); so plentifully will he reward the proud doer! Ps. xxxi. 23.

Secondly, The preferment intended for the humble; He that shall humble himself shall be exalted. Humility is that ornament which is in the sight of God of great price. In this world the humble have the honour of being accepted with the holy God, and respected by all wise and good men; of being qualified for, and often called out to, the most honourable services; for honour is like the shadow, which flees from those that pursue it, and grasp at it, but follows those that flee from it. However, in the other world, they that have humbled themselves in contrition for their sin, in compliance with their God, and in condescension to their brethren, shall be exalted to inherit the throne of glory; shall be not only owned, but crowned, before angels and men.

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