Notes on Matthew 23

Matthew 23
Without speaking of the instruction it contains, this chapter is important because it shows the manner in which this Gospel moves in the relations of God with Israel, whilst indicating the judgment which the people were drawing on themselves by the rejection of the Messiah.
We find here, first the position of the disciples in the midst of the Jews, as long as God would endure these last, and that which, in this respect, suited the servants of Jesus; then the iniquity and the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees; lastly the love and sovereign grace of Jesus, grace which overflows and displays what He is, even when He is announcing judgment. Hence all this part of the Gospel is bound up with the ways of God in relation with His earthly people, as the then moment when all that was passing is bound up with the last days. All connects itself with the Jews of that time and with the relation of the disciples with this people, and thence passes to the last times, leaving the church aside, save that the mention of the last times introduces necessarily the responsibility of those who replace the Jews as servants of the Lord during His absence, and finally the judgment of the Gentiles.
The disciples are left by the Lord in the relation with the Jewish chiefs in which they were then found and up to the judicial rejection of the people at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. The Savior places them in the same category as the multitude. All were subjected to the authority of the scribes and the Pharisees. These were seated in Moses' seat; and one ought to hear them as to injunctions which they drew from the law given by his means. Nevertheless one must carefully guard against following their walk: they were hypocrites who spoke and did not act. They made the law very strict for others and very light for themselves; they loved to appear before men with the forms of piety to acquire a religious reputation; they sought the first places in the synagogues, salutations in the public places, and to be called Rabbi, making themselves esteemed in the eyes of the world by religion.
The spirit of the disciples was to be the opposite of all that. They were not to be called Rabbi, for Christ alone was their Master, and they were brethren; they were not any more to call others by the name of father, for one only was their Father, He who is in the heavens; finally they were not to be called teachers, for Christ alone was He who taught them. He who would be great in their midst was to be their servant, for whoever exalted himself on earth would be abased, and he who abased himself would be exalted. This. is just what Christ has done, whilst man, having wished to exalt himself and be as God, has been abased and will he yet more in facing the judgment of God. (Cf. Phil. 2)
Afterward (ver. 13) the Lord denounces the scribes and the Pharisees, those religious doctors of the day, putting His finger on the different traits of iniquity which characterized them. They shut up the kingdom of heaven before men, and would neither enter nor let others enter; for religious doctors always oppose the entry of the truth into other hearts. Their life was a life of hypocrisy. They sought to profit through their religious character by the purse of those whose weakness exposed them to their artifices. They made long prayers. They would be proportionately severe. They showed (ver. 15) a prodigious zeal for their religion, but they made their proselytes morally worse than themselves. They proposed the subtleties of casuists and neglected the essential things of the law of God. Exact as to the minutiae of the tithes demanded by the law of Moses, they neglected justice, mercy, and faith, all that which was really important in the eyes of God. They washed the outside, and within they were full of rapine and unrighteousness. Hypocrites! they used to build the tombs of the prophets and were sure that, had they lived in the time of their fathers, they would not have imbrued their hands in the blood of those messengers of God. They testified thus to being sons of their fathers. Well! let them fill up the measure of their fathers.
Never did the Lord accuse any as those whom we may call the clergy of His time, those who, under religious forms, were the great obstacle to the success of His work here below. Serpents, offspring of vipers, said He, how should you escape the judgment of Gehenna? The meek and lowly Savior, He who had begun His career by describing the character of those who should be blessed, closed it, rejected by the religion of the world and of forms, by describing the hypocrisy and unrighteousness of those who were opposed to the blessing of their neighbors; end He has done it with severity so much the more terrible as it was the mouth of love and peace which expressed itself thus.
Such is the starting-point of these burning words which put in light, as He could do it, the true character of the religion which will not have the truth. At least, said they, they would not have taken part in the persecution nor in the death of those who brought the message of God. But God had His eye on them: they would be put to the proof in that respect. Christ, for it was the Lord Himself who judged them thus, would send prophets, wise men, and scribes (which He did after having ascended on high); whom they would persecute, kill, scourge in the synagogues, to, maintain religion intact, but (it is God who pronounces the judgment) in order that the righteous blood shed on the earth since Abel up to Zechariah may come on the generation on which God has bestowed His last and greatest boon, and which had also shown in the highest degree the perversity and the iniquity of man. We know, according to Rev. 18:2424And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth. (Revelation 18:24), that it will be just so with Christendom under its Babylonish form.
The very solemn point which is here put in evidence is that iniquity accumulates. The patience of God waits, and not only that, but it employs all means to recall to sincerity and to Himself those who possess the truth and who have at least its form. The most touching appeals, the most energetic warnings, the condescension which makes use of reasonings almost from equal to equal, all this is rendered useless by the obstinacy of men in despising grace and in practicing iniquity. Finally, when God has exhausted all His means of calling to repentance, then comes the judgment that this divine patience had suspended. It is at last brought in by sin accumulated from age to age, and by the hardness of heart which has grown with the despite done to divine warnings and to grace.
Nevertheless grace overflows from the heart of the Savior who speaks here in His divine character. Nothing more touching than the complaints of His grief in apostrophizing Jerusalem, which would neither receive His appeals nor come to be guarded and sheltered under the wings of divine love. The city is just characterized by the persecution of all the messengers of God; and how often He would have gathered her children together, as a hen her chickens under her wings! But now He Himself come in love is rejected, and “your house” (for He does not call it His) “is left unto you desolate” —not forever, be it noted, for the gifts and calling of God are indefeasible, but desolate—till the repentance of the people manifested in the desire to see and to salute Him who had been promised according to Psa. 118, so often cited in connection with those days and the return of the Savior. This was what the children had cried in chapter xxi., a testimony called of God and produced by His power, when the people would not have their Messiah, true Son of David. The iniquity of the people; set under its responsibility, was come to its height; but Jehovah, according to His sovereign grace and according to His faithfulness, will come again in power as Deliverer, at least for the repentant remnant, when the iniquity of years, in this case as in all others, will have wrought the blessing of Israel according to God's promises, an act of pure grace and mercy towards children of wrath. (Rom. 11:29-3229For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. 30For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief: 31Even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy. 32For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all. (Romans 11:29‑32).)