SUMMARY.--The Scribes and Pharisees in Moses' Seat. The Burdens They Imposed. Their Eagerness for the Praise of Men. Religious Titles. Religious Masters. The Hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees. Straining Out the Gnat and Swallowing the Camel. Whited Sepulchres. Building the Tombs of the Murdered Prophets. The Lamentation Over Jerusalem.
1. Jesus spake to the multitudes and to his disciples. This discourse, delivered in the courts of the temple on the Tuesday before the Lord was crucified, has never been surpassed in indignant rebuke, withering denunciation, and tearful sorrow over the coming fate of sinner who would not be saved. It contains Christ's last words to the Jewish nation. The contest had been growing fiercer, the opposition of his enemies was more bitter, their plots against his life were working, their utter perverseness was fully manifested, the time for tender appeal has passed by, and the Lord turns upon the "whited sepulchers," the "generation of vipers," the hypocritical pretenders, in a philippic that we believe has never been equaled. But even in the midst of it, like a rift of blue sky in the fearful storm-cloud, his love and pity shine forth with wonderful beauty in the pathetic exclamation of verse 37. Only a part of the discourse is found in Mark 12:38-40; some similar sayings occur in Luke 11:39-52, and a reference to its occurs in Luke 20:45-47.
2. The scribes and the Pharisees. Associated because almost all the scribes were of the sect of Pharisees. The scribes, the Jewish scholars, the theologians and lawyers, would naturally be of the religious sect. Sit in the Moses' seat. Are the expounders of the law of Moses.
3. Whatsoever they bid you, that observe and do. While in Moses' seat, presenting the law of Moses. He has elsewhere taught that the traditions they added were to be rejected (Matt. chap. 15). Do not after their works. Do not follow their examples. The law of Moses was still in force, for the Christian dispensation was not ushered in until Christ died, and hence was still to be obeyed, but the wicked example of its teachers was to be rejected.
4. They bind heavy burdens. By the traditions they had added to the laws. The law itself was a heavy yoke (Acts 15:10), but the traditions so strenuously insisted on added to this yoke. See notes on Matt. 15:1-6.
5. To be seen of men. Instead of touching the burdens with their little finger, by an effort to keep the law in its spirit, their whole object was to appear holy before men. Make broad their phylacteries. A band was drawn over the forehead, or around the arm, and to this was attached a small calfskin box, in which were placed passages of Scripture. For this they quoted Exod. 13:16. The passages worn so ostentatiously were Exod. 12:2-10; 13:11-21; Deut. 6:4-9; 11:18-21. To make them "broad" was to enlarge the case containing the Scripture, so as to make it more conspicuous. Enlarge the borders. The fringes worn as enjoined in Num. 15:38, to remind them "of doing all the commandments." To enlarge these would make them more conspicuous.
6. Love the uppermost rooms at feasts. Rather, "seats." The highest seats at a feast were the places of honor. Chief seats in the synagogues. The places where the elders sat with their faces to the congregation. They loved the pre-eminence.
7. And salutations in the markets. Being greeted by titles of honor in the public resorts. To be called Rabbi. A term which meant the same as Doctor of Divinity now. There were three degrees, Rab, Rabbi, and Rabboni. The last is the greatest, and means, literally, "My great teacher."
8. Be ye not called Rabbi. This prohibits all similar religious titles now. It certainly forbids such as the corresponding title of D.D. For one is your teacher. Christ is the common teacher of all, and all others are disciples on the same level. The spirit of this command forbids all ecclesiastical titles of honor.
9, 10. Call no man father. Another honorary title. The scribes delighted to be called Abba, father. So the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. So do all who welcome such honorary titles as Rev., Right Rev., Lord Bishop, etc. These are all forbidden. No apostle was ever so called. Master. Also an honorary title. All such are to be avoided in the church.
11. He that is greatest. Instead of seeking chief seats at feasts or in the synagogues, and titles that will exalt him above others, let him seek to become the servant of all. Compare Matt. 20:26.
12. Whosoever shall exalt himself, etc. A universal rule in the kingdom of God. Humility is an essential element of progress in it.
13. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees. Eight woes are given. They have been contrasted with the nine Beatitudes of chapter 5. Hypocrites. Literally, an actor. Shut the kingdom of heaven. By false teaching that prevents men from accepting Christ. Both their example and false teaching shut the door.
14. Devour widows' houses. Devour their property under holy pretences.
15. Ye compass sea and land. Spare no effort. To make a proselyte. Induce Gentiles to become circumcised and to keep the Jewish religion. This is the sense in which "proselyte" was then always used. Twofold more a child of hell. Usually the proselytes of such teachers went to even more foolish sectarian extremes than their teachers.
16, 17. Ye blind guides. Blind, because they closed their eyes, yet professing to be leaders. By the temple. A common oath among the Jews. By the gold of the temple. In their foolish distinctions they regarded this as a binding oath. If the gold had any sacredness it was because the temple, God's house, made it so.
18-20. The altar. That of the temple, the only altar known in Israel. The gift. The offering placed on the altar.
21, 22. By the temple. Oaths that did they not call binding, Jesus traces to God himself. Compare Matt. 5:35. The meaning is that all oaths are by God. There are no distinctions.
23. Ye pay tithe of mint, anise and cummin. Insignificant garden herbs. The Jews were bidden to pay tithes of the fruits of the field and of trees (Lev. 27:30). The Pharisees were scrupulous in paying tithes of garden herbs that were almost valueless, but neglected much more important duties.
24. Ye strain at a gnat. "Strain out a gnat," as in the Revision. A forcible image of those who are very conscientious over small, and careless of great, matters.
25, 26. Ye make clean the outside, etc. The figure is plain. Its application rebukes scrupulous care of outside forms, while neglecting to have the heart pure.
27. For ye are like unto whited sepulchres. It is stated that on the 15th of the month of Adair, before the Passover, the Jews whitewashed all the spots where graves were situated. This was done both to beautify them and to mark the spots as to prevent any one from passing over them, which would occasion Levitical defilement. For this practice, Num. 19:16 and Ezek. 39:15 were cited. This custom gave the basis for the Savior's figure. In plain view of the Savior and his hearers, as they stood in the temple court, could be seen the whitened tombs along the western slope of Olivet, some of which are still seen to this day. Beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones. A powerful figure to show forth the contrast between the sanctimonious professions of the Pharisees and their unholy lives.
28. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous. It was only in appearance and profession.
29, 30. Ye build the tombs of the prophets, etc. They honored the prophets and saints by building monuments to them, instead of following their teaching, or imitating their lives. Even Herod the Great, a monster of wickedness, rebuilt the tomb of David.
31. Wherefore ye be witnesses . . . children of them which killed the prophets. They demonstrated by their hostility to Christ, by their plots and false charges, and would soon show by their murder of the Lord, that they had just the same spirit as their fathers who slew Isaiah, persecuted Jeremiah, and shed the blood of Zacharias between the altar and the temple. They were therefore their spiritual children as well as their descendants. It adds to the vividness of this denunciation that from the temple area where they were standing the crest of Olivet rose distinctly at the distance of half a mile, and upon it were clearly visible the white sepulchers of the prophets which they had rebuilded, among them the tomb of Zacharias, who is named just below as slain between "the temple and the altar."
32. Fill ye up the measure of your fathers. The language of prophecy as well as irony and invective; as if he had said: Fill the measure of the guilt of your fathers to the brim. Crucify the Holy One and thus fill up the cup of iniquity.
33. Ye generations of vipers, how can ye escape? etc. Brood of vipers, full of venom, deadly as serpents, treacherous as the lurking serpent. So John had called them nearly four years before (Matt. 3:7).
34. Wherefore, I send unto you prophets and wise men. In Luke 11:49, is a passage much like this. The men sent were inspired apostles and evangelists. By giving the Jews still further opportunities after the sin of the cross, the guilt of those continued to reject the crucified Lord was aggravated. Prophets. Inspired teachers, like the apostles, Philip, Stephen, etc. Wise men. Faithful, devout and learned, but uninspired preachers. Scribes. Usually, those who copy and teach the wisdom of others, but I suppose also embracing those who wrote the New Testament Scriptures. Some of them ye shall kill and crucify. Literally fulfilled in the next few years.
35. That upon you may come all the righteous blood. Thus would they fill the measure full and become guilty of all the righteous blood shed by the whole army of martyrs. Unto the blood of Zacharias. The reference is probably to 2 Chron. 24:20. He was slain in the court of the house of the Lord by the people, and died exclaiming, "The Lord look upon this and require it." He was the son of Jehoiada. The Siniatic manuscript omits Barachias in this place, and the error is supposed to have crept in from the mistake of some early copyist who confused this Zacharias with Zechariah the prophet, who was the son of Barachias.
36. Verily, I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. As the Amorites were spared until "their iniquity was full" (Gen. 15:16), so the iniquity of Israel was allowed to accumulate from age to age, till in that generation it came to the full, and the collected vengeance of justice broke at once upon it. So it is often in the destruction of a nation. The French Revolution of 1793 is another example.
37. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets. The intense feeling that spoke in this utterance comes out first in the redoubling of the word Jerusalem; next in the picture of the sins of the city which he draws--a city so wicked that it was not content with rejecting the messengers of God, but even slew them. I know of nothing more touching than this apostrophe. How often would I have gathered thy children together. Not only had the city been warned again and again by the prophets, but the Lord had visited it at least six or seven times, and had for months taught in its streets. Nor did his solicitude end with the cross. His long suffering, patience and love are shown by his charge in the commission to the apostles: "To preach repentance and remission in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." Ye would not. "Would not" explains the cause of the rejection of the gospel. It is not because God in Christ is not ready: he would gather them. It is not because men cannot come, but because they will not come. Christ wished the salvation of Jerusalem; his will was for them to be saved: he sought to influence their wills to make a choice of salvation, but they would not. So God still "is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9), but there are many "who will not come to Christ that they might have life" (John 5:40). While God wills the salvation of men, he does not destroy free agency by coercing the human will, but says: "Whosoever will, let him come."
38. Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. This was the consequence of refusing to come to Christ. The temple is the house meant. God will abandon it and leave it desolate. He will no longer accept its worship.
39. Ye shall not see me henceforth. This seems to imply that the temple shall be deserted when he leaves it. With his departure the presence of God departs. He was the Lord of the temple. Till ye shall say. These were his last words in the temple precincts, but they do not shut out all hope. Even yet when the Jews shall join in the hosannahs of those who, on the Sunday before, had sung his praises, and cry, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord," they may be permitted to behold their Messiah. Many have seen in this passage a promise of the final conversion of Israel. Zech. 12:10; Rom.11:26; 2 Cor. 3:15 seem to favor the same view. When Christ abandoned the temple in Jerusalem, it was only fit for the destroyer. If we should drive him out of his spiritual temple, the church, it would be left as dead as the body without the spirit.