Matthew 23 The Woes Of The Old Covenant Lawsuit.
Jesus upheld the authority of the Mosaic legislation. Therefore his disciples are told to follow what they tell people to observe, at least insofar as they are true to the canonical revelation through him. They were called to this, in spite of the reality that these teachers did not put it into practice themselves. What would set them apart from the apostate leadership was their commitment to put the Mosaic legislation into practice (vv. 1-3). Part of putting the law-word of the covenant into practice is to help those who find their burdens too heavy to bear (v. 4). Furthermore, we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only, not to brag or just to be seen, but to do so because it is right. On the borders of their garments they had the blue thread to signify their role as teachers or bearers of the word, which they made much of. They also enjoyed the attention of the people for this role which they played. They acted like the authors of the word, instead of humble servants administering it (vv. 5-9). Christ is to be our teacher (v. 10).
Here we see a very important hermeneutical principle as well, that we can only really comprehend the Mosaic legislation, indeed the whole of the Old Testament scriptures, through the lens of the Christ. Therefore, the great in the kingdom of the Christ, are those ministers who are servants of the word, those who humble themselves and exalt the Christ (vv. 11-12). This was not the way of the apostate religious leadership of Jesus’ day. The woes which Jesus spoke concerning them were the woes of covenantal infidelity (vv. 13ff. Cf. Dt. 28:15ff.). They were hypocrites, because as Jesus just said, they preached the law, but did not live it. However, their sin was greater even than this. Even with respect to Moses they had fallen short. For in the Mosaic legislation the gospel was revealed. In the law word of the covenant there was and remains an open invitation to enter the kingdom of the Christ (v. 13), to be redeemed by the blood of the Passover lamb, a hope that looked forward to the once and for all finished work of Jesus the Christ.
With each woe they are reminded of their hypocrisy. They justified devouring widows houses, by making a pretense through their long prayers. For sure offer prayer, but then offer help to the widow. This they did not do (v. 14). There is a greater condemnation for them, for they knew that assistance for widows was demanded of them, but they opted to hide behind their long prayers and ostentatious phylacteries. Their prayer ought to have been, “Father take away our hearts of stone and give us a heart of flesh, to help these poor widows.” It was not as though they didn’t exert themselves, but they did so for their own ends – travelling “land and sea to win one proselyte (v. 15),” all to make them “as much a son of hell” as themselves. In their twisted way of thinking they thought that what men brought to God was more important than what God, in sacrifice, had to do for them. The gold symbolized the best of what men could bring into God’s presence, but it was God’s presence which sanctified these gifts and not vice versa (vv. 16-19).
Swearing, or the bearing of covenantal witness, is no less serious if referred to anything one step away from the LORD himself, for all things are sanctified or set apart by him (vv. 20-22). Jesus didn’t discourage the keeping of the lesser matters of the law, like the paying of mint, anise, and cumin, but he did condemn the neglect of the weightier matters of the law like “justice and mercy and faith” (v. 23). Yes, these are the weighty matters of the law! They were blind guides who majored on the minor and minored on the major (v. 24). Another such example, which was symbolic of their own persons, was the washing of the outside of a cup and dish, while the inside was “full of extortion and self-indulgence” (v. 25). If they had focused on their own internal condition, and in faith looked for mercy to answer to the LORD’s justice, then their actions, or external acts, would also be clean (v. 26). They only sought to appear outwardly righteous, all the while being spiritually dead within, but it showed (vv. 27-28).
They also outwardly gave honor and homage to the prophets and the righteous whom their forefathers had killed (v. 29), but they were guilty of the very same things, thus being “partakers with them in the blood of the prophets” (v. 30). In fact, they were, by their very teaching and practice, then current witnesses to the crimes of their forbearers (v. 31). In so doing they were confirming to the full, the guilt of their fathers (v. 32). They were children of the devil, whose words and deeds would condemn them to hell (v. 33). Jesus had sent, and would continue to send ministers of the word to them, but their response would be no different than their father(s). This was to the end that all the blood of the righteous might come in judgment upon that generation (vv. 34-35). Jesus took no pleasure in this, instead he mourned over Jerusalem, for all along the invitation to mercy was given, but they were not willing. Blessing, including membership in the LORD’s house, comes only through acknowledgment of Jesus as the Blessed One (vv. 37-39).