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Grant Osborne: The issue as to whether ch. 23 belongs to the previous or following section has already been discussed. . .  it was decided that this chapter serves as a transition, both concluding chs. 19–22 (indicting the leaders for their opposition) and introducing chs. 24–25 (providing the evidence for the verdict against the nation and its leaders in the Olivet Discourse). As such it forms the first of two parts to the discourse of chs. 23–25. There is a certain symmetry between 23:1 – 25:46 and the Sermon on the Mount. These two frame Matthew and are of similar length, with the woes of ch. 23 balancing the beatitudes of 5:3–12. . .

The major thrust in this section is the contrast between the pride (and resultant hypocrisy) of the leaders and the humility (and resultant servanthood) demanded of Jesus’ followers. The key is how each group conducts itself before others, the one to be seen and glorified by all, the other to serve and leave the exaltation up to God.

R. T. France: Within ch. 23 there is an obvious division between vv. 1–12 in which Jesus speaks to the crowd about the scribes and Pharisees, and vv. 13–36 in which he speaks directly to the scribes and Pharisees. The latter section is marked by a series of seven “Woe” pronouncements, of which the last is extended into a more general charge of religious rebellion. This in turn provides the basis for the lament over Jerusalem in vv. 37–39, which stands as a coda to the rest of the chapter, and provides the bridge to the temple-prediction which follows at the beginning of ch. 24.

Stu Weber: Hypocrisy is primarily interested in elevating self. . .  Theirs was a prideful, status-seeking ministry. Jesus’ attitude was just the opposite. . .  Not only were the hypocrites unsympathetic, but they were also insecure. They constantly advertised their “spirituality” and status in an effort to feed their weak egos through the attention of others. Their insecurity masqueraded as arrogance. They did everything in their power to cause others to think they were superior to the average Jewish citizen. They did their “good” deeds purely for applause. They even fooled themselves into believing they were righteous.

David Turner: Jesus’s warning (cf. Mark 12:38–39; Luke 20:45–46) first points out the inconsistencies of the religious leaders (Matt. 23:2–7) and then enjoins his own community to be different (23:8–12). The disciples should do what the leaders say because they are Moses’s proxies (23:2–3a), but the disciples should not follow the leaders’ example (23:3b) because

(1)  they do not practice what they preach (23:3c),

(2)  they do not serve the people they have burdened (23:4), and

(3)  they perform their deeds to be applauded by people (23:5–7).

The disciples’ countercultural community must eschew vain prestigious titles (23:8–10) and instead seek to serve others, mindful of the reckoning and reward to come (23:11–12). . .

The explicit contrast of Jesus’s norms for his disciples with the ostentatious practices of the leaders in 23:2–12 provides a key for interpreting the seven woes of 23:13–36. These rebukes not only are directed to the leaders but also are meant to prevent Jesus’s disciples from similar errors.


Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying,

Grant Osborne: Jesus addresses the crowds (to warn them against the leaders) and his disciples (to warn them against committing similar sins).


A.  (:2-4) Characterized by Hypocrisy

  1. (:2) Positions of Religious Influence

The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;

Grant Osborne: This could be a figurative image for the authority the Pharisees claimed as interpreters of the Torah of Moses. . .  The meaning is that the Pharisees considered themselves to be the successors of Moses as official interpreters of Torah.

R. T. France: The immediate target, however, is the scribes and the Pharisees, two groups who belong naturally together and probably in fact overlapped to a large extent, most scribes being Pharisaically inclined (see on 5:20). They enjoyed popular respect and authority as the recognized experts in understanding and applying the OT law and its subsequent elaborations, and Jesus’ opening words note the authority of their office, though in the light of what follows there is surely an element of irony in his endorsement. His criticism focuses, however, not on the role they purport to fulfill but on the way they fulfill it. The charge of inconsistency in their behavior (v. 3b) is not developed at this point, but much of what follows in vv. 13–36 will fill it out. But two more specific charges are developed, their lack of consideration for the problems their teaching generates for ordinary people (v. 4), and their concern for appearances and reputation (vv. 5–7). It is the latter which triggers Jesus’ return to his disciples’ preoccupation with status, which takes up the rest of the paragraph.

Donald Hagner: As the custodians of Moses’ teaching they share in his authority and are accordingly to be respected.

  1. (:3a)  Practice of Religious Inconsistency –

Follow Their Legitimate Teaching but Reject Their Phoney Example –

Discrepancy between their Words and Deeds

therefore all that they tell you, do and observe,

but do not do according to their deeds;

Grant Osborne: The purpose is to read v. 3a in light of v. 3b—the teachers talk the talk (v. 3a, so approval only in principle) but do not walk the walk (v. 3b) (McNeile, Garland, Hagner, Blomberg) . . . The Pharisees and scribes know the truth (v. 3a) but fail to live it (v. 3b).

Charles Swindoll: Addressing the crowds, Jesus attempted to inoculate them from the deadly infection of pharisaical hypocrisy. First, He urged them to follow the pure teachings of Scripture rather than the putrid examples of the Pharisees. Here Jesus acknowledged that the scribes and Pharisees did, in fact, serve an important function in reading and proclaiming the Law of Moses to the people from their seats of authority, the “chair of Moses” (23:2). R. V. G. Tasker puts it this way: “Jesus recognizes the rightful claims of the scribes, the legal experts of the Pharisaic party, to be exponents of the law; and so long as they confine themselves to that task, their words, He insists, are to be respected, even if the conduct of some of them is inconsistent with their teaching.”

Remember, the scribes and Pharisees strove for an orthodox approach to faith and practice. Their theological views tended to be much closer to Scripture than those of the Sadducees. However, for many scribes, the Bible had become just a textbook of information rather than a means of personal transformation. On one extreme, the scribes’ academic approach to Scripture could result in a head full of knowledge without a lifestyle that matched. On the other extreme, the Pharisees’ obsession with outward purity and perfection could result in an excessive number of man-made rules that nobody could live up to.

In the first century, the common people had very little access to the Word of God themselves and would have had to rely on the scribes to hear the reading of the Law and its explanation. So, Jesus affirmed, what they heard from Scripture must be obeyed (23:3). God’s pure, unadulterated Word is true and reliable. But as soon as those scribes and Pharisees began applying Scripture or going beyond what it said, their interpretations should be held in suspicion.

  1. (:3b-4)  Portrayal of Their Bad Behavior

a.  (:3b) Hypocritical Behavior

for they say things, and do not do them.

b.  (:4) Oppressive Behavior via Legalistic Burdens

And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders;

but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

Grant Osborne: The image is similar to that of the “yoke” (placed on oxen) in 11:28–30, and indeed there is an implied contrast between the “easy yoke” of Jesus in 11:30 and the “heavy burden” of the Pharisees here.

This is almost certainly a reference to the oral tradition developed by the Pharisees. They tried to “build a fence around the law” and protect it by adding further rules so that people would not inadvertently break the Torah regulations (so Grundmann, Garland, Hagner, Schnackenburg; contra Gundry, who takes this of attempts to win praise from people). The Pharisees add rule after rule on purity laws or Sabbaths or holy days, and they become a real “yoke” or “burden” around the shoulders of the people who have to follow these complex rules.

Charles Swindoll: Second, the scribes and Pharisees crushed common people with unbearable demands (23:4). They lacked sympathy and modeled cruelty. As consummate taskmasters, the religious phonies established unreachable standards of manufactured “holiness” that nobody could live up to. This produced only guilt and shame among the people, who should have been able to respond to the Law with joy and peace.

B.  (:5-7) Characterized by Seeking Praise from Others

  1.  (:5a)  Motivation of Seeking Praise from Others

But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men

Charles Swindoll: Third, the scribes and Pharisees did everything for show (23:5). They lacked humility, and they modeled self-importance and conceit. It was all fake. When in public, they paraded their piety to be seen by the masses. They made a production of “glorifying God” when people were watching. Everything they wore, everywhere they sat, every word they uttered, every act they performed, and every title they took was actually to glorify themselves (23:5-7). In short, the religion of the scribes and Pharisees was nothing more than an outrageous display of over-the-top ostentation. They went out of their way to call attention to themselves.

William Barclay: The religion of the Pharisees became almost inevitably a religion of ostentation. If religion consists in obeying countless rules and regulations, it becomes easy for people to see to it that everyone is aware how well they fulfil the regulations, and how perfect is their piety. Jesus selects certain actions and customs in which the Pharisees showed their ostentation.

2.  (:5b-7)  Examples of Seeking Praise from Others

a.  (:5b) Fancy Religious Dress

for they broaden their phylacteries,

and lengthen the tassels of their garments

b.  (:6) Privileged Seats of Honor

And they love the place of honor at banquets,

and the chief seats in the synagogues,

Grant Osborne: In the ancient world the order of seating had important social implications, as those nearer the host had greater status. The chief seats (or benches) in the synagogues are those up front near the speaker and the Torah scrolls. Again, the point is status in the community. Things are not that different in our day. Such things as power dressing, placement of furniture in the office, etc., are all designed with the same thing in mind: power and authority over others.

Stu Weber: Banquets and synagogues were only two examples from daily life where many people gathered. These places were prime opportunities for advertising false spirituality. Virtually any event was an opportunity for public honor and recognition. The place of honor and important seats were reserved for the most spiritual—those with highest authority and greatest wisdom. These people loved to be seen and to parade their spiritual accomplishments in public ways.

c.  (:7) Respectful Forms of Address

and respectful greetings in the market places,

and being called by men, Rabbi.


A. (:8) Avoid Being Called Rabbi (Teacher)

But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.

Grant Osborne: Again, this is a big problem today; witness the scramble of Christian leaders to be awarded an honorary DD (or to earn a DMin), often not to better serve the Lord but in order to be called “Doctor so and so.” Such is a sin. As France says, “It is not difficult for a modern reader to think of similar honorifics in use today, and to discern behind the titles an excessive deference to academic or ecclesiastical qualifications.”

B.  (:9)  Avoid Being Called Father

And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.

Charles Swindoll: Just as we should reject being placed on a pedestal by others, we should resist placing others on a pedestal (23:9). Granting teachers and leaders the revered title “Father” can essentially cross the line from admiration and appreciation to exaltation and worship. The more we exalt a human to a position of unparalleled honor like that, the more we rob our heavenly Father of that unique position in our hearts and minds.

C.  (:10)  Avoid Being Called Leader

And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.

R. T. France: The third title, “instructor,” occurs only here in the NT, nor is it found in the LXX. Its original sense was “leader” or “guide,” one who shows the way, but it came to be more commonly used for teachers, those who show the way intellectually or spiritually. It may therefore be a virtual synonym of “teacher” in v. 8; perhaps our term “mentor” might convey the same sense. As in v. 8, Jesus is the only person who truly fulfills that role for his followers.

Donald Hagner: They are to avoid titles that would set them apart from, and above, others in the community of faith, not because the particular titles are reprehensible but because of the assumption of superiority and elitism that so often goes with them. The demeanor of the disciples is to be characterized above all by the virtues of service and humility. Christians of every era and every circumstance, especially those in leadership roles, must learn again that true greatness consists in service and that self-humbling now is the path to exaltation in the eschaton. Only by such a radical departure from the values and priorities of the world will Christians in authority be the disciples of the one Teacher and Lord.


A.  (:11)  Lifestyle of Servanthood

But the greatest among you shall be your servant.

B.  (:12)  Lifestyle of Humility

And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.