Matthew 23 – The Woes Upon the Pharisees & The Capernaum Synagogue

For the next two chapters we’re going to step out of the Bible and start our review of the five Lost Cities in Africa, tomorrow will be…

Matthew 23
The Woes Upon the Pharisees

1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

James Tissot, Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees. The Woes of the Pharisees is a list of criticisms by Jesus against the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke 11:37-54 and Gospel of Matthew 23:1-39.[1] Mark 12:35-40 and Luke 20:45-47 include warnings about the scribes.

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,

“Phylacteries” – these small boxes, worn on forehead and arm, contained four passages (Ex 13:1-10, 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9, 11:13-21).

6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

“Chief seats in the synagogue” – a reference to the bench in front of the “ark” that contained the sacred scrolls.  Those who sat there could be seen by all the worshipers in the synagogue.

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.

23:8-10 – the warning is against seeking titles of honor to foster pride.  Obviously, we should avoid unreasonable literalism in applying such commands.

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.

Catholics believe the pope is the successor of Peter, and we also say he was the first pope, that he first held the office. We reference Matthew 16:18 a lot, and rightly so.

“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” Matthew 23:2-3

13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

Jesus doesn’t criticize the Pharisees for their evangelistic zeal (I sure would, I couldn’t ignore them like You do).  He objects to its results.  The converts wound up “out-Phariseeing’ the Pharisees and that meant they became even more children of hell (i.e., bound for hell) than their teachers.

16 Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!

17 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

18 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.

19 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?

20 Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.

The commandment to wear tefillin, referred to as ‘phylacteries’(from an ancient Greek term meaning ‘amulet.
A small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law.

Tefillin (Askhenazic: /ˈtfɪlɨn/; Israeli Hebrew: [tfiˈlin], תפילין) also called phylacteries (/fɪˈlæktəriːz/ from Ancient Greek phylacterion, form of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning “to guard, protect”) are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. Although “tefillin” is technically the plural form (the singular being “tefillah”), it is loosely used as a singular as well.

The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that they should be worn to serve as a “sign” and “remembrance” that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.

21 And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.

22 And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.

23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Jesus does not criticize the observance of the minutiae of the law (He says, “these ought ye to have done”), but He does criticize the hypocrisy often involved.

24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

“Strain out” – the strict Pharisee would carefully strain his drinking water through a cloth to be sure he did not swallow a gnat, the smallest of unclean animals.  But figuratively, he would swallow a camel – one of the largest.

25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

“Whited sepulchers” – a person who stepped on a grave became ceremonially unclean (see Num 19:16), so graves were whitewashed to make them easily visible, especially at night.  They appeared clean and beautiful on the outside, but they were dirty and rotten on the inside.

28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous,

30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.

“Ye blind guides, which strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matt 23:24).

32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

34 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

35 That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

“Abel unto…Zacharias” – the murder of Abel is recorded in Gen 4:8 and that of Zechariah, son (probably grandson) of Jehoiada, in (Chr 24:20-22 (Chr is placed at the end of the Old Testament in the Hebrew arrangement of the books).

Last time we considered the absurd lack of proportion demonstrated by the Pharisees. They strained at gnats and swallowed camels. In other words they obsessed over minutiae and ignored the whole point of the Scriptures.

But how did it come to this? How did they end up having such a diabolical problem with perspective?

Well the chilling answer is that they made the kinds of errors that we are tempted to make every day. They focussed on the externals while ignoring the festering darkness within.

The expression was somewhat like our “from Genesis to Revelation.”  Jesus was summing up the history of martyrdom in the Old Testament.

36 Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

39 For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

The Capernaum Synagogue

The city of Capernaum features prominently in the Gospel narratives as a location from which Jesus conducted much of his public ministry (Matt 4:13; Mk 2:1).  He performed many miracles there and is reported to have frequently entered the Capernaum synagogue in order to teach (Mk 1:21, 3:1-5; Lk 4:31; Jn6:59).

According to Lk 7:5 the synagogue of Capernaum was constructed under the auspices of a Roman centurion who felt great love for the people of Israel.

The ruins of a synagogue were recognized by Edward Robinson in 1852 at the site of Tell Hum. Charles Wilson conducted the first excavation there in 1865-1866. 

In 1894 the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land acquired the site from the Turks, built a monastery, covered the ruins and planted crops over them in order to keep them safe until the political situation would permit careful excavation.

During the years 1905-1926 the ancient synagogue was excavated and partially restored by German and Franciscan teams.

The Capernaum Synagogue

The wait had been worthwhile.  The teams discovered a large, ornate, limestone synagogue planned as a rectangular basilica approximately 60 feet wide by 80 feet long.  The floor plan consisted of a central nave flanked by aisles.

Stone benches lined the eastern and western walls.  The focal point of the structure faced south, toward Jerusalem.  For a number of years scholars believed that these visible ruins represented that actual structure in which Jesus had taught.

Architectural from the Synagogue

However, continuing excavations begun in 1968 have revealed the remains of an earlier structure, built of black basalt stone, with a similar floor plan. The 4 foot thick basalt walls are slightly out of line with the limestone walls and, therefore, could not have served as their foundation.

In 1981 a basalt cobblestone floor was discovered, together with pottery from the first century A.D. Thus, it is no doubt this earlier structure from which Jesus declared:

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven: If any man1 eat -of this bread, he shall live forever…” (Jn 6:51 ). 

…the introduction.