Matthew 23:27
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like to white washed sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(27) Ye are like unto whited sepulchres.—Contact with a sepulchre brought with it ceremonial uncleanness, and all burial-places were accordingly white-washed once a year, on the 15th day of the month Adar—i.e., about the beginning of March—that passers-by might be warned by them, as they were of the approach of a leper by his cry, “Unclean, unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45). The word translated “whited,” means literally, “smeared with lime powder”—i.e., “whitewashed,” in the modern technical sense of the word. It should be noticed that the similitude in Luke 11:44 is drawn from the graves that were not whitened, or from which the whitewash had been worn away, and over which men passed without knowing of their contact with corruption. Some have thought, indeed, that this passage also refers to graves which had lost the coat of whitewash, and were “beautiful with grass and flowers.” It seems hardly likely, however, that the perfect participle would be used to describe such a state of things, and it is more probable, looking to the date above given, that our Lord pointed to some tombs that were shining in their new whiteness.

Matthew

THE KING’S FAREWELL

Matthew 23:27 - Matthew 23:39
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If, with the majority of authorities, we exclude Matthew 23:14 from the text, there are, in this chapter, seven woes, like seven thunders, launched against the rulers. They are scathing exposures, but, as the very word implies, full of sorrow as well as severity. They are not denunciations, but prophecies warning that the end of such tempers must be mournful. The wailing of an infinite compassion, rather than the accents of anger, sounds in them; and it alone is heard in the outburst of lamenting in which Christ’s heart runs over, as in a passion of tears, at the close. The blending of sternness and pity, each perfect, is the characteristic of this wonderful climax of our Lord’s appeals to His nation. Could such tones of love and righteous anger joined have been sent echoing through the ages in this Gospel, if they had not been heard?

I. The woe of the ‘whited sepulchres.’

The first four woes are directed mainly to the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees; the last three to their characters. The two first of these fasten on the same sin, of hypocritical holiness. There is, however, a difference between the representation of hypocrites under the metaphor of the clean outside of the cup and platter, and that of the whited sepulchre. In the former, the hidden sin is ‘extortion and excess’; that is, sensual enjoyment wrongly procured, of which the emblems of cup and plate suggest that good eating and drinking are a chief part. In the latter, it is ‘iniquity’-a more general and darker name for sin. In the former, the Pharisee is ‘blind,’ self-deceived in part or altogether; in the latter, stress is rather laid on his ‘appearance unto men.’ The repetition of the same charge in the two woes teaches us Christ’s estimate of the gravity and frequency of the sin.

The whitened tombs of Mohammedan saints still gleam in the strong sunlight on many a knoll in Palestine. If the Talmudical practice is as old as our Lord’s time, the annual whitewashing was lately over. Its purpose was not to adorn the tombs, but to make them conspicuous, so that they might be avoided for fear of defilement. So He would say, with terrible irony, that the apparent holiness of the rulers was really a sign of corruption, and a warning to keep away from them. What a blow at their self-complacency! And how profoundly true it is that the more punctiliously white the hypocrite’s outside, the more foul is he within, and the wider berth will all discerning people give him! The terrible force of the figure needs no dwelling on. In Christ’s estimate, such a soul was the very dwelling-place of death; and foul odours and worms and corruption filled its sickening recesses. Terrible words to come from His lips into which grace was poured, and bold words to be flashed at listeners who held the life of the Speaker in their hands! There are two sorts of hypocrites, the conscious and the unconscious; and there are ten of the latter for one of the former, and each ten times more dangerous. Established religion breeds them, and they are specially likely to be found among those whose business is to study the documents in which it is embodied. These woes are not like thunder-peals rolling above our heads, while the lightning strikes the earth miles away. A religion which is mostly whitewash is as common among us as ever it was in Jerusalem; and its foul accompaniments of corruption becoming more rotten every year, as the whitewash is laid on thicker, may be smelt among us, and its fatal end is as sure.

II. The woe of the sepulchre builders {Matthew 23:29 - Matthew 23:36}.

In these verses we have, first, the specification of another form of hypocrisy, consisting in building the prophets’ tombs, and disavowing the fathers’ murder of them. Honouring dead prophets was right; but honouring dead ones and killing living ones was conscious or unconscious hypocrisy. The temper of mind which leads to glorifying the dead witnesses, also leads to supposing that all truth was given by them; and hence that the living teachers, who carry their message farther, are false prophets. A generation which was ready to kill Jesus in honour of Moses, would have killed Moses in honour of Abraham, and would not have had the faintest apprehension of the message of either.

It is a great deal easier to build tombs than to accept teachings, and a good deal of the posthumous honour paid to God’s messengers means, ‘It’s a good thing they are dead, and that we have nothing to do but to put up a monument.’ Bi-centenaries and ter-centenaries and jubilees do not always imply either the understanding or the acceptance of the principles supposed to be glorified thereby. But the magnifiers of the past are often quite unconscious of the hollowness of their admiration, and honest in their horror of their fathers’ acts; and we all need the probe of such words as Christ’s to pierce the skin of our lazy reverence for our fathers’ prophets, and let out the foul matter below-namely, our own blindness to God’s messengers of to-day.

The statement of the hypocrisy is followed, in Matthew 23:31, with its unmasking and condemnation. The words glow with righteous wrath at white heat, and end in a burst of indignation, most unfamiliar to His lips. Three sentences, like triple lightning flash from His pained heart. With almost scornful subtlety He lays hold of the words which He puts into the Pharisees’ mouths, to convict them of kindred with those whose deeds they would disown. ‘Our fathers, say you? Then you do belong to the same family, after all. You confess that you have their blood in your veins; and, in the very act of denying sympathy with their conduct, you own kindred. And, for all your protestations, spiritual kindred goes with bodily descent.’ Christ here recognises that children probably ‘take after their parents,’ or, in modern scientific terms, that ‘heredity’ is the law, and that it works more surely in the transmission of evil than of good.

Then come the awful words bidding that generation ‘fill up the measure of the fathers.’ They are like the other command to Judas to do his work quickly. They are more than permission, they are command; but such a command as, by its laying bare of the true character of the deed in view, is love’s last effort at prevention. Mark the growing emotion of the language. Mark the conception of a nation’s sins as one through successive generations, and the other, of these as having a definite measure, which being filled, judgment can no longer tarry. Generation after generation pours its contributions into the vessel, and when the last black drop which it can hold has been added, then comes the catastrophe. Mark the fatal necessity by which inherited sin becomes darker sin. The fathers’ crimes are less than the sons’. This inheritance increases by each transmission. The cloak strikes one more at each revolution of the hands.

It is hard to recognise Christ in the terrible words that follow. We have heard part of them from John the Baptist; and it sounded natural for him to call men serpents and the children of serpents, but it is somewhat of a shock to hear Jesus hurling such names at even the most sinful. But let us remember that He who sees hearts, has a right to tell harsh truths, and that it is truest kindness to strip off masks which hide from men their own real character, and that the revelation of the divine love in Jesus would be a partial and impotent revelation if it did not show us the righteous love which is wrath. There is nothing so terrible as the anger of gentle compassion, and the fiercest and most destructive wrath is ‘the wrath of the Lamb.’ Seldom, indeed, did He show that side of His character; but it is there, and the other side would not be so blessed as it is, unless that were there too.

The woe ends with the double prophecy that that generation would repeat and surpass the fathers’ guilt, and that on it would fall the accumulated penalties of past bloodshed. Note that solemn ‘therefore,’ which looks back to the whole preceding context, and forward to the whole subsequent. Because the rulers professed abhorrence of their fathers’ deeds, and yet inherited their spirit, they too would have their prophets, and would slay them. God goes on sending His messengers, because we reject them; and the more deaf men are, the more does He peal His words into their ears. That is mercy and compassion, that all men may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth; but it is judgment too, and its foreseen effect must be regarded as part of the divine purpose in it. Christ’s desire is one thing, His purpose another. His desire is that all should find in His gospel ‘the savour of life’; but His purpose is that, if it be not that to any, it shall be to them the savour of death. Mark, too, the authority with which He, in the face of these scowling Pharisees, assumes the distinct divine prerogative of sending forth inspired men, who, as His messengers, shall stand on a level with the prophets of old. Mark His silence as to His own fate, which is only obscurely hinted at in the command to fill up the measure of the fathers. Observe the detailed enumeration of His messengers’ gifts,-’prophets’ under direct inspiration, like those of old, which may especially refer to the apostles; ‘wise men,’ like a Stephen or an Apollos; ‘scribes,’ such as Mark and Luke and many a faithful servant since, whose pen has loved to write the name above every name. Note the detailed prophecy of their treatment, which begins with slaying and goes down to the less severe scourging, and thence to the milder persecution. Do the three punishments belong to the three classes of messengers, the severest falling to the lot of the most highly endowed, and even the quiet penman being hunted from city to city?

We need not wriggle and twist to try to avoid admitting that the calling of the martyred Zacharias, ‘the son of Barachias,’ is an error of some one who confused the author of the prophetic book with the person whose murder is narrated in 2 Chronicles 24:1 - 2 Chronicles 24:27 We do not know who made the mistake, or how it appears in our text, but it is not honest to try to slur it over. The punishment of long ages of sin, carried on from father to son, does in the course of that history of the world, which is a part of the judgment of the world, fall upon one generation. It takes long for the mass of heaped-up sin to become top-heavy; but when it is so, it buries one generation of those who have worked at piling it up, beneath its down-rushing avalanche.

‘The mills of God grind slowly,

But they grind exceeding small.’

The catastrophes of national histories are prepared for by continuous centuries. The generation that laid the first powder-hornful of the train is dead and buried, long before the explosion which sends constituted order and institutions sky-high. The misery is that often the generation which has to pay the penalty has begun to awake to the sin, and would be glad to mend it, if it could. England in the seventeenth century, France in the eighteenth, America in the nineteenth, had to reap harvests from sins sown long before. Such is the law of the judgment wrought out by God’s providence in history. But there is another judgment, begun here and perfected hereafter, in which fathers and sons shall each bear their own burden, and reap accurately the fruit of what they have sown. ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die.’

III. The parting wail of rejected love.

The lightning flashes of the sevenfold woes end in a rain of pity and tears. His full heart overflows in that sad cry of lamentation over the long-continued foiling of the efforts of a love that would fain have fondled and defended. What intensity of feeling is in the redoubled naming of the city! How yearningly and wistfully He calls, as if He might still win the faithless one, and how lingeringly unwilling He is to give up hope! How mournfully, rather than accusingly, He reiterates the acts which had run through the whole history, using a form of the verbs which suggests continuance. Mark, too, the matter-of-course way in which Christ assumes that He sent all the prophets whom, through the generations, Jerusalem had stoned.

So the lament passes into the solemn final leave-taking, with which our Lord closes His ministry among the Jews, and departs from the temple. As, in the parable of the marriage-feast, the city was emphatically called ‘their city,’ so here the Temple, in whose courts He was standing, and which in a moment He was to quit for ever, is called ‘your house,’ because His departure is the withdrawing of the true Shechinah. It had been the house of God: now He casts it off, and leaves it to them to do as they will with it. The saddest punishment of long-continued rejection of His pleading love, is that it ceases at last to plead. The bitterest woe for those who refuse to render to Him the fruits of the vineyard, is to get the vineyard for their own, undisturbed. Christ’s utmost retribution for obstinate blindness is to withdraw from our sight. All the woes that were yet to fall, in long, dreary succession on that nation, so long continued in its sin, so long continued in its misery, were hidden in that solemn departure of Christ from the henceforward empty temple. Let us fear lest our unfaithfulness meet the like penalty! But even the departure does not end His yearnings, nor close the long story of the conflict between God’s beseeching love and their unbelief. The time shall come when the nation shall once more lift up, with deeper, truer adoration, the hosannas of the triumphal entry. And then a believing Israel shall see their King, and serve Him. Christ never takes final leave of any man in this world. It is ever possible that dumb lips may be opened to welcome Him, though long rejected; and His withdrawals are His efforts to bring about that opening. When it takes place, how gladly does He return to the heart which is now His temple, and unveil His beauty to the long-darkened eyes!Matthew 23:27. Wo unto you, for you are like whited sepulchres — Here we have the seventh wo. Dr. Shaw, (Trav., p. 285,) gives a genial description of the different sorts of tombs and sepulchres in the East — concluding with this paragraph — “Now all these, with the very walls of the enclosure, being always kept clean, white-washed, and beautified; continue to this day to be an excellent comment upon Matthew 23:27.” The scribes and Pharisees, like fine whited sepulchres, looked very beautiful without, but within were full of all uncleanness, and defiled every one who touched them. This was a sore rebuke to men who would not keep company with publicans and sinners for fear they should have been polluted by them!

Matthew 23:29-31. Wo unto you, because ye build the tombs of the prophets — Here we have the eighth and last wo. “By the pains they took in adorning the sepulchres of their prophets, they pretended a great veneration for their memory; and, as often as their happened to be mentioned, condemned their fathers who had killed them, declaring that if they had lived in the days of their fathers, they would have opposed their wickedness; while, in the mean time, they still cherished the spirit of their fathers, persecuting the messengers of God, particularly his only Son, on whose destruction they were resolutely bent.” Ye build the tombs of the prophets — And that is all, for ye neither observe their sayings nor imitate their actions. And say, We would not have been partakers, &c. — Ye make fair professions, as did your fathers. Wherefore ye be witnesses, &c. — By affirming that if you had lived in the days of your fathers you would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets, ye acknowledge that ye are the children of them who murdered the prophets. But I must tell you, that you are their children in another sense than by natural generation; for though you pretend to be more holy than they were, you are like them in all respects; particularly in that you possess their wicked, persecuting spirit, and cover it by smooth words, thus imitating them, who, while they killed the prophets of their own times, professed the utmost veneration for those of past ages.23:13-33 The scribes and Pharisees were enemies to the gospel of Christ, and therefore to the salvation of the souls of men. It is bad to keep away from Christ ourselves, but worse also to keep others from him. Yet it is no new thing for the show and form of godliness to be made a cloak to the greatest enormities. But dissembled piety will be reckoned double iniquity. They were very busy to turn souls to be of their party. Not for the glory of God and the good of souls, but that they might have the credit and advantage of making converts. Gain being their godliness, by a thousand devices they made religion give way to their worldly interests. They were very strict and precise in smaller matters of the law, but careless and loose in weightier matters. It is not the scrupling a little sin that Christ here reproves; if it be a sin, though but a gnat, it must be strained out; but the doing that, and then swallowing a camel, or, committing a greater sin. While they would seem to be godly, they were neither sober nor righteous. We are really, what we are inwardly. Outward motives may keep the outside clean, while the inside is filthy; but if the heart and spirit be made new, there will be newness of life; here we must begin with ourselves. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was like the ornaments of a grave, or dressing up a dead body, only for show. The deceitfulness of sinners' hearts appears in that they go down the streams of the sins of their own day, while they fancy that they should have opposed the sins of former days. We sometimes think, if we had lived when Christ was upon earth, that we should not have despised and rejected him, as men then did; yet Christ in his Spirit, in his word, in his ministers, is still no better treated. And it is just with God to give those up to their hearts' lusts, who obstinately persist in gratifying them. Christ gives men their true characters.Like unto whited sepulchres - For the construction of sepulchres, see the notes at Matthew 8:28. Those tombs were annually whitewashed to prevent the people from accidentally coming in contact with them as they went up to Jerusalem. This custom is still continued. Dr. Thomson (The Land and the Book, vol. i. p. 148) says, "I have been in places where this is repeated very often. The graves are kept clean and white as snow, a very striking emblem of those painted hypocrites, the Pharisees, beautiful without, but full of dead men's bones and of all uncleanness within." The law considered those persons unclean who had touched anything belonging to the dead, Numbers 19:16. Sepulchres were therefore often whitewashed, that they might be distinctly seen. Thus "whited," they appeared beautiful; but within they contained the bones and corrupting bodies of the dead. So the Pharisees. Their outward conduct appeared well, but their hearts were full of hypocrisy, envy, pride, lust, and malice - suitably represented by the corruption within a whited tomb. 27. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like whited sepulchres—or, whitewashed sepulchres. (Compare Ac 23:3). The process of whitewashing the sepulchres, as Lightfoot says, was performed on a certain day every year, not for ceremonial cleansing, but, as the following words seem rather to imply, to beautify them.

which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness—What a powerful way of conveying the charge, that with all their fair show their hearts were full of corruption! (Compare Ps 5:9; Ro 3:13). But our Lord, stripping off the figure, next holds up their iniquity in naked colors.

Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets—that is, "ye be witnesses that ye have inherited, and voluntarily served yourselves heirs to, the truth-hating, prophet-killing, spirit of your fathers." Out of pretended respect and honor, they repaired and beautified the sepulchres of the prophets, and with whining hypocrisy said, "If we had been in their days, how differently should we have treated these prophets?" While all the time they were witnesses to themselves that they were the children of them that killed the prophets, convicting themselves daily of as exact a resemblance in spirit and character to the very classes over whose deeds they pretended to mourn, as child to parent. In Lu 11:44 our Lord gives another turn to this figure of a grave: "Ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them." As one might unconsciously walk over a grave concealed from view, and thus contract ceremonial defilement, so the plausible exterior of the Pharisees kept people from perceiving the pollution they contracted from coming in contact with such corrupt characters.

See Poole on "Matthew 23:27". Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,.... It is much these men could bear to hear themselves so often called by this name; and it shows great courage in our Lord, so freely to reprove them, and expose their wickedness, who were men of so much credit and influence with the people:

for ye are like unto whited sepulchres; or "covered with lime", as the Syriac, Arabic, and Persic versions, render it. For the Jews used to mark their graves with white lime, that they might be known: that so priests, Nazarites, and travellers, might avoid them, and not be polluted with them. This appears from various passages in their writings:

"The vineyard of the fourth year, they marked with clods of earth, and an uncircumcised one with dust, , "and graves with chalk", mixed (with water) and poured (on them (x).)

Of this marking of the graves, the reason of it, the time and manner of doing it, Maimonides (y) gives us this account:

"Whoever finds a grave, or a dead carcass, or anything for the dead that defiles, by the tent he is obliged to put a mark upon it, that it may not be a stumbling to others; and on the intermediate days of a feast, they go out from the sanhedrim, to mark the graves.--With what do they mark? , "with chalk infused" in water, and poured upon the unclean place: they do not put the mark upon the top of the unclean place, (or exactly in it,) but so that it may stand out here and there, at the sides of it, that what is pure may not be corrupted; and they do not put the mark far from the place of the uncleanness, that they may not waste the land of Israel; and they do not set marks on those that are manifest, for they are known to all; but upon those that are doubtful, as a field in which a grave is lost, and places that are open, and want a covering.

Now because when the rains fell, these marks were washed away, hence on the first of Adar (February) when they used to repair the highways, they also marked the graves with white lime, that they might be seen and known, and avoided; and so on their intermediate feast days (z): the reason why they made use of chalk, or lime, and with these marked their graves, was because it looked white like bones (a); so that upon first sight, it might be thought and known what it was for, and that a grave was there: hence this phrase, "whited sepulchres":

which indeed appear beautiful outward; especially at a distance, and when new marked:

but within are full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness; worms and rottenness, which arise from the putrefied carcasses, and are very nauseous and defiling,

(x) Misn. Maaser Sheni, c. 5. sect. 1.((y) Hilch. Tumath Meth, c. 8. sect. 9. (z) Misn. Shekalim, c. 1. sect. 1. & Moed Katon, c. 1. sect. 2. Maimon. & Bartenora in lb. (a) Jarchi in Misu. Moed Katan, c. 1. sect. 2. & Bartenora in Misn. Maaser Sheni, c. 5. sect. 1.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Matthew 23:27 f. The graves were whitewashed with lime (κονία) every year on the 15th of Adar (a custom which Rabbinical writers trace to Ezekiel 39:15), not for the purpose of ornamenting them, but in order to render them so conspicuous as to prevent any one defiling himself (Numbers 19:16) by coming into contact with them. For the passages from Rabbinical writers, see Lightfoot, Schoettgen, and Wetstein. A kind of ornamental appearance was thus imparted to the graves. In Luke 11:44, the illustration is of a totally different character.

ὑποκρίς. κ. ἀνομ.] (immorality): both as representing their disposition. Thus, morally speaking, they were τάφοι ἔμψυχοι, Lucian, D. M. vi. 2.Matthew 23:27-28. Sixth woe, referring to no special Pharisaic vice, but giving a graphic picture of their hypocrisy in general (cf. Luke 11:44).27. like unto whited sepulchres] In Luke the comparison is to “graves that appear not,” by walking over which men unconsciously defile themselves. To avoid this ceremonial defilement the Jews carefully whitewashed the graves or marked them with chalk on a fixed day every year—the fifteenth of Adar. The custom still exists in the East. One of the spiteful devices of the Samaritans against the Jews was to remove the whitewash from sepulchres in order that the Jews might be contaminated by walking over them.Matthew 23:27. Ὅτι, κ.τ.λ., for, etc.) In this verse the especially distinctive characteristic of hypocrites is described: for hypocrisy is named in Matthew 23:28. Cf. Luke 11:44 with the context.—κεκονιαμένοις, whited) The Jews used to whiten their sepulchres with chalk.Verses 27, 28. - Seventh woe - against another form of the same hypocrisy (Luke 11:44). Whited (κεκονιαμένοις) sepulchres. Once a year, about the fifteenth of the month Adar, the Jews used to whitewash the tombs and the places where corpses were buried, partly out of respect for the dead, but chiefly in order to make them conspicuous, and thus to obviate the risk of persons incautiously contracting ceremonial defilement by touching or walking over them (Numbers 19:16). To such sepulchres our Lord compares these Pharisees, because their outwardly fair show concealed rottenness within (comp. Acts 23:3). Indeed, it might be said that their seeming exceptional purity was a warning of internal corruption, a sign post to point to hidden defilement. Obtrusive religiousness, emphatic scrupulosity, are marks of pride and self-righteousness, utterly alien from real devotion and holiness. Whited sepulchres (τάφοις κεκονιαμένοις)

Not the rock-tombs, belonging mostly to the rich, but the graves covered with plastered structures. In general, cemeteries were outside of cities; but any dead body found in the field was to be buried on the spot where it had been discovered. A pilgrim to the Passover, for instance, might easily come upon such a grave in his journey, and contract uncleanness by the contact (Numbers 19:16). It was therefore ordered that all sepulchres should be whitewashed a month before Passover, in order to make them conspicuous, so that travellers might avoid ceremonial defilement. The fact that this general whitewashing was going on at the time when Jesus administered this rebuke to the Pharisees gave point to the comparison. The word νιαμένοις (whitened, from κόνις, dust) carries the idea of whitening with a powder, as powdered lime.

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