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Barnes' Notes on Matthew 23:1-12

Barnes' Notes on the New Testament


Verse 1. No Barnes text on this verse.

Verse 2. Scribes and Pharisees. See Barnes "Matthew 3:7".

Moses' seat, Moses was a legislator of the Jews. By him the law was given; and the office of explaining that law devolved on the scribes and Pharisees. In the synagogues they sat while expounding the law, and rose when they read it. By sitting in the seat of Moses we are to understand authority to teach the law. Or, as he taught the nation by giving the law, so they taught it by explaining it.

{r} "The Scribes" Malachi 2:7

Verse 3. All therefore whatsoever, etc, That is, all that they teach consistent with the law of Moses; all the commands of Moses which they read to you and properly explain. The word all could not be taken without such a restriction, for Christ himself accuses them of teaching many things contrary to that law, and of making it void by traditions, Matthew 15:1-6.

They say, and do not. The interpretation they give to the law is in the main correct, but their lives do not correspond with their teaching. It is not the duty of men to imitate their teachers unless their lives are pure; but they are rather to obey the law of God than to frame their lives by the example of evil men.

{s} "for they say" Romans 2:21-23

Verse 4. They bind heavy burdens, etc. This phrase is derived from the custom of loading animals. The load or burden is bound up, and then laid on the beast. So the Pharisees appoint weighty burdens, or grievous and heavy precepts, and insist that the people should obey them, though they lent no assistance. The heavy burdens refer not here to the traditions and foolish customs of the Pharisees, for Jesus would not command the people to observe them; but they clearly mean the ceremonies and rites appointed by Moses, which Peter says "neither our fathers nor we were able to bear," Acts 15:10. Those rites were numerous, expensive, requiring much tune, much property, and laborious. The Pharisees were rigid in requiring that all the people should pay the taxes, give of their property, comply with every part of the law with the utmost rigour, yet indulged themselves, and bore as little of the expense and trouble as possible; so that, where they could avoid it, they would not lend the least aid to the people in the toils and expense of their religious rites.

With one of their fingers. In the least degree, They will not render the least aid.

{t} "burdens" Acts 15:10

Verse 5. Their phylacteries. The word phylactery comes from a word signifying to keep, preserve, or guard. The name was given because phylacteries were worn as amulets or charms, and were supposed to defend them from evil. They were small slips of parchment or vellum, on which were written certain portions of the Old Testament. The practice of using phylacteries was founded on a literal interpretation of that passage where God commands the Hebrews to have the law as a sign on their foreheads, and as frontlets between their eyes, Exodus 13:16; Proverbs 3:1,3 Proverbs 6:21. One kind or phylactery was called a "frontlet," and was composed of four pieces of parchment; on the first of which was written, Exodus 12:2-10; on the second, Exodus 12:11-21; on the third, Deuteronomy 6:4-9; and on the fourth, Deuteronomy 11:18-21. These pieces of parchment, thus inscribed, they enclosed in a piece of tough skin, making a square, on one side of which is placed the Hebrew \~W\~ letter shin --and bound them round their foreheads with a thong or riband, when they went to the synagogue. Some wore them evening and morning; and others only at the morning prayer.

As the token upon the hand was required, as well as the frontlets between the eyes, the Jews made two rolls of parchment, written in square letters, with an ink made on purpose, and with much care. They were rolled up to a point, and enclosed in a sort of case of black calfskin. They were put upon a square bit of the same leather, whence hung a thong of the same, of about a finger in breadth, and about two feet long. These rolls were placed at the bending of the left arm, and after one end of the thong had been made into a little knot in the form of the Hebrew letter \~?\~ yod--it was wound about the arm in a spiral line, which ended at the top of the middle finger. The Pharisees enlarged them, or made them wider than other people, either that they might make the letters larger, or write more on them--to show, as they supposed, that they had peculiar reverence for the law.

Enlarge the borders of their garments. This refers to the loose threads which were attached to the borders of the outer garment as a fringe. This fringe was commanded in order to distinguish them from other nations, and that they might remember to keep the commandments of God, Numbers 15:38-40; Deuteronomy 22:12. They made them broader than other people wore them, to show that they had peculiar respect for the law.

{u} "but all their works" Matthew 6:1-16
{v} "phylacteries" Numbers 15:38

Verse 6. The uppermost rooms at feasts. The word rooms, here, by no means expresses the meaning of the original. It would be correctly rendered the uppermost places or couches at feasts. To understand this it is necessary to remark, that the custom among the Jews was not to eat sitting, as we do, but reclining on couches. The table was made by three tables, raised like ours, and placed so as to form a square, with a clear space in the midst, and one end quite open. On the sides; of them were placed cushions, capable of containing three or-more persons, On these the guests reclined, leaning on their left side with their feet extended from the table, and so lying that the head of one naturally reclined on the bosom of another. To recline near to one in this manner denoted intimacy, and was what was meant by lying in the bosom of another, John 13:23; Luke 16:22,23. As the feet were extended from the table, and as they reclined instead of sitting, it was easy to approach the feet behind, and even unperceived. Thus in Luke 7:37,38 while Jesus reclined in this manner, a woman that had been a sinner came to his feet behind him, and washed them with her tears, and wiped with the hairs of her head. She stood on the outside of the couches. So our Saviour washed the feet of his disciples as they reclined on a couch in this manner, John 13:4-12. Whenever we read in the New Testament of sitting at meals, it always means reclining in this manner, and never sitting as we do. The chief seat, or the uppermost one, was the middle couch at the upper end of the table. This the Pharisees loved, as a post of honour or distinction. The annexed cut will fully illustrate the custom.

Chief seats in the synagogues. The seats usually occupied by the elders of the synagogue, near the pulpit. They love a place of distinction. See Barnes "Matthew 4:23".

{w} "And love" Mark 12:36; Luke 11:43

Verse 7. Greetings in the markets. Marks of particular respect shown to them in public places. Markets were places where multitudes of people were assembled together. They were pleased with particular attention among the multitude, and desired that all should show them particular respect.

Greetings. Salutations. See Barnes "Luke 10:4".

To be called--Rabbi, Rabbi. This word literally signifies great. It was a title given to eminent teachers of the law among the Jews; a title of honour and dignity, denoting their authority and ability to teach. They were gratified with such titles, and wished it given to themselves as denoting superiority. Every time it was given to them it implied their superiority to the persons who used it; and they were fond, therefore, of hearing it often applied to them. There were three titles in use among the Jews--Rab, Rabbi, and Rabban--denoting different degrees of learning and ability, as literary degrees do among us.

Verse 8. Be not ye, etc. Jesus forbade his disciples to seek such titles of distinction. The reason he gave was, that he was himself their Master and Teacher. They were on a level; they were to be equal in authority; they were brethren; and they should neither covet nor receive a title which implied either an elevation of one above another, or which appeared to infringe on the absolute right of the Saviour to be their only Teacher and Master. The command here is an express command to his disciples not to receive such a title of distinction. They were not to covet it; they were not to seek it; they were not to do anything that implied a wish or a willingness that it should be appended to their names. Everything which would tend to make a distinction among them, or destroy their parity; everything which would lead the world to suppose that there were ranks and grades among them as ministers, they were to avoid. It is to be observed that the command is, that they were not to receive the title. "Be not ye called Rabbi." The Saviour did not forbid them giving the title to others when it was customary or not regarded as improper, (comp. Acts 26:25;) but they were not to receive it. It was to be unknown among them. This title corresponds with the title "Doctor of Divinity," as applied to ministers of the gospel; and so far as I can see, the spirit of the Saviour's command is violated by the reception of such a title, as it would have been by their being called Rabbi. It is a literary distinction. It does not appropriately pertain to office. It makes a distinction among ministers. It tends to engender pride, and a sense of superiority in those who obtain it, and envy and a sense of inferiority in those who do not; and the whole spirit and tendency of it is contrary to the "simplicity that is in Christ"

{x} "But be not" James 3:1

Verse 9. And call no man your father, etc. This does not of course forbid us to apply the term to our real father. Religion requires all proper honour to be shown to him, Exodus 20:12; Matthew 15:4; Ephesians 6:1-3. But the word father also denotes authority, eminence, superiority, a right to command, and a claim to particular respect. In this sense it is used here. In this sense it belongs eminently to God, and it is not right to give it to men. Christian brethren are equal. God only has supreme authority. He only has a right to give laws, to declare doctrines to bind the conscience, to punish disobedience. The Jewish teachers affected that title because they seem to have supposed that a teacher formed the man, or gave him real life, and sought therefore to be called father. Christ taught them that the source of all life and truth was God; and they ought not to seek or receive a title which properly belongs to him.

{y} "your Father" Matthew 6:9

Verse 10. Neither--masters. Leaders. Those who go before others; who claim, therefore, the right to direct and control others. This was also a title conferred on Jewish teachers.

Neither of these commands forbid us to give proper titles of civil office to men, or to render them the honour belonging to their station, Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17. They forbid the disciples of Jesus to seek or receive mere empty titles, producing distinctions among themselves, implying authority to control the opinions and conduct of others, and claiming that others should acknowledge them to be superior to them.

Verses 11,12. See Barnes "Matthew 20:26". He that shall humble himself, etc. God will exalt or honour him that is humble, and that seeks a lowly place among men. That is true religion, and God will and God will reward it.

{y} "But he" Matthew 20:26,27

Verse 12. No Barnes text on this verse. See Barnes "Matthew 23:11"

{a} "And whosoever" Proverbs 15:33; James 4:6

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