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Woe to False Teachers (Matthew 23)

Matthew 23 records one of the strongest rebukes that come out of the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ, condemning the scribes who sit in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2). The seat of Moses is likely a reference to a stone chair often with inscriptions on them, that have been uncovered by archaeologists. “This seat was a reserved bench or chair within the synagogue, set aside by the leaders of the synagogue for distinguished members or the ruler of the synagogue. As such, it was a sign of authority.”1)Randall Price with H. Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), p. 251

He further condemns them for receiving the title “Rabbi” (Matthew 23:7-8). Derived from the word רַב meaning, “great,” being frequently conjoined with other terms such as “captain of the guard” (2 Kings 25:8; Jeremiah 39:13); “Rab-mag” meaning “chief magician” (Jeremiah 39:3, 13) which we find a “master of the magicians” in Babylon (Daniel 4:9); the “master of eunuchs” (Daniel 1:3); and “officers of his house” (Esther 1:8). רַב is “a term for someone who occupies a high and respected position.”2)Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. Gerhard Kittel; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley) WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 1964-1976), Vol. 6, p. 961 Rabbi has an added suffix meaning “my teacher” or “my great one,” though around “the middle of the 1st cent. A.D. the suffix increasingly lost its pronominal significance.”3)Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. Gerhard Kittel; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley) WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 1964-1976), Vol. 6, p. 963 John defines rabbi as “Master” — Διδάσκαλε literally “teacher”4)A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (ed. Walter Bauer and trans. Wm. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. Danker, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL: 1979), p. 191 (John 1:38). In Matthew 23, “Rabbi” is expressed synonymously with “Master” (καθηγητής) (Matthew 23:8, 10) which carries a similar meaning as “teacher.”5)Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Harper and Brothers (Franklin Square, NY: 1896), p. 313

The Mishna presents the Rabbis as judges over civil courts as an authoritative seat stemming back to Moses. Rabbi Dosa is recorded to have said, “If we come to inquire into [the lawfulness of the decisions of] the court of Rabban Gamaliel, we shall need to inquire into [the decisions of] every court which has arisen since the days of Moses until now[.]”6)Mishna, Rosh Ha-Shanah, 2.9; The Mishna (Trans. Herbert Danby), Hendrickson Pub. (Peabody, MA: 1933, 2016), p. 191 It took many years of study to be ordained and receive the title of “Rabbi.” J. Jeremias expressed, “It was knowledge alone which gave their power to the scribes.”7)Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (trans. F. H. and C. H. Cave), Fortress Press (Philadelphia, PA: 1967, 1989), p. 235

Christ’s rebuke was directed at their misguided abuse of such power (Matthew 23:23). Pronouncing a series of woes (Matthew 23:13, 14, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29) with deliberate verbal attacks to reveal their inner character, such as “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29); “blind” (Matthew 23:16, 17, 19, 24, 26); “fools” (Matthew 23:17, 19); “serpents” and “vipers” (Matthew 23:33). The term “hypocrites” “is one of the few uniquely Greek terms that Christ used. It comes from the Greek theatre which had been introduced to Palestine in the intertestament period…. The word hypocrite means an actor on the stage, i.e., a man who pretends to be something which he is not.”8)James L. Kelso, An Archaeologist Looks at the Gospels, Word Books, Publishers (Waco, TX: 1969), p. 64 In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ uses this term 15 times, 8 of which are in His denunciations during the passion week (Matthew 6:2, 5, 8; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51).

The “woes” called upon the corrupted Rabbis are contrasted with “blessings” which will be proclaimed upon Christ (Matthew 23:39). Their woe is damnation in hell (Matthew 23:33; Psalm 1:6); while Christ being blessed is because He will come in the name of the LORD (Matthew 23:39; Psalm 2:12). This blessing is a direct quote from Psalm 118:26, which also indicates “in the name of the LORD will I destroy them” (Psalm 118:10-13) referring to the nations that compassed about. Interestingly, Christ’s woes on the Rabbis is followed by the prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction (Matthew 23:37-38) leaving the house desolate. It was their hypocrisy which cost them the sacred city and the promise land being described with the word “Woe”! However, when Christ returns, He will avenge the city of its enemies from all the nations (Zechariah 12:8-10; 14:3-4; Revelation 19:11-21).



Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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