Matthew 21:23-22:46 portrays Jesus teaching in the temple area after he had cleansed it from the buyers, sellers, and moneychangers. In this section Jesus is challenged on several fronts. The first section, Matthew 21:23-22:14, builds on the question of Jesus’ authority, which he defends and establishes by a series of parables. The second part of this section, Matthew 22:15-46, further establishes Jesus’ authority. The Pharisees and Sadducees attempt to trap Jesus with a series of three questions. Verses 15-22 raise the question about paying taxes to Caesar. Verses 23-33 contain a question about the resurrection. Verses 34-40 contain the question of the greatest commandment. In each case Jesus successfully rebuts the challengers and in verses 41-46 he silences the Pharisees with his own questions that they cannot answer.
A Resurrection [Trick] Question - Matthew 22:23-33
The question about paying taxes to Caesar had been raised by the Pharisees and the "Herodians." The next group to challenge Jesus was the Sadducees. This group was one of the major religious influences in first century Judaism. They are mentioned only fourteen times in the New Testament with half the references being in Matthew’s gospel. (Five of the other references are in Acts.) Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote in the last part of the first century AD, is the major historical resource for understanding this group. The origin of the name "Sadducee" has been widely discussed by scholars but no suggestion has gained general agreement. The membership of the Sadducees was drawn almost entirely from the upper socio-economic strata of the Jews and the majority of the Sadducees were from priestly families. As the upper class, priests they controlled the temple and had dominated the Sanhedrin in the first century B.C. The Sadducees had struck the agreements with Rome that allowed them to retain religious and local political power in return for their support of the larger Roman political structures and control.
Josephus identifies several fascinating beliefs of the Sadducees, two of which figure in this paragraph in Matthew. The Sadducees accepted as Scripture only the five books of the Torah or Pentateuch. They regarded the other sections of the Old Testament (the prophets and other writings) as late and unreliable inventions. One result was that they accepted no doctrines that they could not establish from the Pentateuch. One of these doctrines was belief in the resurrection. They also emphasized human self-determination and free will over against predestination.
Matthew 22:23-28 provides an interesting example of Sadducean theology in action. Verse 23 notes the historical fact that they did not believe in the resurrection and the following verses show how they made fun of the idea. Their test case was built on the levirate marriage law described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. This law provided that when a married man died before having children the dead man’s brother was to marry the widow and produce children in the name of his dead brother. The resulting children were considered legally to be the line of the deceased and allowed his contribution to the family tree to continue. It is generally thought that this practice was also related to the fact that through most of the Old Testament period there is no evidence of Israelite belief in either resurrection or the immortality of the soul. The way an Israelite could live on after death was by means of his children. The levirate marriage law allowed this privilege to a man who would have been otherwise denied this form of immortality because of a premature death. The law in Deuteronomy provided for the possibility of a brother refusing the levirate responsibility, but severe social pressure was placed on those who refused.
The case presented by the Sadducees to Jesus involved a man who married and died without children. His brother then married the widow and died shortly thereafter without children. The next brother married her and also died childless. The same process happened through seven brothers and finally the woman died. The question of the Sadducees was, "Whose wife will she be in the resurrection since all of them had married her?" The idea of seven husbands who died after marrying this woman may have come from the apocryphal book of Tobit. In that book the heroine, Sarah, married seven men, each of whom died before consummating the marriage. However, in Tobit, a made for TV novel, Sarah eventually marries the hero, Tobias, and they live happily ever after.
The question of the Sadducees assumed that resurrection life was simply an extension or continuation of earthly life. Jesus’ response to the question charges them with ignorance of both Scripture and God. He does not start with the assumption that resurrection life is modeled after life here on earth. Rather, Jesus started with the nature of God and the revelation of God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
His response is instructive in at least two ways. First, Jesus met the Sadducees on their own ground, arguing his case from only the Pentateuch Scriptures. Second, he shows that theological discussion needs to proceed from the nature of God rather than from the projection of human culture. The nuance of Jesus’ argument is difficult for modern minds to capture, primarily because of our lack of understanding of the Old Testament. He pointed out that God identified himself as the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. To these patriarchs God made the same commitment that he would later make to the nation Israel promising to be their God and for them to be his people. In such a covenantal relationship the human parties would have understood to receive the defining characteristics of God. Since God was holy, then Israel, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must be holy. (We see this in the frequent Old Testament exhortations to holiness such as Leviticus 19:2.)
Since God is the living God then because he was God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they too must be living. Since Scripture records their death, the only way they can be alive is through resurrection. The "difficulty" most modern people have is in accepting the idea of shared characteristics in a covenantal relationship. However, that is our problem; the Sadducees and all other Jews of Jesus’ time simply assumed the reality of such shared characteristics. The astonishment of the crowd was the way in which Jesus used that basic assumed truth and applied it to the resurrection debate.
While at it, Jesus also pointed out the error of the assumption of the Sadducees that resurrection life is simply an extension of normal human life on earth. Rather, resurrection will bring persons into a new kind of existence that is more like that of the angels than like that of humans on earth. In particular, the defeat of death means that marriage will no longer be necessary for the sake of propagating the human species and family names. As a result family relationships are transcended in heaven. For this reason Jesus taught that family relationships cannot be the most important source of meaning and identity in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 10:37; 12:46-50; and 19:29).
The Greatest Commandment - Matthew 22:34-40
Verses 34-35 show the result of Jesus’ answer to Sadducees. The Pharisees, who had been bested by Jesus in the preceding paragraph on taxes, were quite interested in Jesus’ answer. They, too, had been faced with the resurrection question from the Sadducees and Jesus’ defeat of the Sadducees encouraged them to try again to entrap him. They selected one of their number, a lawyer, whom we may presume to have been one of their best debaters and sent him with another question designed to trap Jesus. The question was one that was frequently debated among the Pharisees and other Jewish religious groups: which of the commandments of the Old Testament was the greatest commandment?
This question was not a "trick" question in the way the two previous questions were. Rather, the Pharisees thought that this question would force Jesus to take a position for or against one of the established answers to the question. This would enable them to identify Jesus as a follower of someone whose position on the commandment question he supported. This would mean that his authority was derived from that theological school of thought. As Patte (p. 314) points out, the question was based on a wrong understanding of the Law. Both Sadducees and Pharisees saw the Law as an arena for debate in which the victor implements the way of God by virtue of being (humanly) right. Jesus’ reply moves the question of the Law and its commandments out of the arena of human argument and power back to the Old Testament arena of covenantal relationship.
Jesus’ answer to the question of the greatest commandment is another model of how theological discussion should proceed. The command to love the Lord God with one’s whole heart, soul, and strength was simply a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5. This was the second line of the famous Shema that every Jew recited every day. It appears in Deuteronomy as explication of the first commandment of the ten commandments, to have no other gods. The way to monotheism was not via intellectual argument but by covenant relationship. The faithful God of covenant had brought Israel out of bondage in Egypt. The only appropriate response of Israel (or of us) was to love God completely. Such complete love implied a commitment to loyalty that would jealously guard God’s unique place. Part of the genius of Jesus’ answer is that no Jew could dispute his answer. He had answered from the very heart of the Scriptures in a way thoroughly consistent with their own understanding of God.
However, Jesus quickly moved the question from one greatest commandment to include a second "greatest" commandment. The command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self appears in Leviticus 19:18. In the context of Leviticus 19 this command is a summary of numerous ordinances regulating human relationships. The theme of the chapter as a whole is found in Leviticus 19:2 in the command to be holy as the Lord God is holy. Thus Jesus’ appeal to this "second" great commandment shows again his understanding that the essence of the Law is the quality of relationship with God that it produces. This understanding governed both his first and second great commandments. It also revealed that Jesus’ view of the Law was much more relational and much more in tune with the nature of God than the view of either the Pharisees or Sadducees who saw Law as an arena to exercise human power.
Jesus’ statement of the two great commandments is of special importance to those of the Wesleyan theological tradition. Frequently, when challenged to define the holiness he was preaching, John Wesley replied that by holiness he meant nothing more and nothing less than loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus understood that these two commandments contained in essence and principle all of the Old Testament revelation. Wesley understood that everything essential about the doctrines of entire sanctification and Christian perfection could be summed up in these two commandments.
Jesus’ Question about David’s Son - Matthew 22:41-46
Matthew records no response from the Pharisees to Jesus’ teaching on the great commandment(s). Rather, Jesus shifts from defense to offense by directing a question to the Pharisees. Verse 41 describes them as being "gathered together." This may reflect a picture of the Pharisees huddled together trying to figure out a response to Jesus’ statement the great commandment. While they were so engaged he asked them their opinion about whose son the Messiah was. When they predictably answered that the Messiah was David’s Son Jesus then asked them to explain Psalm 110:1 in which David calls the Messiah "Lord."
Like the questions in the two preceding paragraphs the question turns on interpretation of Scripture. Most modern scholars regard Psalm 110 as a coronation psalm originally composed and sung for the crowning of a new king. Thus in Psalm 110:1 the Lord (Yahweh, Israel’s God) speaks to the new king calling him "my lord" as a title of honor and status. The attribution of the psalm to David is not understood as part of the original psalm but a later editorial insertion by scribes who copied the psalms. However, the Pharisees accepted this attribution without question and Jesus argues within the framework of their assumptions (and methodologies). If the psalm addressed a new king then it would most certainly apply to the coming Messiah as the one who would renew the Davidic kingdom. If David wrote the psalm, then, in essence he called the Messiah, his Son, "lord." Since David’s son would have been regarded as his inferior and one called "my lord" would have been regarded as his superior Jesus asked the Pharisees to explain the contradiction. Their inability to respond leaves Jesus as the clearly superior interpreter of Scripture. He has answered all their questions, but they cannot answer his. Matthew’s point here is not simply the reporting of history. Rather, because Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture is superior to that of the Pharisees, his readers should have confidence that the Christian use of the Old Testament is more appropriate than the Jewish use. For his Jewish audience this was an important issue. It should also be an important issue for Christians today.
The Danger of False Teachers - Matthew 23:1-39
Matthew 23 continues Jesus’ teaching in the temple area but shifts from the form of dialogue and conflict to the monologue form. Having bested the best of Pharisee and Sadducee debaters Jesus now summarizes the dangers of following such teachers of the Law. The language of chapter 23 seems harsh and untypical of Jesus to many modern readers. They wonder how the Jesus who taught such love and forgiveness could speak in such inflammatory ways against the opponents he had just defeated in debate. Modern sensitivity to anti-Semitism also raises a red flag at Matthew 23. These negative remarks became part of the basis for hundreds of years of official condemnation and rejection of Jewish people by Christians. What are we to make of this chapter and its harsh language?
First, it should be noted that the harshness of the language was not unusual in first century Judaism. Words and phrases like "hypocrites," "blind guides," "double sons of hell," and "brood of vipers," were common parlance in the debates between Jewish religious groups at the time of Jesus. Such language was the way a person or group staked out territory. Ancient listeners would not have responded by thinking how much the speaker hated the other party. Rather, ancient listeners would have concluded that the speaker thought the other party was wrong and that he was right. In fact, the words of Jesus in Matthew 23 are no stronger than the words spoken by many of the prophets denouncing sinful leaders among their own people.
The problem arises when we move from first century Jewish culture to cultures and times where such language is understood differently. For Matthew these hard words about the Pharisees were important because it was Pharisees who were persecuting the (Jewish) followers of Jesus in Matthew’s church. That is very different than what happened a few hundred years later when Christians who had come to power in the Roman Empire used these words to justify their persecution of Jews. We must understand this chapter in its context in the first century and not generalize the harsh words into blanket condemnation of Jews for all time. After all, Jesus himself, and Matthew, as well as most of Matthew’s church were Jews. These words were the product of at least two different points of view in Judaism fighting for influence over Jewish identity.
A second point that needs to be noted is the fact that Jesus speaks to his own followers in this chapter as well as to the Pharisees. Matthew 23 is properly understood as a warning to believers to avoid the errors of the Pharisees, as it is a frontal attack on those Jewish leaders. The sensitive (and sensible) Christian will find more reason to grieve over the practices of the Christian church after reading this chapter than he will find reasons to gloat about Christian superiority to Judaism.
Verses 1-12 point out both failure on the part of the scribes and Pharisees and warn disciples not to fall into similar problems. Verses 13-36 attack the kind of legalistic interpretation of Scripture that follows biblical details but misses out on the great principles of the Bible. The chapter concludes in verses 37-39 lamenting over Jerusalem.
The chapter begins with surprising words to many modern Christians. Verse 3 commands the followers of Jesus to do what the Pharisees teach but to avoid their practice. This appears to reflect the historical reality that much of Jesus’ teaching (though not all) was closer to the theology of the Pharisees than to the teaching of the other, rival Jewish groups. We saw an example of this in the debate with the Sadducees over resurrection in Matthew 22:23-33. Jesus’ objection to the Pharisees was primarily an objection to the Pharisees’ pursuit of power over others by means of their interpretation of the Law. At this point there was objection to the teaching of the Pharisees in that they used the Law and their oral interpretations of the Law for political and religious power rather than to build relationship with God. They created interpretations of the Law that caused hardship to many people, but rather than helping those people find ways to express their love for God through the Law, the Pharisees used the interpretation in ways that alienated them from the common people.
Verses 5-7 echo a common complaint in Matthew that the Pharisees love public attention for their practice of religion (see Matthew 6:1-18). However, verses 8-12 are directed to disciples of Jesus. The "you" of verse 8 is plural, indicating that Matthew especially understood these words to apply to his own church. The history of Christianity shows all too well the temptation to titles of honor and status. We have not done well as living life in the church in such a way that the one we consider greatest is the servant of all. We have been more eager to exalt ourselves than to humble ourselves despite the warning of verse 12. The followers of Jesus have much learn about the authority available through servanthood.
The second section of Matthew 23 is organized around a series of "woes" pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. The first two woes, found in verses 13 and 15, deal with how converts are gained. These verses stand as a strong warning that our evangelistic efforts not be sabotaged by our erecting walls that keep out the very people we want in. The next two woes are discussed in verses 16-22 and verses 23-24. They point out that the Pharisees often focused on the minutiae of the law while neglecting the major themes and principles. Once again, followers of Christ need to be on guard against the same error. The third pair of woes in verses 25-26 and 27-28 warns against external righteousness at the expense of inward holiness. The seventh and final woe warns against singing the praises of ancient leaders while living contrary to their teaching. Jesus concluded this section with a lament over Jerusalem. The key phrase is that Jerusalem was "not willing" to accept the ministry Jesus offered. As a result only horrible judgment lay in the future. It is easy to point our finger at this failure of Judaism; it is more difficult to live out these words of Jesus ourselves
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 22:23-23:39. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you live out the humility and servanthood that Jesus taught in Matthew 23 without condemning those (both Jews and Christians) who fail to live up to that teaching.
Second Day: Read Matthew 24:1-51. Now focus on Matthew 24:1-8.
1. How does Jesus’ prediction in verse 2 that not one stone of the temple building would be left on another relate to the teaching of Matthew 21-23? What conclusions can you draw from the fact that the prediction of verse 2 was fulfilled forty years after Jesus spoke those words?
2. What does Jesus warn us against in verses 3-8? What steps can we take to avoid the things that he warns us against in these verses?
3. How does Jesus describe the wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, etc. in verses 6 and 8. What conclusion(s) should we draw about how much attention we pay to such signs?
Third Day: Read Matthew 24:1-51. Focus in on Matthew 24:9-15.
1. What result of the end times persecution does Jesus describe in verse 10? What steps could we take now to help keep ourselves from falling into the pattern mentioned in verse 10?
2. What cause(s) will lead to the love of many becoming cold? What responsibility does the warning about the love of many becoming cold place upon the church? What can we do to help believers "endure to the end?"
3. What does verse 14 imply must take place before the end of time will occur? To what degree has this happened in our time? What can we do to bring that task to completion? Do we want to do that? Why? Or why not?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 24:1-51. Focus your attention on Matthew 24:15-28.
1. What comments in these focus verses show the urgency of fleeing at the desecration of the temple? Do these verses have specific application for us or were they just for the first century readers? Why do you think so?
2. What is the promise mentioned in verse 22? What are other truths about the end of time and Christ’s return that provide "good news" for his followers? What should our attitude be toward those days?
3. What is the general impression you get from reading verses 23-28? How should these verses guide our response toward people who confidently proclaim their own interpretation of end time scriptures?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 24:1-51. Now focus in on Matthew 24:29-44.
1. What do you think Jesus meant when he spoke of the "sign of the Son of Man" in verse 30? How does the rest of verse 30 and verse 31 and Daniel 7:13-14 provide instruction about the "sign of the Son of Man?"
2. What is the message of verses 32-34? Is this message consistent with the rest of chapter 24 or does it seem more urgent than some parts of the chapter?
3. What conclusion should we draw from verse 36? What do these words of Jesus say about the many prediction about the time of Christ’s second coming? How should we respond to them?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 24:1-51. Now focus on Matthew 24:36-51.
1. What similarities do you see between Jesus’ description of the days of Noah and the world in which we live? What lesson should we learn from those similarities? What differences are there that we should remember?
2. What lesson should we learn from the illustrations of the two working in the field, the two women grinding at the mill, and the owner of the house?
3. What lessons can we draw from the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants in verses 45-51? Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you apply those lessons to your own life.