This Week's Focus Passage

This Week’s Focus Passage: Matthew 23 ‘Woe unto you.’

This Week’s Focus Passage: Matthew 23 

‘Woe unto you.’

    There is, at least, some irony of coincidence, that in this chapter of Matthew, and especially the very pericope involving Jesus’ condemnatory remarks toward the Pharisees in His presence, where He has pronounced these several ‘woes’ unto them, with regard to their wicked behaviors in many instances. His audience is described in the first verse of this 23rd chapter of Matthew, when the writer informs the reader,

Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe; but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.

While we may, correctly, presume that the initial ‘audience’ here in Matthew’s record, were both the ‘multitudes’ as well as His own disciples, when He begins His forceful tirade, containing these several ‘woes,’ against a seeming particular segment of His hearers, Matthew reports, clearly in verse 13, that the individuals comprising this ‘audience’ were ‘scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.’ This verse begins His particular ‘pointing the finger’ at these individuals; asserting the ‘woes’ which were destined against them, as well as the grounds for such to be the case. Like a well-trained prosecutor, Jesus speaks of the punishment due unto them, and then further describes the violation of truth that would bring such punishments. It is to be found interesting, at the very least, that we may read this passage in the ASV-1901 English translation of the Scriptures of God, discovering that, contained in verses 13-36, are ‘seven woes,’ seven denunciations and determinations against these very scribes and Pharisees. It was readily brought to mind, upon noting the number of woes against these men, namely seven, that a number of commentators and expositors, over the years, have written upon the sayings, or expressions, of Christ upon the cross, as He poured out His blood for the satisfaction of the justice of God which was against those of mankind that the Father had given to the Son ‘from before the foundation of the world; one in particular, Arthur W. Pink, appending the title to his volume, namely, The Seven Sayings of the Savior on the Cross.’ It was determined, from this point, to attempt to place those seven sayings on the Cross, against the seven woes which Christ denounced against those ‘hypocrites’ of Matthew 23. One of the first commentators that we consulted was the well-known, and highly approved, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, of Metropolitan Tabernacle fame, in London, in the 19th Century. He begins his remarks on the passage in question, namely Matthew 23:13-29, regarding the ‘woes,’ when he writes, upon verse 13, and following, in this manner; quoting that thirteenth verse, from his copy of the ‘Authorized Version,’ the 1611;

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.

He then writes his own thoughts concerning this verse and those that follow, saying;

    “While our Saviour was speaking to the people and his disciples, the scribes and Pharisees may have again drawn near. At any rate, his next words were address-ed to them: Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! He then goes on to say, ‘This is the first of eight ‘woes,’ in which the Lord Jesus both foretells the doom of the hypocrites gathered before him and reveals the depth of his pity even for them.’ This is what brought us to a halt, for, as previously noted, our copies, ASV-1901, contain here, seven woes, and not the eight to which our venerable preacher, C.H.S. refers. Why this discrepancy between these two English translations? Upon investigation, we discovered that the ASV-1901, along with many others among the English translations, in particular, we must state, those that are considered to be among the translations which have notably embraced the ‘formal equivalence’ method over the ‘dynamic equivalence’ method. We may read a definition of the distinction between the two, very briefly stated, “The formal equivalence approach tends to emphasize fidelity to the lexical details and grammatical structure of the original language, whereas dynamic equivalence tends to employ a more natural rendering but with less literal accuracy.” R. C. H. Lenski, has written, regarding this distinction (disagreement) between translators with the following rebuttal: “The slight textual evidence for this verse rules it out; its substance is found in Mark 12:40, and in Luke 20:47 in the same general connection, but there it is not one of the woes but a part of the warning against the Pharisees spoken to the people.”

    Having said this much about a coincidence of the ‘seven sayings’ uttered by Christ at the Cross, and the ‘seven’ woes uttered by Christ in Matthew 23, whether this is anything more than coincidence, the many uses made of the number seven in the Word, is conspicuous. It should be noted that, perhaps, a more likely comparison, could be made between these ‘woes’ in the passage in Matthew 23, and the letters written by John to the seven churches that are in Asia, Revelation 1:4. These letters were written, as John was directed, What thou seest, write in a book and send it to the seven churches: unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamum, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea. Revelation 1:11.     

    One might easily be tempted to dismiss the ‘woes’ spoken by Jesus to those Pharisees in Matthew 23, while He was upon the earth, as nothing more than cautions given to those ‘corrupt Jewish leaders’ of the day and age, and not applicable to us in this day. But the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, were dictated by the Lord in His risen and glorified state; this Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show unto his servants, even the things which must shortly come to pass: and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John. (Rev. 1:1). Indeed, if the Word spoken to the Pharisees, doesn’t find root in the conscience of many today, surely, the denunciations levelled at the seven churches in Asia, most certainly will impact any sincere conscience among us. Indeed, they are spoken to us, in this day and age and we would do well to often give them a hearing.

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church


Join us Sunday at