I. CAUSE OF CHRIST'S AUTHORITY BEING CALLED IN QUESTION. The ostensible cause was the events of the preceding day; the real cause Satan's opposition to the work of Christ. On the day before he had displayed his zeal for the sanctity of God's house and the purity of its worship. He is now called to account because of the extraordinary efforts he bad made to put a stop to the public profanation of the house of God, and because of the no less extraordinary authority which he had exercised. Such appears to be the right reference of the ταῦτα in the question, though along with the purging of the temple may be included the miracles of healing that had been performed on the blind and lame who, as St. Matthew informs us, had resorted to him in the temple. Others, with less probability, refer the word to his teaching; for "he taught dally in the temple," as we read in St. Luke. All these, together with our Lord's triumphal entry, had sorely displeased and greatly discomfited the Jewish rulers, who now proceeded to call his authority in question. But the prime mover of this cavilling opposition was Satan. He was pursuing his usual tactics. Good is often done in an informal way, or by voluntary agencies, or by very humble instrumentalities; and Satan, when the fact of the good done is undeniable, stirs up men to impugn the authority or assail the commission of those Christian workers by whom the good is done, thus endeavoring to raise a false issue and stay its progress.
II. GREED OF GAIN VERSUS GODLINESS. The Church has its counterfeits as well as the world; there is no class altogether free from false disguises. Some, perhaps many, of those unholy traffickers who were desecrating the temple so that a second cleansing of it within the short period of three years had become a necessity, fancied they were doing God service and accommodating his worshippers; while their own sordid and selfish interests - their own love of gain and usurious greed - were their real and actuating motives. Was it strange that our Lord was roused to indignation, and resorted to the most active measures to expel from the sacred precincts those dealers in sheep and oxen, with their droves of cattle, those dove-sellers and money-changers, who, under the pretext of supplying the requisites for sacrifices to such as came from a distance, and the temple half-shekels to foreign Jews for their larger coins or coins with heathenish images and inscriptions, had their heart set on driving a profitable trade in this matter of the sacrifices, and their eye fixed on the κόλλυβος, or twelfth of a shekel, as the agio of exchange; while the noisy bargainings, unseemly wranglings, and general hubbub made the house of God resemble one of those caves where robbers quarrelled over their ill-got gains?
III. OUR LORD'S ANSWER TO THE QUESTION ABOUT AUTHORITY. The twofold question about our Lord's authority and its source was put by a deputation from the Sanhedrim - a deputation representative of the three chief sections of that body: namely, chief priests or heads of the twenty-four classes; scribes, the theologians or authorized interpreters of Scripture; and the elders or heads of the principal families. The question of this formidable deputation called forth a counter-question on the part of our Lord; nor was there any evasion in this. By asking them whether John's baptism was of heavenly or human origin, he effectually answered their question, and put them into a dilemma from which there was no escaping. If they admitted John's mission to have been from God, the matter was settled at once and decisively; for John had testified most positively and repeatedly to the Divine mission and consequent Divine authority of Jesus, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world;" and declaring that he would "baptize with the Holy Ghost." The alternative of John's mission being derived from a human source was what they dared not face, for it would bring them into collision with the crowd, and they were too cowardly for that.
IV. THE UNFAIRNESS OF THE QUESTION OF THE SANHEDRIM. Had they not had evidence of Jesus' authority in his exceptionally sinless life in the midst of all the temptations of a sinful world? Had they not evidence of his Divine authority in his teaching? - "for he taught as One having authority, and not as the scribes;" in "the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth"? - for the universal testimony was that "never man spake like this Man." Had they not proof in the miracles which he wrought - not prodigally, but properly and appropriately?
"But who so blind as those who will not see?
Beware of the scribes.Luke 11:52): "Woe unto you lawyers, for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye enter not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered." The way, then, in which they shut the kingdom of heaven against themselves and others, was by taking away the key of knowledge. In order to this, let us endeavour to ascertain the precise position of the Pharisee, and the place which he assigned to the word of God. Let us observe how he used the key of knowledge, and by what precise instrumentality he shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. The Pharisees did not deny men the use of the Bible. They did not conceal the knowledge of its contents. The people heard it read from year to year in their synagogues. It was explained to them, and their attention solicited to its truths. How, then, could it be said that they had taken away the key of knowledge? The answer to the question is to be found in the fact, not that they withheld the word of God, but that they made the commandment of God of none effect by their tradition. They refused to acknowledge the fact that God is the only teacher and director of His Church. They added to His word instructions of their own. The Divine authority, if it is to be preserved at all, must stand apart from and be superior to all other authority. The claims of God are paramount, and so soon as they cease to be so, they cease to be Divine. In other words, God is no longer God — His worship is rendered vain — and His commandments become of none effect. Thus the key of knowledge is altogether taken away, and the kingdom of heaven is shut against men. The fact that the commandments of men occupied such a place at all vitiated their whole doctrine and worship, deprived men of the key of knowledge, and shut up the kingdom of heaven against them. Such a Church ceased to be a blessing, and had become a curse to the nation. It was a Church not to be reformed, but to be destroyed. It was rotten at the very heart, and nothing remained for it but woe. But the text is pregnant with instruction and admonition to all the professed disciples of Christ. It impresses upon us the doctrine that the kingdom of heaven is opened by knowledge. This is the key that unlocks the celestial gates. We cannot obtain an entrance to it in any other way. The lock will not yield to any other power. Not that all kinds of knowledge are equally available. This is life eternal, to know God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. To be ignorant of Christ is to be shut out o! heaven. To know Jesus Christ is to open up the kingdom of heaven. The highest gifts, the most shining acquirements, cannot bring us a footstep nearer heaven. Nothing else avails to open up the kingdom to men but the knowledge of Jesus Christ. From the text also we learn this doctrine, that the ministers of the Church have in a certain sense the power of shutting up the kingdom of heaven against men. They are set up as lights of the world. Their business is to instruct the ignorant. If they neglect the duties or pervert the designs of their office, how are men to acquire the knowledge of the truth? From the doctrines set forth in the text, let us lay to heart the following practical instructions:
1. Let us learn to read the Bible, and to listen to its truths, in the assurance that our eternal destiny depends upon the knowledge of them.
2. Let ministers also learn their proper vocation as porters to the kingdom of heaven, and let them beware of handling the Word of God deceitfully. Let us now proceed to examine the second charge which Jesus brings against the scribes and Pharisees. It is conveyed in these words "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers; therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation." The crime of the Pharisees was not one, but manifold, and Jesus, in faithfulness, accumulates His charges against them. Lest for a moment they should forget the heinous character of these charges, He recapitulates with each the coming doom which awaited them. This second sin which Jesus charges against the Pharisees is of a very aggravated kind. It is devouring the houses of widows. Not contented with making void the commandments of God, these men were guilty of the most hateful practices. Having usurped a treasonable authority in Divine things, their lives were characterized by acts of atrocious oppression and cruelty. Insinuating themselves into the confidence of the weak and the defenceless, they made their high religious profession a covert for the basest covetousness. They become robbers of the widow and the fatherless. Such wickedness of conduct might have been expected as the sure result of the corruptions they had introduced into the Divine worship. Purity of faith is the surest guardian of integrity of life. In the case of the Pharisees the wickedness was peculiarly hateful. The sin of which they were guilty was devouring houses, or, in other words, involving families in ruin, by appropriating and devouring the substance which belonged to them. But this sin was accompanied with a threefold aggravation. First, the houses they involved in ruin were the houses of widows. Secondly, their sin was yet farther aggravated by being committed under the pretext of religion. They committed robbery under the guise of piety. Thirdly, they made an extraordinary profession of religious zeal. They not only prayed with a view to the more easy perpetration of robbery, but their prayers were long. Widows were their easy dupes. Thus we are directed to one of the marks which indicate the mere pretender to godliness, and by which we shall be able to detect and expose the hypocrite. For the pretender in religion, having necessarily some selfish object in view, and not being animated by a love of the truth, may be expected to turn his profession to the best possible account. And whether for the purpose of gratifying his vanity, of acquiring power and influence, or of increasing wealth, he will always find his readiest instruments in silly and restless women. Hence, too readily, among despisers of religion, the reproach has been taken up against the true and living Church, that its most active promoters, and most zealous adherents, are women, and that the prayers of its members are only for a pretence. Surely it would be to infer rashly to conclude, that because the ministers or members of a Church were signalized by fervent and frequent prayer, and because devout and honourable women, not a few, were among its most zealous friends, such a Church was guilty of the Pharisaic crime, and justly lay under the reproach and the woe denounced in the text. Let us examine and see. No one can read the personal history of Jesus without perceiving how, in the days of His earthly ministry, He had among His most honoured and endeared disciples devout women not a few, whose rich gifts He did not despise, and whose devoted love He did not spurn. Who was it that blamed the expenditure of a very precious box of ointment? Is it, on the other hand, an unfailing mark of a hypocrite to make long prayers? Doubtless there have been many, in every age, who have assumed the form of godliness while denying its power, who have drawn near to God with the mouth, and honoured Him with the lips, while their hearts have been far from Him. But if hypocritical pretenders affect this devotion, is it not an evidence that prayer is the proper and true life Of the believer? Why should the Pharisee pretend to it, if the religious propriety .of the thing itself were not felt and acknowledged? The hypocrite does not affect that which does not essentially belong to godliness. Jesus did not accuse the Pharisees, and pronounce a woe upon them, because they received the support of women, even of widows, nor because of the frequency or length of their prayers. Abstracted, however, from the peculiar circumstances and aggravations with which the sin was accompanied in the actual practice of the Pharisees, the thing condemned in the text is, prayer which is uttered only in pretence, and prayer which has a selfish and worldly end in view. Widows were the objects against whom the Pharisees put in practice their artful hypocrisy. But it is obvious that whosoever may be the objects of the deception, the essential character of the sin remains the same. Nor is the nature of the sin affected by the extent of the pretended devotion. The pretence is the thing blameworthy. It is true the sin becomes more heinous in proportion to the height of the profession, and the Pharisees are worthy of greater damnation, because they not only pretended to devotion, but to very high flights of it. Leaving out of view, however, such aggravating circumstances as these, that their prayer was long, and that the widows and the fatherless were their prey, we have the essential character of the sin set before us, as at least worthy of damnation, namely, making a profession of religion for the purpose of advancing worldly interests, and securing the ends of earthly ambition. The Pharisees of our day, then, who lie under the woe pronounced by Jesus, are —
1. Those ministers who enter upon and continue in their office for a piece of bread. The most pitiable being among all the afflicted sons of humanity is he who has assumed the holy office of the ministry for the sake of worldly ends and objects.
2. But the Pharisaic crime is by no means limited to ministers. Those people are guilty of it, in whatever position they are placed, who, for the sake of good repute, from fear of worldly loss, or from the desire of worldly gain — or who, actuated by any earthly or selfish motive whatever, make profession of a religion which they do not believe. We have yet to examine a third charge which Jesus brings against the scribes and Pharisees. He accompanies the recital of it with a denunciation of the same woe he had already twice invoked upon them. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves." The apostles of deceit and falsehood have often manifested a zeal in the propagation of their principles which is fitted to minister a severe reproof to those who know and who believe the truth. This does not arise from the circumstance that the apostles of error are possessed of more energy and activity of mind than the friends of truth, but because they have frequently a more hearty interest in the advancement of their cause. Let there be an opening for worldly advancement, and the gratification of worldly ambition, and the way is crowded with rival and eager candidates. There is no remissness of effort among them. The conquests of early Christianity were rapid and wide, because its apostles had strong faith and untiring zeal. From what has been stated, it will be manifest that it is not the fact of making proselytes or converts against which the woe of Christ is denounced. This, on the contrary, is the great duty which He has laid upon all His disciples; and the illustrious reward He hath promised to the work is, that they who turn many to righteousness shall shine as the stars for ever and ever. A church is doing nothing if it be not making proselytes. It is a dead trunk ready for the fire. They did not care to make their converts holier and better and happier men. They made them twofold more the children of hell than themselves. It was enough that they assumed the name and made the outward profession. It will be instructive to examine for a little the methods they adopted for preserving their influence, extending their power, and crushing the truth.We will thus be able to understand more perfectly the grounds of the condemnation pronounced against them, and how their zeal should have produced such fruits.
1. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to John we find the record of a miraculous work of Jesus, in opening the eyes of a man who had been blind from his birth. The Pharisees became aware that such a miracle had been wrought, and with great propriety made immediate and diligent inquiry into the reality of the fact. The means, then, by which they sought to quench the truth — to induce a denial of the manifest power of God, and to retain the people as their proselytes and followers — were to bring against Jesus the accusation of breaking the law of the land. He who did so, they argued, must be a sinner — he could not come from God, and to follow him would be certain destruction.
2. Throughout the narratives of the evangelists there are scattered abundant evidences of another instrument of proselytizing employed by the Pharisees. It is the language of reviling and scorn. They ridiculed the poverty of the disciples. Doubtless by such reviling and mockery they might attain a certain measure of success.
3. Another instrument of the Pharisees for making and retaining proselytes, was misrepresentation and calumny. They watched the words of Jesus that they might have something to report to His disadvantage.
4. The Pharisees made converts by force. They took up the weapons of persecution and vigorously employed them. The charge as expressed, pronounces woe against them, because of their great zeal in making proselytes, and because of the lamentable results which followed upon their conversion.
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