Trying to Shut Up Heaven

by Spiros Zodhiates

With this issue Pulpit Helps begins a 6-part series on the eight "woes" which Jesus pronounced in Matthew 23:13-36 upon the scribes and Pharisees of His day. These had turned the worship of God into a legalistic religion of men-and their spiritual descendents are still among us. The reader would also profit from comparing Jesus' words in Mark (12:38-40), and Luke (20:47).

The Lord begins to pronounce a series of eight woes ("woe[s]" (ouaí [3759], an interjection of grief or indignation over an impending judgment) upon the scribes and Pharisees.

The first woe is directed against their legalistic theology:

"Ye shut up (or lock) the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye do not enter yourselves, neither do you allow those who are entering to enter" (a.t.).

What kind of power is this? How can a hypocrite prevent another man from entering the kingdom?Spiros ZodhiatesSince when does the Pharisee possess the key (kleís [2807]; to the kingdom? Can he actually "shut" (or "lock") this door?

It would seem that way in English, but let's look at the evidence in Greek. The key verb is aphíemi, translated "suffer," (permit) in the King James Version. Ordinarily, non-permission means stopping as, for example: "they determined to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit did not permit [eíasin] them" (Acts 16:7), that is, the Spirit stopped them.

In the verse before us, aphíemi does not carry this causal sense of stopping, but rather, "[not] leaving alone." The Pharisees harassed-not stopped-those who were entering. While they attempted to block conversion, they did not and could not overpower the Spirit of God's regeneration of human hearts. It is safe to assume that "the ones entering" the kingdom were so doing by faith, for that is the only way in.

Pharisees even today try to lead the elect back onto the road of justification by works-legalism. Such Judaizers existed in the early church, and Paul commits the entire book of Galatians to the refutation of this syncretistic salvation of law and grace. Stephen sums up the whole history of Pharisaism when he says, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (Acts 7:51).

But while they do "not leave alone those entering" (meaning they badger or annoy them), the fact that they cannot block entry to God's elect is found throughout Christ's teachings: "These things saith He that… openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth….. I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it" (Rev. 3:7, 8). In agreement with this, Jesus says of His sheep, "A stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:5).

The Pharisees, then, shut up the kingdom of heaven only against "men" (not "sheep" who do not hear the voice of strangers)-in other words, against other Pharisees, all who attempt to be justified by works. They can only "harass [not stop] those who are entering" by faith-thus, Luke's synoptic use of the verb "to hinder":

"Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered" (Luke 11:52; note how "entered not" is contrasted with "hindered").

The elect hear the voice of grace, not the Law. Disciples of Christ will do well to heed the Apostle Paul's advice to "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1).

Over-Charging for Prayers

The second woe (v. 14) is pronounced on the sin of charging the poor unjust payments for spiritual services.

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses (oikías {3614}, homes, but more broadly here, economies; even a Pharisee could not get away with charging the price of a house for services), and for a pretence (prophásei, the dative of próphasis {4392}, pretense, pretext) make long prayer: on account of this you shall receive the greater damnation" (a.t.).

The two thoughts may be connected: "You devour…and for a pretext." On this assumption, the pretext would be the Pharisee's evil notion that a long prayer is a fair exchange for the amount of money implicit in the word "devour." The sin is so malevolent that the Lord threatens such thinking and practice with "greater condemnation."

Profiteering from sacred things is a grievous sin. This is why the woe Jesus pronounces is a "greater judgment (kríma {2917], judgment, but here clearly condemnation)." Apparently there are degrees of judgment in hell (see the reference to "few" and "many" stripes in Luke 12:47, 48).

from Dr. Zodhiates' exegetical New Testament commentary on the book of Matthew