New Testament

Matthew 23:34-39 – Commentary

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This Generation will Bear All the Righteous Blood

34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

Lament over Jerusalem

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (ESV)


Although the subject headings, like the chapter and verse divisions in Bibles, are not part of the original text, they do provide a summary of what is being cover. In this case, the text overlaps two ESV section headings: Matthew 23:1-36 – “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees” and Matthew 23:37-39 – “Lament over Jerusalem.” The Concordia Commentary has sectioned off Matthew 23:34-36 and I am using its title: “This Generation will Bear All the Righteous Blood.”

Earlier in chapter 10 (13-33) Jesus taught the Twelve about the mission he was preparing them for. They would proclaim that (10:7), ‘The kingdom/reign of heaven is at hand.’ It would not be an easy mission (10:16): “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves and at times, they would be persecuted and have to flee (10:23). This would not only be the mission of the Twelve, but of generations to follow them.

Perhaps it needs to be asked, but why is Jesus sending out these missionaries, present and future? The obvious answer is that despite the rebellious nature of humanity there will be some who are gathered under the wings of Christ’s salvation and become his disciples through the Word they proclaim (Gospel). The less obvious and more difficult possibility is that those missionaries who are killed and persecuted will by their blood bring the judgment God’s Word (Law) upon those who are causing this to happen.

In the first thirty-six verses of chapter twenty-three Jesus speaks to the crowds and to his disciples (23:1) about the scribes and Pharisees. In doing so, he does not criticize their teaching, but their lifestyle (23:3):  so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. Through a series of seven woes (23:13,15,16,23,25,27,29) Jesus condemns their hypocrisy – the inconsistency between their teaching and actions and more significantly, the burden they place upon people they themselves are unwilling to carry.

In the last of these woes Jesus describes how the scribes and Pharisees build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous (23:29) so as to honor them and claim that they would not have acted like their ancestors in shedding the blood of the prophets (23:30). However, Jesus notes that they will continue to kill, crucify, flog and persecute those whom I send. Here Jesus speaks as the “sender;” speaking as God who sent prophets and wise men and scribes in the past. Jesus is also speaking here about the future. He will send (apostellō) and they will kill.

As persecutors of God’s messengers, Jesus lays upon these scribes and Pharisees all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. They are not only condemned for what they will do, but for what has been done in the past, from the beginning of Genesis (4:8) to the death of Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:21). They are accomplices to all who oppose God.

NOTE: Which Zechariah? Scholars have noted that the naming of Zechariah the son of Barachiah doesn’t match with the Zechariah son of Jehoiada mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:15 who was stoned to death in the court of the house of the Lord (2 Chronicles 24:21). There is a Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo mentioned in Zechariah 1:1, but he was not murdered. The best possible explanation is that there was an early scribal error in the Matthew text and that the key element guiding us to the right Zechariah is the murder.

Jesus ends these woes by claiming, Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. What Jesus has said will occur and God’s judgement on this generation is particularly fierce and limited to “them.” Why is that? Perhaps it’s because at no other time since the beginning has God come among people in the flesh. They have met God face to face and he has told them himself (3:2), “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The Son of God has come for what is owed: faith and obedience. The tragedy is that the Son of God has been met by the unbelief of those in this generation. It is this heart break that sets up the lament of Christ’s great love for the people and the judgment leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

The next section is entitled in the ESV as “Lament over Jerusalem” and it takes the form of a prayer, even though Jesus does not appear to step away from the people he is speaking to.

Jesus has just blamed the scribes and Pharisees for persecuting those whom God had sent, but now Jesus expands his accusation to include all of Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! We can almost hear St. Paul’s words here, “None is righteous, no, not one… (Romans 3:10).

Using the imagery of a hen and her brood of chicks, Jesus speaks of his loving desire to gather his children under his protection, but then notes, you were not willing! Chicks naturally know where to run when the hen clucks danger, but human nature stubbornly resists such warnings from God.

Similar to how Jesus ended his woes in 23:36 so also now Jesus addresses the consequence of their resistance: See, your house is left to you desolate. Jesus does not force himself upon them but steps back in the face of their rejection, allowing them to have their empty house. To not trust God’s Word is to experience desolation – emptiness.

At the same time though, the door to life is left open by Jesus. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” To welcome the messenger sent from God is to welcome Christ, the Word of God.

What is God’s Word saying to us through this passage? Let’s consider both the Law and the Gospel of this passage.

The Law

God expects that His Word is received by faith and expressed in how we live. Like the scribes and Pharisees, however, there is often great discrepancy between faith and action. Many times, we say one thing and do another. Perhaps the biggest hypocrisy occurs when we read or hear God’s Word and either reinterpret to fit the way we want to live or outright reject it because of the messenger, saying something like, “It’s just his opinion.” Sometimes this despising of God’s Word goes to the extreme within congregations when people “persecute” their pastor, who is God’s messenger among them. They may not physically stone this prophet, but through words and actions it can happen just as Jesus prayed: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! Put your own name or the name of your church in place of “Jerusalem” and hear Jesus speak to you. Through the Gospel proclaimed in Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit desires to call people to faith-led repentance and to gather them together under Christ and the protective wings his body, the Church. Even so, people resist God’s Word and make all kinds of excuses. As a result, God’s judgement is desolation – emptiness, leaving people to the natural consequences of their rebellion. How many lives and even churches, are truly “empty” even through they are often so busy and filled with so many activities, programs and relationships?

A NOTE ON HYPOCRISY…Dr. Jeffrey A. Gibbs in his commentary on Matthew (Concordia Commentary: Matthew 21:1-28:20, p.1234) offers the following about the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees that is quite insightful for today:

That sort of self-delusion and self-blindness is the sort of thing to which every believer today is also subject, and so there are lessons that we can take away. It is for this reason that I deeply distrust current blather in the church about being “visionary” or the like. The last time I looked, every church leader he is profoundly subject to error. Human wisdom, even when sanctified by the Word of Christ and prayer, still only possesses a penultimate value. Aspects of American culture are trying to inculcate, at times, a confidence that is not warranted. The danger of calling any human plan or goal a “vision” is that it makes it harder to challenge; one might even too quickly claim that such a vision is certainly God’s own will. Sincerity and confidence are only of ultimate profit if one happens to be right. If nothing else, when Jesus castigates the sincere, misguided scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, this can teach us ever to ask the Lord for the courage to endure repentance, “the hell of self-knowledge,” and to make us his honest disciples who are open to be chastised and changed.

The Gospel

Despite the criticism and judgement in these verses, Jesus also expresses God’s love for sinners and leaves the door open for repentance and restoration. We see this in three ways. First, Jesus notes that God continues to send messengers even though they may be rejected and persecuted. It is from of God’s grace and mercy in Christ that God persistently speaks His message of forgiveness and love to those who despise Him. Second, Jesus expresses God’s desire to call and gather His people together under the protection of His Word. It is only around Word and Sacrament that we can know with certainty the assurance and comfort of our forgiveness, life and salvation in Christ. Finally, because God is faithful, we can continue to bear witness to the message of hope until death shuts the door. Even the most ardent unbeliever can be converted by God’s Word and join the faithful in proclaiming Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Therefore, let us not lose hope as we continue to share the good news of Christ crucified and risen for sinners.

This text covers the Gospel reading for the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr (December 26). For more information about this feast day check out the following:


By PT Graff

A baptized child of God's, called to be a son, husband, father, citizen of Canada and heaven and a pastor.