Matthew 23:33 is considered a “hard saying” because many people think Jesus’ words in this text were the result of a personal vendetta against the Pharisees. Those who think so have no realization of the kind of damage of which these religious leaders were guilty, and why Christ said what He did. His words were: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” This was strong language indeed, certainly difficult, if not impossible, for the Pharisees to take.
Let us notice what led up to His remark in verse 33. Beginning in verse two, Jesus acknowledged the authority of the scribes and Pharisees. He advised the people to follow what they said, but not to do as they did. This was because they did not practice what they preached. Jesus went on to say that these leaders added all kinds of burdens that were not required. In addition, they were mostly interested in impressing people with their high degree of “devotion,” and loved the honor and recognition that went with it. They demanded respect by various titles they had attached to themselves. In their approach to religion, they actually hindered people from being able to attain salvation. Jesus called them hypocrites. He criticized their methods of extracting tithes and of making proselytes. He called them blind guides who made much ado about physical rules and regulations. While these regulations made them appear righteous, on the inside they were extortionists, full of uncleanness, hypocrisy, and iniquity. They made a pretense of respecting God’s prophets of the past, but in reality were intent upon killing the One God sent for their time period. They were almost beyond redemption. This is why Jesus told them it would be very difficult for them to escape damnation itself! In effect, their religion was one of self-righteous unreality-a religion that created a huge stumbling block for those seeking to enter into the Kingdom of God!
Actually, Jesus did not tell them anything more than had John the Baptist. Of John we read: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matt. 3:7-8). John warned them not to place reliance on their physical paternity, because as far as salvation was concerned, this meant nothing (v. 9). Their total emphasis was on physical obedience, not on the spiritual requirements of God’s Law. They emphasized outward subservience, but not an inward change in the heart. Believing this was sufficiently pleasing to God, the people imitated this outward religion. These scribes and Pharisees were totally misleading the people and had refused to repent. If any group of people deserved to hear the “hard words” Jesus spoke in Matthew 23:33, it was these religious leaders.
A “hard saying,” that is difficult to understand, is recorded in Luke 17:37. This text states: ” . . . Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.” What did Jesus mean by this remark? The context of Luke 17:34-37 refers to Christ’s return, as seen in verses 26-30. Verses 34-36 read: “I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.” Then we find the enigmatical text: “And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.”
Luke 17 contains a number of prophetic events that are to occur before Christ’s return. These events lead up to His return, as verse 30 shows. The statement in verse 37 can be understood in the following manner. The eagles go where the body is located. At the time of Christ’s return, what is to happen to the body-the Church? “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:31). And where will they be gathered? “And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east . . . . and the LORD my God shall come, and all the saints with thee” (Zech. 14:4-5). In brief, the saints-the body, the Church-will be gathered with Christ in Jerusalem at His second coming.
Matthew 26:50 is a “hard saying” because it implies Jesus did not know the reason for Judas’ appearance when the authorities came to arrest Him. After betraying Him with a kiss, Jesus said: ” . . . Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took him.” Jesus knew perfectly well why Judas had come. He had already let it be known that He would be betrayed by the one who “dipped the sop,” and told Judas to leave the last supper in order to do what he intended (John 13:27). Many Bible commentators believe that Matthew 26:50 is not properly translated, and take it to be an elliptical imperative. It should thus be translated: “Do the business for which you have come.”
Matthew 27:46 should be regarded as a “hard saying” because some Bible readers find it hard to imagine why the Son of God would say such a thing to the Father. The statement was made at the time Jesus was hanging on the stake. We read: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45-46). These were the last audible words of Jesus, as the only other sound was when the Roman soldier pierced Him with a spear (John 19:34, Matt. 27:50). Jesus absolutely knew He would be resurrected from the dead (Matt 27:63), yet at this crucial time He asked God why He had forsaken Him. What led Him to do this?
Notice Psalm 22:1. In this Psalm David wrote: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” Much of this Psalm illustrates a time of despair, a time when God was sorely needed. Men often need God to deliver them in times of trial. Christ was indeed the Son of God, but He was also man. He was God in the flesh, subject to the same passions and weaknesses of all human beings. The difference between Christ and the rest of humanity is that He never sinned. Nevertheless, He was flesh and blood. This fact is made plain in Hebrews 5:7. Paul wrote of Christ: “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared.” Christ was not saved from the physical death we must all face, but by this very death was able to take upon Him our sins. By accepting the sacrifice made in our stead, and by repenting of our sins, we can receive forgiveness, and eventually salvation. But we must all die the physical death. Christ died the physical death so that we could be saved. He paid the penalty for our sins (Rom. 5:7-8). Christ was resurrected from this physical death and is now immortal.
So, again, why did Christ say what He did when He was being crucified? Christ was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He was the perfect sin offering. In the Old Testament type, the sin offering was burned outside of the camp. This offering was a type, or a reminder that sinful man could not approach a holy God. At this moment on the stake, Christ was cut off from God, left alone and abandoned. As a human being He felt the despair seen in Psalm 22:1 and fulfilled this as a prophecy. He fulfilled the righteousness that God required, and learned “obedience by the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). He never sinned, or deviated from the course set for Him from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).
Luke 17:21 is a text that many do not understand. Therefore, it can be regarded as a “hard saying.” We pick up the account in verse 20: “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” What did He mean, “the kingdom of God is within you”?
The Jewish people anticipated a Messiah who would free them from the Roman yoke and restore the kingdom of Israel. They completely misunderstood the reason Christ came. He did not come at that time as the conquering King of kings; He came as the sin-bearer of the world. The Pharisees misunderstood this purpose and so asked the question cited in the above paragraph. We notice Jesus’ answer. He said the Kingdom of God would not come by “observation.” Notice, the marginal rendering is “with outward show.” Keep in mind, the Jews were continually looking for a sign. Jesus told the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God would not come in any physical manner that would allow them to observe its development. Rather, when the Kingdom of God comes, it will be sudden and dramatic (Rev. 11:15).
Then, Jesus made the strange statement: ” . . .the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). What did He mean? Notice again the marginal rendering. The word “within” should be translated “among.” What He was saying was that the Kingdom of God is “among you” now, or “in your midst.” Why did Jesus say this? The answer is that in the Bible the words “king” and “kingdom” are synonymous. Compare Daniel 7, verses 17 and 23. Christ, as the coming King of kings, and the representative of God’s Kingdom, was already among them. But they had no sense of this reality. Christ had no intention of establishing the Kingdom of God during that time, or according to any Jewish ideas. Christ will do that at His second coming. But for present, their king was indeed among them.
The final “hard saying” in this Part of the series is found in Luke 22:36. The text reads: “Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” When the disciples responded that they possessed two swords, He said, “It is enough.” Why did Jesus, the Prince of Peace, advocate carrying a sword? The answer is found in verse 37. Jesus explains: “For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.” This is a quote from Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore will I divide him [Christ] a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Jesus knew He would soon be arrested and put to death. This could not be done legally unless trumped-up charges were sustained. Even Pilate knew the whole affair was illegal. “When Pilate saw that he could prevail, nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it” (Matt. 27:24). To carry out this nefarious deed, the Jewish leaders had to convince the mob that Jesus was a criminal. There are a number of views regarding Jesus’ comment about a sword. Some Bible commentators say that carrying a sword “reckoned Him among the transgressors.” Since Jesus ties in His comment about a sword with Isaiah 53:12, this seems to be the best explanation.