In order to fully understand the significance of Jesus' words in Matthew 23, we must look at the overall context. The immediate context begins back in Matthew 21:23 where it states that Jesus "entered the temple" or more accurately the temple courts. All the discourse, teachings and confrontations between Matthew 21:23 and Matthew 23:39 take place within the temple complex. In Matthew 24:1 it plainly states that "Jesus went out, and departed from the temple".
It is very important to note that the last time Jesus had been in the temple was in Matthew 21:12-15:
"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves,
And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.
And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased."
Jesus had been to the temple many times before, the question then arises as to why he is now doing something so dramatic that is guaranteed to arouse the anger and indignation of the Jewish leaders? The answer is simply that if Jesus had done this earlier, he would have never been allowed to fulfill his ministry. He would have been hunted and persecuted relentlessly by those who had been disgraced by his actions. Jesus knew the end was near, and because of this, God allowed him to be bold as a lion (of Judah).
After lodging at Bethany and having the confrontation with the fig tree on his way back into Jerusalem the next morning, he returns to the very location where he had just overturned the tables the day before. Just as he began teaching the people, Matthew 21:23 says:
"The chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest these things? And who gave thee this authority?"
Oh yes, the same question everyone in history who dares to speak the truth has been asked. "What gives you the right to ...", or "Who do you think you are?", or "Who made you God on a stick?" (Whatever that means). Disgraced people become desperate people who resort to personal attacks. Think of politicians who are losing in the polls and the mudslinging and personal attacks they resort to in order to "save themselves", or as here in the priest's case, to "save face" among the people.
These were not the Pharisees who came to confront Jesus, these were the chief priests and elders (or ancients) whom we saw yesterday were Sadducees. Lurking in the background waiting their turn were the scribes and Pharisees. Where the Sadducees were like gnats, the scribes and Pharisees were vipers and scorpions when it came to their venomous attacks on Jesus.
A lot can be learned in dealing with accusers and enemies by watching how Jesus responds to the various attacks that arise in this record. The different people who came to him asking questions were all after the same thing. They were trying to trip up Jesus and get him to make a mistake in his answers so they could prove to the people this man was NOT the Messiah. There was no purity in any of their questions; they were all maliciously preconceived attempts to destroy Jesus before he destroyed them.
Jesus' response to the Sadducees questions regarding authority was classic, for Matthew 21: 24 says:
"And Jesus answered and said unto them, I will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things?"
Jesus answered a question with a question. This is the classic way to deflect accusations if one is confident enough to think of a reverse question. Not only does he answer a question with a question, he makes a deal with them. If they can answer his question then he will answer theirs. Everyone likes making a deal. The Sadducees had no answer for Jesus question concerning John the Baptist, so they never got an answer from Jesus as to the authority question.
From Matthew 21:28 through 22:14 Jesus shares parables concerning the two sons, the husbandmen and the marriage dinner. The remainder of chapter 22 is devoted to four more attempts by the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes to trap or entangle Jesus in his words. They ask him about paying taxes, the resurrection, the great commandment and being David's son. The final verse of chapter 22 is quite enlightening, for in verse 46 it says:
"And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions."
Aha, who won the word battle Olympics in this record? Jesus won the gold medal for when these word wars were over, no one dared ask Jesus any more questions for they knew they would be defeated by his knowledge, wisdom and perfection in speaking. Just as anyone who has been defeated in a contest tends to first sulk and then seek revenge, so this group of men, who probably were the Sanhedrin, retreated into some inner chamber of the temple to plot how to destroy this man and his ministry once and for all.
When Jesus was done dealing with the chief priests, elders, Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes; according to verse one of Matthew 23, he spoke to the multitude and to his disciples. It is important to note that the Matthew 23 discourse Is not being spoken TO the scribes and Pharisees, but ABOUT them. Although starting in verse 13 Jesus says 7 times, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees", it cannot be deduced whether they were actually in attendance or whether he was simply teaching and using the "you" as a teaching tool.
Regardless of whether they were there or not, what Jesus had to say about the rulers and leaders of Judaism was no doubt the most provocative, cutting and harassing teaching he ever did in his life. He relentlessly pursued the truth no matter who he "offended" and no matter how difficult it was to listen to. In this teaching, he cared not one bit about the audiences' "feelings" or if he would be judged as "mean spirited", "politically incorrect" or even guilty of "blasphemy". He had a message straight from the heart of God Almighty directed at those who had for many centuries hurt, harassed, stole from, and killed God's people and His prophets, and he was going to deliver it whether anyone liked it or not.
Here at the final teaching Jesus does for the masses, He tells it like it is, no holds barred, nothing held back, etc. Matthew 23:13-39 represents one of the greatest lessons in brutal honesty in the Bible. Are we to ignore it because it is confrontational? Are we to rip it from the pages of our Bibles because it is offensive? Are we to skip over it and pretend it does not exist lest we dare see similarity with current situations?
I say NO to each and every one of these questions. If the Bible is the Word of God, then what is in the Bible is there for a reason. If God did not want this section in His Word, He would have made sure it never made it into the various texts. But since it sits prominently in the amazing context of being a day AFTER Jesus overturned the moneychangers tables and directly BEFORE the Mount of Olivet discussion regarding the "end times"; this section of Matthew CANNOT be neglected just because it is bold, brash and to the point.
When reading numerous books in the Old Testament, this same problem presents itself. It is hard to read much of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos and just about all the other books written by prophets who were scorned and rejected by the religious leaders and most of the people. They had a job to do and they did it. They had a message to speak and they spoke it. It cost many of them their lives, just as it cost Jesus Christ his life. Keep in mind that the people Jesus "cut to the heart" ended up a few days later screaming at the top of their lungs; "crucify him, crucify him."
A prophet's job is to bring God's people back to Him. It is the hardest job on earth. A prophet who does their job correctly will more times than not be the most despised and hated person around. Moses was a prophet, and the people hated him. Elijah was a prophet and he spent much of his life hiding in caves and a woman's home. Jeremiah was a prophet and they buried him up to his neck in dung. John the Baptist was a prophet and they cut off his head. Jesus was a prophet and they crucified him. Need I say more?