“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.” Matthew 23:35
In this passage Jesus issues one of his strongest indictments in the Gospels, telling the scribes and Pharisees that upon them will “come all the righteous blood shed on earth.” This verse is controversial as it brings harsh judgment upon Jewish leaders and has been misconstrued in the past as a means of justifying the persecution of the Jewish people. Since Jesus, his disciples and early followers were all Jewish this seems absurd.
In looking at this passage, it’s important to determine what Jesus meant and against whom he was talking, as well as to comment on the murder of “Zechariah the son of Barachiah,” which has also perplexed commentators.
Context of the Verse
Matthew 23:35 is found in a section of Scripture where Jesus attacks the “scribes and Pharisees” (v. 2). From verse 13 forward, the chapter is structured according to a series of “woes” that Jesus pronounces on these two groups.
First of all, it’s important to note that Jesus’ condemnation is directed at specific groups within Judaism, the scribes and Pharisees—not the Jewish people in general. This will have a tremendous influence later when applying this verse.
Further, Jesus’ words are in line with many other biblical prophets who called the people of God to repentance and faith. As David Turner writes, “Jesus’s denunciation of the religious leaders must be viewed against the background of the Jewish biblical prophets, who frequently cried woe against Israel’s sins.”
Who exactly are the scribes and Pharisees? The scribes were professional students and teachers of the law (bureaucrats and experts on Jewish life), while the Pharisees were a reformist group within Judaism “devoted to the meticulous practice of the law, with special emphasis on such matters as ritual purity, tithing, and Sabbath observance.” Even though the scribes and Pharisees are distinct from one another, their leadership worked itself out practically in similar ways. These groups are never painted in a favorable light in the Gospels, and in Matthew they get the harshest treatment.
Of course, it would be wrong to caricature and malign every Pharisee, as Christians often do. There was true believers among them (Paul, Acts 23:6; Nicodemus, John 3:1, 7:50, 19:39; and the believers in Acts 15:5). But generally, they are representative of a legalistic and religious culture in Jesus’ time that suppressed people with undue restrictions not given by God and self-righteousness.
In Matthew 23, it’s the orientation of the heart expressed in the Pharisaic approach to the Law that Jesus criticizes. Their approach to the Law goes beyond just being faithful to God. They majored on the minors (Matthew 23:23). They glossed over sin of the heart, missing the whole point of the law (Matthew 23:23–26; Mark 7:5–13), which was to love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40; Romans 13:8–10).
Their most glaring and grievous sin, however, was the rejection of Jesus and his disciples. The heart that led to a wrong approach to the Law was the same kind of heart whose pride would not allow them to see that Jesus was sent by God, eventually leading to their role in Jesus’ death.
This is why Jesus says this in Matthew 23:34:
“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.” This verse is then followed by our passage of study, “so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth.”
In verses 29 and 30, Jesus talks about the scribes and Pharisees praising the prophets, but in reality they are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. They’re no different from their fathers (Matthew 23:32). If they were true descendants of the prophets, they would live like the prophets. Instead, they are offspring of those who murdered them. This is the context of our verse and will determine how we understand Matthew 23:35.
“So that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth . . .”
The first phrase to notice here is, “so that.” The word is hopōs in Greek and is often used to indicate purpose (“in order that” or “for the purpose of”). Leon Morris writes that the word is “often used by Matthew to indicate the divine purpose, as in things happening ‘in order that’ Scripture may be fulfilled (Matt. 2:23; 8:17).” Jesus says that he sends them prophets whom they will kill and crucify (23:34)—foreshadowing his own fate—in order that “all the righteous blood shed on earth” will “come upon them.”
The idea of “righteous blood” is found in other places in the Bible. For example, inLamentations 4:13 we read, “This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” (cf. Proverbs 6:17; Matthew 27:4). That this blood will “come upon” them is an Old Testament way of saying they will be charged with guilt for killing innocent, righteous people (2 Samuel 1:16; Jeremiah 26:15; John 1:14).
The “righteous blood” is further described as being “from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” The wording here indicates a measure of time. Abel is the first innocent person whose blood was shed (Hebrews 11:4; 1 John 3:12). This means that Zechariah was the last.
Who Murdered Zechariah?
Of interest, Jesus doesn’t say Zechariah “was murdered,” but that he was the one “whom you murdered” (emphasis mine). This shows that Jesus clearly ties his opponents together with those who murdered Zechariah. He connects the sin of the scribes and Pharisees with that of all those who have persecuted the righteous, making such a close connection between them as to say that they themselves participated in the murder.
The phrase shows a “corporate solidarity” with the unrighteous leaders of the past—it “reinforces the solidarity in guilt with the fathers.” John Nolland explains further:
What is the logic that allows “It seems unjust that God would have Christ pay the punishment for another” for the shedding of the blood of all the OT righteous to fall on the scribes and Pharisees because of how they treat the emissaries of Jesus? We must look primarily to the Babylonian exile for the pattern used here. It was the culmination of many generations of accumulated wickedness that was understood to have brought God’s judgment . . . . The final generation contributed by their own acts, and, in doing so, they showed that they stood in continuity and solidarity with those who had preceded them. But the judgment that was falling on the final generation was a judgment in relation to a much larger history. So also with the scribes and Pharisees. Their own reaction to Jesus’ emissaries will demonstrate solidarity with their ancestors: and God’s judgment in relation to that whole history will fall on these “sons of their fathers”.
Misuse of the Verse
It’s important to emphasize that this verse in no way justifies persecution against Jewish people.
First, simply, there were many other Jews in Jesus’ day besides those he attacked. Jesus loved, praised, and welcomed the Jews. He was a Jew himself. So were all the first leaders of the church. Using anything related to Jesus as justification for prejudice against or persecution against the physical descendants of Abraham is perverse and profoundly unbiblical. While people may disagree as to the exact relation of Israel to the church and the future of Israel as a nation, Scripture is clear that evil is the ultimate enemy of God, not any one group of people, and that God still has a heart for Israel (Romans 11).
Second, there have always been those within Israel (as well as every other people group) who have rejected God and brought judgment upon themselves. Jesus is putting the scribes and Pharisees of his day into this line. To use this verse as prejudice against Jews misses the point.
This verse is set against those who rebel against God. What is so scandalous is that Jesus directs it at those whom the people held in high regard at the time. But God has always called the leaders of his people to account throughout Scripture, so the idea isn’t new.
And here’s the truth. We are all born as rebels against God. Often our rebellion takes one of two forms: sin and religion. Some of us rebel against God by being religious and judging others while thinking of ourselves highly. This was the fault Jesus found in the scribes and Pharisees. Others of us rebel more overtly by destructive sinful patterns. At the end of the day, we’re all in need of Jesus’ work on the cross.
If you’re uncertain whether you’re a sinner or a religious person in need of repentance, perhaps the following comparison will help:
- Sin is about innovation. Religion is about tradition.
- Sin is about nonconformity. Religion is about conformity.
- Sin breaks the rules. Religion keeps the rules.
- Sinners tend to be liberal. Religious people tend to be conservative.
- Sin tends to be immoral. Religion tends to be very moral.
- Sin tends to be disobedient. Religion tends to be very obedient.
- Sometimes sin is lazy, and religion can be very hardworking.
- Sin tends to be visible. You can just tell.
- Religion tends to be invisible because it lives in the heart, and the mind, and the motives.
- Sin uses people. Religion judges people.
- Sin is unrighteous. Religion is self-righteous.
At the heart of both sin and religion is the rejection of God’s free gift of grace, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus saves us from both sin and religion. At the end of the day, the blood of the most righteous person who ever lived is on us all. Jesus died the death we should have and gives us his righteousness in place of our unrighteousness.
So, if you’re reading this and you’re a sinner, repent of your sin. What that means is agree with God that you need a Savior, and his name is Jesus. Repent of your sin and trust in Jesus.
If you’re reading this and you’re religious, then repent of your religion, your haughtiness, your self-righteousness, your boastfulness, your record-keeping of others wrongs, all the good things you’ve done and how you’re better than others. Repent of your religion, stop trusting in your goodness, and trust in Jesus’ goodness.