Two truths very well established in Matthew studies are that (1) there are five lengthy teaching discourses in the Gospel of Matthew, and (2) Matthew 24-25–the Olivet Discourse–falls into the fifth teaching discourse in the Gospel. The question is whether Matthew 23 also fits within this fifth discourse. There are two options as readers consider the boundaries of the five teaching discourses:
- Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25
- Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25
Option 1 excludes Matthew 23 from the fifth teaching discourse, and so that chapter is considered the climax of the temple disputes that began in 21:23. Option 2 includes Matthew 23 in the fifth teaching discourse, without denying that the chapter climaxes the temple disputes that began in 21:23.
So should Matthew 23 be included in the Gospel’s fifth teaching discourse or not? I have gone back and forth on this issue, but I lean toward option 2. Here are five points to consider.
- The length of Matthew 23 certainly warrants its inclusion in some teaching discourse. From 23:2-39 there are thirty-eight uninterrupted verses! Not including it in one of the teaching discourse sections seems unjust when we consider that the discourse in Matthew 10, ranging from 10:5 to 10:42, is thirty-eight verses too. And Matthew 18, the fourth teaching discourse, contains teaching from 18:1-20 and 18:22-35, thirty-four verses. The sheer length of sustained teaching in Matthew 23, therefore, warrants consideration as part of a teaching discourse.
- It is unlikely that separate discourses would be juxtaposed together, such that Matthew 23 would form a discourse and then Matthew 24-25 form a separate one. The total of lengthy teaching discourses would then be six (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23, 24-25). But nowhere in the previous chapters of the Gospel does Matthew juxtapose any of the first four discourses. It is more likely that the lengthy teaching in Matthew 23 is part of the immediately-following lengthy teaching in Matthew 24-25.
- An objection against seeing Matthew 23 as part of the discourse of Matthew 24-25 is the scene change. Beginning in 24:1 Jesus left the temple where he spoke the words in Matthew 23, and so the change in location may seem to fit with the start of the fifth and final discourse in Matthew 24. This is a legitimate objection, but it is not unanswerable. Scholars agree that Matthew 13 is one of the Gospel’s five discourses, but notice what happens in 13:36: “Then he left the crowds and went into the house.” A scene change! And yet it is agreed that all of Matthew 13 comprises the discourse, despite the scene change. We should grant the same structural leeway to Matthew 23-25. There is certainly a scene change in 24:1-3, but that doesn’t have to mean chapter 23 must be excluded from the discourse of chapters 24-25. In fact there is a striking parallel to what happens in Matthew 13 and 23-25. In Matthew 13 the audience is public, but the scene change in 13:36 narrows to the disciples. The same pattern happens in Matthew 23-25. In Matthew 23 the audience is public, and in 24:1-3 the scene narrows to the disciples. If the totality of Matthew 13 can be considered one of the five teaching discourses, then so can Matthew 23-25.
- If Matthew 23 is part of the fifth teaching discourse, then several structural elements are interesting to observe. Of the five discourses, the first (chs. 5-7) and last (chs. 23-25) are the longest, each discourse exceeding one hundred verses! Then the second (ch. 10) and fourth (ch. 18) are very similar in length, between thirty to forty verses per discourse. This arrangement would demonstrate the artistry of the Gospel.
- If Matthew 23 belongs to the discourse of 24-25, then the fifth and final discourse (Matthew 23-25) recalls themes from the first discourse, Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. For example, Matthew 23 talks about acting for the purpose of being seen (23:5-8), the danger of hypocrisy (23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29), the laxity of oath-taking (23:16-22), the threat of judgment in hell (23:15, 33), the history of persecuting prophets (23:29-36), the scribes and Pharisees (23:2, 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29)–all topics that Jesus covered in the Sermon on the Mount.
Taking into account the preceding five points, I lean toward Matthew 23 being part of the fifth and final discourse of the First Gospel. The boundaries of the five discourses, then, are Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 23-25. I think the inclusion of chapter 23 with the fifth discourse creates fewer problems than if it is separated from chapters 24-25.