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Jesus Denounces the Religious Leaders
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: 2“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
8“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus had been teaching in the Temple, during the Passover week. In chapter 23 of the book of Matthew, Jesus ends His teaching session in the Temple with a discourse against the religious leaders of the time: the Pharisees, and the Teachers of the Law. As we shall see, His discourse is very frank and pointed, containing harsh denunciations against the religious leaders. “The whole chapter is a signal example of boldness and faithfulness in denouncing error. It is a striking proof that it is possible for the most loving heart to use the language of stern reproof” [Ryle, 297]. Primarily, Jesus excoriates the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. “We find not Christ, in all His preaching, so severe upon any sort of people as upon these Scribes and Pharisees; for the truth is, nothing is more directly opposite to the spirit of the gospel than the temper and practice of that generation of men, who were made up of pride, worldliness, and tyranny, under a cloak and pretence of religion” [Henry].
The section here, the first twelve verses of the chapter, is addressed to Jesus’ followers, telling them how to respond to the religious leaders: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them’” (vss. 1–4). Interestingly, Jesus seems to acknowledge the authority of the religious leaders to teach the people. He said that they “sit in Moses’ seat”, meaning, they held the office of instruction in matters concerning the Law of God. Jesus also said, “So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” It is a sad fact that, since all men are sinful, it is sinful men who must be put in authority to teach the things of God. But their sinfulness does not necessarily nullify the truth of what they teach. “Note, we must not think the worse of good truths for their being preached by bad ministers; nor of good laws for their being executed by bad magistrates. Though it is most desirable to have our food brought by angels, yet, if God send it to us by ravens, if it be good and wholesome, we must take it, and thank God for it” [Henry]. Paul noted that there were those preaching the truth of Christ, yet not from pure motives: “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill… The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Phil. 2:15–18). Paul rejoiced that God’s message could still get out, even though it was spoken by those with impure motives.
Often one hears from non-Christians that one reason they don’t go to church, or don’t believe in Jesus Christ, is that the church is full of hypocrites. But in the eyes of God, this is not a valid excuse. His truth gets out, by His Spirit, even through hypocrites and sinful men. The hypocrisy of the messenger is no excuse for ignoring sound teaching. If anything, the hypocrisy and sinfulness of even the best of Christians, validates the Christian world view: all men are sinful, and in great need of a Savior.
Although the Jews of the time were to heed the valid teaching of the religious leaders, they were not to follow their bad example of living. Jesus said: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (vs. 3). “We must often disregard a teacher’s evil example, and heed his correct precept” [Broadus, 468]. Of course, this does not excuse teachers who live less than exemplary lives. All teachers of the things of God must strive to teach, not only through their words, but also through their actions. “How much better, for teacher and for hearers, when he that says, also does!” [Broadus, 468]
It seems also that the religious leaders, though they were teaching some of the truths of God’s law, they were lacking in their teaching concerning the grace and love of God: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (vss. 4). Apparently, they would condemn the people for not following the law, but would offer no grace, love or encouragement in guiding the people to carry out God’s precepts. Their mode of teaching the Law was to “tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders”. They taught the law as a heavy burden. The law of God, however, is not meant to be a heavy burden. Rather, it is meant to be the way to a pure and fulfilling life. Jesus taught the law the way it should be taught. Living a life of sin is a heavy burden. Living a life of obedience to God’s law trades the heavy burden of the life of sin, for the light burden of living a life in purity and holiness in obedience to God. As Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).
Jesus faulted the religious leaders for making a show of their religion: “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’” (vss. 5–7). “Jesus expects His followers so to live that they bring glory, not to themselves, but to God (see Matt. 5:16). Many of the things the Pharisees did were undoubtedly worthy, but they did them with their attention fixed on what people would think of them. They did them for show, and such deeds are not meritorious in the sight of God” [Morris, 574]. “We must do such good works, that they who see them may glorify God” [Henry].
Jesus continued His instruction, speaking on humility: “…they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and He is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (vss. 8–12). Jesus faulted the religious leaders for glorying in their titles. They loved the ego-boost they received when they were called “Rabbi”. This is the wrong attitude. We are instructed by Jesus to strive for humility. We are not to be called “Rabbi”, or “Master”, or “Father”, or “Teacher”, as a means of showing our superiority over others. Rather, as Jesus said, we “are all brothers”, equals in the family of God, our heavenly Father. To Him belongs all the obeisance and glory; to Christ all the exaltation.
-- vs. 8ff – “The desire of the Pharisee was to receive honor, and to be called ‘master’; the desire of the Christian must be to do good, and to give himself and all that he has, to the service of others” [Ryle, 300]
-- vs. 8ff – “The chief point is that He must keep His own authority entire, and no mortal may claim the least part of it. Thus He is the only Pastor, yet He allows many pastors under Himself, provided He is over them all and alone, through them, governs the Church” [Calvin, III-50].
-- vs. 8ff – “But when we have guarded ourselves against these extremes, let us see to it that we retain the full spirit of this warning against that itch for ecclesiastical superiority which has been the bane and the scandal of Christ’s ministers in every age” [JFB, V-109]
-- vs 9 – “Paul calls himself ‘a father’ to those whose conversion he had been an instrument of (I Cor. 4:15; Phil. 10); but he pretends to no dominion over them, and uses that title to denote, not authority, but affection” [Henry]
-- vs. 9 – “It is perhaps worth noting at this point that even when we are thinking of family loyalties our heavenly Father is to be given our first loyalty. In every age there have been people who have put family ties above everything else. Jesus denies that this is legitimate in the case of His followers” [Morris, 577]
-- vs. 9 – This is to emphasize that “we are all brothers and sisters and belong to one family with one Father, the heavenly Father” [Morris, 577]
-- vs. 10 – “All the authority of teaching, and all the light in the teacher, and all the success of teaching, doth flow from the powerful teacher Christ” [Dickson]
-- vs. 11 – Jesus often teaches humility. “The lesson of humility is one peculiarly needing to be often repeated” [Broadus, 468]