Text: Matthew 23
Event(s): Woe to the scribes and Pharisees; Jesus laments over Jerusalem
Early on in Jesus’ ministry, He preached the well known Sermon on the Mount in which He pronounced blessings. Now here, in His last sermon, He pronounces woes to the scribes and Pharisees. Interestingly, there are some very close correlations to the Beatitudes we find in Matthew 5. If you listen closely as you read this chapter, I’m sure they’ll stand out.
Matthew 23:3 “whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works” These false spiritual leaders lacked integrity. Much of their teaching was sound, but their lives betrayed their words. Jesus was in essence saying, do what they say, but don’t do what they do.
Matthew 23:4 “but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” The scribes and Pharisees were always quick to point out the things that the people were doing wrong, or where they were missing the mark, but never did anything to help bring the people to freedom.
Mathew 23:5 “They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.” When God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and He gave them the law and observances they were to keep, He told them that keeping those laws and observances would be like a sign on their hand and a reminder on their forehead. In other words, their thoughts (foreheads) and actions (hands) going forward would be marked by what He had done for them. “Phylacteries” were tiny boxes in which the Jews placed copies of four Old Testament texts where these things were recorded. They were written on fine parchment paper and the people would then tie those little boxes onto their foreheads and or forearms with straps, as a way of living out in a very literal way, what God had instructed. As for the tassels, all the Jewish people wore tassels on the hem of their robes. However, the religious leaders characteristically wore long ones to imply great piety and to attract the admiration of the common people.
Matthew 23:9 “do not call anyone on earth your father,” Titles may be used as terms of respect or to indicate certain duties and places of responsibility. This is proper, honoring and healthy. However, what Jesus was warning against was an attitude of superiority that sought such recognition or public praise, exemplified by the desire for places of prominence. Even if we are given positions of such responsibility, as children of God, we should regard ourselves on the same brotherly level as learners, rather than as masters over the unlearned.
Matthew 23:15 “you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” This is strong language, but we can clearly hear Jesus’ passion for the lost. Jesus did not criticize the scribes and Pharisees for their zeal. He criticized them because of what they taught the people and because of the effect that this “conversion” had on the people’s hearts. They were clearly zealous to get Jews to subscribe to their doctrinal convictions. But those convictions were legalistic and far from the Father’s heart.
Matthew 23:37 “How often I wanted to gather your children together…” Jesus wanted so desperately for the people to take refuge in Him. But in spite of God’s loving initiatives, Israel had willfully rejected Him—repeatedly.
Today’s Takeaway: In the margins of my Bible are penciled in some notes I took from a leadership study I did on this chapter some time back. By taking the negative attributes we see in the lives of the Pharisees and flipping them into an opposite positive, we are able to see some of the qualities that are reflected in true spiritual leadership.
First, true spiritual leadership will reflect God-given authority (vs 1). The scribes and Pharisees were “sitting” in the seat of authority, but they had not been called by God to do so. Secondly, true spiritual leadership will reflect integrity (vs 3). Our thoughts (which have been brought into submission with God’s righteousness) will line up with our words, and our words will line up with our actions. Thirdly, true spiritual leadership will reflect sympathy (vs 4). A leader should cultivate a safe place for change where people can be transparent. And the people they lead should have confidence in knowing that their vulnerability will be handled properly and directed with care. And lastly, true spiritual leaders will model humility (vs 5-7), not striving after positions or titles, but as Pastor Bill Johnson says, “ruling with the heart of a servant and serving with the heart of a king“. We all have areas of influence God has entrusted us with, and character – the way we influence – is everything.
Additional (optional) reading: Parallel accounts of today’s events can be found in Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-57 (however the account in Matthew is the most detailed).