Matthew 23:1-3 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 be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
This is the beginning of the most excoriating chapter in the Bible. Since the religious leaders would have the Son of God crucified, Jesus warned the people of their deceitfulness. He called them blind guides (Matthew 23:24), snakes and vipers (Matthew 23:33). He actually launched seven accusations against them, each beginning with the phrase, Woe to you. Jesus could have changed his tone if he wanted to avoid the cross. But since they were determined to kill him (and he was determined to die) he censured them so severely that there would be no turning back. Jesus would be crucified.
The recurring charge that Jesus brought against the religious leaders was hypocrisy. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! he said. This little phrase occurs no fewer than six times in this verbal attack. No one likes to be called a hypocrite, but it was especially condemning for the religious leaders. We expect our leaders to be sincerely good, not merely to appear that way.
A police officer was arrested for selling drugs which he obtained in the course of his work. Whenever he made an arrest, he kept some of the drugs, and turned in the rest as evidence. The sentence for this kind of offense can be severe because the public trust has been violated. The religious leaders pretended to stand for God, but they rejected God’s Messiah. They were hypocrites of the highest order, and Jesus was exposing them.
Matthew 23:5 Everything they do is done for people to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.
A phylactery is a small leather box containing Bible verses, and was worn as a visual aid. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads (Deuteronomy 6:8), wrote Moses. Tassels were also a visual aid. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord (Numbers 15:39), wrote Moses.
There was nothing wrong with phylacteries or tassels, but they became a badge of honor, instead of an aid to holiness. The religious leaders were more concerned about people’s approval than about knowing God. Their religion was external but not internal.
True religion has always been both external and internal. Jesus said, let your light shine before others (Matthew 5:16). But when you pray, go into your room [and] close the door (Matthew 6:6). If we pray and read the Bible, but never go to church, we have kept some of the internal, but not the external. If we often go to church, but never pray or read the Bible, we have kept some of the external, but not the internal. True devotion to Christ begins in the heart, and works itself out in the world.
Matthew 23:8-11 But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one Teacher, 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 instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.
First century Judaism was structured around a politico-religious hierarchy with the Sanhedrin at the top, the riffraff at the bottom, and everyone else in-between. Those at the top wanted everyone else to know it, so titles became important. Becoming a Rabbi was not easy, and whoever earned the distinction wanted the recognition that came with it.
But Jesus had another idea: you are all brothers, he said. This was a radical concept. Our Father is in heaven, and all who believe in Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters. There is no spiritual hierarchy in the church. Greatness does not come from title or position, but from serving. The greatest among you will be your servant, said Jesus.
The night before his death, Jesus got up from dinner, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped himself in a towel. Then he poured water in a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and even Judas Iscariot.
Jesus probably did a thorough job, running his fingers between their toes, and carefully drying each of them. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. . . . Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:15-17), he said. Here is the point: if Jesus was willing to do the humblest task, there is nothing too lowly for one of his followers.
The service at church was about to begin when I decided to use the restroom. Someone had an accident in one of the stalls and it was a terrible mess. I couldn’t clean it up myself since I had to start the service. But an elder walked in and promptly volunteered. No act of service is beneath a servant of Christ.
Reflection and Review
Why did Jesus choose to offend the religious leaders?
Why is Jesus against hypocrisy?
Why is humility good for community?