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Jesus' Prophetic Lament, Part 1: The Essential Problems of Pharisaical Religion

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jun 6, 1999

Matthew 23:1-12

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I’d invite you to turn your bibles with me to Matthew chapter 23 as we study together in the gospel of Matthew. let me remind you of several things before we come to the passage itself. First, remember that Jesus has already spoken His final words to the Pharisees. Jesus, in Matthew 22 spoke His final words directly to the Pharisees.

For many many months, indeed for the whole three years of His public ministry, Jesus had been contending with the Pharisees. they had been challenging Him, Jesus had been responding to them, Jesus had finally gone on the offensive as it were in Matthew chapter 22 and challenged them with a number of questions which they were not able to answer.

And Jesus had been very honest in His dealings with them, but in the passage we are going to read today in Matthew chapter 23, now He is no longer speaking directly to the Scribes and Pharisees. He is now speaking to the pilgrims who are gathered at Jerusalem for the Passover, and to His disciples. He is speaking about the Scribes and the Pharisees, but He is speaking directly to His disciples and the crowd. No more will the Lord Jesus Christ speak or interact with the Scribes and the Pharisees.

Just as He has warned against the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount, so He warns against that hypocrisy here in Matthew 23. Secondly, as we come to this passage, I want you to remember that Jesus is not just losing His temper here. He is not simply topping off after years, after weeks and months of frustration with the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus’ words here are measured, and His words in Matthew 23 are just as much a compassionate lamentation over the spiritual deadness of the leaders of Israel’s people as they are a denunciation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

You’ll remember at the end of this chapter, Jesus speaks these words of woe in tears over Jerusalem. So Jesus’ heart is compassionate even as He expresses these strong words.

Notice also as we look at these words that Jesus’ strong words may, in fact, be a measure of His spiritual hope for the Pharisees. Yes, the Pharisees had been dogged and consistent in their opposition to His ministry, but we know from the book of Acts that many of them would convert to Christ. Many of them were already secretly going to the Lord Jesus asking Him about this and that. He has already in Matthew 22 told one of them, one of those young teachers of the law, that he is not far from the Kingdom of Heaven. And so, the strength of Jesus’ words may well in fact reflect His hope that if He can separate these people from their heart sin, if He can show them the depth of their sin, that they will yet be drawn by the Holy Spirit into a saving relationship with Him. And so, Jesus faithfully tells them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

And then finally, as we look at these words together, we see that Jesus’ words of denunciation should not be played down. Having said all those things, we should not underplay at all the strength of what Jesus is saying. If you scan through this chapter, and frankly, Jesus’ words are going to get even stronger when we get to verse 13. If you scan through this chapter, you will see some very strong language from the Lord Jesus Christ. It reminds us again that the Jesus of the gospel, the Jesus of the Bible, the real Jesus, is not the limp-wristed, effeminate Jesus of modern imagination. Jesus will tell the truth, even when it hurts, and He’ll tell it right to their faces.

And that is in the last analogy exactly what we need, someone to tell us like it is. And Jesus is going to do that in this passage today. Let’s remember as we turn to Matthew 23 that these words are just as relevant, just as applicable, just as practical to us today as they were to the people to whom Jesus first spoke them.

So let’s hear God’s holy word, here in Matthew 23, verses 1 through 12.

“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, ‘the Scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say things and do not do them. And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. and they love the place of honor as banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, rabbi. But do not be called rabbi; for one is your teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for one is your father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for one is your leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He write His eternal truth upon our hearts.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, this is an awesome word, and it is a word that strikes very deep into our own hearts. We would not merely be followers of Christ with our lips but also with our lives. And we know that we can only do that by the grace of the Holy Spirit. and so if we are going to have clean hearts and a right spirit within us, even as the psalmist prayed, it is going to have to be a work by the Holy Spirit. And we ask that, even this day, that the Spirit would enlighten us to see ourselves as we read the Scripture and study it together. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Wherever religion is valued, wherever religion is respected, where Christianity is through highly of, wherever people who are spiritual are seen, there will be a temptation to counterfeit religion. If we think it is to our advantage to be thought of as religious or spiritual people, you can bet that there will be some people who will fake that. They will attempt to look spiritual, to look religious, without actually being religious, without actually being changed from the heart. This is exactly what Jesus is speaking to the Scribes and the Pharisees when He is speaking to the crowd and to the disciples about in these passages.

Jesus is speaking to a very religious people. The people of Israel, at the time the Lord Jesus ministered on the earth, were not secularized; very much different situation than our current situation in America today. These were very religiously committed people. Religion was part of the warp and woof of their lives, it permeated every aspect of their experience. But, the spiritual leaders of Israel were modeling an external religion which drew attention to itself and lacked the heart of the true religion of the scriptures. They wanted people to look at them and saw, “look how holy those men are.” But their lives did not reflect the holiness which they possessed with their lips. and so, Jesus speaks against this religion of ostentation. And He calls His people back to the heart religion of holy Scripture.

And I’d like you to see three or four things in this passage with me today. The first thing you’ll see in verses 1 through 4. There, Jesus diagnoses the problem of the Scribes and the Pharisees, and it is the problem of
religious hypocrisy. And conversely, He teaches that true religion, saving religion, requires integrity. Jesus is speaking in this passage in a long extended discourse or message. Remember there are about six of them recorded in the gospel of Matthew, and this is the fifth of those six messages. He is speaking to the Passover pilgrims in Jerusalem, and He is speaking to these disciples, as we learn in verse 1.

He is speaking about the Scribes. The Scribes were the teachers of the law. And He is speaking about the Pharisees. They were the strictest religious sect of the day. Now, before you think that Jesus is speaking behind their backs, I want to remind you of a couple of things. Jesus had always consistently told these men what He thought of them to their faces. He’s not waiting for them to go away so that He can then say bad things about them. Jesus is speaking these words, and they are perfectly consistent with what He has said to them to their faces. Jesus didn’t have to talk behind anybody’s back. He was straightforward with them when He spoke to their faces.

But why is He speaking about them when they’re going? Because Jesus knows that the temptation which the Scribes and the Pharisees had fallen prey to was just as much a temptation to His disciples as it was to them.
And so His reason for warning against their hypocrisy was because of His fear that His own disciples might fall prey. We’ll see before we finish today that Jesus’ concerns about that were very much warranted.

Now Jesus in verse 3 let’s you know that He is not just making a shotgun blast criticism that was not thought through. Jesus is making a very nuanced criticism of the Scribes and Pharisees. How do you learn that from verse 3? Because Jesus is careful enough to say, look, many of the things that these people say are true. So when they say what is true, you listen to them. You follow those things when they teach you, if it is something which is true from the word. You be obedient to that.

But He goes on to say that they have a fundamental problem. And that fundamental problem, He says at the end of verse three and the beginning of verse 4, is that they are hypocritical. They are inconsistent. They say one thing and they do another. They make much of the teaching of the Law, they make much of the imposition of the law on others. They make tremendous demands of others about the Law of God, but they are lax in their own
practice. They talk like they were the true upholders of God’s Law, and yet Jesus says they did not live like it. Look again at the end of verse 3: “they say things and do not do them.” They were inconsistent. They were not conscientious in practicing what they professed.

Now friends, that is a totally different picture of the Scribes and the Pharisees than you have been taught over the years, and which the people of Israel would have had in the days of Jesus. In the days of Jesus these people would have been thought of as the most conservative, most Bible-believing, most holy, most faithful people around. They would have been esteemed in the eyes of people. To talk badly about them would’ve been just like someone speaking to you about your favorite minister or religious writer in contemptible terms. You would be angry if someone named your favorite religious writers or ministers or preachers and spoke in strong words denouncing them. You would be offended and hurt, and that would have been the reaction of many people in the crowd to someone speaking and denouncing them and their heart focus.

And of course in our own day, we have been conditioned by two thousand years of Christian preaching to know that the Scribes and the Pharisees are the bad guys. They wear black hats and so we know that they are against Jesus, and so we are not supposed to root for them.

But we have gotten the wrong impression about what their sins were. Very often we think that their sin was that they were too precise about they law, they were too nit-picky about the law, they cared too much about God’s word. Jesus says that was not their problem. Jesus says that they pretended to care a lot about the law, but they themselves were lax in their obedience to it. In other words, they could be very strict when they were telling you what you ought to do in accordance with the law, but they were very lax in finding loopholes for themselves and their friends when it was convenient. So they talked a very strict game, and yet their living was not in accord with it. They tied up heavy burdens and laid them on men’s shoulders, yet they themselves could be very careless in their obedience to God’s law, paying attention to small matters while ignoring great matters like justice and mercy.

And so Jesus does not accuse them of being too strict or too scrupulous; they were in fact, too lax.. As John Blanchard said, “hypocrisy is nothing better than skin deep holiness.” Jesus is respectful of their authority, and He is even respectful of their teaching to a certain extent, as far as it conforms to the word of God. But He is critical of their lives. He says that their heart motivation was wrong. They are hypocritical and they are insensitive. By their conduct, they showed their heart. They had buried the law of God, and they had deprived men of peace and conscience. They were hypocrites. They said one thing and they did another.

And friends, this is something that we ourselves must guard against. We must guard ourselves against hypocrisy and heartlessness and cultivate true integrity in religion. Jesus is calling us here not to follow the example of religious hypocrites. He is calling us to integrity. Integrity means looking on the outside like you are on the inside. Integrity means not simply looking like you have a clean heart, but your actions actually flow
from a heart which has been cleansed. Integrity requires that we are on the outside like we are on the inside. That our conduct is an expression of who we really are. Integrity means that our conduct is consistent with our profession of faith.

We all take vows of membership when we join First Presbyterian Church. We vow that we acknowledge that we are sinners. We vow that we have received and embraced the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel. And in our third membership vow “we humbly resolve and promise in reliance upon divine grace,” the grace of the Holy Spirit, “that we will endeavor to live as becomes followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.” When we take that vow, and we live as if we have not taken that vow, then we are hypocrites, and that is exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ is warning us against. Taking the vows of membership without meaning to fulfill them, with no intention of fulfilling those vows, is just the same type of spiritual problem that Jesus is critiquing here in the Scribes
and the Pharisees.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “it is the mark of the hypocrite to be a Christian everywhere but home.” That is, to be looking like a Christian in public where you can be seen, and yet in those private places, in our homes, in our other relationships where we are not seen as clearly by men, to live as if we were not believers of the things that we have professed.

Jesus is warning against religious hypocrisy here. He saw it in the leaders of Israel, but this warning is just as relevant for us today. He is calling His disciples not to live a charade, but to be aware of the fact that the heavenly father sees the heart, and so, letting our lips and our lives express the better grace
we owe to Christ.

In verses 5 through 7 He doesn’t stop with His critique of the Pharisees and the Scribes, but He says that basically their problem of hypocrisy was derived from a desire to please men. The Pharisees and the Scribes, Jesus says, in verses 5 through 7, were men-pleasers. Their problem was pride. They wanted to look good in the eyes of men. And again, in verses 5 through 7, we learn that true religion aims to please God. True religion aims for humility before men.

Jesus doesn’t stop in His criticism of the Scribes and the Pharisees, He goes on to criticize them for their pride. They desire to be recognized and they lack humility. And Jesus gives us some examples in those verses of some ways in which they tried to impress men of their piety, and to draw attention to themselves. You’ll see them there beginning in verse 5.

First of all, He says that they have widened their phylacteries. Phylacteries were capsules in which particular Scripture passages from Exodus or Deuteronomy or other parts of the Law or Prophets were stuffed in, and those phylacteries were worn on the forehead and on the left arm while one was praying. And apparently they would widen the thongs of those phylacteries, the things that attached them to themselves, so that people would notice them, and say, “Boy, they must be really committed, look how big that phylactery is.” That is not the only thing they did. Jesus goes on to say, they lengthened the tassels. You know that in God’s Law, tassels had been commanded for the people of God to wear, to separate them from the unbelieving nations, and these people decided well, if tassels are commanded, we’ll have really big tassels, and so, they told their tailors, make sure and make my tassels extra long, so that when they walk through the streets people would say, look how long that man’s tassels are, boy he must be holy.

We’re also told that they loved and sought places of honor. They liked those special seats at the banquet. When the people would be celebrating a wedding or some other special occasion, they would save that special seat for the rabbi and at the very last minute he would make a dramatic entrance and be ushered up to that special seat and people would say, oh, you see, he’s the holy man, and they saved that special seat for him. Or, they would come in at the last minute into the synagogue, and they would be ushered right up to that seat, right next to the platform where the Law was read from and people would say, ‘Oh, you see that man, he is being seated in the seat of honor, he must be a very holy man. And Jesus is saying, these people loved that kind of thing.

He doesn’t stop there, for He goes on to say that they cherished being greeted with deference and respect when they were in the marketplace. They would bump into someone and he would say, “Oh, honored rabbi, how wonderful it is to see you and even be in your presence.” They loved that kind of deferential treatment, and Jesus says that reflects the fact that they were men-pleasers. They desired to be honored by men. They cared more about how they were perceived than the reality of their holiness.

In other words, they wanted to appear to be holy without actually being holy. I don’t know what the parallel would be for us today. I was talking with someone about this between services and he said, “Would this be kind of like folks who have bumper stickers and t-shirts, but don’t live the walk of faith?” Maybe so. There are all sorts of outward ways that we can make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and yet live as if we were not followers of Him, live as if we have not been changed by grace in our hearts.

We live in a day which cares a lot more about appearances than it does about reality. We live in a day and age that cares more about perception than it does reality. We live in a day of political spinsters who can make black look white and white look black. Give ‘em a little bit of a budget and they can make anything look good. And we have gotten used to that. And Jesus is saying to us, don’t do that in your relationship with God. Don’t try and spin your relationship with God. Don’t care more about what other people think about you, than you care about what your heavenly father thinks of you.

When I was in high school, I knew a young woman who was an agnostic, an atheist, and I often wondered why she was so cynical. And I met her father, and her father was a very successful cotton broker, and when he had moved to town, his business partner had said, “Now look, you’re going to need to join a church.” And the guy said, “Well, I don’t believe in God.” And he said, “Look, you are going to need to join a church anyway, because it is very important for establishing social and business contacts in the community.” And so he said, “Sure, that’s great,” and he joined a church down the street. His profession meant absolutely nothing. He had joined the church simply for social and business contacts, and that is precisely the kind of hypocrisy that Jesus is condemning here. The Lord Jesus Christ warns us about attempting to please men in our religion. Our desire ought to be to please God.

As Tasker says, “the outward profession of real religion must be natural and unselfconscious and have nothing about that favors of the religious exhibitionist who has his all the time on his audience, and is determined to be recognized and accepted for the religious man that he feels himself to be.” Jesus is warning against that type of pride and ostentation.

And then in verses 8 and 9 He goes on to give a warning to His disciples. And He teaches us in this passage not to court honor as believers. Not to seek to be exalted. He wants us both as teachers not to seek honor, and He warns us as disciples not to unduly exalt those who are our Christian teachers. And in so doing He teaches us a very important truth. True disciples do not seek exaltation from the brethren, nor do they tempt them by it. True disciples neither seek to be exalted in their teaching and in their ministry, nor do they tempt others by exalting them too highly in the way they speak.

Look again at these words, “Do not be called rabbi, for one is your teacher. Do not call anyone on earth your father, because one is your father. Do not be called leader, for one is your leader.”

Here Jesus makes a sweeping command about ecclesiastical titles, and He’s been misunderstood by many, so we need to spend a few moments explaining what He’s saying. Jesus is not telling us that we can’t call our dad “father.” Even though He says, “call no man father, for one is your father.” He is not saying you can’t ever use the term father to speak about your father, nor is He even saying that you cannot use terminology like teacher and leader regarding those who have been given spiritual authority in the church. This is very clear from the example of the apostle Paul. Paul called himself Timothy’s “father in the Lord.” He referred to the leaders of Israel’s people in the book of Acts as fathers and brethren. He called the Corinthians and the Thessalonians his children in the Lord. The title is not the point. Jesus is after the heart attitude. He is after religious leaders who want to be exalted because of the titles which they are called by. And He is warning against religious disciples from over exalting their spiritual leaders by using titles improperly.

Jesus is saying here, in a general warning which makes it absolute and emphatic, that there are terms that we need to be careful about in our language, that our language helps and aids and reflects our heart attitude towards those who are in position of authority. Jesus is reminding us here that we ought to be careful about the titles we use with ministry. This is, by the way, one of the reasons why Presbyterians do not use terms like “father” or “your
holiness “or “your excellency” in referring to those who are the main teachers and spiritual leaders. We simply refer to ministers as the “minister” and we refer to elders as “elders”; there are not differentiating ecclesiastical titles, which are used.

Jesus is here after our heart attitude. We are forbidden to seek the honor and the praise of men when we have been put in a position of spiritual authority. Ad we are encouraged as Christian disciples not to over exalt the mere men that are put over us as spiritual leaders. We no longer have priests; we have one priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. And so those ministers are not intermediaries between us and God; they are simply God’s faithful representatives, messengers, who speak to you His word so that you can have a saving relationship with Him.

The best minister is one who gets out of the way, who preaches you the word of God so that you might relate to the heavenly Father. You do not have to go through him as a mediator, and therefore you do not exalt him by the title with which you use in reference to him.

This warning is so important because religious leaders, just like these Scribes and Pharisees, are tempted to seek the praise of those whom they serve. John Flavel, three hundred years ago, said, “A man may have the tongue of an angel and the heart of the devil.” And it is true. It is easy for religious leaders to look spiritual, to look religious, to look like they have more a relationship with God than they do simply because they say true
things from the pulpit or from the platform. It is a dangerous spiritual situation to be in, and so Jesus says here. in verses 8 and 9. to be careful how you speak to them so that you do not cultivate an attitude in them that desires more your praise than God’s praise.

And then, He of course says directly to those religious leaders, and don’t you seek the praise of men more than you seek the “well done, my good and faithful servant” that you long to hear from God.

Finally, in verses 8 through 10, Jesus turns around this particular message, this warning to His disciples, and He states it positively. He says, in verses 11 and 12, to His disciples that they are to yearn to be servants, and to cultivate humility. He teaches us here that true disciples have their goal as to serve. This passage states positively what Jesus is stating negatively in verses 8 through 10. We are to have service as our goal. A desire to serve others is a great weapon against hypocrisy. Those who long to serve rather than be served, are less prone to the pitfall of hypocrisy.

Jesus closes this passage in verse 12 by quoting a classic spiritual proverb. He says, “whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” What He means by that is that those who attempt to advance themselves in the ministry will be brought low, but those who seek their brethren’s good will be exalted.

In the end He is saying, the way up is the way down. The way to true satisfaction, the way to true harmony, is to abandon the quest to be honored by men, and seek only to please the heavenly Father. And so in the end, the way to glory is the way of servanthood.

That is why J. C. Ryle says, “He that would be great in the eyes of Christ must pain not so much to rule as to serve in the church.” Remember, we said this lesson was personal, and to the disciples it was very much so. Less than 48 hours after Jesus preached this message, the disciples were on their way from Bethany to Jerusalem to go to the upper room to celebrate the last Passover. In Luke chapter 22, Jesus tells us what the disciples were discussing on the way to Jerusalem. Do you remember what it was? What were they were discussing amongst themselves? Which one of them was the greatest.

Jesus’ message was pertinent. His message was just as pertinent for us as it is for these to whom He first spoke it because “Church greatness,” Richard Baxter once said, “Church greatness consists in being greatly serviceable.” The desire of the Pharisees was to receive honor and to be called master. But the desire of the true Christian is to glorify God, to do good, and to give himself in all that he has in the service of others. That is what Jesus is telling us, too, as He is warning against the hypocrite that wants to be seen to be a follower of Christ, when in fact the heart does not belong to Him.

Now, how can you be changed to do like this? Only by the work of the Holy Spirit. Only by the grace of the Holy Spirit can we serve others with integrity and humility. May God make that the reality of our hearts, and may we be concerned more about that reality than the perception of it by those around us.

Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, we would be a people characterized by integrity. Lord, we do not have the power in us to produce that kind of quality of heart, but we do humbly bow before You and we ask that by the Holy Spirit that we would become a people who really do follow and love the Lord Jesus Christ and love God with all our hearts and souls and strength and mind. We ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen.

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