Matthew 23:1-32, The Verdict on the Bad Leaders


[November 9, 2008] In chapter 21 Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem for the last time until His coming again in glory (23:39). He began His ministry in rural Galilee to the north where He proclaimed to the crowds the nearness of the kingdom of the heavens. His own presence as the Messiah was the drawing near of the kingdom of the heavens to Israel. He gathered disciples into the circle of His presence; and when the reaction of the leaders turned negative and the crowds turned unresponsive, Jesus withdrew with His disciples and revealed to them that they would become the church among the nations; and as such, the kingdom of the heavens would be at work in their midst until His return in glory.

There was one more thing He had yet to accomplish before He offered Himself up as the atoning sacrifice for the purification of Israel and for the church, which was about to come into being. He needed to go to the royal city of King David and confront the ste­wards of the people, the city and the Temple, and as the heir of David’s throne, to pass judgment on them.

He entered the city very self-consciously as the Messiah. The people belong to Him. The chief priests and elders, and the Pharisees and scribes (the teachers) were supposed to be taking care of the people until He came. But He found them wanting. Indeed, He ac­cuses them of trying to steal the “vineyard” from its Owner, of diverting the loyalty of the people away from God, their rightful Ruler, and of even wanting to kill the Heir whom God has sent to claim what is His own (to claim the people’s repentance and faith).

In chapter 22 He spoke to those leaders for the last time before His arrest. Now, as chapter 23 begins, He turns to the crowds for the last time and pronounces His verdict on their teachers, the scribes and Pharisees. Then, from the beginning of chapter 24 until His ar­rest, He remains alone with His disciples. Things are drawing down now to a close.

Hypocrisy (Matthew 23:1-7)

The opening sentence in verses 2-3 shows that Jesus is not re­jecting Judaism (for the Jews). He does not condemn the “seat of Moses.” When the scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses seat, “all that they tell you, do and keep.” The seat of Moses was a stone chair in the synagogue reserved for the teacher. The rabbis compared it to Mount Sinai where Moses received the revelation of God contained in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The person who sat on it and expounded the Torah was like Moses.

The problem Jesus had was not with how they explained the To­rah. He was in basic agreement with them. He disagreed with the way they added certain things to the Torah and how they applied them, because it revealed their attitude. He had a problem with their lives more than with their teaching, because their lives revealed their heart. You can follow all the rules to the last stroke and dot, but if you are corrupt on the inside, you will be manipulating those rules for your own self-justification. The problem is not the rules, but that the outward appearance is deceptive.

He accuses them of hypocrisy. Of course a hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does another. However, a hypocrite is not simply someone who has a standard that he or she fails to live up to. If you live up to your standard perfectly, you are either very remark­able or you have a very low standard. On the one hand we should have high standards. On the other hand, when it comes to our failure to live up to those standards, we should exercise humility and compassion, both towards others and toward ourselves. At the same time, we should continue to make our best effort.

A hypocrite, however, is literally an actor, someone who wears a mask. In other words, a hypocrite is someone who pretends they live up to a standard that they in fact do not live up to. They want credit for an accomplishment that they have not achieved. Of course, many hypocrites are self-deceived. They think they do live up to their stan­dard when in fact they do not. Many times we think that because we agree with a standard, a value or a belief, we actually conform to what we agree with. The stronger our conviction is, the more we think we conform to it. So we judge others for the splinter in their eye when we are blind to the log in our own eye. A hypocrite is not someone with a log in their eye but someone who only sees the splinters in everyone else’s eyes. They think they are better.

In these blanket statements about the Pharisees, Jesus is proba­bly not condemning all the Pharisees. The reason is because other Pharisees (and rabbis) made the same kind of criticisms of their fel­low Pharisees. As a whole, the group was very self-critical. Jesus is talking about those who presented their public image, especially in Jerusalem, and who put themselves forward, who were wealthy and had connections with powerful people in Jerusalem.

Sigmund Freud was famous for bringing to our attention that we tend to hide our true motives not only from others but from our­selves. This is really what Jesus is talking about. It takes great humil­ity and constant vigilance to discover our own motives. And once we discover them, we may not like them. Before we thought that we were motivated by pure love, and now we realize that fear and insecurity have driven us. These motivations do not simply go away once we discover them. We may have to become very old friends with these weaknesses or qualities. We are very afraid of these discove­ries, because we are afraid of losing our faith. It seems as though our faith is based on them, rather than the noble thing we had supposed.

So rather than face this fear, we refuse to look. This is when we begin to fool ourselves and, rather than condemning ourselves, we condemn others. We become self-righteous and hypocritical.

But if in the safety of God’s forgiveness, in awe of its depth and extent, in the security of God’s unchanging love, of His uncondi­tional election, we allowed ourselves to look, we would be humbled to the point where our whole house of cards collapses. But in that heap of ruins, we would find God instead of self. We would realize that eve­rything depends on Him, not on us, and we can let go of everything but Him. We would accept the fact that we are sinners in­stead of being surprised and frightened by it and running away from it. We would become real, and would start to be compassio­nate to­wards others. Not all at once, not towards everyone, but little by little.

We are in fact motivated by small things. If we are motivated by the great commandment and the second that is like it, it is by the grace of God. We cannot credit ourselves but instead we are grateful to Another. We do not attach it to ourselves like a badge.

The Messiah’s New Community (23:8-12)

Jesus begins by pointing out how the Pharisees are motivated by how others see them. They want others to recognize them, to honor and love them, but they do not extend the same courtesy to others. They depend on having status above others.

Then in verses 8-12 He explains how it is to be different among His disciples. No one is to be above anyone else but we are all to be as brothers and sisters to one another (verse 8): no rabbi, no teacher, no father, no instructor. The only One who is to be above us is our Father who is in the heavens, and Christ, the Son of the Father who has nothing apart from Him. In the creed we insist that the Fa­ther is Lord, the Son is Lord and the Spirit is Lord, but they are only one Lord. Our Lord is the Triune God. Yet the face of God that we see, our Lord Jesus, made Himself our servant and gave up His soul unto death for our sake (20:28). Though He is the only One entitled to be our Lord, and who is our Lord, He gave Himself as an example.

Through the Holy Spirit He is above us to guide us, as our Lord,

and He lives within us to work Himself out through us, as a servant to others (Philippians 2:1-16; etc.).

From Him we learn that we are not only to be equal to one another as siblings, but we are to put ourselves below one another, as children and servants, and we are also to care for one another as mutual shepherds. All this is in chapter 18, but Jesus reminds us of it again to contrast it to the failure of the Pharisees in the Jewish community. We must not forget it!

We must not forget it because the church would fall into the same pattern as the Pharisees. Before long the clergy would exalt itself above the laity, and then the laity would fight with each other for status and position. The church has been all too ready to see the splinter in the eye of the Jew while the log has been in its own eye. History has shown that this is true. You will not find the pride of bi­shops and archbishops and patriarchs and cardinals and popes among the Jews anymore, not since the second century, but you do find it aplenty among the Christians. And not only among our Catho­lic and Orthodox brethren where the symbolism of office is so obvious. Pride among Protestants of every stripe is just as great.

We here need to return to the community that Jesus desires!

The Woes of Condemnation (23:13-32)

What follows are seven or eight woes (depending on whether we include verse 14). The word “woe” means “disaster, horror, how greatly you will suffer!” He speaks as did the prophets of the Old Tes­tament, as though He were one of them. He pronounces woe on them until verse 33, when He begins to describe God’s judgment on their generation (verses 33-36), on the city of Jerusalem (verses 37-39), and on the Temple itself (24:1-2). Before the destruction under Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonians, the prophets spoke the same. There was nothing clairvoyant about Jesus’ foresight. The pride of the Pharisees and their blindness (23:17, 19, 24, 26,) will stir up a movement of Zealots, who will rebel against the priestly establish­ment who collaborated with the Romans and the Romans them­selves, and will bring down the wrath of the Romans against them. From Jesus’ childhood He had seen its signs in Galilee, and He also saw how antithetical it was to the spirit of the prophets in the Bible.

We should apply these warnings to ourselves. What we believe matters. False teaching leads to false beliefs which produce false practices. What leads to false teaching, however, are false motiva­tions. The desire for wealth and the desire for recognition and status distort the teaching. It becomes inconsistent and dishonest so that people can manipulate it for their own self-justification.

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