Summary: To say and to do not versus the grace of humility.
A CRITIQUE OF PHARISAIC HYPOCRISY
Turning away from the Pharisees, Jesus addressed both the crowds and His own disciples (Matthew 23:1). From the outset, Jesus acknowledged the legitimacy of the Pharisees as a party within Judaism: they “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). Whether or not there was a ‘chair’ as such, their office as teachers of the law of Moses was accepted by our Lord.
Before we proceed, we must acknowledge that there were amongst the Pharisees those who spoke out against the tendency to hypocrisy within their own party. This is also true within the church. We must be careful not to tar everyone with the same brush.
1. To “say and to do not” receives a stern indictment from Jesus (Matthew 23:3).
Jesus is here criticising the ‘Do as I say do’ mentality of much of the Pharisaic teaching. ‘Yes,’ says Jesus: do ‘do what they say’ - inasmuch as they teach you what Moses taught - but if they do not ‘practise what they preach’ then do not follow their lifestyles. The applicability of this advice goes beyond the immediate context of first century Judaism: it applies also to the Christian church, right down to the present day.
2. There is a tendency to set man-made rules above God’s Word (Matthew 23:4).
This was allegedly done with a view to clarifying the law, but in fact transformed it into an impossible burden for the people. Those who make Christianity to be about ‘do this, and don’t do that’ will very rarely lift a finger to help those who are genuinely struggling to enter the kingdom of God. This stands in stark contrast to the easy ‘yoke’ of Christ (Matthew 11:28-30).
3. Outward show is no proof of a genuine inward relationship with God (Matthew 23:5).
In their own observance of the detail of the law, the hypocritical Pharisees were often just showing off. What they were doing was not wrong (Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 6:8), but pretentiously exaggerated. What is the use of our carrying the largest Bible to the church, if we do not bear the Word of God in our hearts, and obey it in our lives?
4. A pretentious spirit delights to receive honour from men (Matthew 23:6-7).
Not only do they love the place of honour at feasts, but they drag this worldly priority into the place of worship. Furthermore, says Jesus, they love honorific titles - even when they are out and about in the market places of life. This tendency is not only found in Pharisaic circles: it is part and parcel of the human condition.
5. Turning to His disciples, Jesus says, “be not ye” like them (Matthew 23:8-10).
a) Jesus is speaking against using a title like Rabbi/ Master/ Teacher, as if it entitled us to privileges without responsibilities (Matthew 23:8). To do so robs Christ of His place as our Master/ Leader/ Guide/ Instructor. Furthermore, He reminds us that we are all brethren under Him, so placing one above another is not in the spirit of the kingdom.
b) Similarly, to style a mere man as Father robs our Father in heaven of His priority and dignity in our lives (Matthew 23:9). There may be one who can say to us that we are his ‘own son in the faith’ (1 Timothy 1:2) - yet it is ‘in Christ Jesus’ that we are begotten ‘through the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 4:14-15). We must esteem those who labour in the gospel on our behalf (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13), yes - but ministers are not infallible.
c) Neither be called Master/ Leader/ Guide/ Instructor - for this title belongs to Christ (Matthew 23:10). We must learn to lean on Jesus, rather than on His ministers. We must obey His Word, rather than the opinions of even the best of men.
6. The grace of humility (Matthew 23:11-12).
Jesus’ final words on this subject - before pronouncing His eight ‘woes’ against the Pharisees (Matthew 23:13-33) - echo teaching which He has already given (cf. Matthew 20:25-28). Rise yourself up above others, and He will strike you down. Live a life of loving service toward others, and He will raise you up.