Matthew 23

Happy February 1 and congratulations on completing 1/12th of this reading plant. Today let’s read Matthew 23.

Today’s reading continued to chronicle the life of Christ during the week of the crucifixion. Yesterday the religious leaders took turns trying to discredit Jesus by stumping him with hard questions. Jesus turned every question back on the questioners and made them look foolish. So, Jesus was on defense and refused to allow his opponents to score any points at all. Here in Matthew 23, Jesus went on offense, warning his audience about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and teachers of the law and urging his audience not to live like these religious leaders.

Jesus was very specific in his complaints about the hypocrisy of these groups. He criticized them for:

  • not practicing what they preach (vv. 1-4).
  • doing everything for show, not from sincerity (vv. 5-12).
  • being an obstacle to God’s kingdom rather than a guide to it (vv. 13-15).
  • finding loopholes in God’s laws to exploit for their own selfish ends (vv. 16-22).
  • being scrupulous about obedience to the technicalities of the law while completely ignoring the moral and ethical commands of the law (vv. 23-24).
  • appearing squeaky-clean on the outside while being morally degenerate on the inside (vv. 25-28).
  • honoring the prophets that their ancestors killed while persecuting the prophets and teachers Jesus sent and was sending to them (vv. 29-36).

Jesus concluded with a lament that the nation he longed to redeem would be fall under his judgment instead because they rejected him in unbelief. This passage is unique among the recorded sayings of Jesus because of how unrelentingly harsh it is and how specific and lengthy it is. Although Jesus acknowledged that these religious leaders had some civil authority that required his disciples to obey them (vv. 2-3), he made it very clear that they were not his servants or subjects of his kingdom.

The portion of this chapter that stands out most to me is contained within verses 5-12. Although the religious men of his culture loved the accolades of great honor that were customarily given to them (v. 7), Jesus commanded his followers not to give titles and honor to our leaders (vv. 8-11). He could not have been clearer that Christian leaders are to be servants who serve in humility (vv. 11-12); consequently, he strictly forbid us from putting titles on each other.

Despite what Jesus clearly said, Christian leaders for centuries have demanded certain titles: Bishop Youknowwho, Pope Grande, Cardinal Soandso, Saint Bernard, and even “Father”-- the very title Jesus said not to use (v. 9). Though the elders here at Calvary felt it was important for me to be called “Pastor,” I’ve always been more comfortable just going by the name my parents gave me. Even though I have an earned doctorate, I never tell anyone to call me Dr. Jones and this passage is the reason why. We call Paul “the Apostle Paul” but he never called himself that.

I do think we should be careful about using titles in light of this passage, but the command here is less about whether you call me “Pastor Brian” or just “Brian” and more about whether I serve the Lord in order to get honor and respect from you. The Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted the social status that came from being a religious leader. They did not view themselves as servants to their disciples but as princes who taught but also demanded much from their followers. We are not immune to this temptation. Some people seek to be elders or deacons or teachers in the church because they want the respect of the people of the church. Jesus called us to remember that spiritual leadership is about service, not about self. May God help all of us to cultivate the servants heart that Jesus commanded and modeled for us, no matter what title people apply to our names or what positions of authority we occupy.