Flashback Episode — Avoiding the Pharisee Trap: Matthew 23:1-36

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After Jesus finished countering the religious leaders’ growing set of challenges with a question of His own that they were unable to answer, Jesus turns and challenges the crowd and His disciples regarding the Pharisees and the scribes. However, while we are quick to point out the religious leaders’ hypocrisy in Jesus’ statement, we too easily miss something that Jesus tells the crowd that seems impossible.

While our passage is long and we might not make it through all of it, let’s dive in and discover what Jesus teaches us about the scribes and the Pharisees. Our passage is found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 23, and we will be reading it from the New American Standard Bible. Starting in verse 1:

1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 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. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 

Let’s pause here for a moment because Jesus just said something that we might easily miss. While Jesus has just challenged the religious leaders and framed their hypocrisy as their words not matching their actions, we might be tempted to throw out everything the religious leaders said and did as worthless.

But this is not what Jesus told the crowd in these opening verses. He tells the crowd to follow what the religious leaders teach, but don’t mimic the religious leaders’ actions. The religious leaders teach an ideal that they are unwilling to live up to.

However, when we look at Jesus’ words, the ideal that the religious leaders are pointing people to is not bad. The ideal actually is living within the law on all fronts, and actually it is well away from breaking the law. But the religious leaders acted in a way that cheapened their influence and authority. They didn’t practice what they preached.

Before continuing the passage, the ideal that the religious leaders had placed on the people was all but impossible to attain. It was a great ideal for people to shoot for, but both the law and the ideal standard the religious leaders held up was based on not breaking the law. However, one of the biggest reasons God gave us the law was to help people see and remember their need of a Savior and to remind people that the punishment for their sin was placed on something and ultimately Someone else.

However, when the religious leaders lost the reason for the law and for the sacrifices, their religion became a ritual that had lost its true meaning. Without love and thankfulness in their hearts for what the law pointed to, the law become elevated into God’s standard that He would punish them for at the instant they broke even the tiniest clause. Without seeing the blessing the law pointed towards, the religious leaders feared God’s punishment and they set up regulations to keep people from even breaking the law.

This was great until the focus was so much on avoiding the law that they lost the love, and pride, arrogance, and status crept into their hearts and they began to value their status over their call to serve others. Verse 4 describes the current state of the religious leaders the following way: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

Continuing in verse 5:

5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their *phylacteries [small boxes that contained scriptures] and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. 8 But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

We’ll stop reading here. The rest of our passage continues by both warning and challenging the scribes and Pharisees regarding their focus, their attitudes, and the hypocrisy of their actions. Jesus elaborates His statement about the Pharisees and religious leaders doing their deeds to be admired by others, and how they had elevated themselves over everyone else.

However, in this opening statement for the rest of the passage, Jesus gives us a powerful frame of reference that we should pay attention to. While the scribes and Pharisees focused on status, and being praised and looked up to by others, Jesus tells His disciples and all His followers that they should avoid this. When giving us a new frame of reference, Jesus challenges us to remember who God is and what He does for us.

In an interesting twist, we discover each of the members of the Godhead in Jesus’ new frame of reference.

The first thing Jesus shares is that we shouldn’t call each other Rabbi, which is another word for teacher. In a similar way, we might be better served by avoiding the word pastor, preacher, or teacher as well. All these terms focus on separating those with knowledge and information from those who don’t have access to it. These terms focus on looking up to those with the knowledge and following them.

Jesus challenges this frame of reference by reminding us that God is our Teacher; God is our Rabbi. While Jesus was the One teaching them in that moment, the member of the Godhead who is responsible for teaching is the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes, one responsibility He has is leading God’s people into all truth. We should look to God to teach us, especially relating to all things spiritual.

Next Jesus challenges us to not call anyone on earth our father, because we all have One Father, and this Father is who is in Heaven. We call this Father, God the Father, and He is just as responsible for us being alive on this earth as our biological parents are. God the Father created each of us, and because He did this, we can know and trust that He has a plan for our lives.

Lastly, Jesus challenges us to not call anyone our leader because we have One Leader, and this Leader is Christ. We shouldn’t focus on the idea of leadership but instead of service towards others. If we look up to anyone to lead us, the One we should be looking to is Christ, the Son, Jesus.

When looking at this clear challenge Jesus gives us in Matthew’s gospel, we discover that both in the Christian world and in the secular world, people call each other teacher, father, and leader. While each term might be not as widespread in certain groups, all three terms that Jesus challenges us to reserve for God are widely used to describe humans.

Some of these terms we cannot help but use in certain contexts, but with how Jesus concludes this section of His teaching, we discover that while we cannot stop others from using these terms, our focus should be different. Jesus challenges His people to focus on serving one another, and on being humble.

Each of the terms Jesus describes as reserved for God are terms of status. If we seek to be known as a teacher, a father, or a leader, we seek to exalt ourselves, and Jesus tells us that this will result in us being humbled. Instead, we are to serve others humbly, and if they see us as a teacher, a father, or a leader, we humbly point them to God, who is our Teacher, our Father, and our Leader!

Jesus challenges us to look to God for our knowledge, because He is our Teacher; our purpose, because He is our Father; and our mission, because He is our Leader!

As we conclude another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Seek God first and look to Him for knowledge, for purpose, and for mission. While the world wants to be the source of each of these things, God is the only source that can truly answer all of these desires in a satisfactory way.

As you seek God first and as you seek the answers for these areas of life, be sure to always pray and study the Bible for yourself. Through prayer and Bible study, we are able to draw near to God and we grow our relationship with Him. As we grow closer to God, all three areas of life become clearer.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never back away from, chicken out of, or wander away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Year of the Cross – Episode 13: After silencing the religious leaders and their trick questions and traps, Jesus teaches about where we should place our focus, and three major areas where we should focus on God in our lives.

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