Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Matthew 23:23
1. Jesus tells His disciples to pay attention to the words of the rulers in the Church, as long as they sit in Moses’ seat.
2. Jesus warns His disciples not to emulate the actions of the Scribes and Pharisees.
Verses 1–12. We are now beginning a chapter that in one respect is the most remarkable in the four Gospels. It contains the last words that the Lord Jesus ever spoke within the walls of the temple. Those last words consist of a withering exposure of the Scribes and Pharisees, and a sharp rebuke of their doctrines and practices. Knowing full well that His time on earth was drawing to a close, our Lord no longer keeps back His opinion of the leading teachers of the Jews. Knowing that He would soon leave His followers alone, like sheep among wolves, He warns them plainly against the false shepherds, by whom they were surrounded.
The whole chapter is a signal example of boldness and faithfulness in denouncing error. It is a striking proof that it is possible for the most loving heart to use the language of stern reproof. Above all it is a dreadful evidence of the guilt of unfaithful teachers. So long as the world stands, this chapter ought to be a warning and a beacon to all ministers of religion. No sins are so sinful as theirs in the sight of Christ.
In the twelve verses that begin the chapter, we see firstly, the duty of distinguishing between the office of a false teacher and his example. “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” Rightly or wrongly, they occupied the position of the chief public teachers of religion among the Jews. However unworthily they filled the place of authority, their office entitled them to respect. But while their office was respected, their bad lives were not to be copied. And although their teaching was to be adhered to, so long as it was Scriptural, it was not to be observed when it contradicted the Word of God.
The duty here placed before us is one of great importance. There is a constant tendency in the human mind to run into extremes. If we do not regard the office of the minister with idolatrous veneration, we are apt to treat it with improper contempt. Against both these extremes we have need to be on our guard. However much we may disapprove of a minister’s practice, or dissent from his teaching, we must never forget to respect his office. We must show that we can honor the commission, whatever we may think of the officer that holds it. The example of Paul on a certain occasion is worthy of notice, “I wist not brethren that he was the high priest: for it is written, ‘thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.’” (Acts 23:5).
We see secondly, in these verses, that inconsistency, ostentation, and love of pre-eminence, among professors of religion, are specially displeasing to Christ. As to inconsistency it is remarkable that the very first thing our Lord says of the Pharisees is, that “they say, and do not.” They required from others what they did not practice themselves. As to ostentation, our Lord declares that they did all their works “to be seen of men.” They had their phylacteries, or strips of parchment, with texts written on them, which many Jews wore on their clothes, made of an excessive size. They had the “borders,” or fringes of their garments, which Moses instructed the Israelites to wear as a remembrance of God, made of an extravagant width (Num. 15:38). And all this was done to attract notice, and to make people think how holy they were. As to love of preeminence, our Lord tells us that the Pharisees loved to have “the chief seats” given them in public places, and to have flattering titles addressed to them. All these things our Lord holds up to reprobation. Against all He would have us watch and pray. They are soul-ruining sins. “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another?” (John 5:44). Happy would it have been for the Church of Christ, if this passage had been more deeply pondered, and the spirit of it more implicitly obeyed. The Pharisees are not the only people who have imposed austerities on others, and affected sanctity of apparel, and loved the praise of man. The annals of Church history show that only too many Christians have walked closely in their steps. May we remember this and be wise!
We see in the third place, from these verses, that Christians must never give to any man the titles and honors which are due to God alone and to His Christ. We are to “call no man your father upon the earth.”
The rule here laid down must be interpreted with proper Scriptural qualification. We are not forbidden to esteem ministers very highly in love for their work’s sake (1 Thess. 5:13). Even Paul, one of the humblest saints, called Titus his “own son in the faith,” and says to the Corinthians, “I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). But still we must be very careful that we do not insensibly give to ministers a place and an honor which do not belong to them. We must never allow them to come between Christ and ourselves. The very best are not infallible. They are not priests who can atone for us. They are not mediators who can undertake to manage our soul’s affairs with God. They are men of like passions with ourselves, needing the same cleansing blood, and the same renewing Spirit, set apart to a high and holy calling, but still after all, only men. Let us never forget these things. Such cautions are always useful. Human nature would always rather lean on a visible minister, than an invisible Christ.
We see in the last place, that there is no grace that should distinguish the Christian so much as humility. He that would be great in the eyes of Christ, must aim at a totally different mark from that of the Pharisees. His aim must be, not so much to rule, as to serve the Church. Well says Baxter, “church greatness consists in being greatly serviceable.” The desire of the Pharisee was to receive honor, and to be called “master.” The desire of the Christian must be to do good, and to give himself, and all that he has to the service of others. Truly this is a high standard, but a lower one must never content us. The example of our blessed Lord, the direct command of the apostolic Epistles, both alike require us to be “clothed with humility.” (1 Pet. 5:5). Let us seek that blessed grace day by day. No grace is so beautiful, however much despised by the world. No grace is such an evidence of saving faith, and true conversion to God. No grace is so often commended by our Lord. Of all His sayings, hardly any is so often repeated as that which concludes the passage we have now read, “and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”
1. What are the themes of chapters 1 through 23?
2. What were phylacteries?
3. How might we fail in our consideration of the office of the minister or pastor or elders within the church?
4. What did Christ condemn about the “good works” of the Pharisees?
5. Who are the ones who will be exalted?
1. What kind of honor should we pay to our elders and pastors? What if they are hypocritical in their behavior? Should we work to see that they are deposed from office? How did Jesus handle bad leaders in the church in His day? (Reference 1 Timothy 5:1, 19.)
2. How important is “the preeminence” for us? Do we strive for preeminence? Do we compare ourselves with others? Are we fishing for complements? Are we learning humility?