As we continue to study the Kingdom of heaven/The kingdom of God, we will look at Jesus teachings concerning religious hypocrites. I want to point out that in Matthew 23, Jesus was not talking here to the Jews (though the Pharisees were Jews). He was talking to the Jewish religious leaders and those whose hearts had become hardened to the law. In particular, those who felt their “tickets were punched”. Those who were hypocrites, who talked the talk but did not walk the walk.
Jesus message in all this is a message of action…….love God and love others. It does no good to tell people proudly about the Gospel message if we are not “living” the Gospel message. It does no good to build a huge church if we live for the building and not for the people who enter its doors or just as importantly, the people outside its doors that need to the message of hope and redemption through Jesus Christ. It does no good to pray for others if we are truly not concerned for others or willing to help, hands on, in their lives. We are all sinners, we are all broken in some way.
Let’s look at this long discourse by Jesus about the religious leaders of His day. This, I know, is a long one, but I believe that there is much that we can learn about our hearts in his teaching from the Gospel of Matthew, verses 1 through 36:
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries [boxes containing Scripture verses, worn on forehead and arm] wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 14 [some manuscripts: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Therefore you will be punished more severely.”]
15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.
It does no good to open the doors of the Church to some and tell others not to come, or send a message that others are not welcome, because they don’t “fit” in our mold. The churches we build should be buildings of refuge where people can come to receive hope, love and acceptance. The Church is a place for sinners, as we are all sinners, a place for people to come to find love and encouragement, to hear the message of Jesus as it is written, not as we want to write it. As leaders in Churches, we are to be Shepherds that seek out the one sheep that is lost because we love and care for that sheep so much.
I am proud to be a pastor in a Church that I have seen does just that. If a transient were sleeping at the door on Sunday morning, he/she would be invited in and given something to eat and drink rather than everyone sidestepping around him hoping he would not wake and enter. When a sinner comes through our doors, we embrace them and accept them. We never water down the message of Christ, yet we see the importance of the message for all people. We all fall short of the glory of God.
Okay, I’ll get off my soap box here and we’ll look into the message that Jesus has for us in what is the beginning or introduction of the Olivet Discourse and is the end of the controversy narratives. This is Jesus’ fifth and final discourse. Again, Jesus’ opponents in these teachings were not the common people but the religious leaders and the religious establishment of the day. Jesus attacked their legalism that became a stumbling block for the Jews. We must also see that not ALL were evil, look at Nicodemeus (John 3:1-20) and Joseph of Armintha (Mark 15:43).
Let’s look first at the first seven verses of Matthew 23, “1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries [boxes containing Scripture verses, worn on forehead and arm] wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ “
So…..Jesus now turns His attention to the crowds as He talks about the religious leaders and points to their pride and hypocrisy. The “teachers of the law ” are the Scribes. They copied the Scriptures word for word and were experts in the Law. Most Scribes were also Pharisees. The Pharisees were like preachers today in some respects, they made it a lifetime profession to serve God, to keep all the regulations spelled out in the Old Testament as well as the traditions/rules that arose surrounding the Biblical law. Yet, unlike today’s preachers, Pharisees were the best known, most powerful, and most respected of all leaders in Jewish society…….yet their true focus was a hunger for more power, money, and status. This, just as it would today, made them lose sight of God, and their blindness was spreading to the whole nation of Israel……..just like, if this happens today, blindness to the Gospel is thread throughout the nation and the world. The biggest problem arose when their interpretation and application of God’s Law and their own additions…. traditions….became more important than the INTENT of God’s Law. I would point out that Jesus rarely spoke against what the Pharisees taught…….but often He spoke against what they were…..hypocrites.
In verse 3 you see that Jesus understands their importance as teachers and tells the crowds to obey what they taught. But then He spells out the key to His message….”But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Jesus goes on to say that the Pharisees “tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Imagine telling your teenage children the importance of money management but never teaching them to balance a checkbook or of the dangers of credit. Imagine telling your children or those around you the importance of being Godly, but not teaching them how to pray or allowing them to read the Bible. They taught people their lofty commands and interpretations, yet they offered no practical advice in working these out in their lives or in building a relationship with God. The distorted the intent of God’s Law by adding pointless details and layers of practices which they placed “on men’s shoulders”. Like the many things that could or could not be done on the Sabbath…..how far one could walk, exactly what was considered work and what was not…..what was the intent of God’s Law….the details….or simply to rest and Worship Him one day a week. They used God’s Law to grind people down rather than bringing them to grace.
On top of all that…they set a bad example. They were self-absorbed rather than being servants of the people. They were more interested in their position in society than of the plight of those with less in their society. They did not practice what they preached!
Let’s look at verses 8 through 12: 8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. “
To understand these verses and what Jesus is saying we need to understand a little more about the culture in that time….otherwise we may come up with a very different understanding. Rabbi’s (the word rabbi means, “my master” or “teacher”) had their own following of disciples, each establishing his own school, and were often called “father” by their disciples as their relationship was much like that of a father and a son. True disciples, however, are united under one authority. Jesus was simply telling them a lesson in humility, a lesson in looking to God, to Christ, for all things, not an earthly “master” or rabbi. As leaders in the church we must be careful not to let ourselves be put on a pedestal, we must always deflect the glory TO God, our Heavenly Father, to Christ. As leaders we must not accept homage and as disciples, we must not revere our church leaders or put them on a pedestal. Jesus is telling us that as leaders, we must be servants. Jesus spells it out in verse 10, “you have one Teacher, the Christ”.
Next, let’s look at the meat of this teaching and our focus…..the kingdom of heaven: Look at verses 13 and 14: 13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. 14 [some manuscripts: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Therefore you will be punished more severely.”]
First, I would note (as is noted above) that verse 14 is omitted from the NIV, as well as many modern scholarly versions because it simply was not in the earliest manuscripts that have been found since the time of the King James version was translated. That aside, let’s look at the next verses. In this first and most important “woe”, Jesus again points out that many of the Scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites. Think about it, even in our modern day, how many people have turned their back on God because of hypocritical religious leaders? In other words, they “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.”, they themselves “do not enter, nor will” they “let those enter who are trying to.” Jesus often uses the term “hypocrite,” when He speaks of the Pharisees. What He is referring to is the fact that they focus on and obey the small details of the law but have no thought or concern about people’s right relationship with God. Their rejection of Jesus and emphasis on their petty demands had the effect of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven and keeping themselves out as well (see also Matthew 5:20; Matthew 7:21; Matthew 18:3; Matthew 19:23-24). They made God seem impossible to please, his commands impossible to obey, and heaven an impossible goal.
Let’s just look quickly here at the seven woes that Jesus mentions as ways to provoke God’s anger (1):
1. Matthew 23:13 Not letting others enter the kingdom of heaven and not entering yourselves
2. Matthew 23:15 Converting people away from God to be like yourselves
3. Matthew 23:16-22 Blindly leading God’s people to follow man-made traditions instead of God’s Word
4. Matthew 23:23-24 Involving yourselves in every last detail and ignoring what is really important: justice, mercy, and faith
5. Matthew 23:25-26 Keeping up appearances while your private world is corrupt
6. Matthew 23: 27-28 Acting spiritual to cover up sin
7. Matthew 23: 29-36 Pretending to have learned from past history [murdering the prophets], but your present behavior shows you have learned nothing [they were plotting to kill another messenger of God….the Messiah…Jesus Himself]
Today’s CLUE: Jesus tells us that hypocrisy; following man-made traditions rather than God’s Word; involving ourselves in small details of God’s Word rather than what is really important…..justice, mercy and faith; keeping up appearances while our private world is corrupt; and acting spiritual to cover up sin, all have the effect of keeping others from entering the kingdom of heaven……..as well as keeping ourselves from entering the kingdom.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?