Listening to Hypocrites

It is Fig Monday during Passion Week. Jesus’s rabbinic knowledge has been tested. He upheld Torah and proved wiser than the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees who exceeded Him in their religious status, formal education, and physical age. Jesus now turns to the crowds who have been watching His exchanges with the religious leaders of the day in order to instruct them about how they should treat these scribes and Pharisees.

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Matthew 23:1-12

23.1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν τοῖς ὄχλοις καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ  2 λέγων· Ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι.  3 πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν ποιήσατε καὶ τηρεῖτε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν μὴ ποιεῖτε, λέγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν.  4 δεσμεύουσιν δὲ φορτία βαρέα καὶ ἐπιτιθέασιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους τῶν ἀνθρώπων, αὐτοὶ δὲ τῷ δακτύλῳ αὐτῶν οὐ θέλουσιν κινῆσαι αὐτά.  5 πάντα δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν ποιοῦσιν πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις· πλατύνουσι γὰρ τὰ φυλακτήρια αὐτῶν καὶ μεγαλύνουσι τὰ κράσπεδα,  6 φιλοῦσι δὲ τὴν πρωτοκλισίαν ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις καὶ τὰς πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς  7 καὶ τοὺς ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων· Ῥαββί.  8 ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ κληθῆτε· Ῥαββί, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ διδάσκαλος, πάντες δὲ ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε·  9 καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ πατὴρ ὁ οὐράνιος·  10 μηδὲ κληθῆτε καθηγηταί, ὅτι καθηγητὴς ὑμῶν ἐστιν εἷς ὁ χριστός·  11 ὁ δὲ μείζων ὑμῶν ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος.  12 ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.

How to treat hypocrites (v. 1-3)

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 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.

Moses sat as Israel’s judge and the teacher of God’s Law (cf. Deuteronomy 3:3ff). The scribes and Pharisees have assumed the responsibilities of judging Israel and teaching the whole of God’s Law. Jesus recognizes their office as legitimate. He instructs the Jews to observe what they tell them, referring to their teaching of the Law, Torah. Yet, Jesus warns the people not to follow their examples. Their offices are legitimate, they are not. Therefore, the people are to respect the office even if those in office are hypocrites. The office, that of teacher or rabbi, is established by God in the likeness of Moses.

There are instances, today, when we should respect the offices of those who teach Scripture well but not follow the example that certain teacher’s set. Hypothetically speaking. If there is a teacher who exposits Scripture well for years but falls into sexual immorality and subsequently apostatizes, we have warrant to recognize their exposition as good, glean from it, but not follow the expositor’s example. The words he taught were still God’s even though he was not a godly man. Doubtless you have heard of several real scenarios like my hypothetical.

Jesus goes on to explain why they should be listened to but not emulated.

Fruit of public image (v. 4-7)

“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.”

They, the scribes and Pharisees, tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s (ἀνθρώπων) shoulders. They do this through their teaching, which Jesus has already instructed the crowds to honor. The burden is a real burden. When we read the Law and our sin is exposed, we bear much weight as we try to live up to the Law. The teaching of the Law was not the problem. After teaching the Law and all of its burdens, the scribes and Pharisees are unwilling to move those burdens with so much as a finger. They teach the Law and watch as everyone is crushed under the weight of works-righteousness.

Jesus’s words insinuate that there is something to be said after the Law is properly taught, a hope that lifts the burden—perhaps the message of forgiveness and messianic deliverance for God’s chosen people. Perhaps after the Law comes atonement like we read about in Torah. Perhaps Jesus is on His way to be the perfect atonement for all the sins of His people. The Law weighs upon us and brings us face to face with our deliverer. The gospel lifts the weight of pharisaical religiosity. The scribes and Pharisees forgot the gospel. Their teaching was correct but incomplete.

“But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.”

The scribes and Pharisees only do the works they require of others when they can be seen. Hypocrisy is teaching one thing and doing another. Hypocrisy is also living one way in public and another way in private—so as to present an inaccurate public image. People live hypocritical lives when they idolatrize their public images, their reputations. If I am overly concerned about what people think of me or how I am perceived by others, I will doubtless live like a hypocrite. I will be pugnacious, a gossiper, and I will give myself over to sin in order to safeguard the way I am perceived. I will push those who care about me away because I don’t like it when they see who I really am. I broaden my phylacteries and lengthen my tassels, parts of the priestly garments ironically containing the Scriptures (cf. Deuteronomy 6:8)—meaning I am using God’s word to build my own life or kingdom. I hope for the place of honor and love my title because I like to feel important and good. Hypocrisy is the fruit of public image—which is why many public personalities are hypocrites. They have reputations to protect.

Contrary to interest in their public image, Jesus instructs the crowds how to conduct themselves in humility.

Path of humility (v. 8-12)

“But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” 

The secret to humility is recognizing God as the only one worthy of reputation. Soli Deo Gloria and Solus Christus. We are not concerned about building our own ministries, names, positions, statuses, reputations, or followings. If we are motivated by such things, we are prideful people and given over to the hypocrisy that comes with building public image. Any ambition we have, if it is humble ambition, is for the glory of God. We only have one teacher, father, and leader.

Yet, Christ has legitimized the offices of the scribes and Pharisees. How can Christ legitimize their offices, yet claim that Israel only has one teacher and leader? Such is only possible if the office requires they teach God’s words alone (Sola Scriptura) and operate as servants rather than superiors. Christ makes as much known when He teaches, “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” So, we serve. Even those who occupy a teaching office do so to teach the whole counsel of Scripture as servants.

I sometimes hear that someone does not need the local church or to sit under a consistent pastor because he or she has the Holy Spirit and no one is to be called teacher. That would be so if the teacher promoted his own teaching and had a messiah complex. If the one occupying the teaching office is committed to teach what Christ taught as a servant rather than a superior, his office is legitimized by Christ in this pericope.

There is something to be said, here, about messiah complexes. Gifted individuals often develop messiah complexes, assuming that God needs them and people need them. They give their lives over to workaholism and use work that seems godly in order to build their own kingdoms. God does not need us. He is perfectly capable of reaching people without us. He calls us to be servants rather than build our own ministries as if His work depended on us. If we have messiah complexes, we reveal to think highly of ourselves and little of God. If we use holy work as an excuse to neglect the simple things God has called us to, our messiah complexes have caused us to bear the fruit of hypocrisy. We hurt others when we have messiah complexes by perpetuating superiority and inferiority complexes—which sadly describes most ministry leaders because they assume that they are the necessary agent to see healing in people’s lives. They give and give and give, and people never rise out from the ashes—always remaining in need. I write as one who had such a mentality early in my ministry career. But, we are servants, not superiors.

“Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

In reference to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus teaches that whoever exalts himself shall be humbled and vise verse. There are several ways people exalt themselves, and I’ve been guilty as much as anyone. We exalt ourselves by promoting ourselves rather than others. We exalt ourselves by doing rogue ministry. According to what Jesus taught, we exalt ourselves by concerning ourselves too much about our reputations or public images. We exalt ourselves when we believe God’s work depends on us. We exalt ourselves when, in our charity or ministry, we perpetuate the inferiority complexes of others. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. If you are anything like me, that humiliation comes swift and hard. No wonder so many public theologians and preachers fall so hard. They gain such a following that they forget to point people to Jesus. They become concerned about their own ministries and reputations. God knocks them down.

The way of life is humility. The secret to humility is sincere service to the glory of God alone by exalting Christ alone according to Scripture alone. At the right time, those who walk in humility will be exalted. We only pray that, when the time comes, each one remains humble as he is being exalted to the glory of God. If anyone is to be truly exalted, God is the only one who can do the exalting. May we not be like the scribes and Pharisees by building our own ministries or reputations to the neglect of being part of Christ’s kingdom. We cannot serve two masters.


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