Matthew 23:1-39

Key Verse 23:11-12


“The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”


This is a very harsh chapter for anyone to hear, especially for those who are in God’s employ and doing service to him. They are the last words Jesus ever spoke within the temple grounds. As Matthew tells us, Jesus spoke first to his disciples as well as to the crowds. And finally he turned his attention to the religious leaders (the Scribes and Pharisees) who had strayed from their God given calling and mission and had so abused their office that they were no longer worthy of respect. In fact, Jesus harshly rebuked them for, in their wickedness of heart and hypocrisy, they had become a stumbling stone to those who were really searching for God, but could not find him because of them! As a last attempt to lead them to repentance, Jesus rebukes them more harshly than he ever has in the past, for he had only a short time before accomplishing what he had come to fulfill in the first place, which is to give his life for those who repent and put their faith in him. I think we ought to really try to see ourselves in this passage because there is in every one of us a little bit of them. We are human after all, and if we are not careful, it is not too far from us to become like them.


Look at verses 1-4. Speaking to the disciples and the crowds who came to listen to him, Jesus accused the religious leaders of misusing their knowledge of the Bible. They used the word of God in the Bible to put heavy burdens on the people— burdens, demands and expectations that the people weren’t able to meet. The Bible was never meant to add burden to burden on the people, or on anyone for that matter. Then, what’s at the heart of what the Bible teaches? At the heart of the Bible is the teaching about faith, about hope and about love. It’s about God’s broken heart because people have abandoned God to go after their own sins and pleasures. It’s about God’s heart to restore all people to himself through his Son Jesus who came to give his life for that purpose. These religious leaders needed to teach the people to put their faith in God, to love him and to hope in him. Surely the goal of the Bible teaching is the good news of God! But these people didn’t teach the good news of God at all! Rather they made the Bible out to be a book about rules and regulations, and then imposed them on the people to obey. At least they should have patiently and lovingly helped people understand and cherish God’s word, bearing their burdens together with them, until they matured enough to understand the Bible and to obey it from their hearts. But they didn’t even lift a finger to help anyone! Why was that so bad? Because of them, the people’s whole perception of the loving God was distorted. The people could only see God as this legalistic and merciless God who cared more about his rules and regulations than about them. People’s hearts were turned off from God, and they couldn’t but feel as if they had failed God, and were under his condemnation. People still followed God, but they did so out of cold duty not out of love. Why did this happen? It happened because the Bible teachers misused the Bible teaching. They taught the word of God, and demanded that people obey it, but they themselves didn’t live by what they taught. It happens all the time! There are always those who teach the word of God, expect others to listen and obey, but think themselves exempt from its demands.


Look at verses 5-7. Here Jesus speaks of their hidden motives and ego. “Everything they do is done for men to see”.  “They love the places of honor”. Their motive is that others may see and praise them. They adorn themselves with beautiful religious garments and jewelry and with icons and relics with Bible verses hanging from them. They must’ve looked so nice and holy and religious. When people saw them they were captivated with their awesome appearance regarding them as the sacred people of God, like angels from heaven. But Jesus exposed their true motive in all this. He said that they did this not for the love for God, but to draw attention to themselves! Yes, God did command his people to adorn themselves with Bible verses. (Dt.22:12) But it wasn’t for self glory. It was meant as a symbol of a person’s love and commitment to God and devotion to his word. Here’s what God actually said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:5-9) Your love for God and your intimacy with his word are the sacred things in your life that keep you bound in a love relationship with him. They are not to be used to inflate your ego, nor to bring you fame or praise! These people were drunk with their own ego at the attention they got from adoring people. Contrast them with what Paul said of himself: “And they praised God because of me.” (Galatians 1:24) Take warning if what you say and do does not bring praise only to God.


Look at verses 8-12. While these people loved the respect of others who greeted them in public with such titles as “Rabbi” Or “Most honorable teacher”, the Lord told those who belong to him otherwise! Never ever receive the honor and respect— nor the love and adoration— nor the praise and worship— which are due God alone! Only God is to be honored and praised from our hearts. While we respect the spiritual offices instituted by God and which are occupied by his servants, we have to understand something important! Whether we occupy a spiritual office or we are served by those who occupy spiritual offices, we are all sinful and flawed human beings who need God’s grace and mercy. Every forgiven sinner, no matter who they are, whether a great or small, should live in gratitude and humility under God’s grace so as to tenderly lead others to that same grace they received! That’s our duty. Jesus clearly tells all those who are in his grace what their duty is. Look at verses 11-12. “The greatest among you will be your servant” He says, “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” That’s not easy to swallow! Think about it; your duty as a Christian! The greater you are, the more you should serve those under you. That’s totally opposite to how the world behaves. Not many can do that. But if you are in Christ, you should do that! You should never exploit others and demand their respect, but instead you should humbly serve them! It’s all right if you’re misunderstood and despised by it. God blesses those who humbly serve.


Now Jesus turns his attention to the religious leaders who abused their authority and publically denounces them for their corruption with stern words of rebuke. Eight times he uses the solemn expression “Woe to you”. Seven times he calls them “Hypocrites”. Twice he calls them “Blind guides”. Twice he calls them “Fools” and “Blind”. Once he calls them “Snakes” and a “Brood of vipers”. It’s not easy to overlook such strong language against religious authorities. But his solemn and sharp words teach us a lesson as well. It literally shows us what an abomination it was and still is to God for anyone to have a dark and corrupt spirit like these men. That’s why it is important to review Jesus’ woes to them to see what it was that so utterly angered and displeased him.


Look at verses 13-15. He rebukes them for their legalism— which in a sense is a false teaching of the Bible. As we said earlier, the Bible is God’s word of grace and truth. When you offer it or teach it to others out of your deep love for God, it often leads people to God and to his kingdom. These people never served the word of God out of love for God. They used it to promote their own self interests and imposed it on others to enslave people to a religious system. It was a false teaching, and it closed any door for people to come to God. We get that sort of thing today as well. Those who don’t teach the gospel truth at all! They often have their own version of what the gospel is all about. And that’s how they also close doors in people’s faces— doors that lead to God and to his kingdom. Only in Christ can people come to know God, and to enter his kingdom. How can people understand that God loves them and wants to save them unless they meet Christ and embrace his redeeming work for their souls! Any teaching that isn’t centered in Christ and gives all the credit to him and to his work is a hypocrisy! And any teacher who doesn’t lead people to put their faith only on Christ is also a hypocrite.


Look at verses 16-22. Amazingly the Lord reveals the love for the material things and the greed of these hypocrites. The Bible doesn’t discourage anyone from making vows to God, even material vows. But for a vow to be meaningful and worthwhile, it must involve one’s heart— that is a commitment of one’s heart and life to God— and not just empty words that mean nothing, even if the person who is making a vow offers something material to God. When the apostle Peter made a confession of faith saying: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt.16:16), it was a real commitment of his heart and life to Christ and to his teachings. In other words, he was vowing his heart and life to the Lord, and leaving behind his attachment to the world. On the other hand, these blind guides didn’t help people make such commitments to God. Why? Because a commitment of heart and life wouldn’t be profitable enough to them! So they made the people vow money (silver and gold) to the temple treasury because money is always more profitable. These people weren’t shepherds at all— just wolves in shepherd’s clothing.


Look at verses 23-24. Jesus shows all of us how easy it is for someone to follow the letter of the law but miss the heart of the law. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cumin. 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.”  It’s so easy to fall into this trap of ritual and ceremony and to completely miss what God really wants from us. And many do that. That is why sometimes Christian fellowships who begin well, end up no more than organizational churches that do a weekly routine and then go home to live their other lives in the world! At times ritual and ceremony are necessary to bind people together. But they should not be at the cost of what these rituals actually mean. God gives us his word to follow. But his word also has a deep meaning that goes beyond steps and actions. There are many duties that Christians need to attend to far more important than simply following a routine and feeling that they have fulfilled their duty to God. There is justice and mercy; there is also faithfulness. The Bible is full of words that reveal what’s in the heart of God, and what he wants from us his children. He doesn’t want cold service nor cold worship. Far more than anything else, the Lord wants us to love him above all else and to serve him from our hearts. And he certainly wants us to love one another as we love ourselves. These people didn’t. Instead they strained a gnat when it came to ritual and ceremony. But they swallowed a camel and choked on it. What that means is that they missed the mark by a mile when it came to hearing what God was really saying.


If you look at verses 25-28, you will see how Jesus saw them— what they were really like. “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (25) They were “Like white washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” (27) You look righteous, Jesus said, but on the inside you are wicked and hypocritical. (28) They were the religious leaders of the time, chosen to serve God and his people. They were equipped in every way to help people love God, see God and give their hearts to God. But it was all a show on the outside. They never really cared about God nor his people. They only cared to help themselves get richer and more comfortable. They were like merciless business men, whose only concern is to grow richer, and they had no concern with people’s lives and souls! They looked good and holy on the outside. But their insides were rotten to the core. We must never ever sink so low as to care more about our own welfare than about people’s souls and lives! In a world like this, it’s easy to stop caring; and to care only for our own interests. But it should never be for those who are of Christ. We must always check our hearts to see who and what’s more important to us, Christ and his work, Christ and his kingdom, or this world and all it offers.


Look at verses 29-36. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.” (29) Jesus is berating them for the sin of pride and the sin of self-righteousness. What were the basic duties of a prophet in the Old Testament? God commissioned them with many duties. But their foremost duty was to deliver the word of God to his people so that they might know the will of God for them and for their nation. It’s not at all that different these days! Every time we read the Bible or study it, anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear can see and hear how the whole world has gone astray from God and abandoned him, even though he sacrificed his own Son to redeem the world and bring it back to himself. God never ever gave up on people. But people don’t like to hear that they are sinners whom God calls to repentance and to faith. Actually most people are offended when the will of God is revealed to them. Their pride and sense of self righteousness are offended. After killing the prophets, these people often built shrines to honor the dead prophets. They did so to relieve themselves of the guilt of silencing them when they spoke out the truth of God. It hasn’t changed much today. So many people are offended when the word of God is preached to them. Yet they still go to church and on occasion they also build bigger and more beautiful churches. Maybe it’s a way to relieve themselves of the guilt of not paying much attention to the word of God which often challenges them to turn their hearts to God. It’s hypocrisy! But decorating tombs and leaving flowers and lighting candles and building beautiful churches or performing rituals will not help a person who clings to their pride and self righteousness.


When Jesus said in verse 32 “Fill up, then, the measure of the sin or your forefathers” he was referring to his own death at their hands. They would soon do to him as they have done to all the servants of God who had preceded him. So, he tells them in verse 33. “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” Of course, they would not escape God’s judgment. Who can! The only way to escape is to humble themselves, repent of their pride and self righteousness, and receive new life from Jesus who died to save us all from God’s coming wrath.


Look at verse 37b. “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Jesus was broken hearted over them because even though God had given them every chance to return to him, they wouldn’t. And this has been the story of all people actually. God loves us more than we can ever imagine. But how often and how many reject that love! Sometimes people are begged to listen to God’s word calling them back to himself. Often people are begged to attend church so that they might find comfort in God and in his word. We must never reject the love of God given to us so freely through his Son Jesus who gave his life for our salvation and the salvation of all who believe. More than that, we shouldn’t reject his word which has the power to restore to us meaning and purpose, and faith and mission as well. It’s impossible to find these things in a lost world. They are found in Christ and in his word alone.


Jesus’ stern rebuke to these religious people should not escape our concern. God calls all people to accept his love through the gospel which he has given to all in his great love, and to turn their hearts to Christ in faith. He calls us not to hold on to pride and self righteousness, but to look deep into our hearts and realize the need for cleansing and renewal. And for those who are in Christ, he calls to humble service. He calls us to honor and obey him by bringing his gospel of life to all people on earth. That’s the simple truth. Look what he says in verse 39. “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” He is talking about his second coming which is sure to come in God’s time. On that day, the only thing that will count is our faith in him. Everything else will seem as nothing. May God give us all the grace to live not like the religious leaders who lived and served only themselves, and will be held accountable for all that they said and did, but to live lives that please God, to live for Christ and his kingdom. Amen.


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