Theme: Be Real
This week’s lesson explains Christ’s judgments on the Pharisees and how they apply to us today.
Matthew 23:1-12, 37-39
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted…
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
If anyone ever finds himself thinking that in matters of religion all views are relative and any sincere faith and practice will do, that person needs to read Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees’ religion preserved in Matthew 23. People have compared religion to a mountain with heaven on top and with many roads that lead up to it. Or they have thought like Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who said that in the days of the empire the various modes of worship which “prevailed were considered by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful.”1 They have imagined that religion is a private and not a truly important matter.
Jesus did not accept these easy misconceptions. He was aware of our faults and understanding of our failures, but he never suggested for a moment that any faith would get by. On the contrary, he taught that there is but one way to God, namely, himself (John 14:6) and that any teaching that masks that way or keeps men and women from it is damnable.
Matthew 23, the chapter we come to now, is the fifth of six collections of Jesus’ teachings in this gospel. The others are: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-29); the Commissioning of the Twelve (Matthew 10:5-42); the Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:152); teaching about the character of those who will be part of the kingdom (Matthew 18:1-35); and the Sermon on the Mount of Olives that follows chapter 23 (Matthew 24:1-25:46).
Matthew 23 is probably a collection of things Jesus said not only at this time but on other occasions too. It has a parallel in Luke 11:37-53, for instance, from an earlier point in the ministry. This collection runs into the longer and last discourse in chapters 24 and 25, but it is rightly distinct. It is radically different in its theme, and it is addressed to a different audience, to the crowds and teachers of the law rather than to the disciples exclusively. Moreover, it is a powerful climax to the section of the gospel that I have called “the king’s final break with Judaism.” Jesus had spoken against the religion of the Pharisees earlier (Matthew 15:7). He had warned his disciples about their harmful teachings (Matthew 16:5-12). But now his exposure and warnings become public.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law had rejected him. They were even then plotting to have him killed. Now he rejects them and warns those he is about to leave behind of the Pharisees’ deadly influence.
1 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Norwalk, Conn: Easton Press, 1974), vol. 1, p. 22.
To whom is the discourse in Matthew 24 addressed?
What was “deadly” about the Pharisees influence?
What do you think is our society’s view on religion and Christianity?
Jesus taught that there is but one way to God, namely, himself (John 14:6).