Theme: Be Real
This week’s lesson explains Christ’s judgments on the Pharisees and how they apply to us today.
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.
Matthew Henry, the author of that magnificent six volume Commentary on the Whole Bible, says about some hypocritical preachers: “When in the pulpit, [they] preach…so well that it is a pity they should ever come out; but, when out of the pulpit, [they] live…so ill that it is a pity they should ever come in”1 This is what Jesus seems to be saying at the start of this chapter, though his words grow more negative as his exposure of the Pharisees proceeds. These men taught the Scriptures, and in that they were right. Their teachings, when accurate, ought to be obeyed. But their practices belied their teaching, and they must not be imitated.
What was wrong with the Pharisees? We must remember that they were the most highly regarded figures of their day. They believed the Scriptures and had made it their duty to obey them in even the smallest particulars. Their very name meant “separated,” meaning that they were trying to be separated from all contaminations of sin. They were not flagrant sexual offenders or outright thieves or murderers. When the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable said he was neither a robber, nor an evildoer, nor an adulterer and that he fasted twice a week and gave a tithe of all he acquired, he was probably being quite honest. This was the way these men actually lived.
What was wrong with them then? The answer given in verses 4-7 is that their character was the exact opposite of that required of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom (Matthew 18:1-35), which only meant that in spite of their religious professions and stringent legal practices they did not actually know God and had not been changed inwardly by him. They should have been humble, compassionate, loving and forgiving, as Jesus was. But they were actually: 1) hypocritical (“they do not practice what they preach,” v.3); 2) indifferent (“they tie up heavy loads and put them on mens shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” v.4); and 3) proud (“everything they do is for men to see,” v.5).
These men wanted to be teachers. This is what “Moses’ seat” refers to. There was actually a stone seat at the front of most synagogues, and rabbis sat down to teach. Jesus had done this himself when he preached his first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:20). We preserve the idea when we speak of a professorial “chair” at a university. But they had been using their position to garner praise for themselves while making it impossible for the people they taught actually to learn the Bible’s truths and come to God, and Jesus strongly condemned them for those sins.
Jesus’ teaching was a reversal of the Pharisees’ desires for themselves (vv. 12). They wanted to be thought important and to be praised for their religious achievements by the people. But Jesus said that his disciples were to be self-effacing and humble, even to the point of declining titles like “rabbi” “father” and “teacher,” and to be servants to other people instead. Jesus did not mean that there were never to be any teachers in the church, for “pastors and teachers” were some of the gifts to be given to the church by the risen Lord (Ephesians 4:11). He meant that his followers were not to seek such positions in order to be praised by men.
Verse 11 is a reiteration of Jesus’ teaching about the character of those who would follow him, already considered in our study of Chapter 18: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (v.11). This seems to have been Jesus’ favorite text, since he taught it in various forms and on numerous occasions.
1 Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 5, Matthew to John (New York, London and Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell, n.), p. 329.
Why were the Pharisees considered good, reputable people in the eyes of the world?
How was Jesus’ image among the people frustrating to the Pharisees?
How do you fall short of practicing what you preach? How can you be more consistent?
Pray for the preachers and teachers of theology whom you know, that they will preach accurately and live consistent lives.
Read 1 Timothy 3. What are the qualifications of overseers and deacons. How do the Pharisees compare?