Matthew 23:1-12 Part 3


The remnant lost sheep of the house of Israel, represented by the large crowds following Jesus, and the twelve disciples, have been commanded by Jesus to perform what those who sit in Moses’ seat say.  But the Pharisees have long perverted the Law of God for their own benefit.  They are hypocrites who have freed themselves from the Law in order to follow their own lusts.  So Messiah’s people are not to do what they do.

And according to Jesus in verse four, in effect, the Pharisees have done precisely the opposite of what they were supposed to do as leaders of God’s people.  Rather than directing the people toward freedom from the binding curse of God’s Law, they heaped up loads of additional, perverted law on their shoulders!

All men are born under the sentence of death.  And God’s Law potentiates their sin and makes it exceedingly sinful.  And those who sit in Moses’ seat were to point them toward Messiah, Who would pay the ransom for man’s penalty.  But, instead, the Pharisees (for centuries) continued to heap additional curse – perverted curse – upon them!

Israel’s leaders continued to free themselves from the Law whenever it suited them, but they held the people under strict observance to their ever-more-expanded and increasingly perverted law!

Now, this very thing has been happening to God’s people from the beginning; and it still is!  To summarize it quickly from the standpoint of today’s Church is rather difficult, but we should be able to recognize this as the central problem in the essence of the American Church – the heavy load of requirements laid on the shoulders of men!

The Scriptures, both front and back, view the work of God’s Messiah as a sacrifice of legal satisfaction.  Humanity, dead and under the curse of God and His Law-word, is in bondage.  He is under the curse of God, under a sentence of death, and in bondage to his own will!  But Jesus came to pay the penalty and satisfy the legal requirements!

But men will not believe that; and they’ve not heard it from the pulpits of the Churches!  What we hear today, instead, is that man is not free until good and evil, life and death, heaven and hell, and all moral decisions are placed in his power as a free agent!  So what pulpiteers are doing, essentially, is piling a burden on the shoulders of men which is impossible for them to bear!  That is the central problem!  There is no freedom from sin!

What they’re saying is just the opposite of what God said!  Rather than preaching the Words of freedom, they’re preaching bondage – for man has no power to free himself from God’s death sentence!  The charge that’s made against today’s Church is sometimes called “easy believism”; but that’s not it!  The real charge, the terrible charge, has to be “impossible believism” – for the Churches are requiring men and women and children, cursed and under a sentence of death, to deal with it themselves! As Jesus says here, they’re piling up grievous and tormenting burdens on the shoulders of their people!  It’s false Gospel!  The Good News they’re preaching is false!  And that’s what Jesus says to His people concerning the Pharisees in verse four.  They’re binding heavy loads on the shoulders of men.  Sitting in the seat of Moses, they have the power to direct God’s people toward freedom in the coming Messiah.  But they will not lift their finger to remove the heavy load which they, themselves, have heaped up on the shoulders of men.  It is bondage of requirements they cannot bear!

So the Pharisees, for centuries, had done exactly the opposite of what they were to do – continuing to heap curse rather than freedom and salvation.  Much like the slavemasters in Egypt during Israel’s four hundred years of captivity, these Pharisees piled burden after burden, impossible burden, on their backs; and there was a national “sigh” under the weight of it all.

“Do what they say, but don’t do what they do,” says Jesus, because everything they do is for the purpose of being seen.  The word Jesus uses here is to look upon with awe and love and admiration – to be seen!  So they, themselves, are the objects of their own attention as they crave to be “wonderful” in the eyes of men!

The Commandment of God through Moses was to bind God’s Law in the forefront of their minds; to continue to keep God’s Words first on their national and personal agendas – to remind them of their calling to walk in faithful fulfilling of God’s Commandments.

But God’s “imagery” (phylacteries) concerning His Law was used by the Pharisees to further their own self-image.  They made boxes containing the words of the Law, and they bound them to their foreheads.  And the bigger the box, the better the image of the holy man!  The Law foreshadowed the Christ!  But the Pharisee’s box signified the holy man!

And Numbers chapter fifteen, at verse thirty-seven, contains the words of God concerning the fringes and tassels of the robes – or the outer garments.  This was another reminder from God that Israel was to remain faithful in covenant obedience.  But the Pharisees lengthened the tassels on the corners to remind the people of Israel that they were the holiest of the holy people.  The tassels, over the centuries, had even come to be thought of as having magical powers of healing!

We even have an example of that in Scripture, don’t we?  Remember the woman who came up behind Jesus in the crowds and touched the “fringe” of His robe?  She had made the connection between God’s Messiah and Moses’ Commandment for the tassels in Numbers chapter fifteen!  And the Pharisees, by expanding the size of their tassels and fringes, did nothing but build an impression of holiness and healing power for the sake of their own self-image!

Now, even though the Scriptures say that God “sees” in secret, most everything fallen man does, he does with a view toward being “seen” openly by other people!

There is a recent study that just came out which was for the purpose of studying the human “animal” in its early development.  The study (certainly done with evolutionary presuppositions) wasn’t done with a view toward our purposes here, but it does serve to make a point here.  It looked scientifically at the behavior of children from twelve months to eighteen months, and it concluded that, even before acquiring the ability to speak, children will copy and emulate other admired children in order that they might be seen like them!

Now, that’s not the innocent explorations of a tender shoot, but an example of the advanced depravity of man under the legal sentence of death!  Children are born self-concerned.  All they want is to be seen.  And that’s just like the rank hypocrisy of the Pharisees!  The only difference is the level of sophistication – the Pharisees had seven hundred and fifty years of practice in the seat of Moses!  Now, suffice it to say that the goal for mature Christians is to emulate Christ – not for personal self-image and praise, but for His glory!

But, let’s go on to verse six.  Jesus says that the Pharisees love the first place at table in the banquets….  This was the evening meal which, by invitation of guests, became a banquet.  And each table setting had a head place.  When Pharisees were present they loved to be seated in that most prominent place.

The same was true in the synagogues on the Sabbath.  When a Pharisee went to synagogue he anticipated being seated in the front and asked to speak.  They loved the “places” of honor!

The same is true, verse seven, of the “titles” of honor, isn’t it?  Wherever they went, such as in the market places, they loved to receive salutations from the people – to be recognized and deferred to!  “Rabbi”, or “Raboni” was teacher or leader.  It was a title of great honor.

The Scribes and priests and Pharisees went into places where there were lots of people in order that they might be seen and respected and deferred to.  And they wore their “boxes” and long tassels and expanded fringes!  They even prayed out loud on the busiest street corners!  They wanted people to look at them and call them “rabbi”.  They sought after the looks of admiration and the people who would go out of their way to greet them – and then move out of their way to let them pass.  And they soaked up the favor and devotion.

There was no such thing as “pastor” or “brother” or “co-worker” in the Kingdom such as Christ has established in His Church.  One – or a few – had to be “great”!  One – or a few – had to be called “rabbi” or “raboni” – teacher, leader, or “master”.

Some had even attained the most prominent and revered title of “father”.  The word implies that religion derives from them even as children derive from their fleshly fathers!  And their word was considered “absolute”.

But Jesus says to the crowds, verses eight through ten: 


“But you should not be called ‘rabbi’, for One is your teacher and you all are brothers.  And you may not name to you a father on the earth, for One is your father – the Heavenly One.  Neither should you be called ‘leaders’ (Masters), that your leader be One – the Christ.”


The Church is a unity of reborn men and women and their children.  And none are to usurp authority beyond the boundaries directed by Christ!  The Church ought to be “many” – giving aid and assistance and encouragement and teaching and exhortation for the benefit of the others.  Every one of us needs all the others, because every believer is, in many ways, incomplete without the others!  That’s because we are sinners, and we deceive ourselves sometimes.  And we need all the others to look out for us and watch over us and call us back when we do wrong!  And it’s also because nobody has been given every gift of God!  Every one of us needs all the gifts of God to the Church.  And unity in the body of Christ is the way all of us receive all those benefits!

So no man is to be the “father” of our religion, or our spiritual “leader-master”.  God is our Father; and Christ is our Master.  He is our “Rabboni”.

Brothers and sisters in Christ are to subordinate themselves to each other.  There is an equality (of such) in the body of Christ (with Him as our Master).  The Scriptures speak in terms of Jesus being the “Firstborn” among many brothers.  So even the “elder” ones and the “wiser” ones in the Church are not to be autonomous leaders!  Even if they’re older, they can’t claim to be “Firstborn”!  In Christ we have our “leader” Who has dominion and Who is infallible; whereas each of us are recipients of His grace and salvation.  As recipients we can’t claim anything of our own.

So all autocracy is abolished in the Church; this is a “Christocracy”!  And the desire to be seen as “superior” or “elevated above others” is a usurpation of Christ’s dominion.  And it is hypocritical self-seeking and self-assertion.

The word here that Jesus uses for “leader” is one who assumes full responsibility and command, and who is obeyed unquestionably.  But no man can rightfully claim a leadership of this kind in Christ’s Church.  In the sense that Jesus uses it here, there is no such thing as a “leader” (master) among men.  That’s in conflict with our One Leader, the Christ.  He must be obeyed, and His leadership must be unquestioned and unquestionable.

Now, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t call men to “lead”.  He gives men gifts and authority in Churches and families and in civil entities, doesn’t He?  But the gifts and the authority are given to them to be used for His glory.  There is no original authority – there are no original gifts – by which men may claim superiority.  It’s all given to them by God.  So their leadership must redound to His honor and to His Kingdom.

Aliens and rebels and traitors and false teachers and false prophets are people who will not obey, and who lead people away from our One Leader!  They shun God’s authority and assert their own.  They “feign” to have some original authority, but they reveal themselves to be what they are when they become self-willed and self-seeking, and when they ridicule and rail against the authority given to others.

Now, the election of pastors and elders and deacons and teachers in the Church is a recognition of the gifts that God has given them.  It is not a value judgment, though, of the “worth” of the individual!  No person is worthy, in himself, to become an officer of the Church.  Every reborn babe in Christ is a priest in the Church!  This is the holy city, the temple of God, the Body of Christ.  And every one of us has a right of private judgment in submission to the Word of God.

As I said, we’re brothers and sisters in Christ – none to be an unquestioned and unquestionable leader.  There’s only One of those.  And since Christ is our Leader – Master – Rabbi, no man has absolute authority over us.

But, at the same time, no brother in Christ has any right whatever to judge the Truth!  None of us have a right to contend with the Word or our Leader-Master.  So our right of “private judgment” is limited too, isn’t it?  It’s not absolute either.  That’s why Paul says that elders who teach well are to be obeyed and are to receive double honor.

But elders and ministers may not overstep their boundaries, as some are prone to do.  (One of my biggest “bones of contention” is with authoritarian ministers and elders.)  And neither can any other brother.  But the boundaries exist.  And a Christian brother (which is what a minister or elder is) may not cross over them.  We are to teach and to help and to encourage and to call attention to sin and to press the Word of God and its obedience and to shore up the faith of the faithful and to judge the sin of the unfaithful and to scream a warning of entrapment and compromise; but a brother can’t become the “master” of another brother!  He cannot command obedience to himself; he can’t make himself superior; he can’t demand obeisance.  The apostle Paul said, “Don’t worship us, worship God!”

There is nothing magisterial about a brother in ecclesiastical office (no matter what Rome says).  And no one should allow himself to be placed in distinction from all the rest.  As Jesus says here, we are all brothers; and we’re all priests!  And none is a more superior priest than another.  That’s what is called sacerdotalism – the elevation of one man – or a few men – above the rest of Christ’s reborn babes.

But Jesus says to the crowds that they may not do that.  No Rabbi; no leader-master; no father.  That’s a daring usurpation of supremacy and infallibility and honor belonging only to Christ the Lord, and which He will not give to any other!

Then, in verses eleven and twelve, Jesus says,


“But the greater of you shall be your servant.  And whoever shall elevate himself will be abased; and whoever will humble himself shall be lifted up.”


Some will, indeed, have more knowledge, faith, gifts or abilities than others.  And some will have the authority of office.  That’s what Jesus means when He says “the greater of you….”  The greater are those who are given to be better equipped in certain areas.  Equality among men, you see, is not taught here by Jesus.  That’s false, disorderly, and unchristian.

But the one who is given more is to be the servant!  The word is diaconas.  Rather than “deacon” (which is the “office”) it is better translated “ministrant” – one who is eager to render service.  With relation to Christ our Master-Leader, we are “douloi” – slaves.  But in relation to our brothers in the Lord, we are “diaconas” – servants, ministrants.

The slave renders unquestioning obedience to his Master in order to bring honor and glory to Him; and the ministrant is great – only with reference to the service he renders to his brothers!  So the “household” of Christ ministers to each other for the glory of the Master (not simply for the benefit of the brother).

And lastly, Jesus goes to the third person singular pronoun to state the principle. (verse twelve)  Self-exaltation – the one who elevates himself – self-exaltation is the mortal offense in the Church.  It produces popes and autocrats and aristocrats and bureaucracies and little mafias and contentious, self-seeking individuals – both men and women.  Egocentric people have their eyes on them-selves rather than on Christ and the brothers.

And they’re pretty easy to spot!  It’s my problems; it’s my sensitivities; it’s my feelings, my life, my position, my job, my family.  I did; I feel; I think; I’m offended!  It’s manipulation, criticism of others, reduction of the brothers and exaltation of self; leaders and officials and magistrates are objects of critical disdain; self-concern and personal complaining; a fighting spirit; use of personal situations and disabilities to gain advantage.  And, (maybe most of all) a misapprehension of the Truth, substituting personal opinion in its place (there’s nothing more Pharisaical than that!).  And denigration of God’s ordained earthy authorities.

These are all products of the flesh, and they’re all Pharisaical!  Self-elevation shall be abased, Jesus said.  And implied there is the fact that the One Who has the dominion is the One Who will do the abasing – Jesus Christ Himself.

But the one who humiliates himself (third person singular explicit pronoun – himself) will be lifted up (there’s the passive voice).  The explicit pronoun is there to emphasize the “self” – the person.  The man of sin.  There must be, in every newborn babe in Christ, a humiliation, or mortification, of the self in order to serve the Master and minister to the brothers… all of whom are siblings, not masters!

And that humiliation is in relation to our Father in the Heavens and to our Master/Leader/Rabbi – the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Head of the Church and the Firstborn of a new humanity in which there are many brethren.  It was He Who was first lifted up in humiliation – and all of us who are brothers were lifted up in Him, and humiliated in Him!

Next Lord’s Day this very unity of the body will be openly and candidly portrayed in the receiving of the Lord’s Table.  And this very same humiliation of the self is the requirement that our Lord Commands in order to be “great” in His Kingdom.  To be “great” is to be His slave; and to be “great” is to be a “ministrant” to the others.