Obey but Never Emulate Biblical Hypocrites
The Character, Conduct, and Content of Christ
In Matthew 23, perhaps clearer than in any other instance, Jesus begins to contrast his leadership and teaching against the leadership of Israel. It's like, "I've walked on water; I've cast a devil out of a man; I raised a girl from the dead; I've healed many; I fed thousands with a handful of bread; and I just showed myself (in chapters 21 and 22) to be a far greater teacher and expositor of God's Word than the best and brightest of Israel. So, listen to me and nobody else!"
Jesus is the greatest teacher who ever lived. There are at least three lines of reasoning behind that statement: (1) His character is irreproachable; (2) His conduct is exceptional; (3) His content is supreme. For these reasons, he is a greater teacher than any other teacher; and therefore, when he says, “I’m King, and all authority on earth and in heaven is mine,” I’m inclined to believe him the same as when my history professor says, “George Washington was the first president of the United States.” It bears not only that level of confidence but eternally more.
There’s weight to this line of reasoning. And I say so knowing full well that forces contemporary with Jesus said otherwise, and most of the world today says otherwise.
That his character is irreproachable, some contested, for by Jesus’ profession, “19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:19).
To the sanctimonious elitists who reproached the character of Christ for having drank wine and enjoyed good food, however, Jesus revealed their prejudice. For the very same standard they weighed against John the Baptist(Matthew 11), who neither drank wine nor ate good food. To him, they said, “He has a demon!” That somebody’s character is reproached does not mean their character is actually reproachable.
In fact, secularists today reproach Christians for drawing moral lines in the sand, on the basis that such is “hostile;” however, they dismiss that our leader was friends with sinners, and, moreover, sinners wanted to be his friend. They came to him willingly. The character of Christ was one of great friendliness and warmth toward those he saw as flawed. The notion that Christianity is reproachable because it is hostile is simply not true. Part of the irreproachability of Christ’s character is that while he drank wine, he was never drunk; and while he ate with sinners, he never sinned; and while he disapproved of their livelihood, he showed them great warmth and affection—never hostility. He can’t actually be reproached as a glutton and a drunkard, for he was neither of those things. Neither can anyone say his friendship with sinners was somehow a reproach on his character, for despite their flaws he never was corrupted.
Next, his conduct is exceptional. In other words, he conducted himself persistently in a way that no other human being ever has. He spent all of his days as a sheep among wolves. When he was struck, he did not strike back. He gave himself as a servant to all. He washed feet. He healed diseases. He fed hungry people. He followed tax laws. He lived in perfect purity, sexually, morally, mentally. He asked God to forgive the very people who nailed him to a tree. His conduct is the one great exception to any other human being in history.
During his arrest, Jesus said, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me” (Matthew 26:55). Pilate said to Jesus’ accusers, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). They persisted, so Pilate re-examined him, after which he said, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him” (23:14-15). Still, they persisted in requesting his execution, to which Pilate said, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death” (23:21). And yet, for death they cried! And for death they prevailed.
If no other witness is afforded, let it at least be conceded that one with exceptional conduct may very well be pegged as deserving death. Jesus conducted himself exceptionally—so says Pilate, a high-ranking pagan governor from Rome; so says Herod, a secular king with little religious scruples about him; so says a thief murdered next to him; so says his closest friends and allies. So says his once great enemy, Paul.
Last—and particularly to the point of today’s message—Jesus was the greatest teacher not the least because of the supreme content in his message. Two soldiers commissioned to arrest Jesus disobeyed their orders because, “No one ever spoke like this man.” (John 7:46). After his sermon on the mount, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (Matthew 7:28). Matthew 22:10—When the Pharisees and scribes heard his response, “they marveled.” Matth ew 22:33—“when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.” Matthew 22:46—“And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
Everywhere he taught, Jesus left a silencing trail of astonishment, perplexity, and marveling without chance of rebuttal. He was and is the greatest teacher who ever lived.
With that assertion, let’s launch into the chosen text for the morning—Matthew 23:1-12.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
“You are not to be called Rabbi,” said Jesus, “for you have one teacher…Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”
The master teacher, who five times silenced Israel’s leaders (see chapters 21-22) by his responses and one time silenced them by a question they could not answer, here instructs us as our rabbi with five commands. We will only plumb the depths of two of these today.
Do What Biblical Hypocrites Tell You to Do
“The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do…”
Now my hesitation with this command is twofold: First, Jesus earlier said, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And when the disciples thought he was talking about food, he said, “How is it that you fail to understanding that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6, 11-12).
So, watch out and be very cautious about the Pharisees’ teaching; then, “do whatever they say to you.” How does that jive? That’s my first hesitation.
Second, Jesus earlier made clear that we may know a false prophesy by virtue of the prophet’s fruit. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits…the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:15ff). The indication is, if the Pharisees have bad fruit, then their teaching is diseased.
So, how do we jive those earlier statements with this command? Very simply. Pay special attention to the context in which he commands we listen to hypocrites: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.” This is why I said, listen to Biblical hypocrites. To the degree that something is Biblical, obey it—no matter who said it; because God said it first. Jesus means, obey truth—no matter the spokesman. Jesus means, when Solomon tells his boy, “Don’t go near the door of the harlot,” listen to him—even though he has 600 wives and 300 women in a harem at his sexual disposal. Taking sexual advice from a man of such proclivities may some unwise. But it isn’t, for the statements are true whether or not Solomon practiced them.
These thoughts leave an implication: Apparently the world will have no excuse before Christ when they say, “But all those Christians were hypocrites! Therefore we saw fit to ignore their message.” He will simply say, “Did you observe my life? My character? My conduct? My content? Don’t you dare say you didn’t follow me because my followers failed.” The words of Augustine ring true—“do not judge a philosophy by its abuse.”
Don’t Do as Biblical Hypocrites Do
The verse again says, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe what they tell you, but not the works they do.” So what are their works?
Two works always accompany Biblical hypocrites: One, they neglect weighty matters; two, they do everything to be seen. Look with me at verse 4: “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 a finger.”
Now when I first read that, I thought it referred to their human traditions, which made the Law far more cumbersome and wearied the nation of Israel so greatly that Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and burdened with care, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Comparatively, his burden was light!
But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was meaning for a couple of reasons. First, Jesus said, “Do what they tell you, because they sit on Moses’ seat; for they preach, but do not practice.” Then immediately he says, “They tie up heavy burdens….but they themselves are not willing to move them” That’s identical to “they preach but do not practice.” So he’s saying, “Obey those heavy burdens.” And second, Jesus says in verse 23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” The word “weightier” (Gr. βαρύς) is the same word used in verse 4 (“heavy” burdens).
So when Jesus says, “Don’t do what Biblical hypocrites are doing,” he’s saying, “Don’t neglect justice and mercy and faithfulness like those men are.” That’s the first work that always accompanies Biblical hypocrites.
The second work which accompanies Biblical hypocrites is they do everything to be seen. Verse 5 says, “They do all their deeds to be seen.” Another way of stating the problem is to say, their whole religion is external. There’s no private prayer happening at home. There’s no Biblical meditation in bed. There’s no desperate search for God and his mercy. There’s no private charity. If a homeless man sits in the midst of a crowd, they’ll drop a coin; but if he’s alone on a deserted road, they’ll pass on the opposite side with disgust. They don’t do good things behind closed doors.
Jesus gives four indications of what this looks like: First is their crafted clothing; second is their pursuit of prominent positions; third is their greedy greetings; fourth is their lust for leadership.
Crafted clothing: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
This was the three-piece suit of ancient days. It was also the stripped down v-neck t-shirt, skinny jeans, and trendy glasses of ancient days.
Among youthful, emergent churches there is a clear aversion to fine dress; perhaps because for decades piety and fine clothing were bound together in the misused Biblical concept “bring God your best.” But as I thought about it more, I realized that there can be the same kind of outward piety in a person who purposely dresses down to make a statement. Fancy suits can be for outward praise, and trendy jeans can too. The question is, where is your heart? Do you dress as you do to receive commendation from some group of people?
Pursuit of prominent positions: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For…they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues.”
There is great danger in the lust for places of honor among men. What’s the danger? Men go everywhere. So, if the place of honor among men is your craving, then you’ll be a pious promoter of the ten commandments if the majority of men are in synagogues. But what if the majority of men are at a celebratory banquet for Planned Parenthood’s 56th anniversary? You’ll want to be in the place of honor there, too. Which means much darkness transpired to get you in that seat.
Now, even if one is honored for presumably good conduct, if they pursued that seat “to be seen by others,” the honor is stripped. They have received their reward.
In John 12, Jesus performed many signs for which “many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.”
Greedy greetings: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For…they love…greetings in the marketplace.”
What’s the real sin here? A love for popularity. Because out and about, people know you. And not only do they know you, they greet you—and they do so publicly. Which means you’re known and approved of men. Don’t love being known and approved of men.
In school, I was not popular; though I remember as if it were yesterday watching those who were popular or those who loved popularity and pursued after it. Here’s what I remember: Those who pursued after popularity were constantly tied down by a desire to please everybody. And sometimes that conflict came to a head.
In the 7th grade, I was at a movie with my then best friend, Eric. Eric was popular. I wasn’t. So after we walked out of the theater, we saw some of his friends, and one said, “Oh my God. I thought you said you weren’t going to hang out with him [me] anymore.”
It struck me and embarrassed my friend, who couldn’t think of a thing to say. When Peter loved popularity, he drew himself back from the Gentile Christians he formerly loved and dined with. A love for popularity can do some ugly things.
Lust for Leadership: “they love…being called rabbi.”
What does it mean to be called “rabbi” in 2018? Doctor. Professor. Expert. Teacher. Preacher. Pastor. Educator. Scholar. PhD. Counselor. Jesus said, “Don’t do what they do!” So, don’t love being called “expert.” Be an expert! But don’t love being called an expert.
Do you know what happens when experts love being called “expert?” Their expertise exalts self and condescends others. The idea here is, don’t love the title; love the job for which you were given the title.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” If you have expert knowledge in a field, don’t use it to exalt your name. Use it to get under people and lift them up.
Jesus is the greatest teacher who ever lived. So heed his wisdom even from the most foolish sources. Heed his weightiest demands to be just, merciful, and faithful. Heed his warning against mere outward religiosity.
If my preaching is representative of Christ, heed it—even though I greatly fall short of the message.
Let the word of Christ silence you, as it silenced Jesus’ enemies and followers alike.
Next week we will continue with three more instructions from the greatest teacher the world has ever known.