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Sermon Message


"Lessons in What NOT To Do"

Matthew 23:1-12
Theme: The example of the scribes and Pharisees teaches us the 'hypocrisy' pitfalls to avoid in our Christian walk.

(Delivered Sunday, June 29, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

Our Lord reserved His most stinging rebukes in the Bible for the hypocritical religious elites of the day. And chapter twenty-three of Matthew's Gospel—constituting the last words our Lord spoke in the temple in, just before He went to the cross—contains the most stinging rebukes of all.

I've often wondered if people whose only conception of Jesus is as 'the gentle Teacher from Nazareth' have ever read this portion of Scripture! I'm sure they'd be in a shock if they did!

* * * * * * * * * *

This chapter can be divided into three parts. In verses 1-12, Jesus speaks to His disciples within the ear-shot of the gathered multitudes, and warns them not to follow the hypocritical practices of the scribes and Pharisees. Then, in verses 13-36, we read of the "woes" He speaks directly upon the scribes and Pharisees themselves. And finally, in verses 37-39, we read of our Savior's mournful words of lament over the doom of Jerusalem for its hard-hearted rejection of Him.

So; first comes our Lord's warnings; and then comes His woes; and finally comes His words of weeping. This morning, we look at the warnings to His disciples and to the crowds. Matthew 23:1-12 says;

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.' But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:1-12).

* * * * * * * * * *

When I read this passage, I think of a "skill" that only a very few, very wise people learn in life. Most who do so learn it early on at home—particularly if they have brothers or sisters that they can watch. Some children learn it a little later in school—mostly by watching what happens to other kids in the playground, or by keeping an eye on what goes on in the principle's office. Some of us, unfortunately, don't seem to pick up on it until rather late in adulthood. And some, tragically, never learn it at all. But it's a very valuable life skill to learn—whenever it may be that you can finally learn it.

For lack of a better name, I like to refer to it as the fine art of "receiving a spanking on someone else's backside". It's the skill of seeing someone else get rebuked or punished for a wrong they've done, letting yourself feel the pain of the consequences of their actions, and determining that you'll not let yourself go down the road they went down. Everyone who learns early on to "receive a spanking on someone else's backside" saves themselves—many times over—from receiving one on their own!

In this morning's passage, the Son of God is issuing a stinging rebuke upon the hard-hearted, rebellious, hypocritical, unbelieving scribes and Pharisees. In chapter twenty-three, Jesus vividly articulates the doom they face. It is truly chilling! And He begins these stern words by first calling our attention to their error; and urges us not to go down the road they went!

Jesus invites us, in this morning's passage, to receive a spanking on the backside of the scribes and Pharisees. He teaches us, as His followers, what we need to do to avoid the 'hypocrisy' pitfalls that they fell into; and shows us, through their experience, what not to do!

* * * * * * * * * *

The first thing He teaches us can be summed up this way . . .


Jesus began by saying something surprising to the multitudes and to His disciples—especially considering what He is about to say to the scribes and Pharisees in the rest of the chapter; "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do . . ." (vv. 2-3).

A "seat", in the sense that Jesus here speaks of it, is a position of authority that a teacher in Israel would occupy. We talk of this kind of thing even today. We might speak of a learned professor in a college or university; and say that "he 'chairs' the department of such-and-such; and it's a 'seat' he has occupied for so many years." When Jesus said that they "sit" in Moses' "seat", what He meant was that they occupied a recognized position of authority in that society—the position of being the authoritative teachers of the law that God had given the people through Moses.

The scribes and the Pharisees were the the religious leaders and scholars of the day. They had made it their life's vocation to study the law, and to interpret its application to daily life. And insofar as they truly and accurately taught God's law in the fulfillment of this important and necessary social role, the scribes and Pharisees truly sat in Moses' "seat". Their role was to be respected. When they taught faithfully from God's law, Jesus tells His followers to "observe" and "do" as they say.

That's important to notice. Jesus didn't say, "The scribes and Pharisees are a bunch of hypocrites; therefore, ignore everything they tell you. Don't even bother to do what they say!" That would not be in keeping with God's command to us to "respect" and "honor" spiritual authority. After all, even the apostle Paul honored the authority of an ungodly high priest (Acts 23:3-5).

Instead, what our Lord tells His followers is this: ". . . [B]ut do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do." In other words, His followers were to heed the words of the scribes and Pharisees; but not follow their example. Jesus goes on to say, "For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (v. 4).

The scribes and the Pharisees developed 613 additional precepts around the law, and sought to bring the people under the direction of these additional man-made precepts. In doing this, they were trying to build a "fence" around the law, so that no one would ever come anywhere close to violating them. But in the end, all they did was create rules and regulations that were an unbearable load to carry around in life

And it was all for someone else to carry. It was for all those 'sinful people out there' who might disobey the law—but it was not for themselves. They excused themselves from being under such a burden. They wouldn't even lift a finger to move it. And they wouldn't do anything to lighten the load they placed on others.

In short, they preached that others should do what they themselves wouldn't do.

* * * * * * * * * *

Someone once said that there are preachers who preach so piously that it's a shame they ever get out of the pulpit—and then live so badly that it's a shame they ever get back in again!

But that's not restricted to preachers. The very heart of hypocrisy is that we think we can help other people by setting standards for them that we don't feel the need to keep—and that's a pitfall that any one of us can fall into.

Jesus once said,

And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).

So when it comes to avoiding hypocrisy, Jesus here shows us from His rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees one of the things not to do. We must be sure that we preach nothing to others that we aren't prepared to apply equally to ourselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

Well; that's one 'swat' we can receive on their backsides. And here comes another:


Jesus continues to speak of the scribes and Pharisees and says, "But all their works they do to be seen by men . . ." (v. 5). The religious observances they followed, and the rituals they observed, the alms they performed—it wasn't done out of a heart of reverent service to God. Rather, it was all done to catch the eyes of other people.

Jesus gives evidence of this that anyone in the crowds could see—even with the scribes and Pharisees standing in front of them. He says that they made their "phylacteries broad". "Phylacteries" were little boxes, tied to leather straps, that they bound to their arms and hands, or onto their foreheads. Into these boxes, they would place strips onto which were copied portions of Scripture, or written prayers. In doing this, they were seeking to apply literally what it says in Deuteronomy 6:6-9; where God told the Israelites;

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as front lets between your eyes. You shall write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).

Ordinarily, Jewish men would wear these 'phylacteries' during times of public worship. But when worship-time was over, the scribes and Pharisees continued to keep theirs on—walking around with them in public display. And they would even make them "broad" (that is, large and easy to see), in order to show that they were loaded-up with a lot of passages of Scripture and a lot of prayers.

In addition, they also enlarged "the borders of their garments". This refers to the commandment, found in the Old Testament, in which God told the Jewish men to make 'tassels' on the corners of their garments (Num. 15:37-41). These 'tassels'—dangling down from their garments—were to serve as constant reminders to faithfully follow the commandments of God in daily life. Apparently, even the Lord Jesus had these on His garments (Matthew 9:20; 14:36). But the scribes and Pharisees made their tassels ostentatiously long and "enlarged", in order give everyone the impression that they were more devoted to the law than everyone else.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; it's not that we must avoid ever letting our devotion to the Lord be seen. Far from it! Jesus Himself said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

But the difference is in the motivation. We're to let our light so shine that men may glorify the Father—not that men may glorify us! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:1-6).

“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (vv. 16-18).

Doing works of religious devotion to be seen of men sometimes fools men; but it never fools God. Making sure we don't put our piety on parade is yet another way we can avoid the pitfalls of hypocrisy in our walk with Christ.

* * * * * * * * * *

And here's a third way':


Jesus warned that the scribes and Pharisees "love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi'" (vv. 6-7).

The scribes and Pharisees were among the most highly respected members of the community. And that was an aspect of their role that they were really fond of. They were invited to the important feasts; and when they arrived, they found that the best place at the table had their name on it. Or when they went to the synagogue, they found a seat of honor set aside just for them. When they walked down the street, or they went to the marketplace, they were recognized and greeted. People greeted them by calling them "Rabbi", which meant "honored teacher".

In other words, there were social benefits to their sacred role. Their role in society was that of teaching people the law of Moses; but it had the additional "plus" of earning them high regard from the people, and preferential treatment in social gatherings.

And perhaps you can see the hypocritical "pitfall" that eventually led to! It wouldn't be very long before they would be "adjusting" the performance of their sacred role so as to maximize and protect the social benefits it gained for them.

* * * * * * * * * *

A few generations ago in our culture, a pastor was considered a highly respected and sought after member of society—even among unbelieving people. The days, however, when a pastor could expect to be considered a respected member of society by unbelieving people are largely gone. As our culture becomes increasingly secularized, the esteem of ministers has decreased. It is also decreasing for anyone who names the name of Christ.

But whenever I think of this, I try to put it into perspective. Jesus told His disciples,

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me" (John 15:18-21).

Now, may it never be that the world hates you or me because we live in an obnoxious manner! But we need to remember our Lord's warning: if the world hated Him, neither will it esteem His devoted followers. If we find that the profession of our faith in Christ somehow wins us the applause from this unbelieving world, it may be time to ask whether or not something is defective in the content of our profession!

Professing our religion in such a way as to protect our reputation with this world, or to win social benefits that we may derive from it as a result, is a dangerously slippery slope. We will soon be compromising our profession in such a way as to gain the most social approval.

This is hypocrisy! And God protect us from it by helping us not to do as the Pharisees and scribes did—who professed their religion in such a way as to gain social benefits from it!

* * * * * * * * * *

So far, we have received three spankings on the backsides of the scribes and Pharisees—if we will learn from them. And here's a fourth:


By "professionalism", I don't mean "doing things efficiently and effectively". We certainly should be doing that. Rather, what I mean is an attitude esteems people for the professional and ecclesiastical titles they possess rather than for the Christ-like character they display.

What Jesus had said about the scribes and Pharisees who loved to be called "Rabbi, Rabbi", led Him to then go on to say to His followers, "But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’ [that is, 'exalted teacher']; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers [or, more literally, 'leaders' or 'masters']; for One is your Teacher [or 'Leader' or 'Master'], the Christ" (vv. 8-10).

Now; we need to keep what God's word says here in balance with what it says in other places in Scripture. It's clearly not wrong to refer to someone in the church as a "teacher"; because, as the Scriptures say, God gave some to be "teachers" (Ephesians 4:11). Nor is it necessarily wrong to recognize someone as a "father"; because Paul himself told the Corinthians, "For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel" (1 Corinthians 4:15). What's more, the apostle John even referred to some older Christians who were mature in their knowledge of the Lord as "fathers" (1 John 2:13, 14).

Rather, I believe that our Lord is forbidding us from "professionalism"; that is, from esteeming people in the church simply because of the titles men have given them, and not with regard to Christ.

When we esteem someone as a "teacher" simply on the basis of his or her title—without regard to whether or not he walks in faithful accord with the truth, and truly believes in Christ, we're esteeming that person's title over Christ! When we call a man "father" on the basis of his clerical title—without regard to whether or not he truly is an obedient instrument in God's hand by which we are nurtured in the faith and helped us grow in Christ, we're esteeming his "professional" title over our one true God and Father in heaven! And personally, I really can't imagine a time when it would ever be justifiable to call a human being our "teacher" in the sense of being our "leader" or "master" in the faith! What a dishonor that would be to our only Lord and Master Jesus!

* * * * * * * * * *

If we give honor to someone as a "teacher", or as a "father-like" servant of the Lord, let it be because they truly are these things; and because in being them, they point to and glorify Jesus Christ above all else. But to honor religious professionals simply because they possess a "title" like "Reverend So-and-So", or "Father Such-and-Such", or "Doctor Somewhat"—particularly when they live in such a way as to contradict the title that men have given them—is to esteem the professional titles of men over the holy requirements of God.

Titles are not wrong in their contexts; particularly in other areas of life. But in the church, the love of "titles" is a snare. It cultivates an unhealthy fear of man, and obscures our view of the esteem we owe first to our Savior. It causes people to hypocritically seek "form" over "substance" in the Christian life. It causes us to rely on the fleshly influence of a title rather than on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let's be cautious about titles in the body of Christ. If we call each other anything, let's just call one another "brother" or "sister"; and let's never allow a human "title" to take the place that only God Himself should occupy in our lives.

* * * * * * * * * *

And now, here's a final thing we can learn from the scribes and Pharisees . . .


Jesus, speaking to His followers, said, "But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant" (v. 11).

The scribes and Pharisees were not concerned about serving anyone. Though their position in society was given to them as a ministry of service, they used it to make themselves "great" in the eyes of the people. They were seeking to be thought "superior" through their public displays of religious devotion. By their actions, they showed that what they really wanted was that the people of God serve them.

And that made all their professed devotion to God as His "servants" to be mere hypocrisy.

But Jesus, by His own example, made it impossible to make mere outward religious performance a gage of true greatness. He once told His disciples;

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).

No one stooped down as low, in humble service, as our Savior did. "[T]aking the form of a bond servant, and coming in the likeness of men", He "humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:7-8). And no one is exalted higher than He.

That's the path of "greatness" in our Lord's kingdom—humble service in His name. But the danger of mere outward religious performance is that it can delude us into thinking that we have elevated ourselves into "greatness" in God's sight. And Jesus goes on to warn that "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 12).

If we would be truly "great", we would have to take a course of action that is quite a bit different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. As the apostle James exhorts;

Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up (James 4:7-10).

* * * * * * * * * *

No one likes receiving a spanking. How much better to learn from someone else's!

Let's receive a spanking today on the backs of these scribes and Pharisees. Let's heed our Lord's rebuke of them, and learn what pitfalls of hypocrisy we can avoid in our walk with Him.

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