Matthew 23:1-2 – Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,
What is the seat of Moses? In this instance, ‘seat’ is defined as a public office or position of service and trust.
As you recall, God gave the law to the Israelites through Moses. In Exodus 19, God summoned the Israelites together at Mt. Sinai. The mountain was covered with thick black clouds and lightening. Moses ascended the mountain and received the law from God. Then, he came back down the mountain and gave the law to the people.
It was Moses who instructed the people in the correct interpretation and application of the law. This ‘seat’ or responsibility for interpreting/applying the law, was later filled by the scribes and Pharisees. Therefore, Jesus refers to them as occupying Moses’ seat.
Matthew 23:3 – so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
What a scathing rebuke by our Lord! All throughout our study of Matthew’s gospel, we have seen that the religious leaders were very corrupt. They were greedy, covetous, prideful, hypocritical, harsh/demanding, condescending and greatly desirous of power and authority. They had taken their own opinions and traditions and elevated them above the law of God. They ignored the chance to repent under the ministry of John the Baptist, and they did everything in their power to destroy Jesus.
Yet, these are the same people who claim the authority to interpret and apply the laws of God!
The religion that they profess does not match the life they live. So what is a person to do if their religious guide is saying one thing, but doing another?
Jesus addresses this issue by giving the multitude a warning – the disgusting sinfulness of the religious leaders is not to weaken their respect for the sacred scriptures. It is every Christian’s duty to obey all teachings that are consistent with the law and the prophets. However, the people were not to use the lives of the religious leaders as examples to follow. Their gross and unrepentant sin was contemptible.
In other words, the word of God should not be despised because of the wickedness of men. It was this same word that would soon point to salvation through Christ; so the people must continue to have great respect and belief in the scriptures, despite the corruptness of the religious leaders.
If you think about it, the same is true for us today. There will always be preachers who claim to be concerned about the gospel, but they are really only looking for fame and fortune. They are greedy and lustful. Eventually, these people are usually found out and the public will despise and ridicule them. However, none of this changes the truth of the gospel message.
Matthew 23:4 – 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.
Here Jesus is referencing the practice of using animals to carry burdens. Back in that day, people would bind together heavy loads, then place the entire load on the back of a camel or donkey, and drive the animal along the road while supporting the load so it did not fall off the beast. The person who did this never bore any of the hardship or responsibility of bearing the burden/load themselves, and they never gave the animal a break or showed them any mercy.
The religious leaders are treating the Jews in this same manner. They added many, many rules on top of the law such as extra fasting and restrictions involving the Sabbath. They loved to use their authority to bind men up with more and more regulations, until they were under a severe and difficult burden/yoke of bondage that they could not escape. They mercilessly demanded strict adherence to every whim of tradition that they loaded onto the Jews, while finding reasons to excuse themselves from carrying these same burdens.
I think it would be wise if we stopped and asked ourselves a question – How did the religious leaders end up this way? How did they go from inheriting the office of Moses to practicing such an empty religion?
The Biblical Illustrator says that after the rebuilding of the temple in the days of Nehemiah, the Jews had a true heart for God. Obedience to the law was a natural outward expression of the love they had for God.
If you think about it, that is true of us as well. When we have a close, intimate relationship to God, we tend to obey his commands because sin bothers us. This is a natural result of our relationship with him. The closer we are to God, the more sin repulses us.
However, over time subsequent generations of Jews didn’t have that same inward relationship or love for God that their forefathers possessed. They were not of the generation who was rescued from exile and returned to their ancestral home. They didn’t know what it was like to live without a temple. So they participated in honoring the law just as their forefathers, but for them it was more of a ritual to adhere to, as opposed to a natural result of love for God.
Eventually a generation arose in which the love had totally died out, and natural obedience died with it. They were left with nothing but empty rituals and rules to follow. Consequently, the practice of the rituals became like an idol of the heart, replacing their relationship to God.
That may be how the religious leaders of Jesus’ day became so addicted to empty religion – it was all they had. It was such an idol to them, that they were unwilling to give it up for a true relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
What about you? Are you going through the motions of ‘church’ because that is what you were taught by your parents or grandparents? If so, you are in danger of missing a relationship with the God of the universe! I encourage you to find him for yourself and see what he can do in your life!
Matthew 23:5 – They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,
What was the purpose of the law? Was it not to draw men back to God so they could have relationship and fellowship with him?
Yet the scribes and Pharisees are not practicing the law out of love for God or a desire to draw near to him. Their main goal is to win praise and approval from their fellow man by appearing holy and perfect. Hence, they pay precise attention to their phylacteries and fringes.
Remember the phylactery? It was a square shaped leather box bound to the person by a leather band. There were two different types.
The first kind was bound to the inner side of the left arm near the elbow with one end of the string wound around the middle finger. When you bend your elbow, the scripture would rest over your heart. The second type was to be bound in the center of the forehead, between the eyes.
All Phylacteries contain the same four portions of scripture. Do you know what they are?
Answer: Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Exodus 11:10.
There are three places in the Old Testament where this practice is mentioned. They are Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8 and Deuteronomy 11:18. Why don’t you take a minute and quickly read them?
In all three cases, it seems quite clear that God was using this phrase figuratively. He did not really mean for them to place his word on their foreheads, but to make sure that his word was in the forefront of their minds and hearts so they would always obey him.
Thus, they completely distorted the whole teaching into an empty, purely formalistic ritual. They gloried in the size and beauty of their boxes, while completely ignoring the truth of God in their hearts and minds! They delighted in showing piety by wearing the boxes in front of people, rather than glorying in their inward relationship with God.
Similarly, they distorted the purpose of fringes. According to Numbers 15:38-39, the special fringes on the garment were to remind them of God’s law:
Numbers 15:38-39 – Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them tassels in the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the tassel of the corners a thread of blue: And it shall be unto you a tassel, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to follow harlotry:
However, the religious leaders made their fringes broader and longer than normal, and wore them like a badge of holiness. They were meant to convey that the Pharisees were of uncommon piety and wisdom, showing that they had a special respect for the law, which others did not possess. Again, they have grasped the ritual while casting aside the relationship with God that the ritual was supposed to foster. Their pride has gotten the better of them.
Matthew 23:6-7 – and 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.
Feasts: It is customary for us to eat sitting upright, in a chair (even if you are eating in front of the TV!). No so for the Jews. Their preferred arrangement was to eat by reclining at the table. On three sides of their table they placed couches or cushions. People reclined on the cushions on their left side, with their feet extending away from the table (and obviously, head toward the table). In this arrangement, the head of one person naturally reclined on the bosom or chest of the one next to them. To recline on someone in this manner was a sign of intimacy.
The chief seat, or the seat of honor and distinction, was the seat in the middle at the upper end of the table, nearest to the host. The host always sat in the corner with his most prestigious guest at his right hand.
Synagogue: In a typical synagogue arrangement, the entrance door was in the south wall, while the seats faced north. There was a lectern in the center for the reader with the woman’s gallery at the north end. There were aisles along the eastern and western sides. Near the front, there was a place for the ark, or the chest that contained the scrolls of the scriptures. In front of this ark was an array of seats that faced the congregation. These were the chief seats.
These seats were given by the elders of the synagogue to those who were the most conspicuous in their devotion to the law. They were coveted as a mark of approval for one’s religious reputation. For those who were ambitious for power and authority, these seats were a must!
The religious leaders loved sitting in these seats of distinction because they were full of pride. They were supposed to be in the synagogue humbly giving glory and honor to God; instead they sought it for themselves, which was a form of mocking God.
Marketplace: The marketplace generally contained multitudes of people. The religious leaders loved to walk through the market and receive greeting/acknowledgements of respect from the people. These salutations fed their vanity and they greatly coveted them. In addition, they would often pray long prayers in the marketplace for the purpose of being seen by men. They were putting on a pious façade.
Sadly, we conclude that the religious leaders worked/labored and expended enormous amounts of time, effort and resources to promote themselves in front of others. Instead of working for God and storing up treasures in heaven, they were working for earthly treasures that vanished the moment they passed away.
They chose to serve empty rituals rather than having a relationship with the living God!
Matthew 23:8 – but you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Rabbi (or Rab or Rabban) was a title given to eminent teachers of the law. It was a title of honor and dignity, denoting their authority and ability to teach.
The religious leaders loved these titles, because they felt it reflected their superiority over the common people. They felt they were superior not only in knowledge, but in holiness. They sought after, worked for, and coveted these titles. Once obtained, they used their authority to set their own rules and forced their followers to adhere to them.
However, Jesus forbids his disciples to accept such titles. The reason is because Jesus himself was their master and teacher. All of his disciples were ‘brothers’; they were on the same level (no one was superior) and they were all equal in authority.
They were to purposely avoid any kind of title that would create distinctions or hierarchies within the body of Christ. Those with titles tend to become prideful and superior, while those without titles tend to envy and feel a sense of inferiority.
Matthew 23:9-10 – 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.
‘Father’ was yet another title that the Jewish leaders diligently worked to gain. These men arrogantly claimed that their teaching formed the true nature of the men they taught, and thus they ‘gave them life’, and were worthy of the title father. They wanted to have absolute spiritual power over their followers.
The same is true with the title ‘master’ or ‘instructor’. Again, those who used this title were claiming the right to direct and control the actions and spiritual lives of others.
Jesus sets the record straight when he tells the people that the source of all life and truth was God and only God. God is the giver of our life (both spiritual and physical), the sustainer of our lives on a daily basis, and our only hope of eternal life. Therefore, the title ‘Father’ or ‘Master’ does not belong to any religious leader.
Any man who is a true ‘spiritual father’ to someone (as the apostle Paul was to many people) should be pointing them to Christ, not to themselves.
Of course, Jesus was not speaking of when we call our fleshly dad’s ‘father’; it is right and proper to give them this title of respect, authority and love.
Matthew 23:11 – The greatest among you shall be your servant.
The religious leaders desperately wanted to be the greatest men of their time. But because they did not have a true understanding of God and his laws, they tried to obtain greatness the wrong way.
Jesus tells his followers that the person who wishes to be great in his kingdom will serve his fellow man, as opposed to exalting himself through vain titles. We are to be humble and serve each other in love:
Galatians 5:13 – For, brethren, you have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
Matthew 23:12 – Whoever exalts himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
The religious leaders wanted to obtain the highest praise of men, so they did everything in their power to exalt themselves above their fellow man.
Christians, however, want to obtain the highest praise from God. Therefore, we should be willing to become the servant of all. The highest and best example of this was Jesus himself. He is God, yet he humbled himself, took on the likeness of man and submitted himself to death, that we might be saved.
Now he is the glorified head of the church, and all things are under his authority. One day, every knee will bow before him, whether in heaven, on earth and under the earth! Praise his name! He is the example we should be following.
I find it very interesting that we are looking at this portion of scripture just before the Labor Day holiday of 2020.
Labor is defined as ‘physical toil or bodily exertion’, ‘intellectual exertion/mental effort’ or ‘that which requires hard work for its accomplishment; that which demands effort’. It also refers to travail, as in the pangs and efforts of childbirth.
In this nation, the Labor Day holiday was certainly birthed through physical toil, mental effort and even violence. Labor Day recognizes the works and contributions of American laborers to the development and achievements of the United States. The holiday was officially recognized and signed into law on June 28, 1894 by President Grover Cleveland.
Labor is essential to our way of life in the United States. It is also an essential part of our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Look at this passage in the book of John, when Jesus speaks to his disciples at the well in Samaria:
John 4:35-38 – …Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.
Sowing and reaping are examples of labor. The apostle Paul tells us that watering is also labor:
1 Corinthians 3:69 – I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.
According to the passage in John, the eternal souls of people are like crops. Someone must plant the word in their hearts. That word must be watered by kindness, love, patience and truth. Eventually, the Holy Spirit will ready the soul for harvesting. Then it is our job to ‘harvest’ or lead them to salvation in Jesus Christ.
We can look at it another way. In America, anyone can open up a business any time they choose. They can also hire laborers to work in their business. Some might be working on an assembly line, while others keep the machines running smooth. Some will deliver supplies and some will package the finished product for distribution. Some will work in the payroll and benefit office. Some will be in sales. But all of them must work together for the good of the business.
The same is true in the kingdom of heaven. If God had a business, it would be the salvation of souls. God hires each and every Christian to work in his business. Some will preach, some will intercede, some will minister to the poor, some will baptize, and some will love the unlovely. Some will encourage. Some will finance the kingdom. Some will go to the mission field. But all must work together for the good of the business.
What would have happened to labor in America if they did not band together and stand for change? We would still be working 15 hours a day, seven days a week for next to nothing!
Unity is also essential in the kingdom of heaven:
Matthew 12:25 – And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:
So, as we approach this Labor Day and we celebrate the accomplishments of unity and labor, can we also take a moment to pause and consider the unity of our church in its labor for Christ?
Have we seen division in our churches lately? We all have opinions about politics, COVID, the economy and violence in our cities. But we can’t let those opinions interfere with our spiritual relationships. We must push our personal opinions aside, put on a mantle of love and labor with our fellow Christians for the good of the kingdom.
It’s time for those who are able, to return to the church and minister to their brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s time for us to unite in prayer, seeking the leading of God in these turbulent times. It’s time for us to get back in touch with the lost. In the kingdom of heaven YOU are an essential worker! The body of Christ needs what you have to offer. So come back to work!
Let me offer you some encouragement:
The religious leaders of Jesus day toiled and planned and schemed to bring glory and honor to themselves. They put everything they had into self promotion. They worked tirelessly to prove how superior they were to ordinary men.
How sad that they were laboring for the things of this earthly life, which are sure to pass away! Now that they are dead, what good were all those special seats at the feast, or those salutations of honor in the marketplace? I encourage you to take an honest look at your labors – make sure you are laying up treasures in heaven, not here on earth.
Let me offer you some relief:
Maybe you are afraid of working in the kingdom because of mistakes that you made in the past. Perhaps you even failed in a ministry before. If that is the case, let me offer you some relief. Those mistakes make you what you are today. They don’t hinder you from service in God’s kingdom, they prepare you for it! So take courage and jump back into the kingdom workforce.
Let me offer you some strength:
You are alive today, because God has kingdom work for you to accomplish! So stop being afraid. Roll up your sleeves and dig in! Rely on the Lord and he will be your strength and shield.
Psalm 18:2-3 – The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower. I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from my enemies.