WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Matthew 23 records an intense attack by Jesus on the scribes and Pharisees near the end of His earthly ministry. This is one of those places which plainly reminds us that the real Jesus is not the effeminate Jesus of our storybook Bibles. The real Jesus pulls no punches as He deals with the leaders of His people who were hypocritical and unfaithful shepherds.
Two thousand years later, it’s easy for us to look back and think, Well, of course, everyone knows the scribes and Pharisees were the bad guys. However, such a notion would have been shocking to everyone who listened to Jesus saying these things at the time. The scribes and the Pharisees were held in extremely high regard by God’s people. The scribes were the scholars who studied the ins and outs of God’s Word. They knew the Law and the Prophets like the back of their hand. We could compare them to Bible translators of our day who have spent thousands of hours studying Hebrew and Greek in order to accurately bring the text of Scripture into modern English.
We could compare the Pharisees to conservative Reformed theologians who have great explanations for everything in Scripture, and who are even committed to teaching actual obedience to God’s commandments. They weren’t like the Sadducees of the time, who were more like today’s liberal theologians, not even believing in the resurrection of the dead. No, the Pharisees were teachers most of us would have been inclined to listen to. Jesus even goes so far as to tell the people to “do and observe” “all that they tell you” (Matt. 23:2). Apparently, the Pharisees taught God’s Word accurately!
These were the men whom Jesus so boldly insulted.
Here are a few lessons for us to take from this chapter:
1. Let us be on our guard against our own hypocrisy. Before you start looking for the hypocrites around you, search out the hypocrite inside you. How often do we ourselves behave in a pharisaical way? How often do we take comfort in knowing that at least other people think we’re clean (or competent, or righteous, or honest, or pure), even when we know in our hearts that we’re not? Do you care more about others’ opinions of you, or about Jesus’ opinion of you?
2. True shepherds practice what they preach. Our criteria for whom we pay attention to needs go beyond simply whether someone teach God’s Word accurately. After Jesus told the people to do what the Pharisees told them to do, He added, “Do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them” (Matt. 23:2). One obvious application of this is not to follow someone who lives proudly, immorally, self-indulgently, dishonestly, etc., no matter how faithfully they seem to teach God’s Word. As cliché as it sounds, you don’t want to have anything to do with a man who doesn’t walk the talk. Does this mean the goal is to find leaders who live sinless lives? No. In fact, if you think you’ve found that, you’ve probably just found a Pharisee who’s really good at cleaning the outside of that cup. You want to follow men who first lead in repentance and faith. Even the best leaders sin. Look at King David. Look at the Apostle Peter. But the best leaders lead in repentance from their sin as well. Repentance is what set David apart from Saul, and Peter from Judas.
One less obvious application of this same point is to be wary of listening to anyone whom you don’t personally know. You may think you can judge someone’s character through reading their books or watching their videos on YouTube. But, you can’t. No one can. What matters is how a man lives. This doesn’t mean that everyone who teaches publicly is to be inherently distrusted. It does mean that we should pay special attention to the the shepherds whom God has placed among us (1 Peter 5:2), those whom we know and who know us.
3. True shepherds fiercely defend their sheep. Jesus the Chief Shepherd hates it when His sheep are led astray or devoured. Undershepherds who follow in His footsteps share this hatred. When wolves are prowling, true shepherds are on their guard, and they are not afraid to be violent in their defense of their sheep. Few faithful shepherds are willing to fight, and the ones who are often get criticized:
Why are you speaking with that combative tone? Yeah, I know Jesus spoke that way, but that was Jesus. Jesus is allowed to say things like that. After all, He’s God. He was allowed to speak with authority. Are you God? No? Then why are you speaking with authority?
Such accusations of course ignore the fact that Jesus has chosen to invest others with His authority; first the apostles, and then the continuing church, “even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20).
VERSES TO MEDITATE ON
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
HOW TO PRAY
- Adoration – Praise Jesus Christ for the great authority of His words.
- Confession – Confess ways you have been hypocritical, seeking to look good in the eyes of others while not seeking to please God from your heart.
- Thanksgiving – Thank God for specific people in your life who have set good examples for you to live by.
- Supplication – Pray for your leaders, that God would keep them from self-indulgence and hypocrisy.