DUNCAN/The essential problems of Pharisaical religion
Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 23:1-12. In this passage we will see Jesus’ warning against hypocritical or Pharisaical religion. Wherever religion is valued, wherever religion is respected, where Christianity is thought highly of, wherever people who are spiritual are seen, there will be a temptation to counterfeit religion. If we think it is to our advantage to be thought of as religious or spiritual people, you can bet that there will be some people who will fake that. They will attempt to look spiritual, to look religious, without actually being religious, without actually being changed from the heart. This is exactly what Jesus is speaking to the Scribes and the Pharisees about in this passage. I would like you to look at three warnings against this type of false religion with me. The first is Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy in verses 1-4. The second is Jesus’ warning against the desire to please men in verses 5-7. And the third is a warning against seeking honor and a charge towards humility in the rest of the passage.
I. Jesus’ Warning Against Hypocrisy
The first thing you’ll see in verses 1-4 is Jesus diagnosing the problem of the Scribes and the Pharisees, and it is the problem of religious hypocrisy. And conversely, He teaches that true religion, saving religion, requires integrity. Jesus says that they have a fundamental problem. And that fundamental problem is that they are hypocritical. They are inconsistent. They say one thing and they do another. They were inconsistent. They were not conscientious in practicing what they professed.
Now friends, that is a totally different picture of the Scribes and the Pharisees than you have been taught over the years, and which the people of Israel would have had in the days of Jesus.
Very often we think that their sin was that they were too precise about the law, they were too nit-picky about the law, they cared too much about God’s word. Jesus says that was not their problem. Jesus says that they pretended to care a lot about the law, but they themselves were lax in their obedience to it. They tied up heavy burdens and laid them on men’s shoulders, yet they themselves could be very careless in their obedience to God’s law, paying attention to small matters while ignoring great matters like justice and mercy.
And friends, this is something that we ourselves must guard against. We must guard ourselves against hypocrisy and heartlessness and cultivate true integrity in religion. Jesus is calling us here not to follow the example of religious hypocrites. He is calling us to integrity. Integrity requires that we are on the outside like we are on the inside. That our conduct is an expression of who we really are. Integrity means that our conduct is consistent with our profession of faith. He is calling His disciples not to live a charade, but to be aware of the fact that the heavenly father sees the heart, and so, letting our lips and our lives express the better grace we owe to Christ.
II. Warning Against a Desire to Please Men
In verses 5-7 He doesn’t stop with His critique of the Pharisees and the Scribes, but He says that basically their problem of hypocrisy was derived from a desire to please men. They wanted to look good in the eyes of men. And again, we learn that true religion aims to please God. True religion aims for humility before men.
Jesus says that they have widened their phylacteries. Phylacteries were capsules in which particular Scripture passages from Exodus or Deuteronomy or other parts of the Law or Prophets were stuffed in, and those phylacteries were worn on the forehead and on the left arm while one was praying. And apparently, they would widen the thongs of those phylacteries, so that people would notice them, and say, “Boy, they must be really committed, look how big that phylactery is.” We’re also told that they loved and sought places of honor. They liked those special seats at the banquet. When the people would be celebrating a wedding or some other special occasion, they would save that special seat for the rabbi and at the very last minute he would make a dramatic entrance and be ushered up to that special seat and people would say, oh, you see, he’s the holy man. Jesus is saying, these people loved that kind of thing.
In other words, they wanted to appear to be holy without actually being holy. We live in a day which cares a lot more about appearances than it does about reality. And we have gotten used to that. And Jesus is saying to us, don’t do that in your relationship with God. Don’t care more about what other people think about you, than you care about what your heavenly father thinks of you. The Lord Jesus warns us about attempting to please men in our religion. Our desire ought to be to please God.
III. A Warning Against Seeking Honor
And then in verses 8-9 He goes on to give a warning to His disciples. Not to seek to be exalted. And in so doing He teaches us a very important truth. True disciples neither seek to be exalted in their teaching and ministry, nor do they tempt others by exalting them too highly in the way they speak. Jesus is here after our heart attitude. We are forbidden to seek the honor and the praise of men when we have been put in a position of spiritual authority. And we are encouraged as Christian disciples not to over exalt the mere men that are put over us as spiritual leaders. The best minister is one who gets out of the way, who preaches you the word of God so that you might relate to the heavenly Father through Jesus alone. You do not have to go through your minister as a mediator, and therefore you do not exalt him as a mediator.
Finally, in verses 8-10, Jesus turns around this particular message to His disciples, and He states it positively. He says that they are to yearn to be servants, and to cultivate humility. He teaches us here that true disciples make it their goal to serve. He is saying, the way up is the way down. The way to true satisfaction, is to abandon the quest to be honored by men, and seek only to please the heavenly Father. And so, in the end, the way to glory is the way of servanthood. Now, how can you be changed to do this? Only by the work of the Holy Spirit. Only by the grace of the Holy Spirit can we serve others with integrity and humility. May God make that the reality of our hearts, and may we be concerned more about that reality than the perception of it by those around us.