Matthew 23(01–12)


Right at the end of chapter 22 the Lord silenced his enemies who had been trying to trap him in his words. Remember? The Pharisees sent their disciples to ask him about paying taxes. Then the Sadducees came and asked him about the resurrection. And then one of the Pharisees, who was an expert in the law, asked him about the greatest commandment. And they hadn’t come to learn from him, but to test him and to trap him. They were hoping he would say something which they could use against him. But the Lord avoided their traps and then he asked them a question about the Christ which silenced them. They couldn’t answer his question and therefore no one dared to ask him any more questions.

And in chapter 23, the Lord turned to the crowds and to his disciples and he began to teach them about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. In the passage we’re studying today, he exposes their hypocrisy and their lack of sympathy and compassion and how they loved to be praised. And then from verse 13 he pronounces seven woes on them. Back in the Sermon on the Mount, he pronounced blessings on his people. But now he pronounces woes on his enemies who did not believe in him. We’ll think about the woes next week, and today we’ll concentrate on verses 1 to 12 and how he shines his light on them and exposes them for what they really are.

Verses 1 to 7

We read in verse 1 that the Lord said to the crowds and to his disciples that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat.

These two groups often appear together in Matthew’s gospel and there’s some overlap between them, because while not every teacher of the law was a Pharisee, many of them were. The teachers of the law, or the scribes, were the Bible experts in those days. They had studied the Old Testament Scriptures and knew them inside and out. The Pharisees were ‘the separated ones’. That’s what their name means. And they wanted to separate themselves from everything and everyone that was ritually unclean. And so, they were careful to observe all the Old Testament laws about things which are clean and things which are unclean.

But then, as well as keeping to the Old Testament laws, they were also careful to observe their own rules and regulations which they had added to the law. So, imagine a sign in a public park which says, ‘Keep off the grass’. You and I would look at the sign and think to ourselves that we must keep off the grass, but we’re allowed to walk along the path beside the grass; and we can still enjoy the flowers and the plants in the park; and we can feed the ducks in the pond; and our children can play on the swings. We can’t walk on the grass, but there’s so much more we can do in the park. That’s what you and I would think when we see a sign saying, ‘Keep off the grass.’ But the Pharisees would look at that sign and they would think to themselves that to prevent anyone from stepping on the grass, we’d better tell people not to go anywhere near the grass. So, you’re not allowed in the park at all and you must remain outside. After all, if you went into the park and walked along the path, there’s a chance you might accidentally step on the grass. So, don’t go near the grass. Don’t enter the park. In fact, you should just stay at home. If you stay at home, there’s no chance you’ll step on the grass. That’s what the Pharisees did with God’s law. Where God’s law forbids one thing, they would add fifty other things, just to be safe.

So, the Lord is addressing the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. And when he says they sit on Moses’s seat, he’s probably referring to the way they regarded themselves as teachers of the law. Nowadays we stand up to teach, but in Bible times, they sat down to teach. And so, he’s saying that they saw themselves as teachers of God’s law.

And at the beginning of verse 3 the Lord said to the crowds and the disciples that they must obey the teachers of the law and the Pharisees and do everything they tell you. And this is a little puzzling, because the Lord is about to criticise them for what they taught.

Now, if they only taught God’s law, then we could understand why the Lord was telling his audience that they must do as they say. You must do what they say, because they’re telling you to obey God. However, as I’ve said, they not only taught God’s law, but they also taught their own rules and regulations, which were a burden on the people.

So, some of the commentators suggest that what the Lord means at the beginning of verse 3 is that you must obey them insofar as they are teaching you God’s law. If that’s what they’re teaching you, then listen to them. But when they go on to teach their own rules and regulations, disregard what they’re saying.

So, that’s one way to understand the Lord’s words. Another way to understand the Lord’s word is that he’s being sarcastic. When he says to his audience that they should obey the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, he means exactly the opposite. They want you to obey them, but don’t! Don’t listen to them! And the Lord goes on to explain why his audience must not listen to them and why they must not do what they do.

They must not listen to them and they must not do what they do, because they’re hypocritical. They don’t practise what they preach. They’re telling everyone to observe the law, but they themselves are not keeping the law. And when we get to the woes, we’ll see how the Lord pronounced a woe on them because of the way they undermined God’s law. For instance, God’s law says we’re not to break an oath, but they had worked out a way for people to break their oaths. And God’s law commanded the people to pay a tithe of what they produced. And while they were careful to do that, they neglected doing other things which the law commands, such as being just and merciful and faithful. And so, don’t listen to them and don’t do what they say, because they’re hypocrites. They don’t practise what they preach. They tell others to keep God’s law, but they’re not doing it themselves.

Furthermore, they are unsympathetic and compassionless. So, they tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders. Do you see that in verse 4? He means all their rules and regulations are like a heavy load which the people must carry. God’s law says do this; and they add to God’s law and say you must also do this and this and this and this and this and this. And all these rules and regulations are piled up on top of the people; and it’s a burden on the people. It’s like walking barefoot through a room where someone has spilled a bucket of lego pieces. And you know you have to concentrate really hard and look carefully where you’re going, otherwise you’ll step on a piece of lego and it’s going to be sore. And because of all the rules and regulations which they came up with, the people had to be very careful and watch themselves otherwise they’ll end up breaking one of them. For instance, think back to what we read in chapter 12 of the time the disciples picked some ears of corn and ate them on the Sabbath Day. And the Pharisees complained that this was work! God’s law says we must keep the Sabbath Day holy. But according to their rules and regulations, you can’t even pick a few ears of corn when you’re going past a field. They had made law-keeping a burden. And life had became a chore.

And they piled this heavy load on the people, and they were not willing to lift a finger to help them. Do you see that at the end of verse 4? So, they knew their rules and regulations were demanding, but they did not help the people in any way. And since the Lord says they were unwilling to lift a finger — and not that they were unable to lift a finger — then we see how unsympathetic they were. If you saw someone with a physical burden on their back, you’d be moved by compassion to help. But they were not moved by compassion to help the people keep their rules and regulations.

And they loved to be praised. In verse 5 the Lord mentions their phylacteries, which were little boxes which contained a few verses from the Old Testament which people strapped to their foreheads and arms. And he mentions the tassels on their garments. The phylacteries and the tassels were visible reminders for the people to remind them to keep God’s law. Lots of people wore them. But they made theirs extra large so that everyone would think that they were extraordinarily pious. And they loved the place of honour at banquets. They loved being at the top table, where everyone could see them. And they loved to be greeted in the market-place and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’. The word ‘Rabbi’ means teacher. But rabbis were regarded as important people. They were regarded as being superior to everyone else. In fact, in verse 8 the Lord links rabbis and masters together: your rabbi was your master. And so, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees loved it when people made a fuss of them in the market-place. They loved to be the centre of attention and to have people look up to them. They loved to be praised.

And so they were hypocrites who did not practise what they preached. And they were unsympathetic and lacking in compassion. And they loved to be praised.

Verses 8 to 12

And having exposed the teachers and the law and the Pharisees, the Lord goes on to tell his audience that none of them should seek to be called rabbi or father or teacher.

Now, some of us are teachers and fathers. And there’s nothing wrong with being a teacher and being a father. But the Lord is thinking about the way the teachers of the law and the Pharisees loved to be called rabbi and father and teacher. They loved to be called those things because they loved to be praised. They loved it when people looked up to them.

So, don’t be like them. Don’t be like the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Instead you should praise the Christ, because he is your Master and Teacher. And, of course, the Lord is referring to himself: he’s the Christ, God’s Anointed King. So, he’s our Master and our Teacher and we should praise him. And you should praise God, who is your father in heaven.

And instead of exalting yourself, as the teachers of the law and the Pharisees did, you should remember that the greatest among you will be your servant. So, instead of competing with one another for the chance to rule, we should be competing with one another for the chance to serve one another, because whoever exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. There will come a time, when God will bring down the proud; and there will come a time when God will raise up the lowly.


And as we read these things, we cannot help but think of the Lord Jesus himself.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees did not practise what they preached. But the Lord Jesus — who taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and our neighbour — loved God and us by giving up his life for us to pay for our sins in obedience to his Father in heaven.

And the teachers of the law and the Pharisees placed a heavy load on the people. But the Lord Jesus invites the weary and the burdened to come to him for rest, because he is gentle and humble and his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

And the teachers of the law and the Pharisees loved to be praised. But the Lord Jesus is God’s Eternal Son, who from all eternity was enthroned in heaven and praised by angels. And yet he was prepared to come down to earth as one of us. And he came, not to be served by us, but to serve us by giving up his life to pay for all our sins. And as he died, the people mocked him, instead of praising him. But after he humbled himself like this, his Father exalted him by raising him from the dead and by lifting him to the highest place in heaven.

And from his throne in heaven, he sends his Spirit to us to renew us in his likeness and to enable us to practise what we preach; and to be full of compassion; and to be humble, and not proud; and to love and serve the people around us to the glory of God our Father and Jesus Christ our Saviour.