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Bible: What Does Matthew 23 Teach Us About False Leadership?

Updated on September 15, 2016

Jesus With Pharisees

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The Pharisaical Flaw


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Matthew 23: Jesus' Seven "Woes" Against the Jewish Leadership

Jesus' "Blistering Denunciations"

Now Jesus delivers to the “multitudes” and to His disciples a most “woeful” critique of the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership, focusing foremost upon their works.

He encourages the “people” to obey what their leaders teach from the Law, but not to mimic the scribes and Pharisees’ behavior, for the latter do not “practice what they preach” (vv. 1-3).

Jesus speaks of “heavy burdens” that the leadership loads onto people’s shoulders, but does not help them to carry (v. 4).

[Could these burdens be the added weight of rabbinical traditions and commandments together with the Law’s requirements?]

Commenting upon their hypocritical practice, Christ provides three ways in which they seek adulation and applause:

(1) By “broadening their phylacteries” and “lengthening their tassels,” the Pharisees aim to draw more attention to themselves (v. 5; Ryrie’s extensive note is well-worth reading [New Testament Study Bible, 49]);

(2) By “loving” places of honor at social and religious functions, they show their love of self (v. 6); and

(3) By “loving” to hear respectful religious greetings, they elevate themselves beyond what they are due (v. 7).

Jesus, Master and Teacher

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Jesus Is "The Teacher"

Now directly addressing His audience, Jesus explains how their knowledge of the truth should govern their attitudes and actions and diametrically oppose the ways of their religious leaders.

First, their knowledge that Christ is their Teacher and that they are equal brethren should prevent them from elevating a mere human being too greatly (v. 8).

Second, their knowledge that God is their heavenly Father should keep them from assigning that spiritual title to anyone on Earth (v. 9).

Third, their knowledge that Jesus is their Teacher should stop them from garnering that lofty title for themselves (v. 10).

Christ’s bottom line: the individual who humbles himself God will exalt to a position of servant leadership, but the man who exalts himself to the position of rabbi, father, or teacher God will put down (vv. 11-12).

The Love of Money

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Blind Guides

The Beginning of Woes

Again, Jesus turns His attention toward His opponents, addressing them directly as hypocrites, and levels the first in a series of seven (or eight) “Woe” pronouncements against them.

[Three or four “woe” statements occur rapid-fire with extensive elaboration only upon the fourth (vv. 13-22).

Then four more appear with intervening commentary (vv. 23, 25, 27, 29).]

Woe #1 indicates that divine judgment will alight upon the faithless scribes and Pharisees for keeping the Jewish people from entering the kingdom (by faith in Jesus) [v. 13].

Woe #2 indicts Jesus’ foes on the charge of “devouring widows’ houses.”

[The NU edition omits this “Woe,” but the Majority Text includes it.]

The Jewish leadership benefited financially from widows by officiating at their husbands’ funerals (“make long prayers”) [v. 14.]

[See also Ryrie’s note (49).]

Woe #3 laments the Pharisees’ proselytzing efforts.

Even these painstaking endeavors receive a failing mark from Jesus, for they produce “spiritual” progeny who become worse hypocrites than their “fathers” (v. 15).

Woe #4 introduces a slightly different label—“blind guides”—to identify the same crowd.

As Jesus had addressed the issue of oaths earlier in His Sermon on the Mount, so He reintroduces the topic here (vv. 16-22).

The Pharisees, He says, make people obligated to carry out oaths, but base ultimate performance of the vows not upon the greater objects that sanctify the gift (the temple, vv. 16-17; the altar, vv. 18-19; heaven, v. 22), but upon the gift itself (gold, v. 16; sacrificial gift, v. 18).

[In effect, the Pharisees slight God’s holiness by elevating created things above the Creator who created them.]

Is the Church Full of Hypocrites?

Is today's Church fundamentally hypocritical?

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Denunciations Continue

Woe #5 addresses the subject of tithing herbs, a practice enjoined by torah (cf. Lev. 27:30). In their extremism, the Pharisees “major on the minors” and neglect the “majors” altogether, i.e., they tithe the smallest herbs, but do not practice justice, mercy, and faith (v. 23).

[When Jesus refers to “these you ought to have done,” does He mean tithing herbs, or performing the “weightier matters of the law”?

Ryrie believes the former, but the latter seems more natural (50).]

Again, He labels them “blind guides,” satirizing their fanaticism with humorous imagery. In their concern not to miss the minutiae, they completely overlook the large issue (v. 24).

Woes 6 through 7 (or 8) highlight the Pharisees’ neurosis about appearances (vv. 25-30).

First, Christ points out this obsession with externals, using three metaphors to represent their attentiveness to their public lives:

(1) the cleansing of the outside of the cup and the dish (v. 25a);

(2) the whitewashing of tombs (v. 27a); and

(3) the building and decorating of tombs and monuments, and the giving of exculpatory speeches (vv. 29-30).

Then He exposes their spiritual filthiness, condemning their extortion and self-indulgence (v. 25b), their deadness and uncleanness (v. 27b), their hypocrisy and lawlessness (v. 28), and their blindness and murderous intentions (v. 31).

Jesus concludes that, having borne witness to their kinship with murderers, they should execute their desires and complete their fathers’ sin (v. 32)

With burning anger, Jesus all but sentences these sons of the devil to hell (v. 33).

Prophesying as One infinitely greater than any prophet about the persecution of saints, Christ assigns bloodguiltiness for all murders recorded in the Bible to “this generation” (vv. 34-36; see Ryrie’s extensive note [50]).

The Lord concludes His “woeful” address, lamenting the Jews’ refusal to repent (v. 37), foretelling the consequent destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (v. 38), yet also informing them about their descendants' future acceptance of Him (v. 39).

[Even amidst all the dire predictions, Jesus gives Israel a glimmer of hope; God is not yet finished with them.]

© 2013 glynch1

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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very nice hub. A good study. So applicable today.