If you’ve never lived in a culture where you just don’t criticize out loud those in authority, perhaps you have a hard time appreciating just how powerful was Jesus’ denunciation in Matthew 23:1–12 of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his day.
Do what they say, not what they do. The Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were responsible for teaching the people God’s Word. As instructors of the people they sat in Moses’ seat, at least in theory explaining and applying God’s law. Their teaching (insofar as it was an explanation and application of the Word of God) was to be obeyed. Jesus makes clear that he is not opposed to the law of God. “He once more made the voice of the law the voice of the living God, who is present in every commandment, so absolute in his demands, so personally interested in man’s conduct, so all-observant, that the thought of yielding to him less than the whole inner life, the heart, the soul, the mind, the strength, can no longer be tolerated. Thus quickened by the spirit of God’s personality, the law becomes in our Lord’s hands a living organism.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 61) The problem with the Pharisees was not that they made too much of the law, but rather that they ignored God’s law and substituted for it their own regulations. Their obedience, according to Jesus, was not sweeping enough. Jesus did not object to their being careful in tithing, but he condemned them for concentrating on that and ignoring justice, mercy, and faithfulness, verse 23.
Beware of the sin of hypocrisy. These leaders began to focus on externals, rather than on the heart of obedience. Thus they made their phylacteries wide (see Deuteronomy 6:8) and their tassels (Numbers 15:38) long. The respect and honor by other men became more important than the worship and service of God. In Malachi’s day the priests received God’s condemnation for their self-centeredness. In this discourse Jesus emphasizes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in their casuistic determination of exactly which oaths are binding: an oath by the temple is not, an oath by its gold is; the altar is not, the gift on the altar is; etc. Hypocrisy involves self-promotion. We naturally would like people to thing that we’re better than we are. There’s probably a little Pharisee in each of us. Hypocrisy brings such sweeping condemnation from Jesus because its self-centeredness utterly contradicts the humility that is required to simply trust your God. Spiritually, it is a fatal disease. Note the repetition of the term, verses 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29.
Humble yourself. Pride contradicts the kingdom of heaven. Jesus warns against pride, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. It was seen in the desire of the Pharisees to be honored by men, verses 8–10. Jesus is not prohibiting the use of all titles, but he does require that your concern be primarily how God sees you, not how men honor you. The same pride was evident in honoring the tombs of the prophets, while still being guilty of the sins which caused the death of those prophets, verses 29–32. That pride led to the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Their attitude had been revealed earlier, when they condemned Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, but they were willing to plot his murder, Matthew 12:1–14. The attitude of the Pharisees barred the door to the kingdom of heaven, verses 13, 14. When one did become their follower, he shared their hellish spirit, v.15.
Listen to the force of Jesus’ rebuke. He is powerful in his denunciation of those who can and should know better, yet whose pride and self-centeredness bar people from the kingdom. At the same time, Jesus is patient with those who may be woefully confused in their beliefs or sadly inconsistent in their lives. Don’t use Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees as an excuse for blasting fellow believers.
For the Savior and for you the path to exaltation lies through humility. Jesus’ woes make us cringe, for there is something of the Pharisee in us. Jesus calls you to humility. Don’t hold yourself up as a rabbi or master. You are all brothers and sisters, verse 8. Don’t take the title of “father,” which belongs to your Father in heaven, verse 9. There is something seriously wrong if your place as teacher eclipses the teacher, Christ, verse 10. Although Jesus had been avoiding the title Messiah, he uses it here. He is the ultimate teacher of his people. In short, the path to true greatness is humility, verses 11, 12. Jesus is bringing home the point which he kept making in the Sermon on the Mount, that the kingdom of heaven turns the standards of the world upside down. “Precisely by moving away from human ordinances and going back to the law of God in the Old Testament, he again, makes that law known to us in its spiritual character(Matt. 5), reducing it to one spiritual principle, namely, love (Matt. 22:37–40) and communicates it to us as a single whole (cf. James 2:10). Judging by that law he unmasks hypocrisy (Matt. 23), breaks the bond between the ethical and the physical (Mark 7:15), goes back to the heart as the source of all sin (Matt. 15:18–19), and even makes suffering independent of personal guilt (Luke 13:2–3; John 9:3).” “To remain in his word and make his word remain in them is the calling of his disciples (John 8:31, 51; 15:7; 1 John 2:24). They have no other teacher (Matt. 23:8, 10), nor do they need one. They have received the anointing of the Holy One, that is Christ, and know all things (1 John 2:20), so that among them there is no need for pagan divination and sorcery, spiritism or occultism, for hierarchical guardianship or an infallible papacy. Christ himself teaches them by his Word and Spirit….” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, pages 135 & 475–476) Trust the Savior who humbled himself for you. Jesus does not just point to himself as an example of one who humbled himself—though he did humble himself, and you are commanded to have the mind of Christ in that, Philippians 2:5ff. It was exactly through his humbling himself that Jesus was doing the will of his Father. As he counted himself nothing, he was obtaining your forgiveness. He suffered and died because you and I have the sins of Phariseeism and pride which need to be dealt with. At the heart of your relationship with him is humbling yourself enough to stop trusting your efforts and to depend on his work in your place.
Yes, Jesus was powerful in his condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. But even as he spoke, he was pointing to himself as the one who humbled himself to be your Savior. He calls you forsake your pride and trust in him.