Our New Testament reading for today brings our attention to our Master’s rebuke of the Pharisees and Publicans as recorded in Matthew chapter 23.  Though they had a reputation for holiness, inwardly the Pharisees were filled with ravening wickedness: “ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Mat. 23:27).  Like others who also suffered the rebuke of the Master, they had a living name, yet were spiritually dead (cp. Rev. 3:1).  Exalting themselves above measure, they sought the praise of men, loving the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues (Mat. 23:6).  But by contrast, the faithful are those “whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:29).  They humble themselves before their Master, seeking future praise when Messiah shall come again to raise the dead, and be glorified in his saints.  In that day, “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Mat. 23:12).  We need, therefore, to consider Messiah’s reproof of that class of men who, in their self-righteous blindness deny him by their works, lest we fall after the same manner of unbelief.  By considering our Master’s words, together with their Old Testament background, we can be instructed by God, and receive that wisdom which is from above, even that wisdom that giveth life.

The first indictment against the Pharisees, is that they were inconsistent.  They said one thing, but did another.  Evidently, what they required others to do was not wrong in itself; rather they demanded of others something that they would/could not do themselves.  Hence the Master spake: “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not” (Mat. 23:3).  But this was not a characteristic of those in Jesus’ day only, the Psalmist also described those many years earlier who were just the same:

“… unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?  Seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest my words behind thee.  When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers.” (Psa. 50:16-18).

Here, the situation was just the same: a willingness to speak the statutes and covenants of God, yet at the same time, a willingness to consent and partake with thieves and adulterers.  The Apostle Paul also alluding to these things condemned the Jews of his day in like manner:

“Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God … and are confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes … Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?  Thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?  Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery?  Thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?  Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God?  For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written …” (see Rom. 2:17-24).

This is blatant hypocrisy at it’s worst: to claim righteousness through a knowledge of the Law, yet to deny its principles by wicked works.  Interestingly, although king David was a Jew who did commit both theft and adultery through his sin with Bath-sheba, he was no hypocrite.  He threw himself upon the mercy of Yahweh: “have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.  Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.  For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me” (Psa. 51:1-3).  Here is the true glorification of the saints of God: not through a legal righteousness by knowing the Law, but the forgiveness of those sins which are confessed and forsaken.  To acknowledge the transgressions that have been done, and to seek favour and forgiveness upon no other basis than the Lord’s mercy and lovingkindness.  Those that are such, shall be rewarded according to their humble faith and gratitude and exalted in due course.

Back in Matthew 23, Messiah describes how that the Pharisees imposed a burden upon the people that they were unwilling to bear themselves: “they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Mat. 23:4).  Their combination of the Law and the traditions of men was a burden that could not be borne.  Hence Peter addressed the Judaisers who sought to impose the Law (albeit combined with their own traditions): “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?  But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:10-11).  The Law itself was a “ministration of condemnation” (2 Cor. 3:9), which was not designed to save men from their sins.  Contrariwise, it brought a knowledge of sin (see Rom. 7), and taught men that they could only be saved by the sacrifice of Yahweh’s own providing.  It was a burden which was removed by Messiah who exhorted:

“come ye unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat. 11:28-30).

The spirit of Christ is to help one another bear burdens, not to impose burdens upon each other:  “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).  Recognising that we are all beset with iniquity, we need to help each other to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us” (Heb. 12:1).  We do not seek to achieve our own righteousness by works in fulfilling the Mosaic Law, but rather desire to fulfil the law of Christ by displaying and receiving the principles of grace and mercy.

Verse 5 of Matthew chapter 23 exposes the hypocrisy of seeking the praise of men:

“But all their works they do, for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues.  And greetings in the market, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi” (Mat. 23:5-7).

Again, later in the same chapter we read:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Mat. 23:14).

Here we learn that the Pharisees were not even praying: they were pretending to pray – and making lengthy ‘prayers’ at that – in order to convey an appearance of righteousness.  This is the class of men that the Psalmist describes: “surely every man walketh in a vain shew …” (Psa. 39:6).  For “vain shew”, the margin gives the alternative rendering of “image”.  Most men and women are pre-occupied with their self-image.  How they appear before others, that they might be approved by their peers.  True brethren of Messiah, however, are only concerned about how they appear before their God: and that not a veneer of visible righteousness, but the hidden new man of the heart.  The words of Proverbs 20 are relevant here: “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?” (Prov. 20:6).  Rather than to proclaim an outward display of goodness, it is far better to be faithful before God in private: “but thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seest in secret shall reward thee openly” (Mat. 6:6).

Our Master describes how that they “make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments …” (Mat. 23:5).  The phylacteries were little boxes that they wore when they prayed, containing certain readings of Scripture.  They sought to appear before men that they were teachers of the Word, and so enlarged their phylacteries in order to show this.  It is a misapplication of Exodus chapter 13:

“and it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that Yahweh’s law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath Yahweh brought thee out of Egypt” (Exod. 13:9).

The point of Exodus 13 is that the Law would be remembered, and not forgotten, whereas by making their phylacteries as large as possible, the spirit of the Law was forgotten and neglected.

Also, the enlarging of the borders of their garments was a distortion of Numbers chapter 15:

“speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue: And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of Yahweh and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes after which ye use to go a whoring …” (Num. 15:38-39).

Again, the point of the fringes in the borders of their garments was to be a reminder of the commandments of Yahweh, to “do them”.  The irony here, is that by enlarging the borders of their garments, the Pharisees were negating the very law they sought to follow, seeking after the thoughts of their own heart and the lust of their eyes.  These are just two of many areas where they negated the law of God by their own traditions: something which Messiah rebuked them for as recorded elsewhere.

Continuing this theme of being elevated in the sight of men, Jesus continues to describe how that they “love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues …” (Mat. 23:6). To be lifted up in pride, and craving human approval is the natural state of all men of the flesh.  Human pride is one of the most difficult features of our nature to overcome, for to be wanted and honoured appeals to our human nature.  But it is far better to be humble, and then be exalted by Yahweh in due time, than to exalt one’s own self, and suffer the shame of being brought down low.  Again, Proverbs 25 provides an Old Testament background to these words:

“Put not forth thyself in the presence of the king, and stand not in the place of great men; For better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen” (Prov. 25:6-7).

Interestingly, this passage is alluded to in the visions of the Apocalypse, where John is invited to ascend up into the political heavens of the age to come: “after this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter …” (Rev. 4:1).  To ascend in honour in the kingdom to come is to be desired far more than the temporal praise of men.  Again, the words of James are most appropriate: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away” (Jas. 1:9-10).  To be exalted by Messiah is the highest accolade a man can have, but in order to obtain it, we must be “of low degree”: humbled in the sight of our God.

We have this same principle reiterated in verse 12: “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Mat. 23:12).  Again, the Proverb has it: “the fear of Yahweh is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility” (Prov. 15:33).  The ultimate example of this, is seen in Messiah himself:

“… being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow …” (Phil. 2:8-10).

As we bring our minds to consider the Master as memorialised in the partaking of bread and wine, we see a man who was humble and meek.  Though he were the Son of the Most High God, nevertheless he came as a servant, to do his Father’s bidding, and to save his brethren from their sins.  The true spirit desired of the Lord is the mind of Christ: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).  Isaiah brings out this principle: “he is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief … he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3).

Our Master was not preoccupied with how men might or might not approve of him, or his actions.  His entire concern was the doing the will of his Father in heaven: “by the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10).  Rather than to be concerned about how we appear before the men and women of this world, we ought rather be willing to bear reproach for Christ: “Let us go therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14).  All that is in the world is transient and ephemeral.  We seek a city of permanency, and life in a future world.  And the overriding characteristic of that world is expressed by the prophet: “the lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and Yahweh alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:11).  We must therefore commit ourselves to He who judges righteously, to the performing of His Will – whether the folk around us approve or not – so that we might be elevated in due course.  We share a high calling in the present dispensation, and there is greater to come when Messiah returns:  We conclude with the words of the Apostle:

“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the Sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.  Beloved, now are we the Sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jno. 3:1-2).

Christopher Maddocks