Read the 23rd chapter of Matthew. Wasn’t that about the most uplifting passage in the New Testament (sarcastically speaking)? Jesus acted like an Old Testament prophet, chastising Israel’s leadership (remember, Jesus lived and died under the Old Testament and the new covenant didn’t take effect until after he fulfilled the former with his resurrection).
While most of Matthew 23 was spoken to teachers and leaders, it applies also to Christians today because we all have a role in teaching others including the lost, at least by example. We must be very careful about that because our example is the proof of the faith we profess (teach).
Although Jesus’ indictment of Israel’s leaders was caustic, using seven warnings (woes) to get the same point across, his purpose was to build up rather than tear down. That also should be our purpose for which all scripture is useful (Ephesians 4: 29; 2 Timothy 3: 16, 17). So, what encouragement can we find in Matthew 23 that applies today?
First, Jesus told his other listeners to obey their leaders, but to not practice what they preach (Matthew 23: 1-4). Hmmm! We’re to obey even what we consider to be burdensome laws, like traffic regulations and the tax code (Romans 13: 1-7). We’re also to do our work as best as we can, even if we have a miserable boss or job (Colossians 3: 22-4: 1).
While we’re to obey God rather than men whenever there’s a conflict (Acts 4: 18-20), if we pick and choose which rules we’ll obey when there’s no conflict, others may think they can pick and choose which of God’s rules they will obey. If we don’t obey our earthly leaders, how can we prove that we obey God?
Second, the purpose of our obedience to God also matters to God. Although they, generally, were obeying God’s laws, everything Israel’s leaders did was to gain notoriety for themselves (Matthew 23: 5-12). If that’s our goal, man’s praise is our only reward and it won’t last long after which we’ll be humbled; however, if our goal is to gain God’s favor, we’ll be eternally exalted (Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-20; 1 Peter 5: 5, 6).
Third, they interfered with the people’s relationship with God, which has devastating effects on all involved (Matthew 23: 13-15; 18: 1-9). We must not impede others’ ability to become and grow as Christians by making the way burdensome (Galatians 5: 1-10). God has told us exactly what he requires of us and he’s intentionally made it not burdensome (1 John 5: 1-4). Magnifying the requirements has a snowball effect. If we add to God’s commands, those we lead to Christ will likely follow our example rather than Christ’s (Philippians 3: 17; 1 Corinthians 11: 1; 4: 6, 7) and add more to the process, becoming twice the child of hell that we have become (remember that phrase, Jesus used it again in Matthew 23). Don’t let anyone force you to do anything God hasn’t commanded; but, be sure you do everything he commanded and teach only that to others (Matthew 28: 18-20).
When we practice things other than what God preaches as a matter of salvation, we become blind guides, leading others in the wrong direction, and causing them to fall short of salvation by focusing on the image rather than the reality of God (Matthew 23: 16-22; Colossians 2: 13-23). This leads to focusing on materialistic things like widow’s houses (Matthew 23: 23, 24, 14), eventually causing us to become uncircumcised in heart (Romans 2: 28, 29; Deuteronomy 30: 1-6).
Uncircumcision of heart leads to uncleanness of heart – we become rotten to the core (Matthew 23: 27, 28; 15: 10, 11, 15-20). Our rottenness leads us away from those of precious faith, causing us to take advantage of them or even hate them (Matthew 23: 29-32; 5: 21, 22).
Finally, Jesus called Israel’s leaders what they had become – snakes, children of vipers (Satan) (Matthew 23: 33; remember “sons of hell”?). We cannot escape the same fate as Satan if we live like that (Hebrews 2: 1-3; 3: 12-14; 6: 4-6; Matthew 25: 41). As the only means of escape, God gives his children opportunities to straighten up or hang ourselves completely when we sin (Matthew 23: 34-38; Proverbs 29: 1; Hebrews 12: 4-11; 1 John 1: 5-9).
He doesn’t force the repentance; that must come from us as we transform our minds acknowledging his will (Romans 12: 1, 2; 8: 11-17; 6: 1-5; Colossians 2: 9-12; 3: 1-11). Then we can acknowledge that there is a God who is blessed and comes to those who obey him from the heart (Matthew 23: 39). That should be uplifting! All we need to do is just practice what God preaches.
Leonard Lauriault, church of Christ