7 Woes to False Leaders – Matthew 23:13-33

In the first twelve verses of Matthew chapter 23, Jesus identified five marks or characteristics of a false leader – identifying them by: (1) the works they do, (2) the burdens they render, (3) their need for an audience, and (4) their love of honor and titles; all of these ultimately point to the 5th mark – pride. These were the characteristics of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day – the scribes and Pharisees. While some of them may have been charlatans and con men, most of them, as most false teachers in our day, believed they were serving God, even as they actually worked against Him.

Jesus followed his indictment in verses 13-33, with some of the most polemical and scathing words he has ever spoken. In light of Jesus’ command to love our enemies, some have stumbled over these words, even to the point calling into question their authenticity. But when we consider His prodigious love for His people and the sway that human leaders have over them, we can understand how the righteous indignation that Jesus Christ had toward these leaders would result in the harshest of condemnation against them. Sometimes shocking words are required, especially toward the wayward leaders of God’s flock.

Jesus’ condemnation against these scribes and Pharisees come in the form of seven “woes,” which flesh out Jesus’ previous statement, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled (23:12).”  A “woe” is an expression of pain, wrath and sorrow that is typically organized into three parts: (1) the recipient of the judgment; (2) the transgression for which the judgment comes; and (3) the resulting condemnation. “Woes” serve as the opposite of “blessings;” as blessings convey salvation to the contrite, woes communicate judgment to the prideful and unrepentant. In these seven woes pronounced by Jesus to the religious leaders of the Jewish people, we find them to be false proselytizers (v. 13-15) with false priorities (v. 16-24) coming under false pretense (25-28) as a result of a false pedigree (29-33).

Matthew 23:13-33 concludes the section which began in chapter 21, exposing the false shepherds of Israel; but it also serves as a bridge to the impending judgment on Israel and eschatological events leading to Judgment day, unpacked in the Olivet Discourse of chapters 24-25. Though talk of wrath and judgment and an ultimate Judgment Day may not be comfortable for us as Christians, the holiness of God necessitates our assimilating words of judgment into our understanding.

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Opposition Averted – Ezra 5:1-6:12

“May the God who has caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 6:12 ESV)

God delivers his people out of trouble. Psalm 54:7 testifies, “For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.” David mentions God’s deliverance another twenty times in the Book of Psalms. The prophets speak of God’s deliverance. Christ and the Apostles likewise preached God’s deliverance. The testimony of the Bible from cover to cover is that God delivers his people. And he does this in history again and again . . . and again.

But how quickly we forget! Can you relate? Perhaps you’ve experienced troubles, then experienced God’s deliverance, then experienced troubles again, and in the midst of trouble you’ve wondered where God is! And then, when God delivers you yet again you are convicted because you were so worried! If God is for you, who can be against you?

As we considered in our last study of Ezra, in this life there will be trouble for those who do God’s work. Another testimony from cover to cover is this very fact, that God’s people are in the midst of a cosmic battle against the enemy. Expect trouble. Expect opposition. But also – expect deliverance!

The Jewish people are the greatest example of this cycle. Whether due to their own wandering from the Lord or because of outside opposition, the Jews suffered trouble time and again. In our text, their enemies fooled the authorities into stopping the building of the temple by force. We left them at the end of chapter 4 with the temple foundation left alone and the work coming to an end. God uses trials like these to build our faith and perseverance, but he also demonstrates his power by averting the opposition, proving once again that nothing and no one can stand against the counsel of his will.

Chapters 5 and 6 of Ezra prove this very thing. Inspired by the preaching of God-called prophets, the elders of the Jews write to the king, telling him the truth about the building of the temple. They find favor with the king, who not only lets them begin rebuilding again but threatens to execute anyone who would try to stop the project, ““May the God who has caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 6:12). Obviously this does not mean that opposition will never rear its head again, but it does mean that our sovereign God is totally trustworthy and will deliver his people from their enemies time and again!

Discouragement of the Adversaries – Ezra 4

“Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped. . .” (Ezra 4:24a ESV)

Ezra 3 began with joy but ended with weeping. Ezra 4 begins with adversity and ends in a halt of the building of the temple.

Our text begins right where we left off, shortly after the captives returned, built the altar, then built the foundation of the temple. The shouts of joy and cries of sorrow were so loud that they were heard afar off. Chapter 4 begins with “the adversaries heard that the returned exiles were building a temple” and opposition begins. This opposition began under King Darius. But in verse 6-7, Ezra quickly describes opposition during Kings Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes (whose reigns ended roughly 60 years after Darius); and then in the last verse of the chapter (24), Ezra switches back to opposition under Darius.

The literary structure of this chapter is not incidental. Under the Spirit’s inspiration, Ezra organizes this information thematically rather than chronologically. He is emphasizing ongoing opposition and highlighting how the returnees are a multigenerational front against adversity that would need to be overcome more than once. These themes serve as a reminder for us that opposition in life, particularly against the work of God, is bound to repeat itself.

Our Lord said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) and the Apostle Paul said, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Indeed, the exiles in Ezra were doing the right thing – building the house of the Lord. And indeed, the exiles in Ezra made the right choice – rejecting the offer to compromise the holiness of the temple by joining forces with idolaters. Yes, Ezra 4 ends on the sour note of “the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped” but we must realize that the exiles did not compromise to alleviate their situation. As Peter says, “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17)

Victory may not be evident in Ezra chapter 4. The temple work is halted. The adversaries win a battle. But we know the war is not over. We know that God’s plans cannot be stopped, and any pause in those plans is ordained by a sovereign God for his purposes. And we know that God can move mountains, stir hearts, and align events with such precision that his will comes to pass in his perfect timing. Let us come face-to-face with the reality of worldly discouragement as we consider Ezra 4, but let us also be encouraged, knowing our sovereign God will both use and overcome adversity for his glory, that we will not compromise with the world.

3 Marks of a Healthy Christian – 1 Thessalonians 1:1-3

remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1:3

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians was probably written about 20 years after Jesus ascended to heaven.  You can read about the founding of the Thessalonian church in Acts 17:1-9. A good theme for this letter is, “Walk Worthy in light of Christ’s return.”  The letter is fundamentally about what we call sanctification. Sanctification is the process of becoming more and more like Jesus Christ. It is how a Christian grows in Godliness or grows in grace.

After a short greeting, Paul begins his letter with thankfulness for the young church.  Verses 2-10 are a description of the things which brings Paul to lift up his soul in thanksgiving to God and bless God for the work of grace in the Thessalonian church. Paul did not just thank God for things which can be seen as resulting from the common grace of God; Paul’s thanksgiving was for things which can only be owed to the special grace of God in His saving power. These are the fruits of sovereign grace, not just “decisions”, which also help to form as a standard and goal for Christians to emulate and evaluate themselves by.

In verse 3 we see three specific virtues for which Paul gives thanks: FAITH, LOVE & HOPE.  Albert Martin calls them, “The three Crown jewels of Christian virtue.”  In several other places in the NT, Paul mentions these three great jewels of Christian virtue. (Colossians 1:3-5 and the classic 1 Corinthians 13:13, to name a few)

Based on verse 1:3, what was the object of the Thessalonian’s faith, hope and love?  It was not blind faith, or faith in faith, wishful thinking, positive thinking or groundless optimism. It was specifically faith, love and hope “in the Lord Jesus Christ.” How are you doing in these areas? Does your faith produce works? Does your love produce labor? Does your hope make you steadfast and persevere?

5 Marks of a False Leader – Matthew 23:1-12

For good or bad, people tend to resemble their leaders, as they assemble around those who reflect their own priorities. When they are led in a false direction, in one sense people cannot blame their leaders, because leadership is merely a reflection of their hearts; however, when God judges a people, while not exonerating the individuals, there is a particular responsibility that He holds leaders to. When the prophet Hosea came to announce judgment on the nation of Israel, in Hosea 4:4, 9 God says, “Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest… And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds.”  Likewise in Ezekiel 34, God announced a scathing indictment of the shepherds of Judah for feeding and clothing themselves on the fat and wool of the sheep, not strengthening the weak, healing the sick, seeking the lost or gathering the straying, and judging the people harshly (Ez 34:1-4). The scattering of His people then is both a judgment as well as a protection. Finally God promises His people:  “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ez 34:11-12).

In the first twelve verses of chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies 5 marks or characteristics of false leaders. As God’s people today, we too ought to use this to help us identify true and false pastors of true and false churches. We can identify the nature of a leader by: The works they do (vs. 3), the burdens they render vs. 4), their need for an audience (vs. 5), and their love of honor and titles (vs. 6-7); all of these ultimately point to their pride (vs. 11-12). This is followed by some of the most shocking and harshest words ever spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ directed toward the Pharisees (the leaders of the Jewish people). Some have stumbled over the words of this chapter in light of Jesus’ command to love your enemies. But when we consider God’s jealous love for His people, and the sway that human leaders have over them, we can understand the righteous indignation that the God-man, Jesus Christ has toward the people who are leading His people astray.

Laying the Foundation – Ezra 3:8-13

“[T]he people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:13 ESV)

We pick up the narrative about God’s people returning from captivity in Ezra 3, wherein we witness a crucial event: the laying of the foundation of the temple. This is what they came for. Recall the decree of Cyrus, King of Persia, wherein he instituted a God-given directive to return to Jerusalem “to build the house the Lord.” The temple was that glorious seal of God’s presence among his people, and though it had been destroyed, God supernaturally made a way for his people to rebuild it! In our text we see the fulfillment of Cyrus’ decree.

But something unexpected happens in response to the laying of this foundation. After the foundation was laid and the Levites led the people in celebratory singing, the older men, who had seen the original temple, were weeping. Unlike their younger brethren, they did not look at this new temple foundation with joy. The text specifically contrasts the weeping with the shouts of joy, making it clear these were not tears of joy.

The text does not specify why they were weeping. The prophet Haggai gives us a clue: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” (Haggai 2:3) Perhaps these older men longed for the glory days of Israel and the beautiful Solomonic temple and this foundation simply failed to live up to expectations. Perhaps they were grieved over their own sin which led to the destruction of the first temple. Whatever the case one thing is evident: God’s work conjures varying responses from his people.

Believers in any season of life should be able to relate. We experience times of great joy and times of great sorrow. Sometimes we experience the entire spectrum of emotions in just one worship service or one season of prayer. Despite the differences in their responses, young and old worked side by side to accomplish the same goals of rebuilding the temple. Likewise, we must be mindful that God’s working will be received differently by our brothers and sisters. Some will weep, others will rejoice. Some will have their pride demolished while others will be uplifted from despair. So long as we inhabit this current world, we will experience diversity in our emotions. Let us minister to one another within this diversity while also looking forward to the day when God wipes away every tear!

An Eye for an Eye – Justice and Mercy – Exodus 21:12-36

In our text the Lord elaborates further on His law and covenant which He had given to the people of Israel. In the sixth commandment the Lord commanded Israel, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). Here in chapter 21:12-14 the Lord gives Israel regulations to apply the commandment to specific cases or situations. We find that not every case warrants the same punishment, as our just Judge decrees that His people and nation are to administer different punishments depending on the details of the crime, both in the wilderness and as they enter the land. In the first of three types of crimes in our text, we see the intentional killing of one made in God’s image is a capital offense, punishable by death. But if the killing was unintentional, the Lord would appoint a place of refuge. In verses 15 and 17, the Lord elaborates on the fifth commandment, “You shall honor your father and mother” (Ex 20:12): “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.” Honoring God also entails honoring those He put in authority over us in this life, namely our father and mother.

After this, the Lord addresses personal injury in verses 18-27. Some acts of violence against others do not lead to death. It is from this section we find the well-known verse:But if there is harm then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Jesus quoted this text in Matt 5:38-39. Lastly in verses 28-36, the Lord addresses criminal negligence, which deals mainly with animals.

These laws deal with justice and are based on the Lord’s righteousness. But we also see the Lord’s mercy in our text. Israel was not to be as the nations around them, but to be a people set apart for His purpose as displayed in His law. They were to be just when justice was called for, and to show mercy when mercy was called for. While we are not the people of Israel, or under the Law as they were, these verses have much to teach us about the Lord and His righteousness. There’s much wisdom to learn from this text and from what the New Testament has to say about these things.