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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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.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast – Matthew 22:1-14

Jesus stirred considerable controversy among the religious leaders upon His final entry into Jerusalem. His Palm Sunday entry into the city followed by Monday’s cleansing of the Temple provoked the religious leaders to ask Jesus by what authority he was doing these things (Mt 21:23). We saw last time that these confrontations find their climax in Jesus’ prophecy of 21:43 that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to a people producing fruits. Without giving them a direct answer to their question, Jesus told three parables, all of which pointed to the failure of the Pharisees and Sadducees to rightly lead Israel. The first parable (21:28-32) centered on their failure during the ministry of John the Baptist. The second parable (21:33-42) focused on the continual failure of the leadership throughout the history of Israel, culminating in their rejection of Jesus and the turning over of the kingdom to others who produce fruit. Now in the third parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14), Jesus reveals the continual rejection of Jesus’ mission, even in the church, until the final Day of Judgment. Each parable highlights a particular segment of God’s history of salvation. Taken together, these parables challenge and call all of us to an urgent faith that goes beyond a formal profession; they call us to a true conversion-wrought, fruitful, and persevering faith that is a product of the new birth.

Like the great marriage supper of the Lamb described in Revelation 19:7, the parable of the wedding feast directs us to consider the eschatological blessings of our eternal future. In keeping with Jesus’ first two parables, the people originally invited to the banquet most likely represent Israel. Despite the incredible joy and blessing that this future feast promised, some of those invited are more concerned with their regular affairs of life and do not care much about it. Others actively resist the invitation with hostility (much like the wicked tenants in the previous parable). Whether passive or active, rejection of the invitation results in inexorable judgment. Following the rejection of many, the king extended his invitation indiscriminately; this makes for a natural transition from the broad rejection within Judaism to the extension of the invitation to the Gentile world. Sadly however, even among those who appear to accept the invitation, are some who are no less liable to eternal punishment, because they are found unworthy (unreceptive of the Gospel message). As believers we ought to ask ourselves, “Why was I a guest?” and “Am I wearing the right garment?”

Who Is in Charge? Matthew 21:23-46

When Jesus entered into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, he publicly affirmed what had, up to then, only been hinted at, that he was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. His intentional fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 (Behold, your king is coming to you; … humble and mounted on a donkey) served as a bold announcement that Jesus was the very King of Israel. This event set up a series of hostile encounters, over the next four days, with the religious authorities of the Jewish people – the Pharisees and Sadducees.  These confrontations, which are the subject of chapters 21 through 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, find their climax in Jesus’ prophecy of 21:43 that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to a people producing fruits (a statement which hearkens back to the cursing of the fig tree in verses 18-22). Finally in chapter 23, Jesus utterly condemns the hypocritical leadership of Judaism with seven pronouncements of woe, ultimately condemning them for the murder of the righteous prophets that God had sent to warn and help the nation.

Palm Sunday’s entry into the city followed by Monday’s cleansing of the Temple prompted the religious leaders to ask Jesus by what authority he was doing these things (Mt 21:23). Without giving them a direct answer, Jesus told three parables which point to the failure of the Pharisees and Sadducees to lead Israel righteously. The consequence for their consistent hypocrisy and failure to heed the commandments of God, is revealed in this parable trilogy. The first parable (21:28-32) centers on their failure during the ministry of John the Baptist. The second parable (21:33-42) centers on the continual failure of the leadership throughout the history of Israel, culminating in their rejection of Jesus. And the third parable (22:1-14, which God willing, we will look at next time) reveals the continual rejection of Jesus’ mission through the church until the final Day of Judgment. Each parable highlights a particular segment in the history of salvation.

Though the church has historically understood these parables to be spoken against Israel, they most certainly apply to all of God’s people. Taken together, the parables challenge and call us to an urgent faith – not a mere profession or formal outward faith, but a true conversion-wrought faith that is a product of the new birth.

Jesus: Prophet, Priest, & King (Revisited) – Matthew 20:29-21:22

In seeking to understand the work of Christ on earth, one of the most helpful concepts is that of “munus triplex,” or the ’threefold office of Christ,’ first described by Eusebius and more fully developed later by John Calvin.Munus triplex” summarizes how, during His life and ministry on earth, Jesus performed all three of those functions reserved in the Old Testament for separate parties – namely those of prophet, priest, and king. We see Jesus functioning in these three occupations from the very onset of His ministry in Matthew chapter 4, all the way until the end, described here in Matthew chapters 20 and 21.

Just as we saw this illustrated in Jesus’ ministry back in Matthew chapter 4, now, near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we once again find Him ministering among the people as prophet, priest, and king. First, in verses 29-34 of chapter 20, Jesus acts as the merciful priest as he heals two blind men. This will be the last public healing that Matthew reports in His gospel.  In the beginning of chapter 21, Matthew reports the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem on a donkey, highlighting His kingly ministry on earth which ordered the adoration of His people. Thirdly, in verses 12-22 of the same chapter, Jesus exercises his authority as a mighty prophet, cleansing the temple by overturning the tables of the corrupt money changers and cursing an unfruitful fig tree.

As Jesus did not refuse to heal anyone who asked Him, no less does he turn away even the vilest of sinners; so today, as sinners bruised and broken by the fall, we have Jesus’ blood to heal us and make us whole. Even now, He is our faithful high priest, whose blood pleads before the throne, making intercession for us.  As Jesus entered Jerusalem as a humble king, receiving the praises of His people, so today we as His people gather to worship Him as our great king. And just as Jesus acted as a prophet 2000 years ago in the temple courts, even today, His words continue to purify and speak authoritatively into our lives.

Jesus Christ is the only person who ever walked the earth and functioned in all three capacities of prophet, priest, and king; He could do so, because He was God incarnate. And He continues to minister to the church in these very same capacities to this very day as our mighty prophet, high priest, and great king.

The Church’s Call to Serve – Matthew 20:1-28

Whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Matthew 20:27-28

In Matthew chapter 19, after encountering a rich young man, Jesus proceeded to teach his disciples about the danger of pursuing riches and the blessing of surrendering all to follow Him. He concluded this teaching in verse 30 by saying, “but many who are first will be last, and the last first.” This statement summarizes the teaching that those who pursue financial gain may be counted first in this world, but they are last in the kingdom of God; while those who, like the disciples, surrender their lives for the name of Christ, are counted first.

There is a close connection between the stories of chapter 20 and those of chapter 19. This is clear as Jesus repeats the same phrase in verse 16: “the last will be first, and the first last.” Chapter 20 also begins with the Greek conjunction gar, which emphasizes the continuity. Just how the parable of the hired workers in the vineyard (chapter 20) is related to the teaching on riches (chapter 19) is not immediately clear, but what is clear is that Matthew uses this illustration as a segue to the events he reports later in verses 20-28, where he teaches about the value of being a servant.

 “The last will be first, and the first last,” is a summary of the counter-cultural way the entire Gospel of Matthew calls the Christian disciple to live. In this present order, those who are first are the rich and famous; as Jesus puts it in verse 25, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” In our society, “the first” are served; “the last” are the servants. But Jesus calls us to a different life, saying in verse 26, “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Jesus demonstrated this as He who is “the king of the universe” turned the world on its head, by coming “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Christ’s servant’s nature is most demonstrable on the cross where He gave His life to save others. In preparation for Sunday read and pray through Philippians 2:3-11.

The Church’s Call to Give All – Matthew 19:16-30

We concluded last time in Matthew 19 verses 13-15, with Jesus receiving the little children unto himself, surprisingly announcing in verse 14, “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” In stark contrast to the poor and weak nature of these children, Jesus was approached next by a rich young ruler who seemed to be living quite a good moral life. Perhaps more surprising than the nearness of the children to the kingdom of heaven, is the shocking discovery that this moral nobleman would find himself outside of the kingdom of heaven.

What is it about this rich ruler that is separating him from eternal life? After all, in his own estimation, he has kept the commandments well for his whole life. As a rich man, he probably gave a lot of money to charities and religious causes. He is even kneeling before the good Rabbi Jesus, in order to pursue what he must do to gain eternal life. If this man were to enter our church today, we would most assuredly embrace him, perhaps lead him in a prayer, pat him on the back, and assure him that he was on the right track to gain eternal life. But we learn in the text that both this man, and Jesus, knew that there was something he lacked.

What was it that he lacked? First, he had a poor understanding of his own sinful nature, particularly when contrasted to the One God, who alone is good. Many today fail to understand that goodness lies outside of themselves, and any goodness within is only the result of God’s gift. Second, his approach to gain eternal life was wrong; he saw it as something he could get by doing. Many evangelicals hold this view, thinking about eternal life as something that they attain by doing something themselves, for example, by praying a sinner’s prayer. Thirdly the young man asked about “eternal life,” whereas Jesus referred simply to “life,” demonstrating that following Jesus is not merely about the future, but is living life now. Again many fail to realize this, making the Christian faith all about a future heaven and nothing about life on earth today. This man was hoping to work his way into heaven by doing something, but what was needed was for him to become child-like and abandon all to follow Jesus. The sad conclusion is: When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mt. 19:22).