13.04.06 Mt. 23:1-12 (See also Mk. 12:38-40; Lk. 20:45-47)
SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS OF THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS CONDEMNED
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples: 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 They do everything to be observed by others: They enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets, the front seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people.
8 “But as for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi,’ because you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called masters either, because you have one Master, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
In this discussion Jesus addressed the religious leaders who flaunted their overtly large phylacteries and extra-long tassels. Both Mark (12:38) and Luke (20:46) said that the expensive garments worn to show off wealth and status. To the wearing of such items, later rabbinic writers agreed with Jesus. For example, the Babylonian Talmud preserved the account wherein a Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac denounces the sin of those who wrap themselves with cloaks in order to show off. Another rabbi, ben Azzai said,
It is easier to rule the world than to teach in the presence of two men wrapped in cloaks.
Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 22b
A century later another writer wrote,
Rabbi Benjamin interpreted the verse as referring to hypocrites in regard to Torah. People suppose that they can read the Scriptures and the Mishnah, but they cannot. They wrap themselves in cloaks and put phylacteries on their heads. Of them it is written, “Behold, the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them.” “It is mine to punish” says God, as it is said: “Cursed be they who do the work of the Lord deceitfully.” (Jer. 48:10)
Ecclesiastes Rabbath 4:1
Evidently the issue of pride, status, and wealth was not limited to first century leaders. It can be assumed that, just as it existed for centuries after the destruction of the temple, so likewise the tradition existed previously throughout the Inter-Testamental Period and was a well-established in the days of Jesus.
The location of this discussion was probably at the southern steps of the temple mount – where many of the original stone steps are still visible today. This was the main entrance to the temple and was always full of people coming or leaving the Holy Shrine. Scholars believe it was here that Jesus addressed the crowds as well as His disciples. Note the following video comments by Dr. Paul Wright:
Video Insert >
13.04.06.V1 The Southern Steps of the Temple. Dr. Paul Wright discusses the importance of the southern steps of the temple and its popularity as a teaching site for rabbis in Matthew 23.
In this discussion, Jesus spoke about the Saturday morning synagogue service. After the reading of the Mosaic Law, the reader would sit down in the “chair of Moses,” literally, “the seat of Moses;” which was a carved stone throne-type seat in the front of the synagogue that faced the audience to preach his sermon. Sitting was the physical posture of teachers. The seat received its name because the person sitting in it represented Moses and, whoever sat in that seat wielded the same power and authority. The first century scribes held to the same opinion, as evidenced in Aboth 1:1 of the Mishnah. They made the Word of God a rigid list of hundreds of restrictions. Jesus said Scripture must lead men into a true heart relationship with God. Anything else is an abuse of Scripture.
In Aboth 1:1 there is an interesting statement that clearly defines the Oral Law. It reads:
Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets. And the prophets handed it on to the men of the Great Synagogue. They said three things: Be prudent in judgment. Raise up many disciples. Make a fence around the Torah.
Mishnah, Aboth 1:1
13.04.06.A. THE SEAT OF MOSES. This stone seat was the honored place for any teacher in the synagogue, as he was recognized as speaking for Moses. Photograph by the author.
The phrase, “chair of Moses,” was once thought to be a figure of speech representing the authority of the one who spoke as Moses when explaining the reading of the law. However, then archaeologists discovered such a seat while digging at Chorazin, and it is now understood that every synagogue had one. After the seat was discovered, scholars debated whether Jesus recognized the authority of the Pharisees. It was generally situated by the main entrance, which faced Jerusalem. There was also a flat stone in front of the Seat of Moses which was known as the Bema, and it was upon this stone that the Torah was read and the explanation followed afterward when the reader was seated in the Seat of Moses.
“Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do.” Most of the Jewish people obeyed codes of conduct and religion according to the Pharisees, even though they did not formally belong to the Pharisees. The Pharisaic elite and scribes taught the Mosaic laws, but did not live by them. Jesus singled them out because most of the Pharisees were conscious and honest leaders of their local synagogues. They lived godly lives according to the laws of the Torah. Whenever Jesus confronted the Pharisees, as in this case, He confronted the aristocratic leadership. Here Jesus underscored, for His fellow Jews, the importance of living according to the biblical laws. Note that Jesus frequently condemned the Jewish leadership, but not the common people.
It is amazing that Christian commentaries never mention that some Pharisees were in support of the disciples when they were attacked by the religious leaders. Seldom do these commentaries mention quotations from the Mishnah or Talmud that also criticized the Sadducees and those aristocratic Pharisees. Nor do they mention that Jesus told His people to obey the teachings of the Pharisees (Mt. 23:3). Could it be that, the except for the corrupt lifestyles of a few powerful Pharisaic leaders, the Pharisees as a whole were relatively close theologically to Jesus? Could some commentaries have an anti-Jewish bias?
13.04.06.Q1 How close was Jesus to being a Pharisee, or, how close were the Pharisees to being followers of Jesus (Mt. 23:2-3)?
In light of the context of this chapter, this seems to be an inappropriate question. Throughout church history the Pharisees have all been painted with the wide brush of corruption and hypocrisy. As was mentioned previously, there were many good and righteous Pharisees who loved their people as much as they loved God. The leading Pharisees who held the reins of power and wealth in Jerusalem were the ones who constantly confronted Jesus and plotted His death (although were hidden at the time of His crucifixion).
Most people identified themselves with the Pharisees. If they were not a member of the sect, they attempted to follow their instructions of life. There were four levels of Pharisees: On the lowest entry level, slaves and women were permitted to enter. The highest and fourth level was the elite aristocratic Pharisaic leaders, whom Jesus humiliated before the lower class Pharisees as well as the common people. The Pharisees influenced the common people more than any other since they controlled the instruction in the local synagogue. Most were truly interested in the spiritual welfare of their people. Jesus was not a member, but theologically He identified far more with the caring element of this sect than with any other.
Finally, for those readers who believe that Jesus and the Pharisees were always polar opposites, notice the following examples of “togetherness” of Jesus, early Christians, and the common Pharisees:
- In Luke 13:31 the Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod Antipas wanted to kill Him.
- In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus said that whatever the Pharisees teach, they should do.
- Gamiel argued in defense of Peter and the apostles in the book of Acts.
- Furthermore, it was the Pharisees who protested to the high priest when James was martyred.
- In Acts 21, many who were devout to the Torah (meaning Pharisees) became His followers.
“They enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” The scribes and Pharisees literally interpreted the passages of Exodus 13:9, 16 and Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18 and applied the four sections of the Mosaic instruction to their garments. Nearly all Jewish men practiced this tradition, especially at times of prayer, as many orthodox Jewish men do today, but the religious leaders enlarged their phylacteries and tassels to show off their religious stature. Unfortunately, many Christians today cannot imagine Him wearing these religious ornaments. As an orthodox Jew, Jesus would have worn ordinary phylacteries and tassels in the temple and synagogue.
A Phylactery (Gk. phulakterion 5440), known in Hebrew as a tephillin, was a leather box worn on the forehead and right arm. The phylactery worn on the forehead had four sections with a section of the law in each compartment. The phylactery worn on the arm had only one compartment with a verse written on a single slip of leather or papyrus, written in four columns with seven lines each. These traditions became so sacred, that some believed that God also wore the same tephillin. These objects of religious ritual were worn in the Second Temple Period, and orthodox Jewish men continue to wear them today. The custom of wearing phylacteries may have originated in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, but by the first century it was an accepted practice. It is unknown if these were worn during the First Temple Period.
13.04.06.B. A PHYLACTERY. A phylactery, also known as a tefillin, that was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls contained a small piece of leather with the following biblical passage written on it. The bracketed portion is shown below.
the Lord to
to me every first-born
the first issue of every womb of the
and beast is Mine.”
and Moses said to the people,
“Remember this day
on which you went (free)
from Egypt, house of bondage,
how with a mighty hand
the Lord freed you from it…”
13.04.06.C. TRANSLATION OF THE PHYLACTERY / TEFILLIN. Not all phylactery tefillins have the same passage, but most appear to have Deuteronomy 6:4, a passage that is known as the “Shema.”
Video Insert >
13.04.06.V2 The Purpose of the Jewish Phylactery. Messianic scholar Timothy Hegg discusses the phylacteries worn by first century orthodox Jewish men. Introduction by Dr. Bill Heinrich.
13.04.06.D. MAN WEARING A PHYLACTERY. This man, meditating at the Western Wall, is wearing a phylactery on his forehead and another on his left arm. The skull cap did not exist in the first century and is the result of anti-Semitism in Europe after the Reformation. Photograph by the author.
Jesus also criticized His opponents for their prideful long tassels. Orthodox men wore them at all religious gatherings and festivals. However, the Talmud indicates that neither the officiating priests nor those representing the people in the temple wore them. Therefore, it appears that these may have been worn only by the scribes and Pharisees. But the scribes also had their own clothing style that identified their occupation. Their garments included the extra-long tassels and the scribal robe that touched the ankle.
It is interesting that Jesus did not criticize them for wearing the tassels; He criticized them because these were exaggerated as to produce public awareness to them. The same message was taught by honest rabbis. Whenever Jesus criticized the scribes and aristocratic Pharisees, He did so because,
- They imposed restrictive laws on people which they avoided themselves.
- They build beautiful monument tombs for the prophets who were sent by God, but whom they killed.
- They kept knowledge of God’s Word essentially for themselves, and they made themselves judge and jury of biblical interpretation.
- They were incredibly prideful in dress, in greetings, and in public places such as the market and synagogue.
Besides wearing tassels on their outer garments, Jewish men also had them on their prayer shawls (Heb. tallith) as prescribed in Numbers 15:37-41. One rabbinic author indicated that excessiveness constituted a width of threads (a/k/a tassels) if more than three “fingerbreadths” wide. Tassels are known in Hebrew as tsitsith, tzi-tzi, or tzitzit that Jesus wore (some translations read hem of His garment), as evidence by the woman who had a bleeding problem and was healed by touching them.
Extravagance among the rich and famous of Jerusalem was so excessive that the Sanhedrin, which served both as a court and legislation body, had passed a law to prevent the very wealthy from covering their phylacteries with gold. Yet wealth was exhibited in other ways, such as when the wealthy brought their First Fruits to the temple, they used baskets covered with silver and gold. This reflects the vast chasm between the two social groups: the common peasants and the super-rich. A middle class was all but unknown at this time. It should be noted, however, that Jesus, who was an orthodox Jew, wore tassels as was common to all Jewish men.
“They love the place of honor … the front seats in the synagogues.” In biblical times, honor and respect were highly esteemed virtues, much more so than today, to the point that Western civilization hardly has anything parallel to it. The closest person to the host or speaker had the highest honor and the one most distant had the least. The first row of seats in the synagogue faced the audience, rather than the speaker. These seats were reserved for visiting guests and dignitaries and were prized by the Pharisaic elite. What is known as “open seating” today – where anyone could sit anywhere – was unknown in biblical times.
13.04.06.Q2 In Matthew 23:9-10, why did Jesus say, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ or be called ‘teacher?’”
In various discussions the comment was made that Jesus was either a prophet or like one. To be called a prophet was the highest honor one could give to any Jew. But Jesus was also referred to as “rabbi” meaning “teacher” or “my master,” and did not rebuke those who called him by this unofficial title. Obviously, He did not have a problem with anyone using titles in reference to Him. In fact, failure to give respect or proper courtesies was a supreme insult more than it is today. A cultural element that must be considered is that honor and respect were considered as virtues synonymous with servanthood. But the comment about fathers and teachers was made because these religious leaders loved to be addressed by impressive titles that stroked their egos. Would Jesus have broken all cultural and biblical rules concerning respect of others? Hardly!
“As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’… do not call anyone on earth your father” In this narrative Jesus criticized the religious leaders who enjoyed hearing the titles people called them.  Jesus immediately told His disciples that they were not to be called “teacher” or call anyone else “father,” because Jesus did not want the common people to equate the disciples with the Pharisees or scribes. Scribes loved to be called rabbi or father, yet many of these men were arrogant and selfish. If Jesus meant a literal probation of the use of these titles, then the Apostle Paul erred when he spoke of the five-fold ministry (Eph. 4:11). One messianic scholar suggests that Jesus warned His followers not to accept unearned titles and honors.
In Matthew 23 (below), Jesus condemned the religious leaders who used the religious system for their own use rather than serving God. His righteous anger demonstrated that He was not a “meek and mild,” spineless pacifist, but One who initiated “tough love.” God intended the Law to be impressed upon the heart (Prov. 6:20-21), but the religious leaders had reinterpreted the Scriptures. In response to their wickedness, Jesus pronounced a series of “woes,” but did not indicate what the punishment would be. He did, however, indicate the reasons for the woes, which were:
- They shut the Kingdom of heaven in men’s faces (Mt. 23:13),
- They were evangelistic to win converts, but then trained the converts in their own evil practices (Mt. 23:15; see comments on evangelism in 09.03.03),
- The Pharisees circumvented biblical teaching (Mt. 23:16-22),
- They were condemned because they gave tithes without mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Mt. 23:23-24),
- They externalized their religious practices without giving any attention to the condition of
the heart (Mt. 23:25-26),
- They had become devout hypocrites (Mt. 23:27-28), and
- The Pharisees were like their forefathers who killed previous prophets of God.
Jesus was kind and compassionate to those who were hurting and open to receive Him. To those who seriously questioned Him, He first taught them and gave them repeated invitations. But to those who were close-minded and hardhearted, or determined to confront or entrap Him, Jesus was on the offensive. This He also demonstrated twice when He cleared out the temple. They should have known that He was God, His patience with them proved that!
Finally, it is noteworthy to consider the sincere reverence Jesus gave to the holy name, Father. When considering all the conversations He had with His disciples and the people, He used the term surprisingly few times – and then only with the disciples who could comprehend the sacredness of the name. That may be why in the book of Mark the name Father appears only six times. The lesson to be learned is that it is never to be used lightly, cheaply or sentimentally, but only with love, reverence, and endearment. An example is found in our Lord’s Prayer / Disciple’s Prayer, that states, “Let Your name be held holy” (Mt. 6:9).
“Your servant.”The Greek word for servant is diakonos (1249) and it occurs in the New Testament relative to domestic servants, civil rulers, and followers of Jesus in relation to one another. The diakonos is a person who volunteered to be a servant or is a servant because of family status. It is sometimes translated as deacon, an office of servanthood throughout church history. This term is different from doulos (1401), a bondservant or slave (i.e., Mt. 22:2-4). For example there are douloi (plural) who serve guests and diakonoi (plural) who carry out a king’s sentence or decree. There is a clear distinction between those who chose to be servants and those who were slaves for whatever.
Finally, it should be noted that while not all scribes were Pharisees, although a majority probably were. Neither were all Pharisees scribes. But the Pharisees who were members of the Sanhedrin were all scribes. Being a scribe opened job opportunities in government, education, and at the temple.
. Weinfeld, “The Charge of Hypocristy in Matthew and in Jewish Source.” 56.
. Cited by Weinfeld, “The Charge of Hypocrisy in Matthew 23 and in Jewish Sources.” 57.
. For synagogue service procedures, see Philo, The Works of Philo. 689-90 quoted in 06.02.02.Q1. Also Martin, Worship in the Early Church. 24. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. 3:67-69; Farrar, The Life of Christ. 118-20. See the book of Jubilees for the tiresome instruction on the minutest rabbinical details presented in synagogue services.
. See 06.02.02.A and 06.02.02.B.
. See Ex. 11:5; 12:29; 1 Kg. 1:35, 46; 2:12; 16:11; 2 Kg.15:12; Ps. 132:12; Josephus, Antiquities 7.14.5; 18.1.1.
. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11.3; Mishnah, Aboth 1.1 ff; Mishnah, Yabamoth 2.4; 9.3.
. See video 02.02.16.V by Messianic Rabbi John Fischer who discusses the term “fence around the Torah” from a first century Jewish perspective. See also Neusner, Rabbinic Judaism. 207.
. Rabbinowitz, “Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and does He Endorse their Halakhah?” 423-47.
. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 258.
. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 259, n42.
. See 02.01.14.Q1.
. Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. 112.
. Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus. 51-52; Vine, “Phylactery.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:470-71.
. Ex. 13:1-10; 13:11-16; Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 178-79.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:123.
. Maddex, ed. Scrolls from the Dead Sea. 44-47.
. Babylonian Talmud, Zebahim 19a-b.
. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 244.
. Other Jewish writers also criticized the leading Pharisees as found in 1 Enoch 102:9-10; Testament of Moses 7:3; Tosefta, Menahot 13:22; See also Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 259 n42.
. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 179.
. Babylonian Talmud, Zebahim 19a.
. See video comments messianic scholar Timothy Hegg on the “the Lord is One” as symbolized on the tzi-tzi in video 08.06.05.V.
. Mishnah, Megillah 4:8.
. Mishnah, Bikkurim 3:8.
. Metzger, New Testament. 57.
. Other Jewish writers also criticized the leading Pharisees as found in 1 Enoch 102:9-10; Testament of Moses 7:3; Tosefta, Menahot 13:22. See also Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 259, n42.
. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 244.
. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 208-10.
. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 68; Spangler and Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. 61-62.
. Josephus spoke of corrupt priests who stole the tithes from other priests in Antiquities, 20.9.2, found herein in, “A den of robbers,” 13.02.02. He also mentioned it in Antiquities 20.8.8 as found herein in “The chief priests” in 15.02.09; See additional rules on tithing in the Mishnah, Ma’aserot 1.1 and Moed Shabbath 4.7. The point is that tithing was a well-established practice.
. Vine, “Deacon.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:147; Green, ed. Interlinear Greek-English New Testament.
. Vine, “Deacon.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:147; Green, ed. Interlinear Greek-English New Testament.
. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. 236.