Sermon title:  RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY

  

Matthew 23:1-22

Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, September 22, 2019

 

 

For almost two years now

we’ve been going through the Gospels

from beginning to end,

looking at everything our Lord Jesus said and did

during his time on earth.

 

And now we’ve reached the time

when he gave his final public discourse

during the final days before his crucifixion.

 

He was teaching in the Temple courtyards in Jerusalem.

 

In Matthew chapter 22

the religious leaders tried to trap him in his words

with questions about paying taxes

and with questions about the resurrection.

 

They proved unable to stump him with their questions,

but he put them to shame

and showed publicly

that his enemies failed to grasp the Scriptures.

 

And now, in Matthew chapter 23,

Jesus gives his final public address.

 

We’ll only have time to discuss the first half of it today,

but it’s packed with strong language

condemning the religious leaders of that day.

 

The things our Lord says here

help us understand

why the leaders of God’s “Chosen People”

rejected the Messiah God sent to them.

 

And Jesus’ words also help us understand

how Christian Europe and Christian America

are now rejecting their centuries-old Christian heritage.

 

His words here help us understand

how God views a society like ours today

 that rejects the Bible and its teachings.

 

And his words help us understand

how God will deal with a nation

where even many churches

embrace a different ‘gospel’

and preach a ‘Jesus’ of popular culture

instead of the real Jesus of the Bible.

 

The ‘Jesus’ of popular culture

accepts sinners without calling them to repent of their sins.

 

The ‘Jesus’ of popular culture

doesn’t offend anyone,

never speaks harshly,

and doesn’t punish anyone.

 

But the real Jesus of the Bible does all those things.

 

And we see our Lord in action, here in Matthew Chapter 23.

 

We begin at Matthew 23:1, where

 

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds

and to his disciples:

 

2 "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees

sit in Moses' seat.

 

3 So you must obey them

and do everything they tell you.

 

But do not do what they do,

for they do not practice what they preach.

 

4 They tie up heavy loads

and put them on men's shoulders,

but they themselves

are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

 

5 "Everything they do is done for men to see:

 

They make their phylacteries wide

and the tassels on their garments long;

 

6 they love the place of honor at banquets

and the most important seats in the synagogues;

 

7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces

and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'

 

8 "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,'

for you have only one Master

and you are all brothers.

 

9 And do not call anyone on earth 'father,'

for you have one Father,

and he is in heaven.

 

10 Nor are you to be called 'teacher,'

for you have one Teacher, the Christ.

 

11 The greatest among you will be your servant.

 

12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled,

and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

 

13 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,

you hypocrites!

 

You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces.

You yourselves do not enter,

nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

 

15 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,

you hypocrites!

 

You travel over land and sea

to win a single convert,

and when he becomes one,

you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

 

16 "Woe to you, blind guides!

 

You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple,

it means nothing;

but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple,

he is bound by his oath.'

 

17 You blind fools!

 

Which is greater: the gold,

or the temple that makes the gold sacred?

 

18 You also say,

'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing;

but if anyone swears by the gift on it,

he is bound by his oath.'

 

19 You blind men!

 

Which is greater:

the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

 

20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar

swears by it and by everything on it.

 

21 And he who swears by the temple

swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.

 

22 And he who swears by heaven

swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.

 

That’s the first half of our Lord’s final sermon

to the public—to the crowds at God’s Temple in Jerusalem.

 

After that, he spoke only privately to his disciples

and a few brief words

when he was put on trial,

and when he was crucified.

 

There is still a fair amount of material in the Gospels

for us to cover in coming weeks.

 

It consists of the messages

our Lord spoke privately to his disciples.

 

There’s a lot of really encouraging content there

that applies to us

and to our personal walk with Christ.

 

But this material in Matthew Chapter 23

was our Lord’s final public message

in his public teaching ministry.

 

And it’s full of strong language.

 

Our Lord warned against

Israel’s religious leaders and clergymen.

 

And he addressed the clergy in the crowds directly,

calling them 

"You snakes! You brood of vipers!

you, blind guides!

You blind fools!

you hypocrites!

That’s really strong language.

 

The popular culture, and many churches today,

paint Jesus as an effeminate weakling

who would never say a harsh word to anyone.

 

But that’s not the Jesus of the Bible.

 

The real Jesus made a whip of ropes

to drive commercialism out of the Temple.

 

He overturned the tables of the money-changers.

 

And here he denounced the religious leaders

using the strongest possible language.

 

And he tells them repeatedly

Woe to you! which means their punishment is coming.

 

He repeats it over and over again,

to emphasize that there’s no doubt about it:

they face punishment that they can’t escape.

--------------------------------------------------------

 

But, before Jesus launches into

this long denunciation of the religious leaders,

he first addresses his disciples

and the rest of his listeners

in the crowds that had gathered to hear him.

 

He tells them,

 

2 "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees

sit in Moses' seat.

 

3 So you must obey them

and do everything they tell you.

 

Even though the religious leaders themselves

were corrupt and hypocritical individuals,

they were still the ones

who read out loud to the congregation

the Law of Moses and the rest of the Scriptures.

 

When they tell you God’s law from the Bible,

you are still obligated to obey it,

even if the person reading it to you from the Bible

is a corrupt hypocrite.

 

There’s a temptation, even today,

when people realize

that the leaders of their church are corrupt,

to throw out the whole thing:

to quit going to church altogether,

and to forget about the Word of God.

 

Jesus is telling us here not to do that.

 

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

 

If the priest is a pedophile,

or the televangelist is a con man, just in it for the money,

that’s no reason for us to disobey

what we heard

when they read the Bible to us.

 

Don’t give up on God

and don’t give up on Christian fellowship with other believers,

just because prominent leaders turn out to be hypocrites.

-------------------------------------------------

 

Then, after saying to obey the Word of God

that these corrupt leaders

read out loud to the congregation,

Jesus added,

 

But do not do what they do,

for they do not practice what they preach.

 

That’s what the word “hypocrite” means

when applied to religious leaders.

 

It means clergymen who “do not practice what they preach.

 

And then our Lord gives examples

of what the scribes and Pharisees did.

 

He says,

 

4 They tie up heavy loads

and put them on men's shoulders,

but they themselves

are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

 

We might see that today

in rich televangelists,

or pseudo-Christian cult leaders,

who live in luxury themselves,

while urging their impoverished listeners

to give sacrificially,

and send in to their ministry

whatever little funds their listeners have.

 

Or we might see it today

in the higher-ups of a church hierarchy

who ride in chauffeur-driven limousines

supported by the contributions of poor parishioners

who struggle to keep a beat-up old car on the road.

 

Christ went on to describe the religious leaders of his day.

 

5 "Everything they do is done for men to see:

They make their phylacteries wide

and the tassels on their garments long;

 

God’s Law through Moses

required the Jews

to dress differently from their pagan neighbors

to help keep them separate from those idol worshipers,

and to remind them that they belonged to God.

 

But the scribes and Pharisees did this to an exaggerated degree

so that they stood out even from their fellow Jews.

 

They tried to make themselves look extra-holy.

 

The Gospel of Mark, at Mark 12:38, tells us

that Jesus also said here,

"Beware of the scribes,

who like to walk in long robes.”

 

A similar form of showy display today

might consist of clergymen

wearing black robes and white collars.

 

The local minister or priest

is less likely to do that today than a few years ago,

but we still see bishops, cardinals,

Greek orthodox priests

and some Anglican clergy

dressed in special clothing

to give them an appearance

of special holiness.

 

Our Lord Jesus said not to do that.

 

He went on to say,

 

6 they love the place of honor at banquets

and the most important seats in the synagogues;

 

That’s what the Pharisees did,

and the Lord condemned them for it,

so we should avoid the desire

to be treated as religious big-shots or V.I.P.s.

 

Jesus then condemned their use of religious titles:

 

7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces

and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'

 

8 "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,'

for you have only one Master

and you are all brothers.

 

9 And do not call anyone on earth 'father,'

for you have one Father,

and he is in heaven.

 

10 Nor are you to be called 'teacher,'

for you have one Teacher, the Christ.

 

History tells us that fancy religious titles

crept into the churches

over the years after the Apostles.

 

In the book of Acts and in the Apostles’ letters,

Peter was just called “Peter”—not ‘his holiness Saint Peter.’

 

 And Paul was just called “Paul”

without any fancy titles.

 

But, before long, the churches stated addressing their leadership

by titles like

“Your Holiness”

“Your Excellency,”

“Your Eminence,”

“Your Grace,”

“Your Lordship,” or

“Monsignor” which actually means “my lord,”

or even “Father,” which Jesus said specifically not to use

for you have one Father,

and he is in heaven.

 

Christ went on to say,

 

11 The greatest among you will be your servant.

 

12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled,

and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

 

If we have the privilege

of holding some leadership position in a church,

we should consider ourselves

as servants of the rest of the flock—

not as exalted rulers.

 

We are to humble ourselves,

and leave it to God to exalt us someday in heaven.

 

And that’s what our Lord brings up next:

that the religious leaders of his day were not going to heaven,

and neither were their followers.

 

13 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,

you hypocrites!

 

You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces.

 

You yourselves do not enter,

nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

 

15 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees,

you hypocrites!

 

You travel over land and sea

to win a single convert,

and when he becomes one,

you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

 

They, and those they teach to be like them,

are not going to heaven,

but are destined for hell instead.

 

Just before these words about heaven and hell,

some manuscripts insert the words of Jesus

that are also found at Mark 12:40,

where he said,

 

“They defraud widows of their houses,

and for a show make lengthy prayers.

 

These men will receive greater condemnation.”

 

They recited long prayers in public

to make themselves appear holy and righteous,

but they also defrauded widows of their houses.

 

And today, too, corrupt and hypocritical religious leaders

often target women

who have lost their husbands.

 

They target widows for donations

to enrich themselves.

 

But our Lord shows special concern

for widows who are abused like that,

and he promises greater punishment

for the hypocrites who exploit them.

 

This money-loving aspect of religious impostors

seems to be the focus of our Lord’s next words,

where he says to them,

 

16 "Woe to you, blind guides!

You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple,

it means nothing;

but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple,

he is bound by his oath.'

 

17 You blind fools!

Which is greater: the gold,

or the temple that makes the gold sacred?

 

18 You also say,

'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing;

but if anyone swears by the gift on it,

he is bound by his oath.'

 

19 You blind men! Which is greater:

the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

 

20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.

 

21 And he who swears by the temple

swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.

 

22 And he who swears by heaven

swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.

 

Their focus was on material gain,

so the gold and the gifts presented at the Temple

were more important to them

than the Temple itself

or the true God, whose Temple it was.

 

In view of what Jesus said

about how the religious leaders

“defraud widows of their houses,”

the scribes and Pharisees must have had their eye

on getting their hands on

some of the gold and money

that people brought to the Temple.

 

Religious impostors on radio and TV today

are always seeking money—

promising all sorts of blessings

to those who send in their cash.

 

1 Timothy 6:5 condemns those who put on a godly appearance

secure financial gain.

 

Our Lord publicly condemned hypocritical religious leaders

and so should we today.

 

They are different from

the ignorant sinners who we invite

to come to Jesus for salvation.

 

Hypocritical clergy are headed for hell and damnation,

because they abuse the Gospel

for their own selfish and evil ends.

 

But, Jesus isn’t finished with them.

 

We’ve looked at only half of this final public sermon of his.

 

And we’ll continue next week,

where Christ elaborates on their wickedness

and what punishment awaits them.

 

Meanwhile, the lesson that we can take away

from what we have heard so far

is to serve humbly in the church

in whatever capacity God calls us to serve.

 

As we read in Matthew 23:11-12, Jesus said,

 

“The greatest among you

will be your servant.

 

For whoever exalts himself will be humbled,

and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

 

And we have our Lord’s example in this

in the way that he came to earth humbly

as a baby born into a carpenter’s family

and died as a falsely-accused criminal—

all to save us from our sins

and give us new life in himself.