Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Matthew 23:1-12




Chapters 21 and 22 were full of conflict between Jesus and Jewish religious leaders. Chapter 21 began with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (21:1-11) and moved quickly to his cleansing of the temple (21:12-17), a highly provocative act that sparked conflict with religious leaders. In chapter 22, Jesus gave the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (22:1-14), warning, “For many are called, but few chosen” (22:14). The Pharisees and Sadducees then tried three times to entrap Jesus, but he easily slipped their trap (22:15 ff.).

Now in chapter 23, Jesus speaks to the crowds and his disciples (v. 1), addressing the spiritual failure of the scribes and Pharisees (23:1-36). He laments over Jerusalem, and foretells its coming destruction (23:37 – 24:2)—destruction that took place in 70 A.D., several decades after Jesus’ earthly ministry and several years before Matthew wrote this Gospel. The utter destruction of the Holy City and its temple would be fresh in Matthew’s mind as he writes this Gospel.

Chapters 24 and 25 are heavily apocalyptic (concerned with end times), and include a number of parables about preparedness. Jesus’ teaching in these chapters is directed at the disciples (24:1).

In this Gospel, Jesus started his teaching ministry with a lengthy discourse that we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Now he concludes his teaching ministry with this lengthy discourse (Matthew 23-25), similar in length to the Sermon on the Mount. Both discourses close with the phrase, “It happened, when Jesus had finished all these words” (7:28; 26:1).

The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes, a series of blessings (5:1-12), whereas this closing discourse begins with Jesus denouncing the scribes and Pharisees (23:1-12) and pronouncing a series of woes on them (23:13-36) (Keener, 331).


1Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples, 2saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sat on Moses’ seat. 3All things therefore whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do, but don’t do their works; for they say, and don’t do (Greek: legousin gar kai ou poiousin—for they say and do not do). 4For they bind heavy burdens that are grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not lift a finger to help them. 5But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad, enlarge the fringes of their garments, 6and love the place of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men.”

“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples” (v. 1). Jesus has just concluded a lengthy set of conflicts with the religious elite (chapters 21-23). Now he addresses the crowds and his disciples, where he continues his attack on the scribes and Pharisees. He is still in the temple. Having entered it at 21:23 he doesn’t leave it until 24:1.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sat on Moses’ seat. All things therefore whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do” (vv. 2-3a). In the previous two chapters, Jesus has been in serious conflict with the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you (scribes and Pharisees)”(21:31). The scribes and Pharisees are devoted to personal righteousness, but Jesus told his disciples,“For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (5:20)—and “Leave them alone. They are blind guides of the blind” (15:14)—and “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (16:11). Now Jesus tells his disciples to do what the scribes and Pharisees teach (v. 3a). To what should we attribute this surprisingly positive comment?

Jesus says that the scribes and Pharisees “sat on Moses’ seat” (v. 2). Moses, of course, was the great lawgiver. Sitting on Moses’ seat means teaching by Moses’ authority—the highest authority available to a teacher of the law.

Jesus says, “therefore whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do” (v. 3a). In spite of their personal failings, these scribes and Pharisees are stewards over a great spiritual treasure, and Jesus wants his disciples to avail themselves of that treasure. This is in keeping with Jesus’ earlier statement, “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill” (5:17). It is also in keeping with Deuteronomic law, which requires Jews to consult with religious authorities regarding difficult spiritual matters, saying, “you shall do according to the tenor of the sentence which they shall show you” (Deuteronomy 17:10).

So Jesus’ disciples are to honor the honorable office that these men occupy and to do what they teach, at least insofar as their teachings accord with Torah. Scribes and Pharisees have expanded the law into a briar patch of added rules and regulations, and Jesus does not tell his disciples to disregard these, as we would like him to have done. The reason may be that Jesus is coming to a BUT, and the real thrust of his teaching has to do with that which follows the BUT.

“but don’t do their works” (v. 3b). This is the point! This is what Jesus came to say! The teaching of the scribes and Pharisees may be sound—is sound insofar as they teach without excessive embellishment—BUT their personal example is abominable. God has called them to high position so that they might provide expert counsel on spiritual matters to people who have to work for a living—who don’t have the opportunity to study the law day and night—who are often illiterate and who would not have access to the precious scrolls even if they could read. God called the scribes and Pharisees to be servants to such people, but they have treated the call as if to privilege rather than to vocation—to honor rather than to servanthood.

As a result of this mistaken understanding, the scribes and Pharisees commit three sins:

“for they say, and don’t do” (v. 3c). When it comes to teaching, nothing is as effective as a good example and nothing as corrosive as a bad example. Teachers of scripture have a special responsibility to model the behaviors that they teach—their personal conduct should provide a visible lesson. But the scribes and Pharisees fail to practice what they preach. Their lack of integrity undermines their work.

“For they bind heavy burdens that are grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not lift a finger to help them” (v. 4). The scribes and Pharisees conceive of themselves as responsible to God for enforcing high standards rather than for helping people to attain those standards. It is this “coming at it from the wrong end” that creates the problem. Observing the common herd from their superior position, they feel disdain rather than compassion. The distance between where the people are and where God wants them to be is so great that the scribes and Pharisees see them as hopeless. Unwilling to get their hands dirty or to waste their time, they take the easy way out. They spend their days debating the fine points of the law, and burden the people with their findings. They see it as the people’s responsibility to handle the burden that they have imposed, and refuse to lift even a finger to help them.

By contrast, Jesus offers an easy yoke, a light burden, and rest for the soul (11:29-30). This does not mean that Jesus disregards the law or excuses others for doing so, but it does mean that Jesus, the carpenter, lovingly crafts the yoke to fit comfortably and positions it to bear the load effectively. The difference between the careless and the careful yoke-maker might not be apparent to the casual observer, but it is very apparent to the oxen. Jesus’ compassion makes all the difference.

“But all their works they do to be seen by men” (v. 5a). Once more the scribes and Pharisees “come at it from the wrong end,” seeking glory for themselves rather than seeking to glorify God. They love the honor associated with their position. But Jesus says, “let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (5:16).

The Pharisees’ love of honor manifests itself in several ways. “They make their phylacteries broad, enlarge the fringes of their garments” (v. 5b). Phylacteries (also known as tephillin) are leather boxes containing one or more scrolls inscribed with passages of scripture in accord with the law, “Therefore you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 11:18). In obedience to this law, the scribes and Pharisees wear phylacteries on their forehead and their arm. The phylacteries serve as a constant reminder of God’s law, and include certain passages of the law (Exodus 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21). Deuteronomy also requires Jews to write the laws “on the door posts of your house, and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 11:20)—a law that observant Jews still obey by fastening a Mezuzah containing these laws on the doorpost of their homes. Such a device identifies a home as Jewish and its inhabitants as observant. It also serves as a constant reminder to children and others of God’s law.

Tassels or fringes are required by Numbers 15:37-41 and Deuteronomy 22:12, and are intended to remind people of God’s commandments. Jesus wears such fringe on his garments (9:20; 14:36). Phylacteries and tassels are like stained glass windows or icons—intended to help people, particularly pre-literate people, to remember and to understand spiritual things. They are not simply a good idea, but they are God’s idea, laid down by God in Torah law. The problem is not that the scribes and Pharisees observe these Torah laws, but that they seek personal honor for doing so. They wear especially large phylacteries and long tassels to draw attention to their scrupulous observance.

Jesus teaches his disciples a very different way to live. He teaches us to give alms, to pray, and to fast in secret (6:1-8, 16-18) so that “your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (6:18). He says of people who seek practice public piety to gain public honor that they will “have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1).

The scribes and Pharisees also “love the place of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues” (v. 6). At a formal banquet, people would be arranged in a U-shape, with a three-person couch at the center. People would be seated in order of rank, with the three ranking people on the couch at the head of the table and others arranged in descending order of importance (Morris, 575). We are reminded of the mother of James and John requesting that her sons would sit at Jesus right- and left-hand (20:21).

In the synagogue, the better seats are those nearest the front, the best being those on the platform facing the congregation. During the synagogue service, members of the congregation see the people on the platform, and are reminded of their importance.

“The salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men” (v. 7). The marketplace is where people gather and to meet and greet. In public settings, people would show deference to rabbis and other religious authorities.

While we think of rabbi as meaning teacher, it also means “great one” or “master,” and so conveys superiority—a well-connected, powerful, important person.

Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of loving too much the adulation of the people—of enjoying too much being called “Rabbi, Rabbi.” The problem, of course, is that pride has a tendency to derail those whose true calling is to humble service. Titles and honorifics are seductive. The tempter loves them, and uses them to great effect.

We who have come to expect a seat at the head table should take note. We who love being called Reverend or Father should take note. The more advanced the title and the more elaborate the vestments or academic robes, the greater the danger. What began as a term of respect has the potential to metastasize into something ugly—narcissism—vanity—conceit.


8“But don’t you be called ‘Rabbi’ (Greek: rhabbi—master), for one is your teacher (Greek: didaskalos), the Christ, and all of you are brothers (Greek: adelphoi—brothers). 9Call no man on the earth your father (Greek: patera), for one is your Father (Greek: pater), he who is in heaven. 10Neither be called masters (Greek: kathegetai—tutors), for one is your master, the Christ.”

Until now, Jesus has been talking to the crowds and disciples. Now he reveals the purpose of his lengthy condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. He is using them as object lessons—illustrations for his sermon—negative examples. The disciples are not to be like them, but are to avoid preoccupation with personal honor.

“But don’t you be called ‘Rabbi’ (Greek: rhabbi—master), for one is your teacher (Greek: didaskalos), the Christ, and all of you are brothers” (adelphoi—brothers and sisters) (v. 8). As noted above, the word rabbi suggests a superior person. Jesus’ disciples are not to seek such elevation over their brothers (and sisters), but are to acknowledge their equality under one teacher.

The word adelphoi is important in verse 8. Adelphoi means brothers—we can think of it as brothers and sisters without doing it injustice. Our brotherhood stems from the fact that the same God is Father of us all (Keener, 334).

Adelphoi also presents us with a solution to the problem of proud titles. If the person in the pew can be addressed as brother or sister and is permitted to address the pastor or bishop in the same way, the temptation for pride is greatly diminished for clergy. There would be many obstacles to adopting such a practice. Obtaining denominational support for such a change would be difficult. Some laypeople would find it difficult to address their pastor as brother or sister. But we must also admit that our pride in our professional status is also a great obstacle, making us not that different from the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus said, “all of you are adelphoi—brothers—or brothers and sisters. If that is Jesus’ word for us, why should we resist it so?

“Call no man on the earth your father, for one is your Father, he who is in heaven” (v. 9). The Jews think of Abraham as their father (3:9; see also Luke 16:24, 30 and John 8:53), and Christians think of early church leaders as church fathers. However, Jesus says that we have only one spiritual Father, and that Father is in heaven.

Jesus says quite clearly that we should not call any man on earth our father. That he doesn’t intend this to rule out the use of that word to refer to our earthly father—the man who sired us—is obvious from the way that he himself uses the word father (Matthew 15:4-5; 19:19; 21:30-31)—and from the commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). The problem Jesus is dealing with here is honorific titles, such as Rabbi, Father, and Master—titles intended to elevate one Christian over another.

We Protestants cluck our tongues at Catholics for using the word Father to address clergy, but this verse should also cause us to review our own use of honorific titles:

• Where do we get the word, Reverend, which my dictionary defines as “worthy of reverence; deserving to be revered”? It is not a biblical word. Doesn’t it offend in the same way that Rabbi or Father do? What about the various degrees of Reverend—the Very Reverend, the Most Reverend, the Reverend Mister, the Reverend Doctor?

• What about military chaplains? People are supposed to call them Chaplain, but some chaplains enjoy being called Captain—or Major—or Colonel—or General.

• I have even heard the word Pastor used in ways that conveyed power and prestige rather than a pastoral function.

• I knew of one congregation where the pastor and his wife were driven to church in the back of a white Mercedes, and members of the congregation gathered to celebrate their arrival. The scene was similar to that of a bridal couple leaving the church—rich in pomp and display. During the service, six or eight “pastors” sat in the chancel overlooking the congregation. One or two participated in the service, but the rest were there “to be seen by men” (v. 5)—to receive the glory that properly belongs to God.

Few of us have pure hearts when it comes to coveting honor. We all have room for repentance at that point.

On Judgment Day we could tell God, “Well, everyone else was doing it!”—but a better solution would be to do away with the honorifics and simply address each other as brother and sister—as they did in the New Testament church.

“Neither be called masters (kathegetai—tutors), for one is your master, the Christ” (v. 10). This is the only occurrence of the word kathegetai in the New Testament. It has to do with leadership, and means “a guide” or “a teacher” or “a leader.” It is therefore very much akin to the word “rabbi.”

The movement in this story is from scribes and Pharisees—to Jesus’ first disciples—to the Christians of Matthew’s day—to us. As long as Jesus is talking about scribes and Pharisees, we can sit unthreatened on the sidelines and cheer. As Jesus shifts the conversation to his disciples, though, we sense that he will sooner or later turn to us. Then the discourse that started as an academic exercise will turn personal, and we won’t be comfortable anymore. At some point, of course, we realize that Jesus, in fact, is calling us away from the self-seeking life that pulls at us like a great magnet and toward a highly disciplined discipleship that requires more than we want to give. This text, which started in a safe place, turns out to demand quite a lot from us. Not only are we to avoid seeking honorific titles, but we are also required to prevent people from using them of us (vv. 8, 10).

We should note that the New Testament includes certain ecclesiastical titles that have continuing validity—”This is a faithful saying: if a man seeks the office of an overseer, he desires a good work” (1 Timothy 3:1). “But in the Pastoral Epistles a ‘bishop’ was simply what we today call a pastor; he was not an ecclesiastical CEO” (Bruner, 816).


11“But he who is greatest among you will be your servant. 12Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

“But he who is greatest among you will be your servant” (v. 11). We are reminded of Jesus’ words,“But many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (19:30. See also 20:16). The kingdom of God is an upside down world—like a mirror in which everything is reversed—a kingdom where the rules are the opposite of the world’s rules.

Have you ever tried to imagine what it would be like to go to work and find all the rules changed! Wouldn’t it be confusing! Wouldn’t you want someone to explain the new rules so that you could regain your footing! Here (and elsewhere in this Gospel) Jesus explains the new rules—the rules of the kingdom.“But he who is greatest among you will be your servant” (v. 11). That is really quite different! If you want to be great, start polishing other people’s shoes and making other people’s beds and feeding other people’s hungry children.

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 12). That, too, is very different from the world’s rule, “If you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else will toot it for you.” That rule won’t pass muster in the kingdom of God—a kingdom that Jesus says “is at hand” (4:17; 10:7)—a kingdom that is already present for those who choose to serve God as king.

The emphasis in these verses is eschatological (having to do with the end of time). The Grand Reversal will be fulfilled completely when Jesus returns and the kingdom of God is fully revealed. However, we don’t have to wait for the Second Coming to begin life in God’s kingdom (or the kingdom of heaven, a term that is synonymous with God’s kingdom in this Gospel). God’s kingdom is anyplace where God is king. We are part of God’s kingdom if we have made God king in our lives.

Jesus tells us, “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (4:17). He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is (not “will be” but “is”) the Kingdom of Heaven” (5:3). He says, “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness” (6:33). He tells us to “preach, saying, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand'” (10:7). He celebrates little children, “for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones like these” (19:14).

This last verse is particularly significant for our Gospel lesson today, because the scribes and Pharisees possess none of the “littleness” of little children. Puffed up and pompous, they are like the camel who cannot go through the eye of a needle—or the rich person who finds it difficult to enter the kingdom of God (19:24). Jesus calls us not to be like them, but to be humble servants (vv. 11-12).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan