Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“"God Opposes the Proud"”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

During Jesus’ time in the flesh, he often talked about the religious authorities.  It’s sad to see the very same people who were in the best position to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah, instead using their many blessings to further elevate and insulate themselves from the people God appointed them to serve, teach, and lead.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”

(Matthew 23.2-3)

Their hypocrisy and abdication of their God-given responsibility were frequent targets for Jesus.  In this passage, he’s not exceptionally upset with them for failing to live up to the standard, God’s perfect righteousness—we all share that failure!  But these people first pretended to be perfectly righteous, next proceeded to ignore whichever of God’s commandments they pleased, and then used their position of authority to create tighter restrictions than God himself had mandated, and enforce those new constraints on everyone else, with little regard for ability.

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”

(Matthew 23.4)

On top of this, their sheer phoniness was galling to the God whom they claimed to serve.  When it came down to it, most of them were more interested in the temporal benefits of appearing righteous in the eyes of decent people who, though flawed, still prized and respected God’s standards.

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”

(Matthew 23.5-7)

Phylacteries were small boxes worn by some Jews on the forehead or arm, into which were placed passages of the Law, in keeping with God’s instruction through Moses,

“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”

(Deuteronomy 11.18)

Given the impracticality of maintaining such a practice while, say, quarrying stone, hauling fishnets, or harvesting barley by hand, we may conclude that this was intended at least somewhat figuratively.  But these religious leaders were not only wearing these, but making sure theirs were bigger than those worn by others.  First, that meant they’d be more noticeable; and on top of that, they’d be more obviously awkward and obtrusive, silently proclaiming just how much needless inconvenience these special people were willing to tolerate for the sake of their record of righteousness.  Long fringes are a similar, if less obnoxious story (cf. Nu 15.37-39).

It was all to be seen by men, and not genuine devotion to God.  They’d become addicted to their own smug superiority.  This is why they enjoyed the best seats at dinners and in the synagogue—not because they were more comfortable, or meant better food.  They were interested in the status these positions conferred.  It was the same motivation as the one at play in schoolchildren hoping for a spot at the cool kids’ table during lunch.  In short, it was pride.

The same is true of the greetings in the marketplace.  Considering the talk of good deeds back in verse 5, one could be forgiven for surmising that Jesus is talking about the sort of glad-handing and baby-kissing we associate with sleazy politicians; but consider the immediate company—the coveted seats of honor and the title, “rabbi.”  Jesus’ point is that they act the way they do, in part because they enjoy being recognized and having a fuss made over them, in contrast to the surrounding riff-raff, who weren’t worth noticing for a lack of moral uprightness.

In what follows, Jesus uses hyperbole to cut down this false notion of the eminently respectable, authoritative, righteous, and elite scribe or Pharisee.  “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher” (v8).  Who’s the one teacher?  Jesus!  Does that mean no Christian should teach another?  Of course not!  Jesus appointed Apostles for this very purpose!  But they’d better be teaching Jesus’ word and not their own ideas!  Similarly, when Jesus said, “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father” (v9), did he mean it’s wrong to address your earthly father this way?  No; and in fact the Apostles continually wrote about both earthly and spiritual fathers (cf. 1Co 4.15, Php 2.22, 1Th 2.11, Phm 10, 2Pe 3.4, 1Jn 2.13-14).  But these fathers had better be fulfilling the role God assigned to them, representing God before their households and their households before God, not making themselves gods!

Jesus went on to pronounce “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees; but first, he summed up his point, warning his disciples about them and the prideful spirit of which they partook:

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

(Matthew 23.11)

The problem was never on the surface of any of these behaviors we’ve considered.  Want to preach God’s word?  Great!  Want to recommend safe practices above and beyond what God commanded?  Ok.  Want to wear a phylactery and a long fringe?  Knock yourself out.  Do your peers show you respect and honor?  How nice!  But whom do you exalt and serve?  God?  Your brother?  Or yourself?  “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1Pe 5.5).

Jeremy Nettles