Form Without Substance - Matthew 23:1-7

Matthew 23  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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I’m sure you have heard the saying attributed to Philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.”  I believe this proverb.  We can learn from the mistakes of others or we can insist on making those same mistakes ourselves (sometimes, over and over).

What we are going to do in the next couple of months is try to avoid making some mistakes in our lives and in our church.  We are going to do this by learning from the mistakes of the Scribes and the Pharisees.  In Matthew 23 Jesus sternly denounced these religious leaders in what is often called the Seven “Woes” (vv.13-32).  We are going to take our time and look at these rebukes from Jesus in the hope of avoiding the same mistakes ourselves.

From the chronology of Matthew it would seem that Jesus spoke these words on the Tuesday of the week leading up to his crucifixion.  We are told that he was speaking to the disciples and the people but I’m certain there were Scribes and Pharisees in the crowd.

So, who are these Scribes and Pharisees?  The Scribes were the ones who studied the Scripture and served as copyists and teachers.  They were actually highly trained.  The had to master various materials and they had to learn how to interpret the law.  I suppose you would think of these people like Seminary graduates, Bible School teachers and folks like that.  However, in truth they probably knew the Law better than seminary students.

The Pharisees were one of the religious parties of Israel.  There were three main parties: the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes. The Pharisees were separatists.  They were careful to obey all the laws of Moses. They developed a series of laws that were designed to help people keep from breaking the laws of Moses.  This was sometimes called the Tradition of the Elders.  Later (after the time of Jesus) these laws were written down and became known as the Mishnah.  Latter still, a commentary on the Mishnah was written that is called the Talmud.

These guys were the religious establishment of the day.  They were the conservatives.  They held to the authority of Scripture and encouraged their society to be more committed to God’s Word.  Does that sound like anyone you know?  Of course it does . . . it sounds like us!  This makes the words of Jesus that much more important for us to hear.

Before Jesus gets into the actual woes, He has some introductory remarks.

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.

 Jesus has two preliminary comments we are going to look at this morning.  First He says,


 This surprised a number of people.  We all know that the Scribes (teachers of the Law) and the Pharisees were the antagonists of the Lord. Jesus seems to be telling the people that they should pay attention to the teaching.  I think He was telling them this for a few reasons.

They were true students.  These leaders were people who carefully studied God’s Word.  They were true scholars.  They understood many things about the Law that were true.

 They did love the Law.  We may not appreciate all the laws that these Scribes and Pharisees added to the Law, but we must respect the fact that they added these laws out of a desire to be faithful to the Word of God.

They were in a position of authority.  Third, Jesus recognized that these men sat in the seat of Moses.   In other words, they were in a position of authority.  They needed to be respected because of their leadership in the Jewish religion.

There was good in what they taught.  The Pharisees were not wrong in all their theology.  These men taught the authority of God’s Word.  They believed in angels.  They trusted the sovereignty of God while at the same time underscoring the responsibility of man.  They believed in a real Heaven and Hell.  They taught many good things.  We must remember that the Word of God is authoritative even if the teacher is corrupt.  The Scribes and Pharisees were to be respected because they were passing on the truth of Scripture.

In Acts 17:11 we are told,

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

 This is what we need to do also.  We need to be like the Bereans.  There is truth that can be found in the exposition of Scripture.  We need to respect these teachers even though we do not agree with them on everything.  We have a tendency to turn away from the teaching of people simply because they don’t agree with our pet theological position.  Our job is to receive the messages eagerly and then check them thoroughly with the Word of God.  It is the truth that sets us free and we must seek the truth wherever it may be found.


 Having said all this, we must hear the warning of Jesus.

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.’

Jesus affirms that fact that these teachers often teach what is true.  However, they don’t back it up with the way they lived their lives.  He makes several initial charges: They were hypocritical.

Have you ever been to Universal Studios or the MGM lot at DisneyWorld?  It is fascinating to go onto the movie lots and see various scenes that we recognize from movies and television.  However, one thing you quickly realize: the sets look good but there is no substance to them.  You may see what looks like a beautiful home and discover that only the front of the house is there . . . there is nothing behind it.  That was the problem with the Scribes and Pharisees.

Matthew Henry writes, “When in the pulpit [they] preach . . . so well that it is a pity they should ever come out; but when out of the pulpit, [they] live . . . so ill that it is a pity they should ever come in.

This failure to practice what we preach is dangerous for a couple of reasons.  First, when people observe that we don’t practice what we preach they have a tendency to ignore what we are preaching.  When we talk about love, kindness, and faithfulness and then don’t show it in the way that we live, people dismiss our words as idle and meaningless.  When we say that we believe the Bible to be the Word of God but people see us picking and choosing what we will obey, we lose all sense of credibility.

If you hear someone talk about the keys to a successful marriage but you know that this person has not been faithful in his own marriage, do you pay any attention to what the person is saying?  If someone is teaching you about stewardship but gives nothing to the church or has to declare bankruptcy because of their debts, will you pay attention to them?

Second, when we do not live consistently we encourage people to have a superficial faith.  People see our actions and conclude that faith is about what you say, and not what you do.  They come to believe that faith is knowing the right answers and looking holy at church.  That’s not Christianity!  That is religion.  The Christian life is a vital and living relationship with God.

The second characteristic of these men was that they were indifferent.  We are told that 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.”  In other words they were real good at telling other people what to do but they did nothing to help them.

Have you met people like this?  Of course you have.  They are happy to tell you that you need to do a better job, they are happy to point out additional jobs you should be doing, they scold you about how you raise your children or how you use your money.  They are quick to point out problems but they do nothing to help you find solutions.  They increase your burden rather than lift that burden. May God deliver us from such actions!

Third, Jesus said these leaders were motivated by appearances.

“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; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’”

These leaders put on a great show.  Phylacteries were a leather case that contained strips of parchment on which were inscribed four different passages of Scripture from the Old Testament (Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16 Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:18-21).  These leather cases were then fastened one to the forehead and one on the arm of the person.

Why did they do this?  It was because they were trying to obey (in a very literal sense) the teaching of Deuteronomy 6:8 which says,

“These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

You may think that is really silly, however, Jesus doesn’t condemn them for having the phylacteries; he condemns them for making these pouches excessively big as a way of showing them off.  I suppose it would be similar to a person who feels the need to wear a huge cross around their neck.  There is nothing wrong with wearing a cross but sometimes you get the feeling it is being worn to make us think the person is very “holy”.

In a similar way these leaders had tassels on their garments in obedience to Numbers 15:38-40 which says,

37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. 39 You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.

Once again they went overboard with the tassels so that everyone would see that they were in obedience to the Law.  Like the phylacteries, the tassels were not meant to be a sign of spirituality, they were meant to be a reminder to keep God at the center of our lives.

All throughout the Bible people set up monuments and God set up various feast days that were all designed to remind the people of what God had done in their lives.  You see the problem was not that they wore the verses or the tassels . . . it was WHY they were doing so.  They were trying to show how spiritual they were!

Jesus said they wanted the best seats at banquets and loved to be called by their various titles.  We’ll talk more about this next week.  Notice however that everything they did was for one purpose . . . to be seen.  They wouldn’t dream of serving someone and then not telling the world about it.  They wanted to be known, respected, and looked up to.  Do you see the problem with this?  The wrong person is in the spotlight!!


Now, what are we to draw from all of this information?  What should we learn?

First, we should be reminded that we can look good on the outside but still be far from God on the inside.  It is possible to be a stalwart church member, a person who is looked up to for their great Bible knowledge, and a person who inspires respect in others, and still be a person who is not a child of God.  We can be really good at “playing the game” and still be disqualified from the prize.

The first question then is an important one: Have you made a true commitment to Christ or are you simply playing the game?  Are you a follower of Christ or merely religious?  Daily we must ask ourselves: “Why do I do what I do?  Is it for my glory or for His?”  Daily we must look at our actions and ask if we are trying to enslave people (by making them do what we want them to do) or are we seeking to set them free with the message of forgiveness, grace, and new life?  If Christ has not penetrated the surface of our lives we are no different from the houses on the movie set.  We are pretend, not real.

Second, we need to remember that Christianity is revealed as much by what we do as by what we say.  Let’s listen to what Paul tells Timothy, his young protégé in 1 Timothy 4:12

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.

Paul isn’t saying that we are saved by what we do.  That’s not the case at all.  He is saying (Like James did in his letter) that the person who has truly trusted Christ as Savior and Lord will be different in what they do. When we come to Christ, we have a new heart.  Paul told Timothy to make sure that he gave attention to his character.

All throughout the Bible Jesus calls us to serve, to trust, and to give.  He calls us to be authentic in our worship (worshipping Him and not seeking an experience for us), honest in our prayers, active in our love, forgiving those who offend us, willing to endure hardship for the sake of the Kingdom, and willing to live more simply so we can share our abundance to help the hurting and to reach the lost.  That is the heart of God.

We have an obligation to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ.  In order to do this effectively we must show the world that we believe what we say.  They need to see that we follow Christ in our business, we follow Him when we are at school activities, we follow Him in the way we spend (or don’t spend) our money, we follow Him in the way we treat our family, the way we respond when we are  frustrated or in a time of crisis, and in the way we handle difficult people.  We won’t ever be perfectly consistent. However, we should be working toward consistency.

Our job is not “to put on a good show”.  The Pharisees were good at that.  Our job is to be real.  We must be authentic followers of Christ and not merely pretenders.  We must truly seek Him first rather then seeking Him when he fits into our schedule and budget.

Where is God speaking to you today?  What change does He want you to make in your life?  Are you using your religion to advance your cause or are you seeking to advance His Kingdom?

I suspect we aren’t going to like some of the things Jesus is going to tell us in the weeks ahead.  However, Jesus isn’t trying to stroke our egos . . . He is intent on helping us grow in the faith.  And if we aren’t willing to learn from the experience of the Pharisees, we may very well repeat their mistakes.

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