I met Bill at Men’s Convention last week. He’s 65, and was recovering from open heart surgery two weeks before. And he had trouble standing in one place for long. He needed a seat, so he came and sat down next to me at afternoon tea.
Bill told me he was lucky to be alive. He only found out he needed the heart operation by ACCIDENT. Literally.
He’d broken his wrist, and before the hospital would operate to set the bone, they gave him an angiogram. A scan of his heart blood vessels to see how healthy his heart was. Whether it’d cope with the general anaesthetic.
And the angiogram found a number of the arteries that weren’t working properly. So, a month later he was having A DIFFERENT operation. Open heart surgery. BREAKING some bones this time, instead of SETTING them. They cracked open his ribs, replaced the dodgy arteries, and a valve as well.
And he’s looking forward to many more healthy, active years to come.
If it hadn’t been for the angiogram, Bill would never have KNOWN he had a heart problem. And probably, suddenly, his heart would have STOPPED one day, and he would have DIED.
ON THE OUTSIDE he looked as healthy as the NEXT person. But on the INSIDE, there was a deadly problem with his heart.
And it’s the same diagnosis Doctor Jesus makes about Israel’s leaders. ON THE OUTSIDE they look as spiritually healthy as the NEXT person. In fact, they look FAR BETTER.
But ON THE INSIDE, it’s a DIFFERENT story. On the INSIDE there’s a SPIRITUAL heart problem. Blockages and dodgy valves all over the place. And unless they’re fixed, it’s BAD NEWS. Imminent heart attack and rapid death.
So what we see here in Matthew 23 is Doctor Jesus’ SPIRITUAL ANGIOGRAM. His diagnosis. Looking at the HEART of the problem. Identifying how SICK the Jewish leaders are in their attitude to serving God. All the blockages and disease.
The context is Jesus has been speaking, for a few chapters now, IN THE TEMPLE. The centre of all the sick attitudes to God. And he’s been cleaning it out. And pronouncing JUDGMENT on it.
And he’s been telling parables about the leaders. How they’re like wicked tenants who murder the vineyard owner’s messengers. Or like the rudest wedding guests who refuse to come at the king’s invitation.
And he’s just finished talking about what really counts when you obey God. Back in v37 of Ch 22, he says that the key to ALL our obedience to God is OUR ATTITUDE. About what we’re like ON THE INSIDE. 22:37
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It’s not obedience to keep the LETTER of the law, but not TO LOVE. For God, it’s the MOTIVATION that counts. Unless LOVE is the MOTIVE, it’s like riding an exercise bike. Lots of effort. But you don’t GET ANYWHERE.
It’s ALWAYS been what God notices.
Results of the Heart Test
And now, with all of THAT said, Jesus turns to the crowds and the disciples. And begins to talk about THEIR LEADERS. And proceeds to outline the results of his SPIRITUAL HEART ANGIOGRAM.
He’s FURIOUS with them. God’s chosen this moment in time to send his only Son to them. His long-promised Messiah. A king in the line of David. The most important message of all time.
And, instead of Israel’s leaders RECOGNISING him, and then leading the people to FOLLOW him. They’re HIDING him. Leading people AWAY, rather than TOWARDS God. BLINDING the eyes of the people so they CAN’T see Jesus.
And so Jesus says (v2), don’t IMITATE them. Do what they SAY, because they’re teaching the law of Moses. But don’t do what they DO. They’re hypocrites. They say ONE thing, but do ANOTHER. They don’t PRACTICE what they PREACH.
I had a FEW different holiday jobs when I was at school. ONE job was at a camping store. Which I LOVED. Because I could tell customers about tents and backpacks and boots. About airbeds and sleeping bags and stoves. I knew which ones WORKED and which ones DIDN’T. Because I’d BEEN camping. I was HAPPY for people to imitate me.
ANOTHER year I got a job in an auto parts store. Selling spark plugs and turbo chargers. Suspension kits and diff covers. That was COMPLETELY different. I had NO idea what I was talking about. I’d never even changed THE OIL on a car. It would be FOOLISH for me to give advice to a customer. Or to suggest they do what I did.
But that was what Israel’s teachers were doing. Giving all sorts of advice about things they had NO EXPERIENCE in. So, why would you LISTEN to them?
Here’s the REAL state of their heart.
Impressions more than substance (5)
First, IMPRESSIONS mean more than SUBSTANCE. From v5.
5 “EVERYTHING THEY DO IS DONE FOR MEN TO SEE:
That sums it all up really. All about EXTERNALS rather than ATTITUDES. For SHOW, rather than PERFORMANCE. And Jesus gives some EXAMPLES.
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.’
Phylacteries are little boxes that contain parts of the Scriptures. Jews today still use them whenever they pray. They tie ONE to their upper arm. And the OTHER to their forehead. All because God says, in Deut 11
18 Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
It’s a METAPHOR! In other words, they’re meant to be SYMBOLS of how much you love God’s law. How much you want to obey it with your HEART – your desires and emotions. And with your MIND – your thinking and attitudes. And your STRENGTH – in EVERY area of life.
But, the Pharisees, rather than working hard to change their ATTITUDES AND DESIRES. The DIFFICULT work. They’d just do the EASY thing. Make their phylactery boxes HUGE, so people could see how committed they were.
But a bigger SYMBOL doesn’t mean better desires and emotions. Doesn’t mean better DEVOTION and OBEDIENCE. Which is what God’s REALLY interested in.
Jesus says the teachers were more worried about the SYMBOL than they were the actual OBEDIENCE AND LOVE it SYMBOLISED!
It’s like the bomby old cars you see driving around Blacktown sometimes. Rust buckets. Holes in the muffler. Blowing smoke. But they’ve got mag wheels for speed, a fancy paint job, a rear spoiler for aerodynamics, and an expensive sound system for noise.
All for SHOW rather than PERFORMANCE. Just like the Pharisees.
And not just in how THEY PRAYED. ALL their religious duties were about who SAW them. How much they were approved of, and honoured, and made a fuss of. What reviews they got. What parties they were invited to. And who noticed. Who was taking photos.
And they made sure people used their right title. “That’s DOCTOR Smith, thank you!” They’d be the ones who made sure their degrees were framed and stuck on the wall. And that their qualifications always followed in a long list of letters after their names.
Dr Smith, BSc, LLB, PhD, LOL, BTW, ROFL
And it showed the true state of their heart. As clearly as any angiogram. And Jesus said, “Do what they SAY, but not what they DO.” V8.
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.
Much better to long for the exalting that comes in eternity. The “well done good and faithful servant!” From Jesus, the one whose opinion REALLY matters. Better to long for THAT than to long for the passing praise of men.
And the way to make sure you HEAR it, is to work at HUMILITY NOW. To look at your motives for doing things.
For the teachers (v5). EVERYTHING they did was for PEOPLE to see. How much does that describe YOU?
Even GOOD things – MINISTRY things – can be done for the wrong motives. Done because you want people to NOTICE. To APPROVE. Rather than to serve God out of LOVE.
How much is your desire to do things WELL because you want to please GOD? Or because you want PEOPLE to notice? Want PEOPLE to think you’ve got it all together?
Is your stress in uncomfortable situations concern for God’s glory? Or is it worry that you’ll come off looking silly? People matter more than God.
Does your reluctance to speak up for Jesus say that you care more for what other PEOPLE think about you than what JESUS does?
“Check your heart,” says Jesus.
Empire-building more than kingdom building (15)
The NEXT part of Jesus’ medical report is there in v15. Bad news for the teachers. They’re more into building their OWN EMPIRE than they are building KINGDOM of God.
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.
Converts become a notch on their belt. They’re more interested in what the convert can do for THEM, rather than the other way around. More interested in bragging about their success rate, or how much effort they put in. Than in genuinely helping someone MEET WITH GOD.
All they could do for a poor convert was to infect them with the disease they suffered from. The same legalism, and external rule-keeping. The same SLAVERY. Rather than being able to SET THEM FREE.
What are the areas WE hold dear? Areas where success builds up our self-esteem, rather than necessarily building up God’s kingdom?
Make sure that’s not your motivation. Give up the credit to someone else. Get your name of the top of the letterhead. And out of the limelight. Build GOD’S kingdom, not YOUR OWN.
Convenience more than truth (16)
Next point on the spiritual health report. V16. They’re more interested in CONVENIENCE than TRUTH.
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?
As if God’s interested in the precise form of the words you use when you promise something. Just SAY something, and then DO IT!
To even CONSIDER making rules like this just showed their problem. They were more interested in the APPEARANCE of telling the truth. And in keeping their vow. Than they actually were in just telling the TRUTH.
More interested in keeping loop holes open. So they could slip out of having to keep their word. More interested in what was CONVENIENT, than what was RIGHT.
When are YOU guilty of that? When are you tempted to tell a WHITE lie. Or perhaps say NOTHING AT ALL? Rather than endure an uncomfortable situation? Rather than have to explain yourself carefully, and with some tact?
Speak the truth in love. And don’t DISGUISE it. God wants you to love the truth over convenience, like HE does.
Minors more than majors
Next up Jesus highlights their desire to focus on things of MINOR importance, rather than things that REALLY COUNT. The WEIGHTY matters. V23.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Once again, it was giving God the EASY stuff. The stuff that gave maximum impact for minimum effort. Making sure to give God a tenth of their spice cupboard. It made them FEEL good, but didn’t COST too much.
But they overlooked the injustices and suffering around them. Straining gnats and swallowing camels.
What are the minors YOU major on? You give God your Sunday mornings. You give him the change in the bottom of your purse. You give him 5 minutes in the morning reading your Bible before the news comes on. You don’t swear, or smoke. You don’t drink too much. You stick to the speed limit… mostly. You’re an upright citizen.
And you think you’re doing well. Your conscience is soothed. You’re doing your bit. God MUST be pleased!
But that’s NOTHING! That’s the MINORS. The EASY stuff. The GNATS.
But what about the stuff that REALLY counts? The CAMELS. What about justice and mercy and faithfulness? The tough grind? The things that COST? That no one notices?
What about the persecuted church? Or refugees in detention centres? What about single mothers? Or homeless people? Or dirty, frustrating kids at Kids Club week after week?
What about FAITHFULNESS? Of day after day, every waking moment, living for GOD? Speaking the truth. Serving your family? Loving the people you meet? Investing your time and energy and emotions in others. Patiently enduring. Trusting him despite appearances.
That’s the stuff God’s REALLY interested in. And WOE to you if your heart thinks THE OTHER STUFF is more important.
Externals more than internals (25)
Fifth. They’re more interested in EXTERNALS than INTERNALS. V25. Pretty much summing up what Jesus has been saying so far.
They’re liked cooking pots. Lovely and shiny on the outside. But nobody’s cleaned them on the INSIDE. Still filthy with last night’s dinner.
Or even WORSE. V27. Like white-washed TOMBS. Clean and fresh on the outside, but inside full of rotting flesh and bones. V28.
28 In the same way, on the OUTSIDE you appear to people as RIGHTEOUS but on the INSIDE you are full of HYPOCRISY AND WICKEDNESS.
More concerned with the APPEARANCE of being righteous. Than with actually DOING it.
V29. Jesus rebukes them for the hypocrisy of honouring the graves of the prophets. The hypocrisy of declaring that THEY would never have killed God’s prophets of old like their ancestors did.
Jesus KNOWS it’s hypocrisy because he knows how they’ll treat HIM. That he’ll end up dead, just like the prophets before him. And he knows how they’ll treat the prophets who’ll come AFTER him.
The doctor’s diagnosis
And so Doctor Jesus delivers his diagnosis. What the future holds for people with a heart condition as deadly as the Jewish teachers.
God has spoken his grace and love and righteousness in the person of his Son. And they’ve REFUSED to LISTEN.
And it’s not just THEM. They’re dragging people down WITH them. And Jesus is FURIOUS. V33.
33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so UPON YOU WILL COME ALL THE RIGHTEOUS BLOOD THAT HAS BEEN SHED ON EARTH, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, ALL THIS WILL COME UPON THIS GENERATION.
They’ve rejected God and His Saviour King. So God will reject THEM. Perfectly JUST. They may not even realise it. But it’s exactly what THEY WANT. They want NO PART OF God. They want independence. And that’s what HELL is. And that’s what he’ll GIVE them.
And yet, in the same breath as JUDGMENT is delivered, we see LOVE. And MERCY. Jesus’ COMPASSION and DESPAIR at their blindness. V37
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have LONGED to gather your children together, AS A HEN GATHERS HER CHICKS UNDER HER WINGS, but you were not willing.
Despite it all. Despite the hypocrisy and blindness. Despite the pride and ignorance. Jesus LONGS to protect them.
And of all the striking metaphors Jesus uses in this chapter. The FUNNY, the GROSS, the RIDICULOUS. Pots and camels and tombs. This LAST one is just BEAUTIFUL. And COMFORTING and REASSURING.
A mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings.
Reassuring not just because it’s a IMAGE. But because it’s what Jesus would actually DO.
A hen will sense danger. It might be fire, or a predator, or a storm. And she’ll gather her helpless, tiny chicks under her wings. And protect them safe under her body.
She’ll bear the danger in her own body. So that her children don’t HAVE to.
And that’s EXACTLY what Jesus would do. Bear his Father’s wrath. His anger and judgment at sin. Bearing it in his body when he died a criminal’s death.
And in DOING that his children were PROTECTED. The fire of God’s anger was extinguished. And we could survive.
And it’s ALL of grace. NONE of us are any better than the Pharisees described here. If we’re HONEST, this chapter is like shining a mirror up to OURSELVES. A medical scan of our OWN spiritual hearts.
We deserve the punishment and hell reserved for these rebels EVERY BIT AS MUCH as THEY do.
But instead, we’ve been shown GRACE.
How DARE we treat with contempt the One who’s done so much for us?
Let’s NOT follow the example of these teachers. Let’s commit to cleaning the INSIDE of the DISH, so the OUTSIDE can be clean. Commit to RESPONDING in transparency and open-ness. In obedience and love. In single-minded, all-of-life devotion. In self-less, truthful and enduring service.
Doing it all for glory of God’s kingdom. And nothing for our own reputation. Everything done for GOD to see rather than people.
Let’s humbling ourselves. In making ourselves SERVANTS. So we might be lifted up and exalted on THAT day.
When, rather than saying, “WOE”, Jesus will say, “WELCOME. WELL DONE, good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest!”