Matthew 23–25: Spiritual Pretense & Spiritual Reality

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 9: Saturday

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying:
“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and keep, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. And they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market­places, and being called Rabbi by men.”
Matthew 23:1–7 LSB

Today’s reading is Matthew 23–25. Matthew 23 is Jesus’ scathing rebuke of the Pharisees. His indictment of Jerusalem is in its final verses on into the opening of chapter 24 as Jesus and His disciples are leaving the temple buildings. When they come to the Mount of Olives, their questions about this coming judgment lead into Jesus’ teaching known as the Olivet Discourse. This is Jesus’ final discourse recorded in Matthew. R. E. Nixon writes:

“It is evident that there are five discourses in the Gospel ( [1] 5:1–7:27, ‘The Sermon on the Mount’; [2] 10:1–42, the mission charge to the Twelve; [3] 13:1–52, the parables of the kingdom; [4] 18:1–35, relationships in the kingdom; [5] 24:1–25:46, the second coming). Each of these is followed by a note stating that when Jesus had finished this teaching He went on to further action.

“The first discourse is basically ethical, the second missionary, the third kerygmatic [proclamation of the Gospel], the fourth ecclesiastical and the third eschatological. It is probable that ch. 23 (the denunciation of the religious leaders) should be taken as part of the final discourse.”1

In Matthew 23, Jesus first addresses the crowds and His disciples; in 23:13 He begins to directly rebuke the Pharisees. He castigates them for their love of honor and pronounces woes upon them for their hypocrisy and lawlessness. The role the Pharisees had carved out for themselves directly contradicted Jesus’ teaching on true greatness in Matthew 18 and Matthew 20.

“But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Matthew 23:11–12 LSB

R. T. France writes,

“The two exhortations to service and humility have occurred separately before (for v. 22, cf. 20:26-27; for v. 12, cf. 18:4); now brought together they powerfully enforce the totally unconventional attitude which Jesus requires of his disciples, in contrast with the status-consciousness of the scribes and Pharisees.”2

Some years ago I found myself scouring the internet and books for information on spiritual abuse. I’d been working on a church project, but communication with a church leader stopped being straightforward, and instead became increasingly nuanced and confusing. Tight control also became more obvious. I tried to be cooperative yet I felt I was being treated badly, but the more I tried to clarify and talk things out, the worse things became, until finally blame were placed on me. In my attempt to understand what was happening I came across a review by John Engler of Healing Spiritual Abuse by Ken Blue. The book sounded helpful, and I bought it.

When Blue wrote this book, he was a pastor with experience in counseling many people who were scarred from spiritually abusive situations—some in churches and some in their homes. Much of the book is based on Matthew 23, because as he was preaching in Matthew:

“I came to the twenty-third chapter where Jesus publicly confronts the Pharisees about the dereliction of their pastoral duties…I realize that the authoritarian, narcissistic ecclesiastical abusers of our day are the modern equivalent of the Pharisees.”3

The analogy doesn’t totally stand because not all spiritual abusers today are as godless as the Pharisees, and Blue does make that clear in his book. He is even-handed with no intention of going on a witch hunt; his definition of spiritual abuse is not designed to encompass any and every church disagreement. He writes,

“…spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.”4

I found the book immensely helpful in cutting through the fog and giving me guidelines to assess my situation. If you’re interested in learning more, the review I linked to above contains lengthy quotes from the book. I brought this up because the problem is widespread. It’s easy for any of us to get caught up in wanting adulation and to be in charge, and to forget that if God calls us to lead, that means God has called us to serve: to be humble, to be a slave. When He said take His yoke and learn from Him, Jesus chose the words meek and lowly in heart to describe Himself. Jesus didn’t break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick; neither should His followers.

Alexander Strauch has written a couple of excellent books on relationships within the church. I read Leading with Love because I’ve been in leadership positions with women’s ministries in various churches. His book, If You Bite & Devour One Another: Biblical Principles for Handling Conflict, can also be read to help prevent conflict!

At the end of Matthew 23, Jesus laments over Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you did not want it. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’”
Matthew 23:37–39 LSB

In Matthew 24–25, Jesus leaves the temple for the Mount of Olives, and there teaches about the Last Days and His second coming. R. E. Nixon writes that Matthew,

“…contains a good deal of teaching about the parousia or second coming of Christ. The word itself is found only in Matthew’s Gospel (24:3, 27, 37, 39)…A number of the parables peculiar to Matthew deal with this theme( 13:24–30, 36–43, 47–50; 25:1–46). He records as much as the other Gospels sayings which relate to the present activity of te kingdom in the person of Jesus, but he clearly has a special interest in the future consummation.5

Nixon titles 24:1–42, “The fall of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of man,” and writes:

“After the introduction (vv.1–3), there is teaching on disturbances (vv. 4–8), persecution and evangelism (vv. 9–14) and the great tribulation (vv. 15–28). These refer mainly to temporal judgment. There follows the coming of the Son of man in final judgment (v. 29–31) and the linking of the two phases of judgment together (vv. 32–36) There are then a number of warnings in the form of illustrations of sudden disaster.”6

The parables on the kingdom of heaven and judgment begin in Matthew 24:43 and continue through 25:30.7 They provide a strong contrast to the Pharisees of Matthew 23, as Jesus teaches about being ready for His return as faithful slaves who are good stewards and in the service and care of other Christians.

Matthew 25:31–46 depicts the final judgment. R. T. France writes,

“This powerful description of the final judgment is sometimes misleadingly described as a ‘parable’. In fact, while vv. 32–33 do contain the simile of a shepherd, otherwise this is a straight-forward judgment scene…

“Until fairly recently it was generally assumed that this passage grounded eternal salvation on works of kindness to all in need, and that therefore its message was a sort of humanitarian ethic, with no specifically Christian content…

“More recent interpreters have insisted, however, that such an interpretation does not do justice to the description of those in need as Jesus’ brothers…It is therefore increasingly accepted that the criterion of judgment is not kindness to the needy in general, but the response of the nations to disciples in need. The passage is sometimes described as an expansion of the theme of 10:40–42, where the gift of a cup of water is specifically ‘because he is a disciple’, so the ‘he who receives you receives me’…The criterion of judgment becomes not mere philanthropy, but men’s response to the kingdom of heaven as it is presented to them in the person of Jesus’ ‘brothers’. It is, therefore, as in 7:21–23, ultimately a question of their relationship to Jesus himself.”8

As you read these chapters take Jesus’ words to heart. Be ready when the Son of Man comes in His glory.

Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees: James Tissot. Public Domain.
Jerusalem Jerusalem: James Tissot. Public Domain.
1,5,6,7R. E. Nixon, “Matthew,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1970) 813, 814, 845, 846.
2,8R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids MI: 1985) 326, 354–355.
3,4Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse pp. 17, 12.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and other ones at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2011–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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