What do you think when you hear that a bishop is denying the faith? Not so long ago a notorious American bishop publicly taught, among other things, that (I quote): "since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt;" and, "the miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity;" and, “the view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed."
That is the hallmark of theological liberalism - to deny much of God's word and truth. And if you are a believer, you are not only distressed but appalled. Three Sundays ago we thought about the New Testament Sadducees in our series on Matthew's Gospel. They were the theological liberals at the time of Jesus. They, too, denied much of God's word and truth.
But there are other sorts of misleading teachers. For example, what do you think when you hear that another bishop - a Welshman this time - is not directly denying the faith like that American bishop. Rather, he claims to accept the Bible’s teaching, but then reinterprets it so that his own teaching contradicts the Bible. When interviewed about that American bishop, this bishop said that he didn't really agree with him. And that was good. But then in the same interview, and in the light of current debates in the Anglican Communion on moral issues, he was asked about homosexual behaviour. His reply was this:
"I read what the Bible says about homosexual behaviour in the light of what we know of the environment at the time ... And it took me a while to come to this sense but I did come to a point where I could no longer say the biblical account answers all the questions we have or want to ask. So I found myself rather reluctantly coming round to thinking that the Church should be rethinking its position on this."
But that is the hallmark not of those who reject or subtract from the Bible, but of those who add to it their own traditions, both traditions of interpretation and traditions of new morality. And if you are a believer, you are not only distressed but also appalled at this as well.
Well, this morning we are to consider the New Testament example of those who added their own traditions to the teaching of the Bible - the teachers of the law (or the scribes as they are often called) and the Pharisees. We've come to this section in our series in Matthew's Gospel that deals with this issue. That is why it's good to preach systematically through a book as we are doing. It forces you to preach on the uncomfortable passages as well as the comfortable ones, the difficult passages as well as the easy ones. This is both difficult and uncomfortable. And I have drawn the short straw!
But are you surprised when you hear of church leaders teaching in this misleading way? You shouldn't be. Among the last things we know the apostle Paul did in his public ministry was to warn Christians of Misleading Leaders - our subject this morning. He told the elders of the Church at Ephesus according to Acts 20.30:
"Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them."
Then in what some have called his “last will and testament”, he told his young friend Timothy in 2 Timothy 4.3:
"For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear."
And Jesus himself gives us a similar warning in what, if you like, is his "last will and testament" in Matthew chapter 23. This chapter contains some of the last teaching of Jesus in the short period before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. So this warning must be very important. We will now, therefore, turn to Matthew 23.1-12 and I want to speak, first, about these misleading leaders' truth - THEIR TRUTH; secondly, about THEIR MOTIVES; and, thirdly, THE ANTIDOTE.
First, THEIR TRUTH;
Jesus is going to making a searing attack on these religious leaders - the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. But straightaway he makes it clear that he is not attacking the law of Moses or - in our terms - the Old Testament. Look at verses 2 and 3:
"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you."
Let me explain. Teachers of the law and the Pharisaic party that later evolved amongst them went back to the time of Ezra and the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. You read in Nehemiah chapter 8 how, after the return, Ezra "the scribe" and his assistants,
"read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read."
And these "scribes" or teachers of the law had a duty to preserve the law of Moses and transmit it. But - and this is the big “but” - they also built up a body of non-biblical tradition that was not divinely inspired and not written down. They then added this on to the divine Mosaic biblical tradition of law. It was an oral tradition both of interpretation and of morals or behaviour. And key parts of this tradition were attacked by Jesus. Yet, these teachers undoubtedly sat in the seat of Moses in wanting to teach Moses' teaching. And they were, indeed, to transmit that biblical tradition of Mosaic law faithfully. But they often failed to do that because of these other non-biblical traditions. The word in verse 2 is in the past tense - literally it is "the teachers of the law and the Pharisees sat [not sit] in the seat of Moses." So, when Jesus says, "you must obey them [these men] and do everything they tell you," clearly Jesus is not referring to their non-biblical traditions. He is referring to the true Mosaic tradition and to every part of it, understood as God intended it and as Jesus himself taught it, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 and following.
But it is here that you have a special problem with false teachers or misleading leaders who add to, rather than subtract from, the Bible. Some of what they say will be true in isolation. The error is in their additions and new interpretations. And these additions poison the whole. So that Welsh bishop who is now Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and who criticized the American bishop, Jack Spong, was right and true on that point. Similarly, here, in so far as these teachers of the law are true to their calling to Mosaic faithfulness, they are to be obeyed. But when they go beyond that, from what you can see of Jesus’ earlier teaching in Matthew, they must be resisted. In the same way the Archbishop of Canterbury must be resisted over his teaching on homosexual behaviour.
So Jesus is underlining that his opposition to these teachers of the law and the Pharisees, in no way means he is rejecting the fundamental law of God. True, the Old Testament sacrificial and temple law was fulfilled by Christ at Calvary; and the civic dimension of Old Testament law for the Jewish nation could be applied after the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the following dispersion. But God's moral law and much else of the Old Testament's teaching was, and is, of permanent relevance. Yet it was this fundamental law and teaching that the Pharisees were obscuring. And they obscured it in at least four ways – as do their successors today.
First, they so reinterpreted God's word that it meant the very opposite of what was intended. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law did this, for example, with God's commandment to "Honour your father and mother." By their clever arguing they said you did not have to "honour your father and mother" if you played your cards right. But Jesus said to them (Matthew 15 verse 6) by doing this ...
"… you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition."
In this, therefore, they were less strict than God's word. Possibly this is the sort of context for the second half of verse 3:
"But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”
They preach that you should “honour your father and mother”, but practically they do the opposite.
Secondly, with some traditions they were more strict than God's word. This is what you have got in verse 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."
This was particularly true of the traditions relating to the Sabbath as you can read in Matthew 12. Yes, you are to obey the basic teaching regarding the Sabbath - namely that one day in seven is to be a day of rest; and it is to be a time when you focus on God and his word. But, no, there is not to be the legalism of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. They attacked Jesus and his disciples for picking ears of corn and eating them. Jesus will have none of it.
Thirdly, with other traditions there was too great a concern for external symbolism rather than for the internal state of the heart. You have that with the case of ritual washing. Jesus' disciples were attacked for not washing their hands. You can read about that in Matthew 15.
And, fourthly, with other traditions there was a total lack of proportion. You have that with tithing as you will be learning next week. Again Jesus supports tithing as a general principle - but not the legalism of the Pharisees and teachers of the law who argued over precisely what should be tithed. At the same time they neglected the fundamentals of the law - “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23.23).
So with these men you have truth and error all mixed up. That is a particularly dangerous mix, because the parts of their teaching that echoed the truth of Moses and the truth of the Old Testament blinded people to the gross error in the remainder of their teaching. And it is like that today with those who add to God's word. So beware, one, of those who are less strict than God's word, by reinterpreting it to mean the opposite of what it says; two, of those who are more strict than God's word by adding prohibitions that God never intended; three, of those who make external ritual more important than the state of the heart; and, four, of those who get things totally out of proportion. But what are the motives of these people? That brings us to our second heading.
Secondly, THEIR MOTIVES;
We must be careful. There is no reason to suppose that if you met one of these teachers of the law or Pharisees in Fenwicks they would necessarily be unpleasant. Some would seem very nice. For example, two weeks ago Jonathan Pryke spoke about the teacher of the law who asked the question about "the greatest commandment in the Law" (Matthew 22.36). According to Mark’s account he was commended by Jesus for his comments. After his discussion with Jesus, we read (Mark 12.34),
"When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God.'"
But he still wasn't there yet. And Nicodemus was a Pharisee - the man who came to Jesus by night and that you read about in John 3 and it seems that in the end he became a believer. However, these men here in Matthew, no doubt, thought they were helping a lot of people in their obedience to God and to avoid God’s judgment. But according to Jesus, at the same time, their deeper motives were not altruistic at all but thoroughly selfish. Look at verses 5-7:
"Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the market places and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'”
So they were motivated by three things. First, they were motivated by the love of praise. The phylacteries were parchments containing verses of the Old Testament placed in a small leather container and worn on the forehead and left arm. So they made these and the tassels on their cloaks so big that every head turned when they walked by, with people, foolishly, thinking they were particularly holy men. Secondly, they were motivated by pride. Look again at verse 6:
"they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues."
Thirdly, they were motivated by the love of power. Look again at verse 7:
"they love to be greeted in the market places and to have men call them 'Rabbi'."
"Rabbi" means, "my great one". Probably it was not yet a technical title. But it was used of a respected teacher. As we might say, "here comes the great man himself!" So they were motivated not by the love of God and a concern for his glory, or, really, by a concern for others, but by their own selfish interests – their love of praise, their pride and their love of power. Well, what, then ...
Thirdly, is THE ANTIDOTE?
Look back to verse 1. Jesus is speaking "to the crowds and his disciples." Remember, this is his “last will and testament”.And what he is saying is not only for the crowds - the fringe, but for his disciples - the inner circle. He knew that they even they could be seduced by misleading leaders and false teachers. So the antidote is to heed Jesus’ warning. But - and this is so important - it is not just a warning to avoid false teachers. It is also a warning that they (and we) should not become like these men ourselves. Jesus, after all, challenges his disciples. We, therefore, should challenge one another.
So how often are you tempted to be more concerned with what others think of you rather than with God’s will and what he thinks of you? Are you motivated by a love of human praise? Then how many want a "place of honour"? So if you are not asked to do something in the church, when someone else is, do you feel aggrieved? Are you in danger of being motivated by pride? And how many want to be the "great man" or the "great woman" - in one way or another. Are you in danger of being motivated by a love of power? Oh! You don’t have to be in Westminster for all this to be going on. You can have it in schools, in offices, in hospitals and sadly also in churches.
And then how many, with all the secularization and increasing Godlessness, are tempted to react and reinterpret the Bible so that it allows you to do exactly what the pagan world is doing (while deep down you know it is wrong)? Or are you tempted to become more strict than the Bible in a frenetic attempt to secure what you consider godliness? Or are you tempted to become more concerned with external matters rather than matters of the heart? Or are you tempted to get some aspects of biblical truth out of all proportion and neglect more important things? So that is one antidote – to heed Jesus’ warnings. But then look at verses 8 –12:
"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The heart of the Gospel is to realize that none of us is the "great one" - Christ alone is Master and Lord. Who needs to come to realize that this morning? Perhaps for years you’ve been seeking to put yourself at the centre of your universe. So why not listen to Jesus Christ this morning and put him first? He loves you, cares for you and wants the best for you.
And if you are a disciple and become a teacher, don't allow yourself to be uncritically fawned upon. And don’t cultivate great father figures in the church and the world that people uncritically look up to. Christ alone is our great teacher; and our Father in heaven is our only great Father. No human being can ever take their place. Nor are you being obedient to Jesus by simply refusing to call people "teacher" or refusing to use the word "father" in a church context. Paul saw no problem in calling himself the "father through the gospel" of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 4.15). No! The gist of this is clear and spelt out in verses 11 and 12 – and with this I conclude:
"The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
The gospel - the good news of Jesus - is the very opposite of all the Pharisees stood for. It points to humility. They should have learnt this from the example of Moses. You see, you can never be good enough for God. Yes, God's law is important. It still is to guide you. It still shows that you the need for forgiveness. It still restrains the worst excesses of human sinfulness.Yes, you still are to be obedient to it in the way Jesus intends. But you cannot do that in your own strength.
However, the good news is that God loves you, forgives you and accepts you apart from his law - because of the sacrifice of Christ for all your law-breaking. He died in your place. And by his Holy Spirit he can strengthen you to live more in accordance with God's word and law - not God's word and law plus nor his word and law minus, but his word and law as revealed in the bible alone.