As I’ve mentioned before, it’s sadly ironic that the Pharisees were Jesus’ worst enemies all throughout his ministry. He actually agreed more with their theology than with the other sects: They believed in holy living, the authority of the entire Old Testament, the Final Judgment, and the existence of angels, demons, and the afterlife. So what was his major grief with them? Well, this entire chapter is the answer to that question, so we’ll spend the next few days studying it.
The amazing thing, when we consider the tenor of most of this chapter, is that he starts off by commanding respect for their office. Notice I said their office, not the men themselves. Rightly or wrongly, they were in the place of spiritual authority (“Moses’ seat”), so when their teaching aligned with God’s word, it was to be heeded. But their personal lives left something to be desired. In this passage he “pulled back the curtain” and exposed these men’s hearts.
So what was the first charge of indictment? They “[tied] up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” This is not the goal of God’s instructions and commands. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.
Second, they cared more about what people thought about them than what God thought. “Phylacteries” were little boxes containing Scripture that they wore on their forehead and on their sleeves. Moses commanded them to put God’s word on their foreheads and hands as a continual reminder, and they literally did it. Jesus’ didn’t condemn this practice in itself, but he denounced their motives. Simply put, they wanted to impress people with how spiritual they were. They loved to be honored and given great spiritual titles.
This is a good time, by the way, to remind everyone how important it is to know your entire Bible. Paul called himself the spiritual “father” of the Christians in Corinth, so this is not an absolute prohibition of the term “father” or “teacher.” What we have to avoid is the desire to be known for these things so that we can be exalted above others and make ourselves feel important. I might be a "teacher" of you in some sense, but in the most profound sense we're all just students in the Master's school, and we never graduate as long as we're on this side of the Great Divide.
Instead of just pointing the finger at the Pharisees, let’s see if there are three fingers pointing back at us, as the cliché says. What would be the equivalent of making your “phylacteries wide”? Maybe letting your fellow believers know that you’re more spiritual than they are? Do you bask in applause when they compliment how wonderful a Christian you are? Are you doing anything “for people to see”?
Now if you’ll pardon me, I need to have some words with my Savior about this. I expect it won’t be pretty.
Lord Jesus, your word cuts like a knife right through my façade, doesn’t it? Please cut through all the acting, all the desire for men’s applause. Please put it up on the cross, where it belongs.