A Study in Matthew 23
Years back, my oldest son and I were in the middle of an important “correction” session; I was obviously upset, and he boldly pointed out that I was angry and that I shouldn’t be. Wait a minute; he was the one who needed the correction, not me! Who was he to tell me that my life needed work? Did I have a hard time accepting the truth from one who needed correcting himself? You bet! Although my son was in need of Biblical correction, so was I. At that crucial point, I desperately needed to learn to distinguish between the truth and the bearer of truth.
Speaking to the multitudes in Matthew 23, Jesus drove home the need for that most elusive of qualities—the ability to distinguish between truth and its bearer. But each day I’m more convinced that this quality is on the Christians’ endangered species list. Yet if we’re going to be all that God expects us to be, we must spend time focusing on this vital principle.
A closer look at our text will reveal a wealth of important teaching for modern-day Christians concerned with following God’s truth. Jesus gives us principles governing truth as well as principles governing teachers of truth. To start with, what makes truth to be truth?
The truth Jesus spoke about in the passage is the Word of God. The term “Moses’ seat” was symbolic of the one who proclaimed God’s law to the people. Jesus was not talking about the natural laws or processes that God set into motion at the Creation. Rather, the passage is describing God’s special revelation found in the Bible. That truth is truth because God gave it, because God declared it to be so.
When is truth to be obeyed? Always, even when it comes from the worst of examples. Notice that the truth Jesus urged the multitudes to obey came from hypocrites, the scribes and Pharisees (v. 2). We are obligated to obey God’s truth regardless of its source. Jesus said “whatsoever they bid you . . . observe and do” (v. 3). There are no excuses for not obeying truth. Although we find it hard to accept, a hypocrite or even an enemy may actually share truth with us—and we are still obligated to obey that truth. The character flaws of the human bearer, the abuses by religious leadership, the poor testimony of preacher or layman—none of these release us from our obligation to obey truth. We often think that since another’s life has obvious flaws, inconsistencies, and sins, he certainly can’t speak truth to us—at least not truth that we need to obey. But we’re wrong. We are to follow truth, not people. We are to follow truth, not positions. Truth is not conditioned or mitigated by its bearer, by its package, or by its setting.
Does truth still reign supreme when it comes from your friend, even when your friend lets you down or sins? Do you stop listening to the truth your friend shares with you when your friend offends you by his style, wording, or approach? Are we not sometimes guilty of conditioning our obedience by the wrong set of standards? We must learn to evaluate a man’s message properly. It should be an evaluation based on the content of the message more than the packaging of that content, on its closeness to God’s Word more than the expertise or charisma of the messenger.
Jesus instructed the people to obey the truth given to them by the scribes and Pharisees. In the rest of Matthew 23, Jesus pronounced “woe” on these two groups no less than eight times! And yet it was these very individuals who could speak the truth to the people; the people had to listen and to continually (present-tense command in the Greek) observe that truth.
Of course, no Christian’s poor testimony is to be condoned, and certainly not that of a preacher. But God will not allow us to use another’s sin as an excuse to disregard His Word. Some don’t attend church because of a problem with the preacher or another brother. Some disregard the preacher’s counsel because of a problem with his style; others are disillusioned about Christianity because of a bad experience with a particular church or with a particular Christian.
What are we doing? We’re acting as though truth is made truth solely by the bearer of that truth, as though truth is only binding upon our lives when we “respect” or “enjoy” the bearer of the truth. Remember Paul’s encounter with a hypocritical religious leader in Acts 23:1–5? When that leader accurately quoted God’s Word, Paul immediately obeyed—even though the Word came through the one persecuting him. What a convicting lesson for today’s Christians! Why was Paul able to do this? He was committed to obeying God’s truth, and he was able to recognize the small nugget of truth that came in the midst of great hypocrisy. We should be committed to obeying God’s truth in whatever garb it appears.
Lest a reader think the preacher, teacher, or leader has a license to live any way he wants, notice that Jesus goes on in the text to emphatically indicate otherwise. He gives us essential principles regarding those who teach truth. Modern Christians must learn to listen carefully and critically to anyone claiming to be sharing Scripture. Today, many Christians think just because the speaker is well known, he or she must be speaking truth. Such Christians are failing to listen carefully and to examine thoroughly the speaker’s words for truth.
We must submit to truth for truth’s sake, even though we must learn to avoid teachers whose testimony contradicts their teaching or who do not have a balanced ministry. Jesus points out that these teachers left out important truth in their messages, that they majored on the minors to the exclusion of the “weightier matters” (v. 23). It would be best to avoid teachers who pick and choose what truth they will teach and obey, and whose motives— when evident—are unscriptural. For example, Jesus points out that these leaders’ motives for ministry were selfish and self-serving (v. 5), that their desire for social status had taken precedence over godliness (v. 6), and that their desire for men’s approval and praise had overshadowed God’s favor and approval (v. 7). Our Lord further shows that these leaders used crafty semantics coupled with Bible statements to cover their greedy, sinful practices (v. 14). Their concerns were merely physical and external rather than spiritual and internal (vv. 25–28). God is not pleased when one teaching God’s truth has a life that does not support that truth. He repeatedly pronounces “woe” on such teachers.
Christian, what are we to do? Matthew 23 teaches us to focus on God’s truth regardless of its bearer. But the text also gives us criteria for evaluating those who proclaim God’s truth—not for the purposes of criticizing, of causing them problems, of bringing about strife and division, but for the purpose of avoiding them and placing ourselves under those whose lives are consistent with the truth of God’s Word.
Have you learned to distinguish between truth and its bearer?
At the time of original publication, Dr. Doug Proffit taught at Falls Road Christian School in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 1999. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)