Day 23

Jesus Rebukes the Religious Leaders

from the reading plan

Matthew 23:1-39, Jeremiah 3:14-15, 1 Peter 5:2-4

I still hear the applause from the first time I led music at church. Was that praise for me? What a rush! I asked my youth leader, “Wasn’t that great?”

Eyes narrowed, he responded, “Was the Lord worshiped?”

Self-glory is a tremendous temptation no matter where we find ourselves influencing others. Whether on a platform, behind a pulpit, leading a small group, or one-on-one conversation, doing great things for God entices our pride. Like the people around Jesus, we face our own temptations to lead for personal gain or be anxious about our status in the kingdom.

Throughout the gospels Jesus rebukes religious leaders, His own disciples, and all of us caught in cycles of self-glory. In Matthew 23, Jesus is in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover with His disciples, a ragtag group including fishermen and tax collectors. Meanwhile the religious leaders flaunted their riches and respectability. Speaking to this mixed crew, Jesus rebukes the religious leaders, saying to the disciples, “They know their stuff but their hearts are no good. Do what they say not what they do. Have no master but God.” Then Jesus turns to the religious leaders and pronounces seven woes on them. It is a costly thing to serve only for self-glory.

In Matthew’s Gospel it is easy to see the Pharisees as the bad guys. In fact, by all earthly standards they were decent fellows—educated, religious, respectable. But Jesus saw things differently. The Pharisees led to preserve that image. They’d become absorbed in doing great things for God, the problem with the Pharisees was that their exterior did not match their interior.

In sharp contrast, Jesus’s glory is found in sacrifice. Rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus announces the true way of God, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). The way of Jesus shocks all earthly greatness, but His true greatness is proved on the cross.

Peter, who witnessed Christ’s suffering, would later write a letter about living in line with the way of Jesus. Peter writes for any of us who have influence, especially leaders—that we should lead willingly not for dishonest gain but with eagerness to serve. In humility we’ll receive an unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:4). Greatness in Christ’s kingdom is loving service flowing from the inward transformation we receive by faith alone, as Jesus says that this transformation comes from obeying God alone. His rebukes echo the promise made to exiled Israelites in Jeremiah 3:14–15, “Return, you faithless children…for I am your master…I will give you shepherds who are loyal to me.” Our calling is not to influence or status. Our calling is to worship the Lord and remain faithful.

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