Matthew 23:11-12: A Challenge And An Invitation

“You Pharisee!”

If someone shouts that phrase at you, they’re not offering you a compliment. In Matthew 23, we see why there are such negative connotations to the term. This chapter makes some of us squirm, some of us shout hallelujah, and should probably make all of us do both.

In it, Jesus is addressing a crowd of people, along with his disciples, and is speaking against the scribes and the Pharisees. Now, it is popular in some Christian circles to think of the scribes and the Pharisees simply as the “bad guys” in Jesus’ story. However, in Jesus’ day, they would have been seen not as the bad guys but as the heroes by most of the population.

They were the most faithful, it was thought, to the Law of Moses. They were a reform movement, seeking to prepare the people of God for the coming of Messiah. They opposed worldly elements in the Jewish community and opposed compromise with the world full of sin and hate for God’s people. And they looked good doing it.

So, many 1st century Jews would have looked up the scribes and the Pharisees, approved of them, and would have wanted to be like them.

Then Jesus shows up and starts challenging the popular narrative.

Matthew 23 contains a stark condemnation of the scribes and the Pharisees. 

Our focus will be on verses 11-12 but let’s look at verses 1-12 for context.

Matthew 23:1-12 (ESV)

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Beginning with the scribes and Pharisees’ tendency to make religion an outward pretense of righteousness that hid hearts seething with sin, Jesus then continues by delivering a series of body blows in the form of startling “Woe” statements.

It’d be easy to revel in Jesus’ takedown of these religious hypocrites, but that’s not how I think we’re supposed to approach the text. We’re not supposed to laugh at the helpless scribes and Pharisees. We’re supposed to take note of the warning issued to those who would pretend to serve God but instead are serving themselves.

This passage challenges every one of us to be different, changed by the gospel of the kingdom and by our submission to the King.

The focus of the passage is not on the beatdown given to those religious hypocrites, but on our hearts and considering whether we ARE those religious hypocrites.

In short, I think Jesus intends that we ask: “am I any different from the scribes and the Pharisees?”

But Matthew 23 is not just a challenge; it is also an invitation. An invitation to a better way of faith and life. An invitation for us to put down self-righteousness and put on the example of Christ.

Read verses 11-12 again:

11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Here, Matthew is bringing together two separate streams of thought that he’s already addressed in his gospel.

We’re going to look at those two streams of thought, but first, we need to see how Jesus is getting to the heart of two of the most important questions in our world today:

  1. What is authority?
  2. How should it be used?

You might be surprised by my labeling those two questions as some of the most important.

Some might think that these questions are not as important as questions like, “When does a fetus become a human?”, “Can two men marry each other?”, or “Should churches meet during a pandemic?”

But those are questions that presuppose authority and therefore can be framed as questions about authority: “Who has the authority to decide that abortion is an option?” “Who has the authority to define marriage?” “Who has the authority to decide if the church meets?”

Ultimately, every question can be reframed as a question of authority: “Does 2+2=4?” can be reimagined as “Who has the authority to say if 2+2=4?”

Questions of authority and its use are vital because we live in a world that is confused about the issue of authority.

On the one hand, we have the shrill voice of social media, popular culture, and our own sinful hearts proclaiming that the individual alone has authority. That I have the right to self-expression. That I have the right to live however I want. That I am law-maker, judge, and boss of my own life.

On the other hand, we have the booming voice of government and secular philosophy, declaring that we must do what they say, that humanity is fluid, that eternal truths are nonexistent, and that they are in charge.

That’s a recipe for confusion if ever there was one: The individual is in charge. No, the government is in charge. The individual has authority. No, the government has authority.

But Jesus clears up the confusion for us later in Matthew 28, in verse 18:

“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.”

The individual doesn’t have the authority: Jesus does.

The government doesn’t have the authority: Jesus does.

I don’t have the authority: Jesus does.

That’s why chapter 23 serves as an invitation to a better way. A way that gives us the freedom to serve instead of the chains of seeking to be seen. A way that frees us from continual self-promotion and allows us to rest in the promoted Christ instead.

Verse 11 says:

The greatest among you shall be your servant. 

Greatness in the Kingdom of God is not found in ruling over others but in serving them. We need to remember that this statement from Jesus comes in the midst of one of the clearest condemnations of religious hypocrisy ever uttered. The scribes and the Pharisees do everything to be seen by others in order that they might gain power over them. Jesus calls his followers to do everything to serve others, in order that Christ’s power might be displayed among them.

Our society calls for us to advance ourselves, to demand authority, and to impose our will on others. Christ calls us to demote ourselves, treasure opportunities to serve, to allow our King’s will to impose on our lives. Jesus contrasts the self-serving religion of the scribes and Pharisees with the others-serving faith He asks of His followers. He flips the worldly order of things on its head to function as the rule for His people. It is those who serve who express Christ-like authority, not those who reign.

And He is not calling us to something that He did not first demonstrate for us:

Check out Matthew 20:25-28:

25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Son of Man is the King, Jesus. Jesus is also the Son of God. For that matter, the Son of God is God, our God. And our God is the God whose glory is seen best in His humility; whose righteousness was declared not merely with words but with acts of service; whose perfection is most clearly seen not in a pristine palace, but in death, even death on a cross.

The Son of Man came to serve. The Son of Man came to die. The Son of Man calls us to do the same.

To serve the local church, using our God-given gifts and abilities. To serve our families, pointing them to Christ.

To serve our neighbors by meeting needs and sharing Good News. To serve the stranger, welcoming them as friends.

To die to our selfishness, and to live for Christ’s purposes. To die to our secret sins, confessing them and letting the light of Christ shine into every dark corner of our hearts. To die to the world and its system of death-dealing temporary pleasures. To die to self-promotion and to live in the kind of humility that rings in the commissioning quote of the Moravian missionaries: “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.”

And in so serving and in so dying, to find that, perhaps to our surprise, we are more alive than we ever thought possible. That when we serve, we are filled with greater joy than is possible to find by seeking our own happiness. That when we die to ourselves, crucifying our pride, we find life hidden around every corner, in every place where we find God’s presence, life the way Christ found it, resurrection life.

I love this time of year at my home in Kentucky. The ice and snow are behind us and spring is in front of us. The animals are moving around more, leaves are coming out on the trees, and the blossoms of the fruit trees are starting to open.

Some of my favorite trees are our persimmon trees. I am praying they will bear a large crop of small, orange fruit. For most of the year, you can’t see the fruit: it’s so small and green, that it hides in among the leaves of the tree. But in the fall, they begin to turn a light orange that clearly stands out from the surrounding leaves. It’s tempting to want to pick them, but I only made that mistake once. First, they are hard to get off the tree! It’s like they are clinging to the branch with all their might. Once you get them off the tree, though, you see what looks like a ripe persimmon. But if you try to eat it, it will turn your mouth inside out. It is so sour! I couldn’t feel my tongue for an hour after trying it.

To enjoy persimmons, you have to wait. You have to wait until the persimmon lets go of the tree on its own. Once it does, you can pick it up off the ground and eat it without fear. When you eat a persimmon that has fallen from the tree, it is a totally different experience from eating one that you picked. It is sweet, somewhat fuzzy, smooth, and a little citrusy.

What made the difference between the sour persimmon I picked and the sweet one I picked up off the ground? I don’t know, I am not a food scientist. From my perspective, the persimmon let go of the branch and fell to the ground and somewhere between those two points, it changed. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for what happened, but to me, without that knowledge, it is a miracle. Before, it was not good, but after it was a delight.

The same thing happens to us. So long as we cling to our authority, our high place, our branch, our life, we are bitter to others, useless to our King, good for nothing. But once we let go, once we willingly fall to serve, choose to die, our life becomes something sweet to those around us, a vindication of our King, and useful in His Kingdom. But unlike the persimmon, we know the reason: it’s because of Christ. Christ makes the change in us.

The path to greatness in the kingdom is the same as the path to sweetness for the persimmon: to let go and fall down. To let go of self-centered authority and to fall down into service. To serve instead of demanding to be served. To allow Christ to live in and through us. This required a great deal from Christ. But this also requires a great deal from us. It requires effort and a change of mindset.

This leads us to verse 12:

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

You cannot serve if your desire is to be great. You can only serve if your desire is for your life to show that Jesus is great. 

Humility was not always seen as a virtue in Jesus’ day. A great man or woman had to look great, act great, and thus pretend to be great. There were so few possibilities for societal advancement that there was a constant pushing for the positions available, a survival of the fittest approach to engagement.

Then Jesus comes along and says something like we see in Matthew 18:4

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a small child and had him stand among them. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “unless you turn and become like little children,you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me.

Children were not great and welcoming children was not a hallmark of the high and mighty. Jesus, as He so often does, contrasts the values of his kingdom with the values of the world.

To be like children is the key.

Jesus didn’t mean that we were to throw temper tantrums, fight with our siblings, and know very little about the world around us. He meant that we were to be without the world’s brash and demanding authority, humble and aware of how small we are in such a big world. He intends that we value such people, welcome them..and that we be such people.

Then we will see the great reversal take place

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

The way of the world is to seek exaltation now, to wield authority now. But such a way of life demands our humiliation in the future when Jesus proves that He alone possesses all authority.

Instead, Jesus invites us to an incredible reality, one in which the world’s hopes and dreams are subverted and reversed. Jesus says that if we will humble ourselves in the present, we will be exalted in the future. If we humble ourselves in the midst of this fleeting, fighting, crazy world, we will be exalted in the eternal, united, peaceful new heavens and new earth.

I am not a runner. But when I was younger, I signed up with a team to run the Sawtooth Relay, a race that takes teams from the mountains of central Idaho to downtown Boise. There were twelve runners to a team and each of them would run two six-mile legs of the course. I looked at the map and decided I wasn’t a fool: I took a gradual, downhill, part of the course in the mountains as my first leg. It would be cool since I’d be running at night and I figured it would be easy. Of course, picking that leg meant that I would have to run the last leg of the relay as well. That would be in the heat of the day, but I figured that since it would also be at a lower elevation, I could do it.

I was partly right: the first leg was easy. So easy, in fact, that I was convinced that I would dominate my second leg. I didn’t. It was 100 degrees out and there was a slight uphill to that part of the course, much harder than the night before. I made it five miles. I puked on myself and didn’t finish the last mile. I had to have another runner take my place.

I chose the easy path on the front end and ended up humiliated on the back end.

Sounds like Matthew 23:12. When we look at the Kingdom of God, reliance on the effort exerted for an easy front end leads to humiliation on the back end. Because we are not in charge. I chose to run at first in the cool of night, but the sun exerted its will on me in the end.  

When we bring the image over, we see that it’s a question of when we exert our effort and when the King exerts his authority. If we put our effort into seeking power and control in this life, the King will exert his authority to humble us in the next. If we put our effort into humility in this life, the King will exert his authority to exalt us in the next.

Do not miss this: when we humble ourselves, when we serve others now, Jesus will use his authority, all the authority in heaven and on earth, to raise us up with him in the next. But if we seek exaltation now, Jesus will use all that authority, all the authority that exists in the universe, to ensure that we are humbled for all eternity.

11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.