Matthew 23:1-12

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 8, 2020
Matthew 23:1-12

A practice run of the sermon shot on Friday. There may be variations from the text below.
At the beginning of the service:

            Today we’re moving into the 23rd chapter of Matthew. Some commentators think this is one of the more difficult chapters in Scripture. I’m don’t think that’s true. This text is not that hard for us to understand, but it makes us quite uncomfortable. 

Mark Twain claimed it wasn’t the parts of Scripture he didn’t understand that bothered him. It was the parts he understood. This might be one of those chapters. 

Jesus attacks hypocrisy. Much of this teaching is directed at leaders within the religious community, but there are other parts of it applicable to all of us. Hypocrisy is often a problem and the reason many people shy away from church. If our words and actions go together, the church would be much more effective at offering hope to a hurting world.[1]

This is the last chapter in Matthew where Jesus publicly speaks to a multitude. Jesus is probably speaking at the temple, for he leaves there with the disciples shortly afterwards.[2]

I’m splitting this chapter into two parts. Today, we’ll look at what Jesus teaches about humility and service. Jesus teaches us what’s important in God’s economy, a place where the last becomes first, and the first last. 

After the Scripture Reading:


Saturday, a week ago, was Halloween. It was also Reformation Day! On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. This is seen as the beginning of what we know as the Protestant Reformation. 

The Protestant experience has led to widespread changes in the world. This includes fostering in democratic ideals.[3]

One of the key concepts of Protestantism is the “Priesthood of All Believers.” This means all of us have the ability to take our sins to God, through Jesus Christ, for forgiveness. We have access to God and can interpret God’s word for ourselves. 

The impact of this doctrine is greater than the notion of us not having to confess through a priest. It levels the playing field, emphasizing equality. The concept impacts more than the church. It helped promote the view that all citizens are equal. It encouraged the idea of one person/one vote. We could even credit it with bringing us the election we had this week. 

Of course, many of you, like me, became sick of the campaigning and then the counting. It seemed to go on forever. Now, maybe, it’s over and our prayer need to be for the transition to new leadership. 

But before we get too far away from the election, I have a modest proposal for the next one. All politicians should have to read this chapter of Matthew’s gospel and be asked about it. These words should give them, and us, something to ponder. 

Our Savior addresses pride and humility. He condemns how we tend to say one thing and do another. He reminds us not to be concerned with what looks good, but to do what is right and just. 

A good leader is humble and a servant, realizing that they are accountable not only to their constituents, but ultimately to God. A good leader needs to know that there are worse things that can happen than being voted out of office. A leader is always responsible to God!  

But this passage isn’t just directed toward those in authority; it’s also directed toward the rest of us. Sooner or later, we’re all in a leadership position. Whether it is as a parent, on a job, or just as a witness letting our light shine.[4]But a leader isn’t a dictator. 

Jesus says that we should not set people up over us when it comes to our relationship to God. Ultimately, our citizenship isn’t here on earth or in America. We’re called to be citizens of that new kingdom, the one in which Jesus rules supreme.   

Of course, while this text applies, Jesus wasn’t speaking of to the political arena when he gave this talk. He’d made his “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” speech earlier, as we looked at two weeks ago.[5] But his teachings still apply to those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. At the time Jesus gave these teachings, he was preparing his followers for the covenant life of the church.

And, as a pastor, this is a hard passage to swallow. “Practice what you teach,” Jesus says. I know, if I am to be honest, there are times I fail to live up to the standard Jesus sets. This is true for all of us, but it’s especially dangerous situation for those of us in leadership roles. In a way, Jesus addresses the Elmer Gantry’s of the Pharisees. He criticizes the one who can incite a crowd against sin while doing what was condemned and walking away with a pocket full of money. 

Applying the Text:

The key to Jesus’ teachings is humility. Pride leads to a fall, we read in Proverbs.[6] While we will all fail to uphold God’s expectations for us,[7] humility will cover a lot of our sins.[8] Jesus doesn’t condemn the Pharisees’ teachings. Jesus’ condemns how they are so rigid in their treatment of others while they exempt themselves from such behavior. 

Some of you may remember Sam Ervin. He was a senator from North Carolina in my youth and became best known for chairing the Watergate Hearings. He came from a family of Presbyterians, serving the church as an Elder. After retiring from the Senate, Sam collected his favorite stories into a book. One of the stories he tells is about a leading Southern Presbyterian theologian of the 19th Century, Robert Lewis Dabney.  

In the Civil War, Dabney, signed on as chaplain for Stonewall Jackson. He was given the rank of Major. Dabney often preached about predestination. This doctrine teaches that God is in control and has things worked out. He told the men this meant if they were predestined to be killed, there was nothing they could do to stop that Yankee bullet. Consequently, if they were predestined to live, there was no way a Yankee could harm them. 

In a way, Dabney used this doctrine, which is supposed to be about our hope in Jesus Christ, to encourage bravery on the battlefield. I’m pretty sure Augustine or Calvin, the Church’s two great teachers on this doctrine, would not have agreed with Dabney’s application. 

One day, according to Ervin’s story, Dabney was out visiting the men along the line. Suddenly, they were under attack. Yankee bullets buzzed through the air. Dabney ran hard. He dove behind the largest tree around, landing on top of a private who’d already claimed that safe spot. The private, seeing the chaplain on top of him, said, “Major Dabney, you don’t practice what you preach!”

“What do you mean, son?” Dabney asked.

“You’re always telling us that everything is going to happen as it has been planned and predestined by the Almighty and we can’t escape our fate,” the young soldier said. “For that reason, you say we should be calm in battle. I noticed, however, that when those Yankee bullets began to fly and kick up dust, you forgot about predestination.”

“Son,” Dabney responded, “you overlooked two important facts. This tree was predestined to be here, and I was predestined to jump behind it.”[9]

You know, what we do is often more important than what we say. That private understood. 

As I said, Jesus points out in this passage that much of the Pharisees say is right. After all, they teach what Moses taught and you can’t go wrong with that. But they don’t do what they teach. In fact, they often made the law more difficult that it has to be. Then, after raising the bar, they don’t follow it themselves. Such teachers use the law to burden down others. 

If we’re going to be in a leadership position in the church, we have to remember our purpose. We’re here to serve and not to make life more difficult for others. We are not to give others burdens that we’re not willing to accept. This has often been a critique of American missionary efforts. Especially in the 19th and early 20th Century, we tried to make converts be more like us instead of having them focus on Christ. 

Jesus goes on to note that as a Christian leader, we don’t need to have the best seat in the house or the finest and fanciest clothes. We don’t need to bask in honors and shouldn’t be accepting fancy titles. We should be content to be who we are. We should know our salvation isn’t in what we have done. Salvation is found in what Jesus has done for us. For this reason, we respond to him in joy and are his willing servants. 

The late Doug Hare was one of my New Testament professors when I was in seminary. Unlike other professors who insisted that they be called Dr. or Professor, Doug insisted we use his first name. On our first day in his classroom, citing this passage, he said we were all equal. He saw himself as just another Christian, no different from the rest of us. Of course, that wasn’t quite true. Differences did show after grades were issued. Although fair, he was a tough professor. 

You know, being an effective leader requires work. If you are a leader, more is asked of you. You’re often the first to arrive and the last to leave. You’re the one that gets to pick up the slack when others don’t fulfill their obligations. It’s hard work—whether you’re a pastor, an elder, or a leader of a Bible Study. And for our lives outside the church, we might serve on as a county commissioner, a mayor, or a volunteer fire chief. If you’re younger, you might find yourself as a captain of a ball team, a member of the student counsel, or, if in Scouting, a patrol leader. 


As a Christian, we should hold our leaders accountable. Furthermore, whenever we find ourselves in a leadership position, we must remember that we aren’t there for glory and honor. Instead, we’re to serve others honestly and fairly. We’re to always remember that our ultimate allegiance belongs to our one true teacher, our true leader, Jesus Christ.  Amen.  


[1] I would argue that hypocrisy is a problem in all human endeavors (due to our sinful nature). But the church should strive to limit it and should also confess to the world that it’s a problem with which we struggle. 

[2] See Matthew 24:1.

[3] Dee Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1993).

[4] See Matthew 5:16

[5] Matthew 22:21

[6] Proverbs 16:18.

[7] Romans 3:23.

[8] Jesus provides an example of this at another point in his life. See Luke 18:13-14. 

[9] Sam J. Ervin, Jr. Humor of a Country Lawyer, (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1983), 82-83.

22 Replies to “Matthew 23:1-12”

  1. Really good sermon. I’m always appreciative of just how much there is to unpack and learn from even just one line of Scripture. I don’t always have time for videos or podcasts — I’m so glad you make these available to us as texts!

    1. I am like you–I prefer to read as I can do that much faster than if listening (and if I’m listening I’m generally doing something else). My written sermons also contain more information in the footnotes that doesn’t come out in the presentation.

  2. Great message, Jeff, and I look forward to part 2. I hope you and your family are doing well in your new location.

  3. Good sermon. I hope to hear another so clear when I next visit Mayberry. Hope that will be in 2021.

    1. I think it’s a part of the fall. I don’t say that as an excuse, but as a way to show that we need help to get out of the mess we find ourselves in, which is where Jesus comes in.

  4. You know, being an effective leader requires work. If you are a leader, more is asked of you.

    Very true in most cases, until like an Orange Buffoon comes along and plays to existing fears and hates. These last four years have heavily damaged my view on my fellow Americans. Hopefully, the next four we’ll have a better example.

    1. While I try not to spend much time discussing politics in this blog, I think the key term here is “effective.” If you alienate 1/2 of the population, how effective are you?

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