True Spiritual Greatness: Matthew 23:1-12 (Sermon)


What is the path to greatness? It would be nice if we all were great. Right? Great at sports, great in school, great at work, great relationships. It would be great. I just learned not that long ago—maybe I shouldn’t admit this—when someone calls another person the GOAT, they mean he or she is the Greatest Of All Time GOAT. So, for example:

  • Tom Brady could be called the GOAT of quarterbacks. 

    • With 7,753 Completions. 

    • 12,050 Attempts. 

    • 89,214 Passing Yards. 

    • And 649 Passing Touchdowns. 

  • Some might say that Catlin Clark is the GOAT of Iowa Hawkeye Women’s basketball: 

    • With 3,951 points in her four seasons. 

    • 1,144 assists. 

    • And a 46.2 field goal percentage. 

Maybe we can’t compete with Tom or Catlin to be the greatest of all time in basketball or football, but we can pursue greatness. What would that look like to be great in God’s eyes? 

  • Would it be giving away a lot of money? 

  • Praying a lot? 

  • Would it be reading our Bibles all the way through? 

  • Have perfect church attendance?

  • Sharing our faith with our neighbors? 

  • Or become a missionary? 

What would Jesus say is spiritual greatness? Today, we will find out, and it is not those things. 


I asked P.K. to read this morning. If you are able, would you please stand with me in honor of God’s Word? We are in Matthew chapter 23, starting at verse 1. 

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1–12, ESV)


Thank you. Let’s pray. Dear God, help us as we seek to listen to you. We want to follow you into your kingdom. Please help us not be like the hypocritical, arrogant Pharisees. In Jesus’s name, we pray, amen. You may be seated.


Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Passover during the final week of his life. He came with fans and their messianic expectations. He healed and taught. The religious factions joined forces to confront him. They couldn’t openly arrest him for fear of retribution from the masses. So, they tried to trap him with questions to get him in trouble. Jesus saw through this and tripped them up with their own words. They left tongue-tied. As we begin chapter 23, we read Jesus’s message about his opponents to his disciples and the crowd. He warned them about their value system in contrast with his own.  


As we walk through Matthew verse by verse, let’s remember the major theme: to follow the promised king into his kingdom. Our twelve verses are a preamble to Jesus’s seven woes, cursing the leadership for their lousy fruit. His condemnation paralleled his Beatitudes or blessings of the Sermon on the Mount, where he talked about the heart of the disciple; here, he discussed the heart of the Pharisee. The following is the structure of the twelve verses: 

1: Introduction 

2-3: Jesus Instructed to Obey but not Emulate the Leaders

4-8: The Leaders Hypocrisy and Vanity

9-10: Jesus’s Call To Humility

11-12: Conclusion


The most important verse is verse 12. 

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, ESV).

Say that with me. 

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, ESV).

The path to spiritual greatness is humility. Let me show you why. 

Verse 1

Look at verse 1 if you have a Bible. The passage will also be on the screen behind me. 

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples” (Matthew 23:1, ESV). 

Stop there. You may recall Jesus talking with the Herodians, Sadducees, chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees. They were the leaders with their differing political and theological convictions but joint enemies: Jesus. This verse tells us that Jesus turned his focus to the crowds and his followers. Because of the holiday week, the city had swollen to a population of 180,000 people, six times the normal size. 


What did Jesus say specifically to the crowds and disciples? Jump to verses 2 and 3.

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2–3, ESV).


What was “Moses’ seat”? The commentator I lean on wrote: 

Teachers normally sat to teach (see on 5:1; and cf. 13:1–2; 24:3), and 26:55 will tell us that Jesus followed this custom during this period in the temple courtyard. Given that cultural norm it is likely that to “sit on Moses’ chair” is simply a figurative expression (cf. our professorial “chair”) for teaching with an authority derived from Moses. (R. T. France), The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 859.

So, just as a school may have a department chair, and that chair is a figure of speech, Moses’s seat may be a figure of speech. At the same time, Archaeologists have found some unique chairs in ancient synagogues. Could one of the chairs be “Moses’s seat”? Possibly. The point is they taught Moses’s Laws in the synagogues and sat teaching. God told them to teach Moses's Law, which was God’s Law.  


What did Jesus tell his audience again with that teaching? Do what the leaders were teaching. How could they do that, after knowing their hypocrisy and vanity? Focus on content. Jesus was pointing the people back to Moses to obey not to follow the corrupt ways of the leaders. Where did people find Moses’ teaching back then? In the Old Testament, the Bible. Technically the first five books Moses authored, but he wrote a little more than that with a Psalm or two. Jesus was pointing the people back to the value of the Old Testament. That was their Bible and was and still is inspired by God. 


Some in our day would say we don’t need the Old Testament. They distinguish between the god of the Old Testament and the New or the era of law and grace. That is not true. God doesn’t change, and the Bible is inspired and helpful in helping us know how to live, not just parts of it. 


Verse 2 also relates to our cancel culture. Some have and do teach and live in ways counter to the Bible. But that doesn’t mean that all they teach is wrong. In fact, we can learn from them. We would do well to listen to and be thankful for those we disagree with. They can help us better understand things by changing our perspective to a more correct one, or they can help us better understand our perspective when we are right. God is the God of truth. Let us pursue the truth and not be afraid of it. That said, we would be wise to spend more time listening to Paul after his conversion than before, to Scripture compared to an interpretation. There is a line where we don’t have to listen. We don’t need to listen to ungodly and perverted speech. In verse 2, however, we do see Jesus tell God’s people to listen to the religious leaders of the day who will soon kill him. Then, he goes into his words of warning about them. 


This and Jesus’ future statements about hypocrisy and vanity point us to the humility of godly living. Many say they don’t go to church because of hypocrisy. We can be hypocrites, but that doesn’t justify it. It doesn’t excuse being two-faced. If you are teaching and living differently than how you instruct, then stop. Ask God for forgiveness and start living lives of holiness and purity. Hypocrisy is not acceptable. Jesus was not okay with it, nor should we. 


So, in what ways were these influential leaders hypocritical and arrogant? First, they gave heavy instructions without offering to help. Go to verse 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” (Matthew 23:4, ESV).  

What were the burdens they were laying on people? Well, we don’t know exactly. But we do know how they practiced their faith: 

  • They gave a portion of their herb gardens to God but did not care for their families. 

  • They gave to people experiencing poverty (and ensured everyone knew about it).  

  • They were praying long prayers in public (so everyone knew it). 

  • They fasted twice a week (and made sure everyone knew it). 

They were not merciful. They did lots of religious things; but, for the wrong reasons. However, Jesus was not against religious practices. In fact, he was all for prayer, giving to the poor, and fasting. Jesus went so far as to say, 

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, ESV)

And he said a little while later in the same sermon: 

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” Matthew 5:48, ESV).

The bar was and is high for Jesus’s followers, but unlike the Pharisees, he takes our burdens and gives us a new one. Listen to what he said in chapter 11 of Matthew:  

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light ” (Matthew 11:28–30, ESV).

Do you hear how different he is in describing himself? We can’t go back in time and be perfect. We can’t undo the ways we have strayed from God’s path. Jesus knew we couldn’t meet God’s standards, so he exchanged his perfection for our imperfections. He knew people were poor, broken, and needing mercy. He offered help. He died for the sins of the world and rose victorious. He was and is the substitute who gives us his rightness before God for our unrightness. The Pharisees offered the rules without mercy. They fell short of true spiritual greatness, longing for people to consider them great. 


Now, look at verse 5 and see more of their vanity. 

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5, ESV). 

This sounds a lot like the Sermon on the Mount. They were not doing their religion for God but for people’s pats on the back. 


This verse reminds me of one of the insidious things people do in making reels and posts: they are addicted to how people react. It is not very smart to live for public congratulations. The buzz of likes and followers probably blinded the leaders, and it is the same adrenaline rush people seek when taking pictures of themselves on hair-raising heights and when they fall to their deaths. These religious leaders were drunk on popularity contests. They wanted the glitz and glam, so they did their religion publically to get noticed. Now, was everyone like that? Probably not. Jesus was speaking generally. He was warning them of this error. 


We see three things they did that missed the mark. 

  1. They sought attention in what they wore

  2. They sought attention in where they sat

  3. They sought attention in what people called them

Let’s look at these three. 


Keep reading verse 5. 

“For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (Matthew 23:5, ESV). 

Let me clarify what a phylactery is. Here is a picture:,_reading_scroll_%28Magella%29_with_phylacteries_on_forehead_LOC_matpc.19299.jpg 

Notice the box on his head. That is a Phylactery. There are four places to put small copies of four texts: Exodus 13:1–10, 11–16; Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21. It reminds the wearers to keep the Law of Moses. Here is part of the last text that they have in there: 

And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you. You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. (Deuteronomy 11:13–18, ESV)

That frontlet is a phylactery. 


In verse 5, Jesus also spoke against the long fringes, or, as some versions say, tassels. The leaders wore robes with tassels. You could see them on the man in the picture with a phylactery. 

I have one here. The Old Testament describes them. 


Jump to the book of Numbers, chapter 15, to see what the fringes should be for. We will go back to Matthew 23 in a second. Numbers 15: 

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.” (Numbers 15:37–40, ESV)

These tassels reminded God and his Law, but they were long because the Pharisees wanted recognition. They were flaunting, performing. 


Growing up, I read passages like this and decided I didn’t like pomp and circumstance. I don’t think Jesus was against robes or tassels. It isn’t a sin to wear a tassel at graduation. Jesus was getting at the heart. It is not about a specific length. So, let’s not take this teaching and miss Jesus’s point. Everyone say this with me: 

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, ESV).


So they wanted to be recognized by their clothes and where they sat. Jump to verse 6. 

“And they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:6, ESV). 

They loved the VIP seats, and they loved being honored. However, they had their priorities wrong. Who deserves honor, and what should we love? God. 


Now, is it wrong to enjoy nice seating at a sporting event? Is it wrong that in India, they had the Americans sit in the front row? When you go to a school board meeting, is it bad to put the board with a unique table in the front of the room they sit behind? What was Jesus saying? Why was he highlighting this action? He was showing their true colors. They were not servants but seeking to be served and honored. 


Jesus sounds more like Proverbs: 

“One’s pride will bring him low, 

      but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23, ESV). 

They would have done well to memorize Proverbs 25, verses 6 and 7: 

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence 

      or stand in the place of the great, 

for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” 

      than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. (Proverbs 25:6–7, ESV)

God wants us to love him and people. Do we? The religious leaders loved themselves. Let’s not forget. Say it with me. Verse 12:  

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, ESV).

True spiritual greatness is caked in humility. 


So they loved what they wore, where they sat, and what people said about them. Go to verse 7. They loved: 

“Greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others” (Matthew 23:7, ESV). 

They loved titles and introductions. They are the type that wants the world to revolve around them. They were not loving God but themselves.  

VERSES 8 through 10 

How did Jesus process this fixation? Look at verses 8 through 10: 

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ” (Matthew 23:8–10, ESV).  

We are not to call each other Rabbi. That is fine because none of us would want that. However, what do we do with Jesus’s prohibition on naming each other teacher, father, or instructor? It seems overkill. It looks like something is going on here culturally that needs explanation. What did Jesus mean? Is calling our Sunday school teachers, as teachers, wrong? Or is calling fathers on Father’s Day sinful? I don’t think that is what Jesus meant. He was going after the heart. The leaders prized titles and introductions. That was their focus, not God. They were prideful and conceited. Paul called himself an apostle and spiritual father to Timothy. Jesus’s half-brother had no problem distinguishing people as teachers. They were inspired when they wrote. The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. So, there must be some explanation about what Jesus was getting at in verses 8 through 10. The reality is that we all play different roles in the Body of Christ. Some new believers are not going to be a Sunday school teacher. But that doesn’t mean they are of less value. We are a family of faith. We all have spiritual gifts if we are followers of Jesus. We all are brothers and sisters in the faith. God’s love for us is based on grace and the same Savior. None of us could get to God apart from Jesus dying in our place. Jesus pointed out that loving humility is the focus, not on names, seats, or accouterments—verse 11 points to the direction of true greatness.


Verse 11: 

“The greatest among you shall be your servant” 

If you want to be great, pursue service. True spiritual greatness is wrapped in humility. Jesus is the ultimate servant. Matthew 20:28, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28, ESV). He leads the way. Many of you are tremendous servants. Many of you are great. This contrasts with the Pharisees and religious leaders who want recognition and to be waited on. Jesus concluded with a summary that is a warning and blessing. Verse 12. Together: 

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12, ESV).

If you want to be great in the eyes of God, be a servant. Follow Jesus’s footsteps and put others first. Show mercy. Be meek. But could we be a super servant and miss spiritual greatness? Yes. Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount, pointing people back to his word as the foundation of our hope. Paul said it this way to the church in Corinth: 

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1–3, ESV)

Pursue a path of loving humility to find greatness in God’s eyes. We are better off not thinking about seeking greatness and just focusing on seeking humility, service, and love. Fixing our gaze at greatness can result in more pride and disappointment. If you exalt yourself, you will be humbled, and if you lovely humble yourself, you will be exalted. 


When discussing humility, what about those who suffer under others’ evil? How are we to respond to injustice? Is there a place to stand up for abuse and wrongdoing? Is there a place to confront wickedness? Absolutely. We have good law enforcement and a justice system. It is appropriate to use the laws of our land that protect us and the innocent. 

  • Jesus was not afraid to call people hypocrites and self-righteous. He called out those who were oppressing others. 

  • He would not answer those who asked him questions. 

  • He was confident in his calling. 

So, Jesus modeled a way of loving humility that can be strong, confident, bold, and defiant to those who seek harm. Contextually, he modeled the path of greatness on God’s terms.


What about those of us who see the lives of the Pharisees and are jealous? Perhaps you envy those who have nice clothes, seats, and titles. You long for other people’s vacations, homes, jobs, and life. This reminded me this week of the Tevia from Fiddler on the Roof. He sang: 

“If I were a rich man

Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum

All day long I’d biddy biddy bum

If I were a wealthy man

I wouldn’t have to work hard.” 

Tevia missed it. Things look better when we look at others from afar. But they have their issues, too. God has given us our lot in life. Our job is to pursue loving humility. We can seek greatness, but it is not conventional or pharisaical kind. 


Perhaps you have been like a Pharisee. You are pumped about your roles, titles, and honors. You are living for the recognition of people, not God. You can tell people the right things to think, say, and do, but you don’t do them yourself. You are two-faced. Take Jesus’s words as a warning and invitation. Repent. Turn to Jesus for mercy and grace. Seek humility. How? Seek to serve. Look for ways to listen, care, encourage, love, and learn from others. Follow Jesus. He died to forgive sin and rose to give us the power to live. 


Perhaps you are the model, humble, loving, servant, and following Jesus. Awesome. That is great. You are great. Don’t let it go to your head. God sees you. He will come back and reward those who remain faithful. And when you look back, you will know that he has been holding you and empowering you all along by grace.


Let’s pray. Dear God, help us pursue you without a concern about our position. Help us follow you wherever you lead. We love you, Lord; in Jesus’s name, we pray, amen.

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