Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees – For Abusing Authority

Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. 4 For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ 8 But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” — Matthew 23:1-12.

Jesus had been tested by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Scribes. In turn, He has tested them and found them deficient in Scriptural knowledge (Matthew 22). He then speaks to the multitudes and to His disciples about the Scribes and Pharisees. He publicly denounces them.

Their Abuse of Authority
They are the religious leaders and teachers. They speak from Moses’ seat in the synagogues with authority. Jesus instructs the crowds to observe and do all that they teach from the Scriptures because the Law is from God and must be respected and obeyed. However, Jesus warns them against following their wrong examples. Their lifestyles and attitudes reveal their true nature – they are false teachers! They teach God’s words but don’t act on them, but follow human traditions (Matthew 15:8,9).

Jesus goes on to declare the true nature of the religious leaders.

They bind heavy burdens. – They were binding on others what they themselves were unwilling to observe. This breeds disrespect for all authority, including the Word of God. If they desired the highest regard for God’s word, they should have practiced what they preached.

All their works they do to be seen by men. – When they did their works, they did to be seen by others. They loved to wear religious clothing that gave an appearance of devotion. With time, such hypocrisy would become evident.

They love best seats and honorific titles. – They loved to receive special treatment from others such as the best seats at feasts and synagogues and using honorific titles.

Jesus expects his disciples to be different. He forbids the use of religious titles. They are to hold God and the Christ in the highest esteem because they (the disciples) are all equal (brothers) in God’s sight. He enjoins humility as the road to greatness.


Not all the religious leaders were hypocrites or false teachers and many believed in Jesus [cf. Nicodemus (John 3; 19:39) and also John 12:42].

Most Scribes were Pharisees, experts in the written law (OT) and the oral law (Talmud) of Israel and were available for practical application thereof. They effectively replaced the traditional OT functions of the local Levites.

“sit in Moses’ seat” (v.2) — The Scribes and Pharisees held authoritative teaching position in the local synagogue or in the local Jewish community.

“make their phylacteries broad” (v.5) — Phylacteries were straps with leather boxes containing scripture texts worn on foreheads and arms. They had relegated the message of the texts to outward ornaments. The texts were to be the guiding lights on their lives. The message of the Law was to inform their minds (forehead) leading to action (arms) in accordance with God’s will.

“borders of their garments” (v.5). — These were blue ornaments on their robes or prayer shawls which reminded them of the Torah (cf. Num. 15:38 and Deut. 22:12).

“best seats” — This was the same temptation related to James and John in Matt. 20:20-28.

“do not be called…do not call” (vv.8-10) — Highest regard should be for God and Christ and not man. All are equal before God (brothers and sisters). Therefore, Jesus forbade the use of religious titles.

“greatest…servant” (v.11) — The greatness of a disciple was to be evinced by his service to others.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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