Jesus had a lot to say to the religious leaders of His day. Some of His words were pretty harsh. His charges and comments really touched the root of the problem among the Jewish leaders. It all came down to a "heart problem." There were a lot of problems within the hearts of the leaders that they had not dealt with. As evidence of this, consider some of His severest words to those leaders, as recorded in Matthew 23:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt. 23:25-28, NASB)
A WORD OF CAUTION
Let’s take a look at some of the comments Jesus had concerning the religious leaders of His day in order to see what application there might be to us. Please allow me to start with a word of caution. When Jesus criticized those leaders, they generally were not only defensive, but they grew in animosity towards our Lord. Eventually, they brought Him to the Roman government to be put to death and stirred up the people to call out for His crucifixion. In other words, their way was to react against the criticism by exonerating themselves and seeking to kill the One criticizing them.
This was surely not wise. In our fallen humanity we tend to be defensive against any criticism. But Soloman tells us what is wise: "He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding." (Pr. 15:31-32, NASB)
I appeal to you, my brothers, to remain open to the words of Jesus regarding the problems among leaders. If you have ears to hear and remain humbly open to Him, perhaps God would speak to you today regarding your heart and your leadership.
THE PROBLEM OF HYPOCRISY
Jesus said, "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them." (Matt. 23:2-3, NASB). In the same scene of rebuke to those religious leaders Jesus boldly spoke of their hypocrisy: "Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Matt. 23:28, NASB) In the gospel of Luke Jesus likened this hypocrisy to evil leaven. "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." (Lk. 12:1, NASB)
Here is a problem. Christian leaders may instruct others from the Bible and yet not practice what they preach. How about your ministry? Are you seeking, by God’s grace, to put into practice what you are asking of others? When you ask them to give sacrificially, are you doing it? While you instruct them to live clean lives, are you secretly indulging in sin? When you tell others to live in full surrender to the Lord, are you holding back areas from the Lord in your own heart?
Jesus continued: "and they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger." (Matt. 23:4, NASB) Here Jesus was speaking of the legalistic tendencies of leaders. Such leaders love to lay the "law" down on the flock, instructing them with many "dos and don’ts". But such instruction simply loads the flock down with a yoke they cannot bear, and leaves them feeling defeated and guilty (Acts 15:10). In the New Testament, we are freed completely from the law and joined solely to Christ (Rom. 7:4; Gal. 3:24-25). Are you just a commandment teacher, or are you one helping the flock to grow in the way of grace, showing them how they can experience Christ as their very life (Gal. 2:19-21; Col. 3:3-4)?
THE DESIRE TO BE ELEVATED
Then Jesus said: "But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues..." (Matt. 23:5-6, NASB)
Fallen man secretly loves attention, recognition and honor. When around other believers, do you worship, pray, fast or do other Christian duty with a secret motive to be noticed and admired by them? Jesus warns us that doing these kinds of things to be noticed will cost us forfeiture of reward when He returns (Matt. 6:1-5). We should not do things to be noticed by others, but only to please our Father (Matt. 6:4, 6).
A great danger of Christian leaders is the desire to be elevated and admired. Do you cherish recognition, including having a special place to sit at the front of the congregation, or at other gatherings? Jesus taught us that we should humble ourselves and not exalt ourselves (Lk. 14:7-11). When the desire for public recognition raises its ugly head within us, brothers, we should put it to death by the Spirit of God, and give Him all of the glory, not ourselves.
Jesus continued to speak about the leaders in the verses that followed those noted above:
And they love...respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi. But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is Christ. But the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matt. 23:6-12, NASB)
Dear brothers, what could be clearer than this teaching of Christ? Can you explain to me why Christian leaders ignore these words of Christ and choose to be called by titles that speak of exaltation and special status above all of their fellow brethren, names like "Reverend", "Father", "Bishop", "Elder" or "Pastor"? Is not the problem one of the heart, wherein fallen man loves to be exalted?
If you have been using a title (or letting others so address you), are you willing to drop it and tell the Lord that you want no title or exaltation, but that you desire the reality of being a servant to the brethren? The Bible teaches that leaders should lead by example (1 Pet. 5:3). If you want the flock to exhibit the humility of Christ (Phil. 2:5-8), then take the lead in humility yourself.
THE PROBLEM OF MAMMON
"No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other, or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts..." (Lk. 16:13-15a, NASB)
It seems like money is often a test to the Christian leader. Does the minister love only God, or is he a lover of money? Does he minister to serve God and others, or is self-interest involved?
Peter’s admonition to the elders says, "shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God, and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness." (1 Pet. 5:2, NASB).
The Greek word for "sordid gain" is transliterated as aischrokerdos (Strong’s number 147). This is a compound word with the first part (aischro) meaning shameful or base (as opposed to being pure), and the second part (kerdos) meaning gain. Strictly speaking, it does not have to refer just to monetary gain.
The meaning of 1 Peter 5:2 is that shepherding of the local flock must be something done willingly of the heart, according to God’s calling, and not done with the impure motive of gain. Titus tells us that some were teachers simply for "the sake of sordid gain." (Titus 1:11c, NASB)
THE EXAMPLE OF BALAAM
On this point, let us consider for a moment the case of Balaam. In speaking of the false teachers and prophets in the church, Peter states that "forsaking the right way they have gone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness." (2 Pet. 2:15, NASB) Here the Bible clearly states that Balaam had a problem with the love of money.
The account of Balaam in Numbers 22 is an account of his testing. It has lessons regarding the testing of any servant of God. Balak solicited Balaam to curse the children of Israel. In order to entice Balaam, Balak sent elders with money in hand to Balaam to hire him (v. 7). Verse 13 tells us that Balaam rebuffed them according to God’s word.
Then, a second invitation came. This time Balak sent more leaders, who were more distinguished, and they promised to honor him richly. Instead of immediately rebuffing them according to God’s revealed will, Balaam invited them in and said he would talk to the Lord some more about it. This shows that he was secretly hoping for another answer from God in order to satisfy his desires for material gain and recognition.
Some Bible readers might wonder what Balaam did wrong, since it seemed he only wanted to obey God (vs. 18-19). However, God was looking on Balaam’s heart and this was a test for him. That is why the Bible records that "God’s anger was kindled because he went" (v. 22), even though God had given him permission to go (v. 20).
God saw that Balaam was willing to compromise the revealed will of God for material gain and recognition. God was unhappy with Balaam because he tried to hold out for the possibility of satisfying the self when he already knew God’s way and God’s command. The angel of the Lord declared to Balaam on the trip, "Behold, I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to me." (Num. 22:32, NASB) The lesson of the case of Balaam is this: he loved money (and recognition) more than he did doing the will of God.
Jesus told us that the true shepherd is not like a hireling. "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hireling, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, beholds the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep, and flees, and the wolf snatches them, and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling, and is not concerned about the sheep." (Jn. 10:11-13, NASB)
The Christian leader must ask himself: "Am I just a hireling, or am I a shepherd?" The hireling will not only leave when there is trouble, he will leave if there is no money. Many leave the flock to go to another flock, simply because there is more money there. My question to you is: Would you still shepherd the flock if you received no money for it? Or do you do it, at least partially, because of the money?
THE NEW TESTAMENT PATTERN
Did you know that according to the New Testament pattern, and according to early church history, that local elders did not make their living at being "pastors"? The apostle Paul actually encouraged the local elders to work hard at making a living in order to help the poor among the flock. This is recorded in Acts 20, where Paul spoke to the elders at Ephesus:
I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:33-35, NASB).
God is testing the hearts of those who claim to be His servants. May the Lord grant us grace to deal with our hearts in this matter of money. The Lord will reveal at His Judgment Seat which shepherds of the flock have passed His testing (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). We cannot serve both God and mammon (riches).
Even though teachers of the word may receive gifts for their ministry (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17), their service in leadership must never depend upon it. As local elders, our service must depend upon our faithfulness to carry out our calling from God (if we truly have one) to feed and shepherd the flock of God. As our Lord said to Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?...Shepherd My sheep." (Jn. 21:16, NASB)
THE PROBLEM OF TRADITION
And He said to them, "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,...‘but in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men...thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that." (Mk. 7:6-13, NASB)
Jesus had strong words of criticism for the Jewish leaders because they set aside God’s word for the sake of tradition. I think we do not even realize how much we are affected by tradition in our practice of Christianity. From my observation, it pervades much of what we do (at least here in America).
Here is the lesson we must learn from Jesus if we are to be leaders that follow Him. He never compromised God’s way for the sake of tradition. He was not silent about tradition. He spoke up about it. He pointed out how teachings and practice based on tradition invalidated God’s word. He declared that worship of God according to the precepts of men (including those based on tradition) was in vain. It was meaningless worship! Thus, we must realize that tradition opposes God’s word and opposes God’s rightful worship.
I will be bold enough in the Lord to expose just a couple of traditions that Christians uphold. The clergy/laity system is a man made tradition that evolved after the first century. There is no such thing in the New Testament as a clerical "class" or a clerical hierarchy. All New Testament believers are priests unto God (1 Pet. 2:5), and all have direct access unto God (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 10:19-22).
Yes, there are leaders (local elders) in the church. But they do not comprise a ruling class, lording it over others. They are to lead by the example of their lives and instruction from the word of God (Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:3). They are not to be an elevated class, but they are simply brothers (Matt. 23:6-12).
Please read church history to see how the clergy/laity system developed over time, eventually becoming the hierarchical system of the Roman Catholic Church. I would also refer you to my booklet entitled Governing Principles for Building Up the Body of Christ for more information on the clergy/laity system.
Another tradition of Christendom is the celebration of special holidays to remember Jesus. There is no word in the Bible about special holidays for Jesus. He instructed us to remember Him by the Lord’s supper (Lk. 22:19). Yes, we all have the freedom in Christ individually to regard one day as special above another, according to how we are persuaded in our own mind before God (Rom. 14:5). Yet, if you want to know the truth about the special holidays for Jesus you should study their historical derivation. Did these holidays come from the word of God, or from the invention (and now tradition) of men?
An interesting study in the invention of unbiblical practices is the case of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:25 – 13:6). Jeroboam changed the place of worship, the way of worship, the object of worship, the priesthood and the ordained days of special worship (religious "holidays").
My point is not to make an issue of holidays. I certainly don’t make it an issue of fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ. My point is that leaders must think about this issue of tradition. Jesus had harsh words for the leaders of His day who were willing to practice and teach tradition that invalidated the word of God. How will you handle tradition, brother? We must remember that we teachers of God’s word, who instruct the flock, will be judged more strictly at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Jas. 3:1).
If you decide to uphold the word of God and expose tradition it will probably cost you something. Tradition is popular. To oppose it is unpopular. You may lose some of your audience and your popular standing. Yet, be encouraged. The path of following Jesus is not a popular, broad way. It is a narrow way (Matt. 7:13-14).
I have only given some examples of tradition. There are many other matters of tradition in the church today. I urge you to consider this matter of tradition in all that you do and teach.
AN ISSUE OF THE HEART
Finally, let me quote some words of Jesus I omitted in my quote of Mark 7 above. "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.’" (Mk. 7:6-8, NASB)
You see, the real problem of holding to tradition and teaching the doctrines of men is a heart problem. It is possible to give praise to the Lord with our lips, but for our heart to be far away from Him. This is where Christian leaders must begin – getting their hearts fully right with God, and seeking after Him with their whole heart.
Thank you for reading this word of exhortation. May the Lord grant you grace and blessing as you seek to serve Him.