Two Contrasting Ways: The Pharisees and Jesus’ Disciples

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, Jesus follows a series of attacking questions from religious leaders with a scorching critique of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.” (Matthew 23:1-7)

There are three main claims that Jesus makes against these religious leaders. First of all, they are inconsistent (23:3), saying one thing and doing another. Second of all, they burden people (23:4). Their teaching is like burdensome loads on people’s shoulders and they don’t lift a finger to help. This is in dramatic contrast with Jesus’ own words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). Third, these teachers of the Law and Pharisees are concerned with appearances and reputation (23:5-6). They focus on what they wear as a sign of religiosity and seek out places of honor in the synagogue and other religious gatherings.

Unfortunately, these figures have lost the point of what relationship with God is all about. The Pharisees were known to give minute attention to the Law of God to a point of detail that they had become legalistic and over-scrupulous in Jesus’ day.  In a sense, they seem full of life, but their life is more truly marked by missing the point, a sort of spiritual death.

Jesus offers a stark contrast between these ways of the Pharisees and the way of Jesus’ disciples.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)

Jesus disciples take a different way. They are called to shun titles and the praise of people (23:8-10). While Jesus singles out the titles “Rabbi,” “Father,” and “Instructor,” these are not the only forms such pride could take. Any title can become a source of pride: Pastor, Elder, Teacher, Council member, Usher, Bible Study or small group leader…you name it, and the human heart can turn it into something to be prideful about. As John Calvin said, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” On the positive, Jesus’ disciples are to follow Jesus’ humble path (23:11-12). Jesus was a humble servant, as most powerfully described in Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus did not grasp ahold of glory for His own use and advantage, but emptied Himself in order to take on human life. As a human, He lived humbly in the form of a servant even to death on a Cross. He became a servant to bring us to God.

Jesus’ way of life – what we call discipleship or Christian formation – is marked by a lively humility that is quite unlike the deathly way of the religious leaders. 

Who Is Jesus?: insights from Hebrews 7

image 2 - Jesus Pantocrator

Hebrews 7:26 begins by telling us that Jesus is “a high priest [who] truly meets our need.” What does this tell us about Jesus? Well, the writer continues by telling us that Jesus meets our need in two ways, both of which are directly related to who Jesus is.

That first way that Jesus meets our need is found in the rest of verse 26. Here’s the entire verse:

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. (Hebrews 7:26)

Who is Jesus? First of all, Jesus is “holy” – that means He is unlike us and He is like God. He is “the holy One of Israel”; the One whom Israel has been looking for throughout all their history. We need someone like this.

Next, Jesus is “blameless, pure, set apart from sinners.” No one could assign any sin or blame to Jesus. He is unstained and undefiled. Nothing has come into Him or gone out from Him that reflects sin or evil. He is, as it says in Hebrews 4:15, “one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet did not sin.” We need someone like that.

Finally, we are told that Jesus is “exalted above the heavens.” He is no ordinary man. He is both the One “through whom [God] also made the universe” while also “the exact representation of [God’s] being.” After His death and resurrection, Jesus is now ascended and given by the Father the name above all other names. Jesus is magnificent and glorious. We need someone like that.

The first answer by the author of this letter to the question, “who is Jesus?”, is that Jesus is unlike us and beyond us. We need someone like that because, as we have seen throughout human history, we cannot bring the answer to all our wrongs merely from our own efforts and abilities. We need the answer to come from beyond us.

Now, the second answer to the question, “who is Jesus?” and how does he meet our need, though familiar to us, comes somewhat unexpectedly. Look at verse 27:

Unlike the other high priests, [Jesus] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. (Hebrews 7:27)

All that we said before has emphasized how transcendent Jesus is – pure, sinless, holy, exalted – but this verse now emphasizes how earthy and humble Jesus is.

He is a priest offering a sacrifice. But He is not some priest who offers the sacrifice and then washes His hands and goes home. No, Jesus is so earthy, so humble, so in the midst of the muck and mire, that He actually offers Himself as the once-for-all sacrifice. John the Baptist helps us here when he says of Jesus:

“Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

What does this mean? Well, it means Jesus has entered into humanity’s real need to such a great extent that He has actually Himself become the offering. He has become the sacrificial offering so that God’s true blessing might come into the world. As that Passover Lamb, Jesus took judgment that humanity might live. He entered death’s captivity so we might go free.

As the writer sums up in verse 28, Jesus “has been made perfect forever.”

Who is Jesus?

The writer of the epistle known as Hebrews tells us:

  • He is sinless, even set apart from sinners…yet He is the sin-bearer.
  • He is holy and pure…yet He becomes wholly defiled for our life and salvation.
  • He is exalted…yet He is humble.

Here, the writer of Hebrews gives us a most helpful and essential picture of Jesus: He is perfectly what we need.