Jesus’ Harsh Words: The Grace of Rebuke


In Luke 11, Jesus offers a series of rebukes to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. These leaders not only had the Word of God but held authority for the Word of God in the lives of others. This should stop us in our tracks as pastors, ministry leaders, elders, or anyone who has some role of authority in the lives of others.

There are certain things about us—things we do and things inside of us—that are distasteful to Jesus. We must hear this side of Jesus’ teaching. We must reconsider whether we only take in Jesus’ loving, gentle words or whether we hear the comprehensive breadth of Jesus’ words. We must open our ears and hear even the words of rebuke as if they were spoken to us.

If our first response to Jesus’ rebuke is to think of how they apply to someone else, then we are likely avoiding the word that Christ is speaking directly to us. We must receive the hard words of Christ with radical humility and openness to correction for our thorough transformation. The spotlight is upon us and we should not be quick to divert it toward another.

The piercing sword of rebuke is a grace and it is vital that we remember that fact. The first step toward healing is an accurate diagnosis. Jesus’ rebuke is the difficult diagnosis that leads to the Soul-physician’s surgical grace in removing sickness from us in order to make our souls whole.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees first of all because there is a different and better type of cleanness than what they are concerned about. They are concerned about external and superficial cleanliness but not the internal and deeper cleanliness. They are concealing deeper uncleanness of soul under the cover of superficial cleanness. They are like whitewashed graves that are clean and beautiful on the outside but hold death and decay inside.

The cure is found through Jesus the Life-giver who points the way through generosity to the poor (Luke 11:41), attention to justice, and practicing the love of God (11:42). Is this a salvation by works? No, it is the fruit of repentance as we turn toward God from self-seeking religion and hypocrisy. As we repent, Jesus leads us beyond ourselves into something stronger and more alive. It is the healing pathway out of soul-sickness.

Jesus secondly rebukes the experts in the Law because they have kept life from others. They weigh people down with religious burdens, locking the door to life by their mishandling of God’s Law. God’s Word intends to bring life but they wield it in such a way that life is snuffed out through incorrect usage.

The anger of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law reflects the reality that Jesus has touched upon a nerve with His rebuke. Do we feel angry or uncomfortable with the words of Jesus? Do we attempt to turn the attention of the difficult diagnosis toward someone else? Is it too painful to hear?

Linger in it. Do not flinch. Open your heart and mind to the rebuke of Jesus. Inside the rebuke is the grace of a loving and healing God.

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. 

The Woes of the Religiously Misguided

Continuing our Lenten preaching series, “Scandalous Jesus,” this past weekend at Eastbrook we traveled through Matthew 23. In this chapter-long discourse, Jesus sharply names casts deep shadows over the ways the teachers of the law and Pharisees have lost their way with God. This is no simple passage, however, but calls each of us to a response with Jesus ourselves.

This message is from the ninth part of our longer journey through the Gospel of Matthew, which includes “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” “Becoming Real,” “The Messiah’s Mission,” “Stories of the Kingdom,” “Who Do You Say I Am?“, “‘Tis the Reason,” and “Jesus Said What?!

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.

“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.” (Matthew 23:3)

Three Critiques of Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees (23:1-6)

They are inconsistent (23:3)

They burden people (23:4)

They are concerned with appearances and reputation (23:5-6)

A Contrast for Jesus’ Disciples (23:8-12)

Shunning titles and praise from people (23:8-10)

Following Jesus’ humble path (23:11-12)

Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees (23:13-36)

1. They keep people out of God’s kingdom (23:13)

2. They make converts who become as misguided as them (23:15)

3. They make oaths that show their blindness about spiritual matters (23:16-22)

4. They practice detailed obedience while disobeying in important matters (23:23-24)

5. They look clean on the outside but are polluted in their inner lives (23:25-26)

6. They look righteous on the outside but are hypocrites on the inside (23:27-28)

7. They stand violently against God’s purposes and messengers (23:29-36)

A Lament from Jesus over Jerusalem (23:37-39)

Jesus’ desire to gather for healing (23:37)

The reality of impending destruction (23:38-39)

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper in one or more of the following ways:

  • Memorize Matthew 23:11-12.
  • Take some time to pray through Matthew 23, letting God reveal any areas where you have gotten off-track in your life with God. Confess and repent of those wrong ways in prayer. If there is someone you need to make things right with, prayerfully reach out to them.
  • Prepare for Holy Week by reading Matthew 26 and 27.

Contrasting Forms of Righteousness in Matthew 5: how Jesus’ way is different from that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law

This past weekend in my message, “Real Righteousness,” I focused on Jesus’ striking statement in Matthew 5:20:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

While this statement has often plagued interpreters, I believe Jesus is redefining righteousness for his hearers by offering a stark contrast between His agenda and what people often viewed as righteousness. This new righteousness is different than the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law was old and deficient. Jesus is bringing a new and surpassing righteousness that is real on the inside and outside.

In his very insightful book, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7, Charles H. Talbert summarizes the contrast between the old and the new righteousness. I have rephrased and summarized here his insights on pages 64-65. The righteousness of the Pharisees and the scribes looked like this:[1]

  • they rely on birth instead of observance of God’s will (John 8:39)
  • they teach but do not practice what they teach (Matthew 23:3)
  • they focus on minor things and neglect major things (23:23-24)
  • they do what they do for human approval (23:5, 27-28)
  • they seek to evade the intent of the Law (23:16-22; 15:1-9)
  • they persecute God’s messengers (23:29-36; 12:14), failing to recognize God’s Spirit or to understand the meaning of Jesus’ ministry

The new, surpassing righteousness of Jesus embodied and taught His disciples was different. It looked like this:

  • instead of formal obedience, it aims for radical obedience (Matthew 5:21-48)
  • this righteousness does not seek human approval, but God’s approval (6:1-18)
  • this righteousness is neither greedy nor anxious but trusts in God’s providential goodness (6:19-34)
  • this righteousness is a lifestyle that walks the talk and is critical, not of others, but of the self as a means toward self-awareness and growth with God (7:1-12)

As Talbert helpful summarizes:

“For Matthew, living with a surpassing righteousness means living faithfully within a covenant relationship that encompasses both vertical and horizontal dimensions, and is only possible if such a life is divinely enabled. Left to our own resources, we cannot be faithful. So living justly is as much a  matter of receiving as it is of giving.”

[1] Charles H. Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 64-65.