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The Character of False Spiritual Leaders

Matthew 23:1-12


Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, "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. 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. 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, and 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. (23:1-12)

Matthew 23 records Jesus' last public sermon. It was not a sermon on salvation, on the resurrection, or on principles for living the kingdom life but rather a vital and sobering message of condemnation against false teachers. In verses 1-7 He warns the people about false religious leaders in Israel, and in verses 8-12 He admonishes the disciples and other true spiritual leaders not to emulate them. He then turns His attention directly to the false leaders themselves, epitomized by the scribes and Pharisees, and gives them His final and most scathing denunciation (vv. 13-36). In His closing comments (vv. 37-39) He expresses His intense compassion for unbelieving Israel and gives the assurance that one day in fulfillment of God's sovereign promise, His chosen people will turn back to Him in faith.

Since the Fall, the world has always had false religious leaders, pretending to represent God but representing only themselves. False leaders were active in the rebellious scheme to erect the tower of Babel. Moses came into serious conflict with the religious sorcerers and magicians of Egypt when he demanded the release of God's people by pharaoh, who probably considered himself to be a god (see Ex. 7:11-12, 22; 8:7). Ezekiel faced the false prophets in Israel, whom God called "foolish prophets who are following their own spirit and have seen nothing" (Ezek. 13:3).

Jesus referred to spurious religious leaders as "false Christs and false prophets [who] will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect" (Matt. 24:24). Paul called them preachers of a perverted gospel (Gal. 1:8) and purveyors of the doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Peter spoke of them as those who "secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them" (2 Pet. 2:1). John called them antichrists who deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ (1 John 2:18, 22). Jude called them dreamers who "defile the flesh, and reject authority, and revile angelic majesties" (Jude 8). As Paul declared to the Ephesian elders in his brief and touching reunion with them on the beach near Miletus, false religious leaders are "savage wolves" of the spirit world whose purpose is to corrupt and destroy God's people (Acts 20:29).

The religion pages of major newspapers in our day are filled with advertisements for every kind of sect and false religion, including deviant forms of Christianity as well as cults and the occult. Many of those groups masquerade as forms of Christianity and claim to teach a new and better gospel. But while purporting to offer spiritual life and help, they instead teach the way of spiritual death and damnation. While claiming to lead people to heaven, they usher them directly into hell.

Scripture makes clear that as the second coming of Christ comes near, counterfeiters of the gospel will proliferate and amass to themselves great followings and immense influence (see, e.g., 2 Thess. 2:3-4; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; 2 Pet. 2:1-3;). The only time in history equal to what that future demon-inspired age will be like was the time of our Lord's ministry on earth. At that time all hell garnered its forces in a three-year assault against the Son of God in a desperate effort to contradict what He taught and to counteract what He did. It is against the human instruments of that satanic attack that Jesus addresses this last public and permanently instructive message, given near the end of a long and grueling day of teaching and confrontation in the Temple.