One of Jesus’ hardest and most heartbreaking sermons is found in Matthew 23. Intended to warn His disciples about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, this plain message of rebuke surely must have made many hearers squirm in their seats – and it ought to make men today just as uncomfortable! Jesus repeatedly called upon people to turn to Him for righteousness, and Matthew 23 lays bare the hidden agendas and inconsistencies of those who are filled with pride and self-righteousness.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it always seeks praise and adoration for itself, rather than praising and adoring God. Thus, the self-righteous Pharisees, “did their works to be seen by men” (Matt. 23:5). The Pharisees were spiritual peacocks: strutting and preening for the dazzled crowds who looked to them as “spiritual giants.” Jesus said the Pharisees loved to have good seats at religious ceremonies and loved for people to refer to them as, “Rabbi” (Matt. 23:7-8). The Pharisees saw themselves as part of the prophetic tradition and also loved for men to call them “father” just as Elisha had called Elijah, “father” (2 Kings 2:12). So, in verses 8 through 10 of Matthew 23, Jesus forbade his disciples to call men, “rabbi,” “father,” or “teacher.” These titles were being used by the Pharisees to set themselves apart in a proud, ostentatious manner.
The question at hand is whether Jesus was categorically forbidding anyone to be called by these titles (rabbi, father, teacher). We have already seen that the Lord’s aim was to show His disciples that the Pharisees were hypocrites. Using these titles to refer to the Pharisees would accomplish two ungodly things. First, it would encourage the Pharisees in their pride. Jesus knew that nothing would take the wind out of their sails faster than people seeing them for what they were – fallible and unrighteous humans. Second, using these titles would be tacit participation with the Pharisees in their hypocrisy. These titles were claimed not as a matter of convenience but as a matter of self-exaltation. Jesus pointed out that He and His Father were the only Ones worthy of such exaltation (v.8-10). Thus, while it is always wrong to use a special title to exalt men in a religious sense, it would not be wrong to call your earthly father, “father” as a matter of love and convenience. Our motive is what makes the difference.
Today a great number of religious groups have formed a clergy-laity system that sets some men and women apart in a religious sense. The “clergy” are often regarded as “more spiritual” than the average person, and thus society has adopted the tradition of calling these people, “father,” “reverend,” “pastor,” “your holiness,” or myriad other religious names and titles. Is this not what Jesus warned against? In the New Testament church, Jesus is the only One with authority and preeminence (Col. 1:18). Since He is preeminent, there is no room for anyone else to be exalted! Preachers, elders, deacons, and Bible class teachers fulfill roles in the church, but those roles are always to be directed to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Religious titles and expressions that are intended to exalt men rob Jesus Christ of the glory that is due His name. May God keep us from pride as we seek to honor and glorify Him alone! — JB