Traits of False Spiritual Leaders – Matthew 23:1-12

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Faith Bible Church, NY

December 4, 1994

Traits of False Spiritual Leaders

Matthew 23:1-12

In our study of the book of Matthew we have been examining what occurred in the last few days before Jesus was crucified. The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders is reaching its peak. They have come one after another trying to find fault with Jesus and discredit Him before the people. Instead, with each encounter Jesus is magnified as having superior understanding of the Law of Moses and amazing the people with the wisdom of His answers. It is Jesus’ detractors who are discredited and shown to have fault.

For several weeks, we examined Jesus’ answer to a question in which He stated that the great and foremost commandment is to Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. The second is like it, “To love your neighbor as yourself.” (See: The Greatest Commandment ) And that “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” In other words, everything written in the Old Testament concerning man’s relationship with God is based on man loving God with all his heart, soul and mind. Everything concerning man’s relationship with other men is reflective of him loving his neighbor as himself. If we want to be truly godly then we have to start with those two commandments and as God through the Holy Spirit changes us and we fulfill those commands, then we will also fulfill all of his other laws.

Starting in verse 41, Jesus now takes the offensive. He starts by asking the Pharisees who were gathered there questions, the first being, “Christ, whose son is He?”. Note the conclusion of this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question.” From this point on no one will try to discredit Jesus by asking Him shrewd or trick questions. Jesus had proven to be too much for them. They finally recognized that they had met their superior.

In chapter 23, Jesus continues on the offensive, but now speaks to everyone. This is Jesus last public sermon and it is devoted to describing and warning the people about false religious leaders. He will describe their character and warn about following their example (vs. 1-12). He will rebuke those leaders & warn them of the judgement that is against them, yet even here there a provision for repentance (vs. 13-36). Finally, Jesus laments over a people that refused to heed His message (37-39).

Why such a message? You would think Jesus would give a final call to salvation or final guidance about how to live for God, or a sermon of hope in the resurrection. Instead it is a message of warning and condemnation. Why? The reason is simply that there has been and always will be those who claim to represent God and show the way to Him, but they are false. They twist the truth for their own advantage to get people to follow them rather than God. Without a warning and description of what these false religious leaders will be like, people will easily be led astray into following a lie while thinking they have found the truth. Jesus gives that warning and description.

The Apostle Paul followed Jesus example when as he was departing he warned the Ephesian Elders in Acts 20, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert.”

We need to heed these warnings given to us! What then are these false teachers like? Matthew 23:1-7 gives us several characteristics.

Five Characteristics of false religious leaders found in these verses are 1) Their authority is self-appointed. 2) They make Hypocritical demands on their followers. 3) They are loveless and uncaring. 4) They make pretentious public displays of their good works. 5) They are proud and arrogant. Not every false leader has all these characteristics, but if any of these are present, then you need to be aware and be careful.


The first trait: False teachers claim authority for themselves. Vs 2, “The Scribes and Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses.”

Being in the “seat of” refers to having a position of authority. We still use the concept today in such words as “chairman,” or the “chair” of the department. These men did not inherit Moses’ position of authority, they were not set there by God, and they were not given the responsibility by any source of authority other than themselves. They seated themselves there.

The scribes did not emerge until after the exile. Up until the time of Ezra, scribes simply copied and preserved the text of the Scriptures. After the exile, the common Jew could no longer understand Hebrew and instead, most spoke Aramaic. In addition, the captivity by Assyria and Babylon brought to an end the Temple worship, and a vacuum was created which gave rise to the synagogues and increased the duties for the scribes. They began to teach and interpret the Law, translating and giving the sense of the Old Testament in the language of the people (Neh. 8:8). They continued this practice even after their return to the Judah and the restoration of the Temple worship. Over time they increased the power of their positions and at the time of Christ equaled or surpassed the spiritual authority of even the priests.

The Pharisees do not show up on the scene until about 200 B.C. By the time of Jesus they were the dominate religious sect in Judaism. Most of the scribes were also Pharisees, though some were Sadducees or belong to one of the minor sects. At the time of Christ it was the scribes and Pharisees that the people looked to for spiritual guidance. Some were worthy guides, but most were not.

There are many today that claim for themselves authority not given to them by the Scriptures. It is a common mark of cults and aberrant Christianity. Someone or a small group declares that only they understand the true way to God. You cannot read and understand the Bible yourself because only they can really explain it, so you must follow what they teach, and don’t argue about it! This is true of Jehovah Witness, Latter Day Saints (Mormonism), Christian Science, The Way International, The Children of God, The Unification Church (Moonies), The Alamo Christian Foundation, The Love Family, The Divine Light Mission, Witness Lee and the Local Church, etc., etc., and yes, also the Catholic Church.

These kinds of false teachers and prophets have always been around. God even warns about them in Deut. 18., and how to distinguish them from true prophets: they must possess 100% accuracy. God allows them as a test of our faithfulness to Him (Deut 13) but they exist because people want them. Paul says in 2 Tim. 4:3 that “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.” The people of Isaiah’s day even told their prophets to “not prophesy to us what is right, speak to us pleasant words, prophesy illusions.” There is a certain security in finding someone who claims the authority to tell you what to do. For one thing, you absolve yourself of responsibility for yourself.

In true Christianity, authority arises from the Word of God, not the individual or group. As an Elder in this church, my authority comes from the Bible. As a pastor in this church, it is the wisdom God has given me to direct you by the Scriptures and help you apply its principles in your life that gives me any authority. You are to do and believe what I say only as I am true to the Word of God, and you have to make sure what I say is true to Scripture. You must be like the Bereans of Acts 17 who even checked out what the Apostle Paul said before they believed him. Stay away from those who say they have an “anointing from God” so you have to obey them. Flee those who claim authority over you because they have some title or degree. Run away from those who claim authority based in anything other than the Scriptures.

One mark of false religious leaders is the claim to have authority. Another mark is the hypocritical demands they place on their followers.


vs 3, therefore do all they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them. Jesus does not imply absolute obedience, but the same principle found throughout scripture. We obey those in positions of authority as long as what they tell us is consistent with God’s will. The scribes and Pharisees were responsible to teach the people God’s law. Therefore, the people were to do and observe all that they said that was in keeping with the Scriptures. Jesus had already pointed out many areas where they were wrong, such as murder, divorce, fornication, adultery, swearing, praying, and worship (Matt 5,6), but there were also areas where they were faithful to the truth, like divine decrees, human responsibility, immortality of the soul, resurrection of the body, existence of angels, etc. To “do” was to react immediately. To “observe” is to continue to follow.

Even where the scribes and Pharisees may have taught well, they often did not practice what they preached. They demanded the people follow all sorts of rules and do all sorts of things that they themselves would not do. They preached holiness but lived corrupt lives of sensuality themselves. Peter described them in 2 Peter 2 as “daring, self-willed… unreasoning animals… stains and blemishes.. eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed… springs without water.. speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshly desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom while they themselves are slaves of corruption…”

Modern examples are plentiful. Jimmy Swaggart preached correctly against Jim Baker’s sexual escapades, but he was at the same time involved in his own sexual debauchery. Another example would be the multitude of TV & Radio preachers who tell you to sacrifice and send them your money, but they make no sacrifice themselves and instead live in lavish homes, drive expensive cars, and build up their personal bank account. One of my favorite examples of this hypocrisy is those who claim its wrong criticize a preacher (a perversion of the “Lord’s anointed”) and yet will rail against any other preacher who disagrees with them. Be aware that spiritual hypocrisy, by demanding of you what they will not, do is a sign of a false teacher.

Another trait of a false leader is being:


vs 4 “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.

The imagery reflected here is of the practice still common in the Middle-east where camels and donkeys have so much stuff loaded on their backs that they can hardly walk, yet the owner carries nothing but a switch to strike the animal with when it staggers or stumbles. There is no concern for the animal’s welfare.

In a similar manner, the scribes and Pharisees would load up all manner of rules, rituals and traditions for the people to follow, which as noted earlier they did not always follow themselves. When the people failed to keep any of the requirements, they were berated by these leaders, thus adding the burden of guilt to the weariness and frustration. The most horrible burden was that they taught man could only please God by his own good works. If the good stuff out weighed the bad, they would make it to heaven, if not then too bad.

There are preachers like that around today. All they ever do is tell the people how bad they are without giving them hope. They lead people into dreary, burdened, guilt-ridden lives. They have failed to bring God’s message of mercy & grace to man. The gospel is a two pronged message of bad news & good news. First, the bad news. Man is that bad. He is sinful by nature and practice. He is incapable of saving Himself. Second, the good news. God is willing to forgive those who place their trust in Jesus and He will then begin the process of changing you. There is hope in God Himself. You can have a confident assurance of your eternal destination and begin the personal relationship with God now!


Another trait of false teachers is the pretentious displays of their supposed spirituality. Vs – 5, But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments. We have discussed phylacteries before, called “tephillin” among the orthodox Jews. It was a little box that contained certain verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy. They strapped these to their forehead and to their left arm. There is an elaborate ritual by which the things are tied on with every aspect of it having a specific meaning. The practice of strapping on these phylacteries began around 400 B.C., but it is based on the command in Deut. 6:10, that the law of God was to be bound as a sign on their hand and as a frontal on their forehead. This had always been taken symbolically of God’s law being the controlling factor in what they did, represented by the hand, and what they thought, represented by the forehead. Over the centuries what had been a reminder of and a focus on God became increasingly an outward show of man centered religiosity. The Pharisees would make their phylacteries larger than normal in an attempt to show how godly they were.

The word Phylactery comes from a Greek word meaning “safeguard” or “means of protection.” It is also a synonym for amulet or charm, and that is what it became to many Jews. As they drifted away from God they took on more pagan practices and some tried to use their phylacteries as magical charms to repel evil spirits. What was supposed to be a reminder to be godly became an object to promote ungodly practices.

The wearing tassels on the hem of their garments was commanded in Num. 15:38-40, and was supposed to be a reminder to them to follow all of God’s commandments. Jesus wore them on his clothing. They are still around today as a fringe around Jewish prayer shawls. The Pharisees would make theirs bigger and larger than anyone else as a supposed sign of their greater piety. It was given to call attention to God and His commandments, instead, both the phylacteries and the tassels were being used to call attention to men.

There are plenty of people like this today. They make sure that what good things they do are seen by others. If they give something they want everyone to know it. If God uses them, they want to boast about it. Not God, but what they did for God. The difference is seen in the evangelist who gets excited that God is pleased to let him serve, and the evangelist who constantly brags about how many people were “saved” at the meetings he held. It is an issue of humility and the focus of attention. Be cautious of braggarts.


Vs 6,7 –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.

Again, it is an issue of humility and focus. Who is important, me or God? For false spiritual leaders, it is themselves no matter how well they try to cover that up with religious terms. We have all been to banquets where there is a head table. To these people it is important that they are seated there rather than with regular guests. They see themselves as better than everyone else.

We have all seen some of the churches on television that have special chairs on the platform for the people who are leading the worship service. I remember one church that had three huge chairs with the middle one half again bigger than the other two. They had fancy wood carvings with red velvet upholstery. The preacher sat in the middle with his music minister on his right and the associate or a guest on the left. It looked like a king holding court. That well could be reflective of their attitude.

We all have also met pompous people, some of them pastors, who make a big deal out of special titles and initials behind their name. Sure, there is a time to list those things out since it quickly lets people know your credentials. When I go for medical help, I want the person who sees me to have an M.D. behind their name, and the more letters there the better! But there is a big difference between the proper use of a title and demanding it or flaunting it. One is proper respect for an honor earned, the other is self centered egotism. Be careful of egotists who want that title. It can be the mark of a false spiritual leader.

Jesus expands on this last point in verses 8-12 and shows the difference between false teachers and true spiritual leaders.


Bud 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.

In a nutshell, humility is the mark of true spirituality and pride a mark of the opposite. Humble people centers on God and does not want to diminish His glory in any way, including being called a title that is actually more reflective of God than themselves. Proud people center on themselves and want all the glory they can get.

The modern equivalent of Rabbi is Doctor because both mean teacher. God is the believer’s only true teacher (1 John 2:27). Humans are only channels of communication for Him. And while those who diligently labor as teachers of the Scriptures are to be appreciated and respected (1 Thess 5:12,13), they are not do seek the honor or demand it.

The idea of being called “father” in verse 9 is not in the biological sense, but the sense of spiritual father. The scribes and Pharisees liked to think of themselves as having a superior spiritual position and being the source of spiritual life for their followers. Only God can be the source of our spiritual life. We were dead in our sins, He made us alive with Christ (Eph 2). To use the title “father” as well as the related terms “abbot” and “pope” are clearly violations of Scripture.

As with the other two, the term leader also should not be used for anyone in the formal, exalted sense it was in Judaism. Only Jesus is our real spiritual leader. The most any of us can say in the church is what Paul did in 1 Cor 11: “follow me as I follow Christ!”

Be wary of anyone claiming to be a spiritual leader that does not follow Jesus’ example. Those who claim authority for themselves, those who ma
ke hypocritical demands of their followers, those who are loveless and uncaring, those make pretentious displays of their piety and those who are proud. They may be false spiritual leaders.

It is humility, being a servant, that marks the true spiritual leader, for it was the example that Jesus Himself left for us. He did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

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