The religious leaders were mad. And they were scared. Nobody, not even the most brilliant minds in the nation, had the courage to stand up to Jesus any more. He was too quick. He spoke with a power and an authority that they had no answer to.
So they stopped their questions and took their plans behind closed doors. They plotted in secret with murderous intent, searching with all their hearts for a way to kill the Son of God.
It was the greatest irony in the history of the world. Out of all the people on earth, the nation of Israel was chosen to be God’s treasured possession (See Exodus 19:1-6). God said that one day, He would bring salvation to the world through them (See Genesis 12:1-3).
Now that time had come. Every year, the Jewish people held a national feast to celebrate the magnificent salvation that the Lord gave them at the first Passover when He rescued them from slavery to Egypt. Thousands upon thousands would converge on the city of Jerusalem for the festivities. As they poured into the city, their rulers were paving the way for the ultimate salvation that God had promised. Yet they weren’t doing it on purpose. They were doing it in spite of themselves. God would use their malice and sin to bring salvation to the world through their murder of His Son.
In the wide and powerful flow of God’s glorious purposes for human history, these men could have had the privilege of obedience. They could have taken part in God’s breathtaking victory over sin and death. They were meant to take part in His victory! They were meant to lead the nation of Israel to repentance when the Messiah came. They were meant to welcome the Kingdom of Heaven! But instead, they chose for themselves the petty role of jealous and power hungry men. They would go down in history as men that allowed their malice to blind them from true glory. And as always, God would take their insidious choice and use it for the very greatest Good.
As Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem, He was empowered by the Spirit in absolute obedience to the Father. He knew exactly what His enemies were up to. He was fully certain of what was going to happen…and He would lay down His life knowing that in the end, He would make all things new.
But for now, the time had come for a confrontation of the religious leaders. In truth, it was an act of compassion. He had taught them, reasoned with them, and told stories that highlighted their corruption without directly confronting them. He had spent three years giving them a chance to repent. It didn’t work. Their hearts were too hard. So now He would come with a stronger message, turning up the heat, calling them out directly. If they still didn’t listen, it would at least make things clear for the crowds. This is how He began:
“‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.'”
Wow. Moses was the great leader of Israel who went up Mount Sinai and spoke with God. He brought the people of Israel the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law. It was the very Scripture that the scribes and Pharisees taught the people. They were in positions of great authority, yet they were in rebellion against God. Even though they were terribly sinful, these scribes and Pharisees had positions of authority, and they were teaching from the Word of God. The actions of the leaders were completely different from the good things that they taught. Jesus told the common people in the crowd that they had to separate the sin of their leader’s actions from the righteous beauty of God’s Word. They had to choose to be like God’s Word and reject the terrible model set by the leaders who taught it. Then Jesus went on to describe exactly why the actions of the leaders were so sinful. Notice that Jesus didn’t mention the awful way they were treating Him:
“‘They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at the banquets and the most important seats in the synagogue; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them “Rabbi.”‘”
Wow. Imagine if you were a member of the nation of Israel. Imagine if the zealous religious leaders were constantly making you and your family feel like your love and faith in God were never enough? What would that burden feel like if they kept adding more and more? Can you imagine what it was like for the people to hear Jesus declare that the religious leaders were wrong?
Imagine these proud men, the religious leaders, walking among the crowds as if they were somehow holier and more worthy than everyone else. The phylacteries that Jesus spoke of were leather cases that held parchments of Scripture. Their tassels were a part of the clothing they wore in obedience to the Old Testament Law. God commanded the men of Israel to sew blue tassels on the corners of their garments to show that they were holy and set apart for God (see Numbers 15:40). Jesus probably wore the tassels, too. But these men didn’t wear them to honor God. They wore the tassels to honor themselves, demanding admiration and power from the common people. They were demanding the worship and honor that belongs to God alone! And then they turned around and treated the people with contempt. Jesus was offended. He went on to explain what He desires from His disciples:
‘”But you are not called “Rabbi,” for you have only one Master 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 “teacher,” for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.'”
Wow. The followers of Christ were to be completely different from the leaders of Israel. Can you imagine if everyone treated each other that way? Can you picture how sweet it would be to live among people with such kindness and humility? Jesus was calling His followers to a completely different way of life. It is the way of the Kingdom of Heaven, and it is the way He still wants us to live.