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From Pharisee to Servant

The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee

Picture-Perfect and the Insidious Shadow: An Introduction

We all want a picture-perfect image of ourselves.

TikTok and Instagram are replete with young people carefully curating their social image, giving the impression to their peers that they are popular and have it all together. And yet they struggle with loneliness, insecurity, and self-doubt.

Although this is a problem among young people, if we are to be honest with ourselves, most of us are also conscious of our social image. We might not display it on Facebook or Instagram—though some of us do—our social image or social status finds expression in other means: The clothing we wear, the cars we drive, our achievements, and how we speak to people of a lesser social status than ourselves.

This kind of attitude is an ancient insidious shadow looming in our hearts. It feeds our ego, inflating our sense of self-importance and our need for admiration, often making us insensitive towards others.

Entertain the sense of self-importance for too long and you succumb to hypocrisy, pride, legalism, and a hunger for power. We have all seen it in others before, but have we seen it in ourselves?

Such narcissistic tendencies exist in individuals, but they also exist in social systems, institutions, and governments. Christian pastors, theologians, and journalists are waking up to the growing totalitarianism in the West and are responding to the tyranny. I think of Erwin Lutzer, Carl Trueman, Rod Dreher, and others who warn against:

- The increasing concentration of power in the hands of the government.

- Cancel culture, that is, the erosion of civil liberties and freedom of speech.

- The increasing use of surveillance and data collection.

- The judicial power of mainstream media.

- Mandates, and so on.

I understand that some might argue that these measures are put in place to protect national security and public safety. And that the benefits of these measures outweigh the risks. Yet, if you pay careful attention, you will quickly discover the hypocrisy, pride, the lust for power, not to mention legalism. These measures benefit the wealthy, those with inflated egos.

This insidious shadow is not only in the secular world, but as Jesus makes clear, it’s also in the religious institutions. Every few months you hear of a famous Christian leader abusing their power. Their spiritual and emotional abuse of others have wreaked havoc in Christian communities, and the lives of countless people. And yet these leaders were the ones who were called to love and serve others!

We should be careful of celebrity pastors, not all of them are bad, but there are many who lord it over their flock and inflict spiritual abuse.

This is Jesus’s warning in Matthew 23:1–12, nonetheless, he encourages us to be genuine in our faith and focus on following God’s heart, and not merely his rules, as important as those are.

Hypocrites in Moses’s Seat

After challenging the Pharisees, Jesus turns to the crowd, in the presence of these elite religious leaders, and says,

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. (Matthew 23:2–4).

Although there was overlap between the teachers of the law, that is the Scribes, and the Pharisees they were distinct groups within Judaism. The Scribes were professional interpreters of the law of Moses, and the Pharisees were specialists in the theological teaching and nuances of the Torah.

We have the same in theology, you get Biblical scholars who study either the Old or New Testament, or sometimes both. They are interested in understanding and interpreting the Bible correctly—the teachers of the law were like that. And then you get Systematic Theologians who study Christian doctrine. They are interested in the theological matters that Scripture raises. It’s often also historical and philosophical. I’m a Systematic Theologian, that’s my field of interest, as it was the Pharisees. Yet, most Systematic Theologians can handle the Biblical text capably as well, so like the Scribes and Pharisees, there’s overlap.

If you find this confusing, think of the medical profession. There are a variety of doctors, for example, a cardiologist and an oncologist (and many others). It’s the same in theology, there are different sub-disciplines.

Jesus acknowledges the authority of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees because they sit on Moses’ seat. He is not undermining their teaching or their place in the religious community. Moses’s seat was a symbol of Moses’s authority who was their greatest prophet. It’s uncertain whether this was a literal seat or a metaphorical one. Nevertheless, recent archaeological discoveries have found such a literal chair in early synagogues where experts taught. There is a similar chair in cathedrals also, I’m sure you have heard of the Bishops seat, called the cathedra.

Those who sit on Moses’s seat ought to be obeyed according to Jesus, as long as they interpret and teach the Scriptures accurately. He says, obey what they tell you about Moses’s teaching, but don’t bother yourselves with all the other additions that the Pharisees have burdened you with. No one could obey all these man-made rules perfectly, anyway, making many Pharisees hypocrites.

I should say that Pharisees in the New Testament often get a bad rap, and they were what Jesus called whitewashed tombs, but there were some good Pharisees too, think of Nicodemus (John 3:1–21; 7:50–52; 19:39–42) and Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60).

So, listen to the Pharisees and the Scribes. Jesus encourages his followers to do what they say if it conforms to Moses’s teaching, but don’t do what they do. Anything else is a heavy, cumbersome load, and they do not even practice what they preach. They had no sympathy for others, instead they wanted prestige, control, and power.

It reminds me of some of the contemporary elites that had house parties during the Covid lockdowns… go figure!

Look at My Phylacteries

Back to the ancient religious elite. Jesus calls them out and says that everything they do is for show, they crave attention. They wear extra wide phylacteries (Matthew 23:5)—these were black leather boxes holding verses from the Torah and worn by men on the forehead and arm during prayers. They were tied with leather straps.

Jesus also accused them of making their tassels extra long (Matthew 23:5). Tassels are cords that are attached to the four corners of a garment worn by men. As with the phylacteries, they reminded them to be holy and obedient to God’s law.

When I was at school, I had two brothers in my class who were Jews. And they had tassels on the four corners of their school shirt. And these boys weren’t particularly holy!

Jesus continues, “They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.” (Matthew 23:6).

They also loved their titles. They loved being called Rabbi (Matthew 23:7). Rabbi is Aramaic for “my Lord” which was used for the great teachers of the day and the heads of rabbinical schools. It was a title of honor. Today, it’s something like Doctor or Professor, although it’s still used by Jewish leaders, similar to Christians calling their leader pastor.

I remember walking back home when I was a missionary in Kenya, and one of the guests on the mission station stopped me and addressed me as “Most esteemed holy gracious pastor.”

Well firstly, I thought, I’m a missionary, not a pastor, and secondly, have you ever seen me at home? I’m not holy, and I’m certainly not esteemed, and while I try to be gracious, I’m not that either. Like most other Christians, I’m trying to live my life worthy to be called a slave of Christ, but I fail repeatedly. Hypocrisy, pride, power, and legalism too often get in the way.

Some of you might remember Rev. Paul standing up and reading out the Si Quis, simply stating that before I am to be ordained (which is in a few weeks from now), if anyone knows of any reason why I should not be ordained they are to contact the Bishop’s office. Thankfully, on that day, the church was quite empty because of the storm, and the World Cup Rugby. Yet, none of you said anything to the Bishop, at least I haven’t heard from him.

The truth is, I’m unworthy!

There have been times when I have taken pride in:

  • My architectural “monuments.”

  • Having the place of honor sitting on the stage at graduation garbed in my red and purple academic attire, and a tasseled doctor’s cap.

  • Being called Dr Falconer

The novelty wears off after a while, but I would be lying if I did not say that there have been times that I shared in the attitude of the Pharisees. Not to mention speaking an unkind word to my wife and children, which I’ve done all too often.

But on the other hand, Martin Luther was often accused by Satan of his sins, and he would respond, “Yes, I know I have sinned, but what of it?”

Our response to Satan’s accusation should not be to deny our sins, but to confess to one another and to trust in God’s mercy. And then to turn away from our sin.

The great Puritan, Richard Sibbs once said, “There is more grace in Christ than there is sin in me.” My sin is a teardrop; the mercy of Christ is the ocean.

Am I worthy to be ordained a minister? The answer is a resounding no! But neither is anyone, we all have some Pharisee in us, even the best of us. And yet, Jesus calls us despite our hypocrisy, pride, and legalism. And calls us on a journey to imitate him in a life of surrender and humility.

Don’t Call Me Father, Call Me Slave

Now we come to one of those difficult Bible passages that’s often misunderstood. Jesus says that we are not to call anyone Rabbi or teacher because we are all brothers. And don’t call anyone father either because you have one Father who is in heaven. Jesus continues, “Neither are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.” (Matthew 23:8–10).

This is a problem for many of us who are teachers, instructors, and biological fathers.

It’s easy to read this too literally, but what is important here is the underlying principle. The whole idea here is that we should not use our title, social or religious standing to gain authority over others, because Jesus is the great teacher and instructor and all of us submit to him. He is not forbidding, I don’t believe, the use of titles, but he is forbidding the use of them the way the Pharisees did in a spirit that wrongfully exalted themselves above another in a prideful manner. This passage should be understood in the context of Pharisees who abused their spiritual charge and took advantage of others, and loved authority and the praise of others.

Some of the more traditional liturgical churches call their priests, Father. But this is more of a relational and spiritual term than it is a functional title. In fact, Jesus himself called Abraham “father” (Luke 16:24; John 8:56), and the Apostle Paul also referred to himself as father (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).

Like the Pharisees, you can certainly find church ministers who abuse their flock and take advantage of them, but they have no place in the leadership of any church. In fact, while the clerical collar identifies a minister, it’s also likely that it’s a stylized Roman slave collar. So, while the Apostle Paul refers to himself as a father, Paul is also quick to call himself a bondservant, or a slave to Christ (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1).

The whole point of Jesus’s message is that religious leaders are to see themselves as slaves to Christ and servants to others before they take on any title.

As Jesus says, those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.

From Pharisee to Servant

The Apostle Paul—the one who called himself the Pharisee of Pharisees—with a single encounter with Jesus Christ, had his life literally turned upside down and became a slave to Christ and his church, the very people whom he persecuted.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Paul defends his missionaries’ integrity with respect to the mission. In this passage, he responds to the accusations laid out against him. He distinguishes authentic missionaries from the charlatans who were doing their rounds. These may have been cynic philosophers and Jewish false prophets.

However, in this passage, Paul also provides a model for imitation, working hard; not being a burden on others; preaching the Gospel of Christ faithfully; living lives that are holy, righteous, and blameless.

And here we have it, another reference to Paul referring to himself as a father: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” (1 Thessalonians 2:11–12).

I’m not suggesting that we call church ministers and pastors “Father.” But I am suggesting the church has too few ordained ministers who are fatherly, who are spiritual fathers encouraging others in the faith, and comforting them. The truth is, that the church needs spiritual fathers, not celebrity pastors.

The Apostle Paul got Jesus’s message! He humbled himself such that he served others and became a slave to Christ. May all of us, imitate the Apostle Paul, our father in the faith, as he imitated Christ, our grand teacher (1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).

*Image of a Young orthodox Caucasian man praying with a shawl and phylactery by Wirestock.


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