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Religious Obedience


November 5, 2023 |Religious Obedience|Matthew 23:1-12

JD Cutler


For the sermon audio, click here


According to polling by the Pew Research center, we live in an increasingly non-religious America. You have most likely heard some of these numbers before, the study behind them came out 10+ years ago, but they are a powerful reminder of where we are headed.


This study found that almost 20% of Americans identify as ‘unaffiliated with any particular religion’.

They go on to say that ‘One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.’ From 2007 to 2012, that number grew by 5% of U.S. adults.


46 million people and that was in 2012.

Within those 46 million, there are varying follow up answers that help us understand what they mean by that. 13 million identify as atheist or agnostic.

But the answer that surprises me the most are the people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion who say they are ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. Over half of the 46 million people, some 58% answered this way.


In reality, aside from those that are absolute atheists, everyone has a religion, and if we press those that fall in that category, many of them have beliefs that would qualify as religion.


Websters defines religion as-’a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices’ and secondly as ‘the service and worship of God’


They are simply saying that their personal religion, their beliefs about God or gods, and their expression of that religion, doesn’t align with any institution or organized system. Their religion is based on what they feel at a particular moment or what they think about God in a particular season.


But, for those of us who do define themselves as religious? Particularly Protestant, and more specifically Baptist. What does religious obedience, or the expression of our religion, look like for us?


This is a question that I think Jesus gets to the heart of in our text today.

Not what does it look like to be a Baptist in the 21st century, that would be a strangely specific and unuseful question for much of history, but what does genuine religious obedience look like for the people of God? For the church.


This is the question Jesus gets at in this conversation with the crowds and his disciples in the temple after the religious leaders have challenged his authority, after he has rebuked them with a series of parables, after the various groups have tried to trap him, unsuccessfully, with their questions, after shutting them down with a single question, Jesus now turns to the crowds, among which are his disciples and he addresses the religious system these men represent.


We find this scripture in Matthew 23 beginning at verse 1.


Matthew 23:1-12 (ESV) 1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.


Within his teaching here in the 23 chapter of Matthew, I want to show you this morning four attributes of humble religious obedience.


Religious obedience is grounded in the scriptures.

Matthew 23:1-4 (ESV) 1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.


If you have taken advantage of joining us for our Wednesday night bible study, you know that one of the first things we do when we study scripture is identify the commands. We do this because commands, for obvious reasons, demand more attention in a section of scripture. When you examine these twelve verses of instruction directed at the crowds and Jesus’ disciples, you find only one set of commands, and those two commands go together.

There is one set of commands in what Jesus says here- do and observe

Do- carries the idea of producing something or to carry out something

Observe- carries the idea of to attend carefully to something as in guarding something or keeping something, taking care of it

Within these two words, we get the sum of religious expression.


Let’s use Sunday morning as an example.

First, there is something we keep, something we observe. The gathering of the saints together on the first day of the week for the purpose of worship. This is something, as a church, a body of people we observe, we keep.

Then there are things that we do in that observance. We sing praises to God together, we declare his attributes corporately, we partake in the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the written word of God, we bring our offerings to be collected for the support and work of the church.

Everything we do ought to be grounded in scriptures.

Oftentimes this is talked about in terms of two principles, the normative and the regulative principle. Putting it very simply, the Normative Principle says “You’re allowed to do this thing in church so long as Scripture doesn’t forbid it”, whereas the Regulative Principle says “Only do this thing in church if Scripture gives clear warrant to do so”. We do not have time to dig into that today, neither is it our focus, but it is worth thinking about this morning. When we gather are the things we do from scripture or merely not forbidden by it?


But to bring us back to our text this morning, Jesus says, they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders. Pastor Doug O’ Donnell in talking about this scripture uses the illustration of staying on the line of scripture. We are not to add to what Scripture says (go above the line) or subtract from what it says (go below the line). Here we find the scribes and Pharisees doing all three.

When they sit on the Moses’ seat and teach what Moses taught, or from the scriptures they stay on the line. They also taught in their interpretations and traditions above the line, that is they added heavy burdens, hard to bear. But they also taught below the line with how they lived. They preach but do not practice. Jesus gives an example of this in Matthew 23:23.

Matthew 23:23-24 (ESV) 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

They take the commandment to tithe above the line from harvest and firstfruits, to the smallest of garden herbs, but they teach below the line in matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Jesus calls his disciples to not do the works they do.

Do not go teach above the line and do not teach below the line.


Why does Jesus tell them to do and observe? Like I always say on Wednesday nights, we pay attention to the connectives. 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 [so] do and observe whatever they tell you, (emphasis mine)

Jesus sums up his instructions by referencing the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.

This could be taken a number of ways, but I think in essence, Jesus is saying when they speak from the law, or scripture, they do so as people who have inherited and received the communication of God to his people through his people, here represented by the one whom he personally delivered it to. Moses.


We do not then obey men, but rather we obey God through the proclamation of his word by his appointed messengers. Jesus differentiates between what they tell, teach, and preach, and what they do, or practice. Our religious obedience is to scripture, not man.


So the first attribute of humble religious obedience is that it is rooted in scripture, the second is…


Religious obedience is damaged by pride.

5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.


Do all their deeds to be seen by others (Jesus here only gives two examples, but elsewhere we find other condemnation of their deeds)

(ESV) “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.

(ESV) 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.

(ESV) 16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.

But the two Jesus gives are illustrative enough for our purposes. Let’s look at these two.

They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long-

Phylacteries- (Olive Tree Enhanced Strong's Dictionary) The Jews used this word to describe small strips of parchment on which were written the following passages of the law of Moses, Ex. 13:1-10, 11-16; Dt. 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and which, enclosed in small cases, they were accustomed when engaged in prayer to wear fastened by a leather strap to the forehead and to the left arm over against the heart, in order that they might thus be solemnly reminded of the duty of keeping the commands of God in the head and in the heart, according to the directions given in Ex. 13:16, Dt. 6:8, 11:18; These scrolls were thought to have the power, like amulets, to avert various evils and to drive away demons. The Pharisees were accustomed to widen, make broad, their phylacteries, that they might render them more conspicuous and show themselves to be more eager than the majority to be reminded of the law of God.

The justification came from a literal interpretation of God’s command in Deuteronomy 11:18 (ESV) 18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.

Fringes- a tassel, tuft: the Jews had such appendages attached to their mantles to remind them of the law

These were commanded by God to his people in Numbers 15:37-39 (ESV) 37 The LORD said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. 39 And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.


It is important to note that Jesus did not condemn specifically either of these practices as legitimate ways of religious obedience. Neither the practice of using Phylacteries or wearing tassels are here condemned by Jesus, but rather the way they carried them out.

They enlarge their Phylacteries and lengthen their tassels to make sure they are seen by others.

But, they don’t just crave religious praise, they love the praise of men all around. Place of honor at feasts, best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, being called rabbi by others.


This kind of thing is still prevalent in many religions. From the ornate and elaborate way clergy dress in the Catholic church, each higher clergy member is more elaborate and ornate than the one before until we get to the pope with his crown and various liturgical garments. But this is not just evident in high church but low church as well. Picture the church that holiness is dictated by external dress code, where for ladies, the length of hair, the way it is worn, and the length of skirt are direct evidence, according to the church, of an individual’s holiness. Some of you have come out of churches like that. Or pastors who dress in 1,000 dollar suits or skinny jeans with 1,000 shoes. Either way, the effect is the same, look at me. This kind of display, when it is rooted in pride, damages religious obedience in significant ways.


Jesus argues in Matthew 6 that their expressions of religious obedience, done for others and rooted in pride are damaged, they are not received by God and they will not be rewarded by God, because they are not done for God.

Three times he says, (ESV) Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

And as an overarching principle concerning any religious expression done for others.

Matthew 6:1 (ESV) “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.


We are still called to give to the needy, we are still called to pray, to fast, to gather together, to study our bibles, to love our neighbor, to care for the less fortunate, to sing praises to God, these are all still expressions of Christianity.

But when we do them, we need to be sure we are doing them for the right reason.

Take this as a warning from our Lord Jesus, do not do the things our religion calls us to do for the praise of others or from any sense of pride.


The second attribute of humble religious obedience is that it is damaged by pride, which leads us to our next attribute…


Religious obedience is expressed directly to God.

8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.


Jesus here gives a series of things that Christians should not call one another and that they should not be called by others. Jesus gives three titles, two of which are synonymous, and all three related to the role of teacher.

You are not to be called rabbi- a title of honor, literally ‘my great one’.

Nor are you to be called instructors, which is related to but distinguished from the term rabbi. The word is the idea of one who leads the way. A master.

And do not call anyone father. Jesus is not condemning the term father for our earthly fathers, but again he is talking in terms of teaching. Consider Paul’s example from Acts 22:3 (ESV) 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.

If we understand then that all three titles relate to those that teach the law, Jesus is saying there is no need for lofty titles between the teacher and the one being taught. Why?

Here Jesus gives two reasons, you have one teacher, one instructor, one father, and you are all brothers.

There may be different roles in the church but there is equality of status.

Titles like ‘His Eminence, Reverend, Mother Superior, HIs Holiness’ imply special status to individuals that the Bible does not give.

What about the term Pastor? For instance some of you call me Brother JD and some of you call me Pastor JD. Which one is right and is the title of Pastor okay?

Either and I believe it is and here is why, Pastor is not a lofty title.

Pastor means shepherd. It is the title of a servant, not a ruler. When you call me Pastor JD, there is no sense of loftiness or pride in my head, but a gentle reminder that I have been called the role of caring for this body as a member of it, not as someone above it.

I teach you as a brother on equal standing before God.


Do you see what Jesus does here? He levels the ground before God. Religious obedience is not something that is mediated through men, but is given directly to God. For you have one Teacher, Christ, and one Father, God.

If you are practicing religious obedience for the sake of or for the praise of a man, you are missing the fundamental truth Jesus is teaching here. There is only one man between you and God, 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (ESV) 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all…


We are commanded to teach in the great commission, one of the qualifications of an elder is that they are able to teach, so it is not the teaching that is condemned, but rather the idea that anyone stands over anyone else in religious expression expressed here in lofty titles. This, I think, reminds us that our religious obedience is done for and to God and not man.


Three attributes of humble religious obedience, one, it is rooted in Scripture, two it is damaged by pride, three it is done directly towards God, and three, and most obviously…


Religious obedience is rooted in humility.

11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.


This point that Jesus drives home is the same point he has been illustrating throughout the first 10 verses. His disciples, his followers, are to be humble in their religious obedience.

With his statement in verse 12, Jesus brings the future to the present.

If, in your religious obedience, you exalt yourself, if you do it for the praise of man, if you do it for exaltation by others, in the end, when you stand before God, you will be humbled.

If however, in your religious obedience you humble yourself, before God and without a thought to what men may think of you, when you stand before God, you will be exalted.


On the last day, when we stand before God there will be some great reversals. The Pastor who stood on stage proudly, who made his ministry about himself, who propped himself up with the praise of man, no matter how great the people thought he was, will be brought low in the presence of God.

And the quiet, faithful, saint, who went about following God in great humility, perhaps unnoticed and unappreciated, will be elevated by the words well done my good and faithful servant.


Pride on the football field is easy to see, isn’t it? The touchdown dance, the post game interview.

Pride in worldly accomplishments is easy to see, instagram posts, tv shows, books written about them.

But what makes pride so dangerous in the church is that the expression of religious obedience may look the same, but the motivation for it can be vastly different. Jesus warns here that what we do ought to be done from a place of humility.


Let me just give you a few examples before we close.

When you give to the church, what is your attitude?

Do you feel like God should be proud of you for your gift? Is there a sense of pride that you give faithfully and regularly? Or is it in great humility that you say, God you have been so gracious to me and even though all I have is yours and due to your good gifts in my life, you ask only for a small amount, take it Father, I am grateful to be able to give it.

When you attend church, what is your attitude?

Do you feel that God should be glad that you gathered with his people? Is there a sense of pride in you that you attend more regularly or faithfully than someone else? Or do you say, God thank you for my life, thank you for giving me seven days to enjoy your world, and you ask me to set aside one for you, take it Father, I am grateful to be able to give it to you.

When you give to the needy, what is your attitude?

Is your first thought that you can’t wait to post on social media about it, or tell one of your Christian friends about it so people can praise you, or is merely in humility that you thank God that he made you able to help and go on with your day?


I could go on, but I think that is enough to drive home the point this morning.

In every expression of our religious obedience, there is opportunity to glory in self, to perform for the praise of men or to humbly bring ourselves before God and obey his word because we love him.


Jesus calls his church to humble religious obedience.

To his word, devoid of pride, for God alone, and in humility.

This is what the Pharisees missed and it is what Jesus did not want his disciples to miss.

He does not want you to miss it today.




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