In Matthew 23, Jesus exposes the false teaching of the Pharisees and scribes of His day; He holds nothing back as He rebukes them for leading God’s people astray. There’s no mistaking how serious He takes their behavior, as it has eternal consequences for the people who are under their leadership and authority. He calls them hypocrites, sons of hell, blind guides, fools, serpents, a brood of vipers.
This chapter is a warning to us as well, to watch out for modern-day Pharisees. Some of the charlatans claiming to serve God are readily apparent. Television evangelists have a reputation for a reason! But other false teachers are more subtle. They appear to speak on behalf of God, but preach a false gospel that, as Jesus said, will shut off the kingdom of heaven from people (23:13).
John MacArthur (NT Commentary: Matthew 16-23) pulls out five characteristics of false teachers – red flags that should cause us to examine more closely the doctrines preached by individuals who exhibit these traits as “Christian” leaders. They all come from Matthew 23:1-12.
False teachers lack authority.
The scribes and Pharisees seated themselves in the chair of Moses. They were speaking as though their words carried the weight of God’s law. They took on authority that did not belong to them. If a teacher adds or subtracts from the clear teaching of God’s Word, they are placing themselves in authority over it – something which they do not have. God’s Word is the highest and only authority. An example today is the Roman Catholic church, who hold that the words of the Pope are equal to the words of God.
False teachers lack integrity.
The Pharisees told the people what to do, but did not do it themselves (hence, Jesus used the word hypocrite seven times in this chapter). If someone is teaching you to do something but is unwilling or unfaithful in their own lives, it’s a good sign you ought not to follow them.
False teachers lack sympathy.
The Pharisees had no problem laying heavy burdens on the people and dispensing punishment when someone disobeyed one of their man-made rules or traditions. The people obeyed out of fear, as to be cast out of the synagogue would ruin your reputation and livelihood. Remember the parents of the blind man Jesus healed? They refused to testify to the miracle in their own son’s life out of fear of the Pharisees.
False teachers lack spirituality.
Jesus taught that true spirituality comes as we serve from the heart. He warned against doing “godly” things like praying, giving, or fasting for the admiration of men. The Pharisees did all their deeds to be noticed by men (23:5). They enlarged their phylacteries (little boxes attached to their arm or forehead with scripture in them) and lengthened their tassels (prayer reminders) so that people would see how spiritual they were. In fact, these actions revealed the exact opposite – it was all for show, not worship from the heart.
False teachers lack humility.
Perhaps this is the most telling trait of all. I once heard of a (current) pastor of a large church who requires everyone stand when he walks in the room. While I believe we should honor our pastors, to put oneself up on a pedestal in such a manner is the opposite of humility. The worst thing a Christian leader or teacher can do is listen to their own press! A true teacher of the gospel will ALWAYS divert attention away from themselves (and their accomplishments, their church, their ministry) to focus people on Christ.
Whose podcasts are you listening to?
What books are you reading?
Whose teaching are you sitting under?
We have a responsibility to carefully examine all teaching to see if it lines up with God’s Word, as well as expect the character and personal lifestyles of our teachers to be godly and faithful according to God’s standards. False teachers aren’t just an irritation to be ignored. If the gospel is corrupted it can cause people to believe they are doing what God wants, but in fact, be on their way to hell. Teachers will be held to a stricter judgment because of their influence on others (James 3:1). Make sure you are following the ones who are truly following Jesus.