Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast. Well, coming up soon — I believe on Wednesday of next week — as we read the Bible together, we read the first section of Matthew 23, where Jesus confronts the religious rulers of his day. And to anticipate that text — which is itself loaded with a full day’s worth of reflection — we have a cluster of thoughts and questions from a listener named Jim who lives just outside of Nashville.

“Pastor John, hello to you. I’m a bi-vocational elder and sometime preacher at my little church,” Jim writes. “I have always been drawn to Jesus’s words about the Pharisees in Matthew 23:1–5. The text is instructive to me about preaching and personal holiness. It seems to suggest at least four things.

“(1) Hypocrites can preach truth. Jesus says these Pharisees are truth-tellers; therefore, ‘observe whatever they tell you’ (verse 3). That line is startling. There’s an obligation to obey the truth of what they get right, even though they, the Pharisees, are hypocrites. Does that hold true today? Irrespective of whether we know a preacher is truly obedient in private, we receive the truth of their preached words. It also seems to apply to men who are later disqualified for sin, and people are left wondering about all the truth they learned from that preacher over the years.

“(2) It seems to speak to a preacher’s assurance. It suggests that preachers who preach truth well do not find in that homiletical skill the grounds of their personal assurance if their private life does not measure up. Is that true?

“(3) It speaks to the calling of pastors to preach holiness. In verse 4, it seems the calling of others into personal holiness and living out personal holiness go together for a preacher. Would this make a preacher hesitant to preach holiness because his life doesn’t measure up in private? How far does his life need to measure up until he’s a hypocrite? Do I repent for myself every time I call for holiness from the pulpit? These questions haunt me, a preacher with remaining sin within me.

“(4) It speaks to all our service. If we serve only so others see us serving, that service is rendered vain (verse 5).

“Many thoughts and questions intertwine for me over this text. What do I get right and wrong on Matthew 23:1–5?”

Well, first of all, I just commend Jim for reflecting so profoundly on this text.

Let me give quick, short answers to those four questions — especially the last one, I think, was more of a comment — and then step back and see how those words of Jesus are so relevant for all of us.

Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees

Here are the words from Jesus. Jesus said to his disciples,

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. (Matthew 23:2–5)

1. Hypocrites’ Teaching

So, the first question Jim asks is, What should we do with the true teaching of hypocrites — preachers who preach true things and live a double life, denying by their private lives what they preach in public? There are three responses to that.

First, when duplicity is discovered in a pastor, the pastor should be removed from his service, according to the qualifications given for the elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–16.

Second, truth is truth even if a donkey or a heretic or the devil himself speaks it, just as when the demons called out to Jesus, “[We] know who you are — the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). Then Jesus wouldn’t let them talk, it says in Mark 1:34, “because they knew him.” They got part of the truth right, but they hated it. So, we must not make a preacher’s sins the only measuring rod of all that he teaches. He may say true things and hate them, and we should believe the true things and not hate them.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that Jesus’s words about knowing them by their fruits (Matthew 7:20) are wrong, because there is always plenty about a false teacher that is false and misleading and needs to be recognized — even if many of his doctrinal sentences are true.

Third response to that first question: no, you do not have to assume that, when a pastor is discovered to be guilty of ministry-disqualifying sin, you need to reject all the truth that he’s taught you over the years. You don’t have to go back and say, “Well, I guess everything he taught me for all those years was false.” You don’t have to do that.

“Let us put to death immediately every temptation to love the praise of man.”

However, it will always be good to reassess that teaching in retrospect and see if there were omissions or imbalances in it — true as it was — that we can see in retrospect were owing to his hidden sin. He skipped things, he didn’t say certain things, and he rode this hobbyhorse all the time. And you see now in retrospect why he was skipping them, why he was riding his hobbyhorse.

That’s my response to his first question.

2. Oratory and Assurance

Second, he asks how the preaching gifts (the skills) of a pastor relate to his assurance. Now, part of the answer is that no public rhetorical skills can atone for private reprehensible sins. It is possible to be a great orator and a lost sinner. The blood of Jesus and its effect in our holiness is the source of our assurance, not our rhetorical skills. Which means, yes, that true, godly, humble, Christ-exalting preaching will be part of that holiness — and thus, in that sense, part of a pastor’s assurance.

3. Preaching Holiness

The third question Jim asks is, How holy do you have to be to preach holiness? That’s a good question. The way I would answer would be this: not perfect and not careless. Or to say it another way, humbly penitent for remaining failings but vigilant to gouge out your eye rather than sin and bring the gospel and your church into disrepute. According to 1 Timothy 4:15, your people need to see you passionate in your pursuit of holiness.

4. Serving for Praise

And the fourth question Jim asks is, If we serve to get the praise of man, is our service ruined before God? And the answer is yes, our service is ruined if we live for the praise of men.

So, those are my brief answers to the questions, but let’s step back and see how these words of Jesus relate to all of us.

Practice of Pharisees

I think it’s always helpful when you see a text like this to break it down into pieces, and then see how the pieces relate to each other. So, there are three steps that I see in Jesus’s exposure of the scribes and Pharisees.

One, they use the truth to cover their own sin. It says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” — that is, they teach what the truth of the law of God says — “so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:2–3). So, they cover their non-practice with teaching Moses’s law. They use truth to cover sin.

Two, they do not accompany that teaching with any God-dependent doctrine of enabling grace. They don’t teach people how to avail themselves of God’s grace to help them obey. They just leave people with burdens — heavy, weighty, crushing burdens of God’s commands — to do with no help at all. They won’t lift a finger to help people obey. “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” (Matthew 23:4). There’s no doctrine of sanctifying, enabling, empowering grace.

And the third step in exposing these rascals is that they love the praise of man more than God or his truth. That’s the deep, deep desire, pleasure, treasure of their lives. It’s the governing principle of their lives. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5).

Fruit from a Poisoned Root

Now, here’s the key question: How do those three indictments relate to each other? Here’s what I would suggest, and this is how they become so relevant for all of us. I’m going to go backward and show how they build.

Number one, Jesus has put his finger on the deep desire of their lives — the deep love of their lives. What do they love? What do they desire? What’s the passion and the treasure of their lives that’s driving their decisions, their behaviors? And the answer is the praise of man. They taste how delicious is the pleasure of self-exaltation that comes through other people’s praise. That’s number one.

Number two, now we move backward (or forward) toward the next effect of that. What is the effect of loving the praise of man on the doctrine of grace in living a godly life? And the answer is that it cancels grace. Grace that enables a person to obey God’s law means we don’t get the praise — God does. Grace does. Grace is a breaking gift; it’s a humbling gift. They cannot embrace God-exalting grace because it contradicts their self-exalting love of human praise. So, they load men with burdens of duty and tell them, in essence, “Be self-sufficient like us” — implying that you’ll get some praise for your moral achievement like we get praise for our moral achievement.

And then finally, if they love the praise of man, and that keeps them from embracing God’s enabling grace for obedience, what do they do with truth, the truth of Moses’s law, when they sit on Moses’s seat? And the answer is that they don’t love the truth; they use the truth. Bible words become a cloak for hidden sin. They turn Moses’s seat into a place where they get human praise.

That is a warning to all of us, not just pastors. Let us, all of us, put to death immediately every temptation to love the praise of man. Instead, let us love the Christ-exalting, self-humbling grace of God through Jesus Christ to help us do what we need to do, and then let us use truth to stoke the fires of love for God and love for people.