Does Jesus really tell us not to call anyone teacher?

I had the opportunity to study Matthew 23 this weekend and I would like to share some of the insights that I gained with you via this article. I have heard some people claim that it is not biblical to call someone other than Jesus your teacher or leader. I was not sure where that idea came from but I had heard people give chapter and verse where Jesus had “taught” that. Our Senior pastor, Erik Christensen, decided to base our leadership gathering on the following passage:

10 “Do not be called leaders ; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11 “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. (Matthew 23)

Upon first glance, it seems that those who claim that we cannot have any leaders other than Jesus are correct. Is that really what Jesus had in mind? Can you “make disciples” of all the nations without being a leader? What is the context of Jesus’ statement? Who was the audience? Let’s dig in and see what we can learn. I will link to the entire passage, Matthew 23.

I. The audience is key to understanding the passage

1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, 2 saying : “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses ; (Matthew 23)

The disciples were present and the crowds as well. I imagine, joining in with the “crowd” were some scribes and Pharisees. Even if they (scribes and Pharisees) were not present, the “crowds” were very familiar with their (scribes and Pharisees) ways. Jesus speaks to a problem that everyone knows about but no one knows what to do about it. Jesus was a teacher, yet He was different than the religious leaders of the day. The scribes and Pharisees were supposed to teach the people God’s Word so that they could know Him, follow Him, and serve one another as a result. The problem was, the scribes and Pharisees did not know God. They knew His Word and understood that they could not keep His Word, the 10 Commandments, because His Word focuses on the inner man, the attitude and motives of the heart and not the outward appearance of things. The scribes and Pharisees appeared to be righteous because of all of their external manifestations yet their hearts were bad. Instead of living out the Word of God and teaching others to do the same, they just invented their own rules of what was and was not righteous. We get a glimpse of this in the Sermon on the Mount.

28 When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching ; 29 for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7)

Jesus’ teaching had authority because He was going to the heart of the problem, the heart. He penetrated the exterior and went right to the heart. His teaching resonated with the people, as it always will do when explained as is.

Let’s take a look at the people who loved to be called “Rabbi”, “Leader”, and “Father”.

2 saying : “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses ; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds ; for they say things and do not do them. 4 “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. 5 “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men ; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. 6 “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men. (Matthew 23)

Here is a list of what the audience knew about the scribes and Pharisees.

  • Seated themselves in the chair of Moses as the leaders of the people and teachers of the Law. (they taught that people could not understand God’s Word and had to be dependent upon them to interpret and explain It). Does that sound familiar?
  • They were hypocrites, teaching the people to obey the Laws of God yet not holding themselves accountable for their own obedience. They would say things like “do as we say but not as we do”.
  • They added to God’s Word so much that they turned the good law into a burden, yet, at the same time, would not lift a finger to help the people.
  • Their motives are impure. They do not serve people out of love. Instead, they do it to be seen and recognized.
  • They wanted to be called leader, Rabbi, and father because it brought:
    • the place of honor at banquets
    • chief seats in the synagogues
    • respectful greetings in the market places
    • being called “great one” by men

They were more interested in the title and perks than the actual job that they were supposed to be doing. Do we see anything like that today? They were not really interested in the lives of the people. In fact, they just used the people for their own personal gains. Jesus, on the other hand, actually cared about the people. He ministered to them in such a way that their lives were transformed. This is what made Him so different. Jesus was speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, and people like them when He said “do not be called Rabbi/Teacher”, “Do not be called father”, and “do not be called leaders”. The position and title were not the problem. The attitude and motives were the problems.

II. The picture of a genuine leader

11 “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled ; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted. (Matthew 23)

This person is a servant. He has the attitude of a servant. He cares more about the good of the people whom he serves than he does about position, power, authority, recognition etc. This person is humble the way that the Lord Jesus was humble. He is humble because Christ is in him and working through him.

3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves ; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2)

It all begins with the attitude, the motives behind why you do what you do. Jesus is the perfect example of this. He did nothing of selfish or empty conceit (unlike the scribes and Pharisees). He was humble. He did what He did to serve undeserving mankind. He was obedient to God and not His own desires. He did not seek exultation. God gave the position and the glory to Him at the right time. A great leader does not seek recognition, position, and glory. He is a humble servant who receives recognition, position, and glory from the Lord at the right time.

Are you a servant leader like Moses, Joshua, Caleb, Abraham, and many, many others? God wants to make you one if you will let Him. If you are a believer, that is His calling and will for your life. He has called you to make disciples. Are you willing to answer the call? God is at work and He wants you to join Him, are you going to miss out on the blessings or are you going to roll up your sleeves and join Him in what He is already doing? May God help us obey Him by joining Him in impacting the lives of the people around us.

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