How does Jesus respond to this kind of spiritual leadership?
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.
There are no masters and disciples among us. We’re all brothers and sisters. There is only one Master and his name is Jesus Christ.
Same logic in v9-10.
9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.
One Father in heaven and one Master/Teacher, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head of the church and he is the only person to whom we submit ourselves to wholeheartedly. Christian leaders, we should never demand blind loyalty and unquestioning submission from our sheep. Only Jesus can demand this level of obedience from anyone.
Why is Jesus worthy of our absolute and total obedience?
11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus is worthy to be obeyed because he humbled himself to the lowest point. He was the humblest man who ever lived because He was God and yet he allowed himself to be crucified. He was obedient to death, even death on a cross. He humbled himself. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. We can choose to humble ourselves and in due time, God will exalt us. Or, we can try to exalt ourselves, even in the arena of church or ministry. If we exalt ourselves, God will humble us.
Now we get to the seven woes. When you see the number 7, look for a pattern. The technical term is chiastic structure. Jesus as a master teacher doesn’t just randomly list 7 bullet points. Even the structure communicates something significant. There is a mirroring going on in this section. Woe #1 mirrors woe #7. Woe #2 mirrors woe #6. Woes #3 and #5 mirror one another. Woe #4 stands on its own. It stands in the center. It is most important. In the interest of time, I want to focus on this fourth woe because it pulls all the rest together.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
During Jesus’ day, there was a debate as to how far the law of tithing should extend. The consensus was to include green veggies and garden herbs. Jesus does not condemn this level of observance in matters of tithing to include even small things like these vegies and herbs. But Jesus does condemn fussing over these relatively unimportant matters while neglecting the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. He likens this to trying to strain out a gnat but swallowing a camel. Both are unclean creatures. Who would want to eat a gnat or a camel? You don’t want to eat either but at least the gnat is tiny. A camel is huge. How can you focus on a tiny gnat when we are ignoring the huge camel that is going down your throat. Tithing your side salad is so insignificant compared to justice, mercy and faithfulness.
This illustrates a fundamental failure on the part of the religious leaders to discern the main thrust of Scripture–justice, mercy, faithfulness, loving God, loving neighbor, the Great Commission, the gospel. And when the main thrust of Scripture is lost, then everything unravels as evidenced by the other 6 woes. Truth is mis-represented, leading to a corruption of the people and utter spiritual blindness. Blindness to the point that they could not recognize true revelation when it comes supremely in the person of Jesus the Messiah.
This leads us back full circle to Matt 21:18, the section that speaks about the fig tree.
18 Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. 20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. 21 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Jesus condemning a fig tree seems a bit random at first glance. Jesus was hungry and he goes to a fig tree. And apparently, he expected to find a fig to eat, but there is no fig present. There again is the reference to fruit. For this event to make sense, we have to understand how fig trees grow. Fig trees grow by first producing figs and then the leaves come out. So if a fig tree has full leaves, it’s a sign that a fig must be present.
In the gospel of Mark, the same incident is recorded. And we learn that it was not fig season. So it’s odd that this particular fig tree would have leaves. Because again, full leaves are a sign that fruit is present. But the presence of full leaves in this case was false advertising. It was all show. There was no substance. No fig. And Jesus curses the tree so that others would not be fooled and go to the tree like he did looking for fruit.
Jesus uses this fig tree as an object lesson for the religious leaders. You guys are just like this fig tree. You have all the leaves, but there is no fruit. The Jewish religious system had become a man-centered enterprise, devoid of God’s presence. Essentially, it was empty, dead religion. Just like they had turned the temple moments before, from a house of prayer into a den of thieves, Jesus switches metaphors and uses this figless fig tree to be a sermon illustration for the spiritual state of Israel.
What an important lesson Jesus has wrapped up in this fig tree. There have been churches which have stood prominent in numbers and in influence. But a humble dependence on Jesus has not been maintained, and the Holy Spirit has left them. All that is left is a vain show of a fruitless profession. And these churches adorn every block in this country. They may be run very efficiently and have great programs. But they are dead, and every year they become more and more decayed.
May it never be so here at the Hill, at this church. We are small in number at present. And there is a humility that comes from being small and unimpressive in the eyes of the world. There is a dependence on Jesus that may go away as God adds to our number, and this body grows to be a considerable size of men and women professing to be converted. But unless godly, Spirit-generated fruitfulness is present in our midst, what good would it be? We might have a thriving ministry one day, but what good would this be without the Spirit of God? We might have a large membership one day because living things ought to grow, and one day we might have many outward ministries to serve our community. But what does it matter without the spirit of prayer, the spirit of faith, the spirit of grace? I pray that we would never end up like this tree. We might have eloquent professions of faith among us and yet be worthless in the sight of the Lord because the secret life of piety and devotion to Christ are gone.
This is the lesson of the text, but I do not want you to consider this text only in terms of churches and organizations and institutions. May we apply this truth soberly to our own hearts. The reason why we go over salvation testimonies deliberately, carefully, painstakingly for our prospective membership candidates is because we want to make sure that your profession of faith was not just mere words. In too many churches, someone comes forward and makes a decision and everyone hugs them and congratulates them and the person who made a decision never questions their salvation for the rest of their lives. They might stop going to church for decades or they might be committing blatant sin year after year, but they always point confidently to the decision they made when they were a child or a teenager. We may profess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, but only fruit validates that the profession is one born out of a genuine conversion.