Hard work means little if it isn’t smart work. Plowing in the winter is hard work, but it isn’t smart work. In the end, if you don’t work smart, your effort produces much less fruit. No one wants to work hard for little, or for nothing. When you’re doing what you do for God, the focus should be on what matters to Him. Without doing so, we can go through entire years without producing true spiritual fruit.
Jesus tells us how to avoid the trap of working hard, but still not bearing lasting fruit and falling short in God’s eyes. In John 15:16, He tells us, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you." Lasting fruit is a result of our being appointed by Him. It's through our submission to, connection to, and relationship with Him. To work on our own merits is pointless.
In Matthew 23, Jesus has had it with a particular group of Jewish leaders. They were the Pharisees, and they strictly observed the traditional and written religious law. They did so very well, and flaunted their self-proclaimed superior righteousness. They were Exhibit A to demonstrate working on your own merit. They were walking illustrations of self-righteousness. Jesus was far from impressed with them. They were, nonetheless, quite impressed with themselves, and were thrilled at the thought that they were impressing people around them.
Jesus saw their theatrics and posturing and unabashedly called the Pharisees hypocrites.
Here’s what Jesus pointed out about these religious men;
1. They were always trying to impress people. The Pharisees were more concerned about the praise and honor of men than they were concerned about pleasing God. Jesus had publicly addressed this tendency previously.
In Matthew 6:1-6, Jesus makes the amazing point that our private works are rewarded by God. This is in direct contrast to the beliefs of the Pharisees. In verse 1, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
In verses 3 and 4, Jesus continues to say, “when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Giving another example, verse 6 says to “pray to your Father who is in secret.’
The Pharisees were so proud that they willingly traded in their heavenly rewards for their here-now-gone-tomorrow public attention.
2. They carried big, fancy boxes containing Scripture. A phylactery is a small leather box that Jewish men wore. It contained Hebrew texts on vellum, and served to remind men to keep the law. When Jesus said that they “make their phylacteries wide,” He is saying that their boxes were fat and thick, showy like a big Bible. Sometimes the straps attaching these to their chest (to symbolize their heart), arms or head were wide and showy, drawing attention to the boxes.
Their wearers were saying, “Look at me! What an impressively big Bible I wear because I am so holy!” They were worn during prayers, and when displayed,said “Aren’t I impressive as I pray?” Symbolically, they were flaunting doctrinal and religious superiority. This was religious pride, and it didn’t please Jesus at all.
3. They dressed to impress. It’s one thing to dress your best to honor God in public. It’s another when you make your outfits the talk of the synagog. Jesus is said to have worn tassels on his robe, as did His disciples. It was traditional to wear tassels of certain colors with a specific number of strings. Jesus wasn’t commenting on that. He respected Old Testament traditions.
These religious leaders were using a sign of respect to draw even more attention to themselves.
4. They sat front and center at events and in church. Many of us love places of honor. There are times and places for honor. Romans 13:7 says, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Honor is given, however, not taken. The Pharisees assumed honor, and apparently took it, whether it was due them or not
The issue is presumption. When we begin to presume that we are due honor, than we have lost our humility and have fallen into pride. Proverbs 16:18 was taught in the synagogue as part of the Scripture, and the Pharisees knew it; “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Still, they gave no concern that people beside themselves receive the coveted places of honor and “they love(d) the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.”
The Pharisees wanted to begin every interaction with people with the secure understanding that they had a superior position.
It may be that the Pharisee’s concern for title lacked respect and kindness toward the people they spoke with. If it annoyed and even angered Jesus, it is possible that their emphasis on titles was so self-serving that it belittled others. I Corinthians 13:5 says of love, “It does not dishonor others.” Sometimes we need to take the focus off of ourselves and our accomplishments and titles and just love one another.
6. They wanted to be acknowledged as having authority, even outside of church. It is noteworthy that the Pharisees, who had authority in the church, wanted authority and deference displayed by being greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” (Matthew 23:7) They wanted the whole world to know they were Rabbis. They were demanding honor, not just in the synagogue, but also at the mall, at the grocery store and at the car dealership, so to speak.
Matthew 5:14 says, "You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” This means that people will see us. When they notice us, we need to point to Him, not ourselves. We shouldn’t be about shining spotlights on ourselves in the world.
The problem is when we do these things exclusively or primarily to bring ourselves glory. Our motives are very important to God.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Few of us theatrically prance and Lord ourselves over other people, but some of us do. Most of us do, however, at times, tilt the scales too much in the direction of self-glorification. Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.” These are very hard words to hear in the age of social media and a culture where we are constantly urged to prove ourselves.
James 4:10 tells us what to do to be elevated in life. It says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Humility is counter-cultural. It was in the time of Jesus, and it still is. Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Keep your focus where God directs, with Godly motives, and you will leave a legacy. All that you do will stand (see Psalm 127:1). It’s only then that you will leave an impressions that lasts, as God receives the glory.