Our One Teacher

Then Jesus said to the crowds and 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. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12, ESV)

Jesus was a sharp observer of human nature, and he was keenly aware of some of the temptations those who teach the Bible or lead Bible study groups can face. In this passage, he warns his disciples, and others who have gathered to hear him, about three problems the Scribes and Pharisees have in how they carry out their roles as ministry leaders. Jesus urges his disciples to lead differently. I need to read, reread, and reflect on this passage to help me avoid these same temptations, which can be very subtle.

One temptation we may face as Bible study leaders is hypocrisy. This manifests when we point out what God desires of us, urge those we are teaching to carry it out, but neglect it ourselves. We don’t walk the talk. The Pharisees tended to be legalists, developing long lists of ways to avoid sin, putting these heavy burdens on those they taught. But they weren’t good examples—didn’t model what they taught, and they offered no help to their people. Jesus warned His followers about the danger of becoming hypocritical teachers, and I pray that God will help me escape this temptation.

Jesus also warns about a second temptation: seeking others’ praise and recognition. Rather than making the glory of God their goal, the Pharisees were eager to glorify themselves. When the Pharisees did the right things, they wanted to be sure everyone knew it, and they relished the ensuing recognition. This temptation, common to all people, Christian or otherwise, has deep roots both in our insecurities and our pride. As teachers, we can be subtly tempted, if we have any insecurities about how others may be evaluating us, to desire others to affirm us, notice our good works, and praise us for our spiritual maturity. In other passages, Jesus urged that our giving be done secretly, and our prayers be offered privately. We need to continually remind ourselves that in all of our spiritual disciplines, we have an audience of one—God. It is His acceptance that counts.

A third temptation some of us may face has to do with the titles we carry and a desire for people to show us respect because of it. Jesus pointed out how the Scribes and Pharisees loved to be known as teachers and be addressed with honorific titles, such as “Teacher,” “Father,” or “Instructor.” Jesus urged His followers to reserve those titles for God and the Christ, not take them upon themselves. I know this temptation well, and I fight against it frequently. I earned a doctoral degree and have taught for many years in a seminary, and while it seems appropriate for my students to call me “Dr. Lawson” at school, in the church I’ve urged well-meaning people not to use “Dr.” when talking with me or about me. I find it can too easily create an aura of deference that I don’t think is appropriate or healthy in the church. I am first and foremost a brother in Christ, and when we meet to study God’s Word, I want to point people to God as our Teacher, giving thanks and all praise to Him. Even those without academic titles can get too wrapped up in other kinds of titles, such as “Pastor,” “Reverend,” “Elder.” Jesus warns that those who exalt themselves shall be humbled.

What helps us avoid these kinds of temptations? What helps keep our pride and insecurities in check, and our focus on God and His grace? We must remember the example of Jesus Christ, our great Teacher and Savior, who came to serve, to suffer, and to save. He is our example of what it means to lead and teach others. “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” He does not call us to anything He did not Himself do for us. We follow Him in service, we share what He has taught us, and we focus on God as our audience of one for all of our efforts. He is the one who will reward and exalt us if we humble ourselves and serve as He did. I pray this will be true of my ministry efforts, and of yours.

Father, I confess that too often I love to be recognized for my faith, my knowledge, my spiritual maturity, my teaching ability, and my titles. Help me, like the Apostle Paul, to count every aspect of my own efforts as rubbish next to knowing Christ and being in relationship with Him by grace, through faith. Help me to be a good example of what I teach, to be content to practice my faith without fanfare, and to be a servant who does not need any titles or other honors in order to serve well. Help my heart be content with Your pleasure and Your assessment of my weak efforts. Amen.

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