Message: The Sorrow of Palm Sunday | Scripture: Matthew 23 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
In the days leading up to the cross, Christ’s ministry became increasingly intentional to separate those who belong to him from those who do not. In this final sermon during Passion Week, he draws a clear line in the sand. Those who belong to him seek out the praise and favour of God, whereas those who do not belong to him seek out the praise of the world and the hypocrisy that results from such a pursuit. The difference of the two may seem external, but Christ comes to tell us that externalities are only reflective (and not causative) of our hearts’ desires. Our doing good does not make us good. We must first be made good in order to be good. This is what Jesus teaches us here. We need to get who God is, what he’s about, and what he’s done for us through his leaders, through his prophets, and, ultimately, through his Son before we can do what pleases Him. We have to know his heart before he and we can work on our own, and we cannot know it apart from the Suffering Servant of the gospel. So, while he talks a lot about the failings of the Pharisees and Scribes in this sermon, Jesus’ overarching take away from Matthew 23 is to be captivated with him and what he’s come to do in revealing himself as the Saviour and Judge of the world–from those who are his and those who are not. Let’s make sure that we’re not only in the right camp but that we’re doing all that we can, through the Spirit, to bring others into it with all zeal and heaven-inspired joy.
- Take some time to reflect on and summarize the sermon in your own words. What were your main takeaways? What, in further reflection, have you thought about regarding the sermon or the passage? Be gracious, supportive and receptive to one another and to your group facilitators in this because they/you may not have all the answers!
- Discuss one way God’s used this past sermon (or one of the previous few sermons) to grow you and/or challenge you.
- Perhaps in how you seek after the praise of others or seek out too little the praise of God (how are these things reflected in your life)?
- Perhaps your idea of humility is often disguised as self-pity or self-loathing (bonus question: what does it truly mean to be humble–what does a Christ-like humility look like)?
- Perhaps in how your desires are not really to do anything with Christian things/God-oriented/God-pleasing things?
- Perhaps in the way you see hypocrisy ruling your life (how might this be reflected in your life–rest assured, every single one of us is a hypocrite in some form or fashion)?
- John MacArthur is famous for having stated that there are only two religions in the world: the religion of human achievement (we do certain things, and we get into heaven) OR the religion of divine accomplishment (you can do nothing; God has done it all)–is this true? Why/why not?
- Is it possible that we take theological statements like this and use them in our minds to our own detriment–e.g. to fall into patterns of sin on the wrongly conceived idea that “once saved, always saved, therefore I can sin and say sorry later”? How might statements like this help us to actually fight sin instead of give into/give way to sin?
- Jesus doesn’t just come into Jerusalem to kill his career (by confronting the Pharisees and scribes), but he comes into Jerusalem to be killed. How does this affect your personal views of what it means to have ambition in the world? What’s the difference between a holy ambition and a worldly ambition, and how is that portrayed practically in our lives?
- How is the acknowledgment and worship of the Pope heresy? Do we give this veneration, either explicitly or implicitly, to anything/anyone else in our lives? What does it mean for Christianity to be a religion (or better stated, a relationship) about the heart?
- How does Christ’s coming affect our hearts? At the end of the day, how can we know that it’s not just about our mental or verbal assent?
- What’s a woe, and (in preparation for the beatitudes) what’s the difference between it and a blessing?
- In what ways have you made religion more about the religion (rule-keeping) than about relationship (heart-transforming)?
- Do you have any other questions from this text that you want to bring up to the group and that the group might be able to help you answer?
- In what ways has your relationship to God and the manifold riches of his blessing to you in the gospel spurred you onto serving and ministering to the lost? Reread through Matthew 23:37-39. From the way Christ is speaking, does it sound like he wishes to condemn and judge, or does he wish to bring reconciliation between himself (and the whole Godhead) and his people? Does he sound more critical or sorrowful, and how does this speak about where our hearts and attitudes should be towards both our own sinfulness/waywardness and to sinners in need of the gospel? Do you lament the lost? Do you lament over them knowing your own sinfulness and hopelessness without the cross? Why/why not?
- In what ways can we keep you accountable to be more intentional not only in your going out to share the gospel, but in having a heart for the unsaved that then leads you to going out and calling people to repentance and belief?
- Discuss one way that we can pray for you as a group.
- Provide/encourage us with an update of something that God is doing to apply his gospel in your life/how the beauty and preciousness of Jesus is being freshly applied to your current situation.
I wanted to preach to you from this text, Matthew 23, this morning both because it serves to introduce and connect us to the beatitudes, which we’ll be going into in the coming weeks, and because it’s Palm Sunday. It’s in thinking about this day that I wanted to draw out why amidst all the celebration that surrounds it, it was really quite sorrowful as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and as the crowd shouted, “Hosanna in the highest; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” It’s sorrowful because the people don’t know what they’re shouting. They don’t know who this man is. They miss out on why he’s come.
And what I want to explore is this last sermon from Jesus in the temple as he tells them why they’ve missed it—why they missed it on Sunday, and why they miss it again as he speaks to them during the week on Tuesday. This is why I’m preaching to you from this text this morning—because it offers us an introduction to what is to come in Matthew 5-7, but also because it is meant to sober and warn us as Friday and the crucifixion approaches.
It’s message can be summarized in this way: Avoid the Fate of the Hypocrite By Capturing the Heart of the Servant. How do we capture that heart? How do we make sure that we don’t miss it before it’s too late? Well, our first point, although a little irreverent, tells us to:
1) Resist the P.O.O. and Drink the P.O.G.
Please read along with me from Matthew 23:1-12. TWoL: 1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Other than the setting, namely, that this is set within Jerusalem during the week before the crucifixion, the most important factor to weigh in reading this sermon is to ask who Christ’s audience is. And from the outset, we’re told that Jesus is preaching to the crowd and the disciples. This is likely a continuation of the questioning of the scribes and pharisees that began back in Matthew 21 as they challenge and vet the authority of Christ. So, this crowd was probably large and dynamic—a mix of Jesus worshippers and haters. In fact, this event was likely one of the most well-attended events in Jerusalem. You can imagine that the temple that day was packed.
And it’s likely that everyone there was hoping to see a sign. They were hoping for something incredible—like the healing of some lifelong cripple or the giving of sight to the blind. Furthermore, as he spoke, they likely expected to hear great things. This was Jerusalem, after all. If you were to be given the proverbial mic in this place, then your job was to please this crowd—to find their acceptance—because if Jerusalem accepts you, as a Jew, as a teacher, as a Rabbi, then that could make your career. This was Christ’s chance to shine and establish himself as one of the greats.
But instead of doing any of those things—instead of giving them signs and wonders—and instead of acknowledging the hubris and pride of the crowd—he speaks first to his followers—those who trust in him—and he says to them, “don’t act like the fools who surround you, especially those leaders and teachers here in Jerusalem. Those who think that, just because others call them the “Rabbis” of Israel, they are worthy of your allegiance. They may know and talk about the law rightly, but they do everything contrary to what they, themselves, say ought to be done.” This, as we know, is called hypocrisy.
We’ll talk more specifically about their hypocrisy in our next section, but in addition to being hypocrites, we’re told that the laws that they do observe, they observe only in the presence and for the praise of others. They seek out the P.O.O. We’re told that they enlarge their phylacteries, which was a small leather box that held parchments of animal skin inside them and on each parchment was inscribed certain texts from the law. These Pharisees and Sadducees enlarged them so that they could carry more of the law—the implication being that they held themselves to a higher standard of piety.
They also were said to have lengthened their fringes—their tassels attached to their outer cloaks, which had a similar effect of reminding the wearers of the tassels of their obligations to the commandments. But for these showmen, they wore the fringes not for their own reminder to obedience, but so others might see and revere them for how intentional they were being—so that others might feel their own shame in comparison and grovel at their feet like moths drawn to a flame. This was their intention—to get attention. To be called Rabbi not only for their gifts but out of reverence for how good and how holy they were.
Jesus says to his followers, “don’t be like them.” You aren’t to be called Rabbi. Now, I just want to clarify, that Jesus isn’t prohibiting the word Rabbi—he’s not saying you can’t be called teacher—or professor—or have any other titles of honour. He’s saying don’t use that title, like these men use that title, as the means for your salvation and security. Don’t take on titles from men as if they are designations and acknowledgments about God’s favour over you. Don’t buy into the health and wealth gospel that says if you are successful in the eyes of the world, it must mean God loves you. Earthly success is no indication of God’s affection, if anything it may be more of an indication of God’s condemnation—to reveal to you who your god truly is.
He says don’t be condemned as they are condemned and pursue the world’s approval. You’re to find your satisfaction—your reward—not in what man says of you but of what God—the true teacher, the true Father, and the true leader thinks of you. Notice with me two things: first from vv. 8-10, Jesus is making a theological claim—that only God can judge man. Only the one who is teacher over all, Father over all, and head over all can designate what we are. To give the power of that designation to anyone or anything else is an affrontery to God.
Now, again, Jesus doesn’t mean you can’t call your biological father, your father. Nor does he mean that you can’t acknowledge your leaders—those who are your leaders—as leaders. What Jesus is talking about is those whom you give your absolute loyalty to and those to whom you ascribe absolute authority to for your faith because your right standing with God should not be found, whatsoever, in man.
This is why the Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the greatest of heresies because it cloaks itself in holiness while leading millions, if not billions, to hell. Just look at the man who is at the head of it all. They call him Pope, which means “father”—and by it they mean spiritual father, but there is only one Father. They call him Vicar, which means teacher or substitute, but there is only one Holy Spirit. They call him Pontiff, which means the bridge-maker or leader over the bridge, but there is only one Christ.
And not only this, but the Roman Catholics force you to target individual sins and provide payment and confession for those specific sins. They’re about behaviour modification and the trimming from your life of specific vices. They intentionally bind a heavy burden upon you too difficult to carry, while they sit behind their phylacteries and their tassels of procession and tradition in order that you might be convinced that they are holy and that you are not.
But here is the difference that Christ offers not only from Judaism and not only from Roman Catholicism—but from every religion in the world—while all of those religions target behaviour modification and specific sins that need to be shed from your life to earn your way into the favour of God, Jesus comes and says, “you’re to be a part of none of that. We are not about targeting specific sins. No, what we want goes far deeper than that.
“What we want is your heart.” We’re not about external acts of piety for the sake of show. We’re about peace not just your inner peace—not just the good feelings you get when you feel okay about yourself—for that’s just another man-made version of salvation. We’re about peace between you and God. The kind of peace that can only be brought about by God—the Father working in us through God, the teacher, his Holy Spirit, who testifies to us about God, the leader, our Christ. It’s not about your titles received from man, but about your heart surrendered to the only one whose opinion about you matters.
Then, notice the second thing, the one who is satisfied in God’s opinion about him or her—the one who seeks and drinks in the praise of God over the praise of others—what does our text say about him? You cannot be called teacher, instead you are brothers. So, if you are brothers, it means then that you are sons—sons of the heavenly Father. And if you are sons, then you are heirs with him who leads us home. Heirs, he tells us! Heirs of the kingdom of heaven! Heirs of the throne of God! Heirs not in the feeble, fleeting vanities of man but under the standard and everlasting glory of Christ!
This is what we cannot miss as the cross draws near—that the greatest in the kingdom will be the one who has a heart that has been moved in such a way that he counts himself the least in the world and not just the least but one who counts everyone else higher than him and seeks to serve them as such. This is the one who will be raised up on that last day. God doesn’t want your piety; he wants your humility. And what we find in the world is that many people want to be pious, but few are prepared to be humbled.
And true humility is not something born from a false sense of self-loathing or self-pity—for those are only other forms of pride. No, the true servant of God is one who has captured and has been captivated by the heart of Christ for sinners. The true servant of God is one who sees Christ and knows that his desire was for none of the praise that the world offered but for all the praise reserved for him by his Father in heaven.
This is how you avoid the fate of the hypocrite and capture the heart of the servant—it is by being captivated by Christ and his thoughts of you over and above what the world thinks of you. So, resist the praise of others and drink in the praise of God for it is the difference between death and life—between woe and blessedness.
2) Heed the Woes of Scripture
I’m going to do something a little differently here. I’m going to read through the woes in Matthew 23:13-36 but not in the order that they’re written. The reason I’m doing this is because these verses are structured chiastically. For those of you who don’t know what that means, imagine our text in the shape of an X—where the center of the X is the main, grounding principle for all the principles moving outward, and each corresponding principle will share its underlying meaning with the other—so in the center of the X is verse 4 and from verse 4 derives the principle in verses 3 and 5, and from there 2 and 6, and from there 1 and 7. This is how I’ll be reading the passage to you and explaining as I go along.
So, read along with me our fourth woe in Matthew 23:23-24. TWoL: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
This, brothers and sisters, is the ground for why these scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites and why they stand condemned—this is what a “woe” is. It’s not simply because they say one thing and do the other, but it’s because they have not properly handled and considered the Word of God in its fullness as those who call themselves its leaders and teachers. They’ve taken the parts that they can control and use in order to manipulate their hearers and followers—all those things that are minor details in Scripture, and they go and make these minor things into majors.
Things like making a pure offering to God—they took that to mean that not a single thing could have a hint of impurity. They would take their large treys of mint, dill, and cumin, they’d weigh every gram, and if something was amiss, they’d physically pinpoint the problem and pick it out—even if the problem was a tiny gnat. So great was their meticulousness to do these things that others would marvel at their attention to detail, and the Pharisees would use this as leverage to show why they deserved honour and privilege within the temple.
But when it came to the other things—like caring or helping others—they were not so meticulous. Notice how these weightier matters of the law have to do with relationship—relationship to people and relationship to God. This is what these leaders and teachers were hypocrites in. They observed only those laws that pertained to them and their benefit—they sought out the religiosity, but for all the other things that required developing a relationship—they simply refused.
This is what Jesus means when he says they swallow a camel, because a camel is an unclean animal, so to swallow it would make you unclean. But it is also the largest animal in Palestine—easy to avoid swallowing. It’s a command that you almost don’t even have to think about because it’s so obvious, and yet even though acting justly and loving mercy with others to display the character of God, and walking in humble faithfulness with God is on nearly every page of Scripture, they do contrary to what’s right there in front of them.
And Jesus says, you should have done these minor things, but your great offense is that you missed the great thing that God wants for you—you missed opportunity to love neighbour and to love God—to give of yourself for the sake of others and thereby reflect a life of thanksgiving for all that God has given to you, and instead you made it all about yourself. This, ultimately, leads to the third and fifth woes in Matthew 23:16-22 and 25-26.
TWoL: 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
What Christ is talking about in the third woe (vv. 16-22) was a practice drummed up by the Pharisees and scribes based upon a small portion of the Old Testament in Numbers 30 that talked about binding oaths. And they read into this part of Scripture so much that they came up with a system where if you made an oath a certain way, you would not be bound to keep it. In other words, it was a justified way to lie—like a child with crossed fingers behind their back—these provisions, that they said were taken from Scripture, allowed Pharisees, scribes, and their followers to twist the truth to their advantage, greed, and self-indulgence.
And Jesus is condemning these leaders and teachers for this practice not just because they’re liars but because of the darkness it reveals in their heart, namely, that they tell the truth when it’s convenient for them and weasel their way out when it becomes inconvenient. They lean on Scripture when they benefit but ignore it when they don’t.
You see why this builds on the fourth woe, right? Because in making the minor things major, it allows them not only to miss the point, but it also enables them to create a new, misguided point—a point so amorphous to the original intent of the law that it becomes an entirely different religion altogether. That’s why in verse 26, Jesus says, “You blind Pharisee!” because it’s clear that while they assume their citizenship in God’s kingdom—they have no part or place in it, which, then, leads us to the second and sixth woes in Matthew 23:15 and 27-28.
TWoL: 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
It’s because they cannot grasp Scripture properly leading to their misuse of it that results in their converting others to a misguided, Pharisaical religion, and we’re told they do this zealously. Now, the problem isn’t their zeal. God loves zeal, but zeal apart from God and his truth creates, as one commentator says, legalists or religious terrorists. On the one hand, when you divorce the law from the God of the law, the Bible becomes a checklist to you—joyless and constraining.
But on the other hand, it doesn’t just make you a joyless zealot, it makes you dangerous—because it empties any understanding you have in the law of grace, mercy, or kindness, and it makes you prideful and envious. Worse, it makes you think that those who have what they have from grace are undeserving of it, and you’ll do anything to take it from them. Think, Saul of Tarsus (Paul the Apostle). So, zeal apart from the truth in God is dangerous, and this is what was happening in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. Pharisees weren’t converting people to Judaism; they were converting ignorant, gullible zealots to Pharisaism—to become legalists and, worse yet, religious terrorists.
And this is the crux of Jesus’ sixth woe—that just as touching a beautiful whitewashed tomb would make an ignorant traveler unclean and unacceptable to God (to touch the tomb of a dead person was to make you unclean, which is why they were painted white as a warning), so too were Pharisees and scribes presenting false promises to ignorant, gullible people—promises leading them and leading others converted by them to hell. Zealousness without the truth—without God—does more harm than good, and this leads to our final, first and seventh woes in Matthew 23:13 and 29-36.
TWoL: 13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”
What is the result of hypocrites failing to interpret Scripture rightly, misusing it, and creating religious terrorists? The result is murder—the murder of those who do interpret Scripture rightly, who use it correctly, who seek to bring others into its truth. Not only will these leaders and teachers do anything to keep what they have, even if it costs them their souls, but they’re willing to do anything to bring everyone else down with them.
And here’s the thing, they do all this under a misguided, perverted sense of righteousness. They think that they’re doing what their fathers could not do. They think that if they had lived in the times of their fathers, they would have listened to the prophets instead of persecuting and killing them. But Jesus says, I could send you all the prophets and all the priests, in fact, I could send you THE prophet and THE priest—THE King, himself, and you would still do exactly as your fathers did.
This, TCCBC, is the sorrow of Palm Sunday and Passion Week—this is the sorrow of the cross, and Christ has come not only to save sinners but to warn us that the cross also pronounces woe upon those who reject him. He’s come to make sure that we interpret Scripture rightly, that we follow it closely, that we lead others into it truthfully, and that we exalt its Messiah exceedingly!
And what we need in order to do this isn’t to make it increasingly about ourselves, like the Pharisees and scribes, but to see that it’s all about him as he comes to reestablish a relationship with us—sinners like us—and calls us to seek after his heart. What we need is Jesus crucified, buried, and risen to reign come as propitiator of the wrath of God through his shed blood, as expiator and deliverer of our guilt in sin, as intercessor for our mortal and moral inadequacies, and as our beloved Saviour to usher us into eternal life with him. And unless we have and know him—unless we possess his heart—and submit our lives to his complete will for us in worshipful response for his glory and for the good of those around us, these woes are not reserved only for those called Pharisee.
Palm Sunday, Passion Week, and the cross—more than point us to glory—they’re meant to cause us to stop and see if we’ve made this more about the religion or the relationship—more about our benefit or God’s gracious fellowship with us. And if we say it’s the latter—if we say we want the relationship—then put a pulse on your relationship with those in your midst. Start with your family. Do those relationships testify to woe or blessedness—to selfish ambition or justice, mercy, and faith—to hell-bound hatred or God-sparing, self-sacrificing love? And then ask that question about your friends, your church, your community. What is the state of your heart, and who dictates its desires? Is it you or is it your Saviour who rode into Jerusalem on a colt not be crowned by you but to die for you?
3) Listen to the Tears of Jesus
Allow me to finish by reading these last words of Matthew 23:37-39 as Jesus cries over his people. And do yourself a favour by hearing them not as one detached from their implication on your life but as a clarion call to action and longing for a righteousness that came at great cost not to you but to the one who loves you and who is beckoning you to himself—don’t miss him. TWoL: 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”