"Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, for they say and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, "Rabbi, Rabbi" (Matt. 23:1-7).
Jesus, while still in the temple, speaks "to the multitudes and to His disciples." The following discourse (which spans all of Matthew 23) is His last public one, and it contains, by far, His harshest and most blistering message recorded for us by inspiration. Of the 38 verses that Jesus speaks in this context, 14 of them contain severe, explicit statements against the Jewish religious leaders (cf. 23:13-17,19,23-29,33). There is no reason to believe that these men were not present to hear all of these scathing rebukes!
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat" - One who was going to expound upon the law would sit in the synagogue in the place designated by this name. However, one who was going to read from the law would stand up (e.g., Luke 4:16-21).
"Whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say and do not do" - Jesus knew that the scribes and Pharisees did not practice what they preached! They taught Moses' law correctly, but they lived contrary to it (cf. Matt. 23:4). Teachers and preachers, it is not enough to merely teach God's word correctly; you must obey it also, if you desire God's approval. It is here implied that Jesus is referring to the Law of Moses itself and not the numerous traditions that had been written by men. Jesus is certainly not blindly endorsing their man-made religious traditions (cf. 15:9).
The Law of Moses, as given by God, was a heavy burden that was "hard to bear" (cf. Acts 15:10). However, the Jewish religious leaders added to the burden with their countless traditions. Sadly, they often excused themselves from obedience to God's law because of their traditions (e.g., Corban in Mark 7:9-13 and oaths in Matthew 23:16-22).
"All their works they do to be seen of men" - The laws and traditions that they did keep were proudly displayed publicly (not privately or sincerely) in an effort to built a reputation of holiness before men. Jesus lists six examples in the following verses: (1) Broad phylacteries, (2) enlarged garment borders, (3) places of honor at feasts, (4) the best seats in the synagogues, (5) greetings in the marketplace, and (6) being called "Rabbi" by men.
It is important to understand that it is not enough to simply do a good work. That work must be done for the right reason--to bring glory to God's name--not to exalt oneself (cf. Matt. 5:16).
"Phylacteries" were strips of parchment upon which were written certain passages of the law. These strips were enclosed in a leather case and fastened to the forehead and left arm. The practice of wearing phylacteries seems to have arisen from a literal interpretation of these passages: Exodus 13:9,16, Deuteronomy 6:8, and 11:18. These men made their phylacteries larger than the common-size so that they might appear more religious. There was nothing intrinsically wrong in wearing phylacteries. The sin was in making theirs broad to be seen of men. The same could be said regarding the enlarged "borders of their garment" (cf. Num. 15:38,39).
These arrogant men also loved "the best places" and "the best seats." In other words, they desired the positions of honor. Additionally, they yearned for "greetings in the marketplaces." They loved positive, public displays of this sort.
We will continue studying this context in our next lesson.