“Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders” Sunday School Lesson Summary and Activities, Matthew 23:1-8, 23-26

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Sunday School is a vital part of any ministry. In it, one is able to experience a deeper knowledge of God’s Word.  Here at “Word For Life Says,” I want to help you help others. Below you will find resources to help you prepare for your upcoming lessons and my personal summary notes that I use when teaching. May God bless you!

“Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders”

Matthew 23:1-8, 23-26

PDF Lesson Print Out is now Located at the Bottom of the Lesson. Please Scroll Down, Click and Enjoy!  Blessings!

Please Note: All lesson verses and titles are based on International Sunday School Lesson/Uniform Series ©2014 by the Lesson Committee, but all content/commentary written within is original to wordforlifesays.com unless properly quoted/cited. I am glad you like to read my personal summary notes, musings, and thoughts that I use when teaching, but as always you are encouraged to do your own studies as well.  Blessings!)


How leaders operate affects the community or the people under them.  For instance, a good leader can be a great asset to any organization bringing about growth, unity, and positive change.  They build up and encourage those under them to do their best while adhering to the standards of that said organization.  Whereas, bad leaders can have the opposite effect, bringing down individuals, and eventually the organization due to bad or horrendous practices, until all growth and positive effects that once took place are no longer present.

A true leader should be able to be straightforward and taken at face value.  One shouldn’t have to guess if what they see is going to be the same as what they get out of an individual.  What is represented on the outside should be what one can depend on receiving from them as a whole.

Alas, this is not always the case.  As we find out in today’s lesson, the scribes and Pharisees often presented themselves in one way on the outside whilst their hearts were far from that representation on the inside, and Jesus is tackling that issue in today’s lesson.

Matthew 23:1-4 “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

Jesus was coming to the end of the road of His earthly ministry.  Much has transpired, and still much needs to be said.

After His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem riding on the back of the donkey (Matthew 21:1-11), Jesus’s next account of action was the second time He went into the temple to clean house by overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and declaring, “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves,” (Matthew 21:13; read Matthew 21:12-17).

From there other things were done and said like the cursing of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-20) and Jesus’s teaching about their need to have faith and the impossible will be done (Matthew 21:21-22).

After that, Jesus’ authority was questioned by those who opposed Him.  But, when they couldn’t answer the question Jesus posed to them, He refused to answer theirs (Matthew 21:23-27).

Following this, Jesus taught several parables.  After the which, the Pharisees “took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk,” (Matthew 22:15), and Jesus called them “hypocrites” for their underhanded attempted to try to snare Him (Matthew 22:18).

This would not be the first time He used the word hypocrite in the book of Matthew (see 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 16:3), and it would not be the last, as this week’s lesson will point out.  And, just about each time He used this harsh language, it was geared toward the religious authority of the day or those in the synagogue, much like in today’s lesson.

Answering more questions thrown at Him by the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 22:323-46), Jesus then moves into our portion of study text for this week’s lesson where He exposes these combative Pharisees for who they really are: hypocrites.

Since this is the ending of His ministry, Jesus’ popularity among the people grew over these past years of Him preaching and teaching to unveil the truths concerning the kingdom of God.  He has done many miracles in the process and it was not unlikely that He would still have this “multitude” of people following Him.

Turning His attention to those in the crowd and to “His disciples,” Jesus speaks these truths.  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.”  Now, many are divided on whether this was an actual “seat” in the local synagogue or if the term “seat” is used in a figurative sense to describe the authority of these leaders (i.e. their position).  The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t really matter.  Both would still tell of the authority the “scribes and the Pharisees” possessed when it came down to teaching the law of God and governing over those who were to abide by that law.

Both of those positions were highly regarded by the people.  The “scribes” were known for the copying and the teaching of the law, and the “Pharisees” were the religious order of the day who made sure everything was upheld with unrelenting strictness.  As such, both offices were revered by the people.  Yet it is these very offices that Jesus seemed to have the most trouble with and confronted the most, and today’s lesson reveals why.

Jesus appreciated the office of authority.  Jesus appreciates the upholding of God’s law, that’s a given.  That’s not the problem.  The problem came from those who taught others to do one thing, but they themselves don’t abide by the same principles or rules.  They excluded themselves from adhering to the law (usually due to some man-made tradition) for whatever reason they found that would justify their exclusions, making themselves seem special; or worse, above the law.

Jesus said, “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.”  As I stated before, Jesus was all for those who work to uphold the law of God.  Later, James will pick up the baton and teach, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves,” (James 1:22) where we learn the importance of not just reading about God’s Word or looking at it, but it must be active and worked out in our daily lives.

Previously, I wrote:

“God’s Word is not an aquarium.  In an aquarium, we view the fish from the outside.  We don’t go in and interact with them.  We just watch them swim along thinking how beautiful and peaceful they are.  God’s Word is beautiful and peaceful but it is also meant to be lived out; it is meant to be interacted with.” (Hear and Do the Word/WordForLifeSays.com).

God’s Word IS TO BE observed in the sense that it is to be followed and lived out by all, from the least unto the greatest.

But, herein lies the issue.  The scribes and Pharisees did just that.  They looked at the Word, interpreted its meaning, taught it and added some of their own traditions on top for a dose of good measure; they exacted it with strictness upon the people while they themselves found ways around the system.  Their teachings didn’t live up to their actions and how they lived, and vice versa.

Therefore, Jesus continued: “But do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”  It was Albert Schweitz who said, “Example is leadership,” meaning people follow more what you do than what you say, therefore anyone who mimics your actions or journeys your path does so because they saw it in you first; they saw your example.  They look to you as a leader whether you are one by title or not.

But these unjust leaders had the opposite opinion about that.  Rather, than lead by example in a positive way, they taught others to live one way while they themselves “do not.”  Their “works” didn’t measure up to the words they taught or the loads they placed on others.

Jesus said they make the load as “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” (compare Luke 11:46), for others, “but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”  It’s easy to teach, but harder to do.  It’s easy to impose on others what one is not willing to do themselves.  It’s easy to pile extra traditions on others according to their own interpretations while finding an excuse of why it doesn’t apply to them.  Time after time, that is what they did.  They burdened others down while making their load light.  They placed stipulations on others, once again, according to their own interpretation and traditions added on to Scripture, that were “grievous,” sorrowful (compare Matthew 15:1-9).  That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Matthew 23:5-8 “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.  But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.”

“But all their works they do for to be seen of men” (compare to Jesus’ warning in Matthew 6:1, 18).  One must question, did it not matter to them that God still sees them whether they are doing it for Him, or not?  Apparently, it didn’t matter for everything these unjust leaders did, they did for fame and notoriety.  Watch what you run after in this world!  Their objective in holding their offices was not to bring glory to God but to bring glory to themselves.

Please Note: Make no bones about it, no matter one’s motives behind their position, and no matter who they are putting their performance on for, there is still, and will always be, that audience of One who is paying even more attention to it all whether it’s being done to glorify Him or not.  Take heed!

Jesus describes some of the ways they put on their show before men.  “They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments.”  All of this relates to outward appearances of holiness and piety.

“Phylacteries” were these little leather boxes or pouches that the holy order would attach to their foreheads and/or arms (compare Exodus 13:9; Deuteronomy 6:8).  Inside of these phylacteries would be portions of Scripture written on parchments with these four sections of verses: Ex. 13:1-10, 11-16; Dt. 6:4-9; 11:13-21.  They were visual and physical reminders of the importance of keeping the law of God.

The same was true for the meaning behind the “borders of their garments,” which is a reference to the hem of their garments.  On these hems, there were tassels attached which also was a visual reminder to follow God’s law (compare Numbers 15:38-40).  The woman who was healed of her issue of blood which she had for twelve years, when she reached out for Jesus, it was this very “hem of his garment,” which she declared, if she touched, she would be “made whole,” (see Matthew 9:20-21).

As far as the Pharisees go, Jesus’s problem wasn’t with their phylacteries per se or their garment’s borders, but what they did with both to make themselves stand out.  Both were made bigger than necessary for the purpose of having the appearance of being extra religious and extra holy; to appear better than those around them in the eyes of God.  They, in their minds, supposed their righteous exceeded everyone else’s.  The sad truth attached to that is once Jesus taught, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:20).  God wants heart performers of His Word, not show performers.

The scribes and Pharisees didn’t stop at their outward show of prominence, but they exuded a spirit of preeminence with their desire to “love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogue.”  They wanted the seats of position and notoriety; they wanted to be where they could be seen and honored for who they were by the “normal, everyday, ordinary folk.”  Again, they were only interested in the attention they drew to themselves instead of living as leaders that would draw people to God.  Therefore, they sought that special table or that special room; that special position that set them apart from everyone else that they may be revered.  Compare this to Mark 12:38-40 where Jesus condemns these practices and wraps it up with this statement, “These shall receive greater damnation,” (vs. 40; see also Luke 11:43 and 20:46-47).

They also loved the “greetings in the markets.”  In the open square, or where people gathered, they received public adoration for their position.  Everything was about receiving public honor.  Such a positional mindset is so dangerous because it almost asks that the individual themselves be treated in a worshipful manner.

Please Note: All honor and respect given is not bad.  The Apostle Paul taught, “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:7).  But, for these Pharisees whom Jesus is dealing with, it seems they had an over-inflated ego that matched the size of their over-sized phylacteries and garment borders.  They were completely self-centered and not God-centered regardless of what their outward appearance spoke.  In His last public sermon, this is what our Lord chose to speak against.

And, they also loved the titles that came with the position.  They loved to be “called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.”  How someone is “called” works as an identifying marker in their life.  To be called something is to say this is the label I carry about myself or others have tagged me by; this is how I am to be referred to or designated as.  Here, loving to be called “Rabbi,” means they love to be called “master” (usually applied to the teachers of the day), and Jesus put the brakes on that train speeding in the wrong direction real fast.

He taught those in attendance the truth, and that truth was, “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren,” therefore, “Be ye not called Rabbi.”  In Christ, we are members of the same body (see the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 5:30).  We are one big family, related through our relationship in Him, and as such, none should seek to elevate themselves above others.  We are in this together, working together, with Christ as the head, as our true and only “Master.”

Please Note: Offices of leadership within the church are God-ordained and taught in the New Testament (see Ephesians 4:11-16).  These are given for the perfecting of the saints.  But, in that, they are not to seek to be anyone’s master in the sense of being regarded as superior over another just for title sake, or as the Pharisees were doing, for notoriety and public honor.  Men who wanted to be praised for their positions.

After this, Jesus teaches a very important truth that will help His disciples and us keep everything in balance.  He said, “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted,” (Matthew 23:11-12; not in today’s text).  That’s what true leadership is about, working in humility and service, and not exalting oneself.  Compare that to the unjust way these leaders operated, whom Jesus was opposing.

Immediately following, if the message Jesus was already preaching didn’t ruffle any feathers, the words that followed surely would.  Jesus began to not only speak more in-depth about the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, but He also pronounced a series of woes to them.  In just this 23rd chapter of Matthew alone, when referencing the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus used the word “woe” eight times, and the word “hypocrites” seven times, and they were almost always, except in verse 16, used in conjunction with one another.

And, let’s not confuse the usage of the word “woe” here.  In our modern speech we may say, “Whoa,” when something catches us off guard or excites us, and so on.  We have so many ways we use that word.  Anyways, opposite that, the word “woe” in today’s lesson expresses condemnation.  And this judgement was called out due to the actions of these hypocrites.

In referencing the word “hypocrites” in these verses, it is pointing to one who acts, as if on a stage.  A performer, or someone who puts on a show.  They pretend to be one thing, but in reality, are another.  This, Jesus, speaks against in this last section of verses covering today’s text.

 Matthew 23:23-26 “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.  Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.  Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.”

After listing many “woes” and charges of hypocrisy already against the “scribes and Pharisees,” our lesson text picks up here with Jesus condemning their practice of paying close attention to the littlest stuff such a tithing to least leaf of the garden herbs (possibly, too, for the appearance of holiness before men) while leaving undone the “weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.”

Unfortunately, they were accused in other areas of the Bible of not operating with just intents and mercy toward people.  Even to the point of racking up the charge against them as ones who “devours widows’ houses,” (Matthew 23:14; compare Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47); taking advantage of the weakest of society for personal gain and promotion.  Where was the justice and mercy for these?

What about judging rightly and operating in the love of God?  Comparing the verse above in our lesson (vs. 23) with the wording found in Luke 11 we see there Jesus says, “But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone,” (vs. 42; emphasis mine).

In Micah 6:8 the importance of what God is really seeking for is laid out in plain language.  There it says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”

Regarding this verse, previously I wrote,

“These requirements are to govern our lives as we walk before God in relation with Him, and in how we treat other people.  When one steps out of the realm of those things He prescribed for true righteous living they become prideful toward God, wanting and believing their interpretations are best, and they lose compassion and empathy toward their fellow man.” (Word For Life Says/Justice and Sabbath Laws)

Hosea 6:6 expressing similar language to that of Micah 6:8, it says, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  In the same article noted above, it was noted:

“As a people, they got so caught up in the rule keeping of all the outward compliances that they forgot that God is so much more; they forgot about the heart of God, and the spirit and moral compass of what everything was designed for…

In the Hosea example, their only concern was following outward ceremonial appearances whilst inside the were living and operating unjustly toward others, without love and disregarding the moral side or God’s intent of it all.  Ceremony doesn’t trump mercy.”

Jesus’ accusations against the scribes and Pharisees are very similar here.  Yes, tithe and do all those things stipulated that bring honor to God, but don’t forget to honor God by showing “judgement, mercy, and faith” which will all be wrapped up in His love (see Luke 11:42 above).  Don’t “pass over” these very important matters that are so close to the heart of God (see also Matthew 9:13; 12:7).  “These ought ye have done, and not to leave the other undone!”

Rather, they paid the more attention to the smaller things (tithing), making sure the most minuscule measure wasn’t left undone while leaving the big things undone.  Both need to be done, but the bigger things (judgment, mercy, and faith) should take precedence and should never be out of the sight of these “blind guides” for they are important to God.

For this, Jesus said, they “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”  They would make sure the littlest insect wouldn’t enter their body by accidentally swallowing it, therefore defiling them.  So, they would strain the wine through cloth to prevent that from happening, but at the same time, will willfully swallow something as big as a camel (metaphorically, of course).  They would make sure the littlest stuff didn’t go undone (as stated already) like tithing off the mint, yet the bigger stuff like mercy they would gladly leave undone and “pass over” even though, according to Jesus, they are the “weightier matters.”

“Ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.”  That outward appearances of religiosity were more important to them than what went on inside, and this is not a hidden thing to Jesus.  He calls it like He sees it and like He knows it.  They should have been more concerned with the inner matters of their own hearts, all that stuff that goes on inside to make sure they are lining up with God’s principles such as mercy and justice, rather than the show they would be putting on in front of others.

“Cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.”  Whatever true transformation takes place on the inside will reflect on the outside.  It won’t be a show, it won’t be a performance, it won’t be fake, and it won’t be full of hypocrisy.  It will be a life that is genuinely sold out for God, living with their all surrendered to Him in faith, that will shine as a beacon of light to all who see them (compare Matthew 5:16).

If they followed that principle, they wouldn’t be unjust leaders, but true men of God making a difference for God in the positions of their offices.


How we look on the inside is more important to God than how we look on the outside.  A heart of genuine faith is more precious to Him than a great performer who just looks the part.  Don’t mimic the actions of the scribes and the Pharisees.  Be real for Jesus!          

Standard Print PDF: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Sunday School Lesson Summary Standard Print

Large Print PDF: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Sunday School Lesson Summary Large Print

Below are activities that support this week’s lesson.  Enjoy!

Word Search: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Word Search  Answers: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Word Search Answers

Crossword: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Crossword  Answers: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Crossword Answers

Word Scramble: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Word Scramble  Answers: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Word Scramble Answers

Memory Verse: Jesus Deals with Unjust Leaders Memory Verse

“Mirror Activities”: Our lesson teaches us to not be hypocrites but to be real for Jesus.  A mirror tells us what we look like on the outside.  But, in our hearts, we need to be real for Jesus.  Students can make any one of these mirror crafts and write on them “Be Real for Jesus” or use this Be Real for Jesus cut out and glue it to your craft (picture below).  Every time they look in their mirror, it will remind them no matter how we look on the outside, our inside has to be real for Jesus.  The fun thing about the activities below is most of the items we probably already have laying around the house.  Enjoy!

“Blank Printable Mirror” (Originally these are used for party invitations but how great to just print out and have students draw a picture of what they think they look like in the mirrors.  Add verse to the back and there you go.  An easy alternative activity that really brings out this week’s lesson. Enjoy!)

“Aluminum Foil Face Mirror Craft” (How creative! Here is a chance to use old cereal boxes, aluminum foil and crafting sticks.  Together they make this cute craft.  Goes very well with this lesson. Enjoy!) Below I did one for you with my “Be Real for Jesus” cut out attached from above.

Below are Activities/Resources/Links that support this week’s lesson.  Enjoy!

“Do as He Says” 

“Pharisees Bible Crafts” (While many of the wonderful items shown come by way of membership or a small fee to pay, there is a FREE game idea called “Find the Pharisee Cup Game” located at the bottom of this page.  Enjoy!)

“Woe to the Pharisees” (At the bottom there is a craft titled “Wicked Scribes and Pharisees” your students may enjoy.)

“All Puffed Up” (With activity sheets, object lesson, and group activities such as “Bible Verse Pops” and “Balloon Heart,” these ideas will definitely be useful in getting the lesson across.  Enjoy!)

“The Right Way – dealing with the theme of hypocrisy in your Sunday School class” (This page shows a wonderful 1:50 min video that your kids will enjoy that explains hypocrisy.  Hint: it may be a reminder for grown-ups as well.  Enjoy!)

“Pharisees and Sadducees” 




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