MATTHEW 23:8-12

The three titles
   1. Rabbi
   2. Father
   3. Teacher

In the previous few verses, Jesus has been outlining the Pharisaic and scribal practices which fall short of God’s requirements and, as we saw, although He could have criticised them for incorrectly interpreting the Scriptures and for assuming external practices were being commanded by figurative statements, He does no such thing.

Rather, using what’s being done, He shows that self-assertion is being given free vent that they might reap self-praise and self-honour by their external religious rites.

The first seven verses of the chapter can be summarised succinctly but not wholly by the statement

‘This is what the Pharisees do...’

and these last five verses in the section addressed specifically to the crowds and His disciples as

‘ must be different’

which concludes by a repeated statement that self-abasement rather than self-exaltation is the way of Jesus’ followers and of seeking out the way which is lowly where servanthood becomes the accepted role of the disciple rather than a quest for personal glory and recognition (Mtw 23:11-12).

The three titles
Mtw 23:8-10

Jesus commands both the crowds listening and His disciples not to do three specific things, each of which is set as a contrast with the practices of the scribes and Pharisees which has gone before. These may not be absolute statements simply because they may be best defined by the desire for glory and earthly respect which Jesus has noted as being a part of the religious leaders’ experience and it could well be taken that, for instance, the admonition not to be called Rabbi (Mtw 23:8) is specifically for the purpose of limiting any danger there may be of a believer becoming more important than the people he’s called to serve.

If this is so, it could then be seen to be both expanded to just about any and every title which could be thought up (and which probably already appear in all of our church structures such as ‘pastor’, ‘vicar’, ‘bishop’ and the like) and restricted in the sense that, if the title taken by someone does not spring out of a desire for earthly honour in the bearer, it can’t be too bad.

However, the text certainly doesn’t seem to read like this and we would do better if we understood Jesus’ statements as absolute ones which can only warrant an expansion of their application as noted above. In this case, while we might point the finger at those denominations which use the title ‘father’ to denote positions of authority (Mtw 23:9), we would be equally guilty as soon as we used the definite rather than the indefinite article and spoke of recognised leaders as ‘the pastor’ rather than as ‘a believer called to be a pastor’ or as ‘the apostle of the local church’ (if there could be such a thing justified from NT texts!) rather than ‘a brother who functions as the ministry gift of an apostle’.

These may sound like pedantic differences but they’re important. Jesus was concerned that there might be no danger of men or women ever becoming an aristocratic-like, hierarchical leadership which ruled over fellow believers and who maintained their own position with titles that continually emphasised their self-opinionated importance whenever they were used.

To be honest, it would be lovely to get rid of all our labels and simply refer to believers as ‘Bert’ or ‘John’ (if that’s their name, of course!) who function within the local church as a ministry gift or with a ministry to the Body of believers there.

But, alas, we seem to be so taken up with thinking that labels are a sign of respect - and a part of being Scripturally correct - that we forget that they’re very often signs of a division between the leaders and the congregation which isn’t easily breached.

As I noted in my commentary of Zech 10:4, God raises up people to lead His flock from the flock themselves and not from the leadership. Whenever one sees a leadership which is no longer a part of the congregation but which sits over the believers, you can be sure that a division has occurred which is not of God’s choosing.

His way is to allow men and women to lead while, at the same time, causing them to function as a part of the one’s that are being led - a leader must be both minister and ministered to, the latter of which shouldn’t come about from other external leaders of other congregations when meetings of churches take place, but by the ministries within the local body which is producing them.

If a ‘leader’ seeks ministry outside his own fellowship, it’s normally a sure bet that he’s been either unsuccessful in encouraging or unwilling in allowing ministries to develop and function in the congregation - and this can often, but not always, be the result of a fearful leader who remains frightened that he may become less important than his position dictates.

Jesus comments on three specific titles and we’ll look at these in the order in which the reader encounters them.

1. Rabbi
Mtw 10:8

Firstly, Jesus commands (Mtw 23:8) that

‘ are not to be called Rabbi for you have one Teacher and you are all brethren’

which needs some clarification seeing as the Greek word underlying the translation of ‘teacher’ (Strongs Greek number 1320 - didaskalos) would be directly parallel with the Greek word which is used in Mtw 23:10 (Strongs Greek number 2519) but which the RSV translates with the word ‘master’ wrongly, apparently (the Textus Receptus which is the compiled Greek and the basis for the AV’s translation also has the latter Greek word as replacing the former one in Mtw 23:8 but most commentators and textual scholars accept the former word as original and it seems best to follow this rendering at this point).

The Greek word, transliterated didaskalos, is rightly rendered ‘teacher’ if a direct translation is being made but there appears to be a complication here which, I believe, should cause us rather to render it as ‘master’ which the word ‘rabbi’ infers.

In two places in John’s Gospel, the words ‘rabbi’ and ‘rabboni’ are equated with ‘didaskalos’ as being one and the same, the former two being transliterations of the Greek/Hebrew. In John 1:38, the text reads that, in their first encounter with Jesus, the disciples followed after Him having heard John the Baptist’s comments and that

‘Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them “What do you seek?”. And they said to Him “Rabbi (which means Teacher [didaskalos]) where are you staying?”’

and, in John 20:16 on resurrection Sunday, Jesus made known Himself to Mary Magdalene at the tomb and she exclaimed

‘Rabboni! (which means Teacher [didaskalos])’

There’s very little difference between the two words ‘rabbi’ (Strongs Greek number 4461) and ‘rabboni’ (Strongs Greek number 4462) - the former of which appears in Mtw 23:8 - but Vines comments that a comparison of their usage reveals that the former means simply ‘my master’ whereas the latter was usually only used of the president of the Sanhedrin and means ‘my great master’, a term which obviously shows more respect and reverence than the other.

Kittels, on the other hand, notes that the root rab from which both words come denotes

‘ who holds a respected position - for example, an official. It is used by an inferior to a superior. Students use it in addressing their teachers...’

and then goes on to note that

‘The term didaskalos in Mark 4:38, 9:17 etc has the same force [as rabbi and rabboni]’

That is, the Greek equivalent of the Greek transliteration of both Rabbi and Rabboni (which Kittels sees as different forms of the same word rather than representing something different) can mean one and the same. Therefore, instead of seeing the Greek word as holding it’s normal meaning here, it would be better if we were to interpret Jesus’ first statement as running (my italics)

‘ are not to be called rabbi for you have one master/authoritative spiritual leader and you are all brethren’

By doing this, Mtw 23:10 can also be seen to be teaching something different, for the normal rendering of the Greek word translated ‘masters’ and ‘master’ is ‘teacher’ as we will see below.

Although we’ve taken a fair amount of space to arrive at a correct interpretation, we can see that Jesus is concerned that no disciple of His should put Himself into a position of listening to unequalled spiritual teaching where what is said becomes as authoritative as both the words of the Scriptures and the direct commands of God - which the Rabbis had done through their elevation of their own interpretations over and above the commands of Scripture (Sanhedrin 11:3).

In Jesus’ Church, then, there is no ‘One’ person either locally, nationally or universally who should ever put himself in the place of deciding upon matters which cannot be either justifiably opposed or questioned - and, consequently, that no position should ever be made by the believers themselves which consigns the way of God to one individual’s interpretation at the expense of the Body.

When Jesus speaks about His listeners having ‘one master’, most commentators interpret the phrase to be referring to Jesus Himself, probably following some of the manuscripts which define the title by stating that

‘ have one master, the Christ...’

words which the AV includes. This may be the sense of the passage but the words would appear to have been added here from Mtw 23:10 rather than being original and it would therefore leave the possibility open that the Father is being referred to. As Jesus was One who came to point the way back to a perfect obedience to the Father, it seems better to accept this interpretation at this point while, at the same time, noting that it could be equally applicable to Jesus and rightfully so.

The reason for such a ban is simple - as Jesus says

‘ are all brethren’

There’s no one who should stand head and shoulders above anyone else as master, lord and source of all spiritual knowledge who becomes part of an elite system of leadership which separates itself from the people that it professes to serve. Brothers, called by the Father, are therefore equal no matter what ministry they may be granted with which to serve the Body of Christ (I Cor 4:7).

2. Father
Mtw 10:9

Secondly, in Mtw 10:9, Jesus informs His listeners

‘ no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven’

something which we may wonder at seeing as Paul proclaims himself as such in his letters. To start with, however, we should note that whereas the preceding instruction and the one which follows both speak about not taking upon oneself the title of either Rabbi (or ‘master’) or teacher, here we’re looking at an instruction which the disciple is to make sure that they don’t put on another.

In that sense, Paul would be entirely free to call himself ‘father’ and not fall foul of a direct command of Jesus. However, this is being too pedantic with interpretation and it’s better to look at this verse and say that, whereas the other two look upon the believer putting himself into a position of honour, this one considers the problem from the viewpoint of the ordinary believer who creates the problem by allowing other believers (though the text doesn’t actually define them as other believers and they could, therefore, be any other person regardless of commitment to following Jesus) to be labelled with a title of honour which creates divisions within the Church (there is nothing incorrect for a son to call his natural parent ‘father’ but the relationships here being discussed are primarily applicable to those which could be present within the community of believers).

Mattask quotes McNeile at this point as stating that the term ‘father’ was a title for Rabbis and the great ones of the past in Jewish society but Matfran comments that

‘There is no evidence for its use as a title in a similar way to Rabbi and master either in Jewish or christian circles at this period’

but such a statement is immediately undermined by his observation that Stephen addresses the Jewish Sanhedrin with the title ‘fathers’ in Acts 7:2 as does Paul in Acts 22:1. However, an individual title doesn’t have evidence of usage in the NT as far as I can see.

The Jews certainly regarded those teachers of the Law who had preceded them as ‘fathers’ - the tractate Aboth in the Mishnah bears witness to this simply because the word means ‘fathers’ and it goes on to relate the ‘greats’ of the spiritual Rabbinic genealogy while Paul also bears witness to its usage in Gal 1:14 - but Jesus’ instructions seem to be more applicable to the living rather than the dead and, although this may be a valid secondary meaning, it’s best to accept Jesus’ words as referring to a live person who’s given the title ‘father’ than to a dead one.

Matmor notes that the prefix ‘abba’ meaning ‘father’ was occasionally prefixed to a teacher of the Law in contradiction to Matfran’s statement above and, even if this isn’t a contemporary record, it does show that the title came to be used with a living and not dead application.

Paul’s use of the word ‘father’, though, doesn’t reach the point of it being a title which raises him over believers as some sort of elite super-person. Rather, the apostle talks of Himself as being a ‘spiritual’ father of many in his service to them rather than as lording it over them (I Cor 4:15, Phil 2:22, I Thess 2:11) and he can also urge Timothy to treat older believers as fathers rather than to expect them to regard to his youthful appearance (I Tim 5:1).

Paul felt, quite rightly, a certain jealousy for those local churches that he’d had a direct hand in - whether it be because he first established it or that he encouraged it to grow by his presence or through his letters - and he sought to nurture those people as a natural father would wish to provide for his own children. His use of the terminology is certainly not against Jesus’ instructions here which see the title as one which puts a position upon the recipient as being the ultimate source of everything which comes to them.

In this sense, the title of ‘father’ would belittle God’s position and, even if He isn’t excluded, the ‘father’ comes to be regarded more as the mediator of all the blessings and provision of God between the congregation and YHWH Himself than it’s realised that direct access to Him is available to each and every person. Therefore, the title ‘father’ shouldn’t be used where it elevates a fellow believer into a place that begins to chip away at the position of God’s sovereignty.

3. Teacher
Mtw 10:10

As I noted in my comments on Mtw 23:8, the Greek word employed in Mtw 23:10 and which the RSV translates twice with the word ‘master’ (Strongs Greek number 2519), occurs only in the Textus Receptus of the former verse and seems to be more rightly recorded as bearing a word which specifically means ‘master’.

Here, if the Greek word is an equivalent of that first word, the verse means little or nothing different to what Jesus has already said. However, it seems best to accept this different Greek word (which occurs only here in the entire NT and never in the LXX) as meaning something closer to ‘teacher’. Vines, however, notes that the word means a ‘guide’ but, on this definition, we could justifiably see the word as meaning both a teacher and a master depending on the context. Matmor, on the other hand, notes that a work on the Greek vocabulary

‘...cites it from the papyri and it is used in an inscription on a memorial to a teacher’

while Mathag, although confirming the possibility that it could mean both ‘teacher’ and ‘master’ states that

‘B W Winter’s study of the terms in POxy 2190 (c.70-90AD) points to the more specific meaning “tutor” in the sense of one who provides private instruction to a student outside the framework of a formal school’

It may be insignificant that the modern Greek word means ‘professor’ for language changes with time and this may have been an attributed meaning which has been imparted through the years leading up to the present day but, nevertheless, it still seems to give the general meaning of the word in the first century world.

It’s best, then, to take the word rendered here by the RSV as ‘master’ and change it to ‘teacher’ to better reflect its sense and the teaching which Jesus is recorded as declaring to both the crowds and His disciples. From a change of subject in Mtw 23:9 where the title ‘father’ is not to be put on any other believer, Jesus reverts to phraseology which forbids the title being taken upon oneself as He’s done in Mtw 23:8 - but we have to realise that God has placed teachers in the Body of the Church (Eph 4:11, I Cor 12:28, I Tim 2:7, II Tim 1:11) and it’s the desire for both glory and recognition as a teacher which is what is here being condemned (II Peter 2:1-3). In I Tim 1:6-7, Paul warns Timothy about certain people (my italics) who

‘ swerving from [a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith] have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the Law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions’

The implication seems to be here that the desire to be teachers lies with the people themselves rather than as an anointing which comes from God to appoint them in the Church and that such a coveted position elevates them to a place where they begin to become far more important than the congregation that they should be concerned to serve.

Whether or not this is directly retrievable from the passage is not certain but it is the context of Mtw 23:10 where Jesus’ initial words before the threefold warning have been to outline the clamouring for earthly recognition of the scribes and Pharisees (Mtw 23:5-6) and the concluding two verses will also go on to speak against it (Mtw 23:11-12).

In all these three titles - Rabbi, father and teacher (and many more titles besides) - the idea lurks under the surface that such a label elevates the bearer into a place of supremacy and authority over and above his fellow believers. Therefore, all such titles should be strongly avoided - not that there isn’t a place to recognise men and women who have begun works in areas (the spiritual father principle which we noted as being demonstrable in the life of Paul) and those who are appointed by God to be teachers in the Church, but that we should both avoid making positions that others are elevated into and avoid taking such titles upon ourselves which begin to divide congregations into leadership and laity, privileged and pauper in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s Jesus alone who stands worthy of the supreme title ‘Teacher’ as Jesus points out for, from Him, come what is right and true and every other teacher who imparts instruction is forced to listen carefully to His words first before reflecting what’s heard to those around Him. Jesus, then, as the source is the only One who should rightfully be given the authoritative title ‘Teacher’, the one Head over all the brothers who stand as equals together.

Therefore, Jesus’ comments in Mtw 23:8 seem to be the most appropriate here as they apply to all three verses and summarise the reason for such an avoidance of titles when He notes that

‘ are all brethren’

and, if brethren, are of equal standing and importance in Christ Jesus.

Mtw 23:11-12

These two verses appear here as almost repeated statements from previous situations in which Jesus found Himself. Mtw 23:11 is almost a direct quote of Jesus’ own words in Mtw 20:26-27 and is therefore dealt with by my notes on that previous web page. Mtw 23:12 also echo Mtw 18:4, the two verses being complimentary and dealt with on that previous web page.

But, although the verses are similar, there are also unique differences for Mtw 20:26-27 is a direct command to the disciples not only to think of greatness in terms of service rendered to fellow believers but to actively take steps to make sure that it becomes their own experience, whereas here Jesus simply states that the greatest is the one who serves, not the one who bears an authoritative title or who stands as the head over and above all the other believers. He thus pulls away from any thought that His listeners might have about titles being accurate descriptions of a believers’ importance.

The latter two verses are also markedly different. Mtw 18:4 is an observation that whoever chooses to make himself of no reputation in the Church will be the one who is considered to be the greatest whereas Mtw 23:12 speaks of a direct action which follows such humility and which raises the lowliest to the position of being the greatest rather than for them simply to be regarded as such - and the antithesis is also stated, an action which is more likely to be thought of as occurring in the final outworking of all things when the King comes to establish a visible Kingdom over all the earth rather than an earthly consequence in the here and now (see also Prov 15:33, 16:19, 18:12, 22:4). Jesus is here the ultimate example who, through the humiliation of the cross, is now exalted to a position of unequalled authority over all (Phil 2:5-11).

Matfran integrates the two verses into the overall thrust of Jesus’ teaching when he notes (my italics) that

‘...they powerfully enforce the totally unconventional attitude which Jesus requires of His disciples in contrast with the status-consciousness of the scribes and Pharisees

and this is the weight of the entire passage. Where the religious leadership had structures established which promoted their own importance and authority, the believer is to set up nothing in its place when their time comes - as it will do very quickly - to organise themselves to go into all the world and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom.

The servanthood of the believer has taken on increasing significance in the past few weeks of Jesus’ life (Mtw 18:1-4, 20:20-28) because the thought of the immediate establishing of a visible Kingdom in Jerusalem has been uppermost in the disciples’ minds and has prompted them to consider their own positions and whether they might be chosen as second-in-command after Jesus.

His response to the situations (of the disciples arguing amongst themselves on the journey and of the approach of John and James’ mother to ask for the best positions for her sons as prompted by them) show just how naturally the disciples were thinking and how they seem to have ignored the declarations by Jesus of His impending suffering and death (Mtw 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), Jesus choosing to tell them a parable specifically because they were approaching Jerusalem and were expecting their natural enemies to be put to flight before the forceful advance of the Kingdom of God (Luke 19:11-27).

Although expectations of greatness dogged the disciples’ own minds, Jesus looked for servility in His followers and we should be well warned that our present pyramid-like structures which have more and more important authoritative people at the top is actually an inverted arrangement of what Jesus said.

If we were true to His words, we’d see that the most important people are those believers who are at the very bottom of the pack and, if we were to take His words even more literally, we’d see that a pyramidal form which examines interrelations between believers is actually totally against His words rather than simply needing to be inverted for, whether the pinnacle is at the top or the bottom, being all brothers (see above) all remain equal in Christ.

Matmor is perceptive in his observations that the believer who takes these words of Jesus and thinks that he is bound to serve the believers in lowly service for a while before he will take upon himself the exaltation of a position of authority is just as much lacking in humility as the one who desires to walk straight into such a position. But both attitudes are a confession that an authority structure exists which pulls against Jesus’ words.

The believer who desires to be lowly for a time that he might prove his humility before aspiring to a position of rule is deluded simply because he contributes to a church structure that Jesus opposed. It has to be the case that all believers should aspire to service rather than position especially when there are no positions which could be made available to them over their brethren when their time of humble service has ended - a teacher who labours at building up the believers is equal, in the Kingdom of God, to the one who cleans the church building, and a move from the latter to the former should never be considered a move from one degree of importance and authority to a higher one but of a move from one type of ministry to another - and this by a direct enabling of the Spirit of God.