Phylactery will get you nowhere (Matt 23:5-12)

Yesterday (Matt 23:1-4), we saw how the Pharisees added their own extra rules and regulations to the law. It started off with good intentions, building a hedge around the law to stop people getting anywhere near breaking one of God’s laws. But then they started to impose them on others. To judge themselves and others on how well they observed their man-made regulations. This made them the self-appointed gatekeepers of righteous behaviour, and made others dependent on them for “rulings” on what was right behaviour. In short, it gained them status. Which is what Jesus takes them to task over in the next verse:

Matthew 23:5-8 Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

Nothing makes an impression like a wide phylactery, right? It was the Rolex of Judaism. The must-have accessory for the holy man-about-town. The status symbol that… Hang on a minute! What on earth is a phylactery?

Glad you asked. It’s an example of how some people just can’t be trusted with a metaphor. Back in Deuteronomy, God said:

Deuteronomy 6:6-9 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

phylacteryThankfully they didn’t take the “hearts” bit literally, or it could have gone all Temple of Doom. But they took the other instructions that way – where they were told to bind God’s laws on their foreheads (i.e. think about them) and on their hands (i.e. to do them). They even made little boxes to keep (or “guard”) tiny scrolls in, with bits of the law written on them, which in Greek were called phylacteries (from the Greek word for “guard”). You can’t fault them for being diligent. But over time this got a bit silly, to the point that it was now the size of your phylactery that counted.

Same with the length of the tassels, which were symbolic of a commitment to obey the law, although they at least were clearly literal:

Numbers 15:37-40 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. 39 You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. 40 Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.

So the upshot is that wide phylacteries and long tassels were ways of drawing attention to your status as a devout, rule-observing Pharisee. And, as verses 6 and 7 show us, the motivation was for people to treat them with honour, giving them the important seats at events and greeting them loudly and deferentially in public – referring to them as Rabbi, a term for a respected teacher.

So what are the equivalents today?

We don’t show our holier-than-thou status with wide phylacteries, but there are other status markers. When I was growing up, it used to be the size of the bible you carried to church (and sometimes the translation you chose). These days it may be the conferences you attend, the favourite Christian authors you quote, the ministries you serve in (the cooler the better – like youth leading, or worship team), the short-term mission trips you go on, what you do (or don’t do) with your hands in church while singing, the enthusiasm of your “Amens” during a sermon, the tightness of the checks on your shirt (the universal uniform for Calvinists, it seems)… I could go on, but I’ve probably offended most people by now.

But there’s nothing wrong with any of these things, just as there wasn’t anything wrong with a phylactery, no matter how wide it was. (Unless you couldn’t get through a doorway, I suppose.) The problem is when you do these things for people to see, as Jesus says in verse 5. As it is most of the time, it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.

What are your potential phylacteries? And do they need a trim?

Because this isn’t the way Jesus’ followers are supposed to act. Following Jesus shouldn’t be a means of gaining status:

Matthew 23:8-12 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.


This has implications for Christian leaders, for a start. While the term “Rabbi” isn’t an issue – and the term “father” isn’t in the denominations I hang out in – there’s still the general principle of gaining status through titles. This is especially so when they go beyond a job description and become a form of address. “Pastor” can be a helpful designation signifying that a person has a special role within a community of believers, but sometimes it can be part of a system that puts up on a pedestal people who were called to be servant-leaders. “Reverend” may be a useful signal to the wider society that a person is a religious leader, particularly when participating in formal occasions to represent the church, but may not be the most helpful form of address within the church. And don’t get me started on “Reverend Doctor”… (the only places I’ll allow that to be used of me is on the order of service for a wedding I’m officiating in, and if ever I end up playing Hammond organ for an African-American gospel choir).

Given the way in which church leaders over the past two millennia have used their status to control, or for political ends, or to enrich themselves at the expense of others, I think we should take this teaching of Jesus seriously when it comes to the way we address leaders in our churches.

The point for everyone, however, is this: don’t use the church as a means of gaining status in the eyes of others. Jesus didn’t, and he’s the CEO. So follow his lead in being great by being a servant. ‘Cause if you chase status in the kingdom of God, you end up being just like the rest of the world – as Jesus told his disciples a few chapters back:

Matthew 20:25-28 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

2 thoughts on “Phylactery will get you nowhere (Matt 23:5-12)

  1. Hi Mr Macbride, I hope this request reaches you.
    Would be kind enough to allow me to use the image (credited) of the Jewish man wearing a phylactery in order to illustrate my comments on Matthew 23:5 which mentions it. My comments are part of an academic 635-page book I am in the process of getting published, called “The Gospel Recovered”. If you are curious about it I would be pleased to upload to you a full .pdf copy of the book in its latest draft. Thank you so much, Dave Strickland, B.Ed

  2. The Pharisees and scribes were rebuked for preaching and instructing others to follow the law when they weren’t obeying the law themselves. This was not because they weren’t trying, it’s because they did not choose the fear of God, and did not realize they as mere men could never fulfill the law. The only way we our justified and declared righteous is by believing on the one who he has sent.

Post responses and questions

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s