What does Matthew 23:3 mean?
ESV: so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.
NIV: So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
NASB: Therefore, whatever they tell you, do and comply with it all, but do not do as they do; for they say things and do not do them.
CSB: Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach.
NLT: So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.
KJV: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
NKJV: 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.
Verse Commentary:
Matthew has been clear that Jesus is speaking to the crowds gathered in the temple who are listening to Him, as well as to His own disciples (Matthew 23:1–2). What He says in this verse seems surprising, given His overwhelming condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees throughout the rest of the chapter. These men occupy "Moses' seat," meaning they were responsible for teaching the people of Israel how to properly understand and apply the Scriptures. Jesus tells His audience to do "and observe" what they teach, but not to follow the example of their actions.

In other words, Jesus is careful not to invalidate the role given to these men by God. He also endorses the heart of their teaching from the Torah, the Jewish Scriptures, though He will reject their teaching about matters beyond the Scriptures. He is not giving His listeners permission to turn their backs on the teaching of God's Word. Nor is He invalidating all spiritual authorities. On the contrary, Jesus is condemning the religious leaders of His era for failing to meet their very reasonable obligations.

Though He accepts the idea of religious leaders and teachers, Jesus bluntly tells those listening to not follow the example of that generation of scribes and Pharisees. He will call them hypocrites repeatedly (Matthew 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). Here Jesus previews that idea, though not using that exact word: "They preach, but do not practice." This matches the Greek word hipokritēs, which literally means "an actor." These spiritual guides live in a game of "make believe," or "let's pretend." The people of Israel should not live as these men do.
Verse Context:
Matthew 23:1–12 begins Jesus' condemnation of Israel's religious leaders, summarized with the phrase "the scribes and the Pharisees." He warns those listening not to follow their example, since they don't practice what they preach. Their words imply heavy burdens, but their actions don't reflect the same. They make no effort to help others fulfill those requirements. In fact, everything they do is for show: only to be seen and approved of by others. They make a great show of religious clothes and symbols, jockey for the seats of honor everywhere they go, and take enormous pride in their prestigious spiritual titles.
Chapter Summary:
After thoroughly dismantling scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees in debate, Jesus even more thoroughly condemns these religious leaders for their religious hypocrisy. They do all their religious acts and works to be seen and approved of by other people. Jesus pronounces God's judgment on the scribes and Pharisees in a series of seven "woe to you" statements. He repeatedly calls them "blind" and "hypocrites." He concludes with a lament for Jerusalem and her children who rejected His protection. God's judgment is coming.
Chapter Context:
Matthew 23 concludes Matthew's multi-chapter account of all of Jesus' interactions in the temple during the last week before His arrest and crucifixion. After silencing the religious leaders with parables and brilliant responses (Matthew 21—22), He pronounces God's judgment on the scribes and Pharisees in a series of seven "woe to you" statements. Jesus mourns for the judgment that will come on Jerusalem for her rejection of God. This leads Jesus to leave the temple, sadly remarking on its impending destruction (Matthew 24:1–2). As the disciples ask about this, Jesus begins an extended teaching on the end times in chapter 24.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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