“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven”(Matt 23:9).
Jesus is blasting the Pharisees here for their shallow, status-driven religion. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”(Matt 23:5). He explains that part of what they love is “being called rabbi by others”(Matt 23:7). Instructing his disciples, he tells them “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant”(Matt 23:8-11). What is Jesus teaching here and what does it mean for modern disciples?
First, he is clearly not being literal. Jesus cannot possibly be teaching us not to call anyone a rabbi, a father, or an instructor. We have physical fathers (Heb 12:9) and many of us are fathers. Paul even uses the term father in a spiritual sense: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel”(1 Cor 4:15). Some people are teachers, instructors, and fathers—and Jesus is not teaching us that we can’t call them that.
Jesus is critiquing a system of earthly honor that feeds our desires for pride. These Pharisees are using their knowledge about God and his law to gain respect and privileges for others. Jesus doesn’t want his disciples involved in this. In two of these statements, he tells us not to be called rabbi or instructor (Matt 23:8, 10), meaning that we are seeking to be known as someone important. Such distinctions raise us up above others; Jesus reminds us that “you are all brothers”(Matt 23:8). Such distinctions make us greater than others; Jesus reminds us that “the greatest among you shall be your servant”(Matt 23:11).
Jesus forbids us from pledging allegiance to men. We should not be called rabbi because “you have one teacher” or instructors because “you have one instructor.” We don’t call men fathers because “you have one Father.” These words imply more than an acknowledgement of someone’s job or role. They speak to an allegiance—that such men are my teacher or my father. We have already given this allegiance to God.
Jesus’ words here are far deeper than simply which titles we should not give to men. They stress our need to limit our view of ourselves—and others—and expand our view of God. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”(Matt 23:12).