How should a Christian view Jesus the Teacher? Dr Steven Nemes published a video on his channel explaining why we must remain Protestant. He refers to and draws heavily on a particular reading of Matthew 23, in which he claims that Jesus teaches against the “traditionalism” of the scribes and Pharisees, and how this serves as a warning to all Christians.
Jesus the teacher
According to Dr. Nemes, Christ says he is the Teacher alone and that all Christians are only students and disciples. The early Church Fathers were only good as guardians. Protestants have only one teacher, which is Christ recorded in the Scriptures. Roman Catholics (here as RC) and Eastern Orthodox (here as EO) have established other teachers alongside Christ as unquestionable authorities and therefore violate the teaching of Christ. In other words, in direct violation of Matthew 23: 8-10, the RC and OE place individuals alongside the Teacher and make them irrefutable, thus enshrining extra-biblical traditions.
Dr Nemes then gives examples of how the RC and EO violate this teaching by calling their priest “father” and the Doctors of the Church as “teachers”. He also claims to have no problem with this, but finds it to be an interesting parallel. Then he turns to RC and EO’s use of icons or “graven images” as a violation of Exodus 20: 4-6 and an obvious example of “tradition” contradicting Christ the Teacher.
In short, Dr. Nemes misunderstands Matthew 23 and Exodus 20. The basis of his argument rests on this misunderstanding. All scripture quotes are from the Standard English version.
Jesus the teacher in context
Let us turn to Matthew 23: 8-10 in the full context of Matthew 23: 1-15.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the seat of Moses, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you., but not the jobs they do. Because they preach, but does not practice. 4 They tie heavy burdens, hard to bear, and put them on people’s shoulders, but themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their actions to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they like the place of honor to feasts and the best seats in synagogues 7 and greetings in markets and to be called a rabbi by others.
8 But you don’t have to be called a rabbi, for you have a master, and you are all brothers. 9 And don’t call anyone your father on earth, for you have one Father, which is in heaven. ten Nor be called instructors, for you have a teacher, Christ. 11 The greatest of you will be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. 13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven from the face of the people. Because you do not enter yourselves and do not let in those who would like to enter. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he becomes proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as you. [emphasis mine]
Pharisees among teachers
Dr. Nemes claims that the scribes and Pharisees claimed to have a line of succession and were considered by others to occupy the “seat of Moses” (Matthew 23: 1). In fact, it is Jesus himself who claims that the scribes and Pharisees “sit in the seat of Moses”. Not only do they sit in Moses’ seat, but Jesus also exhorts his listeners to “do and observe whatever they tell you…”.
The hypocritical professor
It is to their hypocrisy that Jesus levels his attack. They preach, but do not practice (v. 3). They place heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people, but do not help (v. 4). They do their acts to be seen by others (v. 5). They like to be honored and called rabbi (vv. 6 and 7). It is in this context of hypocrisy that Jesus then uses hyperbole when he says not to call anyone a rabbi, father and teacher / teacher (vs. 8-10). He reiterates his point in verse 11 by stating that the greatest of them will be servants, and in verses 13-15, where he uses the word “hypocrites!”
Call No Man Father. Corn…
This reading is also verified by Saint Paul in his references to himself as “father” and “teacher”.
1 Cor. 4: 14-15
14 I do not write these things to shame you, but to warn you as my beloved children. 15 For although you have innumerable guides in Christ, you do not have many. the fathers. Because I have become your dad in Jesus Christ through the gospel. [emphasis mine]
Saint Paul also refers to others as sons in 1 Tim 1:18, 2 Tim. 2: 1, Phil. 2:22, and Titus 1: 4. Obviously, Saint Paul had no problem being called “father”. This would not be the case if he took the words of Christ like Dr. Nemes does.
Call No Man Teacher. Corn…
As a teacher / teacher, Saint Paul states in 1 Timothy 2:15:
7 Therefore I was appointed a preacher and apostle (I speak the truth, I do not lie), a teacher Gentiles in faith and truth. [emphasis mine]
And 2 Tim. 1:11
11 for whom I was appointed preacher and apostle and teacher, (emphasis mine)
Let us not forget either Jesus’ mission to “teach”.
Matthew 28: 19-20
19 Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 education let them observe everything I have ordered from you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of time. [emphasis mine]
When taken in context, Dr. Nemes ‘interpretation of Matthew 23: 8-10 does not hold up, and compared to Saint Paul’s own fatherly references and Jesus’ commission to teach, it falls flat.
What about Dr. Names’s criticism that RC and EO violate God’s law in Exodus 20: 4-6? Let’s look at this passage and others in context.
Exodus 20: 4-6
4 “You won’t make yourself a sculpted image, or any likeness of anything in the sky above, or in the earth below, or in the water below the earth. 5 You will not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the iniquity of fathers upon children up to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing constant love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. [emphasis mine]
This would appear to be a closed case for all sculpted images of any likeness, whether in the earth or in the sky above. Or is it? … What about Exodus 25:18?
God orders engraved images? Oh my…
18 And you will make two golden cherubs; you will make them with hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. [emphasis mine]
In this passage we see God commanding Aaron to make two cherubim (angels) and place them at each end of the Ark of the Covenant mercy seat. Why would God order Aaron to break his own commandment which had just been given five chapters earlier? And what about Numbers 21: 6-9?
Numbers 21: 6-9
6 So the LORD sent serpents of fire among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a serpent of fire and put it on a pole, and whoever is bitten, when he sees it, will live.” ” 9 So Moses made a serpent of brass and put it on a pole. And if a serpent bit someone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. [emphasis mine]
Again, we see that God commanded the creation of graven images to heal the affliction He sent to His people. Why would God violate his own commandment? Such cases are not violations of God’s command. The problem here is the worship of said carved / sculpted images as God Himself.
The image of God and the incarnate Christ
What about God Himself taking an image in the incarnate Christ? We find the answer foretold in Deuteronomy 4: 15-16 and explicitly stated in Colossians 1:15.
Deuteronomy 4: 15-16
15 “Therefore, pay close attention to yourselves. Since you saw no form the day the Lord spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 beware of corrupting yourselves, making yourself a carved image in the form of a figure, in the image of a man or a woman, [emphasis mine]
He is the picture of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. [emphasis mine]
The Incarnate Word
It is through the prism of the Incarnation of the Word that RC and EO consider the icons and holy images that Dr. Nemes condemns as idolatry. His criticism is not new. The RC and EO church settled the matter at the Second Council of Nicaea in AD 787. Saint John of Damascus offered the best defense against the iconoclast in his work, Apology of Saint John of Damascus against those who denounce the holy images.
I believe in a supersubstantial being, a divine deity in three entities, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, oneAnd I adore him alone with the cult of latreia. I do not worship creation more than the Creator, but I worship the created creature as I am, embracing creation freely and spontaneously so that he can uplift our nature and involve us in his divine nature. Together with my Lord and my King I adore him clothed in flesh, not as if it were a garment or a fourth person of the Trinity — God forbid. This flesh is divine and endures after its assumption.
Human nature is not lost in Divinity, but just as the Word made flesh has remained the Word, so the flesh has become the Word remaining flesh, becoming rather one with the Word through union. (καθ υποστασιν). Therefore, I dare to draw a picture of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible to us through flesh and blood. I am not drawing a picture of the immortal Divinity. I paint the visible flesh of God, because it is impossible to represent a spirit (ψυχη), how much more God who gives breath to the spirit. [emphasis mine]
The RC and the EO do not pray or worship the holy icon or image as one worshiped God (latreia). The RC and the OE use these images to contemplate and inspire towards the memory of the prototype they represent, not to worship God alone.
Jesus the Master and his Church
As stated above, Dr. Steve Nemes’ claims regarding the RC and EO churches are based on an incorrect interpretation of Matthew 23: 8-10. His claim that Jesus condemned the “traditionalism” of the scribes and Pharisees and therefore this condemnation serves as a warning to all who come after is incorrect. Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees was due to their hypocrisy, not their authority, an authority he asserts in Matthew 23: 1. An authority that Christ gave to his Church. (Matthew 16: 13-20)
Likewise, I have demonstrated Dr. Nemes’ view of icons and holy images as a violation of Exodus 20: 4-6 does not follow, given the later context of Exodus 25:18, Numbers 21 : 6-9, Deuteronomy 4: 15-16, and especially Colossians 1:15. It is through the prism of the Incarnation that Dr Nemes must approach his critique of icons and holy images. Moreover, too strong an argument for Exodus 20: 4-6 could put his theology on the Incarnation in danger. Dr. Nemes would do well to follow Christ the Teacher and embrace His Church.
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