Matthew 23 is somewhat unique among the four Gospels. In it Jesus levels his most caustic criticism against the Jewish religious leaders, declaring seven ‘woes’. In the first section of this discourse Jesus warns his disciples against adopting the religious pretensions and titles used by their Jewish religious leaders. In vv.8-10 he commands them not to let anyone call them ‘Rabbi’, or ‘father’, or ‘kathēgētēs’. His warrant for these prohibitions is that they only have one teacher (didaskalos, v.8), their Father in heaven is their only father (v.9), and the Messiah is their sole kathēgētēs (v.10). Here in this text the Gospel writer says that “only the Messiah is your kathēgētēs (private, personal tutor).” This is the only place in the New Testament where this word occurs.
kathēgētēs occurs in earlier Greek literature to describe a person’s private tutor, master, or salaried instructor. Dionysius of Halicarnassus calls the philosopher Plato, the kathēgētēs of Aristotle, i.e. his master or his instructor. In papyri from the second and third centuries AD we find parents writing letters about the kathēgētēs whom they are paying to tutor their children, both male and female children. We find funerary monuments established by students to honour such instructors. In the region of Galatia we find an inscription on such a memorial, reading “Siderion and Diadoumenos set (this) up for their kathēgētēs Phosophoros.” Such instructors often worked for very minimal wages, as their poverty is noted in a first century papyrus. What is perhaps noteworthy is the personal, individual linkage of the instructor with the student.
A papyrus dated 70-90 AD was written by a young man in Alexandria to his father who lived in Oxyrhynchus. The writer complains about his educational misadventures, primarily his inability to enroll in a suitable school of rhetoric. So he tells his father that he is instead seeking a suitable kathēgētēs to help him. He succeeds in hiring Didymus as his kathēgētēs, for private tuition. He would be his personal tutor. The stress in this term seems to be on the personalized nature of the instruction.
What was Jesus seeking to teach his followers here? The first statement (v.8) emphasizes the equality that exists among Jesus’ followers – they are all brothers. The second statement (v.9) affirms that only God Himself has the authority to function as Father. No human can fill or should try to fill that role. In the third statement (v.10) I would suggest Jesus claims that he alone is the origin of Christian truth and that he functions as the personal tutor of those who follow him. Jesus puts himself as Messiah in the role of the personal tutor for all of his followers. No one else has the ability, authority, or knowledge to serve in this way.
We know from the final statement in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus did not mean that his followers had no teaching function. He personally commissions his followers to go and teach, but the substance of their teaching are his own commandments. They have no right to teach their own ideas. They point to Jesus as the real tutor; they are only teaching assistants, as it were, for the Messiah. Some suggest that Jesus was warning his followers against the kind of development that occurs later in the church at Corinth, where believers were claiming authority or status because they were adherents of Peter or Apollos or Paul of Christ. As Paul argues in that passage (1 Corinthians 1), this divisive spirit denies the truth that every believer has the mind of Christ because God’s Spirit indwells every believer.
This is one of the few texts in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus applies the title “Messiah” to himself. He puts himself in the position of being the one anointed by God to bring salvation and reform to God’s people. This is a unique and special role, held by no other person. He teaches God’s word in a direct and immediate way that no other human being can duplicate. Because he is the one and only Messiah, unless he becomes our kathēgētēs, our personal, individual tutor, who can lead us to God? Perhaps it is sayings of Jesus like this that lead Paul in Ephesians 4:20 to urge people to “learn the Messiah” because he has truth in himself that no other can offer us.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus claims:
No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him…..Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. (11:27b,29)
He casts himself in the role of instructor once again here, affirming that he possesses a unique knowledge of God, the Father. If we would know God, then we must learn from Jesus. He is willing to teach us and is gentle and humble in his method and manner. From him alone we can discover the rest that our restless souls so earnestly need. Perhaps this is why Matthew structures his gospel around six large blocks of Jesus’ teaching, emphasizing the role of Jesus as our personal tutor.
God gifts to His church many wise people and their insights into the Kingdom and the work of the church are enriching and significant. However, Jesus warns us not to become so committed to any human teacher or agent that we forget who is our ultimate and only teacher, namely the Messiah himself. We can appreciate and thank God for our mentors and teachers. They have each in their distinctive way contributed to our spiritual formation and development, if they truly lead us back to the Messiah, our only tutor.
Those of us whom the church has called to serve in a teaching role must always be vigilant, lest pride lead us to assume a status and role that belongs only to the Messiah. As teachers in the church we are effective and successful only when the people truly hear the Messiah teaching through us.
- do you consciously perceive that Jesus is your personal tutor and relate to him in this way?
- what has Jesus taught you this past week? How has he done this?
- when you evaluate your human teachers, on what basis do you discern that they are speaking the “truth as it is in Jesus”?
- if God has called you to fill a teaching role in the church, to whom do you make yourself accountable so that you control the sin of pride and status that Jesus warns about in this text?
- how do we teach in way that acknowledges Jesus as the Tutor of every believer? If we truly believe this, how will it affect the way we teach?
- 1. Dionysius, De Thucydide, 3.
- 2. B. Winter, “The Messiah as the Tutor: The Meaning of kathēgētēs in Matthew 23:10,” Tyndale Bulletin 42(1991):152-57)