One day as Jesus was teaching his disciples and the crowds he began to talk about the Pharisees. He tells the crowd that the Pharisees “sit in the seat of Moses”. And then He says, “So whatever they tell you, take care to do.”
So what is the Moses seat?
Well, it was an actual, physical seat that was common in the synagogues of the first century. The person reading or teaching from the Torah would sit in the seat at the synagogue service. Here’s a photo I took of the Moses seat from the synagogue in Korazin.
So Jesus was literally saying that the Pharisees sit in the Moses seat and have been recognized by the community as having authority to teach Torah. This authority was, according to tradition, passed down from Moses throughout the generations.
Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “They think they sit in Moses’ seat, they think they have this authority, but really they don’t.” He doesn’t say, “Ignore their false teachings and listen to me.” Jesus affirms their role as leaders, as interpreters of the Torah and instructs the crowds to listen to them, to obey their teachings.
But he goes on, and addresses some of the characteristics we have come to associate with the Pharisees. He says, “But don’t do what they do, because they talk but don’t act!” And at this point Jesus goes on what we can only describe as a rant.
He criticizes them for many things, from their religiosity being all for show, to making it hard for people to come to the Kingdom of God. He lambasts them for making man-made laws that they teach supersede the Torah. And yes, denounces them for being hypocritical.
We have come to believe that Jesus is finding fault with all Pharisees. Even the name has come to mean a legalistic, religious hypocrite for us today. However, that wasn’t the case for Jesus’ listeners. The Pharisees were a respected group who were dedicated to following Torah and serving God. And in addressing the crowd, Jesus seems to be condemning a small group within the Pharisees who exhibited these characteristics. In much the same way one could look at hypocritical Christians and be attack “the Church”. Or in talking about some not exhibiting Christ-like behavior within a denomination, we could refer to “those Baptists” or “the Presbyterians” or “Charismatics”. We don’t mean everyone in the larger group, but are singling out those within the group who aren’t walking the walk.
If Jesus truly thought all the Pharisees were hypocrites and were leading the people away from God, why would he tell the crowd to listen to them?
No. In this case Jesus is taking care of some family business. Calling out those who care more for their religious reputation than for their neighbors. And He is reminding us as listeners that if we are in a position of leadership, we must not get caught up in a religious show. And also, that as followers, if our leaders do stumble into this hypocrisy, it doesn’t negate our responsibility to be obedient to their teaching. We are to do what they say, as it aligns with Scripture, not what they do.
For more on Jesus and the Pharisees, I’d encourage you to check out this four-part series I posted a few years ago: