by Al Maxey

Issue #284 ------- January 19, 2007
It is dangerous to be
right in matters on which the
established authorities are wrong.

Voltaire {1694-1778}

Sitting in the Seat of Moses
A Reflective Analysis of Matt. 23:2-3

Matthew 23 has been rather boldly characterized by some scholars of the inspired Word as "The Great Anti-Pharisaic Discourse" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 278]. "This discourse, which was delivered in the courts of the temple on the Tuesday before the Lord Jesus was crucified, has never been surpassed in indignant rebuke and withering denunciation" [B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, p. 124]. It is so intensely caustic in its condemnation of these legalistic, patternistic extremists that a few disciples of Christ actually contend that our Lord Jesus was "overly harsh." Others have suggested that He was not harsh enough. Either way, most would agree it is a stunning denunciation of those who were so steeped in law and tradition that they were wholly and woefully oblivious to the much weightier eternal precepts and principles of their Creator.

On the other hand, there are a few people, strange as it may seem, who actually profess to perceive an element of praise and commendation for the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Indeed, they suggest our Lord Jesus Christ elevates these legalists as a model for imitation by disciples today. Lest you accuse me of fabricating such foolishness, as well one might, I refer you to the article Jesus and Legalism by Daniel Coe, which recently appeared on the Contending for the Faith Internet discussion group [message #4626, Friday, Dec. 22, 2006]. Daniel Coe boldly asserted, "Where in all the Scriptures did Jesus ever condemn the Pharisees for that which they taught? The Lord never once condemned the Pharisees for what they taught. On the contrary, the Lord commended that which the Pharisees affirmed." Coe then quotes Matthew 23:2-4, the very text which will be our focus in the course of this current reflective analysis.

I received a veritable flood of emails from brethren who were absolutely astounded and horrified by such abysmal ignorance of the Scriptures (and by one who professes to be a preacher of the gospel). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for what they taught?!! Not ever?!! My goodness!! A biblical novice knows better than that! Even more appalling, and several took notice of this, is that not a single person on that discussion group challenged this ridiculous, and false, teaching ... not even David P. Brown, the editor of Contending for the Faith magazine. And it wasn't because these individuals were simply unaware of this article. I wrote David P. Brown, and several of his key writers, and asked them if they would comment, either pro or con, on the article. They refused!! In fact, Dub McClish, of Denton, Texas, wrote to his CFTF brethren, "Like all liberals, Maxey has no use for the Bible unless he thinks he can find something in it to agree with his warped views. Only then does he decide he likes the Bible a little bit after all. To him and his ilk, 'Bible authority' is strictly a matter of convenience -- i.e., once in a while. For him to cite anything from the Book to justify his practice or doctrine is akin to Hillary Clinton's citing the Parable of the Good Samaritan to justify her liberal views on illegal immigration" [message #4633, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2006]. I wrote Dub McClish and asked him very kindly if he would simply be willing to provide specific examples of my above lack of respect for biblical authority. He refused!! As our suffering Savior stood before His caustic, condemning critics, He said, "If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong" [John 18:23]. His critics didn't provide that evidence either!! How ironic that such men as these flee when asked to "contend for the faith." Nothing much has changed in 2000 years, has it?!

But, this present study is not about misguided, malevolent teachers (although there is a time and place for exposing such persons). Rather, it is about some woefully misguided, and to some degree even malicious, teaching. Thus, in the course of this current study, I shall seek to provide a much more reasoned, and hopefully a far more biblically responsible, exegesis of the first few verses of Matthew 23 for your consideration. Since the above leading "contenders" refuse to "contend" for Truth, I shall do so. It is my conviction that the precious character of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the sanctity of His teaching, deserves no less from those seeking to faithfully follow in His footsteps and promote His gracious cause. After all, the apostle Paul says the Lord's spiritual leaders must "be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict" [Titus 1:9]. This we shall attempt to accomplish in the face of such blatant distortion of Scripture by "the untaught and unstable" [2 Peter 3:16].

It was asserted as fact in the above referenced article -- "The Lord never once condemned the Pharisees for what they taught." Indeed, the author asked, "Where in all the Scriptures did Jesus ever condemn the Pharisees for that which they taught?" Perhaps the Memphis School of Preaching doesn't cover such matters in their curriculum, or maybe the author was absent that day, so let me address this assertion by an appeal to God's holy, inspired Word (a document for which I have "no use," according to McClish). In Matt. 15:9 Jesus says of the scribes and Pharisees [cf. vs. 1, 3] that the prophet Isaiah has rightly said of them, "In vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." Literally, in the original language, Jesus says they are "teaching teachings." These teachings are not from God, but from men. Brethren, what has Jesus just done here? That's right -- He has "condemned the Pharisees for what they taught" (something which Daniel Coe claims our Lord "never once" did ... not ever)! The disciples came and told Jesus, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?" [vs. 12]. Yes, I imagine they were! Their traditional interpretations and teachings were actually "invalidating the Word of God" [vs. 6] and resulting in "transgression of the commandments of God" [vs. 3]. This was hardly teaching and example worthy of praise.

In Matthew 23:15 our Lord Jesus speaks of the proselytizing efforts of the Pharisees. To proselytize is simply "to try to convert someone to one's own religion by means of persuasive teaching." The scribes and Pharisees were teachers who went about teaching so as to make converts. When they succeeded in accomplishing this task, Jesus said, "you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves." Not very flattering, is it?! In Matthew 16:11 Jesus warned His disciples with these words, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Now, notice the very next verse: "Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" [vs. 12]. Let's refresh our memories as to Daniel Coe's bold assertion of fact: "The Lord never once condemned the Pharisees for what they taught." If that is true, then Matt. 16:11-12 is meaningless, unless we somehow interpret "beware of their teaching" as divine endorsement or commendation! Jesus, in Matthew 23, characterized the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites, blind guides, fools, whitewashed tombs that were full of corruption, lawless men, serpents, a brood of vipers, and seed-counting, gnat-straining, camel-swallowing nitpickers! In light of such scathing rebuke from our Lord, it almost makes one's blood run cold to hear the following comment from the above referenced article by Daniel Coe: "All the lurking liberals (Al Maxey, and whomever else) would do well to realize that when you accuse brethren of being 'legalistic Pharisees,' you are doing those of us who are indeed as 'legalistic' as the Pharisees a great honor, and you are commending us as the Lord commended the Pharisees." Wow. Brethren, if this doesn't leave your lower jaw on the ground, nothing will. Unbelievable!!

How, you might wonder, can someone's perception of the Lord's teaching on this matter be so horribly twisted? Upon what is such an interpretation based? The answer, at least in part, is an incredibly flawed understanding of what Jesus said in the statement He made at the very beginning of Matthew 23. Notice the first three verses in the King James Version -- "Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to His disciples, saying, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.'" It is assumed from this text that Jesus upholds the authority of the scribes and Pharisees to interpret the Law of Moses for the people of God. Indeed, it is suggested that not only does Jesus affirm their authority, but He actually commands the multitudes to obey "whatsoever they bid you observe." In other words, if they tell you to count seeds, then you had better get to counting! True, Jesus is not pleased with the fact of their hypocrisy (they don't practice what they preach), but nevertheless He places His "stamp of approval" upon their right to teach their teachings, and He insists that men must comply with their bidding. Or, so say some! After quoting this passage, Daniel Coe writes in his article: "Jesus affirmed that that which the Pharisees taught was both good and right. He further commanded the Jews to do that which the Pharisees taught." Coe goes on to state, "Jesus commanded the Jews to comply with everything the Pharisees commanded them to do, even down to the nit-picking!" In fact, the very first statement in his article was: "Jesus affirmed nit-picking." [NOTE: Just for the record, in his above referenced article, Daniel Coe used the spelling "knit-picking," which I have corrected for him in my above quotes. There are other glaring spelling, punctuation and syntactical errors also, which I have sought to edit grammatically so as to make his statements somewhat more intelligible. The wording itself was not altered.]

Before we get into a detailed refutation of Coe's woeful misinterpretation of our Lord's statement, it might be of benefit to examine some of the background issues pertaining to this passage of Scripture. For example, what exactly is this "seat of Moses" to which Jesus alludes? And what is the significance, spiritual or otherwise, of the scribes and Pharisees seating themselves there? With regard to the first of these two questions, scholarship is divided as to whether Jesus is speaking literally or metaphorically when making reference to the "seat/chair of Moses." Those who take His statement literally will refer to the archaeological evidence that in the synagogues of that day there was a stone chair placed in the front upon which the leaders of the synagogue would sit to expound upon the Law and the Prophets. This was known as the "seat of Moses." Pictured here is one such seat that was excavated from the ancient synagogue at Chorazin, Israel.

"This was a literal stone chair in the front of many synagogues, allotted to an elder, presumably a scholar of distinction. The 3rd-century A.D. synagogue excavated at Capernaum has two stone benches along each of two sides" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 1177]. "With their backs toward Jerusalem the elders of the synagogue sat facing the people. The most prominent elder sat in this stone seat upon a raised platform next to the ark containing the OT scrolls. From here, it is supposed, teachers expounded the Mosaic law. This seat symbolized their authority as interpreters of the law in unbroken succession from Moses" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 425]. "Synagogues had a stone seat at the front where the authoritative teacher, usually a grammateus ('teacher of the law') sat" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 472]. "Scholars regularly observe that later Palestinian synagogues often had a special chair for teaching, which came to be known as a 'chair of Moses' and thus symbolized the succession of teachers from Moses' day" [Dr. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 541].

The Pharisees tended to be a rather proud bunch; indeed, they sought out these seats of distinction and places of honor. In almost the same breath as our text, the Lord said of them, "They love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi" [Matt. 23:6-7]. In Mark 9:38 Jesus added the touch that they were fond of "walking around in long robes" [cf. Luke 20:46], which was yet another visible mark of distinction between themselves and the "common folk." The arrogant Pharisee prayed in our Lord's parable, "God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people!" [Luke 18:11]. "Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the front seats in the synagogues" [Luke 11:43]. Their overwhelming desire for the seats of distinction and authority was not a praiseworthy trait in the eyes of Jesus. He did not commend them for this. Thus, to view Matt. 23:2-3 as in any way a comment of commendation is clearly contrary to the bulk of our Lord's teaching in a good many other passages. To rebuke them for desiring to sit in such seats of authority, and then to turn right around and affirm them once they are there, is, at the very least, inconsistent. There was an occasion when the mother of James and John urged Jesus to place her sons on special seats of authority over other men [Matt. 20:20f]. Naturally, the other ten apostles were "indignant" over this [vs. 24], and Jesus went on to rebuke the attitude of those "who lord it over" others, saying, "It shall not be so among you" [vs. 26]. Again, it would be somewhat inconsistent for Jesus to then turn around and commend these scribes and Pharisees for doing just that, and even commanding everyone to obey everything they uttered "from the chair" (ex cathedra).

Yes, the scribes and Pharisees "have seated themselves" [NASB] in the seat of Moses. That was a fact, and Jesus acknowledged their practice. They were indeed doing this. Many of these people were also casting off their wives. Jesus acknowledged that fact, as well. Acknowledging a reality, however, is not the same as affirming a right. When Jesus stated what the scribes and Pharisees were doing, He merely confirmed that which was taking place. This one can do without applauding the action itself. Having said all of this, most scholars feel that "Jesus applies the expression metaphorically here" [Dr. Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 541]. "The Jews spoke of the teacher's seat as we speak of a professor's chair" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 278]. Many universities, for example, have a "Bible Chair" with a Chairman of the department. The idea behind the "chair," then, is that it signifies the authority to teach and lead. "By 'the seat of Moses' we are to understand authority to teach the law" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 217]. It had long been the custom of the Jewish teachers to sit as they taught from the Law and the Prophets, but to stand as they read from these works [see: Luke 4:16, 20-21]. Therefore, "the expression is a metaphor referring to the fact that the Pharisees had assumed the role of being the Law's interpreters" [Noel S. Rabbinowitz, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September, 2003].

"But, was this authority legitimate?" [ibid]. That is the question! Many scholars believe their taking upon themselves this mantle of authority to "sit in the chair of Moses" was purely presumption on their part. The fact that Jesus recognizes that which they have relegated unto themselves, "does not in any way admit the right of these men to Moses' seat. They were not called to this seat as Moses had been [Exodus 18:13]. He assumed that seat reluctantly, but these false followers of his assumed his seat of their own accord and were determined to have and to hold it. They were self-appointed usurpers and acted as though their dicta were as binding as the revelations God made to Moses -- Matt. 15:3-9" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel, p. 894]. The Living Bible captures this intent very well in its rendering of Matt. 23:2 --- "You would think these Jewish leaders and these Pharisees were Moses, the way they keep making up so many laws! And of course you should obey their every whim!" In this phrasing the sarcasm of Jesus is very apparent. This is a point that should not be overlooked or discounted, by the way. It is very likely, and several reputable scholars agree, that Jesus was being extremely sarcastic in His statement in Matthew 23:2. The Expositor's Bible Commentary observes: "The only way to make sense of the text is to see in vs. 2-3 an instance of biting irony, bordering on sarcasm" [vol. 8, p. 473]. Indeed, this source rebukes the tendency of some scholars not "to admit that vs. 2-3 are biting irony," saying that such reluctance "overlooks the tone of much of this chapter and superb parallels elsewhere in the NT" [ibid, p. 474].

Another possibility exists in a variant reading of this text in the ancient Hebrew version. According to Shem Tob's Matthew text, which comes from an early text preserved in a 13th century document, the passage reads --- "Upon the seat of Moses the Pharisees and Sages sit, and now, all which HE will say unto you, keep and do; but THEIR ordinances and deeds do not do, because THEY say and do not." This variant text certainly has the benefit of making very good sense, and would be entirely consistent with the teaching of Jesus in the remainder of the gospel accounts. The "he" would refer to Moses himself. Thus, Jesus is contrasting the teaching of Moses with the teaching of these usurpers, who have greatly added to the teaching of Moses. Since the people living at the time of Christ were still under the old covenant, they were obligated to heed all that Moses taught. However, they were not bound to heed all that the scribes and the Pharisees taught. Such a view is consistent with our Lord's teaching.

If one is unwilling to embrace this variant reading, or the view that Jesus may have been employing biting irony and/or sarcasm, then there may well be a much simpler explanation. It may simply be that Jesus was acknowledging that whenever, and by whomever, the inspired teaching of Moses is proclaimed, people should heed that teaching. This is NOT because of who is proclaiming these truths, but because Truth is Truth regardless of who proclaims it. In other words, Jesus was not affirming the scribes and Pharisees, but rather the Law of God as revealed to Moses. To the degree that even a Pharisee proclaimed these truths, those truths were to be obeyed. However, great care should be exercised that only revealed Truth was followed, and NOT the pathetic example, and human additions to God's Word, of the Pharisees. Therefore, Jesus was not suggesting anything and everything uttered by these scribes and Pharisees should be taken as "law," but only those utterances which, in fact, came from the Law of God as revealed through Moses and the prophets. The reformer Martin Luther phrased it this way, "If you hear the preaching, this that the Law and Moses have commanded, then do and observe it, for it is not the word and work of the Pharisees, but that of God and Moses."

An old preacher once said, "Truth should be heeded, even if proclaimed by a jackass!" I think he had Balaam's donkey in mind [Numbers 22], and not some of his fellow preachers!! However, his point is well-taken. The apostle Paul made a similar observation when he said that some people were "proclaiming Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives" [Philp. 1:17], even preaching Jesus "from envy and strife" [vs. 16], and yet he rejoiced that "in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed" [vs. 18]. Yes, the scribes and Pharisees were pretenders and usurpers; they were snakes and vipers and sons of hell. Nevertheless, to the degree that they did proclaim the genuine teachings of God through Moses, they were to be heeded. Not for their sake -- they were beneath contempt -- but for Truth's sake. "It was only their official injunctions, derived immediately from Scripture, not their glosses, evasions, and interpretations, that were to be regarded with respect" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15, pt. 2, p. 395]. "What Christ denounced was not the Law itself, but the false inferences and deductions therefrom, leading to injunctions insupportable and impracticable" [ibid].

No, dear brethren, our Lord Jesus Christ did not give carte blanche to the Pharisees of His day ... nor to those of our time. He upheld Truth, and to the degree someone proclaimed that Truth, that Truth was to be obeyed ... even if it came from one who was otherwise despicable in his/her personal actions and attitudes. Follow the teaching, not the teacher, is what our Lord commanded, both then and now! Daniel Coe proclaimed he was proud to be regarded as a gnat-straining Pharisee. I'm not that bold. I'm just pleased to be regarded as a grace-centered Christian. Unless I am sadly mistaken, I believe it is the latter focus that will lead us into our Father's warm, eternal embrace!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Australia:

Dear Brother Al, What an article!! And what a man for God was Philip P. Bliss!! I feel the utter richness of these hymns from the past are slowly being removed from today's churches. They will never be eradicated, though, because they are songs for Him and about Him, and were not made to make money, but to enrich the hearers with the awesomeness of God. I thank God for all these hymns written by our forefathers! What a legacy these writers have left behind. Their works are ageless, priceless, and I cannot wait to sing them forever in the presence of my Lord and with all the saints. The last song of Philip Bliss was so prophetic, and the words were so fitting of what was coming to him and his godly wife. Thank you for telling his story!!

From a Pastor in California:

Bro. Al, Thanks for the inspirational piece on P. P. Bliss. Jesus was right -- "By their fruits you shall know them." His fruit tells his story. While some people work overtime to exclude all who don't believe exactly as they do, God looks to include all who have hearts full of faith. Bliss demonstrated his faith in the fruit of selfless commitment to his ministry of love and grace, and he did so to the very end. Thanks for sharing his story, brother!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Brother Al, Excellent material about Philip Bliss. From this study I was also able to access your article on Fanny Crosby, which is also excellent. I am printing off a copy of each for my daughters to read. Al, I appreciate your variety of topics, your thorough research, and the balance you strike between scholarship and ease of reading for the average person. God bless you!

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Thank you for this wonderful article on Bro. Bliss. It was very interesting to learn about the writer of the many songs I've sung most of my life. Thank you again, and please give Shelly a hug from me!

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Al, Your article on Philip Bliss was really interesting! His passion and commitment was inspiring. Thank you.

From a Minister in California:

Fascinating article, Al. I've never cared much at all for the hymn Hallelujah! What A Savior as I think the music for it is horrible. After reading your article, however, I may have a different "feel" for that song next time we use it. I think my dislike for that song may also be due to the fact that it was used so many times by a horrible song leader at a church I attended as a junior high school student. Not only was he not a good singer, but he dragged that song intolerably. Keith Lancaster arranged a bit more radical version of it that is an improvement.

From an Elder in Missouri:

Brother Al, Thank you for this Reflections article on one of the great hymn writers. It is clear from the songs he wrote that P. P. Bliss was a man of great faith. The timeless nature of his messages will surely speak to millions yet unborn. I truly enjoy stories like these and have collected several books on the life stories of these hymn writers and the background to the lyrics themselves. Once again, thank you for this touch of history!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Al, I want to thank you so much for the many fine Reflections articles. I have enjoyed every article I have read, and I have been challenged to study more as a result of your work. Thank you.

From a Reader in Canada:

Dear Bro. Maxey, I met someone who was baptized (by immersion) in Brussels, Belgium in the Catholic Church at the age of eighteen. Would you now recognize this person as a sister in Christ? I would appreciate your advice on this!

From a Reader in Alaska:

Bro. Maxey, Enclosed find a check for your 2006 Reflections CD. Thank you, and thank God, for your gifts!! If you are ever near Juneau, give us a call. A week of skiing might do you and your wife some good, and with our sons all grown and out of the house, it is just too quiet here!!

From a Reader in Oregon:

Well, Al, I hate to admit it, but you were right! My days on Mars-List were indeed numbered ... to about six months. You had made this prophecy in one of your Reflections. For a while, I thought you might have been wrong about the list owners and their fellow legalists not allowing their "infallible" positions to be challenged. While there are a number on the list that were open to studying some of the more sensitive subjects, the most vocal would very rarely answer questions that exposed their inconsistencies. I found proof-texting to be a real problem with most of these folks. Misrepresentations of those who dared to differ with them was the norm, and when asked for quotes to substantiate their claims, there would be a deafening silence and a change of the subject. Recently, the real character of these men came to light. The list owners, with the support of some of their minions, of course, selected five of the more grace-centered members to punish. Contrary to their own rules and previous statements, the owners placed "special" restrictions on these five alone. This was shortly after fallacies relating to their "law of silence" were exposed and they were unable to defend their positions. It was unbelievable.

While their approach is dishonest and cowardly, I'm nevertheless thankful for the short time I had on this list. I met some very insightful, grace-centered brothers and sisters. I had the opportunity to discuss privately and publicly with others who were studying themselves out of the legalistic mindset that is so prevalent on Mars-List. I was humbled when I was able to see in the list owners, and in many of the members, the same attitudes and beliefs that I had held many years ago. I wish I could go back and apologize to all those I offended over the years by possessing this same spirit. I pray for these brethren, that someday they will break down, rather than continuing to erect, their barriers of exclusivity, and that they will come to enjoy the blessings that real worship and a spirit of unity will provide them. Yes, Al, I am sorry to say you were right about them, although I realize you would prefer to have been wrong, and to have seen some responsible change in these men. Thank you for all you do to expose the dangers of similar attitudes, and for enabling others to see the freedom we have in Jesus. Keep up your good and blessed work, brother!

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