They sat on Moses’ seat, but were not of Moses’ style. They had his chair but not his character. His rank as interpreters of the law, but not his reality as keepers of the law. They were the scribes and Pharisees. And Jesus told those who followed Him to do as they say and not as they do.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
(Matthew 23:1-3 ESV)
They preach, but do not practice. Is there any greater indictment of one who purports to be of God? Anything more tragic of one who claims to follow Jesus? At this moment, as I hover over this text, I’m thinking not.
They had the knowledge. They had the platform to spread the knowledge. But they didn’t practice what they preached. And so, Jesus says, because of their authority you should listen, but because of their actions you should pick a different way.
They made the law more burdensome than was ever intended, and yet, were unwilling to lift a finger to help others bear the burden (23:4). What they did do, they did to be seen by others. Wearing their overstated religious attire, they loved being at the head table at feasts, and taking the best seats in the synagogues, and being given a spot at the front of the line in the marketplace (23:5-7). While they taught the law in the name of Moses, they took advantage of the law to promote their own names.
So how come? At least part of the answer lies, I think, in the following contrast that popped off the pages this morning as I read in Numbers as well as Matthew.
They do all their deeds to be seen by others. . . and they love the place of honor . . .
(Matthew 23:5a, 6a ESV)
Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.
(Numbers 12:3 ESV)
Moses, the original, was very meek. Those who sat in Moses’ seat generations later, loved the place of honor. Moses was humble, lowly, always afflicted by the knowledge of his inadequacy for the calling God had put on his life. The scribes and Pharisees were marked by hubris, lavishness, and a belief that they were better than everyone else and deserved their place at the head of the table. Moses, to use a Jesus term, was “poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3). The scribes and Pharisees? Well, not so much. And it made all the difference concerning which teacher heaven was going to endorse.
A reminder this morning that being very meek is more in line with the ways of the kingdom of heaven than is thinking myself very much. That humility marks the man, or woman, of God, not a high-view of oneself. That the real impact of a teacher of God, one who desires to instruct others to follow God, is not only in what they teach but in how they live out what they teach. Such that Jesus would say of them, Do as they say AND do as they do.
Starts with the heart. Not a function of perfection, but of contrition. In fact, their teaching is enhanced by frequent confession, no confidence in the flesh, ready to repent of it’s failings — the blood of Christ reapplied, able to “forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:9). The best teachers not being the ones who hang out at the front of the line but at the foot of the cross. Not the ones who seek attention in the marketplace but seek to make much of Jesus in everyday life. Not the ones who promote themselves, but those who point to the Savior.
By His grace. For His glory.