Yesterday, a well-meaning reader of this blog posted a question in the comments section. He wondered why I didn’t come to the “higher level” spiritually by following the oral traditions of the modern-day Jews who are the spiritual descendants of the ancient Pharisees of Yeshua’s day. As supposed proof that we should, he quoted Matthew 23:2 and 3 where Yeshua declares that because the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, we will come to a higher level in our spiritual walk do whatever they tell us to do. (My short answer to this questions is this: If they haven’t discovered the most obvious truth that Yeshua is the Messiah, then…well, I’ll let you guess what the rest of my response would be.)
This is, in fact, a fair question, and is one that many who are leaving churchianity find themselves asking when they begin to explore the Hebraic roots of their faith.
Here is my long response.
Matthew 23:2, Moses seat. Here Yeshua is speaking against the leaven of the Pharisees and their non-biblical traditions and doctrines of men. They had omitted the weightier matters of the Torah. Moses’ seat in Matt 23:2 is easily misunderstood today when we don’t have all the facts. Because the Pharisees sit in Moses seat, Yeshua told his disciples to observe whatever they tell you to observe. The problem is that most people have no idea what Yeshua was really saying here. “Moses’ seat” was a colloquial expression that was understood by his listeners of that day, but the meaning is lost to most who read this passage today. Moses’ seat refers to a literal throne-like chair that sat in Jewish synagogues (where the Pharisees were the officiants) from which the religious leaders would make judgments concerning spiritual and civil matters. (One can type in “Moses’ seat” into an internet search engine and find actual photos of these seats that have discovered in ancient Jewish synagogues.) In a modern church, it would be like the pastors and board of elders making decisions for the church body they minister over. These leaders do not have the authority, however, to change the word or law of Elohim—only to administer it. Even the pope has a throne from which he makes rulings for the Roman Catholic Church.
Matthew 23:3, Whatever they tell you. The discussion that follows is in response to the idea that because the Pharisees (and the modern rabbinic Jews who are their spiritual descendants) sit in Moses’ seat, we should do whatever they tell us to do including following their traditions and oral law. Some even have embraced the idea that following rabbinic Judaism is to walk a higher spiritual road (because they ostensibly understand and observe the Torah. What is the truth of the matter and what is Yeshua really saying in this passage?
Admittedly, there is much we can learn from our Jewish brothers. If you have read my Torah study guides and commentaries and my hundreds of teachings, you would know that I draw heavily from the wisdom of the Jewish sages. My approach is very multi-faceted and my learning is very broad. In my mind, and in the mind of Yeshua and apostles (as we shall point out below) the sun does not rise and set on the Jewish sages. Moreover, the Judaism of today is not that of Yeshua’s era. It is true that the rabbinates of today are the direct descendants of the Pharisees of old, but their religion is as far removed from that of their predecessors as modern Christianity is from its originators. In fact, after A.D. 70, the religion of Judaism was virtually reinvented to accommodate the dual realities of the temple’s destruction and the cessation of the priesthood with the fall of the Sadduceean sect. To assume that what the modern Jews teach is an exact replica of the religion of the Pharisees of Yeshua’s day is very presumptive and ignores the facts of history.
Yes, Yeshua made a comment about Moses’ seat in Matt 23:2 that is easily misunderstood today when we don’t have all the facts. Because the Pharisees sit in Moses seat, Yeshua told his disciples to observe whatever they tell you to observe. The problem is that most people have no idea what Yeshua was really saying here. “Moses’ seat” was a colloquial expression that was understood by his listeners of that day, but the meaning is lost to most who read this passage today. Moses’ seat refers to a literal throne-like chair that sat in Jewish synagogues (where the Pharisees were the officiants) from which the religious leaders would make judgments concerning spiritual and civil matters. (One can type in “Moses’ seat” into an internet search engine and find actual photos of these seats that have been discovered in ancient Jewish synagogues.) In a modern church, it would be like the pastors and board of elders making decisions for the church body they minister over. These leaders do not have the authority, however, to change the word or law of Elohim—only to administer it. Even the pope has a throne from which he makes religious rulings for the Roman Catholic Church.
When telling his disciples to observe whatever the Pharisees told them to observe, Yeshua wasn’t telling his disciples (and us) to mindlessly follow the religious leaders of his day (or our day), who were the same leaders at other times he referred to as hypocrites, serpents, devils and whitewashed tombs and who eventually nailed him to the cross. Not at all. Yeshua expected his disciples to follow the Word of Elohim. In fact, let’s make a bold, but scripturally-based assertion here. Toward the end of his ministry, Yeshua turned the ecclesiastical authority that the Jewish religious leaders had over to his apostles. He gave them the authority over his church to bind (to prohibit, forbid) and loose (to permit), and he said that heaven would respect their decisions (Matt 16:17–19). They, in fact, exercised this divine authority in Acts 15 at the first Jerusalem counsel.
Some people even claim that Yeshua was sympathetic to or followed one Jewish religious sect over another. This is incorrect. In reality, he was his own man who charted his own course. He was, after all, the Word of Elohim incarnate. He didn’t need to find approval among men’s religious clubs! Sometimes he followed the teachings of the Sadducees, sometimes the Essenes, sometimes the Hillelites and sometimes those of the school of Shamai. The truth is that he didn’t follow any of them. In the areas where they lined up with him, he agreed with them. Nothing more or less. He was not partial to one sect over another. When they didn’t line up with the Word of Elohim, he was against their beliefs. He expects the same of his disciples. Let’s think this thing out critically and look at the big, big picture and not fall into the trap of just blindly following one Jewish religious sect over another based on a couple of comments Yeshua said and that modern readers pull out of context.
Having said this, I’m not against the rabbinic Jewish sages. If you were to watch any of the videos that I record in my home library for our YouTube channel, you would see behind me a large bookcase full of the classic works of the major rabbinic sages. I have read many of their works, prayed their prayers, memorized their liturgy, learned their language, put on their kippot, tied their tefillin, and worn their talit (both gadol and katon), blown their shofarot, waved their lulavim, celebrated their minor holidays, incorporated their traditions into the biblical feasts, and tied tzitzit according to their traditions. I still do some of these things to this day.
But is following rabbinic Judaims really coming to the higher level spiritually? The truth is that some of us are coming to the true higher level (and there are higher levels beyond that, but it ain’t rabbinic Judaism nor is it mainstream Christianity either!!!). That higher level does not revolve around a group of men Jewish (or Christian, for that matter) (no matter how learned and wise they may be) who have illegally misappropriated the title rabbi (which in Hebrew means “my great one” and only colloquially “teacher”)—a title that belongs to one Man only (see Matt 23:7–8). My Rabbi is Yeshua the Messiah. Period. His apostles who wrote the Testimony of Yeshua focused on him as the source of truth—not on men. I follow their example.
Now because the Pharisees sat in the so-called seat of Moses, and Yeshua told us to observe whatever they tell us to observe, some people believe we should follow rabbinic Jewish halachah. The Hebrew word halachah is a noun that simply means “walk” and refers to how we walk out our faith and obey Elohim. The concept of halachah is rooted in the Torah, NOT in the oral traditions of the Jews. If it weren’t for the foundational halachic immutable principles of the Tanakh that tell us what the truth is and how to walk it out, there would be no Judaism, much less all of their traditions. A wise person can learn truth from many sources, but the best source is that which is closest to The Divine Source of truth, and that is found revealed in Scripture.
Now let’s unpack Yeshua’s statement in Matt 23:2, to observe whatever the Pharisees tell you to observe. To understand the Messiah’s words here, this statement has to be weighed in the context of the rest of the passage and everything else Yeshua said. If we cherry-pick a verse out of its context and turn it into a stand-alone principle, then we can virtually make the Word of Elohim say anything we wish. At the very least, we do injustice to the one speaking the words and can end up making them say something they never intended.
Here are some points to consider when addressing Yeshua’s words in Matt 23:2 to observe whatever the Pharisees tell you to observe.
First, the word “observe” is the Greek word tereo meaning “to attend to carefully; take care of; to guard; to keep; one in the state in which he is, to observe; to reserve: to undergo something.” As one can see, “observe” is only one of the possible meanings of the word, and not even the its first or main definition.
Second, the context of what Yeshua is saying here is against the backdrop of the Pharisees’ hypocritical tendencies. In other words, he condemns them for saying one thing and then doing another. He also judged them for some of the things they did. Example? Calling men “rabbi”, omitting the weightier matter of the law, and their ostentatious religious show and pretense. Elsewhere, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua flat out tells his disciples to NOT follow the unbiblical traditions of the Jews. This is evidenced in all of Yeshua’s “you have heard said…but I say unto you” statements of Matt 5. Then in Matt 15, Yeshua accuses the same Pharisees of transgressing the commandments of Elohim by their tradition (Matt 15:3–9). In Mark 7, Yeshua has more to say about following the so-called “traditions of the elders” (the Jews’ oral laws and traditions). He makes it clear that his disciples are in no way to check their brains at the door and to blindly follow Jewish traditions. What is the bottom line here? The disciples of Yeshua are to do only those things that line up with the written word and commandments of Elohim. Period. If the Jews’ traditions don’t, then ignore them (Mark 7:5–13). The apostles understood Yeshua’s commands and what he was really saying. When they were dragged before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling elders) and commanded to stop preaching the gospel of Yeshua the Messiah, Peter made his famous rebuttal to them. He declared that we must follow Elohim and not men. In other words, he viewed as null and void any human commands that violate the written word of Elohim (Acts 4:18–19). When Peter stood before the same counsel again a little later, he reiterated his earlier statement when he declared to them, “We ought to obey Elohim rather then men” (Acts 5:29).
On the basis of points one and two, we now come to point three. Let’s think this issue out and analyze it critically. That’s what YHVH gave us intellect and reasoning capabilities for. The modern rabbinic Jews reject Yeshua as the Messiah. If we take Yeshua’s statement in Matt 23:23 to do whatever the Jews tell you to do, then we may as well forget about believing in Yeshua. Obviously this is not what Yeshua is telling us to do, and this is not what his apostles took his words to mean.