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The Chair of moses

Matthew 23:1-12

[1] Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, [2] saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; [3] therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say {things,} and do not do {them.} [4] “And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with {so much as} a finger.


[5] “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels {of their garments.} [6] “And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, [7] and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi.”


[8] “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. [9] “And do not call {anyone} on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. [10] “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, {that is,} Christ.


[11] “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. [12] “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

Matthew 23:1-2

[Matt 23:1] Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, [2] saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses. [3] “therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say {things,} and do not do {them.}”

The Chair of Moses

The “Chair of Moses” is similar to a professor’s chair at a university. It was a distinguished place of honor purporting advanced learning, scholarly application and the right genealogy. The Pharisees and Scribes traced their claim to this honor all the way back to Moses. They claimed that their Mosaic authority was passed from God to Moses to Joshua to the elders to the prophets and finally to the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus was not interested in their claims of authority. He denounces them for their lack of legitimacy. His statements makes us ask, “What truly gives anyone the right to in the ‘professor’s chair?’”


Jesus was not contesting the Pharisee’s claims to historical lineage or their knowledge of scripture. This despite the fact that he frequently punched holes in their theology (see Mt 12:1-14; 15:1-20; 16:6-12; 19:3-9). Instead, Jesus was challenging the vast chasm between their walk and their talk. They were like business professors who never ran a business, politicians who never left the beltway or clergy who aren’t doing works of just in their own community. The Pharisees were, quite simply, all “heavenly minded but no earthly good.”


No matter how extensive our biblical knowledge or how devoted we are to preaching scripture to the flock; if the study of God’s word doesn’t increase our love of God’s people—we are bells that peel in the desert [1 Corinthians 13:1].


In last week’s study, Jesus put it quite simply:

  • Do you love God?
  • Do you love your neighbor?

The Pharisees failed in both areas. They loved the law and they loved to judge others by it. I may love to read Scripture, but do I love the people to whom it points? Widows, orphans and immigrants? The naked, the sick and the imprisoned? The most rejected and least accepted? These Pharisees (and the Pharisee in me) used their elite education to gain attention for themselves and to distance themselves from others. Our Lord’s condemnation of the religious existed on three levels:

  • Making religion into a show of personal aggrandizement
  • Making religion into a set of rules and rituals that only the privileged could afford to pursue
  • Using their adherence to these exclusive rules and regulations to set themselves apart from others—not at the service of others

Essentially, the Pharisees stance on life was; “I have more knowledge than you and that makes me holier.” Instead, it should have been; “God has given me the means to study his ways—how can I use this privilege to free my people?”


If I am to be “set apart” as a religious leader let it be from the selfishness and disengagement of this culture. Let us be known by our limitless compassion and for being “Good News” to the poor. But let’s make sure that we are never “set apart” for our titles, our doctrine, or our rituals. For then these frightening words of Jesus will be directed at us; “But do not do according to their deeds; for they say {things}, and do not do {them}.”

“Have seated themselves…”

You have to admire what Jesus says here. He is in the temple and already cleared it of the graft connected to worship. Now he is confronting the religious leaders on what would seem like their own turf. But it was not their turf. It was the Messiah’s turf. It was his rightful place and it was his “Professor’s Chair.”


For one day in history, the temple looked like it will when Jesus returns. The false leaders and “those who have seated themselves” will be evicted and the city will be filled with the shouts of lepers restored and the blind who see. The poor will have “the good news preached to them.”

Matthew 11:4-6

4 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 “And blessed is he who keeps from stumbling over Me.”


The sorrowful fact that Jesus had to confront the religious leaders was an indictment of the disconnected state of the leaders from their people. Imagine a situation where new believers must be cautioned; “Listen to what the leaders say, but don’t live like they live.”


Yet, couldn’t that be an indictment of our contemporary culture as well? Can I say that I have never participated in any act of aloofness?  I find this temptation hardest to resist when I am insecure or in a threatening environment. That is when I want to put on airs, talk about my degrees, what I’ve done or who is in my network. As we learned previously in Matthew 21, we use authority when we run out of legitimacy. That is the temptation hardest to resist: To become more humble and more reliant on Christ rather than using my privilege to appear self-important. Look at Paul’s claim to leadership:

2 Corinthians 12:10

[10] Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. Being Christ to the wounded means consistently asking; “How do I make myself less threatening to this person(s)?”

1 Corinthians 9:22

[22] To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 

2 Corinthians 11:29-30

[29] Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? [30] If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.

Matthew 23:4-7

[Matt 22:4] “And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with {so much as} a finger. [5] “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels {of their garments.} [6] “And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues, [7] and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi.”

“They tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders…”

The essence of a false leader can be summed up in a short statement: He or she leads for personal gain, weighting decisions by what will improve his own circumstances and excusing the effect upon the “least of these.” We have learned consistently that leadership—to the nomadic Hebrew people of God—was not about getting ahead. Leadership meant that no one was left behind, not in the end times but in these times!


This is also the essence of Satan who reveals to us the essence of evil. As long as we work towards his plans he will allow us the addictive pleasures of this life. However his long-term desire is the humiliation of God. Satan abhors God. At first, Lucifer (the Light-Giver) thought that he could destroy God’s love for his creation by enlisting humanity to kill God’s beloved. Instead, it led to God’s ultimate triumph. Now Satan roams the earth like a prowling lion seeking to devour God’s people.

1 Peter 5:8-9

8 Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.


Satan’s mission is to capture souls to glorify himself with the singular intent of causing pain to God. We participate in Satan’s plan whenever we use people for our own pleasure or gain. We may even rationalize that we are doing good and that is the tragedy of the Pharisees. They had rationalized their own falsehoods and turned them into dogma. When the Son of God came they wouldn’t recognize him, let alone get out of his “chair” so he could be seated in his proper place.


The tell tale sign of their depravity was that they would perform no religious deed without public recognition and avoided any act that would keep them from dirtying their hands and missing their rituals (thus the story of the Good Samaritan). They were religious leaders running over the poor on their way to Sunday services.


Compare their attitudes with the attitude of Paul in 2nd Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 12:5-10

[2 Cor 12:5] On behalf of such a man will I boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to {my} weaknesses. [6] For if I do wish to boast I shall not be foolish, for I shall be speaking the truth; but I refrain {from this,} so that no one may credit me with more than he sees {in} me or hears from me. [7] And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me— to keep me from exalting myself! [8] Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. [9] And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. [10] Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.


There is but one reason to devote ourselves to God and that is because he loved us so much. To be a Christian leader is a call to complete subservience. Giving up all I am for all the he can be through me.

Matthew 23:8-12

[8] “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. [9] “And do not call {anyone} on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. [10] “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, {that is,} Christ.


[11] “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. [12] “And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

“One is your Teacher…”

The word that Matthew uses for “one” (when he refers to teacher, father and leader) is “heis.” It means both primary and abundant. As you will see in the rest of this reading it refers to the principal authority as opposed to sole authority.


Why is that important? My children calls me “dad” or “father” and this reading doesn’t discourage that title. However, this reading establishes there is only one true “Father” from which my authority even to parent is given. In essence these are my children on earth loaned to me by God and my focused capacity as a Christian parent is to model God’s love and point them towards the primary Father.


In essence, Jesus is telling us that there is no one to whom I should give unquestioning leadership over my life. I weigh everyone’s position in my life against the “Heis Pater”; the one true Father.


Master [Rhabbi], Father [pater] (meaning ancient or primary father) and Ultimate Judge [kathegetes] (the One who has ultimate rule).

“And you are all brothers.”

Jesus expands upon the issue of our rightful titles by teaching that we have only one true master, father and leader.

  • Rabbi [Rhabbi]: This is the word for master or teacher. Obviously, my life will have many teachers but only one authority against which I will weigh what others say; “Are your teachings rooted in the compassion of Christ?”
  • Father [Pater]: We examined this word a little bit already. This is the word for ancient or paternal father; as in the “Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.”
  • Leader [kathegetes]: This word means ultimate judge. Only God is my ultimate judge. How other people judge me matters not compared to how I will be judged by “heis kathegetes.” The word can also mean the “right to prune.” In other words, God alone has the right to prune his harvest. The Pharisee’s standard of pruning was the law, our Lord’s standard was God’s compassion. Which standard do we use?

In addition, Jesus uses the primary word for brother [adephos]. “A” is the word for primary and beginning. It is the first letter [Alpha] of the Hebrew alphabet and could also be used for the term “foundation” (both in time and importance).


To call another your brother, in this sense, is to say that your relationship with that person takes precedent over all other relationships. For example, Jesus uses this term when his own family members come to take him away from his ministry. He turns to those around him and states; “My mother and My brothers [adephos] are these who hear the word of God and do it [Luke 8:21].”


“Hear and do!” Those are the principle qualities of a brother (sister) of Christ. There was plenty of judging in the Pharisee’s life but very little hearing and even less doing. Throughout history, we—as Christians—have often been known more for our judging than our “hearing and doing.” I must constantly ask; “How does my town view our church?” In particular, “How do the poor in my town view our church?” Do they see us as a judge or would they say; “They heard my cry and did something about it.” That is the weight against which our churches will be tested.

“But the greatest among you shall be your servant.”

Throughout this reading we have been talking primarily about positions of responsibility in Christian leadership yet the truth is that to call myself “Christian” is to be a responsible leader. In closing his example about religious leadership, Christ tells us that we are greatest when we serve. The word he uses for greatest [meizon] is also the word for elder. The word used for servant [diakonos] is a word that is used for an attendant, a waiter at a table and for a Christian teacher, pastor or deacon.


Once we are his; we are no longer our own. We do not live for ourselves anymore.

Matthew 20:26-28

26 “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”


Christ not only preached this, he modeled the attitude of service consistently throughout his life.

John 13:14-15

14 “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.


Even after his return, we find Jesus feeding breakfast to his disciples on the shores of the Lake of Galilee:

John 21:12-13

12 Jesus said to them, “Come {and} have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread, and gave them and the fish likewise.
Paul the reformed Pharisee, also took on the role of servant—even slave—to all men in order to bring them before Christ:

1 Corinthians 9:19

19 For though I am free from all {men,} I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.

2 Corinthians 4:5

5 For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.

Philippians 2:5-8

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, {and} being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

Scripture tells that the path to God is a path of humility and service. In fact, the word that Jesus uses for humility [tapeinoo] means to be totally abased, depressed or humiliated. Contemporary psychology would argue against this type of “Christotherapy”; instead emphasizing the importance of self-esteem and feeling good about ourselves. Yet the reason that there are so many self-help manuals available is that there message is transient; it only works for a while. Ultimately, there really is no help in self, only in serving God.


Friends, the bible works! And, scripture tells us that the way to joy is the way of humility and service:

Job 22:29

29 “When you are cast down, you will speak with confidence And the humble person He will save.”

Psalm 138:6

6 For though the LORD is exalted, yet He regards the lowly; but the haughty He knows from afar.

Proverbs 15:33

33 The fear of the LORD is the instruction for wisdom, and before honor {comes} humility.

Proverbs 16:18-19

18 Pride {goes} before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling. 19 It is better to be of a humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.

Proverbs 29:23

23 A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.

Isaiah 57:15

15 For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell {on} a high and holy place, and {also} with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

Matthew 5:3

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:4-5

4 “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 5 “And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me.”

James 4:6

6 But He gives a greater grace. Therefore {it} says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

1 Peter 5:5-7

5 You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, 7 casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.


In each one of these scriptures, we can see a common thread. Humiliation (and certainly the public display of it) is not God’s end. The purpose of humbling ourselves is not ultimately that we would live like groveling worms. The purpose of humility is to allow the Lord to exalt us with our true dignity. A dignity that is never personal but always communal. We are street orphans welcomed into the King’s family. We rejoice whenever another street orphan is found and brought to the Lord’s family. When we choose humility, the Lord hears our cry and exalts us [hupsoo]. The word exalted means to be lifted up and placed high. Imagine the lost lamb lifted up and placed high on the Shepherd’s shoulders. Is that the goal of my leadership? Is that what I seek to do daily? Is that the heart of my church? Seeking the lost sheep and placing them high and exalted on our Lord’s shoulders?


Our new joy is not based in how great we think we are (self-esteem), but how much God loves us (“while we were yet sinners”). Our new joy fills us with a desire to invite others to such richness. To be liberated from the never-ending cycle of striving to impress others and instead, embrace the incomparable joy of serving God.

Humbling myself today

What can I do to humble myself before the Lord and his people today? That is a question that would turn much contemporary psychology on its ear. However, it is the question that the Pharisee’s should have asked everyday and it is the question we need to ask as well. It is the only question that I can ask which will prime me to set “the chair of Moses” aside for Jesus—and not climb into it myself.


Here are four ways that we are called to be humble before our Lord:

  1. Humility before God (repentance). Acknowledge my sinfulness and ask for forgiveness.
  2. Humility before the Word. Recognize that I do not have the answers and I need to daily seek for more knowledge from Life’s Instruction Book.
  3. Humility before fellowship. The Holy Spirit works through the Body of Christ. There is no such thing as Lone Ranger spirituality. I need to yoke myself to a fellowship of believers and give them the right to know my struggles, affirm my faith and hold me accountable to my walk.
  4. Humility of service. To be Christian is to be a servant—a “a waiter serving the needs of others.” I can not claim Christ as Lord without serving the least of these.

Matt 25:34-36

34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me {something} to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’”


The way to true joy is the way to personal abandonment! The more I let go of myself—the more I am able to take hold of Him. The question of humility is the question of abandonment. Abandoning pride, abandoning prejudice, abandoning judgment, abandoning self-righteousness, and finally… abandoning the chair of Moses so that Jesus can take his rightful place—the Chair of Moses—in my life.


What must I do to abandon myself today?

About the Author

Jerry Goebel is a community organizer who started ONEFamily Outreach in response to gang violence and youth alienation in a rural community in Southeastern Washington. Since that time, Jerry has worked with communities around the globe to break the systemic hold of poverty by enhancing the strengths of the poor.


A primary philosophy of ONEFamily Outreach is to teach; “poverty is a lack of healthy relationships.” And, a primary focus of ONEFamily Outreach has been to break down the barriers of poverty through creating “cultures of intentional courtesy.”


As well as having developed ongoing mentoring outreaches in his own community, Jerry travels extensively to work with church leaders, community governments, and educators.


Jerry has received five popular music awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, a Best Educational Video Award from the National Catholic Education Association, and a lifetime achievement award from the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry for living Gospel Values.


To contact or book Jerry for a presentation in your area write or call:


Jerry Goebel
ONEFamily Outreach
jerry@onefamilyoutreach.com
http://onefamilyoutreach.com
(509) 525-0709

Copyright Notice

Copyright © 2007 Jerry Goebel. All Rights Reserved.  This study may be freely distributed, as long as it bears the following attribution: Source: Jerry Goebel: 2007 © http://onefamilyoutreach.com.

Scripture Quotations noted from NASB are from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD VERSION of the bible. Copyright © The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)

The New Testament Greek Lexicon based on Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary plus others; this is keyed to the large Kittel and the “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.” These files are public domain.

The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon is Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon; this is keyed to the “Theological Word Book of the Old Testament.” These files are considered public domain.

NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries. Copyright © 1981, 1998 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved. (www.Lockman.org)

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