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Jesus mentioned the phrase Moses’ seat in Matthew 23:2 when He said, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach…”
Moses’ seat is a name given to a special chair of honor in the synagogue where the authoritative interpreter of the law of Moses was seated. In a symbolic sense, sitting in Moses’ seat meant teaching from the books of Moses, the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. The scribes were looked upon as being the recognized exegeses of the law of Moses (Matt 23:2) while the Pharisees were the spokesmen for the unwritten oral law or tradition.
In Matthew 23:2, Jesus did not challenge the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees—which He did upon other occasions (Mark 7:1–13) but He focused on the fact that their lives are not in harmony with their exalted profession of godliness. The scribes and Pharisees professed full loyalty to the Scriptures but failed to act on its principles. Their righteous actions consisted in a meticulous attention to ceremony and ritual requirements rather than to the “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 9:13; 22:36; 23:23). Thus, Jesus supported in His teachings the principle of Sola Scriptura, not unbiblical Tradition.
Today, there are churches that err when they elevate their traditions to equality with Scripture, even proclaiming their tradition essential to salvation thus leading people away from the truths of the Bible. To these, Jesus said, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
In the past, “Moses’ seat” was thought to have been a figurative expression compared to “the chair of history” at a school of higher learning today. Modern archaeologists have discovered that ancient Jewish synagogues had actual chairs in which the interpreter of the law sat to teach. The synagogue unearthed at Hamath had a stone chair close to the south wall of the synagogue, with its back toward the “ark,” where the scrolls were stacked. It is very possible that Jesus was referring to such a chair.
In His service,