Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.” Mat 23:1-3
To sit in a seat, in this context, is a Hebrew idiom. It means, to exercise the authority of. It is where we get the idea that the one who sits on the throne of a kingdom, exercises the authority of that kingdom. We have seen this Hebrew idiom used before in the Hebrew Scriptures:
Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; Psa 1:1
So Jesus is saying, because the Pharisees exercise Moses’ authority in his place, do what they say; but do not do what they do. Why would Jesus instruct His disciples to obey Moses’ authority, i.e., to obey Torah, if He knew that in less than a week, He would be crucified, buried, and raised from the dead, which was supposed to have abolished obedience to Moses? This would have been a perfect opportunity to instruct His disciples, if it was His intention for His resurrection to make obedience to Torah obsolete, to not do as those who sit in Moses’ seat instruct.
“For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” Mat 23:4
The Pharisees bind heavy burdens on the shoulders of men. Jesus, however, said of Himself:
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy- laden, and I will give you rest, Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Mat 11:28-30
We have been taught that the burden of the Pharisees, which is heavy and hard to bear, is obedience to Moses, and the burden of Jesus, which is light and easy to bear, is freedom from obedience to Moses. Is that what Jesus is teaching, when He spoke to His disciples, and told them to obey the authority of Moses’ seat? Is that what Jesus is teaching, when He said that whoever breaks one of the least of the commandments of Moses, and teaches men to do so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Mat 5:19)?
The Pharisees made two mistakes in teaching the commandments of Moses. First, they added to the commandments of Moses, something that Jesus was constantly correcting them on (see, for example the dispute about Sabbath in Mat 12, or the dispute about defilement in Mat 15). Moses specifically forbade adding to God’s commandments (Deu 4:2)!
Second, they tried to obey commandments from an unconverted heart of stone, and it was their hard unregenerate heart that made them hypocrites, a brood of vipers, and blind guides. The prophets prophesied:
“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” Eze 36:25-27
Jeremiah called this very thing –the conversion of the heart– the new covenant:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law [torah] in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. … For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Jer 31:31-33, 35
What is new about the new covenant, is not that torah, statutes, and judgments are abolished, but that instead of trying to obey commandments written on tablets of stone –outside of them– from a hard heart, now the Lord’s people obey commandments written on tablets of the heart –within them– from a soft heart, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When the heart is transformed to a heart of flesh, made gentle and lowly as the heart of Jesus, with the desire to obey the law of the One we love written upon that new heart, then the burden of obedience to Torah is light and easy to bear.