“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘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. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” – Matthew 23:1-4
Many places in scripture Jesus denounces and rebukes the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Interestingly enough, in this short passage He tells the crowds to listen to what they say, but not do what they do.
Despite the fact that the Pharisees are so bad that Jesus calls them “children of hell” (23:15), the people are still to listen to them because of the position of authority that they occupy.
I find this rather remarkable. Jesus spends verses 13-36 of this same chapter pronouncing seven woes upon the Pharisees that are particularly damning. The way in which he speaks about them I would think He would tell the people to completely ignore and disregard them, but He doesn’t. Jesus instructs them to live nothing like the Pharisees live, but to still respect what they say to a degree.
I believe the reason for the people to give any credence to what the Pharisees said is two-fold.
Jesus says that the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” A bible encyclopedia describes Moses’ seat as “The name given to a special chair of honor in the synagogue where the authoritative teacher of the law sat. The teacher in practice exercised the authority of Moses”.
It was out of respect for the law–the Word of God–and the position of authority that the people were to listen to the Pharisees, not on account of the Pharisees themselves.
Despite the fact that many of the Pharisees were in reality far from God, because they spoke from His Word, there was value in at least some of what they said. When they read the scriptures in the synagogue, the words of God were being spoken, even if the Pharisees themselves were missing the true meaning or not living up to it.
While Jesus did say to listen to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, He also rebuked and corrected the Pharisees where they were wrong and where they had misinterpreted the scriptures. Listening did not mean merely believing everything they said, but measuring it against scripture.
This gives us a model to follow today. Too often we either accept everything someone says or nothing. Even from those who we feel are theologically unsound or have lived hypocritical lives there may be nuggets of truth that we would do well not to disregard. Likewise, those that we respect the most may at times say things that we should probably ignore.
It can be a difficult task to admit that someone we might consider a “child of hell” said something true or worthwhile, but our method of determining truth should be that of the Bereans.
“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” – Acts 17:11
The Word of God and leading of the Holy Spirit is our guide into all truth. Through examining the scriptures faithfully, the Bereans were led to believe in Christ and what Paul said. At this point, Paul had a reputation among the Jewish world as something of a heretic. It would have been easy for the Bereans to let the greater Jewish community’s opinion of Paul influence their views about him and about the gospel that he was preaching. Instead, they went to the source of truth, the Word of God and realized that what Paul was saying was true.
We must take on a humble spirit to be willing to change our beliefs when presented by the truth of scripture as well as to recognize that God speaks through whomever He chooses. At the same time we must rooted in the Word and firm in our convictions against wayward teaching. Both of these are accomplished by standing on the Word as our foundation.