"Traditions and Transgressions"
(Delivered Sunday, March 25, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, we come to a new chapter in Matthew's Gospel. And it begins with yet another encounter our Lord had with the religious leaders of the day.
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The encounter described in this morning's passage occurred around the time that our Lord was ministering to people in the regions of Gennesaret, along the shores of the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum. While He was there, a deputation of Pharisees, along with the scribes—those who were the recognized authorities of Jewish law in that day—came all the way from Jerusalem to Him. And apparently, they came in order to bring accusations against Him.
It's easy to see why they would want to do such a thing. It hadn't been very long before this time that some of the Pharisees confronted Him and His disciples in a grainfield, because they had been rubbing heads of grain together in their hands and munching on the kernels—in violation of Pharisaic law concerning the Sabbath. At that time, Jesus responded by showing them that He was not in violation of the Scripture's teaching about the Sabbath at all; and that it was the Pharisees who were out of accord with God's revealed will. He showed them, through examples from the Scripture, that God's great concern was "mercy and not sacrifice"; and He then told them that He—the Son of Man—stood among them as "Lord even of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:1-8). Shortly afterwards, Jesus further demonstrated His authority over the Sabbath by healing a man with a whithered hand—right in the midst of the synagogue on the Sabbath day (12:9-12). The result was that the Pharisees "went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him" (12:13).
As we read further on in Matthew's Gospel, we see that Jesus had offended the Pharisees in other ways. They saw that He had cast a demon out of a man, so they accused Him of working in the power of the devil. But He utterly disproved their accusation; and responded by calling them a "brood of vipers" who—being evil—were incapable of speaking good things (12:22-37). Then, when the scribes and Pharisees sought to discredit Him by demanding a miraculous sign from Him, He told them that the only sign they would receive would be “the sign of the prophet Jonah”—that is, the sign of His own resurrection after being “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (12:40). And finally, He asserted that their refusal to repent at His teaching brought them under a greater condemnation than the sinful, wicked pagan nations of the past that did repent at the teaching of God (12:41-42).
So; whatever reason there might have been for the encounter we read of in our passage this morning, you can be sure that it was with hostile intent. They had already committed themselves to His destruction. And on this particular occasion, after they arrived and met Him, they began to bring yet another accusation against Him—this time, that He didn't keep to the Jewish traditions that had been handed down to them from generation to generation.
And once again—as He always did—He turned the tables on those who were accusing Him. As we read on, Matthew tells us . . .
Over the next few weeks, we're going to look at this passage in greater detail. It has much to teach us about the general subject of "religion". It comes to us in three sections. The first has to do with Jesus' words to the Pharisees about a perpetual problem in matters of religion; that is, how we as believers ought to to deal with "religious traditions". Then, the second has primarily to do with another danger in religion; that is, the problem of "blind leaders" who seek to be leaders "of the blind". And finally, the third has to do with the religious question of "ceremonial purity" and the things that truly "defile" people.
This morning, we're going to look specifically at the first section; and Jesus' words concerning "religious traditions".
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As I studied this passage this week, I just couldn't help thinking of the single-word theme of the beloved musical, Fiddler on The Roof.
You know the story of that musical, don't you? It tells of Tevye, the humble, working-class Jewish father of five daughters—three of them eligable and longing to be married—and of his struggle to hold his family and his religious culture together in the midst of a rapidly changing world. Tevye starts off by chatting away at the audience about how life in his community is like "a fiddler on a roof" who is trying to scratch out a tune without breaking his neck. And when he stops, looks at the audience, and asks, "How do we keep our balance?", he answers, "That I can tell you in one word." Then, pointing a resolute finger into the air, he says,"Tradition!."
Tradition, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. It really is a helpful way that the people in any particular culture manage to keep things together in life. But as Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes shows us, there can also be a very dark side to "tradition"—particularly "religious tradition". As this passage teaches us, religious 'traditions' can easily become sinful 'transgressions'—especially when they cause us to set aside the clear commands of God's word, and become a substitute for entering into a true relationship with God by faith. It's a danger that we, in the body of Christ, need to constantly be on guard against.
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Let's look at this encounter; and first consider what it tells us about . . .
1. THE NATURE OF 'RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS' (vv. 1-2).
Historically, from the time of Ezra and of the return of the Jewish people from Babylonian captivity, the Jewish leaders and scholars developed a detailed set of rules and regulations for daily life. It was understandable that they would want to do so; because they were sent by God into captivity for having ignored His law and forgetting His covenant with them. These rules and regulations were intended to serve as a “fence around the law”—helping to keep the people in a state of safe conformity to the commandments of God.
As time went on, however, these rules and regulations regarding the law became more important to the leaders than the law itself. The scribes and Pharisees—such as those who confronted our Lord—had devoted themselves to studying these rules and regulations, and to elaborating on their applications to everyday life. The Greek word that was used to describe these rules and regulations (paradosis) was one that meant “a delivery” or “a handing-over” of something. Metaphorically, it came to refer to the body of teaching and rules that the ancient rabbis had developed, and that had been handed down from generation to generation—that is, “the traditions of the elders”.
One of the areas that this body of “traditions” had sought to regulate in daily life was that of “cleanliness”. The concern was not so much over "personal hygiene" as it was over "ceremonial cleanliness" or "religious purity". Cleanliness was considered a part of the essential qualifications for spirituality. One of the rabbis taught, “Zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness to ritual purity, ritual purity to self-control, self-control to holiness, holiness to humility, humility to fear of sin, fear of sin to saintliness, and saintliness to the Holy Spirit” (Sot. IX.15)1. Another wrote, “Physical cleanliness leads to spiritual purity” (A.Z. 20b)2. And yet another wrote, “One should wash his face, hands, and feet everyday out of respect for his Maker” (Shab. 50b)3.
Some of these ancient Jewish teachers were extremely strong in their insistence on careful, ceremonial washings—particularly when it came to handling one's own food. One wrote, “Whoever eats bread without first washing his hands is as though he had sinned with a harlot. Whoever makes light of the washing of his hands will be uprooted from the world. Whoever eats bread without scouring his hands is as though he eats unclean bread” (Sot. 4b).4 Another wrote, “A person who despises the washing of the hands before a meal is to be excommunicated” (Ber. 19a).5
Now, all of this sounds very strange to most of us today—especially those of us who are not of a Jewish background. That's why Mark, who wrote his Gospel primarily to Gentiles, had to give this explanation;
And so; whatever complaint may have originally brought them to where Jesus, these scribes and Pharisees had this complaint against Him once they arrived: “Why do Your disciples transgress [that is, “deviate from”] the tradition of th elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat” (Matthew 15:2). They believed that the traditions of the elders were binding; and it was profoundly offensive to their religious sensitivities that He—as a Teacher in Israel—had not taught His disciples to keep those traditions and observe them carefully.
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Now; before we go any further, it's important to point out that the Bible doesn't always treat “tradition” as a bad thing. Sometimes, it speaks of "traditions" in a positive way; and we have to be discerning in the matter.
The apostle Paul, for example, commended the Corinthian believers, “that you remember me in all things, and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). Similarly, he exhorted the Thessalonian believers to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (1 Thessalonians 2:15). He even urged them to “withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (3:6). Clearly, Paul felt obligated to “hand-over” certain authoritative instructions and practices to the believers—even to Gentile believers; and exhorted them to “keep the traditions” which he had given them.
And in doing this, he was following a very important biblical pattern from the Old Testament. In a passage from Deuteronomy 6—after having given the people of Israel the ten commandments—God spoke through Moses and gave the people of Israel this additional word of instruction. It was a command to "hand-down" a tradition:
The expressed reason that God gave this instruction to them was “lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage” (v. 12). The moral law had been authoritatively given by God; and the people were not to allow themselves to forget those laws, but were to be careful to obey them. And so, they were to be diligent to “hand them down” from generation to generation. Similarly, there are good rules of faith and conduct that are authoritative for the church of Jesus Christ—having been given by God through the Old Testament Scriptures; and through the teaching of our Lord and His apostles. Paul was compelled to make sure that these things were passed on to—and faithfully kept by—the people of God who were under his care.
But there were also "religious traditions" that had no such authority; because they had their origin in man and not in God. There was, for example, no command from God for the people of Israel to wash their hands in the elaborate and ceremonial manner that the Pharisees and scribes had demanded through the “traditions of the fathers”. These were religious rules and regulations created by men. Paul, at one time—in his zeal for Judaism—felt very obligated to keep all of them. He even said that he used to be “more exceedingly zealous” for the traditions of the fathers than any of his contemporaries (Galatians 1:14). But having been set free in Christ, he made a careful distinction between the traditions that have their basis in the clear teaching of God's word, and those that originated from the imaginations of men and that had no real authority. He warned the Colossian believers;
And so, the nature of “religious traditions” is such that there are some that are binding because they come from God and flow directly from His commands; and there are some that are the traditions of mere men and that have no binding authority at all. As a result, we must be discerning when it comes to "religious traditions".
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Because some of those traditions are the products of mere men, they have the potential to lead us away from the clear commands of God. This leads us, then, to consider what Jesus said to the Pharisees and scribes; and what it teaches us about . . .
2. WHEN 'TRADITIONS' BECOME SINFUL (vv. 3-6).
The Pharisees and scribes had asked Jesus a question: “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?”
Now; it was always a dangerous thing to question the Lord Jesus in this way, because He just might turn around and return the favor! As it turned out, Jesus answered their question by asking a question of them. And in doing so, He revealed to us how it can be that “the traditions of men” become sinful. "He answered and said to them, 'Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?'” (v. 3).
You see; the Jewish leaders had a “tradition”. It was a tradition that taught that if someone pledged money or other material resources to the temple for the service of God, then the money had to be turned over to the temple upon their death and could not be given to anyone else. The person who made the pledge could still use the money; but they were forbidden from giving it to anyone else, because it was now "Corban"—that is, a gift set apart for God.
This tradition was held to so strongly that, even if a man made a rash vow and found out later that his aging mother and father were in financial need, he was forbidden by rabbinical law from giving anything to them (see Mark 7:11-12). It had the appearance of being an act of great devotion to God. But Jesus demonstrates to them how sinful their "religious tradition" had, in actuality, become—a tradition that had caused them to transgress the clear commandments of God.
He first told them, "For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'" (v. 4)—quoting the fifth commandment (see Exodus 20:12; Deut. 5:16). And then, He added the Scripture's warning about the punishment prescribed by the law for the breaking the fifth commandment; ". . . and 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death'" (Exodus 21:17; see also Deuteronomy 27:16; Proverbs 20:20; 30:7). These are words that all of the Jewish leaders would have confessed were fundamental commandments of God. But Jesus then contrasts the word of God with the traditions the scribes and Pharisees bound people to, saying, "But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God"—'then he need not honor his father or mother.' Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition" (vv. 4-6).
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Notice carefully what Jesus says; that they made the commandment of God "of no effect" by their "tradition". To make it "of no effect" (akuroo) means to make it void of authority—to "nullify" it (NIV), or to "invalidate" it (NASB), or to "have made void the word of God" (ESV). What a horrible thing to have done! The disciples had merely "transgressed" the traditions of men by eating with unwashed hands; but the Pharisees and scribes had made God's commandment "of no effect" by their tradition!
There are traditions that are very harmless. I had a struggle with one this week. At the beginning of each spring, I look into my closet and see my favorite white slacks. But I'm told that it's a "tradition" that I'm not supposed to wear white slacks until after Memorial Day; and then, I have to stop wearing them again after Labor Day. I know that it makes sense as a tradition of "fashion"; but still, I think it's a stupid rule! I happen to like white slacks, and I want to wear them. I'll conform to the tradition and wait for another few weeks. But I'm confessing that I'm not happy about it.
That's a "tradition" that is so pointless and harmless that it doesn't really matter if I keep it or not. I only transgress "taste"—and I'm sure I do that a lot anyway. And it may even be that some traditions do much good; that actually do help us to honor God and keep His commandments. But there are other traditions that are much more serious and dangerous in their potential. When the observance of a tradition—whether it be religious in nature, or cultural, or even merely social—is given greater authority by men than the clear word of God; or when it actually sets a man or woman in a state of violation of the clear commandment of Scripture; then it becomes sinful. To keep to such traditions is to transgress God's commandment.
We need to evaluate the traditions we hold to—including "religious traditions". It may be the traditional ways we do things in church. It may be the "holidays" we observe. It may be the foods we abstain from on certain days. It may even be the ways that certain passages of Scripture are "traditionally" interpreted and understood within a church or a group. We must hold it all up to the clear teaching of God's word. We must do as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22; "Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil."
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If we refuse to evaluate traditions on the basis of the authority of God's word—that is, if we hold our religious "traditions" to be too "sacred" to be examined—then we're resting on tradition more than on God's word. And this leads us to Jesus' words concerning . . .
3. THE DANGER OF RESTING ON 'TRADITION' (vv. 7-9).
Jesus puts the finger on the real issue. He calls the scribes and Pharisees, "Hypocrites!" (v. 7). That word basically refers to an actor in an ancient play; and metaphorically, it describes someone who is pretending to be something that they're not. And that's one of the greatest dangers of placing too much authority on "religious traditions". Doing so enables someone to display an outward show of "spirituality" that they don't really possess.
Jesus goes on to explain, quoting from Isaiah 29:13; "Well did Isaiah prophecy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me . . .'" (vv. 7-8). And this illustrates one of the dangers of resting hypocritically on "religious traditions". The careful observance of those 'traditions' becomes a substitute for true relationship with God. They fool those who hold to them into thinking that they are genuinely "close" to God; while, in reality, they are as far away from Him as they could be.
Do you remember when Jesus was teaching in His Sermon on The Mount? He warned,
I fear that there will be many people will hear those dreadful words from Jesus who thought that they had a relationship with God, simply because they were careful to observe the "religious traditions" of men. In the eyes of other men, they would have been the most "religious" people of all; and yet, the whole time long, they never experienced a genuine relationship with God through a conscious faith in the One He has declared to be the Savior of sinners.
How easy it would be to become lulled into a false sense of "relationship" through "religious traditions!" How easy it would be to think that such traditions are making us close to God; when in reality, we have no relationship with Him at all!
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And not only do those traditions give us a false sense of "relationship"; but they also give us a false experience of "worship". They can fool us into thinking that we're worshiping God, and that He is somehow pleased our "religious traditions". Jesus goes on to quote Isaiah; saying, "And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (vv. 7-9).
Anyone who thinks that God is automatically "impressed" with our own creative ideas of worshiping Him ought to read Isaiah 1:10-17. In it, God spoke strong words to the people of Israel about the "religious traditions" through which they sought to "worship" Him. He told them;
How many times do we make up "religious traditions" before God that we think He is pleased with, or that we think bring us into His favor . . . when in reality, He can't endure them because we observe them with sinful hearts and filthy hands that have never been washed cleaned by the blood of Jesus?
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And dear brothers and sisters in Christ; let's not respond to these words from the Lord by looking at the foolish "religious traditions" of other people, shake our heads in pity at them, and then walk away—having utterly failed to examine ourselves!
The Pharisees and scribes sought to rebuke the Lord; but does His rebuke to them also reach to us? Have we created our own "religious traditions" without being aware of it? And have we gradually allowed such traditions to become substitutes for obedience to God's word? Have we even allowed them to become "transgressions", because they actually lead us contrary to God's clear commandments and instructions from Scripture? Have we allowed them to develop into a false sense of relationship with God, or vain forms of worship? Have we, through them, even ended up enthroning man in the place that only God should occupy?
Let's be sure that we present ourselves to the heart-searching ministry of the Holy Spirit, so that He can reveal to us the truth about ourselves in this matter. Let's be sure that we examine all that we do—even our most sacred "religious traditions"—against the sure, unchanging word of God.
And let's never allow our "traditions" to become "transgressions".
1Cited in A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud, New American Edition (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1949), p. 121.
2Ibid., p. 239.
4Ibid., p. 241.
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