"Why Do Your Disciples Not Walk According to the Traditions?"
If a religious practice is centuries old; if it is encouraging and uplifting; if it is beautiful to see or hear; if it is sanctioned by religious leaders around the world; if it is highly symbolic and moves us to think righteous thoughts; and if many, many respected people seem to get so much good out of it then it must be pleasing to God. Am I Right?
Well, no I am not. Although all the above qualifications sound so good and positive, none of them are a factor in determining what is pleasing to God. In fact, when you think about it, the above qualities could describe a noble Jewish, Moslem or Eastern religious tradition. The missing ingredient is the acceptance of Christ's authority. Apart from the authority of God's Son, a religious practice cannot be acceptable to God, no matter how beautiful or popular. King Jesus has all authority (Matthew 28:18-20; John 14:6; Ephesians 1:22,23). The most beautiful worship in God's eyes is not those acts which appeal to the eyes or flesh with glitter, pomp and circumstance. It is simple, trusting hearts yielding to His Son and expressing the soul's adoration for Him in the ways in which He has proscribed. The love of Christ and the keeping of His commandments is the key to pleasing the Father (John 14:15;21). The keeping and binding of religious traditions of human origin will obscure the truth if we are not careful. Consider as our text Jesus' own statements concerning this, and how He answered the question; "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders...?" (Mark 7:1-13).
A Beautiful Ceremony
"For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots." (Mark 7:3-4).
Sometimes, people judge the merits of a tradition based upon outward
appearances. If it appears holy, then it must be. The Pharisees partook in a
religious tradition of the washing of the hands. This was not a matter of
personal hygiene, but elaborate religious ritual full of deep religious
symbolism. It was widely practiced among the Jews of the first century, so much
so that it was thought extremely strange that the Lord and His disciples did not
bother with it.
Men had started this religious practice to symbolize their disdain for moral and spiritual impurity. This washing of hands consisted of thoroughly and vigorously
washing the hands up to the elbows while offering prayers and blessings as a religious ritual. This tradition deluded the Pharisees into thinking themselves pure, when in reality they were only cleansing the surface. Spiritual cleansing must come from within (Mark 7:14,15).
The Pharisees thought Jesus was less than righteous for not keeping their traditions. The ceremony was so beautiful and elaborate, they thought. Likewise, we should think carefully about religious rituals offered today. We'll have to do better than the Pharisees to be pleasing to God.
To Obey is Better Than To Sacrifice
"And He said unto them, 'Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrine the precepts of men."'" (Mark 7:6,7).
The real question with all religious ritual, practices and doctrine is, "Is it
of God or of man?" Jesus said that there were at least two things wrong with the
practice. First, they were going through motions which had the appearance of holiness but their hearts were far removed from God. Second, their worship of God was rendered vain by the fact that they taught and practiced as "doctrine the precepts of men." Jesus said both of these problems were serious enough to render their worship vain.
We must remember that often times things may appear holy to men but are not pleasing to the Lord. Paul mentioned "...matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion..." but "...are of no value against fleshly indulgence." (Colossians 2:23). It is as Samuel told the sinful King Saul, "Behold, to obey is better than to sacrifice." (1 Samuel 15:22b).
The Difference Between Commandment and Tradition
"Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men." (Mark 7:8).
As if all this were not bad enough, Jesus points out that the Pharisees had gone so far as to "nicely set aside the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition." (Mark 7:9). He then proved it by citing a specific example and then added, "...and you do many things such as that." (Mark 7:13).
The specific example that Jesus uses is that of the command "Honor your father
and mother." This was the commandment of God, and included caring for parents
when they became less able to provide for themselves due to age. But the
Pharisees would sometimes take that with which they might have given to their
parents, and make it "a gift to God." They would say the phrase "corban" over an
item, and thereby set it apart as devoted to God. So, the parents would go
without their due honor, contrary to God's commandment, and the son would retain
practical ownership of the "dedicated" items.
It would be bad enough to insist our traditions were of equal weight and authority to the commandments of God, but to go even further and set aside the commandments of God for the sake of tradition is possibly even worse. For example, by the commandment of Jesus we are not to wear special religious clothing , have special places of honor, and use special religious titles to distinguish ourselves above other brethren. We are all brothers (Matthew 23:5-12). But many have set aside this commandment of Jesus by wearing special clerical garb, having special seats of honor and using religious courtesy titles, thereby "nicely setting aside the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition."
Let God's New Covenant Be Enough
"...thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that." (Mark 7:13). The covenant of Jesus Christ is complete and adequate for all of our spiritual needs. There is simply no room for any religious practice or doctrine that one cannot find authorized within it (2 Timothy 3:16,17; James 1:22-25). It is nothing but a lack of faith to suppose that we can enhance this covenant by adding to it our own religious dogmas and practices. The religious world has no shortage of religious traditions of human, and not divine, origin. For example, one simply cannot find any special annual observances of either Christ's birth or death in His covenant. While we are gladdened by His coming, our way of celebrating it is to lovingly obey Him each day and be dedicated to His will being done. One cannot find babies being "christened" in our covenant. This practice also had its origin in the minds of men.
But there are rituals that are ordained of God. There is the Lord's Supper, full of meaning, sobering beauty and uplifting. There is the singing of hymns and the offering of prayers as we assemble together. There is the baptism of believers for the remission of sins as we symbolize our Lord's death, burial and resurrection. Let us be fully satisfied with keeping the Lord's covenant.
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 4.1; January 1997