Christ in Controversy – Part 2 (Authority: Tradition or Scripture)

Intro: Matt 14:34-36 – When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent out into all that surrounding region, brought to Him all who were sick, 36 and begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well. This is a common picture of Jesus – a compassionate healer. He did not turn away those who came to Him for help. As HE Himself said, He came not to be served, but to serve.. But the opening verses of Mark 7 present a contrasting view of Jesus. Not only is He the One who receives, He is also the One who rejects. John Macarthur states in His opening comments to Matthew 15“In this crucial passage we see the antithetical nature of the gospel message in Jesus’ teaching: The God of compassion is also the God of condemnation. Just as He heals those who come to Him, He condemns those who reject Him.” (from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Copyright © Moody Press and John MacArthur, Jr., 1983-2007.)

  • Tonight I want to consider one of the many confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees, as recoded in Matthew 15, Mark 7
  •  Jesus had a strained relationship with the leaders of both the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were different ends of the spectrum in Judaism, but they both took offense at Jesus’ teaching. Josephus the Jewish historian wrote this about them… ‘What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. (Josephus, Antiquities xui.io.6.) Jesus found fault with both… We will begin with one of His many confrontations with the Pharisees.

A. Jesus and the Pharisees: Mark 7:1-16 – a classic confrontation. What did these Pharisees have against Jesus? They accused Him and the disciples of “not walking according to the traditions of the elders” (v. 5). It may seem strange that the Pharisees would be so bold to accuse Jesus of not following a tradition. By Jesus’ day, the tradition of the Jewish elders had for many years supplanted Scripture as the supreme religious authority. The traditions even affirmed that “the words of scribes are more lovely than the words of the law,” and it became a greater offense in Judaism to transgress the teaching of the rabbis than to transgress the teaching of Scripture.

      • The Pharisees believed that these ‘traditions of the fathers’, although handed down orally and not found in the written law, had nevertheless been given to Moses on Mount Sinai in addition to the law, and that by God Himself. Therefore, in their view, there were two parallel divine revelations, the written law and the oral tradition, equally important and equally authoritative.
      • During the second century BC these oral traditions came to be preserved in written form in the Mishnah. It has six divisions containing laws about agriculture, festivals and marriage, together with civil, criminal and ceremonial laws. It was supplemented later by the Gemara, which is a commentary on it. The Mishnah and the Gemara together form the Jewish Talmud.
      • The Talmud, teaches that God gave the oral law to Moses and then told Moses to pass it on to great men of Israel. These men were then to do three things with the law they had received. First, they were to deliberate on it and properly apply it. Second, they were to train disciples in order that the next generation would have teachers of the law. Third, they were to build a wall around the law in order to protect it.
      •  In one of the Rabbinic Targums (which are Aramaic paraphrases of the Old Testament) God is even represented as ‘busying Himself by day with the study of the Scriptures, and by night with that of the Mishnah’.
      • The Mishnah itself states: “An offense against the sayings of the scribes is worse than one against the Scripture“…”The sayings of the elders have more weight than those of the prophets“… “It is more punishable to act against the words of the scribes than against those of Scripture.”
      • Notice that Jesus refers to their traditions as the commandments of men (v. 7), not the commandments of God. The words of God are superior to the words of men.
      • Jesus distinguished between Moses and the elders. The elders were fallible men with human traditions, while Moses was the spokesman of God. Notice that Jesus contrasts what “Moses said” (v. 10) with what “you say” (v. 11). Observe that the phrase ‘Moses said’ in Mark 7:10 is rendered in Matthew 13: 4 ‘God said’. But the traditions of the elders is never spoken of in this manner. Put another way, we may say that the only ‘tradition’ which Scripture recognizes is Scripture.

B. “Eat bread with unwashed hands”…the specific accusation concerned the disciples’ failure to wash their hands prior to eating. This washing had nothing to do with hygiene, but referred to ceremonial rinsing. The purpose was to remove the ritual defilement caused by having touched something unclean, such as a dead body or a Gentile.

      • Some of the rabbis even taught that a certain demon attached itself to people’s hands while they slept and that, unless washed away, could enter the body through the food handled by defiled hands.
      • The value of ceremonial rinsing was held so high that one rabbi insisted that “whosoever has his abode in the land of Israel and eats his common food with rinsed hands may rest assured that he shall obtain eternal life.”
      • Another rabbi taught that it would be better to walk four miles out of the way to get water than to eat with unwashed hands.

1. “Wash their hands in a special way…” (v. 3) The manner in which the tradition was performed was also important. (John McArthur gives some details)

            • Water jars were kept ready to be used before every meal. (Jesus in Cana) The minimum amount of water to be used was enough to fill one and a half egg shells. The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upward; and it must run down the arm as far as the wrist and drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands. And if it ran down the fingers again it would render them unclean. The process was repeated with hands held in the downward direction, the fingers pointing down. And finally each hand was cleansed by being rubbed with the fist of the other. A strict Jew would do this before every meal and between every course in every meal.

2. The fact is the Law of Moses never instructed the Jews to wash their hands as the Pharisees were doing. Jesus was unwilling to allow these traditionalists to impose their illegitimate authority on his disciples.Even though the intentions of the Pharisee were honorable (fencing in the law against disobedience), Jesus condemned their elevation of traditions and imposition of them on others.

II. Jesus condemned the Pharisees in Mark 7 on at least 3 levels:

A. Their heart was far from God – Mark. 7:6 – 6 He answered and said to 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. The nature of traditions is that they tend to so simplify focus on the outward requirements that inward compliance is ignored or deemed unimportant.

1. Obedience is redefined as mere outward compliance without reference to the spirit. (Jesus quotes from Isa. 29:13 – ASV marginal note says “learned by rote”). As long as we meet the outward criteria we can assume we are acceptable to God. Do you do anything in obedience to God’s commands by “rote“? How far is your heart from God?

B. They made their tradition greater than God’s Law. – Mark 7:7-9 7 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men — the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” 9 He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.

1. The teachings of men supplanted God’s law as the Litmus test of faithfulness. These interpretations and additions were held in esteemed practice for such a long time that they became accepted with more reverence than the law itself. There are many religions who have elevated tradition above the Bible. They cannot provide any scripture to support their practice. (infant baptism, instrumental worship, religious holidays, etc.)

2. But we must be careful here, lest we believe we do not have our own traditions. Would we be willing to judge another Christian as unfaithful based on their willingness to follow our traditions? (Closing a service w/o an invitation or an invitation song? Not meeting on Wed. evening or meeting in individual homes on Wed (or even Thursday evening? Use of the building, announcements, etc.) These things must be regulated according to the principles of God’s word, but our interpretations are not the same as God’s specific regulation.

C. Their application of the tradition made the Word of God void. Mark 7:10-13 – 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban” — ‘ (that is, a gift to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, 13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

1. According to the Pharisee, the Jewish child could excuse himself to his needy parents by declaring what he should have used to support them as “corban” (given to God). If he had once devoted his property – once said it was “corban,” or a gift to God – it could not be appropriated even to the support of a parent. If a parent was needy and poor, and if he should apply to a son for assistance, and the son should reply, though in anger, “It is devoted to God; this property which you need, and by which you might be profited by me, is “corban” – I have given it to God;” the Jews said the property could not be recalled, and the son was not under obligation to aid a parent with it. (from Barnes’ Notes)

III. Jesus and the Interpretation of Scripture: God calls on every Christian to interpret the once revealed message and seek to obey all of it.

A. Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees is not a condemnation of interpretation and application. Jesus interpreted the scripture in order to be obedient to God. (Matthew 4 :5-7– the Psalmist was not legitimizing throwing yourself off the Temple so God would save you.)

B. Jesus’ condemnation is a prohibition against equating our interpretation with the authority of scripture itself. 1 Peter 4:11 – If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.

Conclusion: – How do you react when tradition violates scripture? Some would decide not to rock the boat. What did Jesus do? Is He a good example? Jesus could have just gotten his disciples to go along with washing their hands. Paul could have circumcised Titus. He would not allow the Word of God to be devalued among God’s people. He was willing to engage His enemies is controversy and defend the truth against error. So we should as well.