What Are the Dangers of Human Traditions? #190
Hello friends, and happy Lord’s Day to you! I’d love to invite you to join us at VBC Salinas today at 11am Pacific where we are going to be talking about rooting downward and bearing fruit upward. I don’t know how you’re state is doing relative to the coronavirus, but our city and state are not doing so well, and we are facing the possibility of the church being not able to meet together in person again. Today’s message is the message I would have preached at the beginning of 2020, had I known then what I know now about what we’ve gone through. Come join us if you’d like.
In BRP world, today’s readings are shorter than normal, because we doubled up Friday. We are reading Psalms 137-138, Jeremiah 1 and Matthew 15. If I asked you what was the longest book in the Bible, what would you say? Psalms?! No, and Psalms isn’t even the second longest book in the Bible either. In terms of number of words, the longest book in the Bible, at just over 33,002 words, is Jeremiah. Genesis is second, and Psalms third with a mere 30,147 words. Then Ezekiel and Exodus round out the top 5. The Jeremiah passage is great – demonstrating that life begins before birth, considering that God called Jeremiah before he was even born – but that is not our focus for the day. Instead, we are in Matthew 15, where Jesus challenges the Pharisees strongly for cherishing human traditions and elevating those traditions to a level of authority higher than the Word of God. Let’s read Jesus’ challenge.
Then Jesus was approached by Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, who asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “Why do you break God’s commandment because of your tradition?4 For God said: Honor your father and your mother; and, Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must be put to death.5 But you say, ‘Whoever tells his father or mother, “Whatever benefit you might have received from me is a gift committed to the temple,”6 he does not have to honor his father.’ In this way, you have nullified the word of God because of your tradition.7 Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said:8 This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 9 They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands.”
Jesus was often incensed by the behavior and philosophy of the religious leaders of the Jewish people, and here we see one of the primary reasons why: They taught human commands/traditions as DOCTRINE. In other words, they made up their own rules, laws, commands, and principles and elevated those man-made beliefs to the level of commands from God…a practice that earned a stinging rebuke from Jesus, but one that Christians STILL DO to this day.
Let’s turn to pastor and author Tim Keller for a balanced view of traditions that clearly demonstrates why Jesus was opposing the Pharisees and Scribes on this matter:
Jesus five times in this passage criticizes what he calls the traditions of the elders. Jesus is not against tradition altogether. In fact, you can’t be. Tradition, per se, is a great thing. For example, what if we didn’t have the tradition that every Sunday night here we had a service at 7:00? What if I said to you, “You know, from now on, we might have a service some weeks. We might not have a service some weeks. We might have it at 8:00. We might have it at 5:00. You just have to check to see”?
It would be chaos, because it’s so nice to have the tradition that we do this every week at 7:00. You can’t really have a life without tradition. You can’t have a human community. You can’t have emotional health without traditions. Jesus is not criticizing tradition per se. It’s a fine thing, but he is criticizing the tradition of the elders. The tradition of the elders was a set of rules and regulations that, over the years, had grown up around the Bible. They weren’t in the Bible.
Teachers and scholars had developed these traditions, these rules about the Bible. They had added them to the Scripture as binding authoritative regulations for life. For example, in the Bible, you read we are supposed to rest on the Sabbath. The teachers said, “What does it mean?” You know, it’s natural to ask, “What does it mean to rest on the Sabbath?” The answer of the tradition of the elders was a couple hundred rules you did.
You did this. “You can do this, and you can’t do this on the Sabbath. That’s what it means to rest on the Sabbath.” Then there were all these other things in the Bible like, “What is ritual purity? Why do we have to be pure when we go into the temple? What does the Passover mean? How are we to observe the Passover?” In every case, the tradition of the elders answered, “What this means is …” and gave a bunch of very detailed rules and regulations.
The problem was the rules and regulations weren’t in the Bible, but they grew up around the Bible. They became equal in authority (that is what Jesus is criticizing), equal in binding authority on people. Because the rules and regulations were considerably more detailed and concrete than the principles of the Bible, they tended to distract people and sometimes even contradict the actual original biblical principles….
Think about this. One of the principles of the Hebrew Scriptures was that Israel was to be a light to the Gentiles, a light to the nations. Yet of course that basic principle is totally lost in all the legalism and separatism that comes from all of these kinds of rules when it came to eating, which utterly separated you from the nations.
Another example. Jesus points out here at the latter part of the passage this thing about Corban. You see, the Bible, of course, says God’s claims supersede anyone else’s claim. As a result of that, the tradition of the elders had developed a really wonderful little loophole. You could take a piece of property, and you could declare it Corban. The word Corban means offered or offering. You could say, “I have dedicated, I have offered, this property up to God.”
What that meant was if somebody in your family, if one of your relatives or even your own parents, got into economic trouble or financial trouble and came to you and said, “You’re the kinsman. Would you help me get out of trouble?” you could say, “Oh, well, yeah. But I can’t use any of this because it’s all God’s.” See? Jesus says, “Look. By complying with the tradition of the elders, you’ve actually contradicted the whole spirit of the biblical principle, ‘Honor your father and mother.’ ”
Then the very last line of the whole passage. Do you notice what he says? He says, “I could give you a hundred more illustrations, but I won’t.” Why is he so angry? You can see when he replies to them in verse 7 he was so angry. Here’s why he was so angry. He was so angry because, as he said, “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
This is a remarkable statement. What he says here is if you fail to honor the unique authority of the Bible, you fail to worship God. If you let human traditions, what the experts say, what your heart says, if you let anything else have equal authority with the Bible, you fail to worship God. You create your own god actually. You are your own god. Jesus is actually saying a failure to recognize and honor the unique authority of the Bible is a failure to honor the authority of God.
Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).