Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
The “authority of the popes and councils” was the tradition of the church passed down through the centuries. Martin Luther rejected those in favor of “the Word of God” which alone bound his conscience. It is exactly the same kind of tradition encountered by Jesus in the passage we have just read together. As Thomas Dickson, a preacher from the last century, once said, “Tradition was the most constant, the most persistent, the most dogged, the most utterly devilish opposition the Master encountered. It openly attacked him on every hand, and silently repulsed his teaching.”
But the problem of human tradition is not just a 1st Century Jewish problem with which Jesus dealt, nor is it just a Middle Ages Catholic problem with which Luther dealt. It is a human problem that each of us must deal with: both in our churches and within our own hearts.
In Mark 7:1-13, Jesus exposes the tradition of the Pharisees as including hypocritical words, producing false worship, and rejecting God’s Word.
Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. (2) And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. (3) For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. (4) And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. (5) Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? (6) He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (7) Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (8) For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. (9) And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. (10) For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: (11) But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. (12) And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; (13) Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
The conflict begins with the Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem. They seem to be like the group that Paul writes about in Galatians 2:4 who he says came “to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage:” Immediately, in v. 2, we are told that they “spied” the disciples eating with unwashed hands, so they found fault with them. What does it mean that the disciples are said to eat with unwashed hands? Ray Stedman explained in a sermon on this passage:
Do not read this as though these were dirty disciples, as though they never bothered to wash their hands before they ate. This is not a problem of hygiene at all. I am sure they did wash their hands before they ate. I do not doubt it in the least. But what bothered the Pharisees was that they did not do it in the right way. You see, among the Jews, you could have washed your hands with finest of soaps, and scrubbed like a doctor preparing for surgery; but if you did not do it in a certain way, you were just as unclean, ceremonially, as though you had not washed at all.
In the same sermon, Stedman also explained the process of cleansing:
But scholars tell us that it was the rigid custom among the Jews to wash in this way: The hands had to be held out, palms up, hands cupped slightly, and water poured over them. Then the fist of one hand was used to scrub the other, and then the other fist would scrub the first hand. This is why the fist is mentioned here. Finally the hands again were held out, with palms down, and water was poured over them a second time to cleanse away the dirty water the defiled hands had been scrubbed with. Only then would a person’s hands be ceremonially clean.
This ceremonial hand-washing was a tradition (vv. 3 and 5), another one is described in v. 4, the ceremonial washing of pots, cups and tables. Verse 4 also tells us that there were many other traditions observed by the Pharisees. Their question in v. 5, “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” brings about the response by Jesus concerning tradition which is the focus of our consideration today. First, Jesus responds to the Pharisees by stating that man’s tradition includes hypocritical words.
I. Man’s Tradition Includes Hypocritcal Words. v. 6
Jesus’ immediate response to the Pharisee’s question was to call them hypocrites. The word for hypocrite here was used to refer to a stage actor. This word is used fifteen times in the New Testament and only in the Synoptic Gospels. It is always used by Jesus. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13. I believe this verse is a great definition of a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who says one thing, but whose heart is in another place.
Jesus had summarized the law into two commands, in contrast, the Pharisees had invented developed a system of 613 laws, 365 negative commands and 248 positive laws. By the time of Christ it had produced a heartless, cold, and arrogant brand of righteousness. Joseph Stowell give ten results of this in his book, Fan The Flame:
(1) New laws continually need to be invented for new situations.
(2) Accountability to God is replaced by accountability to men.
(3) It reduces a person’s ability to personally discern.
(4) It creates a judgmental spirit.
(5) The Pharisees confused personal preferences with divine law.
(6) It produces inconsistencies.
(7) It created a false standard of righteousness.
(8) It became a burden to the Jews.
(9) It was strictly external.
(10) It was rejected by Christ.
outlined from Fan The Flame, J. Stowell, Moody, 1986, p. 52
II. Man’s Tradition Produces False Worship. v. 7
After quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus makes a further statement concerning their tradition. It produces false worship. The worship of the Pharisees was all external with no corresponding internal reality. Therefore, Christ declares it vain or fruitlessly. Their worship has no purpose, no fruit, and no importance. Jesus describes their vain worship as consisting of “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
A young man asked, “I am in earnest about forsaking ‘the world’ and following Christ. But I am puzzled about worldly things. What is it I must forsake?” The answer, “Colored clothes, for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don’t eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His Work.”
Elizabeth Elliot comments on the above dialogue, “Does this answer sound absurd? It is the answer given in the most celebrated Christian schools of the second century! Is it possible that the rules that have been adopted by many twentieth-century; Christians will sound as absurd to earnest followers of Christ a few years hence?”
Elizabeth Elliot, The Liberty of Obedience, Nashville, Abingdon, 1968, pp. 45-46
That’s a good question, isn’t it? How many of the things which we teach others to do. . . How many of the things which we practice in our churches are only traditions which will seem ridiculous to those who examine them in light of Scripture in the years to come?
Jesus concludes his response to the question by the Pharisees by saying . . .
III. Man’s Tradition Rejects God’s Word. vv. 8-13
This is explained, as Jesus states this (v. 9), and then illustrates this specifically. He shows them a specific commandment by God which they actually rejected by holding to the tradition of man. In Christ’s illustration, he uses the 5th Commandment from Exodus 20:12, “Honour thy father and thy mother.” and Exodus 21:17, “And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.”
How did the Pharisee’s tradition actually contradict God’s commandment? By the tradition of declaring money and resources korban. Mark preserves the Hebrew word and then translates it as a gift. Greek scholar A.T. Robertson explains, “The rabbis actually allowed the mere saying of this word by an unfaithful son to prevent the use of needed money for the support of father or mother.” To obey the fifth commandment means more than obeying them as a child in their household, it also extends to the care for the parents when they are unable to care for themselves. This was what God intended by giving this commandment in the first place. But by declaring their money or goods as korban (a gift or offering dedicated to God), the son or daughter were given a loophole from their obligation to obey the fifth commandment!
Thus, in the end, Jesus declares the tradition of the Pharisees to be not only a hindrance to integrity by producing hypocritic words and to worship by producing false worship, but also to be an outright rejection of the very Word of God. By the end of Jesus’ response the choice is clear: “Man’s Tradition of God’s Word?” Which will it be?
At the end of the day, may what was said of Martin Luther be said of us when the Catholic scholars reported concerning him:
We’ve tried to reason with Dr. Luther, but he accepts only the authority of Scripture.
What a testimony! If only our deacon boards and other leaders in the churches which God has entrusted to our care, if they would only be able to say that of us. There is a constant need for reformation in our churches, because of this human problem of drifting away from Scripture to tradition. For this reason God still wants to use men who will say, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God . . . . God help me.”