Before we get into the text I think it would be useful to define what we mean when we speak about ‘tradition’ and ‘God’s Word’. Simply put, a command is a law of God and is sometimes described as the Word of God, Matthew 15:6 / Mark 7:13 / Luke 23:56 / 1 John 3:4.
A tradition doesn’t come from God but is something which has been passed down by men from generation to generation, Matthew 15:3 / Colossians 2:8.
We must also note that traditions can be used in a positive sense, 1 Corinthians 11:2 / 2 Thessalonians 2:15 / 2 Thessalonians 3:6. The problem comes when traditions become as important or more important than God’s Word, Matthew 23:4.
Jesus continually referred to the oral law as the ‘tradition of the elders’ or the ‘tradition of men’, Matthew 15:1-9 / Mark 7:1-23. Some examples in the New Testament alluding to the scrupulous concern of the Pharisees with the fine detail of their legalism are.
The tithing of herbs, Matthew 23:23 / Luke 11:42.
The wearing of conspicuous phylacteries and tassels, Matthew 23:5.
The careful observance of ritual purity, Mark 7:1 ff.
Frequent fasting, Matthew 9:14.
Distinctions in oaths, Matthew 23:16 ff.
The big question is, how authoritative is the oral law? The Pharisees accepted the oral law along with the Torah, and it was believed to be equally inspired and authoritative, and all of the explanatory and supplementary material produced by and contained within were the oral traditions.
This material began to emerge during the Babylonian Captivity that was brought upon the Jewish people. The Captivity was explained as divine punishment for the neglect of the law, and many during this period earnestly turned to the law.
During the Captivity or Exile, detailed commentaries on the law appeared in the form of innumerable and highly specific restrictions that were designed to ‘build a hedge’ around the written Torah and thus guard against any possible violation of the Torah by ignorance or accident.
During the time of Zerubbabel and Ezra, there was a clear call to separation from foreigners and anything unclean. Some verses that clearly indicate separation during this time period are Ezra 6:21 / Nehemiah 9:2.
The word ‘Pharisee’ is from a Greek word ‘pharisaios’ taken from the Hebrew, Aramaic ‘Perisha’, meaning ‘Separated one.’ In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were one of the three chief Jewish sects, the others were the Sadducees and the Essenes.
Of the three, the Pharisees were the most separated from the ways of the foreign influences that were invading Judaism, and from the ways of the common Jewish people in the land.
The sect of Pharisees is thought to have originated in the 3rd century B.C., in the days preceding the Maccabean wars, when under Greek domination and the Greek effort to Hellenize the Jews, there was a strong tendency among the Jews to accept Greek culture with its pagan religious customs.
The rise of the Pharisees was a reaction and protest against this tendency among their fellow kinsmen. Their aim was to preserve their national integrity and strict conformity to Mosaic law. They later developed into self-righteous and hypocritical formalists. Later they were among those who had condemned Jesus to death.
For the Jews, the Law was made up of the Ten Commandments and the Pentateuch. Now it’s true that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, contains a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions. But in the matter of moral questions, what is laid down is a series of great moral principles, which a man must interpret and apply for himself, and for a while, the Jews were content with that.
But around the 4th or 5th centuries before Christ came along there was a group of people who got together who were classed as legal experts, now we know them as the Scribes. Now, these guys weren’t content with great moral principles. These guys had what can only be described as a passion for definition and detail.
In other words, they wanted these great moral principles amplified, expanded, and broken down. But they did it to the extent that they issued thousands upon thousands of little rules and regulations, which oversaw every possible action and every possible situation in life.
In Matthew 15, Jesus said something that truly offended the Jewish leaders, Matthew 15:12. So why were they offended? What did Jesus say that really upset the Pharisees?
Well, the argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and the experts in the Law, which this chapter deals with is of tremendous importance. Because of what it does, it shows the Jewish religion at its core and Jesus is exposing the very heart of the Jewish religion in this chapter.
So what was this tradition and what was the spirit behind it?
The Scribes and the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of eating with ‘unclean hands’. In other words, they had ceremonially unclean hands, hands that weren’t fit for the service and worship of God. This was the heart of their religious thinking, this was an offence and a breach of God’s Law in the Jewish mind.
We know that the priests had to wash their hands and feet prior to entering the Tabernacle, Exodus 30:19 / Exodus 40:12, and it appears it was from this command that the widespread practice of ritual washings was practised.
They added to this the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles, which they suspected had been made use of by anyone who was unclean. It was regarding these earthware items that the oral law said, ‘a hollow container made of pottery could contract uncleanness inside but not on the outside’.
In other words, it doesn’t matter who or what touched the outside, but it does become a problem when the inside is involved. ‘If it became unclean, it must be broken and no unbroken piece must remain in your house, which was big enough to hold enough oil to anoint the little toe.’
It was these ceremonial washings which were commanded by tradition, not by Scripture. The religious leaders knew this, but still, they criticized the disciples for not obeying these traditions.
Before every meal, and between every course of the meal, the hands had to be washed. To begin with, your hands had to be free from any sand or dirt, gravel or any kind of substance.
The water for washing had to be kept in a special large stone jar so that the water itself was clean in the ceremonial sense and to make sure that it wasn’t used for anything else and that nothing else had fallen into it or had been mixed in it.
So to start with your hands were held with your fingertips pointing upwards and then the water was poured over them. But the water must run at least down to your wrist. Now while you’re hands were still wet, each hand had to be cleaned with the fist of the other.
Now this meant at this stage your hands were wet with water but that water was now itself unclean because it touched unclean hands. Next, you’re hands had to be held with your fingertips pointing downwards and the water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off the fingertips.
And after all that had been done, your hands were now classed as being clean. And remember you had to do that between every course of every meal.
Now if you failed to do this, in Jewish eyes, you wouldn’t be guilty of bad manners. You wouldn’t be guilty of being dirty in the hygiene sense but you were seen as unclean in the sight of God. If you were to eat bread with unclean hands and pardon the expression that was no better than excrement.
If the Romans put a Jewish rabbi in jail, he would use the water given to him for handwashing purposes rather than for drinking and there have been reports of some of these Jews almost dying of thirst.
Mark tells the extent of how zealous they were with their traditions. To the Pharisees and the Sadducees that was their religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, rules and regulations like that which they considered to be the essence of their service to God. Jesus says that their religion consisted of a mass of taboos, rules and regulations, Matthew 23:23.
It appears that the Jews found a way to get around the law of honouring your father and mother, Exodus 20:12 / Deuteronomy 5:16, with a tradition.
Their tradition commanded if they declared that all their possessions or savings were a gift to God that was especially dedicated to Him, they could then say that their resources were unavailable to help their parents, Mark 7:11.
Honouring your father and mother didn’t just apply to children who still lived with their parents, it carried on as long as their parents were alive. Even when a child grows and gets married and has children of their own, they still had the responsibility of taking care of their parent’s needs in their old age.
This was the way they got around honouring their parents and so, Jesus tells them that they have ‘nullified the word of God’ because of their tradition.
The Pharisees had developed elaborate cleansing procedures that they believed were a part of God’s will. The truth is, God had never commanded these washings, they originated with the doctrines and traditions of men.
Jesus answered His critics by pointing out the difference between God-given commandments and human traditions. He showed that their insistence on following rules established by men caused them to actually break God’s law.
He cited the case of ‘Corban,’ Mark 7:11. This was a Jewish tradition that prohibited a person from using his resources to provide for his ageing parents if he had previously declared those resources ‘dedicated’ to God. Their obedience to men’s doctrines led them to disregard God’s will.
Notice that Jesus calls them ‘hypocrites’ before quoting Isaiah’s words, Isaiah 29:13.
Several different things might pop to mind when we hear the word ‘hypocrite.’ Maybe it’s a politician caught in a scandal, maybe it’s a religious leader doing something counter to their creed, maybe it’s a scheming and conniving character featured in soap operas. But it’s likely that the one thing that doesn’t come to mind is the theatre.
The word ‘hypocrite’ ultimately came into English from the Greek word ‘hypokrites’, which means ‘an actor’ or ‘a stage player.’ The Greek word itself is a compound noun, it’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as ‘an interpreter from underneath.’
That bizarre compound makes more sense when you know that the actors in ancient Greek theatre wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks.
The Greek word took on an extended meaning to refer to any person who was wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something they were not.
This sense was taken into medieval French and then into English, where it showed up with its earlier spelling, ‘ypocrite’, in 13th-century religious texts to refer to someone who pretends to be morally good or pious in order to deceive others. Hypocrite gained its initial ‘h’ by the 16th century.
It took a surprisingly long time for a hypocrite to gain its more general meaning that we use today, ‘a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.’ Our first citations for this use are from the early 1700s, nearly 500 years after hypocrites first stepped onto the English stage.
Jesus here, addressing the crowd, shares a very important and that is eating with ‘unclean hands’ or any other such thing that we put into us isn’t defiling, rather, what comes out is what defiles and reveals if we have unclean hearts.
Jesus spoke about ceremonial cleanliness in regard to food, and He anticipated that under the New Covenant all food would be declared clean, Acts 10:15.
A thing might in the ordinary sense be completely clean and yet in the legal sense be unclean, This idea comes from Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19. For example, certain animals were classed as unclean.
A woman after giving birth to a child was classed as unclean. A dead body was classed as unclean. And so anybody who had become unclean and touched something else, made whatever they touched unclean.
A Gentile was unclean, the food touched by a Gentile was unclean, and any container touched by a Gentile was unclean. In fact, if a strict Jew came back from the marketplace, he would go home and immerse his whole body in clean water to take away the contamination that he might have caught when he was out.
To the Scribes and the Pharisees, these rules and regulations were the essences of their religion. To observe them was to please God and to break them was to sin, this was their idea of goodness and service to God.
Why were the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law so offended? Matthew 15:12.
They were offended because the very ground of their religion was being cut from underneath them. They identified religion and pleasing God with the observing rules and regulations, which had to do with cleanness. With what a man ate, with how he washed his hands before he ate it.
After being informed by his disciples that the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were offended by Jesus’ words, Matthew 15:12, Jesus goes on to say “every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” Matthew 15:13-14.
Jesus says that the Pharisees were nothing but blind guides who had no idea of the ways of God. And that if people followed them, then all they could expect was to stray off the road and fall into a ditch.
Jesus identified religion with the state of a person’s heart and said quite bluntly that these Pharisees and Scribal regulations had nothing to do with religion. That’s why He goes on to explain the parable to Peter and the others.
Jesus expands on the point he made back in Matthew 15:11. We are defiled from the inside out rather than from the outside in, and this is particularly true of ceremonial things like foods.
The heart is the source of man’s true character, and therefore of his purity or impurity, it isn’t merely the seat of emotion, but the true person as he really is, not just as he appears outwardly.
It would be a mistake to believe that man-made ‘tradition’ doesn’t exist in the church today, for it certainly does. Here are a few examples.
Some believe that cash and cash only can only be given as an offering, whereas a cheque or bank transfer isn’t acceptable to God. Some believe that the offering should be taken up and be totally separate from the Lord’s Supper.
Some believe that the Lord’s Supper should be offered before the sermon and not after the sermon. Some believe that the Lord’s Supper should never be offered to anyone who isn’t a Christian.
Some believe that there should always be an Old Testament and a New Testament reading, whilst others believe that one reading on which the preacher is going to be preaching on is sufficient.
Some believe that we should only use certain songbooks and no chorus should be sung during worship. Some also believe that it’s wrong to use overhead projectors.
Some believe that we should only use one version of the Bible because all other versions aren’t accurate in their translation.
Some believe that whenever a preacher is delivering his sermon he must use the pulpit, he isn’t allowed to wander around at the front.
Some believe that every congregation must have at least one mid-week Bible study. Some also believe that women aren’t allowed to speak at all during these Bible studies.
Some believe that the children shouldn’t be taken out of the service during the sermon for their own separate classes, they believe the whole church should stay together for worship.
Some believe that only a church minister can baptise someone who wants to become a Christian. If someone has been baptised by someone else who isn’t a church minister, then they must be baptised again.
Men continue to follow their own traditions and doctrines rather than God’s Word. Just like the scribes and Pharisees, people today believe that their doctrines actually are God’s will.
They haven’t learned how to distinguish between unnecessary rules and binding commands. Jesus showed how easy it is to tell the difference, look at their source!
Any religious practise or teaching that comes from man is wrong, those which come from God are right. We should examine everything we do to see whether it comes from God or man. Everything from God is in the Bible. So, if what I believe isn’t taught by Scripture, I can know it must be from man.