DUNCAN/Tradition or commandment?

DUNCAN/Tradition or commandment?


Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 15:1-14.  This passage has important lessons for us. The very tendency towards the development of an unbiblical tradition began in a time just like ours where there were forces afoot in Israel’s culture, tempting Israel to reject its religious history in favor of new concepts. In that time, a group of well-meaning men, known as the Pharisees, made their appearance on the pages of Israel’s history, and we know the rest of the story. But in this passage, we have several very important lessons, which the Lord Jesus Christ wants us to learn about the nature of man-made religion. First, Jesus confronts man-made religion. Second, Jesus critiques man-made religion. Third, Jesus explains true holiness to the crowd. And fourth, Jesus warns the disciples.

Jesus Confronts Manmade Religion 

In verses 1-2 we learn something about the Pharisees and about their tradition. Notice again these Pharisees came to Jesus from Jerusalem. When they meet Him, their first word of accusation to Him is in verse 2: “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” I want you to understand the nature of this charge that the Pharisees were bringing against Jesus’ disciples.. The tradition about which they were speaking were the teachings of the Pharisees about the Bible, and especially the first five books, the books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It was the teaching of the elders of the rabbis about the books of Moses which were so precious to the Pharisees.  This tradition was regarded as being equally binding with the Word of God. This tradition of the elders was most often not only beyond what the law of God commanded, but it went beyond the law of God in the wrong direction.  It not only said more than what God’s Word said, but it actually took a person who obeyed it in a direction of denying something else God’s Word did say. 

Furthermore, this tradition failed to do justice to the moral law of God.  It was very interested in keeping the ritual provisions of God’s law, but it neglected the moral law of God.  Now this exchange with the Pharisees and the scribes gives Jesus the opportunity to talk about the relationship between ceremonial law and true religion, true holiness, the keeping of the moral law. Also, this exchange here also reminds us of another truth that our mothers taught us when we were young: The road to destruction is paved with good intentions. There is no doubt that the Pharisees, when they began their work of old tradition, did it with the best of motives.  Intentions are not enough. We must submit ourselves to the authority of the Word. We must learn to teach in the spirit of the Word, and we must neglect no part of the Word.  Remember, never in the New Testament will you find Jesus accusing the Pharisees or the scribes or the Sadducees, or any other party in Israel of caring too much about the Word of God.  It is always that by their own man-made traditions they have taken away from the authority from the Word of God.  

II. Jesus Critiques Manmade Religion 

In verses 3-9 we see Jesus’ reply to these Pharisees, and His critique of their teaching. We learn here what Jesus’ estimation was of the kind of holiness that they were preaching. Jesus uses a phrase that exactly parallels the charge that the Pharisees had brought against these disciples.  Jesus’ response to them in verse 3 is: “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God?” The Pharisees had attacked His disciples. Jesus responded directly to them. Jesus is not criticizing them for being old-fashioned. Jesus’ criticism is that they have undercut the authority of God’s Word. They are ignoring God’s law, and they are undercutting their authority by adding to it.  Jesus is the one who is upholding the law, and He illustrates the reason they are doing this is because their hearts are not right.  

III. Jesus Explains True Holiness to the Crowd 

Jesus says in verses 10-11, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”  Here Jesus is telling us about the nature of true holiness, and He is warning the crowds about the teachings of the Pharisees.  I want you to see what Jesus is aiming for.  Jesus, in verse 11, is aiming for the heart.  He is telling us that it is not what is superficial that makes us holy.  It is what is inside and deep and profound. It is that from which holiness emanates.  It from the inner man, the mind, the will, the whole man.  That is where holiness proceeds from.  It is a holiness that is from the inside out, and it characterizes all of our lives.  That’s the kind of holiness that Jesus is looking for in his disciples. The Lord Jesus doesn’t want merely superficial holiness in His people.  He wants a transforming holiness from the outside out.  He warns the crowd that it’s not the things that enter into them that make them unclean. It’s what’s on the inside that makes them unclean.

IV.  Jesus Warns the Disciples 

In verses 12-14, Jesus turns to His disciples. You notice how this passage goes. He warns His disciples about being too swayed, or too concerned with the Pharisees. And even in responding to His disciples, He reminds them of the importance of right doctrine. It’s very interesting to see how Jesus responds to the Pharisees. At one point in Matthew, He reminds His disciples to honor their position and to be careful of them, not to be flippant in their response to them. In this passage He warns them against the Pharisees’ teaching, saying, “God will judge them, for what they are teaching is wrong.” He is telling His disciples here that false doctrine kills. It is like the blind leading the blind. False doctrine leads us in the false ways of living. Jesus is alerting us to the spiritual danger of false teaching here by reminding us of its two consequences. False teaching leads to judgment by God. False teaching also leads many astray into false ways of living. Bad doctrine will lead to bad practice. And so the Lord Jesus Christ is very concerned that His disciples are not affected by the false teaching of the Pharisees. 

All these lessons are for us today. Are we satisfied with superficial holiness? Are we more concerned about our man-made customs than we are of the very commands of the word of God?  Do we long for and desire to sound truth of the Word, so that it might work forth by God’s grace in transforming our lives from the inside out?  

The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary.  He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at jhyde@rts.edu.

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