Mark 7:1-8 1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he 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; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
Every family or tribe or nation has traditions that are passed down from generation to generation. Often these traditions change over time and no longer resemble what was originally practiced. It is often the elders or the elderly who are looked to in order to continue the traditions that were once practiced. Traditions can be a very good thing as they remind us of our identity as a people and they generally have significance and meaning as to why they are practiced. But how do we determine whether a tradition is acceptable to God or not?
At this point in Jesus’ public ministry He more sternly and directly condemned the teaching of the elders in Israel- the Pharisees and the scribes. Why? What was wrong with their custom of ceremonial washing? This wasn’t a matter of just washing your hands before you ate but this was a ceremonial rite that needed to be done and it was viewed as spiritual and if you did not do so you ate your food with defiled or desecrated hands.
The reason why Jesus attacks the Pharisees and scribes so intensely is that they were the only ones who taught the Bible to the common people in Israel. In Israel’s history God had allowed enemies to conquer them because of their own wickedness. Assyria defeated the northern part of Israel and then later Babylon defeated the southern part of Israel including Jerusalem. After 70 years of exile in Babylon the Israelites were allowed to return home but the common people had lost their language. They no longer spoke Hebrew but Aramaic and the Old Testament teachings were written in Hebrew. The only people who could read and interpret the Scriptures in Israel were the Pharisees and the scribes. But instead of teaching the people the proper significance and meaning of the Scriptures they had formed their own traditions that completely destroyed the original intent of the traditions recorded in the Bible. As Jesus taught the people He presented to them the proper interpretation and destroyed the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes that were so dangerous as the common people had no way to know that what they were being taught was absolutely wrong and was in fact causing them to become self righteous and blind to their need of repentance before God in order to find salvation through Jesus Christ. For no one will see a need for Jesus to die for their sins if they do not first see their own depravity. The Pharisees were teaching the people that you could be spiritually clean by washing your hands in a certain manner while their heart was still as wicked at the core. Any one of us can honor God with our lips and yet our heart can be far from Him. Any one of us can believe that we are genuinely worshipping God while in reality we are only exalting ourselves before God.
Jesus entirely fulfilled the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. These were traditions related to animal sacrifice, etc. relating to offerings to God and the presence of God within the nation of Israel. These traditions are described in detail in the book of Leviticus and were instituted by God Himself for His chosen people- the nation of Israel. These traditions all pointed to Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice in dying for our sins in order that we might know the presence of God personally in our lives. But after Jesus’ death these traditions were no longer necessary to be practiced. Along with bringing to an end these old traditions Jesus also established new traditions for the Church including baptism and communion. This clearly demonstrates the authority Jesus claimed as the Christ and the Son of God. No other man can claim to fulfill or change the traditions of God as given to the nation of Israel.
But what about the traditions of all the other nations apart from Israel (among the Gentiles) and their view of god? All these traditions are the traditions of men. There may be some similarities in the traditions as all the nations have the same ancestors going back to Noah and ultimately to Adam. But the reality is that only the traditions of Israel had been established by God. This brings the question, if I become a born again Christian by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ do I need to renounce all of these traditions that I once knew? Yes and no. The problem with the ceremonial washing that the Pharisees and the scribes promoted was that it made the person think they could be made right with God by their own actions and by external works. The only way we can be made right with God is through repentance and faith in the works of Jesus Christ- looking upon our Savior who died in our place. As we are born again by the Spirit of God He cleanses us from the inside out. Any tradition or act of worship that we practice from that point forward is out of a deep and reverent love towards God and Jesus Christ because of the cross. Our hearts can love God as He intended. We love Him because He first loved us! It is possible now if we are in this new condition to practice a tradition that we once knew before in a incomplete understanding of God in a new true state of worship towards God. The tradition can be appropriated in a manner that is pleasing to God. As long as the tradition is not in contradiction with the teachings of the Bible it can still be practiced albeit in a different way than we once practiced it. But it is not necessary to continue practicing such traditions. For many they associate these traditions with their previous false worship of God and can no longer in good conscience continue to practice them. Both appropriating an existing tradition and abolishing an existing tradition is acceptable in the sight of God. But there are circumstances where if we are practicing an appropriated tradition with others among whom are unbelievers it cannot be viewed as a form of worship that is pleasing to God for they are not worshipping the same God that we are. They do not truly understand God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In turn we are attaching ourselves to their false views of God. If we appropriate a tradition we must be careful that we do so in a manner that is not an offense to God.
Can you see the challenges with traditions and why Jesus attacked the Pharisees as He did?
Pastor Murray Hack