1 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, 3 “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1–3, NKJV)
Religious traditions (formed, validated, and passed down by humans) are not equivalent to God’s will. Many religious traditions fashioned and perpetuated by people contradict and violate the word of God. For example, Jesus not only rebuked the Jewish binding of traditions that were foreign to the Law of Moses, but He also exposed the tradition of Corban that excused violating God’s word (Matt. 15:1-3, 4-6; Mark 7:9-13). He called this conduct hypocrisy (Matt. 15:7). While claiming allegiance to God, they nullified God’s commands by demanding conformity to the tradition of the elders. A notable comparison to this is water baptism by sprinkling instead of immersion. Baptize (baptizo) means “to immerge, submerge” (Thayer, 94). Bible baptism requires much water, going down into and coming up out of the water (Matt. 3:16; John 3:23; Acts 8:38-39). Baptism is a burial (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:4-5). Sprinkling water as baptism began as an accommodation to the scarcity of water and, later, for clinical (deathbed) baptism in the third century for the bedfast. In some cases, the Roman papacy approved it in the eighth century until it was declared equal with immersion in AD 1311 by the Council of Ravenna (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II:247-252). We must reject human religious traditions if they (1) Bind what God has not bound upon us or (2) Approve actions that violate the revealed word of God (Gal. 1:6-10; 2 John 9).
37 And as He spoke, a certain Pharisee asked Him to dine with him. So He went in and sat down to eat. 38 When the Pharisee saw it, he marveled that He had not first washed before dinner. 39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. 40 Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also?” (Luke 11:37–40, NKJV)
Jesus did not concern Himself with the traditional ceremonial washing of hands which the Pharisees and all the Jews held as binding (Mk. 7:1-3). Just as the Pharisees found fault with the Lord’s disciples on the matter, so this Pharisee disapproved of Jesus. Whether the man verbalized his astonishment is unclear. Still, Jesus spoke directly to him of the hypocrisy on display by demanding the washing the outside of a cup or dish while leaving the inside filthy. Of course, these are metaphors of a heart “full of greed and wickedness” (v. 39). A corrupt heart is not concealed from God by external religious rituals and displays of purity. We must first cleanse the inside of our cup – our heart – so the outside (our conduct) can be pure. Otherwise, we are hypocrites like the Pharisees, pretending to be pure yet having defiled hearts. James explained the purification God accepts, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (Jas. 4:8). Repentance produces purity of heart and life. But without heart conversion, religiosity is feeble, futile, and false (Jas. 1:26-27).
14 When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand: 15 There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. 16 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mark 7:14–16, NKJV)
We can understand the teachings of Jesus by listening to them. It concerns us when Christians take exception with that simple statement of trust in the inspired word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Eph. 5:17). When we reduce the teachings of Christ and His apostles (who taught His commands, 1 Cor. 14:37) to personal and relative “interpretation,” we have elevated ourselves above the Lord and surrendered our allegiance to His authority (Matt. 28:18-20; Col. 3:17). In today’s passage, Jesus taught that spiritual corruption does not occur because of what one eats, but is due to what comes out of the heart (Mk. 7:17-23). Understanding that evil proceeds from the heart and is identifiable is not a personal, relative, or so-called traditional interpretation of the Scriptures – it is what Jesus said (read Mark 7:20-23). We ought to ask ourselves, “Do I have ‘ears to hear’ Jesus?” If so, you will understand Him. Do not be deceived by attempts to persuade you that understanding God’s word amounts to accepting a tradition about the Scriptures. Truth is not open to different interpretations or opinions. Therefore, neither is understanding it. We open our hearts to the devil when we close our ears to the word of God by reducing an understanding of it to “our tradition.”
Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. (1 Corinthians 11:2, NKJV)
Traditions hold a place of value in our lives. They distinguish families, enclaves, nations, and religions. The Bible discusses traditions we are to hold fast as the teachings and practices handed down to us by the apostles (2 Thess. 2:15). It is praiseworthy when Christians keep the apostolic traditions because they came from God by revelation and were transmitted by inspiration (Eph. 3:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Christians who refuse to live according to the truth the apostles taught are “walking disorderly” (2 Thess. 3:6). Note how Paul commended the Corinthians because they kept the apostolic traditions “just as I delivered them to you.” They were not at liberty to change what the apostles taught and practiced to suit themselves. Indeed, they apostles taught the same truth “everywhere in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17). Commit yourself to keeping the apostles’ traditions. They are the traditions that have eternal value.
“You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2, NKJV)
These words of Moses to Israel reveal a principle stated time and again in the Bible, namely, that God demands that men and women respect and follow His word by not adding to it or taking from it (Deuteronomy 12:32; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 30:5-6; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Galatians 1:8-9; Revelation 22:18-19). Just as it is disrespectful to put words into someone’s mouth that they did not say, it is disrespectful of God to say He approves and accepts that which takes from or adds to His word. Jesus scolded the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees for binding their religious traditions of people as if they were from God (Matthew 15:1-9). When we change the teachings of the Scriptures to suit our present desires, we are no different that they were, and we need the same rebuke. We too fall under condemnation when we reject the commandment of God to keep our traditions (Mark 7:9-13). All this comes down to how we choose to view the Bible. Is this collection of books merely the product of man’s mind and experiences? If so, then we are not bound to it by any heavenly authority. But, if the Bible was given by divine inspiration, then to change it shows great irreverence for God, who gave it (2 Timothy 3:16-17). How we view and use the Bible shows whether we respect God.
6 He answered and 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 And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Mark 7:6–7, NKJV)
The hypocrisy of Israel was reaching its zenith in the days of Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13-14). Israel gave Jehovah lip service, while serving idols, and demanding their own teachings be regarded as divine truth. This verse gives us God’s definition of a hypocritical heart: While saying one honors God, he elevates his own will above the will of the Almighty. Hypocrisy is pretense, pretending to be what one is not. The Greek word was applied to the actor who wore a mask, pretending to be a character in a drama. Christ applied this term to the Pharisees and scribes of His day. Their words honored God, but their hearts were given over to the commandments of men. The Jews had codified their oral traditions (the Mishnah). These men whom Jesus rebuked judged a violation of their traditions to be a violation of God’s law (see Mark 7:8-9). We must avoid accepting human traditions as if they are the will of God, lest we join hands with the hypocrites of Christ’s day. Revealed truth, not the traditions of men, must guide our hearts and our deeds. Otherwise, our worship will be vain.
10 When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” 12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.” (Matthew 15:10–13, NKJV)
Jesus openly rebuked the religious leaders for their hypocrisy of elevating religious traditions above the word of God (see Matthew 15:1-9). Instead of accepting the correction and repenting, the Pharisees were offended when He exposed their sinful error. Their traditions focused on spiritually inconsequential things (ceremonial washings, etc., Mark 7:3-4), persuading people to conform to their traditions to be considered “clean” or worthy before God. The Son of God does not approve binding religious traditions that originate with man. Jesus explained to the crowd that food does not defile a person, but what comes out of a person’s heart (see Matthew 15:17-20). Like Jesus, we must have the boldness to use the Scriptures to help people see their sin and the way of salvation. Otherwise, how will the lost soul he or she needs salvation (Rom. 10:13-14; 2 Tim. 4:2)?
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NKJV)
A tradition is an instruction, narrative, precept, etc. that is given over or handed down from one to another (see Thayer, 481). Traditions serve important roles in our lives. They connect us to former times, places and people. They reassure our hearts with dependability instead of confusion and chaos. In the case of today’s verse, the teachings given to Christians by the apostles of Christ formed the traditions they were to “stand fast and hold.” The apostolic traditions were first spoken, then written. By their words and letters, the apostles transmitted heavenly traditions from one generation to the next. The inspired Scriptures form the traditions in which we must stand fast and to which we must hold. Far from suggesting the Bible is outdated and irrelevant today, the apostles of Christ knew their teachings set enduring traditions by which every generation must live in order to please God.
10 For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. 11 But Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” 12 Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.” (John 5:16–18)
Jesus was not a Sabbath-breaker. If he was, then he was a sinner; he was not (Exodus 20:8-11; 1 Peter 2:22). However, Jesus did break Sabbath traditions which came to be viewed as binding on people as the law itself. Here is our clear lesson: Human traditions and the will of God are not equivalent. To make them so invariably elevates man’s will above God’s will (Mark 7:1-13). We must not bind on others those things that God does not bind. Neither should we think because we hold some religious tradition that it necessarily pleases God. The religious tradition you hold as binding must come from God, not human beings (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:4).
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
It makes a difference what Christians believe. If not, Paul wasted his time warning Christians of the “basic principles of the world” that display themselves as philosophy and religious and spiritual traditions. These are empty and deceitful, plundering faith by their attractive allurement. and False doctrines, worldly philosophies, religious and spiritual traditions – these all originate with the world, not God. Fill yourself with the word of Christ. The world’s philosophies and traditions, while promising knowledge and wisdom, bring eternal death. The gospel of Christ secures eternal life for the faithful. That’s enough; “You are complete in Him” (Col. 2:10).