God's Word vs. Human Tradition

Mark: The Kingdom of God Is at Hand  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  33:25
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Jesus calls us to examine our hearts to ensure we are not hypocritical and our traditions to ensure we aren’t rejecting God’s Word.

God's Word vs. Human Tradition Introduction, Outline, & Prayer Most families have special traditions of some kind—decorating the Christmas tree on the day after Thanksgiving or eating certain foods for special occasions like birthdays. Some families are quite serious about their traditions but I wonder, are there any families so serious about them that they will boycott Christmas if the tree goes up any later than black Friday? Or disown any child who wants ice cream on their birthday instead of the same cake everyone has eaten on their birthday since Great Grandma Mable? I hope not. If your family didn’t have traditions, surely your culture did. In America, most of our cultural traditions seem to revolve around sports and food—things like watching the Super Bowl or grilling on the 4th of July. Some Americans are also quite serious about their traditions but I wonder, are there any Americans so serious about them that they would support exiling people to Canada or Mexico if they don’t watch the Super Bowl? Or revoking the citizenship of anyone who doesn’t eat some sort of grilled meat on July 4th? Hopefully, we can all agree that it would be wrong to support manmade traditions to that degree. But in our sermon text today, Jesus confronts a religious group that takes their traditions to an even farther degree. This group was so committed to the manmade traditions that were supposed to bring them closer to God that they were willing to reject God Himself in order to uphold their traditions. As we read about this confrontation both this week and next, I want us to be thinking about the following questions, “How can a person be acceptable to God? What does it take for us to be truly right before God—truly righteous in His sight?” Maybe you’ve come this morning and you’ve never considered or even cared about the answer to that question. Or maybe you already have an answer in mind. Whatever the case, I challenge and plead with you this morning to listen to the answer God gives in His Holy Bible. So, let’s go to the Gospel of Mark 6:53–7:13. Let me quickly explain where we are headed this morning, then we’ll read the text and pray for God’s help to learn it, love it, and live it. First, we will look at The People Jesus encounters in a place called Gennesaret in 6:53–56. Second, we will look at The Pharisees who confront Jesus a little while later in 7:1–5. Third, we will look at The Prophecy Jesus quotes in response to the Pharisees in 7:6–13. “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 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.) 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?” 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do”” (Mark 6:53–7:13). Point 1: The People (6:53–56) The emphasis in these verses is not on the sick as much as it is on the people who recognize Jesus and then bring the sick to Him. Jesus had become immensely popular at this point and people flocked to Him in huge numbers to hear His teaching and witness His miracles. The fact that the people we meet here recognized Jesus means that they had seen Him in the past—they had heard His teaching, participated in, witnessed, or heard about His miracles, and believed that He was willing and able to repeat those miracles for the family, friends, and neighbors. So, they run all over the region to gather the sick and bring them to Jesus. But it’s not only the content of the passage that is amazing but the placement of it too. The previous passage tells how the disciples, despite having heard more of Jesus’s teaching and witnessed more of His miracles than anyone else, were too ignorant and hardhearted to believe in Jesus’s true identity as revealed in His words and works. The next passage, which we’ll get to in just a moment, tells how the religious Pharisees were so devoted to manmade traditions that they were willing to reject both God’s word and His Son for the sake of those traditions. It is shocking that these two groups—Jesus’ closest companions and a very devout sect of Judaism—could be so wrong when it came to understanding who Jesus was and what He could do. It is equally shocking to see the two groups that got it right: commoners and the desperate. Between the sinful, misguided responses to Jesus from the disciples and the Pharisees, we find the faith-filled responses of the common people, who stopped at nothing to bring the desperately needy to Jesus, and those desperately needy people who reached out to Jesus in faith. Point 2: The Pharisees (7:1–5) We’ll revisit this at the end but let’s look now at the Pharisees. As I mentioned, they were a Jewish religious group that opposed Jesus and, at this point, were even seeking to destroy Him. We discover here that they were devoted to various traditions handed down from their elders, including washing their hands and dishes. Now, you might be wondering, “What’s wrong with that? We should all wash our hands and dishes.” We’re coming up on flu season where medical professionals will repeatedly tell us to wash our hands frequently to help stop the spread of germs. Our church building has an industrial grade dishwasher that washes, rinses, and sanitizes all of our dishes. We can all be thankful for that the plates we will be using for lunch after service today went through that machine a month ago. If we just stacked them in the cabinet after our lunch 4 weeks ago without washing them, I guarantee no one would stick around for lunch today. So, what’s the big deal with the Pharisees having the tradition of washing hands and dishes? The problem isn’t with the washing itself but with what they thought the washing accomplished. Today, we say, “Wash your hands and dishes or else you will probably make yourself and others sick.” The Pharisees were saying, “Wash your hands and dishes in this particular way or else God will reject you.” We know this because of what they say in v. 5, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” The key word there is “defiled,” which meant to be profane, impure, unholy, and unacceptable before God. Frederick W. Danker et al., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 552. For the Pharisees, washing hands and dishes was not merely a hygienic practice; it was a religious ceremony, a tradition of the elders passed on for generations, and something that was required for a person to approach and be acceptable before God. True righteousness before God meant adhering completely to all of the traditions of the elders, even the ones that went much farther than what God’s Word required (there were some biblical requirements for washing in the OT but none of them applied in this situation—they mostly dealt with priests who performed very special functions in the temple). You can see how important these extra-biblical traditions were to the Pharisees based on the way they phrase their question, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5). There are different ways to ask questions. When you meet someone new, one of the first things you will ask is, “What is your name?” That’s a question genuinely seeks information. Another type, known as a rhetorical question, seeks to produce an effect or to make a statement rather than to discover information. That’s what the Pharisees were trying to do. They were trying to trap Jesus and condemn Him not just for breaking tradition but for teaching others to do so. They didn’t ask, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” They were passing judgment on Jesus’s disciples by stating that their hands—and, therefore, they themselves—were, indeed, defiled, impure, and unacceptable before God. There was no room for debate or arguing in their minds. The disciples didn’t follow tradition; therefore, God rejected them. And if God rejected those who followed Jesus, a rabbi who either didn’t know or care about tradition, what does that say about Jesus Himself? I think we get an idea of the accusation they leveled against Jesus based on the prophecy He quotes about them in response. Point 3: The Prophecy (7:6–13) Their rhetorical question was specifically about defilement, and Jesus answers that question starting in v. 14, which we’ll look at next week. But instead of responding to what comes out of their mouths right away, Jesus reveals what is going on in their hearts and lives and He calls it hypocrisy. The Greek root for the word “hypocrite” means “to pretend.” It was typically used in the world of Greek theater—the hypocrite was an actor who wore a mask for their role on stage. These actors were trained to never break character as long as they had the mask on. To be in costume was to be in character whether it’s show time or not—they assumed the identity of the mask as long as it was on. If you ran into a hypocrite off stage, as long as they had the mask on, you would be speaking to the character, not the actor So, to call someone a hypocrite in Jesus’s day was to call him or her a mask-wearer—a fake, a pretender, an actor. It meant, “Who you appear to be is not who you really are. One day, when the mask comes off, we will see who you really are underneath.” Jesus levels this accusation against the Pharisees with 100% accuracy because He cannot be fooled—there is no mask He can’t see through; He knows what’s underneath. The Pharisees’ masks said, “I’m honoring God with my lips; therefore, I worship in truth.” However, Jesus said, “Underneath the mask, you are far from God; therefore, you worship in vain.” The Pharisees’ masks said, “I’m obeying the traditions of the elders; therefore, I am undefiled (holy, pure, and acceptable to God).” However, Jesus said, “Underneath the mask, you are rejecting the commandments of God; therefore, you are defiled.” Jesus even gives evidence in vv. 9–13 that reveals to everyone who they really are. Let’s read it again: “And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”” Jesus is trying to show how the Pharisees have rejected God’s commandments in order to establish their own traditions. To do this, He cites a very well-known commandment—one of the first every Jew would have memorized from the Ten Commandments—and then shows how their man-made practice called “Corban” contradicts that commandment. I think the best way to explain the practice of “Corban” is to give an example based on what Jesus says in v. 11. Imagine that a man makes $5,000/year more than he needs for all of his expenses. He decides to dedicate that extra money to God as a special gift; He declares it “Corban.” Practically, that money would accumulate in his bank account over time and remain there untouched until he died at which point it would go directly to the temple treasury. Then, let’s imagine his parents are facing some financial hardship and need help from him. The Pharisees would refuse to allow the son to use any of the “Corban” money to help his parents; so, the son would have to tell them, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you—all of my extra money is dedicated to God.” Sometimes people’s desire to dedicate something to God was genuine; they really wanted to do something special to honor and worship God. Other times they just wanted to keep their stuff out of other people’s hands. Either way, Jesus shows that this tradition, no matter how well intentioned, was so rigid that it contradicted God’s Word. And when forced to choose between man-made traditions and God’s Word, we should always choose God’s Word. Application: Testing Our Traditions and Removing Our Masks At the beginning of the sermon I called us to consider the following questions, “How can a person be acceptable to God? What does it take for us to be truly right before God—truly righteous in His sight?” It’s time to put everything we’ve seen so far together to help answer those questions. I think it can be easy for us to vilify the Pharisees in passages like this without realizing that we are just as susceptible to favoring our traditions over God’s Word as they were. Just think about the number of traditions we have as Christians: coming to church on Sunday, singing songs, praying certain prayers, listening to sermons or, in my case, preaching sermons—all of these things are good. Just like washing our hands and dishes, we should be doing them but for the right reasons. This passage calls us to examine what we think we accomplish by doing them. If we think we are pure, holy, and acceptable to God because we do these things, then we are in danger of being as hypocritical as the Pharisees. So, we need to test our traditions—are they what make you acceptable to God or do they just point you to the One who does? Are you confident that you’ll go to heaven because you got baptized, or prayed a certain prayer, or have a special cross necklace, or go to church every Sunday, or have read lots of theology and devotional books, or went to seminary? Or are you confident that you’ll go to heaven because God promises, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9)? Are you confident that you’ll go to heaven because, God has “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9)? Are you confident that you’ll go to heaven because “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:4–6)? Everything we do can become a Christian mask that we wear to hide who we are underneath or to persuade others or even ourselves that we are acceptable to God by what we do. But the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ says that the only way we can be acceptable to God is by receiving what Jesus has done for us. That’s why in this passage it’s the sick people who are made well, not the Pharisees. The sick people had no traditions to rely on, no obedience or heritage or money or ceremony to hide behind. They couldn’t even do anything—they were confined to their beds. All they could was let people carry them to Jesus and receive grace from Him. The ones who are acceptable to God in this passage are not the ones who try to impress Him with their traditions and ritual cleanliness but the ones who go to Jesus in desperation because they need cleansing. Jesus came to call not those who think they are righteous but those who know they are not. If someone is bleeding to death but wearing a smiley face mask, no ER doctor is going to be fooled by that. Pretending is useless before God. He is the ER doctor. He knows we are all in desperate need of His care. Jesus doesn’t want us wearing masks; He wants us to take the masks off and throw them away forever. Jesus doesn’t want us to pretend to be ok but to have the freedom in Him to admit when we’re not ok. 6
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