The history of the church, both Old Testament and New, shows that one of Satan’s attacks has been through traditions. These usually start out as someone’s harmless idea, but sometimes they change from being something that one or two people are doing to something everyone is doing to something everyone is required to do. The idea takes on a life of its own and it becomes an important focus, thus taking our focus off the one who should be the focus.
We know how the Roman Catholic Church collected a large number of traditions. These eventually resulted in the split of the church with one side, the Protestants, throwing out almost all of the traditions, and the other side declaring that traditions were of equal value to the teachings in the Bible.
The problem with traditions started long before that though. In this article we’ll look at traditions that had become part of Judaism in Jesus’ time.
1 The Pharisees and the Scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him. 2 And they saw some of his disciples eating bread when they had not washed their hands, and they found fault.
The Bible text doesn’t say so but it seems likely that these Parisees and Scribes had come with a plan. They didn’t like the attention Jesus was getting because it took attention away from them. So they wanted to assert their authority by finding fault with the things that Jesus and his disciples were doing.
3 For all the Judeans and the Pharisees do not eat unless they wash their hands carefully because they keep the tradition of the Elders. 4 And coming from the marketplace, unless they bathe, they do not eat. And there are many other things which they had received to keep: washings of cups and pots and copper vessels and of beds.
We now see that their problem with Jesus disciples is about much more than just washing hands before eating. It’s about a big block of rules they have created. These rules are described as coming from the elders, which means from people long forgotten. That’s often the case with traditions. No one knows exactly how they started or by whom. In fact they often start as something small by one person and successive people add to it.
The result is that everyone is expected to follow it. The problem is that these traditions have no Biblical support. They have come from men, the same men whom the Bible describes as foolish and sinful and at enmity with God (Proverbs 14:12, Proverbs 16:25, Proverbs 21:2, Romans 8:7).
Very often the supporters of the tradition will have some twisted scripture that they claim supports their tradition. If they don’t, their defense of it often comes down to “the Bible isn’t against it and it doesn’t do any harm.” That is a point that Jesus will address here.
5 And the Scribes and Pharisees asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the Elders, but eat bread without having washed their hands?”
6 But he said to them, “Isaiah the Prophet prophesied beautifully of you phonies, just as it is written: ‘This people honors me with its lips, but their heart is very far from Me. 7 And in vain they pay reverence to me as they teach doctrines of commandments of the sons of men.’
Jesus says the heart of this people is not on God. They believe that they are honoring God by observing the commandments that men have created. God has said how he is to be honored so trying to honor him by doing the things that men have said, does not honor him.
The problem here is not just that obeying the traditions of men does not honor God but that this very often results in setting aside the rules of God. If nothing else they are a distraction away from God. The nature of man contains the desire to please God but we are carnal beings and we want to please God by doing carnal things.
8 “You forsake the commandments of God and you keep the traditions of the sons of men: washings of cups and pots and many such things like these.” 9 He said to them, “Well you reject the commandment of God that you may establish your traditions.”
Jesus is saying that they love following their man-made traditions so much that they give up following God. I’ve said it already but I’ll say it again. We love to worship God in our ways. Because our nature is so much against God, the ways of God are foreign to us and the ways we create are more natural to us and those we love.
10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”, and “Whoever reviles father and mother shall die the death.” 11 But you say, “If a man shall say to his father or to his mother, ‘My offering is anything that you shall gain from me.’ 12 Then you do not allow him to do anything for his father or his mother. 13 And you reject the word of God for the traditions that you deliver, and many things like these you do.”
Jesus now talks about a specific case where a tradition is in conflict with a commandment. People were encouraged to dedicate everything they owned to God and in particular to temple service. That was a tradition that people were expected to follow. This meant that people could not support their own parents because giving something to their parents would be misusing things dedicated to God.
Notice that Jesus’ example isn’t about washing things. He hasn’t said that washing things is in conflict with any commandment. He is just using this example to show how bad traditions can get.
What Jesus says here, though, shouldn’t be understood as a statement that traditions are only bad when they come into conflict with God’s law. Although He hasn’t given an example where these washings conflict with God’s laws, he also hasn’t said that these washings are therefore OK.
Instead Jesus will describe the foolish principle on which this tradition of washing is built. It came out of a misunderstanding of God’s commandments for ceremonial purity. There were things they were not to eat or touch and things they were to do if they did, things like washing. The idea came about that these things defiled them, though the Bible hadn’t said that. Out of that came this idea that defilement could and should be avoided by washing everything.
14 And Yeshua called to all the crowds, and he said to them, “Hear me all of you and understand. 15 There is nothing outside of a man that enters into him that can defile him; the thing that proceeds from him, that is what defiles the man. 16 Whoever has an ear to hear, let him hear.”
Therefore this tradition of washing was just foolish. Jesus didn’t say that it caused a violation of God’s law. None-the-less Jesus does not support it by telling his disciples to go wash their hands. The tradition is from man and it is foolish so he ignores it. The modern church has an ongoing problem accepting the teachings of the world because they see no harm in them. But they are man-made and therefore foolish, can become dangerous, and should be ignored.
As we see in other places in the Bible, again we hear the code phrase Jesus uses to indicate the listener needs to think about this because there is more to it than the surface. There is ceremonial cleanliness and spiritual cleanliness and the two should not be confused. It was necessary to follow the rules for ceremonial cleanliness, but God wanted spiritual cleanliness.
When we studied other of Jesus’ sayings and parables, we sometimes saw the disciples wouldn’t understand but they wouldn’t ask him to explain it in public. That happens again here. When they get away from the crowds, then the disciples ask. We shouldn’t see this as just an effort to preserve their egos so they wouldn’t be seen to be as untaught as the people Jesus was speaking to. Remember that Jesus didn’t generally want to explain his parables to the people.
17 But when Yeshua entered the house from the crowds, his disciples asked him about that parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you also stupid? Do you not know that nothing entering from outside a man can defile him? 19 Because it does not enter his heart, but his belly, and is discharged by excretion, which purifies all foods. 20 But the thing that proceeds from a man, that defiles the man. 21 For from within the heart of the children of men proceed evil ideas, adultery, fornication, theft, murder, 22 greed, wickedness, deceit, harlotry, an evil eye, blasphemy, boasting, senselessness. 23 All these evils proceed from within and defile a man.”
By separating “heart” from “belly” Jesus breaks down what he has said into the core principles. What God wants is a pure heart but what is eaten does not involve or affect the heart.
I find it interesting that these verses on tradition should contain, in some translations, a modern man-made tradition. In many translations a theological tradition is inserted in verse 19. The NLT says it this way “(By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)” This statement is not in the Greek at all. King James version, Aramaic NT (my favorite translation), and a few others do not have this. Because of this theological tradition most translators are inserting words into the Bible that are not in the originals.
As beloved as this theological tradition is by Bible translators, it is completely wrong. Jesus was born under the law (Galatians 4:4) and it was necessary for him to be obedient to the law. Therefore he could not have changed the law. The one who changes the law is over the law. The law said that some foods were unclean and not to be eaten. Also consider what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to revoke the Written Law or the Prophets …”
Then what is Jesus trying to say, if he isn’t saying that mankind are no longer defiled by what they eat. The words he says are “is discharged by excretion, which purifies all foods.” I don’t know if this was partly a joke but his point is this, “if it was pork going in, it isn’t pork going out.” What was impure going in, is not impure going out. The bigger point is that defilement from foods is temporary, there is a process to become clean again. Defilement from adultery, fornication and that whole list stays with a man.
It is a part of our human nature to create traditions. They set community standards for conduct and agreed upon ways for doing things. So traditions are not all bad.
When it comes to worshiping God however, traditions can quickly become an impediment. Satan dearly loves to get us to focus on the physical world instead of the spiritual world. Nowhere do we have a better example than the Catholic Church that Satan polluted over 1500 years. They have many traditional beliefs and traditional feasts and traditional hand signs and observances of every kind. Hardly a week goes by that there isn’t some work that the people must perform.
We Protestants need to be careful what we say of Catholic traditions though. The Protestant churches kept many of the Catholic traditions and have since added other traditions.
At the very least, traditions in the church serve to take our focus away from God. At their worst, as Jesus described here, they cause us to reject the true teachings of God. Unfortunately we are very poor judges for when this occurs. Even when that isn’t the case there is still a problem. As we saw with the washings in this lesson, they probably did no direct harm but they consumed the time of people by doing something that was pointless.
Man has displayed a habit of declaring things to be holy or godly and believing that made them holy or godly. God does not accept the authority of man, so obeying the traditions of man profits nothing, despite what man would like to believe.
In this area, where our natural mind is so distant from God, and Satan is so active, we need to check all traditions for a rock solid basis in the Bible. We need to check new ideas that may become traditions to see how they match with the whole Bible.
We also need to check all the old ideas, which have become traditions. These may be the hardest to spot and the hardest to remove. “We’ve always done it that way”, “the church has always believed that”, and “I’m doing it for God” are the most common defenses of traditions in the church.