Matthew R. Perry

Are You Conditioned To Tradition?

In Church Life, Religious Organizations, Sermons on October 15, 2006 at 12:25 am

Too many seem to be more conditioned to their tradition than to the Lord Jesus Christ and His direction.  Case in point.

The Pharisees were on the march again, this time they gathered to Jesus — along with some scribes who had been sent from Jerusalem!  Those dispatched from Jerusalem have been called ‘theological hit-men’ — a great description![1]  These Pharisees’ job consisted of being watchdogs of the people of God — and we see that they were keeping a rather close eye on Jesus.  They wasted no time in letting Jesus know that He had broken one of their traditions.

 It seems clear that Mark is writing to a Gentile audience, since those who were Jews would know right away the issue of eating with “defiled” and “unwashed” hands would entail.  Verses 3 and 4 in the parentheses give some background.  Jewish traditions were in place to help interpret God’s law.  In fact, the Mishnah, which was a compilation of Jewish laws put together at the end of the 2nd century, said that “Tradition is a fence around the law.”[2]  But soon, the interpretations of the law became more cumbersome and more binding than the law itself.  And soon, there were dozens of often ridiculous traditions that interpreted the actual law. 

 Among them was this law concerning the washing of hands.  The actual law was given in  Exodus 30:19 and 40:12.  Originally, this law was given to the priests before they entered into the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle and the Temple.  It was only a couple of centuries before Christ that all Jews were doing this so that they may be “clean.”

 Mark 7:3 says that these priests washed their hands, but in the Greek it adds, “with a fist,” indicating that before meals they were to wash their hands, cupping the water in the palm, spreading and flexing their fingers so all the water could reach every part of the hand.  Mark goes on to tell that they when they returned from the marketplace unless they wash, of in the Greek “unless they baptize.”  This could mean that they took a bath everytime they returned from the marketplace to make sure that if they touched anything unclean, they themselves would be purified and made clean. 

 And lest you believe this was a minor detail, the Mishnah contained over 180 pages dealing with ceremonial washings, and 35 pages alone for the washing of vessels such as were mentioned in Mark 7:4, the “cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.”  These people stayed in the tub or the sink!

 1.                  Our outward traditions often mire our upward exaltation (Mark 7:6-8).

 Now we see this happening among the people of God even now.  We have rules that have been added that interpret what God’s commands say.  We see passages such as 1 Timothy 2:9-10 where Paul instructs Timothy “that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,  but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.”  Some have taken that to mean that women cannot wear jewelry nor put their hair up or the like, and miss the whole point of Paul’s desire being that women are to demonstrate their godliness rather than their goldliness.  Or others who say that you should only wear a suit and tie to church and have a crew-cut for a haircut. Or saying there can only be a piano and organ in the church and that other instruments are worldly (and if you believe that, I encourage you to read Psalm 150).  Still others who say that only one version of the Bible is the Word of God and the other versions are perverted.  We have them as well.

 But why?  What’s the reason for all these?  I believe there are four reasons why human beings, especially God’s people, hold to man-made religious traditions. 

 First, there is a true desire to be faithful.  Not everyone who abides by these man-made traditions seek to hurt or harm the church.  On the contrary, some who believe these man-made traditions do so because they are compelled to be obedient and faithful.  It is a type of zealousness that is found in religions of all

kinds, not just Christianity.  All we have to do is look at the Apostle Paul prior to his conversion and his zeal for the Jewish faith.  He himself says in Philippians 3:6-7 that “as to zeal, [I was] a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.”  Nicodemus was another one, I believe, who came to Jesus by night to seek out if Jesus really was from God — and I believe with a sincere heart.  But no matter how sincere they were, they were hanging on to teaching and traditions and running on a counterfeit zeal that would not lead to salvation but to destruction.

 Second, there is a desire to use these traditions for control.  For many, especially leaders, when these man-made religions traditions are present, man-centered leaders use these traditions as leverage to control and manipulate those who are weaker in the faith so that they themselves are the standard rather than God.  These Pharisees kept the people in constant fear of being thrown out of the synagogue, so these traditions were used for control.

 Thirdly, there is a desire for comfort and security.  People hold on to “the way it’s always been” simply because that is a considerable comfort zone.  People by and large do not like change.  In a world that is in constant motion and constant change around them, church is a place many desire to remain the same.   The Pharisees were like this, but they were clinging to hard to comfort and security and so feared the authority that Jesus preached with and the type of Kingdom He was pronouncing that they missed His moving because their feet were stuck in the cement of their comfortable and secure traditions.

 Lastly, there is a need for identity.  The Pharisees liked being Pharisees because their habits, their own laws, their dress — everything about them — pointed to the fact that they were … Pharisees.  They would say, “These are our traditions … how dare you not keep our traditions.”  And many denominations, religions, and cults are formed — many churches split or fracture — simply because of certain man-made traditions that many refuse to let go of.

 So what does Jesus say?  We see in Mark 7:6-8

 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.”

 Babe Ruth was at bat and Babe Pinelli was the umpire behind the plate. The first pitch was a swing and a miss, as was the second pitch. Babe Ruth digs in for the next pitch. The pitcher winds up and delivers, and Ruth doesn’t move. From behind the plate the umpire cries out, “Strike three!”

 Ruth gets in Pinelli’s face and says, “There’s 40,000 people here who know that last one was a ball, tomato head.” Pinelli takes a look around the stadium, then responds to Ruth, “Maybe so, but mine is the only opinion that counts. The batter’s out!”[1]

 No matter what you think, no matter what anyone in the world thinks — God’s verdict is the only one that matters.

 These Pharisees felt that their traditions were pleasing to God — yet God in the flesh was standing right before them saying, “You are worshiping God in vain — you are elevating your doctrines to stand alongside the doctrines of God.  Your lips may say all the right things, but you are hypocrites because your heart is far from me.”  Jesus’ verdict is the only verdict that matters.  Don’t let those outward traditions mutilate your upward exaltation of the Lord God.

2.                  Our outward traditions often mirror our inward convictions (Mark 7:9-13).

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!  [10] For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  [11] 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)—  [12] then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,  [13] thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

 The traditions that we hold on to so very tightly may seem like they are spiritual, but are often simply a reflection — a mirror — of our inward convictions.  Meaning that oftentimes we hold on to traditions in our life and in the life of the church because they reflect something we believe personally to be true but are just reflections of associations we have.

 For instance, with music, I had encounters with people who felt that drums and guitars were not appropriate in a worship service (even though those instruments were used among God’s people in the Old Testament).  What was their reasoning?  It wasn’t a biblical one, but instead it was that those were the instruments used by “rock’n’rollers.”  One time, I was giving a going away classical concert during an evening service — my last service as minister of music.  I was going to put on the card music by George Gershwin.  But relatives close to me felt that any jazz rhythms would be bad.  Why?  Because of their associations with jazz and New Orleans and the red light district.  While it is good for us to understand these associations, we must ask God to enlighten us as to whether the traditions we hold to are biblical ones or simply and only reflections of our own personal convictions.

 We see the hearts of the Pharisees put on display and their convictions exposed for all to see.  Jesus reveals the sheer arrogance and hypocrisy of these religious leaders.  Their teachings had grown to such an extent that the Mishnah even states that “It is a greater offense to teach anything contrary to the voice of the Rabbis than to contradict Scripture itself.”  How preposterous!

 Here, Jesus gives them a rather pointed example of how instead of bolstering God’s law, they actually nullify it — and the example He used is one that hits home with everyone, hurting one’s parents. 

 Moses’ law was clear.  In fact, Jesus gives both the negative and the positive of  God’s law on this subject.  On the positive side, Jesus reminds them to “honor your father and mother.”  In fact, this was so important that the Apostle Paul comments in Ephesians 6:2 that this is “the first commandment with a promise, that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (see Exodus 20:12).  On the negative side of this law, Jesus reminds them of Exodus 21:17 which says, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.”  (It must be said that of all the laws in the Old Testament, only 35 come with the death penalty.  Yes, adultery.  Yes, even homosexuality.  And listed among those are being disobedient and reviling your parents.  A word to the wise is sufficient!)

 Now, considering the gravity that Moses (and ultimately, God) placed on loving and taking care of your parents — a very basic duty — the Pharisees found a way to get around it and still keep their precious laws and traditions!  They used ‘Corban.’ When something is designated as ‘Corban,” it is designated as a gift to God — and when done so, that gift cannot be given to anyone else but 

God.  The issue for the Pharisees was to keep your vow.  But Jesus tells them that the greater issue is to ‘honor your father and your mother.’  This was one mammoth example of many.

 Then Jesus does something totally unexpected in the eyes of the Pharisees.  He turns His attention away from them and then to the crowds and delivers a devastating blow to the Pharisees – again, by exposing their hypocrisy and saying something that one could only describe as revolutionary to the ears of the Jewish people.

3.                  Our outward traditions often mask our inward condition (Mark 7:14-23).


14And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”[a] 17And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”[b] (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Jesus begins speaking to the crowd and not only what He tells them, but that coupled with their reaction shows how much these teachers clung to outward rituals rather than an inward relationship.  These teachers were clinging to the notion that being clean (read:  holy) before God and one another consisted of what foods one ate and in what purity rituals one engaged. 

The radical and revolutionary nature of what Jesus told the crowd in 7:14-15 must not be missed.  He says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”   In one fell swoop, Jesus did away with the entire law of Moses dealing with clean and unclean foods.  In fact, there were dozens of times that God mentioned in His law to the people of Israel which foods and animals were clean and were not — and the due penalties of touching or eating unclean foods.  And now Jesus told them that their purity and holiness and cleanliness were based upon inward purity not outward.

Now again, the Law is not bad.  On the contrary it is good — for it is God’s law.  But in the hands of selfish, prideful, sinful individuals, it was contorted to fit their own scheme and thus masked their true spiritual bankruptcy.  But Jesus would have none of it with them — and He will have none of it with us!

Remember back in verse 4 when Mark told us about the many other traditions they observed, such as the washing of cups and pots and dishes and dining couches?  It is tragic that they were so concerned about the vessels they held in their hands rather than the main vessel that was held in their souls — their own hearts.  They worked and slaved over the details of keeping any speck of dirt from landing on their utensils and containers, and yet were totally blinded to the muck and dirt and filth encrusted on their own heart!  It’s as if God desired our hearts to be like a spotless, sparkling crystal vase received on our honeymoon — but really our hearts are like hospital bedpans in full use. 

I say that because the human heart outside of the cleansing work of Jesus Christ is the most vile, filthy, disgusting, putrifying vessel in the universe.  All our good works, our charitable endeavors, our humanitarian efforts — nothing on earth can begin to break through the grime that is caked on our human heart.  When Paul said that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, this is not like an Olympic pole vaulter trying to attain 16’ and missing by a toenail that just barely catches the crossbar.  We do not even qualify for the race, do not even get in the building to watch the event, and are not strong enough to pick up the pole in the first place. 

And notice that Jesus said all these evil things come from within!  You may say, “I’m without Christ, yes— but I haven’t done those things!”  Yes, you may not have on the outside, but those things are still there.  So those Pharisees who thought they were clean based upon washing their hands and their bowls and cups and dishes could not lift one finger to wash their hearts.

And neither can you. 


Here we have seen the importance to the Pharisees of washings.  We also see from their worship the importance of the offering of sacrifices for the sins they have committed.  But again, it doesn’t touch nor cleanse the human heart.

I believe this picture needs to be painted in order to understand how our salvation is nothing short of a miracle.  What we couldn’t lift a finger to
accomplish, Jesus did so fully and completely.  He washed us by the shedding of His blood for the forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Corinthians 6:11).  As Corrie Ten Boom says, “There is no pit so deep nor so dark that God’s love is not deeper still.”

As for the sacrifices, where all those animals over all those centuries failed in achieving a clean human heart, Jesus in one act on Calvary those 2,000 years ago accomplished it fully and completely — or to put it as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “once and for all.” 

It all comes back to the cross, ladies and gentlemen.  God’s cleansing power on display in those drops of blood shed by our Savior.  It puts all our traditionalism and legalism to shame — and us as well.  To think we could cover our sin with a simple checklist of works shows how little we think of sin and how little we think of God’s nature and how little we think of Christ’s sacrifice.  Sin is an offense against a holy God that cuts us off from Him.  But you want to see what lengths it takes to make you pure?  Look to the cross!  Look to the Savior who hung there — for you!  That’s the price that was paid to make you clean! 

 Yes!  Your sin is great — we’ve seen that full force.  But God’s grace is greater — do we see that in Jesus?  If you do and have never received Jesus as Savior and Lord before, do so now!  Do not wait.  The highest of prices was paid to secure your salvation — won’t you receive Him this morning?


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