This morning, as we open again the Word of God, we find ourselves in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters of Matthew. And so, I invite you, with me, to open the Word of God, to Matthew, the end of the fourteenth, the beginning of the fifteenth chapter.
One of the supreme statements of God’s will is expressed in Exodus chapter 20 and verse 7. The very familiar statement there is this, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
Now, we all know that command; we’ve heard it many times, if we’ve been raised in a Christian environment. We’ve heard it said so often, “We are not to take the Lord’s name in vain,” but we may not fully understand what that means.
The concept of name has to do with person, character, nature, essence, who someone is. Therefore, we are not to take God, in the fullness of who He is, and treat Him in a vain way. That means empty, irreverent, impious, insincere, phony, fraudulent manner.
Not taking the Lord’s name in vain, that is not limited to cursing or something like that, but it means to treat God with irreverence, to treat God with superficiality, with insincerity, with phoniness, to bring to God empty worship, hypocritical honor.
And someone has said, frankly, that God’s name is taken in vain more often in the Church than outside of it, where people come and offer empty worship with their needless repetition, their empty praise words, singing without thought of God, praying with indifference, hearing the Word and never applying it. All of this is empty worship, phony, hypocritical. And such kind of worship is damnable; it is condemned in the Word of God.
And it is not only in our day that this is condemned, but in days past as well. In fact, if we go back in the history of Israel, to the prophet Isaiah and look at chapter 1, verse 13, we read this, “Bring no more vain ablations” - or offerings – “incense is an abomination unto Me. The new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies I cannot bear; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.
“Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hateth; they are a trouble unto Me. I am weary of bearing them. And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you. Yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.”
In other words, all of those things which God had ordained, all of the feasts and festivals and occasions and ceremonies and sacrifices, He said, “I don’t want any more of those things, because your hearts aren’t right.”
“Wash yourselves” – verse 16 says – “make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doing from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” And then this great statement, “‘Come now and let us reason together,’ saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
In other words, God wants to cleanse your hearts. God wants to wash you on the inside. God will not otherwise tolerate your empty, vain worship.
Now, at the end of Isaiah, you have basically the same thing. In fact, this entire prophecy is bracketed by a call for true worship. God says in 66, the last chapter of Isaiah, that He has made everything, but He still looks for one more thing. In all that He has made, there’s one thing He still wants, “I look for one who is poor, and of a humble spirit, who trembles at My words.” And then He indicts them for their false religion, “He that kills an ox is as if he slew a man. He that sacrifices a lamb, as if he cut off a dog’s neck. He that offers an ablation, as if he offered swine’s blood. He that burns incense, as if he blessed an idol.”
In other words, it’s all meaningless because your hearts are so perverted. “Their soul” – it says in verse 3 – “delights in their abominations.” In verse 5 again, he says, “Hear the word of the Lord ye that tremble at His word.” God wants genuine worshippers.
And the prophet Amos, chapter 5, verses 21 to 27, that whole section, He says, “I don’t want any more feasts; I don’t want any more festivals; I don’t want any more of your sacrifices. I want you to stop your singing until you get your hearts right.”
And Malachi says the very same thing. He says, “Don’t offer Me any more polluted offerings; don’t offer Me any more lame and halt and blind and maimed animals. Don’t desecrate your marriage relationships and deal treacherously against the wives of your youth and then come into my temple and purport to worship Me. Get out until your life is right.” Proverbs 21:2 sums it up by saying, “The sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination.”
In other words, empty and hypocritical worship is intolerable to God. Isaiah said it. We say it today, and Jesus, our Lord, said it as well, right in our text. Verse 9 sums it up of chapter 15, “In vain” – or with emptiness – “do they worship, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Vain worship.
Now, in this passage, Jesus is basically preaching the same message that Isaiah preached about empty worship, about hypocritical worship, about insincere worship, about worship without genuineness, worship without integrity.
Now, let’s set the scene. After our Lord had fed the 5,000 – 5,000 plus really – He had reached the peak of popularity. They wanted then to force Him to be a king, haul him down to Jerusalem, put Him on the throne, have Him destroy the Romans, and the Herodians, and give them liberty, and give them healing, and give them food, and do all the things that they had seen Him do in His miracle power. They really, really had come to the fever pitch in terms of Jesus, fitting their definition of an economic, political kingdom.
But Jesus rejected their shallow, self-centered, indulgent ambition. He said no to their political definition of a kingdom. He said no to their economic definition of a kingdom. He said no to their self-indulgent definition of a kingdom, and He sent the crowd away, and He went back to being with His disciples.
Well, that was the peak, and from here on, it’s downhill. He rejected the shallow sham kind of interest. It was superficial; it was political; it was self-centered; it was self-indulgent. They wanted food; they wanted healing; they wanted freedom from Rome and the Herodians, but they did not want their hearts changed; they did not want Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And so, He rejected the shallowness of their interest. And from here on out, things begin to descend. He loses popularity; hostility begins to rise. We are one year away from His crucifixion, and the majority of that year is in seclusion with the Twelve. He is readying and equipping them for the tremendous ministry they’re going to have when He leaves.
And so, we see a turning point occurring in this part of the Scripture. Now in chapter 16, verse 21, there’s a rather definite statement that from that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciple. And there we see Him moving into a sort of withdrawn ministry. He retires to be with them and to invest that last year with them.
But prior to that, there are a couple of times when He is with the multitudes, and this is one of those times that we’ll look at in our text today.
From here on out, He’s going to spend more and more time with the Twelve, as the hostility and the anger and the bitterness and the rejection arises.
Now, again, as we look at our text, we see an instant change that helps us note this as a turning point. The crowd ha given to Jesus the pinnacle of popularity. And it is the very next day that He is confronted here in this text with the scribes and the Pharisees, who pour their venom on Him, who reveal the fact that what they really want to do is publically discredit Him and get rid of Him.
So, the turning point comes immediately, and we are faced with the hostility of these religious leaders of Israel. These are stony ground again. As Jesus defined all men in their responses to the Gospel and the parable of the soils, this is the stony ground; the hard, resistant soil of those who are not interested.
Now, among the Jews, there were always the true and the false; there were always those who truly sought God; there was always that real remnant, with pure hearts, who did respond to God’s Word and did respond in this period to God’s Messiah. But this group did not. They are the hard-hearted, religious phonies; they are those who manned the legalistic system as it existed, and they want Jesus Christ out of the way.
And so, the Lord confronts them in this passage, and He confronts them with the emptiness of their worship. It’s no different than the message that Isaiah gave, or Amos gave, or Malachi gave. It’s no different than a message that I might give today to a church where we know there are people who hypocritically worship God. It’s the same message that when you come to worship God, it must be with a pure heart, and you must worship Him from the inside, not only externally.
Now, let’s look at the text, beginning in verse 34 of chapter 14, “And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret. And when the men of the place had knowledge of Him, they sent out into all the country roundabout and brought unto Him that were disease and besought Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched were perfectly made well.
“Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, who were of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Why do Thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread.’
“But He answered and said unto them, ‘Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, “Honor thy father and mother,” and, “He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.” But ye say, “Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, ‘It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me,’ and honor not his father or his mother, he shall be free.” Thus have ye made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.
“‘Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, “This people draweth near unto Me with their mouth, and honoreth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me.” But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Now, that is a very important passage. It crystallizes the religious battle very clearly between Jesus and the religion of His day, the dominant religion.
Now, as we look at this text, I want us to see some glimpses of or Lord here. We want to see Him as the main character. First of all, in verses 34 to 36, the end of chapter 14, we see Him as the compassionate Healer. Then in the first nine verses of chapter 15, we see Him as the condemning Judge. And then – and this will be for next week – in verses 10 to 20, we see Him as the correcting Teacher.
In each case, He is setting something that is wrong right. Their diseases He made into wholeness. Their hypocrisy He unmasked and postulated true religion. And their misunderstanding of truth, in verses 10 to 20, He corrected for proper doctrine. So, He comes as one who heals, as one who condemns hypocrisy, as one who corrects false teaching.
Let’s look, first of all, at Him as the compassionate Healer in verses 34 and 36. And this sort of gives us the context out of which the incident occurs in chapter 15. “And when they” – that is the disciples and our Lord – “were gone over” – that is over the Sea of Galilee. You remember that they had spent the day before feeding the multitude and healing and preaching the kingdom, and at night, Jesus came walking on the water, and they had arrived finally at the shore. And when they had reached that other shore, at some time after that, “they came into the land of Gennesaret.”
So, it may be the next day, later in the day – you remember when they came to the other shore early in the morning, Jesus taught that great and profound discourse on the bread of life. The same crowd that had been on the eastern shore had come across. They had had a free dinner; they were back for a free breakfast. Instead of Jesus feeding them physically, He fed them spiritually; about the bread of life He spoke. And that may have occupied the morning, and it may have been later in the day that they retreated to the land of Gennesaret.
Now, Gennesaret is not a town; it is not a village; it is not a city; it is an area. It is a plain about three-and-a-half miles long and maybe up to two miles wide at its widest point, but borders the northwestern coast of the Sea of Galilee. It is in proximity to Bethsaida and Capernaum. And it is very likely that Jesus went there with His disciples to find some of that privacy, some of that quiet that He had sought the day before in the mountain on the other shore and had been so interrupted by the multitude.
And so, again, they go into the land of Gennesaret. By the way, that particular land, according to Josephus, was a lush land with unrivaled beauty, a land of marvelous crops, a variety of products. It had no less than four springs pouring forth almost full rivers of water to water it. It had magnificent wheat fields. All kinds of vegetation grew along the edge of the lake, inhabited by many different kinds of birds. It was a beautiful, beautiful area. It could, because of its rich soil, produce three crops a year, and there was no city in that area. So, it was all just plain farmland. And they went there for a time of rest.
By the way, Luke calls the lake the Lake of Gennesaret. So, it was a well-known area, even giving the lake its name in some people’s minds.
Verse 35, Jesus again endeavoring, no doubt, to spend time with His disciples, is interrupted. “When the men of that place had knowledge of Him, they sent out into all that country around about and brought unto Him all that were diseased.”
So, they went around, and they collected all of the people that were diseased. “They besought Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched were made perfectly well.”
They went out into all the country. They collected all of those who were still ill. Now, we don’t know how many it – there were in that group, but we do know that in past ministry there, He had healed multitudes and multitudes and multitudes. So, there were a lot less than there originally were. But whoever they were that were diseased, and whatever their disease was, they were all collected, believing in the miraculous power of Jesus, which had been demonstrated in their area for so long now. They brought them all together. They were so confident of His power, that they said, “Look, we’ll just touch You.” They may have remembered the woman, in chapter 9 of Matthew, who grabbed His robe and was healed. And all they felt they needed to do was touch Him.
And I think there’s a sense of beautiful propriety here. There’s a certain sensitivity here. They’re saying, “You know, we need so desperately what you have to give. We don’t want to be an extra burden for You. So, you don’t have to get around to all of us; we’ll just touch You, and that way we’ll be as little a problem to You as we might be.”
And so, there is a sense of propriety, a sense of sensitivity in their approach, and a great, great measure of faith. And it says, at the end of verse 36, so wonderfully that everyone who touched Him was made totally well. There are no progressive healings. There are no, “Jesus healed me, and I’ve been getting better ever since.” They were totally made well in the instant that they touched Him.
And here, again, we are – want to remark that, again, the compassion of God is demonstrated. This is the compassionate Healer. It is so that God may be revealed as a compassionate God, a God of loving kindness, a God of tenderness toward people. But while they were somewhat sensitive, and while we see the compassion of God, there is a note of pathos in this. And it strikes me that this, again, is a classic example of the fact that people inevitably came to Jesus to get what they wanted. And having gotten what they wanted, they left. And that is the pathos of this whole thing.
It always seems to be so with Jesus; once people have received what they wanted, they’re gone. And even today, in our contemporary kind of Christianity, Jesus is seen as a genie who responds to our wishes. And having received our wishes, we abandon any meaningful relationship. It’s as if Jesus is offered as one who is a panacea and little else. And we, today, are as guilty of ingratitude toward God and Jesus Christ, which by the way may be the ugliest of all sins, as these were in that day.
And so, in spite of their ingratitude, in spite of their self-centeredness, in spite of the fact that their commitment to Him was one of great faith and one of great need, and not one of great adoration, He healed them. That is the compassion of God.
And so, from the compassionate Healer, we come to the condemning Judge. And let’s look at that this morning, verses 1 to 9. And may I say that you really need to understand this passage, because it is a very crucial passage in the whole flow of the Gospel record and the whole flow, frankly, of human history.
We see the condemning Judge. As compassionate as He is on one hand, so condemning is He on the other hand. And God, as God is compassionate, also a God of great judgment and justice.
Now, we’ll see the unfolding of these nine verses in three segments. Number one is the confrontation, verse 1. “Then” – and the “then,” by the way, is indefinite. We don’t know if it’s the very same day that the healing in Gennesaret began, or whether it’s one of the days, or whether it’s a few days afterward. We really don’t know; it’s a rather indefinite “then.”
We know this whole time was around the time of the Passover; John 6 tells us that. That means this is the third Passover in the life of our Lord, and the fourth one was the one in which He was crucified. So, we have a year of His life left.
And so, at that time, “came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, who were of Jerusalem.” Now, here again, we’re introduced to the scribes and the Pharisees. If the Passover has already happened, this delegation then is sent post-Passover to Galilee, no doubt at the request of the Galilean Pharisees, who were equally upset at Jesus. In fact, back in chapter 12 of Matthew, verse 14, it says they wanted to kill Him.
And so, no doubt, at their request, a delegation with clout was sent from Jerusalem. They are representatives of the legalistic, self-righteous, external, hypocritical, phony religious establishment. They are of Satan, not God. They hate Jesus Christ. They lie about what they teach. And so, they despise the truth that is in Christ. They are in darkness; so, they despise the light. They are the enemies of our Lord.
Now, among the people of Israel, there were some who believed; there were some whose hearts were turned toward God. These are not among those. These were the bitter, legalistic people who were leading the religious hypocritical establishment, and they were threatened by the truth of Jesus Christ. For them, religion was external; it was ceremonial. It had nothing to do with the inside. It had only to do with the outside. And when Jesus talked about the inside, He posed a threat – a very imminent threat – to the security of their position.
Now, it says in verse 1, they were from Jerusalem, and it’s an important note, because now Jerusalem is in the act. Not only is Galilee angry at Jesus Christ, in terms of its religion establishment, but so is Jerusalem. And all of this will converge on His head ultimately in His death.
Jerusalem was the seat of the temple. It was the place of the schools of Judaism. It was the place of the most imminent minds and scholarship. So, this is the high-powered group that come to discredit Jesus publically. They want to attack Him publically, because they want to make Him look bad in front of everybody. They want to get rid of Him; they want to discredit Him. And I might add, by the way, that since they were more prestigious than the local group, Jesus handled them with more severity.
Now, what Jesus taught was diametrically opposed to what they taught. Exactly opposite. They were on a head-on collision course. They believed that worship was ceremonial and external. And Jesus taught that it was in the heart. And so, you have the religion of external ceremony and the religion of internal spirit on a collision course. And that is ultimately what resulted in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The ceremonialists would not accept the religion of the heart. And they both cannot exist; one must die. And we find out in this text which one.
And may I hasten to add, this is the same battle that Isaiah fought, Malachi fought, Amos fought; the same battle we fight today with the hypocrisy in the Church; with people all over the world, who call themselves Christians who are not, but who go through some external motions. It is the same battle. We could call it the continual, religious, heavy-weight championship of the world. It never stops.
Now, the first blow is thrown in verse 2 by the scribes and the Pharisees. “Why do Thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” Now, may I tell you, folks, that they thought about that question a long time. They had a long trip: 60 miles at least walking or more. And they had thought a long time about that question. And that question sums up the battle instantly. “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? Why You teach people to break ceremony?” It’s exactly what they’re asking. They are hitting the deal right on the head. They are crystallizing the issue, and it shows where they were. They were utterly, totally, committed to tradition. Tradition.
Now, let me talk about tradition so you’ll understand what it was. You can’t understand what He says unless you know what the tradition of the elders means. Tradition is that which is handed down from one generation to the next. It is not to be confused with that which comes from God. That is Scripture. And any time you have a religion that has Scripture plus tradition, you have a problem. And that is the case with Roman Catholicism, as we shall see tonight. That is the case with Judaism. And it is even the case with Protestantism in many, many instances, where tradition has been added to Scripture, and people no longer know what’s from God and what’s from men.
Now, let’s see where their tradition fits in. The Talmud - and let’s talk about them in general – the Talmud, which is the codification of Jewish law – the Talmud says that God gave the oral law to Moses. Right? And then God told Moses to pass it on to great men of the synagogue.
And these men of the synagogue were to do three things with the law of God: one, be deliberate in judgment. In other words, properly apply God’s law. Two, raise up many disciples so that in the next generation, there would be others to apply the law. And three – and here’s the key – build a fence around the law. Wall it in so you would be protecting it. Don’t let it suffer attack. Wall it in.
So, one, apply it properly, raise up others to apply it, and protect it. They were protectors of the law. So, you know how they decided to protect it? Since their hearts basically were not right, and so many people’s hearts weren’t right, and the obedience was not spontaneous from the heart, the only other way to get people to do things is to make them do it. Right? If they’re not going to do it willingly, then you have to force them to do it.
And so, they started adding laws and laws and laws and laws and laws, and they then became the spiritual enforcers of those laws. And down through history, the slats in the fence kept going up, and there were more and more and more and more and more and more. And the ultimate result was it totally obscured the law of God. All the people saw was all the fence slats; they couldn’t see the law of God.
Now, all those fence slats that were to be the thing to protect the law, that actually obscured the law, are what we call the tradition of the elders. The wise old sages put these things down and said, “This is what we want you to do. These are the principles of behavior.”
Now, let me approach that general concept in a more specific way. When Israel and Judah was taken into captivity, particularly when Judah went into captivity, to Babylon, 586 B.C. They were carried away into captivity. It was a shock to the land of Israel. It was a shock to the Jewish people. It was as if God had abandoned them.
I mean here they were, the promised people of God, living in the promised land of God, and now, all of sudden, their hauled off into captivity. They were jolted. The God-fearing Jews among them realized that what had happened had happened because they had departed from Jehovah God, and that they were getting what Isaiah said they would get and what Jeremiah said they would get. They were getting the judgment of God because they departed from God.
And so, they decided that the only hope of reconciliation was to turn to God, to go back to God. As a result of that, a movement started to put those fences back up, to reacquaint the people with the law, to reacquaint the people with all of the traditions of the elders, to get them back to the right kind of behavior.
A man, by the name of Ezra, fathered a whole group of people known as scribes. And the job of the scribe was to collect, to collate, to propagate, to interpret all of these slats in this traditional fence. And it just kept building up, and every rabbi commented on it, and every student commented on it, and more stuff, and more stuff, and more stuff. It just kept piling and piling and piling. And they lost – and it’s a very key point – they lost the distinction between the law of God and the tradition of men. It got rubbed out. And it was all a big mishmash. But the commentary effectively obscured the basic law of God.
Now, over the years, this thing became unwieldy and difficult to handle. So, in 200 A.D., Rabbi Yehudah pulled the whole pile together and committed it to writing, which must have been an absolutely monumental job, and it’s called the Mishnah – have you heard that? – from the Hebrew verb to repeat. It’s the Mishnah.
Then not only did they have the Mishnah, but beyond that, they needed commentaries on the Mishnah, because the Mishnah, which was trying to explain the law of God, needed to be explained. So, they had what was called the Gemara, and the Gemara are a series of commentaries on the Mishnah. So, you have the Mishnah, this massive accumulated tradition, and you have the Gemara which is the commentary on the tradition. And it’s filled with all kinds of things.
Well, some rabbinical schools got together and decided to put all this stuff together. So, in Jerusalem, they put the Gemara and the Mishnah together, and it became known as the Talmud. In Babylonia, they did the same thing, only they made four times the size. They collected four times more material, and the Babylonian Talmud is now the one that is the one that is the best or the most accepted one among the Jews. And by the way, if you were to buy a set, it’s at least 20 volumes in Hebrew. Massive amount of material. Massive.
Now, this wasn’t enough either. They added to this what’s called the Midrash, and the Midrash are commentaries on the various books of the Bible. And so, you have the Mishnah, and you have the Gemara, and you have the Midrash, and just volumes and volumes of stuff to wade through. All of this supposedly to fulfill the Mosaic injunction to the scribes to put a fence around the law. In effect, all it did was just totally obscure the law of God. It’s absolutely chaotic.
The sum of it is this. The Talmud says – here’s the key, and here’s where these guys were. Even though they were 200 years before the Mishnah was brought together with the Gemara, or before the Mishnah was even codified and written down, even though they’re before that, they still have all the stuff. They’re still trying to deal with all this material. And they had come to be so committed to it, listen to what the Talmud says, “The words of the scribes are more lovely than the words of the law.” The Talmud says, “It is a greater time to transgress the words of the school of Rabbi Hillel than the words of Scripture.” The Talmud says, “My son, attend to the words of the scribes more than the words of the law.”
So, you see, they were committed to a lot of traditional stuff, not the Word of God. They had ceremony and tradition as over against truth and righteousness.
Now, the – this huge mass of material in the Talmud is divided into sections. There are six main sections. And under those, there are tracts and treatises, and under those, there are paragraphs and chapters and all of that so you can look up stuff. One of those sections is on cleansings or washings. And under one of those headings is a whole little deal on hand rinsing. And that becomes the issue here.
Let’s look back at verse 2. “Why do Thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” That’s a general statement, but now they give an illustration, “For they wash” – or they literally rinse – “not their hands when they eat bread.”
Now, he’s not talking about cleanliness. He’s not saying, “These guys haven’t washed their hands before they eat, and anybody knows you want to be clean before you put food in your mouth.” That is not the issue. They’re not accusing them of being uncouth; they’re accusing them of violating religious tradition. They believed, because this is what it taught in all of this material, that you had to go through ceremonial washings of your hands for two reasons. Reason number one was that if you had touched a Gentile that day, you’d been defiled, and there was a prescribed ceremony to detoxify your Gentile touch. See?
Secondly, the rabbis taught that there was a demon by the name of Shibtah. And Shibtah dwelt on people’s hands while they slept. And if they did not go through the ceremonial washings that eliminated him, they would pass him therefore to their food and into their bodies. Now, this became so important to them that Rabbi Ta’anith taught, quoting, “Whosoever has his abode in the land of Israel and eats his common food with rinsed hands may rest assured that he shall obtain eternal life.” They believed that you received eternal life by going through the ceremonial rinsing of your hands.
Now, granted, in the Old Testament, there were washings that God instituted in Exodus 19, before the people came before God. He had them wash all their garments. The priests in Leviticus 15, 16, and 17 had to wash themselves before, of course, they could carry out any rites of the priesthood. But those were outward symbols of an inward reality. They had long ago slain the reality, and now they had magnified the symbols and invented their own. Nowhere in any part of holy Scripture does God ever say to go through this kind of stuff, to rinse your hands in a ceremonial way to get rid of any Gentile influence or to drown or whatever the demon Shibtah so he won’t get in your body.
Edersheim, the great Jewish scholar, writes this, “Water jars were kept ready to be used before every meal. The minimum amount of water to be used was a quarter of a log” - which, by the way, is defined as enough to fill one-and-a-half eggshells. “The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upward. And it must run down the arm as far as the wrist and drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands. And if it ran down the fingers again, it would render them unclean. The process was repeated with the hands held in the downward direction, the fingers pointing down. And finally, each hand was cleansed with being rubbed with the fist of the other. And a strict Jew would do this before every meal and between every course in every meal.”
And Rabbi Ta’anith said, “If you do that, you’ll obtain eternal life.” And so, they did it. So, the Word of God was utterly submerged under their tradition. In fact, the story is told of the very famous Rabbi Akiba, who was put into prison. And his water ration was reduced, and he took what little water he was given to wash his hands before eating rather than to drink it, saying he would rather die than transgress the tradition of the elders. Another rabbi said, “It’s better to go four miles to get water than to incur guilt by neglecting hand rinsing before you eat.
Well, lest you think it’s unique to the Jewish people, I submit to you that it isn’t necessarily unique to them, although it’s rather unique to them in this instance. But throughout history, even in Christianity, people have attached all kinds of meaningless ceremonies that have obscured the truth.
It’s like Spurgeon said one time, “If there were no Sunday morning service at 11:00, he thought many people would not be Christians. You can have all kinds of ceremonies/traditions. So, we go then from the confrontation to the condemnation in verse 3, and watch how Jesus responds to this. They are defending ceremonial religion. They are defending the religion of the external.
Verse 3, “But He answered and said unto them, ‘Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?’” Now, I want you to notice the word “also.” That word is an admission of guilt. Jesus is saying, “Yes, we do break your tradition. We do that. We don’t deny that.” And then He dismisses it. He doesn’t even bother to deal with it, because it’s so meaningless. He had no reason to keep their tradition. Right? It wasn’t binding. True? No point in it. “Yes, we do do that. So what?” Swept the whole thing away as meaningless. Never even interacted with it, never even discussed the issue, never even answered the question about washing/rinsing. Never said a word about the disciples’ hands and what they did or didn’t do when they ate. There was no issue there for Him to deal with. It was utterly meaningless; it was pointless.
He simply said to them, “We’re not violating any commandment of God, but you are with your tradition, and therefore” - He said - “the only thing that matters is not tradition but” – what? – “Scripture.” That’s all that matters, not tradition. Only Scripture’s binding. They called them – the traditions of the elders – He said, “They’re your traditions,” and so, He pulled them out from behind the skirts of the elders and showed them to be the responsible parties.
They said, “Why do you break the traditions,” and they give Him an illustration. And He said, “Why do you break the commands of God by your traditions,” and He gives them an illustration, too. Watch in verse 4. “For God commanded, saying” – and He quotes Exodus 20:12 – “‘Honor thy father and mother.’” Now, that’s a very clear command, “Honor your father and mother.” Bound up in honor is respect, love, reverence, sense of dignity, and also financial support. You’re supposed to take care of your parents. You’re supposed to give them the money they need to live. When they get old and cannot work and have need, you’re supposed to meet that need. That was all bound up in that.
So, the Scripture said, “You are to honor your father and mother.” You’re to meet their needs. You’re to care for them. You’re to give full respect and honor to them, which means supporting them if they need it.
And on the other hand, He quotes 21:17 of Exodus, “If you don’t do that, on the other hand, and you revile or curse or remove the dignity of your father or mother, then you should die the death.” In other words, you take care of your parents or there is capital punishment. That’s very clear, very simple. They knew it; they understood it; there’s little argument. It’s right out of the Ten Commandments.
And He says, “Look, you know that. But you say” – verse 5 - you don’t accept that command; you violate it. And then this most interesting and somewhat difficult verse at first, “‘Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, ‘It is a gift’” - dōron, or as Luke – Mark says it, rather, it is korban “‘by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me.”
Now, let me tell you what that’s saying, and I’ll give you a simple translation. Listen carefully, “But you say, ‘Anyone who says to his father or his mother, “korban,” or, “dōron”, whatever it might be by which you might have been helped, surely does not have to honor his father.’” Now, that’s the manuscript, the Greek translation of what is a little obscure in this text.
And you say, “Well, it doesn’t help me; what does it mean?”
Here you go. Your mother and your father have reached old age, and you’re responsible to meet their needs. But they had developed a tradition that if you said korban or dōron, which means - dōron means a gift, korban means an offering, you were saying, “All this is for God. I’m giving this to God.” Therefore, that was exempt then from any other use; you wouldn’t have to give it to your parents.
So, they were going around, teaching people that if you’ve ever said dōron, or if you’ve ever said korban over your possessions, you’ve made a vow to God, and Numbers 30, verse 2, says you have to keep our vow to God. And you’ve made a vow to God, korban, dōron. And if your parents come along with a need, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’ve given it to God.” You see, it’s so pious; it’s so self-righteous. And the Bible doesn’t say that.
You say, “Well, the Bible does say keep a vow.”
Yeah, but the Bible tells us also if you make a stupid vow, you better change it. And what they had done, they literally would say korban over everything they owned. “Korban, it’s all for God.”
And by the way, the Talmud says you can say korban later on and keep it for yourself. That’s right. That’s what the Talmud said, “Oh, you can do anything you want with it.”
So, the whole deal was this: they were so selfish that they did not want to meet the needs of their parents. And so, to justify that, they developed this tradition of saying korban or dōron, and by saying that over something, they therefore exempted it from having to be given to the people who were in need. Now, that was a direct violation of the law of God by one of their traditions. And that is a typical situation, where they have replaced a normal, godly love and desire to care for their parents, and to manifest a true changed heart. They had replaced that with self-centered, external religion. They had justified it by inventing a stupid, little game they played to keep things back from their needy parents.
Jesus is saying, “You are using your tradition to cause people to disobey God in the honor of their parents. And the Greek text is even indicated that they’re saying, “If you’ve said korban, you cannot give it to your father. So, you don’t need to feel guilty about it; you don’t even have a choice.” They wouldn’t stop at saying, “Well, you don’t have to do it,” because you’d still have to deal with the guilt. Right? They say, “If you’ve ever said korban, even in a passion, you’re not allowed to give it.”
The point was, as I said, the Talmud said, however, later on you could decide to keep it for yourself. I suppose you’d come back and say, un-korban.
You know, this thing got to be so ridiculous that they were big on these vows and all this stuff. But this got to be so ridiculous that when somebody owed you money, you could go to that person and say korban on your bank account. And therefore, that person’s bank account was devoted totally to God, and you could make claim on it.
Tradition. We think of tradition as something wonderful, and there are traditions that are warm in their bringing to us memories of past days and help us to keep culturally alive and sensitive. But this kind of tradition is debilitating and godless. And the Talmud said, “To be against the words of the scribes is more punishable than to be against the words of the Scripture.”
So, the people believed these guys. So, they were going around teaching this. Tradition. And Jesus says, you break the commandments of God. True religion is all bound up in one basic word, “obeying” the commandments of God, isn’t it? From the heart. From the heart.
Well, so we go through the confrontation and the condemnation to the commentary. And Jesus, in verses 7 to 9 offers a commentary on them right out of Isaiah chapter 29, verse 13. He quotes directly, “Ye hypocrites” – now, that is not mincing words. Hupokritēs means, “You people covered with a mask you spiritual phonies, you frauds.”
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you” – in other words, He’s saying, “When Isaiah said this, in 29:13, it was not only true of his own people, but, boy, he was speaking right to you.” And He is very likely speaking to some of you right now as well. Right here in this place. Hypocrisy. You spiritual phonies.
An early rabbi said, “There are ten parts of hypocrisy in the world: nine at Jerusalem, and one everywhere else.” And I suppose we could say today that there are ten parts of hypocrisy in the world: nine in the Church, and one everywhere else. If we know anything about Satan, we know that he invariably corrupts with hypocrites the truth. Hypocrites, playing a part.
And then He quotes Isaiah in verse 8, “This people draweth near unto Me with their mouth, and honoreth Me with their lips; but their” – what? – “heart is far from Me.” God is not interested in ceremonial, ritualistic, traditional religion. You hear people today even say, “Well, we’ve all – our family goes to such-and-such a religion, and it’s a tradition with us.” Tradition will damn your soul to hell if that’s all you’ve got. Jesus is not interested in tradition. He is not interested in people who draw near with their mouth, who honor with the lip, but whose heart is far from God, an empty pretense of worship.
And that, of course, is the indictment that He rendered in Matthew 23. And we’ll see that as we get along in the book of Matthew, but that – it’s just a blistering attack on them. Whited sepulchers outside, painted white; inside, stinking, full of dead men’s bones. You know? And all these indictments of the hypocrisy, of ceremonial, external, ritualistic religion that just keeps traditions, or just goes through ceremonies. And the heart is not toward God. A heart of obedience and love and true worship.
And then in verse 9, he quotes again from that same text; this time from the Septuagint or he Greek version, “In vain” – or in pretense – “they worship Me, because they are teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.” They’re putting human wisdom on the level of divine wisdom. What a terrible thing.
So, some men worship ritualistically, ceremonially, legally, with regulations. But what God wants is a heart worship. And that’s why Ezekiel 36 says that God’s going to take away the stony heart and put a heart of flesh. Because there has to be a new heart.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never enter into My kingdom.” And the kind of righteousness the scribes and Pharisees had was what kind? External, superficial, rules and regulation, playing around with the fence. And the kind of righteousness that Jesus Christ demanded was that of the heart.
And that’s why, from there on in that passage, He says to them, “You say ‘Don’t kill somebody,’ but I say, ‘Don’t even be angry.’ I’m going deeper than that to the very hard attitude. You say, ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ And I say to you, ‘Don’t even look on a woman to lust after her.’”
In other words, He takes them from that external kind of behavior, which they had ascribed as truth, and He pushes it into the heart and the attitude. And that is the reason Jesus was crucified, because the ceremonialists could not tolerate the religion of the heart, because their hearts were black and sinful. They were filled with the darkness and the night of sin.
May our worship be true. May it be what God wants it to be. And I guess we could say this in closing. You need to examine your heart. You need to look deeply within your heart, to examine it. Do you love Jesus Christ with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Do you long to be with Him? Do you long to be in His presence? Do you long to be like Him? Do you long to obey Him from the heart? That’s the stuff of true religion. If you’re going through the motions, God help you, because tradition/ceremony is a damning thing.
Father, as we have looked at this parable, for it is a parable – even though it’s a true story, it is a parable; it is a picture; it is a story with a lesson. And we have wanted to look at our own hearts. Are we those who are bound up in tradition, even though the tradition is connected with the truth? Or are we those who worship from the heart? Are we those whose hearts are filled with the light or the darkness? The truth or the error? Are we those who are bound only to ceremony and ritual? Or are we bound by love to the living Christ?
God, we pray that we might realize that there can be no heart religion, there can be no genuine relationship, there can be no true worship except through Jesus Christ. For only in Him can we come into Thy presence to receive from Thee a new heart.
And so, Father, we pray that Christ might be exalted in our lives. If there are any in our fellowship this morning who’ve never come to Christ; who’ve never opened their heart to Him; who’ve never received a new heart; a new spirit; who’ve never been born anew; who do not worship from the inside; who’ve never known what it is to love and obey, to hunger after righteousness, we pray that before this hour is past, they’ll enter into that knowledge, through faith in Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection for them.
And for the rest of us, Lord, help us to pursue always true worship, without hypocrisy, that we might not only honor Thee with the mouth and with the lip, but with the heart, that Thou mightest be pleased with our worship.
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