Doctrine vs Tradition (Mark 7:1-13)

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 22, 2021)

This morning, via our appointed Gospel reading, you and I are called upon to make a most vital distinction between the teachings of God and the teachings, or traditions, of men.  Now, it ought to be clear to anyone that in the church the teachings of God and the teachings of men; the people of God that is, ought to be identical.  There would certainly be no justification for any discrepancy between the two.  Here’s an example related to our text: in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees and Scribes, who had come to Capernaum to confront Him for what they considered was His lack of proper supervision of His disciples’ behavior, He said, “For Moses said, ‘honor your father and your mother;  and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’”  Is this not the Fourth Commandment which God had given to Moses on the holy mountain?  Here Moses’ words are God’s words. To follow or honor the one is to follow and honor the other.

Unfortunately, men and God do not always talk with one voice. In fact, more often than not, men, all humans, have the unsavory knack to speak from their own mind and heart, which have been severely seared by sin and every evil desire imaginable.  Not speaking the same as God can even occur within the church or from the lips of those who have been given positions of teaching or preaching responsibility in the church.  When this happens, the very authority and veracity of God’s Word is challenged or even “nullified” in the hearts and minds of the hearers.  We can all agree this is not a good thing.  In fact, it would be an evil, a soul-condemning thing!

Let me give you a quick test to see if you can distinguish between “divine doctrine” (God’s teachings) and “human doctrine” (teachings).  First, some rather obvious differences:

… Monogamy or polygamy, which is God’s teaching and which is man’s?

… The earth and the universe were created by God in six days or everything evolved of its own volition over a period of millions, or even billions, of years?

… Governments can wage just wars or all war is wrong?

Now, how about some rather subtle differences:

…Sexual intimacy is appropriate between any persons who love each other, or sexual intimacy is for husband and wife only?

…Drinking alcohol is a sin, or drunkenness is a sin?

…Love your neighbor as yourself or love yourself first or else you won’t be able to love anyone else?

How did you do?  Did you rightly decipher what comes from God verses what comes from some human or other voice (like the devil)?  It is not always easy to determine, is it?  Some things humans come up with, not to mention, the thoughts the devil and his minions might seek to deviously implant into the thoughts of people, sound very close to what God has said or may even sound more reasonable, right or pleasant, than what God has actually said.  Obviously, the only way you and I can be sure as to what is the doctrine of God and what might simply be the teaching, or tradition, of man is to search it out in the Holy Scriptures, our only true and reliable source as to what God has said.

Now, I’m sure some might not be concerned about this at all.  They would insist, “Who cares if it is just man’s words!”  After all, they don’t believe there is a God, or in a heaven or hell!  “Just follow that voice you feel is right in your own heart,” they insist.

However, for those of us who do believe there is a God, who has indeed created all things and Who has established what is right from what is wrong, and to whom we all will one day be accountable, it is of great importance to us whether or not we can discern and then follow what God says.

Jesus certainly cared who said what and whose voice we follow.  In fact, it is quite clear that He feels passionately that the one who can not discern what is God’s teaching will be lost.

As we look more closely at our text, we find that the Pharisees and the Scribes were questioning most specifically Jesus’ disciples’ seeming lack of concern to be following the tradition of the elders with regard to kosher eating.  Simply put, it appears that Jesus’ disciples were not washing their hands nor their food, eating utensils, even the reclining couches as was prescribed by the elders.  According to their traditions, the disciples were, therefore, eating in profane manner.

As Mark is careful to explain to his primarily Gentile audience, the teaching of the elders was that when it came to eating, everything needed to be made ceremonially clean.  This was to be done by, quite literally, “baptizing” everything; that is, by pouring water over them with a prayer, making them “set apart” from what was profane, worldly. 

As far as these religious leaders were concerned, this meant that Jesus, the clear leader of this band of deviates, was not doing his job.  Instead of seeing that these washings were faithfully performed, Jesus was allowing His followers to violate the elders’ tradition.  In their minds His permissiveness was causing his followers to place their very souls in jeopardy.

At first hearing, their concerns sound quite legitimate and even godly.  After all, the elders were the recognized spiritual leaders of Israel.  Everyone considered them as God’s chosen servants. They considered them leaders by divine right.  Their word was tantamount to God’s.

God has indeed established ruling authority both in the state and the church.  The apostle Paul calls legitimate secular rulers “ministers of God.”  We all are to obey and honor them as such and extend to them proper fear as those who “bear the sword” to punish the wicked (Romans 13:4-6)  By the same token, Holy Scripture is clear that God has given “apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers” as gits to the church “for the equipping of the saints… the building up of the body of Christ” Eph 4:11).  Since they are God’s appointed ministers, or servants, we are also exhorted to “obey your leaders and submit to their authority.  They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.  Obey them so that their works will be a joy and not burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13:17).  On another occasion, Jesus went so far as to tell His disciples that the Scribes and Pharisees occupied the “chair of Moses” (Matt. 23:2).

Following the “traditions of the elders, therefore, ought to be a given.  And, indeed, in most peoples’ minds it was.  Few ever questioned such tradition.  They followed it, if not gleefully, at least dutifully.  In fact, encouraged by the Scribes and Pharisees, the people considered the observance of the tradition of the elders as a means to please God and even earn favor with God, perhaps, even a means to appear righteous before God.

But look at the progression of the language Jesus uses in His conversation with these Scribes and Pharisees.  Quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus condemns them under divine judgment.  He says, “Well did Isaiah prophecy 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.’” Jesus then says very directly to the Scribes and Pharisees; You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men… You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition… you make void the word of God by your tradition.” 

Look how Jesus went from what they themselves called the traditions of the elders to calling these traditions the commandments of men over against the commandment of God, and finally, to your tradition  over against the commandment and word of God!  Jesus also quite pointedly told them that in their insistence that His disciples follow the elders’ traditions, they were actually placing His disciples in the position of honoring the word of the elders only to set aside the commandment of God.  Jesus said emphatically, the elders’ tradition was their tradition, not God’s and it was, in fact, nullifying the very word of God!

To make His point crystal clear Jesus recounted one example of the many ways these Pharisees and Scribes were nullifying the word of God.  Moses, He said, who they claimed to revere, taught them God’s doctrine of obeying and honoring father and mother, even noting the calling for the death penalty for those who would seek to dishonor their parents. Yet, these elders of Israel had established a loophole for themselves and others to get around God’s commandment and not honor their parents by taking care of them.  The tradition of the leaders was that you could declare your wealth and property as devoted to God.  This would make it excused from supporting the needs of your parents. Under this teaching of men you could do nothing for your parents with a guilt free conscience.  (Of course, I’m sure those who did declare their goods as dedicated to God actually turned them all over to God and His church!  Yea, sure!) So much for honoring your father and mother!       

Wow!  Talk about being on the wrong side of things!  You do not want to be making void God’s Word; that is, emptying it of its authority for your life or anyone else’s!  To do so is to place yourself under the wrath of God!  You’ve heard the expression, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  Well, hell is God’s fury for those who scorn God, who spurn His Word.

Unfortunately, nullifying the Word of God through the traditions or teachings of man was not confined to first century Israel.  It is rampant throughout the world and even the Christian community today.

Jesus drew attention to the Fourth Commandment. How about the Fifth, “You shall not murder?”  God teaches us in His Word that He is the Creator of all life and that He alone holds the keys to death.  He who gives life is the Only one who has authority to say when that life He has given should end.  This doctrine of God, however, is being “set aside” by the traditions of men.  Since 1973 and infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, it is now widely being taught that to end the life of your unborn child through abortion is the right of a woman to do.  “Your body.  Your choice!” they insist.  Her right to murder trumps the right of her child to live, the Creator’s right to decide who lives and who dies, and nullifies the Word of God.

And what about the Sixth Commandment of God: You shall not commit adultery?  God teaches that the marriage bed is not to be defiled and that He will judge the sexually immoral and adulterers (Heb. 13:4). He also teaches that a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).  Yet, the prevailing tradition in society is that a man and woman can live together as husband and wife without the seal of marriage and they are not sinning.  Or, how about this, even churches are sanctioning the joining together in matrimony two men or two women and calling it marriage!  They have put their word above God’s and abrogated His direct command! What good can come of this evil?

Speaking of what is being taught in the name of the church, look how many are nullifying God’s Word concerning Baptism!  God teaches that baptism is a “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit “ (Titus 3:5) yet the tradition of many is that baptism is simply a submission to God’s command and a way that the person is choosing God! 

God teaches that we are to baptize all nations (Matt. 28:19).  He makes no commands anywhere as to who is to be baptized.  In fact, we have the official Biblical record detailing for us example after example of the apostles baptizing whole households.  And yet, we have many setting aside the clear word of God to enact their own word, insisting that infants should not be baptized.  Not only by their human tradition are they robbing infants and small children of this special means of grace, they are nullifying the teaching of God!   

Even when it comes to “indifferent matters,” what is often called “adiaphora,” often man’s words are elevated above God’s Words.  But if we in any way teach concerning matters where God has not spoken that one way is more holy, more righteous, or more meritorious than another, then we have just made ourselves the authority and burdened consciences where God has left them free!

As Jesus told the Scribes and Pharisees, “and many more things you do,”  so you and I could go on all day pointing out how we human beings are nullifying the authority of God’s Word and replacing it with the authority of our own word. 

Does this mean, as some insist, that we should reject all traditions of the elders, all teachings of men?  Martin Luther once utilized an old German proverb to make His case to other reformers that simply because elements of the liturgy had been abused it doesn’t mean, as they were insisting, that the whole liturgy should be gutted and jettisoned.  He said you don’t throw the baby out with the dirty bath water!”  Most of the liturgy was God’s Word and pointed the worshiper to Christ.  The distinction to be made is whether or not a teaching or tradition encourages, supports or is in keeping with the Word of God or whether it doesn’t.  If it does, keep it, follow it, and teach it.  If the tradition does not support God’s clear teaching, it is to be thrown out so as not to make null and void God’s Word in the hearts and minds of people.

In this world and age where God’s Word is being set aside for man’s word, may God keep us ever discerning what is and what isn’t God’s Word.  And may He in His mercy, keep us ever steadfast in the teaching of God and not the mere traditions of men.

After all, unlike the commands and words of men, the command and Word of God is absolute whether men hold to it or not. God’s Word will not come back to Him void without accomplishing that for which He sends it.  Unlike man’s word, God’s Word regenerates, creates faith where there is no faith, gives life to the dead, and saves sinners unto eternal life. God’s Word, after all, is living and active.  The Word of God actually became flesh and blood, dwelt among us and rescued us through His suffering in our place to bring us forgiveness even for those times and places where we have sought to silence His Word, circumvent it, or replace it with our word.  The LORD says, “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as whit as snow!”

Thank God, not man’s traditions and words but God’s Word wins the day, especially His word of forgiveness for Jesus’ sake, which reigns supreme for all of eternity.

Such is the legacy of the reformation and the hallmark of Lutheranism as confessed by St. Peter:  Verbum Domini Manet Aeternum:  the Word of the Lord endures forever!”  God preserve us in His Word alone!    

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