On Sunday, August 26th, my pastor preached an excellent sermon from Matthew 15:1-9 at Lake Drive. The question he posed was, “What hold’s authority for the Christian?” The topic of the sermon was God’s word and man’s word—that is, God’s truth, His teaching, His commandments versus man’s teaching, man’s instruction, or man’s tradition. Allow me to share with you some thoughts I had or that pastor Curt Leonard brought out in his message.
God’s word is authoritative. It is perfect, it is true, and it is binding. As such it is the believer’s ultimate authority of faith (what to believe) and practice (what to do; how to live). A parallel truth to this fact is that God’s word is sufficient to instruct us on how to live godly lives in our present age or generation, which implies the concept of making direct applications of its truth to our contemporary setting.
And so as we begin our discussion on man’s word < God’s word, at the very beginning, we see that man’s word (man’s teaching, man’s instruction, man’s tradition, how man says to apply God’s word in our contemporary setting) is not necessarily or by nature opposed to God’s word (the truth, principle, or teaching from which the contemporary application application is derived). In other words, it would be a false dilemma, in this sense, to pose man’s word and God’s word as two necessarily incompatible things (i.e., man’s word v. God’s word).
However, difficulty arises in the fact that God does not make specific applications for us in the 21st century. He does not make decisions for us on how to apply His truth in our contemporary setting or in the variety of circumstances we may encounter. And at this point, we can easily error and fall into a variety of sinful pitfalls. Unfortunately, these failings tend to spark legalistic judgmentalism and needless controversy between believers, most often regarding specific areas of practice, often called “gray areas,” that are far from spelled out in scripture (i.e., media, modesty) or just difficult to determine dogmatically (i.e., drinking).
And as we approach the text of Matthew 15:1-9, the danger of which we must be reminded is the fact that those whom Jesus condemns as falling into these errors were most assuredly well-intentioned. It would appear that their religiousness and desire to live moral lives, two commendable things, is what lead them into these errors.
1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
8 “ ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”
Matthew 15:1-9 is a fantastic text that presents us with various principles on how to Biblically respond and handle this often difficult area.
1 | Don’t elevate man’s word to the level of God’s word; don’t make man’s word the authority or standard.
The first principle is that we cannot elevate man’s word to the level of authority of God’s word. Or as Jesus quotes Isaiah saying, “teaching as doctrines [or we could say, ‘dogma’] the commandments of men.”
A violation of this principle is what directly sparks the conflict and dialogue that we find here in Matthew 15:1-9—the Pharisees and scribes had elevated their man-made ceremonial hand washing rite to the level of scriptural authority. As a result they were judging and condemning people, namely Jesus’ disciples, for not following their rule.
Obviously this has mass practical implications for our contemporary setting. This principle affects the way in which we deal with others. We ought not to impose our word or others’ word (human traditions, man-made standards, or specific practices concerning things not extremely clear from scripture) as binding upon others. We ought not to authoritatively and judgmentally transplant the applications of our consciences, backgrounds, and settings to others. A large part of this is the principle of simply being cautious of speaking for God (speaking “thus saith the Lord”) on matters of which He has not specifically spoken. And also, we must remember that passages like 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14 assume and teach that difference in practice are allowed, and not only allowed, but due to conscience sake, can actually be a good thing (even within a local church[!], the setting of these epistles).
In sum, if/since scripture is sufficient for life and godliness, don’t go beyond God’s word (adding man’s word to the canon of authority); just apply it.
2 | Don’t follow any man-made word that is contrary to heart of God’s word.
Next Jesus teaches us not to violate God’s word (the true authority) by obeying man’s word. He said, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (v.3). You see, the Pharisees and scribes had a practice or tradition that they had developed (man’s word) in which one dedicated his possessions to the Lord so that they were in a sense the Lord’s. But as a result, when said person’s parents grew old and needed to be cared for, he was unable (or better, not obligated) to care for his parents for his possessions were the Lord’s and not at his dispense to be used for his parents. Thereby, such a person in following man’s word violated God’s. And so Jesus rightly says, “for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”
In other words, the raw teaching here is that we are not to follow man’s word if it violates God’s. And this truth is actually imbedded in, rooted in, or an implication of the first principle presented listed above—don’t elevate man’s word above God’s. In connection to the first principle, Jesus is saying that we cannot just blindly follow man’s word as if it is authoritative, because in so doing, even with good intentions, we can violate God’s word—the real intent and heart of His commands. When we make man’s word our standard of practice, we are no longer basing our decisions directly in the principles of God’s commands. And as situations and circumstances change and vary, this makes us incredibly susceptible to actually ignoring God’s commands. The danger is that our man-made tradition becomes an arbitrary standard, becomes something that has no practical benefit in helping us obey God’s instruction, or at worst becomes something that is actually contrary to the heart God’s instruction.
3 | Don’t make man’s word the end.
Thirdly, through a bold rebuke, Jesus teaches us that obedience to man’s word is not the goal. Again, the danger is actually that we can easily violate God’s word. Jesus calls the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites and quotes Isaiah who speaks of God’s disgust with mere external obedience (I talk about this in somewhat greater detail in a previous post—“Training Wheels and ‘Check Engine’ Lights”).
As sinful people we are naturally inclined towards work-based, effort-based, performance-based religion. And therefore, many of us are easily attracted to a legalistic system of to-do’s—”follow these certain rules, abide by these specific codes, and then you are set. We are naturally susceptible toward making man’s word the end, making it the goal, and making our spiritual check-list the gauge of how spiritually mature we are.
But in reality, although legalism isn’t easy in a sense, and although it’s unbearably burdensome, it’s actually a far easier route than what God desires for us (which is why we are attracted to legalism). He desires not simple behavior modification, but heart modification that results in genuine spiritual fruit as opposed to hypocrisy.
4 | Think Biblically.
And finally, as a last principle, we are to think Biblically. Now, this is not directly spelled out in the text, but rather, is an assumed implication and application. For example, principle #2 is that we are not to violate God’s word. This means 1) not violating God’s word with man-made standards that thwart it, and 2) not avoiding all standards and living however one wants (i.e., “well, God’s word doesn’t specifically say I can’t do ______ so therefore I can do it”), equally thwarting the proper application of God’s word. As opposed to both of these errors of violating God’s word is the imperative to follow God’s word, that is, to obey it.
Amidst this discussion on how we shouldn’t place authority in the words of man, we cannot head in the completely opposite spectrum of things and place no authority in anything whatsoever by living however we want. Jesus is certainly not teaching us to abandon authority, standards, and holy living. But this requires us to think Biblically, to learn how to and sharpen our ability to apply God’s truth in our specific situations every day. Part of this means avoiding the two ditches on each side of the road—antinomianism (living without any law) and legalism. On the contrary, we are to think Biblically.