Tradition

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were 'unclean', that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, 'Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with "unclean" hands?'

He replied, 'Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.' (Mar 7:1–8)

Mark begins the passage by telling us that some Pharisees and teachers of the law had come from Jerusalem and had gathered round Jesus.

Jesus was at Gennesaret, ninety miles north of Jerusalem, but his ministry was causing such a stir in Israel that the leaders of the Jews had sent a delegation to watch him closely. They'd already challenged him about healing on the Sabbath, now they wanted to know why his disciples were eating with 'unclean' hands.

One of the main criticisms Jesus had of the religious leaders of his day was that they were following the traditions of men rather than the Word of God. They'd departed from some of the commands God had given them and were following rules given by men. That meant that man was now the supreme authority in spiritual matters, and not God.

Could that happen today? Could we (without realizing it) be following the traditions of men rather than God? It's only as we measure what our churches do and teach, against his Word, that we can find that out (Act 17:11).

The Jews didn't hide the fact that they followed tradition. 'Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders?' they asked Jesus. Likewise, many denominations today openly follow tradition: they talk about 'the Anglican tradition', 'the Methodist tradition' and even 'the Pentecostal tradition'.

What is tradition? Tradition is a belief or practice passed down from generation to generation, but in the Church it's a belief or practice that is not based on Scripture.

Is tradition wrong? Not in the secular world. I live in a country steeped in tradition (the UK). We have one of the oldest parliaments in the world, headed by a monarchy that dates back thirteen hundred years. Many of the things that are done have remained unchanged for centuries.

Tradition like that is not wrong, it can give people a sense of belonging, but tradition in the Church is bad news.

Renewed minds

I don't think many of us realize what a powerful effect tradition can have on us—even in respect to spiritual things. Tradition conditions us to do certain things and to think in certain ways and it's difficult, sometimes, to change those ways.

I met an elder of a church many years ago. The Lord had visited the church where he'd worshipped. Many had been born again and baptized with the Holy Spirit (including himself) and had left to form a new church where the Holy Spirit could be sovereign.

Great things were being done among them, but he said to me with sadness in his voice: 'I've been a Methodist for forty years and it's going to take the Lord forty years to get Methodism out of me.'

I was surprised by what he said, but I've never forgotten it. What did he mean? He meant that his Methodist beliefs and the Methodist way of doing things had become so ingrained in him that he was finding it difficult to think in other ways. He was, by his own admission, a conditioned Methodist. Is there a remedy for that? Yes there is.

Paul wrote:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom 12:2)

God doesn't want us to conform to the pattern of this world, or the pattern of our denomination if its practices and beliefs oppose the Word of God. Instead he wants us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

That is achieved through the study of his Word—saturating ourselves with the Word so that our old ways of thinking are erased and we start to think as God wants us to think. When that is done we'll be able to see what his will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Corban

Tradition can cause problems in the Church in at least two ways:

It was this second point that Jesus emphasized in his teaching.

And he said to them: 'You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, "Honour your father and your mother," and, "Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death." But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: "Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.' (Mar 7:9–13)

The leaders of the Jews were advocating many practices that were nullifying the Word of God, but Jesus chose one to speak about: Corban. Why did he choose that one? Because it's relevant to us.

Of the ten commandments God gave his people on Mount Sinai, the first four concerned their relationship with God and the final six their relationship with mankind. The first of the six was about how they should treat their parents.

'Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.' (Exo 20:12)

That commandment is also part of the New Covenant.

'Honour your father and mother'—which is the first commandment with a promise—'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.' (Eph 6:2–3)

Christians are not under Old Testament law—meaning the ceremonial aspects of the law, such as the sacrifices that had to be made and the religious festivals that had to be kept: God put those into his law to illustrate spiritual truth.

But the moral aspects of the law (those that concern man's behaviour towards God and his fellow man) still stand and are binding on us. Judge for yourself: Is it right for a Christian to murder, steal or commit adultery? In the same way, we should also honour our parents.

Jesus made it clear that 'honouring' our parents involves more than just speaking well of them, it includes looking after them financially if they're in need. Paul underlines that in 1Ti 5:8:

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

That is a strong statement. Even unbelievers (usually) provide for their own families, and Christians should do the same.

Jesus criticized the leaders of the Jews for encouraging the people to give to God while their parents were in need. Jesus wants us to provide for our families before we give to him. What does 'providing for our families' mean? It means making sure they have the necessities of life. If we don't do that we've denied our faith in Christ.

Emotional blackmail

What was Corban about? It was about money. The leaders of the Jews wanted the people to give to God to swell their coffers. They weren't bothered about anyone else as long as the money came in. Could that happen today? Yes it could: why do you think God has put this into his Word (2Ti 3:16–17)?

We are currently witnessing increased competition in the Church for the Christian's pound or dollar, and that competition is becoming intense. Many ministries are claiming to have the 'burden of the Lord' or the 'vision of God' and are asking for our support.

The visions they've received may be of the Lord, but some of the methods they use to finance them are not. They range from incorrectly handling the Word—teaching that Christians should tithe (which is not part of the New Covenant)—through worldly marketing techniques, and even to emotional blackmail.

I was appalled, many years ago, to receive a letter from the head of a famous ministry (whom I will not name) telling me that if he didn't complete a task the Lord had given him, by a certain date, he would be taken home (ie he would die prematurely).

He asked the Lord how he could raise such a large sum and the Lord told him that his partners would provide it—effectively making them responsible for his life or death. He wrote: 'My life depends on what you do with this letter!'

I didn't give a penny to that appeal: it wasn't from the Holy Spirit, it was from man; it was emotional blackmail. Why should God take one of his servants home because others had failed to support his ministry? The apostle Paul had many problems with financial support, but God didn't remove him from the earth because of it: the fault was in the people, not in Paul (1Co 9:3–12).

I don't know whether he received the money, but he was still alive twenty-three years later. Not everything that is done in the Church is of the Holy Spirit, not even among large ministries. The size and popularity of a ministry does not mean everything is right.

The world in the Church

I recently watched an advert on a Christian television channel for a series of books that had been written by one of the presenters of the channel. As an introductory offer they were being sold at an especially low rate; but I was warned, several times, that after the introductory period was over they would be sold at their full price, which was considerably more.

Those are worldly sales techniques that have no place in the kingdom of God. If they can sell those books to you at that price now, they can sell them to you at that price anytime. Why charge more because you buy them after a certain date? Will their costs have gone up? No.

Perhaps you haven't got the money to buy them now. Is that showing love to you—charging you more, later, for the same books? It's alright for the rich, they can buy them immediately and take advantage of the offer; but the poor have to save up for things and they would have to pay the most for that spiritual food.

Does that sound like Jesus? Didn't Jesus come to bring good news for the poor? But they have nullified the Word of God: they've changed it into good news for the wealthy. More importantly, they've favoured the rich over the poor, which is sin (Jam 2:1–9).

Spirit-led giving

Why do they do these things? They do them because they're effective and increase their income. They've brought the world into the Church because it works; and because it works they think it's God's will.

Christians should not be swayed by emotional appeals, special offers or other worldly techniques. We should always listen for the voice of the Lord in an offering and not give until we receive a prompt from the Spirit.

Christians should be Spirit-led in every area of their lives, and that includes their giving (Rom 8:14).

Michael Graham
July 2009
Revised November 2012

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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