Matt. 14:34–15:4 The Difference Between
Christianity & Legalism
Translation & Sermon by
Nate Wilson for Christ The Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 16 Sep 2012
14:34 And after they crossed over,
they went on land into Gennesaret.
14:35 Then, once the men of that
place recognized Him,
emissaries into all that surrounding country
brought to Him all those who were bad-off,
14:36 and they were calling Him
aside in order to just touch the fringe of His clothing,
and as many as touched were
15:1 Then the Pharisees and scribes
from Jerusalem approached Jesus saying,
15:2 “For what reason do your
disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?
are not rinsing their hands whenever they eat bread!”
15:3 But He, in answer, said to
“And as for you, for what reason do
you transgress the law of God through your tradition?
God issued commands saying,
‘Honor your father and your mother,’
and ‘He who curses father or mother must end in death.’
as for y’all, you say,
shall say to his father or mother,
“Whatever you might be obligated [to receive] from of me was
15:6 thus he never has to honor his father or his mother,’
invalidate the command of God on account of the tradition of yourselves!
15:7 Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied
well concerning you, saying,
people is honoring me with their lips,
yet their heart keeps far away from me.
it is in vain that they are devoting themselves me
while teaching commandments of men for doctrines.’”
Introduction: Ways that people worship God in vain
- I used to live in a rural area where most of the residents
attended a church which taught that it was a sin for women to cut their
hair. Now, the Bible does seem to commend long hair for women (I Cor.
11:15), but nowhere does the Bible say it is wrong for a woman to cut her
hair. That church group also taught that husbands should make their wives
mow the lawns, so I often saw men sitting in a lawn chair on Saturdays watching
as their wives toiled across the lawn with the lawnmower. Church traditions
can get wacky and even abusive.
- Anybody remember when Oral Roberts climbed up into his
prayer tower in the 1980’s and said he was going to fast until God
provided 1.3 million more dollars for his medical school? The emotional
pressure he put on his followers with claims that God would take him home
if he couldn’t raise the money, and his insistence that he needed more
money after a wealthy businessman gave him the 1.3 million dollars made a
lot of us skeptical as to the authenticity of his religion. I was
personally appalled when I entered the chapel at Oral Roberts University and saw that the two most prominent features were a quote from Oral Roberts
and a quote from Jesus side-by-side.
- But all too often we are happy
to settle for putting the words of men on par with the word of God. I
remember going to a denominational assembly several years ago when a
doctrinal controversy came up in which some pastors claimed that the Bible
meant something different than what the Westminster Confession said. A
taskforce was commissioned to compare those ideas with the Westminster
Confession, and, sure enough, they concluded that it was different and therefore
worthy of condemnation. One pastor at the convention asked that another
taskforce be convened to compare these ideas with what the Bible actually said.
I was dumbfounded when all those men of God voted it down. Perhaps a
study of the Bible would have set the matter straight or perhaps it would
have concluded that the Bible was indeed ambiguous on those points of
dispute, but the message that was conveyed by that assembly was, “The
church needs to find unity based on the Westminster Confession rather than
based on the Bible.”
- Vanity is close to home as well. So many local churches
focus on repeating spiritual-sounding catchphrases over and over again in
songs and sermons as a way to gain the feeling of a spiritual high, but
this is not taught anywhere in the scriptures.
- My neighbor calls them 7-11 songs – choruses with 7 words
sung 11 times over.
- I even saw it in Uganda, where reciting Hebrew words like
“Hosanna” or “Halleluiah” over and over again were considered a
spiritual thing to do, but I don’t think most of them had any idea what
those words meant.
- Jesus told us in Matt. 6:7 not to use “meaningless
- We also have a problem in that
a lot of the new music that people want in church worship is actually driven
by businesses with a bottom line of making income. And generally income is
tied to entertainment appeal. John Calvin wrote of a similar situation in
his day, saying, “They are always inventing new forms of worship, and
cleverness in this respect is taken as a sign of superior wisdom in
general.” As much as the producers and radio stations and touring artists
and media sites call their music a ministry, they live or die on whether
or not they can get people to pay them to hear and sing their music, and,
while their music isn’t all bad, and the Bible does command us to sing new
songs, the business of popular music nevertheless introduces a lot of
mixed motives in the writing and performing of new songs which are
marketed to Christians through media channels.
- And what about the way we dress and act in church? I grew
up in a culture which placed a high priority on dressing up for church. I
was told that it was to show respect for God, and I think that is a good
reason. But all too often it seems that we dress to impress other people,
and we put on a pious face to mask the ugly attitudes spilling out of our
- When we come down to it, maybe it’s not all that easy to
worship God after all. How do we avoid all the pitfalls and IED’s?
- In our next passage of scripture, we see two contrasting
groups of people. One group of men from Gennesaret that gives Jesus the
honor that is due him, and another group of men from Jerusalem with a vain
form of worship. I think we can learn a lot from these two groups:
A. Sincere worship from Gennesaret
14:34 And after they crossed over, they went on land into
Και διαπερασαντες ηλθον επι την γην [εις] Γεννησαρετ
- So Jesus and His disciples have been up all night praying
and crossing the lake.
- They make landfall at Gennesareth, a “densely populated
and fertile plain south of Capernaum. It measures about 3 miles in length
along the Sea of Galilee… and 1.5 miles in width away from the shore.
According to Josephus, the plain produced walnuts, palms, figs, olives,
and grapes.” (Hendricksen, p.603-604)
- What were they doing there? Perhaps catching up on sleep,
perhaps further debriefing from the feeding of the 5,000 and the
water-walking experience of the previous day and night, perhaps making new
ministry contacts. Whatever the case, the parallel account in the Gospel
of Mark indicates that the locals recognized him immediately.
14:35 Then, once the men of that place recognized Him,
they sent emissaries into all that surrounding country
and brought to Him all those who were bad-off,
τοπου εκεινου απεστειλαν
εις ολην την
εκεινην και προσηνεγκαν
- The men did two things: first they Sent outKJV/aroundESV/wordNAS,NIV
– the Greek verb is apostelw, from which we get the word “apostle”
– it means to send someone out to do a specific task. In this case, the
task was to go into all the “surrounding countryKJV,NIV/ districtNAS/
regionNKJ,ESV,” find everyone who had an incurable disease, and
arrange transportation for them to get to Jesus.
- Can you imagine organizing a mission like that for our
town? If you wanted everybody in town to meet Jesus, how would you do it?
- Note that our passage says it was the men of the
town who performed this mission. It is a manly thing to rescue the weak
and bring them to good health.
- Mark’s gospel account pictures all these guys carrying
beds down the streets with sick people on them heading toward Jesus. It
makes an intriguing mental picture.
- These people knew Jesus’ reputation for healing, so they
brought their sick people to Jesus, trusting that the power He carried
could heal them.
14:36 and they were calling Him aside in order to just touch
the fringe of His clothing, and as many as touched were delivered.
αυτου και ‘οσοι
- We’ve seen this Greek phrase “touch the hem/fringe/edge of
His garment/cloak… and be delivered” before, when Jesus was heading out of
Capernaum and the woman with the unstoppable bleeding surreptitiously came
up to Him seeking healing.
- Jesus carefully kept the details of the O.T. law, which
included wearing blue tassels on the four corners of His clothes (Numbers 15:38-39, Deuteronomy 22:12)
- And, as I’ve mentioned before, the Prophet Zechariah
(8:23) prophesied about the nations grabbing the hem of the robe of a Jew
because God is with him, so perhaps it was this prophecy that led to a
belief among the people of Jesus’ day that if anyone touched the fringe
on Jesus’ clothing, they would be healed.
- Certainly, once the hemorrhaging woman was healed by
doing this, there was no stopping the rumor that this was how to do it –
just touch the fringe (or one of the tassels at the bottom) of Jesus’
- Furthermore, perhaps word had spread from Nazareth that Jesus didn’t do any miracles there. “What if He wasn’t willing to do any
miracles in Gennesereth either?”
- This might have reinforced people just coming up to Him
to touch His clothes without asking first, because, as the saying goes, sometimes
it’s “better to ask forgiveness than permission!”
- On the other hand, these people might not have realized that the
power to heal came from Jesus Himself rather than through some magical
power from God in His clothes, so that might also explain why they were
just trying to touch His clothes rather than make personal requests of
- Whatever the case, I believe that it was an act of faith in God for
these people to reach out to Jesus to be healed, even if it wasn’t a
- There was, however,
another group in town that did not have faith in Jesus and did not want
B. Hypocrisy from Jerusalem
15:1 Then the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem approached Jesus saying,
τω Ιησου [‘οι] απο ιεροσολυμων
φαρισαιοι και γραμματεις
15:2 “For what reason do your disciples transgress the
tradition of the elders? For they are not rinsing their hands whenever they eat
Δια τι ‘οι
χειρας [αυτων] ‘οταν
- These are probably the same high-powered lawyers from the
big city of Jerusalem mentioned in Matt. 12:24 and Mark 3:22, who were
sent to do legal research on Jesus in Galilee in order to create a court
case against Him that would result in His execution.
- They were the ones that accused Jesus of having a demon –
and who got whupped by Jesus’ response, so now they are trying again to
find fault with Jesus.
- But come on guys! Is that the worst thing
you can come up with concerning Jesus? That His disciples don’t wash their
- Probably the 5,000 men who had just eaten from Jesus’
miraculous feast came back home that night buzzing with excitement. They
probably told everybody in Capernaum about what had happened. These Jewish
leaders heard the story, but they noticed a detail that the people had overlooked.
Jesus had not organized a grand handwashing ceremony for all those
thousands of people before they ate, He just had them sit down and eat!
- Mark 7:3-4 “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat
unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of
the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat
unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which
they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and
pitchers and copper pots.” (NASB)
- “What the Pharisees wanted
was not the normal cleansing of the hands but the… ritual rinsing of the
hands in any case, that is, even though they were clean” (Hendricksen’s
translation of quote from F.W. Grosheide).
- There is a book called The Life and Times of Jesus by
Edersheim, which unfolds these elaborate rituals: Before a meal – or after
being out in the market (where you might have had some incidental contact
with a gentile), you were to wash by making one hand into a fist and then
rubbing it with the other hand while water was poured over it. The water
came from large water jars carried from wells, and was ladled out with a
glass ladle which must hold at least as much water as could be contained
in one and a half egg shells. It was very important that the wrist also
be washed. If kids forgot to wash their wrists as well as their hands, it
was back to the washroom for them! It was also very important for the
hand that rubbed the other one to already be rinsed with water,
otherwise, you had to rub that hand against your head or against a wall.
Also, if the food you were about to eat was holy in any special way, then
your hands had to be dipped in a basin of water as well as rinsed. Then,
in between courses of the meal, there were optional handwashings, and
after the meal, it was very important to conclude by lifting your hands
up to have water poured on them, and the water had to run down past the
wrists. (cf. G. Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, p.117.)
- 19th Century Commentator Albert Barnes wrote
that they had many rules “respecting the quantity of water that was to be
used, the way in which it should be applied, the number of times it
should be changed, the number of those that might wash at a time, etc. Our Saviour did not
think it proper to regard these rules, and this was the reason why they ‘found
fault’ with him.”
- What instructions did God actually give about washing
- Ex. 30:19-21 Priests were to wash hands before offering
burnt sacrifices, which symbolized a spiritual cleanness from sin
necessary to commune with God.
- And Lev.15:11 People were to wash their hands after
touching something unclean, which indicates a value on good hygiene
- But nowhere does the Bible tell us that we have to do a
special rinsing ceremony before every meal.
- According to Luke 11:38, Jesus Himself didn’t always wash
before meals either.
- Now, I still believe that Dr. Lister did us a favor in
the 19th Century when he started teaching people to wash their
hands to get rid of germs. There are probably good reasons why your mom
told you to wash your hands before you eat, but it’s not a command of God
(although God did command that children obey their parents, so if your
parents tell you to wash your hands, then it is obeying God to
wash your hands!)
- Here is the heart of the problem – the point where humans
are so easily led astray from a relationship with God: it is when human
rules and expectations and traditions become as important as (or even more
important than) God’s actual words and commands.
- The Pharisees and scribes
used a word, “transgress/break,” which was only ever used in God’s word
to speak of violating an explicit command that came directly from God,
- This word is used regarding transgressing the two
greatest commandments (Num 27:14, 1 Sam 12:21),
- breaking the 10 Commandments (Ex. 32:8, Deut. 9:12-16,
17:20, Job 10:17, Psalm 119:119, Isaiah 24:5, Dan. 9:11, Joshua 11:15),
- violating other specific
commands from God (Num. 14:41, 22:18, 24:13, Deut. 1:43, 1 Sam. 15:24,
Jer. 5:28, cf Acts 1:25 – the only other occurrence in the NT),
- and also to describe generally breaking away from a
covenant relationship with God (Joshua 7:11,15; 23:16; 2 Kings 18:12;
Isaiah 24:5; Ezekiel 16:59; 17:15,16,18,19; 44:7; Hosea 6:7; 8:1; Isa
66:24, Lev. 26:40).
- Nowhere is this Greek word for “transgress” ever used of
breaking a man-made tradition, and yet these religious leaders use the
word “transgress” in reference to their traditions, as though breaking
one of these man-made rules was a grave offense which would remove a
soul from the presence of God!
- This phrase “tradition of the elders” is not from the Old
Testament. It was a concept developed by Jewish teachers inbetween the
Old Testament and New Testament times, and probably refers to the Mishna
and Talmudic teachings:
- The Mishnah was a
body of interpretations of the Mosaic law by famous rabbis. It was memorized
and repeated by scribes over the centuries, and finally written down by
Rabbi Jehuda around AD 200.
- Later rabbis, however, felt that the Mishna itself
needed explanation, so they created commentaries on the Mishna which
they called the Gemara.
- These Mishnah commentaries on the Penteteuch and Gemara
commentaries on the Mishna were combined into multiple-volume sets
called the Talmud. F.W. Farrar, in his book, History of
Interpretation, describes the Talmud as “all the wisdom and all the
unwisdom, all the sense and all the nonsense which was talked for centuries
in the schools of all kinds of Rabbis.”
- To be fair, some of these doctrinal traditions were
probably good ways of applying the principles of the O.T. law, but some were
not, and none of them carried the authority of the word of God.
- Here is what some of these writings say about
- “Whoever eats bread without washing of hands, is as if
he committed [adultery].” ~ R. Jose, T. Bab. Sota, fol. 4. 2
- Although the word for “bread” is in the Greek text of
v.2, the NIV and ESV omit it because of cultural differences between
Americans Middle Easterners. To “eat bread” meant to eat a meal,
not merely a piece of bread. The Mishna judged it o.k. to eat a piece
of fruit without washing hands first, but to eat a full meal
with bread was another matter. (Chagiga, c. 2. sect. 5-6)
- “He who blesses (food) with defiled hands, is guilty of
death.” ~Zohar in Deut. fol. 107. 3.
- “Whoever does not wash his hands as is fitting, is to
be punished above, and shall be punished below.” ~ Ib. in Gen. fol. 60. 2.
- These Jews even made up a story about an evil spirit
named Shibta that squats on people’s hands while they’re sleeping and,
if they don’t wash their hands, he’ll do the same on their food.” ~Gloss.
in. T. Bab. Yoma, fol. 77. All this was said to manipulate Jews into
following a man-made rule about washing hands.
- While there’s nothing wrong with running water over your hands per
se, the problem is that these Jews prioritized the traditions of the
scribes above God’s word:
- “Know then, that ‘the words of the Scribes’ are more
lovely than the words of the law: for, says R. Tarphon, if a man does
not read, he only transgresses an affirmative; but if he transgresses
the words of the school of Hillell, he is guilty of death, because he
hath broke down a hedge, and a serpent shall bite him. It is a
tradition of R. Ishmael, the words of the law have in them both
prohibition and permission; some of them are light, and some heavy, but
‘the words of the Scribes’ are all of them heavy… ‘weightier are the
words of the elders,’ than the words of the prophets.” ~John Gill
quoting T. Hieros. Beracot, fol. 3. 2. These are the kind of
self-serving, blasphemous statements that the scribes used to obey
human traditions rather than walk in the freedom of what God’s word
says (and does not say).
- We still do these kinds of things today. For example: In the
Westminster standards and the Presbyterian Book of Church Order that I
grew up with, it is a standard for the Lord’s Supper to be dispensed
only by a lawfully-ordained minister.
- Now, it is a sensible standard intended to keep totally
ignorant people from leading communion services and unknowingly
bringing harm to themselves and others, since God’s word says that
those who partake in an unworthy manner bring judgment upon themselves.
(I Cor 11)
- However, the Bible doesn’t say anywhere that communion
services have to be led by ordained ministers. That particular standard
goes beyond what is written, and binds the consciences of people even
though it does not have a Biblical warrant.
- When I was living under the authority of those
standards, I often saw church congregations which I believed should
have been sharing Communion but which were not allowed, because they
didn’t have an ordained minister.
- They violated Jesus’ command “this do in remembrance of
me,” in order to keep the man-made rule of “may [not] be
dispensed by any but a minister of the Word, lawfully ordained.”
- Now, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the
bathwater. The considered opinions of older men who have studied God’s
law are certainly worth honoring if they do not contradict God’s word,
but anything that goes beyond the word of God does not carry the force
of having to be obeyed in order to be pleasing to God.
- Here’s a quote from John Calvin: “The world is impatient
of legitimate rule and especially stubborn against bearing the yoke of
God. Yet will quickly and willingly ensnare itself in empty traditions;
nay, many seem to desire such slavery.”
- The Apostle Paul warned of this very thing in Col. 2: “Let
no one keep defrauding you of your prize... If you have died with Christ
to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in
the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not
handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to
things destined to perish with use)--in accordance with the commandments
and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the
appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe
treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly
indulgence.” (Colossians 2:18-23, NASB)
- Back in May 17, 2009, when I preached on the headcovering
passage 1 Corinthians 11:1- 5, I spent a lot of time talking about
traditions, and my conclusion was that we should indeed follow traditions
(and even develop new ones) that follow Christ and demonstrate what we
believe (as meaningful, personal expressions of faith, not empty, slavish
tradition), but we should always evaluate traditions in our culture and
decide whether or not to practice them ourselves based on God’s word,
rather than just doing things because someone else does them.
recommend reviewing that sermon if you can find the time for it this
- Jesus nails the problem of prioritizing obedience to men
over obedience to God in His reply:
15:3 But He, in answer, said to them, “And as for you, for
what reason do you transgress the law of God through your tradition?
ειπεν αυτοις Δια
τι και ‘υμεις
του θεου δια
την παραδοσιν ‘υμων
- Jesus uses the same word “transgress” but He contrasts the
offense of breaking God’s law with the offense of breaking a man-made
tradition, and the implication is clear that when God’s law in the Bible
conflicts with a human tradition, we must dispense with the tradition and
follow God’s word.
- The example Jesus raises has to do with a conflict that
would be like the difference between obeying the 5th Commandment
before God and gaining a tax exemption with the IRS:
15:4 For God issued commands saying, ‘Honor your father
and your mother,’ and ‘He who curses father or mother must end
και την μητερα
- I’m going to stop at this point and work on developing the
doctrine of the 5th commandment “Honor your father and mother”
in the next sermon.
- But note that Jesus goes to the commands of God recorded
in the Bible as His authority, rather than to human traditions.
The question is, Which group
characterizes us: the men of Genneseret or the Pharisees from Jerusalem?
- Are we preoccupied with maintaining a certain set of
traditions? Looking good, Doing what men think we should be doing?
- Or do we acknowledge that we
are such a mess from our sin that we are desperate to get close to Jesus
and help others get close to Jesus, believing that He is the one who can
fix our problems?
Are you showing up at church because you feel like that’s
what good people do?
Do you participate in the liturgy and hymns because that’s what the people here
expect of you?
- Have you ever had a friendship with somebody where they
were always nice to you and you thought you were good friends, but then
you found out from somebody else that they really resented you and were
just faking being nice around you? The way that made you feel can give you
some idea of how God feels when we try to hide our sin and act religious.
He knows our heart isn’t really in it, and that is repulsive to Him.
- Just a week or two ago, I was leading our congregation in
singing the hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and I was just sailing
along, waving my hand to conduct, when I realized that I was halfway
through the song and had no idea what was coming out of my mouth. I was
just there because I was supposed to lead the singing, and I was so
familiar with the hymn that I was on autopilot, mouthing words while my
brain was thinking about other things.
Thankfully, God is gracious.
When we repent and “draw near to God, He will draw near to us” (James 4:8). And
it doesn’t require any elaborate ceremony. All I had to do to correct course in
the middle of that hymn was to think, “Yikes, I’m sorry, God,” and re-engage
mentally with what I was singing: “‘Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,’ Wow, how glorious to be
forgiven and to have Your Spirit within me! Yes, ‘Great is Thy faithfulness!’”
Then, as we receive the blessing of God’s grace, let us,
like the men of Gennesaret, bring others into the presence of Christ that they
too may experience His grace. That’s real worship!
And, in order to avoid legalism, we must do two things:
- Learn what the Bible says – and does not say, and
discipline yourself to major on the things the Bible makes a big deal
about, and hold your brothers and sisters accountable to those things.
Gathering advice from people who have had more opportunity to study the
Bible is part of that process of learning what the Bible says and does not
say. But there is great freedom in knowing what the Bible does not
- Be as gracious towards others and their cultures and
traditions as God is gracious with you. Don’t judge them harshly for
having different traditions than you.
Jesus decided not to do the traditional Jewish handwashing
ceremony, but He didn’t make His next round of ministry in Galilee into the
“Don’t Wash Your Hands Tour.” He just didn’t make a big deal of it.
The date of Easter was a big deal in the early church because
apparently some of the apostles decided to commemorate Easter on a Sunday, and
other apostles did it on Passover. When followers of those disciples ran into
each other and realized they were celebrating Easter on different dates, wow,
the sparks flew, but they shouldn’t have.
Even today, some Christians say that since there is no command in
the Bible to celebrate Christmas, then Christians should not celebrate Christmas.
The truth is that Christmas is a manmade tradition, although it
commemorates a Biblical event, and if it is a way you can sincerely honor God,
then great. But the simplistic approach of avoiding all man-made traditions is
itself a tradition, and it doesn’t necessarily make you a better Christian if
you boycott traditions like Christmas.
We could talk about clothing styles or details of baptism that go
beyond what is addressed in the Bible and get into all kinds of controversies
too, but don’t have time for that her. Just extend some grace.
So, get straight what comes from the Bible and what is
manmade tradition, and extend grace to people who practice different traditions
from you. These two principles will go a long way in helping us not “invalidate
the commands of God because of [our] traditions.” More next week!