One of the most instructive and compelling statements ever delivered by our Lord Jesus came when He quoted the prophet Isaiah in Matthew 15:7-9: “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’”
It’s especially relevant when we consider whom Jesus was addressing. He was addressing the most respected religious leaders in Israel at that time—the scribes and the Pharisees. The scribes were the most highly educated Jews of their time—they were experts in God’s Old Testament Law. The Pharisees were the strictest sect of the Jewish religion (cf. Acts 26:5)—zealous and fanatical in observing the fine details of Jewish religious practice. Both groups were thought by the rank and file Jew to epitomize what the Jewish faith was all about.
So, Jesus’ bold and public proclamation about the bankruptcy of their relationship with God was absolutely shocking to all who heard it.
He labelled them as hypocrites—the kind of people who only pretended to serve God but were faking it. And on top of that, He described all their efforts at worshipping God as being in vain—futile, to no purpose, worthless and without effect. For all their devotion to their religion, they were not impressing God one bit. Their worship was completely worthless!
Then Jesus provided the single reason why they were wasting their time: they were “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (v. 9b).
An eternal wisdom can be extracted from a clear understanding of this statement, especially in relationship to the specific groups of people it then described. The nugget at the core of this statement’s wisdom was this: The scribes and the Pharisees dared to replace God’s Word with the teachings of mere men as their guiding principle in life.
Two examples of this fatal religious flaw are given in this story. Jesus was asked by the scribes and Pharisees why his disciples were breaking “the tradition of the elders” because they did not wash their hands before eating (Matthew 15:2).
The “tradition of the elders” were the teachings of mere men; in this case, the law established by respected Jewish rabbis of the past. In many cases, these teachings had represented efforts to explain or further define the teachings of God’s Word, but the teachings of these men had ultimately contradicted and then replaced God’s instructions. As the Pharisees asked Jesus this question, they unwittingly revealed the real standard for all their spiritual devotion and practices—men’s words instead of God’s Word.
Washing hands before eating may be a good idea, especially in a pandemic, but it is not the Word of God. And now mere men were judging and condemning the Son of God ostensibly for violating God’s law, when all along it was merely a human tradition.
Jesus pointed this out with His counter-question: “Why do you yourselves transgress the Word of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).
Clearly Jesus was stating God’s Word, not man’s teachings, must be the standard for our faith and practice.
Then Jesus provided another example of the very same kind of error. “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death’ (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 20:9). But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:3-6).
In other words, the greedy scribes and Pharisees were teaching their hearers to give to God (i.e., the temple and its religious workers, whom they were) any money which adult children might have used to help their aging parents. God obviously had intended the opposite—that honoring parents meant helping them financially when they needed help. Jesus, God in the flesh, was not impressed, and saw this subverting of God’s Word as the creation of an excuse to allow folks to avoid helping their parents, while at the same time lining the pockets of very religious authorities who invoked these manmade laws.
This is an error that has been repeated by “religious leaders” through history ever since—from the Roman Catholic Church’s selling of God’s forgiveness through the indulgences infamously offered by Tetzel in 1517, to the dismantling of God’s prohibitions against homosexuality in many American churches today.
When we fail to hear Jesus’ warning on this subject, we render ourselves vulnerable to His shocking pronouncement about the eternal destiny of these same scribes and Pharisees found in the Sermon on the Mount: “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
As most of the rest of this famous sermon demonstrates, it’s the teachings of false prophets like the scribes and the Pharisees that are responsible for leading many to take the broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-23).
Jesus emphasizes the importance of following God’s Word, and God’s Word alone, as though our eternal destiny depends on it, with these immortal words which concluded His great sermon:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall (Matthew 7:24-27).
In this age of compromise, we dare not forget these words.
Next time: Why observing God’s Word versus men’s teachings is such a big deal to God.
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