Posts Tagged ‘human traditions’

The literary structure of Mark 7:1-13

We’re launching into an important passage today, Mark 7:1-23. There are actually two significant issues that are talked about in these verses – human religious traditions and how to be pure before God.  The plan is to deal with the first one today, in vs. 1-13. And we’ll look at the second, purity, next week.

Our Scripture begins with Jesus involved in, surprise, surprise –

A conflict

1Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.

So some Pharisees are present and also some experts of the Law from Jerusalem – the theologians of that day. They’re checking Jesus out. They want to see what he’s up to.

The last time we saw some scribes they accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan (3:22), so not a friendly audience. Well, they and the Pharisees take issue again when they see some of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before they eat.

Now, this isn’t about good hygiene. As v. 2 indicates, it has to do with ritual uncleanness or defilement; that is to say, eating this way makes you ceremonially unclean before God.

Mark goes on to explain –

3For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.

[“All the Jews” is a bit of a generalization. Certainly the Pharisees, who were influential, held to the need for washing hands, as did the Essences, another prominent group of Jews. 

One word in not translated. It comes at the end of the phrase in v. 3, “they wash their hands . . ..” It says literally “with a fist.” No one knows for sure what this means. It might mean “carefully” or it might refer to how the hands are ritually washed. 

The very last phrase of v. 4, literally “and beds” or “and dining couches” is not in all the manuscripts. So if your Bible doesn’t have it, that’s why.]

Mark here is helping his non-Jewish readers (us) understand the situation. 1) Washing things was a big deal for many Jews, especially the Pharisees. And 2) The command to wash hands comes from “the tradition of the elders” not from Scripture itself.

This body of tradition was followed by the Pharisees. It’s sometimes called the oral law. The idea was that Moses wrote down the Law in the Bible, but other instructions were passed on generation to generation by word of mouth. (This tradition was later written out in the Mishna, and other writings.) So, the Pharisees believed there are two sources of commandments, the written Law in Scripture and the oral law or tradition of the elders.

5And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

This is really an attack on Jesus. The charge is that his disciples aren’t faithful to God, which means that, since he’s their teacher, he’s not faithful. (Jesus also didn’t follow this practice – Luke 11:38).

Their charge involves both the issue of 1) keeping the traditions, and 2) what purity means. But as I said, we’ll focus on the first for today.

Jesus on human traditions

Jesus’ first response comes in vs. 6-8, where he calls them out as hypocrites.

6And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

A hypocrite looks one way – good, but is actually another – not so good.

Jesus quotes from the prophets, specifically Isaiah 29:3, a passage that deals with honoring God. And he sees this verse, on one level, as pointing to the Pharisees and the scribes – and their error here. (The quote is closer to the LXX, although the same basic point in made in the MT).

The word “worship” should be taken in its broad sense of  a life of service and obedience to God, not just how they participate in a worship service.

They look like they’re honoring God with their lives. But this is only external, with their lips. Their heart remains far away. Why is their heart far away? Why is their worship “vain” or useless? Because they are only about teaching and following human rules.

He’s saying Isaiah hit it right on the head about you guys –

8You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Notice the contrast here between a life that is based on God and God’s commandments, and a life that is based on tradition and human commandments, which is useless.

Jesus’ second response comes in vs. 9-13, where he illustrates their hypocrisy. He begins with the same point he just made in v. 8 –

 9And he said to them, “Well have you set aside the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”

He’s saying again, you prefer your tradition to God’s commands. You leave or set aside what God says, to keep what you say.

Jesus then quotes from the Law on honoring parents –

10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’”

 He’s quoting Exodus 20:12, the fifth of the ten commandments and Exodus 21:17. It was understood by all that honoring parents, for adult children, includes caring for them financially when the’re older. The second reference shows how serious this issue is. Those who don’t honor their parents, but revile or curse them, deserve the death penalty.

Then Jesus lays out their hypocrisy –

11But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother . . .”

Notice the strong contrast between what God has said through Moses, and what they say based on their tradition, which is not God’s word.

The word “corban” is a technical term for a vow to give your resources to God (that is, the Temple), but apparently the person here could still have access to them and use them until a later time. (This view was most likely held by many Pharisees and scribes at this time. It was rejected in later Judaism m. Ned. 9:1).

So based on their tradition the Pharisees and scribes said that you must keep your vow, and not the commandment to honor your parents. That is, you can withhold giving your resources to support your parents.

“. . . 13thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

They allow people to nullify what God commands, in order to keep a vow that is unrighteous in the first place. Indeed, they allow not only the breaking of the fifth commandment, but an action that is on a par with reviling one’s parents, which deserves the death penalty!

Summing up: Their charge was, ‘Jesus, you’re not faithful to God because you don’t keep the traditions of the elders.’ His response was, ‘Pharisees, you’re not faithful to God because you keep the traditions of the elders.’

They neither honor God (Isaiah 29) nor people, that is, their parents (Exodus 20 and 21). This is why they’re hypocrites. And he makes his point, not based on the traditions of the elders, mere human teaching, but based on the Law and the Prophets, that is, based on God’s word.

Well, it’s easy to criticize others, like the Pharisees, but –

What about us?

We all have human traditions. We all have opinions and convictions about how Christians should do things – that are not explicitly taught in Scripture.

  • What style of music should we sing in worship?
  • Should the sermon be about evangelism each week, with an altar call, or not?
  • What kind of clothes should we wear to church? Should we dress up or it doesn’t matter as long as they are modest?

Maybe you would see “the tradition of the elders” as equaling doing things the way we’ve always done things. But maybe our religious rule is that we have to be on the cutting edge and always do something new. It can work either way.

Now, for sure, we have to make choices on things to be able to function as a community. It isn’t wrong to have some traditions. But they can be taken too far.

What about us? Learn to differentiate between your traditions and God’s word. Eight times, in one way or another, our passage talks about human religious traditions. And throughout these are contrasted with “God’s word” or what is written in Scripture. These things are not the same. And so do not put them on the same level as the Pharisees did.

Yes, sometimes we have different views on things based on different interpretations of Scripture. But in the examples I have given you there is no explicit Scriptural teaching to settle the issue. They are matters of personal conviction, or a whole church’s conviction. And faithful Christians can differ.

What about us? Make sure your obedience to God is based on God’s word, and not mere human traditions. If your Christian life is just about making sure you practice your  traditions – I dressed right for church, I only sang the right kind of songs – then your obedience to God is useless, just like the Pharisees. Congratulations, you are a hypocrite! You look religious, but you haven’t built your life on following what God is actually interested in; what God teaches us.

Finally, what about us? Don’t judge others as unfaithful because of your traditions. This is what the Pharisees did to Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was faithful in every way, but was rejected as unfaithful because he didn’t conform to their merely human traditions.

And we do this too. Look, they aren’t faithful to God because they don’t dress right or sing the right kind of songs. When we do this we place our traditions over God’s commands. We do just what Jesus says about the Pharisees in v. 8 – we “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

So let’s learn to identify and relegate our traditions to what they actually are – just our own convictions, not God’s commands. And let’s be generous and flexible with each other in the practice of our common Christian faith.

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We are in the Gospel of John once again this morning with another story of Jesus healing a person in need. But we are also moving into new territory. We are into a new section of John that begins in chapter 5 and goes until the end of chapter 10. And within this new section, the healing and teaching of chapter 5 all go together and give us some really important insights about who Jesus is. And so I invite you to read ahead and follow along as we work our way through these Scriptures in the weeks to come.

Our story

1After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.”

After healing a royal official’s son, Jesus has now gone from Galilee back to Jerusalem. He went up for a feast but John doesn’t tell us which one. As we will see, the focus of this story is the Sabbath.

“The Jews” is a phrase that refers to a certain group of Jews – the Judean establishment and those in agreement with them, not all Jews. After all, Jesus and his followers are Jews. This section of John, chapters 5-10 is all about conflict between Jesus and these ‘powers that be,’ and ultimately their rejection of him.

pool of Bethesda

This is a model that shows us what the pool of Bethesda looked like. As you can see there were actually two of them connected together. Both of them together were as big as a football field, and are thought to have been 20 feet deep.

(It’s not clear where the Sheep gate was -Nehemiah 3:1; 12:39. It was most likely a small opening in the north wall of the temple – A. Kostenberger).

“3In these (five roofed colonnades) lay a multitude of *disabled people – blind, lame, and paralyzed.” It’s unclear what this pool was used for (public baths? cleaning sheep before entrance to the temple?)  But it attracted those with physical afflictions because in the ancient world pools of water and springs were often thought to have healing powers. This is still true today in some quarters.

5One man was there who had been *ill for thirty-eight years.” As we learn from v. 7 he can’t walk. And here we learn that he has had this condition for a very long time. Longer than many people lived in that day – 38 years.

6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’” Jesus knew, supernaturally, that the man had been there a long time longing for healing.  So Jesus initiates this conversation with him. Usually people ask Jesus for healing. Here Jesus asks if he wants to be healed.   

7The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’”

Perhaps some of you have in your Bible, or in a footnote a longer verse 3 and a verse 4. This is a textual variant, something not found in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. It says that those at the pool were 3bwaiting for the moving of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.”

This is an attempt to provide a background to our verse here. What is this stirring of the water about? An angel does this. And why does it matter that he can’t hurry in? Because only the first one in is healed.

A copyist of Scripture inserted this note in the column that sought to explain the situation or the superstition that was believed. (And some later copyist took it as Scripture).

The man thinks Jesus is wondering why he hasn’t been healed by the water yet. Does he really want to be healed? And so the man explains that he can’ walk to get in in time. He assumes that Jesus also believes in the healing power of the pool. But Jesus doesn’t operate by superstitions – he operates by the power of his word, for he is the Word made flesh. 

8Jesus said to him, ‘*Rise, take up your bed, and walk.’” His bed would have been a mat made of palm leaves or straw. This would have been be rolled up and easily carried.

The reason Jesus asks him to take up his bed and walk is to demonstrate the healing. This makes it clear that he is in fact healed.

9And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” This is an amazing healing! He wasn’t able to walk for 38 years, but when Jesus spoke he was healed at once and then he rose up and walked. Again, John narrates really difficult miracles that Jesus does as signs that point to who Jesus is and what he does. And this one certainly qualifies.

But there’s a problem . . . “Now that day was the Sabbath. 10So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’”

If you are reading this story for the first time, this is the first indication that this took place on the Sabbath.

According to Mosaic law you cannot carry a work load on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-35; Jeremiah 17:21, Nehemiah 13:15). But this isn’t what is happening here. What is really at stake here is the oral law or what is called the traditions of the Elders. According to the oral law you cannot carry an item from one domain to another on the Sabbath. And he has carried his bed from the pool of Bethesda to the temple. (M. Shabbat 7.2; 10.5) He has broken a tradition of the Elders.

[Jesus often contradicted the traditions of the Elders (Mark 7) but he does not break the Sabbath. He is not a Mosaic law breaker or sinner (8:46); he does not annul the Law (10:35).]

[In this story the focus is not on Jesus healing on the Sabbath but on carrying things on the Sabbath, since they are confronting the man, not Jesus. (The latter is taken up in 5:16 and following and 7:21-24).]

Notice in all their concern for the things of God there is no recognition of the amazing healing that just took place!

11But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ 12They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk?’’ 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.”

He feels the pressure of the authorities and is quick to point to Jesus as the source of the problem. Jesus is now seen as leading someone astray to break the Sabbath by telling him to do this, at least according to their understanding of the Law and their extra-biblical traditions.

14Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’”

Jesus makes a connection here between his previous physical ailment and his unfaithfulness to God. And he warns him to stop sinning so that an even worse fate doesn’t befall him. Now, of course, we have to be careful with this because there is certainly not always a connection between our sin and illness.

For instance in chapter 9:2-3 Jesus is clear that in the case of the man born blind that it was not because he or his parents sinned that he was blind. So it can be true (here, 1 Corinthians 11:30), but not always (Job and Jesus’ own sufferings). Jesus knows the connection in this case by supernatural insight. And unless God gives you this it is best not to make any assumptions.

(Notice how both the Jews and Jesus have a concern for sin in his life.)

15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.” Throughout this passage the man doesn’t come across in a good light:

1) Jesus talks to him and heals him, but he doesn’t even know who Jesus is.

2) The man displays no faith in the story. Jesus simply found him, healed him and told him to rise up.

3) When he gets in trouble by the Jews he is quick to shift blame onto Jesus to get himself out of trouble.

4) When Jesus speaks to him again in the temple, he doesn’t thank Jesus or respond to his call to repentance.

5) Rather, he uses the healing Jesus gave him – his ability to walk – to go and find the Jews in order to turn Jesus in.

Some gleanings for us

1. Don’t be like this man. If last week the royal official was an example to us of one who had real faith in Jesus, this man is not an example to us. He received a great blessing from Jesus, but had no gratitude, and in fact turned Jesus over to his enemies.

Well, when Jesus blesses us how do we respond? With faith in him, with devotion, with gratitude? Or are we just focused on the blessing we got?

And when Jesus blesses us do we then still hang out with those in the world – who don’t know God, who don’t walk in God’s ways, who are enemies of God? (James 4:4)

Don’t follow the example of this man!

2. Nothing is too difficult for Jesus. Once again, even when a person has been unable to walk for nearly a lifetime, Jesus is able to bring instant healing. This should encourage us because this is the same Jesus who loves us and cares for us in all our difficulties.

3. Don’t focus on human teachings and miss the work of God. The Jewish leaders were zealous for mere human traditions that went beyond the word of God. And in their zeal for these, they missed out on what God was doing through Jesus – not just this healing, which they completely overlooked – but all that God was doing through Jesus. In fact, they came to oppose God and God’s work because of their concern for these lesser things that God didn’t even require.

Well, we like our extra-biblical traditions as well.

– What? New people are coming, so we are going to sing some different songs now that they can relate to? Even though there are a thousand different ways to worship God, we want what is comfortable to us. We hold on to our mere human traditions.

– What? God speaks a powerful message to us, but it came through tongues and interpretation and we don’t do that kind of stuff!

– What? God is bringing people into his kingdom here, but they are different than we are and we don’t know how to relate to them and it makes us uncomfortable.

Don’t hold on to the lessor things. When God moves, let him move.

4. Jesus gives life. This miracle is also called a sign (6:2). And what it tells us about Jesus is really the same as the last healing. Jesus is the one who gives life – resurrection life.

If we skip ahead here to John 5:21 we can see this connection. Jesus says, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son give life to whom he will.” The same word is used in v. 21, “raises” the dead as the word Jesus used in our story in 5:8 when he told the man “rise” take up your bed and walk.

This healing pictures Jesus as the one who raises the dead and gives new life. Remember, Jesus isn’t about miracles, the miracles are about Jesus – and this one teaches us that Jesus gives new life. May we all receive the new life that Jesus has for us this morning. May we be transformed by it. And may we go forth and share this good news with others.

William Higgins

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