Posts Tagged ‘traditions of the elders’

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

In our Scripture this morning, Jesus is talking about yokes. Now, we know about animal yokes. And, for instance, Paul talks about not being unequally yoked with this in mind. But in this passage Jesus is talking about human yokes – one’s that go across your shoulders to carry heavy things. Here is a modern day example:


A yoke something like this is described in Jeremiah 27:2, where it says, “make yourselves straps and yoke-bars and put them on your neck.”

A yoke is often used metaphorically to speak of being in subjection to someone – in Jeremiah it refers to being subjected to the Babylonian empire. And in the New Testament it is used to refer to slavery (1 Timothy 6:1).

Now let’s look at our verses.

1. Many of us are weary from our yokes, carrying heavy burdens

Jesus talks of “all who labor and are heavy laden.” The first word “labor” has to do with hard work and also the weariness that comes from it. The second word can also be translated as “burdened.” So the image is of a person with a yoke on, but the load is really heavy and it takes a lot of work just to move around. Think of the two buckets in our picture as bigger and loaded down with heavy rocks.

Jesus is certainly talking here about the traditions of the elders which the Pharisees added to the Law, or God’s will. Jesus talks about this in Matthew 23:4, where he says, “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear and lay them on people’s shoulders.” These are rules about how far you can walk on a Sabbath, rules about healing on the Sabbath and on and on (see the stories that come right after our verses). You name the activity in life and there were rules for it; lots of them. Rules, rules, rules. Rules that went beyond the Law of Moses, but you had to follow them to be accepted.

Well, Jesus rejected these traditions of the Elders (Matthew 15:6). He doesn’t load us down with a host of human rules; things that go beyond God’s will for our lives.

Maybe you are carrying a yoke today of human rules and expectations that are not God’s will for you. Maybe church rules about how to dress or how to worship that go beyond Scripture, churches are good at making up extra rules. Or maybe expectations for your life that others impose on you that have nothing to do with what God has called you to do.

And you are here this morning and you are tired of it. You are tired of being subjected to carrying this heavy burden around. Jesus is talking to you today in this passage!

There are other yokes and burdens, and I would just mention also the yoke of slavery to Sin (John 8:34; Romans 6:16-20). This is where we live our lives apart from God’s will, doing our own will, going along with the world and our friends. But sin once chosen becomes our master. It comes to control us and take over and it begins to ruin our lives – because sin brings misery and then death.

And you are here this morning and you are tired of the burdens of sin – the shame, the guilt. You are tired of disappointing and hurting others and hurting God – but you can’t break free.

You too have a yoke on, And maybe you are tired of it this morning; you are worn out. Well, Jesus is talking to you this morning in our passage!

Well, whatever yoke we may be carrying this morning –

2. Jesus invites each one of us to take up his yoke

I say each one of us, because he says, “Come to me all” who labor and are heavy laden. That’s all of us.

And he says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” In the Old Testament, the Law was seen as a yoke that the people of God bore as they did God’s will (Jeremiah 2:20; 5:5). But here Jesus offers his teaching as the yoke to put on our shoulders – which is the correct interpretation of the Law, or God’s will. As he says in the verses just before ours, the Father has revealed all things to him. And this is what he teaches us.

And so to take on Jesus’ yoke is to live your life according to what he teaches. Not doing more than this by adding on extra human rules, or taking away from it so that we are walking in sin. It is to live according to just what Jesus teaches. We become disciples of Jesus. The word “learn” here is from the same word as the word “disciple.” We become students of Jesus. We study his teaching and example and we do what he says and models for us.

When we take on Jesus’ yoke –

3. Jesus will give us rest for our souls

Why will we find rest? Because of who Jesus is – v. 29 – “for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” The first word “gentle” is really meek or lowly. The second word can also be translated as humble in heart. Jesus is not a slave driver. Indeed, he himself came and walked this earth as a servant. And he knows that being in charge means serving others, not lording it over them (Matthew 20:25-28).

We will also find rest because, as he says in v. 30 – “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” “Easy” is better translated as “comfortable” or a yoke that fits just right. “Light” has to do with having little weight.

Now none of this means that following Jesus can’t be hard – there is still a yoke and a burden; there are hard things to do and you can suffer for it. But in comparison to being weighed down under slavery to sin or human traditions it is a comfortable yoke and a light weight. It is God’s will for our life. It is not less than this so that you are living in sin, and it is not more than this so that you are carrying the burdens of human rules. It is simply God’s will, perfectly revealed in Jesus.

And this is the gift promised by Jesus here – rest, v. 28 – “and I will give you rest.” v. 29 – “and you will find rest for your souls.” Rest here means the cessation of toilsome labor from carrying really heavy weights that we are not meant to bear. It means peace, wholeness and well-being – which comes from following Jesus. (Jeremiah 6:16). It means we have this deep in our hearts and souls. And it is connected to the Sabbath rest and how this foreshadows the rest we will have when the kingdom comes in its fullness. (Again, see the stories on the Sabbath that follow our text.)

I invite you this morning to come to Jesus and find this rest for yourselves . . .

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We have looked at a number of stories from the gospel of Mark over the last year or so. And in the same way, now I want us to work through, here and there, some of the teaching of Jesus in Mark.

We begin today with an important passage – Mark 7:1-23. There are actually two issues going on in the passage – human traditions and the issue of purity. The plan is to deal with the first today in vs. 1-13. And we will look a the second, purity, next week.  The Scripture begins with Jesus involved in –

A conflict

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

So some Pharisees and some experts in the Law from Jerusalem have come around. They’re checking Jesus out. What’s he up to now And lo and behold 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 unclean before God.

Mark goes on to explain – vs. 3-4 – “(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and 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, “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, literally “and beds” or “and dining couches” is not in all manuscripts. So if your bible doesn’t have it, that’s why.]

Mark here is helping his non-Jewish readers 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 the Law.

This body of tradition was followed by the Pharisees. It is 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 there are two sources of commandments, the written Law and the oral tradition of the elders.

v. 5 – “And 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 are not faithful to God, which means, since he is their teacher, he is not faithful. (see Luke 11:38).

Their charge involves both the issue of keeping the traditions, and what purity means. We will focus on the first, ‘Why don’t you keep the tradition?’

Jesus on human traditions

Jesus’ first response is, You abandon true worship of God for your tradition. vs. 6-7 – “And 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

 Jesus is quoting Isaiah 29:3. And he sees this verse, on one level, as pointing to the Pharisees and their error here. (The quote is closer to the LXX, although the same basic point in made in the MT).

He is focusing on their relationship to God in this first part of his response. His point is that they look like they are honoring and worshipping God with their lips, or on the outside. But their heart is far away. That’s why he calls them hypocrites – with them it looks like one thing but it is really another.

Why is their worship “vain” or useless? Because it is only about teaching and following human rules. He is saying Isaiah hit it right on the head about you guys. v. 8 – “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

There is a contrast here between:

  • worship that is based on God and God’s commandment, and
  • worship that is based on men’s commandments, which is useless.

Jesus’ second response is, You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your tradition. v. 9 – “And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”

That is to say, when the two come into conflict, God’s commandment and your tradition, you go with your tradition for how to treat people. And this annuls God’s commandment.

Jesus then gives an example of their error. v. 10 – “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’” Jesus is quoting Exodus 20:12 the fifth of the ten commandments and Exodus 21:17.

It is understood by all that honoring parents (for adult children) means caring for them financially when they are older. The second reference (Exodus 21:17) shows how serious this issue of honoring parents is. Those who revile or curse them, deserve the death penalty.

vs. 11-12 – “But 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)— then 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.

The word Corban is a technical term for a vow to give your resources to God (the Temple), but you still use them until a later time. Based on their tradition the Pharisees said that you must honor your vow, and not the commandment to honor your parents.

v. 13 – “. . . thus 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!

A summary of the argument. Their charge was – Jesus, you are not faithful to God because you do not keep the tradition. His response was – Pharisees, you are not faithful to God because you keep the tradition.

  • You abandon true worship of God, for your traditions (section 1)
  • You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your traditions (section 2)

More specifically notice the word “honor” in both Isaiah 29 and Exodus 20. Jesus is saying, you neither honor God nor do you teach proper honor of parents.

And he makes his point, not based on the traditions of the elders, mere human teaching, but based on the Law (Exodus 20) and the Prophets (Isaiah 29). That is, based on God’s true word.

Well it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees,

But what about us?

What religious rules do you have that are not from God’s word, but things that you think are really important. So important that everybody should really follow them. It’s not hard to find them. For instance there are many connected to the way we worship at church. Do we sing old hymns or new choruses? Should the sermon be long and about evangelism each week – with an altar call, or not? Should there be shouting of praise and dancing, or not?

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

Now, for sure, we have to make choices on things to be able to worship as a community. It isn’t wrong to have some rules. The question Jesus raises is do we love our rules so much that we place them above God’s commands?

Let’s look at another example. The way we dress for church. You see how I am dressed today – old paint clothes and they are dirty as well. I have not conformed to the rules for how a pastor should dress for church according to our received religious rules.

But you know what? There is nothing in Scripture about how I am supposed to dress for church, apart from being modest. We are to cover our bodies in such a way that we are not a sexual temptation to others. (Which I think I have done.)

I know that many have the conviction that you ought wear your best to church in order to honor God. That is fine. If you are doing it to honor God then that is excellent!

But here is where we can cross the line. If you come to me and say, “Pastor, why aren’t you dressed up today? You have to dress up on Sunday to be faithful to God! You have to wear a certain kind of clothes to be a real pastor!” If you do this, you have put a mere human religious rule above God’s commands. Because you say I cannot be faithful to God unless I follow your rule. And I am condemned because of it, even though God does not condemn me.

And, of course, this can go the other way too. You can go to a church where if you don’t dress down, you are breaking the religious rule and are condemned.

Well, this is what Jesus is warning us about today.

  • Don’t let your worship of God be based on human rules. There are thousands of different ways to worship God faithfully – that look nothing like the way we do it here. So don’t say that if others don’t follow your rules that it isn’t real or faithful worship. It has to be judged based on God’s commands.
  • And don’t nullify God’s law, just so you can maintain your religious rules. Love and welcome your neighbor instead of wrongly condemning them because of how they dress, or whether they shout “Praise the Lord” during worship.

In every area of life, beware that your religious rules don’t take over and become more important than God’s word and commandment.

William Higgins

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