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The Traditions of the Elders

Feb 07, 2007

In Matthew 15:1-3 we read,

" (1) Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees which were of Jerusalem, saying, (2) "Why do Thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread." (3) But He answered and said unto them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?"

There was no law or commandment of God telling the people to wash their hands before they ate. This ceremonial washing was a tradition of the elders, a man-made rule, based upon human reasoning in their interpretation of the law. Sin is defined by the law (Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 1 John 3:4). Sin is not defined by the tradition of the elders.

The religious leaders and rabbis of the day had often strained the law and tortured it until it agreed with their pre-conceived, man-made conclusions. In later centuries, these traditions were written down and became known as the Talmud. This is the real Jewish holy book--not the Bible itself.

Jesus went on to explain in the next verses of Matthew 15 how they had violated the Fifth Commandment (Ex. 20:12), which says to honor one's parents. The temple leaders naturally wanted the people to give them more money, which often should have been used to support their poor parents. Instead, the tradition said that if the money were corban, that is, a gift to the temple, it was better to give it to "God" than to their parents.

Jesus said of this in verse 6, "Thus have you made the commandment of God of no effect [void] by your traditions." The religious leaders did not understand that support of one's parents honored God more than giving money to the temple. Jesus then continued to show how this violation of the law was prophesied in Isaiah 29:13,

" (7) You hypocrites, well did Esaias [Isaiah] prophesy of you, saying, (8) These people draw near unto Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.(9) But in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandment of men."

The same account is given in Mark 7:1-13, where a few extra details are given.

There were many such traditions of the elders that had caused men to violate the divine law. Jesus never spoke against the law of Moses; he spoke only against the traditions of men. Jesus did not violate the divine law, but He drove the religious leaders to madness by freely violating their traditions.

One of the most controversial disputes was when Jesus appeared to violate the Sabbath by healing people on that day. The law said that the Sabbath was a rest day and that the people should not work on that day. But Jesus met people on the Sabbath who needed healing. He did not tell them to wait until the next day. He simply healed them. Instead of rejoicing that people were being set free of their blindness or other sickness, the religious leaders faulted Him for "working" on the Sabbath.

They missed the whole point of the Sabbath, the spirit of the law, which was to set men free from the slavery of working every day. Healing on the Sabbath gave honor to the purpose of the Sabbath, for it set men free of the bondage of disease.

This is similar to the purpose of the Day of Atonement, which was a Sabbath feast day (Lev. 23:28). Ever since the 12 spies gave their evil report in the days of Moses, it was to be spent in fasting and repenting for refusing to enter the Promised Land, which is called God's Rest in Heb. 3:18. This day was the 50th Jubilee from Adam, and it was supposed to be a day of Jubilation, or rejoicing; but because of their refusal, God turned it into a day to remember their lack of faith and a day of repentance and mourning.

Isaiah comments upon the true meaning of the Day of Atonement in chapter 58, where he writes,

" (5) Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? (6) Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? (7) Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?"

In other words, God's Chosen Fast on the Day of Atonement was not given so that man might be afflicted, but that man might be set free. The purpose of the Day of Atonement is to live according to the JUBILEE. Rather than simply go without food, one should feed the hungry, heal the sick, and "break every yoke" that puts men into bondage. Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, understood the mind of God in the purpose of this day.

It is the same with all the Sabbath rest days. Men should look for ways to set others free and give others a rest, rather than just think of themselves or think of the day as a ritual of abstention. Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, not in violation of the law, but to promote the underlying purpose of God in the Sabbath law itself.

The religious leaders claimed that Jesus violated the law of the Sabbath, and to this day it is one of their arguments they use to prove that He was not the Messiah. But if Jesus had submitted to their traditions, He would have violated the law even as they were doing, and this violation really would have proven He was not the Messiah.

Taking this step further, the book of Hebrews defines God's Rest in 4:10 as a matter of ceasing from one's own works. It was not a matter of ceasing to do God's works, but rather one's own works. The author took this idea from Isaiah 58:13,

"If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing THY pleasure on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honorable; and shall honor Him, not doing THINE OWN WAYS, nor finding THINE OWN PLEASURE, nor SPEAKING THINE OWN WORDS. . ."

It is a good thing to rest one day a week. But if a person wants to enter into God's Rest, which is the true Sabbath, it can be done only when a person ceases doing his own thing, finding his own pleasure, and speaking his own words. Jesus was in a state of perpetual rest, because He only did what His Father did and spoke what His Father spoke. Jesus lived the Sabbath law every day of the week. Everything He did was a Rest-work. Let this be our example.

There is more than one level of Sabbath, even as there were three biblical Sabbaths: (1) the week day; (2) the rest year; and (3) the Jubilee. So also is it with us. It is good to rest once a week and one year out of seven. It is best to do as Jesus did and cease from your own labors all the time, seven days a week. This does not indicate idleness, but doing the Rest-work of God to set men free.

The traditions of men put us into bondage. The law of God sets us free. It is a matter of knowing the mind of God and interpreting it according to His intent.

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Category: God's Law
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones