Tradition or God’s Word?


Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you evaluate your religious traditions in light of God’s Word, and adjust your life accordingly.

Follow Scripture, Not Tradition:  Matthew 15:1-6.

[1]  Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,  [2]  "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat."  [3]  He answered them, "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  [4]  For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  [5]  But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, "What you would have gained from me is given to God,"  [6]  he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 

[1-2]  With a characteristic Then Matthew moves on to the next stage of his story. This brings us to a group of Pharisees and scribes. They were from Jerusalem which is not quite what we expect in Galilee. Coming from the capital, the holy city, into this rural area, they would have been regarded as especially authoritative. It was not to be expected that people from the great city would make their appearance in such a remote area. Matthew also makes it clear that they came to Jesus. It was not that they were paying a pastoral visit to Galilee and happened to come across Jesus; it seems that they had come expressly to confront Him. That they would come from so far in order to oppose Him tells us something of the reputation that Jesus had built up and something also of the measure of the hostility of the Pharisees. They were accompanied by scribes or legal experts. This group would feel that they were well equipped to cope with whatever they would encounter in the northern area. They came right to the point with a question about the tradition of the elders, though interestingly they do not complain about Jesus’ attitude to the tradition but about the practice of His disciples. This does, of course, imply an accusation against Jesus, for it was He who taught His followers to do these things. Indeed, the scribes would probably have regarded teaching people to disregard the tradition as much more serious than an occasional breach oneself. Teaching people to act contrary to the tradition meant a systematic and thought-out practice. It meant breaking the tradition as a matter of principle, not as a thoughtless aberration in a moment of weakness. Therefore to speak of the practice of the disciples implied a serious accusation against their Master. The disciples, the accusers affirm, break the tradition of the elders. This was a body of teaching handed down from the religious leaders of the past. Some of it was concerned with the way those leaders had understood passages in Scripture, especially passages whose meaning was not obvious or was ambiguous. It also gave guidance as to how passages that might be construed in more than one way were to be understood. In origin the tradition was praiseworthy and useful, but through the years, with the contributions of many teachers, some with less insight than others, it had come to amount to a very burdensome body of doctrine. Its huge volume meant that by New Testament times even to know what it comprised was a difficult chore, while to obey all its multitudinous regulations was too big a task for most people. The Pharisees and their adherents were distinctive in their regard for and their attempt to put into practice this vast body of tradition, and for them it was unthinkable that a religious teacher should take the traditions lightly. They could not understand why Jesus should allow His disciples to break any of the traditions. That amounted to being irreligious, and for a religious teacher that was a contradiction in terms. The particular tradition that they took up with Jesus was that concerned with the washing of hands before eating. This was not a matter of personal hygiene but of the removal of ceremonial defilement. In the law it was prescribed that the priests must wash their hands when they were ministering [Ex. 30:17-21], but the tradition extended this to all people and was concerned with removing ceremonial defilement incurred in daily life. The Pharisees discerned a great number of “unclean” things that one might encounter in the ordinary course of life and that might easily be touched with the hands. The contact made the hands unclean, and if unclean hands touched food, that, too, became unclean. When it was eaten the whole person was made unclean. To avoid such a dreadful happening the strict upholders of the traditions had evolved a ritual washing that removed defilement, and they practiced it scrupulously before eating. But Jesus’ followers did no such thing, and the Pharisees ask the reason for their practice.

[3-6]  Jesus made no attempt to defend the practice of His disciples. That might well have invited the kind of argument that the Pharisees loved and in which they excelled. In any case He probably thought that failure to observe a ridiculous scribal regulation needed no defense. Instead He went to the root of the matter by drawing their attention to the fact that sometimes their tradition, which was intended to help people keep the law of God, could lead them to break that law. Their concentration on the tradition could lead them to neglect the law of God, and not only to neglect it, but to engage in practices that involved breaking it. His reply emphasizes you: they have been complaining about His disciples, but what about themselves? And His break is the same verb as that used in the previous verse by the Pharisees when they complain of the disciples breaking the traditions. But then He introduces a contrast: where they speak of the tradition of the elders He speaks of the commandment of God, a much more serious matter. And they break God’s commandment for the sake of your tradition. Jesus is not saying, “Despite your tradition you break the law of God.” He is saying, “Because of your tradition you break the law of God.” He does not speak of the tradition of the elders as the Pharisees had just done, but of your tradition, the tradition they had accepted and made their own. They could not evade responsibility by saying that others had compelled them. Jesus proceeds to draw attention to one of the ways they broke the commandment and precedes it with, For God commanded. Since the divine origin of the commandment is important, He does not allow it to drop out of sight. What God has said is not to be put on a level with what even godly scribes laid down and handed on from one to another. The commandment He selects for attention is that which commands the Israelites to honor their parents. With this command Jesus links a further prescription that anyone who reviles father or mother must surely die [Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9]. Scripture leaves no doubt that parents are to be honored, and that extends even to the way people speak of their parents. But is adversative and you is emphatic. Jesus is setting the Pharisees in contrast to God, whose words He has just quoted. God commanded … but you say means that the words of God stand in opposition to the words of the Pharisees. What the child is telling the parent in this saying is that he has decided to give as an offering to God what the parent might have expected would be given to them in their old age. The son is vowing away all that he might have used to support his parents. Since what should have been used for parental support has been irrevocably vowed to God, there is nothing left for the parents, and thus they are not honored. The tradition about the rash vow is honored, but the commandment of God is not kept. Jesus puts the responsibility on His hearers: you have made void the word of God, by your scrupulous observance of your tradition.

Avoid Hypocrisy:  Matthew 15:7-9.

[7]  You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:  [8]  "’This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;  [9]  in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’"  [ESV]

[7-9]  Jesus calls them hypocrites based on the fact that these opponents of Jesus professed a deep concern for the service of God and took issue with Him over the way His disciples took lightly the traditions that seemed to the Pharisees essential to that service, but they used those very traditions to nullify the express commandment of God. They allowed their use of a religious offering to override one of the Ten Commandments. This leads to the application to the hypocrites of some words of Isaiah. The quotation from Isaiah refers to people who say the right things though without really meaning them. The people in question honor God in that they say all the proper things. But this is all a matter of outward profession. Their heart is not in it. The heart points to the inward part, the center of one’s being. Deep down, where it counts, the people gave no honor. On the contrary, their heart, God says, is far from me. Despite their good words they were lacking in good works. They were far away from God where it counts, in the heart. In vain is their worship. The people of whom the prophet speaks went through the motions of worship, evidently performing the outward ritual as they should, but quite oblivious of the fact that punctilious performance of rites and ceremonies is no substitute for genuine, inward devotion. We might have expected that this would be followed with some reference to the importance of the inward or to that of godly living, the fruit of true worship. But the interest of Isaiah (and of Jesus as He quoted the prophet) was in what their instruction brought about in other people; the emptiness of their worship is seen in what they teach others to do. People who genuinely worship God will proceed to teach what God has commanded; the fact that these people teach what is of human origin demonstrates that their worship is a sham. Jesus’ charge against the Jewish scholars was that in the last resort they were substituting manmade regulations for the divine commands. Their motives may possibly have been excellent, but the results were deplorable.

Keep Your Heart Pure: Matthew 15:10-11,17-20.

[10]  And he called the people to him and said to them, "Hear and understand:  [11]  it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person."  [17]  Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?  [18]  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  [19]  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  [20]  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone."  [ESV]

[10-11]  Jesus then called the people to him. It would seem that the people had stood back while the Pharisees confronted Jesus, possibly as a mark of respect for these teachers from Jerusalem, possibly because they felt that questions like that of ceremonial uncleanness were not for the likes of them. But there was something in the question being discussed that was important for the lowliest worshiper, and Jesus intended the people who were there to understand the significant thing about uncleanness. It was important for the people to understand that in their concern for ceremonial purity the Pharisees were missing what was important about uncleanness. So Jesus calls them to Hear and understand. He wants them to hear what He has to say and to think hard about it, an injunction that is certainly justified by the novelty of the truth He is about to enunciate. Jesus’ saying here would have been a revolutionary statement for pious Jews of the time; for them careful ritual washing as a preliminary to eating was part of life. How else could one avoid eating something that had been defiled by contact with unclean hands? To say that nothing that goes into the mouth defiles a person cut across all the rules of defilement to which they had been accustomed all their lives; it challenged the accepted religious way of looking at a wide range of practices. Jesus looked at those practices from a different perspective, which He proceeds to contrast with the accepted Jewish way. His but is a strong adversative, “but, on the contrary”; He is not introducing a comparatively minor modification of the Jewish practice but advocating something radically new. It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person. Jesus is warning that defilement is not something that may be casually acquired by physical contact (and which may easily be removed by appropriate ritual practices). It is something that affects the person at the root of his or her being. When one is evil there, then the words that come out of the mouth reveal the inner corruption. People should take more notice of the significance of their words than of the possibility that their hands may have made contact with a source of ritual defilement. Words that go out of the mouth are more likely to indicate defilement than food that goes in.

[17-20]  Jesus’ explanation begins with a question, the construction showing that He expects a “Yes” answer. They ought to have been able to think through their problem. His whatever is comprehensive; Jesus allows no exceptions. Everything, then, that goes into the mouth has one destination, the stomach and is expelled. The body uses what it needs and discards the remainder. Nothing remains of any defiling thing that may have entered it. It is otherwise with what goes out of the mouth. The things anyone says come from the heart, the innermost being, and this defiles the person. It is a profound revolution in religious thinking when Jesus transfers the source of defilement from the merely outward to the state of the heart. At one stroke He removes the necessity for a multiplicity of regulations to cover a variety of situations and concentrates on an attitude that will take care of them all. For introduces a reason for the preceding statement. Out of the heart comes first with emphasis; this is the real source of the problem. Jesus proceeds to a list of evils that proceed from this source. He starts with evil thoughts, which, of course, can lead to all sorts of evil deeds; such evils are far worse than any defilement that may result from the accidental contact of the hands with any one of the multiplicity of objects the scribes perceived as unclean. Matthew proceeds to a series of offenses arranged in the order in which they come in the Ten Commandments. They are all plural: Jesus is speaking of the many sins people commit. We should not, of course, hold that this is the complete list of sins that defile, so that if we can avoid what Jesus has just named, we will be in the clear (to take up such a position is to make much the same error as that of the Pharisees). The list is no more than a sample of the evils that proceed from the heart. All sin defiles, and we should understand Jesus to mean that His followers must avoid evil of any sort. To follow the example of the Pharisees and concentrate on avoiding ceremonial defilement is to waste time and energy. Much more important is the avoiding of evil deeds, which really do defile the doers. It is the intention behind the act, the purpose formed in the heart, that is the most serious thing, even though the actual sinful act may also be serious. For the most part ceremonial defilement must have been accidental, people did not try to be defiled. But sins like those Jesus has mentioned are done with serious intent or with loss of self-control. It is this kind of thing that really defiles. Jesus is not differentiating between an internal and an external form of piety but is speaking of something quite different: His teaching presupposes that man is not pure in himself; if that were the case he would only have to keep himself from the world’s impurities; but he is evil precisely in his interior, in his heart from which go out all his crimes. By putting the emphasis on the heart Jesus is drawing attention to the fact that wickedness takes its origin in our innermost being. He is warning His followers against letting their personal desires and lusts be the guide to their conduct.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In these verses Jesus contrasts religious traditions with the commandment of God. What are religious traditions? What problem does Jesus have with these traditions? Do you follow any religious traditions today? Does your church hold to any religious traditions? What must you do to make sure that these traditions do not cause you to break the commandment of God?

2.         Why is hypocrisy so displeasing to God? Where does hypocrisy originate? What is the cure for hypocrisy? What hypocrisy in your life needs to be healed by Christ’s forgiveness?

3.         Jesus says that heart service is more important than lip service. Think of areas where your outward obedience differs from your inner heart. What do you need to do to change these areas? Read 1 Samuel 16:7. What does this verse add to your understanding of what is important to God?


The Gospel of Matthew, R.T. France, NICNT, Eerdmans.

The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Matthew, David Turner, Baker.

Get Founders
in Your Inbox
A weekly brief of our new teaching resources.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Teaching BY TYPE
Teaching BY Author
Founders Podcasts