During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the pharisees and their scribes opposed him most. They were the proud self-proclaimed experts in the Law of God, but they were mere spiritual actors. That is why Jesus called them hypocrites.
At first Jesus was a curiosity to them, but his growing popularity soon threatened their control over the Jewish masses. To the everyday Jewish mind, it was a dangerous thing to run afoul of the pharisees. They could intimidate almost any Jew.
In reality, the pharisees knew far more about their many traditions than the Old Testament. Always pestering Jesus, they tried to trick him with their questions and accusations. They wanted him gone because he seemed to be gaining the hearts of the people, many of whom thought he might be the long-awaited messiah.
A clear example of this conflict is found in Matthew 15:1-20. Because they may have touched or been close to something or someone considered unclean, thus becoming unclean themselves, they washed hands before eating. Having nothing to do with germs, this was ritualistic, not commanded in scripture.
They said to Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat?”
Jesus went to the crux of the problem replying, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘whoever reviles father and mother must certainly die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or mother, ‘What you would have gained from me is given to God,’ he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well, did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said;
This people honor me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
In vain do they worship me,
Teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’”
This is the essence of false religion, false teachers and legalism. Putting man-made rules in the place of God’s commandments and teaching them as if they were God’s commandments.
It’s the age-old problem of adding to God’s word, perhaps even with good intentions, then eventually the man-made tradition takes priority over God’s word.
A good question to ask if someone seeks to control your conscience posing as a teacher of God is “Where in the Bible is that clearly found?” You may be surprised that some of what you believe is nowhere to be found in the Bible.
Jesus then called the people to him and explained what was wrong with this tradition. “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
So our problem is what comes from within us (vs. 19). Our hearts are the source of our sins (vs. 18). That is why we need to have new hearts given by the holy spirit. If our hearts are not made new, anything we do outwardly is worthless in God’s sight, no matter what it is.
“Hypocrites generally attach great importance to mere outward things in religion.” (J C Ryle)
Man-made traditions may be good, bad or indifferent, but they must not be exalted above God’s word and used to bind people’s consciences. As Jesus pointed out, outward formalities are a worthless substitute for honoring our father and mother.
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)
If you are a Christian, carefully read Colossians 2 and 3. Notice the emphasis on Christ and what he has done for you and warnings against those who would bind your conscience by their traditions.
Charles Fitzpatrick is the pastor of Reibers Reformed Baptist Church near Shermans Dale.