Let’s start with a moment of silent prayer for the families who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children as young as 6 years old and 6 adults were killed this past week.
Please turn with me to Matthew 15.
These are the 3 different people who encounter Jesus in this chapter. Let’s look at the first. A spiritually dead religious Jew.
1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: 8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
What’s going on here? The Jewish Pharisees and the teachers of the law accuse Jesus of breaking the tradition of the elders because they don’t wash their hands before eating. We tell our kids when they come home from school, wash your hands. Get ready for dinner. That’s a sensible rule. I know that KFC drumstick hot from the oven looks and smells finger lickin’ good, but you don’t want to pick up that piece of chicken and put your fingers in your mouth when you have dirt under your fingernails and bacteria on your hand. Here, the Pharisees are obviously not concerned about sanitation.
Jesus distinguishes in v3, the command of God from the Pharisee’s unique Jewish tradition. The command is to honor father and mother and according to Jesus, what the Pharisees are doing is not honoring their father and mother. Jesus gets even harsher. v6 – Jesus turns the tables. Instead of being accused, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of nullifying the word of God for the sake of tradition in order to preserve their tradition and keep it intact. Jesus turns up the heat even more. v7 – he calls them hypocrites. Another word for hypocrite is actor. He says, Isaiah, his prophesy was right on the money. They apply to you. v8 – you act like you are close to God because of what comes out of your mouth. But you’re only paying lip service because your heart is far from me. And as the last dagger, Jesus says, you know what? Your so-called tradition. v9 – your tradition is nothing more than rules taught by men. Man-made rules. These are some stinging words.
Several questions came to mind as I read this section. First, how should we consider OT law? Are they binding for us today? If so, which ones? And as more of a general question, how do we know if what we are promoting at a church like ours is a man-made tradition vs. what God actually intended for His people?
Let’s start with the question, how should we consider OT law? When we read the Bible and the OT in particular, we have to recognize that there are 3 types or categories of laws. The first one is ceremonial. The second is civil. And the third is moral.
Ceremonial law refers to the sacrificial system of the old covenant and it also includes things like the cleanliness code and restrictions on certain types of food.
Please turn with me to Heb 10. It’s a fascinating chapter.
1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.
Let’s stop there for a moment. Interesting. The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. When the sun is shining and it casts a shadow of me, is the shadow equivalent to Ray? That tall, dark, handsome shadow that is projected on the ground, ok, the tall and dark shadow, handsome is debatable, is the shadow the same thing as me? Well, kind of, not really. The shadow is an outline, it’s connected to me, it points back to me. So the shadow servers as a pointer to a real, breathing person.
And Paul here in Hebrews uses this metaphor for a shadow to refer to the law. The law is a shadow. It is an outline. It is not the real thing. The ceremonial laws are not the realities themselves. But it points to certain realities. What are the realities? To answer that, we need to read on. Second half of v1–
…For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 THEREFORE, [pay attention, this is the punch line] when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; 6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.
In OT times, Israel had ceremonial laws in place to deal with sin. These ceremonial laws put practices around the entire sacrificial system of how to kill animals and when to kill them and who can kill them in order to atone for sin. Paul says, all of that was merely a shadow pointing forward to the real thing, Christ himself.
Since the reality has come, since Christ has come and we are now in Christ, we can put the shadowy stuff aside, the ceremonial laws. Why deal with shadows when we have the real thing, right? So ceremonial laws are no longer binding for us in 2012. This is why today we don’t do animal sacrifices during our worship service.
The second category is the civil law. These are the laws that represented the criminal code, with its procedures and punishments, as well as a myriad of regulations and restrictions. These would include the various civil crimes, like murder and theft. These civil laws were binding for Jews in Israel during biblical times, but these are obviously not binding for us because we are U.S. citizens in the 21st century. We are bound by the civil laws of this country.
The final category is the moral law. The moral law represents God’s own moral character. It is summarized in the Ten Commandments but it also emphasized in many other places of the Bible. These are forever binding, in both old and new covenants. Therefore, it is our duty to not misuse the name of the Lord our God, to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy, to honor your father and mother, to not covet, to not commit adultery and so forth. We are bound by these moral laws as much today as the Israelites who received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai were bound by them.
Okay, so 3 categories of law: ceremonial, civil and moral. Of these, only moral laws are binding for us today. Now for the more interesting question–how do we know if what we are promoting is a man-made tradition vs. what God actually intended for His people?
We all have traditions. In many ways, our traditions are a reflection of our culture and the values of our culture. In Korean culture, we have things we do on New Year’s Day such as eating rice cake soup and bowing to our parents and relatives in exchange for money. It’s a pretty sweet deal. You spend a few seconds on the ground and you might get $10, $20, $100. I did this growing up every year. No one explained to me why we ate the rice cake soup. Maybe it’s because Korea used to be a poor country and rice cake was cheap and we are expressing our solidarity with other Koreans, many of whom could not afford more. I am not sure. I just know it tastes good. Bowing was a sign of respect. Do I make my boys boy to me? No. Because I don’t want to give them money. No, I don’t teach them to bow because I was born in this country. Does that mean I don’t think it is important to respect your parents? No, of course not. Respecting parents, respecting adults, older people, this is important but there are ways of teaching it without forcing them to bow to me. If we lived in Korea, then that’s a different story.
More to the point, what about traditions within the church? How can we discern whether our church traditions are man-made vs. God ordained?
Some churches have a tradition where everyone wears suits and ties. This tradition comes from a good place. We want to give our best to God so we don’t want to roll out of bed and show up in our pajamas. It’s a good thing to put on our Sunday best. But there is nothing in the Bible which says thou must wear a suit to enter the presence of the Most Holy Lord. There may have been certain ceremonials laws for priests in the OT, but again, those are not binding for us. So for things that are not explicit in Scripture, we have a great deal of flexibility. If wearing suits and ties in our context discourages college students who normally dress in jeans from coming to church because we are too formal and stiff, then wearing suits and ties are doing more harm than good. So we should feel free to abandon such practices for the common good.
There is a tradition started by some of you, the students, where you show appreciation for the staff and the older members of this church. Nobody forced you to do that. I didn’t say, boy, I wonder why these college students are so ungrateful? Don’t those ingrates know all that we do for them. The rides and the cooking and the prayer meetings. None of us said that and yet as a group, you did it anyway. On your own. That’s a great grass-roots, student-initiated tradition and I hope it continues. If next year, the students stop this tradition, then it stops. It’s not the end of the world. Traditions like these can come and go.
There are traditions that we have for our worship service. We have a greeting time in the beginning and a rededication time in the end. Nothing in the Bible tells us to have a greeting time or to not have a greeting time. We just thought it would be helpful to greet each other in the beginning since we had many newcomers at the start of the term. If it is no longer effective, then we can get rid of greeting time. No big deal. Nothing is set in stone. Rededication time – the reason this tradition was started is a good one. After the Word is preached, we want to give people an opportunity to respond to the Word of God. However, if people started feeling pressured to rededicate or they felt self-conscious about whether they should rededicate or not, or they began to feel like rededicating was a way to gain approval within this community, then the good tradition is devolving into something negative and so we should have the room to re-evaluate these kinds of traditions.
What about Good Friday service? Our church observes it. Other churches don’t. Some Christians in the charismatic circles gather on Good Friday, but because they are Spirit-led and loose in terms of liturgy, they might end up talking about some random topic and not even mention the cross and the passion and suffering of Christ despite the significance of the day. Certain traditions that have been passed down from the centuries, like Good Friday service, are good to keep in my opinion. Especially when the tradition revolves around such a central theme like the cross. We won’t judge you if your church opts not to worship corporately and instead decides to observe it individually because the how is not spelled out in Scripture. At the same time, if believers do gather on Good Friday and the topic of the suffering and death of Jesus does not come up, then I think that’s a bit too loose.
For our members, we have a tradition where on top of regular Sunday attendance, members also commit to attending prayer meeting. As leaders, we are spiritually responsible for those who commit to this church and we have committed to them as ones who will one day give an account before God. And the only way to give that level of accountability is to pray for one another. This is what our members signed up for when they said, yes, I want to be a member of the Hill. This is a good tradition and one that will probably continue.