Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:1-9)
G. K. Chesterton said tradition was the “democracy of the dead.” He said that “tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” By definition, the word tradition implies a handing down or to hand over a custom or practice. There are many good traditions among families that are passed down from generations. Cultures hold dear certain traditions that make them unique among men. Traditions play a large part in so many aspects of life that endear groups as one and establish life-long cherished principles within certain disciplines. Religion does not escape the role of tradition and while often is harmless can become counter-productive in understanding the will of God.
The scribes and Pharisees in the time of Jesus were firmly entrenched in the traditions handed down from generation to generation. Some of the greatest battles between the Lord and the Jewish leaders of the day came from a conflict with the perceived traditions of men and the will of the Father. The disciples of Jesus were ignoring the age-old tradition of ceremonial hand washing before a meal. When the leaders came to Jesus they complained His disciples were not following the tradition of the elders or customs long held by the Jews. These traditions were not commanded in the written law but which the scribes and Pharisees viewed as law and accountable to God. Albert Barnes adds, “They had many foolish rules about it respecting the quantity of water that was to be used, the way in which it should be applied, the number of times it should be changed, the number of those that might wash at a time, etc.” The scribes and Pharisees were offended not because the disciples broke the Law of Moses but the tradition of the elders.
Jesus appealed to the commandments of God as a contrast to the long-held traditions of men. When men impose their traditions as law upon the people when God has not spoken in His word, they transgress the commandment of God. Jesus was not against washing hands but to make it a law with the consequence of sin if a man fails to wash in a proper manner created sin by its conclusion. The Lord illustrates with how the scribes and Pharisees failed to keep the basic elements of the Law regarding honoring parents and that by their skewed interpretation and abuse of the law made the commandment of God of no effect. The result was hypocrisy. They would fain keeping the Law of Moses but impose regulations never suggested by the Lord as commandments for the people to follow.
Tradition can create an apostasy of vain worship. Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah when he described the actions of the people as very religious but in their hearts, they defiled the worship of God. Outwardly they draw near the Lord and honored the Lord with their lips but their hearts were filled with the traditions of men and far from the will of God. Worship becomes a farce or a travesty of apostasy when man-made ideas have greater significance than the truth of God. Jesus condemned the traditions of men that have no foundation in truth.
The doctrine of God is established upon concrete principles of truthfully revealed in His word. Every man can read and understand the mystery of God as it has now been revealed. There is no reason for a soul to stand before the Divine Judge and plead ignorance. God has delivered the message of salvation to all men. Only the Bible can shed light on the grace of the Lord and through the power of God, the Bible has been preserved intact so that all men can come to the knowledge of the will of God. Some traditions are harmless because they do not conflict, add or take away from the word of God. Traditions are acceptable as long as they do not teach doctrine not found in the Bible. There are so many religious bodies that teach and practice things not found in the word of God. They transgress the commandment of God because of their traditions. The traditions of men have made the will of God of no effect or useless. Worship becomes vain because it comes from man-made ideas.
Traditions of men must be challenged and rejected when not in keeping with what a man can read in the Bible. It is an easy exercise to examine the teaching of men with the word of God. If what a man is doing is found in the context of the will of God, he pleases the Lord in following divine tradition. When a man or group practice things that have no Biblical foundation, these are man-made traditions that make worship vain and can destroy the soul in the pretense of false doctrine. Do not follow a tradition unless it comes from God. Traditions of men will die with them but God’s word will remain eternal.