Read Matthew 12: 1-21 and 15: 1-20, as Jesus deals with this Himself!
Does your home church have traditions that are so honored, the purpose of your church is skewed or people are not being led in the right direction? How about a Christmas pageant with all the planning, personality conflicts, and stress where Jesus is forgotten about even though He is the One Who the activity is supposed to be about? Perhaps there is a person who wants to command and control and "lord it" over others, or maybe someone-or multiple some ones-are trying to keep something alive that does not make sense, or are not willing to allow positive feedback or help from others and thus the process of mutual faith and cooperation is absent. We have all been there or will be soon, so let's see what our Lord says about this so we can be better prepared and handle this right.
Consider this: in just about every church, there are good traditions and bad ones. The job of the capable leader is to lead the people to do what is good, keeping the good ones rolling, always seeking to improve, and being capable to also lead them away from bad programming or reform it back to being good and effectual for the church and the glory of our Lord.Jesus is Cornered about Traditions
The Pharisees loved their traditions and sought to attack Jesus for not following them; they even accused Him of being a fake for not doing so. Yet, He cleverly thwarted the attempt of the religious leaders to prove He was a fake by turning it into a testimony of His deity. Yet, they continued to harass Him, not giving up. They followed Jesus, trying to snag Him again and again. And finally, the opportunity came. Jesus once again disobeyed one of their traditions. In their eyes, He did the unthinkable: He ate some food on the Sabbath and then helped a man in distress! They had their Jewish faith all mixed up and backwards, seeking to protect the Sabbath by adding more regulations to it, as well as showing more concern about traditions than about their fellow man. Because of this prevailing attitude, they refused to minister to or care for a brother in need. A handicapped man was in need, and the love and care he needed was not given. Instead, the bitter medicine of chastisement and condemnation was dispensed. Jesus made it clear that mercy and love are important, and that they would honor God rather than pretentious sacrifice or false, pious attitudes that clouded the Truth. In spite of all that Jesus did to prove who He was, and why He was there, the religious leaders hardened their hearts and refused to listen or even look up to see the wonders at their doorstep! They even accused our Lord of the very evil they were doing (Mark 3:1-6)!
The question that this passage asks in the form of the example from our Lord is, "Do you use people, or do you serve them?" Remember, Jesus was God, who came to this earth to serve!If your church has a program that upholds its leaders and not Him, there is a problem!
Jesus went into their Synagogue, and performed a "terrible crime" by showing them their true position concerning the Sabbath-of which they were in denial. In the Old Testament, there was no prohibition to healing on the Sabbath, and it was always lawful to do good deeds. Yet, the religious leaders felt otherwise. This was the "going-ons" of the Church of their day. A synagogue was the central religious institution for the Jews. These houses of worship came out of the period of the exile by the Babylonians. They provided a place where Jews could study the Scriptures and worship God. Prior to the exile, they would take pilgrimages to the Tent Meeting/Temple in Jerusalem, and the Levites would be in their towns, homes, and clans, teaching and ministering. Most of Levites dispersed into the general population and their priestly sect no longer served a function, so elderly men took up that role and started schools of apprenticeship to train younger men to serve. This is where the Rabbis, Pharisees, and Sadducees came from. These synagogues were built in any town where there were at least ten, married Jewish men to form a congregation. This was their church and besides the names and cultural issues, not much has changed (Acts 13:15; 14:1; 17:2; 18:4).
Synagogues or Today's Church: Nothing has Changed
The leaders of the Synagogues, as church leaders do today, would invite visiting speakers. Jesus was perhaps a visiting speaker in that service when He saw the man in distress. He took that opportunity to serve, as well as to confront their bad traditions and their hypocrisy. Not all Pharisees were bad; many were pious and used their sect to motivate people to a deeper understanding and application of their faith.
Synagogues would also host informal dialogues with visiting rabbis; this could be another thing that Jesus was doing. Most Jewish groups in that time did not permit any ministry on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was considered so sacred that the Pentateuch forbade any deviance from its practice. Thus, seeing Jesus gleaning or not washing his hands would have caused quite a concern. They saw Him as dishonoring the faith and Law. However, Jesus was not dishonoring it; He was fulfilling it!The majority group, the Pharisees, did not even allow praying for the sick. Other Pharisees did. The minority groups were also in accord, as the Essenes had even stricter rules, not allowing even an animal to be rescued. However, the Hillelites did allow for some ministry and prayer. This group grew to be the majority after Jesus' time, up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Thus, some of the leaders would use Jesus to help persuade people to their views, while others sought to destroy Him.
Does this look familiar, as with power plays in your church today? You see, our Lord faced this personally and so will we. Synagogues were also the place each of these various leadership sects would go to debate. Asking counter questions was a classic, rabbinic way to engage in a debate, and is still the norm today.Now, we sit down and discuss, bring people to the Word, and in prayer, seek an equitable solution that honors hard workers and glorifies our Lord.
How much more was another standard, rabbinic method of analogy. This was to show inconsistency, pretence, and hypocrisy. They did not interpret the Law with any form of logic or consistency, and Jesus pointed this out to them with their own words and law; He used Scripture! Our Lord continues, stretch out your hand; this implies that there is a connection between our faith and Jesus' healing power. The healing was given, but it also had to be received! The initiative needed to be taken (Eph. 5:14). Just as Grace is given, we still have to act on our faith to receive it.
By doing what He did, Jesus infuriated the Pharisees and the Herodians so much that they literally planned to kill Him! When your heart is so hard that you block out the Will and desires that God has for you, you start on a path of chaos and destruction that you will not even realize because you will be clouded by your own delusions and pride. We must beware of this so it does not happen to us or to those under our leadership. People who hang on to bad traditions tend to do this; I know I have at times. They had their religion so mixed up and skewed that they saw an act of kindness as a crime. Those who had political power used it to put people down. To plot against someone would indicate this group of Pharisees did not have the power to carry out their wishes and had to go behind closed doors. Otherwise, they would have brought Jesus into the courts and charged Him directly.
Who or What is Sovereign in your Church?
The tradition of the Sabbath had a great start and purpose that got skewed; it was supposed to be a symbol of God's sovereignty and Lordship (Ex. 20:8). It was also meant to be a reminder of the redemption to come for the people under the Law, the redemption that we now have in the work of Christ (Duet. 5:12). The Law had strict guidelines pertaining to the Sabbath-how it was to be observed, and not to be violated. These laws were intended to lead the people to understand and know God as well as to keep the peace and not allow people to corrupt or ignore it. Unfortunately, the religious leaders corrupted it by adding so many countless, additional ordinances that the people were too tied down to the extra laws to ever look up and embrace God's Lordship. These extra laws became restrictions and, ironically, violated God's law and intent. Think about it; how often do we do this today?
Jesus reminded them of this and used Scripture to prove His point just as we are to do. It is ironic that the rules of the Pharisees were very precise, and if someone proved a point using Scripture, they had no recourse but to acquiesce to that point. Jesus obviously won the argument, yet they still plotted!Keep in mind: when you win the day by logic and reason through Scripture, even with kindness and tact, the war may not be over. It takes prayer and patience. Allow the Lord to work and make sure the parties causing the disruptions are being cared for too.
Jesus' argument, although sound and righteous, would have been appealing to the Rabbi or true follower of God. However, it may not have swayed a pretentious leader steeped in his pride and traditions. This is the same reason the Gospel influences so few today, or why a wise pastor's counsel is met with hostility. Jesus' message is blocked by the inclinations of people and their refusal to surrender to His Lordship. Jesus' message will only persuade those who are impacted by the Spirit, and where His Will replaces theirs.
Jesus withdrew from the Synagogue, and a great many people followed Him! Since first century Judaism was so diverse, taking a lot of people away probably did not devastate the Synagogue, as others would join in with those who held the same views as they did. This also happens with some churches today. The Scriptural quote in this passage in Matthew is from Isaiah 42:1-2, and is sometimes called the "Servant Song." It referred to the nation of Israel when it was written. There are four Servant Songs (Isa. 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). Israel was God's servant, yet she failed Him, disobeying by chasing after false gods and immoral practices. God called the people to be restored, while others took the punishment in behalf of the others, so not all would be destroyed (Isa. 44:1-4; 21; 42:18-19; 49:3-7; 52:13-53:12). Our goal in handling any conflict is restoration and learning so people can grow in faith and be better servants. Jesus came as the servant replacement. He is our substitute, and takes God's wrath in our place (Rom. 1:18‑3:20; 2 Cor. 5:21). He is the ultimate Servant!Are Traditions Robbing your Church?
To the Pharisees, Jesus robbed their bank and stole their possessions. And, to a point He did, as He took away their presumptions and false ideas and replaced them with the Truth and the true intention God had for them (Hos. 6:6; Micah 6:6-8). They did not want the truth or what God had; they only wanted their postulations and the power to rule from their self-importance. The questions we have to ask ourselves are, are we robbing God of the opportunities He tries to give us? Do we mix them up with habits, pride, and traditions? Do we make grandstanding pretences, showing off our faith while we have a heart full of soot? Do our passions line up with political agendas, or the precepts of His Word? Passion is paramount, but it has to be grounded in God's Truth, not the ideas and desires of man. Seek initiative and inspirations from Christ, not from traditions. Do not adhere to your faith and practice though the filter of traditions or habits. Rather, filter everything through the clarity of God's Word!
In Mathew 15, we are called to not be defiled by hypocrisy or allow our traditions to trump our purpose. Jesus confronted, head on, the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who had elevated their traditions over honoring and knowing God. This infuriated our Lord who called them to task and "gave them up" to themselves by saying, let them alone, which means, let their own evil ways bury them. It was total condemnation (Rom. 1:18-32)! They had their chance to repent, but the hardness of their will and the focus of their pride alienated them from the very thing they said they were honoring! Their traditions clouded them and their people from knowing the real God! Why such a strong stance from our Lord? Because, rituals and traditions can easily become equal to or even have more authority for men than God and His Word. They can elevate what is not important over what is. This is what many of us do today!
The Scribes and Pharisees relied on the repository of the wisdom of the people who came before, and those who discipled and taught them. This developed into the classic Jewish writings, and became their traditions and mindsets. Over the centuries since the captivity, commentary and the insights of another had become the norm in understanding God and the faith. Thus, the dependence was on traditions, not real faith or what God had plainly revealed. Perhaps the Scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus to evaluate whether He was a false teacher. What irony (Duet. 13:13-14)!
They had good traditions-or at least, they started out good. What Jesus confronted, the washing hands, was not about cleaning oneself before dinner or eating with filthy hands; rather, it was a specific ritual that the Pharisees followed but Jesus and His disciples did not. This tradition was meant to prepare one before God and give thanks for the meal, but as time went on, it mutated into legalism which consisted of how much water, how many rinses, the proper prayer, and so forth. It had no Scriptural basis, and was a perfect illustration of the pious, fraudulent Pharisees versus the Righteous Christ.How are your Traditions?
Perhaps you had a tradition that started out great but evolved over time, and what it was supposed to venerate or honor got left out. I was in charge of a wonderful tradition in my first church as a youth minister, one that I looked forward to that had been practiced for decades. It was an English Christmas dinner and a fundraiser for the youth. The women coordinated, the elders cooked, and the youth served. We had prime rib and all the fixings, a play to reenact the birth of our Lord, and it was all set in a traditional 19th century English theme, complete with the appropriate decorations and type of dress that was worn by the servers and hosts. It was fun and eloquent. However, as the years went by, it became skewed. It developed into who got to do what, whose spot was where, whose role was what, who got the money, where did it go, and so forth. Details over planning, over purpose, and what the dinner was supposed to be about were all hidden by our expectations and pride. We ended up canceling it for a few years. When we restarted it, we had a better, more God-fearing mindset. But in the wake, people left the church in disgust over how things were handled and how it was not right. Looking back, I realize I was as much a part of the problem as the solution. Oops.
The Pharisees were supporting these heinous acts and bad traditions by creating legal loopholes for those who wanted to get around their responsibilities while claiming they were pious. They did this by focusing on what was trivial, such as this hand washing ritual, which also has no Scriptural foundation and not what God wanted! Their dependence was on commentary without substance; Christ was the Substance of the Word. This tradition may have come from Roman influence. The Pharisees considered their oral and written traditions equal to the Torah-God's Law-just as some Christians today see their ministry or role as more important than honoring Christ or following His precepts such as Fruit and faith! Maybe it's not overt, but many times it is expressed in our attitude and behaviors. This collection of writings, The Mishnah, which was formalized in the second century, is still in use today. In fact, every Jewish sermon I have ever heard uses the Mishnah over the Torah (first five books of the Bible). There are a lot of good insights and sayings in it, but it is not the Truth of the Word. It would be like a Christian preaching out of a bestselling Christian book, but not referring to the Bible. (Oh yes, many do that; very, very bad!)
Traditions can be a good way to honor our Lord if they come from the right place-from sincere devotion to Christ and the desire to give Him the glory. I personally love many of the traditions that churches where I have been on staff have done, from Reformation Day and Blessing of the Animals to a Lutefest Festival. Yet, we have to beware of the bad ones; traditions and the theme, "we have always done it this way" can hide the purpose of the church and neuter the gospel very effectively. If we become over- devoted to our traditions and rituals, we will surely miss out on the possible intent of those rituals, which is to glorify God. All too often, rituals become the worship focus of a church so that all of the energies are upon this thing or that program, and discipleship, teaching, learning, and spiritual growth are absent, as in reaching out to the neighborhood and the world.
Even in the Old Testament, this is dealt with and quoted here; Isaiah's prophesy (Isa. 29:13) was about confronting leaders who focused on traditions and negated God's Law, which was His Word. This is the classic problem that crosses culture and time, elevating traditions over Truth, which is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It was then and is today one of the biggest problems in the Church! The leaders kept the traditions in the public eye so they could control and have power over the people. Makes you wonder about the causes and motivations of some of our church leaders and behind the scenes powerbrokers today, does it not?
How do we go before God?
Jesus asks, hear and understand; so do we? Jesus is not talking about the biochemistry of bacteria and disease with this hand washing custom or any specifics or whys of a tradition. Rather, He is indicating the spiritual. How do we go before God? How is He honored? How does this benefit the faith of the people in the church or show Christ outside of it? Do we use repetitive, meaningless traditions that have no foundation? Or, do we seek Him in truth, worship, and devotion for His glory, and not ours? The key question to ask about any program, outreach, ritual, or tradition that your church does or may do is this: How is Christ honored and displayed?
When Jesus tells them, the Pharisees were offended-oh really? Perhaps it was as many of us are when we are challenged with truth or better ideas. We might say, "oh well, too bad," but consider that it would be like offending your top denominational leaders and your top government leaders all at once today! The Pharisees had no real political power under Roman occupation, but they had considerable influence amongst the people, so the Romans used the Pharisees to keep the people under control. Just as many of the power brokers and workers-good and bad-in a church may not be in official leadership, but they wield influence. When we challenge the bad sacred cow, they may take their ball (money) and go home. We must allow them to do so, as honoring God is more important than pleasing petty people and the risk of losing capital. You have to know this and respect the people, but at the same time be "peace makers" and keep the Truth as truth.
You have to care enough to confront, to model the Christ to whom we lead others. Jesus was not afraid of confrontation because His focus was God's Truth. Because Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, He frees us from the bondage of legalism and false doctrines into the freedom of hope and rest (Col. 2:16-17). Jesus also frees us from the bondage that misguided, evil people place on others for personal gain. But, we must remove our attention and Will from such wrong paths, and place our focus upon Him. We must not see our traditions as a yoke to keep our eyes off His wonders and call.
In a healthy church, we are to honor the past, but we are not to live in the past. We are to live in the present and embrace the future with our call and gifts, and take hold of His opportunities, serving and trusting in our Lord. We are to be in His freedom and rest, as He is the God of love and delight, not the God who burdens needlessly. And, we are to embrace the future and the wonders still to come (Heb. 4:9). Bad traditions and bad personalities are forms of legalism, and this is a yoke that will distract us from His wonders and call. We will not see Christ; we will only see the yoke and its stranglehold upon us. Lest we put it on others to distract them, we must take it off and embrace our real Lord. As the last passage in Matthew 11:29 tells us, we need to take off our old, heavy burden, and place ourselves in His strength. Allow Christ to be your strength-not your thoughts, ideas, aspirations, or Will-as they will lead you astray. He will lead you to rest (Psalm. 55:22; Neh. 8:10; Isa. 40:29)!
Jesus told His disciples not to worry about the Pharisee's power; He placed the focus on Truth and away from falsehoods (Matt. 3:10). External rituals cannot replace the inward condition of the heart because what we are to do is all about aligning oneself either with Him or with self and other false belief systems and sin. This includes bad programming and bad traditions, as they represent bad stewardship of His precepts and call. Even be a good program, or social gathering can be bad if it takes the place of and draws our attention, especially away from our worship and devotion to Christ. The heart is purified by our faith and obedience, not by our service; our service is a Fruit of our love and obedience to God (Isa. 1: 10-20; 29:13; 59:13; John 10:34; Acts 15:9; Rom. 8:14; 1 Cor. 10:33; 2 Thess. 3:6).
Dealing with Bad Traditions
Jesus does not attack a tradition as being intrinsically bad within itself; He attacks the religious leaders' inconsistency, insincerity, and their practice of hypocritical legalism. For the most part, I like traditions in the church. I look forward to them and if they work, I try to do them again, even better. Evangelism campaigns, Easter celebrations, and such are sometimes sacred cows in our churches, and, more often than not, for good reason. However, when the traditions become the focus, such as when the Easter service becomes more important than Whom and what the service is about, or the evangelism campaign becomes more about the mobilizing and rallying than the focus of reaching our neighbor, we have missed the point, and have become "Pharisees." I have been a "Pharisee (they are not fair you see)" with traditions in the past. I had to learn not to be a Sadducee (they are sad you see), but to wake up and see His glory rather than what I wanted to do or redo. If you still are not sure you have a good or bad tradition, look at it this way: a good tradition glorifies our Lord; a bad tradition glorifies its founders, leaders, and/or participants. These are replete with power struggles, gossip, bickering, and the point is often missed in the chaos of dissention.
As far as the "sacred cows" go (programs that people cling to so much they are unwilling to review or improve them), remember that we are to honor the past and embrace the future! "Sacred cows" are best tipped by encouraging their founders and leaders that their time and energies can be better spent in a more useful direction, one they may not have considered. Allow them to brainstorm and help you do the "tipping." Share the vision; let them visit other programs. Never follow a suggestion or do anything without their input, for "cows" may come at and crush you!
If you are struggling with this, sit down with the leaders and powerbrokers, be in prayer, be encouraging, and restate with love the purpose of your church. (This is another reason why a good, God-honoring purpose and vision is so important-what we are about and what we are doing about it, affects everything that is done in a church.) It gets people on the same page and should be all to God's glory!
Look over the tradition or program and evaluate it. Meet with the parties involved, and with encouragement, start and end with prayer. (for more help, see How to Start, Develop, and Evaluate Programs)
1. Ask how can you/we get this lined up better so it glorifies Christ and not just please personalities? Pick their brains for ideas. 2. What has currently been working well? What has not? (Get them to see the big picture; What do you all need to do?) 3. What should you have avoided? 4. What were the past successes and failures? How can things be made better?
5. Now, map out the successes and failures during the past year. If no evaluation has been done before, go back five years, regardless of leadership changes.
6. Do not put people down; rather, use this time to lift up and encourage! Make it a comfortable time. Be open, listen, support the idea or premise of the program, and encourage the people being evaluated to do the same. Condescending attitudes of the leadership will cause more destruction that not having a program at all!
7. Now, brainstorm ideas for changes. Be honest and do not feel you have to make changes if nothing is wrong. If it works, don't fix it! Investigate small things that can be done to make improvements. If it is in shambles, at worst, you may have to start over or even "can" it. At best, it might just need some tinkering and encouragement or new leadership! If so, have a banquet or do something to honor the ones who have served, and make sure they are not out of the loop. (Keep it open for their return when they are ready.) It is easier to sew on a patch than to buy a new coat!
8. List the steps toward achieving the goals you came up with.9. Make sure you honor the people who have worked hard, and encourage them to seek to be better by mutual faith and cooperation. If they refuse, then you have a fight on your hands. (At that point, handle it in prayer and as conflict, and follow our steps on our conflict channel.)
10. Write this all down so you have a record to go back to, and keep in mind any good program or tradition must have benefits for the church and community and must glorify our Lord!
Questions to Ponder:
1. Does your home church have traditions in which you like to participate? Do these traditions provide comfort to you or others? If so, why? And, is that bad? Why, or why not?
2. Why and how did the Pharisees infuriate our Lord? How have you and your church perhaps done this in the past? How does your church do this now? What do you need to do?
3. How can traditions be a good way to honor our Lord? Is this possible?
4. When do church traditions turn bad, such as into legalism?
5. What is the difference between a good tradition and a bad tradition? How can you evaluate the traditions you and your church observe?
6. What can you do to prevent robbing yourself of the opportunities God gives you?
7. What can you do to make sure your passions line up with the precepts of His Word, and not with your political agendas, traditions, or habits?
8. Jesus pronounced total condemnation to the hypocritical Pharisees. Why? Was that fair? How about when church leaders today do the same? Should they also receive such reprimand?
9. How can misguided traditions and the theme, "we have always done it this way," hide the purpose of the church?
10. How do we come before God? Is it with repetitive, meaningless traditions that have no foundation, or do we seek Him in truth, worship, and devotion for His glory and not ours? Why is this so hard for some?
11. What would happen to you if you offended your top church elders, denominational leaders, and your top city and state government leaders all at once? What kind of boldness and confidence would this take? How do we get such confidence? Remember, there is a line between boldness and recklessness!
12. Jesus told His disciples not to worry about the Pharisee's power. How can this truth maintain our focus so we do not worry?
13. What can your church do to prevent, or at least inhibit, hypocrisy? Why can external rituals not replace the inward condition of the heart?
14. How can the focus of God's Truth give you confidence to face challenging situations?
15. What does your church need to do to seek the initiative and inspiration from Christ, and not just focus on traditions or personalities?
© 2003 R. J. Krejcir, Ph.D. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership, www.churchleadership.org