Scripture and Tradition — Part One
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Scripture and Tradition — Part One

Mark 7:1–8  (ID: 2727)

Jesus exposed the hypocritical Pharisees for elevating their own rules and traditions over the law of God. In our attempt to keep God’s law, we too are prone to develop our own rules and regulations in an effort to earn God’s favor. Alistair Begg reminds us that human merit cannot make us right with God and that justification is an act of God’s free grace.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Mark, Volume 3

Prophet, Shepherd, Healer, and Provider Mark 6:6–8:21 Series ID: 14103

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Mark and to chapter 7. Mark chapter 7, and we begin the reading at the first verse:

“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered [round] Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were ‘unclean,’ that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

“So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with “unclean” hands?’

“He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’

“And he said to them: ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother,” and, “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: “Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban” (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you[’ve] handed down. And you do many things like that.’

“Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him “unclean” by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him “unclean.”’

“After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean”? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’)

“He went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him “unclean.” For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”

Thanks be to God for his Word, and we will pause and ask for his help as we study it now:

We humbly pray, gracious and good God, that the time that we now spend with our minds attuned to the truth of the Bible may help us to understand the way in which you have chosen to deal with us, the provision that you have made for sinners in the person of your Son, and that we might find our lives explained and transformed by the power of Jesus himself. For we pray in his name. Amen.

Well, I hope you’ll keep your Bibles open there and be prepared to turn to some other passages which are germane to this morning’s study.

At first glance, it may seem that the confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus is little more than a storm in a teacup, a matter of marginal importance. Certainly, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, discussions about whether people have been washing their hands or not seems far removed from the issues of today. And it would be no surprise to me if someone who had come as a visitor this morning and had paid attention to this reading said, “I knew I shouldn’t have come here. This can’t have any possible bearing at all on the questions that I have in my mind about religion or the Bible or life,” or whatever it might be. But I hope that before the day is over, if not before the morning is over, that we might be absolutely clear concerning these things—that it’s not a matter of marginal importance, but it is an issue of deep significance. And I hope to be able to show us how crucial and relevant it is.

The disciples, some of them at least—you’ll notice in verse 2, Mark says that the Pharisees “saw some of his disciples eating foods with hands that were ‘unclean.’” That either means that there were just some of them who were present, and they were all doing that, or it means that they were all present, and only some of them were doing that. But nevertheless, they incurred the response of the Pharisees, who, not for the first time, were challenging the actions of the disciples.

Back in chapter 2, these Pharisees from Jerusalem had shown up in the cornfields, and they had challenged Jesus and his followers on that occasion because they were doing what was “unlawful on the Sabbath.”[1] In actual fact, they weren’t breaking the Sabbath itself, but they were breaking some of the laws that had been added to the Sabbath, for which their forebears had been responsible. And just so that we’re perfectly clear concerning this sense of animosity that existed between the Pharisees and Jesus, 3:6 records the fact that “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” So, this is a matter of significance, it’s a matter of some urgency, and it is moving things towards the time when Jesus will be handed over by cruel men and delivered up to be crucified.

Now, Mark is writing for a largely gentile audience. And that is presumably why he provides the explanation of verses 3 and 4. Verses 3 and 4 are supplementary for a Jewish person. They didn’t need to be reminded of the nature of the laws of ceremonial purity. But since Mark is writing to a largely gentile audience—and we’re included in that audience this morning—he is explaining why this would be a bone of contention. And so in verse 3 he says, “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they make sure that they go through the laws of ceremonial purity. And not only do they do this, but they have a very fastidious approach to the cleansing of articles that would be used in the process of eating and drinking.”

Now, the key phrase, to get to the heart of this, is at the end of verse 3, and then again it occurs in verse 5, and that is the final phrase of verse 3: “the tradition of the elders.” And again in verse 5: “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders …?”

Now, what was this “tradition of the elders”? To what are they referring? Well, I can tell you. “The tradition of the elders” was an oral body of interpretation that had grown up around the law of God. God had given his law through Moses, to Moses and to the people at Sinai, and as time had gone by, those who were the custodians of the law—those who were the ones who were concerned that God’s law would provide for the people of God and would fulfill the function that God intended for it—began to add to that law their own interpretations and misinterpretations and various accretions of all kinds.

Josephus, who was a Jewish historian writing in the early centuries, in a book entitled the Antiquities, records, “The Pharisees [had] delivered to the people a great many observances … which are not written in the law of Moses.”[2] They had delivered to the people many, many bits and pieces which were not part and parcel of the law. And the issue is found in this: that these additions, these interpretations, came to be regarded, at least by the Pharisees, as equally important and equally authoritative, so that instead of Scripture—instead of the Word of God as given to the people of God in the law of God—being the sole authority for the issue of their lives and their faith and an awareness of God and his truth, growing up alongside it became this body, this oral interpretation, this body of the traditions of men.

The most stinging rebukes of Jesus are not given to those who are so obviously sinful and out of line. They are reserved for those whose outward activity is not matched by a sense of inward reality.

And that would be one thing if it was seen to be clearly subservient to the law of God, but what had actually happened is what happens so often in these things, and that is that it began to be taken on a par with the Scripture itself. And this distinction, of course, Jesus is going to address. We won’t get to it this morning, but you’ll notice in verse 10 he says, “For Moses said,” and then in verse 11, “But you say.” “Moses said,” “You say.” In other words—in fact, in the Matthew record of this incident it doesn’t say, “Moses says”; it says, “God said.”[3] In other words, “What God said, Moses said. And what God said is divine, but what you say is human. And you cannot make what you say on a par with what God says, no matter how good your motivation may be.”

And so what happened was that the inherited traditions of the elders came to be regarded as pressing and as significant. And the Pharisees took what God had provided, especially for the priests—you can read this in Exodus, and particularly in Exodus 30: God gives very straightforward regulations for Aaron and his household in the exercising of their priestly function. And the Pharisees essentially said, “Well, if it’s good for the priests, it’s good for everyone, and therefore, we’re going to tell everyone that what is demanded of the priests is demanded of them, and so it must apply throughout all Israel.”

Now, if we think for a moment, we don’t want to come down too quickly and too firmly on these Pharisees. Because after all, they were, in their initial desires and designs, concerned to obey the law of God, concerned to take what God had said seriously, concerned to apply it and understand it properly. But the trouble lay in the fact that their additions and their misinterpretations began, as I’ve said to you, to take on the status of the law itself.

Now, if you understand that, you have essentially the context of what is being dealt with in this passage. And if you understand that, you will also recognize, I’m sure, that this is not simply an ancient problem, but it is a recurring issue. And in the history of the church there are significant occasions where the church, where God’s people, have got this wrong and had to have it rectified. It’s not my purpose this morning to explicate this in terms of historical illustration. I’m going to assume that many of you are able to put two and two together and get four.

But what I do need us to recognize is this: that since this is not a problem locked in the first century but it is a recurring issue, we must learn to distinguish clearly between what is tradition and is human and what is Scripture and is divine. If we get that wrong, then we will get many things wrong. It is therefore imperative that we think in terms of a large S for Scripture and a small t for tradition, so that in my notes I have a larger S than I have a t—so that I might just keep in mind that the t, whatever tradition emerges, must always be subservient to the Scriptures. And we dare not make that which the Scriptures say is obligatory optional, nor dare we make that which is clearly optional in terms of our traditions obligatory. And Jesus is going to tackle this in the illustration that follows, but we’re going to have to wait for later on.

The crux of the matter comes out for me most clearly in Matthew’s account of this. And if you want to turn back to Matthew 15, I’ll point this out to you. I think you will be helped in this as I was when I saw these two things set side by side.

Matthew records things in such a way as to make this very, very clear. The substance of the record is the same; the way in which he’s laid it out is different. It’s a reminder to us that the Gospel writers, as with journalists, reported things according to their own personality and their own perspective under the direct influence of God the Holy Spirit. So, Mark wrote it down under God’s direction in his way, and Matthew wrote it down in his way. And we read Matthew 15:1: “Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked”—here is their question—“‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?’” And “Jesus replied,” verse 3, “‘Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?’”

Now, there you have the crux of the issue. The Pharisees come, and they confront Jesus, and they challenge his followers: “Why do your followers break the tradition of the elders?” Jesus says, “Well, let me ask you: Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Now, Jesus, you remember, was tenderhearted. He was a compassionate man. He was kind to the needy; he was gracious and longsuffering with those who were penitent. But he goes for the jugular here. Jesus had little patience with the religious formalist. The stinging rebukes of Jesus, the most stinging rebukes of Jesus, are not given to those who are so obviously sinful and so obviously out of line, but they are reserved for those who are playing a merry game, who are dancing the one side and are denying it on the other side—those, in short order, whose outward activity is not matched by a sense of inward reality, so that there is a distinct gap between public performance and private heart life.

Now, he’s quoting, as you will see from Mark chapter 7, the prophet Isaiah. And we’ll come to that verse, but I want you to just see how Isaiah begins in Isaiah chapter 1. It’s page 484 in the church Bibles. Page 484, Isaiah chapter 1. God has raised up Isaiah some six hundred years or so before Jesus. He steps onto the stage, and he speaks from God, and he’s got quite a message to convey. We’ll just read from Isaiah 1:10:

Hear the word of the Lord,
 you rulers of Sodom;
Listen to the law of our God,
 you people of Gomorrah!
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
 what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
 of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
 in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
 who has asked this of you,
 this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing…

Notice the adjective: “meaningless offerings!” He’s not setting aside the sacrificial system. He’s not saying that that which he has instituted for the well-being of his people is now negated. He’s pointing to the hypocrisy of his people, who continue to go through the external exercises in a way that is devoid of heart reality. “Therefore,” he says, “don’t bring any more of your “meaningless offerings. Your incense is detestable to me.”

It would be like somebody buying his wife a beautiful bottle of perfume and taking it up and squirting it around in the bedroom, and she was aware of the fact that he was living in an adulterous relationship with a mistress somewhere up the street. “Don’t squirt that perfume in here! That’s absurd. That’s ridiculous. It means nothing. You don’t think you can come and do that and do that, do you?” she might legitimately say. That’s what God is saying.

Your New Moon festivals, your appointed feasts, I hate them. They’ve become a burden to me. I’m weary of them. When you spread your hands out in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you. Even if you offer many prayers, I won’t listen. Your hands are full of blood. Wash, make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right. Seek justice. Encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow.[4]

In other words, “Engage in the reality of that which your formalism suggests you’re committed to.”

And when he has spoken in such a striking and forceful and judging fashion, then, you will notice if your Bible is open, he gives one of the loveliest invitations in the prophetic books at all: “‘Come,’” he says, “‘now, let[’s] reason together,’ says the Lord.” “Though you’ve made a royal mess of this, though your sins may be as scarlet, they will be as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will be as wool.”[5] In other words, with mercy and with judgment God exercises his prerogative.

And so we see the same, coming back to Mark chapter 7. Jesus, in response to these folks, speaks in a very striking fashion, doesn’t he? “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders?” And he says, “Well, you know, the way I read my Bible,” he says, “when I read my Bible and I read Isaiah 29, I just see that Isaiah 29 refers to you characters. Isaiah was right when he spoke about you, when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain. Their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”[6]

In other words, Jesus points out two aspects of their religion: number one, it is skin deep, and number two, it is man-made. Isn’t that what it says? Look at the verse: “These people honor me with their lips”—that’s external—“but their hearts”—that’s internal—“are far from me.” He doesn’t mean their hearts, their physical heart—the double circulatory system that’s pumping for us now—but the heart as being representative of the core of a person’s being, the centrality of the person himself.

He says, “I know that you can sing your songs. I know you’ve come trampling in the courts. I heard your car door slamming in the car park. I know you’re doing all that stuff, but frankly, it’s really starting to tick me off. And the reason is not that it isn’t good for you to come slamming your doors and arriving and singing and putting your lips to good effect, but,” he says, “Isaiah prophesied about you, because although your lips are engaged, your hearts are not.”

It’s very striking, isn’t it? See, we all think we’re fit as fiddles until they start all those examinations, till they do those blood tests, till they do the EKG or the MRI or whatever it is. How would we ever know unless they go inside and underneath? And man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.[7] Man makes deductions on the strength of how well it is apparently being achieved on the outside. God is not conned by that. God is not as interested about my ability to speak as he is concerned about my motivation for speaking. God is not as concerned that I understand the text and can articulate it accurately as he is concerned about whether I live it and obey it in private.

And the Pharisees had it wrong. Pharisees always have it wrong. Their public performance was impeccable. They paid careful attention to an almost endless list of dos and don’ts, but it was a thin disguise for the fact that they really didn’t know God at all. Anybody looking on the outside would say, “Well, these people must really know God. After all, they’re so serious about it. Look how many times they go to church. Look how many times they do these things. They’re always washing their hands and cleaning the kettles and fiddling with everything. They’re clearly, clearly, really, really, really… They must know God in a very special way.” And God says, “You actually don’t know me at all.” And I don’t think the thought here is that they got up in the morning and decided to wear a mask and pretend but that they are confronted with the fact that there was a radical inconsistency in their lives.

You know, in Shakespeare, remember, when the players come to Hamlet and they say they’re going to put on a play—they can do historical tragedy and tragical histority and then all that stuff; it’s a wonderful speech.[8] And then if you’ve seen it at all, you know that they go into their bags, and they begin to produce the masks and the masks that are on those sticks, and they hold the mask up in front of their face. And everybody knows that it’s a mask, and there is a reality behind that—that they are pretending. Well, I don’t know that the Pharisees may be justifiably charged with waking up in the morning and putting on a mask as much as they may be legitimately charged with the fact that Jesus confronts them with a radical inconsistency between what is going on on the outside and what is actually happening on the inside.

Their religion, first of all, is skin deep, and secondly, it is man-made. That’s verse 7: “They worship me in vain”; it’s a waste of time. “Their teachings are but rules taught by men.” “Their teachings are but rules taught by men.” For them, religion was defined by a commitment to an endless list of rules and regulations. If you’d asked them, “How do you know that God will accept you?” they said, “Because we’re doing our level best. Not only are we doing what he said to do, but we’ve actually written a whole ton on the back of it so that we might do even better.” It’s like they went to the trainer, and the trainer told them, “Now, you can do this; I want you to do this ten times with fifteen-pound weights,” and they said, “No, we’re going to do it twenty times with twenty-five-pound weights so that everyone might know how tremendously committed we are to the program.”

God is not as concerned that I understand the text and can articulate it accurately as he is concerned about whether I live it and obey it in private.

Now, what were they doing? They were seeking to ensure that God’s law would be kept, first by themselves, and then by other people. So, the law of God was clear, and they said, “We better just make sure that when it says ‘You must not steal,’[9] people understand exactly what that’s about. Or when it says ‘You must not commit adultery,’[10] why don’t we just clarify that a little bit?” And in terms of motivation, you can understand: they’re the custodians of the law, they’re the ones who give their minds and hearts to its protection and so on, and so they’re seeking in order to ensure that that will be happening. The trouble with it was that they began to force the people in their care to pay the same attention to their additional rules as they were demanded of paying attention to in terms of the law of God. So what they did was essentially smother the commands of God under the traditions of their own creation. And as a result, they inevitably tampered with, modified, perverted, and changed what God had said.

Now, Jesus is about to give an illustration of this. He’s about to expound this. In verse 9, he’s going to say, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” It’s a great irony, isn’t it? These people who are so committed to the commands of God are actually setting aside the commands of God by the additions they’re making to the commands of God. It’s perverse, isn’t it? I mean, it happens all the time. And he’s about to give them an illustration of that. We’ll come to that later on. But before he does that exposition, he clearly distinguishes between the commands of God and the traditions of men. That’s verse 8: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

Now, we need to be very, very careful in reviewing this that we don’t get hold of the wrong end of the stick. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people expounding on this passage or parallel passages, and it goes something along these lines: “Jesus came along, and he found that these people were really interested in rules and regulations and laws. He himself was not remotely interested in rules, regulations, or laws. Jesus was simply about love. He was simply about applying principles situationally. There was nothing authoritative or absolutist about the approach of Jesus, and therefore, you must beware of anybody who’s got any concerns about the law of God,” and so on.

Well, you’re sensible people. You’ll have to think that out. But let me tell you that that is wrong. Jesus did not come to abolish the law; he made that clear. Jesus came to fulfill the law.[11] Jesus himself obeyed the law. “I have come to do your will[, O God],” he said.[12] What was God’s will? Where was God’s will made clear? In the law of God. When Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist said, “I don’t think that I should be baptizing you. It should be the other way around.” And Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.”[13] In other words, “This is the right thing to do.” He has come to identify with man and men and women in their sin. And so we need to be very clear concerning that.

And he in turn insisted that those who love him must keep his commandments: “If a man loves me, he will keep my commandments.”[14] That is nothing other than a reiteration of what is said in the book of Exodus, in chapter 20, concerning the fact that love for God will issue in obedience.[15] So do not for a moment try and wiggle out of the implications of this by saying what God was saying was simply that he’s really changed his mind about a lot of that stuff, he’s not so concerned about these things anymore, and Jesus is really all about love. No. Jesus is all about love, but love and law are not at war with one another. Jesus was rejecting man’s additions and misrepresentations of the law; he was not setting aside God’s law itself.

Now, if we are prepared to suggest that the Pharisees were simply setting out to ensure that the law was obeyed by what they did, we have to acknowledge that they ended up making the law a means of self-justification. And how did they do that? Well, they did that by diverting from the clear, undeniable, irreducible commands of God in the law by focusing on all this other stuff that they said was important.

The only way I can bring it into contemporary terms is to think in terms of local churches that for good and right reasons do not only have a doctrinal statement and some kind of explanation of their constitutional engagement with one another, but when you get to the back pages, they have their own list of local rules and regulations. If you like, they have added to that which is statutory in the law of God, and they’ve said, “That’s what, you know, the Bible says, and this is what Parkside says,” or “this is what the next place says. And so, this is what you can do, and this is what you can’t do.” And the interesting thing for me the older I get and find these lists is that they vary from continent to continent, country to country, and framework to framework.

And if people are not on their game, then they may fall foul of the idea that as long as we pay attention to the page that is at the back of the manual, we don’t really need to worry too much about these big-ticket items that are in the law of God, because after all, this is the only thing that people around here are apparently concerned about. In my boyhood, it was about whether ladies wore trousers or whether you went to movies; in some circles, whether you smoked or whether you didn’t; whether you smoked cigars (Were they allowed?), or cigarettes were not allowed, but cigars were in, but only on the second Tuesday after the third Friday—that kind of thing. And then eventually people said, “Well, as long as I’m obeying all of this, I’m absolutely fine,” because that’s all this little environment really cares about. That is pharisaism. That’s what Jesus was talking about: people taking man-made ideas which are not defined and delivered in the Bible and putting them out in such a way as to obligate their brothers and sisters to obey them and also as to create the notion that by means of this they actually will find acceptance with God or improve their acceptance with God.

So the person says, “Well, there’s seven on the list, and frankly, I’m running about four out of seven at the moment, which is pretty good. I mean, I know I have an envious heart. I know I have a dirty mind. I know I’m a miserable sinner. I know I’m cantankerous with my wife. I know I’m wretched in all of these affairs, but it doesn’t matter, ’cause I got four out of seven over here, and apparently these are the ones that the elders, the tradition of the elders at Parkside, said these are the ones. If you don’t violate these, you’re probably good to go.” Jesus says, “I got a question for you: Why do you set aside the commands of God by enforcing the traditions of man?”

And if that is not significant enough for us to ponder, let us finish by recognizing this: that the reason that Jesus is so concerned about this is because it ultimately has to do with the story of how a holy God and sinful men and women may be brought into a relationship with one another. The Pharisees essentially approach the notion of salvation along the lines of “A good God will reward religious people as long as they keep doing their best. Therefore, the way to find peace with God, the way to find acceptance with God, is to be able to do all these things.”

But you see, the law of God is so comprehensive, so demanding, that anybody who looks at it: “Number one: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.’ Okay, well, how well have I done on that this week? Horribly! Horribly!” So I don’t even need to go further in the law to know that if this is the means whereby I get acceptance with God, I have no hope. That’s what the law does. It is not a ladder up which we climb to acceptance with God, but it is a mirror in which we see our faces, dirty as they are, so that we might discover the solution that God has provided for those who are lawbreakers.

But the pharisee says, “No, I’m going to make some more of my own laws that I can actually keep and feel good about. And I will then be able to explain myself in terms of this list of human tradition that I have manufactured, and it will help me not to be confronted by the way in which Jesus says, ‘The law says that if a man commits adultery, this is the issue. But I say to you, “He who looks at a woman lustfully in his heart,” you see.’[16] Oh, I don’t want to have to deal with that one. That’s getting deep down into the business. Let’s just get back to the kettles. Let’s just wash the kettles. Let’s just wash the hands. Let’s just make sure that we’ve got everything…” You get it?

Now, let’s finish in this way: let’s finish in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 18. You know where we’re going. We’ve been here so many times, and it won’t be the last time. Because this makes the point as good as it can be made.

Luke 18:9: “To some who were confident,” notice, “of their own righteousness.” Not “of the righteousness that Jesus provides.” Not “of the righteousness that is provided in he who has kept the law in its perfection and who has borne the penalty for sin.” “To some who were confident of their own righteousness”—and people who are confident of their own righteousness always look down on other people; you will notice that. And they look “down on everybody else.” So, for example, I can remember as a boy growing up, I can remember the women sitting in the room after the door had closed and the lady had walked out, said, “Look at that person: calls herself a Christian, wearing trousers. Unbelievable!” Well, they were confident in their own righteousness. As long as they had a skirt on, presumably they were closer to God. Trousers on, you just moved away from God.

“To some who were confident [in] their own righteousness”—a self-established righteousness—“and looked down on everybody else,” Jesus says, “I want to tell you a story. Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and one was a tax collector.”[17] The people would love this. They loved these stories. “Oh, this is good! We got a religious guy and an irreligious guy. We love it when Jesus tells these stories. What happens next?” “Well,” he says, “hang on, let me tell you.”

“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. [And furthermore,] I fast twice a week and [I] give a tenth of all I get.’”[18] In other words, “I’m not just doing the fifteen-pound weights; I’m doing the twenty-five-pound weights as well. I’ve added a little bit to it just so that I’m covering my bases.” “But the tax collector,” or “the publican,”[19] “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but [he] beat his breast and [he] said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”[20]

Now, the people are all waiting for the punch line. Okay, who’s the one who knows God? Who’s the one in the right position with God? From an external point of view, the person says, “Well, the guy who does all the stuff. The guy who says, ‘I’m not like this, and I’m not like that, and I’m not like him. And furthermore, I do this, and I do that, and I do the next thing.’ If God is grading on the strength of all of that, then surely he must be the man. This poor soul who’s over here, who hardly even can come up with a prayer, he just beats his breast, and he says, ‘O God, be merciful to me, the sinner.’” Jesus says, “Okay, here’s the punch line: it’s the second guy, not the first guy, that went home justified before God.”[21] How does that work?

Because the Pharisee looked for acceptance on the basis of merit. The pharisee always does. The Pharisee’s view of himself was wrong. He was a rotter. The law of God would have shown him he was a rotter. But because he’d come up with these other little bits and pieces that made him feel good about himself, then he could avoid the fact that the law said, “You’re busted.” He had a wrong view of himself, and he had a wrong view of God. He had a view of God that said, “God accepts people on the strength of human merit.” And he doesn’t. The publican, he was operating not on the strength of merit but on the basis of mercy. Now, the publican wasn’t justified because he was a sinner, ’cause they were both sinners. The publican is justified as the one who has acknowledged what he is and admits that he relies entirely on the mercy of God.

Only God can change a rule-keeping pharisee into a mercy-loving daughter or son.

Now, here we are this morning, and people have come to church, to this building, for all kinds of reasons. They have been trampling in the courts; they’re trampling in the corridors. The car doors are opening and slowing. It’s not for me to determine where anybody is. That would be a task that only God should fulfill. I know what a challenge it is when the Word of God shines into my own stony heart. I have enough trouble dealing with myself without trying to figure it out for you, dear ones.

But I must tell you this and tell you it clearly: The Pharisee appealed to justice on the basis of supposed merit, and that is the way of death. He appealed to justice on the basis of a merit that he didn’t have. And the publican admitted his entire lack of merit and trusted in God’s mercy alone. One relied on justice on the basis of his meritorious deeds or nondeeds. The other says, “If I start the merit thing, there’s no chance. I’m going to have to go sole mercy.” The latter finds himself declared in a right standing before God; the former has no standing with God. And only God can change a rule-keeping pharisee into a mercy-loving daughter. Only God can change a rule-keeping pharisee into a mercy-loving son.

What are you relying on when you stand before God on the day of judgment? What do you plan to plead in your defense? Think it: if you lived your entire life now, for the rest of your life—if you were given a bye for everything up to this day, and you were to start today to do your level best, you wouldn’t have finished your lunch before you’re in a mess all over again. That’s why I think the Billy Graham crusades have ended so phenomenally for so many years, and so rightly, by encouraging people to come to God and say,

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that your blood was shed for me,
And that you bid me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.[22]

“A debtor to mercy alone.”[23] If you’ve never done that, if you’ve never said that, if you’ve never turned to God in that way, then I urge you to do so even this morning.

Gracious God, we thank you that we’re able to go home now and to turn to our Bibles and to examine them carefully to see if these things are so,[24] for we are as much in danger of falling foul of this pharisaical approach as any other church that we know. And so we pray that you will help us to make sure we have a big S for Scripture and a small t for tradition; that you will help us not to elevate our own opinions and desires and designs so as to make them obligatory to others, nor that we might be tempted to set aside and make optional what you have demanded of us. We need your help. But most of all we pray that you will bring us to the place of the publican, so that we might come as he came and, at least metaphorically, beat our chest and say, “Lord, be merciful to me. I’m the sinner.” And the promise of your Word is that he or she who comes to you, you “will in no wise cast out”[25]—how this is all of our confidence.

And we pray that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit may rest and remain upon each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Mark 2:24 (NIV 1984).

[2] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston (1895), 13.10.6.

[3] Matthew 15:4 (NIV 1984).

[4] Isaiah 1:14–17 (paraphrased).

[5] Isaiah 1:18 (paraphrased).

[6] Isaiah 29:13 (paraphrased).

[7] See 1 Samuel 16:7.

[8] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.

[9] Exodus 20:15 (paraphrased).

[10] Exodus 20:14 (paraphrased).

[11] See Matthew 5:17.

[12] Hebrews 10:9 (NIV 1984). See also Psalm 40:8.

[13] Matthew 3:14–15 (paraphrased).

[14] John 14:23 (paraphrased).

[15] See Exodus 20:6.

[16] Matthew 5:27–28 (paraphrased).

[17] Luke 18:10 (paraphrased).

[18] Luke 18:11–12 (NIV 1984).

[19] Luke 18:13 (KJV).

[20] Luke 18:13 (NIV 1984).

[21] Luke 18:14 (paraphrased).

[22] Charlotte Elliott, “Just As I Am” (1835). Language modernized.

[23] Augustus Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771).

[24] See Acts 17:11.

[25] John 6:37 (KJV).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.