Scripture and Tradition — Part Two
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Scripture and Tradition — Part Two

Mark 7:9–13  (ID: 2728)

What is the basis of authority? Does it lie solely in Scripture? In Scripture plus a little bit of tradition? How much of a role should tradition play? Alistair Begg answers these questions as he explains the benefits and pitfalls of traditions and teaches us that while the wisdom of the past is valuable, we must always subordinate tradition to Scripture.

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

Well, Mark chapter 7, and I think I’m going to read the entire passage again that we read this morning, and to do so purposefully so that we might have the wider context, since we’ll only be looking at verses 9–13 this evening.

“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 have 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.”’”


Gracious God, we humbly pray now for clarity of thought, alertness of mind, and openness of heart to the truth of your Word. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, as I say, we’re focusing on the section that begins at verse 9 and runs through to verse 13, and we’ll save 14 and following for next time.

I don’t always read the New English Bible; I turn to it every so often. But I did this evening, just because I was interested to read another translation of this passage from the Greek. And I found verse 9 to be pretty good. The NEB translates verse 9, “And Jesus said to them, ‘You have a clever way of rejecting God’s law in order to uphold your own teaching.’” “You got a really clever way of rejecting God’s law in order that you might uphold your teaching.”

Now, Jesus had been confronted by the Pharisees, as we saw earlier, because his disciples were breaking the rules as far as the Pharisees were concerned. They were failing to engage in the requisite ceremonial ablutions which were part and parcel of Pharisaical life. And the traditions of the elders were of such significance that these Pharisees were concerned to discover that the disciples of Jesus apparently were playing fast and loose with this important interpretation.

In response to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus had asked a question of his own. We saw that it came out quite clearly, particularly in Matthew’s account, in chapter 15. And he said, “Well, let me ask you why you set aside the commands of God in order simply to uphold your own traditions.”[1]

And then, in a way that is very striking and unmistakable, he speaks to them biblically; he speaks to them straightforwardly; he speaks to them penetratingly. They would never, any of them, have been able to say, “I’m just not quite sure what Jesus was meaning when he responded as he did.” No, they would know exactly, as he quotes to them from the prophecy of Isaiah and as he charges them with the fact that their religion, as we said, is two things: one, it is skin deep, and two, it is man-made.

Tradition above Scripture

And what they were guilty of was putting tradition in a position of authority that they regarded as being equivalent to the commands of God in Scripture. Very important that we understand this, because as we noted earlier, it’s possible for us to quickly go wrong if we don’t have our tent pegs, as it were, driven safely into the ground around us. And it is this issue of them elevating tradition to the place of biblical authority that Jesus comes to three times.

First of all, in verse 8, he puts it as follows: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” And then verse 9, as we’ve just quoted it: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” And then in verse 13: “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” And he’s using a specific illustration, and he says, “And actually, this isn’t the only way you do this. You do all kinds of things like this.”

So, what was it they were doing? Well, they were essentially forcing upon others that which God had neither prescribed nor commanded. They were telling other people that these were things that they had to do, despite the fact that God had not said they had to do them. This was the tradition that had built up over time.

Now, if you think about it in relationship to this first instance (the matter of washing hands), from one perspective it was no big issue. After all, the washings in this way were not countermanded in the Bible. Specific instructions had been given. These were not the instructions, but certainly for people to be involved in washing their hands was something pretty nice to do. It’s hygienic, for one thing, and it doesn’t harm anybody at all. So from one perspective, for them to be concerned in this way and to wish that the disciples were doing the same is perfectly understandable.

But the rub is in this: that these things were not in the Bible. They were not commanded by God, and because they were not commanded by God, the Pharisees had absolutely no right to seek to make these things an obligation. Because they were not commanded in Scripture, the Pharisees—no matter how devout they were, no matter how zealous they were, no matter how much they felt that this was a help to ensure that everybody was serious about the law of God—at the bottom line, they had no basis upon which to demand this activity of anybody else.

No one has the right to turn that which is permissible into that which is obligatory.

Now, there is a fundamental principle that is at work here, and I’ll try and state it for you. And it goes like this: that customs or preferences or traditions that are not commanded in Scripture and which aren’t in conflict with Scripture—not commanded and not in conflict—may be permissible, provided they’re not enforced upon people as being essential, and particularly essential to acceptance with God. All right?

So, that which is not in conflict with the Bible may be permissible, but it is not an obligation. And it cannot be made an obligation, neither by the Pharisees in the first century nor by contemporary Pharisees. No matter how much we may be interested in this and committed to it ourselves and have benefited from it in the past—either the doing of something or the failing to do something—we have no basis upon which to make that an obligation to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

If you want to wash kettles, go ahead. It’s permissible, but it’s not an obligation. If you want to exchange wedding rings in the marriage ceremony, go ahead. It’s permissible, but it’s not an obligation. If you want to give a personal verbal testimony before you’re baptized—or not give a personal verbal testimony before you’re baptized—go ahead. Both are permissible. Neither is an obligation. And no one has the right to turn that which is permissible into that which is obligatory. And that was the essential issue with these characters. And Jesus will have no time for it.

When we see things in this light, then we must recognize that, given that it is permissible, it is optional. And the problem was that they were unprepared for that. As far as they were concerned, it was an obligation, and anyone who turned it into an option was violating not simply the tradition of the elders but was going against the very command of God himself.

Tradition Violating Scripture

Now, that’s in the first instance, concerning these washings. We come now to the second instance, where we have this particular issue where Jesus envisages a situation where a young man has determined—either in a moment of devotion, or it may actually have been in a moment of rebellion; we can’t tell from the context—he has decided in a moment to make a vow, and in this vow, he’s going to pronounce all of his possessions as “Corban.” In other words, he is going to declare that all of his possessions are from this point on now devoted solely to God. They may only be used in this particular way: in the service of God. As a result, his parents will not be able to benefit from his possessions.

Now, it may well be that, in a moment of devotion, a man like that has decided that it is the right thing for him. He’s been the beneficiary of things all of his life, he has more than enough, his parents are well-set and so on, and therefore, he feels himself as perfectly rational and sensible to be able to do this. There’s nothing illegitimate in that at all. The Bible has a lot to say about vows.

But what if circumstances change? What if his mother got horribly sick? What if the stock market collapsed? What if everything hit the fan and he realized that the vow that he’d made in the past, which he’d made very sincerely, was now actually making it impossible for him to do what he felt he ought to do—namely, to honor his father and mother? And so what he wants to do is to reverse, essentially, the irrevocable trust. He wants to go back into it and get it out in order that he can help his mom and dad out.

What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. In fact, everything is right about it. And you will notice that Jesus is addressing the issue in verse 12. “Whatever help you might … have received from me,” the man says, “is Corban.” In other words, “I’m no longer able to do that. It is a gift devoted to God.” Now, here’s the key phrase. The issue is not the man in relationship to his parents; the issue is the control of the Pharisees over the man. Verse 12: “Then you”—that is, “you Pharisees”—“then you [Pharisees] no longer let him do anything for his father [and] mother.” “You are holding him to your traditions in such a way that you are causing him to violate the command of God.” And Jesus says, “You can’t do that. Because your traditions are subservient to God’s commands.”

Hence you’ll notice what he actually says: “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ … ‘Anyone who curses his father or [his] mother must be put to death.’” In the Old Testament dispensation, if you cursed your father or your mother, it was a capital-punishment offense. That is how much, incidentally, God cares about the family unit. That’s how much he cares about the way in which he’s put the nuclear family together. That’s for another time.

But what has happened is that these characters, these Pharisees, determined that it isn’t possible for this young man to change his mind. And consequently, he is unable to help out his parents. Now, what were they doing? They were setting themselves up as the arbiters of human conduct. They were setting themselves up as the ones who could determine what could happen and what couldn’t happen. They had no authority to do so. The Scriptures were very clear: “You must honor your father and your mother.”[2] The fellow had taken a vow. The vows are in the Bible. It is important to uphold vows; the Pharisees had that on their side. But it was not legitimate for them to do what they did. And as a result, they turned things on their heads. The young man could no longer do what he wanted to do, and they had no right to enforce it as an essential.

Now, if you think about this, from one perspective, these Pharisees must have looked particularly devout: highly scrupulous in enforcing the law, causing people to say, “Well, I suppose that’s what it means to be really, really religious.” Not only do they love to pray in the public, not only do they love to dress in such a way as to draw attention to themselves, but they love also to be able to pronounce on these things, and they’re very, very quick to tell everybody what they can and what they cannot do.

And it must have looked quite good from the outside, but they were actually guilty of calling for an individual to set aside the clear command of God in order that tradition might be upheld. Why? Because they had elevated their tradition to be on a par with the command of God.

Scripture’s Authority and Sufficiency

And I say to you again that this is not a first-century problem. This is a recurring problem throughout all of church history. What is the basis of authority? Does it lie solely in Scripture? Or does it lie in Scripture and a little bit of tradition? And how much tradition? And what is the interaction between the tradition and the Scripture?

Jesus, you will notice, distinguishes very, very clearly. Verse 10—and I pointed it out before—“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” Verse 11: “But you say…” In the Matthew account, it doesn’t read “But Moses said…” It reads “But God said…”[3] God said it through Moses. And these are synonyms in the Bible: “Moses said,” “God said,” “Scripture said.” Because this is divine, this is supreme, this is authoritative, and this is sufficient. What man says does not possess any of the prior qualities and stands in distinct contrast to that which God has commanded.

And so, what is actually at stake in this little section is the issue of the authority of Scripture and, indeed, the sufficiency of Scripture. I’m not convinced that you have been thinking about this much in recent days. I would be surprised if many of you have. It is partly the responsibility of myself and my colleagues to bring these things to your attention. And as I thought along these lines during the week, I had been realigning some books, and I came across an ancient copy of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. I can’t really open too many of its pages; you can tell that I haven’t been reading it a lot with my cornflakes. It’s a somewhat dusty tome. But I’m very happy to have it, and it came from the library of someone I admire very much. And so I thought, “Well, just as a matter of interest, why don’t I look at what the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England have to say about the authority of Scripture?”

And so I found it in article number 6. And article number 6, which is “Of the Sufficiency of Holy Scriptures for Salvation,” reads as follows. (Incidentally, all the s’s in here are f’s, so if I don’t get this immediately right, that’s the problem.) “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any Man, that it should be believed as an Article of Faith, or to be thought requisite or necessary to Salvation.”[4]

I’m going to read that to you again, because it’s good—and because I’ve already forgotten it myself. “Holy Scripture contain[s] all things necessary to salvation.” All things that are necessary for salvation are in the Bible. You don’t need any other book, except the Bible, in order to understand the nature of salvation. “So that whatsoever is not read therein” (what we don’t find in the Bible) “nor may be proved thereby” (so, what we don’t read in it nor we can prove from it) “is not to be required of any Man, that it should be believed as an Article of Faith, or to be thought requisite or necessary to Salvation.”

It then goes on to outline the canon of Scripture in the Old and the New Testaments, to set aside the Apocrypha as being noncanonical and therefore totally interesting but absolutely nonbinding. And I’m going to give you just a brief quote from this, because I think it is worthwhile:

After the main foundations of religion in general, in the belief of … God, or more specially of the Christian religion in the doctrine of the Trinity, and of the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ, are laid down…

“The next point to be fettled”—“settled”—“is…” “Is…” I did that deliberately to see if you’re awake.

The next point to be settled is, what is the rule of this faith, where is it to be found, and with whom is it lodged? The Church of Rome and we do both agree, that the Scriptures are of divine inspiration: those of that communion acknowledge, that every thing which is contained in Scripture is true, and comes from God; but they add to this, that the books of the New Testament were occasionally written, and not with the design of making them the full rule of faith, but many things were delivered orally by the Apostles, which, if they are faithfully transmitted to us, are to be received by us with the same submission and respect that we pay to their writings: and they [do] also believe, that these traditions are conveyed down infallibly to us, and that to distinguish betwixt true and false doctrines and traditions, there must be an infallible authority lodged by Christ with his Church. We on the contrary affirm, that the Scriptures are a complete rule of faith, and that the whole Christian religion is contained in them, and no where else; and although we [may] make great use of tradition, especially that which is most ancient and nearest the source, to help us to a clear understanding of the Scriptures; yet as to matters of faith we reject all oral tradition, as an incompetent means of conveying down doctrines to us, and we refuse to receive any doctrine, that is not either expressly contained in Scripture, or clearly proved from it.[5]

That is an orthodox article of faith in relationship to the sole authority of Scripture. And when you think in terms of the Reformation, you think in those terms: that the Reformers were standing up to all that is mentioned here and saying, “No, as thankful as we may be for this and for this and for this, and as helpful as it may be in pointing us in this direction, when it comes to the issue, tradition must bow before the authority of the Scriptures. And the church bows to the authority of the Scriptures. The Scriptures do not bow to the authority of the church.”

And here in this little section of Mark chapter 7, Jesus is tackling this very issue. Because these characters are saying, “Yeah, we want to be real clear about the law of God. But we want to be even more clear about the law of God, so we’ve added some more stuff to it, just to make sure that everybody is really paying attention to it.” And in fact what they were doing was undermining the very law of God, contravening it in all kinds of ways. By means of their oral traditions, they were attempting to manipulate and to control the divine law.

Now, as I say to you—and we need to be clear concerning this—it was obvious that the Pharisees could point to vows in the Bible. They could point to the fact that vows were commanded and that the keeping of vows was commanded in the Old Testament. But Cranfield writes very helpfully when he says, “It was their interpretation, their tradition, which was at fault; for it clung to the letter of the particular passage in such a way as to miss the meaning of scripture as a whole.”[6]

And that is often a feature of legalism. That is often a feature of people who say, “No, you absolutely can’t do this.” And they say, “Well, we’re upholding this because we’re saying exactly what the Scriptures say.” So, “I do not permit a woman to braid her hair or to wear gold jewelry,”[7] or whatever it might be. And so people say—well, they say, “If you’re going to take the Bible literally, there’s no way you can wear gold jewelry. You can wear silver jewelry. You can wear plastic jewelry. You can wear gigantic emerald green triangular earrings that are three times the size of your head. But you can’t wear gold. You cannot braid your hair, but you can dye it forty-seven different colors.” Or, “You can’t dye it forty-seven different colors, you can only braid it,” or whatever it might be.

We need to accept the benefits that tradition brings while recognizing tradition for what it is.

If you stand back, what is Peter talking about? He’s talking about the principle of modesty. He’s illustrating that principle in a way that is cultural for his time. The unerring principle, the absolute foundational truth that he’s teaching, is illustrated in a cultural way, but it is mandated by the law of God, and it is tied to the doctrine of creation. But people who come up with lists and rules, they usually fall foul of that.

Tradition’s Benefits and Pitfalls

Well, our time is almost gone, so let me just finish in this way: What do you think our takeaway should be from this? I’m tempted to use this as an opportunity for Q and A, because I’m sure we would get some really wonderful questions at this point. But I’m going to escape for the safety of my home and the comfort of my wife’s encouragement.

Let me just say three things by way of conclusion.

Are we simply, then, to dispense with tradition? After all, we are not a very traditional kind of congregation. We don’t have much by way of background and so on. And so, should we become the champions of “No, we don’t really believe in any tradition at all. We don’t like tradition. We’re not tradition. No, no tradition.” No. No, we shouldn’t do that. Why? Because tradition’s actually helpful. I mean, I just read from the Thirty-Nine Articles, and I just began the service by using the Book of Common Prayer. So what we need to do with tradition is accept the benefits that it brings and recognize what it is: tradition.

So, number one, we should accept the benefits of tradition. Two, we must learn to distinguish between Scripture and tradition. So we have to constantly be saying to ourselves—monitoring ourselves, our own approaches, our own attitudes, and the attitude of our church—“Is this biblical, or is this traditional? Is this something that we can actually mandate? Is this something that we must do, or is this something that we would like to do? Is this a preference?”

And each of us, if we’re honest, are more tempted than we’re prepared to admit to baptize into orthodoxy and to establish as necessity our particular practices and our particular convictions—especially those of us who have grown up in the church. Because we’ve grown up with all kinds of things, and we’ve had, as time has gone on, to try and sort out: “How much of this is cultural to my background in Scotland, and how much of this is absolutely biblical? How much of this can I really substantiate by going to the Scriptures, or is this a violation of Scripture?” It’s permissible for me to do or choose not to do, but it is not permissible for me to lay it down on somebody else and tell them they must do it or they mustn’t do it. Why? Because I can’t prove it from the Bible, or it’s not written in the Bible.

So, one, we recognize the benefits of tradition. Two, we distinguish between Scripture and tradition. And three and finally, we have to learn always to subordinate tradition to Scripture. Tradition must always be subordinated to the Bible.

“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” the Pharisees asked. Jesus said, “’Cause it’s optional!” They didn’t like that, because they were going to decide what was optional and what wasn’t. And they decided that it was an obligation. Therefore, they were guilty of a violation. But they were wrong, and Jesus was right. And Jesus had to ask them the question, “Why do you prevent this man from obeying God’s law when it’s an obligation? You can’t,” he says to the Pharisees, “turn it into an option by making your ruling mandatory”—which is exactly what they were doing. They’re saying, “No, you cannot honor your father and mother. I know it says it in the Bible. I know it says it in the law of Moses. And the reason you can’t is because you did the ‘Corban’ thing. And the ‘Corban’ thing is inviolable.” They were wrong. What they had done was they’d taken tradition, and they had elevated it to the point of Scripture. And it became a mechanism for them to turn their backs on Scripture itself.

One final quote from [Euthymius]. I’m sure you are always happy of a quote from him. He writes on 7:13, “All human handling of the Word of God is continually beset by the temptation to try to turn the Word of God into a business of conventional piety and morals, something manageable and complimentary to human self-complacency.”[8]

I want to be able to take this Bible and manipulate it like a piece of Plasticine so that it will allow me to do exactly what I will choose to do, and it will allow me leverage over those under my care so that I may make rules for them that they must obey. Instead, what we need to do is allow the law of God to show us continually and always that we are sinners—sinners who can only live with God’s law on the basis of justification; a justification which is alien to us, outside of us, and imputed to us on Christ’s behalf; so that our acceptance all day and every day will never be on the strength of what we are doing or not doing but on the strength of what he has once and for all done. So, the most helpful aspect of this is that it continually turns us to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Our gracious God and Father, we are examined by your Word. The spirit of the Pharisee rises easily in us, many of us, and we have to repent of our sins and even some of our best motivations that have created for ourselves and for others burdens for their backs, obligations. And so we pray that you will help us to understand that because something is permissible—because a tradition is not contravened by the Bible—because it is permissible, that doesn’t mean we can mandate it. It still remains optional. And when a tradition, as in this “Corban” case, actually runs counter to the instruction of the Bible, then it is to be rejected, and be rejected firmly.

We pray that you will help us as individuals, as families, and as a church family to be constantly reckoning with these things, constantly being reformed and reforming, constantly holding things up and looking at them and making sure that we’re not falling foul of that which these individuals were so happy to do, coming up with clever ways of turning away from the law of God in order to uphold their own rules and regulations.

Hear our prayers, O God, and let our cry come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] See Matthew 15:3 (paraphrased).

[2] Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16 (paraphrased).

[3] Matthew 15:4 (paraphrased).

[4] Quoted in Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: R. Gilbert, 1826), 70.

[5] Burnet, 71. These paragraphs are from Burnet’s commentary on Articles of Religion 6.

[6] C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (1959; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 238.

[7] 1 Peter 3:3 (paraphrased).

[8] Euthymius, quoted in Cranfield, St. Mark, 244. The quoted words are not actually from Euthymius but rather are Cranfield’s commentary on Euthymius’s original comment.

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.