What does Jesus think of me? How does He view my people, those of my culture, my denomination? Are there things in my culture that are contrary to His teachings and need changing? These are good things to ask ourselves occasionally because it is so easy to move away from His heart, His desire for us, if we are not heedful to stay connected to the Vine. Moving away from Him– regardless of which direction– will be just enough to cause us to miss the mark.
Jesus was born into a Jewish culture. The religious leaders of His culture rejected Him and His teachings because it was so different from their mind set and the way they had been doing things for so long. Are there things in my life or my culture that cause me to reject what Jesus taught because we have “done it this way” for so long that anything different can’t even be considered?
When the religious leaders confronted Jesus about not keeping their oral laws, He pointed out how their traditions/oral laws were keeping them from obeying some of God’s commands and causing them to be blinded to God’s original intention for His commands.
It made me wonder if we have done this with any Biblical commands? Have we become like those religious leaders in any way? Are there ways that we are imitating the Pharisees and turning Jesus away by our commitment to some man made traditions/applications?
Did the Pharisees know the difference between a command from God and an application?
The religious leaders took commands (given by God) and seemingly added to them to make sure that the common folk would know how to follow them correctly. We could call this the application part of the command.
For example, the law said that Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and feet before going into the tabernacle or coming near the alter. By the time Jesus was on earth, there had been much added to this command and the Pharisees taught that one should wash his hands before and after eating. They considered anyone who didn’t do this to be no better than a pagan. They “induced men to” do it by teaching that an evil spirit, called Shiybta’, sits on their hands by night, and has a right to sit on the food of him who does not wash his hands.1
Even though there was no direct command in the law regarding washing hands before eating, only traditions pertaining to that law, the Pharisees had no problem confronting others, specifically Jesus, for this perceived sin. (Mat. 15, Mark 7)
Another example would be the law of keeping the Sabbath. They were not to work, or carry a “burden”, or “kindle a fire”. (Exodus 20, 35; Jeremiah 17 are a few passages that refer to this) The Jews then added “commandments of men” or “traditions” to this commandment as applications of it. They had a total of 39 categories of activities that were prohibited. They also had a much shorter list of activities that were allowed on the Sabbath.2
When Jesus did not keep their oral traditions/applications, it became very obvious that they held their applications as high as– if not higher than–God’s commands.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and their applications
Jesus healed a lame man (John 5) on the Sabbath, then told the man to “take up his bed and walk”. He seemed to see the common sense of not leaving the man’s bed there just because it was the Sabbath day. He knew that it was needful for the man to have his bed. Jesus showed that legalism was not part of His plan for the Sabbath. He also showed that mercy and acts of necessity on the Sabbath were lawful.
The Pharisees, however, completely ignored the lesson that Jesus was trying to show. They didn’t even seem to notice what a great miracle from God had just occurred! All they saw was that their interpretation of a Sabbath law had been broken.
The fact that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath day and did other things that contradicted their beliefs regarding Sabbath keeping seemed to be particularly offensive to them because of their many traditions concerning that law. But in Mark 2:27, Jesus told them, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.
This admonition came right after they had confronted Jesus and His disciples for picking corn and eating it on a second Sabbath (Luke 6:1 –which is when the first fruits were to be offered). Jesus was not stressed about it, but had a ready answer. In Matthew 12:7, we hear Jesus telling the Pharisees that He would rather have mercy and not sacrifice (regarding a hungry person eating that which was meant for a Sabbath sacrifice) showing even more clearly what was in His heart regarding the Sabbath.
In Matthew 23, we hear Jesus talking to the multitude and his disciples about the scribes and the Pharisees. He warns them not to do like the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus’ words about them were, “…they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders…all their works they do to be seen by men.” (4-5)
In verses 23-28, He describes them further and says how they demand an exact tenth of even the smallest herbs but omit the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”. Jesus calls them “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” He depicts them as “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”
Are applications wrong to have?
When God gives a command, how we live it out is our application of it. That is not wrong. But if my application of a Biblical command causes me to disobey another direct Biblical command, then my application can become wrong.
What if I hold my application as high as a Biblical command and teach it as such? Is this wrong? Maybe a better question would be, what did Jesus think of the Pharisees who did that? He described the Pharisees like this, “…they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders…”
And what were those burdens? Was it not their applications that they insisted that everyone must follow just as much– if not more than– God’s commands?
Dwight Gingrich says it like this, “The mere act of treating man’s word as weightily as God’s word is blasphemy against God’s word, a de facto demotion of God to the status of man.”3
And I could add here that treating man’s word as weightily as God’s Word could also be viewed as the attempt to promote man to the status of god.
We have many applications/traditions within our Anabaptists circles. They don’t seem odd to most of us because we have grown up with them. We know them well, and for the most part, do not question them. When outsiders view our applications though, they often question why we insist on doing things this specifically. When we defend our applications so religiously that we hold them equal with a command of God, it makes me wonder if we know how to tell the difference between our applications and a Biblical command. Dwight Gingrich addresses this more in depth here .
Dwight also has another essay showing how applications/traditions can be a positive thing when they are done correctly. You can find that here .
The head covering– Biblical command or application?
The head covering is a good example of a Biblical command that Anabaptists have added applications to. I have my own preferences for my wife and daughters in regards to our application of this command. However, I doubt that everyone else around me has that exact application. And if I insist that everyone must do exactly as I do or I can not consider them to be a true brother/sister in Christ, something is wrong.
The only thing 1Corinthians 11 says is that women are to pray with their heads covered and the men with their heads uncovered. If God did not deem it necessary to say exactly what that head covering should look like, could it be that He wanted a variety? Maybe He doesn’t prefer robot replicas all doing the same thing– maybe He likes to see colors and diversities of styles. I don’t know what His reason is for not spelling out, but it just seems if He thought what it looked like –color, shape, size, style– was so important, He would have said so.
It seems to me that God probably cares more about what the covered head is supposed to be symbolizing than He does about what that symbol is supposed to look like (since He didn’t spell it out). When we take our focus off the act and onto the symbol, we often end up missing the point.
Women are often confronted quicker for head coverings that aren’t up to code, than they are for not living out the headship order it is supposed to represent. But which of these is actually a commandment of God? Do you think He is more grieved about the actions of a woman that is wearing the correct church standard covering while being disrespectful or non-submissive to her husband, or with the non-Anabaptist woman who is in right relationship with her husband and wears a scarf or some other covering? Would Jesus words to the Pharisees apply here? “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
When someone from outside our Anabaptist traditions attempts to join our group, one of the first things we do is to make sure that their head covering is “up to standard”. Is it the right shape, color, size, etc.? If not, we let them know they need to change it before they can join our fellowship. Sometimes the woman in question may be wearing a covering that covers more of the head than most Anabaptist women’s coverings do, and still we insist she must change because we must have “unity”. But is this unity–or is it just uniformity?
Just because an entire congregation agrees to do something a certain way does not make it Truth or make it equal to a command of God. In fact, it sounds a bit like the post-modern belief of saying truth is relative (truth is truth because we all agree on it).
We say that we must add rules to the covering command to ensure that it is followed and that we don’t lose this practice. But what good is the practice if there is no change in the heart? When our long list of head covering rules is the only thing keeping everyone looking right, all we get is a lot of correct looking “Christians” who are like plastic imitations of the real thing.
In Acts 20:38-32, Paul is addressing some church leaders about dangers that the church would face regarding being drawn away from truth. He warns the overseers of these churches that “wolves” that would enter into the church to “draw away the disciples after them”. But he doesn’t tell them to make a long list of rules and guidelines to protect their flock or to keep them from falling away. He doesn’t tell them to start their own sub-culture to make sure their godliness is passed down to the next generation. In fact Paul warns that some of the danger would come from within their own group (vs. 30). Even if they could keep the “wolves” out, what about the “sheep” within their group that would also be doing the same thing?
So what was Paul’s “solution”? He only exhorts them to “take heed”, to “watch and remember” that he had “not ceased to warn them” and then he says, “I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified..”
Have we just decided within ourselves that Paul’s solution is not sufficient? Have we looked at God’s Word and decided that it is not enough–that we must do more than what God says because we have a better way?
1. Adam Clark commentary on Matthew 15:2