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January 31/February 1, 2017

Your Tradition and the Word of God

Sam Crabtree | Matthew 15:1-20

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”—Matthew 15:1–20



Welcome to pastors in town for the Pastors Conference. Greetings to the South Campus—now that I’m no longer executive minister, I don’t get down there much.

I know that hundreds of you have prayed for this sermon. Thank you. In preparing this message I read, re-read, and highlighted the text. And lest I presume that I understood the text, I consulted with faculty from Bethel University, faculty from Bethlehem College and Seminary, and commentaries from persons living and dead. I even asked BCS students to help me ARC it. I owe thanks to Jared Wilson and others for additional thinking.

We have a Savior. He has spoken. Some of what he has spoken has been recorded for us.

I am coming to you today with one point: Don’t worship in vain, teaching as doctrine the traditions of men. To worship in vain means that such worship nothing, having zero value. It’s not true worship. It’s idolatry.

This is Small Group emphasis weekend, but I am not coming to you with the 128 Rules for Making Awesomely Cool Small Groups. Or, for those of you who are exposed to the typical leadership material available at Barnes and Noble, I am not coming to you with ways to leverage your synergy and catalyze your visioneering, or with “seven highly effective and irrefutable laws of unlocking the mystery of who moved your cheese’s parachute,” to quote Jared Wilson. We don’t need our small group ministry (or any of our ministries) to be trend driven.

Bethlehem, that is sand. We want to build on the rock. Preaching starts to miss the mark when it becomes extended infomercials about church programs.

At the outset here, I readily admit that lots of people might preach the gospel better than I can, but nobody can preach a better gospel than the true gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone apart from works that we have done.


Today’s text and Jesus’ teaching are meant to correct error. The old saying goes, “Bad manners beget good laws.” The oft-repeated pattern of Scripture is that a problem surfaces, and then Scripture is written to correct errors. Our sinful natures keep generating errors and omissions and shortcomings, so the writers—carried along by the Holy Spirit—get our thinking back on track… if we will heed them.

Here, Jesus speaks in order to set right something that has gone wrong. Terribly wrong. So wrong that their worship is vain. Things are always going wrong in the world and even in the church. We are utterly dependent upon the scriptures to recalibrate our compasses.

Here, Jesus teaches us what defiles and what doesn’t. The definition of the word used here for defilement (koino,w koinoo [koy-no’-o]) is “to make common.” Notice that the person defiles himself. He is defiled by his very nature. It is not what is done to him that defiles him. Defilement comes from within. Eating with unwashed hands can get you marginalized and killed, but not defiled.

With zeal for Moses as a pretense, the Pharisees actually aimed to exercise tyranny over the consciences of men. Beware, Bethlehem, that we do not become them.

Let us be very slow to establish strict impositions. Rabbi Joses determined “that to eat with unwashed hands is as great a sin as adultery.” When Rabbi Akiba was a prisoner, he had water sent to him both to wash his hands and to drink. He didn’t have enough for both, so he washed his hands, saying he would rather die of thirst than transgress the tradition of the rabbis. In fact, he would not eat with a person who had not washed his hands.

We ourselves can be fond of inventing traditions and imposing them. When the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch.

Jesus points out that the Pharisees not only violate God’s command to honor father and mother, rationalizing their way around it—they also teach and require others to do the same. In doing so, they not only sin against the command—they sin away the command.

Jesus doesn’t merely respond to the Pharisees. He initiates a counterattack. Jesus calls into question not only their hand washing but also their entire worship. He doesn’t merely say, “in vain do you wash your hands” (v.9). He says “in vain do they worship”(v.9).

 By the way, it is well within the rights of the One who searches hearts to label hypocrites. Jesus unmasks hypocrites. Sooner or later our hypocrisy will be exposed.

The disciples were concerned that Jesus offended the Pharisees. Though the Pharisees may not have completely understood Jesus’ parable, the disciples’ question shows that the Pharisees understood enough to be offended. Jesus knew what he said, to whom he said it, and what would be the consequences of saying it, namely, that the Pharisees will be offended. His aim is not primarily to offend, but to teach the truth in love. If anyone is offended at what Jesus says, it is an offense not given, but taken.

We don’t aim to be offensive, but if we indulge error in order to not offend, we stray from Christ.

Jesus is clear that what goes into the mouth descends to the stomach and on to the intestines. Part is absorbed as nourishment, and part is ejected as being unsuitable for nourishment. The ESV has softened it by saying, “expelled.” It literally means “cast into the latrine.” Nothing of this defiles the soul because it never enters the soul. If you’re offended by the earthiness of Jesus’ language, you might benefit from re-listening to the previous paragraph in this sermon.

If failure to wash hands does not defile, then neither washing nor not washing can make anyone better nor worse before God.

What our souls want and need is Jesus. We expect to find Jesus in each other, “Jesus with skin on,” as some call it, and we will, if we are pointing to the real Jesus and away from ourselves, our programs, our structures, our systems, our curricula, our staff, our facilities, our conferences, our book titles, our tithing records, our sermons.

I’m in favor of all those things, but if our confidence is in those things, we should take that confidence out to the woodshed and not only give it a whupping, but as Wilson says, blow its brains out.

We resolve to know nothing among you but except Jesus Christ and him crucified.—1 Corinthians 2:2

In Luke 11:38, Jesus does not wash his own hands before eating, so the disciples are in step with Jesus here.


We are perpetually contriving new modes of worship. As new methods come down the pike at seminars, in books, and at conferences (like the one we have starting on Monday), the good found in them is often not original, and the original found in them is often not good. We are not trying to be original, but we are trying to be good in the strength He supplies.

The warning from today’s text is to beware of cleverly devised ways of nullifying the clear teachings of Scripture. Are we more inclined to quote Keller than Christ, Piper than Paul, Meyer than Matthew?

The invention of traditions tends to take on a kind of authority, as though we have found something more perfect than the Word of the Lord. Such manmade traditions slowly invoke tyranny over the lives of the people. Sadly, the authority of men is often preferred to the command of God, and the command of God is explained away.

How does this happen? Invented traditions are piled up and imposed as meritorious—and violating them is seen as scandalous—when Christ’s atonement is not seen as sufficient.

Further, such traditions are products of blindness, and they lead people into ditches.


What will Jesus say to us? How many times have we gloried in our reputation as a church? How many times have we boasted in our facilities or programs? How many times have we neglected orphans and widows? How many times have we been hasty to speak and slow to listen? How many times have we operated our small groups half-heartedly? How many times have we thought small group life would be great if it weren’t for the people?

How many times have we bristled at criticism? How many times have we envied some other church, some other small group, some other marriage? How many times have we grumbled and murmured like the children of Israel in the wilderness? How many times have we frittered away time on social media? How many times have we failed to confess our sins and apologize for our foibles? How many times have we chased and revered idols in our hearts? How many times have we shrunk back from being witnesses to the gospel of Jesus? How many of us right now have our inner lawyer at work defending our favorite manmade tradition?

What will Jesus say to us?

Here is one thing he will say: Justified!

Because of Christ’s perfect and completed work on our behalf, all our failures, shortcomings, anxieties, stress, sin, awfulness, ignorance, ineptitude, brokenness, pain, regrets, arrogance, and stubbornness are no match for the grace of God given to us in Christ before time and now and forevermore.

Some of you feel guilty if your small group is not identifying and preparing a new leader on a one-year track, supporting a missionary (like a Barnabas team), memorizing the Fighter Verses together, marching at the capitol on Roe v. Wade day, attending the racial harmony roundtable together, or volunteering at a soup kitchen.

These are all very good things. Nevertheless, some trust in horses, some trust in chariots, some trust in well-oiled small groups, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God.

To retain one single shred of legality as though our acceptance before God depends upon it —which looks like saying you must do small groups this way and not that way—is to insert distrust between us and Christ. God is not impressed with how we do small groups; he is impressed with his Son! It is Jesus who wins our acceptance with God and our love for each other.

Remember Jason’s sermon on January 11. Martha shows a condescending attitude, thinking, “Do small groups this way.”

So easily our inventions become sacred cows. Do you hear the mooing?

Worship music must involve guitars and drums. Or it must not involve guitars and drums. Services must be at 9am and 11am. Or at 5pm. We must end all prayers with “amen.” We must do Communion after the sermon. Or before the sermon. Or use intinction. We must pray with our eyes closed. Small groups must be such and such a size and be operated in such and such a way.

A case can be made for all such things, but the traditions of men are not the commandments of God. I am not trashing any of these things, but I am reminding us of Isaiah and Jesus, who say, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

I am not saying that all inventions of man must be uprooted, discarded, and destroyed. Instead, I am saying that the secondary things must remain secondary.

Building a trellis does not generate a vine. True transformation must deal with the nature of the inner man. How does such transformation happen? God plants it there (v.13). 

The point of small groups isn’t small groups. The menu for small groups is Sola scriptura, Sola gratia, Sola fide, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria.

For decades at Bethlehem, we have been God-centered in our pulpit, preaching the sovereignty of God and the primacy of future grace. But when we leave our pulpits, man-centeredness immediately tries to climb behind the steering wheel. If things are not “working,” we assume that they’ll improve if we work a little harder, get others to work a little harder, add a committee, start a task force, recruit more volunteers, add some training sessions, build a structure, squeeze more hours into the day, forego rest… 

The reason we are so busy working so hard can be that we are depending upon ourselves for our salvation. This is no argument against any of the good things I just mentioned. Instead, I am emphasizing that human technique often keeps people in legalistic bondage. Legalism is not merely “thou shalt not,” but also, “thou must” instead of “he has.”

People in our small groups want a Savior, and Bethlehem pastors, programs, and staff are not it. Such things are not the cornerstone, chief shepherd, or lord. Jesus is.

Jesus Christ alone is the foundation, the hope, the treasure, the king, the joy, and the purpose of small groups. Scope and sequence of curricula, church planting, church success, church business, church programs, church activities, and even church growth are not. The key to power and effectiveness is Jesus, not method. 

Here’s the good news: Jesus is something staff pastors and laity have in common.

I would like to ask all of you to get into a small group, but I have a problem. We don’t currently have enough small groups. We desire additional groups to form and new leaders to lead them. Leading a small group is not merely a matter of volunteering—we have been laboring to put in place a process for vetting and orientation, which includes new leader training that examines the elder affirmation of faith and reviews our small groups IPOD with its essentials and priorities. This process also includes signing a leaders covenant and being interviewed.


In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not preaching helpful hints—I’m preaching Christ. This message accords with the Children and Youth theme verse for the year:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.—Galatians 6:14

This message also accords with Scott Rideout, president of Converge Worldwide, who spoke to delegates gathered in California for the Transform meetings for church leaders last Thursday. Speaking from Ephesians 2:20, he said, “The church is built on Jesus—not structures, not programs, not communicators, not signs and wonders, not strategies.”

This message accords with the concert of prayer on January 9, where Ken Currie called us to pray for God’s grace to remain faithful to our calling as a church.

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.—1 Thessalonians 5:24

In trying to build each other up into maturity, we are in way over our heads. We need Jesus. And we have him! Jesus is not sulking or sighing about us. He loves us.


Let us not make doctrines out of the traditions of men. This meal is not about crackers or juice or trays or intinction or monthly and weekly rhythms or reflective music or religion. It is about Jesus!

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. . . . to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.—Matthew 15:17–20

Similarly, eating this cracker—putting it into your mouth—is not what blesses you. Feasting upon Christ in your heart is what blesses you.

Closing Song: “Just As I Am”