Beware the Road to Empty Worship!
Heavenly Father, it is easy to fall into the sin of going through outward motions when worshipping You. When that happens forgive me. Let my desire always be to hear Your Word, follow Your will, and not let my ideas and habits become more important than Your truth. As I look for ways to share Your Word with others, let my chief interest always be the welfare of souls. I ask this as I pray for Your blessing on our worship today. Amen.
God speaks strongly against those who pretend to be preaching His Word, but are really preaching their own visions, ideas, and goals. How presumptuous to set forth human words and conclusions as if they were from God! God’s judgment against such false preaching also serves as a warning to those who may hear the false words.
The Old Testament nation of Israel fell into the trap of external worship while their hearts were far from the true God. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time fell into the same trap (cf. sermon text). The congregation in Ephesus was in grave danger of the same. Jesus speaks to the Ephesians commending them for their faithful activities, but also rebuking them for leaving their first love. The “doing” in their actions had overshadowed the “loving” of Christ in their hearts.
Text: Matthew 15:1-9
Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— ‘then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
In Christ Jesus, the focus of our Gospel message, dear fellow-redeemed:
From time to time, I enjoy the scenic route while traveling. Sometimes this is truly enjoying the scenery of back roads and out of the way places. At other times this is a not-so-clever way of trying to disguise the truth of the matter which is that I made a wrong turn. If you’ve ever been down a road and made a wrong turn perhaps you noticed it right away. It is possible, however, to go quite a distance before realizing that you’ve made a mistake and by staying on that road you will never reach your destination. It may be that there were signs along the way to show that you were on the wrong road, but you were so busy talking, day-dreaming, singing along with the radio, and doing anything but paying attention to the signs that all of a sudden you find yourself on the wrong road.
This same kind of thing can occur with our worship life. There is a road to walk in worshipping God that is profitable—beneficial to our souls. There is also worship that is empty and worthless. The road toward that empty worship has signs along the way that indicate we are on the wrong track; but if we don’t watch out for those signs and pay close attention, we may find ourselves at the wrong end of the road before we realize how we ever came to that place.
Using the words of this encounter between the Scribes and Pharisees and Jesus we learn toBEWARE THE ROAD TO EMPTY WORSHIP! A danger is that I. Tradition overtakes truth, that II. External overtakes internal, and as we seek to apply this to our life of evangelism we learn theIII. Evangelism Truth: Preach the Gospel for the Soul.
We are well acquainted with the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ hatred of Jesus. You are also probably quite familiar with any number of times that these enemies of Jesus came to Him with an attempt to find fault with Him. What we have just read in our text is actually the third such incident recorded by Matthew in the space of a few chapters. In one case, when a man with a withered crippled hand came to Jesus on the Sabbath Day, Jesus healed him. The enemies were right there to charge Jesus with breaking the Sabbath Day law. On another occasion, Jesus’ disciples were walking from one place to another and plucked some grain from along side of the road and ate it. This was totally allowable by God’s Law, but the Pharisees came to Jesus wondering why His disciples had done work on the Sabbath by “harvesting” grain. Then in our text, the Pharisees again challenged the activity of the disciples. They went to Jesus and asked, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” [v.2]
What is interesting about this particular charge of the Pharisees is that they made no attempt to connect their concern with God’s Word. They didn’t connect it to God’s Word because their concern had no basis in God’s Word. They very clearly asked Jesus why He allowed His disciples to transgress the tradition of the elders. They weren’t even talking about God’s Word! They were talking about rules and regulations that were put into place by rabbis and elders of times past.
In the days after Ezra and the remnant’s return from Babylon to Canaan, leaders of the Jews put together a whole series of rules and regulations that came to be known as the Mishnah. Then because there so many rules and they were complicated, an interpretation of the Mishnah was added. This explanation of the Mishnah was known as the Gemara. Together, the rules added by man and their explanation became known as the Talmud—a document that comes up frequently in discussions about the Jewish faith.
The rules of the Mishnah were the ones over which the Pharisees were challenging Jesus’ disciples. They criticized Jesus’ disciples for not following the rule that said you needed to wash your hands before eating. The Pharisee’s concern was not hygiene. They simply wanted to enforce the rule. Mark records this same event in his Gospel account and he provides a little further glimpse into how tedious and burdensome the man made washing laws were. “Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches” (Mark 7:2-4).
The accusation of the Pharisees was that the disciples were severely transgressing their law by not following the tradition of the elders. Jesus turned the discussion back to the Pharisees and said, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?”[v.3] The Pharisees were so concerned about their tradition of the elders that they didn’t even realize or care that they were breaking God’s Law. Jesus gave an example to show how this was true.
God clearly commands in His Word that we are to honor our fathers and mothers and all those in authority over us. This commandment does not expire when you turn 18. It doesn’t expire until the parents have died and even then it doesn’t truly expire for we are still able to honor them with thanksgiving to God. Nevertheless, in spite of God’s clear command, there was an escape clause in the tradition of the elders. If children were in the position of needing to help support their parents, and they didn’t want to use their money and resource to do so, they could say: “This is a gift for God…for the temple.” They were then, according to the tradition of the elders, exempt from honoring their parents by providing for them. They could escape the duties of God’s Law by following the tradition of the elders and they didn’t even need to ultimately give the gift to the temple. The tradition contradicted God in a most brazen way. The Pharisees had no excuse. God’s Word is clear and yet the tradition of the elders gave permission to act against His will. God comments on such foolishness when He says in Proverbs, “Whoever robs his father or his mother, and says, ‘It is no transgression,’ the same is companion to a destroyer” (Proverbs 28:24). Jesus concluded, “Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites!” [v.6f]
Jesus added: Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”[vv.8-9] For the Pharisees, tradition overtook truth. They were teaching the commandments of men and not the commandments of God. Secular history tells of individuals who so zealously followed the tradition of the elders that one imprisoned man said he would rather die of starvation than eat with unwashed hands. Others viewed breaking the tradition of the elders as sinful as committing adultery.
During the last week of His life, Jesus returned to this same subject and said: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at the feasts, the best places in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:1-5).
The Pharisees elevated the tradition of men to highlight their honor among men. In the end the truth of God was overtaken by tradition.
As we apply this to our lives and watch out for the road that leads to empty worship, we learn of the need to carefully distinguish between God’s Word and tradition. In our practices of worship and the way we conduct ourselves—as individuals and as a congregation—tradition and God’s Word meld together. This is wonderful! It becomes part of the way we worship the Lord, but we need to be careful so that we always know the difference between tradition and truth.
For example, our form of worship with the liturgy, responses, hymn singing, etc. as we are experiencing this morning is not commanded by God. It is tradition. The fact of worshipping, gathering together around God’s Word, giving praise to Him, going to Him with our prayers, and studying His Word is commanded by God for our blessing. Worship and the essence of it is God’s Word. It is truth. The way we worship is tradition and the practice we choose to follow.
When Jesus met with the Samaritan woman at the well she brought up the difference between the way the Jews and the Samaritans worshipped. Jesus responded, not by speaking of a particular form of worship, but by saying, “…true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).
There is both tradition and God’s Word involved with our celebration of the Sacraments. Baptism is commanded by God. God’s Word clearly states that it is for the forgiveness of sins and that through the water of Baptism our sins are washed away. God says that Baptism can create faith even in the heart of the youngest of children and through that faith we receive the salvation won by Christ. This is God’s Word—truth. The way in which the water is applied is practice—tradition. We need to be careful to distinguish between the two.
Scripture is clear that God gives us the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Scripture is also clear that we receive the forgiveness of sins through the Lord’s Supper. The manner in which the wine is delivered, the way the bread is delivered, and way we proceed through the reception of the Lord’s Supper is tradition. It is important to know the difference.
There are practices to which we have grown accustomed such as Confirmation. God does not command Confirmation in the Bible. It is a practice and a good one. What God does desire is that we study His Word, come to know His truth, and grow in our faith. But actual formal practice of Confirmation with which we have grown up is not commanded by God. It is tradition.
It is important to be able to distinguish between what is tradition developed by mankind and what is determined by God’s Word. This does not mean that tradition is bad. It does not mean that our practices need to be changed. Practices may well be built on the sound Word of God and serve our souls’ needs very well; and we continue in these practices for that reason and for those blessings. However, it is important that we never proclaim our tradition or practice as being equal to God’s Word because they are not. We need to daily and regularly study Scripture so that we know the difference between man’s commandments—tradition and the Word of God.
There is another reason why it is so important to understand and come to a firm knowledge of God’s Word. It is because there are many in the world who will seek to pull us away by claiming that what God’s Word says is actually tradition. We find that what God says about women’s role in the church, about close Communion, about fellowship and the principal of gathering together in worship are all under attack. This includes even the truth concerning the sanctity of marriage and morality and the sexual purity that God desires before, during, and outside of marriage. All of these things are being watered down into mere traditions, outmoded practices of an out-of-date church. Don’t be deceived! Beware the road to empty worship! Being able to accurately distinguish between tradition and God’s Word is vital so that we do not uphold man’s commandments as being God’s Word, but also so that we aren’t pulled into the belief that what God has said is merely tradition.
The Pharisees were very much caught up in the externals. They became so concerned with how they would appear to men and with the glory and honor they would receive from men that they lost sight of was true according to God’s Word. When Jesus spoke of the Pharisees in our text He quoted Isaiah and said, “They honor me with their lips but their heart is far from me” [v.8] In the last week of His ministry Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:23,27-28).
What does Jesus want from us? Yes, He desires that we worship Him. Yes, He desires that we gather together for our mutual encouragement and instruction, but above all else He desires your heart. The external practice of worship, the external things we do, the maintaining of the truth as the Ephesians congregation did (cf. the New Testament reading) is all important. It is all God-pleasing when it comes out of a heart that loves the Lord and naturally flows from that love. Jesus wants the love your heart, not just the empty shell of doing all the right things.
At the time of Isaiah, the people were very much engaged in just the external. Isaiah writes: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?’ Says the Lord. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:11-15).
God had commanded all of these things: the sacrifices of the bulls and lambs, the New Moons, and the Sabbaths. But He told the Israelites at the time of Isaiah, “I don’t want those anymore!” God hadn’t changed His mind about the sacrifices, but He didn’t want the Israelite’s sacrifices anymore because the people were doing them while their hearts were far from Him.
The prophet Micah writes: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, Ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:6-8).
There are external ways to show our faith, but those things can become merely external. If our confession and actions simply become “doing it” because that’s what we’re supposed to do, beware the road to empty worship and cling to the first love our Savior! It is that first love of our Savior that so fills our hearts with gratitude for His salvation that it outpours in loving His truth so much that we seek to keep it true in everything we say and do. That first love loves our Savior so much that when we come to worship, when we live a Christian lives that it is for Him and not just for some external appearance or because that is what we’re expected to do.
External can overcome the internal, but as we go into the Word of God and hear that wonderful grace and mercy of God it will move our hearts to deepen in that first love. Focus on the internal—the heart, and not just the external—the activity.
When we apply these things to our life of evangelism, the first question is: “What do we share with others when we seek to bring the message of Good News to them? We can tell them about our congregation. We can tell them about the practical aspects of what we as Immanuel Lutheran Church do, but the true message of our evangelism is not about our practices, it’s not about our traditions, it is about the truth of God’s Word. The message for us as we seek to pursue lives of evangelism is that we preach God’s Word, not the traditions of men. The Pharisees were very good at preaching their rules, but it did the souls of those who heard them no good whatsoever. We have been given the Word of Life, the precious message that our sins are washed away by the blood of the Lamb. That is the message that has the power of God. That is the message sinners need to hear. That is the message to carry in our evangelism.
As we go about this, a prevention and cure for getting tied up in the external or in the commandments of men is to remember why we are doing evangelism. Why we are sharing the message of the Gospel with ourselves, each other, and with the world? The reason we care enough to share this message of salvation is for the well-being of souls. It is very difficult to preach your idea when you keep in mind, “this is for someone’s soul.” For really, what good does my idea, my conclusion, my philosophy do for anyone’s soul? None! What good can God’s Word do for that same soul? Everything! If we keep in mind the peoples’ souls—our own soul, the soul of our friends and family, the souls of our fellow congregation members, the souls of our community and beyond—it will be hard to let the external and commandments of men overtake what is truly valuable and important, because we will see the need of those souls and we know that in Christ we have the solution for that need.
When Paul gave his final words of encouragement to Timothy they were words of encouragement for our evangelism: “Preach the Word”—not your ideas, not your traditions, not your conclusions. “Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:2-5). Amen.
—Pastor Wayne C. Eichstadt