Prophetic and Apostolic Tradition
“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (v. 8).- Mark 7:5–8
In Mark 7:1–4, we read of the traditions regarding washing hands and dishes that the Pharisees and scribes affirmed, and in today’s passage, we see that these traditions became a point of contention between the adherents of those Jewish sects and Jesus. When the Pharisees and scribes questioned why Jesus and His disciples did not wash their hands according to their tradition, our Lord condemned them as hypocrites who left the commandments of God in favor of the commandments of men (vv. 5–8).
The meaning of Jesus’ words is not immediately obvious from today’s passage, but as we read further in Mark 7, we will see some of the teachings of the Pharisees and scribes that set aside the Lord’s commandments. Today’s passage, however, does give the general principle that it is wrong to obey our man-made traditions if it means ignoring or breaking the divine law. As we have noted in other studies, non-divinely inspired traditions are not always bad and, in fact, can be helpful. But when human tradition causes us to violate God’s Word, human tradition must be rejected.
In other words, Jesus in Mark 7:5–8 explains that divine tradition supersedes all human tradition. We say divine tradition because the Apostles sometimes refer to their teaching as “tradition” or “traditions,” which translate the Greek word paradosis (for example, 2 Thess. 3:6). Paradosis refers to something that is handed down. The Apostles received divine traditions from the Holy Spirit, and they taught these traditions, handing them on and entrusting them to the church, whose unique task is to preserve and teach these traditions to all people. Importantly, these Apostolic traditions are divinely inspired—breathed out by God—and do not form a nebulous, undefined body of content. Instead, the Apostolic traditions come to us today as the New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16–17). By extension, all of divine revelation can be thought of as divine tradition, so we may rightly speak of the prophetic traditions that today exist as the Old Testament. In this era of history, divinely inspired tradition is found nowhere else than in sacred Scripture.
Jesus’ condemnation of those who would supplant divine tradition—the Word of God—with human tradition reminds us that our doctrine and practice must be weighed against Scripture. When there is a conflict, our doctrine and practice must change; we must not change Scripture to make it fit our man-made traditions.
It is easy to condemn the Pharisees for their traditions, but as Dr. R.C. Sproul notes in his commentary Mark, “The temptation to add to God’s law is not unique to the Pharisees. We have to deal with it every day in the Christian life.” We are called, therefore, to measure our beliefs and actions against Scripture. Doing so will help us obey the Lord more faithfully and help keep us from becoming legalists.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 11:2
2 Thessalonians 2:15