Matthew 15:1-13, 16:5-12
Jesus often got angry with the religious leaders of his day. One of the things that angered him most was their traditions. Their traditions were their rules and practices that they imposed on everyone based on their interpretation of scripture. On one occasion Jesus said to them, “You nullify the word of God for the sake of your traditions.” This was when the Pharisees accused him and his disciples of not washing their hands before eating. There is no command in scripture telling ordinary Jews to do this. The priests were to wash their hands before starting work in the temple each day and some of this work involved handling food, but the Pharisees had transferred this command to everyone. It was a typical example of the law being taken beyond what was intended by those who were zealous to uphold it.
We don’t think of the modern church as having traditions, especially one’s that nullify the word of God, but we do! We have our own extra-biblical ideas of what we consider clean and unclean, and like the Pharisees we place unnecessary burdens on the people we are trying to reach. I would like to discuss two traditions found in most of our Evangelical churches that really bother me.
Clean and unclean Drink
We are in a strange situation in the Evangelical church. Jesus drank alcohol (Luke 5:30, 7:34, John 2:9) but many of us think its sin. How odd is that? And it’s amazing how many attempts we have been made to make this abstinence tradition biblical. We have tried turning Jesus’ wine into grape juice and we have tried diluting his wine with so much water that he wouldn’t notice the taste never mind the alcohol. But the truth is that Jesus and nearly every leader in the Bible drank wine, and it was the kind of stuff that could make you drunk that’s why scripture warns us not to drink too much of it. We need to be honest with scripture; the Bible does not say drinking is wrong; it says drinking too much is wrong. Scripture teaches believers to drink in moderation. Abstinence is a personal decision; John the Baptist abstained because God told him to (Luke 7:33, 1:15); Jesus drank because he had no such command. And the religious leaders never had a problem with Jesus drinking; they had a problem with who he drank with. They thought he should be drinking with them instead of ‘sinners’. But Jesus explained that he drank with sinners because ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’ (Luke 5:30-31).
Is this important? Yes. I have done a lot of bar outreaches and discovered that legalism about things like drinking is one of the main reasons many people don’t want to become a Christian. But as soon as I explain that Jesus and his followers drank and prove it by having a beer with them, they want to talk about Jesus, and I get an opportunity to present the gospel. Often legalism is a greater stumbling block than license. We nullify the gospel for the sake of our traditions!
Clean and unclean Science
This is another strange one. We Evangelicals have had a history of doing everything we can to protect the science of the Bible, but the science of the Bible is ancient! And it should be. If culture in the Bible is ancient so is science. We Evangelicals know we must interpret scripture by first understanding it in its ancient context before applying it to our modern one, but for some reason we don’t apply this to science. Surely we should first understand Genesis in its ancient science context before we apply it to our modern science context? Consistency calls!*
Ancient Near Eastern documents from Egypt to Mesopotamia show that the science of the Bible is consistent with what most of the surrounding cultures believed in those times. A brief summary of what Ancient Near East people believed about the cosmos would go like this: Water was everywhere; above and below. Then God (or the gods) separated the water above from the water below so there would be a heaven and an earth. He created a firm dome (firmament) to hold the waters above with windows for when he wanted it to rain. The earth was flat with water under it, and God could open the fountains of the deep when he wanted to flood the earth. God created the sun, moon, and stars as lights that travelled beneath the dome of the sky (much like ceiling lights; if God shook the heavens and the earth the stars would fall from the sky and hit the floor).
We could go on, but this is a summary, and I just wanted to give the general idea (for more detail see ** below). I have used Bible terms to help readers to recognize the concepts in scripture, but the terms in other Ancient Near Eastern accounts are similar and sometimes the same. We could also talk about humans being formed from clay (or dust), from body parts (like a rib), and the importance of creation taking seven days (the number of completion); all these concepts are found in Ancient Near East cultures and the Bible.
So my point is this: Though this stuff is in God’s Word it is not revelation, it’s simply part of ancient science; it was the accepted understanding of the world in those times. Just as God’s revelation has come to us in ancient language and ancient culture that needs to be translated into modern language and culture, so it has come in ancient science which needs to be translated into modern science. Put it like this: Jesus is the Word made flesh, the revelation of God. He came in ancient clothes, ancient sandals, and an ancient haircut. If we dressed him up in jeans, a T shirt, and gave him a modern haircut, would he cease to be God’s incarnate Word? No, he would simply be God’s Word in modern clothing. God’s Word isn’t bound to culture; it transcends culture and therefore science. We can extract the revelation of scripture from its ancient exterior and insert it into a modern one. We Evangelicals have a tradition of trying to make the science of the Bible appear like its part of God’s revelation for all times, but it isn’t, it’s ancient and out-dated. We need to admit it; we need to be honest with scripture!
Is this important? You bet it is! Evangelicals are rejecting modern science because it’s not biblical. But modern science doesn’t have to be biblical anymore than modern clothing or modern transport has to be biblical. When we insist on science that is biblical we insist on science that is ancient and we set up unnecessary barriers to the gospel. People reject the gospel because we have package it with ancient cosmology and ancient biology. But if we recognize that Bible science is ancient science we can fully embrace modern science along with the revelation of God in scripture.
Like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day we have our own world of acceptable traditions. But like Jesus we need to be honest with scripture and challenge those traditions or we will run the risk of nullifying the Word of God.