A few years ago I spoke at Edinburgh University CU on 'Sex' - from a passage in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. And at the end there was a queue of people annoyed with me. The first one said, 'I totally disagree with your interpretation of that passage. And the books I've read disagree with you, too.' So I said, 'I think it's hard to interpret Paul any other way.' And she replied, 'Then I disagree with Paul.' The next one said, 'I disagree with what you said about no sex outside marriage. I'm a Christian, I sleep with my fiancee, and I think that's OK.' And so on. Four things were in play during those conversations. 1) the Bible. 2) The teaching I'd given, and that others had written. 3) Reason: we were all using our minds to try to understand the Bible. That girl was also using hers to sit in judgement on what it says. And 4) Experience. Which is what the guy sleeping with his fiancee argued from - it feels OK, so it is. The Bible. Christian teaching. Reason. Experience. Four possible authorities in life. If you look up the word 'authority' in the dictionary, it says, 'the right to rule or give ultimate decision.' And those four possible authorities are like a pack of cards. However you shuffle them, one of them will always come out on top. One of them will be the supreme authority that decides what we believe, how we behave. And tonight's question is: in the church, where does supreme authority lie? But it's not just an 'in-house' question, for Christians. You may not yet be a Christian. But the issue of authority still faces you. Every day, you're making decisions, choosing right from wrong. The question is: on what basis do you decide? One survey of under 20's was asked where they got their moral direction. 70% said: the soaps they watch on TV. We all have our authorities. Well, Mark 7. Where Jesus Christ the Son of God answers the question: where does supreme authority lie? First, then, THE ISSUE OF AUTHORITY (vv1-5)
The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were 'unclean', that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and the teachers of the law asked Jesus, 'Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?' (vv1-5) And the issue of authority is there in verse 5: Why don't you live according to the tradition of the elders? Why don't you treat our tradition as your authority? In the Old Testament [OT] part of the Bible, God had told the priests to do a washing ceremony before they worked in the temple. The Pharisees took that idea and made up their own rule. Which said all people had to do all sorts of ceremonial washing all the time. And rules like that were known as the tradition of the elders. And in Mark 7 the Lord Jesus was in conflict for ignoring that tradition. And the first lesson is this. The issue of authority won't go away. There is, basically, the Bible, Christian teaching (or tradition as it's called here), reason and experience. And one of them will always come out on top. And where people have different supreme authorities, there will always be conflict. Which is why it's a vital issue for any church or Christian organisation. Because if we don't agree on our supreme authority, we'll hardly agree on anything. We'll argue internally so we have no time to get the gospel out to others. And we'll look so disunited, they'll hardly want to listen, anyway. That's the first thing. The issue of authority. Secondly, THE SUPREME AUTHORITY OF THE BIBLE (vv6-13) Jesus' reply to the Pharisees and teachers of the law is basically this: tradition is not the supreme authority; the Bible is. Verse 6:
He replied, 'Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.' (vv5-8)
ie, you've rejected the Bible as your supreme authority, and made your own traditions supreme, instead. Imagine you come up to me after the service and say, 'Would you like a drink?' And I say, 'Yes, please. Coffee, milk no sugar, please.' Well, you arrive at the refreshments table to discover they've run out of hot water. And it's an effort to go and boil a kettle. So you think to yourself, 'Something cold is more refreshing, anyway.' And you bring me a glass of squash instead. According to the Lord Jesus, that's how these Pharisees and teachers were treating God. Verse .God says, 'These people honour me with their lips' - ie, they sound keen to please me - 'but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' Ie, they don't actually do what God asks them to do. Rather, they have their own idea of what'll please God, and they do that instead. The spiritual equivalent of bringing him squash instead of coffee. Verse 8:
'You have let go of the commands of God and [instead] are holding on to the traditions of men.'
And Jesus gives an example. Verse 9:
And he said to them, 'You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God to observe your own traditions. For Moses said, 'Honour your father and your mother,' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' [Those are direct quotations from the OT] But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might have received form me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus, you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.' (vv9-13)
Let's unpack a few of the details and then ask what this has to say to us. Notice for one thing what Jesus says about the origin of the Bible. In verses 9 and 10, Jesus equates the commands of God with what Moses said and wrote. Verse 9: 'You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God' Verse 10 'For Moses said' That's just one example of many where Jesus taught that the words of the human writers of the Bible are simultaneously the words of God. So what Moses said is what God said through Moses. What the prophet Isaiah said was what God said through Isaiah. And likewise for every Bible writer. And Christians have called that the 'inspiration' of the Bible. Meaning that by his Spirit, God worked in the human writers so that what they wrote was precisely what he wanted them to write. So the Bible is the one and only place where human words can be trusted to be 100% the words of God. So Jesus taught the divine origin of the OT. But you might say, 'What about the New Testament [NT]?' After all, that wasn't written until after Jesus' death, resurrection and departure back to heaven. That's true. But Jesus clearly made provision for the NT to be written. He chose the apostles as his official observers and interpreters. And the NT came either from them or their immediate associates. And just as God inspired the writers of the OT, so he inspired the writers of the NT. (That's a massive subject; it begs many questions. If you want to look into it, then I'd recommend John Stott, Understanding the Bible.) Back to Mark 7. For one thing, Jesus taught the divine origin of the Bible. For another thing, he taught the supreme authority of the Bible. And the one leads to the other. Since what the Bible says is what God says, it should be the supreme authority in our lives. And Jesus criticised these people for making their teaching-traditions supreme instead. So, verse 10:
'Moses said, 'Honour your father and your mother,' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. (vv10-11)
One of their traditions encouraged people to pledge money to God's work. It was called 'Corban' money. And Jesus had seen people pledge Corban money. And then their parents had got into financial trouble. So they'd said, 'Look, couldn't I unpledge that money - I need it to help my parents?' And the Pharisees and teachers said, 'Sorry, chum. That's Corban. You'll have to tell your parents you can't help.' And Jesus says, v12:
You no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. [Ie, you actually stop this guy doing what God wants. Verse 13:] Thus, you nullify the word of God by your tradition. And you do many things like that.'
That's the detail of verses 9-13. Now, what does it say to us? It may seem rather remote and irrelevant. So let me ask you a question and give you a pause to answer it to yourself. What is the equivalent of 'the tradition of the elders' today, in JPC? Well, for a start, we live within a denominational tradition, called the 'Anglican church'. For example, a denominational tradition of what you do in a church service; a denominational tradition of permitting the baptism of infants (which some here believe is right and others of us believe is wrong); and so on. We also have our local, JPC tradition of how we do things. And then there are all the teaching traditions from sermons to CYFA, from Bible study group leaders' notes to books on the bookstall. All that is the equivalent of 'the tradition of the elders'. Take preaching, for example. Preachers do their best to be faithful to the Bible. But unlike the Bible writers, preachers are not inspired. What they say is a mixture of right understanding and misunderstanding, right application and misapplication. They cannot be trusted in the way that the words of the Bible can be. Which is why we have Bibles in the pews; which is why you need to check what is being said against the Bible; which is why you should believe nothing and act on nothing unless you're persuaded that it's what the Bible says. The same goes for what Christian books say, CYFA leaders say, and so on. But is it really possible that we - as the evangelical church we are - could do what it says in verse 8? Could we really 'let go of the commands of God and hold on to the traditions of men?' Yes!! Two examples. 1) The Christian books on 'relationships' in the teenage and student world. They vary in what behaviour they 'allow' - the 'How far can we go?' debate. One talks about a 'petting scale', for instance. But it's miles away from the word of God. 'Flee sexual immorality,' says 1 Corinthians. 'Honour God with your body.' Those books are on about 'How far can you go?' The Bible's on about how far can you keep clear of any impurity so as to please the Lord. You can let go the commands of God to hold onto the traditions of men. 2) Financial giving. The 'tradition of men' here at JPC is to suggest giving 10% of our income to God's work. And unlike the petting scale, it's not a bad tradition since the NT tells us to give a percentage of our income. But for some of us, 10% is hardly anything - and holding to the traditions of men makes us feel mistakenly sacrificial. For others, it's impossible - and holding to the traditions of men makes us feel mistakenly disobedient. Either way, we can hold onto the traditions of men rather than the word of God on the subject. Let's apply this principle a bit wider. Jesus taught the divine origin, therefore the supreme authority of the Bible. So the Bible is supreme over all traditions and teachers and institutions. Which is why the Roman Catholic church is still fundamentally non-Christian in its official position. It says:
It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the church draws her certainty about everything that has been revealed Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence.
(The Documents of Vatican 2, quoted in John Stott's Christ the Controversialist, IVP) Which is why the Roman Catholic church officially stands for such anti-Christian beliefs as the cult of Mary, the mass and the infallibility of the Pope. And which is why there cannot be unity between it and the Protestant churches - ie those that that protest that the Bible alone is supreme. On the other hand, even if it accepts the supreme authority of the Bible, no denomination and no church perfectly lives under its authority. In that sense, no church can call itself the 'reformed' church - as if its teaching and practices were perfect. The 16th century reformers used a Latin catch-phrase 'semper reformanda' - 'always reform'. They assumed that all Christian individuals and churches need constantly to revise their beliefs and practices under the authority and correction of the Bible. The principle applies to reason and experience, too. Take reason. We have to use our minds to understand the Bible. But the Bible remains the supreme authority. So wherever reason conflicts with the Bible, reason is to be judged wrong at that point. For example, one liberal theologian has written that the idea of Jesus dying for our sins is 'intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant.' Ie, he won't believe that one person's death can rescue a whole multitude of people from judgement. He doesn't find that reasonable. It doesn't fit his ideas of justice. (As if God has to conform to our ideas of justice, as if we were more morally sensitive than God.) But the role of reason is not to sit in judgement on God's word. But to try to understand it, trust him and obey him. And then experience. One example. Over the past 3 or 4 years, some parts of the charismatic movement have encouraged people to seek all sorts of experiences - falling over, shaking, laughing. And some who've had those experiences have all but insisted that everyone ought to have them. But again, the Bible remains the supreme authority. Unless the Bible says that all Christians should and will experience something, then I shouldn't insist on you experiencing it and you shouldn't insist on me experiencing it. The Bible is divine in origin and therefore supreme in authority. Supreme over tradition, teaching, reason and experience. Clearly, teaching is helpful for understanding the Bible; reason is necessary for understanding the Bible; and unavoidably we all bring our own experiences and subjectivity to the Bible. But the Bible is supreme. It sits in judgement on every other authority. And where there is conflict, the Bible is right. The application of all that is very simple. Read the Bible. Unless you want your Christian freedom to be hostage to tradition, teachers, your fallen reason or your finite experience, read the Bible. Read for yourself. Think for yourself. Only that way will you live for God, not for men. Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, stood almost alone against the false teaching and traditions of the church of his day. The Emperor Charles V said about him, 'A single friar who goes counter to all Christianity for 1000 years must be wrong.' To which Luther said: 'My conscience is captive to the word of God; to go against conscience is neither right nor safe; here I stand, there is nothing else I can do; God help me; amen.' Lastly, THE SUPREME INTERPRETER OF THE BIBLE (vv14-19) You might say (or you might have heard other people say): 'It's all very well saying the Bible is your supreme authority. But of course, it all depends on your interpretation.' True. But that's not to say that all interpretations are equally right. There is wrong interpretation and right interpretation. But, yes, it does depend on your interpretation. (That, like the area of inspiration and authority, is a massive subject. And I want to recommend John Stott's Understanding the Bible again. In fact, if you're in any form of Bible ministry in JPC, I want to challenge you to read it by next September.) But this passage in Mark 7 has one other crucial thing to say: Jesus is the supreme interpreter of the Bible. Verse 14. Jesus goes back to the original issue (vv1-5) of washing, and clean and unclean food:
Again, Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. [Notice he doesn't appeal to some outside authority. He doesn't quote John Stott. He doesn't even quote the Scriptures. 'Listen to me.'] Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man [namely sinful thoughts and behaviour] that makes him 'unclean'.
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 'Are you so dull?' he asked them. 'Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from outside an make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach and then out of his body.' (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods unclean) (vv14-19).
The OT clearly said some foods were unclean for God's people, the nation of Israel. And in a breathtaking display of authority, Jesus gets up, says, 'Listen to me' and declares that all foods are now clean. Ie, that the OT food laws were temporary. Because unlike the laws about say marriage and sexuality, they were 'non-moral' areas. They were to do with God's people standing out distinctively among the nations by what they ate and wore and so on. But since the nation was only a temporary part of God's plan, the laws about national distinctives were also temporary. So we can eat sausages and don't have to be circumcised. But how do I know that's the right interpretation of the OT? Because it's Jesus' interpretation. And Jesus is God. Jesus is the supreme interpreter of the Bible. Jesus can tell us how the OT and NT fit together. Jesus can tell us what Genesis 1 and 2 really say about gender and marriage and divorce. And so on. Which begs the objection, 'But Jesus isn't around to tell us.' True, he's not around. But his teaching, via the apostles is. For Jesus on marriage and divorce, read Matthew 19. Jesus on sex, marriage and singleness, 1 Corinthians 6-7. Jesus on homosexuality, Romans 1. And so on. Jesus is the supreme interpreter of the Bible. And his interpretation of earlier parts, and how it all fits together is found in the NT. To put it another way, one part of the Bible interprets another. The Bible is its own interpreter, if only we'll let it teach us. Well, do we believe all that? There's an easy test to find out whether the Bible really is our supreme authority. The test is this: do you let the Bible change you? Have you changed your mind on something, or changed your lifestyle as a direct result of reading the Bible? And could you come up with one concrete example from the last month? Reading
Understanding the Bible, John Stott, IVP [especially good on the inspiration, authority and interpretation of the Bible] Gospel & Kingdom, Graeme Goldsworthy, Paternoster [explains how the OT and NT fit together - the unity of the Bible, and how to read the OT as a Christian]