There’s a scene in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’ in which the father of the Olympic athlete Eric Liddell is being questioned by a family friend who is also Liddell’s trainer. The subject under discussion is God’s commands and our response to them. The friend, who is not a Christian, is told by Mr Liddell senior that the commands of God are not negotiable. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. Right and wrong is not decided by referendum. The friend clearly feels this is unacceptable and says rather accusingly to the athlete’s father: “So God is a dictator then?” And the father replies: “Yes, but a benign and loving dictator.” But that doesn’t satisfy his friend who continues to protest.
It’s a discussion that illustrates the fact that deep in the heart of each one of us there is a resistance to being told what to do and what to believe – even by God. The truth is, left to our own devices our ignorance of God and his will is almost complete because we have closed our eyes to the message of creation and hardened our hearts against the truth that is planted in us. But God has acted to remove that ignorance by revealing himself to us in Christ. And he reveals Christ to us through his Word, the Bible.
We can no longer excuse the way we live by saying: “Well, God hasn’t told me.” God has spoken in his Word. But our desire to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, what is true and false rather than listening to God runs very deep. So deep that when the excuse of ignorance is stripped away from us we find other strategies for ignoring God’s commands.
There are two main strategies for ignoring the Word of God. They have been used frequently throughout the history of the Christian Church. They are used just as often nowadays. And it is certainly not beyond us to use them ourselves when it suits us. These two strategies can be summed up in this way: the first is to ADD to the word of God; the second is to SUBTRACT from it. You can see those on the outline on the back of the service sheet.
Jesus exposes both strategies for what they are during his encounters with his enemies and I want us to look at two passages in Mark’s Gospel where he does that.
First, HOW TO IGNORE THE WORD OF GOD, PART ONE: ADD TO IT
The relevant passage here is Mark 7.1-13. That’s on p 1010 in the pew Bibles. What’s going on here? Jesus is under attack from the Pharisees. They were highly religious. They believed in the Scriptures (what to us is the Old Testament) as the word of God. But they overlaid the Scriptures with an elaborate system of interpretation which had hardened into a rigid tradition.
They thought they were obeying God’s commands. In fact they thought they were far more obedient than other groups within Judaism. They certainly had not openly rejected the message of the Bible. But the truth is they had encrusted the Bible with so many layers of tradition that its truth was totally hidden from view. And this was true to such an extent that when the author of the Bible appeared before them in person they considered him to be their enemy.
On this occasion the trigger of the conflict was the question of all the ritual washing that the Pharisees considered necessary. Mark explains about that in verses 3-4 – the bit the NIV has put in brackets:
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.
The disciples of Jesus did not abide by these traditions. To the Pharisees this was proof that they were far from God. Verses 1-2:
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.
How can you be close to God if you don’t wash off all the contamination of the world before you eat? On to verse 5:
So the Pharisees and 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?”
Do you see how this strategy works? Ignore the heart of the matter and end up rejecting Christ by majoring on externals. It is so much easier to keep a law which says ‘wash your hands and you will be right with God’ than it is to recognise that your heart is black with the dirt of sin and only by the mercy of God can it be washed clean.
They think they are challenging Jesus, but he turns the challenge back on to them. He says (verses 6-8):“
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 the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
You see you cannot have both the gospel and all these additional man-made regulations which you make in effect vital for salvation. If you add to the gospel, you lose the gospel.
Not that traditions are necessarily bad. In its right place, tradition is a neutral thing. Some traditions are unhelpful, some are a matter of indifference, some are helpful. But as soon as you make a tradition part of the gospel, you lose the gospel.
How do we get right with God? Is it through faith in the mercy of Christ who died for our sins and who reigns over us as Lord? Or is through the externals of our religion? Do we get right with God by being baptised? Or by taking the bread and wine at Holy Communion services? Or by being in church every Sunday? Or by spending ten minutes a day reading our Bibles? Or by giving money to good causes? These things are fine and good in their place – properly understood they are tremendously valuable – but they are not what saves us. Christ alone saves us.
And the danger is that we add other things – sometimes deliberately and consciously, sometimes without even realising that we’re doing it. The message can be communicated that to be saved you must like a certain kind of music; you must dress in a certain way; you must belong to a certain denomination; you must speak in tongues; you must accept that the Pope has a unique authority; you must experience certain feelings; you must worhip in certain places.
When man-made traditions are vitally important to us, then we are ignoring the commands of God. Jesus says you cannot have it both ways. If you hold firm to the word of God then the traditions of men are no longer vital. Once you begin to make man-made traditions a vital requirement, then you have let go the commands of God. The gospel of Christ which is the heart of the Bible’s message is obscured and hidden from view.
As Jesus says to the Pharisees (in verse 9):
“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.”
Then in verse 10-12 he gives them another example of how through their traditions they are utterly rejecting a command of God. This was the ultimate cynical ploy – not so much tax evasion as compassion evasion. Let me explain what they were doing. God commands us to honour our parents. One of the implications of that is that if our parents are in physical need, and we’re in a position to do something to help them out, then we should.
But some of these Pharisees, it seems, weren’t too keen on having to pay for the upkeep of their parents. So they used a loop-hole in the law to avoid their responsibilities. The system was this: if you had a lump of money in your savings account, you could nominate it as ‘Corban’ as they called it, in other words as a gift devoted to God - without actually having to give it away. Then because it was so-called devoted to God, you weren’t allowed to give it away to anyone else – not even to your parents.
So the money would stay safely stashed away in their accounts, while their parents went short, or someone else had to step in to look after them. So by using this traditional rule, they got to look spiritual – apparently dedicating this money to God – while actually just being miserly at the expense of their parents, and at the expense of obedience to the word of God.
What’s Jesus’ verdict on this behaviour? It’s there in verse 13:
“Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
When we major on tradition at the expense of obedience to the commands of God, we nullify the word of God. So beware the Pharisee in the churches that we join, in the books that we read, in the teachings that we accept. Beware the Pharisee in our own heart. Do not ignore the word of God by adding to it.
That is one widely used strategy. Now on to the next.
Secondly, HOW TO IGNORE THE WORD OF GOD, PART TWO: SUBTRACT FROM IT
Turn on a few pages if you have a Bible there to Mark 12.18-27. That starts on page 1017. Another day in the ministry of Jesus, and another attack from the enemy. Not the Pharisees this time but the Sadducees. Verse 18:
Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.
Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees were highly religious people. Like the Pharisees, they too believed that God had revealed himself in the pages (or scrolls!) of the Scriptures. Unlike the Pharisees, they had discarded much of the tradition that they rightly regarded as having no foundation in God’s revelation. But they went beyond that. They also rejected the divine authority of parts of the Bible other than the books of Moses – the first five books. That is where the truth lies, they said. And then in their interpretation of it they rejected belief in resurrection on the Day of Judgement, and in the existence of evil spirits and of angels. They took a scalpel, in other words, to much of the supernatural world view of the Bible.
In verses 19-23 they ask Jesus a question about marriage after the resurrection. It’s not so much about seven brides for seven brothers as one bride for seven brothers. What will happen, they crow, if a woman marries one of seven brothers. He dies. She marries the next. He dies. She marries the next. And so on – until she’s gone through all seven brothers. She’s married the lot of them, one by one.
Now admittedly, the first thing that should happen is that she should be closely investigated by Scotland Yard. But that’s not what they’re thinking. Their point is this: this seven-times-married woman, having out-lived all the brothers, dies herself, in the end. Then all eight of them are raised at the Last Day. Who, they say, is she going to be married to?
Now the central purpose of this comic scenario is clear. They intended to show that the idea of resurrection at the end of the age was unreasonable and ridiculous. And they knew that Jesus taught the truth of the resurrection so they were also trying to show that Jesus himself was ridiculous. You can almost hear them saying under their breath, ‘Gotcha!’.
They are diminishing the Bible, and attempting to demolish its divine author, though they fail to realise exactly who is standing before them. Far from adding to the word of God as the Pharisees did, they are subtracting from it. They are losing the Bible’s message by cutting away at the heart of it.
And Jesus says (verse 24):
“Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”
In one sense, of course, they did know the Scriptures. They had read them. They had studied them. They had them on their shelves. But they had still managed to miss completely the full significance of them. In applying their reason, as they saw it, to the question of the truth and authority of the Bible, they were really just exposing the extreme shallowness and error in their understanding of God and of his power.
You can’t ignore the word of God and still know God, just as you cannot refuse to listen to what someone says to you and still claim to be their friend.
Jesus does answer their question. Verse 25:
”When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
If your cut down version of the Bible has given you a cut down idea of God, then it’s not surprising if the Bible’s teaching looks ridiculous. If you rule out the possibility of resurrection from the start, then it is inevitable that the idea of resurrection seems unreasonable. But if you know what you are talking about – if you know how great God really is – then it all falls into place in a perfectly rational way.
And notice the way that Jesus tackles them head on when he says that when the dead rise they will be “like the angels in heaven.” The Sadducees don’t believe in angels! Jesus is saying to them that there is a whole world that they know nothing about for all their religion.
And then in verses 26-27 Jesus doesn’t so much argue for as state the truth of the resurrection. Verse 26:
“Now about the dead rising - have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, after whom God names himself in the very part of the Scriptures that the Sadducees do accept, are not dead and gone. The living Lord of all creation does not name himself after long lost heroes. Verse 27:
“He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken.”
They were utterly wrong about the resurrection. They were utterly wrong to carve up the Scriptures in the way they did as if they could decide what was true and what wasn’t. They were utterly wrong about Jesus. One commentator says of the aristocratic Sadducees that…
… their main concern was for the maintenance of their privileges, not for doctrinal purity. They were wealthy and worldly.
And in reality that is what is going on here. They have hardened their hearts against the Scriptures and against Christ because they are not willing to face the challenge of the truth.
Beware the Sadducee in the churches that you join, in the books that you read, in the teachings that you accept. Beware the Sadducee in your own heart – all too ready to cut out great chunks of the word of God because the challenge of it is too great. Do not ignore the word of God by subtracting from it. As the great theologian Augustine of Hippo said many centuries ago: "If you believe what you like and reject what you like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself."
So, in conclusion, we come back again to what Eric Liddell’s father is made to say in the film ‘Chariots of Fire’: the commands of God are not negotiable. If we claim to be Christians, then we must not ignore the word of God, the Bible, either by adding to it or subtracting from it. It is the Bible – the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible – which is to be our final and supreme authority for living. The Bible is the Final Word. Not the church. Not reason. Not experience. All these things have their place. But we will lose our way unless the church, and our own thinking, and our experience remain firmly subordinate to the word of God in the Bible.
There’s another scene in Chariots of Fire in which the Prince of Wales – later to abdicate as Edward VIII – does all he can to persuade Eric Liddell to abandon his principle of not racing on a Sunday. The pressure is great but Liddell stands firm.
In a similar way we are to stand firm on the truth and the authority of the Bible, whatever the pressures to ignore it or neglect it. And we could do worse than pay attention to words spoken by the sister-in-law of Edward VIII, the late Queen Mother: “Men turn this way and that in their search for new sources of comfort and inspiration, but the enduring truths are to be found in the word of God.”