What is the alternative to God’s law? When people reject God’s standard for behavior, what do they put in its place? Since human beings first fell into sin, it has been our tendency to want to replace God’s law with our own opinions: whether they stem from cultural tradition, majority opinion, or subjective feelings. But God alone as our Creator and Judge has the right to make the rules which govern our behavior, and He will hold us accountable to His standard and none other. It is arrogant, sinful, and foolish to disregard God’s law in favor of our own opinions of morality (Proverbs 12:15).
The Pharisees and scribes at the time of Christ’s earthly ministry were characterized by this sin. They had substituted their own standards—their traditions—for the law of God. They criticized Jesus by saying, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” (Matthew 15:2). Jesus rebuked them: “And He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’” (Matthew 15:3). Notice that Jesus is not criticizing the Pharisees and scribes for having traditions. Rather, He rebukes them for following traditions that are contrary to the law of God, and teaching those traditions as law.
Jesus then gives a specific example of how the Pharisees and scribes were teaching human commandments in place of (and contrary to) the law of God. In Matthew 15:4–9, Jesus states:
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.”
The Pharisees and scribes were teaching that it is acceptable to take the money that should have been used to help their elderly parents, and give it instead to the temple, as “a gift to God.” In doing so, they were violating the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother…” (Exodus 20:12). Jesus quotes the fifth commandment and shows how the Pharisees and scribes were transgressing that commandment and replacing it with their sinful tradition. They were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Notice the basic form of Christ’s rebuke: “God said [one thing]. But you say [something else]. Hypocrites!” In violation of Deuteronomy 4:2, the scribes and Pharisees were trying to subtract from and add to the law of God. In doing so, they had “emptied” the law of God; they had made it “of no effect.” Their worship of God was insincere: honoring God with their lips, but their heart was far from Him. So it is with all those who make no attempt to honor the law of God (Luke 6:46, Luke 7:21-23).
The Pharisees and scribes were using their own arbitrary tradition as if it were the standard for correct behavior. In doing so, they were in violation of God’s law which is the true standard for correct behavior by which God will judge us. And Jesus rebuked them for it. The Pharisees and scribes were like the Israelites in the time of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). They had replaced the law of God with their own arbitrary opinions of morality. Is our society today all that different?