One of the greatest truths of biblical Christianity is that of Sola Scriptura. It is one that sets the true faith apart from apostate or disobedient impostors. It is utterly essential to biblical, obedient, and genuinely fruitful Christianity. But this type of massive truth should be expected, by discerning Christians, to be constantly under attack—including, sadly, from the very people who most profess to affirm it.
Sola Scriptura does not mean the Bible is our only authority. That is how it is often misunderstood and mis-preached in our doctrinally shallow, anemic, shorn-from-history day, but that is not its historic meaning. Sola Scriptura rather means that the Bible in its entirety, and the Bible alone, is our final, divine authority for faith and practice. It means there is no higher court of appeal than the Scriptures. It does not mean that the bare text of Scripture is all we need for a godly life, or that there are no other legitimate, secondary authorities that can shape our understanding of God’s world and help us apply biblical truth to life. We need more than the Bible to apply the Bible. For example, where does the Bible tell me to not smoke crack cocaine? Some might retort, “Why, that is the use of a controlling substance, and the Bible forbids such use,” or, “Our government has outlawed cocaine use, and the Bible says we are to obey our government.” Quite correct in both cases. But where, pray tell, does the Bible tell me that cocaine is a controlling substance, or that my government has outlawed it? (One wonders what such a facile argument would do if the government legalized and subsidized cocaine use!) The Bible does not tell me any such thing. In order to apply the Bible to my world, then, I need other, authoritative information, found outside the Bible, that tells me about the item or practice in question, which will then help me take biblical principles and apply them to that issue.
In discussions of Scriptural authority, too many people looking for loopholes for their pet sins and worldliness appeal to the lack of biblical prohibitions, in the name of “Scripture alone!” to justify compromise. This is just as pernicious as rigidly equating applications of biblical principles with the text of Scripture, or who placing tradition on par with Scripture (such that it becomes unassailable). But in reacting to these abuses, we must not go to the other extreme and act as though only the black-and-white statements of Scripture matter, or that the bare text of Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness. This will ensure license and hardened hearts as much as the legalism it professes to abhor.
Jesus never erred on either side. He gave His disciples genuine freedom while holding them to the strictest and most comprehensive precepts and applications of the Word of God. In His confrontation with the Pharisees, who made tradition and human thinking their final authority, we see our Lord’s utter consecration to the written Word, in which He exalts the Word to its proper place as the final, divine, inerrant authority for all of faith and life.
By contrast, we are informed about three colossal errors we make when we place something other than Scripture as the final authority.
A. It Hinders the Word (vv. 1-5)
This narrative begins some time after our Lord’s trip to Gennesaret, since it talks about Him returning from Jerusalem (v. 1). Time has passed, He has of course continued to minister, and word has gotten back to the Jewish leaders (again) that this Jesus fellow is causing trouble. They want nothing more than to discredit Him, for He is a threat to their arrogant monopoly and power play. We see two groups gathering to oppose Jesus. The first is the Pharisees, who were the (self-) appointed leaders of Jewish religion and culture. They are virtually always depicted in the gospels as opposing our Lord. The second is the scribes, who were legal experts whose job it was to explain and apply the Jewish Law. They were often Pharisees as well.
These men have noticed that Jesus does not require His men to follow the elaborate Jewish ceremonial cleansing rituals that have been handed down for centuries. Here an important note is to be made: Jesus never disobeyed the biblical ceremonial law, nor its genuine application. But He regularly rejected and flouted the traditional, hermetically-sealed, legalistic, overbearing applications that were held with inviolable, vein-popping tenaciousness by the Jewish leadership.
One of these was a pathological, obsessive concern with ceremonial cleanliness. Because the Jewish Law insisted one had to be ceremonially and morally pure to approach God, over the years the rabbis created more and more elaborate ways to prevent even potential uncleanness. This washing was done after returning from the marketplace (in case any Gentile dust or who knows what had inadvertently touched their hands), and especially legalistic Jews repeated the process between courses in every meal!
But Jesus did no such thing. He understood the true intent of His Father’s commands, and refused to dishonor and denigrate them by encrusting them with an exhausting, man-made, ungodly patina of rules. He understood the Law had to be applied, but it could not be at the expense of sacrificing its true meaning or final authority. The “why” query of the adversaries carries the idea of an interrogation. “Why are you not following our tradition?” Because their tradition is wrong!
Tradition and applications are necessary. Each generation does not invent the faith de novo, and we must apply all the Bible to all of life. But tradition can legitimately be questioned, and applications may change. Neither are inerrant nor infallible, though both are absolutely necessary. But to cling to these over the Word is to denigrate the very Word we are supposedly trying to understand and apply. To so fuse principle and application, or traditional doctrine with the true interpretation of Scripture, such that neither can ever be questioned, is to hinder the sanctifying, saving, purifying work of the Word. It is to place our thinking above God’s revelation. And Jesus, who is Lord, will have none of it.
B. It Neglects the Word (vv. 6-8)
Seeing their devaluing of the Word in favor of their own human thinking brings a scathing rebuke from our Lord. He takes the words of Isaiah—written to critique both empty formalism and the idolatry it shrouded—and applies it to the leaders themselves! They are hypocrites, just as ungodly and wicked as their fathers. They have taken the precepts of men—paganism in Isaiah’s day, human thinking that replaced the Word in His—and taught them as though they are God’s truth! What a horrific scandal and sin! Yet in doing this, these men are just as bad as their apostate Jewish ancestors who threw their children to Molech while going through the motions at the Temple! And this makes their worship “vain”—empty, pointless, fruitless. It serves no purpose because it does not honor, obey, or please God.
He adds they neglect the commandment of God in order to hold to the tradition of men (v. 8; it should be added that modern Judaism, with its vituperative rejection of Jesus as Messiah, is fantastically guilty of this same sin). “Neglect” is the Greek word for contradict, abandon, even divorce. They can hold to their tradition as the final authority, or the Word. But they cannot do both, and they have made the wrong choice.
In Isaiah’s prophecy of the future Day of the Lord, he writes that God’s wrath will fall on the world in part because mortals have “violated statutes” (24:5). This word means something like “alter,” “replace,” or “exchange.” Men and women have twisted the Word to make it say what they want instead of what it actually says, and one way they do this is by placing their own thinking, including their own tradition and applications, over the Word. The influx of Christianity and Christianized culture into the world has done many good things, but as the culture (and the church choosing to reflect it) has continued to shift towards greater ungodliness, it has only succeeded in converting more and more people to less and less Christianity, and has given the utterly unsaved Christian categories in which to think—and by which rationalize their twisting of the inerrant Word. Surely God’s wrath will fall on an impenitent America as surely as His anger was directed at these violators of His Word in His day!
C. It Nullifies the Word (vv. 9-13)
Worst of all, placing human thinking over the Word nullifies it. Jesus says they “set aside” the Word. This Greek term means to reject, nullify, or regard as invalid. This is the climax of the three accusations He makes. To teach things that contradict the Word only invalidates it! Why? Because as with the other two sins Jesus highlights, to do any of these things prevents people from trusting God and His Word. We cannot believe the Scripture—remembering that the meaning of the Scripture is the Scripture—if we believe something that contradicts, invalidates, or undermines it. God’s Word will only benefit us if we believe it—not if we believe lies and half-truths!
Here, Jesus offers a scathing exposure of their tendency to contradict the Bible. The Bible clearly taught children to honor their parents, and of course one way to do that was to help provide for them in old age. Similarly, God calls us to honor Him with our possessions, and sometimes that means setting money or goods aside for very exclusive, divine purposes. So, the greedy people of Jesus’ day rationalized their own selfishness by telling their aged parents they could not provide for them because all of their things were dedicated to God! How convenient!
This is perhaps the worst thing they did: Not only did they put their human thinking/tradition over the Word, but they did so to enable, rationalize, and place God’s stamp of approval on their disobedience to Him! And sadly, Jesus adds, they do many things exactly like this.
But we, 21st century Christian, risk doing the exact same thing. We can place human thinking over the Word in many ways—whether by replacing the Word with another final authority, or by saying we need no other truth or information to help us apply it (which often prevents costly obedience that contradicts our preferences, loves, and culture). We have inherited a futile way of life from our forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18). In either case the Word is hindered from doing what God intends it to do—produce in people the character of His Son—and we get to stay firmly seated on the throne of our lives, crown and scepter in place. O may God break our hearts and illumine our minds, that we might be more fully consecrated to Him, and more completely manifest His glorious rule and reign through the dominion of His perfect Word!