This people honors me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (Matthew 15:7-9)
These were the words of Jesus as He responded to the Pharisees, a sect of elite religious leaders in His day. They had just accused Him and His disciples of sinning by not washing their hands before eating. Knowing that the Scriptures (which we now call the Old Testament) promoted no such rule, Jesus used the last line of this quote to accuse the Pharisees of favoring man-made religious rules over the laws of God recorded in the Scriptures.
Jesus’ accusation would have been of little significance had the Pharisees taken the Scriptures lightly. Had that been the case, the Pharisees might have responded by saying that the Scriptures were of little importance, because God spoke directly through their leaders. In reality, however, the Pharisees were obsessed with the Scriptures. They believed them to be the authoritative word of God, and they claimed total adherence to them. When Jesus alerted the Pharisees to their hypocrisy of favoring man-made religious rules over the Scriptures they cherished, they were furious.
The Origin of Man-Made Religious Rules
As we look back upon this encounter, we wonder how the Pharisees could have opposed God’s will despite their love for the Scriptures. Most of us think that the Pharisees were just a bunch of silly Jews, hell-bent on evil, feeling nothing but hatred for God. And we think that if we had been in Judea during the time of Jesus’ ministry, we would have been nothing like the Pharisees and forsaken their man-made rules in favor of Jesus’ truth.
Before we write off the Pharisees as a group of people with which we have nothing in common, let’s take a closer look at their situation. First, let’s examine how the man-made sin of eating with unwashed hands originated.
Did one Pharisee say to the other, “Hey, let’s do something evil that will make God angry?”
And then the other Pharisee replied, “I got an idea. Let’s create a rule requiring the washing of hands before eating and tell people that they sin against God by not following it. That will really make God mad!”
It’s unlikely that this rule was created with these intentions. These man-made rules came about in an entirely different manner.
The belief that it was a sin to eat with unwashed hands (as well as other man-made beliefs) had developed between the time of the Babylonian exile (586 B.C.) and the time of Jesus (4-6 B.C. – A.D. 29).
Prior to the Babylonian exile, God had trouble keeping the horses in the barn, as the Israelites continually ran away from Him to pursue other gods—a direct violation of the First Commandment, which prohibited the worship of any god other than God himself. God then used the Babylonians to discipline the Jews by conquering their land (then called Judah) and sending them into exile for approximately 70 years. After the 70 years were completed, God had Cyrus, king of Persia, conquer Babylon and return the Jews to their homeland.
The Jews learned their lesson. Over time, groups like the Pharisees formed and determined that they would do everything within their power to keep God’s anger from crushing Judah (called Judea in Jesus’ day) again. The Pharisees hated sin and hoped to eliminate it. They not only opposed sinful behavior, but they ultimately developed new rules to keep people from coming anywhere close to it.
One of the sins they sought to avoid was that of eating unclean animals. God had declared through the law given by Moses (approx. 1400-1500 B.C.) that certain circumstances made people unclean for religious ceremonies and that certain animals were unclean and could not be eaten. Since the Pharisees wanted to play it safe and keep people as far away from committing this sin as possible, they created a rule requiring the washing of hands before eating.
The Pharisees were aware of the possibility that a person’s hands might touch an object, such as a piece of wood, that an unclean animal might have brushed against at an earlier time, leaving dead skin, hair, blood, etc. on it; and through the touching of the object, these elements might attach to the person’s hand. While eating, these elements then passed from hand to food to mouth, so that upon consumption of the food, elements from an unclean animal would be ingested, thus breaking God’s law prohibiting the eating of unclean animals. By washing hands before eating, the possibility of unintentionally ingesting unclean animal residue that resided on one’s fingertips was eliminated, and the breaking of God’s law avoided.
The Pharisees wanted to absolutely eliminate any possibility of even the most insignificant sin being committed. They were just like many modern-day devout Christians—totally committed to the avoidance of doing anything that might offend God.
I’m sure the Pharisees, who were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, had expected to receive a congratulatory pat on the back from Him for extending the law to ensure that God’s people came nowhere near committing sin. After all, God is always in favor of more rules, right? The more we can’t do, the happier He is!
Jesus informed the Pharisees that they were acting in opposition to God’s will when they preached that eating with unwashed hands was a sin. In fact, Jesus and His disciples openly and publicly broke this man-made religious rule. This wasn’t the only man-made doctrine that Jesus publicly violated. Jesus healed on the Sabbath day—a day in which doing any significant amount of work was forbidden (Mark 3:1-6). He picked grain while walking through a field on the Sabbath day (Mark 2:23-28). He drank wine and was accused of being a drunkard for it (Luke 7:34). He and His disciples did not fast during His ministry (Matthew 9:14-15); so the Pharisees, who fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), accused Jesus of being a glutton for not fasting, and possibly for attending feasts (Luke 7:34). And Jesus ate with people who were known to be sinful, in a society where eating with someone was a sign of friendship and where the righteous were not to befriend the sinful (Luke 15:1-7). The Pharisees opposed Jesus in all these things, because He violated their man-made religious rules.
There’s no doubt about it—Jesus hated man-made religious rules. He went out of His way to challenge them. He wanted us to be free of unnecessary religious restrictions. He even said of the Pharisees, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them [Matthew 23:4].” These heavy loads of which Jesus spoke were not physically heavy. It was not as if the Pharisees ran construction crews and made people carry large loads of bricks. Jesus was speaking of the spiritual burden imposed by the Pharisees: so many unbearable rules that even the Pharisees themselves could not adhere to them. That’s one of the reasons Jesus called them hypocrites.
God’s opposition to the burden of man-made rules
Why would God, whom Jesus represented when He spoke, want to limit the number of rules we have to follow? Why is God so offended when we add more rules to His rules? Matthew 23:13-14 gives us the answer: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” (NRSV)
How could it be that these Pharisees, who tried to keep everyone from doing anything that might have led to sin, were actually keeping people out of the kingdom of heaven?
Is it because they told people to follow the laws that God gave through Moses? No, these laws were required by God.
Is it because the Pharisees taught legalism (some Protestants define legalism as trying to earn one’s own salvation by doing the works of the law rather than by placing faith in Christ)? No, legalism was the only option at the time, because Jesus had not yet made His sacrifice on the cross when He made this statement.
Here’s how the Pharisees locked people out of heaven: the Pharisees’ numerous man-made rules created such a burden on the worshipers of God that they drove God’s people away from Him and distracted them from performing His will.
That’s a thought we Christians rarely have today. It’s worth repeating: man-made religious rules drive us away from God and distract us from doing His will.
How do they drive us away from God? By making the Christian life unrealistically difficult. Christianity is tough enough to follow as it is. Biblical rules are hard to obey, because we must control our selfish desires so as not to harm others. How many people fail to follow Christ because the man-made rules added to Christianity make the Christian life twice as difficult as it has to be? I’ve known numerous people who have refused to even consider becoming a Christian because of a non-biblical rule or belief that they thought they would have to adhere to if they converted.
How many others follow Christ, but leave the Church after collapsing under the weight of man-made rules imposed by Christian leaders? I’ve known Christians to leave due to their church’s restraints on who they could associate with, or what kind of music they could listen to, or where they could go on Friday night, etc.
How do man-made religious rules distract us from doing God’s will? They divert our mental and physical energy away from it. Every minute that a preacher spends proclaiming a non-biblical rule is a minute that could be used to proclaim the will of God. Every ounce of effort devoted to obeying man-made religious rules is an ounce of effort that could be devoted to serving the will of God. Christians who focus on these non-biblical rules think they are doing right before God when, in reality, they have no idea how far from God’s will their behavior really is.
Many Christians are distracted from doing God’s will, because they’ve been driven into deep spiritual depression. I know this from my own experiences.
Why was I so depressed?
Because, I felt enormous guilt for not being able to live up to the standards of the church.
What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that those rules that oppressed my soul were man-made! I would have loved and served God, rather than resenting and turning away from Him, if only I had known the freedom that God intended for me.
When we add man-made rules to God’s rules and promote those rules as God’s law, we imitate the Pharisees. We, too, become guilty of locking people out of the kingdom of heaven. We keep people from ever considering the faith, drive out those who attend our churches; and for those who stay in the church, we minimize their effectiveness by distracting them from the biblical will of God.
The Greatest Commandment
What is the biblical will of God? To provide a thorough answer to this question, I’d have to quote every law and instruction in the Bible, and that would take up quite a bit of space. Fortunately, Jesus summed it up in Matthew 22:34-40: “But when the Pharisees heard that He [Jesus] had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?’ And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole law and the Prophets.’”
The first commandment, to love God with all your heart, is fairly simple to apply to daily life. It requires few actions, but does require us to be fully committed to Him and only Him―to love Him, adore Him, admire Him, etc. The actions resulting from our love for God are worship, prayer, and taking time to appreciate all that He has done for us and has done in the universe.
The second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, is where most of the rules come into play. (Notice that Jesus volunteered this commandment, even though the lawyer had not asked Him for the two greatest commandments. Jesus did this because it’s every bit as important as the first one).God created a human race that He loves. He hates it when we cause each other to suffer. That’s why Jesus says, in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me,” and in verse 45, He says, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” When we love others, we love God; when we hurt others, we offend God.
God originally desired for us a society of love and happiness. If all people obeyed every biblical law perfectly, we would never suffer from the actions of others, and life would be great. Even God’s sex and marriage laws exist for the purpose of protecting others from the harmful effects of our selfishness. If all people obeyed them perfectly, none of us would contract sexually transmitted diseases, single mothers wouldn’t struggle to raise their children by themselves, men wouldn’t be forced to pay child support for kids they rarely get to see, and children wouldn’t grow up lacking family support. Many life-ruining events result from our disobedience to God’s sex and marriage laws, and God wishes to spare us from these painful experiences. Contrary to what some Christians have said, God didn’t create AIDS to punish homosexuals; He prohibited homosexual sex so that nobody would get AIDS!
The most remarkable verse of Jesus’ quote is the last one, “On these two commandments depend the whole law and the Prophets.” Jesus meant that all the rules in the Bible, from the Old Testament law, to the sayings of the prophets, to the quotes from Jesus, to the letters of the Apostles, exist solely for the purpose of protecting our fellow humans from any harm that we might bring their way, or exist for the purpose of loving God. Jesus omits the third option here: that God makes pointless rules because He’s a picky, demanding, selfish god who doesn’t care how much we have to suffer to make Him happy.
Every rule from God serves a practical purpose. We are not required to follow pointless, oppressive rules as a means of proving to God that we are worthy of His forgiveness. The people of the Old Testament had to do that, as they were required to follow numerous ritualistic rules in order to atone for sins. These rules were often tedious, but they were necessary in earning forgiveness from God. Fortunately for us, atonement rituals are unnecessary, since Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross atones for our sins if we believe in Him. Therefore, every rule from God exists so that we may love Him and love others as we love ourselves.
The Greatest Commandment is not an isolated verse like those that often lead us astray when taken out of biblical context. It appears eight times in the Bible. Here are the remaining seven:
Mark 12:28-31, “And one of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘What commandment is the foremost of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, Hear, O Israel! The Lord your God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.’”
Context: The scribe responds by agreeing with Jesus and stating that loving God and others is far greater than observing such routines as offering sacrifices. We cannot be certain whether this discussion is the same one recorded in Matthew 22.
Luke 10:25-29, “And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How does it read to you?’ And he answered and said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly, do this and you will live.’ But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”
Context: This quote is sandwiched between the story of Jesus sending out 70 people to spread the Gospel and the parable of the Good Samaritan. It appears to describe a third instance in which Jesus emphasizes the Greatest Commandment.
Analysis: Jesus ties the Greatest Commandment to salvation, because it represents the core of the Christian life. If we fail to love God and others, we are probably not saved.
Leviticus 19:17-18, “You shall not hate your fellow countrymen in your heart; you shall surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people. But you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”
Context: These verses are included in a listing of miscellaneous laws.
Analysis: This is the Bible’s original “love your neighbor” verse. Notice that the first line addresses hatred in one’s heart and that these verses do not promote tedious rules as a way of loving others.
Matthew 7:12, “Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the law and the Prophets.”
Context: This quote is from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It follows His statement that God will give good things to those who ask Him.
Analysis: Here Jesus encourages us to imagine ourselves in the place of others. When we do so, we place the interests of others on the same level as our own, and thus love our neighbors as ourselves.
Romans 13:8, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.”
Context: The verses leading up to these address obedience to the government, and the verses that follow create a sense of urgency for the Roman believers.
Analysis: Jesus’ claim that the law and the prophets were summed up in loving God and others was no misprint or misinterpretation. In these verses, the Apostle Paul supports the same concept. The Apostles never indicate that the law exists for any other purpose or for no purpose at all.
Galatians 5:13-15, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.”
Context: In this chapter, Paul addresses the issue of circumcision as well as the quarreling among the church members over it.
Analysis: Paul probably omitted the purpose of loving God here, because so few laws specifically address it.
Almost all laws address our relationships with each other. Paul made it clear to the Galatians that the laws exist for the primary purpose of loving others. In other words, the “whole law”—every law—exists for one another’s benefit.
Knowing that the entire law is to make us love our neighbors as ourselves, we can conclude that this law is created for our well-being, not for God’s. So the principle that Jesus applies to the Sabbath when He says, “…The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath [Mark 2:27-28],” applies to the entire law. When Jesus said this, He was correcting the Pharisees’ erroneous belief that the purpose of the Sabbath was to make us sacrifice our freedom to please God.
Jesus lends further support to this theology in Matthew 12:7-8, when He says to the Pharisees regarding the Sabbath, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, not sacrifice.…’” Again, God wasn’t looking for us to “sacrifice” our enjoyment, freedom, etc. by observing strict Sabbath rules. Rather, He created the Sabbath out of His “compassion” for us.
This can be said of all of God’s law. God takes no pleasure in limiting our activities. He takes offense, however, when we hurt each other. Obedience to the law benefits God in that He is pleased when we forsake selfish desires in order to ease or prevent the suffering of others.
There’s a reason that Jesus refers to God as our “Father.” Just like any caring parent, He wants His children to treat each other well and to have a loving relationship with Him. The purpose of the law is really that simple.
James 2:8, “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.”
Context: James warns Christians against favoring the rich over the poor.
Analysis: James lends addition biblical support to the Greatest Commandment. But like Paul, he does not mention loving “God with all of your heart” since nearly all laws address our relationships with others.
Having to worry about nothing more than loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are now free from the burdens and distractions of man-made religious laws, thanks to Jesus. As we encounter man-made rules throughout this website, ask yourself how they result in better loving our neighbors. I assure you that you will not find one man-made Christian rule, practice, or belief that is designed to love or protect other people. Man-made rules serve no other purpose than to distract us from God’s will and drive us away from Him completely.