Ever since Cain and Abel, God’s people have been asking, “What is the proper way to worship God?” Uncertainty reigns today in churches over whether or not certain service elements are really helpful for congregational worship. What is acceptable? Some godly Christians, attempting to enhance their worship, believe they have freedom to use anything to their worship that they think good. Other godly Christians are then constrained to participate with something against their conscience. How can they be certain that the elements they are including are indeed pleasing to God?
Jesus Christ in particular confronted this issue head on since in his day, the Pharisees had added traditions to the religious life of the Jews that went beyond what God himself had commanded. We find one such confrontation in Mark 7, and it will help to introduce us to the critical importance of biblical authority over our worship.
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
It’s important to recognize that the Pharisees’ concern here was not over hygiene. Rather, they were concerned with worship; they were concerned with ceremonial cleansing that they taught was necessary in order to worship God correctly. And so Jesus addresses their concern:
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocritical worship; he actually says that their worship is vain. But notice why he argues their worship is vain: they are teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. The Pharisees have gone beyond what God has commanded in their worship and have added other requirements. Notice they have not stopped doing what God has actually commanded; they have added to what God commanded. And because of this, Jesus says that they have actually rejected the commandment of God.
Jesus continues by listing some of the other religious requirements the Pharisees have added beyond what God had commanded, but then notice what he says at the end of this passage in verse 13:
. . . thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.
Jesus is saying, by adding man-made requirements to worship beyond what God has commanded, the Pharisees are making void the Word of God, they are not trusting in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture for their worship, and thus their worship is vain.
This confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees provides a core principle that must govern any discussion of worship. In the midst of so much controversy over worship today, we must remain firmly convinced that the fundamental, bedrock truth upon which all of our theology and practice of corporate worship must be founded is the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.