Let’s look at a quote or two.
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matt 15:7-9)
I heard that passage quoted all my childhood and applied to religious denominations. They were making laws that were not in the Bible and so they were guilty. Then the preacher would list things like “once saved, always saved,” instrumental music, and quarterly communion. I used it too when I talked to my friends at school because that’s the way I had always heard it used.
Then one day after I was grown and teaching classes, I decided to look up the context of Jesus’ statement and was I in for a shock when I saw that he was addressing it to the scribes and Pharisees—conservative parties of his own people, the Jews. He was NOT addressing it to pagans who worshiped incorrectly at all. So then I went back to Isaiah where, Jesus tells us, this statement was originally made.
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” (Isa 29:13-14)
Like Jesus, Isaiah is talking to God’s people, a people who have given nothing but lip-service to God. They go to the Temple on feast days and Sabbaths, anxious for it to all be over so they can get back to “real life,” cheating in their businesses, afflicting the poor, and focusing all their attentions on self-indulgence. They have polluted the true worship with idols in the Temple, priests who no longer teach the Law, and prophets who preach for hire. They want to be more like the nations around them than like the Father who protected and provided for them. God says they have broken the covenant and He is about to destroy them.
Do you think those Jewish leaders missed what Jesus was saying about them by using this passage? Of course not. Do you understand now why they were always so angry with him? He did not avoid confrontation and he had no problem speaking plainly, plainly enough that they knew exactly what he meant.
Now notice again who these people were: the conservative parties of God’s people who were trying their best to follow the Law exactly. Do you know anyone who fits that description today? And do you think we don’t have any problem with the same things they did? Then think again. I grew up knowing people who carefully compartmentalized their religion. What they said and did on Sunday had nothing to do with how they lived the rest of the week. “I’ve been baptized,” became their mantra. I was blessed to have parents who showed me that faith is about every aspect of your life, not just Sunday mornings, otherwise I might be in the same situation.
Do you think we don’t have trouble teaching “commandments of men?” Have you ever heard things like, “You can’t wait on the Lord’s table without a tie on?” How about, “Women are not allowed to wear pants here,” or “You have to say amen at the end of your prayer or you will not be allowed to pray the public prayer.” And just like those first century Pharisees we sometimes make a bigger deal out of people breaking our Man commandments than we do God’s.
All that just because I finally checked the context of two passages, the New Testament quote and the original Old Testament passage.
Here’s one you can work on yourself. Jesus told a vineyard parable in Mark 12:1-12. It was not a direct quote but a strong allusion to Isaiah’s vineyard parable in 5:1-7. Jesus was speaking to the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, people who certainly knew the book of Isaiah. Make a two column chart and find the comparisons between those two parables. Once you do, you will understand why, when Jesus finished his, those men wanted “to arrest him.”
Did you ever wonder why the New Testament is so much shorter than the Old? Maybe it’s because God didn’t think He needed to say things twice! He expected us to look at these quotes and their originals and figure a few things out ourselves. And when you do that, you will learn more than you ever knew there was to learn.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)