1 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5 But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6 he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:1-9 ESV).
Jesus condemns people’s hypocritical passion for their own traditions over God’s commands.
The heart of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees is in 3b-9b, where Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question with a sharp rebuke.
His answer reveals the sin at the heart of the Pharisees’ love of tradition: Even though God had commanded honour to one’s father and mother, the Pharisees nullified that command so that they could keep their own tradition (3-6). Their sin was elevating their rules above God’s rules.
That meant that the Pharisees were hypocrites (7-9). They were the sort of people Isaiah described, whose heart was miles away from God; therefore, their worship was unacceptable as they taught their thoughts as if they were God’s thoughts.
We can discover the kind of worship God accepts by flipping around the Pharisees’ actions: True worship involves a heart that is near to God, not merely a mouth that speaks words, and an exaltation of and submission to God’s written Word.
The author of Hebrews also describes “acceptable worship” in Hebrews 12:28: “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” So even in the New Covenant era, after the cross, it is possible to offer to God unacceptable worship. At least part of acceptable worship involves a “reverence and awe,” as Hebrews 12:28 makes clear, but submission to God’s Word is also central, as we saw in Matthew 15:9.
Based on this passage, I conclude that Jesus would condemn our own passion for any elements of worship that are not directly commanded by God in his Word. He rejects any worship that prioritizes our own innovations rather than what he has directly commanded us to do in public worship.
That conclusion forces us to ask another question: Did God reveal to us, in the NT, how he wants us to worship? And does he expect us today to obey his OT commands regarding worship?
To that question I will turn in posts on Romans 15:1-6, 1 Corinthians 9:3-14, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and 2 Timothy 3:10-17.