Staff & Sling

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078

The Commandments of Men

There was a time when some of Jesus' disciples were eating without washing their hands. Seeing this, some scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him why his disciples were violating the traditions of the elders. Jesus rebuked them, telling them that Isaiah was right when he said that they worshipped God in vain, "...teaching for doctrine the commandments of men," (Matthew 15: 7 - 9; Mark 7: 6, 7; see also Isaiah 29: 13).

Understand that the Pharisees didn't set out to become self-righteous hypocrites. Originally they were truly devoted to serving God. They spent their lives living for God and studying His Word. I promise that neither you nor I can assume that we are either more devout or sincere than the Pharisees were. Moreover, as I will show you directly, the errors that the Pharisees made were rooted not in hypocrisy but in human nature. So it's a safe bet that if we will not learn from their errors, then we will no doubt repeat them.

Over time the Pharisees, and their predecessors, developed a set of oral traditions, an oral Torah if you will, which were deliberations concerning the application of the Torah (actually the whole Tenach) to everyday life. These oral traditions gave rise to the 613 commandments of Judaism, what we would call pharisaical dogma, and would eventually be written down as the Talmud.

It is ironic that these oral teachings were ever written down at all, because until they were it was axiomatic that they were not to be written down, that they were by definition oral, to be handed down from teacher (rabbi) to student. But after the destruction of the Second Temple a scholar named Rabbi Yahuda Ha-Nasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince), and others, wrote down the oral traditions for fear that they would otherwise be lost. These traditions became the Talmud, something like Jewish commentaries, and are even considered scripture by many. In fact, today many devout Jews study the Talmud even more than the Torah.

But I digress, if for no other reason than that the Talmud had not been written yet at the time of Christ. Nonetheless, the Pharisees were more devoted to these traditions, their own dogma, than to scripture even then. In the passages from Matthew and Mark, linked to below and referenced above, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees over this very thing. He cites several examples about their ritual washing requirements, and a specific example of their tradition about being able to put away their parents despite scripture's unambiguous instruction to "Honor thy father and mother,..." (Exodus 20: 12a). As Jesus pointed out, the Pharisees had rejected scripture in lieu of their own beliefs.

This tendency to rationalize scripture to fit one's own beliefs is by no means a peculiarly Jewish trait. To be sure we do the same thing today, and we always have. Even before there was sin in the world, Eve told the Serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which [is] in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die," (Genesis 3: 2b, 3; emphasis added). But this is not what God said. God actually said, "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," (Genesis 2: 17). He said nothing about touching anything.

Note that there was no apparent harm in Eve's position. Since she and Adam were forbidden to eat the fruit, one can reasonably find it quite understandable that they just decided never to even touch the thing. There was certainly nothing wrong with such an approach. In fact, it would have been quite prudent. And if they decided not to even touch the fruit of that tree, then in time Eve may well have come to believe what she told the Serpent. Still, whether the harm was apparent or not, and no matter her intent, Eve claimed that God said something that He hadn't. This, to my knowledge, was the first instance of someone "teaching for doctrine the commandments of men," and it was the uppermost edge of the slippery slope down which she and Adam were about to fall.

I would make one more point here, before moving on, because it will be important later. Note that there was apparently no sin in what Eve said. If the original (or first) sin happened a few verses later, then this, having happened before the first sin, by definition could not have been sin. Nonetheless, it was an error (sin or not) that led to sin.

I genuinely believe that there is no Christian denomination today that has not canonized as doctrine at least some commandments of men. And I could easily cite examples from the Catholic church, or the Methodists or the Pentecostals, or the Episcopalians, or .... But to do so would be as unseemly as uncivil. So instead of picking on other denominations, and since I am a member of a Southern Baptist Church, I will use some of their dogma as examples. Specifically, I want to look at smoking, drinking and gambling. I will leave it to each of you to examine the dogma of your own denomination.

Better yet, and most importantly, examine your own beliefs. What do you believe, and why do you believe it? Do you believe something because it is written in scripture? If so you can believe it without reservation. But if you believe something because your parents taught it to you, or you've always believed it, or because your clergy said it was so, examine it in the light of scripture (see also Mind the Little Things).


Is smoking a sin? It's bad, a filthy habit, but is it a sin? Many denominations frown on smoking, and if you ask someone from one of them they will likely tell you it's a sin because it defiles your body which is the temple of God. They will doubtlessly cite, "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are," (I Corinthians 3: 16, 17).

But in the very passages that I began this article with, Matthew 15: 1 - 11 and Mark 7: 1 - 23, Jesus says quite explicitly that it is not what goes into your mouth that defiles you, the temple, but what comes out. James discusses the same thing in Chapter 3 of his epistle. Note in particular, in verse 6, that it is the tongue that defiles the whole body.

Of course, none of this means that it's okay to smoke. It's addictive. It causes cancer. It makes you smell bad. And if there is a passage of scripture that is germane to smoking, it's "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap," (Galatians 6: 7). There is a litany of reasons not to smoke. But being a sin isn't one of them.


While we're considering the indulgence sins, what about drinking alcohol. Again, there are plenty of good reasons not to drink. But you really should check scripture before you tell anyone it's a sin. I did a quick search of the words "strong drink" and found them occurring in twenty verses. There were several places where God tells specific people not to drink alcohol, but only at specific times. The Levitical priests weren't to drink when going into the Tabernacle (Leviticus 10: 8, 9), and Sampson's mother wasn't supposed to drink while she was pregnant (Judges 13: 3, 4). Anyone who was taking a Nazerite vow to the Lord was to put off strong drink, as was the case with Sampson (whose vow was unusual in that it was a lifetime commitment). Also, there are a number of passages in Proverbs that warn of the pitfalls of drinking, but nowhere in scripture can I find that it is a sin to drink alcohol.

To the contrary, consider Deuteronomy 14: 23 - 27. There the people are told to rejoice with their whole household by indulging in "... whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, ..." specifically including wine and strong drink. Moreover, since they have nothing of their own, the people are instructed to share with any Levitical priest that happens to be around at the time. In Numbers 28: 7 it is instructed that strong wine be poured out, in the Tabernacle (God's house) to God as an offering. How can anything sinful be made an offering to God? Finally, at the marriage feast in Cana Jesus turned water into wine (John 2: 1 - 11). And no, this wasn't unfermented grape juice. In the Greek it was ornos, alcoholic wine, as in "And be not drunk with ornos, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;" (Ephesians 5: 18), or as in "Drink no longer water, but use a little ornos for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities," (I Timothy 5: 23). So to claim that drinking is a sin is to claim that Jesus caused the guests at this feast to sin. And that would be heretical.

There are a lot of reasons to not drink alcohol. I would guess that over half of all police activity stems directly from the abuse of alcohol. I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to how many automobile accidents are caused by alcohol. My own sister died from alcoholism. Alcohol is a drug which, if abused, will rob you of your health, your wealth, your family, your liberty, your happiness and even your life. There are indeed a lot of very good reasons not to drink alcohol, but being a sin isn't one of them.


What about gambling? Is gambling a sin? Ask someone who believes it is and they will likely tell you that it's a sin because the soldiers gambled for Jesus' clothes while He was on the cross. Unfortunately, they did no such thing.

The soldiers cast lots to see who would get Jesus' coat. Clothes were valuable, and tearing the coat into parts would have ruined its value. So the soldiers cast lots (John 19: 23, 24),  just like the Apostles did to select Matthias as the replacement for Judas Iscariot (Acts 1: 26). The Old Testament is replete with examples wherein men of God cast lots in order to leave decisions to the will of God.

This was not gambling, because in none of these cases did the participants put anything at risk for a chance to win the pot. We think of the soldiers at the cross as throwing dice, like shooting craps, but this is not an accurate image. I'm not certain of the mechanics of casting lots, whether they used numbered cubes or some personally identifiable item like a ring. The point is that however they did it, the contemporary analogy to casting lots is drawing straws, not shooting craps. They weren't betting, They weren't gambling.

Moreover, in all of scripture I can find no proscription of gambling.

Again, this doesn't mean that gambling is good. It isn't. It is just one of many ways by which a fool and his money are parted. Someone well defined the state lottery as "a tax upon the poor and ignorant."  I couldn't have said it any better. So, as before, there are very good reasons not to gamble, but you aren't going to find it prohibited in scripture. In other words, like Eve not touching the fruit, you'd be wise to advise others not to gamble. Just don't tell them it's a sin.


I've discussed three examples where Southern Baptists have adopted as doctrine the commandments of men. And in every case they are right about the things being poor life choices. Except in the case of drinking moderate amounts of wine for certain health and medical benefits (and that based on the assumption that one has no alcoholic tendencies), in each of these cases it is absolutely true that others would be better off if they abstained from these activities. In each case the Southern Baptist dogma constitutes sage counsel, but that doesn't mean that the activities are sin.

And as in the case of Eve claiming that God said not to even touch the Fruit, none of these examples mean that the Southern Baptists themselves have sinned by either adopting or expressing these beliefs, except possibly in the case of calling it sin to drink alcohol (since God indeed approved of it for His people, demanded it as an offering unto Himself, and in the person of Jesus Christ both partook and served others), but I'll leave that argument for people to prayerfully debate with themselves. The point here is not to accuse the Southern Baptist denomination of being sinful. The point is that no matter how sagacious the advise, it is error to teach as doctrine the commandments of men, and it is an error that will lead to actual sin and heresy.

Hopefully by learning from such examples as these, we can avoid the error that Eve did not. Hopefully we can avoid becoming like the Pharisees. And don't think that it can't happen to you. Read my article entitled Mind The Little Things for more on this subject. Then evaluate your own beliefs, check them against scripture, and make certain that you haven't created the uppermost edge of your own slippery slope.

Matthew 15: 1 - 11
1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
5 But ye say, Whosoever shall say to [his] father or [his] mother, [It is] a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;
6 And honour not his father or his mother, [he shall be free]. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
7 [Ye] hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,
8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with [their] lips; but their heart is far from me.
9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching [for] doctrines the commandments of men
10 And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:
11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.

Mark 7: 1 - 23
1 Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.
2 And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault.
3 For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash [their] hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.
4 And [when they come] from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, [as] the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables.
5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?
6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with [their] lips, but their heart is far from me.
7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching [for] doctrines the commandments of men.

8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, [as] the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.
9 And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.
10 For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death:
11 But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, [It is] Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; [he shall be free].
12 And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;
13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.
14 And when he had called all the people [unto him], he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one [of you], and understand:
15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. 16 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.
17 And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.
18 And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, [it] cannot defile him;
19 Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?
20 And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man.
21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:
23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

Isaiah 29: 13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:

James 3: 2 - 13
2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
3 Behold, we put bits in the horses' mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
4 Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:
8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
13 Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.

Leviticus 10: 8, 9
8 And the LORD spake unto Aaron, saying,
9 Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations:

Judges 13: 3, 4
3 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto the woman, and said unto her, Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son.
4 Now therefore beware, I pray thee, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing:

Deuteronomy 14: 23 - 27
23 And thou shalt eat before the LORD thy God, in the place which he shall choose to place his name there, the tithe of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the firstlings of thy herds and of thy flocks; that thou mayest learn to fear the LORD thy God always.
24 And if the way be too long for thee, so that thou art not able to carry it; or if the place be too far from thee, which the LORD thy God shall choose to set his name there, when the LORD thy God hath blessed thee:
25 Then shalt thou turn it into money, and bind up the money in thine hand, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose:
26 And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household,
27 And the Levite that is within thy gates; thou shalt not forsake him; for he hath no part nor inheritance with thee.

Numbers 28: 7 And the drink offering thereof shall be the fourth part of an hin for the one lamb: in the holy place shalt thou cause the strong wine to be poured unto the LORD for a drink offering.

John 2: 1 - 11
1 And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there:
2 And both Jesus was called  and his disciples, to the marriage. 3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.
4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.
5 His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.
6 And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece.
7 Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim.
8 And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it.
9 When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom,
10 And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now.
11 This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

John 19: 23, 24
23 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout.
24 They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.

Acts 1: 26    And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.