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In-depth look at Tradition in the Church

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Reading: Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23

Context: the tradition mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 is referring to the body of precepts, opinions, instructions, rituals orally (verbally) transmitted and passed down by later Jews (after Moses) in unbroken succession to subsequent generations, both illustrating and expanding the written law, and which were to be obeyed with equal reverence.

The written law was given to Moses by God. These oral laws were written by Jewish leaders. Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees (religious leaders) hypocrites because they would prioritise obedience to the oral law over obedience to the written laws of God making it of no effect.

Jesus challenged them in what they described as a gift (Corban) to God in Matthew 11:5. A Corban represented an offering made to God, withdrawn from its originally intended use, and no longer available for persons, not even for those in need. They said one could avoid honouring their father and mother (providing financial support to them) by offering a Corban. Once something was designated a Corban no one else could benefit from it other than the person who designated it. In doing this they were violating the commandment of God making it ineffective.

Mark 7:9 NKJV

He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.

The clause ‘that you may keep’  indicates that their passed down tradition was more important than God’s commandments. They rejected what is primary “in order to keep” that which is secondary.

The oral laws were religious, focusing on external rituals and practices at the expense of the truth, the commandments of God which focuses on the heart. It is what Isaiah referred to in Isaiah 29:13 and which Jesus referred to in Matthew 15:8.

Isaiah 29:13 AMPC

And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips but remove their hearts and minds far from Me, and their fear and reverence for Me are a commandment of men that is learned by repetition [without any thought as to the meaning],

In response to their question dealing with the religious ritual of washing of hands as a means of purification, Jesus responded to them in verse Matthew 15:10 – 11, starting by saying they need to hear (gain knowledge) and understand (gain wisdom), a term he also used with His disciples as He challenged them in verse 16 to not be without understanding. The amplified translation says, listen and grasp and comprehend – something we also need to constantly do.

He then goes on to explain that it is not what goes into the mouth (that is the external rituals) that defiles or makes a man unclean but what comes out of the mouth because what comes out proceeds from the heart. Meaning our focus should be on keeping  our hearts clean, pure and sensitive towards God as an important priority as this will drive everything that we believe and do.

Matthew 15:10-11,18-20 KJVS

[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. [18] But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. [19] For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: [20] These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.

So in thinking about repeated and passed down traditions our first thought has to be ‘where did that come from?’ Is it in the word of God? Is it derived from the word and honouring God from the heart? Sometimes the thing itself is not wrong but the way it is done does not honour the Godhead. For example, communion is not wrong – Jesus said to do it in remembrance of Him – however communion can be done wrongly without reverence to God. It could apply to worship, prayer, tithing, baptism, tongues, saying grace etc, and this is where the heart, understanding by the word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit has to be at the core of everything we do. If you read the book of 1 Corinthians, this was the issue Paul was addressing – how to do the right things right?

So as we explore the writings of Paul we see that not all traditions are bad. He warns about the uselessness of the traditions of men and encourages us to hold fast to the traditions and instructions that are rooted deeply in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s warning on traditions of men:

Colossians 2:8 NKJV

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.

1 Peter 1:18-19 NKJV

Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.

1 Peter 1:18-19 AMPC

You must know (recognize) that you were redeemed (ransomed) from the useless (fruitless) way of living inherited by tradition from [your] forefathers, not with corruptible things [such as] silver and gold, but [you were purchased] with the precious blood of Christ (the Messiah), like that of a [sacrificial] lamb without blemish or spot.

Paul’s admonition to hold to traditions rooted in Christ (read preceding verse)

2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 NKJV

But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.

1 Corinthians 11:1-2 AMPC

Pattern yourselves after me [follow my example], as I imitate and follow Christ (the Messiah). [2] I appreciate and commend you because you always remember me in everything and keep firm possession of the traditions (the substance of my instructions), just as I have [verbally] passed them on to you.

Conclusion: Christ has to be at the heart of everything you do and you have to obey, prioritise, make the word of God your reason for being and doing everything you do. Obedience to Gods word is the primary thing – everything else is secondary. Christ centred, Christ focused and Christ led traditions (in the word of God) you hold onto rejecting all the traditions of men and of this world. In addition whatever right you do has to be done Gods way, from the heart and directed by His Spirit, always honouring the Godhead.

God’s word is always the best place to start because His word is His will.

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