Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? – Matthew 15:3
Traditions! Some hate them and some love them, what when we come to the New Testament scriptures and the Church what are we to do with them? Are they good, bad or neutral? The Scripture passage shared above is one of the first bible verses we think right away on the position of our Lord on human religious traditions. It seems on the outset that all traditions are against the commands of God and therefore we have to disregard them. But let us take a closer look this passage and others. The pharisees were coming to Jesus stating that his disciples were breaking their traditions, “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). The pharisees believed they were keeping the passed on traditions of moses and elders in hand washing. But what they missed was the inner reality of why the hand washing was done. God was desiring inward purity and they lost the inner meaning and simply focused on the outward.
The Pharisees Traditions Wrong?
Jesus did not say that all the traditions of the pharisees were wrong, he actually at one point told his disciples to keep the pharisees ways but not to follow the actual example of the pharisees as they did “not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:3). We know that Jesus did put great emphasis on the Word of God, he quoted it against satan (Luke 4:4), quoted it to the pharisees (Matthew 21:13), He spoke it to the crowds (Matthew 11:10). Our Lord actually quoted the Scriptures all throughout his ministry and life, including his death on the cross possibly reciting the entirety of Psalm 22.
Yet it is interesting to note that Jesus went to the The Feast of Dedication (John 10:22–23) which was not a biblical feast but one through tradition of the Jewish people. Jesus though putting great emphasis on the Word of God did not leave us a Bible upon his death. But rather he left a Church, leaders who would perpetuate and share His kingdom. It seems our Lord’s importance was on the Church he was establishing and not a canon of Scripture. Of course the Scriptures are of great importance but the emphasis seemed to be on “living epistles” (2 Corinthians 3:2) who would be walking Bibles sharing the message of God.
Inner Spiritual Reality of Traditions
Traditions do not need to be in opposition to the word of God. Traditions are things that are passed on that give us signifigance and meaning to a spiritual reality. But when the symbol becomes only just that, then we lose the reason for doing the practice and then it becomes a dead tradition and can even oppose the words of God in the end. In many cases the Scripture themselves state traditions early believers kept (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 3:6). The Apostle Paul encouraged believers to: “hold fast to the teachings (traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Matthew Poole a minister in the reformation said,
“The apostle delivered many things to the primitive church only by word of mouth, which have since that time been imparted to succeeding churches, to the observation of which Christians are as much obliged as to the written word.”
Godly Traditions, Memorials for Us
Clearly from the New Testament writings we see godly traditions that were passed on and that the next generation of leaders held to. These traditions are there so we can not forget what God did in the generation past just as the 12 stones were a memorial to Israel (Joshua 4:6-7). But when we forget the reason for the memorial that is when everything becomes lost. For any godly tradition of the Church if we cannot find the inner spiritual reason for it or if it does not originate in the apostolic first generations of the Church it should probably be held lightly or disregarded.
We must never hold such a tradition higher then the Word of God, they are simply symbols and memorials pointing to the spiritual realities the very Scriptures speak of. Perhaps these thoughts will help you next time you hear the word Church tradition.