Whenever the word “tradition” is used in connection with the Bible we usually think of the traditions of men like the Pharisees who criticized Jesus’ disciples for violating the “traditions of the elders” by not washing their hands before eating. Certainly this and other human traditions can nullify the word of God by elevating them above the commandments of God as the Jews were doing. (Matt. 15:1-6). In this instance their human tradition of “devoting” their money to the temple (making it “Corban” – given to God) was in violation of God’s law. God had said, “‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’” (Luke 7:10). So tradition may be a way of refusing to obey God as well as being something that did not come from God which is bound as law and used to judge the faithfulness of others.
The traditions Paul mentioned to the Colossian brethren as being something to avoid were probably traditions of the same kind as those of the Pharisees (Colossians 2:8). The Greeks were fond of philosophy (which he warns against) and the Jews of tradition. Either could be detrimental to the spiritual health of Christians.
There were also traditions handed down by the apostles to believers in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15). But since in neither of these references are we told what those traditions were it would be useless for us to speculate. The word itself simply means “something handed down” from one person or generation to another. The word itself neither indicates whether a thing handed down is good or bad. In studying the Bible we have to rely on the context to determine either its danger or its usefulness.
A tradition can also be purely from men and not Biblically related at all. Not all such traditions are wrong. In fact traditions can be both pleasant and helpful. Families, communities and churches have have their traditions which are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. In fact, there were any number of traditions not mentioned in scripture connected with the Jewish religion at the time of Christ which he obviously approved because he took part in them.
There is an interesting incident recorded in Exodus 18. After the Israelites had been delivered from Egypt, Moses was trying to adjudicate disputes among this great throng of people all by himself. Jethro, his father-in-law watched him doing this from “morning till evening” and afterward took him aside and gave him instructions about how to keep from wearing himself and the people out because of the great number of cases he had to deal with. He told him to select judges according to the number of people and let them judge the small matters and bring the more difficult matters to him. Moses was to teach the judges the law and represent the people to God, but the judges were to take the bulk of the load off of him. This organized system of judges became the foundation of the Jewish court system. Jethro, or Reuel as he is also known, wasn’t even an Israelite. He was a Midianite – a priest in fact. He claimed no part in Israel and neither did he claim inspiration, yet he commanded Moses… “Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you!” (Exodus 18:19).
Was this system a human innovation? Obviously. Was it wrong? There is not one word of criticism or condemnation of it. Was it presumption on Jethro’s part to speak in this manner or audacious to suggest such a thing? Of course not. He just used the good sense the Good Lord gave him, something Moses obviously hadn’t thought to do. He offered a practical solution to a very real problem – a solution that obviously worked very well. Did this continue to be handed down? In all likelihood it did in some form. The Jews continued to have a system of judges.
There are other things that fall into the category of tradition that even Jesus observed and obviously approved even though there is nothing said in the Old Testament about either of these traditional festivals.
“Hanukkah, beginning on 25 Kislev (usually in December), commemorates the triumph of the Jews, under the Maccabees, over the Greek rulers (164 BCE) – both the physical victory of the small Jewish nation against mighty Greece and the spiritual victory of the Jewish faith against the Hellenism of the Greeks. Its sanctity derives from this spiritual aspect of the victory, and the miracle of the flask of oil, when a portion of sacramental olive oil meant to keep the Temple candelabrum lit for one day lasted for eight days, the time it took for the Temple to be rededicated.
Purim, another rabbinical festival in early spring, occurs on 14 Adar (15 Adar in walled cities), commemorating the deliverance of beleaguered Jewry in the Persian Empire under Artaxerxes, as recounted in the Scroll of Esther. This festival compensates for the solemnity of many other Jewish observances by mandating merriment. Purim
Did Jesus celebrate Purim? It is uncertain, but in John 5 he was in Jerusalem at the time of an unnamed festival which did occur on a Sabbath. Some authorities believe it was Purim because it was the only feast other than Passover that did occur on a Sabbath during the time of Jesus’ ministry.
There is another tradition Jesus made use of that still affects us today. When he and his disciples were observing the Passover on that night before his betrayal, Jesus… “took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25).
Did you realize this is the only time in all the Bible that a cup in connection with the Passover is mentioned? There is nothing in the Old Testament either commanding or forbidding it. The Bible was silent about it until the moment Jesus picked that cup up and instituted the Lord’s Supper with it! Yet it had, and still for the Jews and for us, has a deep and significant meaning.
Here is a quote from a website, Jews for Jesus, obviously by Messianic Jews.
“The Passover cup is one of the central symbols of this holiday known as the Feast of Redemption. Yet the original Passover story makes no mention whatsoever of a cup. In fact, the only biblical mention of a cup in connection with Passover is in the New Testament. When Jesus celebrated this feast with His disciples He raised a cup at least twice during the meal to make important statements about Himself (Luke 22:17,20).
Actually, there were four “cups” or four fillings of the one cup, each with a distinct meaning. Again from the same source …
“Each time the cup is filled, it has a different name. Opinions vary as to what certain cups actually symbolize. Most agree that the first cup is the Kiddush, which means sanctification. With this cup, we begin the Passover seder (meal, mr). The second cup is called the cup of plagues. The third cup is referred to as either the cup of redemption or the cup of blessing. The fourth cup is often called hallel which means praise, though some traditions call it the cup of acceptance while still others use it as the cup of Elijah. The latter combine the second cup (plagues) with hallel—because we praise God for the plagues He used to bring us out of Egypt.”
Now, if it were acceptable for Jesus to use something that was of traditional origin to do something so significant as to make this “cup of redemption” signify his redeeming blood in the Lord’s Supper, then surely this tradition was not condemned in the sight of God.
Another of the traditional innovations of the Jews in which Jesus is often found was the synagogue. It really is historically unclear where or when they originated, but since there is no mention of them before the New Testament it seems likely they originated sometime near or soon after the record of the Old Testament ended.
“The oldest dated evidence of a synagogue is from the 3rd century B.C., but synagogues doubtless have an older history. Some scholars feel that the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 bc gave rise to synagogues after private homes were temporarily used for public worship and religious instructions.
“Other scholars trace the origin of synagogues to the Jewish custom of having representatives of communities outside Jerusalem pray together during the two-week period when priestly representatives of their community attended ritual sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem.” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Jesus often was found teaching in the synagogues of the Jews (Luke 4:15). He chose to announce his ministry in Galilee by reading from the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2, (Luke 4:16). (This mention of a synagogue is the earliest found in the whole of the Bible).
Now, what is the point of what all this rehearsal of traditions of the Old Testament and those in which Jesus participated? It should be obvious to us that just because a thing originated with men does not make that thing wrong, “unauthorized” or “unscriptural” – not even things done in religious observances. If there was leeway given for these good and useful practices in Jesus’ day, why would we be condemned for practicing good and useful traditions today?
Wouldn’t it be much more honest to just recognize that many of the things we do are traditional in origin rather than scouring the scriptures for obscure references which we then wrest out of context and work into a “necessarily inferred” system of “work and worship” which we assume makes the things we do “authorized” in the sight of God? There is no way on the topside of God’s green earth that we can get the “five items of scriptural worship” as we term them into a single assembly aside from lots of creative inferring.
What would be wrong with just saying the combining of things – teaching, praying, singing, sharing (fellowship) and the Lord’s Supper – is a traditional form we have devised and handed down from one generation to another rather than saying that this is the only divinely approved way to worship and then binding this form on others or condemning them for not recognizing it as we do? The doing of all these things is right and good, but when we make laws and bind them on others or assume we are right with God because we do all these things in what we assume is just the right manner, and others who do not do them just like we do are wrong and will be lost because of that, we are very, very wrong.