One of my favorite musicals is ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Tevye, the Jewish father sings a song called ‘Tradition’. He tells of some practices the Papa, Mama and children hold to in their home. I grew up with some fun family traditions and created new ones with my husband and children. Eating homemade breads while reading the Christmas story on Christmas morning and giving pajamas and a unique ornament to everyone on Christmas Eve are just a couple of things our family does together.
So what is the definition of ‘tradition’? Webster says it means the handing down of statements, beliefs, or customs from generation to generation by word of mouth or by practice.
In the Bible, the word tradition occurs only 14 times in the New Testament. Eight references are from Jesus himself, all of which are derogatory of traditions. Not once does he insinuate they are useful or scriptural. Paul has 5 references, two of which are derogatory (Col.2:8; Gal.1:14). Peter also has one reference – also derogatory found in 1 Peter 1:18.
Matthew 15:2-3 is the first time Jesus mentions tradition.
"Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." He answered and said to them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?"
Nowhere does Jesus teach there is a tradition of men and of God. He goes on to give an example of their tradition that went against Scripture. It was the written Scripture that was the authority for any other teaching. In Mark 7:7-9 He was asked about eating bread before washing their hands.
"And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men– the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do." And He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition."
They had a choice but instead defaulted to their own rules that they thought were biblical. There are other instances of tradition in the Bible, but they are all scriptural or do not contend with the scripture teaching itself.
An example of this is found in John 10:22 with the Feast of Dedication (Chanukah). Jesus did not refute this because it was an actual historical event. Yet if the leaders had made it mandatory it would have received a different reaction from Jesus. Every time the Pharisees brought up traditions as equal to the Scripture, Jesus brought them to the Word. This is why he called them the traditions of men because they did not come from God, but by religious men who no longer intended to obey the Word.
In the New Testament Period, Jesus’ whole ministry was a contention with the Pharisee’s traditions. They wanted him to validate and approve what they called the tradition of the elders (Mark 7:1-9; Matthew 15:1-4). Contention grew between Jesus and the religious leaders as they wanted his approval of their traditions to be considered equal with Scripture. Jesus was clear in that he was not going to approve of their traditions saying, "you lay aside the commandment of God and hold higher the tradition of men."
He said to "let the Word of God dwell in you richly." It is the Word of God that is living and active (Heb.4:12) to change one from the inside. Traditions can never be an alternative or of equal value to what God has spoken and written down for all generations to live by.
We do have freedom in Christ to enjoy our personal traditions that make the holidays fun, but they should never replace the ways we are called to live according to God’s Word.
What are some of your family traditions and where did they originate? Share the history behind those traditions with the next generation.