WHEN TRADITION HURTS FAITH

traditions

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GALATIANS #11 . Chapter #4:8-11

8 But in the past, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things3 that by nature are not gods. 9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? 10 You observe special days, months, seasons, and years. 11 I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted.

The Galatians probably worshipped the Roman/Greek pagan gods, and this is mostly likely what Paul is referring to when he refers to their past. But this makes it an interesting statement. The Galatians are not trying to go back and worship pagan gods – they are trying to follow Jewish Laws and earn something from the true God. But Paul says, this would be just the same as going back to the pagan gods. He says “How can you go back again to these bankrupt elemental principles?” Elemental principles is that word “stoikeon,” which we talked about last time. It is the idea that one thing necessarily follows another; the idea that you earn what you get, and you get what you deserve. Although many things in the universe do generally operate this way, Paul explained last time that this is not how God operates spiritually with those who are in Jesus Christ. Last time we saw that what God says to us is this: “Stoikeon doesn’t work for you, because you aren’t able to do anything of real value to me. So instead, we’ll let Jesus do all the work, and through Him, I’ll adopt you as my dearly beloved children. Let’s have no more of this ‘you do something for me, and in return I’ll do something for you.’ Instead, through Jesus, I’ll treat you as my kids, and you treat me as your daddy.”

Paul says here that going back to that idea of trying to do something for God in order to get him to do something for us, is the same as going back to the old pagan worship that the Galatians used to practice. Even if they are following Jewish Law, they are doing it with the same attitude and relationship with God that is exhibited in their old pagan worship. Pagan worship was all about “stoikeon” or “sequential principles.” If you wanted the help of a god, then you made some sort of sacrifice or vow to the deity you need to please, and you got his or her help in return. Usually in pagan worship, you had to follow the rituals of worship precisely. You had to do and say the right things at the right time in order to get the desired result.

Paul says that when they seek to follow the Jewish law, the Galatians are doing exactly the same kind of thing. They are attempting to do things for God so he will do things for them. Jewish Law emphasizes following certain rituals, and doing things the right way. Paul says, “You observe special days, months, seasons and years.” And he says that the fact that they do this scares him. It makes him think they are losing their faith.

What were the special days and seasons they were observing? The entire letter was written because the Galatians were starting to believe that in addition to believing in Jesus, they had to follow the Jewish law. We need to understand a little bit about Jewish law. The Old Testament, of course, contains many rituals and laws that Jews were supposed to keep. But there is more to it than that. Over the years, Jewish rabbis taught extensively about the Old Testament, and their teachings were passed down orally from one generation to the next. These teachings, or commentaries on the Old Testament, came to be seen as an essential part of Jewish doctrine. Eventually, these commentaries were written down and collected, and today they are called “the Talmud.” So Jewish law came to mean much more than even just the Old Testament. Paul himself, before converting to Christianity, was a rising star in the Talmudic tradition of Hillel.

Though the Talmud was still in development during New Testament times, many of its teachings were already established at that time. So, for instance, the Old Testament commands us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Over the centuries, the Jews grappled with what exactly that means, in practical terms. By the time of Jesus, most Jews accepted to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, there were “sub-rules,” you had to follow, rules found in Talmudic teaching. For instance, you could only take a certain number of steps, or carry certain things.

I suspect that the Galatians were following both Old Testament commands, and also commands and rituals that were part of the Talmudic tradition. They probably followed a strict Talmudic interpretation of the Sabbath, and celebrated the Jewish events like New Moon, the first and seventh month and the Feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the festival of Booths. Paul writes about these things more specifically to the Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col 2:16-17, ESV2011)

Now, it isn’t that these things are bad in and of themselves. Our church, New Joy Fellowship, celebrates the Jewish Feast of Passover every year. But there are two important things to remember, and this is what Paul is getting at:

  1. Such things, in and of themselves do not contribute to our salvation or worth in God’s eyes. Celebrate the Passover, or don’t. Eat Pork, or not – it doesn’t matter, spiritually. You won’t be more holy if you do these things; you won’t be less holy if you do. Following laws and traditions will not get God to love you more, and they won’t manipulate God into blessing you. God doesn’t relate to us according to sequential principles.
  2. Such things are shadows; the substance is Christ. Sometimes they are helpful, but they are only helpful if they point us to the real thing, which is Christ. Tradition is nothing, Christ is everything. Tradition is great if it points us to Christ, it is inherently spiritually dangerous if it does anything other than that.

I heard a great quote last week. A pastor at a conference said, “Tradition is the living faith of dead people, but traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.” Tradition can be good. When we remember how people who have gone before us lived their lives in faith and hope, it encourages hope and faith in us. We can use memories and repeated traditions to remind us of those faithful believers who have gone on to their reward. We can use traditions to keep pointing us toward the substance, which is Jesus Christ. But sometimes our faith becomes tied to the traditions. We start to feel that we must keep certain traditions, and if we don’t, we haven’t done it right. We sort of get the idea not that traditions is there to help encourage us, but rather, that certain traditions are a necessary part of our faith. This is what Paul is so concerned about.

Let me give a few examples of good traditions that can lead us astray when we think they are necessary. One of those is the altar call. That is a tradition in most Baptist churches. Sometimes it is helpful. But if you find yourself thinking that no worship service is truly complete without an altar call, you are in danger. If you think the only proper way to get saved is to come to the front of church during an altar call, you are in grave of becoming traditionalist, of confusing living faith with tradition. Lutherans have a lot of traditions in worship too. Some of them can be helpful at times. But if we get the idea that it isn’t really a worship service unless we say the Lord’s prayer, or stand for the reading of the gospel, we are in danger of confusing living faith with tradition.

Our church typically doesn’t fight over these kinds of things, but there are thousands of churches that do fight over traditions; things that are not necessary to true and living faith in Jesus Christ. The reason it becomes such a big deal is that people start thinking traditions are the same thing as faith. They are not. They are only there to aid it, and when they are not useful, they should not be used. The danger of relying too much on tradition is that some people end up with only tradition, and no real faith that is active and alive.

Picture a battery powered radio, the kind of thing we used to call a “boom box.” Imagine someone brought one of these radios to a remote village in Papua New Guinea where there was no electricity. Picture the villagers amazed and thrilled as they hear the music coming from the radio. Imagine the hours they spend, uplifted and made joyful by the music. Every evening at the same time, after they are done with their hard work, the villagers gather together around the radio to listen to the music. They call it “music time.”

But as time goes on, those batteries will die. Picture a time when the music starts to fade, and then imagine one day, it is gone. Now, what will those villagers do? If they are sensible, they will make their own music and enjoy it, and perhaps hope for a time when someone will bring new batteries to the village, so that the radio may be refreshed. But it is entirely possible that after a long time of gathering together every night to listen to the music, they may retain the habit, even after the batteries die. The radio is no longer bringing them music, but still they gather and look at it. Eventually, the villagers may even forget why they gather each night to look at the radio. It’s just what they do. If asked, many of them will say they do it because of music. As they forget, they have started to think of the evening time gathered around the radio as their “music time,” even though music has long ceased to be a part of it.

That is how some of us are with traditions. Tradition is there to bring us the “music” of faith. But tradition itself is not the same as faith. It can bring the music, but it is not music in itself. Sometimes we continue to follow traditions long after they have ceased to encourage our faith. Sometimes we get mixed up, and we forget that our faith is something greater and more alive than the traditions that once helped us in it. We even sometimes start to think that the traditions are faith, or at least an inseparable part of it.

So, we think we haven’t worshipped if we didn’t say a certain prayer or have an altar call or sing a certain song. We think it is isn’t a real church if it doesn’t have candles, or an altar, or a cross, or if it is in someone’s home, or…[you fill in the blank]. We start to think you have to have a guitar, or you can’t have a guitar and many other silly things.

Now, let me be clear. When tradition brings you closer to Jesus and makes you more open to the Holy Spirit, it is a wonderful and useful thing. There is nothing wrong with embracing those kinds of traditions. We need all the help we can get. But we need to be careful that we do not start to think that traditions are necessary to faith, or that they are the same thing as faith.

This is a normal, human tendency, and this is why Paul was so frightened when he heard about the Galatians mindlessly following the Jewish traditions. They were perverting the true gospel, adding on requirements, as if what Jesus did was not enough. They were confusing things that were designed to help faith, with the substance of faith itself.

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