How should a Christian view tradition?

Tradition is a pattern of thought, action, or behavior that is passed down from generation to generation. Throughout the Bible, God enacted and established traditions that He commanded be taught to and practiced by succeeding generations. However, the Bible also teaches that the people began performing these religious practices without sincerity of heart and sometimes added their own man-made traditions that became unreasonable and burdensome to the people (Matthew 23:4). So tradition was intended by God to be a blessing that helps people know Him better and draw near to Him in meaningful ways, but, as so often happens, humans distorted what God intended for good and used it for evil in unhelpful ways. Thus, a Christian must discern which traditions are biblically based and how their own hearts react to it, being careful neither to do it without sincerity nor out of perceived obligation, but rather practicing traditions out of love for God in ways that nourish their faith.

God commanded His people to practice certain rituals that were to be "kept to the LORD by all the people of Israel throughout their generations" (Exodus 12:42; 16:32; 27:21; 29:42; 30:8, 10; 31:16). God's purpose in establishing these traditions was to be known by the people. He stated that keeping the Sabbath was so "that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you" (Exodus 31:13). When explaining the Feast of Booths, God said its purpose was so "that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 23:43). These rituals were intended to help future generations understand who God is and what He has done by embodying these truths in a physical and experiential way.

Clearly God knows that humans are forgetful and need regular reminders to place our focus on Him. He also designed humans to be a physical people whose senses enhance understanding and memory. Many traditions established in the Old Testament continued through the New Testament times and even through to today. Jesus Himself attended synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16), celebrated Hanukkah (John 10:22), observed the Feast of Booths (John 7:2, 37–38), and practiced Passover complete with a Seder meal (Luke 22:15). Since Jesus kept these traditions and He was sinless (Hebrews 4:15), the act of practicing traditions must not be sinful. Even Paul kept the purification rituals (Acts 21:26) and traveled to Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks (Acts 20:16). Since Paul practiced these traditions after Jesus' death and resurrection, tradition must also not be obsolete. What did change after Jesus' death and resurrection is that Old Testament traditions are no longer an obligation. Jesus has instituted the new covenant, so the old covenant is no longer binding. Salvation is found in Christ alone and not in the traditions which were meant to point to our need for His saving work (Colossians 2:17). Instead, Old Testament traditions, and even many extra-biblical traditions established throughout Christian history, are an opportunity to enrich an ever-growing relationship with God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

While Old Testament traditions were established by God and remain an opportunity to draw near to Him, the human heart can twist good things into meaningless idols. In Isaiah, God said, "this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men" (Isaiah 29:13). The people were still honoring God with their words and practicing religious traditions, but their hearts did not truly know or love the Lord. There was no sincerity in their rituals and they did not love the LORD with all their heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). In Amos 5:21–24 God said, "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Even though God had commanded these feasts, assemblies, and offerings, He took no pleasure in them when His people did not also live out His command for justice and righteousness (Psalm 106:3; 1 Kings 10:9).

Even in Old Testament times, these rituals and traditions did not provide salvation. In some cases, the very thing God commanded became an actual idol. In Numbers, God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole where people could look and be saved if they were bitten by a snake (Numbers 21:8). Jesus even compared Himself to that snake on a pole in John 3:14. But the people eventually turned from trusting in and worshipping God, to worshipping that bronze serpent. Hezekiah "broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan)" (2 Kings 18:4). The human heart can turn commanded tradition and religious symbols into inappropriate hypocritical worship and flat out idolatry.

Thus, Christians should assess their own hearts when it comes to deciding which traditions—whether from the Old Testament or an extra-biblical tradition—they will choose to practice. God designed humans to need regular reminders of His presence and to more fully understand Him by embodying spiritual truths through physical experiences. Simple things like attending church on Sundays, praying over meals before eating, and singing certain hymns on Easter Sunday are all traditions that many people find helpful in drawing their hearts closer to God and reminding them of what He has done. However, traditions and rituals have no power to provide salvation (Galatians 2:16) so there is no obligation to practice any specific tradition in any particular way. Every Christian has the freedom to explore and practice traditions that draw them closer to the Lord and help them express genuine worship from their own hearts. "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" (Colossians 2:16). "'All things are lawful,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful,' but not all things build up… So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:23, 31).

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