The New Testament contains many references to the “Traditions of the Elders.“ These are very extensive and detailed rules that were added to the Law of Moses by the Jewish leaders. The Sabbath Law, for example, was very simple; no work. But the Jews developed an elaborate and detailed definition of work, consisting of 1521 elements.
The purpose of these traditions was to serve as a wall of protection around the Law of God. The Jews correctly understood that they continually fail to keep God’s Law. Therefore, they made the rules stricter to force themselves to obey.
Christ condemned the “traditions of the elders.” He described them as worthless “precepts of men” (Mark 7:1-13) that conflict with “the commandment of God” (Matt. 15:3, 6):
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me, but in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men‘” (Mat. 15:7-9).
CAUSES MAN TO TRUST HIMSELF
Christ’s point is extremely important. The traditions were intended to prevent sin but eventually served to separate man from God. The traditions put the focus on outward behavior and ignore what goes on in the heart. This has a number of consequences. It:
Shifts the focus away from God to self. The focus on self destroys love, leading people to become critical judges of one another. Religious leaders would go further and compel their brethren by force to comply with the traditions. Any person that seeks to compel another by force thereby proves that he or she does not have the spirit of Christ, which is the power of love.
Leads people to erroneously believe that they must earn redemption by their own works and to trust in themselves, in contrast to the “faith” which Paul advocated, which is trust in God. Because of these traditions, the Jews were able to make a list of things that they must do and things they must avoid, and at the end of the day, they could say, like the Pharisee, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men” (Luke 18:11-14).
These burdensome requirements reflected the character of selfish and arbitrary men, rather than the character of the loving heavenly Father, and therefore represented God as a tyrant.
1:13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 1:14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.
When people correctly understand that they continually fail to keep the Law of God, but erroneously believe that they must earn redemption by their own works, they will always invent a multitude of additional laws to force themselves to obey God’s law. However, these added rules inevitably only govern outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart. This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self. It destroys love for God, and with that is destroyed love for fellow men, leading people to judge each other harshly on the basis of the laws which they themselves added.
TRADITIONS OF THE ELDERS
This also happened in Judaism. One of the oldest requirements in the Mishnah is to build a fence around the Law of Moses. This means that the Jews had to develop rules and regulations as a wall of protection against sin (noncompliance with the Law of God). Over their long history, they added thousands of rules, which collectively became known as the “traditions of the elders”. For instance, the Law requires one not to use the name of God in vain, but the traditions stipulate that one should not use the name of God at all, but rather use the term “the name” instead.
By the time of the New Testament, these traditions were regarded as very important, for instance:
“…the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders … and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.“ (Mark 7:3-4)
The Pharisees asked Christ: “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2; cf. Mark 7:5).
As quoted above, Paul described himself, before his conversion, as:
“advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:14).
CHRIST AND THE TRADITIONS
Christ condemned the “traditions of the elders” (Mark 7:3) as worthless “precepts of men” (Mark 7:1-13) that conflicted with “the commandment of God”. To the Jews He said:
“Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? … by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:3, 6)
“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me, but in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Mat. 15:7-9)
“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. … thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down.” (Mark 7:7-9, 13)
SEPARATE MAN FROM GOD
Christ’s point is extremely important. The traditions were intended to prevent sin (to prevent breaking the Law of Moses) “but their heart is far away from me.” The traditions eventually served to separate man from God. There are a number of reasons for this:
Firstly, as is explained above, these added rules inevitably only govern outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart. This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self. This destroys love. Outwardly they complied with the law, but “their heart is far away from me” (Matt. 15:7-9). They could make a list of things that they must do and things they must avoid, and at the end of the day, they could say, like the Pharisee, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers … I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all things–as many as I possess”, but this Pharisee was not “declared righteous” (Luke 18:11-14).
Secondly, as evidenced by the prayer of this Pharisee, a consequence of the traditions was that the Jews judged each other harshly. As soon as Adam and Eve sinned, they began to accuse each other. Unless man is controlled by the grace of Christ, this is what human nature inevitably does. Since the Father “has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22), the person that tries to judge the motives of others is trying to do something which only the Son of God should do.
Thirdly, people that are controlled by an accusing spirit are not satisfied with pointing out what they think is a defect in their brother. They would go further and compel their brother by force to comply with their ideas of what is right. This is what the Jews did in the days of Christ. Christ never compelled people; He draws people to Him with His love for them. A person that seeks to compel people by force thereby proves that he or she does not have the spirit of Christ, which is the power of love.
TRUST IN YOURSELF
Fourthly, the Jews developed the traditions because they believed that one must earn your salvation by your own effort. This means that you put your hope and trust in yourself. In contrast, Paul argued that man is justified by “faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16). This is faith and trust in God. This type of “faith” knows that we are unable to meet God’s infinite standards, and throws itself at His feet, trusting His mercy, like the tax collector in Christ’s story, who “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13). “This man went to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).
Some say you will neglect the law if you go with the love stuff, but the truth is that you neglect the law by making it detailed and exacting.
Amos (c. 750 BC), writing before the Babylonian exile, reported how Jews yearned for the end of the Sabbath so that they can continue to buy and sell. They stood at the gate of the city, waiting for the sun to set, saying:
“When will the new moon be over, So that we may sell grain, And the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, And to cheat with dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5).
1521 SABBATH RULES
God used the Sabbath as a test of Israel’s obedience. After their return from exile, the Jews realized that they were exiled to Babylon because of their lack of faith, as reflected by their unfaithful Sabbath observance (Jer. 17:21-27; Neh. 13:17-18). The Sabbath requirements were very simple; no work. But to ensure that they do not work on the Sabbath, the Jews, over centuries, developed a very elaborate and detailed definition of work. Thirty-nine main categories of work consisting of 1521 different laws on Sabbath observance were developed (E. Lohse fn. 5, p. 12; cf. Mishnah, Shabbath 7, 2; Moore, II, p. 28). These Sabbath laws were so voluminous and complex that only “experts in the law” knew them all. The Talmud, which is available on the internet, makes for interesting reading. As a tiny example, with respect to knots, it stipulates (simplified):
Tying or untying camel-drivers’ knots and sailors’ knots are not allowed. Any knot which one can untie with one hand is allowed. A woman may tie up the opening of her blouse, the ribbons of her hair-net and of her girdle, the laces of her shoes or sandals, jugs of wine and oil, and the meat pot. One may tie [a rope] in front of an animal, that it should not go out. A bucket [over a well] may be tied with a fascia, but not with a cord.
As another example, a man may spit on the ground, but he was not allowed to cover the spit with the ground, because that would be plowing. One was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.
PERVERTED THE SABBATH
Since the Bible does not define work, one author described these extensive Sabbath traditions as a mountain (of laws) hanging on a hair (the prescripts of Scriptures).
The purpose was to ensure the faithful observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, which was intended to be a day of rest and liberation. But the traditions perverted the Sabbath into a day of strictly prescribed idleness; a long list of things one is not allowed to do. The many and minute, absurd, vexing and senseless restrictions, combined with the merciless finger-pointing by the Pharisees, transformed the day of rest into an unbearable burden; a cruel master under which men were groaning. The Sabbath was exalted above human needs. It no longer was a delight or a day to enjoy, but a burden. Resting became hard work. The scribes and Pharisees made it an intolerable burden to which the people were made slaves:
… they (the scribes and the Pharisees) bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. (Mat 23:4)
PRESENTS GOD AS A TYRANT
These burdensome requirements reflected the character of selfish and arbitrary men, rather than the character of the loving heavenly Father. The traditions represented God as giving laws that were impossible for men to obey. They led the people to look upon God as a tyrant. They gave the impression that the observance of the Sabbath, as He required it, made men hard-hearted and cruel. The sin with the most unfortunate results is the cold, critical, unforgiving spirit that characterizes the Pharisees. When religion is devoid of love, the sunshine of Jesus’ presence is not there. Zeal for God’s kingdom and hard work cannot compensate for such a critical spirit.
TRADITIONS IN EARLY CHURCH
Since the church at first consisted only of Jews and existed as a sect of Judaism, these traditions spilled over into the early church. In the letter to Titus, Paul instructed him to “not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men” (1:14). It is necessary to read the statements in the New Testament, with respect to the law and the Sabbath, against this background.