The Traditions of Men vs the Move of God
God has an eternal purpose. This purpose far transcends what man can see, hear, or imagine in his heart. It comes to us solely by revelation (1 Cor. 2:9-10). Without the revelation of the Spirit, we are limited to human tradition. Traditions of men frustrate the move of God.
At the beginning of the New Testament age of grace, God sent John the Baptist to pave the way for Jesus Christ. He behaved in a way that was contrary to the tradition of the time. Although John had the lineage of a priest, he did not “hang out” with the rest of the Jewish priesthood. All the “good” priests were from a central place, Jerusalem. They wore priestly garments and ate holy food, being careful to not break the traditions. Yet John, by the initiation of the Spirit, was outside of the “headquarters” of the priests, wearing the very un-priestly garb of camel’s hair, and eating the “unholy” food of locusts and wild honey. Why? God was starting something new, and He had to break through man’s tradition. John’s mission was to baptize people. His job was to terminate people, ending not only their sins, but their old religion, traditions and concepts, to ready them for Jesus Christ.
Jesus: the Rule Breaker
When Jesus came out to minister, He also did not fit the concepts of the tradition of the age. Even the scripturally minded ones were stumbled with the “fact” that Jesus was from Nazareth of Galilee, from which they thought nothing good could come (if they had dug a little deeper into the facts, they would have found out that He was indeed born in Bethlehem of the lineage of David!). Often Jesus found Himself in the center of controversy by not doing things according to the traditions of the religionists. He healed on the Sabbath, ate grain on the Sabbath, and ate with unwashed hands. When these religious experts pointed out Jesus’ “errors,” the Lord immediately shone light on their great lack: “And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt. 15:6). God indeed was moving in a new way in the God-man Jesus Christ.
Acts and the Power of the Spirit
After Jesus died and resurrected, He became the life giving Spirit that was breathed into the disciples. Thus the life of Christ became the life of the church. The first few chapters of Acts show the prevailing move of the Spirit. The church was so filled with the Spirit and led by the Spirit that they testified boldly of the resurrected Christ, producing a vital and new church life. There were no traditions, no “owners manual” for the new church. Rather, they had a daily church life, in the temple and from house to house, relying solely on the fresh revelation of the Spirit through the apostles, prophets, and teachers.
James and his Traditions
It is interesting to consider why James had the power and position that he had in this early church life (e.g. Acts 21:18). Was he one of the twelve apostles chosen by the Lord? No, he was not. James was apparently the brother in the flesh of Jesus. In other words, the virgin Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit and gave birth to Jesus. Jesus was thus human and divine, fully man and fully God. God was His father. But Mary had other children after Jesus, through her husband Joseph. James was the child of Mary and Joseph. The scripture reveals that James initially did not believe that Jesus was the Christ (John 7:5). Apparently the Lord had to have a special meeting with James after His resurrection to impart faith into him (1 Cor 15:7). Was James commissioned as an apostle then? We don’t have any sign of this. James never called himself an apostle. Since James was very close to Jesus, having the same mother, he should have looked like Jesus. Being with Jesus for many years, more years than any other brother, he may have acted like Jesus, prayed like Jesus, and used the same phrases as Jesus. It doesn’t surprise me that such a one, so close to a spiritual man, would come to have a position of authority. In the realm of man’s tradition, it seemed he was the right man for the job. Perhaps James had the view, which was not the Lord’s intention, of setting up a kind of church headquarters in Jerusalem to control the theology of all the churches.
James took the prominent role in leading the church in Jerusalem into the realm of the law (Acts 21:20). Thus he was deviating from the God-ordained way of living according to the fresh revelation of the Spirit and was degrading into the dead traditions of the past. Even today, if you read the letter of James, it gives the impression that James had one foot in the Old Covenant realm of law and one foot in the New Covenant of grace. This confused mixture was a great frustration to the move of God. But the triune God had something else in mind.
The Non-Conformists in Antioch
The early church had the strong concept not to preach the gospel to anyone but Jews (Acts 11:19). This may have come out of the strong Jewish leadership from Jerusalem under James. While Jesus had said repeatedly that the gospel was for all, the apostles seemed stuck in their religious notion. Yet, for some reason, a few brothers departed from this tradition: “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and spoke to the Greeks, announcing the Lord Jesus as the gospel.” (Act 11:20). Why? Were they rebellious of authority? It doesn’t seem so. Were they just ignorant of the “proper” church life, intent in causing division from the “one accord”? I doubt it. From the fresh leading of the Spirit, these few preached the gospel to Gentiles in Antioch, and they got saved. A vibrant church was raised up. The world would never be the same.
The new church in Antioch became the place for the Lord’s move throughout Europe and was responsible for raising up the most influential apostle the church had ever seen—Paul. Without the willingness to depart from the religious traditions and seek only the Lord, who knows what would have happened. Without Antioch and Paul being raised up, Paul’s epistles would not have been written, and the gospel would not have spread so quickly throughout the world. Praise the Lord for a church willing to follow the Spirit instead of the traditions of men!
Our Charge Today
All Christians today should be in a practical church life with the church in their locality. What should we be doing? It is not simply a matter of doing what everyone else is doing for the sake of a man-made “oneness.” Oneness can never be produced by conformity. Oneness is the very nature of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3). Only when a local church is willing to follow the leading of the Spirit can the churches truly be one. Our charge, as Jesus put it in John 17, is to be in Him, and to have Him in us (John 17:22-23). We must all abide in the very person of the Triune God, seeking Him alone and His interests. On one hand, such a single hearted devotion to Christ will produce a deep spiritual oneness among all the churches. On the other hand, this seeking of Him will produce a great diversity of operations as the Triune God carries out His specific will in and through our locality. Perhaps the Lord will lead your church into the depths of the word of God, setting up a school to teach. Perhaps another church may be led to serve in very practical matters. Yet another may be led to send out missionaries to raise up another church. There are no traditions of men, only the leadership of the head, Christ. There are no headquarters or central ministry work that we must seek approval from, only the throne of God and the revealed teaching of the apostles, which is the New Testament.
We should always be aware, while seeking the individual leading of the Lord, that it is the Body of Christ, not just our locality or work, that we are building up. Thus the “right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9) should always be sought with other churches. Our goal is to impart the life and revelation which the Lord has graciously given to a particular local church or group of co-workers in the Lord to other churches. This spiritual “blood flow” will enrich all the churches as we broadcast what the Lord is doing to all the churches for their encouragement, consolation and building up. (eg Acts 21:19)
May we not be like James, seeking to keep everyone “in line.” Rather, may we aspire to be like the church in Antioch, seeking the Lord Himself. May we all look forward to hearing the good word from all the diverse operations of God in His churches!
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.