Chapter 6: Christian Tradition: General Ordinances and Observations

There are some biblical studies which are particularly for the Christian mind, others for the defense of Christian testimony, and still others for the confirmation of Christian conviction. For example, the studies on the Church and on church administration might be considered for the instruction of the mind; the study on Christianity versus Christendom, for defense; and now, this study on Traditions and Ordinances, for confirmation.

Two questions very relevant to our times present a challenge to every sincere Bible student. First, is Christian tradition of value today? Second, are there any scriptural ordinances imposed upon the Church of God today?


The inexperienced student who would list all the references in the New Testament to the word tradition in the hope of thereby gaining a knowledge of the subject, might readily be confused. He would discover that the 13 references indicate that it was used approvingly by the Pharisees but disapprovingly by the Lord Jesus; that it was used deprecatingly by Paul, but then again, with deep regard by Paul. The references in Mark 7:3-13 and II Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6, appear to be in direct conflict.

A word study of tradition offers an excellent example of the Law of Context; a word must be interpreted according to the context in which it is found; its usage must be determined before its meaning is fully understood.

Since, generally speaking, Christ disapproved of tradition and Paul commanded to keep it, we conclude that although they were using the same word, they were speaking about two different concepts. This is true; Christ spoke against Jewish tradition and Paul spoke in favour of Christian tradition.

Jewish tradition: There are two parts to Jewish tradition; one, the oral law, and the other certain written rules and regulations by the learned Rabbins.

The oral law: The oral law was supposedly received by Moses from the Lord on Mount Sinai, but was not written down by him. It was rather, so it is supposed, committed orally by Moses to Joshua, and by Joshua in turn to the seventy elders. These eventually handed it down to the Rabbins, and they then committed it to writing.

This so-called oral law is called in Holy Scripture, “Tradition from your fathers;” i.e. the fathers of the nation of Israel (I Peter 1:18). Among the Jewish people of today, this oral law is known as Halacha.

Jewish people are taught that they received from God through Moses three binding, mandatory sections of law: on tables of stone, the moral law; on inspired manuscripts, the ceremonial law; and orally the Halacha. The Halacha diverted attention from the true divine law, and occupied the people with trivialities such as the washing before eating.

There is still another source of Jewish tradition, the Hagada. This contains the comments, discussions, and decisions of learned Rabbis upon the written and unwritten law of Moses. These demands and impositions were not as binding upon the people as the former, but nevertheless obedience was expected. The Jewish Talmud actually is a collection of these oral and written traditions.

It was to these traditions that Paul made reference when writing to the churches of Galatia: “I persecuted the Church of God and wasted it: and profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:13-14).

The Apostle Peter assured his Hellenistic readers that they were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold, from their vain conversation received by tradition from their fathers (I Peter 1:18). What liberty this brings for all Jews who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Messiah! There are many Christians throughout Christendom who are affiliated with groups who practise a Judaized Christianity. Oh, that they knew that Christ had redeemed them from the bondage of Jewish tradition!

It is worthy of note that as Jewish people believe that by tradition they have preserved the unwritten words of Moses, so the Church of Rome claims in her traditions to have preserved the unrecorded words and works of Jesus. These may be read in the so-called Apocrypha Gospels. In these, so Rome claims, are kept teachings of both Jesus and His apostles that are not found in the New Testament. These, she also insists, are as binding as any of those that are found in the New Testament. This truly is Judaized Christianity, and from such we have been redeemed.

Christian Tradition

Yes, we all concede, we are redeemed from Jewish tradition and understand why the Lord denounced it, but what about Christian tradition? In writing to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances (literally, traditions) as I delivered them to you” (I Cor. 11:2). Again, in writing to the Thessalonians, he says, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught” (II Thess. 2:15). Later, to the same saints, he wrote, “Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the traditions which he received from us” (II Thess. 3:6). Obviously, Paul in these passages is not referring to Jewish traditions; to what then is he referring?

In these three passages, it should be noticed that Paul speaks of traditions in the past tense: “The traditions as I delivered them.” “The traditions which ye have been taught.” “The traditions which ye received from us.” These traditions had been received by the saints at Corinth and Thessalonica before ever they had received Paul’s letters.

From this consideration, it is evident that much oral instruction was given to the saints before they had the written epistles. From the contexts in which Paul uses the word tradition, it might be assumed that the traditions he had delivered to them were actually codes of Christian ethics.

The Greek word for tradition (paradosis) is an old word for what is handed over; it therefore implies instructions given orally.

Written Instructions: The Word of God when written, and the New Testament finally completed, superseded all oral instruction, all apostolic tradition. We read of the Written Word, “All Scripture (Sacred Writing) is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16-17).

A paraphrasing of this forceful assertion relative to the written instructions of the Word of God might make its meaning even clearer: all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and not only makes wise unto salvation (V. 15), but also is profitable, is useful, with a view to teaching the scholar, reproving the wayward, correcting the ignorant, and training the child, disciplining him in the ways of righteousness, that the man of God may be perfectly furnished or equipped for every good work. Here we have the character of the Written Word: Scrip- ture (Sacred Writing); its source: it came into being by the inspiration, out-breathing, of God; its purpose: to teach, to reprove, to correct, and to train; its objective: to fully furnish the Christian for every good work.

Because she has the Written Word of God, the Church no longer needs tradition. Today, speaking actually, there is no Christian tradition. The Word of God, the New Testament Canon, is our guide, our final and only court of appeal.

Corrupt Christendom rests much upon tradition. The second council of Nicene in A.D. 787 pronounced an anathema on any who should dare to reject the tradition of the Church, and the Council of Trent in A.D. 1549 declared that the interpretation of Scripture had to be regulated by tradition.

The great conflict of the Reformation arose basically from the rejection of tradition, and from the elevation of the Written Word of God to its proper place and dignity as the sole authority for Christian life and faith.

About 175 years ago another great divergence influenced God’s people in all sections of Christendom. This was occasioned by the elevation of the Word of God to being the sole authority of Church order and practice. May God enable us to reject that which is only tradition, and to cling tenaciously to the Inspired Word of the Lord.

Our forefathers of the Protestant Reformation suffered and died that God’s Word, the only standard of Christian life and testimony, might be made available to the world.


The word ordinance occurs some 54 times in the Bible; 45 of these are found in the Old Testament and 9 in the New Testament. There are three different Hebrew words translated into English by the one English word, ordinance. Three times it is used to indicate the arrangements in creation, the laws of nature (Job 38:33. Jer. 31:35; 33:25); and once in regard to decrees of justice (Isa. 58:2). The other four times it is used in regard to the Mosaic Law, both moral and ceremonial. It is very relevant to our subject that we notice this particular use of the word ordinance.

In the English New Testament this word occurs just nine times. It is the translation of four different although related Greek words. Six times it is used in connection with the Mosaic Law (Luke 1:6. Heb. 9:1; 9:10. Eph. 2:15. Col. 2:14; 2:20), twice of secular powers (Rom. 13:2. I Peter 2:13), and once it appears in a passage where it means tradition (I Cor. 11:2). These usages are important because they indicate that although we speak of the two ordinances of the Church, baptism and the Lord’s supper, these are not so designated in the Word of God.

Good men have used these terms in relation to them, probably because they viewed the words of the Master in the Upper Room as a decree or command, and because they accept, similarly, His words on the mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20). Both of these demand devout obedience for the Lord spoke of them in an imperative manner.

Because of certain extreme views in regard to the Christian symbols, baptism and the Lord’s supper, it is necessary that we examine Colossians 2:14-15, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”

The “handwriting” in verse 14 is, so to speak, a bond written in ordinances, decrees belonging to the Mosaic Law. These were not only written in stone but upon the consciences of all men. Paul here was writing to Gentiles and reminds them of the demands of holiness in conduct and righteousness in action required by God. The Mosaic Law is also the code of the law written upon the fleshly tables of the heart.

These ordinances were opposed to man’s acceptance by God; they were opposed to God’s grace until Christ removed them out of the way that leads to God. On the cross Christ bore the penalty of man’s sin against all divine decrees, whether written on stone or in the conscience, and by so doing He cancelled the bond.

It will be seen that the cross abrogated for the believer the ordinances of the Mosaic Law and the decrees of conscience; it does not as some claim dispense with the so-called ordinances of the Church, baptism and the Lord’s supper. Biblical research requires honesty. We must not interject our preconceived notions into a text, and pervert its meaning to suit our purpose.

This, the dispensation of the Church, is not as much the era of compelling decrees as it is of impelling de- votion. It is not the dispensation of implicit commands as it is of inward consecration. The Church era is not so much one of ordinances as it is of observances.

Christian Observances

God at times makes choice of a word that is quite common and sanctifies it, giving it a special divine and Christian significance. There are a number of such words in the New Testament; the word “Church” being a striking example. He similarly has elevated and made sacred certain pre-Christian customs which in their new setting have a different meaning and force.

Before we discuss the two symbolic ceremonies of the Christian Church, baptism and the Lord’s supper, let us review what we know about pre-Christian baptism and the pre-Christian memorial feast.

Pre-Christian baptism: “All the words occurring in the New Testament which express the noun baptism or the verb to baptize have their foundation in the Hebrew words ‘tebilah’ or ‘tabal’ and can only mean ‘to take a bath by immersion’ or ‘to immerse …’ The simple verb ‘baptein’ means to dip in or under, to plunge” (Johannes Warns).

The English word baptism is the anglicized form of the Greek baptismo. To dip or plunge a person into or under water was an accepted ritualism long before the Christian Church was brought into being on the day of Pentecost.

A Levitical ritual: The writer of the Hebrew Epistle exhorts his Jewish readers to lay aside certain matters and to press on to perfection in Christ. Among those to be laid aside is the doctrine of baptism (Heb. 6:2). While some reputed scholars consider this to be a reference only to the many washings of hands, feet, articles, etc. prescribed under the Levitical Law, there are others, equally devoted and careful, who consider it a reference to the consecration of Aaron and his sons, as this is recorded in Leviticus 8. Aaron and his sons were dipped, plunged, bathed, in a ceremonial act that initiated them into the priesthood. This act was not repeated, it was a once for all initiatory step, a public ritual in order that as consecrated priests they enter upon their public ministry.

A Jewish ritual: Pre-Christian baptism of proselytes was long practised by the Jews. A heathen on embracing Judaism was accepted after some instruction by being circumsized, baptized, and having a blood sacrifice offered for him. There is a section in the Talmud which reads: “Your fathers were not received into the covenant except through circumcision, the baptismal bath, and sprinkling of blood.”

The baptism of John: The mode of baptism used by John was not new; the striking feature about it was the fact that Jews were submitting to baptism. This to them seemed to imply that they were as unclean as the heathen, and therefore unfit for the coming of the Messiah. Their submission to baptism at the hand of John was a confession that they were in need of repentance and humiliation.

From these facts it will be seen that the disciples of our Lord were fully conversant with the proper mode of baptism. Later they learned how God had elevated this initiatory ritual, how He had made it really sacred, giving to it a new and spiritual meaning; making the customary ritual a symbol of a spiritual reality. The disciples probably did not understand all this but they knew that the form and mode of baptism was by immersion.

Pre-Christian breaking of bread: In Jeremiah 16:7, (N.T.) there is a reference to another ancient custom among the Hebrews, a custom that reminds us of a “wake” as it is called in the Old Land: “Nor shall they break bread for them in mourning, to comfort them for the dead; neither shall they give them the cup of consolation to drink for their father or for their mother” (V. 7). In view of the earlier verses many would die under divine discipline and be buried unmourned; there would be no wake for them, no memorial feast as was the custom.

It seems probable that our Lord had this ancient custom in mind when He blessed the bread and the cup before giving them to His disciples at the institution of the Lord’s supper. They were to partake in remembrance of Him and be comforted by His promise to return.

It is quite possible that at such a memorial feast, such a wake, which the two at Emmaus were keeping for their crucified Master, the Lord Jesus made Himself known (Luke 24:13-32).

The Lord in His purposes frequently honours the humble, sanctifies the secular, and consecrates the common customs of men so that they become holiness to the Lord. During the golden age of the Millennium all the pots, even all the pots of Jerusalem are to be holiness to the Lord (Zech. 14:21). As in that day there will be nothing unclean and impure but all hallowed to Him, even so these rituals that He would have us observe now have been raised far above what is merely a human custom to that which is sacred, pure, and holy.

Tests on This Chapter

1. What does the word tradition mean?

2. Name the foundations of Jewish tradition.

3. What liberates even a Jew from tradition?

4. What is meant by Christian tradition?

5. What supersedes all tradition?

6. Name four scriptural uses of the Bible.

7. Do the Levitical ordinances have any place in the Church?

8. Where were the Mosaic ordinances abrogated?

9. What does Jewish history teach in regard to the mode of baptism?

10. What feature of an ancient Jewish wake appears in the Lord’s supper?