Christ and Religious Tradition

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the April 19, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson


“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” Matthew 15:8-9, NIV

When I attended a Seventh-day Adventist college back in the 1970s, my wife and I lived in a run-down apartment complex that had a disproportionately large percentage of theology students compared to other student housing around the campus. Perhaps this was because theology students are proverbially poor in this world’s goods. Considering the lack of benefits, meaningful retirement plans and low-level compensation maybe this was preparation for things to come. Back then, when my engine blew a head gasket from all the miles travelled between churches in the high heat while pastoring one summer in Kansas, I had to do the repairs myself. While some enjoy automotive work as a hobby, working under a shade tree in hundred degree heat to replace a head gasket was far from enjoyable. I had to do the job twice because I did it incorrectly the first time due to my lack of experience.

But before that experience and back at the college, as sundown each Friday approached, normal activities would cease, and more often than not, we would all sit in our front yards watching each other, afraid to do much for fear that what we were doing might be seen as transgressing the sacred hours of the Sabbath. The vehicles had all been washed, and the casseroles for Sabbath dinner had been made. Everything had been prepared for church in the morning. Now we were left to our own devices until Sabbath Eve vespers at the college church.

One activity that was never challenged was a neighborhood game of Frisbee catch. For some reason, this had received popular endorsement as a proper Sabbath pastime. We could not play catch with a football or a baseball without catching the evil eye of some saint who felt it was most improper, but the Frisbee was apparently blessed. We tried to understand why this was so. We thought that maybe the pointed ends of the football or the hardness of the baseball made it too dangerous to toss about on Sabbath, but anyone who has ever been hit by the hard edge of a flying Frisbee can tell you that can cause injury to the inattentive as well. We failed to come up with a rationale for Frisbee acceptance. We found it difficult to conceive of a God looking down and seeing people playing on Sabbath and starting to judge them for it and then saying, “Oh, it’s alright! It’s just a Frisbee.” Maybe Wham-o missed an endorsement opportunity here. Imagine the cachet of being able to claim your product was approved by God.

To be sure, there are those who would remove any opportunity for pleasurable recreation from the hours of the Sabbath citing the prophet Isaiah.[i] However, it may be hard to love a God that is always looking to zap people who are innocently having a good time. People may have unknowingly represented such a God to their children when they restricted their pleasure without any real biblical precedent for such strictures. A case in point would be those parents who would tell their children they had to stay out of the water on Sabbath because God wouldn’t like it, or even worse telling their children they could wade, but swimming was out of the question. To enforce this they would roll up their children’s pant legs and admonish them if the bottoms of the legs got wet they would be considered Sabbath breakers. It is strange to think that God would love nothing better than to catch naughty little children with pants legs that had gotten damp on the Sabbath.

All of this legalism, for that is what it was, would have been bad enough if it were based on the Ten Commandments or some other biblical precept, but worse, it was based on traditions that had arisen out of an improper understanding of the role of the commandments for the Christian. Today, we laugh about the Jews who had to fasten a handkerchief to their garments before Sabbath instead of carrying one on Sabbath. Fastened to the clothing it became clothing and thus not a separate burden. Yet as ridiculous as this may seem is it any more so than the examples I have already cited? This all distorts the character of God and alienates those who would otherwise be drawn close to Him. By our traditions, we build walls that prevent people from approaching God and finding out who He really is.

The Seventh-day Adventist denomination has become extremely good at this. For instance, in the past, even though there is no biblical command to do so,[ii] they have advocated a vegetarian diet as essential to a full spiritual experience. Often this took the form of a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. Dairy and eggs were allowed to insure adequate balance to the diet. Now, however, for many it is not enough of a spiritual experience to reach that level. Some are going so far as to maintain a vegan diet is essential, and some beyond that are advocating a paleo-diet where nothing is cooked. I even knew someone who became convinced that it was necessary to only eat the vegan diet twice per day at certain hours, and if others, family or visitors, did not eat at those times, he refused to eat with them or even come to the table to talk, his tradition had such a hold over him. All of this is derived from the idea that God desires for us to enjoy good health. Something appears to get lost in the interpretation of that standard, however. We work long hours each day of the week, sitting on our rears before a computer screen in poorly ventilated work places receiving little opportunity for exercise, sunshine and fresh air, then on Sabbath we are expected to do the same for hours in a church building, but then we take pride in how healthy we are because we are vegans. Does anyone else sense a disconnect here?

Some might say that we have Sunday to do all that outdoor fun and games. But that is not biblical either as the very commandment we claim to be honoring with our traditions commands us to work six days a week.[iii] Some feel that the Sabbath hours should be used only for benevolent works such as helping others or introducing them to Jesus. But in our modern world with a five-day work week, maybe we have things backwards. Perhaps we should enjoy restorative recreational activities on the Sabbath and do the benevolent work on Sundays. Why restrict benevolence to Sabbath? Is it a greater sin to enjoy restful outdoor activities on the Sabbath or to seek our own pleasure on Sunday when the commandment has ordered us to work? If we must work, what greater work could there be than to emulate Jesus’ benevolence toward others in that work?

For many centuries, the Jews hid themselves behind the wall of their traditions to protect themselves from the pagan influences in the rest of the world. This hindered their ability to adequately represent the character of God to that world. Eventually, it even distorted their own perception of God to the point that they could not recognize the Son of God who came in the character of God as was prophesied.[iv] This was the case even though He came as a Jew among the Jews. Perhaps we are in danger of failing to recognize the character of God as well. As a result, we can fail to emulate it in our characters and may fail to see or appreciate it when it is emulated in others.

When we faithfully show up in church each week, yet choose not to socialize with our friends and neighbors because we see our lives and theirs as being too far apart for such familiarity, do we truly believe we are representing the same Jesus who sat talking with a Samaritan woman on a hot day by the town well?[v] That woman’s response to his initial request for a drink illustrates how high the wall of tradition had become that prevented conversations like the one Jesus was now having with her. Yet in His willingness to overcome tradition to breach that barrier was the seed of a promise of salvation for many, both on that day and in the future when thousands would come to enjoy a relationship with God in a single day.[vi]

Perhaps we should ask ourselves if our extra-biblical traditions are a help or a hindrance to introducing others to a loving God who desires above all else to do what is necessary to save and restore His relationship with His people. He wanted it so much that He would rather die in the person of Jesus than lose it.[vii] In a sense, He was crucified on those traditions to build a bridge over the gulf they had created between God and man.


[i] Isaiah 58:13-14

[ii] Romans 14:17

[iii] Exodus 20:8-11

[iv] John 1:9-11

[v] John 4:1-42

[vi] Acts 2:41

[vii] John 3:16-17



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry


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