The teaching of Jesus continually directs our attention to a single question by which we evaluate any teaching: Is the doctrine of divine origin or human invention? To the leaders of the Jews who had rejected the baptism of John, Jesus asked, "The baptism of John, whence was it from heaven or from men?" (Matthew 21:25). Baptism following repentance had been taught by John as a commandment, not a suggestion. When a teaching is lawfully advanced as a matter of mandatory faith and practice, it must be of divine origin. If we teach human tradition or even personal conscience as mandatory or impose such as tests of fellowship, we incur the condemnation of God (1 Timothy 4:1-3).
Nowhere is the binding of human tradition condemned in clearer terms than by Jesus' rebuke of the Pharisees for doing that very thing. Notice the situation as recorded in Mark's account (Mark 7:1-13, ASV):
And there are gathered together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of his disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashen, hands. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands diligently, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market-place, except they bathe themselves, they eat not; and many other things there are, which they have received to hold, washings of cups, and pots, and brasen vessels.) And the Pharisees and the scribes ask him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands? And he said unto them, Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoreth me with their lips, But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. Ye leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men. And he said unto them, Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition. For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, He that speaketh evil of father or mother, let him die the death: but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God; ye no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do.
Jesus condemned both addition to and subtraction from God's commandments in the same rebuke. We must do the same thing. It is never "safe" to change the word of God. It is no more tolerable to add a command than to disregard one. The Pharisees had done both. The washing they mandated was not required by the law of God though the Pharisees required it of all whom they would accept. In this way, they added to the commandments of God. The justification for one not to provide needed assistance to his father and mother by accounting the funds for such as "Corban" was an effort to release one from an obligation mandated by God. In this way, the Pharisees loosed that which God bound in the commandments of the law. Either way, the divine commandments were rejected or made void by human tradition. Jesus showed no preference for one disregard of divine authority over the other. Both were absolutely condemned!
Why did Jesus so strongly condemn changes to God's commands whether by addition or subtraction? The answer is simple either way they involved the elevation of human thoughts or practices to the level reserved solely for divine law. The same mindset is behind both avenues of change. It is a mindset which is lifted up with human pride to the point that one's own thoughts and ways have greater sway than God's thoughts and ways. When Isaiah urged, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto Jehovah," he reminded them of God's admonition to cause such: "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith Jehovah. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:6-9). Isaiah concluded by bringing the focus back to the needed point of emphasis - the divinely revealed word. The prophet quoted God as reminding all of the efficacious nature of His word: "So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). God's word will do the job He wants done. He needs no help from human alterations.
In writing the Christians at Colossae, Paul warned against the errors of early Gnosticism mixed with Jewish Essenism. The teachers of this heresy used "persuasiveness of speech" to "delude" the saints (Colossians 2:4). But the apostle reminded them that only in Christ are "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden" (Colossians 2:2-3). And where were they to go to find such in Christ? "As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught" (Colossians 2:6-7). Paul had earlier noted that their faith and hope were based upon that which they "heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel" (Colossians 1:5). The source of all knowledge and blessings was the truth of the gospel as originally received.
But what would be the result of allowing changes in the original message? It is of that very possibility the apostle Paul warned in these words: "Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Colossians 2:8).
There is a clear contrast in the companion epistles of Ephesians and Colossians between teaching "not after Christ" and teaching which originates from Christ. Paul instructs the readers to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly" and then declares the result upon their lives: "Whatever you do in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:16-17). To the Ephesians, he contrasts the walk of the old man in lusts and ignorance with the path of the new man (Ephesians 4:17-24). The change in direction came then as it comes now as we "learn Christ" (Ephesians 4:20). As they "heard Him, and were taught of Him, even as truth is in Jesus" so must we be (Ephesians 4:21). Then and only then can we be a new man in Christ "created in righteousness and holiness of truth" (Ephesians 4:24). Truth originates with no human law, custom or practice. Truth has Christ as its source.
Rather than partaking of the riches provided in Christ, Christians who submit to human tradition become the spoil of those who change the gospel. Those who so alter God's word may promise great blessings or make pretense of great piety. They may even claim their teaching is the logical end of a sequence of reasoned principles. But the question to be asked is this: Is their teaching the same as that received in the word of God without addition or subtraction? Teaching that arises from any other source is condemned as "not after Christ."
PHILOSOPHY (philosophia). Though this word was used by the Greeks to describe the greatest achievement of the intellect, this is the only time it is used in the New Testament and it stands in contrast to true knowledge, wisdom and hope which come only by Christ through the gospel. Josephus, the Jewish historian, used this word to describe the system of thought behind the main sects of first century Palestine. He said, "There are three forms of philosophy among the Jews. The followers of the first school are called Pharisees, of the second Sadducees, and of the third Essenes" (Jewish War, II.viii.2). Like men of our time, all needed to forsake schools of thought originated and fostered by human innovation. They needed to abide in the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9-11).
DECEIT (apate). Vine says that the word refers to "that which gives a false impression, whether by appearance, statement or influence" (Expository Dict. Of N.T. Words, V. 1, p. 279). Deception and lying have always been a part of the devil's arsenal to lead people astray. Innuendos, misleading labels, partial truths, misrepresentation and brazen lies are the tools by which Satan attacks truth and increases his minions. The cause of truth is not advanced by such devices. When we do not focus on what the text says, without addition or subtraction, we may get a false impression rather than truth. When we teach that misrepresentation to others, we are guilty of deception in leading others away from God's word and towards our perversion of it, whether by addition or subtraction. How do we avoid this result? By searching the Scriptures daily to see if the teaching done is so (Acts 17:11).
TRADITION (paradosis) OF MEN. The Greek word for "tradition" refers literally to that which is handed down. When the handing down is done by God or one inspired of God, the resulting tradition is binding (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6 cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). When the handing down is of human origin, the tradition is but a vain path opposed to God's will (Mark 7:1-13; Matthew 15:1-9). Beliefs of past or present uninspired, reputed brethren do not establish truth. Divisions based upon following after human will or personalities are condemned of God (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:1-9; 4:6). The solution is given in the very verses declaring the problem -- focus on the written word without any alteration from any man. Any law of man added after the completed revelation of God may not be placed upon a par with the doctrine of Christ. Any human attempt to diminish or abrogate the provisions of Christ's doctrine stands condemned. Paul warned of later day attempts to draw others away by human tradition that added and subtracted from law as stated by God (1 Timothy 4:1-5). The inspired writer condemns both kinds of changes as "doctrines of demons."
That appeals to philosophy, deceit and the traditions of men are condemned by the apostle is beyond dispute. But what examples of such does Paul give to the readers? When we examine the list cited in Colossians 2:16-23, the same pattern noted by Jesus is seen. In some cases, men sought to bind a practice which God did not bind (judging over meat, drink, etc.). In other cases, men sought to justify doing what God specifically condemned (worship of angels, etc.). Either way, it came of the same mindset willing to replace God's law with human tradition.
Brethren, it is never safe to either add to or subtract from God's law. However well-intentioned the change might be, it leads souls away from God and towards mere man. However pious the sound of the variation, it is at variance with divine revelation. Whatever the credentials of the one seeking the alteration, he is not of deity. Whatever the justification for the deviation, God has given no man or angel the authority to change one principle, precept, privilege or proclamation of the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9).
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