After Paul and Barnabas had returned from their first missionary journey, they rested in Antioch for a while until some unexpected visitors showed up. ‘Men from Judea’ had travelled all the way from Jerusalem to share some concerns about the growing church.
“Unless you are (all) circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved, they said” (Acts 15: 2). In other words, it is lovely to see you non-Jews coming to faith in Jesus Christ, but you need to obey all of our laws. And circumcision is one of them.
Every time I read this, I imagine every guy in the room making a hasty retreat, claiming they have another appointment somewhere!
Paul and Barnabas didn’t agree with them and when they argued their case to the leaders in Jerusalem, it turned out the apostles were on their side. Although circumcision was an important badge of identity in the Jewish faith, God had personally made the new Gentile believers His own by pouring out His Spirit on them. What circumcision had done for thousands of years, was now replaced by a work of the Spirit through faith in Christ.
A tradition was replaced by a new move of the Holy Spirit.
This got me thinking about the traditions we celebrate in our churches. My own church has traditions that hold us to our roots, keep us in the Word of God, and remind us of our identity, journey and values. We do things this or that way because our studies of the Scriptures over the years have steered us towards those practices.
But what if God was to say, “Actually there is a different way to do this” or “I want you to make some changes this year”? Would we be open to the Spirit saying something new? Now, obviously, the Holy Spirit never contradicts God’s Word, but tradition (doing things the way they have always been done) can also keep us in our comfort zones, like an old faithful coat. If we are not careful, they can keep us from hearing God’s new plans. Are we as eager to seek the fresh leading of the Spirit as the early believers were in the book of Acts?
Paul tells us we are “ministers of a new covenant —not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3: 6). We were chosen to impart life to each other in the church and to the wider community. This wonderful ministry brings righteousness and freedom because it is accompanied by the Lord’s glory (see v 7 – 18). One of the things the Spirit does is impart fresh life.
Traditions are good when they hold us to the Word of God, but if they prevent us from seeing revelation through a new work of the Spirit, we might be in danger of missing out. A healthy church will always hold these two things in tension: keeping to our Biblical roots as expressed in our traditions while listening to the leading of the Spirit today.
What if God were to say something new to you today? Would your traditions keep you from obeying, or even hearing in the first place?