It’s Not Either Or

Ashes (610x351)This is our pastor’s article for the February edition of our congregational newsletter.

The longer I’m a pastor, the more I find that what we bring to the table shapes our understanding of Scripture and, thus, the faith, even more than what a Scripture passage may say! Let me give you a personal example.

About religious life, I grew up in a world where people belittled ritual and tradition. If “it didn’t come from the heart” what good was it? But then I became a pastor, and the revealed Word of Scripture chipped away at the worldview, bit by bit.

Now, that doesn’t mean that personal faith or experience doesn’t matter. It does! But we find that Jesus doesn’t have such an either-or worldview, which sets one’s faith against tradition. After all, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the rituals that God commanded in the Old Covenant. Jesus said, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).

And Jesus even honored and upheld traditions and rituals that God didn’t command! Think about John the Baptizer baptizing Jesus. Nowhere, does God command such baptism in the Old Covenant. Read through the entire Old Testament, even the Old-Testament Apocrypha—you won’t find it. But there Jesus is having John baptize Him to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

Baptism became part of a ritual that Judaism had adopted, beginning about 200 years before Jesus was born. It was a way for Gentiles to show that they were having their Gentile ways washed away when they became Jews. What upset the religious leadership of Jesus’ day was John calling people to repent. By baptizing Jews as if they were Gentiles, he was, in effect, saying that his fellow Jews had misunderstood the Old Covenant so much that they might as well be Gentiles. Ouch!

And, yet, Jesus gets baptized as one with such sinners “to fulfill all righteousness.” But again, God never commanded such washing in the Old Covenant. And yet, Jesus embraced and upheld a tradition and ritual that God had never commanded! Jesus did the same for celebrating the Festival of Dedication [of the Temple]. That was a religious festival, which the Maccabees had set up after defeating Antiochus IV and clearing the Temple for the worship of God. (You can read about that in 1-2 Maccabees in the Old-Testament Apocrypha).

So, Jesus is not against tradition and ritual. We can only come to such a conclusion because we bring such presuppositions with us when we read the Bible. When we do that, we come to conclusions that Jesus never had.

For example, when Jesus chastised the Pharisees for “vain repetition,” He wasn’t against repetition. Jesus was against repetition being “vain,” that is empty and lacking faith (Matthew 6:7). I mean, if Jesus were against repetition, He would have never said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father…’” Jesus commands that we repeat the same words, over and again, every time we pray. “When you pray, say…”

Let me ask you this: where does Jesus ever condemn the Pharisees because they had fasted, prayed, or helped the poor? He doesn’t. What we do find is that Jesus praises their righteousness. He insists that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

What Jesus does condemn—is not that those Pharisees were doing what God’s people do: fasting, praying, and helping the poor—but that they did such deeds only as outward acts. Jesus condemned such acts because they did them for self-aggrandizement, not having real faith and trust in the heart. Jesus demands both.

We are now on the threshold of the Lenten season, which is rife with outward rituals and traditions. Jesus does not condemn this. Even more, based on Jesus embracing John’s baptism and the Festival of Dedication, He would even be all for them! What would incense Jesus, even about burning incense (ah, did you get the joke!), is embracing such ritual as only an outward act without repentance and faith. It’s the same with the ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Jesus wants both. He didn’t come to abolish Old-Covenant rituals but to fulfill them. Thus, our life with God is all about embracing tradition and ritual in its fulfilled New-Covenant forms and having repentance and faith!

When the Roman-Catholic Church excommunicated Luther, beginning the Lutheran Church, Luther was all about bringing personal faith into the ritual of the Church. Then, the Roman-Catholic Church focused on the outward. Luther didn’t want us to throw out the tradition of the Church but to bring a lively, personal faith into what the Church had always done.

Jesus wants both (like Luther did). For Jesus is God in the Flesh, the same God who commanded bucket loads of ritual and tradition for His Old-Covenant people. God doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6). And Jesus never once condemned rituals as something bad. If they were bad, why then did He come to fulfill them? No, it’s that Jesus demanded that personal faith is to entwine itself as part of it all.

And how do we know that’s true? When something in the New Covenant superseded something from the Old, Jesus commanded something new for us. That’s why Jesus commanded baptism—it fulfills circumcision; but it still brings someone into His Covenant (Colossians 2:11-15). That’s why Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper—it fulfills the Old-Covenant sacrifices, being God’s way to bring us His forgiveness (Matthew 26:28).

But did you notice that Jesus never commanded preaching? That’s because it continues from the Old Covenant. Jesus merely mentioned (using the passive voice!) what His pastors were to preach in the New Covenant: repentance for (or into) the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47). Because preaching was something that continued from the Old into the New, Jesus never commanded it (Deuteronomy 32:1, 1 Chronicles 16:23-24, Psalm 9:11, etc.).

So, there you have it. Jesus was doing something new, all the while keeping and embracing the Old that was still to be part of life for God’s people. For Jesus, it was both and. We as His people are to embrace godly rituals (like He did), all the while having a repentance and faith to match. One without the other is not Jesus’ way. Just look at His life for proof.