Sometimes what we’re used to isn’t right.
Now, think about that. Sometimes what’s accepted, what you’ve heard, what your great grandfather told your grandfather who told your dad or mother that told you that’s accepted, that you don’t even question, it’s just a worldview. Sometimes, it’s not right. It’s not true. You don’t even think about it.
I’m going to suggest sometimes it’s not only not right, it’s diabolical. It’s evil. It hurts people. And yet, the enemy has us going down a path because it’s a tradition, it’s just accepted.
Let me give you a few examples. How about: the world is flat? For hundreds of years, people were locked into, “the world is flat.” And some great Christians, who God made very smart, challenged that, they were labeled as heretics. It was accepted and everyone believed it. Wasn’t true.
Or the Bible, for hundreds of years… middle ages, should only be translated in Greek, Hebrew, Latin because common people like us could never understand it. It’s dangerous in our hands that God would speak to us directly. And so a man named John Hus translates the Bible into English and the church authorities burn him at the stake.
It’s part of our history. Why? He violated tradition. It was right, people have been saying it, they passed it on.
Or, you know, remember the old movies or if you, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne. Everyone’s got cigarettes. It was so cool, right? Cigarettes make you cool. A whole generation got into cigarettes. They got cool, then they got cancer.
Or when I grew up, a suntan was, the deeper the tan, the healthier you are. Remember those days? Didn’t we all get that? You know, Grandma: “Get out in the sunlight. Get outta there, it’s a dark room. Come on, get out there and play! Take your shirt off! I did!” I got freckles everywhere and then they cut a piece of cancer out of my throat.
Here’s all I want you to get: we all have traditions. I’m using the word “tradition” in it’s clear, definitional sense. Not like, “Oh, a tradition is we put up lights at Christmas.” Well, God bless you.
Here’s what a tradition is. A tradition is an inherited, established, customary pattern of thought or action or behavior, like a religious practice or a social custom. And then I love the second half of this. It’s the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication.
So, it seeps into your brain, you’ve heard it since you were a kid, everyone does it, everyone accepts it. I’m going to suggest Satan’s number two agenda to ruin, to kill, to destroy is to maintain the status quo.
Wherever you’re at, however you’re moving, maintain the status quo in your life, maintain the status quo in your marriage, your spirituality, in churches, in culture, just maintain the status quo.
Because, see, truth is powerful. Truth brings change. Truth liberates. Truth heals. And so this is very, very subtle.
My thesis is this: traditions are not wrong but they are dangerous. I’m not saying that traditions are wrong, things that are handed down. But they’re dangerous.
Follow along carefully. Traditions are the highway by which we pass on the values and principles that matter most. Okay? That’s how we pass on things that matter. Then circle the next word in your notes, will you? Unfortunately, unfortunately over time the means, the traditions, we practice to remember those values and truths, can take precedence over the truths themselves.
This was so true in Jesus’ day and it’s so easy to look back and see it then but harder now. But follow along as I read just a short passage, from Matthew chapter 15.
“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat.’” Ceremonially washing their hands.
“Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your traditions? For God said, “Honor your father and mother and anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” But you say that if a man says to his father or mother whatever help you might otherwise have received from me, well, it’s a gift devoted to God, he is not to honor his father with it. Thus,’” notice this line, “‘you nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition.’”
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied, ‘You people honor Me with your lips but your hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
Did you notice how many times the word “tradition” and “nullifying the truth?”
There’s good traditions, there’s bad traditions, but all traditions have an element of danger. Because here’s what happens: good traditions, religious traditions, social traditions, traditions around core and important values – first you do them to remind you of that important thing. Then, over time, they start to become a little bit more important and they consume the truth.
And then pretty soon they bury the truth and then pretty soon they eliminate the truth all together.
And so you have people practicing tradition thinking they are doing exactly what’s right. That’s why it’s so diabolical. I mean, you’re never, ever in more danger in your entire life than when you’re convinced how you’re thinking, how you’re behaving, and how you’re acting is in line with what’s true and right and the fact of the matter is, you’re going south when you think you’re going north.
Notice the contrast between truth and tradition. Truth liberates, tradition perpetuates, truth gives life, tradition nullifies the Word of God, truth brings change, traditions – the status quo, truth defines reality, traditions are built for stability.
Truth is threatening, isn’t it? You hear a new truth, I need to address this in my marriage. I need to do something with one of our kids. Boy, I’ve got an attitude. I had a friend who said to me, “You need to deal with this.” That’s threatening.
Tradition is comforting. It’s been this way, I’m used to this way, we’ll do it this way.
And finally, truth is dynamic but tradition is static. Let me give you Satan’s agenda and this is exactly how it works. Satan’s agenda put, his goal is to do this: to separate the truth from the tradition so deceptively that sincere people, people like us.
And the enemy wants to take some traditions in your personal life, some traditions in your family, and some traditions in Christendom and get us all just, little by little, separating the truth from the tradition so slowly and so deceptively, that we would hold to a form of godliness, that’s the way Paul says it, and we would deny its power.
We’re going to see the classic study in the New Testament on this. We’re going to see a man who will defy hundreds of years of tradition at the cost of his life.
Let me give you the scene in the background.
Stephen was chosen as one of the seven to help distribute the food, but God gave him these miraculous powers, he began to do miracles to authenticate this new work of God, and then he was being challenged. He was talking about Jesus as the Messiah and so there’s implications for the law.
And Jesus is the Messiah, therefore, there’s implications for the temple and for the future of Judaism.
And then the opposition came. And so he’s accused of blasphemy. That’s the charge. Now, you need to understand, it’s a capital offense. If he’s found guilty, he dies. The two charges from the last part of chapter 6 are this: one, you’re speaking against the holy place or the temple and two, you’re speaking against the law of Moses.
Tradition over time had so separated from the truth that the tradition ruled. So the Jews were saying, “This special temple, Palestine, this holy land and the law that we’ve received, we’re superior, we’re better,” they trafficked in it, they memorized it, they had an oral tradition called the Mishnah, which had hundreds and thousands of other add-ons to it.
And the rabbis would say the Mishnah or the oral law is like a fence around the written law. And that’s the world that we come to. But they forgot that the land was just a place where God would birth promises to Abraham. They forgot that the law was given to help us see that no one can keep it and there’s a Savior coming.
They forgot that the temple is just a place where God’s presence would come and manifest itself but you can never box God in. It’s living, it’s vital, it’s relational.
So notice now, Stephen’s defense. He challenges the status quo tradition concerning the land, the law, and the temple with the, write this word down, truth.
He challenges all three. These are the three most sacred things that the Jews of this time hold on to. He challenges all three with the truth that demand faith, radical change, and then following God’s promised deliverer, the Messiah, Jesus.
Now, as I read, here’s what you need to understand. If you’re like me, and you had never read this before and when you just read it cursory you think, “He’s kind of giving an Old Testament history and when he gets done they want to kill him?
See, he is poking. He is poking and he’s pulling down the most deeply held traditions. So, as I read this passage and you follow along, here are the three things I want you to get. This is what he’s doing and use it as a filter, so as we walk through it together, because this is the difference between the tradition and the truth.
Three timeless truths: first, God’s agenda has always been based on his promises, which necessitate progression and change. He’s going to say, “Mm, mm, it’s about a promise. It requires change. It’s dynamic. It’s living. There has to be faith.”
Second, God’s blessings and purpose have never been restricted to Palestine, or to the temple, or just the Jewish nation. See, he’s going to tell Israel’s story but then he is going to tell the story and he’s going to frame it in certain ways where he punches holes into traditions so by the time he gets to the end, they will have got the message.
The third timeless truth is that God’s people have historically and repeatedly rejected God’s man, the prophets, and God’s plan of deliverance.
So are you ready? Stephen’s message, truth or tradition, he’s going to talk about Abraham first in his defense, notice the location – Mesopotamia – notice the promise, it’s about the land and the descendants. His focus, because he’s going to say, “God’s intent was to bless all nations.” And then, finally, he’s going to say, “Faith, it always involves trusting God, and for Moses, faith meant you had to leave.” He had to take a step out of his comfort zone.
Let’s pick up the story. Chapter 7, verse 1. He’s on trial. “Then the high priests asked him, ‘Are these charges true?’ To this he replied, ‘Brothers and fathers, listen to the God of glory. He appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. He said, “Leave your country and your people,” and God said, “go to a land that I will show you.”’
“So he left the land of the Chaldeans and he settled in Haran and after the death of his father God sent him to this land where you’re now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground but God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess this land, even though at the time of Abraham he had no child.
“God spoke to him in this way, ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they’ll be enslaved and mistreated for four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves. And afterward they will come out of that country and worship Me in this place.’
“Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision and Abraham became the father of Isaac and he circumcised him on the eighth day after his birth and later Isaac became the father of Jacob and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.”
Now, his defense, he starts out, we can all agree, Abraham’s the man, right? Right. And, by the way, we all agree. They’re nodding. There’s no problem here. And, let’s see, now where did he get his calling? Was it Palestine? Oh no, no. It was Mesopotamia. Oh, okay, you know?
And what was the basis? Was it because he followed a lot of rules? No, no, no, it was a promise. God did the impossible. It required faith.
And so he builds step one of his case. Now he introduces, through Abraham, the twelve patriarchs. So he picks up the story now, and he’s going to talk about Joseph, and the location now is Egypt.
The promise God gives Joseph. Remember, he gave him a dream? And he said, “One day you’ll have a position, and your brothers and your parents will bow down to you.” And the focus is Joseph’s rejection and God’s deliverance. I want you to look for that as I read that.
He’s going to say – God saved his people through Joseph. But they rejected him. Do you see the, how he’s starting and there’s just a little seasoning of someone else is going to get rejected later.
Rejecting Joseph, rejecting Jesus, rejecting Moses. There’s a pattern here coming. Sincere people.
Finally, faith means enduring. Joseph endured rejection, he endured prison, he endured a false accusation. But he’s always going to come back to, it requires a living, vital faith. We pick up the story in verse 9.
“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But,” relationship, “God was with him and rescued him from his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And he made him ruler over Egypt and all of his palace.
“And then a famine struck all of Egypt and Canaan and with it great suffering and our fathers couldn’t find any food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt he sent our fathers on their first visit.
“On the second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. After this, Joseph sent for his father, Jacob, and his whole family, seventy-five in all, and Jacob went down to Egypt where he and our fathers died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain amount of money.”
And so now he starts to build the case. And he said, “In our great history together of what God has done there was a deliverer. And the deliverer was giving a promise. And the deliverer had to suffer unjustly.” Are you starting to make some of the, you know, these are the smartest guys on the planet right now in terms of Judaism. There’s seventy of them. They know the Old Testament backward and forward.
And he even uses this Shechem. You know what Shechem is? Shechem is the capital of Samaria. He’s just, it’s like salt in their face or salt in the wound. He goes now, Mesopotamia is where it starts blessing. Then the blessing comes out of Egypt. And not only that but here’s where he buried our forefathers. The blessing in the hand of God was even in the capital of Samaria.
The Jews hated the Samaritans. Builds his case. He’s pulling down, one by one, the pillars of tradition and he’s taking them back to the truth.