In the Bible it is written, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (De 4:2) These words tell us that God’s commands and expressions are sacred, not to be altered, edited, trimmed or embellished by men. Solomon reiterates: “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Pr 30:6) Anyone who presumes to add to the commandments of God will eventually be confronted by Him and rebuked as a fraud. Evidently God wants us to know and understand what is holy and unholy based on what He directly tells us in Scripture, not through human agents who have supposedly heard from Him.
Even so, ever since the formal giving of God’s law, the Torah, men have been attempting to add to or alter the commands and instructions of God, to suggest that their own teachings, doctrines or commands should be accepted as having divine authority apart from any clear basis in Scripture. When men succeed in convincing others that they have this right it gives them incredible power and influence; it is no wonder that wicked men attempt it and that God warns us all against it.
The Jewish people, the very keepers of God’s Torah, have long believed that it is sinful to violate the oral traditions which they have added to Torah over the years; they have been claiming that these additional laws carry the same weight as Torah. Their claim is that many of these laws were passed down through the priesthood through oral tradition and that they are as binding as Torah. This reasoning evidently convinced most of the common people of Christ’s day that Jewish authorities could make up whatever laws they liked and pass them off as God’s. And in our Common Era Roman Catholic leaders have been claiming (from Apostolic Succession) the right to add to and edit God’s commands. Yet God clearly tells us that no one is allowed to do this. How should we view such claims and what does this doctrine imply for believers today?
In short, every spiritual person must answer the following question for themselves. How do I know what is true, and what is pleasing and displeasing to God? Is the Scripture itself, apart from any additional teachings or commandments of men claiming spiritual authority, sufficient to show me what is true, and what is godly and holy in this life? Or do I need human agents to tell me what to believe, and to define holiness for me? It is a strategic question, a foundational concept in every spiritual life. The one view puts us at the mercy of sinful men and places them between ourselves and God, and the other calls us to face God on our own, retaining a deep sense of personal responsibility before Him in seeking out, finding and obeying the truth for ourselves.
First, let us consider what God Himself says in His Word about the sufficiency of His Word as a source of instruction for us. When God initially presents Torah to us He commands each of us to put the words of His commands in our heart: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.” (De 6:6) This is only possible if all of His commands are clearly expressed and written down so that they are static and unchanging, easy to study and reference and remember. He also tells us: “And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.” (vs 9) In community we are to write down all of God’s instructions in open places for all to see, read, memorize and rehearse so that we will not forget any of His commands or fall into ignorance of His ways.
To help His people remember His laws, when Israel first entered the Promised Land God told them: “And it shall be on the day when ye shall pass over Jordan unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, that thou shalt set thee up great stones, and plaister them with plaister: and thou shalt write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly.” (De 27:2, 3a, 8) God wanted everyone to be able to access all of His laws whenever they desired, in a permanent and unchanging state, unaltered, not tampered with, unedited, un-embellished. If there was ever any question about what was good or bad, right or wrong, there was no need to trust a spiritual leader; anyone who wanted could go to these stones and see God’s Law for themselves in its original form.
God did not allow for any other source of instruction for His people to know and understand His ways; He holds them accountable to obey all of what is written down, and only what is written down. “And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth … If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD; then the LORD will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance.” (De 28:58-9) Obedience to the written Word of God was necessary, and it was sufficient: in God’s economy nothing should be added to it, nor anything taken away from it.
God commands each king of Israel to hand write out a complete copy of all of Gods laws so that he might keep all of God’s commandments. “And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them.” (De 17:18-19) The Book of the Law was necessary to know the ways of God, and it was, again, evidently sufficient; God wanted each king to write the entire thing out, and held him accountable for knowing and obeying it. There was no other standard, no additional set of laws to which he was held accountable.
The Psalmist declares that all of God’s laws are available to him, that he meditates on the words of God’s laws throughout the days and nights, and that by meditating in them he can understand more about God and His ways than all of his teachers. The written Word of God fully equips him to know all of the spiritual truth that he needs to know: he needs nothing else. (Ps 1:1-3, 119:97-100)
And Yeshua Himself affirms the testimony of Abraham, that having Torah and the Prophets, the written Word of God, is sufficient to enable any one of us to find everlasting life. (Lk 16:31) We need no more than what is plainly recorded for us in the written Word to secure the eternal salvation of our souls.
One may search Torah carefully for encouragements to supplement the words of Torah, the written Word of God, in order to know God’s ways, but we will find no faint any hint that additional sources of instruction are needful or required in order for us to understand all of the truth that we need to know.
Evidently, from these texts and many others like them, God expects us to find all of His laws written down so that we can memorize them and meditate on them all the time. This Law is His definition of holiness, and there is no other. If we search the Word as He has commanded, hide it in our hearts and meditate on it, we are assured by God Himself that we will be fully equipped to know and understand what is pleasing and displeasing to Him. Experienced teachers may be gifted by God to help us understand what is written and work with us to find answers to difficult questions by prayerfully comparing scripture with scripture, but there is evidently is no need for some other source of instruction or any human priest to tell us what is right and what is wrong apart from the written Word of God: God is expecting us to know His Way directly from Him, for ourselves, on our own. “To his own master he standeth or falleth.” (Ro 14:4) When we are ignorant or amiss in following God we have no one to blame but ourselves: we cannot rightly blame our teachers.
If all of God’s laws are not written down in a faithful manner, or if there are other divine laws which we cannot find in any divinely inspired Book because they are only preserved by oral tradition or adjusted by men over time, laws we must know in order to please and follow God but which are only available from our spiritual leaders, then the above kinds of commands and testimonies within the Torah itself do not make sense. There is actually no room within their scope to consider any other source of instruction necessary in order to fully know what is pleasing and displeasing to God.
The Jews who promote their Oral Torah traditions as equivalent to Torah are openly denying what we have just discovered within the Torah itself; they are clearly adding to God’s Laws and contradicting both the letter and spirit of God’s Word.
As grounds for doing so they claim that it is not actually possible to keep most of God’s laws unless He also tells us exactly how to do so. For example, they claim that God’s command in Deuteronomy 12:21 cannot be obeyed without some additional instruction and explanation, which they claim God gave them but did not have them write down with the other parts of Torah. The command is (my emphasis in red): “If the place which the LORD thy God hath chosen to put his name there be too far from thee, then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock, which the LORD hath given thee, as I have commanded thee, and thou shalt eat in thy gates whatsoever thy soul lusteth after.”
The Jews claim that there are no instructions anywhere in Torah that tell us exactly how to kill an animal, and yet God says we are to kill animals “as I have commanded thee;” He is evidently expecting us to know exactly how to kill an animal based upon this other “oral Torah” revelation which He has supposedly entrusted to special spiritual leaders and not to us all, other laws which the Jews claim we cannot know apart from their tradition but which carry just as much weight as the Torah itself. They claim from such reasoning that it is impossible for anyone to understand the written Torah apart from considering the additional teachings and testimonies of men who claim to have this “oral Torah.” They would have us believe that the written Torah is essentially useless to the rest of us unless we understand all of their oral traditions and additions to it.
One may easily note the unreasonableness of this kind of thinking by observing that God has indeed provided a basic guideline for slaughtering animals by telling us not to eat the flesh with the blood (Ge 9:4): very simply, we are to slaughter in such a way as to minimize the amount of blood remaining in the flesh. It is true that God hasn’t told us in Torah exactly how to do this, just as He is silent on a lot of practical things, such as planning crops and making clothes and how to have sex. Rather than giving us paint-by-the-number instructions in every particular of existence, He seems to have given us the intelligence and creativity to figure these kinds of thing out on our own once we understand the underlying goals and principles.
But the Jews would have us believe that God is very concerned with exactly how we do everything, and that for some mysterious reason He has not told us in the Torah itself exactly how to do what He has commanded us to do. Their reasoning then is that God must want us to trust in these sinful human agents, the Levitical priests who claim to have received these secret instructions directly from God at Sinai — but men who couldn’t possibly have written them all down for us like the rest of Torah was written down. They are telling us that we must fully depend on them to tell us how to please God rather than depending only on the written Word which we can read and study for ourselves. Now, we know God has told us all not to add to His Word, but these men who claim to have this secret knowledge of God’s ways are just saying, “Trust us: we aren’t adding to God’s Words, just telling you the rest of what He said.”
But doesn’t this all sound just a little bit suspicious? These Jewish priests really are positioning themselves to freely add to the Word of God in a way that we could never know … they can just claim that God told them these secret things at Sinai and not the rest of us. But God never actually told us that He was going to be giving these few men special instructions that we would need in order to keep His written commandments: God told us to memorize the written Word and meditate on that, and assured us that we’d be fully equipped to know His ways if we did so. He never indicates to us that we will be unable to keep his Words properly without some sort of additional special revelation which He secretly gave to others to pass on to us whenever they happened to feel like it.
Perhaps the Jews have made a self-serving assumption about God that is false: they have assumed that God cares a lot about exactly how we do things, the mechanics of our service, and that He doesn’t want us to use our intelligence or creativity in obeying Him. They claim that there is a particular way in which we must tie our tassels or they are all wrong, sinful, displeasing to God. They claim that they have these secret instructions and that if we don’t do it their way then we are in sin. But maybe the Jews are wrong.
Evidently, based on the nature of His commands, God is not so much concerned with exactly how we do most things as He is with why we are doing them, our heart and motivation in what we do is evidently His primary concern. When God gives us a command and doesn’t tell us exactly how to obey it, perhaps He is wanting us to use some wisdom, common sense and creativity in personalizing His commands and adapting them to our particular environment and culture. Perhaps He is pleased and delighted in this, so long as we do not violate the letter of the Law and honor its spirit. Perhaps this imprecision is itself part of the profound wisdom and beauty of Torah, an indication that it is inspired … perfectly defined, not overly precise or imprecise. Perhaps it is written in such a way that it can be adapted to any culture, any technology, in any time period. And when God does want us to do a certain thing in a particular way, such as eating our bread without leaven during Passover or making the holy anointing oil (Ex 30:23-25), when not doing as He prescribes is sin, perhaps God is always as explicit as He needs to be with us in the written Word, never giving us either more or less precision than we truly need.
Another example provided by Jews to promote their Oral Torah is from the account of the deaths of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, in which they claim that God had revealed special laws to certain priests regarding temple worship which were not publicly revealed in Torah. The text the Jews reference to support their view in this specific instance is: “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” (Le 10:1-2) Their claim is that God had given the Levites special instructions about how the priests were to offer incense in their censers and since Nadab and Abihu didn’t follow these unwritten instructions God killed them. It sounds reasonable until one searches Torah and notes that God never defines any service where a common priest burns incense in a censer: this was done only by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, and only in the Holy of Holies, within the inner temple sanctuary, directly before the arc of the covenant. Nadab and Abihu were not high priests.
The only other legitimate use of a censer to burn incense recorded in Scripture was a one-time emergency in which Israel was murmuring against God for killing the rebels of Korah and a deadly plague was breaking out and spreading among them, moving outward from the tabernacle and killing them. Moses told Aaron (the high priest) to quickly get some coals from the brazen altar and some incense into his censer and rush out into the congregation to stop the plague. When Aaron came to rest in the midst of the congregation he stood between the living and the dead: everyone between his censer and the temple was killed by God and everyone outside this range survived. (Nu 16:44-48) This lone example again involved the high priest: no common priest was ever given any instructions to use a censer to burn incense before God as an act of service or worship.
A third example one might try is God’s command that His people obey the instructions of the Levitical priests concerning leprosy: “Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you: as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do.” (Le 24:8) Though God has given the Levites detailed written instructions within Torah itself regarding how they are to diagnose and treat leprosy, instructions that are available to us all, it is reasonable to understand that God may also give them special discernment and skill when applying these laws, and that any instructions given by them in this context concerning this particular disease should be obeyed for the good of the people. However, the nature of the instructions given by Levites in this application is clearly not in the realm of defining any general principle of holiness, morality or spiritual truth by which to live a godly life: this is equivalent to heeding the advice and counsel of a trained medical doctor. Additionally, any diagnosis provided by an instructed Levite can still be checked for general validity and integrity by anyone reading Torah; there is not a blanket license given to the priests to decide what is and what is not unclean.
Another clear example of this type of mentality, used by Catholics to impose a vast system of regulations and commandments on people the world over, is claimed to be found in the Apostles themselves. Catholics cite passages such as Acts 15:19-21, where the Apostles and elders wrote to the Gentile churches, and claim that the Apostles presumed the right to alter the commandments of God, obsoleting some and making new ones. However, a careful study in any such context shows that the Apostles were merely giving their sense of how to apply the principles of Torah under extenuating circumstances, not claiming the right to define sin and holiness on their own.
In support, Catholics claim that Paul sanctioned this kind of mentality, the passing of doctrine along from one spiritual leader to another apart from the need for anyone else to verify it from Scripture, from the following text: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” (2Ti 2:2) Yet, clearly, nothing in this text presupposes what is claimed, that doctrine is verified and passed down merely by claimed spiritual authority rather than by discipling others and helping them to see it for themselves in a rigorous search and study of the Scripture for themselves … the pattern that is consistently described and encouraged in the Scripture itself: “From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (2Ti 3:15-17) Paul encouraged all men to “prove all things,” (1Th 5:21) and commended disciples for searching the Scriptures for themselves to verify what they were being taught (Ac 17:11), activity that is only possible if men are grounded in and continually going back to a constant and unchanging authority, the written Word of God.
The devastating impact of institutions such Judaism and Roman Catholicism has moved many sincere souls to believe that they are not personally responsible for validating what their spiritual guides and leaders teach them; they seldom if ever question what they are taught. Even the doctrine of Sola Scriptura among Protestants, Methodists and Baptists, the idea that only Scripture is spiritually authoritative in matters of faith and morality — one of the foundational, basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation — has not really helped believers fully regain what has been lost from the early days of the faith. Most still just believe whatever their pastor tells them to believe. Yet God’s concern that we have His Word untouched, straight from Him and not through human filters, implies that we are responsible to test what we have been taught and ensure that what we believe is aligned with His truth. Paul tells us all the same: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1Th 5:21) We can only do this if we have a trustworthy authority in Scripture by which to test and prove all things.
A final, and rather daunting challenge that is relevant in our journey here is the rise of modern Bible translations which, though offered to us under the pretense of helping us better understand and cherish God’s written Word, as a divine text given by inspiration, such works have rather convinced most of us that we are unable to access God’s inspired Word on our own unless we ourselves are Greek and Hebrew scholars. The many variations in modern translations and the corrupt foundations and assumptions on which they are all based (The Syrian Recension), as well as the incessant attacks of those who promote them upon what was once the generally recognized and accepted English Bible, (the AV or KJV) have served to further undermine the common believer’s confidence in their ability to trust the written Word in order to find the truth on their own before God. This has had the same general effect upon believers as imposing oral tradition and commandments of men as authoritative: most of us have lost our way and we don’t seem to know how to find it again. Too many of us have become complacent and content to live this way, contrary to God’s intent, instructions and testimony in His inspired Word.
In all obstacles positioned by the enemy to hinder us in seeking and validating truth for ourselves, we ought to be firm in overcoming. We ought not to be willing to live without direct access to the truth of God, content without first-hand access to a clear knowledge of His ways. He has promised us this and we must trust Him to keep His promise. We must confront those who would impose the commandments and doctrines of men upon us, or suggest in any way that we do not have a sufficient authority in holiness merely in the written Word. We must “buy the truth, and sell it not.” (Pr 23:23)