Standing Fast and Holding the Traditions – 2 Thessalonians 2:15
Paul urges the Thessalonians to “stand fast and hold the traditions” (2 Thess. 2:15). A tradition is a teaching or practice handed down from one person to another. The verb that underlies the noun “tradition” is to “transmit,” “pass down,” “hand over,” or “deliver.”
In Matthew 15 and Mark 7 the Pharisees criticized Jesus because He did not follow “the tradition of the elders” with respect to hand washing. Mark explains: “And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables” (Mark 7:4). Jesus neglects the tradition of the elders because they conflict with the Word of God: “Laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men” (v. 8) and “Full well ye reject the commandment of God that ye may keep your own tradition” (v. 9).
In Colossians 2:8 Paul warns about merely human traditions: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” A human tradition is not to be kept if it is contrary to the Word of God.
Because we remember Christ’s condemnation of the Pharisees, we are tempted to reject all traditions and to have a negative view of tradition. We might have legitimate concerns about the misuse of tradition and prefer to avoid tradition altogether. But the Bible also speaks about tradition in a positive way, so it would be wrong to throw out all tradition
In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul writes, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” The word “ordinances” in that verse is “traditions.” Paul delivered certain ordinances/traditions to the Corinthians, which they kept. They did not reject them. They did not corrupt them. They did not change them. They kept them. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul commands the Thessalonians to “hold” the traditions. He makes reference to traditions in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 also: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received from us.” Paul often refers to traditions as those truths that he has delivered to the churches.
For example, there is the “tradition” concerning the Lord’s Supper: “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you” (1 Cor. 11:23). There is also the “tradition” of the gospel: “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel, which I have preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand… For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1, 3). There is also the “tradition” of the gospel as “the form of sound words” (2 Tim. 1:12), about which Paul writes, “That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us” (v. 13). Finally, there is the whole “tradition” of the apostle Paul, which Timothy must pass on to others: “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” (2 Tim. 2:2).
So here is how truth is passed down. Jesus is the truth. Jesus reveals truth to the apostles by the Holy Spirit, who leads the church into all truth. The apostles preach the truth to the churches and record it for posterity in the New Testament Scriptures. That truth the churches are called to keep or to hold.
Paul refers to two—and only two—sources of “tradition” in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. There are two—and only two—ways in which the truth is transmitted or handed down to the church. These are (1) by word and (2) by our epistle. In these two ways, by word and by epistle, the Thessalonians were “taught.” They were “taught” the “traditions.”
The first way is “by word.” Word is logos, which is a word uttered, spoken, or communicated. The idea of “logos” is that of an intelligible proposition: a logos or word is not something mysterious or incomprehensible. “Christ died for our sins” is a word or logos. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” is a word or logos. “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” is a word or logos. “A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” is a word or logos. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law” is a word or logos. “God hath chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world” is a word or logos. “God hath highly exalted Jesus and given him a name which is above every name” is a word or logos.
In other words, the word or logos is the instruction that the Thessalonians had heard when the apostle Paul was in Thessalonica. He had preached to them: that was his word or logos to them. It was not Paul’s word, but God’s Word, as we see in 1 Thessalonians 2:13: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing because when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth the word of God, which effectually worketh in you that believe.”
That word is tradition.
Now we know that Paul—not to mention Silas, Timothy, and others—preached many sermons in Thessalonica. However, the only record of the content of that teaching is in Acts 17:2-3: “And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered and risen again from the dead, and that this Jesus whom I preach unto you is Christ.” Paul also makes reference to his word or logos also in verse 5: “Remember ye not that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?”
Those words, however, record Paul’s missionary labors in the region, not what he preached in the church of Thessalonica. No sermon of Paul in Thessalonica has been recorded. No one today can say, “I heard a sermon by the apostle Paul in Thessalonica where he said this or that.” The record of Paul’s words is found only in the Bible.
The first part of the “traditions,” therefore, concerns the public preaching and private teaching of Paul and his companions, the essence of which is found today in the Bible alone.
The second way is by “our epistle.” An epistle is a letter. Paul wrote two letters to Thessalonica, which we know as First Thessalonians and Second Thessalonians. In addition, Paul wrote other letters to other churches. These letters were copied and distributed to the other churches. Paul expected the Thessalonians to read the letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Corinthians, for example. Paul expected the Romans to read the letters to the Galatians and the Ephesians. Moreover, Paul was not the only letter-writer. Peter wrote letters also—two of them—and in 2 Peter 3:15-16 he recommends Paul’s letters: “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation, even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things: wherein are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”
James, Jude, and John wrote letters also. James wrote one letter, Jude wrote one letter, John wrote three letters, plus a gospel, plus the book of Revelation.
These letters contain a wealth of teaching on many subjects. They contain instruction concerning God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the incarnation, salvation, justification, sanctification, the church, the sacraments, and the last things. They also contain instructions on worship, prayer, godly living, and warnings about sin and false teachings.
These two things—the word and the epistles or letters—constitute “tradition.” In other words, tradition is simply the instruction of Christ received by the apostles through the Holy Spirit and handed down or delivered to the church.
But why did Paul not simply write, “Hold the Holy Scriptures,” or “Hold the Bible”? Why mention “traditions”? We need to understand the historical context. When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, the New Testament Scriptures were not yet complete. At that point in history, direct revelation continued in the church. Therefore, the people were still instructed by means of word or logos and epistle. What the apostles said was in the memory of the people. The people knew the gospel and the apostles expected them to know it. However, the apostles also knew that the people’s memory was not infallible and that a permanent record of the gospel was necessary. Therefore, they committed their teachings in writing in letters or epistles.
An interesting example of this is found in the prologue of the gospel according to Luke, where he explains the reason for writing to Theophilus. In Luke 1:1 the evangelist refers to “those things, which are most surely believed among us,” which is a reference to the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles. In 1:2 he speaks of these things as having been “delivered” through “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” In 1:3-4 he explains his purpose to Theophilus: he intended to write a full account of the things “that [he might] know the certainty of those things wherein [he had] been instructed.”
Do you see what Luke is saying? Theophilus, a Christian, was already instructed in the truth: the Greek word is “catechized.” Certain truths were “most surely believed” in the Christian community and by Theophilus. But Theophilus had not read the New Testament yet, for it has not been written. The gospel accounts had not yet been written, and only a few of the epistles had been circulated. Therefore, Luke writes an orderly account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ: he is qualified for this work because he had “perfect understanding of all things from the very beginning” (v. 3) and because the Holy Spirit inspired him to write. The result is an infallible, inerrant, inspired, authoritative account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, which is a permanent record and, therefore, “more sure” than anything that Theophilus had heard up until that point. If later someone claimed secret traditions and teachings not recorded in the Scriptures—as the Gnostics did—the answer is clear: nothing the Gnostics say is reliable because their teachings contradict the sacred writings.
Peter makes a similar point in 2 Peter 1: in that chapter he refers to the word that he, James, and John had heard on the Mount of Transfiguration (1:17-18). What an amazing experience! Yet, only three men had heard that word, and one of them, James, had already died. Peter reassures his readers—and us—that it is not necessary to be on the Mount of Transfiguration because we have the Scriptures, which constitute a “more sure word” (1:19). The word is “more sure” because it is recorded permanently in writing for us. And remember that Peter includes Paul’s writings among the Scriptures (3:15-16)
Apply those facts to our situation. The apostles have died. John was the last apostle. Furthermore, everyone who knew the apostles has died also. It is no longer true to say about the eyewitnesses of the resurrection: “the greater part remain unto the present” (1 Cor. 15:6), although that was the case when Paul wrote it. Since all the eyewitnesses of the events recorded in Scripture—whether Jesus’ miracles, his sufferings, his resurrection, or his ascension—have died, the only place we can find the teachings of the apostles, which Paul calls the traditions, is in sacred Scripture. Paul did not leave any other source where we find his traditions, or Peter’s traditions, or John’s traditions, for example.
In fact, if anyone, even in the apostolic age, preached contrary to the received apostolic traditions of the gospel, he fell under the divine curse: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9).
Therefore, the gospel that the Corinthians must believe is the one that Paul preached—the “traditional gospel”—and the one that they had received. They must not receive a different gospel from any other source. In 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 Paul expresses alarm at the possibility: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another Spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might bear with him.” Again, notice—the Corinthians had received a certain message about Jesus. That message they had received by word and epistle. They must not tolerate or listen to a different message, which is a different gospel from the traditional gospel, which is the one handed down to them.
The Roman Church claims to have the traditions; in fact, she claims unique access to and authority over the traditions. While the Bible is useful, says Rome, it does not include everything necessary. The apostles supposedly left traditions as a sacred deposit, which only the Roman Church knows. But Paul says to the Ephesian elders: “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you” (Acts 20:20), and “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (v. 27). Are we to believe, then, that Paul neglected to tell the church—and the other apostles also neglected to tell the church—the important doctrines for which Rome claims apostolic authority, but which have no place in the Scriptures?
Rome boasts of “unwritten tradition.” Unwritten tradition is a sacred deposit of truth kept in the church and passed down through the church especially through the teaching office of Peter in the succession of popes and in the Roman Magisterium. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent made the following declaration in 1546 (some 17 years before our Heidelberg Catechism was written):
The truths and rules [of Christ and the apostles] are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand. Following, then, the examples of the orthodox fathers, [the Council] receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both, also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.
Rome added an anathema—a curse—to anyone who denied her claim.
In Vatican 2 (1962-1965) Rome repeated her claim concerning tradition:
The Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone. Hence both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence. Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single deposit of the Word of God which is entrusted to the Church.
Therefore, this is a question of authority.
The authority in Rome is not the Bible. The authority in Rome is not the word or the epistle of the apostles of 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Rome does not hold the traditions that the apostles have taught. Rome holds her own traditions, but she does so in a very clever—and in a very evil—way: she defines her own traditions and places them on a par with, and even above, the Word of God. The Magisterium, which is the name that Rome gives to her teaching office, determines what truth is. If Rome determines that the Apocrypha is the Word of God, so be it! If Rome determines that justification is by faith and the good works of faith, so be it! If Rome determines that Mary is the Immaculate Mother of God, Mediatrix of all graces, and declares the bodily assumption of Mary to be a dogma, so be it! If Rome determines the existence of the place called purgatory and promises indulgences to escape it and promises to release people from purgatory at a price, so be it! If Rome proclaims seven sacraments instead of the two that Christ instituted, so be it! If Rome teaches baptismal regeneration, transubstantiation, and the need for priests to forgive sins, let it be so! If there is not a shred of biblical evidence for such dogmas, it does not matter because Rome reserves to herself the sole right to interpret the Bible. If there is no historical evidence—and even if the church fathers write against such dogmas—it does not matter, because Rome determines what tradition means. And if you ask to see the tradition, the answer is, “The tradition is unwritten. You must believe what the Church teaches. The Church is the authority. The Church has the gift of infallibility in Peter and his successors the popes. Only the Church has the right to interpret the Word of God and tradition.”
There is a great word to describe that: ipsedixitism. Ipsedixitism comes from the Latin for “he himself said it.” It is a dogmatic assertion without proof. Rome’s doctrine is: “The church said it; therefore, you must accept it. Ipsedixitism!” The truth is not ecclesiastical ipsedixitism, but “Thus saith the Lord.” We believe and we do because God said it: and God said it in Scripture. God did not say it Rome’s spurious “unwritten traditions.”
Keith A. Mathison comments:
“Scripture cannot be appealed to as a higher law because the Church tells us what Scripture is and what it really means. Tradition cannot be appealed to as a higher law because the Church tells us what tradition is and what it really means. The fathers cannot be appealed to as a higher standard because the Church tells us what the fathers really mean. God cannot be appealed to because the Church is said to be the voice of God on earth. And because there is no higher ethical or doctrinal standard to which anyone can appeal, the Church becomes autonomous—a law unto herself.” (The Shape of Sola Scriptura, p. 224).
Indeed, in Paul’s own day there were spurious sources of doctrine against which Paul warned the Thessalonians. There were spurious traditions, ideas claiming to be apostolic traditions, spurious forms of revelation (so-called) that Christians were called to test and reject on the basis of what had already been received from the apostles.
In chapter 2 of Second Thessalonians Paul is correcting an error. That error concerned the day of Christ (v. 2). Some were teaching in Thessalonica that the day of Christ was “at hand,” just around the corner, so that nothing else needed to occur before his coming. Some had taken this error very seriously: they had become disorderly, busybodies, and idle: they had stopped working because they believed that the day of Christ was at hand (3:6, 10-12). The effect upon the congregation was serious: they were “shaken in mind” and “troubled” (2:2). Paul warns the Thessalonians not to listen to such ideas, which came from three sources: (1) “spirit” (the idea is of an ecstatic utterance supposedly from the Holy Spirit); (2) “word” (the idea is that someone claimed that Paul had spoken about such things and had either misremembered it or had deliberately twisted something that Paul had said in a sermon); and (3) “letter” or epistle (the idea is of a spurious letter claiming to be from Paul, Timothy, or Silas, in which such false ideas were found).
Paul warns the Thessalonians: do not listen to seducing spirits; do not listen to contradictory words; do not pay heed to deceptive letters. We, the apostles, did not say that. Instead, remember our words and our epistles. Hold the traditions!
One final point I want to make about traditions from 2 Thessalonians 2: they are synonymous with “truth” in verses 10, 12, and 13, and contrasted with “lie” in verse 11. When we believe and hold traditions—which are recorded only in sacred Scripture—we believe and hold the truth, and we reject the lie. When we follow non-biblical traditions, just because the Church tells us to, we believe the lie and reject the truth.
Having defined and explained what Paul means by “traditions,” we see his exhortation: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions” (v. 15). This is a twofold exhortation.
First, Paul calls the Thessalonians to “stand fast” in the traditions. To “stand fast” is to refuse to move from a place of safety or security. The Thessalonians must refuse to move away from the gospel that they had been taught. They must refuse to move away from the word of the apostle; they must refuse to a different word. They must refuse to move away from the epistle, from I Thessalonians and from the other epistles that the apostles had written or would write. If a false teacher or even an angel from heaven brought a different message, they must not move from the message that they had heard.
For example, they must stand fast when the Judaizers would come: these wicked men would teach that circumcision was necessary for salvation. They must stand fast in the gospel of God’s grace. They must stand fast when men would deny election, which Paul had taught them in 1 Thess. 1:4. They must stand fast when men would try to rob them of their assurance, which Paul had pressed upon them in 1 Thess. 1:5. They must stand fast when men would deny the atoning sacrifice and resurrection of the Lord, which Paul had taught them in 1 Thess. 1:10. They must stand fast when men would deny the coming of second coming of Jesus, which Paul had taught in 1 Thess. 4. They must stand fast when men would try to corrupt them morally contrary to the will of God for their sanctification, which Paul explained in 1 Thess. 4. In all of these precious truths the Thessalonians must stand fast.
This “standing fast” would be costly: it would bring persecution from ungodly men; it would bring trouble from family and friends, who would urge the Thessalonians not to stand fast. Standing fast, therefore, required courage and strong faith. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). Paul writes to the Galatians: “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). Paul writes to the Philippians: “Stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).
We, too, must stand fast. In summary, we must stand fast for the truth as it is in Scripture.
Second, Paul calls the Thessalonians to “hold” the traditions. “To hold” is to grasp or to seize. The idea is to hold on to something so that we do not let it go. In addition, since the verb is in the present tense, we could translate it in this way: “Keep holding the traditions” or “Continue to hold the traditions.” Therefore, the Thessalonians must not lose the traditions, or throw away the traditions, or neglect the traditions. The Thessalonians must remember Paul’s instruction in the word and in the epistle, and they must cling tightly to it. Furthermore, the Thessalonians must keep the traditions: not as a dusty heirloom or an antique that is never used, but as a treasure to be guarded, preserved, and used. They must preserve the traditions unchanged and unadulterated. They must defend the traditions against all enemies. They must pass the traditions down to the next generation of Christians.
We, too, must hold the traditions. We must cling to the truth of the gospel. We must preserve the treasure of the truth of God’s Word. We must not change it, corrupt it, lose it, or neglect it. We must not replace the traditions that are preserved only in the Scriptures. We must not say about the traditions, “I am tired of these old doctrines and practices. I want something new, novel, and exciting for the Modern Age.” Instead, we say: “I will stand fast and hold the traditions that God has preserved in his Word and that I have been taught.”
Paul gives reasons for holding the traditions when he writes, “Therefore, brethren…” Do not miss that word “Therefore” with which the verse begins. That word gives a reason and directs us back to the context. There are two reasons why we must stand fast and hold the traditions, as we have been taught.
The first reason is the broader context of chapter 2: we must stand fast and hold the traditions because of the terrible threat of apostasy and Antichrist mentioned in this chapter. Some Thessalonians were gravely mistaken: they expected Christ to come almost immediately. They were not ready for what would really occur. “That day shall not come,” warns Paul in 2:3, “except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.” Apostasy—a great falling away from the truth, and, therefore, from the traditions, was coming. The Thessalonians must be ready for it: many will be deceived. The man of sin will have deceitful wonders (v. 9); many will show that they do not love the truth (v. 10); many shall believe a lie (v. 11). In that atmosphere of apostasy, where the basic doctrines of the faith are denied and rejected, and where ungodly practices are adopted, what must we do? We must “stand fast and hold the traditions.” When the man of sin proposes a different gospel, a different Christ, and a different God, we must say, “No: I hold the traditions. I hold the faithful gospel of Christ crucified. My trust is in the finished work of Jesus. I trust in him for the forgiveness of my sins. I look to his righteousness to justify me and his Spirit to sanctify me.”
Standing fast and holding the traditions are the God-appointed means to preserve us. When many are swept away in the great apostasy, those who hold the traditions, as they are set forth in Scripture, will be kept. God’s power keeps us by faith, as we learn in 1 Peter 1:5.
The second reason is the narrow context of our text. We stand fast and hold the traditions because of what God has done for us: “But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2:13). That is the contrast between those who apostatize and those who stand fast: election! God has chosen us. God has chosen us to salvation. But the salvation to which God has chosen you comes by means of the sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth. No one is saved without sanctification. No one is sanctified, except by the Spirit. No one is saved without faith/belief in the truth. Moreover, we receive the salvation through the calling of God in the gospel (2:14).
Indeed, the Spirit gives us the power to believe the truth. The Spirit gives us the power to stand fast. The Spirit gives us the power to hold the traditions, and by God’s grace the man of sin will never deceive us and we will never fall away.