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The Purpose of Religion

Jesus tended to religious matters.   He attended feast days like Passover and the Feast of Dedication (now commonly called Hanukkah).  He met in the synagogues and read and taught from the Scriptures there.  He sang hymns with his apostles.  Something Jesus never did, however, was become so focused on religious observance that He lost sight of the purpose for religious observance.

Jesus’ life is dotted with stories of His participation in religious matters, but the real story is what Jesus did between those moments.  He was primarily externally focused, not internally focused.  We should be the same.

“Yes”, we might say, “but He was Jesus.  He had a special mission!”  But is Jesus mission so drastically different from ours?

Jesus announced, “the kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”  This expression is a nutshell summation of His entire three years of ministry.  He came to make that Kingdom a reality in His own life, and He went around telling stories to illustrate on a basic, human level what the coming of this “Kingdom” would look like in others – His disciples.  Evan Bassett did a beautiful job reminding of this point in his lesson on January 9.  You can listen to his lesson on our online sermons page.

Bringing the Kingdom into this world means love, compassion, generosity, hospitality – not more pious religious excellence (the very thing the Pharisees pursued the most).   This why Jesus repeatedly said that Kingdom righteousness must exceed that of the  scribes and Pharisees.  His Kingdom would look like this through the people who made up the Kingdom.

Throughout His ministry Jesus scolded the Pharisees for strict observance of prayers, fasting, alms-giving and Sabbath law but a simultaneous lack of obedience to God.   Jesus’ warning about crying “Lord, Lord” in Matthew 7 wasn’t a warning about getting the details of religious observance wrong, but just the opposite.  It was a warning that some might do all kinds of things right and lose their souls because their primary focus was on themselves and their own piety to the exclusion of turning their hearts toward the good of others.

In other words, if they focused all their time perfecting adherence to laws and outward shows of religion (no matter how good and wonderful those might be), they would neglect adhering to the greatest law of all – to love God and neighbor.  Really driving this point home in Matthew 25, Jesus gave a graphic story about how God in judgment would tell those who had failed to tend to the sick or imprisoned or hungry or naked that they had never tended to Him either.

This is challenging to me personally.  I have spent much time in study and prayer and other such practices of my religion but relatively little time reaching out to the larger world outside my own little world with compassion and the gospel.

Religious observances are a good and necessary part of the Christian existence, but only if they meet their intended purpose.  They are designed to center us on our Lord, to edify and motivate us.   From there, we must let our focus be ever outward, not merely inward to these things.  Let us seek out those different from us and the sick, the needy, the dirty, the poor, the lost and let us reach out to them with the compassion of Christ, drawing them to Him and His cross just as we were.

If we become truly engaged in these works we will have little time for allowing ourselves to become “spotted by the world” (James 1:27).  Then and only then will our religious observances be worthwhile – pure and undefiled.

Jesus often answered questions with another question.  In Luke 10, an expert in the Jewish law approached Jesus and asked Him what he must to do inherit eternal life.

27He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[c]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d]Luke 10:27

But the text says the man “wanted to justify himself”, so he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

This man was trying to get Jesus to define God’s terms in such a way that he could claim to be meeting them.  Jesus answer no doubt shocked, confounded and convicted the man.

Jesus proceeds to tell the well-known story of the “Good Samaritan” – the man who sacrificed his own time and money to aid another man who had been robbed, beaten up, and left for dead on the side of the road.  A priest and a Levite (the Jewish holy elite) had passed by the man without helping.  The Samaritans were a race hated by the Jews, and for the hero of the story to be a Samaritan made the point hit home even harder.

After telling this very compelling story, Jesus responds to the man’s question with this question:

36“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Luke 10:36

Notice that Jesus turned the question around.  Instead of “who is my neighbor?”, the question became, “Whose neighbor are you?”

37The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

In this article, we have two good answers to consider – Jesus’ answer and the man’s answer to Jesus’ answer/question.

Jesus answered by defining terms in a way unexpected by the law expert.  This man was accustomed to reading the law in a way that served his own sense of personal justification.   Now, instead of centering the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” on the “neighbor”, Jesus put the emphasis back squarely on “you”.

Jesus teaches us here that we shouldn’t attempt to define the commands of God in a way that makes them easily attainable by us.  The expert was looking around at others as pawns in his game of self-righteousness.  If he could narrowly define a neighbor in a way that he considered attainable, he might claim his own life to be perfectly within the law.  However, if  “neighbor”  was defined by his own heart, that would be an entirely different matter.

The command to love our neighbor is not a call for us to define neighbor, but to define love.  It is not our place to judge the worthiness of others in receiving our love.  Our responsibility is to look inwardly at our own hearts and motives to judge whether our outward actions reflect a real change by God on the inside or mere outward observance of “the law”.

We might say, “But Jesus told the man to go and do likewise!  Isn’t that Jesus laying down a law to be followed in order to attain our salvation?  Jesus even told the man in verse 38 that if he kept the commandments he would live!”

Yes, but Jesus had something else in mind besides outward conformity to the written law.  The command was grounded in “love the Lord your God with all your heart”.  That’s not good a work you can do at a single point in time.  It’s a state of being.  Later, when Jesus said, “Go and do”, he had already made this point.  This story was designed to so turn upside down the man’s understanding of things, that it convicted him inwardly to repentance.  Repentance is fundamentally about a change of heart, not a mere change in action.  This is why Paul repeatedly teaches we are save by faith not works.

Like all Jesus’ stories, this one focuses on the reality that the Kingdom of God is about the heart.  The priests and Levites were responsible for sacrifices on behalf of the nation.  Perhaps these men were on their way to tend to that business (on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem) when they passed by the wounded man.

Does this describe our hearts?  Are we so quick to observe the most obvious outward trappings of our religion that we overlook the real opportunities to live out the gospel?  Are we likely to speed by a stranded motorist on the interstate because we’re late for church?  Think about it.

Jesus made this point powerfully in his earthly ministry.  In Matthew 19, He said this:

13But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

The Good Samaritan story also brings to light the universal nature of the Kingdom.  In this story, the non-Jew was following God’s law in a way the Jews (even the Jewish priesthood) were not.  These Jews clearly rejected Jesus in His earthly ministry.  The story illustrates how the Kingdom of God is made up of all – Jew and Gentile – who truly have their hearts turned by the love of God.

Furthermore, in his death, burial and resurrection, Jesus was about to give the world the ultimate Good Samaritan story of love and selfless sacrifice and show what loving our neighbor was really about.  Believing in its saving power, the gospel is what really changes us and empowers us to love the way God wills.

36Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? 37The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.

Now that’s a good answer!

In Romans 5, Paul spent a lot of time and ink explaining how we are saved by the grace of God.   The chapter break ends this way:

20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 5:20-21

Whenever grace is emphasized someone invariably makes that charge: “Hey, if it’s by God’s grace that we are saved and not by works, why should we be concerned about living righteously?”

Paul anticipates this question in Romans 6:1

1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?

Paul’s answer is terse.  The KJV reads “God forbid!”  That is a poor translation, since no Greek word for “God” is found in the original text.  Paul is simply saying “no” in the strongest way in the Greek.   Paul then asks a question of his own –  a profound thought-question for Christians:

How could we?

Why is this a thought-provoking question?  It’s packed with significance.  Let’s unpack it.

To begin, Paul didn’t say, “Certainly not, because God’s law requires you do x, y & z!”  He could have said it that way, but he didn’t.  He simply said, “How could we possibly keep sinning who have died to sin through the grace I’ve been expounding?”

Let’s notice, then, that the attitude of a believer should not be one of a moral obligation to God, but one of gratitude to God.  It’s always been this way.

When Potiphar’s wife tempted Joseph with adultery he cried out, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” Gen. 39:9

This is the same question Paul asked.  When you look at the context of the Genesis passage, Joseph is really saying, “How could I, who have received so much from God, do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”  It’s gratitude, not fear.  This doesn’t mean we should not fear God – just that fear is not God’s primary method of motivating His people.

This question remains for the believer today.  Yet for the Christian, it’s even more significant than for Joseph because we have Christ’s completed work acting in us.  Unlike Joseph’s spiritual state, Paul carefully explains the state we are in.

We died to sin (v. 1)

We were therefore buried with him (v.4)

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (v.5)

because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. (v.7)

Paul says these things have happened – past tense – to those who believe, who have been united with Christ in the symbol of his death, burial and resurrection (baptism, v.3).  The resurrection Paul speaks of here is not the bodily resurrection at the end of time, but the resurrected life of the believer in this world.  New people act like new people, not like the old people.  This doesn’t mean we won’t struggle with the flesh from day to day, but overall our course is set.  It is not a course of sinless perfection.  It is a course of faith.

Let’s make one final point.  We may be thinking, “Then how do we encourage virtuous living?  How do we exhort people to moral behavior?”  Let’s look at how Paul does it.  Paul doesn’t use the “God said it, so you must do it” approach.   So what approach does he use?

He appeals to them with the gospel.

This is the only biblical way to move closer to God in your daily walk.  Self-determination to “follow the rules” isn’t going to get it.  Drawing from your inner-strength isn’t going to achieve it.  Positive thinking isn’t going to do it.  Pressure from other people around you isn’t going to work either.

Only understanding the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ is going to give us the power to truly change.  This is why we must constantly immerse ourselves in the gospel message.

How does this play out practically?  When you feel tempted by sin, don’t run to the passage that says, “don’t do this” or “don’t do that” and try to bend your will to the command.  Simply reading the direct commands of  scripture (and there are many) without seeing them in the proper context of the gospel will lead you down a road of failure and disappointment.

On the other hand, daily reminders of our acceptance through faith in Jesus Christ will give us the motivation and the power to truly overcome the sin in our lives – not just conform outwardly to a set of rules.

Should we presumptuously take advantage of God’s grace, then?  Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?

Certainly not!  How can we who died to sin live any longer in it?

Now that’s a good answer.

Good Answer: You are the Christ!

13When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ,[b] the Son of the living God.”

17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. Matt. 16:13-17

In this text, Jesus asked a very direct question of His disciples.   He had made a major splash among the people throughout the whole region of Judea, and lots of people were talking about Jesus.

It is interesting to note that the superstitious Jews suspected Jesus might have been a resurrected prophet like John the Baptist, Jeremiah or Elijah.  These were men who came with displays of power and with the word of God.

But Peter would have none of that.  When Jesus asked His closest companions – the men who had really come to know Him – to identify Him, there was only one answer.

16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ,[b] the Son of the living God.”

What we are to take from the passage is that this is the answer.  With Jesus, there is no list of possibilities.  He is more than great prophet, great teacher, great leader.  Yes, He is all of those things, but He is more.  Jesus is the Christ.

What is the meaning of “the Christ”?

The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). John 1:41

The term Christ is a Greek word meaning “anointed one”, which is translated from the Hebrew term “Messiah”.  The Messiah was understood by the Jews to be the great one anointed by God who would bring to a climax God’s redemptive work for Israel.  The days He would usher in were prophesied about in the most vivid of positive imagery:

6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling [a] together;
and a little child will lead them.

7 The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.

9 They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
Is. 11:6-9

It’s like the line from that great song we hear so often during the Christmas season, O Little Town of Bethlehem:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The Christ would be the answer to every hope and fear of man.  Peter had seen Jesus’ miracles, had interacted with Him daily, heard His words, knew His heart.   He recognized Jesus for who He was and is.  Peter would later learn (in Acts 10) that this Messiah was the hope and redemption of all men, not just the Jews.  Today many of us bristle at the idea of needing a Christ.  Offending our modern sensibilities, the Bible makes the spectacular claim that Jesus is the answer to everything.  He is man’s only hope for redemption and peace.  He is the only way to have a relationship with the God of creation.   He is the Lord of all.  Everything was created by Him and for Him.  Every knee will bow to Him in the day He comes to judge men.-century Jews were a downtrodden lot, a defeated people living under the shadow of Roman domination.  We, on the other hand, are a free, independent, strong-willed, educated modern people.  Why do we need a savior?  Accepting Jesus as Christ in our modern world requires a radical change in thinking.  This is why so many reject Him today.

Do you say He is the Christ?

Peter also says Jesus is the “son of the living God”.  This was a startling revelation.  As the Son of the living God, Jesus was more than just “Christ”.  He was more than a great spiritual leader or earthly king.  He came directly from God Himself.  He was neither God’s human mouthpiece like one of the prophets nor His earthly representative like Moses, but the very presence and person of God.

This changed everything.  This enable Jesus to be savior.   It gave Him unprecedented authority and power.  Peter saw Jesus heal incurable diseases, break all the laws of physics, and proclaim people’s sins forgiven.  Only God can forgive sins, so this dumbfounded His critics.  Take this passage from Mark 2:

1A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

6Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7“Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

This text displays Jesus miraculous power and His unique claim to authority over sin.  It made Him different than every other “Christ” who came before or after Him.

Do you say Jesus is the Son of God?

Finally, it is interesting that Jesus says “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you [Peter]” (KJV).  Recognizing Jesus as the Christ is not something we can come to by mere human reasoning and intellect or by some wisdom of men from the ages.  The Spirit of God reveals this to men.  Our eyes are opened by God to see it.  Paul emphasizes this, too, when he says:

14The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. I Cor. 2:14

The point of all this is to take the emphasis off men and put it all squarely on God.   Only God can save us – we cannot save ourselves.  We cannot use our human intellect to “figure out” how to redeem ourselves.  We need the Spirit of God to reveal it to us.

In other words, you cannot place your faith in yourself or in any man, but only in Jesus.  Who is Jesus?  He is the Christ, the son of the living God!

Now that’s a good answer!  Why?

9because, if(A) you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and(B) believe in your heart(C) that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Rom. 10:9-10

The “Gospel” and “Church”

We need to be sure we understand what the “gospel” is and not confuse that with instruction about how the “church” should function as an institution.  Yet, while these two things are not the same,  both are very important in the life of a Christian.

What about Baptism?

A few thoughts on the sometimes-controversial subject of baptism. This podcast barely scratches the surface of the differing sides on baptism, but is a brief overview from one perspective.

Why is Theology Necessary?

Is the study of theology really for everyday Christians?  Consider this question with some observations written by minister John Summers and read in this podcast by Jason Johnson.