Reject the futility of religion, and embrace Life!
Jesus had told the people – “’While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.’” (John 12: 36a) However, John’s historical gospel record states – “But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: ‘Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.’ These things Isaiah said when he saw His glory and spoke of Him.” (John 12: 37-40)
Isaiah, around eight hundred years before Jesus was born, was commissioned by God to tell the Jews – ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ (Isa. 6: 9) God told Isaiah – “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed.” (Isa. 6: 10) In Isaiah’s day the Jews were rebelling against God, and disobeying His word. God had Isaiah tell them what was going to happen to them because of their disobedience. God knew that they would not heed Isaiah’s words, but He had Isaiah tell them anyway. Now, many years later, Jesus came. He came as Isaiah prophesied he would; as a “tender plant,” as a “root out of dry ground,” not esteemed by men but “despised and rejected of men.” (Isa. 53: 1-3) He came proclaiming the truth about Himself. He came doing miracles. He came revealing the righteousness of God. However, most people rejected both Him and His word.
John, early in his gospel record wrote of Jesus – “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” (John 1: 11) John, later in his gospel record wrote – “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12: 42-43) They did not want to be openly and publicly associated with Jesus. Jesus had rejected the hypocritical Pharisaic religion that proclaimed rules, and dulled people’s hearts toward God. The external religion of the Pharisees allowed them to measure their own righteousness, as well as the righteousness of others. They held themselves up as arbiters and judges of others, according to their man-made doctrine. According to the doctrines of the Pharisees, Jesus failed their test. In living and walking in complete obedience and submission to His Father, Jesus lived outside of their laws.
Most of the Jews had hard hearts and blinded minds. They had no spiritual understanding of who Jesus was. Though some may have believed in Him, many never came to the critical point of believing Him. There is a tremendous difference in believing in Jesus – believing that He existed as a person in history, and believing His word. Jesus always sought for people to believe His word, and then to obey His word.
Why is it necessary today, as it was in Jesus’ day, to reject religion before we can embrace the life the Jesus has for us? Religion, in an endless number of ways, tells us how we can earn God’s favor. It always has some external requirements that must be met before that “right” standing before God is granted. If you study the various religions of the world, you see that each one has its own set of rules, rituals, and requirements.
In Hindu temples, the “needs” of the gods are met by worshipers who go through purification rites before drawing near to the god. Rituals such as washing the feet, rinsing the mouth, bathing, dressing, perfuming, feeding, hymn singing, bell ringing, and incense burning are performed in order to approach the god (Eerdman 193-194). In Buddhism, as part of the process to solve the universal human dilemma of suffering, a person must follow an eight-fold path of right knowledge, right attitude, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, and right composure (231). Orthodox Judaism requires following strict rules regarding Shabbat (Sabbath) worship, dietary laws, as well as praying three times a day (294). A follower of Islam must observe the five pillars of Islam: the shahada (a sincere verbal Arabic recital of testimony that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is his prophet), the salat (five prayers at specific times each day facing Mecca, which are preceded by ritual washings), the zakat (an obligatory tax given to those less fortunate), the sawn (fasting during Ramadan), and the Hajj (a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a person’s lifetime) (321-323).
Religion always places its emphasis on human effort to please God. Jesus came to reveal God to mankind. He came to show how righteous God is. He came to do what man could not do. Jesus pleased God – for us. Of necessity Jesus rejected the religion of the Jewish leaders. They had missed the purpose of the Mosaic law altogether. It was to help the Jews know that they could not measure up to the law, but desperately needed a Savior. Religion always creates self-righteousness, and that is what the Pharisees were filled with. Religion diminishes God’s righteousness. For those who believed Jesus was the Messiah, but would not openly confess Him, the cost to do so was just too high for them to pay. It says that they loved the praise of men, more than the praise of God.
As a former Mormon, I spent a lot of time and energy doing Mormon temple work. I labored to “keep the Sabbath day holy.” I lived the dietary laws of Mormonism. I followed what the Mormon prophets and apostles taught. I spent hours and hours doing genealogy. I had a close relationship with a church, but not with Jesus Christ. I was trusting in what I could do to “live the gospel” as Mormons say. Many of the Pharisees of Jesus day spent a lot of time and energy in religious activity, but when Jesus came and invited them into a new and living relationship with God, they would not give up their religion. They wanted to hold on to the old order, even though it was faulty and broken. Whether they realized it or not, their religion would lead them carefully to an eternity without God – into eternal torment. They did not want to see themselves in the true Light of Jesus Christ. The truth would reveal how wretched and broken they were on the inside. They wanted to continue in the delusion of their religion – that their external efforts were enough to merit eternal life. They had hearts that wanted to follow and please men, rather than God.
I know that there is a high cost to rejecting religion, and embracing the abundant life that only a relationship with Jesus Christ can give. That cost may be loss of relationships, loss of jobs, or even death. But, only Jesus is the true vine of life. We can only be a part of Him if His Spirit dwells in us. Only those who have experienced a new birth through faith in Him partake of eternal life. We cannot enjoy the fruit of His Spirit unless we abide in Him, and He abides in us. Today Jesus wants to give you a new life. He alone can give you His Spirit. He alone can take you all the way from where you are today, to heaven to live with Him for eternity. Just like the Jewish leaders, we have a choice whether to lay aside our pride and our religion, and trust and obey His word. You can accept Him today as your Savior, or you can one day stand before Him as Judge. You will be judged for what you have done in this life, but if you reject what He has done – you will spend eternity without Him. To me, rejecting religion is an important step to embracing Life!
Alexander, Pat. ed. Eerdman’s Handbook to the World’s Religions. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1994.