No religion

thI read a section in the Old Testament book of Leviticus this morning that I can’t get out of my mind. A lot of people have problems with Christianity because they have problems with religion. What many fail to understand is that God has problems with religion, too.

The gospel is such a basic, simple thing. God created human beings in His image. Human beings sinned by disobeying God. God said if you sin you will die, which has proven to be true for every human being who ever lived, including us. But God provided a way out by becoming a human being Himself and dying in our place so that the punishment of sin for the whole human race He created can be met in Christ, and those who place their faith in Him, “though they die, yet shall they live.” That’s it. No more; no less. Anything more than this is religion, and God doesn’t accept it. He is not impressed by our religious activity, whatever it is; He is impressed only by His Son in us, and that comes by faith, not religion.

So, Leviticus is a book of instructions for Aaron and the sons of Levi who are the priests of the children of Israel, the Jews. Their main duty is to care for the temple and offer sacrifices to God. The sacrifices are for sin, to cover the sins of the people, and they all point to Christ, the ultimate sacrifice, making these bloody practices no longer necessary. That’s why the book of Leviticus to us seems a little overdone since it is no longer needed. Nevertheless, everything in God’s word teaches something, it’s just that this book can feel boring and repetitious because it outlines all the details for how the priests are to offer the goats, bulls, lambs, birds and grain offerings to God. If you want religion, I suppose there is plenty of it here, but this is all spelled out in detail. It tells the priests exactly what to do with the animals, how to slaughter them, how to cut them up, what to do with the blood, the fat and the internal organs, how to place them on the altar and burn them up. It’s very bloody.

Finally, after eight chapters of instructions, in chapter nine, they get to it. Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons got it all exactly as instructed, and when they are all done, in the company of all the people, “Fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When the people saw all this, they shouted with joy and fell face down on the ground” (Leviticus 9:24). I think we would too, had we been there.

Immediately after this, in chapter 10, a couple of sons of Aaron get an idea. They put coals of fire in their incense burners and sprinkle incense over the altar.

What? Incense? Who said anything about incense? Flip through the last nine chapters and there is no mention of sprinkling incense on the altar. This was something added. This was their own idea. And we find out pretty quickly what God thinks about that, because another fire blazes forth from heaven and consumes the two sons.

Now I know I’m being a little insensitive towards Nadab and Abihu, but this was a long time ago and I didn’t know them personally. But isn’t it just like us to want to add something to what God has already done, as if what God has already done wasn’t enough?

It was a lesson not soon forgotten. Don’t add anything to what God has required. And so what has God required from us? Faith in Christ. That’s it. Nothing else. No ceremony; no religion. Religion is always our idea. God’s idea is the simple gospel of Jesus Christ and what He has already done, and how we can access all that by faith in Him.

So if you don’t like religion, you’re in good company. Neither does God.

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17 Responses to No religion

  1. Brian says:

    Two comments on your message today. Jesus told us to form the church when he told Peter he was the rock upon which he would form His church. So God can’t hate it all that much. But I agree when it gets Pharisaical, God probably is not a fan.

    I’ve been reading Leviticus, too. Today I read Ch. 26 & 27. There were harsh words and a lot of threats especially in Leviticus 26: 14-43. I don’t remember reading these verses previously (perhaps all the “Uncleans” and the detailed descriptions of the rituals you mentioned in the earlier verses caused me to stop reading Leviticus before I ever got to the last 2 chapters). This is the God that Maude talked about when she said, “God will get you for that, Walter.” The thought that I had was, I wouldn’t want to serve a god who was so vengeful. I had a very hard time reconciling Him with the God that Jesus called Abba. Can you help me out here?

    • jwfisch says:

      God hates evil. You and I do too. Though the new covenant was in effect in the Old Testament (Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness), the prevailing system of the Old Testament was the old covenant, i.e. do good and God will bless you; do bad, and get ready to see the wrath of God. So if there is nothing to protect you from the wrath of God, that’s what you’re going to get. However, anyone who calls out for God’s mercy, will receive it, because God poured out His wrath on His Son on the cross so He could be merciful to all who believe. God’s desire is for no one to perish.

  2. David says:

    I’ve enjoyed your writing for many years, John, but I’m wrestling with today’s post. In James 1:26, James tells us about ‘worthless religion,’ but he then goes on in the next verse to describe pure and undefiled religion as visiting orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping ourselves from being stained by the world. I understand your point about the harm of adding rules and regulations to our faith, but I think we sometimes throw away the term ‘religion’, when we should go about the job of telling others about the true, beautiful, free religion that is offered to us by Jesus.

    • Unfortunately, translations and interpretations oftentimes don’t do the Biblical text justice.

      Perhaps this will help you, David…
      Here is the literal translation of James 1:26 & 27 from the Orthodox Jewish Bible:
      26 “If anyone considers himself to be one of the Charedim (Orthodox, Godfearing Jewish religious ones), yet has lashon hora (an evil tongue, disparaging speech, slanderous talk) and does not bridle his tongue but instead causes his lev (heart) to fall under remiyah (deceit), this one’s chasidus (piety) is worthless.
      27 Avodas Kodesh (holy work, Divine service) that is tehorah (pure) and tamimah (unblemished) before Elohim HaAv (God the Father) is this: to visit yetomim (orphans) and almanot (widows) in their tzoros (problems, pain, trouble, injury) and to be shomer (a guardian, watchman) against the defilement of the Olam Hazeh (this world, this present age).

      Now, I’m not seeing James spelling out the ubiquitous westernized definition of ‘religion’ here.
      Rather, I hear him repeating what both the Torah and the New Testament, in essence, command:
      To love the Lord our God with ALL our hearts, with ALL our souls, with ALL our strength, and with ALL our minds; and to love our neighbors – including orphans, widows, and even enemies – as ourselves.
      Therefore, God’s command above can be summarized with just one word: Relationship.
      Relationship with Him, relationship with each other. Not religion.

      While it does take serious commitment and openness, it seems pretty simple to do, and can be, as long as we don’t let our religiosity get in the way.
      But, because it seems TOO simple or because the Truth is too easily accessible to too many people, we humans figure something needs to be tweaked or changed or added – insert your favorite religious exercise, ritual, or requirement here – and, hence, we turn God’s plan for Relationship into man’s framework for religion.

      Over the centuries man has made religion into his church – or idol – when it was never Christ’s intention to make His Church (or bride) into a religion – or idol.

      Micah 6:8 actually says it a whole lot better than I:
      “He has shown you, O man, what is good;
      And what does the Lord require of you
      But to do justly,
      To love mercy,
      And to walk humbly with your God?”

      Hope this helps – Shalom! 🙂

    • jwfisch says:

      “Religion” is a theological term. That James passage is the only time it is used in the scripture and it’s about acting out love to the needy among us.

  3. Mark Seguin says:

    Like to add an Amen to this: “So if you don’t like religion, you’re in good company. Neither does God.”

  4. bessfisher says:

    I have to say that I agree with David, in that God does differentiate between false, defiled religion, and true religion, even to the point of defining pure religion in James.

    I think a lot of people tend to forget that it was God who established the laws in the book of Leviticus, as well as all of the laws and precepts in the whole of the Bible. The difference in whether or not we choose to obey these laws ultimately resides in our attitude towards our salvation, as well as our understanding of the purpose of the laws and precepts.

    We should obey God’s laws and precepts – not to earn our salvation – but out of gratitude for our salvation. Our obedience in these areas also reflects how we see God. When we can come to understand that God gave us laws, rules, precepts, and guidelines for our own good because He loves us, it changes from “I have to obey these laws, or else….” to “Why would I not want to obey what God – Who has given and done everything for me – has asked of me?”

    The Church as a whole today is suffering greatly from people who are removing themselves from it “rebelling” against religion. The church was established as a community where older, more mature believers disciple younger believers. When we withdraw from “organized religion” we leave gaps of leadership in the very communities that Jesus Christ died for. How dare we!

    I challenge you, men and women of God, take your places in the Church to teach those that sorely need direction!

    • jwfisch says:

      The church is not organized religion; it is a body of believers and can meet anywhere and not necessarily in the building with the steeple. I think the church is taking many different forms today and we need to be open about that. I like your point about following out of gratitude and not legalism. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Religion is man made, I agree with Abraham who believed God in His promises before the law ever existed and therefore an free from the law and the bondage it contains. I also would like to add that Peter is not the ‘Rock’ that built the church, but, Jesus was speaking of himself because He is the chief cornerstone. Peter who was called Cephas, meant ‘rolling stone’ and think about it, why would God put a man in charge of what is suppose to be a unity who denied Him 3 times. If that Is true, no wonder churches are closing!
    And to Bess get a life! You can try to obey laws if you so choose, but do not put your convictions upon others who do not believe the same as you. Maybe that is your cross, but do not shove it down the throat of others.

  6. TimC says:

    We’ve been going thru Deuteronomy at church. It sure is amazing that when you read Deuteronomy and look for God’s grace, you see it on every page.

  7. Lucky you Tim wait til you get to numbers, (snooze). I am glad that you can see the grace, because Jesus was there too!

  8. Mark Seguin says:

    I tend to think & belief bessfisher may already have a good life that she is satisfied with Colleen Thake and most i find people that are happy and content with their believes can let others express their opinions… 🙂

  9. Marc says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. True, what we think of “religion” is what Paul discourages in Colossians 2:20-23 ESV, the rules “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” which are self-made religion but are of no use against stopping the indulgence of the flesh. But then, there is true religion which is spoken of in the verse in James. But I do agree with you on another level, when I hear people say “I don’t like religion,” it’s the first kind they’re speaking of, and I kind of shock them by saying “I don’t like it either, and neither does God.”

  10. Pingback: Born to Shine not to fear! | From guestwriters

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