What's Wrong With Religion?
Intro – On August 14, 2010, a local pastor wrote in the Greeley Tribune, “My faith is such that while I am certain that in Christ I have been given the gift of life, I can’t know God’s mind when it comes to the way God will handle people who believe something different. Is what I believe the truth? I believe it is. Is it the only truth? That’s God’s call, not mine, but I’m guessing there are other truths out there in addition to the one that works for me.” I am happy to say that this man is no longer a pastor. The truth is we can and must know God’s mind regarding those who reject the gospel of Christ. Listen, God doesn’t have multiples “truths”! Life is not a multiple-choice exam where the right answer is “all the above”!
Make no mistake, the gospel is exclusive. Peter says in Acts 4:12 that there is no other name under heaven among men by which we must be saved. That name is Jesus. But people hate exclusivity. People hate exclusivity because since the time of Hegel, relativism has dominated philosophy. It has cursed our culture with the pervasive idea that there is no absolute truth. According to James Davidson Hunter in Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, almost 60% of students at Christian colleges and seminaries question whether faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. We are losing our nerve under the fire of relentless pluralism – the idea that all religions are equally valid as roads to God. To disagree these days is political suicide. But, what would Jesus say?
Our text answers. But to understand Jesus’ answer, we need a little background about OT law. It consists of 2 parts. There is the moral law – summarized in the Ten Commandments and consisting of God’s definition of right and wrong. These are absolute truths (such as don’t steal and don’t murder) which are always valid and are, in fact, according to Rom 2:15 written into the heart of every person, not just on paper. These are based on the character of God and as He doesn’t change, neither do they. That’s moral law.
Then ceremonial law – the precisely defined and richly symbolic OT sacrifices that taught how great God is, how onerous sin is, and that sin must be paid for. It all points forward to Jesus who fulfilled it all once for all time. Symbols of ceremony have been replaced by reality of a person. Moral law is always in force, but ceremonial law is gone because it was fulfilled, completed in Christ.
In Luke 5:33-39 some people, including disciples of John the Baptist per Matt, question why Jesus and His disciples don’t fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees. Jesus’ response has broad implications for any approach to God other than the gospel of Jesus. We will see that there is a question, a specific answer and then a general answer that addresses the issue.
I. The Question
V. 33, “And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” It seems strange to find John’s disciples linked to the Pharisees, but remember that according to John 3 they were a bit jealous when the crowds shifted from John to Jesus. It also appears they thought their spiritual disciplines superior prompting this question. Are Jesus’s disciples violating OT law?
The OT law prescribed no fasts except on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29, 31). While people did fast at other times, only one time is mandated. But the Pharisees had added to this law, their own tradition which was to them more important than Scripture. They had turned God’s grace into a religion. The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 boasted in his self-righteous prayer, “I fast twice a week.” That was the Pharisees tradition – fasting on Monday and Thursday. But they only did it for show. Jesus saw right through them. He comments in Matt 6:16, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” These guys were all outward. They had no heart for God at all. They just wanted to be thought holy by the people – and it worked. They were admired. But rest assured they ate hearty in the evening of those days which officially ended at 6:00! They were hypocrites who even powdered their faces to look pale. What phonies! John’s disciples no doubt had far more integrity in their fasting, but both groups wondered why Jesus and his disciples didn’t fast.
They also asked about praying. Of course, Jesus prayed far more than they. But for them, it was all a matter of show. They ostentatiously appeared in the temple to pray 2 or 3 times a day – morning, evening, and sometimes noon. What they’re really saying is, “Hey, Jesus, you claim religious leadership, but your followers don’t even fast or pray. What’s up with that? How can you be lead and not obey the law?” It’s part question, and part accusation.
II. The Specific Answer
Jesus doesn’t even address the issue of prayer which was too demeaning to deserve an answer. He prayed far more than anyone – just not as a public spectacle. He wasn’t interested in ritual; He was interested a relationship with the Father. But He addresses the fasting question in 2 ways. Using vivid illustrations, He first, answers the specific question; then He gives a general principle. The specific answer is v. 34, “And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” Simple but profound. In a Jewish marriage ceremony, the young couple did not go away for a honeymoon. They stayed home and kept open house for a week. They dressed in their best; sometimes even wore crowns and were for that week king and queen of their surroundings. Life was hard in general and most knew they would never again have such a week. Jesus’s point was that during that special time, fasting would be unthinkable, out of place.
Of course, the bridegroom is Jesus. But think what that implies. Why fast in the first place? To get close to God, right? To discern His will or ask His help. The whole point of fasting is an appeal to God. And in saying that fasting is unnecessary while He is here, Jesus is making a not so veiled claim to be God. Most commentators miss this. But His answer makes no sense taken any other way. If He is merely a great prophet, like John, fasting would be in order. And even if He were a Messiah who was not God, fasting would still be in order. But if He is God, fasting is unnecessary. That’s the only thing that could make fasting unnecessary, and that is what He claims. God is here in the person of Messiah who is none other than Jesus of Nazareth – and with His presence, fasting is out – joy is in!
Messiah is prophesied often in the OT, tho never as a bridegroom. But numerous passages speak of Israel as the bride of the Lord. Hos 2:16, “I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.” Jesus didn’t pick the bridegroom analogy randomly. And later it is picked up in the NT as the church is described as the bride of Christ. Jesus whole point is, “Fellows, in me you are seeing not just a prophet, not even just Messiah. In me you are seeing God in the flesh. You are looking God straight in the face. Imagine – eyeball to eyeball with God! Fasting would be ridiculous under these circumstances. Fasting would not get you closer to me than you already are, nor would you gain additional insight into the will of God. I am all of that rolled into one.” Beloved there is no one like Jesus. Unless we dig a bit we miss that He just keeps making these fantastic claims one after the other – over and over and over again!
But, He goes on in v. 35, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” What is that about? The word translated “taken away” speaks of a sudden, violent removal. This is the first prophecy of Jesus concerning His own coming death. He knows. He has known since the beginning of His ministry. That’s where it is all aiming. His disciples do not get it yet, of course. But He is saying there will be a time when fasting will be in order because He, the bridegroom, will be suddenly removed. Then they might certainly fast. But don’t forget that on the third day, they saw Him again. And the days of fasting were over.
In one sense they were over for good. Before Jesus left earth, He told His disciples in Matt 28:20, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He would be physically gone, but spiritually present in the person of the Holy Spirit. The full-time presence of the third person of the Godhead with every believer is new in our age. Thus while the bridegroom is not physically present right now, He couldn’t be closer in the person of the HS. So is fasting out? I think not. It is still a great spiritual discipline when we need uninterrupted to time read, pray and reflect on God’s will. But as a ritual, it is certainly gone. The kingdom of God has taken root in the hearts of believers, and soon Christ and His kingdom will rule the world live and in living color. Meantime, joy should permeate our lives. So, Jesus’ specific answer about fasting is, it’s not needed when I am around. Pretty gutsy unless you happen to be Messiah and God rolled up into one.
III. The General Answer
Jesus, however, does not stop with the specific answer. By means of two parables, He establishes a profound principle that it is relationship with Him, not religious practice that counts in the end.
A. The Principle
V. 36, “He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.” His point is simple. No one would tear up a new garment to make a patch for an old one. First, it would ruin the new. Second, it would not match – it would look different. Third, Mark 2:21 adds the detail that the new, unshrunk patch would shrink on washing and further tear the old. His point? You can’t mix old and new.
He makes the same point in v. 37, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.” Wineskins were made from sheepskin or goatskin. The neck area of the animal formed the neck of the container. Over time the skin would age and become brittle. If new, unfermented wine was put into such an old skin, gasses released during fermentation would burst the brittle old skin. New wine had to be stored in fresh wineskins, which were still supple enough to expand during the fermentation process. So, the principle is clear in both parables. You can’t mix old and new.
B. The Application Then
So, what is the old and the new that cannot be mixed? The new is the message of the gospel that Jesus preached, precisely summarized in Matt 4:17, “From that time [the beginning of His ministry] Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “Folks, the kingdom of God is here.” They loved that part. What they didn’t like was “Repent”. And they especially didn’t like that Jesus had made clear the one doing the forgiving was HIM! He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Proven in the case of the paralytic whose healing proved his forgiveness. It’s all about Jesus. It’s relationship, not religion. That’s new!
So, what’s the old? Some have said OT law? Is that right? Listen to Jesus in Matt 5:17-18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” That’s powerful. Jesus never came to destroy or put aside the law at all. He came to fulfill it on our behalf. What we couldn’t do, He did! He fulfilled the whole law. How? Well, He fulfilled the moral law by keeping every moral imperative. Not a single sin – never a slip, not even in His mind and heart. Heb 4:15 says simply He was “without sin.” So he fulfilled the moral law and by His death makes His fulfillment available by imputation to anyone who will believe. Imputation is God replacing my moral failure with Jesus’ moral perfection based on Jesus having paid the penalty for my sin by His own death. Imputation is wonderful. It’s our only hope of heaven. God as judge now sees us clothed in Christ’s morality rather than our own sinfulness. What an exchange. Now this doesn’t mean that He misses our daily rebellions and failure. Those must be confessed as to a Father to restore the joy of our relationship within the family. But the judicial issue is settled once and for all by imputation!
But He also fulfilled the ceremonial law. How? By becoming the ultimate sacrifice for sin. Heb 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” So why all those sacrifices? They pointed to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. Heb 10:12, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” The ceremony has gone away, its symbolic value has been replaced by the real thing. Do you see? Jesus fulfilled the whole law for us. Moral perfection qualified Him as the Lamb, and His death fulfilled every ceremonial obligation for all time. His fulfillment of the law is all part of the new!
So, what is the old? It is not the law, but the corruption of the law by the traditions added by Pharisees. It is man re-making the law to his liking. It is man bounding God’s expression of the law with his own interpretation that he can fulfill. It is making a religion out of what was intended to lead to relationship. Judaism had long since abandoned its godly intent and heritage. The old is fasting twice a week, and praying three times a day in order to be acceptable to God. That’s the old. The old is any religion. What’s wrong with religion? Absolutely everything! It is man earning his way to God rather than accepting God’s gift. It is us making a law we can keep and saying, “There! If it’s good enough for me, it’s got to be good enough for God!” Religion says the cross wasn’t necessary. I can do it on my own. It is an affront to God who gave His own Son to purchase redemption. The new is relationship leading to God’s gift of life. The old is religion which is death.
The old is outward; the new, inward. The old is merit; the new is grace; the old is cover-up; the new, repentance. They had corrupted God’s gift of the Law and Jesus castigates them all thru Matt 23, as in v. 27, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” The old –religious traditions covering a heart that was black with sin. Outward merit has no place in the gospel. The tragedy is spelled out by Jesus in Luke 5:39, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.” Jesus is basically saying, “You are drunk on your own goodness, filled with your own pride, blinded by your own traditions. What a tragedy!”
C. The Application Now
So, how does this apply today? Let’s start with God’s single intent all the way through. Even OT rituals were intended to stir the heart to a relationship with God. Paul says as much in Rom 2:29, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” You say, “Well, that’s NT. They didn’t know that in the OT.” Oh, but they did! The did! Deut 30:6 says virtually the same thing, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love [relationship!] the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” It pointed them to a relationship. The law was not intended to save. Gal 3:24, “So then, the law was our tutor until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” The law was not intended to save. It was intended to say, “You are a sinner and you cannot save yourself.” Then the sacrifices said, “Sin means sacrifice, so God has provided a temporary means until the real sacrifice comes.” It all pointed toward Christ – always! What God demands, God supplies. That’s grace. That’s the cross. That’s amazing.
But the Pharisees short-circuited the sacrifice part. They re-defined the law with their traditions so they could keep it perfectly, thinking to save themselves. They made a religion out of it where their traditions meant far more than the original law. Jesus knew this. That’s why He constantly broke their traditions, especially Sabbath rules. He was making a point. Ritual itself is neutral. But it leads one of two ways – religion or relationship. The Pharisees were religious but lost. The followers of Christ were saved through a relationship. You can’t mix the one with the other. In this, the Pharisees represent every religion ever concocted by the mind of man to get to God on his own. None of them can mix with the gospel which says, “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourself, it is a gift of God. Not of works lest any man should boast.” The gospel says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” The gospel says, “Not by works of righteousness that we have done but by His mercy He has saved us.”
Does it matter? Eternally, Beloved. Religion kills. It sets the cross aside. Relationship brings life. Which do you have? Satan was standing outside a church one Sunday. Inside the people were singing, praying and worshiping. A passerby asked Satan if that did not bother him. With a demonic sneer he said, “They get that way on Sunday, but they will be right back to themselves on Monday. It’s just a little habit they’ve acquired.” It’s a ritual gone bad. The greatest proponent of religion in the universe is the devil. He loves religion. And he really doesn’t care whether it is in a temple, a synagogue, a mosque, a church or nature. Doesn’t matter, just so it’s all outward and not heartfelt.
Christianity in its infancy was not called a religion. It was the non-religion. Get this – the first atheists were Christians! People asked early Christians, “Where’s your temple?” “We don’t have a temple.” “But how could that be? Where are your priests?” “We don’t have priests.” “Well, then, where are your sacrifices?” “We don’t have sacrifices.” Why? Because Jesus Himself was the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests; the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. No one had ever heard of such a thing, so the Romans called them “atheists” because what the Christians were saying about spiritual realities was unique – unclassifiable as a religion – they were the “unreligion” and hence “atheists” to the Romans. They said, “These guys don’t have a religion” and they were right. They didn’t have a religion; they had a relationship.
So, I ask this morning – are you religious, or are you related? It makes an eternal difference. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you [relationship] the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Let’s pray.