Fake Religion vs. Genuine Faith

(An audio version of this message may be available online soon. It will have some content that I didn’t write down here. Just check back here next week for more details).

One of the most intriguing things about Jesus is the relationship he had with the religious establishment of his time. Jesus did not get along very well with the religious leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees). He showed incredible compassion for those who were considered “sinful” (prostitutes, etc). On the other hand, His comments to the Pharisees and Sadducees were incredibly harsh. Consider some of these lines from Matthew 23 (New Living Translation):

vs. 13 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! . . . vs. 15 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! . . . vs. 16 Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! . . . vs. 33 Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?

From childhood I have known that the Pharisees and Sadducees were the “bad guys.” Knowing this, I’ve always tended to identify myself with Jesus or the disciples—the “good guys.” Now, however, there’s something I wonder about as I try to look at the Bible with a fresh perspective. I have to ask myself this question: do I have some of the same negative qualities that the religious leaders of Jesus’ time had?

If I am brutally honest with myself, I will see that I already have some things in common with these religious adversaries of Jesus. For example, I am from a strong “religious” background. I grew up in a Christian home where we attended a wonderful church. Christianity, in fact, actually goes back at least three generations on both sides of my family. My maternal grandfather was a lay preacher. My paternal grandmother was a strong church leader. Two of my uncles are preachers, and many others in my family are deacons (including my dad and older brother). I have formal religious education/training. None of these things are bad—in fact, I’m eternally grateful for my Christian family, my church, and my theological training. Having said that, I have learned that I am susceptible to the “trap” of living like a Pharisee.

Last night at Full Cup I talked about Jesus: Religious Reformer. As I studied Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, I’ve seen some truths that I can apply to my life. Thinking about these things helps me to get rid of the “Pharisee” in me. I think understanding these truths can help all of us to see the difference between genuine faith and false religion.

Truth #1—It is very dangerous to confuse religious traditions with God’s word.

Matthew 15:1-3 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Here we have an account of Jesus being challenged about hand washing. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were offended that Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands before they ate. Noticed that it is described as the “tradition of the elders.” Here’s why: there are no Old Testament commands about washing your hands before eating. They had confused God’s word with man-made traditions. Jesus proceeded to tell them that they were actually breaking God’s law in their lifestyles (you can look it up in the Bible for more details). In other words, the Pharisees had it backwards—they should have paid more attention to God’s word than to the tradition of the elders.

Here’s another verse related to this truth:

Matthew 16:6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

This particular warning was given by Jesus to his own disciples. If they needed to be warned, I believe I also need this warning. It only takes little pinch of yeast to affect a whole batch of dough. In the same way, a little bit of tradition may get mixed in with God’s word and begin to ruin our faith. Little by little, it is possible for us to begin confusing our traditions with God’s word.

Key Question: What traditions do I treat as sacred even though they are not written in the Bible?

Truth #2—True Christianity reaches out to people right where they are.

Matthew 10:12 . . . Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”

Above is another of Jesus’ response to his religious critics. They complained that he was spending time with “sinners.” Jesus explained that he wanted to help people who were “spiritually sick.” In order to do that, he needed to go where these people where—he met them where they were.

A few months back, I had lunch in a small restaurant right outside one of my target campuses. The ground floor was packed, so I had to eat upstairs. Once I climbed the stairs I realized that the second floor was the smoking section. I really didn’t want to eat there—I didn’t want to smell like smoke. I had no choice, so I reluctantly sat down to eat lunch. I then noticed that some of the “smokers” were students from my target campus. I eventually introduced myself to them and we had a nice talk. Here’s the point: I almost missed an opportunity to meet them because I couldn’t “see past the smoke.” It was hard for me to see beyond the things I didn’t like.

If we want to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to approach people that are different from us—people who perhaps have serious problems.

Key Question: What could I do to reach out to people who are not like me (different spiritually, culturally, etc)?

Truth #3—God is not impressed with appearances

Matthew 23:25-26 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”

What if I gave you a cup of coffee with a huge cockroach swimming in it? Unless you were competing in that Fear Factor show, you would immediately turn it down in disgust. It wouldn’t matter how nice the outside of the cup looked.

Jesus used a similar analogy when talking about the Pharisees’ lives. They tried to look religious for the sake of appearance. I think all of us have been guilty of this at some time or another. All of us have practiced religious rituals even when our hearts were not really in it. It is important to understand that God is not impressed with empty religious rituals.

Key Question: When have I been guilty of just “going through the motions” of religion for the sake of appearance?

Truth #4—Our “righteousness” is not enough to please God.

Matthew 5:20 “But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”

This quote is surprising when you consider that the religious teachers and Pharisees were considered the best that religion had to offer. A modern-day version may sound something like this: “Unless you are more righteous than the Pope, Gandhi, and Jose Rizal combined, you will not go to heaven” (keep in mind this is just an example—I am not criticizing these three people). That’s pretty intimidating, huh? Sounds like none of us can make it to heaven.

Well, we cannot make to heaven by our own efforts. If we could make it to heaven through being religious, Jesus would have praised the efforts of the Pharisees. Our efforts to be righteous on our own are just as useless as the Pharisees’ efforts.

Jesus came and died on the cross so that we could have a completely different kind of righteousness. The righteousness that man can attain does not compare to the righteousness which God freely gives. If we will simply ask God to come into our lives and change us, He will give us a righteousness that we could never attain on our own. This is the only kind of righteousness which God truly accepts.

Key Question: Do I understand what it means to trust Christ alone for salvation, or am I trusting in my own efforts?

I pray that all of us will learn to have genuine faith—the kind of faith that Jesus spoke of. Let’s not accept cheap substitutes.