Some of you may be thinking, Wait a minute: you can’t hate religion and love Jesus. Jesus IS a religion. To which I’d answer yes and no. If you mean by religion, “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe,” then yes and amen, Christianity is a religion. But by that definition, so is atheism. But if we mean by religion, “what one must do, or behave like, in order to gain right standing with God,” then real Christianity isn’t a religion.
I had been a Christian for about a year when I realized Jesus isn’t just one of many saviors. Following Him is fundamentally different from practicing other world religions. There was something almost upside-down or antithetical to Him.
All the other religions center on people’s righteousness — what we do and how good we are. Real Christianity centers on Jesus’ righteousness — what He has done and how good He is.
All the other religions essentially say, “This is what you have to do to be in right standing with God.” Jesus comes to earth and says, “This is what I’ve freely done for you to put you in right standing with God.”
Religion says do. Jesus says done.
Religion is man searching for God. Jesus is God searching for man.
Religion is pursuing God by our moral efforts. Jesus is God pursuing us despite our moral efforts.
Religious people kill for what they believe. Jesus followers die for what they believe.
That’s when it hit me: No wonder Christianity and Jesus’ message of salvation is called good news. It isn’t just good advice (religion); it’s good news (Jesus). It’s not declaring what we must do, but declaring what He has already done. It’s almost as if Jesus is the eternal paperboy delivering a newspaper declaring something that has already happened.
The only question with Jesus is, will we follow Him?
Now, a lot of people might fire back, saying, “Jesus didn’t come to abolish religion. He even said he came to fulfill it.”
Well, not quite. He said, “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. 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.”
When I read that, I say amen. Jesus isn’t talking about religion; He’s talking about the law.
Jesus wants to make it clear: He isn’t taking God’s moral law lightly.
The only difference is, He didn’t come to crush us with it — which religious people do, like the leaders in John 8 — but rather, He came to fulfill it for us. When something is “fulfilled,” it means it has reached its end or completion. That’s what Jesus said He was doing. He was fulfilling the righteous requirements of it, on our behalf, to give us perfect standing with God.
For example, at the time of writing this, I’m getting married in a couple of weeks. Once Alyssa and I are married we will no longer be engaged. We fulfilled that requirement, which suited us well for the time between dating and getting married. We, however, are moving on to something better.
That’s what Jesus was saying here. It’s not like He is abolishing the law. It was there for a reason. It had a purpose. The Old Testament law’s role was put in place to show us how God aligned the universe to work, and also to show us we couldn’t live up to His standard.
It’s scandalous to say, but one of the uses of the law was to show us we couldn’t fully keep it and needed a savior. It was — and still is — a mirror to show us where we need Jesus. Even the animal sacrifices mandated in the law to the Israelites were there to show them they needed a substitute. They couldn’t do it on their own, and ultimately Jesus fulfilled that requirement.
So Jesus came and fulfilled the requirements of it to satisfy God.
He lived it perfectly. And then instead of the Old Testament law becoming our standard or law, Jesus himself became our law. He gave us his perfect standing by fulfilling God’s righteous requirements and then on the cross took all our sin, failure, guilt, and shame. A pretty sweet exchange, if you ask me. And now we no longer solely live up to an external code, but rather live in relationship with a person who then shows us how to properly view that code. Jesus became the face of the Law rather than the concrete tablets Moses is always holding in those ancient depictions.
Love is the new law.
The way I think about it is this: if I’m ever tempted to cheat on Alyssa, I could motivate myself by the law — I won’t cheat on her because I might go to hell, etc. — or I could motivate myself with love — I don’t want to cheat on her because she is better than anything out there. So it is with us and God. Jesus ushered in a more beautiful covenant. One that is perfected in love, not in hateful and fearful obedience.
The law was just a foretaste of Jesus. To know all the shadows and pictures in the Old Testament were simply a picture of him is astounding. Sacrificing a goat seems a little weird and disgusting until you see it actually had a reason.
The sacrificial system was God’s way of saying sin breeds death. Someone must die when there is sin.
All the mandates and requirements God laid out for the Israelites were ultimately mini arrows pointing to Jesus. The lamb the Israelites needed to sacrifice for sin was God’s way of saying, “There is one coming after you who will not only be a picture of sacrifice and forgiveness like these lambs, but one who will actually be able to take away your sin and cleanse you forever.”
All of it was God working so His people wouldn’t miss Jesus. The reason Israelites needed a priest was to show them there had to be some sort of mediator between God and humans — which, of course, was Jesus. Also, once a year the High Priest would enter the place where he gave a sacrifice and would sprinkle blood on the mercy seat seven times.
Under the mercy seat was the Ark of the Covenant where the Ten Commandments were hidden. It was God’s way of pointing to the fact that because of His mercy, Jesus’ blood was going to cover those righteous requirements for us. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament.
That fact is actually what led early Romans to consider the first Christians atheists. They’d ask, “Where is your temple?” to which the Christians would reply that they didn’t have a building, and Jesus was their temple. So then they’d ask, “Well, who is your priest?” To which they’d reply that they didn’t have a priest on earth, because Jesus was their ultimate priest in heaven. Finally they’d ask, “Who is your sacrifice?” to which the early Christians would respond that they no longer offered sacrifices because Jesus’ sacrifice was once for all.
That is what Jesus meant when he said, “I have not come to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them.” That truth changes someone from dead, man-made religion to a vibrant relationship with Jesus and his body.
The Meaning Behind
Back in my dorm room, I was trying to put all these thoughts down for the students I was talking with who wanted nothing to do with religion. I knew we needed a common starting point for any conversation about Jesus to get off the ground and decided on this:
“So know I hate religion. In fact, I literally resent it. Because when Jesus cried, ‘It is finished,’ I believe He meant it.”
While the poem did resonate with my peers, I need to clarify that when I say I “hate” religion, I am not saying I hate the church.
I’m not saying I hate commandments, traditions, or laws. I’m not saying I hate organizations or institutions. But what I am saying is that I hate any system that upholds moral effort or good behavior as the way in which we can have a proper relationship with God. My main problem with religion, how I defined it, is if that is possible — the fact we can just be “good enough” for God — then that is spitting in the face of Jesus. That’s mocking Him, saying His sacrifice isn’t good enough and wasn’t necessary.
I started to notice this vein in a lot of strong theologian-type people, people who are seen as giants of the church. People like John Owen, Tim Keller, Oswald Chambers, and A. W. Tozer. Even the famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wanted to get to a place of “religionless Christianity.” In 1944, while he was in prison for trying to sabotage the Nazis, he wrote, “We are moving towards a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.
Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”
Bonhoeffer knew that the term religious had become stale, so he fought for something entirely new. He actually found it helpful to juxtapose religion and Jesus.
Now, I love the word religion, in its true sense, and it’s helpful in some cases, but I’ve also noticed it’s the easiest way to expose someone who trusts in their own works, which is a major problem today. In a postmodern world where all religious activity is seen as what we do for God, we need to proclaim Christianity is about what God has done for us. This would take people’s focus off of their behavior and put it on Jesus.
When you distinguish Jesus the God-man from the religion that developed around Him, people investigate the person of Jesus rather than the rules of Christianity.
And the truth is, when someone is pursuing, investigating, and attempting to understand the Son of God, he or she is pursuing truth personified, and that Person will find him.
The minute I started to frame the discussions in this way, there was an interesting change. A lot of people didn’t want to talk about religion, but seemed fine talking about Jesus.
When we studied Jesus, we could actually look stuff up. He said what? He did what?
And the facts often shocked my friends.
The Jesus of the Scriptures is so much more radical and subversive than we realize.
When religious discussions are broad and consider the ideas of theologians rather than the facts about Jesus, they generate apathetic views of Jesus. Changing the focus of the conversation from religion to Jesus actually invites people to face Him and the grace He provides. It lets His grace so confront them that they have to address it.
The response that proved this is when I’d ask my friends about Jesus and they’d say, “He’s a nice guy.” Or, “He had good moral principles, but He’s not God.”
Sadly, that’s one of the most unintelligent things a person can say.
If Jesus claimed to be God, claimed to forgive sins, and claimed to heal the sick, then He either did those things, or He was a despicable liar. Either He is who He says He is — God — or He has deceived billions and billions for the last two thousand years.
That wouldn’t make Him a good moral teacher; it would make Him the most damnable person on earth. Either He’s God, or He deserves to be cast into human history as one of the worst. And that’s why, in my conversations with others, I take the focus off what we do for God and put it on what He has done for us so we have to actually deal with Him.
We can talk theory until we are blue in the face. We can talk about what the word God even means. But you start investigating and pushing into this guy from Nazareth who lived two thousand years ago, and you will get somewhere. You will have to face up to who He is, what He has done, and what you will do about it.
Be careful when you pursue truth, because you just might find Him.
* Excerpted with permission from Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better than Trying Harder, Doing Better, and Being Good Enough by Jefferson Bethke, copyright 2013 Thomas Nelson.
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Have you pursued the truth about Jesus? What did you discover? If you haven’t, why not? He can’t just be a “good guy”! Come join the conversation on our blog! We would love to hear your thoughts about Jesus vs Religion! ~ Devotionals Daily