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Religion or Relationship

Have you seen that tee shirt that has on it, “It’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship?” Is that right, or is it wrong? What would you say? Since, for Christians, religion and relationship are both something we try to do, it might be fun to sort this one out, have a biblically informed opinion, think clearly about it.

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I saw someone wearing a T-shirt some time back. On it were two sentences. The first one was, “It’s not about religion.” And the second, “It’s about a relationship.” I think this person was saying that he was against religion, but for a relationship with God, which makes no sense on its face, because the word religion means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal god or gods.

Let’s say you’re a Hindu, for example. How would you know anything about the Hindu gods, except for the teaching of your religion? If you have no formal religion, but want a relationship with God, wouldn’t your religion simply be with whatever you think about God and what He, or they, are like? You become a religion and a god to yourself. Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem very comforting to me, unless I’m willing to completely delude myself, because I make too many mistakes to have much confidence in myself to decide anything about what God is like.

But back to the two sentences: It’s not about religion. It’s about a relationship. It seems to me, to have a relationship with God, one would have to have a religion. So, what’s the point of the T-shirt? Well, let’s narrow this a bit. This is a Christian nation. It used to be more so than it is now, but I think we could still call it that. It’s values are based on Christianity and Judaism. So, I’m going to assume the statement is about Christianity. That will, hopefully, help those who profess Christianity.

There are several things I thought about when I saw that T-shirt. One, no one knows anything about God on their own. Why is that? Because God is supernatural. He’s outside of our experience. Remember our definition. We can’t know anything about Him, because He’s outside of where we are. We can’t go where He is, so we wouldn’t know anything about Him or understand anything about Him unless He explained it to us. There’s an interesting example of this found in the Bible in Acts 8:30. One of Jesus’ disciples was accosted by the Holy Spirit and told to follow a road to the south into the desert. There he came across a man in a chariot, who was reading the scriptures. Now this man was a high-ranking official from Ethiopia – a eunuch of the court of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. When Philip saw this, he was confused about what to do until the Spirit, again, interacted with him and told him to approach the man. So we pick it up, than, in Acts 8:30.

Acts 8:30 – So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah, the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” – which is a great question to ask. And he said, “How can I unless somebody guides me?” So, there he was, holding the instruction manual from the deity in his hands, and he knew that he needed guidance to even understand that.

We can learn from this that this man was teachable. He knew that he didn’t know much about God and he didn’t trust his own private interpretation of God’s Word. He was, then, according to a teaching of Jesus, poor in spirit. If we are to have a relationship with God, we need to somehow learn what He’s like, what He likes, what He expects of us, and, based on what He tells us, what we can expect from Him.

I meet people in my counseling practice, almost daily, who tell me they are angry with God, or disappointed with God, or confused about God. So those emotions hinder their relationship with Him, don’t they? They say, “I have a hard time believing that God would allow this or that.” Or, they sometimes say, “I’m angry with God for what He’s allowed.” So, they believe in Him, but their relationship and their faith is hindered because He, in fact, does allow a lot of horrific things to happen in the world, and always has. I think, for many of these people, their confusion is based on the deeply held allusion that life should be easy. And so when it’s not easy, they blame it on God. You know, God Himself clearly reveals to us that He has created a world in which humans are given a great gift – free will. He does this because He wants relationships with free beings, instead of a bunch of robots or droids. I mean, what good is it if He has to make you love Him? So, no, He has free will. He’s trying to draw us all to Himself. And He wants that so much that He’s willing to give that freedom that He’s offered us, even though we do a lot of really bad things to ourselves and to each other in the process of learning to trust Him, instead of ourselves.

But the question continues to come up: Why does God do what He does? Well, this question comes back to, “How do we learn about God?” Do we sit and contemplate our navels? Do we eat too much lasagna late at night, and have a nightmare, and wake up with a revelation about God? Or, do we, as Christians, go to our religion and the Book that goes with it, and learn about God?

You know, I read a book years ago called The History of God. It was, if I recall, written by an atheist. And you might ask, “Well, if what you’re saying is true, what could we possibly learn about God from an atheist? Well, as it turned out, it was a pretty good book, because the author was not writing about God, but about the history of religion and humanity’s attempts to configure God in its own way down through the ages. So it did give me a historical perspective about that human effort.

But, if you want to know about God, rather than religion, you have to go to the book that God wrote. And you can’t do any editing. There can be no selective remembering or reading – no application of human reason. You just read the book, understand it, and do what it says. Sometimes we need help understanding it, and it’s certainly very difficult to do what it says, but we are never going to do what it says unless we understand it. That’s an important part.

Next, God’s plan is still going to work, even if Christians don’t, even if we’re confused, even if there’s chaos. Reading His book is something we can do. Doing what it says is hard, but not impossible with God’s help. The trick comes in understanding it. Why do I say that? Well, think about it. By the time Jesus was born, what we call the Old Testament today was firmly established as God’s word among the Jews, who were sent back from Jerusalem after their captivity – before Jesus lived. So, what did the Jewish people do with the freedom they had and the word of God? Well, we know that there were quite a few sects, believing a number of different thing – even contradictory things – about what the sacred writings said. So how did that happen? Well, it’s just what people do. People read the same thing and think differently about it. Then they talk to others who listen and find what they’re hearing either acceptable or not. And so some of them buy into it, some of them go somewhere else. Pretty soon, you have several groups of people all thinking the same way, but different from the other groups. And that continues until somebody doesn’t any longer. Then they leave the group and start a new one. Then it starts all over again. That’s how it was while Jesus was on the earth. Judaism was divided. In fact, you could say that the true religion of God, as given to Moses, no longer existed, in a way, because they’d added so many rules to it that it was now quite different from when Moses got the law from God.

So how did Jesus respond to all of that? Well, there are two major responses, I think. We know, when He was younger, He went to synagogue and participated early on. And we know, later, He began a ministry that, from all we can see, was partly separate from the established form of religion there. And here’s what He said to the leaders of some of the sects – and I’m going to take some time with this, so you get the complete picture. What we know about God comes from this, not from my ideas. So let’s see what God has to say about this topic. In Matthew 23:1, it says:

Matthew 23:1 – Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you” – see, they have authority given by God – “but not the works they do, for they preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”

This sort of reminds me of our House and Senate. They have their own insurance, their own pension plan, salary for life, while we struggle with Obamacare, Social Security and Medicare, and things like that. Now, I mentioned Obamacare. I highly doubt that any new insurance plan, put forth by the Trump administration and needing approval by the House and Senate will be anywhere close to the plan the Senate and the House have for their insurance. They have their own insider trading rules for the stock market, while we would be imprisoned for doing what they’ve allowed themselves to do. Like some in our society today, the Jewish leadership of old considered themselves the elite of society, knowing better than we about what we want and need – considering themselves above the law, as well. Still, they were in charge of the religion of that day and they were to be respected. They had the authority to make decisions about it in those days.
Then Jesus says:

V-5 – “They do all their deed to be seen by others, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts, and the best seats in the synagogue, and greetings in the marketplaces, and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all brothers. Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father who is in heaven.”

So these leaders called themselves the names God ascribed to Himself. Why do you suppose they did that? Well, in their own minds, they were standing in for God, taking His place. Being siblings with everybody wasn’t enough. They wanted to be over others. You know, it reminds me of that comment, “They were legends in their own minds” – like we have so many today that feel that way.

He also said:

V-10 – “Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”

Now this is a critical point. What should the Ethiopian eunuch have done? He’s holding the instruction book in his hands, he’s reading it, but he doesn’t understand it, so he asks the human, present with him, to explain it to him. Well, what if that had been a Pharisee up in the chariot with him, or a Sadducee? It would have been a different story. So the next verse tells all of us who explain the Bible to others, including ministers, Bible instructors, and even parents, the key to passing on the faith in an acceptable manner – verse 11:

V-11 – “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Someone who is humble – who is poor in spirit – knows they only know what they know about God from the Bible, not the ideas of other people. Their desire is help people understand what the Bible says, what Jesus says, and to help them follow it, instead of drawing people to themselves to follow them, as opposed to looking good and having status in the hierarchy, or having control over other people, or being in an elite social strata. With the true disciples, the only authority is moral, and the only influence is that of example and teaching, rather than office. So that’s what they preach – God’s word – separating their own thoughts from it.

Think about the earliest church fathers after all the original disciples died. Think what they did. They took it upon themselves to call one of their own someone who stands in Jesus’ place as an arbiter of doctrine. They took it upon themselves to change the teachings of Jesus. Somehow, it became acceptable to change doctrine for social and political expediency.

Do you know how we changed from the Sabbath of Jesus and the prophets to Sunday, for example? Well, as the Roman Church Empire changed from the Roman god Saturn, who was worshipped on the seventh day, to the sun god, Mithra, who was worshipped on Sunday, it became a lot easier for Romans to spot Jews and Christians, because they were no longer all worshipping on the same day. Consequently, it became much more dangerous to be a Christian. And the Christian solution, at that time, was to start calling Sunday the Lord’s day, and develop a whole body of rhetoric around Judaizers and Christ-killers, so as to distance themselves from Judaism.

In Malachi 4:2, here’s what it says:

Malachi 4:2 – But for you who fear My name, the Sun – S-U-N – of Righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings, and you shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

So, it was okay to worship the Sun of Righteousness – Jesus – on the Sunday and look like a Mithra worshipper in the process. There’s the scripture that they used. They used the Old Testament scripture, saying that the Messiah was the Sun of Righteousness. Of course, that doesn’t wash now, so they have a whole new argument. They don’t use that anymore. Since we have the Holy Spirit now, every day is holy, so do whatever you want on any day. And here’s what Jesus had to say about the theologians of His day – who essentially did the same kind of thing:

Matthew 23:13 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees – you hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter in yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Sometimes, following people – even people endowed with authority from God – can cost us our eternal life. Now that is what He said there, wasn’t it? That’s exactly what He said.

Then he goes on for some time, citing examples of how the oral traditions – that is, the rules that were not in the original Law of Moses – contradicted the Law God gave to Moses. He lumped them all in the same category and called them hypocrites, vipers and blind guides. They were leading people away from God because they were following their own rules – because they were majoring in the minors – really picky about some things, while missing the really important deeper meaning of God’s word. In another place, He said they taught for doctrines the commandments of men.

So He showed over and over in this chapter how they no longer followed God because of manmade traditions – that they had added to the writings of the Old Testament – that were really not of God at all. And what is the consequence of this, according to what Jesus said? Verse 29:

V-29 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees – hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents – you brood of vipers! How are you to escape from being sentenced to gehenna? Therefore, I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth – from the blood of the righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

But then, as we saw, He also tells His disciples that these theologians sit in Moses’ seat and consequently had authority from God, as caretakers of the religion. So what to do? Well, look at Christianity today. How many denominations are there? There are hundreds. It’s even worse now than it was then. Do you think this fracturing comes as a surprise to Jesus? Do you think it’s going to thwart His plan to bring many people to salvation? How should we look at it then? What should we do with it? We shouldn’t worry about it, I guess, because God’s got a way to deal with it all, but what should we do? You know, in Jesus’ time, Judaism was still Judaism. They all had the same temple, dedicated to the true God. A person, like Mary, for example, could still come to the temple and worship the true God in a way that was pleasing to Him, because of her pure heart. And while the leaders and others who followed their traditions were hypocritical sons of gehenna – in His words – today, we have hundreds of Christian denominations, all of whom are imperfect – some more imperfect than others, of course – but we also all have Jesus, His death and resurrection, and His gracious forgiveness. That’s about all there is for the unity that remains – the most important parts. Now, these denominations all probably have some Christian with pure hearts in them. Do you know how God is going to fix all the fracturing? For us, it’s impossible. We’ve tried all my lifetime, I know, to try to find church unity in the United States among Christian denominations. For us, it’s impossible, for “we see through a glass darkly,” as Paul said, but for God, this is so simple. After He judges all our hearts, and resurrects those with pure hearts, He will simply tell us what His truth is – purely, directly, from His own lips – right into everybody ears. And all God’s children will say, “Amen,” and fall on their faces and worship God, because, for the first time ever, all Christians will be on the same page.

So that’s some thinking about the first part of the T-shirt slogan – “It’s not about religion.” Of course, it is! The trick is to navigate religion while focusing on the second part. It’s important to be part of a group of humans who worship God like you do. Is that my idea? Or, is that based on the Bible? Well, let’s see.

Jesus said some pretty powerful things about the church. Some people would call that a religion – the church. The church is a body of believers who follow Him. That’s what the Bible tells us. Jesus called it His body. He said He loves it, like you love your own thumb. It’s His. It belongs to Him. It’s a part of Him. He’s a part of it. He says every member in His body is necessary. He says He gave His life on the stake for His body, the church. He says He loves His body and every last member. He says that most of members others consider lesser, He considers more important. He orders all Christians to continue worshipping with the body. In Christianity, then, there are no lone rangers. We are not individuals. We exist as part of a body. And yet, the DNA of the body is in each one separately. And that’s called the Holy Spirit. So, we’re supposed to be in relationship with other believers. He says that His body, the church, will do His work and that He has equipped every member for their part in that calling. He says the relationship He has with His church can be likened to a marriage. He says that when His church is resurrected to eternal life with Him, it’s going to be like a marriage with a grand celebration and a wedding supper – because this is the first part of His plan coming to fruition – all His saints in close relationship with Him forever! And that’s worth celebrating.

So you see, that’s what it’s really all about. It’s about a relationship. That’s the other statement on the T-shirt – “It’s about a relationship.”

Now, I’m going to make a statement. The group you are part of will influence your relationship with God. So who you worship with is important. But your personal relationship with God is more important than the group you join with to worship Him. Why would that be? Well, because our religion – that is, our beliefs about God and how to interact with Him – because our church, or group – that is, others of like belief with whom we fellowship – are both in place to help us have an informed, healthy, close relationship with our God. If we think we can have a relationship with God without knowing how to respond to Him, we sadly mistaken. And if we think we can have an informed, healthy relationship with God without interacting with His other children, we are also sadly mistaken.

So, according to the Bible, it’s not either/or. It’s all part of the same thing. It’s about religion, fellowship, and a relationship with God. It’s all the same thing. So, when it comes to religion, follow yours. When it comes to a group that you want to participate with, choose wisely. And when it comes to a relationship with God, reciprocate the way He expects you to, because in the end, the relationship is what it’s all about.

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Until next time, then, this is Bill Jacobs for LifeResource Ministries, serving children, families and the Church of God.