The Religion Trap
We were created by Almighty God to be in a loving relationship with Him. In the beginning there was no religion, only relationship. Performance based religion prevents the full experience of the freedom that is promoted through a loving relationship with God.
Religious leaders seemed to be the primary opponents to the ministry of Jesus because He was not under their control and people were paying attention to what He was teaching and to what He was doing; healing, miracles, and the casting out of demons, as well as teaching as the people had never before heard one speak.
In the Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 23, we read of Jesus declaring the hypocrisies of the religious leaders. Seven times He proclaims a version of, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!”
In verse 1 we learn who Jesus is speaking to and in verse 2 we discover whom He is speaking about.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,”
Matthew 23:1-2 ESV
In verse 3 Jesus tells how the leaders say one thing and do another, going on to tell how they burden the people in verse 4.
“so do and observe what they tell you, 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.”
Matthew 23:3-4 ESV
Is this to be said of all religious leaders? Certainly not, however, when religion overtakes the relationship, issues emerge. God is not intending to make our relationship with Him burdensome. God is not oppressive. In fact, He tells us to cast our burdens upon Him.
Cast your burden on the LORD, and He will sustain you; He will never permit the righteous to be moved.
Psalms 55:22 ESV
You can learn more about righteous living in episode 17 of the Being Disciples podcast, Righteous Living.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you.
1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV
All our worries and concerns are to be brought to God with a humble heart. He will lift our burden in exchange for His peace given to us. Back in verse 3 Peter tells the elders how they ought to act toward those they are to shepherd, or care for.
Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
1 Peter 5:3 ESV
And from Jesus Himself we are told that He will give us rest.
“Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For
My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 ESV
If the religious leaders are making religion a burden for your soul, you are missing the relationship with God that is not meant to be a burden. We come to Christ Jesus in faith to receive forgiveness of sin and eternal salvation. We should then live by faith in the freedom He gives to us, not under the burden of a religion imposed upon us.
Back to Jesus speaking of religious leaders that really aren’t good shepherds of the flock in their charge. In verses 5 through 7 He tells us how they behave and of their motivation.
“They do all their deeds 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 synagogues and
greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”
Matthew 23:5-7 ESV
These leaders may say they are doing this for the people, but Jesus reveals what is in their heart. These men are to be our brothers in the Lord, not someone seeking to be put on a pedestal. Those whom God calls to be shepherds, pastors or ministers, are to do the job at hand of caring for those in their charge. They are not put in the position to be elevated above their brethren.
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be call
instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”
Matthew 23:8-10 ESV
Leaders are to be humble servants of the Lord. Jesus puts the idea of the leader in the Christian life in a nutshell in verses 11 and 12.
“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Matthew 23:11-12 ESV
Remember, these are Jesus’ own words. He calls upon those in a position of leadership to be servant leaders. As we have discussed a number of times, these leaders are a gift to the body of Christ to build them up and prepare them to do the work of the kingdom.
And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ,
Ephesians 4:11 ESV
Paul explained exactly what the purpose of the leadership is about which is to serve, not to be served. Jesus also demonstrated this concept and explained it to His twelve disciples.
And Jesus called them to Him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it
shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be
served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Mark 10:42-45 ESV
Back to Jesus addressing the religious leaders in Matthew 23. Jesus proclaims seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees.
- Verse 13: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
- Verse 15: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
- Verse 16: “Woe to you, blind guides,”
- Verse 23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
- Verse 25: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
- Verse 27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
- Verse 29: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
Get the point? Jesus did not condemn what the message was, He was calling them out for not practicing what they preached as they placed a burden on the people. They were men of position rather than servant leaders.
For more on this idea of what leadership ought to look like, see the study, “The Five-Fold Ministry”, under the Virtual Study Topics and Links tab at our site, VirtualStudyWith.us.
Jesus makes clear the problem with a lot of religion in general, and poor leaders in particular.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”
Matthew 23:13 ESV
The idea of religion being works oriented, rather than faith oriented, can actually prevent people from receiving their salvation. And for those practicing religion who have attained salvation, the activity of doing what the Lord would actually have one do can be pre-empted by satisfying the demands of a religious leader.
Discernment is necessary to determine what is taking place wherever you gather with fellow believers. Is the basis of all that takes place based upon the relationship with God or on satisfying the requirements of a religion or of a religious leader? We looked at some of this in our previous episode, episode 21, Why Church? I presented a long list of items to consider to assist one in determining if one is gathering in the correct place of worship. Of course, the true source of such knowledge and understanding is God. Seek God and walk in obedience to His calling upon your life.
Our enemy, the devil, would certainly rather have us bound up in serving religion rather than serving God. Paul even warned the Galatians of this very thing.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the
law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain? Does He
who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith – just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as
Galatians 3:1-6 ESV
The chapter goes on speaking of faith, living by faith, the law, and the promise. But here, Paul brings out that those who have received salvation and forgiveness of sin have down so in an act of faith, not through fulfilling the law or some religious practices or rituals. Resorting to law and religion is not the way to go after coming to God in faith, for those who do are then obligated to fulfilling it. Who then carries the burden? Does Christ Jesus or the one trying to fulfill the law through works? We were captive under the law, but Christ Jesus has set us free.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be
justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ
have put on Christ.
Galatians 3:23-27 ESV
Religious people followed Paul and as people came to Christ in faith, they followed in behind him and tried to convince the people that they must now fulfill the Jewish religious practices. Some of these were even counted among the believers.
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
It happened in the newfound Christianity, and it happens today. Believers are tempted to add works to their faith through the motivation of worshipping God. It neither worships God nor pleases Him when the motivation is a religious practice that would supposedly secure one’s position with God. We must ask, as Paul did, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Peter responded to the demand put forth by the followers of the Pharisees.
The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days
God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit
just as He did to us, and He made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of
the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Acts 15:6-11 ESV
Peter called upon them to consider the same faith versus works question that Paul had dealt with. James then delivered the decision.
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual
immorality, and from that what has been strangled, and from blood.”
Acts 15:19-20 ESV
The council then put together a letter to be delivered to the believers at Antioch.
With the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some
persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose
men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves
will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has
been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
Acts 15:23-29 ESV
This does not negate the practices of the Christian faith as they are taught in Scripture. These practices, however, ought to be carried out in faith and not under the compulsion of a religion or religious leader. We must continue to live by faith, following the leading of Holy Spirit, remembering that without faith, it is not possible to please God.
And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.
Hebrews 11:6 ESV