Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Who Knows the Future?

"It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart."
Ecclesiastes 7:2

Some people may think that Ecclesiastes is a depressing book, but I rather like it. I like it because the wisdom of Solomon glows in it. It is written by an older man who is looking back at his life and realizes how much of it was wasted; he squandered his life in worthless pursuits. And so he writes Ecclesiastes as a warning to those of us who are younger. One of the warnings he writes about that I like best is the one above. Over and over in the book, he warns that death will come for all and it can come at any moment. In the verse above, Solomon says that the living should keep their mind on the fact that they will die. Pretty morbid, right?

Well, maybe not. If every day we remembered that we don't know what is going to happen in our future, that this day might be the last (ours or someone else's), I think we might make better choices. Seize the day sounds so trite, but it also encapsulates this point. In fact, I think Solomon would wholeheartedly agree. He knows people don't want to end up like him--looking back with a heart full of regret.

But be assured, Solomon isn't saying to live life with a humorless air, never cracking a smile. In Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 he says this:

"This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart. "

He says in essence, "Because life is so short, enjoy it!" Enjoy what God has given you because he has given you this time, this day, this hour to enjoy it. Love your loved ones, share your gifts, encourage coworkers, throw a party with friends! Be glad in heart!

I hear a lot of people putting down rich Americans for being wealthy, so it's a bit shocking to hear Solomon call wealth and possessions a gift. We're so used to being "bad" for having lots of money. Yet, Solomon doesn't see wealth as evil or wrong, but a gift from God. To be clear, if you read the rest of Ecclesiastes, you'll see that he doesn't mean to squander your wealth in selfish, idle pursuits (this is exactly what he says he did and it was meaningless). At the end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind." So he can't mean take your wealth and run pell mell with it. He means, fear God, obey him and also enjoy what he has given you. Give to the widow, give to the orphan, but don't forget to be joyous yourself with what God has given you.

So, let's "Seize the day!" Enjoy what God has given you! Make every day count because you don't know what the future holds. Hug your children, kiss your spouse, revel in the company of your friends and put your money to good use, for this is God's gift.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jesus, Redeemer of Religion

In the last post, I took issue with the common statement among certain Christians today that they "hate religion, but love Jesus." I pointed out that what they hate is not religion, but legalism. In this post, I'd like to go positive, that is, explain what Jesus really did come to do. Jesus did not come to abolish religion, I assert, but to redeem it. Jesus abolishes legalism through himself and brings religion back through redemption.

A word first about the Greek term for religion, threskeia. Threskeia means "religious worship, especially external, that which consists of ceremonies; religious discipline." Its focus is on outward rituals and actions. Thus, when I am discussing religion in this post, I am not meaning internal spirit, but outward manifestations. I would like to advance the idea that Jesus came to redeem religion, that is, redeem the outward manifestations of godly faith.

Jesus' denunciation of the pharisees in the gospels is that they parade the law of God around in the externals, but internally they have no love for God (Luke 11:37-52). That is, their religion (i.e. threskeia), was correct on the outside, but it lacked inward change. Anyone looking at a pharisee would have admitted his religion looked good--he accomplished the externals. But Jesus points out that the externals are not all that God cares about. Externals must come from the heart. Religion comes from the heart.

Interestingly, when Jesus brings woes on the pharisees, he also says this: "You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you" (Luke 11:41). Jesus does not counsel the pharisees to throw out the externals, the threskeia, the religion, but tells them to line up both the outside and the inside. In essence, he is saying, make your religion one of heart and actions.

But how is this accomplished? How can we be the same on the inside as on the outside? For this answer, we turn to John 15. Jesus tells his disciples, "Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me" (v.4). Jesus did not expect his disciples to throw off all religious action and concentrate only on the internals. He tells them that they must produce fruit, but this fruit can only come from being connected to him. And how would they be connected to him? "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love...Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (v.9, 12). They would remain in Christ by remaining in his love and this love would be expressed to them in his death. It was Christ's death, his removal of sin, that would make true love possible.

And this is where religion is redeemed. The pharisees' empty threskeia was motivated by selfish pride. Christ's death would take away our pride through forgiveness and make way for love. And then, religion would be what God intended: externals motivated through hearts of love. Thus, when James describes Christianity as "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27), he can rightfully call Christians to express threskeia, religion. Because if you read James, you see that he is exhorting Christians to bring both their hearts and their external religion into agreement: "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26).

Jesus did not come to abolish religion, he came to redeem it. His death and resurrection was the way of redemption. It is by clinging to Jesus that we will discover what religion was meant to be all along.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christianity IS a Religion

As an English teacher, when I see terms used incorrectly, they glare at me. I can’t help but notice them. This has recently followed me into the spiritual sphere, because it is common now to hear Christians saying “I don’t believe in religion, I believe in Jesus.” Is this really what someone means when he says this? Because everything Jesus did speaks of religion.

Let’s start with a definition of religion: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”*

Now, let’s see how Jesus lines up with this definition. Did Jesus give us a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe? Yes. Read John 1. Jesus came to testify that he created the universe, that it was made in an orderly manner by him and that its purpose was to find fulfillment in him as the light.

Did Jesus call his followers to devotional observance? Yes. Jesus prayed all the time and when his disciples asked him how to pray he gave them the example (Luke 11).

Did Jesus call his followers to ritual observances? Yes. He instituted communion and baptism (Luke 22, Matt. 28:19).

Did Jesus give us a moral code to follow? Yes. His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ call for believers to act in a moral manner to the depths of their hearts.

So, did Jesus promote a religion? YES! Christianity is the religion of following Christ.

So, why are Christians so hesitant to use the term “religion?” I think there are two reasons.

1) We have seen the backlash against “religion” in our time and don’t want to associate ourselves with the term. We want non-Christians to somehow think that we ourselves don’t follow a religion. However, this is dishonest. We do follow a religion. We don’t have to be ashamed that we follow a religion. What we need to do is be able to cogently explain our religion and its truth.

2) We don’t understand what we are really saying. We have fallen into the secular world’s view that religion is something suffocating and evil. Thus, we use the term the way the world at large (well, really the West) use the term and thus agree that religion is a stuffy, constraining thing. However, the definition of religion (see above) is not “that which suffocates its believers.”

How about we change the term? When Christians say they don’t believe in religion, what they mean is they don’t believe in legalism. Let’s define legalism: “strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit; the doctrine that salvation is gained through good works, the judging of conduct in terms of adherence to precise laws.”* How does Jesus measure up against legalism?

Did Jesus promote following the letter of the law and not the spirit? No. Take a look again at the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus in fact goes beyond the letter of the law straight to the spirit. It is our heart attitude that matters in our moral actions he asserts. (See also his direct attacks on Pharisees and their lack of spirit in Matthew 23. Jesus does not support hypocrisy).

Did Jesus say that salvation was gained through good works? Not at all. Early on in his ministry he made it clear that salvation comes through simple trust, not anything I do (John 3:16).

Did Jesus give a set of precise laws that need to be followed to be a Christian? No. The gospels are the extolling of who Christ is and the assertion that to follow him is the way to life. They are not a list of rules.

So, Jesus did not support legalism, but he did support religion. As Christians, we don’t need to be afraid that we follow a religion. It’s okay to say Christianity is a religion. If we want to live truly Christlike lives, then what we do need to do is take a stand against legalism. We need to be clear that anyone can follow Christ, anyone can come into our churches, and anyone can have a conversation and fellowship with us. Jesus taught that he reaches out to all and so should we.


Some might be confused how Jesus can give us a moral code and yet not a precise set of laws. This is what the Old versus the New Covenant is all about. The Old Covenant was an agreement the Jewish people made to follow the laws God gave them. They did follow a precise set of laws (and they agreed to do this of their own volition!). When Jesus comes, he reveals that God’s desire goes way beyond a precise set of laws. Remember that the Old Covenant was made between God and the Jews, not God and all of humanity. I don’t have the time or the room to explain in complete detail the covenant of the Jews; suffice it to say that this covenant had a specific purpose for a specific time and a specific people. Jesus makes it clear through his institution of a New Covenant that God is concerned with the hearts of humanity. Jesus calls all humanity to acknowledge and trust the God of the universe. He also makes it clear that those who love God will act like they do. Thus, a moral code, a code that is followed out of love, not out of compulsion (and it doesn’t save, Jesus does!).

*Definitions from dictionary.com, however, Merriam-Wesbter would work as well. I chose to use dictionary.com because its definitions were more detailed.

P.S. It is also interesting to note that James calls following God a religion in James 1. In this chapter, he clarifies what religion for a Christian should look like.