There has been some recent discussion on what religion is and whether or not Jesus was excited about it. Jesus was clearly against being self-righteous, or thinking that by your own actions you have measured up to God’s standard. It doesn’t appear from His own religious practices that He was as against religion as people have claimed. I think the confusion has come in because religion has been reduced in recent years to things that are done rather routinely, or as I call it here, “empty religion.”
Eastern religions have operated like this for a long time. They say things like, “What goes around comes around.” This is referred to as karma, or the basic idea that if I do good, I will get good, and if I do bad, I will get bad. This is not what Christian faith is about because it deals exclusively with outside actions. This is about trying to earn a better situation in life and then in the next life, which is the basic framework of many religions and why there has been confusion about the term used as it relates to Christianity. Our Christian life is not based on ritual or routine, but is based on a relationship with a person, Jesus Christ. In hoping to clear up the confusion, let me compare the difference between empty religion and religion.
Empty Religion Deals with the Outside
In John 2, Jesus is off to the temple, which is what many other Jews would be doing. It was Passover, which was the celebration of their freedom from the Egyptians and thousands of people were coming to town for this time to celebrate passover. Jesus enters the temple and what does he find? He finds people selling items. What’s up with that?
Because they needed a sacrifice for the passover and many people were traveling a great distance to be there, they would need to get an animal for that sacrifice. They have set up this shop in order to help the worshipper worship. At the same time, there was a requirement that each person pay a temple tax, but it had to be in a certain type of currency, so they had money changers who would exchange their money for them. Of course, all of these merchants were making money on the deals and possibly even inflating the prices. This is just like when you go to an amusement park and buy a bottle of soda for $3. You know it is inflated, but you pay it because you want a soda.
Do you have the scene now? It sort of looks like a market place when Jesus walks into the temple.
“In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” – John 2:14-16
Why is Jesus doing that? Aren’t they actually doing a good thing by providing things to help people worship?
Because they were using religion to hide behind, while being completely about their own gain. In other words, Jesus saw their heart. He knew that this was not about worshipping the Father, this was about getting rich. Any attempt by people to come to worship would be completely distracted and undermined by the market place scene.
So, by doing what He does he very clearly states that these people, while seemingly doing the right thing, are far, far, far away from getting what it means to be a believer. Their minds were filled with their own selfish and worldly pursuits while they are putting on this show of religion. It is not supposed to be about outward religious acts, but about the heart.
Empty Religion deals with Location
As religious people, they were in the right place at the right time. But, it carried very little concern for Jesus who was more concerned with the complete picture. The purpose of coming to worship was to worship God, not themselves. It was not intended to be about them.
Jesus sees right through that and actually kicks them out of church because they really were there for the wrong reason. Now, of course, getting together to worship is a necessary part of growing in that relationship, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you go to church on Sundays that you have a relationship with Jesus. That is a heart matter, not a location matter.
Empty Religion is about Imitation
Jesus says that real worship honors the Father. There are plenty of imitators out there. I can look very close to God with my outside, but do I know Jesus Christ? Does my heart long to hallow his name? Does my life express the love I have for Jesus when I am alone? Jesus had no patience for the impostors who came in the name of religion and completely disgraced what worship was all about. I believe they got the message. When one guy overturns a marketplace on his own, they obviously knew He meant business.
My point is that we really don’t need to be against religion, just religion that is not connected to a relationship with Jesus Christ. We don’t want to just go through the motions, we want to actually know God! Worship is not just showing up, it is living in communion with God. All of this is only made possible through Jesus Christ.
The post I wrote the other day titled “Why do we do this?” addresses the importance of being clear on that with children. I know I don’t want my kids just to say a prayer at dinner, or go even go to church only because I told them to. I want them to experience God’s power in their life. The structure of religion becomes a wonderful part of daily life when this is the case.