In a previous blog article, I talked about the shadow of things to come. Paul says that following rules and observing religious ritual is just a shadow of things to come. Later in the same chapter in Colossians, Paul explains in more detail what he is getting at. When we are focused only on the do’s and the don’ts and on observing religious rituals, we are focused on the wrong things.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
Paul isn’t advocating that followers of Christ abandon self-discipline and self-control and do whatever they like. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2) But, following Jesus doesn’t mean stepping up religious observances and following rules and regulations more closely. The focus on rules and rituals entirely misses the point.
Jesus was accused by the religious leaders of His time of failing to follow the religious rules and rituals, and His response gets to the essence of the matter:
“Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them…. whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15:10,11, 17-20)
It isn’t things from outside that corrupt a person, but things from inside. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) Our problem isn’t what we do, but who we are. What we do is a manifestation of who we are, and if what we do doesn’t match what is in our hearts, we are hypocrites. This is exactly what Jesus called the religious leaders of his day who honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. (Matthew 15:7). Because of that, Jesus said, quoting the prophet Isaiah, their worship was in vain. (Matthew 15:8)
Many people are able to keep up appearances as far as other people can see, but God knows and judges the heart. This is why Jesus called the religious leaders of his time “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27)
Because we tend to focus on the outside appearances and things as they appear on the surface, Jesus turned up the heat when he said these things:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment….” (Matthew 5:21-22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…. ” (Matthew 5:27-28)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles….” (Matthew 5:38-41)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
The fact is that the standard is much higher than they thought! It’s much higher than we think: Perfection is the standard if we want to be considered righteous by God on our own efforts, and we don’t measure up! We will never measure up, and that is the whole point. It isn’t whether we can fake it better than the next person.
In this same vein, Jesus encountered the adulterous Samaritan woman at the well. She was surprised Jesus would even talk to her. Jews and Samaritans didn’t interact. Jesus revealed to her the intimate details of her life, which were not very righteous. Instead of judging her, He engaged her in spiritual conversation. They discussed the differences between the Samaritans and Jews on the location where they should worship God. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem,” she said. (John 4:20)
Jesus got to the heart of the matter when He said:
“[A] time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. [A] time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21,23-24)
And this gets me to the most important point. If we want to be children of God, we must be born of God. God is Spirit, so we must be born of the Spirit. The only solution is that we must be born again – born of the Spirit of God, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, one of those religious leaders that Jesus was so often criticizing:
“Jesus replied, ‘… I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’
‘How can someone be born when they are old? Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’
Jesus answered, ‘… I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:3-7)
We must become a new person. This is beyond us. Just like being born in the flesh to our mothers; we don’t cause ourselves to be born again. This is something God does in us when we submit our lives and open our hearts to Him.
Being born again doesn’t happen by anything we do or anything we refrain from doing. It is nothing we can boast in because “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. (Ephesians 2:8)
Rules and rituals don’t make us children of God. These things are self-made religion, and they don’t mean anything to God. They don’t do anything to change who we are. Only God can truly change us, and He does that from the inside out. He does it by causing us to be born again, born of the Spirit who comes to reside in us as we allow Him room to do His work within us.
Self-made religion, with its legalities is empty and useless. God must be known in spirit and truth.