Monday, January 25, 2010

Religion or Relationship?

Religion or Relationship?

Someone asked me yesterday at work if I was "a religious person". I prefer not to use that term, but yes, that's a popular label used to describe something that's important to me. That began a discussion about "religion" versus "relationship".

1. Does the Bible say that God wants us to have a relationship with Him, rather than follow a religion?
2. Does the Bible say that Jesus considered Himself to be the same as God?

Good questions!

"Religion" is used only a few times in the Bible. It's translated from a Greek word that means a ceremonial observance.

Two of the most revealing verses about religion are in the Book of Acts and Paul's letter to the Colossians:

They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. (Acts 26:5)
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 2:23)

The Pharisees were hypocritical, proud murderers. Paul, and Jesus had little good to say about such religion:

But 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. 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. Matthew 23:13-15 (ESV)

This is just a part of a longer condemnation by Jesus of a religion.

For Paul, religion meant a system of rules and traditions intended to control people and make them acceptable to God. But Paul said they only have an appearance of wisdom and have no real effect on internal sin. Jesus implied that it would be better to have no religion rather than have that of the Pharisees.

This is why I don't really like the label "religious". It doesn't fit with what the Bible describes as being a genuine relationship with a living, loving God.

So, what does the Bible say about "relationship"?

I can see aspects of a relationship with God throughout the Bible. But one of the books that seems to talk most about it is the Book of John.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:9-14 (ESV)

Several words here describe the idea of "relationship":

  • Know (to understand as certain fact)
  • Receive (to take hold of)
  • Believe (to have faith in)
  • Children (son or daughter)
  • Dwelt (literally, "lived in a tent")

"Relationship" consists of all these aspects, and more.

One important word here is "receive", translated from a Greek word that means to take hold of. God establishes a special relationship with people who "get hold" of Jesus: they become His children, spiritual children of God.

The relationship of child to parent is precious and genuine, more than just a religion or a system of rules and traditions.

Think of one's relationship with their children. Of all the grownups they deal with, parents are, or should be, the closest person in the world to them...closer than with any teacher or babysitter, or even grandparents.

That's why I think the Bible says God wants me to have a relationship with Him, rather than a religion.

Even in the Old Testament there are lots of references to an intimate relationship with God, rather than an impersonal system of rules and traditions. A good example is David's song, Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalms 23:1-6 (ESV)

David spoke of God as being a very close, very real presence in his life. "God" wasn't a belief or system of rules or a religion...God was like a shepherd, constantly caring and leading and providing for him.

This is what I want. A close, intimate relationship with God promises to be the very happiest place I could ever be, sustaining me through good and bad.

Matthew talked about treasure:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21 (ESV)

Later, he tells where the greatest treasure is found:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Matthew 13:44 (ESV)

The best treasure, better than anything else a person might have or do, is found in the kingdom of other words, God Himself. If God is your King, the One Who provides and protects and guides and gives all good things, then you are truly rich!

Is Jesus the same as God?

A second question was whether Jesus considered himself to be the same as God.

The Pharisees must have thought Jesus was trying to say he was equal with God...they wanted to kill him for saying that:

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. John 5:18 (ESV)

The Jews heard Jesus call God his Father and that was the same as saying Jesus was equal with God. That is exactly what "Son of God" means. It doesn't mean that Jesus was physically the offspring of God. It means that Jesus had the very nature of God Himself.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. Hebrews 1:3 (ESV)

John records Jesus saying that He and God were One:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. John 10:27-30 (ESV)
Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. John 14:10-11 (ESV)
And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. John 17:5 (ESV)

There are so many more verses in the Bible that talk about people having a close, intimate relationship with God. There are even more verses that talk about Jesus as being the exact image, having the complete holy, divine nature of God.

I think that is the crux of the issue. Who is Jesus? If you read what He said about Himself, there are only three possible answers:

  1. He was insane.
  2. He was a liar.
  3. He was God.

I believe Jesus was truly God in human form. I believe He took upon Himself my sin, all of it: past, present and future...and took God's wrath upon Himself in order to save me from Hell. I believe Jesus was raised from the dead, nevermore to die, and I live in Him now, with the sure hope of heaven, indwelt by His Spirit, comforted, convinced and completed by the living God.

That's a relationship.