Jesus Was Religious

Posted: January 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

Here are some helpful thoughts on this popular video from Jared Wilson

It’s important not to push back on Jefferson Bethke and his video simply to be contrarian or to avoid liking something because everybody else does. The heart displayed in the video is solid, and he says a lot of right things. But he says a few wrongs one too, and while they aren’t wrong enough to overreact, they are wrong enough to note with some cautions.

First, I think using the word “religion” in a negative sense can be okay. Most of us have done it. I’ve done it. When delivered in a punchy way with a clear context, it makes sense. Most reasonable people understand what is meant by the claim that “Jesus ticked off religious people.” Yes, he did. And while we can bring in all kinds of assumptions to what exactly constitutes “religious people,” the statement makes sense on the surface.

But in belaboring the point there is much more opportunity for error. Some make a boogeyman out of the idea of “religious people,” by which it becomes clear what they mean is “traditional people” or the uncool. My feeling is that the Bible-thumping, starched suit-wearing, hellfire and brimstone religious people taking the fun out of fundamentalism are becoming fewer and farther between, while the church is brimming with self-righteous hipsters and cooler-than-thous. The Pharisees look like Vampire Weekend now. I’m not saying Jefferson is one of those guys; I’m just saying he’s offering them red meat.

The way the fellow in the video defines religion, he is right to hate it. But the more he goes on, the less justification he’s got for using the word religion. It’s not religion that does all those things. It’s not even the Law that does all those things. The Law is good! (See Romans 7:12, for instance, or 1 Timothy 1:18.) It’s self-righteousness that does all those things. Religion is not, as the fellow says, a man-made invention: legalism is. And even as the Scriptures tell us the harsh things the Law does, it never gives us license to hate it.

So it’s not the Law or religion the Bible is against, but legalism and “self-made religion” (Colossians 2:23). There is no room in the video’s belaboring of the point, apparently, for “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27). It’s important to make the “do vs. done” distinction — vitally important — but “do” is not bad. Jesus did not come to abolish religion, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).

And the really controversial point we ought to make is this: Jesus did not hate religion. He was in fact a religious person. We are used to using the words Pharisee or Pharisaical in the pejorative senses, as labels, but in Jesus’ day, the most faithful, biblical religion going, for all its problems, was the religion of the Pharisees. Between Zealots on one side and Sadducees on the other, the Pharisees had carved out a decent niche as the “evangelicals” of the day.

The great sin of the Pharisees was not, in the end, their religious dutifulness — they sought to interpret the Scriptures literally, were conservative in doctrine and practice, believed in the resurrection to come, and thought God’s Word had immediate application to every day life — but their self-righteous rejection of Jesus. And Jesus, believe it or not, was closest in theology to the Pharisees.

Jesus was a good Jew. He attended synagogue faithfully, observed the feasts and festivals and religious holidays, kept the Law (better than anybody), and made it his mission to obey God perfectly. You better hope Jesus was super-religious, in fact, because it’s his perfect religion we rely on for our righteousness.

So, again: Jefferson Bethke is on to something good and right. But we are on to something good and right to make the right distinctions, lest we put ourselves in the Pharisaical place of saying “I thank you God I’m not like those religious people.”

And again: the Law is not bad! It is good. And it is not gospel-shaped to hate the Law but to delight in it.

“I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” – Psalm 40:8 ESV


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