Jesus didn’t come to establish a new religion or to add the religion of Christianity to the rest. Jesus came to put an end to religion. He came to reveal a brand-new way of relationship to God, and with God.
Based on “The Death of Religion” in It’s a Sign: Seeing Jesus in the Ordinary
“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,” Jesus promised.
It is difficult for those of us who have grown up with a Western view of Jesus to grasp just how subversive and outrageous His words sounded to people whose identities were tied up in the temple. It was the focal point of first-century Judaism—the physical location of the presence of God. It was through the temple that people received forgiveness of sins. As part of the worship ritual that took place in the temple, worshippers were surrounded by temple furnishings such as the Bread of the Presence, the Golden Lamp Stand, and the Altar of Incense.
From guidelines to grace
Then along came Jesus, declaring that God was present in Him. He brought a type of worship based not on physical location and religious artifacts, but worship that is in spirit and in truth. He held out the offer of forgiveness of sins, not through temple rituals, but through the authority of His spoken word. And He invited all who believed into a living, dynamic union with Him. In the Bible this union is called a covenant, or a testament.
After Christ’s birth, forgiveness of sins was no longer attained through the offerings of bulls, rams, and goats, but through His once-and-for-all sacrifice and by coming to Him as our High Priest. God’s presence, previously boxed in by physical walls of stone, would be manifested fully in the temple of Jesus’ body, as that destroyed body would be raised to life in three days.
The implication of Jesus’ anti-temple movement was that religion as the way to God was finished. Israel had long anticipated the day spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah when captivity would finally come to an end and the Messiah would rule: a day when a new covenant would be revealed by God, when God would write His precepts upon the heart rather than on tablets of stone; a day when religion would be replaced by relationship.
This was a revolutionary message for first-century Jews, whose relationship with God was wrapped up in rituals and rules.
The more things stay the same
But are we 21st-century Christians all that different? I have been a follower of Jesus for most of my life, and yet I still find myself drifting back to the futility of religious ways, to a white-knuckled devotion fueled by human strength rather than by a dynamic relationship with Jesus. I try harder, read more, pray longer, and participate in what I call “do-more” theology rather than trusting in the strength that comes from knowing God. That’s the problem with religion, or perhaps better said, that’s the problem with human nature. We can practice the rituals and follow the rules religiously—and still have a heart that is far from God.
Jesus described the dynamic union that we can have with Him as being led by the Spirit. At another time, He likened the influence of God and the Holy Spirit to that of the wind. So I figure that trying to please God and obey Him through my own strength is like trying to fly a kite or sail a boat without any wind. On the other hand, a dynamic union with Jesus produces change and authentic faith, just as submitting to the wind gives full sail to a boat and carries a kite high into the sky.
Overcoming identity confusion
I think it is worthwhile to ask the question from what or whom do I derive my identity? Is it through a dynamic union with Jesus, or from another source? It comes naturally for most us to draw our identity from something other than Jesus: our abilities, our relationships, our work, our socioeconomic status, our hobbies.
Some of my favorite television commercials are for Nationwide Insurance, each of which ends with the tag line “Life comes at you fast.” A star athlete falls down the stairs and breaks his leg. A handsome gondolier morphs into an old man. A father pushing his young son on a swing is knocked over by a burly youth. Life does come at us fast, and if our identities are wrapped up in our abilities, our youthful looks, or in earthly relationships, we are building on shifting sand. It is worthwhile to take inventory from time to time, checking to see what it is that gives us identity. God said to Jeremiah, “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (31:33b), and this is what gives me an identity that is built on solid ground.
The greatest hunger of the human heart is to know God—and thus to know ourselves—and for first-century Jews, the temple was germane to knowing God. But when Jesus replaced the physical temple with the temple of His body, He became the means by which we know God. As the Apostle Paul, once from the strictest religious sect of the Jews, would later write, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It is done
All of religion can be summed up in the word “do.” It revolves around what I must do to know, experience, and be forgiven by God. The spirituality of Jesus, on the other hand, can be summed up in the word “done.” It rests on what He has done for me rather than on what I must do for Him. All of the miraculous signs that Jesus did point to this astonishing truth: that we might know Him and have a life that is full of His life. Let heaven and nature sing, the Lord is come.