All along we’ve been observing the way that religion alone cannot cover over the stain that sin produces.
Which has led many to draw the conclusion that Jesus came, in some way, to eradicate religion. “I have a relationship,” we insist. “Not a religion.”
The problem with this statement should be obvious: the people who make such statements are often looked at by others as the most religious. Further, Jesus never came to eradicate religion, only its hypocritical, self-centered expressions.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the crowds that gathered to hear Him preach:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
All of which means that Jesus came not to eliminate religion, but to redeem it. The Law remains permanent – its demands indelible. Only total perfection can earn God’s favor. Yes, in Ephesians 2 Paul says that Jesus “nullified” these commandments, but by that he only meant that Jesus’ death satisfied their demands and requirements – not that they were discarded altogether.
What the first century world needed was a Savior who would do more for them than merely highlight their sin and increase their burdens – activities the Pharisees and religious leaders had elevated to the form of both science and art. What they needed – what all people need – was forgiveness.
Which actually brings us back full circle to the healing stories throughout Luke’s gospel. The Pharisees were astonished – even angered – that Jesus would claim to forgive sin, because not only was this a claim to be God, but this also robbed them of their rights and powers:
“How does God normally forgive sins within Israel? Why, through the Temple and the sacrifices that take place there. Jesus seems to be claiming that God is doing, up close and personal through him, something that you’d normally expect to happen at the Temple. And the Temple – the successor to the tabernacle in the desert – was…the place where heaven and earth met. It was the place were God lived. Or, more precisely, the place on earth where God’s presence intersected with human, this-worldly reality.
The Temple was also the place where the high priest had supreme authority. Already we can see what we should have experienced if it was indeed true that Jesus was going around telling people that a new government was taking over, that God was in charge from now on. His healings, his celebrations, his forgiving of those in dire need of it – all these were up-close-and-personal versions of the larger picture he knew his hearers would pick up on whenever he spoke of God becoming king. These actions and sayings were ramming home the point, dangerous though it was, that the present rulers were being called to account and were indeed being replaced. This was the time for God to take charge, to fix and mend things, to make everything right. Starting with you here, and this person there. Whether or not the authorities liked it. Whether or not the self-appointed pressure groups approved.” (N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 79-80)
Religion concerns itself with rituals, with temples. But Christ is the true and better religion. He is the true and better temple. He is the true and better high priest who exercises these activities.
We’ll return to this exact theme in tomorrow’s post.