We were created for a relationship with God but that relationship was ruined by our rebellion. God then acted in history to restore that relationship, but instead of accepting redemption we turned to religion. Religion is man’s attempt to please God by our actions, man’s attempt to get to God.
Perhaps the clearest example of how this works is found in the development of the Jewish Talmud. God told his people that if they would simply obey him, they would remain secure in the land God had given them.
Pretty soon, however, the deceptive human heart began to rely on their privileged position and God’s people began to disobey thinking they were beyond God’s correction precisely because they went by His name.
God warns His people again and again through His prophets. They refuse to listen and eventually God’s judgment falls on them; they are carried into exile in Babylon where they sit for 70 years.
During this time, God’s people start to face the fact that they are where they are because they had disobeyed God. To remedy this situation, the captives in Babylon started the formation of the Babylonian Talmud, and the exiles in Palestine began to develop the Palestinian Talmud.
Basically these two works are fences that were erected under the law of Moses to protect it. The idea was, if there were safe boundaries far enough away from the danger zone, people wouldn’t trip into the danger zone and God’s honor would be protected. That is what religion does — it takes the basic rules and adds new rules to them in hopes of keeping us from breaking the original set of rules.
Think of it this way. If you had a piece of property you didn’t want people trespassing on, you might put up a fence. But if you found people climbing that fence, you erect another on a different perimeter, and post that no trespassing sign.
If that doesn’t work, you might add another layer of security to keep people from violating your inner land. Perhaps the border area between Russia and Finland serves as a good modern-day picture of this concept. Signs, clear land sections, sandy zones, and fences all designed to keep people from illegally crossing into either country.
With the development of the religious regulations developed by the Rabbis for the Jewish populace, the law they were trying to protect became obscured. Jesus, when confronted by the Pharisees and Jewish legal experts as to why His disciples were “breaking the tradition of the elders,” responded, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your traditions?”
After asking that, He comments, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matthew 15:8–9, NIV84).
His statement, of course, endeared Him to all who heard — not really. “Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’” (Matthew 15:12, NIV84).
The modern church is just as guilty of obscuring the truth of God through our elaborate development of tradition in our effort to protect God’s honor. Sadly, we are also guilty of the accusation of our Lord: we sacrifice the truth of God often on the altar of our sacred traditions.
The crying need of the church today is to learn how to differentiate our treasured traditions from God’s essential truths; and that is never easy. It reminds me of the leader who once commented that she would much rather a person be a Baptist than a Christian. There’s probably a lot more truth in her comment than we care to admit.
We need to get back to the early church’s understanding that we should stop making it difficult for people to become Christ-followers by burdening them down with useless rules and our petty demands (See Acts 15:19; Colossians 2:16-23).
John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway website at www.gatewaycommunity.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.