Do you believe in a Religion of Works?
Certain people came up to Jesus to challenge the religious character of His disciples. In Luke 5:33, the Bible says,
And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.”
The people were not merely making an observation, but rather, they were making a statement about the character of the disciples. The statement implies that Jesus’ disciples were not as religious or zealous for God as the disciples of John and the Pharisees for they fasted and offered prayers regularly to God.
Before we slam the critics for questioning the character of Jesus’ disciples, it is important to understand the reasoning behind their statement. Fasting was a normative part of the religious climate which usually entailed not eating food for one full day. Jews were only required to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. There were also four day-long fasts to remember the destruction of Jerusalem. The other fasts were for repentance and the mourning of sin.
Although the Jews were only required to fast once a year, the Pharisees increased fasting to twice a week. Every Monday and Thursday the Pharisees would fast and intercede for the nation of Israel, praying for her deliverance. Fasting was a sign of piety and reverence for God. So, in Jesus day, you were considered religious and reverent if you fasted regularly.
Jesus and His disciples enter the scene, and not only do they not fast, but they are eating and drinking with sinners. It is a stark contrast. It was as if I showed up to preach in here in a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops instead of the customary suit. I would look totally irreverent and irreligious because it would not fit in our church’s cultural framework.
These people looked at Jesus’ disciples and were implying to Jesus that he needs to do something about them. They were attempting to be obvious without being obvious. It is like when a well-meaning grandmother tells one of her granddaughters after one of her small children throws a tantrum, “You know that so-and-so’s children were over here the other day and were so well behaved and respectful.” This is code for, “What is wrong with your children?” People came to Jesus with a statement about fasting, which was code for, “What is wrong with your disciples?” The people questioned Jesus and His disciples because they were living with the mindset of the old covenant or living in a religion of works. They believed that people were justified in God’s sight based on what they did rather than by God’s grace. Unfortunately, this works-based comparison of our religious activities is still active today. This perspective easily can creep into the life of Christians and the culture of churches. So we have to ask ourselves, “Do we functionally believe in a religion of works?” We may not intellectually believe that, but do we practically live our lives believing in a religion of works?
Be honest with yourself. Do you pat yourselves on the back because your life is a little bit better than the person you are sitting next to on Sunday morning? Do you elevate yourself over your brothers and sisters by focusing on how their behavior is not quite as good as yours? Do you look down at other churches and/or people because their religious activities do not seem to measure up to yours?
The issue that the people had with Jesus’ disciples was not only that they were eating and drinking, but they were eating and drinking with sinners. The disciples were judged to have a weak walk with God because they spent time with sinners. They spent time talking with sinners. They spent time eating with sinners. They spent time laughing with sinners. Bottom line, they spent time with sinners.
So why were Jesus’s disciples spending time with sinners? Because that was where Jesus was spending his time!! Jesus said,
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:31-32).
Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. The only way to save the lost is to be among the lost. While the religious establishment was focused on their religious activities and on how Jesus’ disciples were not meeting their expectations, Jesus and the disciples were calling sinners to repentance and calling them to turn to the living God for salvation.
Beloved, we must guard ourselves from thinking that our spiritual life is connected solely to our religious activities. God wants us to do good works. Ephesians 2:10 says,
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Good works are important, but the reasons behind those good works make all the difference.
As a pastor, I spend a lot of time trying to get people to come to church and to have them participate in religious activities. If I am not careful, it is very easy to start preaching and teaching a religion of works. It is easy to judge people’s devotion to God based solely on their church attendance and/or service in the church. I do want people to be more faithful in their service to the church. I want people to be more faithful in their attendance and giving to the church.
Hear the difference in the following, “You need to be more faithful to the church. You need to give more and do more. God wants you to be more involved.” Those are not heretical statements, but I think that they are wrong-headed. The other way of saying it is, “Jesus Christ is so glorious and so holy. He came to rescue you from sin and death by giving His own life for your soul. What a great and glorious God!! This great God that has sacrificed His life for you is calling you to lose your life for His sake so that you may truly find it. Jesus calls you to pick up your cross, deny yourself and follow him. Give more and serve more and sacrifice more for Jesus Christ. He is worth it.” The first sounds very works-based while the second is all about worship. Christianity is not a religion of work. Fundamentally, it is a religion of worship.