This is the second week of our series called Jesus Hates Religion. This is a pretty straight up, in-your-face series. But it’s so important, because in this series we’re seeing what is really in the heart of Jesus. What is He really all about? Who does He really want us to be? What does He really want us to do?
Those can be tough questions to answer, because after more than 2,000 years, the church has gotten mired in a fog of traditions and dogmas and teachings that have no Biblical basis whatsoever. In this series, we’re cutting through all of that and getting back to the heart of what Jesus wants from us as His people.
Last week, we talked about how Jesus always seemed to hang out with the “wrong people.” But for Jesus, the “wrong people” are the exact right people. A lot of churches would fire their pastor if they hung out with the people that Jesus hung out with, and that’s tragic because it means that so many churches miss out on the heart of God and the heart of the gospel. I’m thankful to be part of a church that understands that we’re all the wrong people, and Jesus came to save the wrong people because they’re the exact right people.
Today in the second week of this series, we’re going to talk about what’s really important. What is really important to Jesus? What should be really important to us as His followers?
To answer that question, we’re going to explore a story found in Matthew 12. Let me pray for us and we’ll get started.
Before we get into our story, let me set the scene for us. Jesus is about to have a confrontation with a group of people known as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group of elite religious leaders. They were experts in the Old Testament Law, which was the rule of faith and practice for all first century Jews. When it came to a question regarding the Jewish faith, these were the go-to guys. They were the experts.
One of the most sacred principles in the Old Testament Law was the principle of the Sabbath. It was one of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath was Saturday. And it was a day set aside for rest. No work was to be done on the Sabbath.
Now that we’ve got our feet under us on this stuff, let’s get into our story.
This story is found in the book of Matthew. In chapter 12, Matthew wrote, “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2, NIV)
So Jesus and His disciples are walking through a field. They’re hungry, so they just picked a little grain as they walked along. And the Pharisees had a fit. And here’s why.
In Exodus 34, the Law stated, “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” (Exodus 34:21, NIV)
The Law prevented work on the Sabbath, including farm work. No plowing or harvesting on the Sabbath. But here’s the part that is crazy…the Pharisees carried this to such an extreme that they thought picking off a head of grain and popping it in your mouth qualified as harvesting! They took a Biblical principle and carried it to a ridiculous extreme.
I grew up surrounded by farms. I worked for farmers when I was growing up. I’m well acquainted with farm work and I’m well acquainted with farmers. I can tell you that no farmer that I’ve ever met would believe that picking off a single head of grain and popping it in your mouth would qualify as work. The farmers that I worked for had a much higher expectation than that for their workers.
But this is what the Pharisees had done. They had taken a legitimate command in Scripture and made it more far-reaching than God ever intended it to be.
Because that’s what religious people do. Religion doesn’t really care about being Biblical, because it elevates its traditions to the same level as Biblical authority. Sometimes even above Biblical authority. Religious people become convinced that God needs to agree with them, not the other way around.
Look at how Jesus responded to the Pharisees. Starting in verse 3, “He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?” (Matthew 12:3-5, NIV)
Jesus lays out a couple of times when the letter of the Law had been broken. It was recorded in their Scriptures and, as Pharisees…as experts in the Jewish Scriptures…they should have known this. When Jesus said, “Haven’t you read this stuff,” He was being very cutting and sarcastic. Of course they had read it! In fact, they probably had those stories memorized!
But the problem is that their head-knowledge didn’t change their heart.
It’s not enough to know the Word of God in our heads. If it doesn’t make the transition from head to heart, it’s useless. If it doesn’t make the transfer from information to transformation, then we’re wasting our time.
That’s why the last thing a lot of religious people need is another Bible study. Most religious people are educated far beyond their level of obedience.
Like I said last week, our mission at Connect isn’t to create religious people. It’s to create grace people. Religious people gain head knowledge, but it has little effect on them. It’s information without transformation.
Grace people value information. They know it’s crucial that they keep learning the Word of God. But then they make sure that there is a handoff from head to heart. Information leads to transformation.
The Apostle Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 8. “We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b, NIV)
If all you’re doing is learning the Word of God, but you have no interest in following the will of God, you might as well go home. All it will do is puff you up. Make you proud. Make you look down on others who might not know it as well as you do.
But love builds us up. God is love. His Word is life. He gives us His Word to changes us from the inside out, and then to share the freedom and healing we have found with others.
The Word of God is always meant to lead us to the will of God. It’s not a textbook to give us more head knowledge. It’s a love letter meant to change our hearts.
The Pharisees saw the Sabbath as a regulation to burden people. God intended it as a way to free people.
Religion has no interest in setting people free. It is only interested in adding more chains. More burdens.
Religion sets people up to fail. Grace simply wants to set people free.
Let’s move on to verse 6 in Matthew 12. Look at what Jesus said next to the Pharisees. “I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:6-8, NIV)
Jesus reminds us that there is something more at stake than religious rule-keeping. He quotes from the Old Testament book of Hosea when He said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
In other words, Jesus said, “What I really want is for you to be people of love. Of mercy. Of grace. Sacrifices…acts of religious obedience…have their place. They are important. But if your obedience isn’t motivated by love, I’m not interested.”
That’s huge for us today. Some people treat everything about their faith like it’s a box to be checked. Go to church this week: check. Give my tithe: check. Do my duty and serve when I’m asked: check. Pray and read my Bible: check.
And Jesus would say, “Those are all good things. In fact, they’re great things if…and this is a big IF…they’re great things IF they are done out of love and gratitude and joy. But if it’s just so you can check your box and feel like you’re good to go for another week, then I’d rather you just not do it at all.”
Now, check out what happens next in the story. Jesus ups the ante big time.
“Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:9-10, NIV)
Look at how Matthew describes this. Jesus left the field and went into THEIR synagogue. That’s not a small detail. Instead of wandering through some farm field, he walked into THEIR synagogue.
He’s now on their turf. The place where they called the shots. And He would proceed to absolutely school them…in their house.
There was a man with a shriveled hand in the synagogue. The Pharisees were looking for anything they could find to accuse Jesus, and this guy was a convenient pawn.
They didn’t care about Him. Not even a little bit. This guy was just a pawn in their game…because religion isn’t concerned with the well-being of people. Religion is concerned with keeping traditions and rules intact. If that sounds too harsh, then explain why the Pharisees would use this poor, disabled man.
All they do is use this guy as a prop and they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
But Jesus sees right through their thinly veiled plot. And He nails them.
Matthew writes, “He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12, NIV)
Jesus points out that these guys cared more about their livestock than they did about people. If one of them had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, they would lift it out. And by the way…that would qualify as work on the Sabbath. But the needs of the sheep would supersede the letter of the Law.
And then Jesus points out the obvious. A person is more valuable than an animal. I know that flies in the face of what some animal rights groups might believe, but it’s true.
And then Jesus points out that it is indeed lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
Doing good, ministering to people, meeting needs NEVER contradicts the will of God. Ever.
So here’s what Jesus did. Verses 13-14. “Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Matthew 12:13-14, NIV)
Jesus healed him. On the Sabbath. In front of the Pharisees. In their synagogue. I don’t think that people in the 21st century can really wrap their minds around just how controversial this was in the first century.
But you get some idea of how divisive this was when you see how the Pharisees responded. They left and plotted about how to kill Jesus.
And that has always blown my mind. Instead of being in awe of the miracle…instead of thinking, “You know, if this guy can perform a miracle like that, maybe we should listen to Him. Maybe, just maybe, we should rethink our position…” in spite of everything they just saw, heard, and experienced…they plotted to kill Jesus.
Think about these two scenes. The one in the grainfield and the one in the synagogue. In the grainfield, the Pharisees got upset because people were being fed in a way that they didn’t like. In the synagogue, they got upset because a man was healed in a way that they didn’t like.
And that reveals the callous, hard heart of religion. Religion doesn’t care if people are being fed if it is done in a way that goes against its tradition. Religion doesn’t care if people find healing if happens in a way that goes against its tradition.
In religion, it’s all about keeping the rules, even if those rules aren’t Biblical. It’s all about checking the right boxes. It’s all about talking the part, looking the part, and acting the part.
But in grace, the priority is love. Love for God and love for people. Grace people realize just how much Jesus has done for them, and they want everyone to find what they’ve found. They want people to be fed. They want people to be healed.
I remember one particular evening when I was 13 or 14 years old. It was a Sunday evening, and our church had a Sunday night service. So I walked in and sat down with a group of my friends.
The service hadn’t started yet. We were sitting in our pew, talking and laughing. We were being a little loud, but we’re a bunch of teenagers. What else would you expect.
Then, all of a sudden, an older lady came up behind me and ripped the hat off of my head. I turned around, and with fire in her eyes, she said, “Don’t you know enough to take off your hat in church?”
Now, a few things to note. I grew up in the country. I always wore a hat. So did all of my friends. Most of my friends were farm boys, and farm boys wear hats. During those years of my life, you would almost never see me without a hat on my head. I wore it so much that I forgot that I had it on sometimes. That’s what happened in this case. I really had no idea that I had a hat on my head. It was so routine for me that I didn’t think about it.
Secondly, she said, “Don’t you know enough to take your hat off in church?” Actually, no…I didn’t know enough to know that. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. I really had no idea that this could be a problem.
And then, there was the real heart behind what she said. “Don’t you know enough to take your hat off in church?” Translation: who I really was was not good enough to bring into church. I had to somehow change before I would be accepted at church.
That lesson stuck with me for a long time. Like…years. It was one of the most formative lessons I learned in my walk with Christ…and it was one that took me a lot of years to overcome. There was so much religion taught in that one little interaction. An interaction that was completely devoid of love and grace. It was all about checking a box that I didn’t even know needed to be checked. It was all about observing a tradition that’s not even in the Bible. Oh yeah…I learned a lot from the hat incident. A whole lot.
Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. Experiences like this are why many people have walked away from the church entirely. They don’t understand the traditions. They can’t check all the right boxes.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we ignore the commands that God gives us in Scripture. Not at all. But it does mean a couple of things. First of all, we don’t try to make Scripture say something that it doesn’t. We don’t try to twist Scriptures meaning. We don’t take Scripture out of context to support our viewpoint or our argument.
Here’s a good rule of thumb. Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.
If the Bible is silent on something…if it’s a gray area, a disputable matter…we won’t make it a hard, fast rule.
And when the Bible does speak, when God does give a black-and-white command, we obey, but we do it out of love. Grace means that we are free to follow God and obey Him out of joy and gratitude. God doesn’t give arbitrary religious rules to burden us. He gives truth out of His love for us. As our Heavenly Father, He knows what’s best for us, so He gives us truth to follow. That is not what religion does. Religion gives rules, often unbiblical rules, that burden people. God gives truth to set people free.
To really understand that, we need to go back and look at what Jesus said in Matthew 11. This came right before the stories in the grainfield and in the synagogue.
At the end of Matthew 11, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)
Jesus says, “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened.” Religion says, “Come to me, you who already have it all together.”
Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” Religion says, “Come to me and I will give you rules.”
Jesus says, “I am gentle and humble in heart.” Religion says, “I am right, and if you aren’t right, I will hammer you.”
Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Religion says, “My yoke is heavy and my burden is crushing.”
Jesus says, “You will find rest for your souls.” Religion says, “You will be exhausted trying to get it all right.”
Here at Connect, we choose Jesus over religion. We preach the gospel of grace, which says that Jesus lived the perfect life that we couldn’t possibly live. And He died the punishing death we should have died. And He rose from the dead to give us a new life.
You can have a new life because of Jesus. You can have eternal life because of Jesus. Not because of anything you do or don’t do. But because of what Jesus has already done.
Religion teaches the exact opposite…and that’s why Jesus hates religion.