This is the last week of our series called Jesus Hates Religion. We’ve spent the last month getting to know Jesus better. We want to love what He loves, and we want to hate what He hates. And the plain fact is that Jesus hates religion.
And I realize that is a shocking statement. I know it’s a provocative, emotional statement. But it’s also a true statement. When you look at what Jesus said and what Jesus did…and you measure it against a lot of what happens in the name of religion today, you see that it is 180° out of phase with what Jesus intended for His church to be and what He intended His church to do.
This series is all about getting back to the heart of who we are as Jesus’ church. But to do that, we’ll have to leave a whole lot of religion behind in the process.
Let me pray for us and we’ll get into the last message in this series.
Today, I’m going to teach you a dirty word. And immediately someone is like, “I knew it. This church meets in a hotel. Their music is like a rock concert. And now the pastor is going to cuss. I’m never coming back.”
Meanwhile someone else is thinking, “This is awesome, because if the pastor drops a bad word here, I won’t feel as bad for yelling at the idiot driver this morning and flipping him the bird.”
To both of you, I would say, “You have issues.”
To the rest of us, I am going to teach you a dirty word. Not a cuss word. Not a word that is going to get bleeped out on TV. Not a word that would cause the FCC to issue a fine. But it is a very, very dirty word.
The word is legalism. Everybody say “legalism.” Say it again. “Legalism.”
I should wash your mouth out with soap for saying such a dirty word.
Let me give you a working definition of legalism, and then we’ll spend the rest of our time today talking about why it is so bad.
Legalism forces adherence to things that are not set forth in Scripture, either in precept or even in principle.
If you want to know why Jesus hates religion, you can find the answer in legalism. Legalism twists and contorts what God said in the Bible. At times, legalism flat out ignores what God said in the Bible. Legalism becomes a list of religious rules that must be followed, even though the rules are not clearly stated in Scripture.
When something is clearly spelled out in the Bible, we follow those commands. We don’t try to change or twist or contort the Word of God. We follow the commands that God lays down in Scriptrue. That’s not legalism. That’s obedience. And those are two completely different things.
Legalism isn’t founded in Scripture. It’s founded in traditions. It’s founded in the teachings of man rather than the teachings of God.
Obedience is rooted in faith. Legalism is rooted in religion. And today, we’re going to see just how dangerous and destructive legalism really is.
In Matthew 23, Jesus just rips into the religious leaders of His day. When you read Matthew 23, you kind of start to think that Jesus was in a really bad mood when He said these things. A lot of people want to believe that Jesus was this peace and love hippie in a dress. He just made everyone happy wherever He went. He was never angry. He was never sarcastic. He never spoke a harsh word.
Those people have never read this chapter from the book of Matthew. Jesus absolutely rips legalistic, religious people apart in this chapter.
Let’s get into our text. We’re going to bounce around in Matthew 23 all morning. Let’s start in verse 23.
Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23, NIV)
The Old Testament Law was the binding Scripture of this time, and the Law commanded people to give a tenth of what they made back to God. We still use the tithe principle today. Giving a tithe, or 10% of our income, back to God is a great benchmark for sacrificial giving. And it brings incredible blessings to us, because the fact is that God can do more with 90% than you can do with 100%. Some of you don’t tithe because you just don’t trust that God will take care of you if you did. But it’s a Biblical principle, and when we obey Biblical principles, we set God free to do what only He can do in our lives.
We need to see right up front that the problem that Jesus addresses is not the tithe. The religious people He is criticizing were tithers. In fact, they were so committed to tithing that they tithed everything, all the way down to the smallest garden crops…mint, dill, and cumin. Now, we should note that the Old Testament Law never commanded that this small crops were subject to the tithe. So you could make the case that these religious people were already getting a little overzealous in requiring that even these small spices must be tithed.
But Jesus never criticizes their tithe. In fact, He accepts it as right and good. But what is not right and good is the fact that the tithe became more important than justice, mercy, and faithfulness to these religious people. Following God became a checklist. Just check off the right boxes. Tithing? Check. And when the right boxes were checked, you were good to go.
And that’s where they moved from obedience into legalism. Tithing was supposed to be something that was joyfully done out of love and gratitude. We give a tenth back to God because of everything He has so richly given to us. We’re so grateful, we love Him so much, that tithing is a joy. But the religious people made it into a job. Instead of giving from the overflow of their heart, they gave out of religious duty.
It really flies in the face of what the Apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7, NIV)
This puts giving and tithing back into the right context. It’s an overflow of your heart. It’s a response of thanksgiving and gratitude for everything God has given you. It’s a joy, not a job. It’s a delight, not a duty.
We take up an offering every week here at Connect, and we make no apologies for it. But I will tell you this…if you give grudgingly, if you give out of duty, if you give because of some legalistic, religious rules that you think you have to follow…just keep your money. I’m serious. Just keep your money. I’d rather have a cash-strapped church than a church filled with people that give out of guilt instead of gratitude.
And that’s what Jesus hammered on with the religious people. They were tithing everything, all they way down to the stuff they grew in their Chia herb garden on the window sill. But in their effort to live by the letter of the law, they missed the whole point. They completely forgot that the heart of God doesn’t revolve around religious observances and duties. The heart of God beats with justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And that’s what He wants to see lived out in our lives.
And then Jesus said this in the next verse. “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24, NIV)
There were certain insects that were considered unclean according to the Old Testament Law. The Pharisees were so careful about this little legal detail that they would strain their wine before drinking it, just in case a gnat had landed in the wine.
But Jesus nails them with sarcastic humor. You strain out a gnat, but you swallow a camel! You strain out this tiny little gnat, but you gulp down a camel, which was the largest animal in Palestine. You’re so focused on religious minutiae that you miss what’s really important.
That’s what makes legalism so dangerous. Legalists major in the minors and minor in the majors. They’ll strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. They become so focused on keeping minor religious rules that they completely forget about the major components of following Jesus.
Think about some of the gnats that get strained out in the name of legalism today. Take music, for example. Obviously you know where we stand on music here at Connect. We’re in favor of it. When it comes to music, we vote yes. When it comes to instruments, we also vote yes.
Back in February, we announced that the name of our church was going to change from Amelia Church of Christ to Connect Christian Church. The name change corresponded with our move here to the hotel.
Just like everything else that we do, we posted about it on our Facebook page. (By the way, if you haven’t “liked” our Facebook page yet, you are missing one of the biggest communications avenues that we have in our church. If it’s happening in our church, it will be posted on our Facebook page. Just go to facebook.com/connectcincy. You can also follow us on Twitter @connect_cincy.)
Anyway, back to my story. We announced in February that our name was going to be changing when we moved. And we shared it on Facebook. And it got a little attention from some people who didn’t care for it.
This is what was posted on someone’s Facebook page. They shared the video where I announced the name change, and here’s what they wrote on the Facebook page.
“This proves that ‘IT’S NOT THE NAME, BUT THE DOCTRINE’ that makes the church of Christ, the church that Jesus gave His life for. See the musical instruments too. So sad.”
A couple of things…first of all, I’m not sharing this to defend our church against this criticism. We get criticized plenty, and we do exactly what we should do with that criticism. We ignore it.
This was posted in February. Up until today, I completely ignored it. The only reason I’m even bringing it up today is because it so clearly illustrates what we’re talking about. This is grade A, first class, blue ribbon legalism.
Think about what they’re saying here. This was in response to a video where I announced our name was changing from Amelia Church of Christ to Connect Christian Church. Keep in mind, church names are one of those things that the Bible is silent about. Nowhere does the Bible say what a church should be named. So we’re in an area of Biblical silence here.
But from this announcement about a name change, this Facebook administrator concluded that our doctrine is completely wrong. In other words, a change of name must signify a change in beliefs. A change in teaching. It somehow demonstrates that we don’t believe the truth of Scripture. We don’t preach and teach the gospel anymore. All because we changed our name.
And then, it implies that we are no longer the church that Jesus died for. That takes things to a whole new level, doesn’t it?
And then we get to the real heart of the matter. The video showed instruments on our stage. The criticism came from an acapella Church of Christ group, meaning they don’t believe in using instruments in worship.
Now, I have friends in acapella churches. My church uses instruments. Their churches don’t. And we’re fine with that. We agree to disagree on that issue. But we don’t judge or condemn each other for it.
But this group takes it to a new level. They went online to body slam us just because we use instruments in our services, which we all know is the most grievous of sins.
Am I making fun of this? I absolutely am. Jesus made fun of legalists. He told them they strain out a gnat and swallow a camel, so I think I’m in good company here.
Do you see how ridiculous legalism can get? None of this is in the Bible. They can’t show a single verse to support any of this, yet they felt totally justified in going online to criticize and condemn us. It’s legalism, pure and simple.
When it comes to our name, we are Connect Christian Church because we want to connect people to Jesus. That is the sum total of why we exist. We want people to meet Jesus, period. Do we take some unorthodox, non-traditional steps to make that happen? Yep. But everything we do is measured by Scripture. If Scripture specifically condemns something, then you won’t find it here. But when the Bible is silent about something, we’re not afraid to go there if we believe it will help connect more people to Jesus.
And when it comes to what we do in our services, we understand that not everyone will like our music. It’s not for everyone. We get that.
We know that some people might think it’s kind of loud. Well, it is. And again, we know that. But did you know that we have earplugs available for you each week? And we’ve had people thank us for that. We’ve had people say, “Man, I love this church. It’s a little loud for me, but this is exactly what I needed. Thank you!”
We’ve got earplugs at the Connect Area. You can pick up a pair on your way in each week. We love our band, but we know that some people are more sensitive to the loud stuff and we want to serve them and help them, so we’ve got earplugs available.
But the point is that the wars that are fought over music are fought over issues of style, not substance. You know what the New Testament says about music in the church? Almost nothing. The Bible says nothing about musical styles, types of instruments, etc. that can be used in the church.
And that invites the legalists to walk right in. “If God doesn’t specify what He wants, then I’ll just tell everyone to do what I want. The Bible never talks about instruments in the church, so I’ve decided that we can’t have them. Or I’ve decided what instruments we can have, and which ones we can’t have.”
Be very careful about anyone who bases their argument on silence. If the Bible is silent about something, then you are on very, very dangerous ground if you try to make a hard, fast rule based on that silence.
If the Bible is silent on an issue, then we can assume that God has given us great freedom and liberty on that issue. Making legalistic rules based on silence is a bad, bad, bad idea.
In Proverbs 30, the Bible says, “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5-6, NIV)
Here at Connect, we believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We believe it is complete and without error. If you don’t believe that, we love that you still came today. We love that you’re honestly investigating this Jesus stuff. We love that you’re honestly searching out whether or not the Bible can be trusted. And we really hope you’ll keep coming, keep searching, keep investigating, and keep asking the tough questions.
Our church is based on the Bible as the Word of God. We believe that it is flawless, like it says in Proverbs 30. It is flawless, meaning that it is complete. God didn’t forget to add certain things. When the Bible was finished, God didn’t look at it and say, “Dang it, I really wish I would have remembered to say that.” The Bible is complete.
So when the Bible is silent about something, and people make religious rules based on that silence, they are adding to the Word of God. They are claiming that, actually, the Bible is not flawless. It is not complete. We have to add this stuff to complete it. God warns us specifically about that.
People who argue about music, what instruments you can or can’t use, are on dangerous turf because it’s something that the Bible really says nothing about.
But music is just one example. There are thousands of others. And as we go through the next few minutes, the odds are good that you’re going to be offended. Now, I’m going to do my best to be an equal opportunity offender. If you’re not the least bit offended in the next few minutes, then I probably haven’t done my job.
Here’s why…we all have gnats. All of us are legalistic about something. Jesus warned us about straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel. All of have different gnats. We all have those areas where we major in the minors and minor in the majors. Let’s talk about some of our gnats. That ought to make things nice and uncomfortable in here. So here’s the deal for the next few minutes. Everyone in here is required to have a sense of humor, because I’m probably going to make fun of you. Deal? Okay. Here we go.
What is your gnat? Here are some of the common gnats that you’ll run into today.
And we’ll start with my own personal gnat. Politics. It’s going to get pretty tense in here, so I want to start off with one of the biggest ones that I struggle with. That way when I offend you, you can’t accuse of being on my high horse because I already showed you where I struggle.
I’m a political junkie. I follow politics very closely, and I’m very, very passionate about it. And my passion can carry over into legalistic obsession pretty quickly.
One of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had as a pastor was during the 2012 election. I was so passionate about that race that I had to double, even triple, my efforts not to let it seep into my preaching and my ministry.
Here’s our conviction about politics here at Connect. We don’t talk about political issues unless they are also spiritual issues. If something is a spiritual issue, meaning it’s something that is clearly spelled out in the Bible, we’re going to preach it and we will never, ever apologize for it. But much of what happens in the political arena doesn’t fall into that category.
In my estimation, there are some horribly erroneous policies that have emerged out of Washington. These aren’t necessarily moral issues. I just think they are really, really bad ideas. But I can’t let that affect my relationship with someone who happens to disagree with me. Again, we’re not talking about spiritual, biblical issues. We’re talking matters of political opinion.
The fact is, there are people in our church that I line up with politically. And there are people that I am diametrically opposed to politically. But I can’t strain out that gnat and swallow a camel. That’s why I don’t get into political arguments. If you want to talk politics, I’d love to. Like I said, it’s something I’m passionate about. And I’m always open to a reasoned, well-thought out discussion. But it’s also an area where I have to guard against legalism. I can never allow this to become an area where I sit in judgment of others. That’s a line that simply cannot be crossed.
Here’s another fun one…the environment. I know people in the church. They love God. They follow Jesus. But they transform into a Pharisee when the environment comes up. They will criticize and condemn if you don’t agree with their views on environmentalism.
They’ll say, “God is green!” And my response is, “No. Kermit is. But to say that “God is Green” is a bit of stretch. You’ll have to show me a verse for that.”
Now, I know someone is getting offended. That’s okay. It’s good for you. But be sure that you hear what I am and what I’m not saying. If you want to recycle, that’s great. If you want to drive a Prius, that’s wonderful. If you have Earth Day circled on your calendar, more power to you.
But here’s the line that you can’t cross…sitting in judgment over someone who happens to disagree with you. Looking down your nose when you see someone driving a big truck or an SUV. Personally, I’m glad some people drive those things because we’re a portable church, which means all our gear shows up in two trailers each week. And those trailers are pretty dang heavy. And you’re not going to pull them with your Prius. So for what it’s worth, if you’re part of our church, looking down on the trucks and the SUVs might just be a tad bit hypocritical.
But you see the point. Environmentalism is the hip religion in our culture today. It’s all good as long as you’re all green. But there just isn’t a lot of Bible to back that up. Do I think we should be good stewards of God’s creation? Of course. Do I think that environmentalism gets carried to crazy extremes? Definitely. Do I think that this is an area where people get legalistic? Without a doubt.
Here’s another one that I see a lot. The organic, natural movement. People get passionate about this. You can only eat all-natural food. All organic. Nothing processed or anything like that. These folks often reject traditional medicine in favor of more natural means.
Again, it doesn’t matter to me. Whatever floats your boat. If you want to pay twice as much for organic bananas that taste exactly the same, more power to you. And if you want to make a celery, cucumber, and wheat germ smoothie to cure your cold, that’s fine with me.
But again, the problem is when you sit in judgment over people who take a different approach. Again, you know what the Bible says about this stuff? Pretty much nothing.
I’ll admit that I like to joke around with the natural, organic crowd. But I also find that I’m creeping toward a few more of these natural things than I used to. And some of them actually help, as much as I hate to admit it. But the bottom line is that this can’t be a barometer for judgment and condemnation.
Here’s a big one….alcohol. This one can be a powder keg, depending on who you talk to. I’ve got some Catholic friends who view alcohol about the same as they view bottled water. And I’ve got some Baptist friends who would rather sacrifice vestal virgins on the church lawn than to ever allow alcohol to touch their lips.
Again, we’re dealing with an area of Biblical silence here. The Bible specifically condemns drunkenness. If you drink to the point of getting drunk, you need to know that you are living in direct contradiction to God’s Word. The Bible warns us very clearly about the dangers of drunkenness and addiction.
There are people who have a bent toward drunkenness. If you have a proclivity toward addiction, then you should avoid alcohol entirely. It’s the wise thing for you. Also, if consuming alcohol would offend your conscience, you should avoid it. The Bible is clear that anything that does not come from faith is sin. And if it’s a conscience matter for you, leave it alone.
But the problem is when people get religious and legalistic about it. The Bible doesn’t specifically condemn alcohol. In fact, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. And I’ve heard some people say, “Well, it was actually grape juice.” No, it was wine. And it was actually really good wine if you read the story.
But the problem is when people turn alcohol into a gnat. When they take up arms and start firing at others who have a different viewpoint than them. Keep in mind…we’re largely operating from a position of Biblical silence here. This is a gray area where there is no black and white Biblical command. I can show you verses that talk about the dangers of wine. I can show you verses that talk about the blessings of wine. And they’re all in the same Bible.
When it comes to alcohol, we go with what we know. God forbids drunkenness. We know that for sure. But to go beyond that is to tread into territory where the Bible doesn’t go. And that’s a dangerous place to be.
We could go on all day here. There are legalistic gnats all around us. There are animal rights groups that will condemn anyone who loves a good steak. There are people who will condemn anyone who has tattoos or any kind of piercing. There are people who are ready to go to battle over the school that kids go to. “You have to homeschool. You have to go to a Christian school. You have to go to a public school.”
And we’re here today to say…enough. Enough of the legalism. Enough of the religion. Enough of making commands out of things that the Bible says nothing about.
You want to be a vegan? Awesome. You like steak? That’s awesome too. You have tattoos? We don’t care. And if you love your kids and your training them up in the knowledge and instruction of the Lord, then we trust that you’ll make the right schooling decisions for them, too.
But when it crosses the line into religious legalism, that’s when we have to stand up and say, “Enough.”
And we’re not alone, because Jesus Himself is saying, “Enough. Enough of all this.”
Specifically, here’s what Jesus said about legalism and religion earlier in Matthew 23. This comes a few verses before the gnat and the camel thing.
In verse 13, Jesus said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13, NIV)
This is why we will confront legalism at every turn. Because legalism shuts the door of heaven in peoples’ faces. Legalism doesn’t believe that the finished work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection is enough. It places additional rules and regulations on people.
The gospel is the good news of Jesus. It’s the good news that Jesus did it all. He paid for all our sin. He rose to give us a brand new life. And He works in us to change us into the people that He wants us to be. That’s the gospel.
Here’s why legalism is so deadly…when you add to the gospel, it stops being the gospel. Legalism doesn’t open the door for people to get to God. It slams the door in their face.
And for anyone who is a legalist, I would also point out that Jesus has some scary words for you. Not only does legalism keep other people from entering the kingdom of heaven, but it keeps the legalist from entering, too. Jesus said so Himself.
Here at Connect, we keep things simple. It’s all about Jesus. It’s all about the gospel. It’s all about connecting people to Jesus. And it’s all about us surrendering to Jesus so He can change us into the people that He wants us to be.
Listen to what Jesus said at the end of Matthew 23. He just ripped legalistic, religious Pharisees to shreds. And then, He makes a turn so fast that it will give you whiplash.
In verse 37, He said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37, NIV)
Jerusalem was the epicenter for Judaism. It was also the home base for the Pharisees and other legalistic, religious groups. And Jesus said that He longed to gather His people as a hen gathers her chicks. Under His wing. Under His care. Under His protection. Under His love.
But tragically, He simply said, “But you were not willing.”
There is an escape from legalism. There is an escape from religion. His Name is Jesus. For some people, coming to Christ means surrendering a life of sin and lawlessness. But in a lot of ways, you know what is more difficult? Surrendering a life of legalism and religion.
But either way, the answer is Jesus. If you’ve been lawless or you’ve been a legalist, the answer is Jesus. If your struggle is with sin or your struggle is with self-righteousness, the answer is Jesus.
Jesus did what no sinner and no self-righteous legalist could ever do. He lived a perfect life. And then He died to pay the price for our sin, so we would never have to. And three days later, He rose from the grave. His resurrected life gives us a new, resurrected life.
It’s all about what Jesus has done. It’s not about what we can do. And that’s why every week here at Connect, we give you a chance to respond. To ask your questions. To have our leaders pray over you. And if you’re ready, to surrender your life to Jesus.
We’re going to sing a song that talks about this. Think about some of the lyrics of this song. “Mighty is the One who’s for us, Mighty is the One who’s strong to save, He will make a way.”
Jesus is strong enough to save you, so you don’t have to save yourself. He has made a way for you, so you don’t have to plow the way yourself.
And the song also reminds us that “Our God is fighting for us always.” If God is fighting for you, you can quit fighting for yourself. You can stop trusting in religious legalism, and you can put all of your trust in the finished work of Christ.
That’s what we invite you to trust today. We’ll be in the back ready for you. If you’re ready to surrender to Jesus, we invite you to come talk to us now.