City of Religion
I just spent five days in Jerusalem which can only be described as the most unique city in the world in relation to religious activity. All the religions of the Middle East and the West meet in Jerusalem. We visited the traditional site for the crucifixion of Christ and His burial, both supposedly within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The tradition that this is the site can be traced back to 135 AD, which still leaves about a 105 year gap. In 135 Hadrian forbid Christian worship, and he identified this site as where Christians memorialized the death of Christ. Therefore to desecrate it he built a pagan temple on it. In 325, the new Christian and then Emperor Constantine ordered that a Christian Church be built on the site. That church was damaged by fire in 614 when the Persians invaded, but it was rebuilt in 630. In 1009 it was destroyed by Muslims, but rebuilt by the Byzantines in 1048. The Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, and renovated the church in 1149 placing everything under one roof for the first time. The church was lost to Saladin along with Jerusalem in 1187, but regained by treaty in the third crusade shortly thereafter. It was damaged by neglect and fire several times over the centuries, but renovated in parts in 1555, 1810,1870,1959, and 1994.
We would all expect holiness there in that church today, but find an altogether different reality. There is quite a jealous possessiveness among its occupants. It is shared by Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Coptics, and Ethiopians. All the different groups of priests wear different outfits and hats that distinguish them from one another. They watch one another suspiciously for any lack of respect or infringement of rights. The sin nature of humanity is nowhere more obvious than among the different priests in this church. Brawls and fist fights break out often. The last one occurred in April of 2008, so I admit that I was kind of hoping to witness one of these encounters when police have to be called to break up all the priests punching it out. The Coptics and the Armenians looked the weirdest and the meanest so I was watching them closely, but the closest it came to violence was just outside the church in the courtyard while we were trying to stand in the shade. Church security guards started pushing us and threatening us in some language we did not understand. Not long after we moved, a formation of marching priests with serious looks on their faces came through where we were standing. Apparently they don’t want to be bothered by tourists, and see themselves as some kind of elite group. I tried to make eye contact and ask questions several times, but they don’t want to be bothered.
Inside, the church is divided up amongst the various groups as they go through their rituals. It is dark and cramped and filled with a cacophony of various chants and bells. The large bells outside are absolutely the most horrible noise I have ever heard. They are a mixture of banging vibration and annoying screeching. Amazingly, as we were still holding our ears from this, a nearby Muslim Mosque began its call to prayer. They hook up some serious speakers and blast the area with the worst singing/hollering you have ever heard. About that time a group of Hasidic Jews walked by with their Al Capone hats and black coats. The thought struck me that this was the wildest and most unique place on earth from a religious standpoint (or any kind of standpoint). Here we were Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians come to see the site of the crucifixion of Christ which is joint owned by six very different non-Protestant priests right in a neighborhood shared by orthodox Jews and Muslims, all living side by side, but no love lost for anybody by anybody.
From time to time, people say things to me like, “I understand you are very religious”, or “I wish I was religious like you”. They mean well, but to me religion has a different meaning. One of Webster’s definitions is, “an institutional system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”. Religion is a man made system of works, rituals, and ordinances. I believe these practices are only valuable to the extent they lead you to an abiding relationship with Christ. My experience though is that 99% of the time these works are done mindlessly out of obligation and compulsion. How do most of us choose what traditions, rituals, and works we do? Usually we inherit it from our family and church we grew up in. No offense intended, but does that make it right?
Biblical Christianity was appealing to me not as a religion, but as a relationship with Christ. It is not about works or rituals that I do, but all about what Christ has done for me. I have never understood why people are so engrossed in tradition, or why they would venerate sites or objects or practices. My time in Jerusalem has convinced me that people typically are prone to venerate sites, objects, and people; but ignore the spiritual reality of the God who is close by. I watched them kiss walls and stones and pray and sing to objects that can never save them.
The Golden Tree
A very humorous moment at the traditional site of the Last Supper illustrates this point. It is basically a crusader chapel built on the possible site of the “upper room”. When we were there, there was a golden tree set up on one wall. The group before us had been singing and praying to the manufactured tree. When they left we asked the guide what it was. He said it was one of the props for a movie that had been shot there recently—they had just left it there, but it had no significance whatsoever. The group before us just assumed it was some holy object so they sang and prayed to it.
Religion Without Substance- Religion Without God
When Moses led the children of Israel to the promised land, they camped at the River Jordan before going in so Moses could read the Law and the covenant of God to the new generation. Thus the title of Deuteronomy which means “second law giving”. In Deut.8 Moses warned them about human nature’s tendency to forget where the credit for all their blessings should go. “Beware lest you forget the Lord your God…when you have built good houses, and when your herds multiply, and your silver and gold multiplies, then your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord. Otherwise, you will say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth.’
Moses was telling them that as soon as they had prosperity and peace, they would start doing things their own way, as it suited them. Instead of following God’s instructions as absolute truth, they would divide up and do things their own way. The Canaanite religions proved to be very alluring, and a few generations later the people of Israel had devised for themselves religions of their own choosing.
Many years later the Israelites had wandered so far from the truth that God sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to the leaders and the people. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in God, or that they weren’t religious—it just wasn’t according to the truth. In Isaiah chapter 1, He told them that God was not interested in their sacrifices, their burnt offerings, or their appearance at the Temple. In v.15 He told them that He was sick of their prayers and was not listening; here is a shocker, in v.13 He said, “Bring your worthless offerings no longer.” Imagine that, God does not want our money or our prayers if they are not offered according to the truth. I think Isaiah is the only person who knows that.
During the time of Christ, Israel was even more religious, but the Law had become their god. They taught and followed a legalistic system of keeping the Law and doing good works in pursuit of salvation. Time and again men came to Jesus and asked, “What must we do to be saved?” or “How can we obtain eternal life?” or “What is the most important law we must keep to be saved?” In John 6:29, Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom God has sent (Jesus).” In the rest of the discourse Jesus made it clear that He alone had been sent from Heaven to save them from their sins. They must receive Jesus, believe in what Jesus came to do, and commit themselves to God’s plan for the redemption of mankind. Their religious practices fell way short of God’s righteousness. Throughout the discourse the people continued to grumble about the things Jesus was saying, and finally the idea of giving up their “religion” to believe in and follow Him was too difficult, so they “withdrew”.
The Apostle Paul said it well in Romans 10:1-4. Paul was a Jew, and he had a heart for them and a sincere desire that they come to Christ and be saved. Again, their problem was not that they weren’t religious—they were very religious. Paul said, “they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with the truth. For not knowing about the righteousness God was offering in Christ, they were seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.”
Christianity vs. Religion
Is Christianity a religion? Yes and no, it has ordinances, observance of law and basic doctrines, and certainly good works are promoted. The difference in Biblical Christianity and all other religions is that Biblical Christianity is God reaching down to man instead of man through his own efforts reaching out to God. In Christianity, Jesus has done all the work of salvation. We follow doctrine and do good works because we are saved, not in order to be saved like the other religions. All other religions keep laws, follow codes, and do works in order to be saved. The followers of these religions believe they will be judged on their own merits, but Christians believe we will be saved by what Jesus did for us. One preacher said, “The solution to our problems will not come through those who created them.” You will have to go outside of man to find the solution. The Anointed One of God is the only person qualified to solve the problem. CHARLIE TAYLOR