Losing My Religion

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We need to pursue the destination and not stop and celebrate the signpost.

John(85) (Part of the Believe(74) series)
by Marc Webb(74) on December 1, 2019 (Sunday Morning(341))

Salvation(84), Self-righteousness(2), Surrender(4), Worldliness(2)


Religion is a system of beliefs or a code of moral conduct that qualifies or disqualifies a person based on their adherence and obedience to certain codes, rules, laws, traditions, or the performance of required acts.

In most religions what qualifies or disqualifies a person is being in a right standing with whatever “god” that religion believes in. Usually, the way to be in a right standing with that god is to earn your way by doing good deeds. ​​ You must earn the right to be reconciled with that god and what you do in this life determines your eternal destiny. ​​ It is purely based on works.  ​​ ​​​​ 

Christianity has been described this way: “The difference between Christianity and every other faith in the world is that all other religions are about man trying to reach up to God. ​​ Christianity is about God reaching down to man.” Christianity is completely different from religion in that it is based on grace.

Religion, almost universally, is enforced by those in power in an attempt to maintain, increase, or abuse their power over others. ​​ Religion is the creation of man and is not the intention or design of God. ​​ 

A modern day example (taken from the movie “Footloose”, starring Kevin Bacon) is a preacher who believes that dancing leads to promiscuity and destructive behavior. The Bible does not speak against dancing, but He uses or abuses his influence and his position of authority to convince his congregation that dancing is evil and forbids it. ​​ He sets up rules that are not in the Bible and adds additional beliefs that Jesus never endorsed. ​​ He is trying to control the people, using their trust of his authority to force them to believe his version of the truth.

This is still common today. People in churches add “requirements” to being a Christian. ​​ Some examples are being told to not drink alcohol, to not listen to certain types of music, insisting that church meet on certain days, only certain forms of music can be used in church, reciting ritualistic prayers, eating certain foods, performing certain rituals, salvation can’t be attained unless you belong to a certain denomination, or unless you get baptized, and being saved is conditional upon attending church or church membership.

We know that while Jesus was on the earth, religion was rampant. There was a group of corrupt religious leaders called the Pharisees. They had taken the Torah, the Word of God, passed down from Moses and the prophets, and had written a commentary on it interpreting what those scriptures said. This interpretation was called the Talmud. ​​ They then wrote another commentary on that commentary called the “Mishnah”. ​​ The Mishnah was a list of hundreds upon hundreds of rules that the people had to obey in order to be in a right relationship with God. ​​ These rules were created by man and had little basis in the actual scriptures.

The Pharisees used the people’s love for God (or fear of God) to control them, to limit their freedom, and to empty them of the relationship with God that was intended. ​​ When you practice religion, your relationship with God is degraded to a mathematical formula. ​​ Do this, don’t do that, and you are right in the eyes of God. ​​ It’s no wonder that Jesus and the Pharisees were at odds most of the time and that they were trying to arrest him or just outright kill him. Jesus was pretty much taking the Pharisees reason for being and telling the people they didn’t need to worry about all that.

This passage in chapter 8 verses 21-30 warns the custodians of tradition, the Pharisees, that their defense of these spiritual habits and rituals will be their undoing. This morning, we will see again that Jesus tells the Pharisees and the Jews who were there that he is going away and where he is going they cannot come because they will die in their sin. We will unpack the four reasons why Jesus said that they would die in their sin and those four reasons should give us caution this morning, as well, so we do not fall into the same religious trap that the Pharisees fell into in the first century.

I found this story that I think relates to this idea of religion pretty well. There once was a group of people who were going on a long journey. As they were going along their way they came across a sign pointing them to their destination. The signpost was there to convey them to their destination but instead they stop at the signpost and create a life for themselves under its painted words. They build a civilization there, celebrating the signpost and telling stories of how they arrived at the marker. Rituals evolve and songs are written. Books are published and liturgies follow. A few travel on and return, confirming that the sign does indeed lead to the place promised. But the second and third generation have built a life around the signpost and have forgotten the meaning and the reason for the journey. Their lore is built on stories of past travel, not on stories of arriving at the destination or on the prophetic call to get on with the journey themselves.

This is what the Pharisees in Jesus’ time had done. They knew that the destination was a right relationship with God the Father. God had given them the Ten Commandments to guide their lives in community together. If they kept the Ten Commandments they would be in a right relationship with God and with each other. The Ten Commandments was a kind of signpost that was to direct the people into a right relationship with God.

Somewhere along the line, the Pharisees made it all about the signpost (the Ten Commandments). By interpreting the commandments into thousands of rules to follow the common person was never able to obey every rule and regulation put forth by the Pharisees. That meant they were in a perpetual state of uncleanness meaning they were considered sinners and could not be in a right relationship with God. The Pharisees then flaunted that over the people and they believed they were the only ones in a right relationship with God. Worse than that though was that their salvation was all about following the rules they had set up. And because of that they missed that Jesus was the Messiah. They missed that it was about a relationship with him and not about religion.

Again, we do the same in our churches today. We focus on religion to the exclusion of relationship – relationship with God and relationship with each other. We put more emphasis on traditions, rituals and even serving others than we do worshipping Jesus. We need to be careful we don’t fall into the same trap of religion and miss being in relationship with Jesus. We don’t want to hear Jesus say to us, “I am going away and where I am going you can’t follow because you will die in your sin.” Which brings us to the big idea that John wants us to understand this morning: we need to pursue the destination and not stop and celebrate the signpost. Our destination should be a relationship with Jesus and we need to focus on him and not the signpost of religion.

Let’s pray and dedicate ourselves and our worship to the Lord as we prepare to study his Word. Dear Holy God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us this morning so we can hear from you and understand what it is you want us to glean from your Word. Open our hearts to minds to your Spirit. Help us to put off religion and strive to daily strengthen our relationship with you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

This morning, we are in the book of John chapter 8 starting with verse 21. This is what God’s Word says, 21 Once more Jesus said to them, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.” ​​ 

Jesus reveals that He is "going away". He’s speaking of his impending death, resurrection and ascension. These were all aspects of the promised Messiah that had been revealed in prophecy. The Pharisees were very religious people and experts in all matters concerning the Law. They knew the prophecies concerning the Messiah. They had been looking for the arrival of the Promised One but when the Messiah was right in front of them they missed Him! And because they rejected him as the Messiah, Jesus said that they would continue to look for the Messiah even after he was gone and would end up dying in their sin. Morris says, “To die in one’s sin unrepented and unatoned is the supreme disaster.” And because they would die in their sin they could not go where he was going which was back to his Father in Heaven.

There are many people who will die in their sin because they think they have it all figured out! They don’t need Jesus, they don’t need a Savior. They may be extremely religious people just as the Pharisees were. They have checked off all of the boxes. They have joined a church. They have been baptized. They attend services on a regular basis. They pay their tithes. They say their prayers and read their Bibles. The problem is they have been deceived. They possess religion. They follow tradition. They observe the rituals. They go through the motions. But they have never truly submitted their lives to Christ.

Jesus describes what will happen to these deceived religious people in Matthew 7:22-23. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ If you notice, these are not unbelievers. These are believers and when they come before God they will realize then that it was too late. We need to pursue the destination and not stop and celebrate the signpost.

As I mentioned earlier this passage reveals four ways we can ensure the tragic and eternal death of dying in our sin. The first way is self-righteousness and is found in verse 22. This is what God’s Word says, 22 This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, ‘Where I go, you cannot come’?”

The response of the Jews was to turn his warning into a joke. “Surely he will not kill himself, will he?” they ask sarcastically. They understood Jesus was speaking about his death. Ironically, those who were plotting to kill Jesus asked if he intended to commit suicide. The Jews abhorred suicide and believed that those who killed themselves would go to the blackest part of hell. Since they assumed they were going to heaven, the Jews mockingly suggested that Jesus must be speaking of killing himself in which case he would surely go to Hell. Strongly confident in their self-righteousness, they were not just deaf to Jesus’ words they mockingly, blashphemously twisted their meaning.

Self-righteousness is a deadly deception and is contrary to genuine salvation. It is the idea that you are good enough for heaven without Jesus. Judaism in Jesus’ day was an intricate legalistic system of salvation by human achievement. They based their salvation on performing good works, observing ceremonies and rituals and above all keeping the law, at least outwardly. The truth that salvation couldn’t be attained through self-righteousness should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the OT. Isaiah 64:6 says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” The NT also talks about self-righteousness. Matthew 23:28 says, “In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” And Matthew 5:20 says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pharisees were trusting in their own works and their own self-righteousness to get them to Heaven. Jesus tells them because of that they would never see heaven. We need to examine ourselves too. Are we trying to get to heaven on our own righteousness? Are we trying to follow all the rules and regulations thinking that’s what will get us there. We need to throw off the mantle of self-righteousness and lean on the righteousness of Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for our sins and calls us to accept him as our Savior. That is what gets us past the signpost of religion to the destination of being in a relationship with Jesus. Jared C. Wilson said, “Conversion to Christ produces true religion. Conversion to religion produces the same old self-righteousness. Which brings us to our first next step on the back of your communication card which is to accept the righteousness of Christ and not rely on my own self-righteousness.

The second way we can ensure dying in our sin is by being worldly. We see this in verse 23. This is what God’s Word says, 23 But he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.

Jesus points out that their origin like their destination was different from his. They were from below and from the world. The Greek word for world (kosmos) refers to the invisible spiritual system of evil that opposes the kingship of God and is controlled by Satan. The world does not recognize Jesus’ true identity. In sharp contrast Jesus is “from above” and “not of this world.” ​​ 

The Pharisees were of this world and focused on it. They indulged in the wickedness, temptations and pleasures of this life. Their attention was concentrated on this world instead of doing God’s will. They wanted the blessings of God without having a relationship with him. As Colossians 3:2 says, God's people are to "set their affection on things above, not on things on the earth". And in I John 2:15, John said, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.”

Jesus gives us an example of loving the world in Luke 14:16-24. He shares a parable of a man who prepared a great feast and invited many people to come. Initially they accepted the invitation but when the meal was ready they began to make excuses. One bought some land and had to go see it. One bought five yoke of oxen and wanted to try them out. One got married and used his wife as an excuse. The three excuses used in this parable, work, possessions and family, are the same three excuses we use today. We put work, material goods and our family first and never consider eternal things. Maybe you are trying to climb the corporate ladder or trying to find the perfect wife or the perfect husband or trying to build the biggest house or buy the nicest car. Your family has to have the finest, nicest and best things available. If so, maybe you are focused on the world and not on the things of God.

Consider the question Jesus posed in Matthew 16:26. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” And in Matthew 6:33 Jesus says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Work, possessions and family are not evil in themselves. But if our priorities aren't in order they could cost us eternally! If we don’t put our relationship with Jesus first those excuses could cause us to die in our sin, miss out on Heaven and cause us to be separated from God for all eternity. These same three excuses can cause us to miss out on the destination because we are too busy celebrating the signpost. That brings us to the second next step on the back of your communication card which is to put my priorities in the proper order and seek first the kingdom of God.

The third way we can ensure dying in our sin is by unbelief. We see this in verse 24. This is what God’s word says, 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”

Jesus goes beyond the self-righteousness and the worldliness of the Pharisees to the ultimate issue which was their unbelief. The only way to avoid dying in their sins was to believe in Jesus and who he was. He said that those who reject that he is “I am” will die in their sins. What was Jesus saying here? There may be two reasons that he used the phrase, “I am he.” First, by using “I am” it was a direct claim to full deity. This was the name that God gave Moses in Exodus 3:14 to take back to the Israelites to prove he had come from God. Jesus was applying to himself this name of God that was so sacred that the Jewish people refused to even pronounce it. And the Pharisees were so shocked by Jesus’ use of that name in reference to himself that later in verse 59 they attempted to stone him for blasphemy.

Second, Jesus was claiming total intimacy with the Father and that he was uniquely commissioned to deliver a message of salvation from the one who sent him. We see this in Isaiah 43:10-12. “You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—I, and not some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God.

The point is this. When Jesus said, “if you do not believe that “I am he” he is claiming to be God. But there is more to it than that. Jesus, in using this language in this context, is claiming to be the one that Isaiah spoke of. He is claiming to be the Savior of the World, the Messiah.

To be a Christian we need to believe the full biblical revelation of all Jesus is: that he is eternal, he is the second person of the trinity, he came to this earth as God incarnate, he was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, that his death on the cross is the only sufficient sacrifice for our sins, that he rose from the dead and ascended to the Father in heaven, that he intercedes for us now and he will one day return to take us there. Persistent unwillingness to believe the truth about Jesus precludes the possibility of forgiveness since salvation can only come through faith in him.

Many people today believe that Jesus is just one of many ways to Heaven. Some don't believe in Him at all. Some are trusting in themselves and their own morality. Some have put their trust in men, such as, Joseph Smith, Buddha or Muhammad. Some are still looking for the Messiah to arrive. But one day all will see that Jesus is Lord! Philippians 2:10-11 says, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus is telling us the same thing He told the Pharisees. We must believe that Jesus is God, that he is the Savior of the world and accept His invitation to salvation. And if you don’t believe you will die in your sins! Maybe you are here this morning and you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God. Maybe you’re not sold on Jesus being the only way to Heaven. Maybe you are happy celebrating the signpost and not worried about your final destination. The third next step on the back of your communication card may be for you. My next step is to believe that Jesus is who he says he is and accept him as my Lord and Savior.

The final way that we can ensure dying in our sin is by willfully rejecting Jesus. We see this in verses 25-30. This is what God’s Word says, 25 “Who are you?” they asked. “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied. 26 “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” 27 They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. 28 So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. 29 The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” 30 Even as he spoke, many believed in him.

The Pharisees were held captive by continuing to willfully reject Jesus. ​​ Their question, “Who are you?” was amazing in light of all the miraculous signs he had performed and the repeated claims he had already made. They may have really meant, “Who are you to tell us we will die in our sins?” The question still reflected their stubborn, willful rejection. Jesus merely replies that he was who he had been claiming to be from the beginning of his ministry. He had nothing more to say to their willful hard-hearted unbelief.

But Jesus did have many things to speak and to judge concerning them. They had been given more than enough revelation to be held responsible; their rejection of him was inexcusable. His judgment of them would be in perfect harmony with the Father’s will for it was the Father who sent him and Jesus spoke only the things he had heard from him.

Incredibly, despite the fact that Jesus had spoken so clearly to them they still did not realize that he was speaking about God. They had no ears to hear because of the deceptive power of their willful ignorance. There was coming a day, however, when the truth of Jesus’ claims would be confirmed. He said, “When you lift up the Son of Man then you will know that I am he.” Jesus’ work on the cross proved that he spoke the things the Father taught him, that the Father sent him and was with him, and that he always did the things that were pleasing to the Father. The cross revealed exactly who Jesus was; that he was the Messiah that they were waiting for. And so compelling was Jesus’ teaching that verse 30 says that many put their faith in him.

D.L. Moody tells of a man who felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit and desired to be saved. But he was afraid that his friends would laugh at him. The spirit was striving with this man. Each night he came back to the revival meetings...for weeks he came. It was as if the man would step to the very threshold of Heaven but then he would hesitate to take the next step. There came a day when the Spirit of God left him... the conviction was gone. Months later Moody went to witness once again to this man. Here is his reply: "Mr. Moody," said he, "I have made up my mind to become a Christian. My mind is fully made up to that, but I won't be one just now. I am going to Michigan to buy a farm and settle down, and then I will become a Christian." Moody pleaded with him to get saved while he had the opportunity. He simply said "not yet, I will risk it". One Thursday, about noon, his wife called for Mr. Moody to come quickly to their home. He was sick and the doctors said there was no hope of a recovery. Moody went in to the man's room and he heard these words - "Mr. Moody, you need not talk to me anymore. It is too late. My heart is as hard as the iron in that stove there. My damnation is sealed, and I shall be in hell in a little while." Moody tried to tell him of Jesus' love and God's forgiveness, but he said, "Mr. Moody, I tell you there is no hope for me." The man lingered until the sun went down. From noon until he died all he was heard to say was, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and I am not saved." Hour after hour he would say again those awful words, just before he drew his last breath his wife heard him mutter, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and I am not saved." Moody concluded the story this way: He lived a Christless life, he died a Christless death, we wrapped him in a Christless shroud and took him away to a Christless grave. The man died in his sins and ever since has been in a Christless eternity!

There are many people who believe in Jesus, but they refuse to surrender to Him. There are many people who know what the Bible says, but reject Jesus and His offer of salvation. There are people who continue to be blinded by the world no matter what they hear on a Sunday morning or the conviction of the Holy Spirit. They continue to reject a relationship with Jesus and continue to celebrate the signpost. They risk dying in their sins, because their defiant rejection will be rewarded with rejection. That brings us to the last next step on the back of your communication card which is to stop willfully rejecting Jesus and surrender my life to him. ​​ 

In closing, I am going to play a song by Todd Agnew called My Jesus. Please, listen to the words as it plays.

In our scripture this morning, Jesus is confronting “the world” but it is a religious world, a world of unbelief but a religious world with spiritual appetites. The Jews were earnestly seeking the Messiah, praying fervently to God, following the scriptures and worshipping regularly. Those whose hearts were inclined to hear God’s new voice in the world quickly recognized this voice in Jesus and followed him. Those who were entrenched in the traditions of their religious world, whose spiritual passions betrayed them and closed their eyes and ears were unable to find anything redeeming in Jesus’ life work.

What would happen if Jesus walked into our churches, pick up a religious symbol like he did at the Feast of Tabernacles and challenged the symbol’s original meaning. Would we cheer or would we fight. Suddenly we might find ourselves defending “religion” instead of the Christian faith. We might explain that the old meaning, the old songs and the old forms have worked just fine for generations. We might challenge this newcomer and demand if he is really a messenger from God. When he pressed his claims powerfully, we would be forced either to let go of our former position and become a believer or argue and rebel.

This reflex that cannot see God in the prophetic voice of Jesus, that rebels, fights and attacks, is the work of Satan. It is Satan’s work among religious people. It is the reflex to make the human voice preeminent to the voice of God. It is the reflex to see it as an act of devotion and piety to stop anyone who would upset what we had built in God’s name. Can our religion become life under the signpost? Can it simply be a recitation of ancestry and tradition, a defense of all that is holy and good and spiritual but knows little of God. Later on in John 8:47, Jesus says the problem is that his audience “does not hear” any longer. This, he suggests, is evidence that they do not belong to God. Our scripture this morning was a severe call to Judaism that it must repent but it is also a call to repentance for us too, who have taken up the mantle worn by the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. ​​ May we take this call to repentance seriously so we don’t risk dying in our sin and spend eternity separated from God and his son, Jesus.

As the praise team comes to lead us in our final song and the ushers prepare to take up the communication cards, let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, help us to lose our religion. Help us to pursue the destination of a relationship with your son, Jesus. Help us to make it all about you and not ourselves. Help us to rely on your righteousness and not our own. Take us from this place and give us divine appointments to share your love and your gospel to those who need to hear it. Let us do it with a spirit of humility and in an attitude of love and not condemnation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.