Not too long ago a spoken word video about why the poet "loves Jesus, but hates religion" went viral. It captured the sentiments of millions of people around the world, both within and outside of the Christian faith.
Similarly, it is not uncommon to hear preachers or youth speakers declare adamantly that "Jesus didn't come to bring 'religion'...he came to bring 'relationship'!" or something similar...often to bursts of applause or shouts of "amen!" among the audience or congregation.
Like all urban legends, there is of course a kernel of truth to this one--and a fairly large kernel at that.
And like all urban legends, the truth has been almost completely swallowed up by error...albeit well-intentioned error.
Now to be clear, Jesus is all about an authentic, life-giving, Spirit-led relationship between humanity and God. He DOES eschew religious performance of exterior ritual in favor of transformative encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But make no mistake about it, Jesus does not hate religion.
For one thing, the term "religion" is so broad and all-encompassing as to become almost completely meaningless when used to describe anything other than an alternative to atheism.
But more than that, any careful reader of the New Testament will quickly realize that Jesus and His followers often did things that were very 'religious.'
Because they were all faithful 1st-century Jews.
In fact, there is perhaps no clearer statement by Jesus on the subject of religion than the following one we find in His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount:
"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the "
(Matthew 5:13-20 NIV)
Jesus certainly did not have a problem with Torah. In fact, it would see that He has a problem with those seeking to casually dismiss it if anything.
Furthermore, look at how His entire ministry begins in His hometown of Nazareth:
"Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read."
(Luke 4:14-16 NIV)
That little phrase "as was his custom" often gets glossed over. But it is monumental when one is discussing Jesus and His view of "religion."
Jesus was indeed quite "religious", it seems:
"On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus' disciples asked him, "Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?"
So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, 'The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there."
The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover."
(Mark 14:12-16 NIV)
Passover, Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Dedication, synagogue attendance, worship at the Temple in Jerusalem...it seems Jesus was definitely not an enemy of "religion."
So where did this urban legend come from?
I would suggest that it comes from a lack of familiarity with the actual Hebrew Scriptures (aka. the Old Testament). You see, what Jesus opposed was false or hollow religious practice carried out by people who did not have the inward relationship and the life of faith from which their religious devotion was supposed to flow. Jesus opposed those who draw near to God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from Him, to paraphrase Isaiah (29:13)...who Jesus also quoted (Matt. 15:8). In fact, if anything, it is the Old Testament that really seems to rail the harshest against such 'religion.':
"Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!
Why do you long for the day of the LORD?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light--
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
(Amos 5:18-24 NIV)
You see, Jesus (like His fellow small-town Prophet Amos) hates religion that is merely external and hypocritical. But that doesn't mean that He therefore hates true religion. True religion was what Jesus came to enable!
And what is this "true religion"?
Jesus' own half-brother James answers this very question:
"But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
(James 1:25-27 NIV)
"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless..." Think about it. If 'religion' were an inherently bad thing, then this would be a nonsensical statement to say the least.
But 'religion' is not an inherently bad thing.
It is not something Jesus opposed or hated or came to do away with.
Rather, Jesus came to call Israel back to the original intention of their religion; back to the original purpose of Torah in order that they would be a light to the nations and that the new Covenant which Jesus would soon inaugurate would transform God's people--people from every tribe, language, ethnicity and nation--into truly religious people. People who live in faithful obedience to God through a Spirit-filled relationship with His Messiah, and who genuinely and sacrificially love one another in tangible outwardly-evident ways.
Religion and relationship are not antithetical. They never have been. And the 'religion' Jesus came to do away with was, in fact, no religion at all.