The Book of Matthew

Wednesday: Religious Externals Only


Theme: Religious Externals Only
In this week’s lessons, we are reminded of the need to continue in those things we have learned from Scripture, in order to live a holy life.
Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:1-17
The second part of this section is the one I’ve already mentioned about having a form of godliness but denying its power. This refers to those who practice the externals of religion, but who show no evidence of being born again. How many people are there like that? Sometimes that even seems to characterize churches.
Yet this is not a new idea. I was preaching this past week in the Poconos and I was going over the ninth chapter of John. I was tracing the way in which the religious leaders reacted to God’s blessing in the life of the man who was born blind. In this story you see the contrast between the spiritual growth of the blind man and the spiritual blindness of the religious leaders. The man was physically blind, yet because of Jesus’ work in his life he was healed of his blindness. And this healing of physical blindness led to the man’s spiritual blindness being removed as well, as he came to see who Jesus was and believed on him. On the other hand, you have the religious leaders, who could see physically, but were blind spiritually to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. 
After Jesus clearly healed the blind man, the religious leaders tried to discredit the miracle by questioning whether the man had been blind in the first place. They even called in the man’s parents to ask whether their son really was born blind. Once they lost that argument about the man’s blindness, the next thing they did was to separate what had happened from Jesus. They knew that God could heal people, but since they regarded Jesus as a sinner, they reasoned that he could not have been the agent of the healing. In other words, they slandered Jesus by calling him a sinner and claiming that such people don’t perform miracles like this. 
The third thing they did was to retreat into their world of formalized religion. They claimed allegiance to Moses because they knew that God had spoken to him; but they refused to acknowledge that God had spoken through Jesus. Perhaps you could say that at this point they retreated into the Mosaic law as they understood it, which of course was an incorrect view of it because the law itself witnesses to Jesus. Their next step was to apply their formalized religion in this situation by excommunicating the healed man from the synagogue. 
The religious leaders were so opposed to Jesus that they denied the miracle of this healing when it was quite obvious that Jesus really had done it. This makes me think of the way miracles were attacked by theological liberals in the nineteenth century. They had been influenced by rationalism, which stated that we live in a closed universe that does not allow for the miraculous. So when these liberal theologians came to the New Testament and saw the miracles that Christ preformed, they began to explain them away by rational means. 
For example, they looked at the miracle of Christ walking on the water in Galilee. Rather than believing what the Bible said about this event, they preferred another explanation. They said that it was foggy in the early morning, and consequently the disciples’ boat must have been closer to shore than they realized. Therefore, what really happened was that Jesus was simply wading along the edge, rather than walking on the water. And so, then, when Peter got out of the boat to meet Jesus, he actually stepped out onto a sand bar and began to sink. into it. 
Another miracle liberals try to disprove is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Liberals said that it was a bright afternoon and the disciples had planned ahead by stocking a dark cave with bread and fish. Then when it came time to feed the multitudes, Jesus sat in the mouth of the cave while the disciples gathered the food from within it and passed it out. But maybe because this view of the story is unconvincing, some liberals had another explanation for this miraculous feeding. What happened is that a little boy came up and kindly offered his meager lunch to share. And when all the stingy people saw this, they felt guilty because they had really brought their lunch but did not want to share it with others. So because this boy shared his lunch, they decided to share theirs, too. Now these explanations are ludicrous, but they were serious ideas by theological liberals in those days. 
The second thing liberals tried to do was disassociate the miraculous from Christ himself. The best example of this was Rudolf Bultmann. For him, it really did not matter how much of the gospel accounts about Jesus was true, including the bodily resurrection, which Bultmann did not believe. The mere fact that Jesus existed seems to be enough for him, quite apart from what actually happened in history. Instead, what really matters is what we believe has happened in our hearts because of Jesus. 
Now, when this kind of thinking gets taught in universities and seminaries, the next place for it to go is the churches, as ministers who received this bad theology in school now go on to teach it to their congregations. These churches have all the forms of organized religion. They look as if they are an assembly of godly people doing what pleases God, when in fact all they have is mere religious formalism because they have not been born again by the Spirit of God.
Study Questions:

What does Paul mean when he talks about those who have a form of godliness but deny its power?
How do the religious leaders in John 9 illustrate what Paul is telling Timothy about mere formalized religion?

Reflection: What examples do you see today of the idea of having external religion without evidence of conversion?
For Further Study: Download and listen for free to D. A. Carson’s message, “Know the Truth.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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