One of the popular notions about Jesus is that he “hated religion.” Like several other misconceptions, this occurs when the definition of religion is confused with the emotions of religious people.
Jesus was not opposed to religion during his earthly ministry. His family circumcised him on the eighth day, according to the Law. The family made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, such as the one when Jesus was 12 years old. As an adult, Jesus prayed, he fasted, he paid the Temple tax, he apparently worshiped at the Temple and he certainly made required pilgrimages to Jerusalem. He famously observed the Passover meal. He read Scripture and perhaps most disturbing to modern anti-religionists, he attended Synagogue services weekly, “as was his custom”.
This list could easily be elaborated in numerous ways, but suffice it to say that Jesus was a very orthodox Jew of the first century.
Anti-religionists often cast Jesus as a man who was all about love and forgiveness and nothing else. This is what I term the “hippie Jesus”. This is a non-judgmental Jesus and a Jesus that doesn’t require any dedication to church services, tithing, Bible study, or any other disciplined use of the believer’s time. But this is not the model that Jesus of Nazareth set in his own life.
What did Jesus object to within the religion of his day? He opposed hypocrisy and oppression of the underclass by the religious leaders. This hypocrisy was evidenced in the way he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. He was outraged that they were making outrageous profits from the exchanges with worshipers. This made them a “den of robbers” in his eyes.
Jesus also frequently confronted Pharisees for their hypocrisy related to table fellowship and rules of association. The Pharisee who prayed loudly and with uplifted eyes was thankful that he was not a sinner. Yet he was rejected by Jesus in favor of the man whose prayer was, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus reminded his host once that he did not even offer to wash his feet when he entered into the home, yet a sinful woman bathed his feet with tears. Jesus did not like the attitudes of such haughty people, but he never once condemned the institution of the Jewish religion.
Near the end of his earthly life, Jesus proclaimed that he would establish a church and the night he was betrayed he gave the church its first sacrament: the Lord’s Supper. Unlike the Jewish institution, the church did not have the same formal structure of religion and law the way that Judaism did, but it had its own. In fact, it is probably best to call the early church a Messianic Judaism. They still continued to observe prayer times. They still met at the Temple and probably engaged in some of the traditional rituals. They still observed Jewish dietary laws and they kept separate from Gentiles. The first sacrament instituted by someone other than Jesus came on the day of Pentecost when Peter called on the people to repent and be baptized. Acts tells us that they established an early pattern of religion subsequent to everything Jewish they continued to observe. They listed to the Apostle’s teaching, to breaking bread (fellowship meals and probably the Lord’s Supper as well), to fellowship, and to prayer. So we see at the outset that there was a hierarchy of education within the church: the Apostles.
Church government did not stop there. They adopted the Jewish model of elders for leadership, developed the office of deacon, recognized the offices of apostle, evangelist, teacher, and others. They eventually broke down the barriers with the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry. The church had rules that were to remain in effect from Judaism, such as sexual mores. Others like circumcision and unclean foods faded away while baptism was normal for everyone. We find songs, hymns, and spiritual songs on the lips of Christian worshipers and we find that there were regular church meetings on the first day of the week in the early morning hours where they partook of the Lord’s Supper.
Much more could be said but let this be enough to demonstrate that Jesus loved and embraced religion. He gave us a religious institution and we have carried on its tenants: weekly meetings, prayer, scripture, leadership, fellowship, singing, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. It’s not religion that Jesus opposed, it was the misuse of religion. So, if you ever wake up on a Sunday morning and find it hard to get motivated to get up and get to church, you’re quite normal. Just think, if Jesus could crawl out of bed and walk to the Synagogue every Sabbath, “as was his custom”, then you can probably do it to. Church is more than just a place, some money, and some songs. It is a way of life. Proper religion is a way of life as well. It is doing things because they are right for us, right for our families, right for our friends and neighbors, and most importantly pleasing to God.