2019-9-15 True Religion

True Religion
Mark 11:12-26
September 15, 2019

Prayer for Illumination:

Our Lord and our God, now as we hear your Word, fill us with your Spirit. Soften our hearts that we may delight in your presence. Sharpen our minds that we may discern your truth. Shape our wills that we may desire your ways. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”[1]

This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

When we think of the Reformation, we often think about how Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. That tends to be the thing we think about. But we often forget that what they were doing was working to reform the worship of the people; they wanted to reform the Christian religion so that it was more in line with Scripture. They had become concerned with the false religion that many in the Catholic Church taught and believed. So they sought to correct the false religion that filled so many congregations. They warned against it. And they taught the true religion as found in the bible during their services.

As we examine this passage in Mark, we’ll see that Jesus confronts false religion; that Jesus warns against false religion; and that Jesus shows us what true religion is.

False Religion

The day after Jesus’ triumphant entry in Jerusalem, he comes to the temple complex. When he reaches the temple, he sees something that infuriates him. He sees the false religion of the chief priests and the scribes. What Jesus sees is that the chief priests and scribes had set up booths in the outer court of the temple. They had set up booths where people could buy their sacrifices for Passover in a few days and where they could exchange their money.

Passover was one of the three holidays that every Jewish male was required to attend along with the Feast of Booths and the Day of Atonement. Since the Exile, Jews were scattered all across the Greco-Roman world. Jews would travel from Rome, modern-day Turkey, Persia, and some from near India. It was a long way to travel. Because many were traveling such a long distance they needed to purchase a sacrifice when they reached Jerusalem.

It wasn’t just sacrifices they needed. They also needed to pay a temple tax. Every male was required to pay a shekel for the annual temple tax. A shekel was a coin that weighed 1/5 ounce. Exodus 30:13 required that every male was to pay a shekel every year for the upkeep of the temple.

There was a problem though. Most people didn’t have a coin that equaled a shekel. Most people had Roman coins. And Roman coins didn’t make a shekel. So when they came to the temple, they needed to exchange their Roman coins for a shekel from Tyre. It’s sort of like when you travel to another country. When you travel to another country, one of the first things you need to do is exchange your American money for the money of the country you’re visiting.

Jesus was not against those things. He had no problem with the people getting their sacrifices nor did he have a problem with people paying the temple tax. What he had a problem with was where the chief priests set up those booths. They set them up in the Court of the Gentiles. The Court of Gentiles was only place that God-fearing Gentiles could be in the temple. God-fearers were Gentiles who believed in YHWH but had not been circumcised yet. And since the chief priests and scribes had set up the booths in the Court of the Gentiles, the God-fearing Gentiles were now excluded from the worship of God.

By setting up the booths in the Court of the Gentiles, the chief priests showed they weren’t concerned about true religion. They showed that what they were concerned about was making money. They had traded the true religion that was supposed to be proclaimed to all nations for a few dollars. They had exchanged true religion for false religion.

But it wasn’t just the chief priests who had exchanged true religion for false religion. The scribes had exchanged true religion for false religion. The scribes were the experts in the Scriptures. They knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards. They knew that the Court of the Gentiles was the only place that God-fearing Gentiles could enter. But they weren’t concerned with the application of that Scripture. They had exchanged true religion for false religion.

We still experience false religion in the Church today. In my experience, false religion comes into the Church in two ways. It either comes in through people downplaying doctrine to be relevant or through dead orthodoxy.

People will downplay Christian doctrine so that Church is relevant. One of the books that has been most influential in my ministry is Richard Lovelace’s book Dynamics of Spiritual Life. Lovelace was a church historian who had an interest in renewal and revival. In his book, he notes that during the 18th and 19th centuries, many began to abandon the historic understanding that sin affected all aspects of our lives. During that time, the Enlightenment and Rationality made significant headways into culture. Enlightenment and Rationality started to question traditional Christian doctrines. They began to question whether or not sin was as bad as what the Church said.

Lovelace writes, “Gradually sin began to be defined in a way which seemed more rationally defensible: sins are conscious, voluntary acts of transgression against known laws.” [2] What he is saying is that many were redefining the biblical definition of sin so that the idea of sin would be relevant.

In the ensuring years, others have tried to exchange true religion for false religion to be relevant. Recently I was talking with another pastor. We were talking about doctrine, specifically about the cross and how Jesus bore the wrath of God for his Church. As we were talking, my fellow pastor said that he would no longer preach God’s judgment for sin or that Jesus bore God’s wrath on the cross. When I asked why, he said that people didn’t like it. He was downplaying doctrine to be relevant. He was trading true religion for false religion.

Let us let Scripture speak. Let us not avoid or explain away passages that conflict with culture. Let us not downplay our doctrine to be relevant. One of the ways that we combat downplaying doctrine to be relevant is by clinging to the historic creeds and confessions of the Church. Sometimes people wonder why we hold to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The reason that we hold to them is that it helps remind us of our doctrine; it helps keep us from downplaying doctrine just to be relevant. They are like the rails that keep the train on track.

Downplaying doctrine to be relevant isn’t the only false religion enters the Church. There is also dead orthodoxy. Dead orthodoxy is similar to the scribes. The scribes knew God’s Word backwards and forwards. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that dead orthodoxy is knowing God’s Word but failing to apply Scripture. Dead orthodoxy is knowing the Ten Commandments but failing to apply them as we live. Dead orthodoxy is knowing that God the Father planned from all eternity that he would redeemed his people through God the Son’s sacrifice and that God the Spirit would apply it to believers but failing to find that beautiful and praise God for his grace.

Dead orthodoxy is false religion not because it has changed doctrine, like those who want to be relevant. Dead orthodoxy is orthodox in what it teaches. But what makes it false religion is that at its heart dead orthodoxy is indifferent to God just as much as those who downplay doctrine to be relevant. Dead orthodoxy is indifferent to the grace found in the gospel; it is indifferent to the majesty and glory of God as revealed at the cross. Dead orthodoxy is abandoning the love of God you had at first (Rev. 2:4). Dead orthodoxy is just as much false religion as downplaying doctrine to be relevant.

Dead orthodoxy cannot be determined by liturgy or worship style. It’s often easy to assume that a congregation that has a more formal liturgy is dead and has forgotten the love of God they had at first. That is not what determines whether or not a congregation is dead in orthodoxy. It’s often easy to assume that if worship isn’t done in a certain way then the congregation is dead in orthodoxy. Worship style and musical instrumentation depend on the gifts of the congregation.

A Warning Against False Religion

This passage begins with Jesus cursing a fig tree, which is a warning against false religion. As Jesus and the twelve are walking up from Bethany to the temple, Jesus sees a fig tree in full bloom. Jesus sees that a fig tree has all of its leaves. Figs begin to bud not long after leaves bud. Since this tree is in full bloom with the leaves, it is understandable that one would think the tree might have figs.

The phrase “it was not the season for figs” should be translated as “the significant thing about this is that it was not even the season for figs.”[3] The tree is saying that the season is now for figs to be ready with the leaves in bloom.

But when Jesus sees that the tree has not produced figs or even the little buds of the figs, he curses it. He curses it saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again”. Then the next morning when he and the disciples are heading up to Jerusalem the tree had withered from the root. That curse is a warning against false religion.

David Garland writes this, “Mark alone mentions that the tree did not bear anything more than leaves ‘because it was not the season for figs,’ and it makes Jesus’ action seem even more outlandish. Why curse a fig tree for not bearing figs out of season? Jesus surely knows it is not fig season. This detail is a clue for the reader to look beyond the surface meaning and to see its symbolic meaning … The barren fig tree represents the barrenness of temple Judaism that is unprepared to accept Jesus’ messianic reign.”[4]

Jesus’ curse on the tree is a warning against false religion. This is what happens to those who practice false religion. They wither spiritually and die.

Now, maybe you’re objecting to this and thinking, “This seems judgmental. Doesn’t Jesus just care that you have some sort of faith? Does he really care about our doctrine? Does he really care if we’re indifferent?”

Jesus most definitely cares whether or not our religion is true. He cares whether or not we have right doctrine. He cares whether or not we have a living orthodoxy. When Jesus first began his ministry, Mark tells us that he was calling the people to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). He was concerned about their doctrine, which is why he called them to repent and believe. He was concerned that their religion was living.

We see this most clearly in Revelation. Revelation 2 and 3 are seven letters from Jesus to seven churches. In those letters Jesus corrects those who have downplayed doctrine to be relevant. In those letters he corrects those who are dead in their orthodoxy. In each of those letters he warns them against their false religion, telling them that if they don’t repent of it they will wither spiritually and die.

Warnings are ultimately given to those whom you love. You love your children and your grandchildren. When they’re about to do something that might get them hurt or something that isn’t good, you warn them. Why do you warn them? Because you love them. Jesus loves his Church. He loves them enough to warn them against the dangerous results of false religion.

So we’ve seen false religion and Jesus’ warning against false religion. Now let’s see true religion.

True Religion

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

True religion is having faith in God. True religion is having faith that God is who he says he is. True religion is not the size of our faith but who we have faith in. At first glance these verses might seem to imply that the size of our faith is what has the power to move mountains. That’s not what Jesus is saying. It is who we have faith in not the amount of faith.

Let’s think of it like it this. Let’s say I’m three stories high and I have complete faith that the umbrella in my hand will cause me to slowly float to the ground. If that were to really happen, I’d break my legs.

Now let’s say someone is about to go sky-diving but their nervous. Their knees are knocking and their hands are sweating as they prepare to jump. They have serious doubt but their faith is in the parachute on their back. It’s not the amount of faith that saves, it’s who the faith is in.

As we have faith in God, we become enthralled with him. We become amazed that God does amazing things. As you read the Bible, you’ll see that God does amazing things. He speaks and creation comes into existence. He causes a barren 90 year old woman to have a child. He redeems his people with a mighty outstretched arm. And most amazingly, he caused a virgin young woman to conceive a son miraculously. Thirty years later, the son that woman conceived went to the cross to redeem his people.

As you put your faith in God, you’ll see those things. You’ll see that he does amazing things; that in him all things are possible. As you put your faith in God, you’ll know that all things possible for him. And that will cause you to be amazed by him. That will cause you to be enthralled by who he is and what he has done. If you have faith in God and who he is, even the smallest dollop of faith, you will expect God to do the unexpected; you will expect him to do amazing things like throw a mountain into the sea. If you have faith in God and who he is, you can go before him and prayer, asking whatever it is you think you need, and you’ll know that he will provide what you actually need. That is true religion. True religion is having faith in God and having that God is who he says he is.

True religion will cause you to want to know doctrine and explain it because doctrine is just thinking deeply about God, who he is and what he has done. You’ll hold to it even when it seems countercultural and everyone is telling you that to be relevant you’ll need to downplay doctrine. True religion will cause you to want to apply Scripture to your ever day life because you’re amazed at what he has done in your life. True religion will cause you to trust that God does amazing things.

Let us be ware of false religion. It may be downplaying doctrine to be relevant or it may be a dead orthodoxy that fails to apply God’s word. Let us hear Jesus’ warning that false religion withers and leads to death. But true religion is having faith in God; having faith that he is who he is. And being enthralled by who he is and what he has done.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Mk 11:12–25). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Lovelace, Richard F. (1979). The Dynamics of Spiritual Life (p. 88). Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press.

[3] Lane, (p. 401).

[4] Garland, D. E. (1996). Mark (p. 440). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

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