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Rituals versus Reality

By Nelson Thomas Mumbai

It’s instructive to notice the difference in Christ’s approach when He dealt with some of the worst sinners in the society and the self-righteous Pharisees of His time. How graciously He used words that convicted and comforted those condemned sinners, but unequivocally rebuked the self-righteous religious zealots. Cf. John 8: 4 – 11; Luke 7:37, 50; Matt 23:13, 23 etc.
       The Pharisees always considered themselves as the most godly and obedient followers of the law. They thought that there is no one as holy and separated like them. Their attitude is vividly portrayed in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to pray. Luke 18: 9 – 14. Their concept of God, man and spirituality were far from the true biblical revelation, in spite of their strict religious observance of the law. Throughout His public ministry, the Lord Jesus made it a point to explicitly expose the reality behind the ritualistic spirituality of the Pharisees.

       Remember, this was not something that occurred all of a sudden. We find such incidents during the days of Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., also we see similar ceremonial spiritual services that the Lord Almighty often denounced. Cf. Isaiah 1: 10 – 15; 58:1ff; Jeremiah 6:20; 7:21; Amos 5:21 – 23; Micah 6:7, 8. Psalm 50 teaches that even before the times of these prophets, many among the Jews were just formalistic without any substance in their spiritual activities. Cf. Psa 50:5 – 13, 16 – 21.

       The repeated declaration of divine displeasure over their vain rituals and corrupt life, through the ministry of those men of God could not reform the Jewish people. Of course, there was always a remnant that followed the Lord and His word sincerely, paying attention to the warnings of the servants of God. That’s exactly the reason why we should never hesitate to expound such words of divine indictment that call upon His people to deplore the ritualistic worship and return to the Lord in truth. It is high time for us who consider ourselves as committed, conservative and true believers to carefully contemplate what would be the Lord’s response to our claims today.
       Scripture refers to a number of distinguishing marks of ceremonialism. Let us consider few of those features so that we can evaluate our spiritual lives today.

1. External show without any internal truth. Isa 1:11; 58;2ff
They were very firm and meticulous in following the religious rituals. With all enthusiasm they attended to their regular fasting and prayers and other gatherings before the Lord. Giving the tenth of everything was never taken lightly. Luke 18: 12.
       The Lord declared through Isaiah, "In as much as these people draw near with their mouths And honor Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men..” Isaiah 29:13. Soon after finishing their spiritual activities, they would rush to exploit the poor and indulge in evil activities. Isa 5:8ff; 58:3. Their words to God were sweet and perfect, but it was just flattery and lies. Psa 78: 35 – 37; Isa 48:1
       Even though they strictly followed the ceremonial laws, they simply ignored the moral and spiritual laws that should govern their heart. It was just formalism, an external form of religion that gave least consideration for internal spiritual reality. They never thought of having a personal relationship with the Lord.

       Their attendance to spiritual discourses and their appreciation and applause for the preacher were all just a show. Ezek 33: 31 – 33. Their outward activities and prayers did not bring any change within them. Their hearts were filled with all kinds of evil. No wonder the Lord repeatedly called the Pharisees hypocrites and likened them to white-washed tombs. Matt 23: 25ff
       Throughout the Bible we see God reminding His people that more than sacrifice, heartfelt obedience is needed, and more than fasting and other spiritual exercises, love and mercy towards our fellow being is valuable. 1Sam 15:22; Isa 58:6ff; Hos 6:6; Micah 6:8; Matt 9:13 etc.
This external show can happen even today. Simply having spiritual services as a show or performance may give us satisfaction and delight, but it does not bring any change in our heart. Experts in the field of event management may help us to conduct a gathering in the most spectacular and impressive manner. But would this enhance our personal relationship with the Lord?
       We need to ask seriously, what would be God’s response to such activities? If our godliness is just a formality without any internal reality, then there is no spiritual power in it; it’s just a façade that will not survive in the long run. Cf. Act 5: 3, 4; 2Tim 3:5

2. Valuing tradition more than Scripture. Matt 15:3 – 6.
The Lord Jesus forcefully reprimanded the Pharisees for enthusiastically preserving the traditions yet ignoring plainly written commandments of God. He said “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” Mat 15:3. They invented a tradition by which any wayward child can easily escape from the responsibility of looking after their parents. The son only needs to say, “I have given my property as a gift to God”, and then the parents cannot claim any maintenance from their son. Jewish leaders made a custom that giving to God is more important than giving to parents! This was a clear violation of Deuteronomy 5:16, where we read, “'Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

       When spirituality becomes a show and a performance, the focus changes. Then it is not out of respect to God or His word but simply based on human preference and pleasure. Like the Jews of Christ’s days, people today begin to twist the scripture, misread, and misinterpret the word of God to suit their own agenda.

       This does not mean that all traditions are bad. Apostle Paul commends the Corinthians for keeping the traditions he delivered to them. 1Cor 11:2. And he exhorts the Thessalonian believers to stand firm and hold fast the traditions which they learned from him. 2Thess 2:15. Yet, Paul was aware of the danger of being deceived by the tradition of man. Colo 2:8. He had experienced it himself that when one over-values traditions, the result could undermine the purposes of God. Gal 1:14
       In Jeremiah 35, the Lord shows the commitment of the sons of Rechab in faithfully obeying the words of their ancestor Jondadab, as an example for the Jews. Jere 35:1 – 10. They were actually following a tradition passed on to them by their parents. Nonetheless, it was not in violation of any scripture passage.
       However godly and exemplary our forefathers may be, our basis for precept and practice is the scripture which has been settled in heaven forever. Psa 119:89. Our forefathers were not impeccable, and their words were not inspired either. Our practice, however precious it might be, we should never allow it to weaken or dilute the plainly written word of God in any way.

3. Majoring on the minor things. Matt 23:23
Pharisee’s their strict observance of spiritual disciplines was not often related to fundamental spiritual truths. For example, notice the Lord denouncing their tithing. They carefully gave tithe of ‘mint and anise and cumin’ which were not of much value, yet they neglected the serious matters of the law. Somebody said that they even used to count such herbs one by one so that there should not be any mistake in their giving for the Lord! At the same time, they paid no attention to their duty towards one another or the Lord by living a righteous and holy life.
       Another example we see in John 18:28, when the Jews brought the Lord Jesus to Pilate the Roman governor, after His arrest. We read, “Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.” How careful they were to avoid any pollution by entering into the residence of a gentile, which would hinder them from eating the Passover feast. They considered the ceremonial cleansing so highly but never thought of the pollution inside their heart, which was already revealed in their eagerness to arrest and eliminate the Lord Jesus Christ, who in any case was an innocent fellow-Jew.
       Ardently holding on to minor things, at the same time neglecting most serious spiritual issues are not marks of true spirituality. It is legalism on one side, for they think that following their form of doctrine makes them special, and on the other side, it is formalism, for their zealous observance of faith does not make any impact on their heart.

4. Craving for attention and approval. Matt 6:5 - 8, 16; Luke 11:39, 40
The Lord Jesus repeatedly referred to their thirst for human appreciation. The reason why those pious Pharisees passionately followed their faith was to display their spirituality. Isa 58:2. They loved to be respected publicly with special titles and positions. Matt 23: 5 – 7. Through their long prayers, spiritual words and even by their appearance, they made every effort to be known as the godliest of that generation. Matt 6: 16
       One of the reasons why some of them rejected the Lord Jesus was their concern for public acceptance. They looked for honour from man, not from God. John 5:44. Though they were convinced of Christ’s credentials, they knew that recognizing Jesus as the Messiah would attract the wrath of the society and their leaders. John 12:42, 43. So, conveniently they either kept quiet or even unashamedly consented to crucify the Saviour.
       See the ugly consequences of having a love for man’s honour rather than God. Such an appetite makes one stoop so low that one does not feel any shame to bury the truth they once believed; even to reject the Lord publically!

       Making a show of oneself as if they are something is not a Christ-like spirit. It is the attitude of the antichrist. 2Thess 2:4. Our Lord often said that He did not seek the honour of men, nor did He honor Himself. He needed only the honour that came from the Father. John 5:44; 8:54. On what basis can we boast as we realize the fact that we were wretched sinners saved by grace and grace alone? And that the Saviour Himself was willing to forsake all His privileges and positions and become like a servant, even to die on the cross as a hardcore criminal. Phil 2: 5 – 8.
       Apostle Paul writes, “Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.” 1Thess 2:6. He knew true praise and honour should come from God. 1Cor 4:5. Sad to notice a new trend even among the most enlightened evangelical Christians—venerating human beings to the point of hero worship. We should never forget the words of our saviour, “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” Luke 16:15b

5. Fault finding and criticism. Matt 15:2ff; Mark 7:2ff
Because the Pharisees thought that they were the only group of people who strictly followed the law, they were obsessed with carefully observing others to point out their mistakes. Scribes and Pharisees often followed the Lord Jesus and the disciples to scrutinize minute things of their lives to find errors. They also used to ask various questions to get a reason to censure the Lord Jesus. Matt 9:11, 12; 12:10; Mark 3:2; Luke 11:54. The Lord strongly castigated them for such censorial judgmental attitude. Matt 15:2 – 8; 22:18
       The same attitude is found even today in the lives of such legalistic religious enthusiasts. They are filled with pessimism and condemnation. It seems that not even once do they appreciate the good in any individual the way they publicize the failures.
       Does this mean that we should never point out the mistakes of a fellow-believer? This is far from the truth; nevertheless, this should be done in a right and constructive manner. The word of God exhorts us to examine, evaluate and discern everything. 1Cor 14:29; 1Thes 5:21; 1John 4:1 etc.

       However, if we feel that except me all others are wrong, and it’s my job to criticize all others except my dear ones, that is not a good attitude. Such a mindset is definitely not a mark of spirituality; it’s simply formalism that has nothing to do with intimate personal relation with God. The Lord added that neglecting serious failures of personal life and going after minor mistakes of others is hypocrisy. Matt 7: 5.
6. An Arrogant outlook. Luke 18:11, 12.
Pharisee’s assumption that they are holier than others also makes them haughty over their spirituality. That superiority feeling further makes them look down on others. They say, “'Keep to yourself, Do not come near me, For I am holier than you!'” Isa 65:5. The Pharisee’s prayer makes it very clear, “'God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'” Luke 18:11, 12. They will flaunt their spiritual exercises and achievements before others, and that without any hesitation.
       Such self-exaltation and superiority feeling of man always has brought divine displeasure. Throughout the scripture we see how the Lord stood against the boastful at the same time exalted the humble. “The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.” Isa 2:11. “And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Mat 23:12.
       True mark of spirituality is humility, and not pride. It is the humble who enjoy the grace of God. The moment a person is filled with pride, even if due to spiritual success, not only does the grace of God leave him, God begins to resist him and there begins his fall. James 4:6; Pro 16:18

7. Ignorance of the divine displeasure. Isa 1: 11 – 15; 29: 13; Jer 3: 4 - 10; 7:10; Ezek 33: 31, 32 etc
We can definitely keep on adding further to this list of traits found in those who follow a ritualistic religious path. The most notable mark is the difficulty for a formalistic worshipper to recognize the Lord’s response to their heartless, meaningless spirituality. Because they follow the rituals with all commitment and discipline, they blatantly refuse to see any fault on their side.
       It’s because of this misapprehension, in spite of God’s disapproval and scolding, they continued with their vain services. They paid no attention to whether God is satisfied in their offerings or not. Even after the Lord repeatedly told them, ‘bring no more sacrifices, I do not delight, I hate your feasts, they are a trouble to me’; they kept on with their ceremonies.
       They were blind and deaf to the reality of their religious life, their heart was so hardened that they could not even listen to the voice of their conscience. They failed to discern that God does not receive their worship, nor does He listen to their prayers. Jer 7:16; Isa 56:10. No wonder Hosea prophesied, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Hos 4: 6
       To the Church of the Laodiceans the Lord Jesus said a similar truth, “you say, “'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” Reve 3:17. What a terrible state it is to be ignorant of their own wretched, poor state!

       The same things can happen even today, especially among the so-called evangelical born again believers. Their name, style and appearance all suggest they are the most spiritual among the multitude. Their doctrine and practice and even the language could be very much biblical. There is no dearth of spiritual activities, prayers, fasting and so on and yet no change internally. We need to examine carefully whether the Lord is really impressed and satisfied in such a life. What a pathetic condition it would be if the Lord hates our services, refuses to answer our prayers and even warns to chastise us for rebellion! Rev 2:5, 16; 3:16 etc.


Remember, it’s a very thin line between formalism and reality. We may not even know when we slip into the error of formalism and legalism. If we are only focusing on the external performances and refuse to have a personal relation with the Lord, that will affect our internal lives, and soon we shall end up as formalistic.
       Before it's too late, let us diligently search our hearts. Prophet Jeremiah has said it poignantly, "Break up your fallow ground, And do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, And take away the foreskins of your hearts, You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Lest My fury come forth like fire, And burn so that no one can quench it, Because of the evil of your doings." Jeremiah 4:3, 4.




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