From Jesus to Religion
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1Tim 4:1-2).
Our title reflects the movement of history – the history of the Jesus movement and how a movement that began with the revelation of God in His Son Jesus Christ could grow into a religion that represents the very opposite of what the original revelation represented. In this chapter, we will observe this movement from revelation to religion by tracing the addition of foreign symbols, as well as noting the changes in the original symbols and their meanings.
We begin with the master or central symbol of the Christian movement. This symbol, of course, is Jesus Himself. Jesus not only lived physically, but He also lived symbolically (Luke 2:34). He was the symbol of God amongst us. Karl Rahner said, “The Logos is the symbol of the Father.” We might say that He is the self-revelation or self-expression of God Himself. Therefore, the very nature of God is expressed symbolically in and through Jesus.
In his book, The Power of Symbols in Religion and Culture, F.W. Dillistone points to Christ as a central symbol of the Christian faith. “In my view it is both fitting and true to the witness of New Testament writers to confess Jesus as the central symbol of God. ‘Centre’ is a category which has played a dual role in human affairs. Both in a circle and in a straight line, the centre is a point of major significance; society is normally ordered from a central place: a covenant or agreement between two parties also finds its guarantee through joint assent and signature at a central place. Jesus, as symbol, becomes the centre in both ways. It is the confession of Christians of all ages that Jesus Himself, revealed through the words and life-patterns of His followers and interpreted to successive generations by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was the central symbol, potentially uniting the whole of humanity to God Himself.”
The Immediacy of God
It is also important for us to understand the basic meaning of the symbolism of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ presence in the world was a symbol that God Himself was now present in the world of men. This is not to say that God was not actually present in Christ, but is a way to look beyond the physical presence to the spiritual meaning. Matthew captures the very essence of the symbolic meaning of Jesus when he records the announcement of the angel to Joseph. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23). The implications of God being among us are staggering, for it implies that all the symbols that mediated a transcended God are no longer needed. The God of the other world has come into the world of men in the person of His son. Therefore, the religious symbols that mediate His presence in the past are no longer needed. The coming of God among His people in the person of Jesus has rendered all the mediating symbolism of religions obsolete, old, and destined to vanish away (Heb. 8:13). Thus, God’s people now have direct access and fellowship with the Father in Jesus Christ. Hence, all symbols of the Christian faith must symbolize the presence of God among His people in their ordinary and everyday experiences. Any symbol that does not must be viewed suspiciously as a possible subversion of the faith and a distancing of God from His people. All such symbols are questionable and should be scrutinized to see if they belong in the Christian movement. These symbols surely should never be bound on other believers as symbols of God’s acceptance or symbols of acceptable fellowship that mediates between believers.
In view of this, the entire enterprise of religion itself, along with its sacred symbols of mediation might be brought into question. At the very least, we must begin to view religion with a suspicion that it may not be everything it seems to be. In fact, if we are right, it is the very opposite of what it appears to be. It appears, at least to the majority, to be a symbol of the presence of God. However, in reality it is a symbol of the absence and negation of the true God, who no longer dwells in the sacred or holy, but rather in the everyday and ordinary. Keeping with this line of thought, we could say that religion itself is a symbol and it is a symbol that speaks. When it speaks, it speaks of a God who is out there somewhere in another world, a God who is wholly other and removed from the world of men; a God who is distant from His people and who must be approached in and through the sacred. Yet, when we turn to revelation, we find that God is no longer to be found in the sacred symbols of religion, but rather in the symbols of His one and only Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit that abides with and in His Spirit-filled people. In these two living symbols, God has drawn near to His people in the everyday for everyone. There is no longer a need for believers to approach God through the sacred symbols of religion. Though religious symbols may induce feelings of other-worldliness, they cannot and do not draw us closer to God. In the end, all religious symbols other than Jesus and the Spirit, will distance people from God. For in the end, at least for the majority of men, all religious symbolism slips into idolatry.
When the apostle John saw the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down out of heaven, he proclaimed, “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22). John’s words become pregnant with meaning, when one understands that for the Jews, the temple was the master or central symbol of their religion and mediated the presence of God. One implication of this is that in the city of God there are no religious symbols that mediate the presence of God. For in that city, there is no need for religion as a mediator for God, because God is present in the person of His Son. That city is now represented on earth by the body of Christ (Gal. 4:26). The temple or sacred place has now been replaced with the symbol of Jesus and His Spirit-filled body (1 Cor. 3:16, 2 Cor. 6:14-18). Hence, the symbols of religion have no place in the city of God or the Christian movement. Today the church as the body of Christ, created by the Word, imbibed with the Spirit is now the master symbol of the living God’s presence. However, the church can only be this symbol as long as it is walking in the power of the Spirit and is enlivened by the life of its Lord. When a church loses the Spirit of Jesus, it becomes nothing more than a lifeless symbol that relies on ritual and form, which are nothing more than hollow and empty symbols of religion. When the church loses the Spirit, it becomes a lifeless institution that tries to invoke the grace of God through its ritual and its ostentatiousness. In this, it does not hear God nor does it see God in the ordinary and everyday. In its lifelessness, it becomes nothing more than a mute idol that neither sees nor hears.
In addition to Christ and the Spirit representing the real presence of God among His people, these living symbols also represent the unity and oneness of God and man. In Christ, God and man have become one. The implication of this is, if God and man are one in Christ, this oneness should overflow into the relationship that man has with his fellowmen. Consequently, Christ is not only the symbol of the presence of God but also of reconciliation between men and the Old Testament idea of shalom. “He is our peace (shalom) who…has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:1415). In view of this, we might state the following axiom: Any symbol or an interpretation of a symbol that promotes or stands for division has been misinterpreted or is an unauthorized addition to the Christian faith. All authorized symbols rightly interpreted will point to Christ and promote the unity of the Spirit.
Moreover, any symbol that diverts attention away from the center symbol of Jesus must also be rejected. Even the symbol of the Spirit must point to the central symbol of Jesus Christ. Any theology that makes the Spirit or anything else the center must be rejected as a subversion of the faith. It is only when men have focused on something other than Jesus that division can creep into the Christian movement. In fact, all the sects of Christendom propagate them-selves by focusing on one or more symbols other than Christ. If these symbols are removed, there remains no reason for the existence of the sect. Therefore, we find that the membership of most sects have become propagators and protectors of religious symbols instead of proclaiming faith in Christ. In doing this, they have caused unprecedented division. However, in doing this, they end up diverting attention away from the central symbol of Christ to lesser symbols or they relegate the symbol of Christ to the same level of a lesser symbol. Though they vehemently deny this, their actions speak symbolically louder than their words. They separate and divide over symbols other than Jesus. They spend more time talking and studying about lesser symbols than Jesus. If Jesus is the central symbol, why do the churches spend so much of their time talking about the lesser symbols of the Bible, such as men, creeds, morality, prophecy, and the like, often without even showing how they relate to Jesus? Without Jesus being the center, people will soon find themselves living from the flesh [law], filled with division and strife. Only when a group has Jesus as the center, will it become a sign and a symbol of the Spirit of Christ and unity in the Christian community.
The Distancing and Subversion of God
In view of what has been said, I think it is fair to say that religion is like a veil of symbols, which creates a darkness that hides God and shields the people from His presence. In other words, religion removes God from the everyday and distances Him from His people. He is then no longer viewed as being among His people, but rather in some distant heaven. His only presence on earth is seen in religion and its sacred symbols of mediation. We can gather from the popularity of religion that many men do not want to live in an unmediatedIt’s state in the presence of the true God. So they lock Him away in their sacred boxes of sacred places, people, times, and books. For if they can put God back into the sacred, then they can live with the illusion that He does not know what they are doing in the everyday. This allows them to live in two worlds – the sacred and the secular while living by two different standards. However, any god who can be put into our little religious boxes is not the God you read about in the Scriptures and surely is not a God, who can help us in time of need. The god in the box, the God of all religion, becomes an idol; an idol, which Christ came to destroy.
I have charged the Christian religion with the heinous crime of subverting the revelation of God. I have also established the motive. That is, man does not want to live in the presence of revelation. For he does not want to conform to
its norms, nor does he want to continually stand under its judgment. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light (revelation) because their deeds were evil” (John. 3:19). Though men hate revelation and refuse to conform to it, at the same time, they know that they cannot live without it, for then they would have no hope. So man finds himself in a paradox where he cannot live with or without revelation. How does he solve the problem? He solves the problem by watering down, changing, and subverting revelation to where it feels comfortable to live with. These changes usually take the form of changes in the meaning of symbols or the addition of unauthorized symbols. In adding unauthorized symbols man sets himself up as the judge of revelation instead of allowing revelation to sit in judgment of him.
In addition, he usurps the authority of God Himself and in actuality, sits in judgment of God. In this, man commits the religious sin of playing god before God. Needless to say, God is not impressed with this parody. It is here that the atheist shows himself more righteous than the religious man. For the atheist openly rejects revelation, while the religious man knavishly subverts it in the name of God.
In the next chapter we will begin to trace this subversion of revelation by observing the changes and additions in the symbols found in the Christian movement. As we trace this subversion, we need to remember that these changes did not happen overnight. Many of them took decades, even centuries, to creep into the faith and often these changes did not go unchallenged by some of the church fathers. However, the forces behind these changes were too powerful and the majority of the church found itself being swept along by a tidal wave of change and subversion. Even so, there has always remained a group in the church that has resisted this subversion. These were often the ones labeled radical or even heretical.