“. . . for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” – John 12:43
Have you ever had someone wave off a conversation about Jesus with the words, “I’m Catholic. . . .” or “I’m Baptist” or “I’m __________"? Such a comment and wave off is thought to be a decisive and dismissive means of cutting off a conversation that the person saying it doesn’t feel is necessary or of value for them. I want to speak to those who use such tactics. I also want all of us to consider where we have placed our faith. Jesus addressed the very same tactic in the Gospels. On one such occasion Jesus’ listeners tried to dismiss His teaching with the claim, “We are Abraham’s descendants” (John 8:33). They thought their nationality and religious heritage removed them from the idea that they were bound in sin (John 8:31-36). This is a teaching that cuts to an underlying issue. You see, it isn’t your church or religious affiliation that is of prime importance. It isn’t what you trust in but Who you trust in that is of prime eternal import. You can belong to a church or synagogue and still be bound in sin.
John 12 marks the beginning of John the Apostle’s account of the final week of Jesus ministry leading up to the cross and resurrection. The chapter begins with a Triumphal entry and ends with heightening trials of opposition to Jesus and His message. Jesus remains true to the end. But toward the end of the chapter, despite the powerful teaching and signs of Jesus, John is inspired to write, “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:42-43). Jesus was having an impact on the heart of even the ruling elite. But because of the religious leaders and their hold on the people by the shackles of religious affiliation, those who believed Jesus and His message chose to submit to the praise of men rather than surrender to the praise of God. They were in the clutches of a club mentality. They were swallowed by allegiance to the synagogue. And today we see a very similar scenario as people creep away from Jesus using church affiliation.
How sad it is when people know Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, they know the gospel message is right and true and real and still don’t follow Him. Here people have “believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue.” The synagogue was the center of Jewish life. The synagogue system had been used by God to sustain His people during the seventy years of captivity when Israel as a nation and the center of national pride, the Temple, was laid low. The synagogue system remained prominent even after the Temple was rebuilt. This was a credible and real cost those who believed in Jesus would have to count. But the synagogue, as well as the Temple, is not greater than Jesus.
The synagogue’s purpose was to be a place where God’s people could be taught about God. It was in the synagogue that people heard the exposition of God’s word. Although it must be said that rabbinical “exposition” consisted mostly of rabbi’s quoting other prestigious rabbis as a means of garnering authority for themselves and their teaching. When Jesus came the only One He referred to as a root of authority was God His Father (cf. John 12:44-50). Because of this, (and because of the anointing of the Spirit – Luke 4:14-15) Jesus’ teaching was seen as unique and powerfully authoritative (cf. Mark 1:37; Luke 4:32 and 36). The people saw Jesus and His teaching as holy, unique. When you compare Jesus to an institution and its promoters that will always be the case.
There is an extremely important distinction to make when considering the object of our faith. Our eternal destiny depends on this distinction. And that distinction can be summed up with the question: Is your faith in Christ or in a church or similar institution? You might be quick to respond, “Of course my faith is in Jesus!” But wait a minute. Is it really? Let me ask you something. Do you have a thriving, real, genuine, living, personal relationship with the risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ? Or, are you simply depending on a church for your eternal life? What do I mean by that? Well, let me ask you a few more probing questions and hopefully you’ll catch my drift.
Do you regularly spend time alone with Jesus, one on One, with the Word of God open, prayerfully listening for His still small voice, or do you spiritually exist on maybe an hour a week of a sermon? Is what you believe based on a second hand trust in others’ teaching or opinions, or traditions, or is it based on a first hand working and walking through scripture with the Lord? Do you spend time with Jesus or spend time in a church? The two are not necessarily the same. Do you have a “personal” firsthand relationship with Jesus, or do you depend on a human mediator or tradition laden mediatrix? Is your “Jesus” still on a crucifix or is He in your heart? Scripture tells us, “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, . . . the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:9-10). The Bible proclaims, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Is Christ in you? When you stand before God on Judgment Day He will not ask you the name of the church you belonged to, He will ask you if His Son, the Savior and Lord, is in you. What will you answer Him on that day?
I want to encourage you to engage the Lord Jesus in a personal way. Listen, the church never saved anyone, Jesus, the Head of the church, saves anyone and everyone who has ever been saved from their sin. When we have greater allegiance to the church than to Jesus it’s as though we praise the scalpel rather than the surgeon who performs successful surgery on us. The church, like a scalpel in the surgeon’s hand, is only as valuable and effective as the one using it. In truth, the church is not enough to sustain your faith. An hour or two a week in a church, even if God’s word is faithfully taught, is not enough to sustain you, or your children, or your family; anyone. Your personal relationship with Jesus needs personal attention every day. We need to walk each day with Jesus. So I ask you, “Is your trust in a church or in Christ?”
The church is the Bride of Christ and we should do everything we can to support it and keep it a place of holiness. But we are not saved by faith in a church. We are saved by faith in Christ. The church is only the church as long as it is in alignment with and in submission to its Head, Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:18). The “church” is only the church as it is in submission to and guided by God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Apostle Peter put it this way, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). Sometimes that “dark place” is the church.
The church of Jesus, the only true church, is a scripture based, scripture oriented church. The “church” is only the church as it fulfills God’s definition of “church.” Peter also says, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). It was the move of the Spirit that inspired men to write the scriptures. The Spirit moved these human penmen like a wind blows into the sails of a ship and drives it. And it is a current move of the Spirit to direct members of the church to live by God’s word that determines the genuineness and authenticity of the “church.” The Spirit will never, never, never, contradict Himself or the Holy Word He has inspired. Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered, and Spirit led people will never disregard, dismiss, redact, or edit out portions of God’s word in order to appease secular trends no matter how offensive God’s truth becomes. God’s truth and His word is settled in heaven and eternity (Psalm 119:89). God’s word has God’s Holy Name stamped on it (Psalm 138:2). Therefore, a “magisterium,” “church council,” or any “church” official is only as valid and worth obeying in that they bow to and serve God in obedience to His Holy Word.
The authority and foundation of the church is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11). The “church” of Jesus Christ is a church steadfastly devoted first to “the apostles teaching” or word of God, second, to the “fellowship” of believers, third, to the “breaking of bread” or worship, and finally, “to prayer” (Acts 2:42). That; that is the “church.” The true “church” is depicted in Acts. That is the church you can trust. But we have to constantly guard against getting off course from God’s word. The church must maneuver within the parameters of God’s word. And the sad reality is we have, as a church, strayed very far from the New Testament scriptural definition of the “church.”
Unfortunately, people, due in part to laziness or ill-placed trust, have supplanted a possible personal relationship with Jesus with a second hand walk in and walk out of a church. It takes time and effort to maintain a relationship. The breakdown of the marriage and shack-up mentality of our present time is evidence that people aren’t willing to work on or work through the often puzzling parts of relationship. And that mentality has infected the church of our day.
People shack-up with churches. They exit out of their church at the first sign of something they don’t like. They enter into another one and stay until that new car smell wears out. All the while they are looking in a church for something they can only find with Jesus. Like those new cars driven off the lot, that “new” church depreciates pretty quick. In fact, to many people, a church loses its worth when through the teaching of the word of God it becomes challenging or discomforting. People take offense at the preaching and teaching of the word. What did they expect? Sound Scriptural teaching speaks of “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11). If you are offended that may be a sign that something good and true is being taught. Don’t leave it, embrace it and be crucified with Christ! (Galatians 2:20).
The church should introduce people to Jesus. The church should never take the place of Jesus. When people look to the church rather than to Jesus for fulfillment the result is exactly what we see today. Today we see an epidemic of church transience as people date instead of commit to churches. There is little to no loyalty to a church family. Just like people choose to trash their family for adulterous trysts, they do the same by hopping from one church to the next lusting for something or someone to quench a thirst that only Jesus can quench. Jesus is and can only be our true love. The church is a vehicle to bring people to Jesus. Do you love the limo at the wedding or the Groom?
The church is the Bride of Christ. The church is the people in it. “Now you are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). The church is not the organization. The church is not the name given to it. The church is the instrument Jesus uses and ordains as the place to unite people in Himself (Ephesians 2-3). Love the church and its people like Jesus loved them (2 Corinthians 5:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:10; 1 Peter 3:18-19). But don’t worship the church. Worship Jesus, the Head of the church. Every knee will bow and tongue will confess Jesus, not the church (Philippians 2:9-11). The church is only powerful and of value inasmuch as it is “My church” (Matthew 16:18). Is your church His church?
The church because it is filled with weak and limited human beings, Christians who are walking according to their own understanding rather than the Spirit and His Word, are for the most part carnal like the Corinthians (cf. I and II Corinthians). The epistles of the New Testament were inspired by the Spirit to a great extent to address problems in the church. If you look at the seven churches of Revelation to which Jesus wrote letters you find that 5 of the 7 churches had some serious problems (Revelation 2-3). By the end of the first century, less than 100 years after the birth and ministry of Jesus, the church had problems and had strayed. If that is true of the early church, how true might it be of the church of today?
The Apostle Peter spoke of the root of such problems when he received the inspiration of the Spirit and wrote about people who followed the, “aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers” (1 Peter 1:18). Human tradition is too often merely human explanation and worse, embellishment of faith and practice. And because of that it frequently leads people astray from God’s word. Tradition is second to scripture in terms of authority. Any tradition that contradicts or deviates from scripture must be discarded by the church and those who attend it.
Jesus confronted manmade traditions that contradicted and undermined God’s Holy Word (Matthew 15:1-20). Jesus told the religious leaders that the reason they erred was that they didn’t understand the scripture (Matthew 22:29). Scripture points us to Jesus. Tradition can sometimes stray off course from Jesus. Sometimes tradition points us to the church. Sometimes traditions subtly sway us from looking to Jesus and His word. The church can be self serving. The church and its tradition must always bow to Jesus and His Word. It bears repeating, the church is only as authoritative as it is in alignment with God’s word.
Not all tradition is wrong or bad. Good and acceptable tradition is rooted in and based on scripture. Paul referred to his delivered message as “traditions” (Greek paradosis e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:2). A tradition is something handed down from generation to generation. Paul therefore was referring to the teaching and instruction he had been led in by the Spirit and was passing on to the church. Tradition that is scripturally sound is good.
All traditions and every church needs to be appraised and seen through the lens of scripture. Tradition and churches are acceptable only in as much as they comply and conform to God’s Holy Word. Tradition that contradicts scripture ceases to be acceptable tradition. The church that contradicts scripture ceases to be the church acceptable to Christ. This is why we must give priority and allegiance primarily to Jesus and His Word over and above human tradition and the church.
It is faith in Christ alone that saves. If our loyalties to a church exceed our loyalty to Jesus we are in great danger. Jesus endorses His word as the supreme authority for the church. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The church is only the church in as much as it is in alignment with and submitted to the word of God. The true church serves and submits to Jesus Christ. The true church introduces people to Jesus. The church steps aside and never gets in the way of people coming to Jesus Christ. So again, I ask you, is your faith in Christ or the church? Hopefully your faith is in the Person Jesus Christ. Hopefully you have been introduced to and encouraged to grow in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Hopefully this has been done through the faithful teaching of scripture by a church faithful and fully surrendered to Her Groom Jesus Christ.
There is a final feature of misplaced faith. The reason they did not follow Jesus was peer pressure. “They loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” They cared more about what their religious leaders or fellow affiliates to a religious institution thought of them than they did of what God incarnate invited them to be a part of. That is about the saddest reason for not following Jesus that can be. It’s simply a question of God versus man. The early genuine church was powerful and proclaimed, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). What would you proclaim?
The dynamic involved with peer pressured decisions is pride. It was because of pride that they “loved the praise of men.” Pride goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18). The serpent Lucifer rebelled against God Almighty in pride (Isaiah 14:12-15). At the center of “sin,” is “I.” “I” and life revolving around yourself or anyone other than Jesus is sin. This has been true from the start. Holding Jesus and His word off at arm’s length because of a proud religious affiliation is nothing more than pride. It is the same temptation the serpent used with Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3). The serpent’s enticing of Eve could be translated, “Come over to my side.” The serpent coaxed Adam and Eve with a false promise. The serpent wanted to break God’s heart by luring our first parents into breaking their covenant contract with God. That serpent agent used every trick he knew to get Adam and Eve to sign a contract with him. That serpent slithered his way into the hearts of our first parents and he used pride to do it. It’s as though he were saying, “Come to me, come to my side, come to my gathering, my church and I’ll see that you have cushier seating, more alluring worship, and no one will ever get in your business. Just come to my side and you’ll be your own ruler. No restricting rules with me. You’ll be free to do what you want; you’ll be ‘God’!” Sound familiar? People leave one church for another; people leave Jesus for another all the time for stuff like that.
The serpent tempted Eve to disobey God by insinuating God didn’t want what was best for Eve. The serpent promised that if Eve ate the forbidden fruit she would be “like God.” In other words Satan the serpent was saying, “Eat the fruit and you won’t have to take any orders from God anymore. You’ll be just like Him. You’ll be your own master.” And that idea, self-rule, is at the heart of misplaced faith. People don’t want a personal relationship with Jesus as their Lord because they don’t want to count the cost. People are afraid of what Jesus might call them to give up. They don’t want to give up self-rule. That is sin. That is the sinful nature in its essence.
What the serpent and those who want to take the place of Jesus in people’s lives don’t tell you is that there is no greater slavery than slavery to someone or something other than Jesus. And what they try to shield you from is the truthful reality that lasting fulfillment, eternal fulfillment only comes through Jesus. The church and those connected to it shouldn’t be drawing people to themselves; they should be pointing people to Jesus. Jesus spoke the truth when He said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32). The church is the means to that end. The church should never be the end of that means. Is your trust in a church or is your trust in Jesus Christ? How you answer that question could determine your eternal destiny. In what or Whom do you trust?