Newsletter #51

Empty Religion or the Narrow Gate?

Not long ago a friend wrote me this:

"I forgot to tell you that there comes a time when Church becomes a narcotic and you realize you are hooked. Your whole life becomes wrapped up with church people. You have no good non-Christian friends and in fact you don't even see that it is realistically possible. You put on the Christian mask so much that you lose your own face. You have piled an abnormal amount of pressure on yourselves to the point where you actually have a love/hate relationship with being seen as the perfect Christian couple. You have divided the world into two completely separate compartments.

"Instead of life being a unity, there are the two: the secular and the spiritual. Each category has its own unspeakable description. It's not really conscious, but it's definitely there in your mind. Secular is bad. Spiritual is good. Then you have this measuring tape and this set of weights. You spend most of your mental time measuring and weighing everything. Straining gnats, swallowing camels. You try to control everyone and everything. People don't dress modestly. This means you have to avoid them. People use words in the wrong ways. People don't have enough devotion. People don't like what you like as much as you like it. And no one can fault you. You have a reason for everything. When people confront you, you smile that Christian smile and say the right Christian words and then disappear into your brooding. Isolation becomes the means of preservation of the false self. Finally, you get so sick of it that you just run away..."

These remarks became relevant that same week when my men's group, the Wednesday Brothers of Thunder, was plodding along in Luke and came to Chapter 13. One brother asked some hard questions that night and so triggered a closer look at the passage at hand than any of us had probably intended.

Luke records the last visit of a Jesus to a synagogue while He is on his final trip to Jerusalem near the end of his ministry.

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, "Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity." And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, "There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day." The Lord then answered him and said, "Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? "So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound--think of it--for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?" (Luke 13:10-16)

During our discussion we came to the conclusion that Jesus was doing all sorts of "ordinary" things in Israel--things which believers in God should have been doing routinely all the time. In this case, a dear woman,--a believer with an illness that was easily cured by prayer--had gone unnoticed and ignored for 18 years by the townspeople and by the leader of the synagogue as well. Apparently no one really cared about the woman (or hurt oxen or thirsty donkeys). No one really cared about God either. The religion of the day was all mechanical--just for show. The leader of the synagogue was not interested in the fact that someone was wonderfully healed in his synagogue, instead he was infuriated because this act violated his own legalistic rules. The man was paying no attention to the law of Moses which allowed for watering animals and care-giving on the Sabbath--the "system" was more important to him than the individual.

A theme running through the later chapters of Isaiah goes as follows: First, God announced that the nation of Israel is the chosen servant of Israel. Next, the prophet tells us that the nation Israel has failed badly in her calling. But, finally, Israel's Messiah would come and by Himself would fulfill all the requirements God had required of the nation. This Messiah, the faithful servant of Yahweh, would make possible the final redemption of Israel--when they at last placed their full faith and trust in Him.

Christians understand this great principle of Scripture in their individual lives. It is the great doctrine of "justification by faith"--justification apart from works and apart from the law--a doctrine which Paul outlines carefully for us in Romans.

Thus, Israel will one day come to a place in her history when there will be a final wide-spread acceptance of Jesus as their long-rejected Messiah. When that happens the righteousness of Messiah will be imputed to Israel's account and the nation's sins will be taken away--in one day. (Zechariah 3:9, 12-13, Romans 11). Right now Israel as a nation is far from that ultimate goal.

To return to Luke, Jesus took the occasion after the healing at the synagogue to speak to the crowds who were following. His warning was an ominous one.

And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

Then He said, "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? "It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches." And again He said, "To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? "It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened."

Using two negative figures, Jesus described the typical course of the work of the kingdom of God among men. What starts out healthy, vibrant, and life-giving, almost always ends up decadent, dead and phony.

When God gives men truth which we fail to act upon, we soon lose that truth. We also become immune to further truth. Furthermore, we grow progressively insensitive to the God of truth and fail to recognize Truth--even when He is standing in our midst. In a church or a nation where God has been gradually marginalized by the people, God eventually takes away truth altogether. This removing-of-truth by the Lord has been going on in our nation at a rapid rate in recent decades. (For a development of this important theme in the Bible see Ray Stedman's analysis of the parables, Behind the Scenes of History,

Next Jesus warned the crowd that the way into the kingdom of God was narrow and most would miss it. Also the "window of opportunity" for entering that narrow gate leading into the kingdom of God was definitely limited. After a certain point in time even those who wanted in would be turned away.

And Jesus went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem.

Then one said to Him, "Lord, are there few who are saved?"

And He said to them, "Strive [Greek: agonizomai] to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. "When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open for us,' and He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know you, where you are from,' "then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.' "But He will say, 'I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.' "There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. "They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. "And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last." (Luke 13:17-30)

Jesus Himself is of course that "narrow entrance way" into the kingdom as He often reminded men, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to Father but by me." Knowing God is always about a personal relationship with Him--never about ceremony, ritual, or mechanical religion.

Luke's gospel shows that the coming of Jesus at that time in their national history was to give Israel one final chance to embrace their Messiah then and there, or to become by default a "flock doomed for slaughter" which Zechariah had prophesized about some 500 years earlier. Except for a small remnant, the nation as a whole failed that great test. Jesus was rejected as Messiah and King, and as one consequence the national redemption of Israel was put on hold for two millennia.

Thus says the LORD my God, "Feed the flock for slaughter, "whose owners slaughter them and feel no guilt; those who sell them say, 'Blessed be the LORD, for I am rich'; and their shepherds do not pity them. "For I will no longer pity the inhabitants of the land," says the LORD. "But indeed I will give everyone into his neighbor's hand and into the hand of his king. They shall attack the land, and I will not deliver them from their hand." So I fed the flock for slaughter, in particular the poor of the flock." (Zechariah 11:4-7)

Even worse than Israel's long dispersion from her land out among the nations, Zechariah spoke of an antimessiah yet to come. That false shepherd would lead Israel into her final "time of Jacob's trouble." This terrible trail would nearly destroy Israel and much of the rest of the world as well.

And the LORD said to me, "Next, take for yourself the implements of a foolish shepherd. "For indeed I will raise up a shepherd in the land who will not care for those who are cut off, nor seek the young, nor heal those that are broken, nor feed those that still stand. But he will eat the flesh of the fat and tear their hooves in pieces. "Woe to the worthless shepherd, Who leaves the flock! A sword shall be against his arm And against his right eye; His arm shall completely wither, And his right eye shall be totally blinded." (11:15-17)

Jesus Himself reiterated that this antimessiah, Paul's "man of sin," would come to deceive Israel one last time in a future day. Speaking to the Jews in Jerusalem during the last days of His life He said,

"You do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. "But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. "I do not receive honor from men. "But I know you, that you do not have the love of God in you. "I have come in My Father's name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. "How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God? "Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you--Moses, in whom you trust. "For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. "But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?" (John 5:38-47)

True religion in America--knowing and serving Jesus wholeheartedly--is much discussed today, but little practiced. If Jesus walked in our midst, as He once did in Israel, would we not be found living and acting much like the Jews in Israel of old? Jesus was much more angered and incensed at hypocrisy than by any other sins He encountered. That's obvious from all the gospels.

After our men's group discussion the other night I went off to bed. But thankfully several of the men stayed up late that night to talk and pray about the reality of the narrow gate and the grave dangers of the empty, mechanical religion in our own day. Was it possible that there was but a small remnant in our day, as had been the case in Israel? Are we now as bad off as Israel was--or worse--as a nation, in the sight of a holy God? How could we find out what our true situation really was?

The Apostle Peter wrote, "Therefore, brothers, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 1:10-11)

Note: To read a more complete commentary on this section of Luke, G. Campbell Morgan's study of Luke 13:10-30 is available on my web page,

Current Bible Classes: I am thoroughly enjoying teaching through what Ray Stedman called "the clean pages of the Bible," at my home church, PBC, on Sunday mornings. We are now finishing the books which end the Old Testament period of Israel's history. We plan to move in the great prophetic themes of the New Testament next. Notes and mp3 audio files are on my web site:, Our men's group, the Wednesday Brothers of Thunder--a "leaderless" core group--is continuing in Luke's gospel. Every other Thursday evening I am with the wonderful Prodigal Project folks in the Haight-Ashbury now teaching Ephesians.(See Saturday mornings our class in the Crusade House at San Jose State University is nearing the end of our time in Hebrews. We are mid-way through Isaiah on Tuesday nights at the new Calvary Chapel Bible College in San Jose, ( My weekly schedule is busy, but no complaints. I often think of that great passage in 2 Corinthians, "Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ." (2:14-17)

Helping me is a splendid team of men and women in the Paraclete Forum,

Contributions: Supporters who want to help out on my web site expenses can send contributions directly to me by means of the PayPal or the link on my web site. For those who'd like to contribute in support of my work for tax purposes, checks may be sent to Peninsula Bible Church, 3505 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306. Please include a note so your contribution is designated for my account. I do not always receive a list of those who send in contributions so I can not send thank you notes in moist cases.

Lambert Dolphin, October 30, 2004.

 Scripture is the only reliable guide we have to function properly as a human in a broken world. Philosophy and psychology give partial insights, based on human experience, but they fall far short of what the Word of God can do. It is not intended to replace human knowledge or effort, but is designed to supplement and correct them. Surely the most hurtful thing pastors and leaders of churches can do to their people is to deprive them of firsthand knowledge of the Bible. The exposition of both Old and New Testaments from the pulpit, in classrooms and small group meetings is the first responsibility of church leaders. They are "stewards of the mysteries of God" and must be found faithful to the task of distribution. This uniqueness of Scripture is the reason that all true human discovery in any dimension must fit within the limits of divine disclosure. Human knowledge can never outstrip divine revelation.

(Ray C. Stedman, Hebrews, IVP Commentary,

Sincerely, Lambert Dolphin.
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