ON THE SPIRITUALITY
AND RELIGIOUS PRACTICES OF JESUS
The Rev’d. Allen Fisher
It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they are spiritual but not religious, but biblically speaking this just isn’t possible. Now, as already stated, it is quite possible, and common even, to find people who are religious and not truly spiritual, but spiritual reality manifests itself in religious activity. We know this because Jesus demonstrated it, and He told the multitudes, “Everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher,” (Lk.6:40), which is the whole reason anyone who “comes to Jesus listens to His words and obeys them” (v.47). As. C.S. Lewis put it: “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is nothing else” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [San Francisco: Harper One, 2001] 177; See also Eph.4:13,15). While on earth, in flesh just like ours, Jesus perpetually lived in oneness with Father (cf. Jhn.10:30; 14:9-11), and through the atonement He offers to lead us into the same kind of life where we can also live at-one with the Father (cf. Jhn.14:20; 20:21). This is why the Bible when it gets the chance to define “eternal life” says that it is a personal, interactive relationship with God so real that our lives become shared abodes with Him (see Jhn.17:3; 14:23). So, for our purposes we ought to understand eternal life is a relationship, and religion is simply the embodiment of that relationship in action.
The faith, hope, and love emulated and commanded by Jesus happen only as His lifestyle is followed (He most literally is the Way). He was only able to do what He did through a lifestyle characterized by Scripture-saturation, solitude, fasting, prayer, corporate/liturgical worship, submission, secrecy, simplicity, and acts of mercy. These religious practices enabled Him continual access to the Kingdom He offered to others so that they might join Him and escape the bondage and slavery of the power of sin. For they are what allow a person to enter into life in the Spirit and to overcome the campaign of the world (desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and pride in this life). They put us in places where we would not otherwise be able to discern and to do God’s will, and they keep us resting in the Kingdom of the Son and growing in His grace (cf.2Pet.3:18).
Jesus shows us how we are to use our flesh in order to partner with God’s working within us so that He can flow through us to our world (Phil.2:12-13), but it must be observed that this must be an intentional partnership with the Spirit if we are going to share in the intimacy and power Jesus modeled. When we purposefully begin making attempts to stay in step with the Spirit as Jesus did, He will begin to flow in and through us transforming both our identity and actions into Christlikeness and preparing us for personally doing God’s will.
The Easy Yoke of Jesus
The lifestyle Jesus lived and modelled is the easy yoke He offers to train all of His disciples in living so that they can do what He did while simultaneously finding rest for their souls. Eugene Peterson summarizes Jesus’ offer like this:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matt.11:28-30, The Message).
When we do come alongside Jesus, as presented by the four Gospel writers, we see the religious practices of a life at-one with God, and if we are willing He will give us the grace to grow in all of these areas enabling us to live just as He did while in the flesh. These practices are:
- Scripture Saturation (Memorizing, Reading, Sharing, resisting temptation) – Jesus was raised in a family committed to learning and teaching the Scriptures (Deut.6:7). Mary’s Magnificat is proof of that (comp. Lk.1:46-55 w/1Sam.2:1-10), and even Joseph’s initial desire to put Mary away quietly was out of a desire to keep the Law (Matt.1:19; Deut.24:1-2).
With such a family, complemented with weekly Synagogue worship with its own emphasis on reading the Scriptures, Jesus “grew in wisdom” (Lk.2:52) so much so that He amazed the priests a year before His bar mitzvah. Furthermore, as we can see in His adulthood, Jesus did not stray from His upbringing, but continued to read (Lk.4:16) and to commit large portions of the Scriptures to memory being able to quote and allude to all sections of the OT, as well as related second-temple writings.
Now, it may seem obvious but at His point in history there was no New Testament or even a personal Bible to carry around. Jesus engaged the Scriptures as preserved in the Septuagint (translated and copied starting in 132 BC) in the covenant community. Even without a personal Bible as we have it today, Jesus quoted from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Hosea; He alluded to parts of Genesis, Ezekiel, Daniel, and 1 Maccabees; and referenced events in Numbers and 1&2 Kings.
The religious practice of Scripture Saturation, is practiced by individuals as they likewise seek to “hear them, read mark and inwardly digest them” (1928 BCP, Collect for Second Sunday in Advent). A person not practicing Scripture Saturation practices a different religion than Jesus, for if His Spirit is in a person it will lead them to do the same as He did (see Jhn.14:15-24).
- Instructive Worship and Friendship within the Covenant (Weekly Synagogue Meetings, Faithful Friends, and Keeping the Lord’s Feasts) – Jesus grew up in a family faithful to the worship of Yahweh, as well as to His Annual Feasts that memorialized His plan of salvation for them, and Jesus remained faithful to them even until His death and on past His resurrection (Lk.2:41;Jhn.2:23; 5:1; 7:1-13; 10:22-23; 14:16-17; Matt.26:17; Act.1:8; 2:1-4).
You don’t find Him doing the personal private thing, but rather He took His place among the covenant community. On Sabbaths He was at the Synagogue, during the Feasts He went to Jerusalem, and in doing so He stayed in rhythm with the Spirit. Synagogue was His custom (Lk.4:16) as should be ours – centered upon corporate prayers and reading of Scripture. The average worshippers of the Lord today would have no problem skipping the “worship services” Jesus enjoyed. In those services there were 19 responsive prayers, the recital of the Shema (see Deut.6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num.15:37-41), seven readings from the Law, a corresponding reading from the prophets, and potentially a sermon, all with no instrumental music or singing. What’s more, Jesus went to “church” in this environment ready for God to use Him for His glory – for true worship. Jesus never modelled just showing up.
And every year at the appropriate time He went to Jerusalem for Feasts of the Lord (Ex.12; Lev.23). Only three of which had mandatory attendance, but Jesus didn’t turn down an opportunity to teach expectant crowds of their greater significance. Those feasts were:
(Head of Religious Calendar)
“Out of Egypt”
(Head of Civil Calendar)
“Out of the Wilderness”
Now, this faithful, religious environment became the place Jesus allowed true friendships to develop – relationships of soul-knit identification, open vulnerability, humble love, and dedicated commitment (cf. Jonathan and David in 1Sam.18:1-4 and then Jhn.15:13, 15; 13:1-17). In so doing, Jesus shows that Friendship, far from being a commodity, is a necessity to the biblical life of Faith just like prayer and scripture reading.
The religious practice of Instructive Worship and Friendship within the Covenant Community, is practiced by believers as they too gather in His Name for “the Apostle’s teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Just as Jesus made it a custom to do so, so does anyone seeking to follow His way of life (Heb.10:25). If a person is not joining together with the corporate, covenant people of God regularly for the reading of the Scriptures and offering of prayers, they are practicing a different religion than what Jesus practiced. What’s more, is that by instituting Holy Communion (i.e. “the breaking of bread”) as part of Passover worship, Jesus naturally puts covenant renewal at the center of New Testament worship for regular practice.
Additionally, Jesus demonstrates the importance of annually celebrating the acts of salvation God has accomplished for His people throughout history. By memorializing these past events, the past is brought into the present in order to make sure the present activities and identities of God’s people are in line with the future consummation, which the original past event inaugurated. Now, while the Christian Calendar is a little different from the OT’s, the essence is the same: In Advent, we begin our year with the expectation of the coming of the King who provides our substitutionary sacrifice, beginning our New Year with personal examination and confession to be ready for His coming. In Christmas, Epiphany, and Lent we behold the Lamb who would take away the sin of the world providing Atonement. In Holy Week we memorialize the sacrifice of our Paschal Lamb and His taking way the leaven of sin. In Easter, we celebrate His resurrection as the First Fruits from the dead, and on Pentecost we memorialize His sanctifying us by His Spirit. On Christ the King and in the events of the eve and day of All Saints we memorialize our journey through a world filled with evil beings and demons who once had power over us but were vanquished by the work of Christ in our lives.
Finally, they should expect that within the opportunities and events of living and worshiping as a part of the covenant community, God should knit them together with one or more fellow disciples enabling them to experience the same true friendship Jesus experienced and used in living out the fullness of the biblical life of faith. It is important to note the characteristics of such friendship for being able to practice the faith like Jesus and to be sure the friendship that is developing is true friendship. The first thing that must and should be in place between disciples for friendship to develop is a shared identification between one another – a soul-knit connection at a deeper level, which the Father gives. One cannot make true friends by simply wanting friends, but rather disciples must look for and allow God to use the times, activities, and the life shared with the covenant community to knit their souls to another. As Jesus demonstrated with His disciples, even when they disagreed with Him (cf.Matt.16:21-23) or abandon Him in His time of need (cf.Lk.22:59-62), their soul-knit, loving friendship held them together (cf.Jhn.21:15-17). The second thing that is necessary for friendship to be true friendship is an open vulnerability. True friendship requires individuals to take off their armor and to open themselves up to being vulnerable and transparent by sharing one’s life, emotions, and feelings with another person. In true friendship, a person doesn’t have to “be” anything to keep it except to be in it; they do not have to make sure they “fit in” because they belong to one another. Thirdly, and obviously, there must be love (not affection or human desire) between the disciples. Similar to how Jonathan loved David as his own soul (cf.1Sam.18:1,3), so true friendship requires both parties to will what is best for the other even if it is at the cost of one, or success only comes to the other. For example, if both are unemployed and only one finds work, does the still unemployed individual feel bitter or happy for their friend? True friends will rejoice with rejoicing friends and grieve with grieving friends without resentment or bitterness (cf.Rom.12:9-16). Finally, then, the fourth characteristic of true, biblical friendship, which Jesus utilized, is that of commitment. Just as Jesus loved His friends to the end (cf.Jhn.13:1), true friendship requires both parties to go well beyond convenience to that of being committed, if not covenanted (cf.1Sam.18:3), to one another. Jesus modeled and practiced all of these with His disciples demonstrating the true friendship that is necessary to faithfully sojourn in this world, and thus anyone wanting to practice Jesus’ religion will likewise create time and space to do things within the covenant family so true friendship can become part of religious practice.
- Prayer (Asking for Guidance, Interceding for Others, & Facing Down Temptation) – We have already discussed how Jesus was faithful to the corporate prayers of the Faith in participating in Synagogue and even leading the Passover Seder. But, as we can imagine, His faithfulness did not stop with public engagements (cf. Matt.6:1,5-13).
As the primary way of connecting with the Spirit of God, Jesus literally spent hours in prayer seeking knowledge, power, courage, and strength. We might say that He had the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer mastered (Mornings: Mrk.1:35; Evening: Lk.6:12) as He regularly sought out times of prayer for carrying on simple, real communication with the Father. We also see that it was intense prayer that allowed Jesus to face down the Tempter as Jesus prepared for His hour (cf.Jhn.14:30).
The religious practice of Prayer, is practiced by men and women as they too practice the disciplines of corporate and private prayer letting His Spirit train them to do it as He did (Lk.11:1-13). Learning to pray the Scriptures, the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening prayer, and the prayers and litanies of the Church throughout time all become real ways we can begin to model our Savior’s life of prayer.
- Solitude (One on One with God) – It’s not about being alone as much as being away from that which would distract us from the Father, so Jesus used solitude to pray by Himself (Lk.5:16) or with a small group (Lk.9:18; 28-29). The steps He took in the area of solitude show us that a life without personal retreat will not be in line with God’s will. Furthermore, in our state of sin there is nothing stronger than solitude and isolation with the Spirit of God for breaking and bringing our rebellious will into line.
The religious practice of Solitude, is practiced by people as they schedule times of personal and corporate retreat. For some, it might be necessary for them to seek out a spiritual director or retreat leader for guidance and help to begin this practice of disciplined solitude. It is probably one of most needed, yet most difficult, disciplines to begin practicing as our schedules are already packed to the max, but if these times of silence and solitude are not practiced, then we are practicing a different religion than what Jesus modeled.
- Fasting (Drawing life/energy from the Kingdom among us) – There is no way around the forty-day fast in the wilderness that allowed Jesus to overcome the Devil’s classic tempting campaign (Matt.4:1-11), or His words to His disciples when He was ministering to the Samaritan woman: “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (Jhn.4:32). Because of its centrality to life in the Kingdom and its value for spiritual formation Jesus expected that it would become a key part of His disciples’ spirituality upon His Ascension (Matt.9:15), which is why He gave some instructions on it in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt.6:16-18).
The religious practice of Fasting, is practiced by individuals as they too take measured opportunities to draw their life and energy from the Kingdom of God. Most common is the fasting from foods like meats for a couple days of the week, or a specific indulgence for extended periods of time like the 40 days of Lent.
- Secrecy (Doing things for God’s glory, Matt.6:3) – Jesus’ Messianic Secret in Mark (not wanting word to spread about His miracles) is a good clue at practicing secrecy in our own lives, but this discipline is also central for any significant growth in life in the Spirit (Matt.6:1).
The religious practice of Secrecy, is practiced by believers as they honestly seek to do the work of the Lord without any credit. If a person’s only mission work is paid for by large fundraisers and the only Bible verses they are reading are posted for the world to see on Instagram, then that person is practicing a different religion than Jesus.
- Simplicity (Keeping Kingdom Reality First) – Jesus played to an audience of One and kept a singular focus upon the Kingdom just as He preached in the Sermon on the Mount.
The religious practice of Simplicity, is practiced by individuals as they begin to look for the grace to live their specific lives in the way Jesus would live their lives if He were them. This is where the practice of tithing comes into play as well as our amounts of recreation and entertainment. The person not practicing spreading the Kingdom of Heaven with their time, energy, and money (that is bringing those things under the effective will of God) are practicing a different religion than the one practiced by Jesus.
- Submission (Rendering unto Authority) – Jesus understood that those in authority had been placed there by the Father, be it His parents (Lk.2:51), the Pharisees on the seat of Moses (Matt.23:1-3), or Pilate (Jhn.19:11), and even in the midst of abuse He submitted with everything from the temple tax (Matt.17:24-27) to His own life. Submission kept Him subtle to the Spirit.
The religious practice of Submission, is practiced by men and women as they too submit to and honor the family unit as God designed it (Matt.15:3-6), Jesus’ religious officers (Eph.4:11-13), as well as to civil authorities (Matt.22:21).
- Acts of Mercy (Be Merciful as the Father is Merciful, Lk.6:36) – From welcoming strangers and outcasts to curing the human condition, Jesus put Himself out there for the Spirit to use in acts of mercy. He no doubt gave us the model for being merciful, but one of the main areas we need to grow is in expecting greater things than what He did to flow through us as we likewise put ourselves out there (seeJhn.14:12).
The religious practice of Mercy, is practiced by individuals as they like St. Francis of Assisi “seek not so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life” (Prayer of St. Francis). All of the classical forms of Christian charity work into this practice, but if a person’s only charitable giving is writing a check or dropping a donation off at Salvation army, they are practicing a different religion than Jesus’.
- Discipling Others (Make Disciples, Lk.6:36) – It would have been no good for Jesus to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life if He did not simultaneously offer to train others in following, learning, and living what He offers. Thus, we see Him accepting all who truly wanted to live life as He lived it, while rejecting those just looking for something else to do, or not considering the cost (Matt.19:16-30; Lk.9:57-62; 14:25-33).
The religious practice of Discipling, is practiced by believers as they share what they have learned from Jesus with someone else. The fact is that we do not truly learn something until we have taught it to someone else, and so it is with biblical Christianity. If a person is not sharing with those around them the benefits of the Kingdom of Heaven in their lives, then they are practicing a different religion than Jesus.
Because all of these overlap with the New Testament promises of Jesus to abide with us when we practice these religious actions, these are the places we can discover His goodness as He feeds us and alleviates our spiritual malnourishment. Now, of course, all of these devotions should come with a disclaimer like most diets. When we start we might feel like nothing spiritual is happening (at least nothing fulfilling), but it will come. The LORD will have compassion on all who set out to follow Him and will meet their needs in His timing for them.