Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here (2 Corinthians 5:17).

If you listen between the lines of Jesus' early ministry, you hear the religious people criticizing him about nearly every one of his choices. All these criticisms could sound something like this if put in a list:

Jesus, come on now, you are not acting like a very religious leader. Nobody in our history ever led the LORD's people the way you are trying to lead them. Look here's what you're doing wrong:

  • You've chosen the wrong guys to train — fisherman, a tax collector, a zealot, a couple of hot heads, and a bunch of nobodies from nowhere. How in the world are you going to ever get anything accomplished with this bunch?
  • You keep messing up worship services at the synagogue, both in what you teach and in what you do. If you are going to start a religious movement, you can't go alienating the religious leaders. It seems like you are just trying to make them mad at you!
  • You are not respecting the Sabbath as we've come to revere God's special day. What you are saying about the Sabbath is upsetting and emphasizes the needs of people above our worship of God!
  • You have women hanging around and supporting your ministry. You should know that rabbis don't have women hanging around them as you do. This practice is already beginning to create lots of gossip!
  • You and your wild bunch of men and women don't purify your hands before eating. In fact, you don't seem to abide by any of our accepted purity practices. You have even associated with unclean people — the people of the land, foreigners, Gentiles, Syrians, and Samaritans!
  • On top of everything else, your group doesn't fast as a show of piety. Even John the baptizer and his followers fasted. Are you all not serious about anything?

Look, Jesus, you teach some good stuff and do some amazing miracles, but if you don't pull this haphazard religious caravan together, you aren't going to get anything important done except cause a bunch of trouble!

Mark condenses Jesus' conflict with religious expectations into a set of short stories in his second and third chapters (Mark 2:1-28; Mark 3:1-6). In these events, Jesus seems to be picking a fight with the rule-makers and the religious power-brokers. At a key moment when asked about the lack of fasting, Jesus makes clear the core issues; his presence, his new way, and the people's response to it:

Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins" (Mark 2:18-22).

Unlike much of what we have experienced from the religion of our era, Jesus is not calling us to a new variation of an older religion. He is bringing a whole new world — something he calls the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is the center, the foundation, and the hub of this new world of faith. As long as Jesus is around, we can't pursue religion as the way to God.

We must not attach Jesus' movement to anything religious we have experienced or heard. We dare not try to tack his truth onto other religious stuff we have believed. We cannot try to add his way of life to other religious paths. Jesus not only claims to be the only way to God (John 14:6; cf. Acts 4:12), he also declares that everything we have that is religious gets torn apart and blown up if we approach his way as a new "tack on" feature to another way of doing our version of religion (Mark 2:21-22). If we are going to be a part of the Jesus way, we are going to have to be remade into someone new (John 3:3-7; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21).

Entering into Jesus' startlingly good news of God's grace with new eyes and freshly opened hearts is not easy. We must focus on him. Jesus is the example of this radically new kingdom lifestyle. His words outline this ever-fresh way of living. His actions challenge the very heart of what religion tries to force on us. Rather than being called to a set of rules, laws, or man-made traditions, we are called to follow Jesus... only Jesus. When we've followed long enough, when his words and his life infuse themselves into us, then we will be ever more like him as we live in our world (Luke 6:40).

I challenge you just as I am challenging myself; use the rest of this summer and early fall to focus on Jesus. Have your faith rest in him — not in religion, not in religious formulas, not in what is religiously familiar to you, and certainly not in religious ceremonies or leaders.

Read Jesus' story in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Start with one — I would suggest this order: Mark, John, Matthew, Luke, and then Acts). Read one chapter a day. Before you read that chapter each day, ask God to use the Holy Spirit to do three things with you as you read:

  1. Help you hear what Jesus wants you to know for that day.
  2. Help you feel what Jesus wants you to feel about what you read in his story.
  3. Help you do what Jesus wants you to do today.

Then go each week and share something you've learned with someone else who will join you in this journey.

If you do this, I believe you will begin to realize that Jesus isn't from a time long ago and far away. He is with you in each moment of each day. The Holy Spirit of Jesus will help you hear his voice as you face the challenges and opportunities of each day. Jesus will help show you the areas where religion, even the religion you've been chasing, doesn't measure up to his call for you to live the kingdom of God in the world today. Jesus will help you treat people as he did because you will begin to view them as he does.

As we walk this path each day, we will notice that we are not becoming more religious, but we are being drawn toward a holy character and gracious compassion that religion longs to impart, but cannot (Romans 8:1-4). Only Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit, can give us the freedom (Galatians 5:1) and the power (Ephesians 1:17-20; Ephesians 3:16, 20-21) for us to be conformed to the character and compassion that our displayed (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

The Holy Spirit of Jesus will help you hear his voice as you face the challenges and opportunities of each day.

To describe this journey, to be our anthem as we pursue Jesus, I love the words of a song recently sung by Jesus Culture. It is Jesus' invitation to come join him on his journey in each of our lives. This powerful song's title is "Come Away with Me" and Jesus comes to us and says, "Open up your heart and let me in!"

Come away with me.
Come away with me.
It's never too late.
It's not too late.
It's not too late for you!

I have a plan for you.
I have a plan for you.
It's gonna be wild.
It's gonna be great.
It's gonna be full of me!

Open up your heart and let me in...

Music video by Jesus Culture performing "Come Away": © 2010 Kingsway Music Under Exclusive License to EMI Christian Music Group. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction is a violation of applicable laws. Manufactured by EMI Christian Music Group.

Special thanks for these images for use in Phil's blog, "The Jesus Window," to Free Bible Images and the The Lumo Project.