STUDY NINE: SUFFERING CAUSED BY RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020

We have seen in the study on the Suffering of Jesus that some of Jesus’ suffering was because of the false or inaccurate religious perceptions of his contemporaries. This was particularly from the religious leaders – the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.

When we move through the rest of the New Testament we find that the apostles and the early Christians also experienced this kind of suffering. Just as Jesus offended the religious elite, so also the apostles and the early Christians attracted hatred and opposition, from both Jews and non Jews.

Their message of God becoming human was offensive.
Their message that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-expected Messiah, the Son of God, was offensive.
Their message of a crucified Messiah was offensive.
Their message of a physical resurrection from the dead was offensive, and, to some, ludicrous.
Their message of salvation by grace was both offensive and misunderstood.

The most obvious suffering experienced was physical suffering. This included arrest, imprisonment and execution, as we have seen in the previous study. But there is a further and sometimes more subtle level of suffering that is directly the result of the beliefs promoted by false religion. Where the gospel is misunderstood, or only partially understood, the teaching of a distorted and reduced gospel causes non-physical suffering – confusion, psychological stress, guilt and spiritual abuse and bondage. It also displaces the true gospel, and thus prevents people coming to a true knowledge of Christ and of salvation. It is therefore more deeply damaging and impactive than physical persecution.

It is at this non-physical impact of inaccurate religious beliefs that we will now look. Unlike persecution, this harm is not always the deliberate intention. It is simply the unavoidable end result of distorting, diminishing or displacing the Gospel.

 

A. WHAT JESUS SAID

Jesus, who is at the very centre of the Gospel, indeed who is the Gospel, often found himself in direct conflict with the practices and the mindset of the Jewish religious leaders. They were the custodians of God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament scriptures, and they should have, therefore, been on his side. They should have recognized him as the long-promised Messiah through whom God’s salvation would come, and welcomed him with great rejoicing. But so seriously had they distorted that God-given revelation that they did not know him. Their religion was corrupt. Their perception of God was corrupt. Their religious practices were corrupt. Jesus clashed with them head on.

Listen to what he said to them on one occasion:

‘You have never heard his voice nor seem his form, nor does his word dwell in you … You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. … But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?’ (John 5:37 - 39, 45 – 47)

And on a later occasion:

‘You do not know me or my Father’ (John 8:19).

‘You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44).

Jesus, who is himself the Truth (John 14:6), recognized error when he saw it, and exposed it as error, along with the suffering that it causes when it is taught as the truth.

A.1 About the deceptiveness of false teaching
The power of false teaching is in its ability to sound like the truth. Blatant false teaching has minimal impact among believers. It is so obviously false. But Jesus warned us about the successful deceptiveness of error parading itself as truth.


What did Jesus say and what warnings did he give?
Matthew 7:15 – 23

 

Matthew 25:23, 24

 

A.2 About the heavy burden of legalistic religion
Human religions and cults are largely legalistic. Distorted or misunderstood true religion is also legalistic. Almost invariably rules and regulations are imposed upon religious adherents as prerequisites that must be fulfilled in order to gain and/or maintain acceptance with God (whoever or whatever ‘god’ is), and in order to reach the end goal defined by the specific religion or cult.

Jesus himself was repeatedly confronted by the legalism of the Jewish religious leaders. They tried to impose their distorted religion upon him. He warned his listeners about the unbearable burden of such religion.

How did Jesus warn his hearers, and us, about the burden of legalism?
Matthew 23:2, 4

Matthew 23:13 – 15

 

A.3 About the hypocrisy of legalistic religion
Jesus also frequently pointed out that although legalistic religion can give an outward impression of piety and spirituality, it is just a veneer covering up an ugly reality. This is part of both the deceptiveness of false religion and the burden that it imposes on others. Because its respected leaders give the appearance of keeping the rules the ordinary followers feel compelled to try to imitate them, to do what they say, all the time not realizing that what they see on the outside is quite different from what God sees when he looks inside.

How did Jesus describe this hypocrisy of false religion, especially of legalism?
Mark 7:1 – 14

 

 

Luke 11:39 – 41

Luke 11:42

Luke 11:44

Luke 20:46 – 47

 

A.4 About the suffering caused by the hard-heartedness of legalism
Jesus observed first-hand the human suffering that resulted from legalistic religion that values rigid obedience to human interpretations of the law, or of human traditions, above human compassion.

All of God’s commandments are encompassed in just two commands:

Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.
Love your neighbour as yourself.

The two are not contradictory, for love of God is rightly expressed in love for the neighbour. However, rigid legalism makes them contradictory and competitive, demanding strict obedience to rules and regulations to supposedly honour God, at the expense of compassion for humans in need.

What were Jesus’ experience and observations of this lack of compassion that accompanied legalism?
Matthew 15:3 – 9

 

Matthew 23:23 – 24

 

Mark 3:1 – 6

Mark 7:1 – 13

 

Luke 13:10 – 17

John 9:13 – 34

 

B. THE APOSTLES’ EXPERIENCE AND TEACHING

When we read the rest of the New Testament we find the apostles also in direct confrontation with false religious beliefs. This included both Judaistic legalism and various other corruptions of the Gospel.

These corruptions of the Gospel resulted in suffering for the individuals and groups impacted by them. Whereas the true Gospel produces confidence and peace, perversions of the Gospel can produce either uncertainty, fear, guilt and despair, or, conversely, arrogance, pride and hard-heartedness.

 

B.1 PETER’S PROBLEM

Along with quite a number of the original Christians, Peter did not immediately understand that the Gospel was not just for the Jews, but for everyone, regardless of race or religious background. The expectation was that anyone converting from paganism would need, as well as believing in Jesus Christ, to also submit to the ritual laws of the Jewish religion. Just as Gentiles converting to Judaism were required to undergo ritual cleansing, circumcision, etc, so it was anticipated that Gentiles converting to Christianity would have to do the same in order to be fully accepted.

The transition from a Jewish, legalistic and ritual-based religion to a totally free, grace-based religion was difficult. This difficulty was twofold: firstly, it was difficult because of the long history of ritual practice that originated in the Torah (the Law, the five books of Moses); secondly, it was difficult because, even if one knew oneself to be liberated from ritual law by the grace of Christ, one knew very well that others did not understand that liberation and that grace, and sat in severe judgement on those who abandoned the historic practices of traditional Judaism. Thus the expectations and perceptions of both self and others played a large role in the struggle to maintain the truth and the freedom of the gospel of God’s amazing grace.

B.1.1 How God changed Peter’s mind
Read Acts 10:1 - 48. Describe how God changed Peter’s mind.
Step 1 (verses 1 – 8)

Step 2 (verses 9 – 16)

Step 3 (verses 17 – 23a)

Step 4 (verses 23b – 33)

Step 5 (verses 34 – 43)

Step 6 (verses 44 – 48)

 

But Peter’s difficulties with human religious perceptions didn’t end there. When he returned to Jerusalem he found he was in trouble with the leaders of the church; they, like him before his visions, had not anticipated the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church on the sole basis of faith in Jesus Christ.

B.1.2 How Peter changed the mind of the church leaders in Jerusalem
Read Acts 11:1 – 18. Answer these questions:
[1] Why did the ‘circumcised believers’ criticize Peter (verses 1, 2)?

 

[2] After reporting how God prepared him to preach to the Gentiles, what was Peter’s main point (verses 15 – 17)?

 

[3] How did the apostles and believers in Jerusalem respond (verse 18)?

 

But the old religious practices and the old religious perceptions and expectations were so entrenched in the minds of Jewish Christians, that the matter was far from settled, either for Peter or for the Jewish believers. So tenacious were the holds of the old rituals that Paul and his associates were being criticized for the seemingly minimalist message they preached to the Gentiles. Those believers who deemed circumcision necessary were teaching a legalistic gospel that denied the gospel of grace.

This was a critical issue. Once any legalistic ‘gospel’ is admitted, the work of Christ on the cross becomes irrelevant and the peace and assurance of the gospel is removed. A burden is placed on people, leaving them no better off than they were before. They have simply changed one set of religious rules, rituals and regulations for another.

B.1.3 How Paul and Peter changed the mind of the Council at Jerusalem AD48
Read Acts 15:1 – 35. Answer these questions:
[1] What did the Christians from Judea tell the Christians at Antioch? (verse 1)

[2] What resulted? (verse 2a)

[3] What did the church in Antioch do in response? (verse 2b)

[4] How were Paul and Barnabas treated by believers generally? (verse 3, 4)

[5] But how did others respond? (verse 5)

[6] What are the main points Peter made when he addressed the apostles and elders? (verse 6 – 11)

 

 

[7] What was James’ argument and judgement? (verse 13 – 21)

 

 

 

[8] What were the main inclusions in the letter? (verse 24 – 29)

 

 

(9) How did this impact the Christians in Antioch? (verse 30 – 32)

 

 

It seems amazing to us, far removed from the religious setting of the early church, that after all this Peter was still hounded by the destructive and divisive impact of legalistic religion. He was the one God chose to break ground in preaching to the Gentiles. He was the one who had to stand up and defend his actions to the believers in Jerusalem. He was the one who stood up and spoke up in defense of Paul and the gospel of grace at the Council in Jerusalem. He knew that God did not require Gentile Christians to submit to Jewish rituals.

But he still felt the pressure of the expectations and perceptions of some of the Jewish believers. He still felt judged by them. And he gave in, acting in accordance with those ritual expectations and perceptions, and in doing so acting contrary to the gospel of grace alone.

B.1.4The destructive impact of religious expectations and perceptions
Read Galatians 2:11 – 21. Answer these questions:
(1) What was Peter doing before the arrival of the ‘men from James’?

 

(2) In what way did he change his behavior when they arrived?

 

(3) How did Peter’s action affect other believers?

 

(4) How did Paul respond to Peter’s action?

 

(5) Suggest why Paul was so public and so emphatic in the way he spoke to Peter.

 

 

B.2 PAUL’S EXPERIENCE IN HIS MINISTRY

From the discussions above we saw that Paul personally felt the force of legalistic perceptions and expectations and defended others against such expectations. When we read his letters, only one of them has no reference to such harmful beliefs. He consistently had to defend both the truth of the gospel and those who believed the gospel. It seems that everywhere he had to undo the damage done to believers by legalism, and also, in some places, by other corruptions of the gospel.

Below we look at a few of Paul’s letters.

B.2.1 The Letter to the Romans
Paul spends one and a half chapters discussing what the attitude Christians should or should not have to rules and regulations about food and holy days. (A similar issue is raised in 1Corinthians, which we will look at below.) Paul makes it clear that keeping or not keeping such ritual or ceremonial rules is not the important thing. What is important is how our attitude to the rules and regulations affects (1) Christ and his honour, (2) the integrity of the Gospel of grace, and (3) other believers. In other words, the important things are God’s glory and the well-being of our fellow Christians.

Wrong perceptions and expectations about the keeping of rules and regulations were obviously damaging. They replaced the ‘no condemnation’ of the Gospel, with judgement and condemnation. They undermined God’s purpose in the death of Christ, and they eroded the peace of believers.

From the verses listed, identify Paul’s concerns about the damaging impact of legalistic perceptions and expectations.
14:3, 10b

14:4, 10a, 13a

14:13b, 20b, 21

14:15a

14:15b

14:20

14:23

Instead of judgmental legalism, which by dividing and condemning causes suffering, how should believers treat each other?
14:1, 15:7

14:15

14:19

15:1

15:2

15:5,6

 

Paul’s final warning about false teaching generally – Romans 16:17, 18
From Paul’s final warning to the Roman believers, identify what he says about:

[1] The impact of false teaching:

[2] The relation of false teaching to the truth taught by the apostles:

[3] What believers are supposed to do with these false teachers:

[4] The self-centredness of such people:

[5] The deceptiveness of their teaching:

 

B.2.2 The first letter to the Corinthians
Paul found it necessary to deal with multiple errors that were impacting the church in Corinth. The Gospel was such a radical message that it was difficult for people to immediately understand its many-faceted implications for their lives and their beliefs. It was hard to let go of the old ways of thinking. Yet those old ways of thinking were damaging, and when they persisted in the church the result was one-up-manship, divisions, perceived inequality and so on.

What damage/suffering to the church, and to individual believers, does Paul seek to stop in the following texts?
1:10 – 13

1:26 – 29

3:1 – 9

3:16 – 23

4:6 – 7

8:1 – 13

11:18

11:22

Did you notice that many of the above texts include some reference to divisions created in the church by the twisted perceptions of some believers? These divisions were painful for the individuals made to feel inferior. Such personal hurt and such disruption of the church are not God’s intention in the Gospel. They are contrary to the Gospel and effectively undermine the Gospel. How God sees us in Christ cannot be undermined; but how we see ourselves and how we perceive that others see us are seriously altered by legalism, reducing our joy, peace and freedom in Christ.

B.2.3 Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
The churches in Galatia were being seriously impacted by legalistic teaching, which required believers to keep Jewish ritual practices in order to gain and maintain their salvation. These expectations and perceptions put a heavy burden on the Galatian Christians, and threatened to trap them in serious bondage. The freedom from such bondage to law that believers have in Christ was being undermined. The believers were being enslaved all over again. Paul is astonished, even angered, by the ease with which these believers have been deceived.

From these verses in Galatians, how did Paul describe the content of legalistic teaching, expectations and perceptions, and the harm and suffering caused by them?
1:6 – 9

 

2:4

2:11 – 14

2:21

3:1 – 4

 

3:10

4:3, 8 – 11

 

4:15 – 17

5:1 – 4

 

5:7 – 10

5:15

For extensive studies on Galatians go here: https://www.godswordforyou.com/bible-studies/galatians.html

B.2.4 Paul’s letter to the Colossians
The church in Colossae was impacted by two different kinds of false teaching – one legalistic, that undermined salvation by grace alone, and one that seriously interfered with the identity of Jesus Christ. His letter is filled with warnings about these deviant teachings and the harm they caused.

From these verses in Colossians, how did Paul confront the damage that was being done by the twisted perceptions of Christ and salvation?
1:4

2:8

2:16 - 17

2:18 – 19

2:20 – 23

For extensive studies on Colossians go here https://www.godswordforyou.com/bible-studies/colossians.html and here https://www.godswordforyou.com/bible-studies/colossians-verse-by-verse.html

 

B.2.5 Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and Timothy
One aspect of suffering caused by false teaching was divisions in groups of believers. Another was immaturity, both of individual believers, and of the church. Another was deception, as we have already seen. Another was a shift of focus and confidence from Christ to either human effort or human ideas.

When Paul addressed the elders of the Ephesus church he warned them:

‘Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears’ (Acts 20:29 – 31).

Sadly, what Paul said would happen did happen. Not only in Ephesus, where Timothy was serving, but throughout the early church. This was not because Paul’s teaching was deficient or weak, but because of the sinful human heart that forever tends to distort, diminish, add to, or otherwise alter the word of God. We did it in Genesis 3. And we have been doing it ever since. Even though it is repeatedly obvious that we are harmed by this interference with God’s word.

From these references, identify the harm done by watered-down, distorted teaching.
Ephesians 4:11 – 16

 

Philippians 3:2 – 10

 

1Timothy 1:3 – 7

1Timothy 4:1 – 4

1Timothy 6:3 – 5

2Timothy 3:13

 

C. THE OTHER APOSTOLIC LETTERS

The whole letter to the Hebrews was written because Jewish believers were standing on the brink of giving up their faith in Christ and returning to the rituals of Judaism. Its repeated message about the utter superiority of Christ exposes the inferiority of those rituals. This letter sounds a strong warning: Jesus Christ is superior in every way – so who would even contemplate swapping the ultimate reality, Christ, for predictive symbols of that reality? To move from the Gospel of Christ and his saving death, is always to move to something inferior. No matter how good they might sound, corruptions of the Gospel, additions to the Gospel, twisted expressions of the Gospel, are always, inevitably, less than the Gospel. If we believe them we are actually cheating ourselves. If we teach them, we are cheating others. And in either case, we are robbing Christ of his glory and insulting his sacrificial death for us.

There are extended studies on Hebrews here: https://www.godswordforyou.com/bible-studies/hebrews.html

Peter, John and Jude also warned their readers about the harm done by corrupt messages.

How did Peter, John and Jude warn their readers against this dangerous impact of incorrect beliefs?
2Peter 2:1 – 3

 

2Peter 2:13a

2Peter 2:17 – 19

 

2Peter 3:17, 18

1John 2:26

1John 3:7

2John 7 – 11

 

3John 9 – 11

Jude 3, 4

Jude 17 – 21

 

For extended studies on Peter’s letters go here - https://www.godswordforyou.com/bible-studies/peters-letters.html