Religion vs. God

19 April 2021
Series: Hope Emerges
Topic: faith , grace , religion
Book: Mark

Speaker: Austin Rammell

Audio Download

Bible Passage: Mark 2:23-3:6

Religion vs. God

Mark 2:23-3:6

I’ll never forget a time when I was at Liberty University.  We had the “Liberty Way” which was the rule book for students, faculty, and staff on how they had to act to be a part of Liberty.  It was well communicated that it didn’t make God love you more, nor did it make you a better Christian, it just kept you a student or staff at Liberty.  It was Liberty’s way!  Out of love and respect for our university, you would follow the rules.  If you didn’t care about Liberty or you cared more about your own wants and desires than you did being a student or staff member at Liberty, then you disregarded those rules.

But, there were some who took it to an entirely different level!  There were some who confused the Liberty Way, and their enforcement of it, as their God-given moral and ethical obligation so that Liberty and even God Himself stand in all the glory they deserve.  If there was even the slightest bit of error from any rule, for any reason, then they saw it as their duty before God to make sure that error was properly confronted, paid for, and corrected.

So, in 1993 I transferred to Liberty from Virginia Tech to focus my studies on theology and pastoral ministry as well as to continue playing football.  However, the week before our first game I tore the rotator cuff on my left shoulder right off the bone!  It had been an issue I had dealt with for years and it finally totally went.  So anyway, I had my first ever surgery and it was rather extensive.  A few weeks later I was back trying to go to class and doing so with this awkward arm sling, exhausted from not sleeping and staying up all night trying to keep up with school.

Getting dressed one-handed was a task, therefore there was no way I was going to attempt to tie a tie, but back then the Liberty Way required that you had to wear slacks (no jeans) with a button-up collared shirt and a tie.  So off to class I went with a pair of khakis, a baggy T-shirt I could slip on, and my big old sling.  I was barely in the building when an R.A. spotted me.

The prototypical R.A. (Resident Advisor) was a descendant of the Pharisees in the Gospels!  They often spoke of their love for Liberty University, but it was clear what they loved was the Liberty Way, especially enforcing it!  They took pride in their total commitment to all the rules in the Liberty Way, making sure they had thoroughly examined how to make sure every activity in their life matched up with the letter of the law.  They understood their dedication and allegiance to the Liberty Way not just as a testimony of their love and allegiance to Liberty, but more importantly as a testimony to God of their love and allegiance to Him.

I could see him coming.  Barney Fife would have been proud! All he needed to complete his demeanor was a bull horn and bullet in his pocket!  He pulled out his demerit book with passion; he snapped his pen out and clicked it numerous times to get the ink warmed up; he was lock and loaded and ready to defend the honor of Liberty University and the glory of God through His people!  There could be no greater cause, no greater effort, and no greater joy.

As he walked up to me with his 5’5” 135-pound frame of righteous indignation he said, “I. Need. Your. I.D.,” to which I slowed my walk somewhat and replied, “what for?”  He then said to me, as we were about to approach one another, “You are in violation of the Liberty Way dress code.”  To which I replied, in all my youthful foolish immature arrogance, with a loud laugh and quick, “I know, right!” And I just kept on walking.  All I remember was the look of bewilderment on his face as I went by him.  I could see him spin around and I believe I heard him walking behind me for a second trying to get my attention, but his little squeaky voice eventually faded into the background as I walked through the crowded hallway, saying hey to friends and teammates on my way to class.

Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that was a godly or loving way to respond, but it did highlight how big of an idiot this guy was being!  What that R.A. illustrated was a person whose perceived love for God and our University was really about his love for a rule book that gave him a sense of accomplishment and value over others, especially in the authority it gave him over others.

This is exactly what happens in religion.  Religion is all about the discipline of following rules and honoring traditions, therefore, those who truly experience their sense of value and purpose in it can be seen by their allegiance to the rules and traditions.  Those who are truly committed to it become zealots who demand everybody else take it as seriously as they do.  It leads to the exponential growth of rules, customs, and traditions.  The sense of value and identity in the rules leads to righteous indignation to make sure there is no possible room for error.

This is exactly what happened with the law God gave Moses to form the people of Israel into a nation and to govern them with.  There were those who believed that God’s plan was the Law, that was His purpose and will; not knowing and following Him, but knowing and following rules and traditions.  Therefore, they found their identity in the pursuit of perfection in those laws and traditions, which meant figuring out the appropriate application of the law into literally every word and action of mankind.  This, like a government bureaucracy, led to the development of an insane number of policies, procedures, and laws that they felt had to be obeyed in order not to violate the actual Law that God gave Moses (as if it didn’t have enough rules in it already!).

Their passion probably originated in their love for God, but it was consumed not with a love for God, but a deep sense of value and love for obeying and enforcing the LAW.  They loved the Law of God more than they loved the God of the Law!

Today we arrive at two thematically parallel stories that highlight the sad reality of this during the life of Jesus, and as such, they highlight the extreme differences between loving God and loving religion.

Mark 2:34-3:6 contains two thematically similar stories that highlight the difference between loving God and loving religion.

The first story occurs in Mark 2:23-28.

Christ demonstrated the ridiculousness of religious legalism when he defended His disciples for picking and eating some grain on the Sabbath. (2:23-28)

23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

Sabbath” – the 7th day of the week (Saturday) that every Jew was to cease from work and focus on God and family.  In the first century, they would gather for worship in the synagogue and/or go to the temple if they were in Jerusalem, rest and enjoy time with their family and closest friends.

“The Pharisees” – “The Pharisees were not in any sense an official secret police force, in Jesus’ day or at any other time. They were an unofficial party, who had been active as a religious and political pressure group for nearly 200 years by Jesus’ time. (Most political parties in modern Western democracies are much younger than that, at least in their present form.) The Pharisees were entirely self-chosen and had no authority to make laws or enforce them. They did, though, have considerable influence on ordinary people, who respected their expertise in Israel’s ancestral laws and traditions.” 1

“Not Lawful on the Sabbath” – “When the disciples picked a few heads of grain on the Sabbath the Pharisees accused them of violating Sabbath law. Actually, they did not violate the Sabbath command, but they did violate at least one rabbinic tradition, and probably two.”2

25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Jesus states 2 truths in verses 27 and 28 (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” and, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”).  So let me explain the first truth then I’m going to circle back to the illustration he gave of David and explain that because it most significantly highlights the 2nd truth (“So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.).

So, first, the first truth Jesus stated in verse 27, He says,

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

It’s not a law for a man to attempt to serve but a law to bless a man in his relationship with God and others.  But because they worshiped the law instead of the lawgiver, they saw the Sabbath as something they should serve rather than something God gave them to help them serve him and each other! 

“Jesus was not downplaying the Old Testament law, but rather the rabbinic tradition that had been added to the law. Where God had left people free, the rabbis had put them in chains. They had multiplied prohibitions for the Sabbath to an astonishing degree. For example, in trying to define what it meant to go beyond necessary labor on the Sabbath, they decreed that it was a sin to untie a knot on the Sabbath. If someone accidentally knotted his sandal laces, he had to leave them knotted until the Sabbath was over because untying them would be unnecessary work. In another example, they said that if a person tore a garment, he was allowed to sew one stitch, but no more. This is where legalism leads—to absurdity.” 3

“Their prohibitions included many details found nowhere in Sacred Scripture, but their traditions eventually became as binding on the people’s consciences as Scripture itself. One of those prohibitions had to do with what the rabbis called a “Sabbath-day journey,” the maximum distance Jewish people were allowed to travel on the Sabbath. The rabbis defined the Sabbath-day journey as 1,999 paces, a little over half a mile. If a person took one step beyond 1,999, he was considered a Sabbath-breaker.” 4

“they would have seen four separate sins because the disciples did four separate ‘works’ on the Sabbath: harvesting (plucking), threshing (removing the husks by rubbing the grain in their hands), winnowing (blowing the husks away), and garnering (in this case, into their stomachs!).  The Pharisaic rules on preserving the Sabbath were incredibly stringent. They tried to ‘hedge’ the law with protective edicts which precluded any possibility of transgressing the actual Mosaic Law. For example, walking across a tract of grass in seed was forbidden lest the long cloak they wore should knock some seed from the stalk and then, unwittingly, they would be guilty of sowing.” 5

In other words, God gave the Sabbath so that mankind would rest and enjoy Him and one another, but that’s kind of hard to do if you’re hungry!  So, the idea that these men had violated the Sabbath by simply picking some grain to eat was ludicrous!  If anything, it was being done in the spirit of the sabbath, they were hungry! They were not attempting to harvest the field (a legitimate day of work!) but instead effortlessly picked some grain and ate it because they were hungry!

OK!  To set the stage for the 2nd truth let me first explain the illustration David used of King David.

“25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

5 “You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. 6 And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. 7 And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD8 Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. 9 And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place since it is for him a holiest portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.” (Leviticus 24:5-9)

So, it’s really clear in the Law that the bread can only be eaten by the priest, and only eaten in a place that is holy because this bread was given to the Lord.  Furthermore, David and his men were not priests and David didn’t even really tell the truth to the Priest (1 Samuel 21) about what was going on.  He misled the Priest to believe he was on a mission from the King, when in fact he was running from the King!   So, the priest clarified a few things related to their standing before the Lord, of which David cleared them, and the priest then used that rationale to let David and his men have the bread.  Saul later killed ALL the priests for helping David!  What a great guy Saul was!

Now the priests were not killed because they violated the Law, they were killed because Saul was completely rebelling from God and ordered something that none of his Hebrew men would agree to do, they risked their own lives by refusing to carry out his order to execute the priests.  However, the point is, Jesus is showing an illustration of when a Key priest in the tabernacle (a much more significant person than these Pharisees) saw that an exception needed to be made to the Law given to Moses in order to help David and his men who were starving.  It was clearly a merciful and ethical exception.

So, Jesus draws from this example of how the Priest had the right to make a merciful and ethical exception for David in order to highlight an even greater truth about His right to do the same.  In verse 28 Jesus proclaims.

“So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

“Jesus used this illustration because He knew that, in the minds of the Pharisees, the great hero of ancient Israel was David. He was their idea of the ideal king. But Jesus had been preaching the breakthrough of a new kingdom that would fulfill the kingship of David. Jesus, the son of David, appealed to something that David did in order to silence His critics.” 6

“Jesus is implying that something greater than David is here (compare Matt. 12:6). As the one who both announces and embodies the arrival of God’s rule (1:14–15), Jesus takes precedence over the sabbath.” 7

In addition, Jesus states again, that He is the “Son of Man.” Which is the title of the GodMan in Daniel 7 who descends from heaven to rule all of creation!

“God, as we noted earlier, had instituted the Sabbath (Gen 2:3), and Jesus now presumes preeminence over it! Once again Jesus puts himself squarely in the place of God. Thus v. 27 offers the principle, and v. 28 the effective authority behind it; that is, the principle of v. 27 is true because the Son of Man of v. 28 is Lord! The authority of Jesus as the Son of Man extends over the Sabbath itself.”  8

So, the Pharisee’s judgmentalism of Jesus’ disciples picking a little bit of grain should be ridiculous to anyone with common sense, but it’s even more ridiculous given the theological implication that Jesus clearly asserts in stating that these are His disciples, and thus He has the right to permit whatever He chooses to permit them to do because He is promised Son of Man!  He is the king, He is GOD, and thus He is the author and authority over the law and therefore the point!  We are not here to serve a bunch of religious rules and traditions that have no impact or reflection on the moral or ethical condition of our heart but rather to know, follow, obey and serve Jesus!

The 2nd story parallels the same theme but exposes an even harsher reality of religious legalism.

Christ demonstrated the immoral hypocrisy of religious legalism when he defended healing a man on the Sabbath. (3:1-6)

1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse him.

1–2 The word translated “shriveled” (Gk. xērainein) occurs several times in Mark, with meanings ranging among “dried up” (5:29), “withered” (4:6; 11:20–21), and “stiff” (9:18). A stiff and deformed hand seems to fit the present context. 9

I love the fact that the religious leaders already knew there was a significant chance Jesus would heal this man! But, think about how hard their hearts must be that they would anticipate this yet totally reject it!      

Remember, the religious leaders have already decided in their hearts that Jesus is not the Messiah, so they are constantly looking for reasons to make the case to the public who at this point is enamored with Him!  

Unfortunately, the masses are not particularly enamored with his preaching and thus repenting, believing, and following Jesus based on Him being the Eternal Son Of God, but nonetheless, the public fervor about Jesus had created a sense of urgency for the religious leaders to publicly discredit Jesus as the Messiah.

3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.

3–4 Jesus, however, orders the “dexterously challenged” man to “ ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ ” One can almost feel the man’s horror. Had he dreamed his handicap would be made a public spectacle he surely would never have braved attending synagogue.  10

For Jesus’ human need poses a moral imperative. Where good needs to be done, there can be no neutrality, and failure to do the good is to contribute to the evil. It is thus not simply permissible to heal on the Sabbath but right to heal on the Sabbath, whether or not it is “lawful.” … The observers are willing to tolerate the lamentable condition of another human being and in this instance to use it as possible leverage against Jesus. 11

“In the case in question, they would have urged that the man could wait until the morrow for his hand to be healed.” 12

5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

“With anger, grieved “– “The Greek word Mark uses here is not the word used for simple annoyance or even righteous indignation. It is the word for fury. Jesus was outraged that the religious leaders cared more about their traditions than the welfare of a suffering human being. But His anger was mixed with pain. Mark tells us that Jesus was grieved in His soul at the hardness of their hearts. In other words, He had compassion for them, too.” 13

Stretch out your hand,” he commands. The thing the man with the bad hand most fears is before him. A choice must be made. He may refuse and spare himself humiliation. But in so doing he will only be like the religious leaders who refuse to open themselves to the word of Jesus. Or he may take the risk of faith and act on the command of Jesus. “He stretched it out,” says Mark, “and his hand was completely restored.” In exposing himself to Jesus he is healed. Once again Mark describes faith without using the word. Faith is not a private wager but a public risk that Jesus is worthy of trust when no other hope can be trusted.14

In short, Jesus sees the hardness of their hearts towards God, and everything that God has clearly said He cares about, and not only once again asserted His right over the rules of the Sabbath, but more importantly exposed just how self-serving and carnal these religious leaders were who clearly worshiped the Law over the Lawgiver because in making an idol of the Law they got to be the authority!  Every idol we serve is ironically under our own authority, but God is not an idol, he cannot be placed under our authority.  Whenever we worship and serve an idol, even when it’s something God made (i.e., He gave the Mosaic Law to Israel), then we cannot help from serving ourselves over others and God; we cannot help but justify even grotesque hypocrisies such as preferring this man not to be healed because in the end our idol is not even the religion we claim to serve, but rather our own hearts that we fill with the pride of our perceived achievements and hypocritically justified enjoyments.  

These Pharisees prove this exact point in their very next action.  Mark 3:6 records,

6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

“This foolishness drove these very religious Pharisees into the arms of the ungodly Herodians (politicians associated with Herod) simply because Herod had the right to impose the death penalty in Galilee, something which the Pharisees did not have. So, these Pharisees, filled with foolishness in their maddened desire to accuse Jesus, consorted with their despised enemies, the Herodians. Their hate caused them to abandon their principles, and they reported Jesus to Herod’s administration in the hopes that He would be sentenced to death! This action is filled with irony, for they despised the Herodians for pandering to a half-breed Jew who served the Romans; and now their hate for their purebred Jewish Messiah, of the house of David, irrationally united them with this despised half-breed usurper.” 15


What is the ridiculous or possibly even immoral thing where you are finding your sense of value and purpose instead of Jesus?

Christianity can become a religion just as fast as Judaism, and I’m just not talking about the stereotypical religious nonsense so many people in this region grew up with.  If you’re here today all obsessed with a bunch of rules, traditions, and concepts that have nothing whatsoever to do with knowing and following Jesus then you need to ask yourself why.

Why do you find so much value in something Jesus clearly took no value in.  Why are you so concerned over things that Jesus had no concern for whatsoever!  You need to be honest about your heart.  You value those things more than you do Jesus.  Why are you so passionate about defending things Jesus was never concerned with defending?  Why do you prioritize things Jesus never prioritized?  Why are you so angry over things that never angered Jesus?

Are you worshiping “The Law” instead of the Law Giver?

On the other hand, so many find themselves wrapped up in what is clearly immoral, but they are so blinded by the fact that they worship themselves more than God, that they can’t see the fact that their immorality is their idol.  Whether that be the idol of materialism, power, or sex; it is amazing how we can take something God has given (like authority, money, and sex) and then, to prioritize our own pride and pleasure, we center our lives in those things all while claiming it’s either for God or justified by God.  It’s how we have preachers who think living lifestyles that even successful business people in their church can’t live is something they deserve.  It’s how people can live in total sexual immorality and claim to be living a life of submission to Christ.  It’s why people can turn serving Jesus; to encourage others to know the love of Christ, into something that’s all about themselves, their own sense of value and achievement, and ultimately for their own self-gratification and glory.

We can turn anything into a religious idol, including the very things God Himself has given us.


  1. Wright, T. (2004). Mark for Everyone (p. 26). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
  2. Sproul, R. C. (2011). Mark (First Edition, p. 50). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
  3. Sproul, R. C. (2011). Mark (First Edition, p. 52). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
  4.  Sproul, R. C. (2011). Mark (First Edition, p. 50). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
  5.  Mills, M. S. (1999). The Life of Christ: A Study Guide to the Gospel Record (Mt 12:1–Lk 6:5). Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries.
  6.  Sproul, R. C. (2011). Mark (First Edition, p. 51). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
  7.  Hare, D. R. A. (1996). Mark. (P. D. Miller & D. L. Bartlett, Eds.) (p. 43). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
  8. Edwards, J. R. (2002). The Gospel according to Mark (pp. 93–102). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.
  9. Edwards, J. R. (2002). The Gospel according to Mark (pp. 93–102). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.
  10. Edwards, J. R. (2002). The Gospel according to Mark (pp. 93–102). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.
  11.  Edwards, J. R. (2002). The Gospel according to Mark (pp. 93–102). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.
  12.  Branscomb, B. H. (n.d.). The Gospel of Mark. (J. Moffatt, Ed.) (pp. 60–61). New York; London: Harper and Brothers Publishers.
  13.  Sproul, R. C. (2011). Mark (First Edition, p. 54). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
  14.  Edwards, J. R. (2002). The Gospel according to Mark (pp. 93–102). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.
  15.  Mills, M. S. (1999). The Life of Christ: A Study Guide to the Gospel Record (Mt 12:9–Lk 6:11). Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries.