Does Religion Have a Purpose?

If you were to ask a random person on planet earth what the main purpose of religion is, many people would likely tell you that religion is meant to teach us right from wrong. This is a rational answer because every religious system on earth has a system for determining right and wrong behavior.

Many people around the world carry some shared ideas about what is ethical and unethical. Because people believe that the purpose of religion is to teach people right from wrong, it is common for people to believe that religions are all basically the same in their core purpose. The problem with this view of right and wrong, however, is that while it may correctly point out things that are sin, it does very little to demonstrate the aspect of wrongdoing that damages mankind’s relationship with God.

If we don’t appreciate that our wrongs have damaged our standing with God, we will never understand the work of Jesus to reconcile us to God.

In a series of essays titled Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he tells the story of the fall of man in Genesis and demonstrates how exchanging the personal knowledge of God for the knowledge of right and wrong is the root for every wrongdoing ever committed by men.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You[a] shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:1-5

Tradition vs. Jesus

We need to view the Pharisees through the light of Genesis Chapter 3 in order to understand why their traditions/religion had become an impediment to knowing God. The Pharisees and scribes did not grasp that God in flesh was speaking directly to them in the person of Jesus Christ.

The religious people of Jesus’ day had become highly obsessed with knowing good and evil, but very calloused toward knowing God. Humans love to know good and evil because it places us in the seat of the judge of good and evil. Meanwhile, we ignore God’s place as the rightful judge of all mankind.

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly,[a] holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.[b] And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.[c]And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)[d]— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Mark 7:1-13

There are several things that are helpful for us to consider about the Pharisees that will help us to understand why they serve as a powerful warning to us when we are tempted to choose our religious traditions over Jesus.

  • The Pharisees were very sincere in their beliefs. They were not cynics.
  • The Pharisees and especially the Scribes knew the Bible better than anybody.
  • In many cases, the Pharisees actually practiced what they preached (though not always).
  • The Pharisaical tradition was established with the intention of keeping people from violating God’s law.
  • Many Pharisees did come to believe in Jesus.
  • Even after believing in Jesus, the Pharisees still did not fully grasp how their traditions were in conflict with the Gospel of Jesus (see Acts 15). 

Discussion Questions

  • Did the Pharisees and Scribes see God as a judge or themselves?
  • Why are humans naturally inclined to want to judge others?
  • Do you think the Pharisees thought they were doing a service to Jesus’ disciples?
  • Why had the Pharisees traditions blinded them to the actual requirements of God?
  • What does Jesus mean by calling the Pharisees and scribes “hypocrites?”
  • Would you have taken kindly to being called a hypocrite?
  • What traditions in our own religious lives can lead us to be in conflict with Jesus?
  • How can we practically put God in the place of judge in our daily lives?
Jonathan Pugh
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