Christ’s church has always been plagued with scandalous ministers, heretical teachings, moral laxity, and superficially fickle congregants. To see the church at its worst in the New Testament, one must merely read Paul’s letter to Corinth or the opening chapters of Revelation. In the day of Jesus Christ, the church was no better. Men like Anas, Caiaphas, and Judas could be seen in leadership. To see the church at its worst in the Old Testament, perhaps one should turn to the early chapters of 1 Samuel.
At this point in the church’s history, everyone is doing that which is right in their own eyes. Why is this the case? It is because they are following the poor examples of their leaders. Eli is the less than exemplary High Priest. He is old, obese, optically challenged, and somewhat oblivious to the condition of his church. Underneath his leadership, at his right and left hands, are two worthless sons who do not know the Lord. Hophni and Phinehas worship improperly, steal from God, bully their congregation, sleep with tabernacle hostesses, and remain largely unconcerned about their vile reputation.
Therefore, in response to the faithlessness of Israel, God disciplines them by means of the Philistines. Battles are waged, and in each and every conflict Israel’s warriors are running home with their tails tucked beneath them. So, in an order to change momentum, Israel’s elders come up with a brilliant idea — at least in their eyes. Without God’s authorization, they will go to Shiloh, secure the Ark of the Covenant, recruit the ministers of God, and follow their lead into battle. With the Ark of God and the holy clergy before them, they reason that victory is assured.
When the elders arrive in Shiloh with their “brilliant” scheme, they should be rebuked and resisted by the priests. God’s people have not the right to declare war on their own. Neither do they have the right to move the Ark of the Covenant without the command of God. Godly priests will say “No!” regardless of the pressure placed upon them by the elders and people. But again, Eli is passive, and Hophni and Phinehas are eager to please the people, please the elders, and rid themselves of God’s uncomfortable discipline. Ultimately, the Ark of the Covenant is taken into conflict without the command and blessing of the Lord.
When the Israelites see the magic box, they are filled with glee and enthusiasm. Incredible worship takes place in the camp, for they are sure God will honor their faith. They are sure God is on their side. They are sure “God is in the camp,” but tragically, they are wrong. They are in the presence of God’s ministers and furniture, but God himself is not amongst them.
So with presumption disguised as faith, they march confidently into battle. However, when the day is done, disaster befalls the children of Israel. At day’s end, the battle is lost; thirty thousand Israelites are slaughtered; Hophni, Phinehas and Eli are dead; the Ark of the Covenant is stolen; and a new revelation is presented to Israel, “The glory of the Lord is departed.”
What happened in this chapter? Had they not followed the leadership of their priests and elders? Had they not assembled themselves together around God’s holy furniture? Had they not enthusiastically engaged in vigorous praise and worship? Had they not dared to be warring crusaders and win the world for Jehovah? What went wrong?
I might suggest it was their defunct religion which consists of:
Following unfaithful leaders
Engaging in the careless worship of God
Demanding that God follow their lead and bless their wills
Marching forth in presumption disguised as faith
Friends, religion is wonderful when it is practiced according to the revelation of God. Through God’s ordained rituals and ceremonies, he grants ongoing grace. As one man puts it, “The Spirit of Grace uses the Means of Grace in the Place of Grace.” It is for this reason that the wise man does not forsake the Christian assembly. Faithfully he gathers for corporate worship. Faithfully he opens his home for brothers and sisters to enter and build one another up in the faith, Regularly, the wise man takes advantage of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He understands his teachers are a blessing from the Lord, and he expects much change to come through the faithful teaching of God’s Word. Corporate prayer is powerful and effective, and it is by God’s design that one should submit to a group of godly elders. Formal religion, ordained by God and practiced rightly, is not to be despised. He who Lords over his church knows best how to bless his people with his grace.
However, there are many times when religion is practiced and trusted, and yet God is not present. One ought not to assume simply because he is in the presence of God’s ministers and God’s furniture, that God is pleased and present. There are many who have been circumcised or baptized, and like Hophni and Phinehas, they know not the Lord. There are many who have partaken of the Passover or the Lord’s Supper, and yet eat and drink judgment upon themselves. The preached Word softens some and hardens others. Not all who are religious are blessed. Not all who worship with passion and zeal are blessed. For some, religion does not work.
So what ought we to do?
Let us be careful not to follow unfaithful leaders. Let us not engage in careless worship, regardless of our zeal and passion. Let us not make plans and demand that God follow and bless our decisions. Let us not march forth in a “faith” that is really “misguided presumption.” Those who do so, even behind the cross and with Bibles in hand, will find their religion is useless.
Instead, may we be very careful to follow faithful leaders, carefully worship God, submit ourselves to his follow his divine revelation, and then walk on by faith. The person who does so is assured of spiritual and eternal blessings. The person who does so is often the recipient of earthly blessings as well. Such is the religion that really works.