Bad Religion

I remember being in high school. Believe it or not, high schoolers really are looking for meaning and trying to figure out what they believe, especially regarding who God is. I remember this one girl walking up to me before youth service one day, and saying, “God wanted me to tell you that you are a great Christian and that you make a difference in many people’s lives.” The irony was that I hadn’t even willingly submitted to Christ at that point. Either God was lying to her or she wasn’t hearing from God. We had a guy leading music who would later become a music director at a church and participate with the pastor in embezzling money from that church- almost closing the doors permanently. I remember being in a prayer meeting where some guy came in to pray. His goal was to make his prayer the loudest in the room so that everyone could hear him as if God were deaf. There is much bad religion, at least religion that is itself the definition of ironic contradiction. Where does bad religion come from? What do we do with it?

1 Samuel 6:1-12

When the ark of the Lord had been in the land of the Philistines for seven months, the Philistines summoned the priests and the diviners and pleaded, “What should we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we can send it back to its place.”

They replied, “If you send the ark of Israel’s God away, you must not send it without an offering. You must send back a restitution offering to Him, and you will be healed. Then the reason His hand hasn’t been removed from you will be revealed.”

They asked, “What restitution offering should we send back to Him?”

And they answered, “Five gold tumors and five gold mice corresponding to the number of Philistine rulers, since there was one plague for both you and your rulers. Make images of your tumors and of your mice that are destroying the land. Give glory to Israel’s God, and perhaps He will stop oppressing you, your gods, and your land. Why harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened theirs? When He afflicted them, didn’t they send Israel away, and Israel left?

“Now then, prepare one new cart and two milk cows that have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the ark of the Lord, place it on the cart, and put the gold objects that you’re sending Him as a restitution offering in a box beside the ark. Send it off and let it go its way. Then watch: If it goes up the road to its homeland toward Beth-shemesh, it is the Lord who has made this terrible trouble for us. However, if it doesn’t, we will know that it was not His hand that punished us — it was just something that happened to us by chance.”

The men did this: They took two milk cows, hitched them to the cart, and confined their calves in the pen. Then they put the ark of the Lord on the cart, along with the box containing the gold mice and the images of their tumors. The cows went straight up the road to Beth-shemesh. They stayed on that one highway, lowing as they went; they never strayed to the right or to the left. The Philistine rulers were walking behind them to the territory of Beth-shemesh.

Spiritualizing sin (v. 1-3)

Up to this point in the story, we have read about God’s hand against Israel. He defeated Israel before the Philistines in order to accomplish His own purpose. The Philistines have taken the ark of God’s covenant. God’s hand has been against the Philistines. He decapitated their false idol and caused its body to fall prostrate before His ark. He caused the people in each territory the ark was present to develop visible tumors. God is making known the breadth of His power and the riches of His own glory through the humbling of the nations.

For seven months, God’s ark remained in Philistia. For seven months, the people were plagued by God, and even after they would send the ark away, God would still oppress them (1 Samuel 7:10). After seven long months, the Philistines called their diviners (an umbrella term used to describe people like mediums, tarot card readers, astrologers, sooth-sayers, people who see signs in dreams, etc…). They sought information from these diviners on how they might send the ark away. They didn’t want this plague to inflict the people any longer. The diviners advised them to send the ark with a guilt offering to appease the God of Israel, be healed, and learn why the God of Israel has done this. The Philistines would try to remove their affliction by their own action and would hope to gain understanding on their own through the Israelite religious practice of sending a guilt offering.

People use divination today. Divination is ‘communication with a deity for the purpose of determining the deity’s knowledge, usually to try and clarify or confirm a decision.’ This takes two forms, either looking for confirming signs or for inner revelation. This practice is strictly forbidden in Scripture (Leviticus 19:26, Deuteronomy 18:10-11). To understand why it is sinful for us to look for signs or trust in some sort of inner revelation to clarify or confirm a decision or plan of action, we can look to Isaiah 44:24-28:

This is what Yahweh, your Redeemer who formed you from the womb, says:

I am Yahweh, who made everything;

who stretched out the heavens by Myself;

who alone spread out the earth;

who destroys the omens of the false prophets

and makes fools of diviners;

who confounds the wise

and makes their knowledge foolishness;

who confirms the message of His servant

and fulfills the counsel of His messengers;

who says to Jerusalem, “She will be inhabited,”

and to the cities of Judah, “They will be rebuilt,”

and I will restore her ruins;

who says to the depths of the sea, “Be dry,”

and I will dry up your rivers;

who says to Cyrus, “My shepherd,

he will fulfill all My pleasure”

and says to Jerusalem, “She will be rebuilt,”

and of the temple, “Its foundation will be laid.”

The Lord is the determiner of all things. Cyrus would come to power 150 years after Isaiah’s prophecy and fulfill it! He speaks through His messengers (the prophets). Neither signs nor inner revelations can serve to clarify or confirm the things that God alone determines. In fact, He said through the prophet Isaiah that He destroys omens (signs) and makes fools of diviners. When I think of looking for signs, I am reminded of a scene from the movie, Bruce Almighty. The character, Bruce Nolan, is driving down the street. He asks for a sign from God, and a utility truck transporting various street signs pulls out in front of him. When we trust in outward signs or some sort of inner revelation, the Scriptures reveal that our foolishness will be revealed. God speaks in ways that are different. Even when someone claimed to be a prophet, there was a very strict test. If he was wrong about anything that he spoke in the Lord’s name, he was considered to be a false prophet and be put to death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). I am so glad that I am not a prophet in this sense.

We also use religion to try gaining a better quality of life and understanding. Consider how the desire of Adam and Eve conceived and gave birth to sin. Eve saw that the fruit was desirable to make one wise so she ate and gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. They desired more knowledge and a higher level of understanding. They tried to pursue that on their own. Their lust led them to sin.

For the Philistines, this sort of sin, divination and works-righteousness, was part of their religion. They had spiritualized the very things that were rebellious against the God of the universe, and people in our day do the same thing. When we look for signs to clarify or confirm a decision, we do so in a way that seems very spiritual to us. Because it seems spiritual, we justify our search for signs. We do the same thing regarding inner revelation. We make it seem really spiritual. When we seek healing or think we can do something to appease or get God on our side, we make that seem spiritual as well, and we make it part of our religion. If we look to the Scriptures, we see that it is nothing more than sin, sin that we have tried to justify and mask with religious language to make it seem okay.

God speaks through His Scriptures. God is the one who decrees. I cannot sway Him. There is a reason, when Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, that He taught:

“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 19:29-31).

Sin can seem very spiritual.

Spiritualizing unrighteousness (v. 4-9)

Sin is a result of unrighteousness. R. C. Sproul would say that people are not sinners because they sin; they sin because they are sinners. Though the quote is a little misleading because of the forced alliteration, the idea is that people sin because they are not righteous by nature. That is the very idea Sproul was getting at.

The Philistine people came up with this plan to send a guilt offering by cart to the Israelite people at Beth-Shemesh. They placed God’s ark, along with gold tumors and gold mice on the cart and would send it off. If the cows took the cart to Beth-Shemesh, the diviners advised that they would know it was the God of Israel who was oppressing them. If the cows took the cart in a different direction, the diviners said that they would know that all this happened by chance.

We mentioned this last week, but the text presents the idea again. The Philistines recognized God’s power, but they did not know or understand Him. God was winning His glory among the Philistines, making known the breadth of His own power and the riches of His own glory. He does this among all people, even those people who will never come to know Him and who will never understand Him (even in part). The Philistines did not understand the purpose of a guilt offering. Their religious pursuit was the epitome of ironic contradiction because even their diviners (those who were to find the answers and confirm those answers) believed in and preached chance. Such is the case with most religion. Such is the case with professing Christians who first recognize that God is sovereign and then also claim that one must contribute in some way to his or her salvation. Ironic contradiction.

When we turn to Leviticus 5, we read the purpose of the guilt offering. We read verses 1-6 and recognize that a guilt offering was to be brought by an offender of God’s law. Recompense was to be made if people were sinned against and a sacrifice was to be brought before God. The Philistines went through these steps, following the Israelite ritual, but the ritual would not work for them. God would still oppress the Philistines. In Leviticus 5:6, we see four very important words, “In this way the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin.” It’s only four words in Hebrew… The differences in language are amazing. Atonement must be made on someone’s behalf. For the Israelites, this was symbolized by the work of the priest. The sacrificial system painted a picture, but it was worthless without actual, eternal atonement being made.

Remember the first guilt offering? Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3. After sinning, Adam tried to cover their shame by sewing fauna together? Then God came, slaughtered the first sacrificial animal and, by blood, made for them proper clothes. Of course, the clothes didn’t cover the shame of sin better because they were made from animals. God was making a statement. Sin means death.

Jesus Christ came and shed His own blood, an atonement for sin. The last guilt offering. Jesus lived as a perfect human person. He is God. His sacrifice for us was foreshadowed by the first guilt offering, prophesied in the sacrificial system, and absolutely effective because Jesus was (and is) 100% human and 100% God. Consider Romans 3:21-28:

“But now, apart from the law, God’s righteousness has been revealedattested by the Law and the Prophets — that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

The Philistines tried to atone for their own sin. This cannot be done. God must atone for our sins on our behalf. We make penance (the act of making up for our sin) sound very spiritual. We make it seem like our trying to atone for our own wrongs is a really spiritual thing to do, so we try and confess all of our sins or help enough people to make up for what we’ve done. We try and gain some sort of righteousness so that we can be weighed as good. We can’t do this, yet we make it seem very spiritual. So, we pray facing Mecca, light candles, go to confession, or do good deeds to try and make atonement.

When we do this, we haven’t understood the meaning of grace. I am unable to atone for my sins. I am unrighteous. It is freeing to know that I don’t have to. Christ is my atonement. He did this on my behalf. For those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, He is that atonement on your behalf, also. Will you declare your faith in Jesus Christ today?

Our unrighteous nature can seem very spiritual.

Spiritualizing bad religion (v. 10-12)

The Philistines did what the diviners instructed. This was not chance. The cows went straight to Beth-Shemesh. The Philistine rulers followed the cows. Everything about the Philistine religion, the way that they perceived God and the way that they tried to appease God as if God were so small that He would need to be appeased by people He created, was the epitome of human-centered, works-based religion. We haven’t gotten away from that sort of religion even in the modern day. If I could quote a modern argument, “It’s the twenty-first century. Time to get with the times!” What a terrible and nonsensical statement. Bad religion is nothing new. The way that it is embraced is nothing new. It does not surprise God. Scripture has some clear instructions regarding bad religion. Let’s journey through Scripture together.

“I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news about the Messiah. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him!

For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-10).

“Now I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause dissensions and obstacles contrary to the doctrine you have learned. Avoid them, for such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites. They deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting with smooth talk and flattering words” (Romans 16:17-18).

“Summoning the crowd, He told them, ‘Listen and understand: It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.’


Then the disciples came up and told Him, ‘Do You know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard this statement?’

He replied, ‘Every plant that My heavenly Father didn’t plant will be uprooted. Leave them alone! They are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit’” (Matthew 14:10-14).

“And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take note of that person; don’t associate with him, so that he may be ashamed. Yet don’t treat him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).

I thought that the Scriptures said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” What do you say about that, blog writer man?

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:1-6).

So, we avoid bad religion and teachers of bad religion. We do not condemn because we do not have the right to do so. We seek the righteousness of God, then we can rightly address sin and bad religion in the world. We are not to be abrasive. Neither are we to be silent concerning truth and the righteousness of Christ.

God shows us a balance in Scripture. This is meant for our sanctification. It’s not merely a list of commands that we follow outwardly. God is actually transforming us and developing this character balance in us. These commands are not only meant to guard us in Christ on this earth but also to sanctify us for the earth to come. If we believe the Scriptures, then we also know that God uses these commands to humble even those who teach a Gospel other than the true Gospel- making known the breadth of His power and the riches of His glory. By His grace, may He, through our obedience, save for Himself individuals out of their bad religion.

What the Philistines experienced as victory was actually defeat. Their religion was exposed as fraud. Their perceived righteousness was actually unrighteousness. God is humbling His people and exalting Himself for His glory and the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

God exposes human spirituality as fraud for our good.


Sin can seem very spiritual.

Our unrighteous nature can seem very spiritual.

God exposes human spirituality as fraud for our good.

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