But many readers are at the same time troubled because it also sounds a little irreverent. Which brings me to my second point.
The Poison of Religion
Jesus healed a man on a Sabbath. That pushed his enemies over the top. They decided to kill him. The account takes place early in the Gospel of Mark:
Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Stand up in front of everyone." Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (3:1-6)
Really. Because he healed a man on the Sabbath? What do we have here? After all the nonsense that is repeated about Jesus being a gentle peacemaker, reading the Gospels is really quite a shock. We discover a Jesus who is in fact frequently embroiled in conflict—most of which he provokes himself (like healing on the Sabbath). And every single one of these clashes is with very religious people. Not one hostile encounter involves a "pagan." Not until the end, at least, when the Roman troopers get hold of him—but he was handed over by the religious establishment.
If you were reading the Gospels without bias or assumption, you would have no trouble whatsoever coming to believe that religion is the enemy—or in the hands of the enemy. Jesus' opponents are all people we would consider to be highly invested in doing religion right. They certainly considered themselves to be so.
You will want to keep this in mind if you would know Jesus, really.
For to come to know Jesus intimately, as he is, as he wants to be known, is to release a redemptive landslide in your life. There will be no stopping the goodness. The first purpose of your existence will be resolved, and from there you are set to fulfill all of God's other purposes for you. Now—do you really think that the enemy of our souls, the Enemy of Jesus Christ, is simply going to let that happen? Satan is far too subtle to rely on persecution alone. His most masterful works are of deception (ask Adam and Eve about this when you see them). So the Deceiver deceives by means of distortion, and his favorite tool is to present a distorted Christ. Not so blatant as a bad fish, but through the respectable channels of religion.
Consider this one piece of evidence: millions of people who have spent years attending church, and yet they don't know God. Their heads are filled with stuffing about Jesus, but they do not experience him, not as the boys did on the beach. There are millions more who love Jesus Christ but experience him only occasionally, more often stumbling along short of the life he promised, like Lazarus still wrapped in his graveclothes.
Can anything be more diabolical?
If you sent someone you loved to school for a decade, yet they remained illiterate, how would you feel about the education? If you referred someone you loved to a doctor, yet despite years of treatment they not only failed to recover from their cancer but contracted AIDS, hepatitis, and gangrene, what would you have to conclude about the treatment?
I am not making accusations; I am stating facts.
Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. His enemies decided to kill him. Do you really think that's over?! Why would that have ended with the time of Christ? Really now—it would be just a little arrogant for us to assume we could not fall under the same religious haze.
Thus George MacDonald, that old Scottish prophet, asks, "How have we learned Christ? It ought to be a startling thought, that we may have learned him wrong." It is a startling thought. "That must be far worse than not to have learned him at all: his place is occupied by a false Christ, hard to exorcise!"2 Hard to exorcise, indeed, because religion gives the impression of having Christ, while it inoculates you from experiencing the real thing. Most wicked. If you want to destroy an economy, flood the market with counterfeit bills.
So the apostle John gives a last word of warning:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. . . . This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:1-3, 6)