She was sitting on the floor in her room, spending time with the Lord, crying. But I was four years old — I had no idea what was going on. So I asked her if she was sad. She said she was crying because she loved Jesus, which peaked my curiosity. I saw something in her I wanted. I had to know him like she did. So she introduced me to her best friend, the one who knew her best and loved her most. That was the beginning of a journey that has conditioned my whole life with him to such a degree that I’ve remained, for the most part, unsatisfied with anything less than the love he gave me the day we met.
And yet, throughout my life, there have been times when religion has tried to creep into my mind and heart to make me somehow think I needed something else. And there were times when I bought the lie and, without knowing it, walked away from the Lord down a path that was fun, on the surface, laden with “good” things, such as church events, activities and programs. Then, in addition to all that, I read all the right books, attended all the cutting-edge, deeper-life conventions and conferences, listened to all the teaching tapes I could get my hands on, and went to church faithfully, every time the doors were open, like a “good Christian.” But still, something was wrong. Something was missing.
Over and over again, well-meaning church people warned me not to forsake the assembling of myself with the people of God, as if going to church was the only way to “assemble.” And yet, as much as I went to church in submission to their counsel, thinking they were right, I found myself surrounded by people I didn’t really know at all – not really! Fellowshipping with the back of someone’s head in the pews, sharing short and shallow conversations on the way to Sunday School or “The Sanctuary,” passing the offering plate back and forth, going through the same boringly uniform motions every Sunday and finally running out the door after “The Service” to get to the local restaurant before the church crowds converged, felt more like a social club than the vibrant, personal interaction of a family that is deeply in-love.
Then, one day, I was drawn to the Gospels and started reading them over and over again. I couldn’t stop. I was addicted. I couldn’t get enough, and I knew Jesus’ life had the answers to all my questions, even the questions I wasn’t asking yet but soon would. For a long time I couldn’t read anything except the Gospels which put me in a place, spiritually and mentally, where his life started to confront and reform my thinking in many ways regarding church-life (and life in general). And as I gradually began to see his life and the life he shared with his followers, who were really his friends, without all the religious noise and bombast, the purity, clarity, and simplicity of Christ’s definition of fellowship, “church” and “church life” began to shine through. Of course, the more I read and prayed into this reality with him, the freer I became so that I could detach my mind and heart from my religious surroundings and become more and more who he gave me life and breath to be in him.
Sunday Mornin’ Homecomin’
After being baptized in the Jordan and spending forty days and forty nights in the desert, Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee and started teaching in their “churches.” And apparently he was such an excellent teacher that he quickly became front-page news.
Then he went home, to Nazareth, probably hoping his hometown would embrace him as the Galileans had. So he “went to church” on “Sunday” to make his grand debut. But it didn’t take long before things got ugly.
Remember, Nazareth was his home town, the place where he cut his teeth, went to school, played with friends, and eventually grew into manhood. Everyone knew who he was. They saw him when he was in diapers, spitting up baby food and making a mess. They had “gone to church” with him every week since he was born (Okay, maybe not every week, but who knows!).
But this “Sunday” was different.
When Jesus entered “The Sanctuary,” he approached the “pulpit,” opened his “Bible” to Isaiah 61:1-2 and started reading out loud:
“The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon Me, because He has anointed Me [the Anointed one, the Messiah] to preach the good news (the Gospel) to the poor; He has sent Me to announce release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to send forth as delivered those who are oppressed [who are downtrodden, bruised, crushed, and broken down by calamity], to proclaim the accepted and acceptable year of the Lord [the day when salvation and the free favors of God profusely abound.]” (AMP)
Then, apparently, at some point during “The Service,” Jesus displayed miraculous powers that were so amazing that everyone wondered where he got them. And his words were so full of grace and wisdom that everyone marveled. Obviously, this wasn’t the same Jesus they were used to. Yet, when he finished reading Isaiah’s prophecy, he closed the book, sat down, and with all eyes watching, said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, he said, “This passage is talking about me. You don’t have to wait for it to be fulfilled anymore. I am the Messiah.”
Everyone was stunned! How could Jesus be the Messiah? To them, he was simply the son of Joseph and Mary who grew up down the road.
Then, to make matters worse, Jesus spoke of himself as a prophet without honor in his own hometown and topped it off by essentially comparing himself to some of Israel’s greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha, which so angered everyone that they kicked him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. These “church-going believers,” who had been his neighbors his whole life, became so enraged by what he said that they wanted him dead. And yet, when they attempted to kill him, he slipped through their fingers and went back to Galilee and ministered in their “churches” where the reception was, well, less hostile (See Lk 4:16-37 as well as Matt 13:54-58 and Mk 6:1-6).
The “church” in Nazareth had their own ideas of what Isaiah 61:1-2 was going to look like and Jesus didn’t measure up. They put their own spin on what God had in mind and, as a result, missed out on the blessings included in the prophecy.
Nazareth was so familiar with his humanity, so preoccupied with how different he was and so satisfied with business as usual, that they failed to discern that he had come “in the name of the Lord” they professed to follow (Matt 23:39 KJV). He possessed all the answers to all their problems. He offered healing, deliverance, restoration and blessing. Yet, he was violating their religious apple-carts. And, what is more, they believed he was narcissistic and delusional and were so offended that they were unable to recognize his authority and who he really was, beneath the flesh.
As a result, he was accepted in Galilee where he could be himself and was despised in Nazareth where he “could do no mighty work…except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.” (Mk 6:5 NKJV)
Today, there are many churches like the “church” in Nazareth, which only saw what it was prepared to see and missed the time of their visitation because God came to them in a form they never expected (Lk 19:44). Then, on the flip side, there are churches like the one in Galilee, where Jesus can be himself, no matter how he comes, no matter what he looks like, no matter how contrary he is to what they’re used to or what they’ve been told. The main difference between the two is that one discerns him after the flesh, while the other discerns him after the Spirit; one judges him by what’s been done before, while the other judges him by his fruit.
The story you just read was one of many similar occurrences. Every time Jesus mixed with religious systems, controversy and friction ensued. Why? Because they didn’t like him, and there was nothing in him or about him that affirmed their religious ideas and practices. Though he preached in many “churches” throughout the course of his ministry, he never “fit in.” He was a square peg surrounded by round holes, always going against the grain. And what’s funny is that he irritated religious people by just being himself. Even at the tender age of twelve, he had a special way of dropping pious jaws (Lk 2:46-47). If only he had been anyone but himself, he wouldn’t have caused so much trouble.
Unlike most ministers today, Jesus wasn’t “seeker sensitive.” He didn’t meet people where they were by giving them what they “wanted” or “preferred” so they would like him or so that he wouldn’t offend them. And he was never concerned about growing and maintaining a “following.” Rather, he was sensitive to the guidance of his Father who always sought to meet people at their deepest point of “need,” below the surface.
While everyone around Jesus revered the religious establishment and all its trappings, he did not, which so freed him from all that blinds, that he was able to see through things much more quickly and clearly than everyone around Him. He could walk into any “church” and immediately discern the primary root or roots to any and every problem; and most of the time he would expose things hidden in darkness, even to his own hurt and eventual death.
When Jesus “went to church,” he brought the living reality of his World with him by living on earth as he lived in Heaven, behaving according to his identity in our Father. In other words, he was like an alien in a foreign world or like a rose in a garden of weeds, even though the weeds thought they were the roses and he was the weed.
His presence made everyone uncomfortable, except for the humble, because he was unconventional in every way, igniting fierce resistance everywhere he went. He never went with the flow in order to avoid the path of least resistance. He didn’t “go along to get along.” While religious leaders expected everything in “church” to be “decent and in order,” Jesus behaved in ways that seemed grossly inappropriate and messy. By religious standards, he always did what “ought not be done.”
1) He defied the Law of Moses by repeatedly breaking the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-14; Mk 2:23-28; 3:1-6; Lk 4:31-37; 6:1-11; Jn 5:1-18; 7:21-24; 9:14). He seemed to have no special regard for one day or time over another. In fact, he seemed to be even more inconsiderate of protocol on especially “holy” days (Jn 2:13-22; 7; 10). And on such occasions, he would often stand before large crowds and say things that dubbed him a blasphemous, demonized lunatic (Jn 7:20, 28-30, 37-39; 10:24-39).
In Luke 13:10-17 Jesus delivered a woman in “church” who had a spirit of infirmity. And there was only one person who disapproved: “The ruler of the synagogue” or, as we would say today, the “senior pastor.” In fact, he was so upset that he told the people, “Look, you can be healed any other day of the week, just not today, not on the Sabbath.” Clearly, this “leader” cared more about obeying the law than seeing God’s people restored. So Jesus proceeded to publicly shame him and his associates by saying, “You hypocrites! You untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead them to water on the Sabbath, but you won’t even lift your little finger to help this dear woman who’s been afflicted by Satan for eighteen years. What are you thinking?” Evidently, Jesus didn’t have any intention of compromising or negotiating with this “man of God.” He didn’t say, “Okay, well, pastor, this is your church, and since you are the leader, we will respect your wishes” and he certainly didn’t tell the people, “Hey, if you need healing of any kind, come and see me any other day but today. We need to respect the pastor’s wishes, and recognize his authority as the ‘man of God.’ He is God’s anointed, and we need to honor him.” No! Jesus put the principle of love before policy and protocol, which humiliated the “somebodies” and delighted the “nobodies” (Lk 13:17).
2) Jesus and his disciples ate without washing their hands, which was also against the tradition of the elders (Matt 15:1-20; Mk 7:1-5; Lk 11:37-41). He questioned and ignored “church” practices and “bylaws” whenever they stood in the way of our Father’s will for those who needed what he had.
3) Jesus condemned ecclesiastical hierarchies and hypocrisies, “forms” of godliness, the use of titles and corresponding entitlements, abuses of power and the exaltation of professional ministers which elevated a few above the rest, thereby producing a leadership/laity split among the people (See Matt 6:1-7; 23:1-12; Mk 10:35-43; 12:38-40; Lk 11:39-44; 20:46-47; 22:24-27). Jesus’ Kingdom mindset, which clashes with every earthly structure and organizational model, praised and modeled least-ness over greatness, humility over pride and service over domination.
And as a direct solution to the problem, he introduced the priesthood of all believers to the world by equipping and releasing his “nameless” and “faceless” disciples into the world with the power and authority to heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, and preach the Good News to the poor.
4) Jesus had “church” everywhere: in the fields, in homes, on mountainsides, at the temple, in synagogues, on the road, on seashores, in boats, etc. (We also see this through the Book of Acts.) He didn’t just “have church” at “church” and his “church family” reached far beyond all “church” walls (Lk 8:19-21). His whole life was one big “church service” because he didn’t have a spiritual life and a secular life; his whole life was lived in relationship with our Father which influenced every moment of his life; he said and did everything out of who he really was, which never changed depending on where he was or who he was with.
By the way, while it is true that Jesus did periodically “go to church,” there is no evidence that Jesus “went to church” every time the doors were open or even went every “Sunday” (See Lk 4:44). In fact, he only visited a few “churches” during his ministry — where he offended the religious and became a regular target for stone-throwers (Lk 11:37-12:1; Jn 8:31-59) — while giving most of his attention to the marketplace of daily life.
5) He delivered offensive, blasphemous, divisive, seemingly demonic messages (see Matt 23; Jn 5; 7:14-24; 8:12-58; 10:22-44).
For example, most of Jesus’ “Eat My flesh & Drink My Blood” sermon, in John 6, was preached in the synagogue in Capernaum and produced a “church split” on the spot, driving away thousands of people and leaving him alone, again, with his original twelve disciples. Why? Because his invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood defied the Law of Moses which forbid cannibalism and the drinking of blood (Gen 9:4-6; Lev 3:17; 7:26-27). According to Israel’s history, eating human flesh was a result of disobedience against God, and here was Jesus, telling everyone to eat his flesh (Lev 26:14, 15, 29; Deut 28:53-57; 2 Kgs 6:28-29; Jer 19:9; Lam 2:20; 4:10; Ezek 5:10).
As usual, Jesus’ words split cities, people groups and “churches” by separating those who believed in him from those who didn’t (Jn 7:37-53; 9:39 in the Amplified).
6) He forgave especially wicked sinners, something everyone believed only God could do (Matt 9:2-3; Lk 5:18-21). [Note: Did you know that he gave this same authority to remit or retain sin to his disciples and, by extension, to us? See John 20:23.]
7) The record doesn’t give us stories of Jesus tithing. It does show how he gave his life every day in service to the poor, the hurting, and the broken. He was a whole burnt offering, a living sacrifice, every moment of every day.
But this doesn’t mean he was against monetary tithing. As you may recall, Jesus never rebuked the religious leaders for tithing. Rather, he called them “pretenders (hypocrites)!” because they gave a tenth of their resources but “neglected and omitted the weightier (more important) matters of the Law–right and justice and mercy and fidelity.” (Matt 23:23 AMP) He condemned these religious people for putting duty to God before “the love of God” which, by his very words, proves that it is possible to fulfill every pious obligation without actually loving him (Lk 11:42 AMP). In short, Jesus never made tithing a litmus test for Christian devotion.
Jesus upheld a higher standard by giving 100% of himself every moment of every day. Indeed, if he had only given a tithe of himself, of his life, where would you and I be today? He gave it all and praised this quality of sacrifice in others. For example, during one of his visits to the temple, he sat down near the offering box and started watching “how” people were giving. After seeing the rich throw in large sums of money, he noticed a poverty-stricken widow who “came and put in two copper mites [the smallest of coins], which together make half of a cent.” This so moved him that he called his disciples to him and praised this woman and, in effect, made an example of her. Why? Because she gave all she had to live on, she gave out of her lack, which was much more than anyone else had given, including the rich people who gave out of their wealth to appease their consciences without any real impact on their lives (Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:1-4 AMP). Jesus’ whole life was a personal gift that he and his Father gave to mankind.
8) He overturned tables and drove out merchants in the Temple with a whip in-hand (Matt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-18; Lk 19:45-46; Jn 2:13-17). He was a zealot for the Kingdom of God, but he didn’t carry daggers or swords like all the other zealots in his time. Instead, he carried Truth, courage, compassion, raw supernatural power, and holy anger, fueled by pure love, burning with a jealous fire for his House (which is actually us and not any building made with human hands).
9) He condemned religious systems.
In John 7, during the feast of Tabernacles, one of Israel’s greatest annual events, Jesus stood up in the Temple in Jerusalem and yelled out, “If anyone is thirsty, come to me and drink” (Jn 7:37). Can you picture what this looked like? Jesus stood up in the middle of Israel’s “mega-church,” while it was chock-full of “believers,” and basically said, “I know you are unsatisfied with the religious system you’re in. And I am tired of the abuse you’re taking from this destructive man-made system. So, come to me and I will give you what you’ve always been looking for. If you put your trust in me, I will cause rivers of living water to come out of you to quench your thirst in such a way that you will never thirst again.” (Paraphrase of John 7:37-38)
Then on one occasion, while some were giving Jesus a tour of the temple, the venerated center of religious activity and worship, he basically said, “It’s all gonna come down.” (Matt 24:1-2; Mk 13:1-2; Lk 21:5-6) So, Jesus didn’t care for the things that were honored by the pious people of his day. Instead, he knew that the death of its trappings would be its downfall.
Also, unlike many “Christians” today, Jesus didn’t evangelize people to bring them to church, but to his Father and his friends and family who shared life with him. He wasn’t about “the church” but about the Kingdom of God lived in the earth, in word and deed, in every area of everyday life, through vulnerable, revolutionary relationships. And unlike so many “leaders” today, Jesus never gave a single thought to “church growth” or “membership” or “attendance.” To him, it was never about “the numbers,” as if his success was measured by such things.
He openly rebuked and embarrassed the “pastors,” “reverends,” and “men of God” to such a degree that they wanted to take him out by any means possible (Matt 5:20; 12:9-14, 22-45; 15:1-14; 16:1-4; 19:2-9; 21:23-46; 22:15-23:39. Lk 12:1-12; 16:14-31; 20:1-47. Mk 7:6-16; 8:11-12; 10:2-9; 11:27-33; 12:35-40. Jn 8:14-30). He was a walking contradiction to everything the religious leaders lived for, and he never once complimented them! Though the “church” looked “successful” on the surface, impressive for all to see, Jesus was still moved with pity when he saw things as they really were, when he saw the multitudes who were fainting and scattered like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:35-38). The machinery of “churchianity” was impressive and magnificent, but not to Jesus. And a time even came when Jesus became so unmanageable that the Pharisees and Sadducees had to join forces to gang up on Jesus, which still didn’t work (Matt 22:34).
10) He had what the “big-dogs” lacked and everyone knew it (Matt 21:14-17; Mk 11:18). His life – everything he said and did – set him apart from the pretenders because the Life of our Father within him transcended everything around him.
For example, consider how many times Jesus exorcised demons in “church”? (See Mk 1:21-28, 39; Lk 4:31-37; 13:10-17) Think about it! Isn’t it interesting that those demon-possessed “church-goers” attended without fear and without regard for the religious rulers? Obviously, those evil spirits didn’t recognize their authority at all. And yet, when Jesus walked in, they trembled. Why? Because they recognized the Christ (the anointing) in Jesus and revered him for it. While most couldn’t see beyond his outward person, these demons discerned the Life within; they knew who he was, while the clerics (who were themselves possessed by religious spirits) remained clueless.
11) He never once ranted about “going to church” or getting involved in “church” activities or routines. Why? Because he knew it wasn’t necessary in the Kingdom. His own relationship with our Father wasn’t dependent, in any way, on “church attendance,” and when he did “go to church,” he didn’t do so to “get fed” or be encouraged or to praise and worship in a collective body of believers or to become a better “Christian.” He simply lived out of his unbroken intimacy with his Father and his identity in him everywhere he went. And when it came to fellowship, he didn’t “forsake the assembling” of himself together with believers (Heb 10:25 KJV). His relationship with “the people of God” was His whole life. He walked arm-in-arm with his Father and everyone around him because, to him, they were all one family everyday of every week.
Needless to say, Jesus was not your average church-goer. Most of the leaders labeled him a blasphemer (Matt 26:57-66) while the crowds tried to make him king (Jn 6:15). And yet, it seems that no one really liked him, because, in the end, he was abandoned (Jn 10:24-39). After doing so many good things that even the world itself could not contain the books that could be written about them, Jesus was forsaken by all but a few (Matt 27:55-57; Mk 15:40-41; Jn 19:25-26; 21:25).
Of course, there were some religious “leaders” who believed in Jesus, but they didn’t go public because they didn’t want to make any waves and certainly didn’t want to be “kicked out” of “church.” Why? Because they loved the approval of men more than the approval of God (Jn 12:42-43). Then, on the other hand, there were some “leaders” — very few in number, like Jairus — who knew Jesus had the goods and weren’t too proud to ask him for help (Mk 5:21-42; Lk 8:41-56).
Jesus hated and spoke out against the deeds and doctrines of the Nicolaitans, the teachings, practices, and influence of those who conquer and destroy (nicos) the people (laity) (Rev 2:6, 15-16). And what iss sad is that these people, who thought they were “of God” and constantly declared their devotion to him, had no idea they were actually working against him. While Jesus came to bring freedom and restoration, these self-appointed clerics made themselves “lords over God’s heritage” and bound them to religious rules and regulations. While Jesus came to serve and give his life, these wolves in sheep’s clothing produced a subtle system of control and manipulation wherein they were fulfilled. While Jesus was busy about our Father’s business, these “ministers” cared about building their “ministries,” furthering their agendas, and inflating their wallets. While Jesus brought people into the liberty of love, grace, and truth, his counterparts forced people into the darkness of fear, guilt, shame, and lies.
The Nicolaitans didn’t really love people. Though they may have thought they cared for God’s children as good parents do, their actions spoke louder than their words. Deep inside, at the core of their hearts, they loved themselves and the bells and whistles that came with being the heads of a system that had nothing to do with God. And instead of spending themselves on broken humanity, they used and abused the masses to fund their plans, to erect bigger and better monuments, and to elevate themselves. The reason they hated Jesus was because he threatened everything they loved, worshipped, and trusted in. He saw the true intentions of their hearts, which even they could not see, and exposed them to the Light.
This is why Jesus didn’t have one good thing to say about them and, in no uncertain terms, warned his disciples and everyone else to avoid them (Matt 16:6-12; 23:1-12; Lk 12:1-12; 22:24-28). He saw the evil that was destroying the people he loved, and it was this love that motivated him to war against it so violently (Jn 2:17; 8:12-59).
[Note: To learn more about the Nicolaitans, read Who is the Antichrist?]
Today, most Christians measure their relationship to the Lord by the level of their relationship and commitment to a local church and by the type of church they attend, and this is how they judge others as well. But, if we measure Jesus by this same standard, does he not fail our test?
I wonder, what would Jesus be like if he visited your church or the average church today? What would he do? Would your pastor like him and invite him to preach?
Jesus’ daily life with his friends and family has nothing to do with Christianity as it is known and practiced today; in fact, the gap between the two is enormous and compelling. And he certainly didn’t intend for his life to spawn a religion that’s based on building programs, denominationalism, top-down leadership models, non-profit organizations, church attendance, dogma, etc. Those who think otherwise would have to lift certain verses and passages out of the New Testament narrative, paste them together, and add their spin in order to make their case.
Why does it matter so much to us where we meet, when we meet, and how we meet? Jesus didn’t care a whit about church services and never said anything about how to “do church,” and there is a very good reason for this: He wanted his friends to be free to focus on his ultimate purpose for them.
His way of doing everything was free and spontaneous because he knew that the wineskin, the structure and container of his life, had to be able to ebb and flow with the Spirit and Life of his new wine. Plus, his purpose took different forms and applications all the time, depending on where he was and who he was with. This is why he said, “Judge every tree by its fruit,” not “Judge every tree by its bark” or “by its limbs” or “by its size.” To him, as we’ve seen above, the end justified the means even when, to the natural mind, the means seemed counterproductive to the end. His life in our Father was never organized or restricted by man-made rules, rituals, and regulations. He simply lived holistically and organically out of the overflow of his relationship with our Father.
And it never mattered whether Jesus was in a house, temple or grain field, on a seashore, walkway or roadside. His Kingdom was relevant everywhere, everyday, with everyone. Indeed, there are many times in the Gospels where the authors never mention where Jesus was when he was teaching, healing, preaching, or whatever. Why? Because it simply did not matter.
Jesus loved people, valued personal relationships, and enjoyed spending time with the broken, hungry, hurting, tormented, and rejected. This is why he spent so much time with people around the dinner table; he loved the atmosphere of transparency and vulnerability it produced, and it seemed to be one of the primary places where everyone could be themselves without fear. This was his “church life.”
What if Jesus became our pattern? Would our whole life not be charged with expectancy? What if we lived like the Church of Jesus Christ that we are, instead of merely “going to church”? Would our jobs or careers not become more meaningful? Would our homes not become more heavenly? What if we all became personally responsible for our own spiritual growth and depended more on the Lord to be our Shepherd, rather than depending so much upon human leaders?
Recent statistics from The Barna Group and Pew Research show that most churched Christians are immature and fruitless when compared to those who do not go to church but have a personal relationship with Jesus and his people and maintain a healthy diet in the Word of God and prayer. Of course, Jesus’ disciples had their own relationship with the Lord and each other and kept themselves spiritually fit by spending time with him and studying the Scriptures, and look how mature they were, compared to their religious counterparts. They lived as a community out of the overflow of their individual intimacy with the Lord until it spread into every area of life and turned the whole world upside down.
Wherever two or more are gathered together, in his name, he is there with them. This is Jesus’ definition of “church” and it needs no improvements. As for whether or not you should go to church or not is between you and him – no one can tell you that. What matters is that we each have our own relationship with him, which will bring us, automatically, into deep, meaningful fellowship with one another as he brings us together in his life, by his Spirit.