Jesus did teach that there are tares among the wheat planted in the kingdom. The tares are planted by the enemy and will be discarded, while the wheat is gathered unto the Lord in a godly harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). He also taught that the kingdom is like a dragnet cast into the sea. At the final judgment, the net will bring in good and bad fish, or presumably, true and false believers (Matthew 13:47-50). Jesus rarely, if ever, taught about the kingdom of God without warning about false faith, or religiosity. So clearly, there is a difference between true faith and religiosity. Likewise, weak faith is not false faith.
So how can we sort out this seemingly thorny issue? Thankfully, there are two major passages in the Gospels that clear this matter up. One illustrates religiosity as a work of Satan, or lawlessness. The other gives us the keys to the kingdom of God.
The first passage is the temptation (Matthew 4:1-11), where Satan attempts to sow tares into Jesus’s thinking in an attempt to hijack His mission. It is a clear example of religious belief being used to move people away from rather than towards the person of God.
The temptation is an exercise in religiosity. It is not a direct assault on Jesus’s belief in God. Far from it. Satan uses Jesus’s belief in God as his entry point. The issue in the temptation is what or who is instigating the behavior: religious doctrine, a verse of Scripture, Satan, even Jesus himself (by Jesus’s own personal standards), or the living presence of the Father God. The answer to that question can tell us the difference between true and false faith.
In the first temptation, Satan tells Jesus to use His faith to produce a miracle that would meet one of Jesus’s legitimate needs, in this case for food. “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread (Matthew 4:1-4).” Jesus’s response shows that He knew Satan’s “game.” He said we live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Notice that Jesus did not say that we live by Scripture. He said we live by the Word of God. Scripture is only one part of the living Word of God. If we let the Bible define the Word of God, it includes His presence (Jesus is the Word), His actions (Jesus regularly teaches by example, etc.), personal revelation (the rhema word), and Scripture (the logos and graphe words). The word is alive through the presence of God. Faith is about a living relationship, not compliance with a belief system.
Jesus’s personal testimony was that He did only what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19). He also said He never acted out of His own authority or on His own initiative (John 5:30). Faith is action taken in agreement with God. Satan wanted Jesus using His faith on His own initiative, in this case to better Himself. That would have broken the oneness Jesus shared with the Father in the Trinity (John 10:30). It would have also broken the flow of spiritual authority from the Father through the Son (John 10:30)
The second temptation is similar to the first, only this time Satan tries to deceive Jesus by justifying his suggestion with Scripture. He says (paraphrased), “Throw yourself down from the temple. For Scripture says angels will catch you!” (Matthew 4:5-7). Notice the subtlety here. The issue is not compliance with Scripture. The issue is Satan wants Jesus directing the Father rather than the Father directing Jesus.
I do not like the teaching of, “If you want your prayer answered, go find a verse and pray it in support of your request,” as if Scripture allows you to coerce God or know His will for that particular situation. If finding a verse of Scripture alone was enough to move God into action, Jesus would have jumped from the temple. Jesus was relational, not religiously doctrinal. The first step in prayer should be listening for the living Word of God to guide you. That is how Jesus worked, always watching and listening to the Father. The fact that Scripture brings us truth doesn’t mean it is a substitute for the guiding presence of God.
We also have to remember that our identity as a child of God is not a license to act on our own. Satan starts the first two temptations with “If you are the Son of God” for a reason. If Jesus’s identity is built around Himself and His compliance with a religious system, the Father’s presence is taken out of the picture. Satan will substitute anything, including our identity and/or Scripture, for the presence of God in us. If we give into that, Jesus can justifiably say, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23). If Jesus had fallen for these tricks, Satan would have been in a position to rule over Jesus.
In the third temptation, Satan’s goal of being in control of Jesus’s religious life moves into plain sight. This time he uses that which Jesus loves, His children, in an attempt to derail His mission and keep Him off the cross. Satan shows Jesus all the people (kingdoms) of the world (Matthew 4:8-11). He says, in effect, “Jesus, you don’t have to go to the cross. I know you would like that cup to pass from you,” (Matthew 26:39). “I’ll give you the people you came for. Just do it my way—make me like the Most High. Worship me.”
The first two temptations started with religious behavior. The third upped the target to Jesus’s calling. Religiosity is a powerful weapon and a subtle, slippery slope. Had Jesus taken the bait and regained His children by walking in religious guidance that did not come directly from the Father, we would not have a cross today. You can be sure that Satan used his “big guns” to try to take down the Messiah. We should never underestimate the power of what Satan is doing or why Jesus so often taught against it.
Religiosity is built upon a system of belief. That religious system can be well-constructed and well-defended. But we must realize that God never said compliance with an air-tight system of religious doctrine is your ticket to heaven. Jesus said the real issue is whether He knows us. Religiosity is not a relationship with God; it is a relationship with self. Christianity is not a form of self-medication. It is a relationship with the living God.
In the Old Testament, God held the Sabbath out as holy because it represents the completed work of the cross. It symbolizes a time when we rest from works initiated by us. The temple becomes us, and the presence of God in us writes what to do on our hearts and minds (Jeremiah 31:33).
When Jesus teaches the disciples how to live a life of authentic faith, that is where He begins. He leads the disciples down a path that addresses all three of Satan’s strategies in the temptation. His guidance is not complicated, but it is clear and powerful enough to put the keys to the kingdom of God into our hearts. To learn how how this happens, see our post Religiosity vs. Authentic Faith Part 2