Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Ways of Thinking

It might surprise a lot of people that many Hindus accept Jesus. The puga area of a Hindu home contains images of various deities and revered personages, and in many homes you will also find the image of Jesus—perhaps right next to Ganesha.

Hinduism is very open to adopting new gods and Jesus is a good candidate, as is the Buddha who actually taught against key Hindu beliefs. The nature of Hinduism allows easy acceptance of such persons as part of their religious structure.

I am glad these Hindus honor Jesus, but I am afraid they miss the point. Following Jesus cannot be incorporated as part of another religious system. However, Hindus are not the first to try; there were those in Jesus’ own time who attempted to force him into their old religious system.

Wineskin by Ardo Beltz

By Ardo Beltz (Own work) (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ Message Cannot be Simply Accommodated to Old Religious Systems

Jesus shares two metaphors to show how such accommodation cannot work. These picture stories follow immediately after the question of his disciples not fasting, so the attempt to require them to observe the rituals of the old system might have triggered these metaphors. They also address previous conflicts over forgiveness of sins and eating with sinners.

Mark 2 reports Jesus saying:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.

I remember when washing new clothes for the first time made them shrink. Imagine that months or years later a hole wears through a favorite shirt. If one tries to fix it by sewing on a piece of unshrunk cloth, the result will be just as Jesus described. The two are incompatible, and the new cannot fix the old; a new shirt is what is needed.

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.

The same principle is involved. New wine is poured into new wineskins which are soft and pliable. But the effect of fermentation and the of aging of the wineskin make it hard and brittle so that it can no longer withstand the pressure of fermentation; it will burst open. The precious new wine will be lost and so will the wineskin. A new wineskin is what is needed.

The point is that the good news of God’s kingdom on earth cannot be an add-on as part of the old religious system. The good news is new wine and new cloth; to become part of God’s new work requires choosing the new in place of the old because the new and the old are incompatible.

Did Jews Have to Abandon their Jewishness?

This does not mean that the Jews had to completely reject their Jewishness and become something else, but it did mean they could not cling to their old religious structures and add Jesus to it. There was much in their culture they could bring into their life of following Jesus and other aspects of their culture that required transformation in light of the good news. Jewish believers were still Jews, but they were transformed Jews.

This raises an interesting and sometimes controversial question. If the Jews could follow Jesus while still being Jews, can the same thing be true of Hindus, for example? I think the answer is yes. There is much in the cultures of other religions that can be brought into genuinely following Jesus—but it would radically change their Hinduism; they would be transformed Hindus. Jesus cannot be simply a patch on their old religious system.

I think we have often gone too far in forcing Jesus followers of other religions to abandon everything in their religious culture to conform to Western concepts, but this is a discussion for another day.

We must examine ourselves to see whether we are trying to work Jesus into our old, rigid Christian religious system. Are we old wineskins? If so, we can become new.

Jesus Provides a Third Metaphor to Demonstrate His Point

The book of John has another example Jesus gives to make his point. A Pharisee named Nicodemus, apparently attracted to Jesus’ teaching, came to Jesus with questions.

In John 3 he says:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Nicodemus is interested in Jesus and the kingdom, but Jesus addresses his situation straight on—he must be born again. Many believers will respond, ‘Of course! He has to be saved!’ And what they mean is that Nicodemus must go through some ritual in order for God to change his status from ‘lost’ and going to hell to ‘saved’.

Though being ‘born again’ is equated with being ‘saved’ in the mindset of many believers, it is foreign to Jesus and has nothing to do with his point here. Those who followed Jesus never ‘got saved’, they just decided to follow Jesus and identify with the kingdom. But they couldn’t bring their old religious system with them; they had to change their minds about the old (repent) and embrace the good news of the kingdom instead.

The old and new were incompatible.

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must become receptive and teachable like a new baby instead of set in his ways and trying to fit Jesus into his old religious system. Matthew 18 shares a similar statement:

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Spirit Cannot be Contained in Old Religious Systems

Nicodemus responds:

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Whether or not Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ metaphor or was participating in it to ask how a person can change their religious system, Jesus makes it clear.

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Humans produce humans, and humans create human religious systems; but the Spirit of God is free and cannot be contained in an old system. They are incompatible. The Spirit changes those who are born of the Spirit no matter what their previous system is. Let us be sure we are open to the message of Jesus without clinging to our old religious system–even if it is a ‘Christian’ one.

Next time we find Jesus getting into trouble with the Pharisees yet again for disrespecting their religious system.

Articles in this series

Jesus Begins His Work:

The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?

*****

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32 Responses to Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Ways of Thinking

  1. Great post! I find this whole area particularly challenging, because at heart I’m an inclusivist and I struggle with the idea that someone else’s religious beliefs/practices might not be as valid. I want to believe that all who genuinely seek truth and goodness on any religious path will ultimately find them, and realise it was Jesus they were always looking for though they didn’t know it.

    Yet I also acknowledge that religious systems can be deeply unhelpful and restrictive, and following them slavishly can lead us away from genuine freedom and life. And this applies of course to ‘Christian’ and church religious systems as much as any from other faiths. It even applies to new movements that have initially sprung out of the Spirit’s leading.

    So I cautiously believe that Jesus can be found and followed from within pretty much any faith background or tradition, and without knowing his name or any theology. But his call is always towards true life and true freedom, which may ultimately require breaking out of some of our old ways and traditions as you suggest – and that can be hard for all of us.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Harvey, I agree with practically everything you wrote. I do believe that many people who have never heard of (or understood about) Jesus are, in a sense, living according to the spirit of some of his teaching and are to be commended for that; this is part of what can be brought into following Jesus once they have heard him. I also think they are eligible for the resurrection and eternal life with God, even if they never know him.

      I am an inclusivist as well.

      But I also think there is more to Jesus’ good news message about the kingdom of God that impacts our present life than just his ethical teaching. Even those already living somewhat according to Jesus’ ethical teaching are transformed by receiving the actual message of Jesus, himself; but I don’t think Jesus can ever effectively just be an add-on to their old belief system. Jesus is unique and transformational. His impact is not just his ethical teaching but the fact that he, himself, is the giver of eternal life (both present and future). It is this sense that he cannot be accommodated into an incompatible religious system. Jesus requires commitment.

      Your point about this applying to Christians as well as other religions is very good, even when their religious worldview was part of a move of the Spirit in the past. Religious systems springing from good roots can become old, brittle, and in need of transformation by the good news of Jesus.

      Thanks for your excellent comment!

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      • Thanks Tim! I completely agree – as you say, there’s so much more to Jesus than his ethical teaching, and I agree that Jesus is indeed unique and transformational. I’ve found this in my own life – and I also know the negative pull and drag of human systems that seek to box and package God. And yes, that’s even good ones that sprang out of a genuine move of the Spirit.

        So I believe Jesus *constantly* calls us to reform and renew our ways from within. He’s always leading us onward, never calling us to stay stuck where we are. Which isn’t to denigrate religious traditions or to exalt new movements. There’s often much good in our traditions, but they’re imperfect and need new life breathing into them – and we’re often pretty resistant to this! 🙂

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  2. sheila0405 says:

    How do we then live? If following rules isn’t what Jesus wanted, and if good fruit is what he points to, how does this change our choices and behaviors? I am still struggling with these concepts.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, I know this can be a bit confusing and we sometimes have to think through it more than once. When I think of religious rules as many of us encounter them in our religious systems, what I have in mind is a belief that there are many specific rules we must follow in order to be good believers (or even to qualify as believers at all). This is not what Jesus seems to teach us or demonstrate in his own life.

      What is important instead are a few clear principles of life, such as having empathy for all others, being reconcilers, and bringing the good news of Jesus into the lives of those who are interested. There are no hard-and -fast rules on how to implement these principles because no rule can anticipate every situation.

      The good fruit flows our of our embracing and living by these principles.

      Our behavior changes as we internalize these principles (perhaps, for example, in seeing others as God sees them). As we learn from Jesus and internalize his teachings we are changed ourselves (gradually transformed). It is out of our changed orientation toward ourselves and others that changes our choices and behavior. It brings peace and reconciliation to ourselves and allows us to help in the reconciliation of others. Rules cannot accomplish this, although we might develop some guidelines for ourselves as we grow stronger in the principles of love.

      I hope this helps some, but be sure to elaborate more if I have not understood your question properly.

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  11. Jodee Roeker says:

    I think I understand & agree w you. What I’m confused about is how do we respect & interact w, & work together with people & religions in a pluralistic society? Recently watched Oprah’s Belief series. She’s getting a lot of back-lash. I think we are more alike people of other religions than we are different. Although there are exceptions. (Such as terrorists, ISIS, and I include fundamentalist hate filled people of any religion incl Christians) . I may think these other religions are not the complete truth or that God is leading them on a path to Jesus, but I don’t want to confront them or argue with them about religious beliefs’.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Jodee,

      I think you summarized the issue very well when you said: “I may think these other religions are not the complete truth or that God is leading them on a path to Jesus, but I don’t want to confront them or argue with them about religious beliefs.”

      I agree with you that religions are not the complete truth–even the forms of ‘Christianity’ followed by many people. But there are good aspects to all of them. In my opinion, we have no need to confront people or argue with them about their beliefs, but if they are open to the good news of Jesus we can share it with them to the extent they are interested. If their interest grows then we can share more until they experience Jesus as transformational in their life and beliefs. Sometimes this is a rapid process; other times it is very gradual.

      It is not a contest to see how many people we can ‘win’ to our side; it is a case of sharing the good news of Jesus when the opportunity arises.

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  12. tonycutty says:

    Excellent. The difference between Jesus’s ‘religion’ and the ‘old’ religions is that the latter’s adherents find their security in established structure, be it a book/books, rituals, whatever.

    Jesus’s Kingdom relies on us trusting Him as a Person, not trusting a book alone. Or structure, or anything. Part of the risk involved in trusting Jesus is that indeed ‘the Spirit blows where He wants’. It won’t be written down what He’s going to do; that’s the whole point! And for some, emerging from the behaviour-based old ways is very difficult because of insecurity and a basic lack of trust. We can trust Jesus to guide us correctly by His Spirit. But the onld way cannot cope with that – at all.

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    • Chas says:

      tony, I think you are quite correct about the adherents of religions finding their security in the established structure/rules/rituals, and I would include many Christian denominations in that. I also agree that being guided by Holy Spirit requires us to be willing to be flexible and even to go through times of insecurity, but at the same time trusting firmly in God.

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  15. michaeleeast says:

    I don’t believe that Jesus is the exclusive way to God.
    I believe that anyone who is practicing love, forgiveness, and compassion
    in their lives is in tune with the will of God.
    So the worship of Jesus can be combined with any religious system..

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks for sharing, Michael. I might agree with you if I understand what you mean.

      Yes, I agree Jesus can be combined in other religious systems to some extent. And I believe that others can have access to eternal life even if they don’t know Jesus. But I do think eternal life is provided by Jesus alone. In other words, I don’t believe that all religions lead to the same place.

      I’m not sure if this fits in your paradigm or not. Can you elaborate?

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  16. Chas says:

    Tim, there has been much confusion over the terms ‘saved’ and ‘born again’, which you touched on in your initial post here. This has traditionally been taught as us coming out of a state of willful ‘sinfulness’ into the Kingdom of God. I note that you are not in favor of using the term ‘saved’, yet the name Jesus, in its Hebrew form Yeshua (as he would have been known since he was Jewish) means ‘rescue,’ or, in the more archaic form of the King James translation, ‘salvation.’ My take on this inverts the traditional teaching, as we are unable consistently to resist doing things that cause suffering until we are aware that this is because we are separated from God, and that believing in Jesus as the Son of God rescues us from that separation and brings us into the Presence of God. In terms of being like a child, it is important for us to recognize our status as far less than children by comparison with God, because of His unlimited powers and unlimited understanding. Even the comparison of ourselves with the simplest single-celled animal underrates the comparison of God with ourselves, He is that superior. Yet He values us and loves us.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      You are right, Chas. I do not favor using terms like ‘saved’ or ‘born again’. It is not that I object to what the terms really mean, but that today these terms are understood by those who use them most to describe an assumed instant transition in which a person is now ‘saved’ and on the way to heaven, whereas the moment before they were ‘lost’, ‘unsaved’, and on their way to hell. I don’t believe this is the way God works.

      I agree with your connection of the name ‘Jesus’ with the concept of salvation. but it is not salvation as it is understood by many believers today.

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      • Chas says:

        Tim, the term ‘born-again’ was banded about at the time I came to believe. It seemed to me that those who used it most were implying that they held some sort of superiority and almost looked down on everyone else. Looking at it now, in the context it appears above, it seems inappropriate, since being born is not voluntary for the one being born, whereas we have to co-operate with God to be brought into the Kingdom of God. It is one of these examples in which the writer has not thought through the simile to see if it fits properly. In this case, the idea of rescue is more appropriate, as it can involve the one being rescued grasping a life-line that has been thrown to them. They too have to take action as well as the rescuer. In this analogy, God would be the rescuer and Jesus the life-line.

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Chas, I think Jesus’ use of ‘born again’ with Nicodemus referred to one becoming open to see things in a new way instead of trying to see them through the framework of one’s old religious perspective. And I think this is very valid.

          I agree with you that the way it is often used today is inappropriate; that is why I don’t use the term much–the term itself has too much baggage.

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  17. Chas says:

    Tim, my mind has kept being drawn back to the ‘patch’ simile, since again it does not fit properly. The problem is that, the way it is told, it is the patch that is at fault, which is certainly not the case with the Kingdom of God compared with Judaism. It is my experience that, if any garment is worn sufficiently to need a patch, it is very thin and threadbare in the area around this, so it is difficult to sew into it, since it will easily pull away. Thus it is the fault of the old fabric that is the problem. The idea is good, but it is the way that it has been used that does not fit the Kingdom of God properly. This led me to consider how Judaic ideas were incorporated into the new concept of the Kingdom of God, causing contamination. Thus it can be seen that, without the Judaic ideas, the Bible would not have Jesus being given as a perfect sacrifice to atone for the sins of everybody. The question is: what should replace this concept now this has been shown to us? The intent was for people to have relationship with God, directly, and without any intermediary, including Jesus. However, this intent has not yet been fully revealed.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I agree with you that the fault is not in the patch; but neither do I think it is in the old garment. The problem is that the person saw the new fabric of the good news and tried to add it to their old religious system. What they should have done is to abandon the old garment and accept the good news of the kingdom with fresh eyes.

      This is a simile to make a point; it is not an allegory, so I don’t think there is a need to press the details. I would love to hear a modernized simile! Do you have something in mind?

      Like

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