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The Spirit of Religion

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. Gal 2:11-12

Remember this scene from Galatians? Remember when Peter came to visit Paul and Barnabas in Antoich and Paul later had to rebuke Peter “in the presence of all”? What was the spirit he was confronting?

The spirit of religion!

Paul knew that spirit from an earlier trip to Jerusalem when “false brethren had sneaked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ in order to bring us into bondage.” (Gal 2:4)

Peter, in carrying out his role as Apostle, had come up to Antioch to check on the first Gentile church the world has ever know. There we find him “mixing-it-up” with the believers, even staying in their homes and eating with them. Well, evidently some “certain men from James” from Jerusalem came up as well to check things out! When Peter saw them he “began to withdraw and hold himself aloof” from the Antioch believers, “fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away…” (Gal 2)

Please note this: Peter didn’t fear death, imprisonment, ridicule, torture… Not even the Pharisees. No! The record shows that he only feared one thing: “legalistic Christians” bound by the spirit of religion!

Barnabas was not a young believer at this time, but a seasoned, veteran missionary. His Christian roots went back to Jerusalem, where we see him as a sold-out believer, who was personally discipled by the 12 Apostles for over 10 years. Yet he too was carried away by their hypocrisy!

As noted Biblical scholar B.W. Johnson (1893) has stated:

“It required a life long struggle on the part of Paul to emancipate the church from Judaism. These men seemed to follow him everywhere. That restless wing of the church which clung to Judaism as well as Christianity, had troubled the churches at Jerusalem, Antioch, Galatia, and Corinth…”

The spirit of religion can’t see the beauty and power of Jesus healing a man born blind because it happen on the Sabbath.

The spirit of religion says to a paralytic man, instantaneously healed from 38 years of being unable to walk: “It is not lawful for you to carry your mat on the Sabbath!”

The spirit of religion sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with its “strange manifestations” and equates the experience to being nothing more than a “cheap buzz from cheap wine”. Acts 2

The spirit of religion doesn’t see the “captive set free” when demons are driven out of a poor slave-girl but only sees loss of profits from its fortune-telling. Acts 16

O brothers and sisters, that same ‘spirit’ which seemed to follow Paul everywhere, is also here in our midst! That “restless wing of the church” which fought against the freedom we have in Christ in the 1st Century is alive and well in the 21st Century.

A Flame that was Nearly Extinguished

New Year’s Day in 1739 was no ordinary day for about 60 students on the campus of Oxford University who gathered for prayer and to celebrate a “Love Feast” together. The meeting lasted all night! The Holy Spirit moved so powerfully that many fell down, overwhelmed. This, of course, is well know by all to be the starting point of the Great Awakening in Britain and America. Let John Wesley himself describe it to you:

‘Mr. Hall, Kinchin, Ingham, Whitefield, Hitchins, and my brother Charles were present at our Love-feast in Fetter Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of his majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord”’ (Idle 1986)

The fire of that night fanned into a flame of revival that quickly swept over Britain! Within a few short weeks and months, 10,000’s had heard the gospel and many were converted and gathered into weekly “Class Meetings”, which would continue under Wesley’s leadership for the next 60 years.

But sadly, within just six months, deep tensions had developed over manifestations accompanying this revival. Again from Wesley:

“Saturday, 16 June – We met at Fetter Lane, to humble ourselves before God, and own that he had justly withdrawn his Spirit from us for our manifold unfaithfulness: by our divisions; by our leaning again to our own works, and trusting in them, instead of Christ; and above all, by blaspheming his work among us, imputing it either to nature, to the force of imagination, or even to the delusion of the devil. In that hour we found God with us as at the first!” (Idle 1986).

The spirit of religion wormed its way into the brothers’ midst and tried to derail the movement of the Holy Spirit. With a crafty voice of the serpent it said: “Indeed…Would God really do that?” and attempted to put off to the effects of “cheap wine”, imagination or the devil the reality of the presence of God. Thanks be to God these dear brothers humbled themselves and gathered again to seek God face. History proves that God did indeed show up as at the first.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Remember this: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (Gal. 5:9) We have seen with our own eyes how a little comment, a little bit of sarcasm, even foolish banter, grieves the Heavenly Dove.
You know as well the pain of gathering in Jesus’ Name, sensing the Presence of God and the leaders move on to the next point of the service. How do we keep from “quenching the Spirit’s fire”?

The book of Galatians was written to battle legalism and the spirit of religion. Many have suggested it is the Magna Charta of the Christian faith. Linger there often! Meditate on its main message.


“It was for freedom that Christ has set us free, therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)

Paul wrote Galatians to those four churches of Galatia (which BTW is the first piece of the NT ever penned) who where being infiltrated by “false brethren” shortly after his first missionary trip there: “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you…Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3) This is the battle against the spirit of religion.

Finally I quote a lengthy passage from Wolfgang Simpson, in his excellent book, Houses That Change the World, who summarizes this whole discussion with this insightful:

“Religion… is like a built-in feature of every person on earth: the world literally streams with religion. We do not have to do anything to become religious, it is creational, natural, and it creeps in unaware, like an ugly spirit raising it’s head while everyone sleeps. Religion builds up like static energy when we walk with plastic shoes on a carpet.

It needs the power of the Holy spirit, constant prophetic and apostolic ministry and the ongoing equipping of the saints to maintain a non-religious, alert and sober spirit, and to be free from religion, and liberated by Christ to worship him in truth and spirit.”

Yours for the Faithful in Every Generation,

Jeff Gilbertson

Categories: Uncategorized
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