Whenever I hear (non-Christians) talk about Christianity it's always about "religion" and how they're "not into religion." When they make statements like this, I know that they have not heard the real gospel of Jesus Christ, nor do they understand what Christianity is all about. When people talk about how they hate "organized religion" and then lump Christianity (in the broad sense) in the same category, they miss what Jesus said. Don't miss the context and audience to whom Jesus is speaking to when He says:
“Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34 NKJV)
Jesus also says to the religious leaders the following in this second passage:
“Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33 NKJV)
Clearly Jesus is condemning their "form of religion" in the same way God did with the Israelites in the Old Testament:
“Therefore the Lord said: “Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths And honor Me with their lips, But have removed their hearts far from Me, And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men,” (Isaiah 29:13 NKJV)
This scripture is also referenced by Jesus in Matthew 15. The context is important in how Jesus quotes this, and in what He is trying to tell His disciples (those to whom the name "Christian" is later given):
“Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, “Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ” When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”” (Matthew 15:1–14 NKJV)
The Pharisees and the scribes were the leaders of the Jewish religion of the day. These are the people who took the Mosaic Law (the Laws of Moses) and turned them into the Mitzvot, a list of 613 commandments. Keep in mind that God gave the people ten commandments on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). It was upon these ten commandments that the law was based (in Leviticus) when God gave specific direction to the people. What most people don't realize is that God was giving laws for both spirituality/morality, as well as the "laws of the land" (similar to how we have built-in moral laws, yet we also have the laws of our justice systems, such as adhering to speed limits). God was establishing His covenant people in terms of both their spiritual lives and their natural lives. Given that the Israelites were a people bound in slavery and had no laws of their own, other than the laws of Egypt (their slave masters), God needed to establish the natural/judicial laws by which the nation of Israel would adhere to -- similar to those that a King would establish for his people (and in the strictest sense, until the time of King Saul, Israel was a theocracy with God as their sole king).
However, what the Pharisees had done was take those judicial and spiritual laws to a whole new extreme (thus the 613 commandments) and this was the burden to the people. Jesus took the ten commandments and distilled them down to two essential laws:
“Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But after that no one dared question Him.” (Mark 12:28–34 NKJV)
In fact, Jesus was also referring to the burden of religion when He said:
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”” (Matthew 11:28–30 NKJV)
In other words, Christianity can be summed up in two commands:
How can ten commandments be expanded to 613, and then distilled down to two? Being that I'm not Jewish, and that the Mitzvot is not in the Bible (and, likewise, considering Jesus' opinion concerning the weight of the burden the religious leaders were putting on people), I am only concerned with the ten commandments (see Exodus 20:2-17). When you read the ten commandments it is easy to see that:
So, rightfully, the ten commandments can be distilled down to two, as Jesus did. When Jesus condemned the religious leaders, He spoke these words:
““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27–28 NKJV)
These words were spoken to them because they were concerned more with the acts of men than with the hearts of men. To them, it was the works of righteousness, moreso than a humble heart, that God desired. They put on masks (thus being called "hypocrites") so that they looked good on the outside, when on the inside they were more concerned with themselves and their positions of power than they were with actually obeying God. It is for this reason that, when Saul did what looked good as opposed to what God commanded, that Samuel said:
“So Samuel said: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22 NKJV)
I think it's safe that, given all of the above, God is not interested in religion (as many define it today -- a set of rules you must live by), given how Jesus reacts to the Pharisees and religious leaders of His day. Well known is John 3:16, which describes God's love for all humanity by sending His Son to be the sacrifice for our sins (sin is defined as our disobedience and rebellion to God and His character, which are shown through His commands):
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16–17 NKJV)
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 NKJV)
Many times in the Bible, God is referred to as the Father... not just as the Father of Jesus, but our Father as well:
“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:11 NKJV (emphasis mine))
This is the heart of God. He is a Father to the fatherless (Psalm 68:5) and He is a Father to all. The whole point of sending Jesus Christ to earth to die for us was to bridge the divide between God and man that our disobedience and rebellion caused.
But even more than this, consider Jesus -- He is a part of the triune God and the Father asks Him to come to earth to walk among us and teach us (to reveal the heart and will of God to us), and He is willing to do it. He shows not only His obedience to God (with whom He's had relationship with for all eternity), but His love for us. What other King would step off His throne to die for those who are meant to serve and worship Him? What God would abandon divinity to become mortal flesh and then die, not for friends, not for anyone deserving, not for anyone who's earned it -- not despite us but for us? Only Jesus Christ would do this, and He did it for us, so that we could have relationship with God the Father, as He had for eternity. In fact, before being arrested and ultimately sent to the cross, Jesus prayed:
““I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17:20–23 NKJV)
The desire here is for the Father to have relationship with us in the same way that Jesus does. When He says (paraphrased) "Father, You are in Me, and I am in You, and my prayer is for them to be one in Us and that the glory You gave to Me I have in turn given to them so that they can be united together as one in the same way that We are united together as One". You cannot get any closer than to be united (which is to form as a unit or as a whole; a picture of this is the marriage covenant). This is the closeness of the relationship Jesus desires with us -- so much so that in the Bible He is often referred to as the bridegroom and we (the church) as the bride. Even in the Old Testament, God referred to the people of Israel as His wife (one such reference is Isaiah 54, another is the book of Hosea).
To bring this to a close, it's clear to me that if Jesus condemned the forms/burdens of religion that the Pharisees practiced, then it is not something that we should be engaging in (this is not, however, a license to "do whatever you want" because, while Jesus condemned this, He also instructs us to live holy and righteous before God (or, to put it another way, He expects us to be obedient children to God the Father)). Christianity was not meant to suck the life out of people making them do "stuff", nor was it meant to be a burden we carried alone. John 10:10 says that Christ came to give us abundant life. It is also clear that Jesus would not step down from His throne to give His life for people He didn't care about and that His death for us was the highest expression of love that He could give us, and that God even asking Him to do so was the highest expression of love that God could give (after all, would we give up our children for random strangers we cared nothing for and who hated us?). Would you do that for anything less than the hope of a relationship with the ones you gave so much for, and an intense desire to have that relationship in the first place?
Finally, if God simply wanted our obedience, He could have made us with no free will or capacity for choice. For God to have a true and genuine relationship with us, He had to create us with free will and offer us the choice: love Me or reject Me. Just as children demonstrate love and honor to their parents by obeying them, we as children do the same to our heavenly Father. If I make my daughter do what I want and don't give her a choice, her "obedience" does not demonstrate love, it just shows good programming. It is in the choosing that we demonstrate love, so God had to create us with free will and the capacity for choice in order to have a genuine relationship with us.
Finally, the word "religion" is not a dirty word as we have made it. Almost 200 years ago Webster defined religion as:
1. religion in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man's obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man's accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties. It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety; for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion
Which I think is a pretty reasonable and accurate explanation for what religion is. In other words, when we seek to define our position in relation to Almighty God we must ask ourselves: