Christianity has its roots in Judaism, but the two don’t have that much in common. You can see that in this letter, where Peter has some fighting words for his childhood faith:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
- 1 Peter 1:18-19Religious law was the foundation of the Jewish way of life. It had been given to them during their exodus out of Egypt, and they had applied and interpreted it to their lives for more than 1,000 years. The law was the covenant between them and God. He would make them His people if they followed His rules. They were supposed to faithful stewards of the promised land, and a model for the rest of the world. The Ten Commandments were just the beginning. There were a whole series of customs and traditions that covered everything they did, no matter how small. Orthodox Jews keep many to this day.
The law was the glue that held Jewish society together. Israel was never an independent kingdom for long. It was ruled at different times by Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. The Jewish people were conquered, enslaved, and exiled. They should have disappeared from history like the Canaanites, Philistines, and every other smaller tribe from that period. The law allowed them to maintain a Jewish identity regardless of who was in charge, or what country they lived in. Following so many rules kept them separate from their neighbors and prevented them from assimilating into a broader society.
The law was how they defined themselves as a people. The more a person followed the law, the more Jewish they were. Holiness became a status competition in their society. The people at the top were constantly trying to outdo each other in terms of how much they fasted and gave to charity. Everything was for show. They claimed to be doing it for God when they were really doing it for themselves. That attitude is what Jesus was talking about when he describes the right way to pray:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
- Matthew 6:2-5It didn’t matter whether other people thought they were holy, and it certainly didn’t matter if other people were holier than them. The whole competition was pointless. The law was designed to compare people to a holy and perfect God, not each other. No human being could follow the law completely because no human being is perfect. Gandhi fought for segregation in South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife. Nelson Mandela was one of the founders of a group that wrapped people in tires and burned them alive. There are no saints in this world. Put anyone on a pedestal and they will end up disappointing you.
We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments. Try to imagine a person who has never lied, lusted, or coveted after something. It’s impossible. Flawed human beings should not be a benchmark for righteousness. Who cares if you scored 10 more points than someone else on a test if they scored a 40? You still failed. Trying to follow the law should instill humility, not pride:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of what I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
- Luke 18:9-14The Pharisees and tax collectors were on opposite ends of the social spectrum. The Pharisees were leaders of a movement devoted to a strict understanding of the law. When the Romans tried to make the Jews worship the Emperor as a god, a blatant violation of the First Commandment (Thou shall have no other gods before me), the Pharisees lead the pushback. The tax collectors worked for the Roman equivalent of the IRS. Many of them lined their own pockets before sending the money back to Rome. They were collaborators who were selling out their neighbors to foreigners and making themselves rich in the process. The Pharisees were the best of the best, and the tax collectors were the worst of the worst. Jesus didn’t care. All he cared about was their hearts.
The biggest distinction between Christianity and Judaism is the way they view salvation. The Pharisees believed they became righteous through their deeds. Christians believe we can’t become righteous. That can only be given to us by God. Salvation can be accepted or refused by anyone, whether they are a Pharisee or a tax collector or anywhere in between. No one is so holy they don’t need it, or so evil they can’t receive it. It’s a truly radical definition of equality.
Every human being falls short in comparison to the glory of God, and there’s nothing we can do to make up the difference. The gap is too wide. Competing to be holy is pointless because we can never be God. The only thing He needs from us is to recognize that. It’s only when we accept that we need help that we can take it. God does all the work. We are just along for the ride. Trying to earn our own salvation becomes, as Peter said, “an empty way of life”.
Before I became a Christian, my view of it was similar to the premise of the TV show The Good Place. Everyone was supposed to be as good as possible, and then, at the end of our lives, all our actions would be weighed to see if we were a good or a bad person:
Jesus freed us from that burden. He lived the perfect and sinless life we never could. He never broke a commandment. He never broke even the most obscure passage from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He is the only human being worthy of being worshipped because he wasn’t just a human being. He was the son of God. Jesus truly was a good person. Everyone else is bad. We don’t have to pretend to be something we are not. That was the point of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We can fool other people, but we can’t fool God. He can see right through us, and He loved us anyway.
Humans build societies like pyramids. There are a few people on top, and a great mass of people on the bottom trying to get there. Everything is a competition, and life is about out-competing others to advance. The Pharisees ruled a society where advancement came from being (or at least seeming) righteous, but it was not a righteous society. There were still people on bottom, and there were still people on top. Christianity is different because there’s nowhere to advance. God is on top and we are all at the same level.
Adding God to the picture is the only way to create equality between people. There will always be people who are more successful than you, who are smarter than you, richer than you, more attractive than you, and even more righteous than you. The reverse is also true. None of us are really equal by the world’s standards. We are only equal when we look at ourselves by God’s.