Understanding the Religious Spirit: Shutting Up the Kingdom
Three spirits tried to stop me in ministry, the religious spirit, the Jezebel spirit, and the spirit of witchcraft. They will try and stop you too. Mature believers know how to overcome them. Jesus is a loving Shepherd, but He is also as bold as a lion when dealing with religious spirits.
Let’s take a look at some of the most severe words that Jesus ever spoke – the eight woes – and to whom He spoke them. No teaching on the religious spirit would be complete without reviewing the eight woes of Jesus. His extreme sorrow and deep anguish are revealed to us as He addresses the religious scribes and Pharisees. These scribes and Pharisees are types of modern-day carnal religious people that possess a religious spirit.
Many people fail to recognize that the Word of God exposes the wolves (Acts 20:29, 30), the dogs (Philippians 3:2), the deceitful workers (2 Corinthians 11:13) and, in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the religious spirits. The woes themselves give us clear insight into the major characteristics of the religious spirit. The eight woes teach us that religious spirits…
- Shut up the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Put on a show.
- Raise false sons.
- Are blind guides and fools.
- Are legalistic hypocrites.
- Are full of extortion and excess.
- Are pretty tombs.
- Possess a murdering spirit.
As we undergo a deep examination of the eight woes of Jesus, we will learn more about the woeful traits of the religious leaders that opposed the Gospel. We will also see the gentle Jesus using the most severe language in Scripture as He addresses the religious spirit.
The word “woe” is the Greek word ouai, which is a deeply felt expression of grief. The word is also used to refer to those religious spirits that cause:
- Great sorrow
THE FIRST WOE: SHUT UP THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
In the first woe, Jesus teaches us that religious spirits are carnal hypocrites that stand as legalistic guards against the deep spiritual and meaningful things of God. They won’t enter in themselves, nor will they permit you to enter in.
“But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for you neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in” (Matthew 23:13).
Shutting up the Kingdom of heaven against men is a very common activity of religious people that neither advance nor increase in the things of God or allow anyone else to, either. They stand as demonic guards and buffet the things of the Spirit of God – all in the name of religious duty. The following Scriptures are examples of religious spirits that shut up the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered” (Luke 11:52).
“But that it spread no further among the people, let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name. And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:17-18).
“Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? And, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:28-29).
Notice that these religious spirits had two distinctly evil traits: hindering and threatening. First, by hindering those who were entering into the substance of Spirit-life living and a deeper, more intimate relationship with the Lord, the religious spirits took away the key of knowledge. Without knowledge and an accurate perception of Jesus, we can never mature spiritually or renew our minds (Romans 12:1-3). If we don’t think right, then we can’t believe right and if we don’t believe right, then faith is made void through ignorance. Secondly, we see that the religious spirits threatened those who were pursuing more than carnal religious form and lifeless traditions of men.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you ever felt threatened or strongly opposed for your spiritual intimacy with the Lord Jesus Christ?
- Has anyone ever blocked Scriptural truth from being taught to you?
- Have you ever had to determine in your heart that you were just going to put God first even though you were being opposed in doing so?
- Has anyone ever made fun of your spirituality or your relationship with Jesus?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then a religious spirit may have hindered you.
Still others shut up the Kingdom of Heaven by opposing personal prophecy, fervent prayer, speaking in tongues, praying for the sick, singing that song, going to that church, and so on.
Keep in mind that sometimes shutting up the Kingdom of Heaven can be less obvious. It can be as subtle as not being supportive of your church’s leadership. So rather than getting behind the vision and helping, for example, the religious spirit refuses to cooperate. The religious spirit prefers to buck, argue, complain, debate, and otherwise avoid helping the cause, thus frustrating the plans of God. Moreover, through apathy the religious spirit hinders God’s plan for the church. All of us must beware of the religious spirit who shuts up the Kingdom of Heaven.
THE SECOND WOE: RELIGIOUS SPIRITS PUT ON A SHOW
In the second woe of Jesus, we discover that religious spirits will put on a show. In the Scripture below “for a pretense” could be translated “to put on a show.”
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Matthew 23:14, Italics added).
Once I attended a church service at which a preacher was about to minister to those in attendance. Throughout the day, he dropped names of well-known Gospel leaders. The inference was that he had a personal relationship with each of them. Of course, it was obvious that he was just trying to make himself look important. He even boasted about having breakfast with the City Mayor. Of course, he failed to mention that the Mayor’s Breakfast was open to anyone, and many other pastors and leaders were also present. He gave the false impression that he was the only pastor having breakfast with the Mayor.
In his conversations he also mentioned that he wore certain clothes because one of these well-known Gospel leaders had once told him it was important to dress that way in order to be taken seriously. His clothes were dazzling and chic and he pastored a church that looked like a studio set straight from a Christian TV program. Everything was polished, shined and fashioned just so. Not a single detail was left undone. As I stood watching I couldn’t help but think the show was about to begin. As my British friends might say, we were about to get the Full Monty. This pretentious pastor preached and wowed the crowd, ending with a spiritual sounding prophecy full of false decrees. Then, after a full spin and a half, he fell on the floor supposedly so overwhelmed by the power of God he could stand no more – the show was over.
Sadly, this poor fellow didn’t impress anyone. Those mature believers saw right through his selfish and soulish pretense and never came back to the show for Act 2. Scripture says,
“Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
I heard this prayer from a person once when leaders from several churches got together to petition the Lord for revival in the city. “Oh Lord, we know that the Christian television station wants to have me on their program and that the Christian magazine wants to interview me. Thank you for all the open doors, but I just don’t want to miss you God. I just want to remain humble in your sight. Thank you Lord that Pastor Famous Christian wants to preach in my church, but I just don’t want to miss your timing. Oh Lord, you are the one who gives me favor with my city’s leaders and the President’s prayer initiative at the White House, etc.”
All I can say is: Yuck! This is the type of a showy prayer with false humility that intends to mislead and is used to impress those who are listening – that’s a pretense. Then, of course, there is the person that wants to make glitzy prayers to impress people over meals and prays for everything and everybody – then forgets to give thanks to God for the food. Jesus is not pleased with the polished showmanship of the religious deceiver whose motive is the show.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you ever experienced a religious show that was nothing more than a demonstration of a false anointing?
- Do you know a person who prays for everything and everybody – but only at meal times?
- Have you heard the prayer that sounds like a self-promotional radio advertisement?
- What about the person that turns a testimony time into a preaching opportunity?
- Have you ever heard a prayer that was full of false humility?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have likely witnessed the pretense of the religious spirit.
THE THIRD WOE: FALSE DISCIPLES AND SPIRITUAL SONS
In the third woe Jesus declares that the Pharisees are hypocrites that do everything possible to raise up religious sons just as legalistic as themselves.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).
The whole world is waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God (Romans 8:19). People with religious spirits, however, are not interested in the development of true sons of God. They work on duplicating others after their own religious images rather than sons of God who are conformed into His image. The religious spirit will scour the church looking for that perfect candidate for its religious indoctrination program.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Has anyone tried to use the Word of God to control you?
- Has anyone ever tried to plug you into themselves rather than the local church?
- Have you ever experienced the formation of an unhealthy soul tie with a religious person?
- Do you know someone who knows lots of scripture but doesn’t grasp the spiritual meaning of those scriptures?
- Have you met religious people that make vows and commitments but don’t keep their word?
- Have you met the person that likes the religious debate and splitting of doctrinal hairs?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then a religious spirit has tried to manipulate you.
THE FOURTH WOE: BLIND GUIDES AND FOOLS
In woe four Jesus zeros in on the Pharisees’ inability to lead the righteous. He labels them as blind guides and fools that have no spiritual understanding of the Word of God. A religious spirit can never lead people into a greater walk with Jesus because one cannot take someone to a place that one has not already been.
Religious spirits may know the current religious buzzwords and Christian lingo, but they are faultfinders that put down those with true spiritual discernment while they live a life directed by carnal religion. In woe four Jesus says,
“Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon” (Matthew 23:16-22).
The Pharisees were teaching that if you swore by the temple or by the altar, then you were not bound to keep your word. But if you swore by the gold of the temple or by the gift on the altar, then your word was binding.
Amazing how the love of money corrupted their decisions. They were legalistically splitting hairs and they were placing the emphasis on material things rather than upon the spiritual purpose for which they were to be used. Religious spirits are blind guides and fools.
THE FIFTH WOE: LEGALISTIC HYPOCRITES
In woe five Jesus once again exposes the true nature of a religious spirit – a hypocrite.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24).
This fifth woe pictures the Pharisees again with their emphasis on externals. This is a picture of the average church today that is busy making the outside of the cup look clean by religious works but never deals with matters of the heart. They go through all the ceremonies, have the best sound equipment, chairs, buildings, etc. But all of the external ceremonies cannot clean up the corruption of the inner man. The Pharisees substituted...
- Ritual for reality.
- Formality for faith.
- Liturgy and form for true worship.
The Pharisees would pull their ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5), but were furious when someone was healed (Luke 13:16) on the Sabbath. They cared more about the religious keeping of rules and traditions more than they did about people.
Once I met a man who seemed to be a devout Christian. After getting to know him better I discovered that he was so legalistic that he would not let his children view even a Disney movie. This man’s wife frequently called the ministry for help after he beat her. See the hypocrisy? Again scripture says,
“Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).
“Strain at a gnat” is more accurately translated “strain out a gnat.” The Jews strained wine before drinking it so as to avoid touching or swallowing anything unclean. So we can see that these religious leaders were so utterly legalistic that they would “strain out a gnat” before they drank, but would “swallow a camel.” Blinded leaders, indeed. Just like the man who refused to allow his children to view a Disney movie but finds it OK to beat his wife.
Four Examples of Legalism
1.) Before Judas hanged himself he threw the silver pieces paid to him for betraying Jesus into the temple. The chief priests decided it was not legal to put it into the treasury because it was blood money (Matthew 27:6). So we see that these legalistic religious spirits could pay for the murder with the money but not take the money back.
2.) When Jesus was taken from Caiaphas to the building where the Roman governor stayed, the crowd waited outside and cried out against Jesus. But they would not go inside the building because they might defile themselves and become unclean and be barred from eating the Passover meal (John 18:28). It was OK to cry out, “Crucify him” as long as they didn’t enter the building.
3.) The Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” Jesus’ reply was in the form of a question, “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” (Matthew 15:2-3). Again we see the outward focus by the religious spirit.
4.) After Jesus went to the Father, some believers that belonged to the party of the Pharisees continued to try to put their legalistic demands on Christians, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise [the Gentile converts] and to charge them to obey the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5 AMP).
Religious spirits are legalistic and typically use the letter of the law as a weapon to bind one’s liberty. The following is an example in which the letter of the law clearly violates the spirit of the law.
According to a report in the Readers Digest, 12-year-old Christina Roads, an honor student at Maryland Middle School, was an asthmatic. While riding the school bus, Christina saw fellow student Brandy Dryer, also an asthmatic, begin to gasp for breath. Christina, fearing for Brandy’s life, gave Brandy her prescription inhaler. Brandy’s grateful mother believed Christina’s actions saved Brandy’s life.
School officials, however, weren’t pleased. The school’s “Zero Tolerance” drug policy prohibits students from sharing medicine. And what is saving a life compared to violating school policy? Because the incident took place on school property (a school bus) officials filed a report criticizing Christina for violating school drug regulations. The report will remain on file as long as she attends the school.
THE SIXTH WOE: FULL OF EXTORTION AND EXCESS
In woe six Jesus exposes the religious sin of extortion and excess.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:25-26).
The cup represents one’s life. Don’t misunderstand Jesus. He is not saying that the outside of the cup should not be clean. However, the emphasis should never be on the outside of the cup only while we neglect the inside (the heart). Jesus uses some very strong words when He says the Pharisees were full of extortion. Extortion is, the act of plundering, robbery and stealing.
Extortion is a predetermined plan of action with the intent to steal from someone. Jesus said the Pharisees were so full of excess that they had lost the ability to control their lust for more. Today we have modern religious merchandisers who steal from the people of God so they can lavish themselves with excess.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you ever been the victim of the letter of the law?
- Have you ever heard an unsaved man command his wife to submit to his every whim because he is the head of the house and the Bible teachers that wives should submit to their husbands?
- Have you ever been robbed from or deceived by someone you thought was an honest Christian?
- Has anyone ever manipulated you with Scripture in an effort to steal your money?
- Have you ever attended a church that was beautiful on the outside but inside there was no spiritual life?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have seen the operations of the religious spirit.
THE SEVENTH WOE: A PRETTY TOMB
In woe seven we learn that the religious spirit is nothing more than a pretty tomb.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:27-28).
It was commonly believed that if anyone could get into heaven, if anyone were righteous, surely it would have to be the Pharisees. Why? Because people were looking at their supposed pious and religious works. But Jesus called them dead, full of hypocrisy and iniquity. He then went on to say that they were full of uncleanness, which means they were full of impure motives and lust. One can only imagine the impact of such statements that Jesus made. No wonder they wanted to kill him.
Have you ever been to a graveyard and seen all the different types of grave markers? Some are covered with beautiful carved granite with sentimental remarks, along with the date of birth and death of the person. Then there are other graves that are enclosed by marble structures with wrought iron entrance gates. These tombs are works of art towering above all the other graves in the cemetery. They might be visually impressive, but at the end of the day, like every other grave, they simply house the departed.
A “whited sepulcher” is just a pretty tomb. It looks nice but it is nothing more than a house for the dead. Jesus likened the whited sepulcher to the religious spirit that outwardly appears righteous but inside is full of hypocrisy, iniquity and spiritual death. Today we see beautiful multi-million dollar buildings, but, sad to say, some are full of dead men’s bones and religious spirits.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you met the person that respects the great revivalist of history but disrespects those who have the same revivalist spirit today?
- Do you know anyone who went off to Bible School full of zeal and returned backslidden, legalistic and carnal?
- Do you know people who have embraced Christian philosophy but not Jesus, the founder of Christianity?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have seen the impact of the religious spirit.
THE EIGHTH WOE: A MURDERING SPIRIT
Finally, woe number eight reveals to us the shocking murderous heart of a religious spirit. Let’s read Jesus’ final and most stern declaration.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchers of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city” (Matthew 23:29-34).
Jesus taught us there is a murderous motive in the heart of the religious spirit. The religious talk about how they love our forefathers – great men of God, preachers, evangelists, and missionaries that were denounced and ridiculed while they were alive, but today are often honored – yet these same religious spirits are the very hindrances to contemporary revival. These same religious leaders that were honoring the prophets of the past were soon to crucify the very Son of God who was speaking to them.
I have known young men and women with a zeal and love for Jesus that attended Bible School only to return totally drained of their love for God. Their spiritual fervency was murdered. What happened? Could it be that they were exposed to the religious spirit that honors the prophets of old but kills the prophets of today? I am all for Christian education as long as it is not void of Holy Spirit impartation.
Once I met an unsaved woman who enrolled her child in a Christian academy because she wanted her child to have good morals. She never considered the importance of her child’s salvation. Serving Jesus is more than being indoctrinated in Christian philosophy or religions theology; it is an active heart felt love for our Savior and King.
Jesus ends this woe by calling the religious spirits “serpents” and “vipers.” The strongest of words toward the religious from the King of kings and Lord of lords. Let’s look at some other examples of the murdering religious spirit.
The day that Stephen was stoned to death, the young Saul whose name would soon be changed to the Apostle Paul, stood by and guarded the garments of those that murdered an innocent man (Acts 7).
Cain murdered his brother Abel because he was jealous and angry with God because Abel’s offering to God was accepted and his wasn’t (Genesis 4).
The religious spirit is not limited to Christianity. In the city of Mecca, 15 young girls died in a raging fire as Saudi Arabia’s religious police, known as the “mutaween,” beat them back with rods and stopped them from leaving a school building because they were not wearing headscarves and abayas (black robes), which are required by the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam.
The father of one of the dead girls said that the school watchman refused to open the gates to let the girls out. To these religious zealots it was better for the children to die than to be rescued if they weren’t wearing the legal attire. Saudi’s religious police also roam the streets to enforce dress codes and ensure that prayers are performed on time. Women walking alone are interrogated; some are even beaten to teach them a lesson before being released.
I still remember what Muslim leader Osama bin Laden said after the attacks of September 11th, 2001 during which Muslim extremists hijacked three airplanes, two that plowed into the Twin Towers in New York City, killing thousands of innocent people. He said, “This is a war between the believer and the unbeliever.” Those were profound words spoken by someone with a murderous religious spirit. From those words, and the attacks themselves, the world saw firsthand the manifestation of the murdering spirit of religion. This same woe of Jesus applies to all religions with murderous motives, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:33)
The eight woes of Jesus reveal His heart toward those with religious spirits. Scripture boldly admonishes us, “Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away” (2 Timothy 3:5). These woes all have one thing in common: the total distain of the Lord Jesus Christ and His deep felt expression of grief.
SUMMARY THE EIGHT WOES OF JESUS
The Word of God exposes the wolves (Acts 20:29, 30), the dogs (Philippians 3:2), the deceitful workers (2 Corinthians 11:13) and the religious spirits (2 Timothy 3:5).
Shutting up the Kingdom of heaven against men is a very common activity of religious people that do not advance or increase in the things of God or allow anyone else to.
For pretence means to put on a show.
The religious put a strong emphasis on external perception.
Religious spirits are legalistic and typically use the letter of the law as a weapon to bind one’s liberty.
Extortion is a predetermined plan of action with the intent to steal from someone.
A “whited sepulcher” is just a pretty tomb.
The religious raise up legalistic sons like themselves.
The spirit of religion is a murdering spirit.
(c) Apostle Jonas Clark
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