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There are a few quick definitions to get out of the way. The dictionary defines “rituals” as ceremonies in which the actions and words follow a prescribed form and order (e.g. The body of ceremonies or rites used in a place of worship or by an organization). “Righteousness” is defined as a purity of heart; the being and doing right; conformity in character and conduct to a right standard. In theology, righteousness is defined as coming into spiritual oneness with God, because for Christ’s sake, the believer in Christ is treated as righteous. The history of religion includes much about its rituals, whether Christian or otherwise. Therefore, the question of this study is meant to ponder whether adhering to rituals actually makes us better people?

Not all rituals are bad. Christian rituals are intended to help it’s believers remember and celebrate the significant events within Christianity. Rituals can also bring about good habits. Most would agree that a few of the big and important rituals we all support are things like the Lord’s Prayer, regular worship, Baptism, Communion, to name a few. The real question posed by this study is intended to ask more specifically, where do we find the internal source of power that changes a person into a more Godly, righteous person? Does reciting the Lord’s Prayer have some mystical power or is it actually believing and doing what is being recited? What is it in this prayer that actually changes a person’s heart to seek God’s Kingdom, desire God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, and begs us not to be led into temptation and to be given strength to forgive one’s enemies as God has forgiven us?

It is not hard to find references in the New Testament where Jesus took aim at the Pharisees, the religious leaders of His time. Here is just one recorded set of comments in Matthew. You can find the entire discourse in Matthew 12:1-37.

(Matthew 12:33–37)1NIV New International Version Translations – “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Why was Jesus so hard on them?  The problem was in their different understanding of the nature of God. For the Pharisees, God was the one  who makes all of the demands. Pharisees believed that the Scriptures, the Old Testament, were a set of rules (see example) that must be kept at all costs. Pharisees loved rituals. But Jesus, as well as many other Old Testament believers, felt that God was like the God described in Psalm 145:8, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. Pharisees believed that God only looked at their compliance with the Law of God. However, Jesus taught that God also looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). There are no amount of rules or rituals that humanity can produce to bring itself both lasting peace and salvation. History proves that! No wonder Satan wants to erase history.

The Pharisees had developed hundreds of elaborate but petty man-made rules that they had devised for interpreting the Law of God and then elevated them to the same level of Scripture. If someone broke one of their man-made rules, it was the same as violating the Law of God itself. Unfortunately, these rules not only obscured the true intent of God’s Law, but many times, actually violated it (see Mark 7:9–13). The issue between Jesus and the Pharisees was the way He ignored their trivial and burdensome rules for keeping the Sabbath. In Matthew 12:1–8, the Pharisees objected to the disciples of Jesus plucking and eating heads of grain as they walked through the grain fields on a Sabbath. According to their oral tradition, plucking the heads of grain and eating them was work, a violation of the Sabbath. Jesus, however, tells us that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness to Him.

(Galatians 2:16) – “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

(Matthew 25: 37-39) – “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

Doing righteous acts, checking off the boxes on your church attendance records, your annual tithing records, your volunteering, should not necessarily be the only focus of life. There is a very different focus that is being brought forward here. Since all Scripture is beneficial to us, there is a present-day lesson for us to learn from Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees. We need to be careful that we do not add our own man-made rules into the Scriptures. Some convictions that we hold dearly may be derived more from our particular Christian culture than derived from the Bible. We need to learn to discern the differences. Otherwise, we are just as guilty of  doing what the Pharisees were doing, taking the short cut, rituals for ritual sake. The risk we face is the “false security” in believing that there is nothing more we need to do for God!

(Matthew 5:17-20) – “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

As we read the many discourses between Jesus and the Pharisees, it is important to always look for the case of the letter “l” used on the word law. Capital “L” is God’s Law and lower case “l” is man’s extension of God’s Law. Jesus issued a warning to those who believed that just the practice of rituals/rules would lead to righteousness and of course the goal, salvation. Jesus was attacking the lower case “l” and came to help us understand and fulfill the Law of God, capital “L.”

As Christians, the Holy Spirit dwells in us and empowers us to walk with God and empowering us to display godly behavior in our daily lives (Romans 8:9; Titus 2:11–14).  It will not be rituals but revelations by the Holy Spirit that moves us toward righteousness. There are many passages that help us understand this:

(Galatians 5:22-23) – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

More than one Scripture verse refers to “good works” as the outward evidence of Christian behavior of the Spirit that is present within us (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:12). However, no rituals, no rules can ensure eternal salvation. It takes a repentant heart, and the complete surrender of our lives to Christ Himself that moves hearts toward righteousness.

(Luke 23:39-43) – “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The story above is probably the shortest successful testimony in history. Nailed to a cross, there were no longer opportunities for good works from either of the two criminals. One mocked Jesus, one repented and, recognizing Jesus as Messiah, and then asked Jesus to save him. The rest is history!


  • What areas of society are rituals found and which rituals do you find helpful?
    • Ideas to Explore: Order, repetition brings education and comfort, where? Does your list change as you grow or change as you transition from being a child to an adult? 
  • Of the Christian rituals, which ones bring you the most comfort and why?
    • Ideas to Explore: Association with family memories, relating to God’s Law, what is the source of comfort? As we age, do we demand more rituals to remain confident in our faith? Why is constant change sometimes disruptive?
  • Are there any rules, rituals that you disagree with?
    • Ideas to Explore: Prohibitions, things you are told not to do, Rules that were in place as “sins” but now are no longer important to keep, such as the infamous “fish on Friday?” 
  • Where has the desire by leaders to “expand the law” gone overboard?
    • Ideas to Explore: Government, Social Media, News Media, Education, the Church itself. Righteousness is not an election where we vote for the rules we like – How does this cause issues as views and opinions change from time to time?
  • What makes a ritual important to keep?
    • Ideas to Explore: Is it part of God’s Law or humanity’s law? Can humanities rituals become obsolete? Can rules go to far? What are the ones you would never get rid of?
  • Is righteousness a goal in society today?
    • Ideas to Explore: Do people believe that being a righteous person necessary for salvation? How to become more righteous, as children and as adults? Who sets the standard for what is to be considered “righteous” in society?
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    NIV New International Version Translations