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Formal Israelites

Formalism,
what exactly is it? In the experience of the Jews at the time of the
prophet Amos (and indeed many other prophets), formalism can be
characterized as an attempt to observe religious customs without regard
for the principles they were instituted to teach. For example, in Amos'
time the Israelites of the day were a very religious bunch. They
assembled regularly for religious meetings (Amos 5:21), they longed for
the coming of the Messiah (Amos 5:18) and they even went on long
journeys to keep the feasts which their religion mandated. Surely God
would see their religious dedication and reward their 'faith'. On the
contrary, God actually cites their religious observances as something
that brought him much displeasure.

God finds no pleasure in
mere outward observances. In fact, his very reason for requiring the
observance of certain outward procedures was to assist in teaching
inward spiritual lessons. For example, the killing of a lamb as
a sacrifice was never intended to lead one to think that once a sin was
committed, the sacrifice of a lamb secures forgiveness. Instead, it was
intended to be an 'acted parable' that among other things, reminded the
Israelites of the need to surrender their lives to God as a living
sacrifice and also to teach them of the role the Messiah would play in
the plan of salvation. However, to a large extent, the ceremony of
sacrificing animals had little or no real spiritual impact on the lives
of the Israelites. The same was also true of their other religious
observances. What's frightening is that history has a way of repeating
itself.

Of future Israelites (Christians) Jesus makes the sad
prediction "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not
prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy
name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I
never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." (Matthew
7:22-23). End time Israelites are also described as being "wretched,
miserable, poor, blind, and naked" while deluding themselves that they
are "rich, and increased with goods, and in need of nothing" (Revelation
3:17). These predictions are strikingly similar to what actually
occurred when Jesus came the first time. The apostle John tells us "He
(Jesus) came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11).
Jesus himself declared that the Israelites of his time honoured God with
their lips, but their hearts were far from him (Matthew 15:8-9).

As religious people it is our responsibility to know why we do what we
do. If we are engaged in some religious ceremony or tradition that makes
little sense to us and does not lead to positive character development
then we are in danger of serving God with our lips while our hearts are
far from him. We are to seek the Lord so that we may understand his
character and will for our lives and not get obsessed with empty
formality.

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