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I don’t imagine that anyone sets out to become a legalist and yet a great many God-fearing, Scripture-loving, holiness-seeking people inevitably seem to end up there.

It happened to the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.

They didn’t set out to miss the heart of the law; they didn’t set out to become blind guides to the blind or to take away the key of knowledge, and yet, according to Jesus, that is exactly what they ended up doing.

Obviously legalism is something we need to maintain a constant guard against. It can sneak up on us and if not immediately addressed, it can corrupt our faith and destroy our usefulness in ministry. Therefore it is very important that we know what it is and where it comes from. Towards that end, Luke 6:1-11 offers a great deal of useful insight.

On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. 8 But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus (Luke 6:1–11 ESV).

From these two Sabbath day encounters, it seems reasonable to offer the following observations concerning the origin and nature of legalism.

1. Legalism values human tradition over and above the text of Scripture

To be clear, neither Jesus nor his disciples ever broke the law in the Bible concerning the Sabbath. Exodus 20:8-10 says:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” (Exodus 20:8–10 ESV)

John, James, Peter and Andrew were fishermen; there is no story in any of the Gospels of them fishing on the Sabbath day.

Matthew was a tax collector. There are no stories of him collecting taxes on the Sabbath.

Nor are there any stories about the disciples abusing their servants so that they might rest from their labours. Rather the New Testament says concerning Jesus, “And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16 ESV).

Clearly Jesus, and presumably his disciples also, spent the better part of the Sabbath day in the synagogue reading and teaching the Scriptures. That is obviously how Jesus interpreted and applied the law regarding the correct way to observe the Sabbath day.

The Pharisees however, had a variety of extra traditions that they felt very strongly about. The Babylonian Talmud, which was written down much later but which most scholars believe is our best indicator of Pharisaic traditions at the time, lists a number of activities that a pious Jew was to be careful to avoid on the Sabbath day:

“The generative categories of acts of labour prohibited on the Sabbath are forty less one:  he who sows, ploughs, reaps, binds sheaves, threshes, winnows, selects (fit from unfit produce or crops), grinds, sifts, kneads, bakes, he who shears wool, washes it, beats it, dyes it, spins, weaves, makes two loops, weaves two threads, separates two threads, ties, unties, sews two stitches, tears in order to sew two stitches, he who traps a deer, slaughters it, flays it, salts it, cures its hide, scrapes it, and cuts it up, he who writes two letters, erases two letters in order to write two letters, he who builds, tears down, he who puts out a fire, kindles a fire, he who hits with a hammer, he who transports an object from one domain to another – lo these are the forty generative acts of labour less one.”  (Shabbat 7:2)

No wonder Jesus said of the scribes and Pharisees, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger (Matthew 23:4 ESV)”

The purpose of the law was not to crush people it was to point people towards love of God and love of neighbour. When we try to fence the law with our own traditions and preferences we make the law a burden that no one can bear.

Be very cautious about elevating your own convictions to the level of Scripture. That is the very essence and marrow of legalism. Legalism is when you think that in order for a person to be right with God they must keep your rules and traditions. This runs the risk of obscuring the centrality of grace in your own life and it may also obscure the goodness of God in the eyes of your friends and loved ones.

2. Legalism arises out of a harsh and exacting spirit

The Pharisees had obviously obsessed over Exodus 20:8-10, even going so far as to detail 39 acts of prohibited work on the Sabbath. And yet, it does not seem that they spent nearly as much time thinking through the implications of Deuteronomy 15:7-8:

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. (Deuteronomy 15:7–8 ESV)

The fact that the Pharisees were eager to define 39 categories of prohibited labour on the Sabbath while remaining indifferent to the needs of Jesus’ poor companions for nourishment along the road tells us plainly why Jesus rejected their approach to life and godliness:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23–24 ESV)

Certain people seem wired for controversy and exactitude. I imagine that this is very helpful in certain industries and professions but it can be very unhelpful in the Christian life. Jesus said that if we are harsh and exacting in our application of the law to others then God will be harsh and exacting in his application of the law to us:

with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:2 ESV)

Therefore it seems much wiser to adopt a generous and kind spirited approach.

The law is not a premise to be argued or a formula to be defined down to the molecular level nor a principle to be debated and dissected ad nauseam.

The law is a teacher and a guide.

It means to tell us how to live before God and how to love one another.

3. Legalism is often a matter of emphasis and focus

It is a good thing to know the Scriptures and to think carefully about how best to obey and apply them in our daily lives. It is important however to attend to the Scriptures as a whole and not to simply camp out in the portions which most appeal to us.

The Pharisees were clearly very interested in the laws concerning the Sabbath and Jesus did not rebuke them for that; but he did challenge them as to whether or not they had attended to a sufficiently broad selection of Scriptures before presuming to cast judgment upon his disciples:

“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” (Luke 6:3–4 ESV)

When Exodus 20:8-10 is studied alongside of 1 Samuel 21:3-6 it would seem that the Scriptures allow for certain general regulations to be suspended in cases of significant human need.

The Pharisees appear to have missed that, largely because they were obsessed with one emphasis in the Old Testament at the expense of certain others.

4. Legalism manifests a lack of concern for vulnerable people

Very much in parallel with that, the stories in Luke 6 seem to indicate that the Pharisees were not greatly concerned with all that the Bible had to say about God’s concern for the poor.

The law made generous provision for poor travellers such as the disciples:

If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. (Deuteronomy 23:25 ESV)

In addition the law said that extreme measures could be taken to rescue a suffering creature from distress:

You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again. (Deuteronomy 22:4 ESV)

Jesus seems to be referring to this law when he says to the Pharisees:

“I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9 ESV)

In Matthew’s version of the same story the connection is made even more explicit:

“Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11–12 ESV)

Here Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that they exercise more concern for their animals then they do for human beings. The law is about how to live before God and how to love one another – therefore of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath! If a sick person requires care, by all means give it. If a suffering person requires relief, by all means provide it.

Living where we do in redemption history we might add, if an unsaved person needs the Gospel, by all means share it.

The law is a gift and a grace and it shows a particular concern for poor and vulnerable people. Therefore, let us adopt a hermeneutic of compassion as we interpret the Word of the Lord.

5. Legalism refuses to recognize the interpretive authority of Jesus Christ

Ultimately, legalism comes from a failure to recognize the supreme interpretive authority of Jesus Christ. Jesus made that issue very clear when he said to the Pharisees, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5 ESV).

That is an astonishing claim to make!

The law was given by God! The Sabbath was instituted by God! How then could a man claim to be Lord over the Sabbath? Such a claim would only be reasonable if Jesus was God in the flesh.

Ultimately, that is what all such controversies come down to: is Jesus the Word of God in the flesh? Is Jesus the Spirit of prophecy? Is he the one who thought it, wrote it and now interprets it?

If he is then we dare not argue with him when he tells us what the law is and isn’t.

If he is then we dare not add to his interpretations and applications.

We should simply bow, receive and obey.

It is a dangerous thing to be more traditional, more exacting, more narrow and less compassionate than Jesus. His law of the Sabbath seems fairly straightforward:

  1. Pause from your normal labours
  2. Gather with God’s people to worship
  3. Read and hear the Scriptures
  4. Relieve suffering in so far as you have opportunity to do so

Let us learn from him for he is gentle and lowly in heart; his yoke is easy and his burden is light; thanks be to God!



Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.