legalism

Mark 8

Today we’re reading Mark 8.

Do you remember the Judiazers from passages we’ve already read in Acts, Galatians, and Colossians? They were a group of people who called themselves Christians but tried to impose Old Testament ceremonies on the Gentile believers who came to Christ and became part of the church in the cities where Paul traveled. Here in Mark 8:15, Jesus forewarned the disciples about them when he said, “‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees....’”

It seems surprising that Jesus would need to warn the disciples about the Pharisees. They were a constant problem for Christ during his ministry on this earth, so I would expect that the Twelve would be wary about them. Maybe they were; however, we need to remember that the disciples grew up in synagogues that were dominated by Pharisaic leadership and interpretation of the Law. While they may have distrusted the Pharisees based on their experiences with Jesus, they were probably sympathetic to the outlook on life and spirituality that the Pharisees had.

Jesus warned the disciples that the teaching of the Pharisees (and Herod, but that’s a different story) would be like yeast. I don’t know anything about baking but I am told (like, here) that a small lump of yeast will grow and spread throughout an entire batch of dough. A little Pharisaism, then, in the church would grow and permeate the whole congregation. So Christ warned the disciples not to let them and their rules into the church.

There are some groups of Christians who would like to bring the church back under observance of the law. Our church, however, is more likely to be infected with Pharisaic attitudes than classic Pharisaic theology. We might never tell a newly converted man that he needs to get circumcised and stop eating ham. But we might be tempted to try to impress others with our pious words in prayer or with our extravagant giving to the church. We might never try to revert to observing the Sabbath, but we might judge someone for not wearing the right Christian uniform.

Do Christians need manmade rules to keep us from sinning? Maybe and we shouldn’t judge another believer who has different convictions about this or that than we do. But we also shouldn’t judge other Christians if they are living obediently to God’s word but apply it specifically in different ways than we do. That is a Pharisaic attitude and once it infects our hearts and our church, it will grow and spread until it permeates the whole congregation. fThis is true of all false doctrine, actually. How much error is good for your Christian life? How much false teaching can a church tolerate and still be healthy? According to Christ, not much because it spreads so we need to know our theology well and never dabble in or tolerate bad theology in our lives our our church family.

Mark 3

Today we’re reading Mark 3.

In Mark 2, which we read yesterday, Jesus told the Pharisees that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Jesus’ statement could be read to imply that he believed the Pharisees were righteous. Although nobody seems to have reached that conclusion, here at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus made it clear that he did not find the Pharisees to be righteous men. The setting was Saturday (aka “the Sabbath”) at the synagogue (v. 1). A man with a useless hand was there and the Pharisees were watching (v. 2). Makes you wonder if they saved a seat for that man near Jesus just to set him up, doesn’t it?

Verse 2 told us that they were “looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.” This statement reveals that they had already rejected Jesus and his message and were now seeking to discredit him publicly. Healing on the Sabbath would give them the weapon they needed against Christ. In the days of Moses, God commanded his people to stone a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath day (Num 15:32-41). That’s a pretty strict definition of “work.” It suggests that “work” meant more than just how you make a living; it meant any kind of productive physical activity. To prevent anyone from exerting themselves, then, the rabbis defined how much physical activity a person could have. They even went so far as to restrict how many steps you could walk on the Sabbath day.

If someone were wounded on the Sabbath and needed to stop the bleeding, or put their shoulder back into the socket, it would be done without any thought that the Sabbath law had been violated. But this man had been without the use of his hand for a while, so his situation hardly qualified as an emergency. Regardless, Jesus felt that relieving his suffering would be a positive way to celebrate the Sabbath, not a violation of the commandment (v. 4). So, Christ healed the man, though it is noteworthy that the man did all the “work” by extending his hand. Jesus used divine, miraculous power to restore him, not any kind of human physical activity. But the Pharisees were incensed by Jesus’ healing, so much so that they began “to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (v. 6). Their response showed that they not truly zealous for God and his holiness. Their “obedience” to God’s law was about making themselves look righteous for their scrupulous observance. It was also about controlling others, getting everyone in the community to conform to their application of scripture.

Imagine how much better this man’s life instantly was the moment that Jesus healed him. If there was any pain in his shriveled hand, that pain was instantly relieved. If he wasn’t in pain, he certainly had to work harder than everyone else to do basic life tasks. How much longer did it take him to dress himself? How much harder was it to earn a living with one hand that was useless? What would it mean to him to be able to pick up his child for the first time since that kid was a baby? Jesus could have waited until Sunday to fix his hand but why should he? The Sabbath command was given to make people rest so that they didn’t work themselves to death out of envy or fear of starvation. Wouldn’t it be less work to have two good hands on the Sabbath day than just the one? God also commanded observance of the Sabbath to give humanity space in their lives to worship him. Do you think this man ever worshipped God more fervently than he did on the Sabbath when he was healed? By healing the man on the Sabbath, then, Jesus broke the manmade rules created by the rabbis. At the same time, he allowed the man to fulfill the intentions God had for the Sabbath law in the first place. The miracle Jesus performed in this passage accomplished many good things. It showed his deep compassion, displayed his unlimited power as God, and asserted his Lordship over the Sabbath. But it also confronted the ways in which the self-righteous Pharisees used their application of God’s laws to control others.

My church background growing up was very good. I learned God’s word, was reached by God’s good news, and discipled in the faith pretty well. But there were some pretty strong legalistic streaks in all that goodness, too. Under the guise of modesty, what we wore was strictly defined. That was especially true for the girls. There were also clear criteria for what kind of music was “worshipful” and what kind was worldly. There were colleges that were approved of, some that were tolerated, and the rest were off-limits. I could go on. Sometimes these rules were given as genuine applications of scripture. The problem was that these “applications” were then treated as if they were the commandments and principles of scripture. Too often it felt like the leaders wanted to control us more than they wanted us to draw close to God. The Pharisees were not concerned with the worship of the shriveled-hand man; they wanted to use him to neutralize Jesus and control God’s people. I’ve met Christians who do much of the same thing. They forbid anything they don’t like by labeling it as a violation of some command or other from God’s word. When people are controlled in this way, always worried about whether others will approve of their outfit or their actions or whatever, they have little mental or spiritual space left to focus on worshipping and pleasing God.

Applying God’s word is a good thing and clarifying how to apply it can be helpful. But don’t ever act as if your application of scripture is scripture itself. Instead, remember the goal is to live a life that glorifies God. If the Pharisees had been focused on that, they could have rejoiced with the man as his body was made whole again. Don’t make the same mistake.

Philippians 3

Today’s reading is Philippians 3.

In many of the places where Paul founded churches, he faced immediate opposition and follow-up opposition. Immediate opposition refers to the persecutions he faced from locals--sometimes Jewish, sometimes Gentile--who were opposed to the growing gospel message. We read about these frequently in the book of Acts. Although there was much opposition, God saved his chosen ones and a new church was founded.

“Follow-up opposition,” as I referred to it in the previous paragraph has to do with the infiltration of false teachers in the churches that were established. It is in Paul’s letters, not the book of Acts, where we learn about this type of opposition. There were different types of false teachers--for instance, the church at Ephesus faced a different kind of threat from false teachers than the church at Colossae faced. But one type of false teaching that these new churches faced was from a group that has been called “the Judaizers.” This was a group of Jewish people who would come to these Gentile churches. They would tell the new Gentile converts to Christ that the men had to be circumcised (ouch!) and all of them needed to start obeying the Law of Moses. Here in Philippians 2:2, Paul warned the Philippian church about this group when he said, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision....” The point of these words was to tell the believers that there was nothing deficient about their relationship to God. Christ fulfilled the Law so there was no need to be obedient to it any longer. We saw this in the remainder of verse 3 when we read, “it is we... who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” The phrase, “boast in Christ Jesus” is a short-hand way of speaking about how Christ has kept the law for us. Theologians call this “the active obedience of Christ” and, like his death (which they call his “passive obedience”) it is credited (imputed) to us at the time of our salvation. God wants his people to know that everything that was necessary for them to be right with God was fully accomplished in Christ. There is no act of positive obedience you must do to be declared right before God nor is there any personal sacrifice you must make to be declared right before God.

In verses 4-6 Paul described his personal religious credentials. More (v. 4b) than any Judaizer who might come to Philippi, Paul was religiously qualified under Judaism to obtain “righteousness based on the law” (v. 6b). But in verses 7-11, Paul described how being justified by faith in Christ was so much better than the (theoretical) righteousness a law abiding Jew might think he has. He wrote in verse 9 that he wanted to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Because of this salvation by faith, he pursued knowing Christ and living for him (vv. 10-14) as all mature believers should (v. 15).

Today there are groups who call themselves Christians but emphasize the need to obey the Law. Some of these people are Jewish; others (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Catholics) are simply legalistic. Many people find a feeling of spirituality by performing rituals and rites or by obedience to some Old Testament dietary command. But the books of the New Testament--and this chapter is an excellent example--teach clearly that Christ has done everything you ever need to be right with God. Obedience to him is a matter of loving service, not a matter of earning his favor. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that you need faith in Jesus plus something else--some ritual or obedience to some command. Christ is all we need and in him is hidden all the riches of wisdom and knowledge. Our goal as believers, then, is “to know him” (v. 10). That’s what the Christian life is all about.

Luke 6

Today’s devotional reading is Luke 6.

On the seventh day of the creation week the Bible tells us that God rested. This means that he ceased from the act of creating. It was unnecessary for him to “rest” in the sense of recovering and renewing his energy and strength because he is all-powerful. But he set aside a day to cease from labor and even set that day apart to teach us to rest.

Rest is about renewing yourself and spiritual renewal through worship is a key part of resting. By the time Jesus lived, however, the Sabbath had become more about what was forbidden than about the blessing of taking time off to rest your body and renew your spirit. That’s what Jesus faced here in Luke 6. The Pharisees were so legalistic about the Sabbath that they didn’t want anyone to do much of anything; even picking up a snack off the grain fields was sin in their minds (vv. 1-2). Likewise, they were miffed when Jesus healed a man; they should have been happy for him. He recovered the use of one of the most useful parts of his body. What better day to be renewed from an injury or a disability than the day God set aside for renewal?

As Jesus answered the objections of the legalists about the Sabbath, he both asserted his authority over the Sabbath day (v. 5) and reminded the people that the Sabbath is supposed to be about what is good not about putting people in bondage (v. 9). But the Pharisees measured a person’s spirituality based on how well he kept a long list of manmade rules, so Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath threatened their approach to spirituality.

This is an important thing to keep in mind whenever you encounter someone who thinks that pleasing God is about some manmade rule to measure spirituality. Who is more spiritual--a person who reads one verse a day or someone who reads one book of the Bible per day? If we measure by the sheer volume of material, the one who reads a whole book of the Bible each day is the truly spiritual person. But remember from James 1:22 that the person who merely reads the Bible without applying it is self-deceived. One verse--truly considered and applied--is far better than one book of the Bible read only to impress yourself, God, or someone else with how spiritual you are. God wants us to keep his commands but not so that we can impress others or oppress them by pointing out their failures or sub-standard performance compared to us. God does not give us his commands to judge our performance; he gives his commands to transform us. Whenever we judge others for their lack of performance, we are indicting ourselves as legalists. Don’t measure your walk with God by performance metrics; seek to walk with God, putting his words into practice out of love for him and a desire to grow (see verses 46-49 here in Luke 6).

Matthew 12

I was lazy and didn’t actually check the schedule but I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to read Matthew 12 today.

God’s intention for the Sabbath was that man would take a day off from the way that he normally makes his living. It was to be a day of rest and a day to reflect on God, our Creator. So farmers would not plant, weed, water, reap, or do any of the normal activities that farmers do Sunday through Friday. The same was commanded for their wives and children and servants; everybody was supposed to get a break from their normal daily schedule.

This law was clear enough that it could be applied easily to most situations. Don’t farm your land, or fix your equipment, or type up those invoices, or make a fancy meal, or clean the house, or do the laundry. It was a day to rest, not to catch up on chores--work or personal. Do what needs to be done but keep it simple so you get a break and feel rested for a change. That’s the idea.

The problem with broadly-applicable commands is that it is not always clear how they should be applied. Obeying the command, “Do not work on the Sabbath” depends on how you define “work.” Is it work to make your bed? Tie your shoes? If you were a milkman who delivered milk by walking from house to house, that would clearly be forbidden on the Sabbath. But what if the milkman’s wife wanted to go for a long walk for recreation? Is that forbidden? The Pharisees hated ambiguity so they wanted every possible application of every law spelled out clearly. They specified how far someone could walk on the Sabbath to keep the milkman or his wife from doing “work” accidentally. This is one aspect of legalism.

Speaking of legalism, what exactly is it? It is a term that can be applied to at least two kinds of situations: First, anyone who thinks they can do good works to merit favor with God is a legalist. Second, anyone who thinks that his or her application of the Bible has the authority of the Bible itself is a legalist.

The Pharisees were legalists in both senses. They believed that their obedience to the law gave them favor with God. They also believed that they ways in which they applied God’s laws were as authoritative and binding as the law itself. That’s what’s going on here in Matthew 12:1-2. The disciples were not farmers. They were not working to earn a living by reaping. Instead they were getting a snack from someone else’s farmland. Taking small amounts of food from someone’s farm was allowed in God’s Law, so the Pharisees did not accuse the disciples of stealing. Instead, they accused them of working on the Sabbath. Because they applied the Sabbath law to any kind of reaping at all, they concluded that the disciples were doing what was “unlawful on the Sabbath” (v. 2b).

Elsewhere in the gospels we learn that Jesus rebuked them for distorting God’s intentions. The Sabbath law was supposed to be a blessing from God, not a burden. It was God imposing a day off on everyone so that everyone could enjoy life for at least one day a week. By denying the right to snack on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were making the Sabbath something unpleasant instead of enjoyable. Their legalism was not an obedience that pleased God, it was a burden that robbed people of the joy he wanted them to have.

Here in Matthew 12, however, Matthew records a different emphasis of Jesus regarding Sabbath violations. Jesus pointed out ways in which people broke the law technically but they did so in a way that upheld the law’s intention. The first example Jesus cited was from David (vv. 3-4). He and his warrior-companions ate the temple show bread which was against the law, yet they were not condemned. The reason was that they were servants of God doing God’s work, just like the priests were. So, technically they broke the law but by taking and eating the bread, they were being served by the law’s intention--to provide for God’s servants. Likewise, the priests on the Sabbath were technically in a no-win situation. The temple duties allowed no Sabbath breaks for the priests but the priests made their living being priests. So, they were not allowed to let the temple activities lapse even for a day but that required them to do the normal work of priests--a technical violation of the law. Yet Jesus said that “they are innocent” (v. 5b). Then Christ took things further; not only were the disciples not guilty of breaking the Sabbath by picking up a snack, Christ himself asserted the right to rule or overrule anything regarding the Sabbath because he was “Lord of the Sabbath.” He then pressed the issue further by healing a man deliberately on the Sabbath day to show his lordship over it (vv. 9-14).

The Pharisees’ zeal about the Sabbath wasn’t really about obedience to God; it was about control. They wanted to define everything so that there was complete uniformity; no ambiguity or exceptions were allowed. They could, then, define who was right with God and who wasn’t based on how well or how poorly everyone kept the rules. Unfortunately, we sometimes do the same things. The “good guys” never wear denim on Sunday, or use the right translation of the Bible, or only buy American, or never listen to music that has a beat to it. But these (and other) rules are at best only applications of Biblical principles, not Biblical truths themselves. The Bible teaches us to accept each other in areas where there are genuine disagreements about application (Rom 15:7). You should never use someone else’s actions to justify doing something that your conscience bothers you about. And, if you are truly concerned for someone else’s spiritual life, I think it is good to humbly approach them to talk about how they are or are not applying a scriptural command. But let’s be careful not to judge and condemn each other based on our own man-made rules. Instead, each of us should submit ourselves and our actions to the Lord of everything--including the Sabbath--and do what we think is right in his sight based on the clear teachings of scripture.