Orthodox Jews understand that 39 kinds of work are forbidden on the Sabbath under prevailing Halakah. The Pharisees were experts in the law. Today we would consider them legalists. We recognize them as the black and white thinkers among our friends, co-workers and relatives. In fact we ourselves may be wired as such. Every society needs law-proponents. But if taken to the extreme, legalism may spawn five serious problems.
1. Legalism is burdensome and a joy-killer. When Jesus offered to give rest to those weary and burdened in Mat.11:28, part of the load the people were carrying was trying to live up to a multitude of laws. For example, M Hagigah 1:8 says, “the rules about the Sabbath . . . are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many” M Hagigah 1:8. I don’t know about you, but whenever I am around unbalanced legalists I find my joy sapped by the ever-flowing stream of attention to the nit nat and nit noid.
2. Legalism draws attention to its possessor. Jesus said of the religious leaders—“They do everything to be observed by others: They enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the place of honor at banquets, the front seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people” (Mat.23:5-7).
3. Legalism preserves the tree at the expense of the forest. It is the spirit and not the form of law that keeps justice alive—Earl Warren. Those who focus on the letter of the law often miss the intent for which the law originated.
4. Legalism is often symptomatic of a deeper issue: jealousy, insecurity, fear, unbelief.
In my opinion, unbelief is the root cause of all legalism. How? It refuses to accept God’s covenant promises—that His Spirit will subdue our sins, empower us to obey, instill His fear in us, cause us to walk uprightly, give us a hatred for sin. When we depart from the truth of God’s covenant, no longer trusting and waiting on Him to do the work, we turn to legalism. We construct our own set of rigid rules devoid of the Spirit’s power—David Wilkerson
5. Legalism is often fraught with muddy thinking and double standards. After Jesus healed the man’s shriveled hand in the synagogue, the Pharisees went out and plotted killing Him. How could men passionate to preserve the Sabbath conspire to murder?! They were not infuriated by Jesus breaking Sabbath rules. They were angry because of His claims of authority (Mat.12:6,8). Jesus taught:
"The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carryand put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them . . . The greatest among you will be your servant" (Mat. 23:2-4, 11).
Does this mean we have the freedom to chuck the law or think less of legalists? No! For Jesus said, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Mat. 5:17). Isn’t the challenge we face, to uphold God’s laws while maintaining a careful understanding of the intent and application of them? If we are more consumed with keeping the law than in loving God and our fellowman we are in jeopardy of actually turning people away from God’s glorious kingdom! Something to think about . . . in reveration.
Matthew 12:9-12—Moving on from there, He entered their synagogue. There He saw a man who had a paralyzed hand. And in order to accuse Him they asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” But He said to them, “What man among you, if he had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t take hold of it and lift it out? A man is worth far more than a sheep, so it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath.”
When I disassociate myself from God, I become a law to myself, and the first thing that happens is I don’t love my neighbor as myself—I am so sure I am right and everyone else is wrong.—Oswald Chambers in God’s Workmanship
©2000 Daniel York ARR. Reveration is the weekly devotional ministry of First Cause. If you would like to receive these devotionals go to www.firstcause.org and click on the “Click here to receive weekly devotionals” box. Unlimited permission to copy this devotional without altering text or profiteering is allowed subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.
Ecclesiastes 12:10-The Teacher sought to find delightful sayings and to accurately write words of truth. (Holman CSB)