Legalism: A Recurring Problem! Part 1 of 2

by John Meador

Legalism: A Recurring Problem

The Gospel of Mark records a number of confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. These altercations were rooted in the conflict between their "kingdom of legalism" and the true Kingdom of God. As self-proclaimed guardians and keepers of the Law, the Pharisees wrongly believed they had a corner on the Kingdom of God. They were so presumptuous that they added 619 different commandments to the Ten Commandments. In addition, they added 358 prohibitions regarding the Law, including 39 different additions to just the Sabbath law.

From the time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Pharisees were opposed to Him. In Mark 2:7, they ask, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" In Mark 2:16 you find them criticizing Jesus for eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners. In verse 18 they ask. "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" In verse 24 the Pharisees say, "See here! Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" In Mark 3 we find the worst of the confrontations, when Jesus comes into the synagogue again. In these verses we will discover the distinctions between the counterfeit and the genuine Kingdom of God.

The story of the man with the withered hand in Mark 3:1-6 is, in reality, about legalism. The real story is the conflict between the Pharisees with their legalism and Jesus Christ with the new kingdom principles. Legalism is all about what is on the outside, while Jesus was concerned about what was on the inside. The Pharisees were about ritual; Jesus cared about relationships. You find those opposite extremes whenever you see conversations between the Pharisees and Jesus, but this is the clearest scriptural example I have found which explains what authentic Christian living is-what we are to be about. Let's make the contrast clear:

First: Legalism is unmoved by Scripture and moral reasoning. At the end of chapter 2, Jesus begins to reason with the Pharisees about the Sabbath. Notice, in verse 25, He appeals to them on the basis of Scripture: "Have you never read what David did…?" Then in verse 27, He appeals to them on the basis of moral reasoning: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Consequently, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

Incredibly, they were unmoved by either appeal. Legalism is always like that. These Pharisees exemplified the mindset that says, "When I get my rules all in an order, when I get my thinking all figured out, I'm not going to be moved by anything else, whether it's Scripture or moral reasoning." In the Case of the Withered Hand, Jesus found that they have not changed one bit as a result of His words.

There's something symptomatic of spiritual death when we are unmoved by Scripture. I've heard people say, "Well, I know that's what it says, but this is what I really believe." That's a dangerous place to be, where you're not even moved by the Word of God or the moral reasoning of Jesus Christ. Yet that's where these men were. They were so set in their ways that even the Son of God could not gain a hearing. They were determined, resolute, and confident that they had all the answers. Legalism is unmoved by Scripture.

Second: Legalism has its eyes on man and has forgotten about God. Mark 3:2 says, "And they were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath…" I've always thought that when you come into a house of worship, you come to look for God. We come to praise the Lord, to lift His name up, to worship Him, and to engage in a relationship with Him. The Pharisees, who were the experts of religion in their day, came not to look at God but man. In their eyes, Jesus was a mere man and they came to watch what He would do. Their purpose in the house of worship had nothing to do with God, but to condemn the One that wasn't like them. That is what legalism does. Legalism sets up a complex, outward system of laws that is used to judge others. You end up evaluating all others around you instead of looking to God.

There's a third principle here: Legalism is eager to calculate and condemn. Mark 3:2b says, "…in order that they might accuse Him." The Greek word "accuse" is where we get our English word "categorize." They were categorizing Jesus, stereotyping Him in a negative way. They were saying, "We have our set of rules about religion, and Jesus doesn't fit the mold. He's not keeping the Law in the way we want Him to." We often do that kind of thing with people, even when we don't mean to. We categorize them because they don't look like us, or because they don't do everything exactly like us. There's no freedom in legalism. Legalism is calculating and condemning, putting down even God's Son!

Notice another glaring problem: Legalism has no answers for serious questions. In verse 4, Jesus reasons with them: "‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?' But they kept silent." Make note of this! It's the first time on record that the Pharisees kept silent. The verb here expresses the thought that they "kept on being silent." They couldn't come up with an answer. These men, who added 39 laws to the keeping of the Sabbath and considered themselves the keepers of the Sabbath, couldn't even answer a question about whether to do good, or to do evil, on the Sabbath! That's a picture of legalism. Legalism doesn't think through what's behind the law. Legalism just simply takes the letter of the law and does not discern the spirit of the law! The Pharisees were so busy defending their system that they would not even reason with someone concerning the purpose behind that very law!

One final thought on legalism: Legalism condemns it's own deceived followers. Verse 6 says, "And the Pharisees went out and immediately began taking counsel with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him." The very guardians of the Sabbath law were breaking the Sabbath worse than anyone else could possibly have done! They were so worried about all their precious interpretations of Sabbath laws-yet, on the Sabbath, they were plotting to murder the Son of God. That's how deceptive legalism is.

It's a great paradox, but it's easier to keep law than it is to maintain a relationship. It is into that legalistic environment that Jesus came. And here, perhaps more than in any other passage of Scripture, we find Jesus demonstrating the principles of authentic Christian living. In part 2 I want to share some principles that Jesus demonstrated in this passage. I call it "Authentic Christian Living."

John Meador is senior pastor of Woodlawn Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee