Jesus' Power Over Legalism
Nov. 28, 1999 Gospel of Mark
Introduction: His Power over Religious Legalism and Authority
Just what is legalism, anyway? It is the quality of serving things that are legal. The root of the word tells us it must have to do with rules. Legalism puts priority upon rules. But just whose rules are they? Common sense tells us there must be rules. But are they rules of God or are they rules of men? When we serve God's rules it is true worship. When we serve men's rules it is legalism. And Jesus called that false worship.
Mark 7:7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
Jesus went on further to say that when we do this we have let go of the commands of God and merely hold to the traditions of men. Legalism then is the enforced worship of someone else's desire to be in control instead of God. We must follow their rules, or else.
Now this is a scary thing because men's rules can come between us and God's rules. They can keep us from understanding and obeying God's rules because of the priority legalists place on them. Here is a topic of fear that keeps people from coming to the truth. All too often people who want to come to faith are repelled by the hard-hearted legalism of those who use religion to abuse others, maintain personal power, and provide the front that they have all the answers.
Jesus effectively exposed the motives of the legalists, revealing them for what they were. They were opposed to God and truth. They wanted to kill Jesus because he exposed them. But by exposing them he disarmed them. The victory was not theirs but it was his upon the cross. We need not fear the legalism of rules or those who support them when we come to the Christ who taught us to live by faith in him who writes his rules upon our hearts.
Hebrews 10:16 "This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds."
And when we come right down to it, there is only one law we must remember. And that law is to love God by believing in the salvation he gives us in Jesus Christ from which everything good and holy and righteous comes. Why? Because he is good and holy and righteous. When we believe in Jesus we have his power to do what he does, and we will do what he does because we love God through him. Through him we are enabled to love and obey God.
We don't need to get hung up on a big list of rules and regulations. Jesus put all that behind us. It is called the Law. He didn't abolish it, but he did fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). Now we may need to be reminded of the Law occasionally in order to understand what God wants from us. But only one thing is neccessary, as Jesus told Martha when she complained about Mary in Luke 10:41-42. And that one thing is to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him. If we are in him, we do not need to be under the oppression of a lot of rules and regulations. The Holy Spirit he left us will prompt us moment by moment with whatever is neccessary.
Jesus has a lot to say about legalism in the Gospel of Mark. Mark included it because it is a big topic of fear – abusive religion. Let's take a look at what Mark tells us about Jesus' power over legalism. Note the rapid succession in which the first six accounts come, all in chapters 2 & 3.
1. Legalists would keep us in sin. (2:6-11)
Jesus would forgive us.
The Accusation about Blasphemy
Jesus healed the paralytic by pronouncing his sins forgiven (2:6-11). Truly there is often a direct connection between our sin and its result of physical infirmity. And we get the picture that sin becomes a spiritual paralysis just like its physical counterpart. Jesus may have known there were legalists in the audience or he may have rightly seen the connection between the man’s paralysis and sin. At any rate, as soon as he pronounces the paralytic’s sins forgiven, the legalists come to the forefront in their thoughts that Jesus exposes. He purposely presses the issue because it is important to oppose such hardness of heart against the true healing of sin because sin is the most serious infirmity of all. Jesus’ foremost mission was not the healing of physical problems but of spiritual. The physical was a means to teach about the spiritual and about his power to forgive and set free from sin.
They accuse Jesus of blasphemy because he dared do what only God could do – forgive sins. They were blind to the fact that only God could heal as he did. And so he must also have the authority to forgive sins. What hardness of heart have those who would rejoice in someone’s physical healing and yet refuse their freedom from the sin which probably caused it, and worse. Jesus confronts their hypocrisy and specifically says that he has the power to forgive sins. Whether physical or spiritual healing, both are equally easy for him, and neither one could be done by man. But he goes to the source of the problem and does the hardest thing for man to accept. Jesus is not intimidated from his compassionate purpose by hard-hearted legalists. We need not fear for our welfare because of any subjection Jesus might give of himself to others. He came to serve mankind’s deepest needs regardless of what anybody thought (10:45).
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than forgiveness?
2. Legalists would keep us in isolation. (2:16-17)
Jesus would befriend us.
The Accusation about Association with Sinners
When Jesus called Levi (2:16-17) he called one of the most despised of Jewish society because he was a tax collector. And Levi willingly followed Jesus. It was amazing to Levi that this holy teacher would desire his company and service. Levi responds to this friendship by inviting Jesus to dinner at his house with his friends who naturally were other sinners like himself. The legalistic Pharisees take Jesus to task for this ‘unholy’ association for such a one as himself who was holy. But Jesus’ response was essentially that for sinners to become holy they must have contact with holiness. Jesus said that he was a doctor who was willing to be with his patients in order to heal them. His slam to the Pharisees was that since they thought themselves so righteous, they didn’t need or want his company and would not benefit from it. Levi, known as Matthew, would go on to write the gospel to the Jews that would give the most scathing account of woes to the Pharisees for their legalistic attitudes that hinder the children of God from coming to him. How blessed and hopeful Levi must have felt for Jesus’ friendship. We need not fear anyone from averting Jesus friendship with us.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than fellowship?
3. Legalists would keep us oppressed. (2:18-22)
Jesus would give us joy.
The Accusation about Fasting
In quick succession we now see another account of some people who want to take a legalistic issue with Jesus and his disciples – this time about fasting (2:18-22). After all, the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, they said. Why was Jesus different? Why were they not tied to these same works of righteousness?
Jesus compares himself to a bridegroom and his time with them as one of rejoicing in which there is no proper place for fasting and its accompanying sorrow. He calls for a clean break with the old ways of righteousness. The new way will not fit with the old way. If someone tries to join them together, neither one will survive. His coming on the scene is a revolutionary development in the relationship of God with man. The old rules no longer take precedence. This is no longer a time to make sure someone follows them. It is a new time of joyful significance. We need not fear the damper of legalism in the presence of Jesus. We are free to rejoice in the forgiveness of sin, and in his friendship, and in a brand new way of hope in the wedding of a new relationship with God.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than joy?
4. Legalists would ignore human need. (2:23-28)
Jesus would meet human needs at any time.
The Accusation about Harvesting on the Sabbath
We next see legalism rearing its ugly head in regard to the Sabbath laws (2:23-28). Jesus and his disciples plucked heads of grain as they were going though a field on the Sabbath. This was taboo according to the Pharisees because it smacked of work which was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus rebuts with an OT example of human need when David and his companions ate consecrated bread in the house of God because they were hungry and in need. Jesus proclaims himself Lord of the Sabbath, saying that he has made it for man and not vice versa. The Pharisees in their legalism have turned it around. They have focused more on rules than on human benefit. So we need not fear the arbitrary rules of man when we have Jesus to interpret God’s purposes as primary.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than human need?
5. Legalists would have no compassion on human infirmity. (3:1-6)
Jesus would heal us whenever and wherever he found us.
The Accusation about Healing on the Sabbath
In the same way it was inevitable that Jesus would heal on the Sabbath in order to further blow apart some wrongfully entrenched ideas about its purpose (3:1-6). Those legalists who were always watching Jesus to see where they could catch him breaking their rules did indeed see that he healed a man with a shriveled hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus purposefully had the man stand in front of everyone as he healed him. Jesus asked those present what was lawful on the Sabbath, to do good or evil, to save life or to kill? He was angry and distressed at their stubborn hearts, and from that moment on they sought to take his life. Is there any hope for those who in stubborn futility refuse the grace of God, not only for themselves but for others as well? The hope is Jesus who heals in front of them all, and in spite of them all. He is even more distressed than we are at such attitudes because they oppose God and his purpose of healing and restoring life. They will have to deal with him before they deal with us, and the cross will demand an answer.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than healing?
6. Legalists would keep us under Satan's power. (3:22-30)
Jesus would free us from Satan's power.
The Accusation about Satanism
The accusation of Jesus casting out demons by the power of demons is another issue with legalistic overtones (3:22-30). The teachers of the law oppose Jesus because he opposes their interpretations and applications of the law. They consider themselves the experts, not him. So they continue to find fault in him. Since they refuse to believe he has the power of God, the only other power they can attribute it to is Satan. This is the ultimate accusation of those who want to maintain the religious status quo. They say that anyone who opposes them is Satanic. But Jesus gives a logical answer to their insanity and confronts them with their own sinfulness that will never be forgiven as long as they believe his power is not from God. We need not fear the legalistic accusations of anyone toward us in Christ because he stood the test and responded with eternal truth. There is no forgiveness for those who will not receive it in Christ.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than spiritual deliverance?
7. Legalists would have us focus only on outer appearance. (7:1-23)
Jesus would give us pure hearts.
The Accusation about Ceremonial Cleansing
The Pharisees gathered around Jesus and his disciples and observed that they ate with unwashed hands in violation of the tradition of ceremonial cleansing (7:1-23). Jesus confronted them by calling them hypocrites because he rightly saw the condition of their hearts which brought forth their accusation. Their concern was not for God’s commands but men’s rules of tradition. He accused them of other instances of violating God’s commands for the sake of tradition, like not needing to care for your parents with your wealth if you devote it to God instead. He explained further that the issue here with them was not eating with unclean hands but it was the issue of unclean hearts that brought out their sarcastic question. We need not fear those who try to find fault with us when we follow Christ because they expose the condition of their own hearts.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than purity of heart?
8. Legalists would have us place priority on human authority.
Jesus wants us to know true authority.
The Accusation about Temple Authority
When Jesus entered the temple after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (11:15-18) he drove out those who were turning it into a marketplace for personal gain rather than keeping it holy as a center of worship. He quoted Scripture that called for the temple to be a house of prayer for all nations. It was not to be the den of robbers that it had become. Now this really hit the chief priests between the eyes because they probably made money themselves from all the religious sales. Tradition becomes very entrenched when there is money to be made from it. They were so angry they looked for a way to kill Jesus.
The next day (11:27-33) the chief priests and others came to him in the temple courts and asked him by what authority he did these things. He turned the question of authority around on them in such a way that they would incriminate themselves, and they were speechless. The implied answer was that his authority came from heaven. Their refusal to answer his question about John’s authority from heaven to baptize exposed their unbelief. And it also exposed their fear of this same truth that the people believed. We need not fear the self-serving abuse of religious authorities because their own refusal to answer to authority exposes their own fear.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than God's authority?
9. Legalists would have us refrain from true worship. (14:3-9)
Jesus wants us to worship him.
The Accusation about Misuse of Funds
Another issue about money occurs when Jesus is at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany (14:3-9). A woman comes and anoints Jesus’ head with an expensive perfume. Some there complained this was a waste because the cost was more than a year’s wages and the money could have been used to give to the poor. They rebuked the woman harshly for her waste of resources on Jesus. But Jesus comes to her defense and explained that she did a very beautiful and appropriate thing at a very appropriate time. He would soon be going to the cross whereas the poor would always be with them to be served. She was preparing his body for burial, a once in an eternity event, and her deed would be recounted as part of the gospel throughout the world. This is because her act pictured the good news of the gospel that Jesus would die for the forgiveness of men’s sins on the cross.
The accusation was from a legalistic false righteousness. The accusers wanted to look better than others by how they watched money, and its proposed use for the poor sounded very sanctimonious. But in fact they loved money more than they loved Jesus. Mark pursues this point in what he writes next about Judas who went to the chief priests to betray Jesus for money (14:10-11). We can tell much about others by their priorities. We can tell whether they are on the side of Jesus or of the world by their view of money, no matter how spiritual they make their concern sound. There can be much abuse of money in churches. They sometimes covet and hoard contributions, not to use for Christ and his kingdom, but to satisfy themselves. But we need not fear. Like Judas, those who wrongfully covet money will ultimately be held to account. As long as we give unto the Lord as the woman did who broke the jar of perfume and poured it on his head; as long as we give what we give sacrificially unto Christ, we will be honored.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than true worship?
10. Legalists would have us discount Christ. (14:60-65; 15:1-15)
Jesus would not discount himself.
The Accusation about Messiahship
After his arrest, Jesus was accused by the high priest of being the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One (14:60-65). To this accusation Jesus could truly respond in affirmation that the high priest was right. He not only said, “I am” (the Christ),” but he said that he would sit at God’s right hand and come again. The high priest reacted in horror and accused him of blasphemy. Others there then began to abuse him and mocked his prophecy. Here was the ultimate showdown with the religious authorities. As always, whatever the circumstances, Jesus spoke truth without fear. And since what he said was true we need not ever fear any religious authority that opposes Jesus. He is at God’s right hand and will come again. It was the authority of the high priest that would not last.
After Jesus faced the accusation by religious authorities, he faced accusation by civil authorities. Again we see the affirmation of absolute truth. Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews to which Jesus responds that it is so (15:1-15). The people, instigated to riot by the chief priests, clamor to crucify him and he is handed over to be executed. The truth of his rightful claim to power and authority is posted (15:26). And we see his resurrection from the dead (16:4-7) as divine proof of his truth, that he is indeed Christ and King. For this alone, the capstone of all Jesus taught, we should not fear religious legalism and authority, because all authority belongs to Jesus Christ who died that we might be set free in service to him alone; not to rules taught by men, but to a new law written on our hearts by Christ himself through the power of the Holy Spirit – pure and simple / effective and saving.
Are rules and preconceived opinion more important than the person of Christ?
Timeless Truth: True religion is not a set of rules; it is a relationship.
This is the crux of the issue. Those that want the rules don't want the relationship because it comes too close to their real need. Those that have the relationship don't need the rules because they will obey them anyway. What would you rather have? A finger pointing God or a heart changing God? Its your choice. And your relationship to God will determine your relationship to others. Won't you let God change your heart? And if you have trusted him to change your heart, you can also trust him to deal with the finger pointers.