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The danger of Legalism in the Church   Leave a comment


The Pharisee and Legalism

The Pharisees and Legalism

At about that time Jesus was walking through some grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they began breaking off some heads of grain and eating them. But some Pharisees saw them do it and protested, “Look, your disciples are breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:1

It was forbidden by the tradition of the elders to break heads of grain on the Sabbath because it was a kind of reaping and reaping was considered work. Among the miracles Jesus did, 7 of them were made on the Sabbath day.
I do believe Jesus purposefully chose this special day to reveal the legalistic heart of the pharisees. He did not recant, feared for His life or reputation. He did what He had to do. This chapter of Matthew 12 would leave many of us perplex or question Jesus’ respect of the law. Many misunderstood His acts and considered Him a law breaker. His words were:

Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved…But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” Mat. 5:17-20

The attitude of the Pharisees

1. Legalistic

The Pharisees wanted to be seen righteous and pin-point the wrong in others. They were prideful, put themselves on a footstool to judge and were merciless. Jesus said to the people that their righteousness should be better than the righteousness of the teachers of the law and Pharisees. The righteousness of the pharisees and teachers of the law were rooted in pride and was unholy. Their heart were full of wickedness and were not led by love. There’re many Christians in our churches who are stigmatized and forbidden to participate in church activities because of their past sins. Even if the sinners repented, those who have a legalistic behavior make them feel inadequate and guilty.

Jesus described them as such:

“You Pharisees are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and wickedness!...What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.“Luke 11:39-42

They did not want to see the love behind the law. All of God’s law were given for 2 reasons: To lead the Jews towards loving God and to love people.

2. Hypocrisy

They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” Mat. 23:4

Have you met with people in the church who criticize and do not do anything to lift a finger to ease the burden? If you did meet one of them, you’ve probably met someone who have the Pharisaical symptom.

Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” Mat 23:13

Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens,but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faithOutwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” Mat. 23:23,28

The Pharisees want people to see them as righteous but within their heart they are full of bitterness, hatred and lawlessness.  They can be strict on matters concerning money but they neglect what is more important: Justice, mercy and faith. Instead of encouraging people to know God, they mislead them. They are not shepherds but wolves.

3. No demonstration of mercy, grace and love

As mentioned above, they are those who will stick to the law, principles and traditions(Mat 15:12). While their arguments are right and lawful, they completely ignored that the ultimate goal of these laws or principles were to point to love, which is the most important thing.

In many countries we have the supreme/fundamental laws of the constitution. On these are derived other “minor laws”. When it happens that a fundamental law is in conflict with a “minor” law, the supreme law supersedes.

All of God’s commands can be resume in 2 laws:Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” Mat. 22:40, Gal. 5:2

James described this law as being the Royal law of the scripture.

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.” James 2:8

If we love our neighbor, we will not cheat him, steal or hurt him. If we just loved, we would be obeying God’s will.

Minor laws have limitations as they cannot deal rightly with every cases.

We have 3 legal cases below:


The law in Exodus says:

If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey that has strayed away, take it back to its owner. If you see that the donkey of someone who hates you has collapsed under its load, do not walk by. Instead, stop and help.” Ex. 23:4

Still in Exodus 20, the Sabbath day was a day of rest and no one should work on it.

As per law, for an enemy’s ox, you’ll have to bring it back to its owner.

If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.” Mat. 12:11.

But what would you do if it was your sheep which fell in a pit on the Sabbath day? Would you let it suffer or would it be unlawful to do good on that day?

The Pharisees did not care about killing someone or destroying completely that person. They were stubborn and looked only at the “minor” law and ignored the supreme ones. Jesus pointed out that a person was more valuable than a sheep. What God expected by putting these laws was to instill love towards people and Him.

But you would not have condemned my innocent disciples if you knew the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!

Jesus called His disciples “Innocent”. That was hard to digest for the Pharisees. If it is  for us, I guess we need to reconsider the way we see the scripture.


Legally speaking, the woman who was caught in adultery (John 8) was to be stoned. It will astonish many of us about what Jesus did. Jesus wanted to make the accusers realize that none of them had the right to judge or condemn because they were not sinless. Jesus did not cover the sins of that woman or approved it in any way. He told her her sins, forgave her and recommended her to sin no more. Jesus took the matter personally because the issue was not between the Jews and that woman but between Him(God) and the sinner.

These pharisees were quick to apply the law and find all kinds of flaws in people around them. No act of mercy or grace, they were just ready to stone the sinner!

They accused Jesus of breaking the law or somehow tolerating sins.

The arguments of the Pharisees made sense, it was legal and no one could escape their condemnations. However, the Author of these laws reoriented them towards the spirit behind these laws.


Why was David innocent even if he allowed his men to eat the sacred loaves that were legally reserved only for the priest?

Haven’t you read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. And haven’t you read in the law of Moses that the priests on duty in the Temple may work on the Sabbath?

Jesus did not deny that the law was broken. His divine justice was rooted in love. David will not be condemned on judgment day for breaking that law. His men were hungry, David did what he thought was an act of love even if he had to break that “minor” law. Is not it strange how futile arguments can raise up because of food? I admire the way Jesus stood as an advocate and defended His Disciples. Many of us will be surprised on Judgment Day when Divine Justice will be applied.

Jesus also mentioned that the priests were not breaking the law when they worked on the Sabbath.

The priests in the temple did a great deal of servile work on the sabbath day; killing, flaying, burning the sacrificed beasts, which in a common case would have been profaning the sabbath; and yet it was never reckoned any transgression of the fourth commandment, because the temple-service required and justified it. This intimates, that those labours are lawful on the sabbath day which are necessary, not only to the support of life, but to the service of the day” Matthew Henry

4. Man-made traditions, philosophies and principles

Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.?” Mat. 15:1

Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ…Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angelYou have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires ” Col. 2:8

Let us be careful of not falling in the trap of following man-made traditions, principles or philosophies. Many of the world principles help doing things right. They contribute in doing things orderly so as to avoid problems. As Paul said, many rules seem wise and make people appear righteous or more spiritual. Some of these principles encourage discipline in different aspect but they have never been instituted for the church. We should be careful of not making worldly principles become biblical principles. Many of the world philosophies entered the church to make it work like a business. When these man-made principles are not respected, it causes useless dissensions and divisions. In several churches, a lot of emphasis is laid upon the church organigram, management and leadership and by doing so it is choking the church. The Spirit is not able to work because man is leading the church by his wisdom.

Jesus never tolerated sin, He rather helped people get out of it. This should also be our attitude when church discipline is applied. We should deal rigorously with sin. However, it should be done out of love and humility. If Jesus had to choose between the law and love, His choice would clearly be an act of love and the pharisees would choose the law. What would you do ?


The Pharisees and Jesus

The Pharisees and Jesus



Posted February 8, 2015 by Cedric in My writings (English)

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