Saturday, September 23, 2017

Against Legalism

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28)

In order to support what his disciples are doing in breaking the ceremonial law of the Pharisees, Jesus actually has the audacity to cite a desperate time in David's life.  David lies repeatedly to a priest, because he and his followers are starving, and Jesus uses this historic event to make his theological point.  The reason will become apparent, and it is the difference between life in the old covenant of works and the new covenant of grace.

The law of resting on the Sabbath is not only a ceremonial law that shows love for God, but it has been corrupted into a man-made exaggeration of the original law.  When man does something like this, he believes in an aberration of who God is.  Remember the original sin?  Adam and Eve were convinced by the serpent that God was a mean tyrant, and so they broke the single boundary that God had provided for them.  We even read Eve adding a little legalism of her own.  She tells the serpent that she and her husband are not to eat of the forbidden fruit NOR TOUCH IT.  God didn't actually say anything about touching the forbidden fruit, but the illusion of God as tyrant had grown in their minds, that they could not escape the image, even though it was a graven image they had created themselves.

Likewise, the Pharisees have taken a law in which man shows his love for God by taking a break from the toil that is part of the curse and basking in God's glory for at least a day, enjoying the Lord who made him, learning about him, and studying his eternal nature.  The Sabbath is a day to live in the gospel, and the Pharisees have turned it into a ritualistic game of freeze tag, where we aren't even supposed to touch anything.  So, we have developed a system of works that is a misinterpretation of a law that God made for us, so that we could live in his reality better.  So, when the disciples pick grain for food, the Pharisees freak out on them, telling them they are breaking a strict law.  God as strict taskmaster is unbelief in the God of the bible, and Jesus tells them so.

The key word that Jesus uses here is "need."  Elsewhere in the gospels (Luke 14:5) he says, "Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?"  The truth of the matter is, that even these legalistic Pharisees would help another in need.  The law of need supersedes the ceremonial law, especially a law that has been distorted by man's wiles.  Jesus punctuates his point twice.  Once with "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."  This first smack directly states what I said above, that the law of need--or the moral law--supersedes the ceremonial law.  The second smack across the face comes with the statement, "So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath," which is another way of saying, "I'm God, so my interpretation of the Sabbath is the correct one!"

Today, we have the same legalism going on, and it confuses us, because we are no longer in a covenant of works but in a covenant of grace.  Paul helps us in his fantastic letter to the Colossians in this exact matter.  He tells us that God "has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."  This transfer of his children from one covenant to the other absolves us from legalism. It doesn't mean we are not under the law, though.  Being in the covenant of grace means that we still perform the moral law, the law of need, out of gratitude.  Gratitude means loving the neighbor we can see to show that we love the God we can't see.

Paul writes, "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:16-23)

Remember, there are many in the church who are still under the old covenant.  God, in their eyes, is still "stern taskmaster," and so they are only trying to "help" you, because they do not understand the covenants, and they think everyone is still under the old covenant.  They are only trying to help, but you are under the new covenant of grace.  Paul says to let no one disqualify you by insisting on man-made institutions and regulations.  You are dead to those things!  You are also dead to the source of such things, which are the elemental spirits of the world.  These are demons inspiring humans to add unbiblical teachings to a false gospel in order to keep you dead in your sins and lose your soul forever!  Paul instructs us to keep our minds on heavenly things and not earthly things, in order to combat these worldly teachings.  This sounds like more law, but these are laws of joy that come free and willingly to the one who is in the covenant of grace.  When Paul tells us to put to death our earthly desires in Colossians 3, he's telling us as people who have been justified in Christ, not as people of the old covenant.  So, if we go back to where Paul states the theme of his letter, we read the following:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:8-15)

The first sentence above summarizes the letter: don't let anyone add legalism to your gospel.  Then Paul tells us how to do this by reminding us of our justification.  In fact, most of the letter is a classic telling of the gospel.  We need to hear the gospel over and over, so that we can be spared false teaching within the church, teaching that is legalistic in nature and that leads us outside of the covenant of grace and back into the covenant of works where death lay.

Paul ends his gospel presentation by showing us two things.  First, Christ has eradicated the legal demands put upon us by the law and crucified it, destroying it forever.  Next, he asserts his authority over all of the unbelieving people in this world who would lead us astray by their authoritative false teaching. 

Legalism is the most pervasive false gospel in the church today, as it has been throughout history.  It is the element that keeps many would-be Christians forever outside the grace of God, because many, both in and out of the church, think it is the true working out of Christianity.  Jesus tells us that this could not be more wrong.  Read your bible and see for yourself.  The true gospel is one of grace, and good works are done for love of God and neighbor, not to appease a tyrant who may or may not save you.