St. John's & Zion Lutheran Churches

Beware Of Legalism

Sermon on Mark 2:23-28

Text: One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Our text for this morning deals with legalism. Legalism is defined in this way: “A strict adherence to the law, especially the stressing of the letter of the law rather than its spirit.” You stick to what the law says to the very finite detail, as opposed to the intention of the law. Legalism also finds its way into religion, as well. In this case, it is defined as “The doctrine that salvation is gained through good works” or “The judging of conduct in terms of strict adherence to precise laws.” In reality, we are all legalists, to an extent. We like to have rules and we want people to follow them. We feel better about ourselves when we are following the rules, and we look down on those who do not. This is not always a bad thing. Without rules, there would be no order. However, there is a real danger when legalism is imposed on our faith. As we study God’s Word this morning, we want to BEWARE OF LEGALISM. We do so by 1. Understanding The Meaning Of God’s Law and by 2. Recognizing The Purpose Of God’s Law.

Our text begins as Jesus and his disciples were walking through some grainfields. The disciples were hungry, so they began to pick some heads of grain. Luke adds that they rubbed their hands together to remove the chaff from the grain and then they ate the grain. When the Pharisees saw this, they were incensed. What was the problem? This happened on the Sabbath, and there was to be no work done on the Sabbath. Clearly, the disciples were breaking the law.

A bit of background is helpful to understand the situation. In Exodus 20, as God was giving his commandments, he said, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.” (Exodus 20:8-10) Over the years, the Pharisees had gone to great lengths to define exactly which activities were permitted on the Sabbath and which were not. The rabbis had drawn up a catalogue of 39 principal works, which were subsequently subdivided into 6 minor categories under each of the 39, all of which were forbidden on the Sabbath. The law did not permit the harvesting of grain. To the Pharisees’ way of thinking, the disciples, by picking the heads of grain and rubbing them between their hands, were harvesting. The disciples were doing work forbidden by the traditions of the elders. It should be noted that the disciples were not breaking God’s law. They were going against the traditions of the elders.

The Pharisees used this as an occasion to attack Jesus. They said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Verse 24) In essence, what they were saying to him was, ‘What’s wrong with you? You’re supposed to be a great religious leader, and you’re allowing your disciples to do something that is contrary to the law.’ They were looking for ways to discredit Jesus and his teaching. Obviously, anyone who would allow his disciples to break the law is not anyone you should listen to.

In response, Jesus reminded them of an account in 1 Samuel 21. David and his men were on the run from King Saul. They were hungry and they came to the tabernacle. Abiathar, the high priest, gave him the bread that was in the temple. This bread was called the bread of presentation. Each Sabbath, 12 loaves of consecrated bread, each with a name of the 12 tribes of Israel, were offered to God. According to the command of God in Leviticus 24:9, this offering “belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the LORD.” Only the priests were supposed to eat this bread. This was a clear command of God, as opposed to the manmade rule that the Pharisees cited.

The relationship between the incident with David and the apparent infringement of the Sabbath by the disciples lies in the fact that on both occasions godly men did something forbidden. Since, however, it is always “lawful” to do good and save life (even on the Sabbath), both David and the disciples were within the spirit of the law. Jesus was saying to them that, if David had the right to ignore a divinely ordained ceremonial provision when necessity demanded, then would not God’s Anointed have the right, under similar conditions of need, to set aside a totally unwarranted, man-made Sabbath regulation?

The Pharisees were so busy following their own rules and regulations that they misunderstood the purpose of God’s law. They had come to the legalistic mindset that by following all their rules and regulations, they would earn their way into heaven. They went to great lengths to show their piety before others. They felt that they were better than others because they followed all these rules. This was never the purpose of God’s law.

This is also an important point for us to remember. There is a little Pharisee in each of us. We like to look at others and pat ourselves on the back as to how good we are. Sometimes we, inadvertently, think that God owes us something for all the good that we do. However, this was never the purpose of God’s law. The law can never save us. This is not because there was something wrong with God’s law. It is perfect. It is from God. The problem lies with us. The problem is the fact that we are sinners. This is one purpose of the law. It is to show us that we are sinners, who have not done those things that God has told us to do. For example, God gave his people the Sabbath Day as a day when they were to read and study his Word. They were to gladly hear and learn it. Have we always done this? Have we always been glad to come and hear God’s Word or are there times when we’d rather be doing something else? Do we always pay attention to it as we should or is it all too easy to become distracted and think about something else? Do we find ourselves getting bored with the same old message time and again? This is just one example of where you and I fail to do what God wants us to do. He gave us his law so that we would know exactly what he wants. The law is also just as clear about the consequences of sin. God tells us that those who do not follow his will perfectly should spend their eternity in torment in hell. That is what the law tells you and me. This is the first purpose of the law.

Because of this, we find ourselves in turmoil. We can identify with the words of Job 3:26, “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.” We search for rest but find none. The law shows us there is no rest in ourselves. It must come from outside us. The word “Sabbath” means “rest.” The people were to rest on that day. However, God wasn’t just making sure that his people took a day off once a week. Rather, he was pointing ahead to the rest that would come when the Messiah completed his work. Jesus came to the earth to bring this rest. He did so by gladly hearing and learning his Father’s Word. From little on, we see him listening to the word. Then, to pay for all the times that we have broken God’s law and disregarded God’s law, he died on the cross. His blood was shed for our sins. His resurrection is what we celebrate with every Sunday morning service. Because of Jesus’ work, we have rest. We read in Hebrews 4:9, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.” We are at rest. We have the rest in the conscience that is stilled, because we know our sins are forgiven. There is the rest of mind we have in knowing that God will take care of all our needs. Of course, we look forward to the greatest rest we will ever experience when we reach heaven. This is the rest that Jesus offers when he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28&29)

This brings to another purpose of God’s law. It serves to show us what things we can do to thank God for all that he has done for us. For example, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Verse 27) God intended the Sabbath to be a regular opportunity to learn God’s way of salvation. It was not meant to enslave mankind, but to serve him. When we come to hear God’s Word and learn of him, we are pleasing God. We do not do this to get something from God. We are not earning anything from God. We are thanking him for all that he has done for us. This purpose of God’s law is to guide us in Christian living.

Yet even here we must be on our guard. We need to be careful that we do not make rules where God has not. There are no ceremonial laws for us, as there were for the people of the Old Testament. For example, God told his Old Testament people “Worship on the Sabbath.” He tells us his New Testament people, “Worship.” We want to be careful of making statements like, “All God requires of us is one hour a week,” as if our Sunday worship is some sort of legal requirement. God wants our whole lives to be ones of worship. We also want to be careful not to put our preferences on the same level as the laws of God. We see it elsewhere where a certain manner of dress is required, or certain activities are forbidden. If they are not against the clear will of God and can be done to the glory of God, then, we may not call them wrong. It may not be what we prefer, but it doesn’t mean that it is wrong. Of course, the flip side of this is true, as well. Just because it is permissible does not make it the best. For example, in a worship setting, we want to be able to serve the people in a way that is meaningful to them. We don’t change for the sake of change. Yet, it is still a good thing for us to continually evaluate and make sure that we have not made something into a rule that must be followed. May God help us to have a caring heart that looks for ways to glorify him in all that we do.

It is very easy for legalism to take the upper hand. There is still that part in each of us that likes to look at God’s laws and say, ‘I can do that.’ May the law help us to see that we cannot save ourselves. Then, we are ready to hear about the Sabbath rest that Jesus has won for us. Having heard the gospel message, may we then look to the law as our guide to thank our God. Then we will properly understand both the meaning and the purpose of the law of God. Amen.