Legalism: Luke 11


Today’s reading: Luke 10-11.

A pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself, but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself. – A. W. Tozer

The Pharisees probably began with the best intentions. They were the guardians of the Law. Israel had kept the Law so poorly and suffered tremendous losses for so many centuries. They took it upon themselves to set an example of devotion to the Law, in order to please God and set an example for the nation. At some point, however, their zeal gave way to pride and unbending legalism. They lost sight of God as they focused more on their own system of righteousness. The Law, with hundreds of rules they added, became their God. Jesus condemned their legalism repeatedly.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces … And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” Luke 11:42, 43, 46

Legalism magnifies the outer appearance while ignoring the inner heart attitude. The Pharisees were famous for their zeal in hand washing. In one famous case a Pharisee in prison almost died of dehydration because he used his water ration for hand washing rather than drinking. Legalism focuses on what can be seen and measured. Today it may criticize the style of clothing or length of hair. It ignores the inner spiritual life which gives meaning and purpose to the outer behavior.

Legalism magnifies the rules while downplaying the relationship with God. The Pharisees were so attentive to the rules that they would give a tithe from their kitchen spices, but then they would bend the rules to suit their own purposes. The Sabbath rules were the most stifling and also the best example of how they could work around the rules. As Jesus discovered, they had no compassion for healing on the Sabbath, since it was work, but God had ordained the Sabbath for good. Today a Christian given to legalism might think that whether he goes to church on Sunday is all that matters; the rest of the week he may do as he pleases.

Legalism magnifies self rather than God. The constant observing and measuring of outer appearances inevitably leads to pride. It becomes a contest. Who is best at keeping the rules? Who looks the best? People can put on a wonderful “game face” that hides a world of hurt inside. True faith begins with humility and a continuing recognition of personal sinfulness. It exalts the gracious God who forgives us.

Legalism magnifies what I do to earn righteousness while forgetting that only Jesus can pay the penalty for my sin. Legalism is, at heart, a works-based religion. I earn my salvation by what I do. I earn God’s favor by how well I keep the rules. Nothing could be further from the heart of Christianity. Jesus paid the price to redeem me from my sin. Any good thing I do is a thankful response to his gift of salvation. My obedience maintains a healthy relationship with God, but by itself it cannot save me.

Image by Jimmie on Flickr, CC by 2.0


4 thoughts on “Legalism: Luke 11

  1. A idea that I only learned recently was that the intense focus on the law stemmed from a desire to prevent the errors of the past that led to idol worship and ultimately to the deportation to Babylon. The Pharisees were attempting to define and protect Israel. Perhaps we can say their focus became too narrow, like a piano student working on technique while completely missing the emotion of a piece the composer intended.

    I have wondered what Jesus would have instructed, if he spent a year as a simple rabbi teaching in Jerusalem. Would he teach both, the technique and the soul of the piece, the law, the prophets, and the love of God as a unified study?

    • You are exactly right. They were reactionaries against centuries of neglect of the Law. I can sympathize with their conservatism, but as you said they lost their focus.
      Jesus as a simple rabbi. There would have been no miracles, no claims (I am …) and no ire from the Pharisees.

      • But what else might he have said? Would he open the scriptures as he did on the road to Emmaus, would he show how the essence of God is love, would he show the beauty of following the law, and how the Holy Spirit dwelled among men? In short, what would authentic rabbinic teaching look like?

  2. Pingback: Bible Daily Devotional – Legalism: Luke 11 | ChristianBlessings

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