In this post I wanted to consider what I believe to be one of most critical lessons in the Bible on how to actually interpret the Bible itself: we must look for the purpose as we read scriptures. I intend to do some other posts that will build on this principle, so I wanted to layout this post as a foundation for later posts.

One of the key narratives from the gospels is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees and their legalism. Traditionally, when we speak of legalism in the church, it is contrasted with grace. And Paul clearly teaches us to leave behind legalism and accept grace. Paul’s challenge to legalism addresses the issue of attribution of righteousness. His main focus was on helping us to see that we would not attain righteousness on our own, but only through the grace of Christ.

However, Jesus addresses a distinctly different issue, as he confronts the Pharisees. A substantial portion of the gospels is devoted to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (and Sadducees). This rebuke perhaps reaches a climax in Matthew 23, which is entirely devoted to this subject. Interestingly though, this chapter (and most other passages) never says that the problem with Pharisees is that they aren’t relying on grace for righteousness. Jesus never tells the pharisees that their righteousness is insufficient, and that they need to lean on faith in Christ instead. As far as I can tell, he never tells them anything remotely close to this. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of many things, including pride and hypocrisy, but one of the biggest issue addressed in this chapter is how they’ve been following the law. Jesus accuses them of observing the law legalistically without any concern for the purpose of the law. This is less of an issue of attributing righteousness to one-self (although their pride does indicate that is an problem), and more to do with purpose, and looking below the surface to see what God was revealing through the law. This is more than an issue of attitude, but Jesus is actually saying that they aren’t even interpreting and obeying the law correctly.

Jesus demonstrates a correct interpretation and obedience to the law, in contrast to the Pharisees, in the beginning of Matthew 12. Here Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. According to the shallow interpretation of the Pharisees, this was a clear violation of the 4th (or 3rd, depending on your tradition) commandment. But Jesus says that they are not understanding the law properly, they need to look deeper, to understand the *purpose* of the 4th commandment. He corrects them, saying that the purpose of this law is that the Sabbath is for man (Mark 2:27). Note again, Jesus doesn’t make any suggestion of eliminating the law, that grace will replace the law, or any such thing. His point is very clear: we must look to the purpose that is being revealed by ordinances, and not just at the surface statement of behavior.

Going back to Matthew 23, there are a number of examples of how Jesus criticizes legalistic shallowness and points to deeper purpose. He condemns a legalistic approach to tithing, where even herbs are tithed (Matt 23:23), and points to the deeper purpose of tithing: to pursue justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He condemns the legalistic obsession with cleanliness (Matt 23:24-26), while pointing to the deeper purpose of being cleansed from greed and self-indulgence.

To reiterate this point, according to Jesus’ teachings, we are and will fail to obediently submit to God if we only mechanically follow the surface readings of ordinances and rules without seeking to understand the purpose of these rules, and the deeper concepts and truths that they are seeking to reveal about God and His Kingdom. This is true regardless of whether these rules are found in the Old or New Testament. Jesus’ teaching on obedience holds true for the whole of scriptures.

It is worth pointing out that Jesus’ different angle of condemnation of legalism than Paul’s is not contradictory, but instead is a foundation. Demonstrating how our mechanical legalism falls far short of true obedience to the deeper concepts that these laws reveal, provides foundational proof of how desperately we need the grace that counters attributive legalism. Jesus rebuke of the Pharisees gives us an important lesson on legalism.

As we read the Bible, let us not treat the Bible like the Pharisees, who viewed it as instructions to mechanically follow for divine favor, but rather see every law, story, parable, and exhortation as a revelation of who God is and what His purpose is, and how we can join in that. We must constantly be seeking to understand what scriptures is telling us about God, for this its purpose. If we simply go through the motions of obeying Biblical rules, without regard for understand the purpose behind these rules, we have come no closer to God’s intent for scriptures than if we were to ignore them altogether.

More to come…


5 thoughts on “Legalism vs Purpose

  1. How about this twist from my perspective: Scripture is God’s communication to mankind. Typically human’s goal in conversation is agreement. I suspect eating from the tree of knowledge has a lot to do with that. Agreement in conversation is all about controlling, which must be a cousin to legalism. However, the primary goal of conversation is understanding. If we see the Scriptures as a narrative and conversation from God we are more likely to look for understanding.

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