Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Are You Making Decisions out of Love or Legalism?

Hands cupping clean water

Traditional rules about hand-washing are still practiced in various regions of the world today. This includes my own experiences with compulsory hand-washing in the Sahara desert. Bottom line: Why do we do things? Tradition? Compulsion? Both? Or out of a clean heart gladly obeying God and His Word, like Jesus and the apostles?

Sometimes, we try to be more religious than Jesus. That’s not a good thing.

In Matthew 15 and Mark 7, we find Jesus surrounded by legalistic Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of His day. They were a brute squad, looking for a reason to attack Jesus. At lunchtime, they found their reason: some of the disciples of Jesus weren’t following their strict, traditional rules about hand-washing.

The focus of the legalistic Pharisees and scribes was entirely on looking good externally—and smacking anyone who wasn’t as zealous to comply with all their traditions, customs, and man-made rules. You can almost picture the switches in their hands, whacking people left and right. The ridiculous thing here, of course, is that they’re lifting their switches to strike the Lord Himself. This brute squad wasn’t reacting impulsively. Instead, they were premeditated and calculating.

That’s why Mark 7:1 says, “The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus.” In other words, the legalistic Pharisees and scribes intentionally traveled and positioned themselves “around Jesus” to pick a fight. Their reason for getting so upset (Mark 7:2-4), however, is a bit foreign to most of us. Ceremonial hand-washing certainly isn’t unique to the Jewish people in Bible times. Instead, it’s been practiced by many non-Jewish groups around the world for thousands of years. I saw this firsthand while spending almost two weeks in the south Sahara among the Dangaleat people. It may be foreign to us, but it’s every day for untold tens of millions of people today.

Hand-Washing in the Bible

God’s laws in Old Testament times required only priests, at certain times, to perform hand-washing ceremonies. Later, after the rise of the Pharisees following the Babylonian captivity, this very specific requirement was stretched far beyond anything God intended.

Ironically, the Pharisees couldn’t see the hypocrisy of their mixed-up morality. They were making false accusations of sin, which is far worse than not washing your hands before you eat. As my friend Bruce McNicol likes to say, these legalistic religious leaders were educated beyond the obvious. They were blind to what is truly right and wrong. Moral rules about what is right and what is wrong aren’t always correct. The key is who makes the rules, how he or she makes them, and how those rules correspond to real life.

Of course, many believe the most important commands are the ones God gives in Scripture. Even then, not all Bible commands are created equal. Some commands are perpetual, for all people, for all time. Other commands have clearly expired, and still, others are for someone else—not for you and me.

Jesus said He didn’t come to earth to abolish the Old Testament; instead, He came to fulfill it. That point was lost by the legalistic Pharisees, who were out of touch with reality and adamant in their denial of Jesus’ person, power, and authority. They wanted Jesus to obey their rules, whereas Jesus insisted He was the one who gave the Ten Commandments and inspired the rest of the Old Testament. If Jesus is to be believed, He is the one who calls the shots—not the Pharisees or scribes—and certainly not you or me. So, Jesus rebukes these hypocritical religious leaders. Jesus then goes on to prove that this brute squad was systematically breaking God’s law left and right. Then Jesus quotes what is probably the most famous of all the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother.”

The Pharisees twisted this command 180 degrees in the wrong direction. They taught people to say the word “Corban,” which supposedly dedicated something or everything they owned to God. “Corban” is good if used as God instructed, but the Pharisees were using it as a way to shirk any responsibility of caring for their elderly or disabled parents. They could simply say the word without ever giving any of their money or possessions to God. 

Rules Then and Now

Over the years, the legalistic Pharisees and scribes had made up many rules to circumvent the letter and Spirit of God’s recorded words. Whenever my “rules” contradict God’s clear-cut statements, however, I’ve learned that I’m choosing to reject Him. How wicked.

If “my rules” say Christians shouldn’t eat brussel sprouts, or absolutely shouldn’t eat Prunus cerasus (sour cherries), I’m contradicting Mark 7:19 where “Jesus declared all foods clean.” That’s why Paul taught, “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat” (Colossians 2:16) and more importantly, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Let’s just say the hypocritical Pharisees and scribes strongly disagreed. They were openly speaking angry, murderous words against Jesus in public. This shocked the disciples, but it didn’t shock Jesus. Jesus knew exactly what they were thinking. It’s no wonder that He told His disciples to “Be on your guard against” the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6 and 16:11, Mark 8:15, Luke 7:30 and 12:1). This command applies to us, as well. Jesus wants us to stay away from anyone who pretends to speak for God and yet openly and directly opposes what He says.

Then Jesus taught His disciples about the real source of the evil we hear about on the news day in and day out. The overlapping lists of evils in Matthew 15:10-20 and Mark 7:14-23 aren’t exhaustive, of course. Jesus could have just as easily added other sins He and Moses and Isaiah and Peter and Paul warned against. Interestingly, Matthew lists seven such evils. Mark lists thirteen. The two overlapping lists cover just about all of the Ten Commandments. Of course, the book of James tells us that anytime I choose my will over or against God’s revealed will, I’m breaking the whole law.

The reality is all of the Ten Commandments have been broken by all people in all cultures for all times. Where do these sinful behaviors come from? Jesus makes it clear: They come from inside, in our heart (Matthew 15:19 and Mark 7:21). A thousand years earlier, in the book of Proverbs, Solomon warned us to “Guard your heart.” If you don’t guard your heart, evil words and deeds will come out. This applies to every sphere of life and certainly proved true in Solomon’s own experience.

When people hear news about the latest religious scandal, many ask, “How could he?” or “How could she?” The reality is, if you and I don’t keep short accounts with God, someday people may ask the same question about us. This tragic result is true to Scripture, true to church history, true to modern biography, and true in contemporary experience.

Therefore, when all is said and done:

1. We need to submit to trusted, godly leaders serving in our church, as long as their rules don’t start forcing us to disobey God or His Word.

2. We need to guard our hearts and stubbornly resist the temptation either to make our own rules or to start bending the rules of others to our own advantage.

3. We need to avoid twisting God’s commands and teachings, especially those found in and affirmed by the New Testament.

Thankfully, Jesus and the apostles show us the way! 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/kenzaza


headshot of David Sanford new 2020 David Sanford’s book and Bible projects have been published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His newest book is Life Map Devotional for Men published concurrently with his wife Renee’s new book, Life Map Devotional for Women.




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