If you hang around evangelical Christian circles long enough, you’ll eventually hear one angry person label another as a legalist. “Uh…what the heck’s a legalist?” you wonder. Well, that depends on who you talk to. In the opinion of many Christians, a legalist is simply someone who wants you to follow a rule that you don’t like. If anyone tries to tell you that you are doing something wrong, then that person is clearly a grim legalist who has not attained your state of blissful enlightenment. I recently sat down over coffee with a man who defended his decision to live with his girlfriend and neglect being a part of a local church on the basis that he wasn’t legalistic about it. Needless to say, I wasn’t as impressed with his righteousness as he was. If I insist that a professing believer follow God’s law, that isn’t legalism; it’s exhortation—and it’s commanded by God (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5).
So what is legalism, really? Well, that’s what we’re going to find out in today’s passage. Even better, when we do find out, we’ll get to know Jesus a little more.
» Read Mark 2:23–28
Our story takes place fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. Up until recently, Jesus has been popular among the Jewish people, and he’s fit their expectations of a Messiah—the Anointed One sent by God to rescue his people and set up his kingdom on earth. However, beginning in Mark chapter 2, Jesus has started doing things that upset the religious leaders of Galilee. He’s claimed all sorts of authority for himself—authority to forgive sins, to associate with sinners, to introduce a whole new life system in place of Judaism. What takes place on this particular day is going to anger them even further.
It’s Sabbath day, which means that it’s a day on which God has commanded the Jews to rest from their work (Exodus 20:8–11). Now, a popular religious faction of Jesus’ day, known as the Pharisees, are especially zealous about obeying God’s commandment. That zeal is a good thing! But the way they go about it is a problem. They’ve created a strict set of commandments which detail what one can and cannot do on a Sabbath day. For example, the Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition) prohibited weaving two threads together, tying a knot in a cord, writing two letters, kindling a fire, or even putting out a fire (!). The Pharisees obsess over defining what work means; obeying the Sabbath law at any cost has become a singular obsession to them.
Not surprisingly, they get upset when they discover that Jesus’ disciples have been gleaning grain from a field on a Sabbath day. Presumably, his disciples got hungry and wanted a snack. The Pharisees are shocked by this egregious violation of their man-made rules; they confront Jesus, sputtering, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
Jesus responds by insisting that God’s Word be the basis for making moral decisions. He’s not interested in their opinions of what’s right and wrong; he calls them to an absolute, objective standard. “Have you never read what David did?” he asks. This must have infuriated the Pharisees, since many of them probably had the entire Old Testament memorized! Apparently, though, they hadn’t learned much while reading it. Jesus explains the case of David eating the bread of the Presence in an emergency situation when he and his men were hungry (1 Samuel 21:1–9). Only the priests were supposed to eat this bread (Leviticus 24:5–9)! How could this possibly be “lawful”?
Jesus draws a parallel between the bread of the Presence and the Sabbath. In both cases, God had laid out the rules that his people should follow. However, he didn’t want them to adhere to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. When obeying the rules would prevent a person’s physical needs from being met, it was lawful in that case to break the rules. Above all, the Lord wanted justice, kindness, and humility from his people (Micah 6:8).
Jesus insists, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath is God’s way of getting his people to slow down their busy lives, to rest and remember and reconnect with him. The Sabbath was made for the benefit of his people. It’s not an ultimate thing; it’s just a means to an end. It’s a little like the speed limit on a highway; speed limits are a means to a greater end—safety on the road. If you’re fastidiously keeping under the speed limit of 55 mph, but everyone around you is exceeding 75 mph, you’re not really following the law, because you’re creating an unsafe driving environment. Similarly, the Sabbath is a law that’s meant to benefit man. Jesus is telling the Pharisees, “Keeping the Sabbath is about what’s good for you—not about overloading people with a bunch of man-made rules.”
Then, Jesus adds something of tremendous importance. Considering the fact that the Sabbath was created to serve man, he says, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus is the Son of Man, the messianic figure from Daniel 7:13–14; he has been given a kingdom so that all nations will serve him. The Sabbath was made for mankind, and mankind was made for Jesus. He is Lord of all mankind, so therefore he is Lord of the Sabbath. He gets to define how the Sabbath should be carried out. Jesus is claiming tremendous, cosmic authority for himself.
The Pharisees are obsessed with the law, but they’ve forgotten who the law was written for. They’ve placed law above Lawgiver. And that’s the essence of legalism. We aren’t supposed to follow God’s law out of a grim sense of moral responsibility; we’re supposed to follow it because we love and worship a Person. Don’t obsess over the law. Obsess over a Person—Jesus of Nazareth, Lord of the Sabbath.