Jesus knows the law won’t help you (Mark 7:14–23)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4

If you’re the father or mother of a teenager, then you’ve probably had to face the implications of this verse. When children are younger, you can develop a whole system of rules to keep them in line. Often, this helps give them the structure they need to develop and learn right from wrong. By the time they’re teenagers, however, they chafe against these rules. What’s sad is that sometimes parents respond by clamping down even harder, binding their children with rule upon rule to keep them under control. The parents’ intentions are good; they want to keep their children safe from harmful external influences. But they don’t realize that the problem is not something outside of their children but something inside their children’s hearts.

Jesus has just finished lambasting the Pharisees for supplementing God’s law about keeping ceremonially clean with their own man-made rules for washing before eating. He’s told them that when we make our own laws like this, we’re setting ourselves up as moral lawgivers, which is God’s place, not ours. Not only that, but we’re trying to dethrone God by pushing his rules aside to make room for our own. Replacing God’s law with human tradition is an act of insurrection against God. Ironically enough, the usual culprits of this crime are religious people. They think they’re worshiping God by supplementing his law with their own, proving their great dedication to him, but in reality they are hypocrites. They’re actors; they’re worshiping themselves and their tradition rather than God.

Now Jesus delivers the coup de grace. Not only are such legalists replacing God’s law with they’re own, they’re also making a fundamental mistake about the purpose of the law. Jesus gathers a crowd together to hear a short message. “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” he says. “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” Now, apparently this “parable” wasn’t clear enough for his disciples, because they approach him afterward to ask about it. Jesus gets a little frustrated here and exclaims, “Then are you also without understanding?” His disciples may not be inventing their own laws like the Pharisees are doing, but they’re still thinking about the purpose of God’s law in the same way as the Pharisees.

Jesus explains that food can’t make a person ceremonially unclean, since it simply passes through the body and is expelled. It doesn’t affect the core of who a person is—the heart. So Mark observes, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” This is very significant, because Jesus isn’t just condemning the Pharisees’ man-made laws. He’s also canceling the ceremonial regulations in the law of Moses that identified many foods as unclean. Jesus is nullifying the law, exactly as the Pharisees just did! How can he not be a hypocrite as well? The only way he can declare that all foods are clean is if he has divine authority, as the Author of the law, to rewrite it. If this comes as a surprise to you, you obviously haven’t been paying attention as we’ve been working our way through Mark’s gospel!

After this, Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” He lists a litany of wicked attitudes and behaviors—sexual sins, violent sins, sins of speech, sinful habits of thinking. He says that these sins come “from within, out of the heart of man.” And when they do, they defile the person who commits them.

The Pharisees thought that the primary problem was outside of a person. They believed that if you could put him or her in the right environment, free from evil influences, then he or she would turn out a good person. All you need is to separate people from the corrupt Greco-Roman culture. To the Pharisees, the law was a tool to make people holy. And apparently, the disciples bought into that way of thinking, because Jesus’ perspective is completely foreign to them.

We can’t come down too hard on the disciples. From birth, we’re raised to think just like Pharisees. We’re told that people are basically good deep down, and that if children are raised in the right environment and surrounded by the right people and given the right education, then they’ll turn out okay. And of course, these things do help. However, they don’t change the reality that the human heart is a fountain of evil desires. Our culture’s presuppositions are wrong: people are corrupt and depraved, down to the very core of their being. Trying to make people holy by tying them down with rules—even God’s law!—just won’t work. The cancer is within us; it’s genetic, and we can’t cure it. Our own good behavior won’t help. There is no hope.

We’ve seen that Jesus is the only one who knows how to interpret and use God’s law with wisdom. He knows that the law is a reflection of God’s character. It tells us who he is—that he is holy—and it commands us to be like him (Leviticus 19:2). And Jesus knows that this is a lost cause; we can’t do it.

If there’s any possible way to be accepted by God, that way is going to have to be through Jesus. It’s obvious that he is a singular piercing light in a dark and hopeless world. If there’s any way out of our slavery to sin, it will have to come through the gospel—the good news that Jesus brings.

Run, John, run, the law commands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands;
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
—John Bunyan

Jesus is not impressed with your rules (Mark 7:1–13)

Ah, legalism.

We’ve faced this issue before as we’ve worked our way through Mark. We’re facing it today, as we reach chapter 7. And we’ll face it again if we keep going as we have. It’s the sinister old enemy of Jesus; it’s the brainchild of the devil. Oddly enough, it’s perpetuated by the most well-meaning people.

Jesus has been working miracles left and right, proving that he is more than a man. Mark has been threading subtle hints of deity into his account of Jesus’ life. Now, Jesus is about to remind the religious leaders who oppose him that they have no right to claim divine authority, as he has done.

The Pharisees of Galilee have once again called up some teachers of the law from Jerusalem. They’re calling in the big guns to take down Jesus. They soon find a reason to criticize him—he doesn’t seem to care that his disciples never wash their hands before they eat! Now, the religious leaders aren’t concerned about their hygiene, bad as it is. Ceremonial washing is very important to the Pharisees because it’s one of the ways in which the Jews can set themselves apart from the corrupt and godless Gentiles. In the law of Moses, given by God at Sinai, washing was commanded for the priests to ceremonially cleanse themselves from defilement. The Pharisees, zealous to preserve the identity of God’s people, have decided to beef up God’s law a little by adding a few safeguards to it. If everybody washes their hands all the time, then there’s no danger of being defiled. The Pharisees’ motives seem to be pretty good—they want to keep God’s people from being corrupted by the immoral influences of the surrounding culture.

Jesus, however, isn’t a fan. He calls them “hypocrites.” He says that there are two things wrong with people inventing their own moral laws which they expect others to follow. First, when people invent their own rules, they replace God’s law with their own. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 to make his point:

This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.

The Pharisees think they’re worshiping God. They think they’re protecting his law by buttressing it with their own. But what they’re really doing is replacing his law with “the commandments of men.” They’re trying to worship God in a way which he has not authorized. In fact, their respect for tradition has mutated into idolatry. By insisting on following man-made moral rules, they have set up man in God’s place.

And that leads Jesus to the second reason why it’s wrong for people to invent their own moral laws. He offers this caustic remark: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” He’s telling the Pharisees that not only are they replacing God’s law with their own, they’re also rejecting God’s law outright! Not only are they exalting human tradition, but they’re also trying to dethrone or “de-God” God. Jesus backs his statement with this evidence: the Pharisees allow grown children to ignore their parents’ needs by declaring their own possessions to be Corban, devoted to God. So then they can refuse to provide for their parents, which violates the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The man-made law nullifies God’s law. Nor is this an isolated incident; Jesus says to them, “Many such things you do.” He could rattle off a whole list of other examples if they’d ask him. Somehow, I have the feeling that they aren’t in the mood to hear more.

As I’ve considered what Jesus said, I’m shocked at how hard he comes down on the Pharisees. He absolutely rips into them. He calls them hypocrites; he beats them over the head with scripture; he pierces them with sarcasm; he accuses them of rejecting God. Jesus loathes what they are teaching—how they are undermining the moral authority of God himself. He spares them no mercy.

So be very afraid. Inside of you and me there is a little legalist, always scheming, always inventing new laws to make us look more righteous and usurp God’s authority. And these laws always seem to be invented for good reasons. The inner legalist might provoke a fundamentalist Christian to declare that drinking alcohol is a sin, or to castigate young women because hemlines of their skirts are above the knee. The inner legalist might provoke a progressive young believer to declare that anyone who doesn’t recycle is immoral or (ironically) to ridicule Christians who won’t drink alcohol. Legalism and the worship of human tradition is a problem for young and old, men and women, believer and unbeliever, across all human traditions and cultures. Deep down, all of us possess a sinful impulse to dethrone God and take his place.

Because Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom, he will not stand idly by as people try to destroy it. He is not impressed with your kingdom. He is not impressed with your rules. And he has the authority to put an end to your insurrection. So let’s abandon our attempt to be lawmakers and instead submit with joy to the only one who can save our rebel hearts.

While we’re on the subject of legalism…

After yesterday’s post on how to become a legalist Christian in three easy steps, I thought you might want to see what real-world advantages legalism can give you. Check this out:

According to a study, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the “licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour”, otherwise known as “moral balancing” or “compensatory ethics”.

Thanks to this article from the Guardian, now you can see that feeling righteous about obeying self-invented moral standards will allow you to sin in other areas and still feel good about yourself! That’s right—legalism makes a great smokescreen to hide your sin from yourself and sometimes other people as well. If only it worked for God, too, then you’d be all set.

Why does legalism work so great? Well, this unrelated quote from Tim Chester’s book You Can Change (relayed by Take Your Vitamin Z) explains everything:

We all have a strong tendency to want to live by a list of rules—it’s called legalism.

Legalism is appealing for two reasons. First, it makes holiness manageable. A heart wholly devoted to God is a tough demand, but a list of ten rules I can cope with. That was the motivation of the expert in the law who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted to justify himself, to tick the “love for neighbor” box. But Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan blew his manageable system apart. Second, legalism makes holiness an achievement on our part. “Yes, I was saved by grace,” the legalist says, “but I’m the godly per- son I am today because I’ve kept this code of behavior or practiced these spiritual disciplines.” One of its by-products is comparison with other people. We check whether we’re holier than other people or look down on those who don’t appear to be as good as we are.

No one thinks of himself as a legalist. Such persons just think of themselves as someone who takes holiness seriously. After all, it has the “appearance of wisdom” (Colossians 2:20–23). But if you want to see a legalist, take a look in the mirror. Deep in the heart of all of us is the proud desire to prove ourselves. Sin is wanting to live our lives our own way without God. The terrible irony is that we even want to overcome sin our own way without God. The struggle against legalism was not done and stored away two thousand years ago in Galatia or five hundred years ago at the Reformation. The battle with legalism takes place every day in our hearts.

This means we need to repent not only of our sin but also of our “righteousness” when we think of it as our righteousness, which we do to prove ourselves and which we think makes us better than other people.

Become a legalistic Christian in three easy steps!

I know what you’re thinking! “Dave, it’s been my lifelong dream to become a legalist! How can I do it in three steps? Tell me now!” Well, today’s your day. As someone who has a lot of experience in being a legalistic Christian, I can offer you a few tips on how to become one yourself.

Most people think it’s really hard to be a legalist. They think that being a legalist means attending a King James Only church, wearing a suit and tie or a frumpy dress all day, sporting a crew cut, and complaining about how irresponsible all the “kids” are these days. But I say, “Why go to all that trouble?” You can be a legalist without having to do anything hard!

Here’s the secret. Being a legalist is about putting law above Lawgiver. It’s much easier than the alternative. Why bother pressing on to know Jesus Christ, letting his gospel transform the way you look at the world, and eagerly obeying his commandments out of love? Just become a legalist instead! In fact, you don’t even need God’s law to be one. Here’s a tried-and-true method to help you.

Step 1: Find something good that you feel passionate about.

Are there any political or social causes that you support? Are there any means of self-improvement that you’re working on? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Removing violence, sex, or language from movies
  • Protecting the environment
  • Healthy diet and exercise
  • Prayer
  • Social justice
  • Cleanliness
  • Theology

Step 2: Make up an arbitrary standard of behavior for this area.

This step works best if it’s a standard that you can meet, whereas other people around you don’t measure up. That way, you can feel better about yourself at other people’s expense. Here are some possible rules you can invent:

  • It’s wrong to watch R-rated movies.
  • You’re behaving immorally if you don’t recycle.
  • People who don’t exercise are not worth respecting.
  • A good Christian prays for at least an hour a day.
  • If you’re not donating money to stop AIDS, you are an unloving person.
  • Anyone with a messy house is an irresponsible slob.
  • If you can’t articulate exactly what is meant by the term propitiation, you’re not really a serious Christian.

Step 3: Judge everyone around you by this standard.

Here’s the rewarding part. You can sit back and gloat as you consider how inferior everyone is to you. Or you can work yourself into a frenzy of self-righteous outrage. Either way, you win!

There are plenty of other ways to become a legalist. In my opinion, though, this is one of the easiest methods. Just follow these three steps, and before long, you too will be a stuck-up, self-righteous jerk who doesn’t need a Savior!

Jesus is the enemy of legalists (Mark 3:1–6)

One of the challenges of creating a sequel to a good movie is that you have to preserve the feel of the first installment while upping the ante somehow. Sometimes, this is accomplished by exploring the personalities and relationships among the characters (such as The Empire Strikes Back). Sometimes, the stakes of the conflict are raised (Rocky II). And often, the director tries to wow the audience with stunts and special effects that top whatever the first movie contained (every Michael Bay sequel). In today’s passage, we’re going to find a bit of a sequel that does all three of these things.

Last week, as we continued our journey through Mark’s story, we saw the Pharisees getting upset at Jesus because his disciples were violating the Sabbath. Or at least, they were violating the rules the Pharisees had made up about the Sabbath. By turning to the authority of scripture, Jesus pointed out that God’s law was not meant to be an end in itself; rather, it was meant to be a means to help us obey our Lord. That Lord is Jesus himself. The Pharisees had made the mistake of putting law above Lawgiver.

Today, we once again find Jesus clashing with the Pharisees over how the Sabbath day should be observed. It’s the same premise as last week’s conflict. This time, though, we’re going to get a closer look into the mindset of Jesus and the mindset of his opponents. The confrontation will be public. And now Jesus is going to back up his claims with a miracle.

The last time Mark records Jesus speaking in a synagogue, he portrays Jesus as captivating his audience. Both his teaching and the exorcism which followed demonstrated an authority that the people had never seen before. At the time, everyone seems to have approved of Jesus, and he quickly gained celebrity status in the backwater region of Galilee. This time, however, not all of Jesus’ audience is receptive to what he has to say. Through all of chapter 2, Jesus has been questioned by the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders who are increasingly troubled by the God-like authority this man is claiming for himself. Now, the conflict reaches its first climax—a tense confrontation in a local synagogue.

When Jesus enters the synagogue, he sees a man there with a withered hand. It seems a little convenient that this man is showing up when all the Pharisees are there to watch Jesus. It’s possible that this man is a plant, placed by the Pharisees “to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” Regardless, Jesus is faced with a dilemma. Either he heals the man, doing “work” on the Sabbath and condemning himself before the religious leaders, or he ignores the man and does nothing to help him.

Jesus knows a trap when he sees one. He says to the man, “Come here.” The man stands up in the middle of the synagogue. Then, Jesus poses a question which pierces to the heart of the matter: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” With this rhetorical question, Jesus demonstrates the hypocrisy of his enemies. They have turned the Sabbath into a burden, weighing people down with rules that they have to keep if they’re going to be good Jews. Their rules would prevent this man from being healed! The Sabbath should not be a day of moral drudgery but a day of rest, healing, and reconnection with the Lord. God’s law liberates his people; man-made laws only enslave them.

Of course, the Pharisees can’t say anything in response. Then, Mark records, “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart.” Jesus responds with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he is furious at the Pharisees because they have perverted God’s law and are using their own laws to prevent a man from getting the healing he needs. Jesus is deeply offended by this self-righteous legalism. On the other hand, he is heartbroken that these religious leaders are so resistant to the good news that would free them from their bondage. He feels sorry for them as they wallow in their miserable condition.

“Stretch out your hand,” Jesus commands the man. He obeys, and the hand is restored to health. Jesus hasn’t done this just for the sake of the man; Mark makes it clear that he’s done it for the sake of the Pharisees. They need to see that the way of life promised by Jesus is superior to their own legalistic habits. They need to see the supremacy of Jesus. Following Jesus is not about inventing a bunch of rules to make you feel more righteous. It’s not about inventing ways to look good before God. It’s about following the God-given law of the Bible with a sincere, teachable heart. You must lay down your old way of living and follow Jesus, your new Lord. Your old wineskins can never hold his new wine without bursting apart.

Sadly, the Pharisees don’t get it. Mark tells us that “they went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The Herodians wanted the Jews to conform to the pagan Roman culture; they stood for everything the Pharisees opposed. Yet the Pharisees joined forces with them to get rid of Jesus. And that’s the thing about legalism—eventually, it will lead you to align yourself with the enemies of Jesus and his gospel. You will inevitably find yourself opposed to his kingdom. This is the only path available to a self-righteous person who insists on inventing rules rather than following Jesus Christ.