Legalism (Mark 7:14-23)

In this sermon, preached on Sunday morning in my church, I completed the account on legalism which spans from Mark 7:1-23. Here, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ accusation about why His disciples ate food with hands that were “defiled.” The Pharisees, in a misguided attempt to preserve their Jewishness in a culture and time that was not Jewish any longer, had built up an oppressive edifice of oral traditions that had come to almost take the place of the law.

The point of this account is that the Pharisees were concerned with external appearance, with cultic, ritual purity. They was no emphasis on internal purity of heart. The admonitions of Moses to love the Lord with all their heart, soul and might had been seemingly forgotten (Deut 6:5). The exhortation to be an Israelite in heart, not merely in outward show, was not being obeyed. God desired a not merely an external circumcision (Gen 17:11), but an inward circumcision of the heart as well (Deut 10:16). The outward conformity was supposed to be the fruit of an inward love for God.

Christ makes it very clear in this account that it is what comes out of a man’s heart that defiles him, not what comes from the outside (Mk 7:15). Our hearts prove that we are all morally unclean, and no matter what we do on the outside to try to clean ourselves up in the eyes of men, the very thoughts (let alone actions) of our own hearts betrays our sin and our moral “uncleanness.”

The inevitable conclusion here, left unsaid but Christ but implicit in His instruction, is that we are all morally unclean! We cannot make ourselves clean – we do not possess that power. We can only be cleansed by Jesus Christ, upon sincere repentance from sin and saving faith in Him (Mk 1:15).

The legalistic society of the Pharisees was perhaps as far from the love of God as it is possible to get. I spend a few minutes giving a handful of cursory examples of  just how legalistic normal life was like in Inter-testamental Judaism. The bottom line is that it was not a happy life. There was no love for God, no happiness or joy in serving Him. How could there be, in such an oppressive, tradition-bound society such as this!? A quotation from Emil Schurer makes the point pretty clearly;

Nothing was left to free personality, everything was placed under the bondage of the letter. The Israelite, zealous for the law, was obligated at every impulse and movement to ask himself, what is commanded? At every step, at the work of his calling, at prayer, at meals, at home and abroad, from early morning till late evening, from youth to old age, the dead, the deadening formula followed him. A healthy moral life could not flourish under such a burden, action was nowhere the result of inward motive, all was, on the contrary, weighed and measured. Life was a continual torment to the earnest man, who felt at every moment that he was in danger of transgressing the law; and where so much depended on external form, he was often left in uncertainty whether he had really fulfilled its requirements. On the other hand, pride and conceit were almost inevitable for one who had attained to mastership in the knowledge and treatment of the law. He could indeed say that he had done his duty, had neglected nothing, and had fulfilled all righteousness. But all the more certain it is, that this righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees which looked down with proud thanks to God upon the sinner, and pompously displayed its works before the eyes of the world, was not that true righteousness which was well-pleasing to God.[1]


[1] Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, 2nd division, vol. 2 (Peabody, MS: 2012), 125.

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