CHURCH OF CHRIST: Legalism is a Deadly Disease of the Heart
SOURCE: The section of the Gospel of Mark stretching from 2:1 to 3:6 deals with five controversies that arose between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day. As we have examined each one, we have noticed that opposition has grown stronger each time. When Jesus claimed authority to forgive sins, the scribes responded with silent accusations. When Jesus was found to be associating openly with “sinners,” the Pharisees responded by questioning the disciples. When Jesus was not found to be fasting when the Pharisees and John’s disciples were fasting, they brought the interrogation directly to Him. When the disciples were seen nibbling wheat on the Sabbath, the questioning intensified. In this passage (Mark 3:1-6). we have another Sabbath controversy. While the flow of narrative here leads us to the assumption that it immediately after the previous one, Luke actually tells us that this occurred on another Sabbath. This time, when Jesus responds to a man in need on the Sabbath, the opposition reaches a pinnacle.
You may recall from last week’s message on the preceding passage that a whole host of regulations had been developed to protect the Sabbath. Since violation of the Sabbath was prescribed in Scripture as a capital offense, the religious experts and authorities wanted to insure that no one came close to violating it. Thirty-nine categories of work were expounded upon in the rabbinic writings stating precisely what could and could not be done on the Sabbath in nearly every imaginable scenario.
When it came to dealing with a person’s health, Sabbath laws had little to say about healing. After all, it was outside the realm of most people’s experience of “working.” We do know that it was permitted to assist with childbirth, since that can’t exactly be put off until tomorrow. And we know that it was permitted to save a person’s life which was in danger. A person with a sore throat could receive medicine, since a sore throat could have been a sign of some deadly illness. If a person was trapped beneath the rubble of a fallen structure, enough rubble could be moved to determine if the person was dead or alive. If alive, and in danger of death, they could be removed from the rubble. If it was determined that the person was dead, or that their life was not in danger, they were left lying until the Sabbath ended. If a person was injured, first aid could be given to prevent their condition from worsening, but not in such a way that their condition was actually improved. That would be considered working on the Sabbath. Specifically relevant to this episode is the passage from the Sabbath Mishnah which stated, “they may not straighten a deformed body or set a broken limb.” All of the Sabbath regulations concerning healthcare are summed up in this statement from Misnah Yoma: “Whenever there is doubt about whether life is in danger, this overrides the Sabbath.”
On this particular Sabbath day, when Jesus entered the synagogue (presumably at Capernaum), He was confronted by a deadly disease. Now, you may look at the man with the withered hand, and say, “What is so deadly about that?” Certainly it does not appear that his life is in danger. Luke 6:6 says that his right hand was withered. This would affect his ability to work in certain capacities. An early but questionable tradition says that he was a mason who had been injured on the job, and could not longer work. He had been reduced to begging. Now, that tradition may or may not be true. The wording of the passage suggests to us that his condition was the result of an injury or an accident rather than a birth defect. The word used is used in other passages to indicate something that had dried up (5:29) or become stiff (9:18). But certainly we are not going to try to defend Jesus by saying that his condition was life threatening. Certainly he could wait until the next day to tend to this man. But I suggest to you that this man’s withered hand was not the deadly disease that Jesus intended to heal.
The most terminally ill people in the synagogue had no clue how critical their condition was. I suggest that the deadly disease Jesus was seeking to heal on that day was the deadly disease of legalism which infected the Pharisees. What is legalism? Millard Erickson gives a good definition of it: “Legalism is a slavish following of the law in the belief that one thereby earns merit.” Now let me clarify: It is RIGHT, it is absolutely right, to seek to live your life in accordance with the law of God. But, it is WRONG, it is infinitely, and eternally, and dangerously WRONG to believe that by living according to that law that we are earning favor with God. And what makes the strain of legalism that infects the Pharisees so completely deadly is that, not only do they believe that their observance of God’s law earns them credit before God, but they expand God’s law to a nearly endless and impossible system of man-made regulations that they strive to uphold as a means of earning an acceptable state of righteousness before God. If you were to ask these people, “Why do believe that God will find you acceptable before Him?” they would answer, “Because of what I do. I do this, this, and this; I don’t do that, that, and the other thing.” And it is a lie. It is a dangerous, deadly lie that comes from hell, and leads to hell.
Now why, on this Sunday, January 28, 2007, with the Lord’s Table prepared before us, would I spend this time talking to you about the error of the Pharisees? It is because, beloved, I fear that this same illness infects many in our own day who call themselves Christians. My greatest fear is that one day I will stand before the Lord to give an account for my life and ministry, and discover that people who sat under my preaching and teaching week after week, walked away thinking that they are made right before God because of what they do or don’t do. So I want to carefully and lovingly remind us once again of those very important words that we studied in Philippians 3:9. Paul said there that his desire was to gain Christ, “and to be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Righteousness before God is not earned by our striving to obey the Law. The righteousness that God accepts is an alien righteousness – it comes from outside of ourselves. It is the righteousness of Christ. How can I have the righteousness of Christ? God offers it to us freely by His grace, and it is imputed to us as we turn from sin and trust in Christ alone for our salvation. We receive it from God by faith. And all those who reject that righteousness and seek instead to earn favor with God by our doing and not doing are seeking a legalistic righteousness that they will never find, and which God will never accept. Our righteousness is but filthy rags before Him. Christ’s righteousness is what God accepts, and it is given to those who are found in Him.
Now I want to focus on three symptoms of this deadly disease that we see in this passage. As we look at this, I want you to ask yourself, am I infected?
Deadly Motivations are a symptom of Legalism (v2)
When Jesus entered the synagogue, He was being watched. The people knew that He had the power to heal, and they knew that He had healed on the Sabbath before. We saw that in Chapter 1. They were watching Him to see if He would heal the man with the withered hand.
Undoubtedly many people watched Jesus wherever He went; they wanted to see the power of God manifested in and through Him. Faced with this man who had the withered hand, I am certain that everyone was curious as to how Jesus would respond to His need. But the Pharisees were not interested in seeing the power of God – they were watching Him to see if He would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.
I tend to agree with the speculations of some scholars that the entire scenario was a set-up, and this afflicted man was their pawn. It is entirely possible that the Pharisees had sought out this man, who no doubt had been the object of scorn by them in the past, and placed him in the synagogue in order to entrap Jesus. Knowing that the compassion of Christ would be set in motion on seeing this pitiful man, they set it all in place in order to accuse Him. The word used here is the Greek word katagoreo. It is where we get our word category, and categorize. They were looking for a label they could hang on Jesus, a pigeon-hole they could cram Him in. If He healed the man, they could call Him a law-breaker, a Sabbath violator, an infidel and an enemy of the state. If they could publicly expose Him as a Sabbath-breaker, then they could discredit Him in the eyes of the people and lead Him to a death-sentence.
Here is one of the deadly dangers of legalism. It is not that the Pharisees lived immoral lives; they were morally upright in the eyes of most people who knew them. But in their morality, they sought to make themselves appear more righteous than everyone else, and when someone came along challenging them as Jesus did, they set out to find fault in Him. If you find yourself constantly condemning others, if you go to great lengths to find fault in others, ask yourself why? Is it so that you can make yourself look better than them? Do you label others, accuse them, categorize them according to some artificial standard so that you appear all the more righteous? Whenever I hear someone being critical of everyone else, I have to wonder if they are just trying to make themselves look better.
I was watching the late Steve Irwin, “Crocodile Hunter,” the other night, and they were wrestling with a huge crocodile. Steve warned his helper, “Watch out mate, if this one gets loose, you’ll never outrun him.” The other fellow said, “I don’t have to outrun the croc, I just have to outrun you.” That is the way a legalist approaches God – they don’t think they have to be perfect, just better than everybody else. And by making themselves appear better than everyone else, they think God will accept them. Listen, although you may be able to convince everyone else that you are better than they are, you will not convince God, for He sees you when no one else is looking, He hears you when no one else is listening, He knows the thoughts that no one else does. So, in your criticism of others, make sure that this deadly motivation is not at the core. Otherwise, you have become infected by the deadly disease of legalism.
- A Deadly Condition is a symptom of legalism. (5)
As badly withered as this man’s hand might have been, a withered hand is much more preferable than a hard heart. The heart was understood in days of old to be the seat of mental discernment and spiritual insight. The word used here for hardness is a word that was used in the natural realm to describe the calcifying of minerals in the formation of stone. It was used as a medical tem to describe the substance that forms as a broken bone is mended back together. But when this condition affects the heart, it is spiritually deadly. A hard heart is one that will not receive truth and refuses to understand spiritual realities.
The hardness of heart that affected the Pharisees is evident in that they were more committed to tradition than compassion. They were not interested in this man’s condition. They were unmoved by his suffering. A hard heart is indifferent toward the opportunity to do good. And this indifference is the enemy of righteous love and compassion. Whether or not the Pharisees could have really helped this man on that Sabbath day is doubtful, but he had been in that condition for a long time. Why had they not helped him in the past? Why did it have to come to this? So Jesus asks the probing question: Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” Obviously, it is never lawful to do harm or to kill, not on any day. And for Jesus, failure to do good was to contribute to the doing of harm. Thus for Him, the question was not whether it was permissible to heal this man on the Sabbath, but rather if it were even thinkable for Him not to. But if the Pharisees had said that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath, then the entire framework of their man-made system would crumble beneath them. So they were silent, and remained indifferent in the face of suffering.
Contrast their watching (v2), and their silence (v4) with the attitudes and actions of Jesus. He looked around. This is a favorite expression of Mark almost always followed by an authoritative pronouncement. As He looked around, no indifference was seen in the eyes of Jesus. He was moved to compassion toward the suffering man. And He was moved to anger and grief over the hardness of heart in the Pharisees. Is it wrong to be angry? Not always, for sometimes anger is the only appropriate response. How else should we respond to sin? Anger toward sin is a righteous indignation, and it is always joined together with grief over someone’s spiritual condition. Jesus’ anger was toward their failure to respond to this man with righteous compassion. But He wasn’t just mad; He was heartbroken—grieved over the inner spiritual reality of their hard heart.
The Pharisees’ hard heart demonstrated they were far from God. However, a word of warning is in order here. Please don’t think that if you are a follower of Jesus that you are immune to the deadly condition of a hard heart. Two times in Mark’s gospel, these words are used to describe Jesus’ very own disciples. God forbid that we should find a hardness of heart in ourselves that is unmoved by suffering, that knows nothing of godly compassion toward those in need. Whenever you are faced with the opportunity to do good, to alleviate suffering, to come to the aid of the weak and defenseless, the question is never, “Can you do it?” The right question is how can you not do it? May it never be that we would tolerate in ourselves that which moves Christ to anger and to grief.
III. Deadly Reactions are a symptom of Legalism (v6)
The trap was set to see if Jesus would heal this man. Notice what Jesus does. With no thought of personal consequence, He takes a bold stand for what is right and calls the man to the center of attention: “Get up and come forward.” And He said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” This man’s faith in Christ overshadowed his fear of men, and stretched out his hand in obedience to the authoritative word of Christ and in so doing He was healed. Notice that Jesus healed this man with no touch of his hand, no employment of outside agencies, no application of pressure or medicine; just the power of His will and the word of His power. If this was a “work” being done on the Sabbath, it most certainly was one of “a very nonphysical variety.” It was moreover a demonstration of His divine nature – here in there midst stood God Himself. How do the religious experts respond?
Oh how I wish that verses 6 through 10 were not here. I wish so much that the next words we read were the words of verse 11: When Jesus demonstrated His divine power in their midst, I wish “they would fall down before Him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God!’” But those words do not apply to the Pharisees. They apply to the demonic unclean spirits that Jesus encounters in the next passage. The response of the Pharisees demonstrates that they are in a worse spiritual condition than the forces of hell. They missed it altogether. Rather than falling at the feet of this incarnate Lord in worship, they went out and began to plot His murder.
Having sought unsuccessfully to form an unlikely alliance with the disciples of John the Baptist in 2:18, they turn now to another unlikely ally: the Herodians. Under normal circumstances, the Pharisees would hate the Herodians, and the feeling would be mutual. The Herodians stood for everything the Pharisees were against. They supported the Roman occupation of Israel, and the Idumean regime of Herods that governed the land as Caesar’s puppets. But Jesus is a common enemy because He threatens their religious and political authority. So they combine forces to conspire toward His destruction.
Remember Jesus question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” Jesus intended to do good and save life. But we see here that the very ones who were so caught up in Sabbath restrictions went out to violate this very principle by plotting harm and murder. In so doing, they reveal the deadliness of their condition – the deadly disease of legalism. Perhaps the life Jesus intended to save on that Sabbath day was theirs, but they would not have it. Their condition proceeded from bad to worse as they begin to formulate the plan to remove the bridegroom as Jesus said in 2:20. From this point on, the life and ministry of Jesus will take place under the looming shadow of Calvary’s cross.
Legalism is deadly! It kills! It’s going to kill Jesus, but it will also bring spiritual death to those Pharisees. Their very lives were in danger as Jesus entered the synagogue on that day. And faced with the opportunity for deliverance from their condition, what did they do? They rejected the cure and clung to their disease. Don’t you do that. Don’t let your pride, your traditions, your status, your position, your cherished opinion keep you separated from Christ for eternity. If God has shone the light of His truth on this dark secret of your heart today and you have found this deadly disease of legalism moving in you, flee to the cross for the cure and find life! You will never earn righteousness before Him by trusting in your works. You must embrace His cross, where the Savior died for your sins, and offers you forgiveness and eternal life, and the covering of His righteousness. This is our only hope. Have you truly received it? If not, then you are terminal. But the cure is offered to you freely if you will receive it.
 Cited in James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 99.
 Cited in R. T. France, The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 149.
 D. Edmond Hiebert, The Gospel of Mark: An Expositional Commentary (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994), 84.
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 990.
 Louis Barbieri, Moody Gospel Commentary: Mark (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 77.
 France, 151.
Charles Simpson (quoted in first meme) is the author of “Inside the Churches of Christ: The Reflection of a Former Pharisee On What Every Christian Should Know About the Nondenomination Denomination“. A large portion of this amazing book can be read for free here.
Posted on September 18, 2015, in Legalism and tagged church of christ, church of christ Pharisees, legalism, legalism in church of christ, legalism is a disease, legalism is deadly, Pharisees. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.