The #1 result for the words “Jesus” & “legalist” on the internet is an article titled, “Why Jesus Hates Legalism.” The author calls legalism a sin and tells us that “Jesus had more conflicts with the legalists of His day than any other group.”1 In fact, the writer tells us that Jesus deliberately provoked the legalists by not following their hand-washing customs and by healing people on the Sabbath. Obviously, the writer of the article in question, like many others, identifies the Pharisees as legalists.
After chiding two common definitions of legalism (1. emphasis on obedience, & 2. manmade rules), the writer gives us a custom-made definition:
Legalism is an attempt to gain favor with God or to impress our fellow man by doing certain things (or avoiding other things), without regard to the condition of our hearts before God.2
It concerns me when folks feel they need to create their own definition. Did all the linguistic experts miss the mark? We won’t find a definition for “legalism” in a Bible lexicon, since it is not a Bible word. So, it makes sense to use a trusted source for the meaning of words—perhaps, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary? There, we find the following definition:
…strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.”3
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not legalists, at least not according to the dictionary definition of the word. In Mark 7:8-9, Jesus said:
For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do. … All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.
Paul described the Pharisees as “the strictest sect of our religion” (Acts 26:5). Strict, yes. Legalistic, hardly. They had great zeal for tradition, for the teachings of their fathers, for their own rules & interpretations, but not for the word of God. In Mark 7, Jesus gave an example of their contempt for the law of God. They had released the people from God’s command to supply the needs of their parents. Further, in Matthew 5 we find a series of “you have heard it said, but I say to you” statements. Jesus was correcting the misuses of God’s word and erroneous teachings of the Jewish leaders (5:19-20).
Some cite Luke 11:42 as evidence of Pharisaical legalism. Surely tithing your spice cupboard is legalism to the extreme! Notice the verse with me:
But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.
Where did Jesus condemn tithing spices? He spoke out against their failure to focus on justice and love. He concludes they should focus on love, justice and tithing. All of these were part of the law of God.
As we turn our attention to Jesus and the claim that He was a legalist, I remind you what legalism is. The dictionary definition is:
…strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.
Consider the following statements by Jesus:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)
But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say? (Luke 6:46)
…blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!
He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him— the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. (John 12:48)
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words… (John 14:23-24)
Time and again Jesus emphasized the need for people to obey the word of God. That, my friend, is legalism. Jesus kept God’s law, and He expects you and I to do the same.