“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
A few days ago I spoke about legalism, explaining that it meant focusing more on rules rather than a relationship. Today’s passage gives us an opportunity to understand this further, because Jesus despises it. It is one of the reasons he kept having altercations with the Pharisees. They had rules — 618 of them — and believed that would take them to God, but couldn’t recognize God when he stood right in front of them in the flesh!
We are in danger of making the same mistakes, which is why it is important to understand this. Let me explain this as simply as I can. The Pharisees, as you know, were Jews. Jesus was a Jew too. Yes, I know it sounds strange. And he was a practicing Jew too, which meant that he went to the Temple and followed Jewish laws and customs like everybody else. Yet, the Jewish leaders always found fault with him and he, in turn, found fault with them. Why?
They criticized him for not following the law in the manner that THEY wanted. And he criticized them for living by the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. For them only the external observances of the law mattered but they were not really concerned with knowing God, or loving and honoring him. We can be the same, tick off boxes. Went to church; tick. Gave to the poor; tick. Spending time alone with God and reading his word; no tick. Know what I’m saying?
Another form of legalism consists of taking the law of God out of its original context and making it a set of rules. Consider the Sabbath observance. Why did God instruct his people not to work on the Sabbath? Because he wanted them to rest and recharge all their batteries, spiritual batteries included. But the Pharisees turned that into a whole lot of do’s and don’ts, including not spitting, because the spit might fertilize the soil, and thus constitute work.
A third form of legalism consists of adding our own set of rules to God’s rules and insisting that everybody else follows them or face condemnation. As an example, consider modesty. The Bible encourages modesty in dress, asking both men and women to be careful not to dress in a way that is unnecessarily ostentatious and/or seductive. But we have no right to condemn others for what they wear. Know what I’m saying?
Let us reflect on these three aspects of legalism and see if we might be legalists. It is highly probably that we are because it is part of the culture that we have been brought up in. How do we change? By getting into a relationship with God, an intimate relationship where we get to know and love him more. And, then, as Scripture says, God himself will put his laws into our hearts and write them on our minds. See Hebrews 10:16.