Beware of legalism

Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16:12 (NIV)

Read: Matthew 16:1-12

Consider: When Jesus told the disciples to be on their ‘… guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (v6), he probably hadn’t expected the ensuing discussion amongst the disciples. While he thought he was talking plainly, the disciples were obviously confused by his words. This might well be understandable as they had only recently witnessed the feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:29-39) and when Jesus spoke of yeast their immediate reaction was to think of bread (16:7). Having forgotten to take bread with them, their feelings of guilt may have pushed them to interpreting Jesus’ words incorrectly.

The word ‘yeast’ only occurs ten times in the New Testament and most of these are contained in the story of this incident recorded by the different gospel writers. Yeast is also mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 13:33 where he says: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough. In one instance Jesus mentions yeast as having a positive effect (Matthew 13) and in another instance as having a negative effect (Matthew 16). What Jesus was doing was differentiating between what had a good effect and what had a bad effect – the positive effect (the kingdom of heaven) and the negative effect (the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees). The apostle Paul picks up on this in two of his letters (1 Corinthians 5:6 and Galatians 5:9) where he uses it to describe the effect sin has on the body of Christ (the church).

This should leave you wondering what the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees was and how does this apply to us today? We don’t need to look very far to find an example of the teaching these religious elite were upholding. In Matthew 14:1-20 we are told of an incident where a group of Pharisees criticised Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating. The crux of the matter was that the Pharisees taught that the washing of hands prevented a person from being defiled or contaminated. In one sense this was true as it prevented the spread of germs, but the Pharisees turned a common sense cleanliness issue into a spiritual issue. Jesus was at pains to show that their teaching (washing of hands) had no effect whatsoever on a person’s spiritual condition. Listen to what Jesus says about this: These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules (14:8-9). By asking the people to abide by human rules, the Pharisees were guilty of what we would regard as ‘legalism’. Legalism meant abiding by the Law of Moses (not necessarily a bad thing), but also requiring the people to abide by the letter of the Law and not by the spirit of it. Examples of this are recorded elsewhere in the gospels: for example, not doing any work on the Sabbath and interpreting this as including healing the sick, or picking corn to eat.

Legalism can take many forms today, but essentially it is the same as Jesus encountered in his time. Firstly, requiring people to keep rules and regulations as an end in itself, rather than as an expression of love for God. Secondly, divorcing the letter of the Law from the spirit of the law. Healing on the Sabbath was a good example from Jesus’ day. For us it might be not participating in any leisure activity on a Sunday if we are more concerned about what people might think or we are concerned about being judged by others. Thirdly, legalism can add rules on to what God has commanded, or worse still elevate human rules above or equal in standing to God’s Word. There are many aspects of life that are not clearly mentioned in the Bible and we must leave these matters to individuals’ consciences. Our traditions, no matter how long established, cannot be elevated to a position where we see adherence as indicative of a person’s standing in Christ.

Pray: Father, forgive us when we see keeping human rules and traditions as equal to keeping your commands. Protect us from legalism in our own lives and prevent us from placing unnecessary burdens on others. Amen

Every blessing