We hear much talk of legalism in our day. Often, it is left undefined, and worse, it is frequently used to inveigh against believers with high personal standards of conduct. Usually, it is not uncommon to hear believers accuse people with any standard higher than theirs as being “legalistic.”
At times, some people say legalism is any attempt to hold people to a standard not outlined in Scripture. This becomes a problem immediately, for many things that intersect with our 21st-century lives are not even dreamed of in the Word of God. We are given broad principles that guide us in every one of these areas, but the Bible does not mention any of these things explicitly. To make an application of principles is not, in fact, legalistic—indeed, that is how the principles are lived out! God expects us to make authoritative, Spirit-filled, informed, and binding applications “where the Bible is silent”.
God demands a holy people, and part of that holiness consists in wisely and decisively applying His Word to a thousand situations not explicitly mentioned in that Word. Yet genuine legalism—an attitude that says external conduct is the meritorious ground of our relationship to God, or that insists one either holds to a certain standard or one is a carnal compromiser—is just as much of a threat to the gospel and the Christian life as the amoral, atheological mess invading evangelicalism today.
In Mark 2, our Lord confronts the burdensome legalism of the Pharisees, contrasting it with His genuine authority that both holds the highest standard and frees His people to truly know and enjoy Him.
A. The Incident (v. 23)
On a Sabbath day, our Lord is walking with His disciples near a grain field. In that era, paths off the main road would be parallel to the filed or vineyard, for people to walk and for the various farmers and others to have easier access. This is where the Lord and the twelve were. As they walked, the disciples were picking heads of grain and rubbing them between their hands to remove the grain, so it could be eaten. The Pharisees are watching this (one wonders if they were simply following Jesus everywhere, in shifts, to catch Him in doing something they could condemn Him for), and immediately call out the Lord.
Remember this is happening on the Sabbath. This was the pulsating heart of the legalism in Jesus’ day. God had created the Sabbath as a restful, enjoyable reminder of His creative activity and to provide refreshment to His image-bearers as they worshipped Him. There were, of course, laws in the OT that prohibited various kinds of work on the Sabbath, to preserve it as a holy day of rest (and as an expression of confidence in the Lord, for it would be tempting to work an extra day as a human way of securing the finances needed to make ends meet). But these laws did not prohibit every possible activity, only work explicitly designed for profit.
But in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had created an exhausting, intricate, and overbearing superstructure around the Sabbath. Much like their aversion to saying the name of God, Yahweh, for fear of taking it in vain, their desire to avoid violating the Sabbath led them to prohibit virtually every possible activity. (If we were to use the imagery of building a fence to prevent people from jumping over a cliff, the Pharisees’ fence would have been about an inch away from the side of the mountain!)
Twenty-four chapters of the Talmud, that complex book of commentary on the OT, Jewish tradition, oral history, and other matters, cover the laws and customs governing the Sabbath. As is so common with human nature, the Pharisees took a good thing designed by God to bless and enrich His creation and horrifically twisted it, creating a thing of ugliness, bondage, and destruction.
The Pharisees, then, see God incarnate, the Messiah, and judge Him for not following their standard! This is the definition of legalism. It is to that judgment we now turn.
B. The Indictment (v. 24)
The Pharisees criticize Jesus and His men for “working” on the Sabbath by eating the heads of grain. What is most important to note is this: There is neither a direct statement nor an exegetically-derived principle that could possibly be used to draw this conclusion. Any way you look at it, the Pharisees were wrong. They were holding Jesus to a standard that even they would probably agree was neither explicitly mandated in the Word of God, nor a legitimate application of a general principle. It was simply a safeguard (the understatement of the millennium) they had put in place to prevent the violation of a biblical command—but that humanly-derived safeguard should never be placed on the same level as Scripture, much less be used to judge someone else who draws the line differently. (I am drawing a distinction between a “safeguard,” which is intended to prevent violation of a command or principle, and an application, which directly fleshes out the command or principle, so they can be obeyed. Both are necessary to live a life pleasing to God, but the former should be held far more loosely than the latter.)
We need guardrails. They prevent us from going over cliffs. In the case of the Pharisees, they didn’t even need the guardrail they had built, for it had become so extensive and oppressive as to be a prison rather than a protection from actual destruction. It would be one thing to criticize Jesus for having the disciples fish on the Sabbath. That was a direct violation of an explicit command. But to criticize them for not following a purely-humanly-invented standard that solely exists to prevent the violation of the actual command? They haven’t the slightest authority to do that.
We turn now to Jesus’ wise and intensely Scriptural response to their legalistic critique.
C. The Instruction (vv. 25-28)
Jesus is the master expositor and teacher of the Word of God. His insight into it (some of which we see in the gospels, as well as in all of the glorious ideas He gives His apostles in the 22 epistles following the book of Acts) is endlessly fascinating, wonderful, and humbling. It shall be heaven to sit at His feet for eternity and learn from Him! In both mercy and rebuke, our Lord explains to these men He created the true standard of the Creator and Lord.
In 1 Samuel, David and his men are on the run from the evil Saul, who is seeking to destroy the true heir to the throne and thus is an agent of Satan, who is seeking to overthrow the promise-plan of God (for from David’s royal line would come the Messiah Himself)! David comes to the city of the priests on Mount Scopus, near Jerusalem. He and his men are hungry and need food to sustain them on the journey forward, so he asks the high priest, Ahimelech, for bread. The only bread available is the consecrated bread used in Temple ceremony—which could only be eaten by the priests (Exodus 25:30; Lev. 24:5-9). Yet the Lord is merciful, and desires His son, David, so central to His plan, to be sustained. Obviously, one could not insist on a rigid, exceptionless application of this explicit command (!) and be faithful to the mercy of God! So Ahimelech gives David the consecrated bread.
(A word should be said about the difference in names between the priests. 1 Samuel says his name was Ahimelech, while our Lord says it was Abiathar. The word translated “in the time of” can refer to the lifetime of someone. Since Ahimelech was executed shortly after this meeting with David [22:14-19] ad his son Abiathar took his place as priest, our Lord refers to the event as being within the lifetime of the immediately-succeeding, and longer-serving, high priest—for certainly Abiathar was alive when it happened [cf. 22:20-21]!)
Our Lord’s point is this: If David could legitimately take bread that could only normally be eaten by priests since his life was in danger, then how much more could Jesus and His disciples do simple “work” on the Sabbath to satisfy immediate hunger? To criticize them is to miss the whole point of the Sabbath (and of God’s Law in general). Safeguards are great. Applications of principles and explicit commands are even better. But they can’t be used to override other equally important parts of the Word of God—things like grace, mercy, and the meeting of real needs.
For David, mercy triumphed over ceremony—divinely-ordained ceremony! How much more should mercy triumph over humanly-devised law for the Son of David and His band!
The Sabbath was designed as a day of rest and refreshment for people (v. 27)—what better day for healing or meeting of needs? The Sabbath is for people—for their blessing and joy. To do as the Pharisees did is to imply men and women exist for the Sabbath, for such was the unhealthy and ungodly prominence they gave it with their burdensome regulations and demands.
Jesus closes with a most interesting statement. Having just exposed the Pharisees’ legalism and departure from the Word of God (O, how fearfully possible it is to read it and miss the authoritative message and point!), Jesus concludes, “So [in light of His authoritative explanation and application] the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (v. 28). Jesus is revealing the divine intent and point of the Sabbath, and fearlessly contradicting the Pharisees’ oppressive rules. Why? Because He is greater than the Sabbath—He is the Creator God! He can overturn whatever He pleases in the fulfillment of His promise-plan—especially the ungodly legalistic system designed to oppress the very people He has come to set free.
As we walk with Christ, we will be tempted towards both libertinism and legalism. May He give us the discernment we so desperately need to live in humble obedience to all His truth and bring Him the glory due His name!