FOUNDATIONAL FRAMEWORK. PART 48 - Legalism, Religion, and Hermeneutics


Foundational Truths: The Bible is God’s self-revelation.
God is the Eternal, Sovereign Creator; all that He creates is good.
Man is a responsible agent, held to a moral standard.
Sin originates within a person, separating us from God.
God declares one righteous by faith alone, apart from works.
The glory of God is the centerpiece and goal of all existence.
God’s glory is maximally realized in the promised, coming Kingdom.

The ministry of Jesus and “the Gospel of the Kingdom” as preached by Him (Matt 4:17; 9:35), John the Baptist (Matt 3:2), and the Twelve (Matt 10:7) was an exclusive message directed only to the house of Israel (Matt 3:5; 10:6). To them belong “the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all” (Rom 9:4b-5). 

Clough notes that “careful students of the NT have often remarked over the strangely narrow outlook of Jesus during His ministry. He never traveled outside of Israel. In fact, He never visited the Greek cities inside the nation. For example, He never visited the Greek cities in the Decapolis area to the east and south of the Sea of Galilee whereas He visited the Jewish cities to the west and north of the Sea many times. Jesus went so far as to prohibit His disciples from preaching to, or having any contact with, Gentiles (Matt. 10:5-6). Gentiles were called ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’ (Matt. 7:6; cf. 15:24-27). Obviously Jesus insisted upon the provincial Jewish outlook when, for example, He remarked to a Samaritan woman that salvation ‘is from the Jews’ (John 4:22).”[1]

Such exclusivity will seem odd apart from God’s purpose for Israel as stated in the Old Testament. Clough again writes, “What was the purpose in this extremely Jewish outlook if Jesus indeed wished toreach all mankind? The answer lies in the great covenants that Yahweh had made with Israel. According to these covenants, Israel was not called into existence for her own sake; rather she was to be a channel through which ‘all the families of the earth [could] be blessed’ (Gen. 12:3). Israel was to be God’s own possession, ‘a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation’ (Exod. 19:5-6). The Jewish nation was God’s appointed instrument to reach the world.”[2]Israel is YHWH’s chosen megaphone to the Gentiles, a living testimony of His goodness and His grace (Deut 4:6-8). Israel’s obedience would reveal this truth on the world’s stage. 

Israel’s disobedience does not make God a liar, it only veils His righteousness to the world, marring the distinction that such fellowship with the Creator should bring. The 39 books of the Old Testament are recorded history of God’s faithfulness to His Word, being demonstrated in how He does not forsake Israel, but punishes their willful sin and blesses their intentional obedience. This is the perfect demonstration of His grace and justice, both being bracketed within the boundaries of His lovingkindness. Whether it is blessing or cursing, the Truth of God’s Word remains. He will always do as He says.

In keeping with this principle, YHWH has promised a kingdom. This New Testament presentation of the kingdom needed no explanation with all of the Old Testament pointing in the same direction. The preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom in the New Testament Gospel accounts was an electrified prodding of the Jewish people because this glorious promise was “at hand” (“near”). Anticipation was high, but so was unbelief. For the kingdom to be established by the Lord Jesus, the nation needed to repent (Matt 3:2; Matt 4:17). National repentance would bring about this long-awaited time of glory on Earth when Messiah would reign from the throne of His father David (2 Sam 7:16). 

Such truth was desperately sought by the Jewish people, but their leaders had developed a system of life that sought to enhancereachpeople’s obedience to the Law of Moses known as the Talmud (see FF. 47). Regardless of the noble and sincere motives behind these additions, the “laws” that were imposed developed into legalism and legalism always creates a religion. Religion tells us that performance equals acceptance. Legalism calls upon a person to earn their status. This complete distortion of God’s intentions for Israel is on full display in Matthew 12.

In this chapter we find the account by which the entire book, and all known history, hinges. 

Matthew 12:1-8.The particulars of v. 1 are important and should be noted. Jesus and His disciples are going through a grain field on the Sabbath day (Exod 20:8-11). His disciples, being hungry, began eating the heads of grain. All is harmless, and all is compliant.Deuteronomy 23:25 states, “When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.” Though no sickle is in sight, the Pharisees immediately cry “foul,” accusing them of breaking the Sabbath (Matt 12:2).

At this point, we must answer the question “Who are the Pharisees?” The name “Pharisees” means “separatists” and they “had their roots in the group of faithful Jews known as the Hasidim (or Chasidim). The Hasidim arose in the second century B.C. when the influence of Hellenism on the Jews was particularly strong and many Jews lived little differently than their Gentile neighbors. But the Hasidim insisted on strict observance of Jewish ritual laws.

When the Syrian King Antiochus IV tried to do away with the Jewish religion, the Hasidim took part in the revolt of the Maccabees against him. Apparently from this movement of faithful Hasidim came both the Essenes—who later broke off from other Jews and formed their own communities—and the Pharisees, who remained an active partof Jewish life.”[3]This rise to prominence brought about influence that was far reaching in the Jewish culture, an influence that remained even after Rome took over the region. This led to their inclusion in the Sanhedrin, the “supreme court” of first-century Israel. 

Known for their strict adherence to the Law of Moses, visible piety was an expectation for all who sought spiritual guidance. However, the reigns of truth began to slip out of their hands and they began to draw from interpretations of the Law rather than from the Law itself. This change in direction, which ultimately covered up God’s truth, was in response to the moral impurity of Israel’s leaders. “Although the priests had been responsible for teaching and interpreting the Law (Lev. 10:8–11; Deut. 33:8–10) in Old Testament times, many people had lost all respect for the priests because of the corruption in the Jerusalem priesthood. They looked to the scribes instead to interpret the Law for them. Some scribes were priests; many were not. Still, they lived pious, disciplined lives; and they had been trained to become experts in the Law. It was natural, then, for people to follow their leading rather than that of the priests.”[4]This move yielded its allegiance to “the traditions of the elders” (Mark 7:3). MacDonald notes, “During the earthly ministry of Jesus, the ‘oral law’ was so rigid with legalistic expansions that it usually had little to do with the original intent of Scripture.”[5]Such is the case with the accusation found in Matthew 12:2.

In light of what we have just learned, let’s define two important words. The first word is “religion,” and can be defined as “A set of beliefs or practices by which one gains acceptance with a deity.”  

The question to ask when discussing religion is: “What are the grounds of acceptance?”

Religion is always expecting conformity and results. In the case of first-century Judaism, an outward adjustment of behavior, manner, or custom was mandated to appease the extraneous demands that the scribes’ oral interpretations required. These interpretations obscured the Law of Moses, causing the entire “keeping of the Law” to be viewed as a means of establishing a relationship with God, and not how a Jew was to cultivate fellowship with God. This confusion was damning, exalting works as the requirement for acceptance with God rather than faith. Confusing this requirement saved no one. 

The second word, which is closely related to “religion” is “legalism.” Legalism is defined as: “a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.”[6]Another definition states, “Legalism is when we add rules to God’s commands and connect personal righteousness with obeying our man-made rules.”[7]As with “religion,” legalism stands upon the achievements of man, being the same grounds by which it always falls. In contrast, Godward obedience is one responding to God’s truth and proceeding accordingly because of that truth.

“Legalism” is often assumed to be many things that it is not, such as an adherence to boundaries, expectations, and laws. The difference lies in the origin of those boundaries and laws. Are they from God, or man? If from God, it will lead to greater intimacy with Him because the person is already accepted. If from man, it will be stated in such a way as to render one “unacceptable,” “not really saved,” or “anathema” depending on the person(s) calling the shots. An example may be helpful.

Buddhism understands the idea of “salvation” as an escape from the sufferings of this world. For those who do poorly in this life, they will be reincarnated into a lesser form and brought back to live through this world again. However, if one keeps the “Four Noble Truths,” salvation (being rescue from this suffering) is possible. They are:

1) The nature of existence is suffering.

2) Suffering is caused by desire, or thirst (tanha) to experience existence.

3) The complete cessation of desire leads to the cessation of suffering.

4) In order to escape suffering and attain enlightenment, one has to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of the eight practices of self-training. They can be classified in three categories: morality (sila), meditation (samadhi) and wisdom (panna). Morality means right speech, action and livelihood. It has to generate a perfect state of self-control and contentment. Meditation requires perfection in effort (right attitude of the mind), mindfulness (awareness of mental and physical processes), and concentration (introversion and cessation of empirical consciousness). Wisdom requires perfection in view (through understanding the impermanent nature of the world) and intention (cultivating desirelessness, friendliness and compassion).[8]

What should be immediately noticeable in this example is that the person’s works are what make them ultimately acceptable. This qualifies as a religionbecause it is “a set of beliefs or practices by which one gains acceptance with a deity,” and it is legalismbecause it is “a fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.” Looking back at #4, one’s right speech, action, and livelihood is to “generate a perfect state of self-control and contentment.” How is it possible to define the idea of “perfection” when man’s track record always points to failure? The adjustments that one must make to their behavior and thinking in order to gain acceptance is too much. Man’s works damn him. 

But let us not think that religion and legalism are only found in the world’s religions. MacDonald draws attention to this age-old problem rearing its ugly head in churches in the here and now. He writes, “the legalists are still with us. What else shall we call those professed ministers of Christ who teach, for instance, that confirmation, baptism, or church membership are necessary for salvation; that the law is the believer’s rule of life; that we are saved by faith but kept by works? What is it but Judaism brought over into Christianity when we are asked to accept a humanly ordained priesthood with its distinctive clothing, buildings patterned after the temple with their carved altars and elaborate rituals, and a church calendar with its Lenten season, its feasts, and its fasts?”[9]Sadly, we know of these denominations and churches and we may even have friends or family that go there. They are pursuing a works-salvation, drowning in religion, and bound up by legalism!

Jesus’ response to the legalism of the Pharisees is interesting. He first draws their attention to the Old Testament account of David and his men who took of the showbread of the Temple (“the bread of Presence” -1 Sam 21:6). Jesus’ answer begins with the statement, “have you not read?” This is a direct insult to a group of pious spiritual advisors whose leverage and pride was found in a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. Of course they had read the Old Testament! However, they did not understand it because they did not interpret it correctly. This reply that Jesus offers the Pharisees shows us clearly that the problems that are related to religion and legalism are all hermeneutical in nature! They are all issues resulting from a bad interpretation of Scripture.  

This same type of insult is repeated by Jesus in Matthew 12:5 with a second example that may seem confusing upon reading. The Levitical priests offered sacrifices on the Sabbath, thus qualifying them as “working” people on a day of rest. Numbers 28:9-10contains the guidelines for Levitical sacrifices and reads, “Then on the sabbath daytwo male lambs one year old without defect, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, and its drink offering: This is the burnt offering of every sabbathin addition to the continual burnt offering and its drink offering” (emphasis added). These actions by the Levitical Priests should render them guilty of “profaning” the Sabbath rest. However, Jesus’ pronouncement notes that they are “innocent” (Matt 12:5b).

Jesus’ point in both examples rebukes the thinking of the Pharisees. Though Christ clearly considers David’s consumption of the Bread of Presence unlawful (Matt 12:4b), David and his men were not condemned by the Father, the Son, or anyone else in Scripture.


Pondering this, one begins to see the drastic differences between the external and often emotionless mechanics that make up a “religion” and one having a living and loving relationship with the Father and Creator through the provision of Jesus Christ the Son. The presence of the King in their midst was greater than the grand majesty of the Temple. The One worthy of worship standing before them was greater than the house in which they worshiped. 

The principle at hand is summed up in Matthew 12:7: “I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice” (See also Matt 9:13; Hos 6:6). What matters most to God is the motives and intentions of the heart. God wants hearts that are devoted to Him and His purposes; those resembling His gracious character and acting as facilitators of His mercy to a lost and dead world, for “mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13b). This concept is not new with Jesus.

The superiority of a tender heart that displays mercy over a “check-list” religiosity can be seen in YHWH’s attitude toward the apathetic religious appearances of Judah in Isaiah 1:10-17and 29:13-14.

Jesus even offers a third insult, stating “if you had known what this means,” further showing that the Pharisees had missed the proper understanding of God’s heart toward people, exalting mercy over ritual. Because of this hermeneutical error, the Pharisees had condemned those who were innocent (Deut 23:25). 

This point is missed completely by the Pharisees, seeking to keep up appearances and always striving for acceptance with God. It is religion in its purest and grossest form. Scofield notes that “Our Lord found the observance of the day encrusted with rabbinical evasions (Mt. 12:2) and restrictions, wholly unknown to the law, so that He was Himself held to be a sabbath-breaker by the religious authorities of the time.”[10]

Such laborious nonsense led men to consider the “Lord of the Sabbath” to be a sinner (Matt 12:8)!

[1]Charles A. Clough, “Confrontation with the King,” A Biblical Framework for Worship and Obedience in an Age of Global Deception, Pt V (, p. 9.

[2]Ibid., p. 10

[3]Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995).


[5]William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), p. 1188.

[6]Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life(Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1994), p. 168.

[7]Gary W. Derickson, First, Second, and Third John, ed. H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), p. 158.


[9]MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary, p. 1898.

[10]C. I. Scofield, The Scofield Study Bible(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), Mt 12:1.