“Soar Like Eagles” The Gospel of John #6 – “An Expose of Legalism” John 5:1-18

09 Feb

god-is-love   #Thou shalt.”

   “Thou shalt not.”

   “Thou shalt.”

   “Thou shalt not.”


   “Shalt not.”


Sounds like angry children arguing on the playground, doesn’t it? But what you’re hearing is the insistent bickering of adult Christians entrenched in legalism.


When we lift the veil on legalism, we find hypocrisy instead of holiness.

What is it? Legalism is conforming to a code of behavior for the purpose of exalting self. Legalists make lists of “dos” and “don’t” based not on Scripture but on tradition or personal preference. Then they judge themselves and others on their performance. In a nutshell, it’s a “checklist Christianity.”

How does it appear? It slips into a congregation unnoticed and usually preys especially on young, naive believers. Paul describes legalists in Galatians 2:4: “<This matter arose> because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.”

Why is it wrong? First and foremost, legalism is unbiblical. Grace and freedom are the hallmarks of the Christian life, not law and bondage. Second, it promotes the flesh, which cannot please God (Rom. 8:8). Third, it is based on pride, a prime example of which is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer in Luke 18:9-14.

When did it start? Legalism is an ancient art, begun by the Pharisees and implemented by subsequent generations of apprentices who have been narrow, rigid, and often intolerably religious.

Legalists have refused to accept the doctrine of grace. Instead, they have sought to supplement grace with their own works or ideas.

I was made aware of a book which records some very strange laws still on the books in our country. Some of these “whacky laws” are listed below:

  • “In Pennsylvania, the penalty for cursing is a forty-cent fine. However, if God is mentioned in the curse, the fine is sixty-seven cents.”
  • “It is illegal to mispronounce the name of the city of Joliet, Illinois.”
  • “In San Francisco, you are not permitted to carry a basket suspended from a pole.”
  • “It is unlawful for goldfish to ride on a Seattle, Washington, bus unless they lie still.”
  • “Michigan law once required taking a census of bees every winter.”
  • “In Natchez, Mississippi, it is against the law for elephants to drink beer.”
  • “An old Hollywood, California, ordinance forbids driving more than two thousand sheep down Hollywood Boulevard at one time.”
  • “In Muncie, Indiana, you cannot bring fishing tackle into a cemetery.”
  • “The California penal code prohibits the shooting of any animal, except a whale, from an automobile.”
  • “In Kansas City, Missouri, children are prohibited by law from buying cap pistols. However, the law does not restrict them from buying shotguns.”
  • “A Minnesota law requires that men’s and women’s underwear not be hung on the same clothesline at the same time.”
  • “In Joliet, Illinois, women are not allowed to try on more than six dresses in one store.”[1]

I mention these “whacky laws” of our own land because I am about to point out some of the “whacky Jewish laws” of Jesus’ day. We are inclined to look at these laws and laugh, amazed at how ridiculous they seem. Before getting too carried away with our laughter, let me say this. Every one of these apparently ridiculous laws made sense to the lawmakers at the time they became law. These “whacky laws” did not come about in a vacuum; they were a legislative attempt to prevent or solve a real problem of some kind. Lest we think lawmakers wish to spend all their time making up silly laws, let me suggest that they must do so because of “whacky” folks like you and me.

As parents, we should be able to understand how this happens. We would love to be able to give our children a very general principle or guideline, and trust them to follow it. For example, we wish we could say to our child, “Just be home at a reasonable hour.” The trouble is that they do not agree with us about what “reasonable” means, and so we have to give an exact time.

Our child says, “Mom, can I go down the street and play with Charlie?” We say, “No, I don’t want you to play with Charlie at his house.” So our child goes down the street and plays with Charlie out in the yard (to keep our rules), or he plays with Charlie’s brother in his house. We therefore learn to make our rules more and more specific, lest our child fail to behave as we intended. The more specific we make these rules, the sillier they appear to others.

I am not defending Pharisaism or the legalism of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Many of their rules would be very difficult to defend. Nevertheless, I must also say that most of the regulations I am about to call to your attention were probably necessitated by people who were unwilling to abide by principles; thus, religious leaders were forced to become more and more specific, to the point of unbelievable gnat-straining. Here are some of the regulations of the Jews in our Lord’s time:

Some of the detailed regulations are passing wonderful. For example, ‘(On the Sabbath) a man may borrow of his fellow jars of wine or jars of oil, provided that he does not say to him, ‘Lend me them’ (Shab. 23:1). This would imply a transaction, and a transaction might involve writing, and writing was forbidden. Or again, ‘If a man put out the lamp (on the night of the Sabbath) from fear of the gentiles or of thieves or of an evil spirit, or to suffer one that was sick to sleep, he is not culpable; (but if he did it with a mind) to spare the lamp or to spare the oil or to spare the wick, he is culpable’ (Shab. 2:5). The attitude to healing on the sabbath is illustrated by a curious provision that a man may not put vinegar on his teeth to alleviate toothache. But he may take vinegar with his food in the ordinary course of affairs, and the Rabbis philosophically concluded, ‘if he is healed he is healed’ (Shab. 14:4)![2]

The Mishna says: ‘He that reapeth corn on the Sabbath to the quantity of a fig is guilty; and plucking corn is reaping.’ Rubbing the grain out was threshing. Even to walk on the grass on the Sabbath was forbidden because it was a species of threshing. Another Talmudic passage says: ‘In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered sifting; if she rubs the head of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing’ [Jer. Shabt, page 10a]. The scrupulosity of these Jews about the Sabbath was ridiculously extreme. A Jewish sailor caught in a storm after sunset on Friday refused to touch the helm though threatened with death. Thousands had suffered themselves to be butchered in the streets of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes rather than lift a weapon in self-defense on the Sabbath! To these purists, the act of the disciples was a gross desecration of the Sabbath law. The worst of all was that Jesus permitted and approved it.[3]

In the above citations, J. W. Shepard is referring to the Sabbath laws of Jesus’ day, but we would be incorrect to suppose things have improved with time. A friend loaned me a book by Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth entitled, Shemirath Shabbath: A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath.[4] This volume (my friend reminds me that it is the first volume) goes into great detail concerning the interpretation and application of the Sabbath for contemporary Judaism. In the preface to this work the author writes, “The Mishna (Chagiga: Chapter 1, Mishna 8) likens the laws of Shabbath to ‘mountains hanging by a hair,’ in that a multitude of precepts and rules, entailing the most severe penalties for their breach, depend on the slightest of indications given by a biblical verse.”[5]

He also reminds us of the importance which Judaism has placed, and continues to place, on the keeping of the Sabbath:

May we be privileged, by virtue of the proper observance of the Shabbath, to see the final redemption of Israel. Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, “Were Israel properly to observe two Shabbathoth, they would immediately be redeemed” (Shabbath 118b). Until such time, God’s only dwelling-place on this earth is within the four walls of the Halacha (Berachoth 8a).[6]

The book contains many instructions about the keeping of the Sabbath, but I will mention only a few:

Cooking in most all forms (boiling, roasting, baking, frying, etc.) is forbidden on the Sabbath, in particular when the temperature is raised above 45 degrees centigrade (113 Fahrenheit).[7]

If the hot water tap is accidentally left on, it cannot be turned off on the Sabbath.[8]

Escaping gas can be turned off, but not in the normal way. One must turn off the tap of a gas burner with the back of the hand or the elbow.[9]

The preparation of food is greatly affected by the Sabbath. One cannot squeeze a lemon into a glass of ice tea, but one can squeeze lemon on a piece of fish.[10]

That one cannot light a fire on the Sabbath is taught in the Old Testament law (cf. Exod. 35:3). Strict Judaism views this to prohibit turning electric lights on or off on the Sabbath. The problem can be solved, however, by using a timer, which automatically handles this task.[11]

So, too, an air conditioner cannot be turned on by a Jew on the Sabbath, although a Gentile might be persuaded to do so.[12]

One cannot bathe with a bar of soap on the Sabbath, but liquid detergent is acceptable.[13]

I find the section dealing with “discovered articles” (pp. 233-235) most interesting. One is prohibited from transporting goods on the Sabbath. This would prevent merchants from conducting business on the Sabbath. It has been so highly refined that now one cannot carry something which he unknowingly took with him. If one is walking along on the Sabbath and discovers that he is carrying something in his pocket, he has several courses of action so as not to violate the Sabbath.

He may, for example, drop the item out of his pocket, but not in the normal or usual fashion (by grasping it, removing it from the pocket, and dropping it on the floor). He can, however, reverse his pocket, expelling the object unnaturally, and thus legitimately. If the item is valuable, and he does not wish to leave it on the ground, he can ask a Gentile to watch the item for him.

Otherwise, the item could be carried, but not in the usual way. He can carry it for a prescribed distance (just under four amoth), put it down, then take it up, and so on. Or, the man could relay it between himself and a fellow-Israelite, each one carrying the object for no more than the prescribed distance. If this is not advisable, the object can be carried in an unusual way, such as placing it in the shoe, tying it to his leg, or managing to suspend it between his clothing and his body.

Morris adds this regulation regarding work on the Sabbath: Mishnah, Shab. 7:2 lists thirty-nine classes of work forbidden on a sabbath, the last being ‘taking out aught from one domain into another.’ An interesting regulation provides that if a man took out ‘a living man on a couch he is not culpable by reason of the couch, since the couch is secondary’ (Shab. 10:5). This clearly implies that the carrying of the ‘couch’ by itself is culpable.[14]

This information is not supplied to amuse you, but to prepare you for the issues that arise in our study of John chapter 5, as well as later on in John’s Gospel. A decisive change takes place here. Until now, signs and miracles may not have convinced all, but they definitely were instrumental in drawing some to faith. When Jesus turned the water into wine, a few realized what had happened, but only the disciples of our Lord are said to have “believed” (John 2:11).

When our Lord went to Jerusalem and cleansed the temple (John 2:12-22), He also performed a number of signs, which caused a number to “believe in His name” (2:23-25). Nicodemus was at least impressed by the signs Jesus performed (3:2). The Samaritans did not require a sign, but many believed in Jesus when they heard His words (4:4ff.). The royal official who came to Jesus was forced to believe the word which Jesus spoke to him, and the miracle that resulted was instrumental in his coming to faith, along with his whole house (4:43-54).

What is the main issue with legalism? It leaves us uncertain about our relationship with God! We never quite know ‘how we stand’ with our Redeemer, Lord, and Savior!

And any system that diminishes the work of grace on our behalf is wrong! It is just wrong!


[1] Barbara Seuling, More Whacky Laws (New York: Scholastic Inc., 1975).

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 305, fn. 25.

[3] J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939), p. 161.

[4] Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth, Shemirath Shabbath: A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath, English edition, prepared by W. Grangewood (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1984).

[5] Ibid, p. xxx.

[6] Ibid, p. xxxii.

[7] Ibid, p. 1.

[8] Ibid, p. 17.

[9] Ibid, p. 11.

[10] This is my understanding of the view expressed on pages 66-67.

[11] Ibid, pp. 141-142.

[12] Ibid, p. 146.

[13] Ibid, p. 154.

[14] Morris, p. 306, fn. 28.

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Posted by on February 9, 2017 in Gospel of John


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