Summary: Instead of doing a full exposition of the passage, we’re going to focus on one aspect of it. We’re going to focus on the bonds of legalism. And make no mistake about it, legalism is bondage.
As you can tell, we are in the same passage this morning as we were last week. But this morning, rather than doing a full exposition of the passage, we’re going to focus on one aspect of it. We’re going to focus on the bonds of legalism. The fact is that true legalism is bondage. It is contrary to the grace of salvation and will ruin lives. It is dangerous and can be very seductive. And when legalism gets its hooks in you, it places you in terrible bondage. I don’t want any of us to be chained in the bonds of legalism this morning. I want each of us to experience the true freedom that only comes from the grace of Christ. But before we can break those bonds of legalism this morning, we need to know what they look like.
So what is legalism? The reason we came back to this same passage again this morning, is that it gives us a very clear picture of what legalism is. The Jews that John speaks of in this passage are clearly Pharisees. Figuring out who the Pharisees are can be a little bit difficult. When you get to the New Testament, they just seem to appear out of nowhere. They are all over the pages of the Gospels, but they’re nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. Where did they come from? You remember for years in the Old Testament, the Jewish people rebelled against God. They worshipped idols and basically violated every point of God’s law. So, after years of putting up with it, God punished them. He sent them into exile. But years before, God had promised that He would not leave them in exile. So after a period of time, He allowed them to return to the land of Israel. He allowed them to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. And then the Old Testament biblical record stops. For 400 years, the biblical record is silent between the Old and New Testament. And that’s when the Pharisees came into being. They originally formed as a good thing. They were originally a group of Jews who had learned their lesson. They understood why God had punished them and sent them into exile. And they were bound and determined not to let that happen again. They were going to do everything in their power to keep the Jews from breaking God’s law again. And the way that they came up with was to build more laws. Picture it this way. If the law said that you were not allowed to touch this pulpit, how is the best way to make sure that doesn’t happen? Build a fence around it. But then, after you get the fence built, you think it might not be big enough. So you build it higher. Then you think—somebody might still want to climb that fence, so let’s put some barbed wire across the top of it. But, you know how determined some people can be. If you tell them they can’t do something, they will do anything they can to break the rules. So maybe it’s best if people can’t even see the pulpit. So then you build a concrete wall outside of the fence. That way people can’t even see it. And so it goes. And goes. And goes. Until you’ve completely forgotten that the reason you weren’t supposed to touch the pulpit was because the finish was wet. That’s what the Pharisees had done. In the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, they continually built these accretions around the law until the only things people could see were the endless rules and regulations. They had forgotten the purpose of the law in the first place. And they had turned it into a way to make themselves good enough for God. And anytime that people come up with a list of rules and regulations in order to earn favor with God, some things are always going to happen.
First, man-made preferences will be equated with God’s standards. I prefer short hair. If it was up to me, I’d shave it all off. But here’s the point. That is my preference. If a man walks in here with hair down the middle of his back… if I’m a legalist, I say, “you need to get a haircut.” That would be imposing my standard on him. What is worse is if I assess his spiritual condition by the length of his hair. There is an old saying that if you have hair on your face, there must be sin in your heart. That is legalism. That is taking your personal preference and holding it up as the standard of godliness. What is our standard? The Bible. And I’m sorry, in its proper context, the Bible doesn’t say anything about hair length. It also doesn’t say anything about women wearing dresses or music styles or even Bible translations. Any time that you elevate your personal preference to the level of God’s standards, it is legalism. The same kind of legalism these Pharisees were displaying.