Someone has commented on keeping the Sabbath day. The comment is given below in italics and my reply in normal type. Here is a link to the post commented on: “I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?”
The temple and the Mosaic covenant
The tabernacle/temple together with the offerings and priesthood were an essential part of God’s Mosaic covenant with the Israelites (see Exodus – Deuteronomy). At that time God lived on earth in a building and people could only approach Him via an offering made by a priest. God left the first temple because of their gross sinfulness (Ezek. 8-10). This temple was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians when the Israelites were driven from their homeland. But a new one was built after the Jewish exile in Babylon (Ezra 3-6). And after this fell into disrepair, a new one was built by King Herod.
Why was the inner curtain of Herod’s temple torn in two when Jesus died (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45)? This would have shocked the Jews – their most holy place was no longer hidden by the curtain. They would have repaired or replaced the curtain as soon as possible. The writer of Hebrews says that the curtain was a symbol of Christ’s body (Heb. 10:19-20). Because of Christ’s death and because of His High Priestly role, we can “enter the most Holy Place”. We can approach God without the need of a human priest. Soon after this on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came to live in God’s people. So God left the temple and His presence on earth was taken by the Holy Spirit. This temple was subsequently destroyed in AD 70 when the Romans invaded Jerusalem. The torn curtain, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the fact that the temple has not been rebuilt for a period of over 1,900 years indicates a significant change in God’s relationship with mankind.
Consequently, I have divided the comments according to whether they related to Scriptures dealing with events before or after the day of Pentecost.
The commentator advocates keeping the Sabbath today as it was kept when Jesus was on earth about 2,000 years ago.
But the Sabbath day is a sign of the Mosaic covenant given to the Israelites about 3,450 years ago (Ex. 31:13-17). They were to keep it until it was fulfilled when Jesus died. Jesus was a Jew who kept the Mosaic law (which included animal sacrifices, male circumcision and keeping the Sabbath) and taught Jews who were living under the Mosaic law. This period under the law of Moses covers Exodus to John (inclusive) in the Bible.
After the day of Pentecost, there was a new way to approach God. This doesn’t involve Jewish laws like male circumcision (or animal sacrifices and keeping the Sabbath) because Paul wrote against this in Galatians. However, 9 of the ten commandments are repeated in this section of the Bible. But the 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath is not repeated. This significant fact is ignored by those that want to impose Sabbath keeping today.
Unfortunately the commentator doesn’t seem to recognise that the Greek word for “law” (nomos) has several meanings, including God’s teaching for the church in the New Testament. Instead he seems to assume it always means the Torah or God’s teaching in the Pentateuch. Also, he fails to use the context when interpreting a passage from a Bible. This context should be deduced from the surrounding Scriptures and not imposed by the reader by selecting verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”).
Overall, the comment seems to be an example of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) rather than exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).
I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?
Today the people of God comprise the church, which is made up of all true Christians. As the church commenced on the day of Pentecost, the part of the Bible that is specifically addressed to the church are the books from Acts to Revelation. Prior to this time (Genesis 12 to John); the Jews were God’s people on earth. Therefore, the answer to this question must be found between Acts and Revelation of the Bible.
The first mention in the Bible of a day of rest is when God rested at the end of the six days of creation (Gen. 2:2-3). But on this occasion God rested and there is no mention of humanity resting. The first mention of people resting on the seventh day occurs in the days of Moses, which is after people had been on earth for about 2,500 years (Ex. 12:16; 16:22-30). So there is no evidence that this practice was given at the creation of the world.
The distinctive day of the week for the Jews was Saturday, the Sabbath, the last day of the week. It was given to them when God provided manna in the desert and was an important requirement being included in the ten commandments (Ex. 16:22-30; 20:8-11). The Sabbath was given to the Jewish nation only and no Gentile was ever commanded to keep it (Ex. 31:13). It provided an opportunity to rest and focus on God (Mk. 2:27). In the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), the Sabbath is associated with the annual Jewish festivals (Ex. 23; Lev. 27; Num. 28-29). The penalty for breaking the Sabbath was death (Ex.31:14-15; 35:2; Num. 15:32-36).
The Sabbath day was given to the Israelites as a sign to remind them of their special relationship with God (Ex. 31:13, 17). God called them “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5). The Sabbath day is a symbol of the covenant given to the nation of Israel at Mt Sinai. It distinguished them from other nations. The original form of the Mosaic covenant is Exodus 20-23, which was written on a scroll (Ex. 24:7-8). Then more laws were progressively added to the covenant. In Exodus 25-30, regulations are added about the building and ceremonies of the tabernacle. After this, God repeats the fourth commandment before He hands Moses the tablets of the covenant law (Ex. 31:12-18). The reason given is that the Sabbath day was a sign for the Israelites who left Egypt and their descendants. It symbolised God’s covenant with them. This covenant, described in Exodus to Deuteronomy (along with the circumcision law of Genesis), was for the Israelites and their descendants (Dt. 29:12-15).
As Jesus lived under this Jewish covenant, He kept the Sabbath day. But He implied that things would change in future; the kingdom of God would be taken away from the Jews and “given to a people who will produce its fruit” (Mt. 21:43). These people would worship in spirit and truth instead of at the temple (Jn. 4:21-24). They are Christians who live under a different covenant. This new covenant included Gentiles (Acts 10:9-15) and excluded the law of Moses (Acts 15:1-35). It didn’t even include a single old covenant law such as circumcision or the Sabbath day, because then one is “obligated to obey the whole law” (Gal. 5:3).
As the old covenant of the Israelite law is now obsolete, its practices are also now obsolete (2 Cor. 3:14; Heb. 8:13). Instead Christians follow the instructions given to the church in the New Testament. The sign of the spiritual blessings that Christians have under the new covenant is the Lord’s Supper (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). However, the Sabbath day will be re-established as a symbol of the Jews special relationship with the Lord when they are revived as God’s people in the millennium (Is. 56:4-6; 66:23; Ezek. 46:1, 3).
On the Sabbath the Jews were commemorating the end of God’s work of creation (Ex. 20:11) and the end of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Dt. 5:15) and they offered animal sacrifices (Num. 28:9-10). There is no instruction addressed to the church in Scripture for believers to continue this practice today. However, in the Lord’s Supper they commemorate their deliverance from being slaves to sin.
The distinctive day of the week for Christians was Sunday (the first day of the week):
- On Sunday, Christ rose from the dead, which proved that His work of redemption was completed (Jn. 20:1)
- On Sunday, Christ met with the disciples between the resurrection and ascension (Jn. 20:19, 26)
- On Sunday, the church commenced when the Holy Spirit was given on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1; Lev. 23:15,16).
- On Sunday, the early Christians met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper – Paul seems to have waited in Troas for seven days so he could be there for the Lord’s Supper (breaking of bread) on the first day of the week (Acts 20:6-7). Although there were missionary visits to Jewish synagogues (Acts 13:14-48; 16:13-15; 17:1-4; 18:4), there is no example in Scripture of a church meeting on the Sabbath.
- The early Christians were told to set aside money for the Lord’s work on Sunday; presumably via a collection at a church meeting (1 Cor. 16:1-2).
Christians are not under the Old Testament law, which includes the ten commandments, but under God’s grace (Rom. 6:14-15) – see separate post on this topic. We have been “released from the law” (Gal. 7:6). The law of Moses has been replaced by the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; 2 Cor. 3:7-11). Therefore, the Bible places no limits on when Christians can meet together. They can praise and celebrate the Lord’s Supper any day of week (1 Cor. 11:36). Although some early Jewish believers wanted to keep the Sabbath, this was not considered to be a matter of importance, but one of the individual conscience (Rom. 14:5-6).
As Christians have been released from the Old Testament law, they are not bound by regulations such as those saying that a person must keep the Sabbath in order to please God. When the Galatians were trying to earn God’s favor by observing certain days like the Sabbath and by promoting circumcision, Paul said that they had been freed from being subject to such laws (Gal. 4:4-11; 5:1-2). Paul also prohibits Christians being condemned for not following particular food or drink regulations and for not observing particular religious activities that are held on an annual, monthly or weekly basis: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col 2:16-17NIV). In this passage, the religious festivals were the annual Jewish festivals and the Sabbath day was the weekly Jewish Sabbath.
It should be noted that the “Sabbath-rest” in Hebrews 4:1-11, is different to the Sabbath day. This rest is entered by faith in Christ (Heb. 11:2-3). The old covenant laws are now symbols and metaphors for us. As God rested after His work of creation, Christians rest in the completed work of Christ (Mt. 11:28-30). In this sense, the physical Sabbath-rest is likened to our spiritual rest of salvation. The weekly Sabbath pictured our final salvation. Just as Moses was appointed by God to lead the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Canaan, Christ was appointed by God to lead people from bondage to sin to the eternal Sabbath-rest of heaven. As most of the Jews died before reaching the “rest” of the promised land because of unbelief, so unbelief excludes people from God’s gift of salvation.
So the teaching that Christians should worship God collectively on Saturday is contrary to Scripture.
Written, October 2011; Revised February 2014
I’ve been told that Christians should keep the ten commandments as they were God’s law and not the law of Moses. Is this true?
Based on their interpretation of the Bible, some people believe that the ‘ten commandments’ and the ‘law of Moses’ are two completely separate laws; the latter being no longer applying today as it was temporary, but the former being God’s law that is eternal. One of the passages used to support this belief is part of Daniel’s prayer: “We have not obeyed the LORD our God or kept the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed Your law and turned away, refusing to obey You. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against You” (Dan. 9:10-11NIV). Daniel says that God gave the Jews laws, including the ten commandments, through prophets such as Moses. Clearly, in this passage, “the laws He gave us through His servants the prophets”, “Your law” and the Law of Moses” are synonymous. The sins that Daniel was confessing included, “We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from Your commands and laws. We have not listened to Your servants the prophets” (Dan. 9:5b-6a). I can see no justification in claiming that “Your law” is restricted to the ten commandments and “the Law of Moses” does not include the ten commandments.
Because the people were terrified when God gave them the ten commandments at Mt Sinai, they asked if they could receive future messages via Moses (Dt. 5:23-31). As God granted this request, the other commandments were given to Moses and he taught them to the Israelites. So, all the commandments in the Pentateuch came from God.
Before the Israelites entered Canaan, Moses reminded them to “keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you” (Dt. 4:2). They were especially instructed to remember the giving of the ten commandments (Dt. 4:9-13). Then in between two references to the ten commandments (Dt. 4:10-13; 5:1-22), the Bible says “This is the law Moses set before the Israelites” (Dt. 4:44). So the ten commandments are part of the law of Moses: Moses communicated the ten commandments to the Israelites (Dt. 5:4-5) and he recorded them in the Pentateuch.
When Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:37-40). This statement seems to be a summary of the ten commandments as duties towards God (Deut. 6:5 and the first 4 commandments) and towards people (Lev. 19:18 and the other 6 commandments). The ten commandments give the basic principles of Jewish law whereas their application to particular situations is given in the detailed laws in the Pentateuch.
Today the people of God comprise the church, which is made up of all true Christians. As the church commenced on the day of Pentecost, the part of the Bible that is specifically addressed to the church are the books from Acts to Revelation. Prior to this time (Genesis 12 to John); the Jews were God’s people on earth. What does Acts to Revelation of the Bible say about Christians keeping the ten commandments?
Christians are no longer under the Jewish law and are freed from its condemnation because Christ has fulfilled the law by paying the penalty of death (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 6:14-15; 7:1-6; Gal. 3:19, 24-25). The Mosaic Covenant under which the law was given is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Instead, God’s commandment to us is “to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another” (1 Jn 3:23). Our love for Christ will result in obeying His commands (Jn. 14:15; 1 Jn. 5:1-3; 2 Jn. 6)
Christians seek to live holy lives, not by following the ten commandments, but by allowing Christ to live through them (Gal. 2:19-20). They seek to please the Lord Jesus by following His teachings and those of the apostles (1 Cor. 9:21).
Paul doesn’t distinguish between the ten commandments and the other laws that were given to Moses: he says that the ten commandments, “which was engraved in letters on stone”, were transitory like the other laws (2 Cor. 3:7-11). They were not permanent, whereas the gospel is permanent. Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).
Nine of the ten commandments are given between Acts to Revelation as God’s principles for holy living for Christians:
- Don’t worship any other god except the one true God (1 Cor. 8:4-6)
- Don’t worship idols (1 Cor. 10:7,14; 1 Jn. 5:21)
- Don’t misuse God’s name (Jas. 2:7)
- Keep the Sabbath day – This instruction is not mentioned in Acts to Revelation, and Christians shouldn’t be condemned for failing to keep it (Col. 2:16) – see separate post on this topic
- Honor your parents (Eph. 6:1-3)
- Don’t murder (Jas. 2:11)
- Don’t commit adultery (Jas. 2:11)
- Don’t steal (Eph.4:8)
- Don’t give false testimony (Col. 3:10)
- Don’t covet (Eph. 5:3)
The last six commandments have been summarized as “love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:8-10).
So, because Christians relate to God via Jesus Christ and not via keeping Jewish laws, they are under no obligation to keep the ten commandments. Instead, they seek to please the Lord by obeying the teachings of Christ and the apostles.
Written, October 2011
Also see: I went to a church service that was held on Saturday instead of Sunday and was told that was when we should worship God. What does the Bible say about this topic?
What about keeping the Sabbath day?
At the start of a new year, people often reflect on the past and look ahead to the future. In this article we look at the promise of the “new covenant”, which was given in the past and looks ahead to the future.
A covenant is an agreement or a promise between individuals or groups of people. The first covenant, or the old covenant, was the law that was given to the Children of Israel via Moses at Mt Sinai. It promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. The law was a covenant of works. But because it depended on people’s obedience, it could not produce righteousness. The new covenant was given so that people would become conscious of their sin (Rom. 3:20; 7:7). It showed them they could not keep it, so they would then be ready to receive a Savior.
The phrase “new covenant” is mentioned first in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is quoted in Hebrews 8:8-13.
“This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:10-12NIV).
This covenant was “new” (the Greek word commonly used meant “unique”) because:
- It depends on God, not people (“I will”, v. 10, 12); being unconditional, whereas the law was conditional on people’s obedience (v.9); and emphasises what God will do, not what people must do.
- God’s laws will be in their minds and on their hearts (v.10a), so that everyone will know the Lord and have a close relationship with Him (v.10b, 11).
- People receive forgiveness of sins and an eternal inheritance (v.12; Heb. 9:15).
The new covenant was announced at a low time of Israel’s history; the nation had largely turned from God to idolatry. At this time God used prophets to announce that the Jewish people would be captured by the Babylonians and scattered amongst other nations but afterwards they would be restored to their land of Canaan. The new covenant is characterised by everlasting peace and prosperity (Is. 54:9-10; 55:3-13; 59:20-21; 61:1-8; Jer. 50:4-5; Ezek. 16:60-63; 34:25-31; 37:15-28; Hos. 2:14-23). At this time the Jewish people will prosper in their own land under Christ’s rule.
When we look at the Old Testament references, we see that the blessings of the new covenant are both physical and spiritual. They are “better promises” than the old covenant (Heb. 8:6).
The promise of the new covenant was given to the Jews (Heb. 8:8) and will be fulfilled when the Lord comes to set up the Millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:2,4). “I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26a). The mystery (a new revelation) is that the largely Gentile church must first be gathered in the rapture, before the spiritual hardness of Israel is healed when a Jewish remnant will be saved out of the coming great tribulation to live in God’s kingdom on earth.
Lessons for us
What has this promise, given to the Jews, got to do with us today? Because the Jews rejected the Messiah, the gospel was offered to the Gentiles. The Gentile church was another mystery that was revealed to Paul and he used the term “new covenant” to describe the gospel of God’s grace (2 Cor. 3:6).
In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus said that the cup of wine represented “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25). The death of Christ forms the basis of spiritual blessings for the Church as well as the covenantal physical and spiritual blessings promised to the nation of Israel. Christ was a mediator for both Old Testament and New Testament believers and for those who will believe and enter the Millennial kingdom. In the meantime, some of the blessings of the new covenant are enjoyed by all believers— the spiritual blessings, not the physical ones. For example, we have forgiveness of sins, a close relationship with the Lord and the indwelling Holy Spirit
In the future Israel will be blessed under the rule of the Lord in the Millennium (Hos. 3:5); while believers will reign with Him over the universe (Eph. 1:22-23). What wonderful promises!
Written, January 2009
It’s futile to try and earn God’s favor
Life is like a journey. The Bible says that Christians are people who follow the road that leads to eternal life, which is much narrower than the broad road that leads to destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). As a road has boundaries for safe travel, Christians do not thrive outside God’s boundaries for living. Two ways of going off the road or out of bounds are to either add to or take away from what God has revealed to us in the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19). Legalism involves adding to the Bible and liberalism taking away from it. These are mindsets that come from the sinful nature; not from the Bible or the divine nature.
Law And Liberty
The law given to the Jews in Old Testament times, found in Exodus 20-31, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, is summarised in the ten commandments (Ex. 20:1-17). It showed people their sinfulness, since to break one command meant being guilty of breaking all of it (Rom. 3:20; 7:7; Jas. 2:10). As everyone has broken the law, they are under the curse of death (Ro. 6:23; Gal. 3:10). Jesus came to pay this penalty for humanity and in this way He fulfilled the requirements of the law (Mt. 5:17). As their penalty has been paid, Christians are no longer under the law; they have been released from the law (Rom. 6:14 7:6; Gal. 3:13, 24-25). As this is a free gift from God, His acceptance doesn’t depend on our character or conduct.
Believers are to live by faith, not the law (Gal. 3:11-12). This new way of the Spirit brings liberty and freedom and is motivated by love, not fear (Rom. 7:7; 2 Cor. 3:17). Our speech and conduct are to be judged by the “law that gives freedom” (Jas 2:12TNIV), which has taken the place of the ancient law. In regard to things not expressly commanded or forbidden, Christian liberty must be granted, allowing for the exercise of individual judgement and Christian conscience before God (1 Cor. 10:29-31). This must be limited by considerations of love and care not to stumble those with a sensitive conscience (1 Cor. 8:9).
Legalism is an attitude regarding our approach to God. It imposes law on the believer’s conscience so that it comes between them and God. It also includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism is just as dangerous whether your convictions are biblically accurate or not.
Legalism exalts “law” above “grace” and replaces “faith” with “works”. The word does not occur in New Testament Greek, but “righteousness in the law” is translated as “righteousness based on the law” (Phil. 3:6). It began when Eve added “you must not touch it” to God’s instruction (Gen. 2:17; 3:3).
The Pharisees were religious leaders amongst the Jews. They wore distinguished clothes to be easily recognised. Their objective was to live in strict accordance with the Old Testament law and the tradition of interpretation they had established and to train other Jews to live this way.
They pledged to obey all the facets of the traditions to the minutest detail, were proud of their traditions and law and felt superior to other nations and people such as the Samaritans (Jn. 4:9). They were usually recognised as examples to follow and were honoured. But God had a much higher standard: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). Their religious ceremonies, without inner faith, were not acceptable to God.
Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because they put traditions above the word of God (Mt. 15:3, 6-7). Their teachings were human rules that were not from God (Mt. 5:9). Instead Christ taught that purity came from the mind, not from external behaviour (Mt. 15:17-20).
The Pharisees actually relaxed the divine standards. For example, the Corban regulation enabled people to ignore the fifth commandment (Mk. 15:4-6). In one sense their extra laws made it easier to obey the Old Testament law; they took into account the weakness of human nature. The rich young man believed that he had kept all the commandments (Mt. 19:20). As the Pharisees believed they could keep the law, they defined them to enable this!
By following their traditions they were in danger of concluding that they pleased God. For example, Paul was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers and faultless in following the law (Gal 1:14; Phil. 3:5-6). This could give a false sense of spiritual security. The need to depend on God’s mercy was diminished: they “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Lk. 18:9).
The Pharisees were obsessed with following man-made rules and Jesus criticised them strongly for their religious practices (Mt. 23). Jesus said they were hypocrites who oppressed the people and were concerned about appearances and recognition but lacked sincerity and were greedy and self-indulgent. They were meticulous with minor matters but neglected the major matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
When they felt their position and customs were threatened, the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders persecuted Christ and the early church. They bitterly opposed Jesus and His teachings. Because the early church was largely comprised of Jews, legalism arose within their congregations. We will now look at some instances of legalism in the early church.
Before Peter visited Cornelius when the gospel went to the Gentiles, his attitudes had to be retrained. God caused him to see a vision of a large sheet that came down from heaven containing animals and birds, many of which were impure and unclean under the Jewish food regulations. When he was told to kill and eat them, Peter refused because he always followed these regulations. Then he was told “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). This happened three times to teach him that the Jewish laws no longer applied and that Gentiles were going to receive the Holy Spirit without needing to become Israelites.
When Peter broke the Jewish law of not associating with Gentiles he said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28) and “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts those from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). He knew that the Jewish law no longer applied and all nationalities were to be accepted in the church because God had accepted them (Rom. 15:7).
When Peter was criticized for socialising with Gentiles he described what happened and they were satisfied (Acts 11:1-18). However, some Jewish believers insisted male circumcision was essential for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). This was a common example of legalism in the early church; being salvation by good works. Paul opposed such legalism and said, “we did not give in to them for a moment” (Gal. 2:5). After Paul and Barnabas spoke up against this and Peter and James agreed with them, the church decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to be saved (Acts 15:1-31).
Paul taught that Christians should not be required to follow Jewish regulations, which had been fulfilled by Christ (Col. 2:16-17). To enforce such regulations on others involves deception (Col. 2:8). Christians shouldn’t submit to the rules of human tradition like “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as “These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:8, 20-23). Strict religious rules and regulations do not have power over the sinful nature. Although they may appear good externally, such rules do not address sinful attitudes. In fact they lead to pride.
The Circumcision Group
Jews who insisted that male circumcision was essential for salvation and that the Old Testament law had to be followed to please God were referred to as “the circumcision group” (Gal. 2:12; Ti. 1:10). In Crete they were “rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception”. Paul said that they “must be silenced” because of their false teaching. Furthermore, the congregation should be rebuked sharply to “pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth” (Ti. 1:11, 13). Paul opposed legalism because it was destroying the message of justification by faith. Salvation was by God’s grace alone, through the death of Christ and not involving any human works.
“Quarrels about the law” in Paul’s day such as disputes over clean and unclean foods, Sabbath regulations and observance of holy days, were “unprofitable and useless” (Rom. 14; Ti. 3:9). They diverted believers from a balanced life.
As the churches in Galatia were turning to the “different gospel” of legalism, Paul said that the false teachers of this message would be under God’s curse (Gal. 1:6-9). Even the apostle Peter and Barnabas were influenced by the circumcision group to stop socialising with Gentiles. Paul confronted Peter publicly for this hypocritical behavior: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Gal. 2:14). He emphasised that believers are justified by faith in Christ alone and not by observing the law.
They were observing special days and months and seasons and years (Gal. 4:10). Paul said that they were enslaved to Jewish regulations (Gal. 4:1-3). Such legalism was wrong because believers were now children of God and not slaves under the law, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Gal. 5:18).
Paul described the perils of legalism in Galatians 5:1-12. It is like going backwards to living in Old Testament times and under slavery that is intolerable to bear (Acts 15:10). Instead of Christ being the only means of salvation, it involved a system of salvation by good works. However, if a person attempts to please God by being circumcised, then they should keep the whole law. Those who were trying to be saved by keeping the law were rejecting that Christ was the only Savior. The believer receives righteousness through the Spirit, whereas the legalist hopes in vain to earn righteousness. Circumcision doesn’t make a believer any better and uncircumcision doesn’t make them any worse, it is irrelevant as far as God is concerned. Legalism is disobeying the truth of Scripture. The belief that circumcision and law-keeping should be added to faith in Christ does not come from God but from Satan. Legalism spreads through a congregation like yeast spreads through dough (Mt. 16:6). False legalistic teachers will be judged by God. The message of Christ’s finished work on the cross is offensive to legalists because it implies that people are incapable of doing anything to merit salvation. Paul wished that the legalists would be cut off from the congregations in Galatia.
Paul called legalists: dogs, evildoers and mutilators of the flesh (Phil. 3:2). Dogs were unclean animals and the term was used by Jews to describe Gentiles. Here Paul was using it for legalistic false teachers. It may also imply their aggression and destructive impact and the fact that legalism leads to criticism and quarrelling (Gal. 5:15).
Legalism is a mindset regarding our approach to God that comes from the sinful nature and adds to the Bible. It places rules and regulations between us and God and puts law above grace and works above faith and includes an effort to merit God’s favor. Legalism involves salvation by good works and not Christ alone. It is selfish and imposes rigid control on others. Legalism is dangerous because it involves sinful thinking and sinful behaviour.
The risk of legalism is greatest for believers with a weak or strict conscience who tend to impose it on others. Any congregation that has existed for some time tends to become legalistic as its customs and traditions get set and confused with scriptural truths. For example, there is usually resistance to changes of a method or practice as some confuse this with liberalism.
Christians can avoid legalism by recognizing the freedoms inherent in God’s word. Both Christ and Paul identified legalism as a serious sin that can destroy a congregation. This was true for the early church and is also true today. In the next article in this series we will look at how to recognise and respond to legalism.
Written, December 2007
The word “Bible” comes from the Greek word for “the books,” while the word “Scripture” comes from Latin and refers to “writings.” The Bible is a selective history of God’s dealings with mankind between creation and the first century AD. It is a collection of 66 books and letters that have a remarkable unity; they were written over a period of at least 1,500 years by 40 men of the Jewish and Christian faiths.
The Bible is called “the Word of God” (1 Th. 2:13 NIV) because the writers “spoke from God” and wrote the words that God gave them (2 Pet. 1:20-21). It is God’s letter (or book) to us. In the original language, “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16).
The two chief doctrines in the Bible are “the Law” and “the Gospel.” In the Law God tells man what to do and what not to do. The chief purpose of the Law is to show us our sin, which is worthy of God’s eternal punishment. The Gospel tells us the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. The word “Gospel” is an old English word that means “good news.” The purpose of the Gospel is to show us our Savior, Jesus Christ and bring us to faith in Him.
The Bible reveals the secret of eternal life; it contains “words of eternal life” that can change our eternal destiny from hell to heaven (Jn. 6:68). The Bible inspires faith in Jesus (Rom. 10:17); it was written so that we may believe and trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God (Jn. 20:30-31; 2 Tim. 3:15).
Furthermore, the Bible is the most reliable source of spiritual growth, encouragement, lessons on life, and a healthy mind (Acts 20:32; Rom. 15:4; 2 Pet. 3:1-2). It was also written to provide guidelines for our corporate activities as the Church and warnings on inappropriate behavior for Christians (1 Cor. 4:14; 10:11; 1 Tim. 3:14-15).
The entire Bible is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” so that each believer “may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). It teaches us about God and His purpose, and directs us into a way of life that is pleasing to God and rewarding if we obey Him. We should examine it (Acts 17:11), memorize it (Dt. 6:6-9; Ps. 119:11), and read it (1 Tim. 4:12-13). As our body is built from the food we eat, our mind is built from the thoughts we assimilate. We should do what the Bible says (Jas. 1:22-24) because it is to be obeyed (Mt. 7:24).
The Bible illuminates like a light that helps us to see and understand (Ps. 119:105). It is also like a seed that has life and grows (Lk. 8:11), and a sword that helps in our battle against Satan (Lk. 4:1-13; Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12). These illustrations show the importance of the Bible; it is more than just another book. For example, there was a revival when the Scriptures were rediscovered after being lost for over 50 years. King Josiah had the people pledge to obey them; they stopped idolatry, reinstated the Passover and got rid of mediums and spiritists (2 Ki. 22:8-23:25; 2 Chr. 34:11-35:19).
So, to answer this question in brief, we read the Bible because it is unique – it is a life-saving, life-changing book – the most important book we will ever read.
Published, September 2006