9 Ways To Be Legalistic – Part 1 – Matthew 23:1-22

Reflection from my reading in Matthew 23:1-22 in the One Year Bible New Testament.

Jesus didn’t get angry often, but legalism was one of the things that really got him fired up!  The following are six of the nine problems with legalism Jesus lists. Notice I am not sticking directly to the tradition “7 Woes” list, this is not that I don’t believe in this organization but that I want to highlight other points Jesus is making as well.

1. Don’t Practice What You Preach

 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” Matthew 23:2–3

Preaching is one of the most dangerous jobs, because you are accountable to put into practice what you preach. The religious leaders were basically saying with their lives, “Do what I say, not what I do.”

2. Put Unrealistic Man-Made Expectations on People

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” Matthew 23:4

Extra religious rules weigh people down and burden them unnecessarily. Jesus said his “yoke is easy and burden light.” Who are we to weigh people down with more than Jesus did?

3. Do Everything For Show

“They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,” Matthew 23:5

Phylacteries are not body parts, but they special leather prayer boxes with verses inside. They did this as an overly literal application of the the instruction in Deuteronomy 6:8 to “bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”

They made sure these boxes were extra wide so everyone would see how big their devotion to scripture was! Also, their tassels were extra long to show how extra spiritual they were!

Jesus also mentioned in vs 6-12 that they loved sitting in the seats of honor and getting special greetings of “Rabbi” as they walk though the marketplaces. Then, Jesus warned his disciples not to let anyone call you “Rabbi” or “Teacher.” Then he gives the principle,

” The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Matthew 23:11–12

Humility and service are the keys to greatness, not showing off!

4. Raise the Bar for Entrance into Heaven

For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” Matthew 23:13

Legalism does not like the idea of salvation being a free gift of God. It does not like the concept of being saved by grace through faith. Legalistic people like to add a list of things that you must do in order to be saved. This causes many people not to receive God’s grace because they rightly think they could never earn it so they don’t try!

5. Work Hard To Make More Legalistic People

“For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matthew 23:15

Unfortunately, the most legalistic people are often the most devoted, even to go overseas to share. Because of this, many legalistic missionaries have imposed their legalism on the native people, resulting negative perceptions of missionaries worldwide.

When legalistic people do win people to their form of religion, they often don’t win them to Jesus but to a list of rules.

6. Be Very Picky About Unimportant Things

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.” Matthew 23:16

I get the picture of two religious leaders arguing about exact wording of what they swear by. It reminds me of a scene on the movie “Dumb and Dumber” when Harry and Lloyd were arguing, “You can’t triple stamp and double stamp!”

From vs 16-22, Jesus criticized the legalists for being so worried about what exactly they “swear to” instead of just keeping their word. He was furious that they were so focused on such petty things.

Jesus continues his rant with three more warnings against legalism that I will share in my next post…

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About David Worcester

I am the founder and director of a campus ministry at San Diego State called Challenge. I am also serving as an ordained elder at Mission Trails Church. I love speaking and writing about college ministry, gospel appointments, and practical ways to live out God’s Word! I am also passionate about: leadership training, learning, missions, church planting, surfing, hiking, sports, photography and traveling (So far I’ve visited 23 countries & all 50 states). I’m married to Jessica Worcester who I fell in love with while doing college ministry together and we have a two year old son named Samuel. I graduated from from the University of Oklahoma (OU) with a degree in Film & Video Studies. And I received my Masters in Theological Studies from Gateway Seminary. I am an ordained minister who loves speaking and writing about practical ways to live out God’s Word in life and ministry.

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