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Janet's Corner

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An Obstacle On Our Path: Legalism

Lesson 24

Isaiah 26: 7-8 defines our direction for these last weeks of Bible Study. God is upright so he makes our paths smooth as we walk in his laws, as we wait for him and his fame becomes the desire of our hearts. A key to that smooth way is walking in His statues, waiting on Him and wanting more of Him. Last week we examined the truth that a key to that smooth path is ours when we walk in his ways and build upon the rock, Jesus Christ.


Today, we will look at a scripture that identifies something that can easily become an obstacle to our freedom in worshipping God. In John 4:24, Jesus says that God is spirit and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.” God is looking for those who will worship Him from their hearts.

Let’s look at the state of those in Isaiah’s time…


Read Isaiah 29:13 “The Lord says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”


The nation of Judah had become hypocritical and heartless in their worship of God. Their worship was based on the traditions of men instead of the truth of God.


1. Meaningless Worship: Look at that first truth…their worship was hypocritical and heartless.


Let’s note here that God says “these” people, not “my” people. When our worship becomes hypocritical and heartless we don’t connect with the living God. We distance ourselves from him. Actually, cutting ourselves off from his grace and blessing in our lives.


What do we mean by hypocritical? When we look at the origin of that word, it refers back to a role that is played, specifically a mask that is worn. We see it defined right here…the people come near to God with their mouths, honoring God with their lips, but they don’t really mean it. It was the thing to do to go to the temple and bring sacrifices. Everybody was doing it. Have you ever recited the Lord’s prayer in church and not really been engaged in what you are saying? Honoring God with your lips and not your heart? We may come and do our thing in our church and think we’ve put our time or service in for the week, yet never really worship God. These people were not believing what they were doing or saying. They were not accepting God’s Word, but rejecting it. We saw that last week as they mocked Isaiah’s simple teaching of truth, line upon line, precept upon precept, a little here, a little there.


Isaiah says, their hearts were far from God. This is the reason God will judge His people – then or now. In the beginning of this chapter, Isaiah outlines again the devastating judgment that will befall Judah because of their sin. In 701 BC, Assyria almost defeated Judah. But suddenly, in an instant (Is. 29:5), God defeated the Assyrians. This discipline should have brought them back to the LORD, but we see it didn’t have any lasting effect. After King Hezekiah’ death, the people returned to their hypocritical ways and heartless worship. Then in 586 BC, God used the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and take many of God’s people into captivity. God does try to get our attention. Are we listening?


What led them into this hypocritical, heartless worship was the make-up of their worship. Verse 13 says it was only made up of the “rules taught by men.” We call that legalism.  The law of God had become meaningless to them, not the way to approach the holy living God.


2. Rules of men (legalism) Man had taken the law of God, that convicts of sin and leads to recognizing the need of a Savior, and added their own lists of do’s and don’ts. And these rules were what people tried to keep.  Don’t we do the same today? We think that these traditions or laws or rules that we follow, will gain us God’s approval, the church’s approval, or even other people’s approval. We practice a religion instead of living in a relationship of grace with Jesus.


Paul speaks to this in Galatians 2:15-16, where he repeats the same truth about three times in two sentences. The truth is that we are not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing we do or don’t do can atone for the sin in our hearts. It is only by faith in the One who died and rose again, conquering sin, Satan, and death, that we draw near to God.

This spirit of legalism was alive and well in Jesus’ day, also. Jesus addresses this to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:9-14


*Religion or Relationship:  In Matthew 12:9-14, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking the law, when he healed a man’s hand on the Sabbath. You see the Pharisees had taken the day of rest (established by God) and added to the law. There was no healing on the Sabbath - unless someone was death was imminent. Jesus says, ”It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” His relationship of grace and love with this man exhibited through healing his hand, was more important than any law. Relationship is more important than religion. Jesus introduced himself and his grace to this man and to the world through his act of love and grace. The law is established for our benefit, not our imprisonment.


In your relationships are you trying to get people to obey the laws or build a relationship?



*Microscope or a Mirror:


In verse 10, the motive of the Pharisees is given. They were looking for something to use to accuse Jesus. Isn’t this what happens when we live by the law. We use it to judge others - looking at others under a microscope, and not looking at ourselves in the mirror. Jesus says look in the mirror first, before you begin pointing any fingers…”take the log out of your own eye first.”


How easy it is for us to concentrate on others faults and not look at our own. Legalism gives this platform. Grace allows for love and acceptance and freedom. Today much of this legalism can be conveyed by an attitude of moral superiority in the church and to the world. “That” has never happened to me or my children” We accuse others of ungodly lifestyles, when sin is truly what has trapped them and they need love and grace. We cut them off from enjoying the freedom of the presence of God, as well as ourselves.


What are you using – a microscope or a mirror?


What motivates your to obey God’s Word, to walk in his statutes? Is it the law and your fear of punishment or your love of the holy one of Israel - Your Savior, Your Lord, Your Rock and Your Redeemer?


In Isaiah 29:19-23, Isaiah promises a day that will be different. In verse 23 Isaiah gives us a motivation for our obedience.  “Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel…they will keep my name holy; they will acknowledge the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob, and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.” Keep His name holy! That is for today - for you and me…Is there anything in your heart other than love and devotion to Christ that motivates you to obey God’s Word? In II Corinthians 11:3, Paul is talking to the Corinthians about his godly jealousy for them. “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”  Satan can lead you astray from the simple devotion to Christ. We must guard our hearts, for they are the well-spring of life!


Let’s seek to worship our God in spirit and in truth, not allowing legalism to be an obstacle to our reverence and devotion to the Holy One of Israel.