The Legalism Trap

Finally, the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied. “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their numbers, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” John 7:45-52


Observation: What are the passage’s basic facts, such as the meaning of the words? After an eventful teaching experience at the temple courts during the Feast of the Tabernacles, the religious leaders decided to send the temple guards to arrest Jesus. However, to their dismay, the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees to tell them that they could not arrest Jesus because “no one ever spoke the way this man does.” This is not the response the religious leaders are accustomed to hearing or wanted to hear. The temple guards are the law-enforcing arms of the Sanhedrin. They do disobey the chief priests or side with the person they were sent to arrest. Thus, the religious leaders were very surprised and concerned with their answers.


In verse 47, the religious leaders asked the temple guards sent to arrest Jesus if they were also deceived by the Lord since they were trying to justify why they did not arrest Jesus. The Pharisees made it clear that because none of the Pharisees or rulers believed in Jesus, they should not believe in him either. And they derided those who believed in Jesus in the crowd and insinuated that they would be cursed for believing in the Lord.


Since the Pharisees said it was because the people did not know the Lord that they believe in Jesus, Nicodemus, the religious leader who went to Jesus at night to ask Him about salvation, raised a question that was centered on the law. He asked them if “our law condemns a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing.” This tepid yet substantive defense of Jesus by Nicodemus raised the ire of the other Pharisees. In response, they asked him if he was from Galilee too; they sent him to verify what the law said about a prophet coming out of Galilee.


Interpretation: What did the author mean in his historical setting? The chief priest and Pharisees’ legal and religious authority were clearly tested by the temple guards. Yet, John wanted to show his readers the disconnect between the Jewish religious leaders and their followers. This passage highlights the struggle of the religious leaders to silence Jesus and stop his influence from spreading across the region. Despite their best efforts to vilify Jesus, many people still believed in Him, including the temple guards.


The templet guards’ statement in verse 46, touches the heart of the matter. There was something special and inspirational about Jesus who spoke like no one before Him. It is precisely that point John is making to His contemporaries. Jesus’ uniqueness attests to His identity as the long-awaited Messiah. And even though the religious leaders refused to acknowledge it, everyone else did, including the temple guards.


Evaluation: What does this passage mean in today’s culture? The Pharisees appealed to the law to substantiate their rejection of Jesus. When that appeal failed to deter others, including the templet guards, to believe in Jesus, they claimed the people did not know anything about the law and were cursed. The passage reminds believers not to demonize those who do not share their faith in Christ. Instead, we are to let our Christian love and compassion be our testimony.


We should not assume people are cursed because they do not believe in the Bible, for example. Nor should we go around quoting the Bible to demonstrate our Christian faith. People were drawn to Jesus because He loved people as they were, where they were. And that is the best thing we can do to share our faith. We must meet people where they are and love them as they are as we encourage them to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.


It is a mistake to get technical with the theological precepts of the Christian faith to convince others to follow Jesus. We must keep things simple and relevant to the spiritual needs of those to whom we minister. The Pharisees’ biggest mistake is that they criticized and rejected Jesus without hearing what He had to say or testing if His teachings were valid. They were blinded by their own religious fervor and could not get out of the way of their self-righteousness. Thus, they became bitter and resentful against Jesus while having a form of godliness that was strictly based on their interpretation of the law.


Application: How can I apply what I learned to how I live my life? Authentic disciples of Jesus Christ must be careful not to be too legalistic in the practice of their faith. Though biblically based Christian doctrines should inform our practices, we should always remember we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is our faith in Jesus Christ and our obedience to His great commission that should inform our Christian practices.


The Pharisees failed to seize the opportunity to believe in Jesus. Instead, they verbally attacked the people who did believe in the Lord. Our mission is to remind the world of the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus. We do not have to be biblical scholars to do this most important task. We should live our lives with a sense of urgency in proclaiming the gospel.


Prayer- Holy Father, please help me to proclaim your gospel with clarity and simplicity so that anyone can hear and believe. May I not become too legalistic in the way I practice my Christian faith so I do not deter the unsaved from hearing your eternal truth.

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