Sunday, July 24, 2011

Luke's Law Review

We have misconceptions. So states Timothy Gombis in his article in Christianity Today titled " The Paul We Think We Know". Basically, Gombis claims that Paul didn't stop being Jewish (agreed), first-century Judaism was not legalistic (disagree), the early church did not have a problem with legalism (disagree), and Paul was more into the salvation community while we tend to focus on individuals (false dichotomy--it's both/and). He also says Paul was not physically imposing (agree--but I don't think many have the misconception that he was), and that Paul was not particularly eloquent (disagree--he was not a smooth talker, but was very eloquent).

In this post I want to deal some with the legalism issue. Gombis presents his own nuance of the "New Perspective" view that Paul did not come from a legalistic background when he was introduced to Christianity. He asserts that "Paul would not have regarded Judaism as legalistic." Gombis also insists that "The problem in the early church , therefore, was not the temptation toward legalistic works righteousness."

Legalism comes in two forms, and both were prevalent in first--century Judaism and also a challenge for the early church. One form of legalistic thought is the false belief that salvation can be earned or that humans can be justified by their own works. The other type of legalistic teaching adds extra-biblical rules and regulations as behavorial requirements, in some cases even as exceptions or replacements to scriptural commands.

Paul himself in Philippians 3: 5 describes his former life in terms of his legalistic proclivity identifying himself "as touching the law, a Pharisee;" and " touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless." He is speaking here of an earthly "righteousness" and a blamelessness from the world's viewpoint, not God's. To see the formidable obstruction that legalism presented in the Jewish community, particularly within the sect of the Pharisees, one need only go to the insights recorded in the gospel of Luke, who was Paul's traveling companion and fellow-servant of the word of truth. At the beginning of chapter 6 he decribes a dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus over what is lawful on the Sabbath. They assert that the disciples aren't allowed to eat grain from the stalks while walking through the fields on the Sabbath; Jesus reminds them He is Lord of the Sabbath and He's okay with it. Later on, He healed a man's hand on the Sabbath knowing full well the Pharisees were watching because they wanted to claim he had violated the law.

In chapter 11 of Luke's gospel we see Jesus correcting the Pharisees over whether a ceremonial washing of dishes is required before a meal, and in verse 46 he accuses them of weighing men down with "burdens grievous to be borne" while not lifting a finger to help with the burden. In Luke 16: 15 Jesus tells the Pharisees, "Ye are they that justify yourselves in the sight of men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God."

In Luke 18: 9-14 Jesus tells the famous parable of the Pharisee and the publican, for the express purpose, Luke says, of addressing those "who trusted in themselves, that they are righteous, and set all others at nought." The Pharisee in the parable relates how he is not a sinner, ticks off a list of sins he says he's not guilty of, points out how often he fasts and how completely he tithes, while the publican simply and humbly begs for mercy. The conclusion is the publican "went down to his house justified rather than the other..." having found the justification that comes by grace.

In Matthews's gospel, in the first nine verses of chapter 23 Jesus chastises the Pharisees for altering God's commandments with their own legalistic system, "teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men". And in the first 34 verses of Matthew 23 Jesus makes a comprehensive indictment of the legalism and hypocricy of the Pharisees, saying they "strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel."

The gospels demonstrate that the legalism of the Pharisees was a definite burden upon those under their influence and Jesus repeatedly rebuked them for it.

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