Series: Matthew

Break the Back of Legalism

October 23, 2022 | Jeff Crotts

Passage: Matthew 15:1-9

Matthew 15:1-9 – Discerning Legalism

Intro: Legalism usually relegated to 1 of 3 categories.

  • Jesus with Pharisees.


  • Cult religions.
    • Comes to our doors.
    • Selling cellphone security systems.


  • Fundamentalism traditions foisting performance pressure.

[KEY] Pervasive, what calling unregenerate worship.

  • Pushing, social justice.
    • Social activism, spearheaded by church.
    • Pressure to be an activist.
      • The Gospel reshaped.
      • Salvation questioned if not participant.

[KEY] Litmus test, asking, “Why someone’s Gospel is inspirational?”

  • Trends fashionable to nominal believers.
    • Sympathy from unbelievers alike.
      • Relief efforts, reconciliation movements, political positions.
      • What’s genuinely valid and inspirational.
        • Bestsellers, listed in the name of God.
        • Trends elevated, as if “Gospel.”


  • When I question if legalism.
    • Test whether believing in Gospel.
    • Truly manifesting the fruit of the Gospel.

[TRANS] Jesus indicts legalistic pressure and speaks to its damaging effect.

  • “Legalism makes the Word of God ‘void’” (v. 6).
    • Emptying the Word of God being effective in someone’s life.
      • Satan’s tactic, “You are right with God!” when not.
      • Misplaced self-confidence!


  • Word of God, meant to reveal sin and point to life.


[Prop] Discerning Legalism:

What make’s void the Word of God?

  1. Elevate tradition above God’s Word (vv. 1-6)


  1. Adding to Scripture (vv. 1-3)

[KEY] Legalism centers on “Pharisees and scribes” (v. 1).

Quote: “Everything rises and falls on leadership” (J. Oswald Sanders).

  • Concerted effort to travel up from Jerusalem.
    • Taking a bead on Jesus.
    • Long journey (in the day) from Jerusalem to Capernaum.


  • Delegation from Jerusalem sent earlier to call out John the Baptist!

ESV  John 1:19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" (Joh 1:19 ESV)

  • Guardians of the Law but really of self-justification or power.
    • Arrival was standard operating procedure.
      • Looks harmless and benign on outside.
      • On inside, a cosmic battle.


  • Between Truth and Error.
    • Gospel vs. False-Gospel.
    • Legalism vs. Freedom.


  • [Appl] Legalism construed as lesser of two evils.
    • Rather be a rule-keeper.
    • Rather than iconoclast rule-breaker.
      • On outside things appear subtle.
      • On inside this is a Kingdom Battle.

[KEY] Buzz around Jesus’ about disciples not washing.

  • Not for hygiene or sanitary reasons but ceremony.
    • OT Law designated washings for the priests; by this time, imposed on all Jews.


  • Greater buzz from feeding 5,000 (20,000) on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
  • Massive display, 20,000 people freely gathered in open air.
    • Led by Jesus, eating to their fill, limitless bread, coming from wherever.
    • Perceived as open defiance?


  • This is the blindness of Legalism.
    • Trading the Bread of Life.
    • For Legalism; Power.

[Question] “Out of all the issues of the Law, they bring up, handwashing?”

Water jars were kept ready to be used before every meal. The minimum amount of water used was a quarter of a log, enough to fill one and a half eggshells. The water was first poured on both hands, held with the fingers pointed upward; and it must run down the arm as far as the wrist and drop off from the wrist, for the water was now itself unclean, having touched the unclean hands. And if it ran down the fingers again it would render them unclean, having touched the unclean hands. The process was repeated with hands held in the downward direction, the fingers pointing down. And finally, each hand was cleansed by being rubbed with the fist of the other. A strict Jew would do this before every meal and between every course in every meal. [Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah].

[Question] “Where do you stop?” “When have you done enough?” “Questions of restrictions with Covid Washing.”

[Illus] Counseled a young man who could not stop obsessively washing his hands. He could not sleep before running through the whole house (several times) shutting everything off and triple checking every light, burner, and lock. And yes, again washing and washing. He was imprisoned within himself. OCD.

What the Pharisees exploited.

[Illus] There was a story of a rabbi imprisoned with restricted allowance of water. He used with little he had for ceremonial washing, instead of drinking it. He said, “I would rather die than transgress the tradition of the elders.”

[Illus] Darrell and Debbie Floyd visited Jerusalem and while in hotel noted a Jewish man sweating and nervous to take the right elevator. Elevators had fading labels making it difficult for man to find the Shabbat (Heb. For Sabbath) elevator, one that stopped on every floor. The idea was that to keep the Sabbath, you were not permitted to push the button for the floor of your choosing. This is one more picture of control by legislating a binding Law.

A Shabbat elevator is an elevator which works in a special mode, operating automatically, to satisfy the Jewish law requiring Jews to abstain from operating electrical switches on Shabbat (the Sabbath). These are also known as Sabbath or Shabbos elevators.

Working from outside/in rather than inside/out, drifting from the Word of God. Legalism often moves into someone’s life by way of drift.

[POINT] Issue was not handwashing but power.

  • Not follow ceremonial rule, you “break tradition of the elders” (v. 2).
    • Issue being made, insubordination.
      • “Do you think you are above the elders?” what is at play.
      • Leveraging Traditions for Power, always work together.


  • Policies to advance authority.


[Question] “How dangerous is it to someone’s soul to add or take away from Scripture?”

ESV  Revelation 22:18-19 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev 22:18-19 ESV)

  • Practically speaking, someone is never to exceed Scripture.

ESV  1 Corinthians 4:6 I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. (1Co 4:6 ESV)

  • To preach another Jesus or another Gospel is anathema.

ESV  Galatians 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8 ESV)

  • 2 Corinthians 11 warns against moving away from the pure and simple devotion of Christ.

ESV  2 Corinthians 11:1-4 I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me!

2 For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.

3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

4 For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. (2Co 11:1-4 ESV)


  • Believing in “another Jesus” or “another Gospel” is the false Gospel.


[KEY] Matthew 23:1-29 is the most excoriating rebuke given by Jesus anywhere in all 4 Gospels (In all the Bible!)

  • Rebuke so severe because elevating tradition usurps the Lord’s authority and hurts souls.
    • Causing Little One’s to Stumble!
    • Not only taking authority but wielding authority to other’s harm.

[TRANS] Jesus’ rhetorical question indicts Pharisees’ abuse of power while exposing hypocrisy (v.2).

  • Pharisees indicting Jesus for His disciples breaking traditions verses the Pharisees breaking “…the commandment of God for the sake of…[their] tradition” (v. 3).


  • To violate tradition is one thing but to violate God’s Word is another.

[Appl] All tradition is not wrong. In fact, traditions can be simple preference or wisdom matters for how decision are made to do certain things.

For instance, “Why do we meet at 8:30 and 10:30? For church?” Nowhere in the Bible says to choose those times? “Why are we seated for the first part of the offertory song?” ---- WITR? We simply have certain rhythms.

[KEY] Jesus exposes motives, for breaking the Bible, to preserve tradition.

  • Cult religions make additions to the Bible in every case and extra-biblical sources carry significant authority.


  • The book of Mormon, The New World Translation, etc. In Jewish history, the Talmud (a repository of Jewish tradition) and Mishnah have been elevated on par with Scripture.

“While the Jews were in exile, scribes (first being Ezra) assembled and copied books of Scripture. They began making comments on various passages that seemed unclear; and gradually a larger accumulation of interpretations developed until there was more interpretations than Scripture. Distinction between Scripture and traditions became less and less distinct. Tradition more revered than God’s own Word” [JMac].

Mishnah written in 3rd Century AD.  

“The rabbis added to the law of God. The halakhah, the oral tradition, was codified in the Mishnah…” [Sproul]

  • Where washings made for everyone, not only Levitical priests.


  • The Mishnah said, “Tradition is a fence around the law” so justifying this as what protects God’s Word.

[Illus] Some traditions benign, others became ridiculous.

  • Rabbinic tradition not to look in mirror on Sabbath, because might see gray hair, tempted to pull it out!


  • Or if you spit on Sabbath, on dirt, careful not to scuff it with sandal, you could be cultivating soil, performing farm work.”

[Illus] RCC has elevated tradition to be on par with Scripture.

Vatican councils, decisions, positions, are all based on the idea of ex-cathedra pronouncements.

The idea is to speak for God, from His throne, by proxy.

Papal rulings or RCC councils are not on par with Scripture. Ex-cathedra meaning out from the throne.

Elevating tradition is elevating the word of man to the same status as Scripture. Chief error of Rome!

Elevating tradition on par with Scripture raises man’s opinion above Scripture.

RCC Gospel being ex-opere operato meaning: Grace (saving grace) is infused by the operations of religious rites.

Misconstruing the Grace Alone Gospel is incalculably horrific but what is at root in this error is misplaced authority.

[Point] No church leader has any authority outside of the Word of God.

[Question] “What about extra-biblical study aids, like theology books and commentaries.”

  • These are man-made and should be treated as such.
    • Even time-tested classic work.
      • Never elevate man or man-made doctrine above Truth.
      • Must bring everything to the submission of the Truth.
      • Circumspect to the Truth.


  • Venerating saints is misplaced trust in man rather than the Spirit and active discernment.
    • Why I go to the Bible first when I study to preach.
    • Scripture is inherently clear.


  • Doctrine is important because the Truth we are commanded to fight for! “To contend earnestly for.” Doctrines are “Teachings” or summarized and clarified Truth. Doctrine is the [didache] so we know what we believe.

ESV  1 Timothy 4:16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Ti 4:16 ESV)

ESV  1 Timothy 6:20 O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called "knowledge," (1Ti 6:20 ESV)

[Point] God is the authority; Christ is the Head of the church; the sole authority over the church and the way to discern God’s will is always by the Word of God. “…the commandment of God” (v. 3).  

  • Elevating tradition above Scripture.
  • Always rooted in power.


  1. Adding harmful applications (vv. 4-6)

[KEY] Jesus takes this opportunity to back up His rebuke with a clear example taken from a clear command.

  • One of the 10 commandments and elsewhere in the Law written down by Moses, to “Honor your father and mother” and “Whoever reviled father or mother must surely die” are cited by Jesus (v. 4).

ESV  Exodus 20:12 "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Exo 20:12 ESV)

ESV  Deuteronomy 5:16 "'Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Deu 5:16 ESV)

ESV  Exodus 21:17 "Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Exo 21:17 ESV)

ESV  Leviticus 20:9 For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him. (Lev 20:9 ESV)


ESV  Ephesians 6:2-3 "Honor your father and mother" (this is the first commandment with a promise), 3 "that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land." (Eph 6:2-3 ESV)

  • Reason choosing commands has to do with how He knew the Pharisees and Scribes.
    • Rationalizing commands away within their society.
      • Verses 5-6, is this rationalization: “But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, ‘What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father’ (vv. 5-6).


  • Elevating a twisted application to the level of Scripture.


  • Neutralizing Scriptural authority.


  • First see application for honoring father and mother as taking care of your father and mother.
    • Same command later given by Paul.

ESV  1 Timothy 5:8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1Ti 5:8 ESV)

  • So-called spiritual leaders, Bible scholars feeding culture the line that says, “If I gave all my money and resources to God already, then I am exempt from providing for my family.”
    • This is playing the ultimate God card!
      • “Sorry mom and dad, I gave all my money and ability to take of your away, so I am off the hook!”
      • “God told me to do this, so who are you to question what God told me to do or not do?”


  • Answer is, “What does God’s Word say?”
    • “…What you would have gained from me is given to God” (v. 5) is a line that probably was a lie!
    • Used over and over.
      • This is spiritualizing your use of money.
      • This all comes back to the 5th commandment of the 10.


  • 4 commandments are vertical, about honoring God and the last 6 commandments are about honoring others.
    • 1st of 6 is highest in priority, honoring father, and mother.


  • Divine obligation to take care of elderly parents was looped holed by a tradition to vow all that you had by claiming, Corbin [“All is dedicated to God”]!
    • Perhaps a son becomes crossways with his father and mother and does not want to take care of them, parents aged and sick?
    • He hardens his heart to ensure he keeps all his money.


  • Seeks religious leader to declare his assets “Corbin.”
    • Corbin means, “given to God.”
    • A formal dedication to the temple.
      • William Lane: “This is neither promised to the Temple nor prohibited personal use.”


  • You get around your obligation by pledging your whole estate to the temple.
    • While alive, they claim they could not spend any money to take care of their parents, pledged to the temple when they died.


  • This was a method of evasion of responsibility.


  • Like tax-evasion. Or sheltering your money in charity funds with the motive to keep all for yourself.


  • Responsibility that God had given to them, and they really were keeping money for themselves. Jesus indicts, this reprehensible act, that was sanctioned by the Pharisees!


  • Twisting Scripture to leverage the integrity of keeping a vow (cf. Num. 30:2) to evade caring for parents which is the obvious righteous path.

ESV  Numbers 30:2 If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Num 30:2 ESV)

This is Satan’s strategy with Scripture!

ESV  Genesis 3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" (Gen 3:1 ESV)

ESV  Matthew 4:6 and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, "'He will command his angels concerning you,' and "'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" (Mat 4:6 ESV)

[KEY] Accusation of insubordinate to traditions, is put back on Phar’s/Scribes as insubordinate to God’s commandment!

[TRANS] Back to verse 4, (2nd Table/Decalogue), the Jew was to be chiefly committed to Honoring father and mother!

  • Not an afterthought within your plans or resources and to make them that puts into question everything about their true faith.


  • Gravity of Honoring father and mother is raised by the second citation, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die” (v. 4).


  • Whoever “insults” father or mother gets the death penalty.
    • Violation not neutral but negative for the violator (cff. Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9).
    • If you lie to your father or mother, you are like Ananias and Saphira, dropping dead for lying to the Holy Spirit.


  • Insubordination to the Word of God is spiritually lethal - what religious leaders promoted.


  • Jesus summarizes deadening effect, “…So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (v. 6).
  • Jesus’ point is that by elevating “tradition” the powerful authority of the Word of God is undermined.


  • In this case, “tradition” is what was added to Scripture and then twisting it into a harmful application.


  • Literally, leading people astray from God’s authority.

[Question] “What about the inherent authority of God’s Word?”

ESV  Isaiah 55:11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 55:11 ESV)

[KEY] God’s Word cannot be rendered “void” can it?

  • The Word of God is living and active and powerful, nothing is going to change that.
    • Jesus does not mean to undermine this reality in any way.
    • We know that the Word is powerful based on what it claims to be and by what we know to be true about it.


  • Jesus not talking about the nature of Scripture being turned on or off.
    • Not Scripture changing, as if it could be deadened.
    • The issue is someone’s response to Scripture.
      • Responding in faith or rejection.
      • Elevation tradition, renders the Bible dead to someone’s heart.


  • Responsibility on Teacher and Hearer.
    • Someone adds traditions or false applications to the Word, someone is hardened against it, it is “void” or “invalid” or “untrue” to them.


  • Believe they are following God but, following man’s prescriptions!

[Point] Issue is not with the Bible but with man and his empty heart!


[TRANS] Brings us to our next series of verses, which open the human heart. The hypocrites’ heart.

  1. Elevate self above God (vv. 7-9)


  1. Unregenerate worship (vv. 7-8)

“You hypocrites!” this is a scathing indictment.

  • Never want someone to call you this, especially the Lord.
    • Contradictory to the Pharisees and Scribes.
      • They lived on positive reinforcement.
      • Publicly stripped bare by Jesus’ rebuke.


  • Lightning struck to say the least.


  • Jesus backs rebuke on authority of Isaiah.
    • Isaiah’s prophecy reaches back to when the southern kingdom of Judah.
      • Blinded by their own prophets.
      • Hauled away for 70-year Babylonian Captivity (586 BC).


  • Leaders paid lip service, while completely empty inside.


  • Mouthing the words of teaching and prophecy while empty of the Spirit of God.
  • The concept of distance between religious words and the heart is what is so profoundly striking.


[Illus] Like sitting in a lecture, in front of classroom, 6 feet from professor, while your mind is a million miles away.


Think of how convincing an Actor can be. If they are good at what they do, you can allow yourself to be drawn into believing that that is truly who they are.


When you find out later that they do not even have an American accent you find that they were following a script that was not genuinely them at all!


Hypocrite is the term used for play-actors in the Greek and Roman culture. It is a compound Greek term [upo] “under” and [kritai] “interpret” – to interpret from below.


[App] This is the play-acting that goes on inside the church where people pretend everything is fine on the outside while things are completely empty on the inside. Many people who rehearse religion on the outside, still need to know the Savior personally on the inside.


[Appl] Only thing worse than hypocrite inside church is hypocrite as spiritual leader inside the church.    


  1. Unregenerate teachers (v. 9)

[KEY] Jesus calling out Pharisees is going back to the future.

  • Like false teachers, 500 years before, it is happening again!
    • Their worship was vanity.
    • Understand “worship” as wider than simply singing.
      • Singing is an incredibly important expression of our relationship with God but understand “worship” is a broad term to speak of all someone’s heart disposition before God.
        • To worship is to attribute worth or value or praise to someone or something.
        • A reverence to God.

[KEY] Final part of Isaiah’s quote is not to pull apart the role of teaching from worship.

  • “You teach one thing and then fake it, when you sing!”
    • Rebuke is whole life, teaching extra-biblical legalism as Gospel doctrine.


  • Their “worship is vain” to no end, meaning a life is empty and/or aimless.
    • End is Godless.
    • w/o repentance, leads to empty heart in Hell.


  • Practically, teaching “commandments of men” as if they are “doctrines!” (v. 9).
    • Hold over someone’s head.
    • Authority someone should not have.


  • Manipulative pressure wielded by unregenerate teacher.  


Conclusion: “How guard ourselves from Legalism?”

  • Have God’s armor working for us.
  • Have Holy Spirit.
  • Have the Truth.

ESV  1 John 4:1-6 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,

3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.

5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them.

6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1Jo 4:1-6 ESV)


[POINT] “This does not effect my life?”

  • Satan is subtle and he wants to keep it that way.


  • Legalism comes cloaked in the disguise.


  • Often disguised in terms of preferences.


  • Traditions you are not willing to break.

Traditions so meaningful, you risk relationships or comforts and willing to risk the unity of the church to keep a tradition.


[Illus] Remember parenting movement [Growing Kids God’s Way].

Passe’ principles for parenting that could work for certain infants and children.

Wisdom, became rules, parents willing to die on certain hills and superimposing preferences for parenting.


Became deal-breakers and church splitting matters on a national scale.

Parenting advice, tied to Bible verses, enforcing principles as equal to Scripture.

Polarized many relationships.


Be willing to think in terms of what is very clear from Scripture stick to those things by conviction.

Then began to posture humbly where Scripture is not entirely clear.

Defer in humility to preferences where at all possible.

Preserve your testimony, unity, and peace within the church.

This is the key to preserving a clear Gospel, reaching others.

Having the assurance of your salvation.  

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