The Pharisees were masters of minutiae. They treasured every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law. As a boy, when I read about the Pharisees, I thanked my lucky stars that I was not hemmed in by the same corral of rules as were those famously unbending religious leaders. But why wasn’t I? I hadn’t the faintest inkling.
I knew only that the Old Testament, which is chockablock with laws the Pharisees probably committed to memory, was part of my Bible—a significantly bigger part, in fact, than the New Testament. My Sunday school teachers assured me that, while these laws mattered, the work of Jesus mattered more somehow. The work of Christ, if I understood correctly, allowed us to focus less on rules and more on a relationship with God.
My teachers talked often about two concepts in particular, and they took root in my childhood mind. I learned that legalism—following the rules—could do only so much to please God. Grace, on the other hand, flowed like liquid forgiveness into cracks legalism could never fill, drowning our sins once and for all. My youthful understanding of these two concepts sufficed just fine until I discovered the laws in Leviticus. What I found in that beast of a book, by comparison, made grace seem inconsequential.
What was I to make of these things as a child? And what should I make of them now? When I read the Bible in its entirety for the first time, I discovered a passage that helped me understand.
A son does not cease to be a son when he misbehaves.
In Galatians 4, the apostle Paul argues that before Jesus came along, we were slaves whose right relationship with God depended on adherence to the law. “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,” Paul continues, “so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” (Gal. 4:5-6).
At last I understood. Jesus had enabled us to relate to God in a totally different, fundamentally better way, and Paul’s analogy explained it perfectly!
If I were a slave in someone’s house, I could earn the approval of my master only by obeying his commands. As an adopted son in that same house, however, my familial bond would free me from an unhealthy obsession with adhering to the rules. A son does not cease to be a son, after all, when he misbehaves.
This, of course, doesn’t mean the rules would no longer apply to me. I suspect more than anything else, I would perceive them differently. As a son of God instead of a slave, I would see the rules as protection instead of hundreds of hoops I needed to jump through in order to please my master.
While I know nothing of what it means to be a slave, I do know what it means to heed the rules of people with whom I have no personal relationship. Anyone who’s ever worked for a boss they barely know, in fact, is acquainted with falling in line to satisfy a superior.
Perhaps it was simply easier for the Pharisees to fathom following rules than to maintain a relationship with a fathomless God?
As far as I can tell, the Pharisees followed the Old Testament laws in this spirit even though God issued them in the context of His covenant with Israel. While the Creator established parameters for His relationship with His people, the Pharisees seem to have abstracted the law, becoming enamored with it as a thing unto itself.
Perhaps it was simply easier for them to fathom following rules than to maintain a relationship with a fathomless God? I sometimes find myself caught in this same theological snare, and for the same reason.
I may escape this trap only because of my parents, who taught me what obedience looks like in the context of a familial relationship. Growing up, I understood that the dos and don’ts Mom and Dad issued flowed out of their love for me. Their rules sheltered me even more than the roof over my head did. When I kept that in mind, I chose to obey them not out of obligation, but out of gratitude.
To me, that’s the essence of the Christian life: Living in a loving relationship with our heavenly Father, not as slaves but as sons and daughters. We don’t need to lose our way in the Bible’s laws to please God—He’s found us and wants us in His family.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory