A couple years ago I was puzzled by how I could love God more. I didn’t seem to have the deep vibrant love I heard others talk about. I wanted it, so I set out to figure out how to achieve that. Like I usually do when understanding what the Bible says about a topic, I did a word study and pulled together all the verses I could find on loving God. In the course of that search I came upon John 14:15. Nestled between a promise of great power, and the promise of the giving of the Holy Spirit is captivating declaration from Jesus. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” In that moment, I found the answer to my search. I will demonstrate my love for God by finding and cataloging all the commands I can find in the Bible, and do my best to obey them. I was quickly overwhelmed. Not only are there a lot of commands in the Bible, but trying to keep them all is… impossible. Yet again another effort to have a vibrant loving relationship with Christ was proved futile.
Tragically this mindset is encouraged by many Christians. Not only are we told we must obey all the commands in the Bible, but if you are a truly Biblical Christian you will analyze principles in the Bible and derive new rules which must be obeyed as well. Because truth is absolute, then if a way of living derived from the Bible is right for one person, then it must be true for everyone. The logic is simple and therefore believable. As a result, many things have become taboo for various Christians including drinking, dancing, and eating meat. Many other things have been required of Christians: strict and comprehensive dress codes, all kinds of rules for what constitutes a “Biblical Courtship,” and enough rules on interactions between the sexes that a person has to constantly think whether what he says or does might be perceived as “immoral.” Organizations have even been created to make sure Christians know and follow the many Biblical principles. One of the best known examples is Bill Gothard’s Institute in Biblical Life Principles which was begun when he “wrote his master’s thesis at Wheaton Graduate School on a youth program that eventually led to seven Biblical, non-optional principles of life.” Whether intended or not, the focus on obeying commands as central to Christianity makes it hard for many to see God as their loving Heavenly Father, and instead leads them to view Him as someone who is standing there waiting to punish them when they disobey, and will only bless them when His commands are obeyed.
Interestingly Jesus reserved His most fiery language for people who approached religion this way. While Jesus enjoyed exposing the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, He also blasted the way they would derive commands from Biblical principles and require people to obey their commands to be good Jews. Does this sound eerily familiar? Jesus said people who do this, “Tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” (Matthew 23:4) In Matthew 12 Jesus exposes the problems with Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath. Among other things, the Pharisees had rules against healing and plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath. (Anyone familiar with modern commands against cooking, or eating out on the Sabbath?) In an effort insure the Jews obeyed the 4th commandment, all kinds of rules were added on top of this command. Jesus went out of his way to expose the Pharisees wrong approach which created these burdensome rules. He ridicules the “experts in the law” at one point asking them “Have you not read in the Law…” (Matthew 12:5) Essentially He tells them that their priorities are not His. “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7) In verse 12 he accuses them of valuing their own sheep over the health of a sick man. Shockingly, “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.” (Matthew 12:14)
Towards the end of Matthew, in Chapter 23 Jesus goes after even more of the Pharisees rules using very strong language in the process. Verses 16-22 contain His condemnation of their ridiculous rules about what forms of swearing were binding. A few verses later He condemns their requirement that people tithe a tenth of every individual herb they grow. (Again this was a derivation of the command to tithe, but once a burdensome and ridiculous rule.) As a result he calls them “blind guides” who “have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23) Immediately afterwards Jesus compares them to whitewashed tombs and cups which are clean on the outside but filthy inside. Concluding, He says the pharisees “Outwardly appear righteous to others, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:28)
There are undeniably commands in the Bible which a Christian pursuing Christ should strive to follow. However, burdening a Christian with commands, and especially with rules derived from Biblical principles has no place in Scripture. This is the type of legalism practiced by the Pharisees which Jesus vehemently condemned. In Part II I will explore what the Bible says about obeying commands.