When Good Rules Go Bad…

I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped and really thought about it, but the average Christian lives his life by a lot of rules.

Some of those rules are straight from Scripture.

You’ve got Ephesians 5, “Don’t get drunk…”

Or anyone of the ten commandments, like for example commandment number 3 “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…”

Some of the rules Christians live by though, don’t come directly from Scripture, they are more their own personal application of Scripture.

They take a principle like the importance of meditating on Scripture and they turn it into a rule, I need to read my Bible for thirty minutes every day. Or, the fact that we are supposed to take care of our bodies, and they say well that means I shouldn’t smoke cigarettes. Maybe it’s the need for fellowshipping with other believers and that becomes I’ve got to be at every meeting of the church.

In our day and age, a lot of people don’t like rules.

There are a lot of people who don’t like any sort of rule. But even beyond that, there are a lot of professing Christians who don’t really have a problem with the kind of rules that come directly from Scripture but do have a problem with rules that are based on the application of Scripture.

Some even have a word they use for anyone who has rules like that, they call them legalistic.

“Don’t talk to me about what I wear; don’t talk to me about what I watch; don’t talk to me about the things I do; because if you do, if you do suggest any rules in any one of those areas, well that would be legalistic.”

I on the other hand, happen to like rules.

I don’t like every rule of course, but there are a lot of rules that quite frankly that do a lot of good.

A good rule can keep you out of a lot of bad situations.

You may not have a Bible verse for example that says don’t go into an adult bookstore, but you do have plenty that say don’t lust, and if you are going to obey that, you’d be pretty foolish not to have a rule like don’t go into adult bookstores for yourself.

A good rule can help you maintain your testimony.

Unlike going into adult bookstores, there are some things that are not necessarily wrong to do in and of themselves. I think it would be pretty difficult to say for example that it is wrong in and of itself for a man to talk to a woman who is not his wife. But you know if a man talks to a certain woman who is not his wife a lot and he does so without his wife around, besides the fact that it can lead him into some serious trouble, (and usually does) even besides that, it can also cause people to start asking questions and not taking that person’s profession of faith seriously. A rule like I’m not going to have private drawn out conversations with women without my wife at least being somewhere around will save a man from getting into a lot of trouble and potentially ruining his testimony for Christ.

A good rule can keep you focused.

A rule like, I’m going to read my Bible every day – well that has potential of doing me a lot of spiritual good.

Just having rules isn’t in and of itself, legalistic. Rules can be helpful.

At the same time thought, it is true rules can also be hurtful.

I’m obviously not talking about the rules that come straight from Scripture, I’m talking the kind of rules we make on the application of Scripture. Those kind of rules can easily move from being helpful to being hurtful.

Take the Pharisees, for example.

The Pharisees were a group of boys who had a lot of rules. They were known for that. They had rules for almost everything. Thing is, if you had asked them why they had so many rules, their answer would have been good, I guarantee you, it would have been because they wanted to apply what the Scripture said to every area of life.

It’s been said the Pharisees viewed their rules like fences, they were designed to keep them from getting anywhere even close to disobeying one of God’s laws.

But by the time Jesus was walking the earth, I think you’d have to say that the Pharisees’ rules had gotten out of control and uh, actually their fixation on rules was one of the things that kept them from really ever truly accepting Jesus. Their fences became blinders, instead of helping them obey God, their little rules kept them from seeing Jesus.

And you know the same thing is happening to religious, church going, Bible reading people practically all the time today. They have their rules, lots of rules, they look great from the outside, but if you look a little more closely, those rules have become their religion, there’s no real heart for Jesus.

They may have started out well, on fire even; but without knowing it, as they added one spiritual rule on top of another, join a small group, read your entire Bible once a year, never miss Sunday school, those activities, those rules have shifted from “being a means of experiencing God’s grace to a means of earning God’s grace.”

Helpful rules have become hurtful.

Now it’s all very subtle, that’s the trick, which is why I want us to look together at Mark 2:23-28.

I want us to look together at this passage because I think what we find here in this story is a very effective way of telling whether or not your helpful rules have actually become hurtful to you when it comes to living out your Christian life.

“One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him; how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the Priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?’ And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.’”

Rules move from being helpful to being hurtful when we focus so much on the rules that we forget the One who rules.

We see maybe the classic illustration of that here in this story with the Pharisees.

This is another one of those conflict stories. It’s actually the fifth out of six. If you’ve been tracking with us, you’ll notice each one is getting more intense. They started by objecting in their minds, then by coming to Jesus’ disciples, then to Jesus, now it’s like they are lodging a formal complaint, and in the next story we’ll see that they start coming up with plans to kill him.

Now spiritually that’s a pretty big mistake.

You actually couldn’t make a bigger mistake than that, but the interesting thing is, you’ll notice if you look at this story, their problems with Jesus all began with a pretty good rule.

The Pharisees were concerned about the Sabbath.

Sabbath if you’re not familiar with the word, it comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat, which basically means to rest, to cease from activity. In Jesus’ day, the term was applied to a day of the week – our Saturday. The Pharisees were very concerned that people Shabbat on the Sabbath. It was a big deal to them that people keep the Sabbath holy.

And you know what, rightly so, because keeping the Sabbath was a big deal to God. When Moses was talking to Israel about the way God wanted them to live, part of the top ten list was “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” It’s found five places in Exodus, once in Deuteronomy, and three times in Leviticus. It was something tied to the way God created the world, and also to the way He rescued the nation of Israel from Egypt. It’s something God takes seriously.

The prophet Ezekiel talks about God taking the Sabbath so seriously, that He actually brought judgment on Israel because they didn’t.

You see, the Sabbath was supposed to be a sign to Israel. “Above all…” God says in Exodus 31, “you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I the Lord, sanctify you.” It was to be this day that helped Israel remember what God had done for them. This is one of the key ways God intended to help Israel know they were different from the rest.

That’s why prophets like Isaiah said that keeping the Sabbath was one of the key characteristics of the kind of person who pleased God; that the kind of person who is serious about doing the will of God is going to be a person who is serious about keeping the Sabbath.

Whatever you are going to say about the Pharisees, looking at the Old Testament, you can’t fault the Pharisees for being serious about the Sabbath.

That’s why they had the rules they did. They knew God wanted them to rest on the Sabbath, and so they started making up all kinds of rules to help people think through exactly what it mean to do that.

Rest is kind of a general word after all, so they got specific. And when I say specific, I mean down to the smallest detail.

“One section of the Talmud, the major compilation of Jewish tradition has twenty four chapters listing Sabbath laws.”[1]

You could only travel 3000 feet on a Sabbath. Certain regulations stipulated you couldn’t carry anything heavier than a dry fig on a Sabbath, but if you happened to pick something up that weighed half that amount, well you could carry it twice. You could throw something up in the air, but you had to catch it with the hand you used to throw it. If you tossed it from one hand to the other, that was a no-no. You definitely couldn’t take a bath, because if you got into the tub or whatever they used, and some water splashed out on the floor, well someone might say that water cleaned the floor, which we all know would be work.

You couldn’t sow, plow, reap, grind, bake, thresh, winnow, sift, shear, spin, knead, tie or untie a knot, or sew stitches.[2] The religious teachers tried to come up with a rule for every possible situation, I mean they got as specific as saying, if a building fell down on a Sabbath, you could remove enough rubble to discover whether there was anyone left alive, if they were alive you could help them; but if you found any corpses, you’d have to leave them until after sunset. [3]

It was these kind of rules that sparked the controversy with Jesus. “One Sabbath, he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

I want you to understand there are like, a lot of ways that Jesus could have answered that.

One of the main ones being, says who?

You’re going to spend a lot of time looking in your Old Testament for a passage that says a person is not allowed to pluck a head of grain and eat it on the Sabbath because it’s not there.

Totally extra-biblical rule.

But Jesus doesn’t even go there. And you know, I think the reason is because he wants to get at what really is at the heart of the Pharisees problem.

They weren’t recognizing the authority of Jesus.

They had become so focused on their rules that they missed the One who rules.

That’s the point of the story here Jesus tells about David and what happened way back when in the time of Abiathar.

“Have you never read,” Jesus says, “what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him, how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to them?”

There are actually two ways we could take this story.

David did something technically that wasn’t lawful, we know that.

He was on the run from Saul, and he and his men went into the house of God and the priest at the time Ahimelech, (Jesus is just using the name of the most well-known priest in Samuel here Abiathar, like a point of reference) and Ahimelech allowed David and his men to eat something the letter of the law said they shouldn’t.

Yet, Scripture never condemns David for that act.


One answer is to say it was because they were in a desperate condition. It wasn’t like David was coming in for a snack. The idea being the fact that David and his men were in such desperate need made the technicality of the law unimportant, just like it did here with Jesus and his disciples.

But that doesn’t seem to be the attitude of Jesus towards the law elsewhere. I mean, Jesus never says you can break the law if you really, really need to.

A second answer, and I think a better one is to note the parallel between David and Jesus. David was the king, God’s anointed. And what Jesus is saying is if the Pharisees didn’t condemn David and his men for breaking the law in this case, and they didn’t, because they recognized his authority and his unique position as King, it made absolutely no sense for them to condemn Jesus for the actions of His disciples, because He was even greater than David, as we’ve seen in the passages preceding this one, He was God Himself.

The point being while the Pharisees little fixation with rules may have started out with good intentions, we know it had become something twisted, because it brought them to the point where they were shaking their fingers and saying tsk, tsk, to the Ruler of the Universe Himself.

It sounds almost ridiculous to say really, but you know I think the same thing happens in many churches. You’ve got these people who so define their spirituality by the rules and regulations they have made up, that they wouldn’t recognize Jesus if they saw Him, and if He wanted to become of member of their church, you can be sure they wouldn’t let Him in.

The thing is, and this is where this whole discussion becomes more difficult. Nobody’s going to out and out admit that.

I mean this is a nice little principle, you know a helpful rule has become hurtful when you focus so much on the rule that you forget the One who rules, but who in their right mind is going to stand up and say, yep I’m living proof of that.

I guarantee you, the Pharisees wouldn’t.

I’m pretty sure if you asked them, the Pharisees wouldn’t have said they were focusing on the rules rather than on the One who rules.

And neither would most of us.

How can we tell when we’ve slipped into Pharisee mode then, with our little list, and lost focus?
I think we discover two ways in verses 27 and 28 where Mark records the final punch line to Jesus’ response.

“And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

The first way we can tell we’ve lost sight of Jesus is when our rule becomes more important to us than people.

I’m getting pretty specific here and I hope I’m not reading this principle into the text, but for sure, this is what had happened with the Pharisees and the Sabbath.
Their rules about the Sabbath had become more important to them than the needs of the people. Jesus’ disciples weren’t out plucking heads of grain for the fun of it, no, they had left everything to follow Jesus, were out I guarantee you, ministering to the needs of the people, and they needed something to eat.

But the Pharisees couldn’t see the person, the situation, what was going on in the disciple’s lives made no difference whatsoever to them, all they could see was their rule and how these people were breaking it.

They were acting as if man was made for the Sabbath, as if people existed for the rule, and had forgotten God’s whole intention in giving His law about the Sabbath in the first place was for man’s good.

It was right for the Pharisees to be concerned about people keeping God’s law. Jesus Himself was concerned about that. But the way the Pharisees went about enforcing their rules made it clear they were missing the intent of God’s law. They were acting as if God’s concern for His law was somehow separated from His concern for His people.

I may be treading on slippery ground here, but let me just give you one example of how I think we might do that.


When you see a brother in sin, it’s a good thing to go and talk to him about it. But what I’ve seen often happen when people do, is that they become so focused on the rule the person broke that they basically forget they are talking to a person. They fail to remember that God’s goal in the confrontation process is not for the one person to prove they are right and that the other person is not, or to squash that person into the ground, but that person’s spiritual good.


They treat the person they are confronting totally different than the way they would want to be treated. They act as if the only thing God is concerned about is the law, not the person.

They take a good thing and use it as a weapon.

Just like the Pharisees.

A second way we can tell we’ve lost sight of Jesus in our focus on our rules is if we have disconnected the rule or regulation in our mind from the person of Jesus.

Let me explain what I mean.

You can be concerned about a rule, one because you are concerned about submitting to the rule of Jesus or two, you can be concerned about a rule because you are concerned about ruling over everybody else.

The Pharisees obviously weren’t concerned about their rules because they were concerned about submitting to God – we know they had disconnected the rule from the One who ruled- because when God Himself came in human form they acted as if they had the right to rule over Him.

What I’m trying to say is that the Pharisees weren’t concerned about their rules because they were concerned about their Lord…they were concerned about their rules because they wanted to be Lord.

They had disconnected their rule from the person of Jesus. That’s why they were arguing about how to keep the Sabbath with the one who actually if you look at verse 28 was the Lord of the Sabbath.

Rules are fine when they are your way of expressing your submission to the rule of Jesus, but rules are awful, when they become a way for to act as if you are Lord instead of Jesus.

The sad thing is that they have become that for a lot of people, and sometimes for a lot of us.

We have these rules and we are very concerned about them, and perhaps they are good rules, but really for us, what those good rules are is a way of masking our selfishness and expressing our arrogance.

I was reminded of that the other day.

I have kind of a rule for myself, I guess, when I’m at work I want to work. I feel bad when I’m at work and I’m not. But, a couple weeks ago the kids were here and I always feel torn when they are here at the church, because I want to be with them and I know I need to work. For some reason, they were hanging out in my office and I was trying to work, and I was getting a little bothered and a little grumpy. I mean, because after all I have a good rule, when I’m at work I need to work. But you know what was happening in my mind, I was using my good rule as an excuse for selfishness – a rationalization for being grumpy with the kids.

I wasn’t asking myself what Jesus wanted, I was using my rule to get what I wanted – just like the Pharisees.

It’s easy to see the Pharisees legalism. It’s more difficult to see ours. We’ve got lots of rules, many of them good, but I’d encourage you this week, to use what we’ve seen in Mark 2 to search your own soul, to see if any of your good rules have gone bad.
[1] John MacArthur, Matthew 8-15, p.281
[2] ibid
[3] Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark

One thought on “When Good Rules Go Bad…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s