Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. (Matthew 23:29-36 TNIV)
Deeply ingrained in our Christian psyche is this idea that our sin only effects us and those around us. The idea that punishment for the sins of our ancestors may rest upon us is totally foreign, and some might say unbiblical. Yet this is exactly what Jesus is getting at in this, His final indictment against legalism.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were very meticulous about honoring those who came before. The grave sites of men like Abraham, Noah, Isaac, and possibly women like Ruth and Deborah were well taken care of. The sites of the Scriptural prophets were upkept with religious vigor. But there was one problem: they were being hypocritical. While they prided themselves for their piety, claiming,
If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.
Jesus knew what was truly in their hearts. And when the next generation of prophets came on the scene, they behaved in the same way as their forefathers. Innocent blood was now on their hands, just as it was on their ancestors’. And the punishment remained the same: condemnation.
And that is one of the underlying problems with legalism. The ways of the past become the measure of holiness. We may decry the racism against black people embraced by those of an earlier generation, but God forbid we embrace the Mexican. But whether we like it or not, we will receive our just punishment if we are unwilling to turn from racism and denounce it in all forms. In fact, biblically, we must also repent of past racism as well.
Racism is just one example. The evils of gender inequality, war, and extremism could also be cited. But the point remains the same.
[The Lord] does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:7b TNIV)
But mingled in with Jesus’ indictment against legalism, He offers hope.
Jesus longs to gather the legalist to Himself, if he is willing. Too often the legalist is content with doing things his way, by the law. But if he is willing to let go, if we are willing to let go of the law, redemption is just within our grasp. Freedom from legalism is indeed possible.
Legalism is a dangerous road to travel. It may have the appearance of righteousness, but is, in reality, a path of uncleanness leading to damnation.
But God has offered us escape: His Son Jesus. Jesus told us what true righteousness is, and showed us how to live in it. If you are in union with God through Jesus, then you are free to live in freedom and are called to live an abundant life. Legalism will only stifle this calling.
Renounce legalism. Live in Christ. Live in freedom. Live abundantly.