The elevator seemed to take ages to reach the floor I was on. When I stepped on board, I was forced to wait for several minutes as it stopped on every floor, opened whether there was someone waiting or not, and moved one floor down. After several minutes, the elevator reached the hotel lobby. I briskly approached the hotel bartender, handed him $5, and asked for a cup of coffee. In return, I received a cup of watered down instant coffee, much to my disappointment. If there was an eleventh commandment, I believe it would say, “Thou shalt not drink instant coffee.”
When I asked him why I got instant coffee instead of regular, he responded by saying, “I can’t grind coffee. It’s the Shabbat.”
Indeed, it was Friday evening, and I received a crash course in the Jewish version of the Sabbath. The hotel contained one the stranger sights in Israel: a Shabbat elevator. From sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the elevator runs on automatic in order that observant Jews do not have to perform work by pushing an elevator button.
In a well-intentioned attempt to follow the biblical command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy by ceasing from their work (Ex 20:8-11), the Jewish religious leaders have added several new instructions to prevent transgression of the Law.
This is true in almost every facet of Jewish life. Special containers with passages from Deuteronomy should be placed on the right doorpost (Deut 6:4-11), no more than three inches from the outside, although there is debate about whether they should be vertical or horizontal. Men are not to cut their sideburns. Many grow out long curls to ensure they do not break this law.
Boundaries upon boundaries upon boundaries. Rules on top of rules on top of rules.
In his day, Jesus faced similar circumstances. Religious leaders had set up an exorbitant amount of rules outside of the commands of Scripture. At one point, the conflict between Jesus and the leaders came to a head when some disciples picked grain to eat on the Sabbath. We should keep Jesus’ critique at the forefront of our minds: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27-28).
What Jesus is saying here as well as in other conversations with the Pharisees throughout the Gospels is that the rules of man cannot supersede the commands of Scripture. In truth, there is tremendous freedom in Scripture for those who live under grace (Gal 5:1). Only our freedom should not be used as an opportunity to sin.
As it pertains to our lives, we are not compelled to submit to rules and regulations that do not already exist in Scripture.
If you have died with Christ to the spiritual forces of the world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its regulations: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”? These will all perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.” (Col 2:20-22).
Do not call something sinful what God does not. We have extraordinary freedom in the Gospel. God is the one who determines what is sinful and what is permissible.
Those who would come to you and say that God explicitly forbids a certain activity, food, or drink when He in fact does not are seeking to limit your freedoms in Christ in the same way the Judaizers did with the Galatians. Such persons do not seek to boast in the cross, but in your flesh (Gal 6:13-14).
How then should we handle our freedoms? Here are two concepts to keep in mind as we minister to members in our churches as well as the community as a whole.
- Our freedoms are for building up the church, not ourselves.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and again in 10:23, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” Brothers and sisters, the Lord has entrusted us with the freedom found in His Son. We should use it not for the building up of ourselves, but of the church.
If this entails limiting our freedoms for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ, then not only should we be willing to do so, but we should do so gladly. Paul says in Philippian 2:4-5 that we should look to the interests of others and model the attitude of Christ.
Our freedoms in Christ are not superseded by the desires of men. But rather than holding our freedoms over the heads of others, we respond in love and humility. We are not compelled to follow rules and regulations under fear of transgression as the Jews do. Nor should we expect others to follow commandments that are not biblical and condemn them when they do not (Gal 5:15). Our submission is to Christ and the law of love (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:13-14).
- The Law gives us guidance, but only Christ can give us life.
We should strive to fill our churches with people who have been made alive in Christ, not with excellent rule followers. Just because someone has never cut corners financially, never committed adultery, volunteers at the local soup kitchen, and is the biggest tither in the church does not mean he is truly alive in Christ. He may be nothing more than a tomb with dead man’s bones in it. These are good things to do, but we are saved for good works, not by them.
Once again, this is not an excuse to be lenient on sin (Romans 6:21). However, the power in Christianity is not found in rule following, but in the transformed life. When people come to our churches, they are in search of something. If they become good rule followers, but have not encountered the one who gives life, then we may be deluding them into thinking they are saved when they in fact are not.
We must allow room for members to express their freedoms in Christ while simultaneously resisting sin in ourselves and in our church. The challenge for us is to accurately differentiate between God’s Law and manmade regulations. When men and women come into our churches and encounter Christ, they are set free – both from enslavement to sin and the need to follow arbitrary regulations – and given the light yoke of Christ instead (Matthew 11:28-30).