Matthew 23:4

Artificial Backbreaking Religion

Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall


Matt. 23:4a (Holman) They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry

and put them on people’s shoulders,. . .


The Pharisees, being legalists, had only one agenda: make as many difficult rules as possible, and require people to obey them. Their delight was to add to Holy Writ many additional nitpicking rules, regulations, and traditions. The Pharisees were more demanding of people than God was.

They created artificial standards of holiness that made trying to live for God backbreaking. Strict requirements and superfluous traditions made daily life a burden. For instance, the Sabbath was meant to be an uplifting benediction, but had been mangled into a deadweight dragging people down.

Paul, a Pharisee who had tried to obey all the rules, remembered the experience as having been a “yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Some Pharisees who later became believers had trouble forsaking this old way of thinking.

At the Jerusalem Council, Peter asked them, “Why, then, are you now testing God by putting on the disciples’ necks a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). I wonder how often Peter the fisherman, in his young days, found himself ritually unclean due to his job. Did he feel like giving up on religion at times? Were latent frustrations from his former days coming through in his talk at the Council?

Christianity still often has to resist legalism, the temptation to keep adding on extrabiblical, unnecessary rules and regulations. The question is; how do we avoid legalism, yet not slip into libertinism? The answer is; hold to the Scriptures, nothing more and nothing less. The Bible is the heritage we must pass to the next generation. Teach your children to love the Bible.

Based on Holy Writ, each generation has to make pertinent, applicable interpretations. There is no way around this. We have to evaluate our culture and behaviors through the Bible lens. Each generation adopts mores, and teaches them to their children, but should not try to bind these interpretations on their children when they become adults. It is okay to talk about varying interpretations, but only the Bible has authority in each generation. Clinging to Scripture is our best hope to navigate a safe middle-of-the-road path.


Matt. 23:4b   . . .but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to

move them.


Another thing that helps us not become too steeped in legalism is having compassion for people, however poorly they do at keeping the Law. The Pharisees failed this test miserably. In addition to setting strict rules, the Pharisees were mean, harsh, and uncaring. They had no love, no feelings of pity for the hurting and fallen. Void of mercy and compassion, they refused to help those who were collapsing, and made no effort to lighten their load.

They made a holy life impossible to achieve, and then chided the people when they failed at it. Having no interest in God’s grace and mercy, they never tried to explain or relax their pet rules. Their severity is why Ed Stetzer sarcastically says, “Winter is as cold as a legalist’s heart”. Ouch!

This is opposite to what believers should do. Jesus offered the weary rest, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (MT 11:30). He did not make light of Bible obedience, yet did make much of forgiveness and compassion.

Most of us in the ministry entered it for these very reasons: to preach the Bible, and to help people by marrying the young, burying the dead, and carrying the hurting. Compassion was a huge factor in our career selection.

This softness of heart must continue throughout our ministries. Paul modeled this. He told the new church plant at Thessalonica, “We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother nurtures her own children” (1 TH 2:7b).

Jesus sets high moral standards for us. At the same time, He offers us forgiveness when we sin, takes away guilt’s burdens when we repent, and helps us live the life He prescribes for us. His expectations are high, but when we fall, His love, forgiveness, and help for us are strong and unfailing.

Let me illustrate our need for compassion by discussing something that has been stirring in me for a year. I have been struggling with how to help parents whose children quit serving the Lord when they become adults. This is one of the most heartbreaking things that happen to devoted Christian parents. It undermines everything they strove for in raising their children.

My remarks are not intended for spiritually nonchalant parents. Some moms and dads don’t care how their children turn out spiritually, as long as they don’t do drugs, steal, beat their spouses, or end up in prison. As long as their children’s facade is good, these parents are often okay with the result.

I am talking to parents who love God with their whole heart, yet have seen their children walk far away from God. I first want to apologize.

Some of my past remarks on this subject have been way too harsh. My sermons sometimes left the impression I think parents are 100% responsible for how their children turn out. Many who have long heard me preach would probably often be tempted to say to themselves, “What did I do wrong?”

I am sorry about my calloused demeanor. After two years of working closely with very young adults, I am wiser, and much more compassionate.

We know the pat answers. Some say Christian homes are often too strict and legalistic; we tend to protect our kids from the world too much; this causes them to go through shell shock when they encounter the culture of lostness; we should let kids make mistakes and sow their wild oats.

Many quote, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (PR 22:6). This is a Proverb, not a guarantee. It does not tell precise details of how to bring up children in the way they should go. It doesn’t say precisely what to do at each step of life.

Whatever guiding premises people use to help us raise our kids right, absolutes are not to be found. We know this because we see families that raise children who serve the Lord, and children who don’t. Obviously there was no spiritual breakdown here. There are no easy one-liners to apply.

Parents, if your children go astray spiritually, do not beat up on yourself. Reproach not thyself. If perfection is the litmus test for parenting, we all fail. We can only do our best, plus pray mightily and frequently.

Outside influences beyond our control are pressuring our children. Pornography is omnipresent, easily available. Drugs are proliferating. Mental illness is increasing. One wrong person coming into the trajectory of a teen’s life at the wrong moment can undo everything. By the way, on the other hand, the right person can also affect radical change for the good. I urge you to seek ways to enlist Godly adults to disciple your older teens.

Freewill comes into play. However good a job we do as parents, we must remember; once children become adults, they are responsible for their own behavior and decisions. Young adults have to make their own choices.

We have to face the painful fact some were never believers. Children sometimes go through the motions of becoming a believer, but we don’t have a lens to look into a child’s heart to see for sure what happened there.

The child/adult transition age continues to get younger. It was 18; then it was 16, drivers license age; now it comes with the first cell phone. Studies are showing that sexting has become a problem for children as young as 12.

One helpful adage is; rules without relationships can cause rebellion. In this equation, once our adult children are no longer under our rules, and already in rebellion, only one thing is left: relationships. Parents, do all in your power to be your teens and adult children’s best friends. Once they know where you stand on a given issue, try to bond. Don’t compromise, but don’t hold at arm’s length either. When you disagree, talk but do not badger.

We are not insiders able to see everything. As we see situations, we can react like Pharisees, with a condemning frown, or be like Jesus, who leaned toward compassion. Henceforth, I want to more and more be like the latter.