All who are weary: The letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law

The letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Exodus 20:8

At the university, I teach a microbiology laboratory for nursing students. On the first day of lab work we go through the safety rules: no food or drink, always wear gloves when handling live cultures of bacteria, closed-toed shoes required… One young lady showed up for lab in a pair of flats (guys, those are girl shoes that just barely cover the ends of the toes, but leave the entire top of the foot open). As cute as they were (that’s what she told me – I wouldn’t know), I wasn’t convinced that they were adequate for working in a microbiology laboratory. But she pulled out the syllabus and showed me my own words which said “closed-toed shoes must be worn at all times,” and as she pointed out, these flats were in fact closed-toed. The letter of the law. So I let it slide.

About an hour into the lab period I heard the sound of breaking glass and looked up to see the same young lady holding an empty test tube rack and looking down at her feet in stunned surprise. She had dropped a tube full of E. coli bacteria, about a billion cells, onto the concrete floor next to her feet. The glass flew horizontally across the bare top of her foot, slicing into the flesh while at the same time depositing a huge dose of E. coli into the open wounds. After cleaning her up (and the floor), she went first to the campus nurse’s office, then to urgent care. After a 7-day course of precautionary antibiotics, she escaped getting an infection.

When my kids are in the lab with me, I teach them strict rules to follow to keep them safe.

When my kids are in the lab with me, I teach them strict rules to follow to keep them safe.

This is life by the letter of the law. But Jesus says it’s time for us to spiritually grow up, to graduate from milk to meat, and to learn how to listen to His Spirit rather than blindly follow a rulebook.

In the Old Testament, the Sabbath is presented to us as a mandate from God in honor of His act of rest after seven days of creating the earth. In the book of Exodus, God tells us that the Sabbath is supposed to remind us that He is the Creator of all things (Exo 31:16-17) and that He is the Sanctifier of mankind (Exo 31:13). Sort of like the Lord’s Supper (communion) is a symbol to remind us of the death of Jesus and our fellowship with him, and baptism is a symbol to remind us of our death and resurrection with Christ, the Sabbath is supposed to remind us Who is our Creator and Sanctifier. Laws under the Old Covenant were necessarily strict and the consequences severe. Punishment for an Israelite who “profaned” the Sabbath was stoning. There was no room among God’s chosen people for rebels who wanted to do things their own way.

Even the land was to be given a Sabbath rest every seventh year (Exo 23:10-12). In the book of Leviticus, where God reveals in painstaking detail the behavior he expected from His chosen people the Israelites, we are commanded to treat the land well and let it rest. The consequences of ignoring this command was almost as severe as stoning: occupation by foreign armies. Under occupation, the land would not be worked and would get its much needed rest.

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Following all hunting and fishing regulations and practicing Leave No Trace principles is a way for us to give the land a Sabbath.

Following all hunting and fishing regulations and practicing Leave No Trace principles is a way for us to give the land a Sabbath. Deer photo credit (c) Laura Graham. Brown trout photo credit (c) Ryan Montana.

The New Covenant in Christ, revealed to us modern folks in the New Testament, was less about obedience to a list of dos and don’ts and more about the state of our hearts. Jesus traveled around the countryside healing people on the Sabbath, which angered the religious leaders of the day who thought that obedience to the list was paramount to favor with God. Jesus not only proclaimed that the Sabbath was made to serve man, not the other way around, He even went so far as to call Himself the Lord of the Sabbath. While He may not have been winning friends among the leaders, the common people were loving this freedom theology Jesus was preaching.

In Colossians chapter 2 Paul encourages the new believers at Colossae to hold their heads high in the freedom they have in Christ. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, new moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” A few verses later he asks why they would submit themselves to rules and regulations as if those things had the power to save. There were more important issues to get uptight about than which day to call a day of rest (Luke 13:10-17, Matthew 12:9-14).

But before you get too excited about freedom from the rules, consider what it means to follow the spirit of the law.

One time when the crowds around Jesus were getting to be too much, He and His disciples retreated to a mountainside where He could teach them about what it meant to live by the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

I think I can manage to get through life without killing anyone. But controlling anger? That’s a different story. Our behavior is so much easier to change than our hearts. But ultimately, that’s what the New Covenant in Christ is about – changed hearts.

So how do we do it? I think the key to choosing between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law is a matter of seeking righteousness in God’s power or in our own power. Jesus taught that righteousness in our own power, by striving to follow the letter of the law, has to be perfect.

“Be perfect therefore as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

But righteousness in the power of the Holy Spirit brings a deep and abiding rest.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Take-home point: Rest for the weary comes from living by the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.

Take-home verse: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

Questions for thought

Are you a legalist, a rule follower? If so, why? Is there security in rules? Is it easier than listening to the Spirit?

Do you hold others to your legalistic standards? If you’re not sure, ask yourself if you’re a micromanager, a controller. If yes, then you’re probably expecting others to live by the same rules and regulations that you have personally adopted.

Is your relationship with God dependent upon your behavior? Or is it one of love, repentance, and forgiveness, one that brings about personal growth because of an almost mentoring relationship between you and the Lord?



Father God, you are the Lord, the Master. But you are also our Guide, our Mentor, our Creator, and our Sanctifier. Teach us to live a life of freedom in Christ, one that is not enslaved to rules and regulations, but instead one that is in constant relationship with you. Thank you for the gift of the Sabbath. Help us to enjoy it, to enjoy you, without letting it become a burden, a duty, or a chore. We are so grateful to no longer be bound by the law, but by the grace of Jesus. Let us live lives that please you in all we do. Amen.

About Dave Cummings

Dave Cummings is a husband, father of three, college professor, biologist, and urban outdoorsman. Most importantly, he is a Christ follower.
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