We are in the midst of a section of Mark’s gospel where we are seeing who Jesus is and the response people have to this revelation. Mark 7 opens with another conflict with the religious leaders. Mark has not recorded a conflict with the religious leaders since chapter 3. But you will notice that the location in chapter 7 is Jerusalem, which becomes the place of opposition to Jesus.
Ceremonially Unclean (7:1-5)
The Pharisees and scribes have a problem with Jesus and his disciples. They observe that the disciples of Jesus ate with defiled hands. But Mark quickly explains that their hands were not really defiled, but were unwashed. The idea is that their hands were ritually impure. Now, this has nothing to do with the reason why we wash our hands before eating today. We wash hands because of science. We know that there are germs, viruses, bacteria, and the like that gets on our hands and on our bodies. So we wash our hands before regularly and our bodies daily so that we will be healthy and not get sick. But this is not the reason for these religious leaders. What they are upholding is a tradition of the elders (7:3).
Now we do see some washings required by the priests before they would offer sacrifices. But there is nothing in the Law of Moses telling the people that they needed to ceremonially wash their hands before eating. It seems that the scribes and Pharisees have taken priestly ordinances and made them applicable to all Israel. The Pharisees considered these traditions that had been kept by their spiritual ancestors as fully authoritative. Some even claimed that these interpretations of the Law had been received and passed down by Moses at Sinai (m. Abot 1:1-2). The rabbis believed they were putting a “fence around the Torah” to protect God’s law from violations. The concept of ceremonial uncleanness was so important in Judaism that the last 12 tractates of the Mishnah are dedicated to it. So what is the big deal? Let’s look at what Jesus says.
Jesus’ Response (7:6-13)
Jesus says that Isaiah prophesied about what these religious leaders were doing. We need to think about this for a minute because we know that Isaiah was prophesying about Israel in his own day, 700 years before Jesus came. But an important teaching point is made here for us. We are to read the prophets and read the scriptures with its application directed at ourselves. No scripture merely sits in a historical context alone. These things were written for us too and Jesus proves this here. Isaiah spoke about what you are doing. Further, Jesus calls these people hypocrites. This is the only place in the Gospel of Mark where “hypocrites” is used. So Jesus is shining a powerful light on what these religious leaders are doing. To be a hypocrite is to be a pretender. They were showing themselves to be one thing when in fact they are actually another.
Jesus then quotes Isaiah 29:13 in Mark 7:6-7. Isaiah correctly prophesied about you. The people were merely giving lip service to God rather than a true dedication of their heart. The result was the elevation of their own traditions above God’s commands. Isaiah condemned the religious leaders in his own day and Jesus points out that Isaiah is also speaking about the religious leaders in his day. Carefully consider what Isaiah said. Your heart is far from God. Your worship is vain. Your worship is useless and your hearts are far away from God because of what you are doing to God’s law. We spent time considering sacrifice and worship in our last lesson in Numbers 26-30 that I would like for you to think about as we consider what Jesus is teaching here.
Now after quoting Isaiah who declared that the people did not have hearts near God and performed useless worship, listen to how Jesus continues. “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (7:8). They are letting go of God’s law in order to keep their own rules. Jesus says that these leaders are not just neglecting God’s law but they are annulling God’s law. We can see this in verse 9 also.
“You have a fine way of rejecting the commands of God in order to establish your tradition!” (7:9). While priding themselves in meticulously keeping the law, Jesus congratulates them for becoming experts at nullifying God’s commands. You have become professionals at rejecting what God says so that you can hold on to what you want to do.
Jesus uses another teaching of the religious leaders to prove his point in verses 10-13. The leaders had made a way to not be responsible for honoring their father and mother. Corban is something that is dedicated to God and so became unavailable for use. So they would withhold financial support of their parents. Think about this: they redirected the wealth and resources given to them by God to not give for their proper and compassionate use but for selfish use. It is not the money was going to be given to God but was “dedicated” to God so that it would remain under the owner’s control. In this way, the person did not have to do “anything for his father or mother” (7:12). Look at the result in verse 13. They were making void the word of God by their tradition. Think about this: they are voiding the word of God. They are nullifying God in their handling of God’s word. What I want to do for the rest of our time is talk about the implications of this powerful text about how we look at God’s commands and traditions.
Tradition itself is not a sin.
Tradition cannot be helped because once we do something more than once it becomes a tradition. We used to do our worship service differently than we do now. You can change things all you want but eventually traditions have to be developed because that is what repetition does. Destroying traditions simply because they are traditions is not helpful or useful. Yet this is often the mentality today. If it is something done in the past then we need to get rid of it. But this must not be the means of our evaluation. The apostle Paul does not speak evil of spiritual, scriptural traditions (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). Paul taught Christians to keep the traditions he gave to them. So the issue is not if we do something that we have done in the past.
The warning is against hypocrisy and legalism.
However, it is easy for our traditions (the way we do things) to become either hypocrisy or legalism. Let us discuss legalism first because it is a term that is thrown around a lot and is frequently used in straw man arguments. Legalism is the elevating of our human traditions to the level of God’s law. What the Pharisees and scribes had done was elevate their rules and traditions to be authoritative for all people. This has been an enormous problem through the ages. We likely do not say it, but we enforce our rules as if they are God’s law. Think about how many rules have been created that are simply not in the scriptures. Historically, people have made rules like men cannot have long hair, rules against listening to music, rules not allowing the use of playing cards, rules against dance, rules against women wearing pants or having short hair, rules controlling the use of alcohol, rules about wearing your Sunday best, rules about what those who stand before the congregation must wear, or rules on what is defined as modesty. These have been historical arguments. Perhaps we have done worse today. Just look at the fighting that happens on social media over more non-biblical concepts: can Christians read Harry Potter or not; must Christians homeschool; is it a sin to send your children to public school; gun carrying or gun control; environmentalism or economy; socialism or capitalism; kneeling or standing for the national anthem. We create rules that cannot be found or sustained in the scriptures. What is disturbing is that we often have no problem with this! How is it that we can be so concerned about someone who sets aside God’s command but not concerned when someone adds to God’s command? How dare we ever create rules or boundaries where God did not draw them! Friends, we are messed up like these scribes and Pharisees when we put these things under the banner of Christianity. We must not ever go beyond the word of God. We cannot make rules where God did not make rules.
If this were not enough, then we will listen and follow other Bible teachers as if they are authoritative. We will believe something and hold to it simply because a preacher or teacher puts the teaching forward. When I was a young preacher there was a Christian who would have me over to his house to watch videos and listen to sermons of certain preachers because of who the preacher was. It was not because the lesson was good because it was God’s word proclaimed. No, it was a good lesson because of who spoke it. We become followers of people rather than students of God’s word which leads to spiritual disaster. God’s commands are the authority, not a person and not our rules or traditions. If we make rules to govern our worship or govern what it means to be a Christian that is not in God’s word, then we have sinned to make it. We are hypocrites because we say that we uphold God’s law but we elevate our laws to his level.
But the other warning is that we allow traditions to turn into hypocrisy which is just as dangerous. What happens is that we turn faith into a series of dos and don’ts. We are so focused on following the rules that we do not see the God that the commands were to lead us to love. We follow the rules but miss the very heart of God. The law becomes separated from God himself. We do not seek to know God and experience him but we seek to keep the rules. Thus, we get statements like that there are five acts of worship, as if God can be boiled down to certain compulsory acts. We boil salvation into believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. We take the big concepts of who God is and condense them into simple regulatory acts like go to church and take the Lord’s Supper. We define faithfulness as church attendance. We spend our time teaching why I am a member of the church of Christ rather than why I am a Christian. We say that we have to go to church. We turn God into merely obligations and requirements. This is hypocrisy because God does not want our obedience separated from loving him.
Do you want your spouse to love you because he or she made a vow to God and has to stay in the marriage? Do you want your marriage relationship to be built merely on obligation and responsibility? Neither does God want it. It is hypocrisy because the heart is lacking. Listen to what Jesus said again in Mark 7:6, “But your heart is far from me.” How many times does God have to say in the scriptures that he wants our hearts and not merely obedience?
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13 ESV)
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12–13 ESV)
Jesus said that the poor in spirit are blessed. How many times did Jesus have to say that he desired mercy and compassion, not sacrifice? Yet we can do like these Pharisees and turn God into heartless rules that must be kept.
What is the point? Disciples who belong to Jesus and his kingdom uphold God and not their own rules. Radical external changes are still just external changes. External changes do not change the heart nor address spiritual problems. We are not focus on the heart because that is what God is focused on. When we focus on our hearts, we will follow what God has called us to obey. But when we focus on the rules, we lose sight of Jesus and the heart he desires for us to have. We must have great caution that we do not use God’s law in a way that God did not intend. Obedience without devotion is vain worship and hypocrisy. Creating rules that God did not give is the letting go of God’s commands and nullifying the word of God. Loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves must always be the lens by which we evaluate all we do as individuals and as a church. Obedience is the fruit of the love we have for God.