Jesus Teaches about Inner Purity
1 One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. 2 They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. 3 (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. 4 Similarly, they don't eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to - such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)
5 So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, "Why don't your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony."
6 Jesus replied, "You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,
These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7 Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.'
8 For you ignore God's law and substitute your own tradition."
9 Then he said, "You skillfully sidestep God's law in order to hold on to your own tradition. 10 For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,' and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.' 11 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can't help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.' 12 In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. 13 And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others."
14 Then Jesus called to the crowd to come and hear. "All of you listen," he said, "and try to understand. 15 It's not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart."
17 Then Jesus went into a house to get away from the crowd, and his disciples asked him what he meant by the parable he had just used. 18 "Don't you understand either?" he asked. "Can't you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? 19 Food doesn't go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer." (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God's eyes.)
20 And then he added, "It is what comes from inside that defiles you. 21 For from within, out of a person's heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you."
As the self-appointed guardians of Israel's religion, the Pharisees confront Jesus over his disciples' failure to keep the tradition of ceremonial washing before meals. In return, Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter by blasting the Pharisees for being so intent on following the manmade rules surrounding the Law while neglecting the Law itself. Jesus then explains to his disciples why the Pharisees' zeal for ceremonial cleanliness is so deficient: it can never cleanse the heart, which is the source of true defilement.
Pharisees ... teachers of religious law (Mark 7:1)
The pharisees were "a religious and political party in Palestine in New Testament times. The Pharisees were known for insisting that the law of God be observed as the scribes interpreted it and for their special commitment to keeping the laws of tithing and ritual purity."507 Known as the "teachers of the law" and the "experts in the law," scribes are mentioned several times in the gospels and are "often associated with the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; 23:2, 13; Mark 7:5; Luke 5:21, 30; 6:7; 11:53; 15:2; John 8:3). But they are also mentioned alone and were not necessarily Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious party, while the scribes held an office. ... [T]he majority of the scribes belonged to the Pharisee party, which recognized the legal interpretations of the scribes."508 Thus "[i]t is proper to speak of the profession of the scribes, and the sect of the Pharisees."509
Ritual ... tradition (Mark 7:2, 5)
A committee comprised of representatives from these two groups came down from Jerusalem ("the headquarters of Jewish 'orthodoxy'"510), no doubt at the direction of the Sanhedrin, and complained to Jesus because his disciples did not follow "the tradition of the elders" (NASB) regarding hand-washing.511 This tradition "refers to the oral law that grew up alongside the written Law and served as a protective 'fence' around it."512 As John Calvin put it: "All the traditions that then existed among the Jews had come out of their workshop; and this was the reason why they displayed more than ordinary zeal and bitterness in defending them."513 The oral law "interprets, supplements, and sometimes corrects the written Torah."514 "According to one tradition ... [at Mount Sinai] God supposedly gave to Moses oral instruction in addition to the tablets of the law, and that instruction was passed on by word of mouth through the generations."515 (A similar claim appeared in connection with the apostles.) Ritual cleansing was an indispensable part of the oral law; it was considered non-negotiable by every loyal Jew.516 Ritual purity was of vital importance to the Pharisees, and they "longed for the time when all of Israel would live in such a state of holiness. They believed that Israel's identity and blessed future depended on it."517
Unable to disprove Jesus directly, the religious leaders once again tried an indirect attack via his disciples (see Mark 2:18, 24).518 It was obvious their true target was Jesus since, after all, they were his disciples.519 As one source puts it, it is almost as if the religious leaders were saying to themselves: "We won't attack you personally, but since your disciples aren't washing, you obviously haven't taught them what's important. Maybe you don't even know this law. That makes you no better than a common sinner, certainly not a rabbi whom all these people should be following!"520 The scribes and Pharisees were very well aware of the fact that in setting aside one of the oral traditions, the way was open for a rejection of them all.521As usual, Jesus got to the heart of the matter, this time by addressing the underlying issues of religious authority and defilement.522
From the religious leaders' perspective, to be ceremonially impure/unclean was to be unfit for the service and worship of God.523 The fact is that they would never be able to serve God rightly so long as they believed that with their traditions "they were in possession of something more perfect than the word of the Lord."524 In fact, they had thoroughly corrupted the worship of God, "of which the first and leading principle is obedience."525
Hand washing (Mark 7:2, 5)
Bible commentator William Barclay explains exactly what was involved in the ritual of ceremonial hand-washing:
There were definite and rigid rules for the washing of hands. Note that this hand-washing was not in the interests of hygienic purity; it was ceremonial cleanness which was at stake. Before every meal, and between each of the courses, the hands had to be washed, and they had to be washed in a certain way. The hands, to begin with, had to be free of any coating of sand or mortar or gravel or any such substance. The water for washing had to be kept in special large stone jars, so that it itself was clean in the ceremonial sense and so that it might be certain that it had been used for no other purpose, and that nothing had fallen into it or had been mixed with it. First, the hands were held with finger tips pointing upwards; water was poured over them and had to run at least down to the wrist; the minimum amount of water was one quarter of a log, which is equal to one and a half egg-shells full of water. While the hands were still wet each hand had to be cleansed with the fist of the other. That is what the phrase about using the fist means; the fist of one hand was rubbed into the palm and against the surface of the other. This meant that at this stage the hands were wet with water; but that water was now unclean because it had touched unclean hands. So, next, the hands had to be held with finger tips pointing downwards and water had to be poured over them in such a way that it began at the wrists and ran off at the finger tips. After all that had been done the hands were clean.
To fail to do this was in Jewish eyes, not to be guilty of bad manners, not to be dirty in the health sense, but to be unclean in the sight of God. The man who ate with unclean hands was subject to the attacks of a demon called Shibta. To omit so to wash the hands was to become liable to poverty and destruction. Bread eaten with unclean hands was not better than excrement. A Rabbi who once omitted the ceremony was buried in excommunication. Another Rabbi, imprisoned by the Romans, used the water given to him for handwashing rather than for drinking and in the end nearly perished of thirst, because he was determined to observe the rules of cleanliness rather than satisfy his thirst.
That to the Pharisaic and Scribal Jew was religion. It was ritual, ceremonial, and regulations like that which they considered to be essence of the service of God. Ethical religion was buried under a mass of taboos and rules.526
As one source points out: "Whatever the status and nature of handwashing practice at the time, the only scriptural requirement for this kind of ritual purity concerned the priests prior to offering sacrifice (Exodus 30:18–21; 40:30–32), or an Israelite having a discharge (Leviticus 15:11), or the elders after the special sacrifice of the heifer (Deuteronomy 21:6). ... [T]he washing of hands for secular food is not from the Torah, the Pharisees' implicit demand is based merely on human tradition."527
It is worth noting that there is nothing inherently wrong with tradition. There is, however, something very wrong with placing human tradition on par with God's commands. As one source insightfully notes: "Many traditions are good. Some religious traditions can add richness and meaning to life. But we must not assume that certain traditions are sacred because they have been practiced for years. God's principles never change, and his law doesn't need additions. Traditions should help us understand God's laws better, not become laws themselves."528 The religious leaders not only added to God's Word, but they actually went so far as to replace God's Word with their own traditions. The end result was a zeal not for God's law, but for their traditions. "They may have been able to keep both their traditions and God's law, but they had become so zealous for the traditions that they had lost their perspective and had altered and missed the point of God's law entirely. Jesus also charged that they were doing this on purpose (7:9), for they had tried to win praise from people for their displays of piety as they kept all the rituals. … They didn't even bother to teach the law; instead, they focused on all their rules and their own piety in keeping their traditions and rules."529 Their zeal was defective and dangerous: "As soon as men allow themselves to wander beyond the limits of the Word of God, the more labor and anxiety they display in worshipping him, the heavier is the condemnation which they draw down upon themselves."530
Hypocrites (Mark 7:6)
Jesus called his accusers "hypocrites" (Greek hupokrites), meaning "one who pretends to be other than he really is."531 As one source puts it: "The hypocrite is the man who hides or tries to hide his real intentions under (hypo) a mask of simulated virtue."532 It is worth noting, however, that: "The Pharisees were by no means the only ones to be so addressed. The epithet applies to anyone who rejects the truth about God in Jesus. Through his teaching and actions Jesus revealed to men the unhappy state of their delusion and sought to open their eyes to their true situation before God. Hypocrisy is not simply a conscious act of dissimulation [dissimulate: "to hide under a false appearance"533], but a perverse blindness."534
As with the hypocrites of Isaiah's day, the honor and worship of the religious leaders was a mere pretense. And it is a fundamental truth that God refuses to "accept worship when the worshipers themselves are actively disregarding him."535As one source notes: "When people claim to honor God while their hearts are far from him, their worship means nothing. It is not enough to act religious. A person's actions and attitudes must be sincere."536 The religious leaders had been pretending for so long and to such an extent that they truly believed their bogus honor and worship were the real thing. They had lost the ability to distinguish between a counterfeit and the genuine article. "The worst form of hypocrisy is that which carries its self-deception to the point where it thinks that it really is what it actually only pretends to be. Such were the Pharisees and the scribes. The more their hypocrisy came in contact with the holy integrity of Jesus, the more it appeared as what it really was. The most vicious enemies of Jesus were these hypocrites."537 For the religious leaders, "their attempts at heightened holiness were a sign of commitment, but for Jesus, their polemical intent and the ultimately marginalizing impact of their traditions both on the common people, whom they were meant to shepherd, and himself, Israel's holy (e.g., 1:11, 24; 3:29) and true shepherd, rendered such 'worship' utterly vain."538
Jesus indicted the religious leaders for substituting their own tradition for God's law, in effect sidestepping God's law in order to hold on to their own tradition (see Mark 7:8-9) - "they constantly nullify the divine in order permanently to retain the human."539 Good intentions notwithstanding, the tradition of the elders remains a prime example of our fallen human tendency to replace God's will with our own. The religious leaders' sin was compounded in that they were deceiving not only themselves but also the common people who were "taught to revere and to follow" them.540In effect, Jesus denounced the tradition as "a miserable human religious product that could gain adherence only by crowding out the divine behest of God. Jesus is smashing not only the tradition about washing the hands, he is shattering the entire traditional system of the elders as it was held by the Pharisees and scribes. Anything that can be maintained only by ridding us of some Word of God is by that fact marked as damnable and deadly in the sight of God."541
We should remember, however, that Jesus was not condemning a sincere effort to apply God's law to every detail of life. Nor was he advocating radical revolt against all tradition (see Matthew 5:17-18; 23:1-3).542 Rather, Jesus was denouncing the religious leaders' practice of: 1) making fallible human interpretation superior to God's infallible Law,543 and 2) pretending to obey the Law while actually bending and twisting it to suit their own selfish ends. As Mark recorded, Jesus blasted the religious leaders for "neglecting/abandoning ... setting aside/ignore ... [and] invalidating/making void" (vv. 8, 9, 13 NASB/544) God's word.545 In citing Isaiah and Moses, Jesus was calling both "the law and the prophets" as witnesses against the hypocritical religious leaders.546
Vowed (Mark 7:11)
The specific example Jesus used (vv. 9-12) is the practice of Corban, meaning "that which has been set aside as a gift to be given later to God, but which is still at the disposal of the owner."547 Corban was a well-known tradition "taken very seriously by the Jewish people."548 Jesus cited the OT law (Exodus 20:12; 21:17549) regarding grown children's responsibility toward their parents. To "honor" one's parents implies "to love, to regard highly, to show the spirit of respect and consideration,"550 and of course would completely rule out speaking ill of, or cursing, one's parents. "Significantly granting equal status to father and mother, the honor due them goes beyond mere obedience or polite respect to loving them and honoring their role as Yahweh's proxies in giving their children life. Primarily directed at adults - who else could enter into the terms of the covenant? - this is the only commandment that comes with a specific promise: 'that you might live long in the land.' ... Though not an explicit curse of one's parents, [corban] did, for Jesus, amount to the same thing because both things effectively repudiated the parent-child relationship."551
Corban provided a "religiously acceptable"552 way for a son to shirk his responsibility: the money that should/would have gone to his parents was declared unalterably "dedicated/consecrated to God."553 This did not mean that the gift then had to go to the temple or that the son could not use it for himself; it simply meant that it was now forbidden to his parents.554 ("The matter of vowing things away was greatly abused by the Jews. Thus when a creditor came to collect, and the debtor was reluctant about paying, the creditor cried: 'A gift!' and thus compelled the debtor to pay to the priests.555) This is but one of many examples (Jesus: " ... you [keep on] do[ing] many things such as that." [Mark 7:13]) in which the "fence" of oral tradition originally intended to protect the Law actually became a barrier to keeping it.556
Understand (Mark 7:18)
Jesus rebuked557 his disciples for their lack of understanding (7:18a):
"'Are you so lacking in understanding also?'" (NASB)
"'Are you so foolish?'" (NET)
"'Are you being willfully stupid?'" (The Message)
As one Bible scholar of yesteryear put it: "Jesus charges the disciples with intellectual dulness [sic] and spiritual stupidity."558 But while the rebuke was sharp, we might also take note of the fact that it came only after Jesus was alone with his disciples and thus was intended to correct privately and not humiliate publicly.
Defiles/ defiled/ defile (Mark 7:15, 18, 20, 23)
"The rabbis had attacked the disciples about not washing their hands before eating. Jesus now turned the tables on them completely and laid bare their hollow pretentious hypocrisy to the people."559 In the process, "Christ asserts that Levitical uncleanness, such as eating with unwashed hands, is of small importance compared with moral uncleanness."560 It was/is the difference between ritual purity and ethical purity.561 Jesus taught that defilement comes "not by ritual impurity, but by personal sin."562 "While the scribes and Pharisees may have been well-intentioned in their observance of Jewish rituals and traditions and in their attempts to honor God, Jesus attacked their true heart condition."563 Scrupulous avoidance of ceremonial defilement allowed the religious leaders to convince both themselves and others that they were pious and holy - even as their hearts were filled with sinful thoughts and desires. Until they addressed the true, inward source of sin, all the ceremonial washings in the world would be for naught.
Heart ... within (Mark 7:19, 21, 23)
Jesus listed several specific sins that proceed from a person's heart. "The general meaning [of Christ's reply] is, that men are not polluted by food, but that they have within themselves the pollution of sins, which afterwards shows itself in the outward actions. ... [A]ll sins proceed from the wicked and corrupt affections of the heart. ... [I]n order to show more clearly that the heart of man is the abode of all evils he says that the proofs and results appear in the sins themselves."564 Jesus' list begins with "evil thoughts" (Greek kakos + dialogismos: "pertaining to being bad, with the implication of harmful and damaging" + "to think or reason with thoroughness and completeness"565) because such is in fact "the root of" the dirty dozen "evils which follow. Evil thoughts generated in a heart unite with one's will to produce evil words and actions."566
Jesus' list includes both attitudes and actions. "Notice that the evil attitudes, whether acted upon or not, are still considered sin."567 The list:
sexual immorality: "to engage in sexual immorality of any kind, often with the implication of prostitution"
theft: "to take secretly and without permission the property of someone else"
murder: "to deprive a person of life by illegal, intentional killing"
adultery: "sexual intercourse of a man with a married woman other than his own spouse"
greed: "a strong desire to acquire more and more material possessions or to possess more things than other people have, all irrespective of need"
wickedness: "deeds which are wicked and evil"
deceit: "to deceive by using trickery and falsehood"
lustful desires: "behavior completely lacking in moral restraint, usually with the implication of sexual licentiousness"
envy: "(an idiom, literally ‘evil eye') a feeling of jealousy and resentment because of what someone else has or does"
slander: "to speak against someone in such a way as to harm or injure his or her reputation"
pride: "a state of ostentatious pride or arrogance bordering on insolence"
foolishness: "the state of not using one's capacity for understanding"568
"In the teaching of Christ and the apostles, defilement is uniformly ethical or spiritual."569 This is reflected in the NT's many and various vice lists. For example: Romans 1:28-32; 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; 6:9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:20-21; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-5; Colossians 3:5-9; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:2-5; Titus 3:3, 1 Peter 4:3; Revelation 21:8; 22:15.570
A Closet Drinker
The story is told of a deacon who was zealous for the cause of temperance, constantly railing against the evils of alcohol.
One day the deacon decided to have some improvements done to his living room. As the carpenter was surveying the project, he happened across a well concealed closet. Much to his surprise, within the closet he found a bottle of whiskey and some glasses.
He immediately made the deacon aware of his discovery.
The deacon seemed truly shocked, and he quickly surmised that the previous owner must have left it behind when he moved out thirty years earlier.
"'Ah, perhaps he did,' answered the carpenter, 'but say, deacon, that ice in the pitcher must have been well frozen to have remained solid all this time.'"571
Like the Pharisees, the deacon waged a major campaign against sin - while finding a way to practice it in secret.
How can we guard against hypocrisy? We guard against hypocrisy by:
Being more concerned with character than with reputation.
Pursuing a personal relationship with God rather than practicing a religion.
Focusing on our own sins and other people's virtues, rather than vice versa.
Remembering that purity is internal, not external, and occurs as our minds are renewed by Christ and we are transformed into his image.572
Pharisees exist today
Many Bible-believing Christians also struggle with change and tradition. The Pharisees had established codes of conduct that they made equal with Scripture. Don't we still do the same? In trying to maintain our faith against competitors and challenges, don't we resent those who don't conform and who disregard the history of why we do what we do? What human-made rules, policies, and doctrines have we given the same authority as God's Word? Do we reject someone's thought because we don't like his or her background, training, or personal style? Pharisees exist today. Ask God for insight so as not to be one of them.573
??? When are we most tempted to place human teaching and/or tradition above Scripture? What is the true source of the sin in our life, and what does that imply regarding how to eliminate it (see Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 4:8)?