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Mark 7:1-23 – Perception and Reality

Over the past 6 1/2 years, I have gotten to know the workers at the local BMV. We have worked together to keep the company fleet registered and legal. But we have also laughed and joked during that time. So, I was a bit surprised when the whole crew was a little more quiet than normal. I later found out that a supervisor was visiting that day to observe how they did their work. That is why they were more subdued.

Something similar happened to Jesus. After displaying His divine power by feeding the five thousand and later walking on the water, He had a surprise visit from some religious officials from Jerusalem. The Pharisees and scribes watched what Jesus did and also watched His disciples. And when they had enough evidence, they finally confronted Jesus about something His disciples had failed to do.

  1. The Perceived Problem (Mark 7:1-5)

    Have you ever perceived something to be true and later found out that it was not. When I was helping a friend change the engine in one of our cars, neither of us could figure out how to remove the speedometer cable. We perceived that it was stuck but later found out that we were pushing the release the wrong way. In this part of our passage, we will see that the religious leaders perceived that Jesus’ disciples had a problem. Were they right? We shall see.

    What does it say?

    The religious Pharisees and scribes came up from Jerusalem to see Jesus. As they observed Jesus, they noticed that his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. To these religious men, the disciples were eating with defiled hands. It wasn’t that the disciples had dirt on their hands. The perceived problem was that they were not following the tradition of the elders and were ceremonially unclean. The tradition required them to wash their hands in a special way before eating. If they had been to the marketplace, they had to wash their hands before eating. These traditions also covered things like washing cups, pitchers, pots, and couches. With all that in mind, the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus why the disciples were not living as the traditions required.

    What does it mean?

    It means that these traditions were well-known to the Jewish people. Note that Mark explains this as if he was telling the story to non-Jewish people. Perhaps his readers were Gentiles who may not have been familiar with the customs of the Jews. But he also told it as if the Jewish people would have known exactly what he was talking about. They knew that if they didn’t wash their hands, as the tradition commanded, they would be considered defiled. It wasn’t a cleanliness issue to avoid getting sick. Instead, “it was a technical term … denoting whatever was contaminated according to their religious rituals and thus was unfit to be called holy or devoted to God.”1

    It is true that God marked certain people as unclean in the Old Testament law. For instance, a woman was considered unclean after giving birth. But this was not a moral issue. It was probably a health issue. God was protecting the woman from harm. Also, some people were not allowed to take part in worship when they were unclean for various reasons. This was to show reverence for God’s holiness when worshiping Him. “God was teaching them the great lesson that a sinner had to be cleansed before he could enjoy fellowship with a holy God.”8 But in Jesus’ day, the people thought that the only way they could be considered righteous by the religious leaders was to follow the traditions handed down by the elders. Otherwise, they would be considered “‘the people of the land,’ who did not rigidly observe all these ceremonial washings.”5 Things had gotten out of hand, but everyone knew what was required of them … or so they thought.

    It means that the religious people considered these traditions to be very important. Does it seem strange to you that religious leaders were checking whether Jesus’ disciples were washing their hands before eating? I found it strange. Why were they so concerned about such a trivial thing? For whatever reason, they thought it was very important. “These interpretations, designed to regulate every aspect of Jewish life, were considered as binding as the written Law and were passed on to each generation by faithful Law teachers (scribes). Later in the third century A.D., the oral tradition was collected and codified in the Mishnah6 which, in turn, provided the foundation for and structure of the Talmud. … For a loyal Jew, to disregard these regulations was a sin; to follow them was the essence of goodness and service to God.”2 At least that … is what the Pharisees and scribes taught.

    How does it apply?

    Do we make a big deal about traditions today? Consider what one person has written about this. “Traditions can be instructive to us on many levels, and there is nothing inherently wrong with observing tradition. Traditions can give a sense of identity, unite us as the unique family of Christ, provide teaching opportunities, and help us remember important truths. But we must always maintain a distinction between divine commands and human traditions. God’s commands are binding; man-made tradition is not. Traditions, no matter how ancient they may be, only have value if they are grounded in God’s truth and point us to Him.”7 I am sure that we have certain traditions that are important to us, but let’s make sure that we remember that they are just that – traditions. If we start to put our traditions on the same level as the Bible, we will soon be in trouble.

  2. The Actual Problem (Mark 7:6-13)

    The perceived problem was that Jesus’ disciples were not following tradition. But they were wrong. Jesus knew what the actual problem was and willingly addressed his questioners with some very straight forward terms. As we read His response, you may even raise an eyebrow at the language used.

    What does it say?

    Jesus didn’t answer their questions. Instead, He referred to them as hypocrites of whom Isaiah the prophet had written. He then quoted a passage from Isaiah where God described them as people who honored him with their words but not with their hearts. God said that they were unable to worship Him because they had focused on teaching the commandments of men as if they were doctrine. Jesus told them that they had set aside God’s commandments in favor of traditions such as washing pitchers and cups and many other things. Jesus also told them that some of their traditions caused them to reject what God had commanded. For example, God’s Law commanded them to honor their parents. This would include financially supporting them. But the religious leaders made an exception to the command for someone who gave that money to God. This caused God’s words to have no effect. And this was not the only problem. There were many more.

    What does it mean?

    It means that people had become hypocrites. What is a hypocrite? Mounce described a hypocrite as someone who is “utterly devoid of sincerity and genuineness.”7 It is someone who says things but doesn’t really mean them in his heart. As Jesus looked at the Pharisees and scribes, He noted that they were not sincere in their devotion to God. They were making a big deal about ceremonial cleansing but were not sincerely doing these things for God. And these hypocritical religious Jews were much like their ancestors from hundreds of years earlier. Times doesn’t always change things.

    It means that people had replaced God’s commands with their own. How bad had things gotten? Jesus pointed out one of the many ways they had replaced God’s law with traditions of their own. “If a son declared that the resources needed to support his aging parents were ‘Corban’ then, according to scribal tradition, he was exempt from this command of God [to financially take care of his parents], and his parents were legally excluded from any claim on him. The scribes emphasized that his vow was unalterable (cf. Num. 30) and held priority over his family responsibilities.”3 That sounds like something a televangelist might do. As long as you give money to his organization, they declare that God will be pleased no matter what you do. Sadly, things like this show that people no longer thought about pleasing God and were instead trying to do what was best for them and their public image.

    How does it apply?

    Are you a hypocrite? As you look at the hypocrisy of the religious Jews, it is easy to point out their problems and not consider our own. We even smile when Jesus uses such strong language against them. But what about you? Do you say and do things so that you look good while deep inside of you there is no love for God backing up your actions? Are you doing things so that people will notice your actions instead of pointing to God who made all the good in your life possible? The religious leaders were very devoted and always looked the part, but they were missing an inner heart that longed to please the Lord. Don’t get caught up with religious activity and forget the reason why you do it and Who it is for. If you have become a hypocrite, then repent of that today and get back to where you ought to be. As Jesus told the church at Ephesus, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” Will you repent of your sin and stop being a hypocrite? This is what God wants you to do.

  3. The Source of the Problem (Mark 7:14-23)

    What does it say?

    After addressing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus called the multitude to Himself and spoke to them. He explained that nothing from the outside could defile them. It was the things that came out of them that defiled them. He then called on anyone who had ears to hear what He was saying. When He and the disciples had entered a house, the disciples asked Him about the parable. Apparently, it wasn’t very clear to them. Jesus responded by asking if they lacked the ability to understand. He then asked if they understood that nothing on the outside could defile them. When they ate something it didn’t go to the heart (the innermost part of their being) but into the stomach. And it eventually goes through their digestive system and leaves the body. Because of that, all foods are purified. But what does defile a person is what comes from his heart. Evil thoughts and actions have their source in an evil heart. Jesus listed 13 sinful thoughts and actions that come from the heart. All of this shows that a person is defiled by what is inside of his heart rather than what is on his hands.

    What does it mean?

    It means that most people did not understand the truth. How many people back then considered themselves right with God because of their obedience to the traditions of the elders? There were probably a large amount of people who did. But these people were misled. They didn’t understand that these traditions were not biblical or binding. The religious leaders and the many people who listened to them didn’t understand the truth. So Jesus had to teach them what they did not yet understand.

    It means that the sinful heart is the source of defilement. If you were to ask the people of Jesus’ day how they could be clean for God, they would probably list a number of traditions their religious leaders promoted. But these traditions only masked the real problem. “Jesus took the focus of attention away from external rituals and placed it on the need for God to cleanse one’s evil heart (cf. Ps. 51).”4 Did you notice the 13 evils that Jesus said came from a sinful heart? Jesus wanted people to know that the real source of defilement is their own heart. The thoughts and intents of the heart are what lead us to first think and then act on our evil impulses. And because of that, we need to be more concerned with our hearts than with our outward self.

    How does it apply?

    We need to focus on our inner needs more than our outward. When you were getting ready for church this morning, did you focus on the outward or inward as you prepared? It is not wrong to comb your hair and iron your clothes, but wouldn’t it be better to also prepare your heart for the Lord? Maybe, instead of fretting over what you are wearing or how you look, you should talk to the Lord and consider what the Holy Spirit has been trying to tell you all week. Look to your own heart and consider what changes God wants you to make. You may be surprised at how differently your time at church is.

    We need to teach others the truth. There are doubtless many people today who are like the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day. While they are religiously active and look good on the outside—even moral—they are oblivious to what God desires and how their evil heart needs to be cleansed and changed by God. The world is made up of people who think they can please God by doing things when in reality none of us can. We all need Jesus and the change that can only be found by placing our faith in Him. How many of your friends, relatives, and co-workers know this truth? And who is close enough to them to share these truths with them? You are. So, as God works in your heart today, will you consider how you can talk to people today about these truths you have learned here today?

Conclusion

It must have been interesting for the disciples to watch as Jesus spoke to the revered, religious leaders who were questioning Him. His response demolished all of the preconceived notions they had been teaching for hundreds of years. He had called them hypocrites. He had pointed out their sinful practice of replacing God’s law with their own. But then He had gone even further and addressed all people about their sinful hearts. This must have caused a huge commotion in that community. But Jesus was willing to do it. And as we will see in the weeks ahead, some people did not like what He said. But there were others who received Him and were changed forever.

Footnotes

1 Grassmick 132.
2 Grassmick 132-33.
3 Grassmick 133.
4 Grassmick 135.
5 Hiebert 193.
6 Hiebert 195. “The Mishnah devotes thirty chapters to the matter of the purification of vessels.”
7 “What does the Bible say about traditionalism?”
8 McGee 190.

Bibliography

Grassmick, John D., “Mark” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983.

Hiebert, D. Edmond, The Gospel of Mark, Greenville: BJU Press, 1994.

McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. 4, Matthew through Romans, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.

“What does it mean to be ceremonially unclean?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=60862 on 1/20/2024.

“What does the Bible say about traditionalism?” as viewed at https://printer.gotquestions.net/GeneratePF?articleId=21153 on 1/20/2024.

ὑποκριτής as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/hypokrites on 1/20/2024.