The Traditions of Men vs the Commands of God

A sermon on Mark 7:1-30 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 11/7/99

Tradition! What thoughts come to mind when you hear that word? Do you think of regular activities that enrich your life, annual rituals that your family performs, perhaps at Thanksgiving or Christmas?

Or when you think of tradition, do you have negative thoughts of:

This morning we will look at the first 30 verses of Mark chapter 7. Jesus here condemns the scribes and Pharisees, not for honoring a tradition, but for placing their traditions above the commands of God. The Pharisees accuse the disciples of violating their sacred traditions. Jesus responds in three ways, addressing three questions to them that are also pertinent to us:

Let us pray before we begin our study:

Dear Lord, you know what is in our hearts. We pray that out of your bountiful mercy you will enable us to clear our minds of the many distractions that face us, and to search our hearts right now to see what we now need to confess to you. May we worship you in spirit and truth, even while we listen and speak. In Jesus name, Amen.

Recall that last week, we saw how Jesus empowered the disciples to go forth two by two, preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons. Mark contrasts these accomplishments done in the power of God with the impotence of the man who was supposed to be the most powerful in the region, Herod Antipas. But the disciples do not learn this lesson of active dependence well; faced with thousands of hungry people, and Jesus' command, "You give them something to eat," they protest that this is impossible. So Jesus gives them another object lesson in active dependence: He breaks the bread, and they are able to feed all these people through His power. Yet that very night, faced once again with the limitations of their human power as they row against the wind on the lake, they still struggle on their own and fear Him when he walks on the water. Nevertheless, Jesus calms the wind, showing that all they had to do was to depend on Him.

Remember, Jesus wanted to take his disciples off on their own, away from the crowds, to help them to take to heart the lessons of their successful missions trip. But the crowds had followed them around the lake, and we find in the last verses of chapter 6 that once more everyone with a sick friend brings him to Jesus to be healed.

This is the context for Mark 7; let us know read the first five verses.

1 And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes *asked Him, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?" (Mark 7:1-5 NASB)

Mark here returns to the theme of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, which was the major theme of chapters 2 and 3 (see sermons: Your Visa to Heaven (2:1-17), Rules and Relationships (2:18-3:6), and God's Intimate Family (3:7-35)). This conflict begins when Jesus heals the paralytic whose friends lower him down through the roof. Jesus' first statement to this man is, "Your sins are forgiven." The scribes who are present think, "This man is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?" (2:7).

Next, Jesus calls Matthew, who is a despised tax collector. Matthew listens and obeys -- and then throws a party to celebrate! Of course, the only people who will attend a party thrown by a tax collector are other tax collectors and "sinners." But Jesus himself goes, leading to the disdain of the religious leaders: "Why is he eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners? (2:16). Jesus responds with a profound statement: "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Then Mark relates a conflict about fasting. Here it is not only the Pharisees, but also some of the disciples of John the Baptist who are confused. They ask Jesus, "Why do ... your disciples not fast?" (2:18). Jesus responds by saying, in effect: "I'm here! I'm the long-awaited bridegroom! Fasting is for acknowledging unworthiness, asking God in his mercy to come to your aid. But I am God, and I'm already here! This is a time to rejoice, not to fast!"

Next we find a series of encounters related to Sabbath observance. First, the Pharisees see the disciples casually picking stalks of wheat or barley as they travel, rubbing the seed between their hands to get rid of the chaff, and eating the fresh grain. The Pharisees consider this work, and accuse them of doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath. Jesus replies, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath: Consequently, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." (2:27b-28).

Later, the Pharisees are in one of Jesus' meetings on the Sabbath. They notice a man with a withered hand there, and they eagerly anticipate Jesus' healing him, so that they can accuse him directly of working on the Sabbath. Jesus looks around in anger at them because of their hardness of heart and asks: "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm? To save a life or to kill?" He heals the man in plain view of everyone; the Pharisees then make plans to kill him.

The Pharisees and scribes are violating the very purpose of fasting and the Sabbath, even while they accuse Jesus and the disciples of improper actions. For the Pharisees used their keeping of fasts and Sabbath-observance to prove that they were better than other people, leading to self-righteousness. Yet the whole meaning of fasting, the whole meaning of the Sabbath, is: "I am not worthy; I alone can do nothing; I need you, Lord, I must be dependent upon you for everything."

Finally, the Pharisees begin to spread the rumor that Jesus has authority over demons because He is in league with the Prince of demons, Beelzebub. Jesus responds, "How can Satan cast out Satan?" and warns them that they are approaching the point of no return in ascribing the work of the Holy Spirit to the devil.

In many ways, chapters four through six elaborate on the theme of the Sabbath: the promise of resting in God, depending upon his intimate love for you to provide all your needs -- so you need not fear. Also, because of His love, he will empower you for service, so that you are able to share His love with those who need it so badly.

Now in chapter 7, Mark returns more directly to the theme of conflict with religious authorities, this time over the right understanding of cleanness and uncleanness. The Pharisees question why the disciples are violating the cleanliness rules laid down by the elders. Note that these are manmade rules given by rabbis, not commands from the Old Testament.

Now, the Old Testament does describe how one becomes "unclean" -- disqualified from participation in worship at the tabernacle or temple -- and how to be made clean once one is unclean. (See sermon on Leviticus 11-15). These rules foreshadow our need to prepare ourselves for worship, our need to set our hearts right prior to entering God's presence. But there is nothing in the Old Testament about washing hands before eating:

I suspect that this tradition has a positive origin. A rabbi probably thought this way: "I need to prepare myself before I worship the Lord. But eating, really, is an act of worship: All that I have I have obtained by God's favor and blessing, so in eating I should be filled with thankfulness. I should not go directly from participating in the world to this act of worship without preparation. So I will go through a ritual of handwashing, symbolizing my preparing my heart to worship God."

So it is quite possible that this tradition began in a very positive way; perhaps it was quite meaningful for its earliest proponents. But like most manmade traditions, the point of handwashing got lost over time. For the Pharisees, participating in this ritual was one more distinction between them and the masses; washing their hands prior to eating led them to exalt themselves over others, magnifying their self-righteousness.

Jesus responds to the Pharisee's question in three ways. These answers are found in verses 6-7a, 7b-13, and 14-23. We'll consider them in turn.

Where is Your Heart?

Look at verses 6 and 7:

6 And He said to them, "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 'THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. 7 'BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.' (Mark 7:6,7 NASB)

Jesus says, "Hypocrites! You go through the external motions of preparation for worship -- but you don't prepare your heart! This is the true meaning of all cleanliness regulations: preparation of the heart! Obedience means nothing without the heart!"

Many Christians are confused on this point. They think, "If I am obeying God's command, what's wrong? Doesn't the Christian life consist of obedience to God's commands?"

God wants our hearts, not our external obedience. Yes, we are to obey externally -- but unless our minds and emotions are working in accord with our external actions, we are not acting in Christian obedience.

This is most obviously the case in worship. In John 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. She tries to divert his personal questions by asking a question about the proper external form for worship. Jesus responds, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

Jesus says, "External forms are not the main issue. The question is, Where is your spirit? What's going on inside you?"

John Piper puts it this way:

Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, "You must, but not that kind of must." . . . Yes, worship is a must. But not that kind of must. Not the kind that says, "I don't want to but if I must I will." That will not do in kissing, and it will not do in worshipping. (They are very closely related!) There is no value in a kiss or an act of worship that does not come from the heart.

It is same with all Christian "duties:"

I've quoted Ray Stedman on this point several times before: "Christian activity never stems from the imperative of a divine command, but from the impulse of an indwelling presence."

So does Christ live in you? If so, He has changed your heart. What is the status of your heart?

What Do You Obey

So Jesus' first challenge to the Pharisees is to examine their hearts. Obedience not from the heart is worthless. Second, Jesus challenges them to focus on obedience to the commands of God instead of the traditions of men. Let's read verses 7 to 13:

7 'BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.' 8 "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men." 9 He was also saying to them, "You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 "For Moses said, 'HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER'; and, 'HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH'; 11 but you say, 'If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),' 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that." (Mark 7:7-13 NASB)

The Pharisees accuse the disciples of disobeying their traditions. Jesus says, "OK, for the time being, let's assume the traditions of the elders are valid. Even so, at worst my disciples are violating a tradition of men; you are violating the commandments of God!" He then gives a specific example.

Let's look briefly at that example. Honoring your father and mother is one of the Ten Commandments, and so would be fundamental to any Jew. Clearly, someone who honors his parents will care for them in their old age if they need assistance. The concept of honoring includes much more than financial support, but it must at a minimum include financial support. Yet the Pharisees' traditions allowed a man a way out if he was angry with his parents and did not want to honor them. If the man declared that all his goods were "Corban," or dedicated to God, he could still support himself from those assets but did not have to support his parents. In effect, this was a "tax shelter" for his goods, a legal sleight of hand that allowed him to avoid supporting his parents without violating the commandment.

Clearly this sort of maneuvering is antithetical to all that Jesus teaches about the law, displaying once again how the Pharisees worked to live up to the external code while they ignored the spiritual meaning of the law.

So in verses 6-7a Jesus says that obedience has no merit if it is not from the heart. In 7b-13, he says that obedience has no merit if it is to a man-made rule.

Now, Jesus is not condemning all traditions of men; he is not saying that a Jew who washes his hands before a meal in order to prepare his heart to worship God even through eating is doing anything wrong. But he also is not doing anything right! The heart preparation is what counts, not the external action.

The thrust of Jesus' argument here is this: "If you Pharisees are violating one of the Ten Commandments, how can you judge my disciples for breaking a manmade rule?" This statement is parallel to the illustration he gives in Matthew 7:3-5:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (NIV)

This image is really amusing when you picture it. Here comes a man with a board sticking out of his eye, blinding him, trying to do the intricate job of picking a piece of sawdust out of the eye of his brother without damaging the eye. It can't be done!

So these Pharisees had a plank in their eyes -- self-righteous hearts -- yet were complaining about what they perceived to be sawdust in the eyes of the disciples -- the violation of the tradition of the elders.

It's easy to point our fingers at the Pharisees. But how often do we do the same? How often do we judge others because they don't act as we expect, don't dress as we think they should, or don't sing the songs we like -- even within the church? How often do we look down on others because they don't do things the way "they've always been done" among our particular group of people? What do you obey from the heart?

Is Your Heart Prepared to Approach God?

So Jesus has told the Pharisees, first, that the state of their hearts dishonors God even though they claim to honor God through their obedience; second, that even their obedience does not honor God because they put human tradition in a higher place than God's commandments.

In verses 14-23 Jesus addresses the substantive issue: Is this particular tradition of handwashing valid? Certainly it is less important than one of the Ten Comandments, but does it have any importance at all? Are the disciples in the wrong -- even though they are less in the wrong than the Pharisees? Let's read verses 14-23:

14 And after He called the multitude to Him again, He began saying to them, "Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16 "If any man has ears to hear, let him hear." 17 And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He *said to them, "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated? "(Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 "All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man." (NASB)

Much to the surprise of the disciples (note that they have to ask him about this a second time, they're not sure they can believe their ears), Jesus does not limit his remarks to the issue of handwashing before a meal. Instead, He demolishes the entire distinction between clean and unclean foods!

Many of us know orthodox Jews who even today are very careful only to eat kosher foods. And there is much scriptural justification for that position, if one looks only at the Old Testament. Recall how Daniel and his friends risk their position and even their lives by refusing to eat unclean foods in Babylon -- and how God honors them.

But Jesus says here, "The distinction between clean and unclean foods was always a picture of having a heart prepared to come into God's presence. The question is not, 'Have I touched a dead animal, and thus can't enter the temple?' Instead, the question is, 'Do I have death in my heart -- hatred, anger, malice -- and thus can't approach God in this state?'"

When we looked at Leviticus 11-15, we saw that these regulations derive from God's holiness.

God is holy, and revealed himself to the Israelites as dwelling in His tabernacle. To enter the tabernacle was to approach God's very presence. One had to be prepared to approach Him. Similarly, recall the encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush. God says, "Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."

We cannot simply, lightheartedly traipse onto holy ground. We need to consider the holiness of God, the purity of God, and our own standing before him. Otherwise, we defile his holiness.

But Jesus here says, "All these external rules were symbolic of a more important internal rule: Is your heart prepared to come into God's presence? In the end, what you eat, what you have on your feet, what diseases you have, are not important. But is your heart prepared? Are you defiled by your heart? By lust, hatred, envy, slander, pride? These lead to external sins, and they make you unclean, unprepared for approaching God!"

So are you prepared to approach God? When you examine your heart, do you see any evidence of anger, greed, envy, pride, or lust? What is the state of your heart?

An Example

The next incident serves to underline the point Jesus has just made. Recall that He had wanted to be alone with his disciples, yet up to this point has not been able to escape the crowds. So they leave Galilee and enter a Gentile region:

24 And from there He arose and went away to the region of Tyre. And when He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; yet He could not escape notice. 25 But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, immediately came and fell at His feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And He was saying to her, "Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 28 But she answered and *said to Him, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children's crumbs." 29 And He said to her, "Because of this answer go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter." 30 And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having departed. (NASB)

In a Gentile region, Jesus and his disciples probably had difficulty finding kosher food. So immediately after this pronouncement about the dietary laws, Jesus takes them to a place where they are confronted with "unclean" food. But Jesus' concern is with much more than food, as this incident shows.

Jewish tradition would say that Jesus should have nothing to do with this Gentile woman. And initially, it looks as if that is His intention. Matthew's account sheds some light on the reason for His first response. The woman addresses Jesus as "Son of David," a title for the Jewish Messiah. In effect she was saying, "Since you are the Jewish Messiah, heal my daughter." But a Gentile woman had no claim on the Jewish Messiah. Her response to Jesus' reproof, however, reveals that her heart was right. She acknowledges that she has no claim on Him, that she has no status before Him, that she is unworthy of His attention. And as David says in Psalm 51, "a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." So the Son of David acts out the Psalm, and casts the demon out of the woman's daughter.

The Pharisees come to Jesus assuming they are righteous; Jesus underlines their hypocrisy, underscores their violation of God's commandments, and undermines whatever Scriptural basis they had for their handwashing tradition. Yet when this Gentile woman approaches Jesus with no righteousness of her own, acknowledging her own unworthiness, Jesus breaks Jewish tradition and overwhelms the evil power affecting her child.


Let us close by looking at our own hearts.

Are you and I using traditions of men to violate commandments of God? Do you feel good about yourself because you are keeping a set of traditions?

We have no rituals about religious handwashing. I daresay that no one here today thinks he is better prepared for worship because he washed his hands this morning.

But does anyone today have traditions that they cling to, traditions that are extra-biblical?

Now, be careful. In response to that question, it is easy to think of others who are tradition-bound. We are tempted to point our fingers at Roman Catholics, who put what they call "Holy Tradition" on a par with Scripture, thereby bringing many extra-biblical teachings into the church, teachings for which there is no scriptural foundation. These include purgatory, and the idea that Mary was conceived immaculately.

Or we are tempted to point our fingers at denomination-bound churches, who have a particular type of service because "that's the way things have always been done in our denomination."

But to focus on that, to focus on the errors of others, would be to miss the central point of the passage. The fundamental sin is self-righteousness. If my response to this passage is, "Boy, now I know what's wrong with all those other churches," then I'm guilty of the sin mentioned here. And I become like the Pharisees, with a big plank sticking out of my eye.

So examine your heart! How are you tradition-bound? Do you allow yourself to become annoyed when we sing a song in a style you don't like? Do you look down on those who move -- or don't move -- when they worship God? Are you breaking the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself because of a tradition for style of worship?

Many traditions are not bad in and of themselves, but -- like handwashing -- many traditions lose their meaning over time, becoming dry, brittle wineskins that don't allow the expansive, dynamic new wine of a relationship with Jesus Christ to grow. Don't let the traditions of men get in the way of your love for your neighbor!

Examine your heart! Are you bound to "anti-tradition?" Some of us are tempted not to hold on to traditions, but to despise them all. We want to say, "Do away with all tradition! Let's start all over again!" This point of view is sometimes termed "chronological snobbery," the idea that something old is always bad, always "outdated."

So away with the shackles of tradition and anti-tradition! Instead, focus on the three questions Jesus raises in our passage:

Where is your heart? Obedience means nothing if it is not from the heart.

What are you obeying from the heart? Are you obeying God or man? Are you using rules to assert your self-righteousness, thereby looking down on others?

Finally, Is your heart prepared to approach God?

May God search our hearts and open up to us whatever is unacceptable, and may we confess to Him all our failures, so that we might receive His forgiveness and boldly approach the very throne of grace!


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 11/7/99. The John Piper quote is from this sermon, preached September 8, 1985. Piper takes the illustration of the kiss from the book Christian Commitment by Edward John Carnell. Ray Stedman's sermon on this passage was even more helpful than usual this week, especially on the Syrophoenician woman.

Copyright © 1999, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney,, c/o Community Bible Church, 45 Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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