Title: Instruction concerning defilement
Scriptures to Read: Mark 7:1–23; Matthew 15:1–20; John 7:1
Jesus walked in Galilee for a while
John’s account points out that Jesus no longer walked in Judea because there were constant conspiracies to try to kill Him. He now mostly stays in the Galilean area unless He travels outside the borders of the land of that day.
Pharisees from Jerusalem [Mark 7:1-5]
Both Mark and Matthew point out that the Pharisees and scribes came to Him from Jerusalem. That is a three-day journey to try to entrap Him. They have already collected a number of issues against Him. Can you recall them?
1. He has gone against their tradition of frequent fasting.
2. They already accused Him of being demonised.
3. They declared Him to be a sinner because He rejected the authority of the Mishnah.
4. The issue of the proper way to observe the Sabbath rest.
At the trial of Jesus, they will have one more major issue: His claim to be the Son of God. Now they travel from Jerusalem to challenge Him on another issue.
The issue is about the tradition of the elders
The terms Pharisaic Law, Rabbinic Law, and Mishnaic Law are all interchangeable, but the New Testament refers to it as “the tradition of the elders or the tradition of the fathers.” In verse 5 the question is: “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?” And the evidence is: “they eat their bread with impure hands.” The Pharisees do not have any reason to accuse Jesus of violating the Mosaic Law. He keeps it perfectly down to every jot and title. Therefore, the only basis they have for accusing Him is the Mishnaic Law. And sometimes the Mishnah was viewed not only as equal with Scripture but as having greater authority than Scripture.
Jesus response to His accusers
Now He responds by pointing out three things.
1. Hypocrisy [Mark 7:6-7]
Why does He call them hypocrites? The true nature of their traditionalism is hypocrisy. And what makes it hypocritical is found in verse 7: “But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” We often think of worship only in terms of praising God or singing, but worship includes, Biblically, obedience to the commandments of God. And the commandments of God are found in the Word of God and not in the traditions of men! The Pharisees believe they are worshiping God by obeying their traditions, but it is vain and it is empty.
2. Neglecting the commandment of God [Mark 7:8]
Sometimes in order to keep a tradition it is necessary to ignore a divine commandment.
3. Setting aside the commandment of God [Mark 7:9]
But for the next point He goes from passive omission to the active commission of disobedience. Sometimes to keep a tradition they have to actively disobey or set aside a divine commandment.
Corban [Mark 7:10-13]
He provides an example of how they do this using the principle of corban. The word corban means something that is dedicated, something that is given. The way the system works is this. Now many Pharisees were converts to Pharisaism but their parents were not Pharisees. And there was a reluctance to share things with non-Pharisees, even if those non-Pharisees happened to be their parents. The Mosaic Law quoted by Jesus here says to “honour your father and your mother.” And part of honouring the parents is helping to take care of their welfare when they become too old to take care of themselves physically or mentally. If a Pharisee saw his father approaching and knew his father was having certain difficulties, before the father arrives he could say, “corban”, dedicated. So that when the father comes in and states his need, his son could say I wish you had seen me earlier, I’ve already decreed my present possessions as corban and by law I cannot give it away to anyone else to use. But the intent would not necessarily be to give part of all of it to the temple treasury, because he still had the option to use it for his own private use. So by means of a tradition he actively broke a divine commandment, or as Jesus puts it: “they were thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down.”
Examples of their rules regarding hand washing
To give you some idea of how seriously they took the issue of the washing of hands, let me give you some of their rules on this.
1. It is better to walk 4 miles to find water to wash your hands than to incur guilt by neglecting hand washing. In other words, if you want to eat even just a small seed and the closest body of water was 4 miles away, take a hike! Don’t dare eat it until you wash your hands.
2. One who neglects hand washing is as bad as a murderer.
3. The one who neglects hand washing is as one who went into a prostitute.
4. To eat with unwashed hands is like eating non-kosher food, that is, not in accordance with the Mosaic dietary law.
5. One who eats without washing hands is to be uprooted.
6. Three sins bring poverty after them, one of which is neglecting hand washing. In other words, if you don’t want to die poor, make sure you wash your hands before you eat.
Parable [Matt. 15:12-14; Mark 7:12-16]
The disciples tell Jesus that the Pharisees were offended by what He had to say. In response Jesus points out three things about Pharisaism.
1. They are plants which are not planted by God. Therefore, they need to be uprooted.
2. They are blind guides that lead the blind.
3. Both will fall into a pit. The pit will be the AD 70 destruction.
Policy [Mark 7:17]
In verse 14 He called the crowd to Himself. And then He spoke to them a parable which no one understands. Even the apostles didn’t understand as we see here. This has been His policy since He was rejected publicly.
Explanation of the parable [Mark 7:18-23]
The question is: Where does defilement come from? In Pharisaism you were defiled only when you violated the rule. For example, the Mosaic Law forbids the eating of pork and the Pharisees say you are not defiled until you eat that pork. But Jesus says no, the defilement begins earlier. Before a Jew under the Law eats the pork he will first of all make a decision to do so, and once that internal decision is made, the defilement has begun. And the act of eating the pork is merely the outward expression of the internal defilement that is already there. And so defilement begins in the heart of man and the external action is merely carrying out what was already in the heart. So He says at the end of verse 23, “all these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
Notice two important things
Notice two more things in this section. In verse 15, Matthew records that it was Peter who asked Jesus to explain the parable to them. And although it was Peter who asked the question and received an answer, the lesson didn’t sink in just yet, and in Acts 10, God will have to teach Peter this lesson all over again. And Mark points out at the end of verse 19 that “thus He declared all foods clean.” How can He do that when the Mosaic Law declares certain foods unclean? Part of His mission will be to bring the Mosaic Law as a rule of life to an end. And as a result it will cease to be the rule of life for the believer. And that will remove the distinction between foods that are clean and foods that are not clean.