The Pharisees believed that salvation came by separation from sinners. Jesus declared that in their pride, the Pharisees were separated from God. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Mark.
We continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Mark. I’ll be reading Mark 7:1–8, and I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.
Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”
He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”
If you have ears to hear the Word of God, please listen closely to this teaching of our Lord. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Father, when we read of our Lord’s encounters with the Pharisees, we seek to distance ourselves as far as possible from those who were enemies of your Son, and yet there are so many ways in which we behave in like manner to the Pharisees and the scribes. Wherein this may be true, we pray that the Holy Ghost would show us that in this hour. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
A Thinly Veiled Complaint
There seems to be a shift in the tone of Mark’s gospel when we come to chapter 7. So far, much of what Mark has recorded has been striking and marvelous accounts of the supernatural works of Jesus. There has been very little accent on the content of Jesus’ teaching so far in this brief gospel from the pen of Saint Mark. It has been unlike the other Synoptic Gospels, wherein amidst the narratives of events that take place, so much teaching is crammed. In this narrative in Mark 7, we get some deep insight into the teaching of Jesus, but this teaching was provoked by an incident.
At the beginning of chapter 7, we read these words: “Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem.” It is about ninety miles from Jerusalem to Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This was quite an arduous journey for the officials from Jerusalem to make at this time in history, so they must have been highly motivated to make this journey in order to confront Jesus.
The scribes and Pharisees came making a complaint about the behavior of Jesus’ disciples, but it was a thinly veiled complaint. The target for their hostility was not the disciples so much as it was Jesus Himself. Notice that when they came, they didn’t say, “Why do those people do what they do?” Rather, they asked, “Why do your disciples, your students, behave in this manner?” It’s clear that the authorities from Jerusalem were holding Jesus responsible for the behavior of His disciples.
What was it about the disciples of Jesus that provoked such hostility and animosity toward Jesus by the authorities in Jerusalem? The answer is given to us very plainly: “They saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands.” This is the reason Mark tells us that they found fault. They were saying: “We saw them, Jesus. We saw them breaking bread and eating it without first washing their hands. We’ve come ninety miles to lodge a protest about that.”
The Worst Form of Legalism
When you read this text, you may think that the scribes and Pharisees were concerned about hygiene, as if they were saying: “Aren’t you concerned about the health of your disciples? You’re letting them eat food without properly practicing perfect hygiene.” No, hygiene had nothing whatsoever to do with the complaint that was being lodged against Jesus and His disciples. In view here were ritual cleansing and ritual defilement. The washing was a mere symbol. In fact, the amount of water they would use to wash their hands was so slight that it wouldn’t do very much to promote good hygiene. Rather, they were to go through the action of washing their hands before they ate their bread to fulfill a ritual that had been set forth by the tradition of the elders.
What happened was a strange form of the priesthood of all believers. The Old Testament law did require that the priests of Israel wash their hands before they entered into the holy place to offer sacrifices, but there was no law of God revealed in the Old Testament that required the am ha’aretz, the people of the earth, the average person, to be involved in ritual cleansing before they ate bread.
This was not the first time Jesus came into dispute with the Pharisees over principles of ritual cleansing. They previously had a dispute about those with whom Jesus was meeting for table fellowship. They had a dispute about how Jesus celebrated the Sabbath day. They had a dispute with Him because He touched a leper and because He healed a demoniac who roamed inside the territory of the tombs, which were ceremonially unclean.
It is important to understand that there were principles of ritual cleanliness set forth by God in the Old Testament, but they were few, and they were easy to follow. Over the centuries, however, the rabbis who interpreted the law of God kept adding to those ritual requirements. They kept adding one prohibition after another so that their regulations far exceeded the regulations that the law of God imposed upon the people.
This, my dear friends, is the worst form of legalism. There are many ways in which legalism raises its ugly head in the life of the people of God, but to bind people’s consciences where God has left them free—to add human regulations to the law of God—is the worst and most devastating form of legalism.
Violations of the Oral Tradition
Where did these laws come from? In Israel, among the Jewish people, they had what was called the halakhah. The halakhah included the oral tradition of the rabbis. All of the principles and regulations that the rabbis added to the law of God were passed on from generation to generation orally by this tradition.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has a tremendous conflict with the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount. Sometimes you might read the Sermon on the Mount and think, “Wow, Jesus seems to be setting Himself against the law of God.” He says things like, “You’ve heard that it was said in days of old, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and so on, and then He says: “But I say to you, love your enemies. If your neighbor smites you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.” What’s going on there?
There are two phrases we have to be familiar with when we read the Bible, idiomatic expressions that had a clear meaning to any Jew. One was “it is written.” Whenever a Jew said, “It is written,” he didn’t mean simply that somebody had taken a stylus and written down some words on papyrus, or some manuscript, or a book. The phrase “it is written” was shorthand for the pious Jew to say, “The Bible says.” The writings in view with that phrase were the sacred writings of Scripture.
In clear distinction from the written Scriptures were the oral traditions that were passed down and added to the written Scriptures. In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus said, “You’ve heard it said in days of old,” that “hearing it said” had specific reference not to the Bible, not to the inscribed law of God, but to what was said orally by the rabbis. You will never in the New Testament find the Lord Jesus Christ criticizing or disobeying the written law of God. But it seems like every day, everywhere He went, He was violating the oral tradition, the Mishnah, which was finally compiled in the third century AD and comprised the bulk of the Jewish Talmud at that time.
Twenty-five percent of the Mishnah writings of the Jews was devoted strictly to ritual cleanliness and purity. The Pharisees believed that salvation came from ethnic separation; they would be saved by how clean they kept themselves from any contamination from unbelievers, or sinners. So, they had a lot of rites that they imposed.
One commentator called the practice of the Pharisees “regulation madness.” Does that ring a bell? Any time a law is passed by the federal government, the state government, or the local municipality, somebody’s freedom is taken away. There is just one more thing you’re not free to do. The loss of freedom that has taken place in this country in the last 150 years is enormous, but we are like the proverbial frog in the water. As you slowly increase the temperature, the frog stays in the cauldron until it’s boiled to death.
When you have regulation madness, people who have the disposition of wanting to control everybody else’s lives around them begin to chip away at their freedoms and accumulate power for themselves. There is nothing new about this. This has happened in every society in every culture in the history of the world, and the Pharisees did it with a vengeance. First, they would comment on the law and explain the law. The next thing you know, they’d write a policy about the law. After some period of time, the policy would be elevated to regulation. Then, shortly after that, the regulation became as conscience-binding as the written law of God. That can happen in a society. It can happen in a church. It can happen in any sub-group where people meet together.
I remember when we lived in Holland, one of the first idiomatic expressions that I heard was, “U hebt de wet overtreden”—you’ve trespassed the law. The Dutch people were governed to death. They had laws for everything. I couldn’t believe it. If I broke a pane of glass in my house, to repair that pane of glass required written permission from The Hague, from the federal government. It was like I couldn’t move without bumping into the federal government. I used to think that was strange. I don’t anymore because we rush to imitate our friends in Western Europe.
This is how the Pharisees worked their regulation madness: they had different levels of prescribed rituals of cleanliness. The first grade of cleanliness involved such things as washing their hands before eating their bread. That, as I said earlier, was washing with a small amount of water that could be held in your hand. The second level of purification was much more serious, and Mark makes mention of it. If they came back from the Agora, the marketplace, then they had to be ritually cleansed by immersion. I read that and think about applying it to our lives today—if my wife had to be immersed every time she went to the mall, she would spend half her life in the shower. Why did they have to be immersed? When you were in the marketplace, you were dealing with gentiles, and you were becoming contaminated. So, you had to take a full bath when you were done.
When Addition Becomes Subtraction
Mark says, “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.” I hate to bring that directly into English because the Greek there is paradosis, and then in a genitive sense, presbyterōn—it’s the “presbyterian tradition.” It’s the “tradition of the elders,” which became more important than the law of God.
“When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.”
“Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?’” Jesus’ response is that the tradition of the elders is not the law of God. It’s a human tradition, and as a human tradition, it has substituted the laws of men for the law of God.
Here’s the irony: every time we add to the law of God, it is inevitably a subtraction. Instead of putting our attention on those things that God is concerned about to regulate our behavior, we lose sight of what concerns God and begin to major in minors. We begin to give our devotion to our own traditions and to our own human regulations.
You’ve likely seen this in the Christian community. Christian piety is defined by whether people wear lipstick, whether they dance, and whether they go to movies—as if these things have anything to do with the kingdom of God. In some Christian environments, not only are these things elevated to regulations and law, but they become the test of real piety. When that happens, authentic righteousness is not simply obscured; it’s discounted.
Which is easier to refrain from: lipstick or pride? Is it easier to stop going to movies or to start loving your enemies? I have all I can do to try to seek the righteousness that God’s law shows us to do without worrying about petty issues. That’s what happened to the Pharisees. They began to major in the minors. The Pharisees turned the supreme law of God into petty regulations, which obscured the majesty of the law of God.
Beloved, I have no right or authority to bind your conscience—or anybody’s conscience in this room—absolutely. But God has the power and the authority to bind your conscience absolutely. You might not like the traditions that I like. You are not going to be judged for that, but there is an Apostolic tradition. There is the tradition that comes to the church that is passed down from God Himself. That’s where our focus is to be. Don’t let anybody or anything divert your focus away from that to something of human invention. That’s exactly what happened with the Pharisees.
No person in the history of the planet ever came close to obeying the law of God as Jesus did. Only Jesus would dare to say to His contemporaries: “Which of you convict me of sin? Show Me where I’ve ever broken the law of God.” His meat and His drink was to do the will of His Father. As the new Adam, it was His obligation to keep every jot and tittle of the law of God, yet He was constantly being accused of lawlessness. Isn’t there something strange about that?
The Pharisees were so envious, so jealous, that they were petty to an unbelievable degree. They were constantly bringing their arguments and attacks against Jesus and His disciples, but He couldn’t have cared less about those human conventions. When He saw a person suffering from leprosy, He touched him. When He saw a man in chains screaming and yelling in the graveyard, He went into that place and loosed those chains. When He saw a man who couldn’t walk on the Sabbath day, He healed him and said: “I’m the Lord of the Sabbath. Don’t tell me what My disciples can and can’t do.” He Himself is not just the Law-obeyer, but touching His divine nature, He is the Lawgiver. When God walked amidst human beings, the human beings were critical of perfect behavior.
Ladies and gentlemen, what’s so bad about legalism is that it is a subtle form of idolatry. We begin to elevate what is human above what is divine. We substitute human traditions, human policies, and human regulations for the very Word of God. Whenever you serve the creature rather than the Creator, you are involved in idolatry. The scribes and Pharisees thought they were the most righteous people on the face of the earth, but they were idolaters.
The Hypocrisy of Lip Service
Jesus spoke to the scribes and Pharisees in this vein: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, you hypocrites.” In other words: “Isaiah was talking about you. If you want to find who you are, then look at yourself not according to your traditions, but measure yourself according to the perfect law of God. Look at the Word of God. Look at what Isaiah said. He’s describing you when he says, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’”
Jesus, quoting Isaiah, called attention to two parts of the human body—the lips and the heart. The lips are on the surface. The heart, if you’ll excuse the pun, is at the very core of our being. Jesus said: “Your mouths are going. You’re singing praises. You say your prayers. You say that you love God, but it’s no deeper than your lips. It never gets into your digestive system. It never penetrates the very center of your being. My Father wants people to worship Him in spirit and in truth, not just with their lips, because lip service is the very essence of play-acting, of hypocrisy.” That’s what the hypocrite does. He plays a part, and he deceives everybody who watches him.
The Pharisees were saying: “Look at me and how righteous I am. You won’t see me eating bread without first washing my hands.” These men put on a show, but it was external and didn’t come from the heart. We look on outward appearances, but God looks upon our hearts. This is something that we have to ask in the presence of God all the time: “O God, cleanse me in my inward parts. O God, what does my heart look like to you?” What do you think your heart looks like to God? He hears what you say.
Look at Your Worship
Recently in Atlanta, I was called upon to speak at a conference on the Westminster Confession of Faith. I was asked to lecture on the question, “How does the doctrine of God affect our understanding of Christianity?” The basic thrust of my message was that the doctrine of God defines and controls every other doctrine in the Christian faith. When I was done showing the many ways in which the doctrine of God affects our theology and our lives, I said, “If you really want to know what your doctrine of God is, look at your worship.”
It is more than what you confess with your lips that will show what you really believe about the character of God. You will see it by how you worship Him. If you worship the God of the Bible, you will never worship Him in a cavalier manner. Worship for you will never be an exercise in entertainment. It’s impossible. When you walk through those doors, you’ll think, “I’m coming into the presence of the God of the universe who is searching for people to worship Him in spirit and in truth.” If that’s how you understand God, then you know that all worship will have an element of gravitas, of gravity, of holiness, of reverence, of adoration. The fun and games end in the parking lot. The church needs to understand that.
“This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” What does He say in the next verse? He says, “And in vain do they worship Me.” What does He mean by “in vain”? He means that their worship is futile. It’s useless because it doesn’t come from the heart. He is saying: “They pay more attention to human regulations and human traditions than they do to My law. They don’t care about My glory. They don’t care about My house. They don’t care about My kingdom. They care about their status in the community. When they come into My house to be seen of men, nothing could be more useless and more futile than that. They teach as doctrines the commandments of men.”
“For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things that you do.” Jesus said, “Get rid of those things!” It’s all clutter that hides the beauty of authentic holiness.
Beloved, this is not something that was a temptation simply to the Pharisees; we have to deal with it every day in the Christian life. When we have people saying, “You ought to do this and that, and you ought not to do this and that; taste not, touch not, handle not,” take the Word of God to your bosom, search the Scriptures and say, “O God, I want to please You, not according to the traditions of men, but according to your law.” Let’s pray.
O how we love your Word, because your Word is law. O God, give us the gift of discernment between pretend righteousness and true spirituality, not only for our sakes, but for Christ’s sake and for His kingdom. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.