Mark’s Gospel is one of immediacy. Without the account of John the Baptist’s birth or that of Jesus Christ, Mark moves immediately to Jesus calling the disciples, healing, casting out demons, cleansing the leper, teaching parables, and raising the dead. In Mark, Jesus also feeds the five thousand and walks on water. His ministry created quite a stir. So much so that the Pharisees and teachers of the law came from Jerusalem to investigate—as seen in Mark 7:1–13. This investigation was likely motivated by jealousy, insecurity, and fascination or curiosity.
Setting the Scene
When we read about the Jewish religious leaders questioning Jesus, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”(Mark 7:5), it is important to remember that these men and their forebears established laws for the people that were not found in the Bible. Many of these laws of men were established while the people of Israel were exiled in Babylon. What’s more, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were concerned about being defiled by the Gentiles—those they considered unclean. There was a special danger of this in the marketplace, where Jews and Gentiles mingled.
Jesus’ concern was that these leaders had left “the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). By placing these nonbiblical, man-made laws upon the Jews, these religious leaders nullified the Word of God. In other words, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were leading people away from the Lord.
This is nowhere more apparent than the practice of Corban, which allowed a son to take the financial resources he would use to care for his parents and give it to the temple. Parents were often neglected. Corban turned the people from the Fourth Commandment.
Mining the Gems
Mark writes, “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly” (Mark 7:3). The word in Scripture for “properly” is πυγμη, a Greek word related to the English word pugilist, or “one that fights with the fist.” So connecting the washing, the Jews taught that one needed to wash with the fist. The left arm extended and washed with that of the right arm, all the way up to the elbow. This reminds us of how surgeons wash. The stress is on being excessively thorough, as opposed to following the Word of the Lord.
The apostle writes, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). Mark notes that the Pharisees and elders were concerned with washing cups and pots and copper vessels. Jesus uses this man-made law to condemn them in Matthew. Jesus’ point is that these leaders appear to be quite devout and pious when judged by their actions. Yet on the inside, they are full of sin, the transgressions being particularly self-righteousness and looking down on others.
Mark’s passage brings into relief the sin of looking for righteousness in adherence to laws—biblical or man-made—instead of Jesus Christ. There are a number of applications. A devout Christian man works himself to the bone to avoid sin and to serve others, and as a result considers himself to have a special place in the Lord’s heart. A mother is hyper-attentive to her children’s cleanliness and tidiness, enacting the adage that cleanliness is next to godliness. A pastor follows every jot and tittle of the liturgy with a puffed-up spirit, and then condemns his brother for leading worship less formally.
There is also the sin of erring to the other extreme. Although we are not bound by man-made laws, like those of the Jewish leaders, God does expect us to obey His laws, even though they contribute nothing to our salvation. We sin when we indulge ourselves in transgression, believing that we are spiritually wise for not falling into the trap of the Pharisees.
Although the Lord would does not want us to bind ourselves to man-made laws, He blesses us with His law. Following the Ten Commandments is the quickest path to a peaceful life, which God wants us to enjoy on earth. This is also true for society at large. This is clear in the Fourth Commandment, by which God cares for elderly parents, and affords children the joy of doing so.
It is also noteworthy that where the laws of the Pharisees and teachers of the law require washing of eating utensils, God calls upon us to be washed in Holy Baptism. In Greek, the same word is used for both washing and Baptism. Though washing with water may reduce the external dirt lingering on hands, cups and copper vessels, Holy Baptism washes away sin, creates faith, and gives eternal life.
Perhaps most applicable to Mark 7:1–13, Jesus’ perfect ministry of salvation has freed us from looking to obedience for peace with God. As Jesus lived perfectly in our place, we are now liberated to obey the Lord in love and joy. As Jesus took our disobedience to the cross, we live in the assurance of forgiveness through the shedding of Christ’s blood.
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