Mark 7:1-23


Jesus again is confronted by the Pharisees.  You’ll remember these religious leaders previously took issue with what his disciples were doing on the Sabbath.  Now they raise the issue his disciples’ hand-washing habits.  We’ll consider their accusation and Jesus’ response.

#1 The Accusation

1Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”   Mark 7:1-5

The Pharisees and the scribes make the roughly 90 mile journey from Jerusalem on a fault-finding mission.  They show up in the region of Galilee and would have quickly come to see for themselves that crowds considered Jesus  to be a true miracle worker and a real leader of spiritual revival.   Yet these faultfinders are bent on uncovering some dirt on Jesus.  He must be doing something wrong!

We are not told how long they stuck around but eventually they discover that some of his disciples ate with unwashed hands.  Note that Jesus isn’t accused of anything here; only some of his disciples are implicated.  Mark notes that people and things can become ritually unclean and need to be washed.  This uncleanness is not a matter of hygiene (as modern readers might suspect) but a matter of ritual purity.  These rituals trace their origin not from Scripture but as is noted in v. 5 from “the tradition of the elders.”  (Incidentally, that Mark explains these ritual practices, which would have been common knowledge for the Jews of Jesus’ day, is further evidence that he is writing for a Gentile audience.)

The accusation leveled against Jesus is really about two seperate things:

  1. What makes a person unclean.
  2. And what can be done about it.

-1- What Makes a Person Unclean.  The Pharisess relied on the tradition of the elders, what is sometimes called the “oral law” and what later took the form of the Jewish Mishnah.  Of particular concern to the Pharisees in this passage is any contamination from the Gentile (that is non-Jewish) world.  Bible commentators tell us this excessive concern for ritual cleanliness took hold as the Jews were forced to interact with Gentiles in the aftermath of their exile from Jerusalem.  These ritual practices were important ways for the Jews to set themselves apart from their Gentile neighbors.  Even the smallest incident was a source of contamination.  For instance, it was taught that a Jew could become unclean by inadvertently touching a Gentile in a crowd.  Even the shadow of an Gentile was enough to make anything unclean which it touched.

So what made the disciples unclean?  Going into the marketplace and potentially coming into contact with Gentile people or Gentile things.  In the view of the Pharisees, impurity is an external issue.  If you eat the wrong thing or touch the wrong thing, you will be become unclean.

-2- What Can Be Done About It.   The reasoning of the Pharisees is at least consistent.  External things can make you unclean and therefore an external washing can make you clean.  Hence the reason that upon returning from the marketplace where Gentile contact was likely, it was necessary to perform a ritual washing.

#2 Jesus’ Response

Jesus presents a threefold “defense” in response to this accusation.


-1- The heart is what really matters to God.

6And he 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;7in vain do they worship me,teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’  Mark 7:6-7

Jesus immediately calls the Pharisees out.  He calls them hypocrites, which was a theatrical term for actors on a stage.  They’ve played their part in the play well but in the end it is not real.  He sees their insincerity as a fulfillment of Isaiah 29:13.  This is a sobering verse.  Someone can go through all the right motions.  They can appear to others as godly believers.  But God gives the true verdict: their hearts are far from me.   Worship that matters to God is from the heart.

-2- You’ve replaced Scripture with your own traditions.

8You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”  9And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”    Mark 7:8-13

Secondly, Jesus shows the Pharisees their focus on external purity not only sets aside the the more important issue of internal purity, it actually departs from the Word of God.  Their own traditions have come to carry more weight than Scripture.  He cites the example of Corban which in itself is not an unscriptural idea but their application of it certainly is.  They set aside the demands of Scripture to carry out their own traditions.  This is just one example of the things the Pharisees are doing as he says you do “many such things”

-3- What really defiles a person comes from the inside not the outside.

14And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  Mark 7:14-23

Here we come to the heart of the issue.  What is it that really defiles a person?  For the Pharisees defilement was an external issue.  They imagined sources of external impurity (contact with the Gentile world) and created an external system (ritual washings) to cleanse themselves.  But Jesus says the real issue here is not external defilement but internal defilement.  What is in the heart is what really matters.  We have a heart sickness that cannot be cured by some external washing.  This is at the heart of the Christian message. We are diseased and broken to our core.  We have a heart that is in rebellion against God.  Only Jesus can rescue us from this kind of malady.

In a old and mostly forgotten hymn by John Newton we hear these assuring words:

Physician of my sin-sick soul,
To thee I bring my case;
My raging malady control,
And heal me by thy grace.

Pity the anguish I endure,
See how I mourn and pine;
For never can I hope a cure
From any hand but thine.

No cure will ever be found for our sin-sick souls apart from the cross of Jesus Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Explain the issue the Pharisees have with Jesus’ disciples.
  2. What do we learn about the Pharisees’ view of the “tradition of the elders”?  Where did they go wrong in their view of tradition?
  3. Does Jesus condemn all tradition?  How should we evaluate our own Christian traditions?
  4. What is the danger Jesus presents in verse 6? In what ways might we honor God with our lips but not with our hearts?
  5. Explain Jesus’ example of Corban in verses 9 to 13.  Can you think of examples where our own traditions replace the commandment of God?
  6. Jesus says that defilement does not come from outside but from the inside.  Why was this such a radical idea for the Pharisees to grasp?
  7. The Pharisees depended on an external washing with water to cleanse their defilement.  Are there any ways we look to external things to cleanse our hearts?  Why is this so dangerous?



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