Mark 7:1-23

A Bible Study led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

July 5, 2012


            There is basic human tendency to make things more complicated and difficult than they really need to be.  Modern technology has given us the means of taking this tendency to new heights.  Our computers, smart phones, tablets, etc. that are ostensibly designed to make life better and less complicated, often add layers of frustration and complexity to our lives.   

            However, this tendency to complicate is not confined to our day.  The Jews in the 1st century obviously knew how to make things more difficult and complex.  When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus, quoting from the Old Testament mentioned two:  Love God and love your neighbor. (Matthew 22:37-40)  However, by Jesus day, the Jews had taken those two simple commands and built an elaborate system of 613 categories with hundreds of sub-categories of commands that must be followed.

            By the 1st century, the Jews were more concerned about their traditions than anything else.  This emphasis on tradition caused the Jewish establishment to clash with Jesus.  This can clearly be seen in Mark 7:1-23.  Three times in this passage (vv.3, 5, & 8) the word tradition is used, referring to the Jewish oral tradition.  I know of no place in Scripture where the difference between misguided religion based on human tradition and true religion based on godly principles is more clearly set forth.  I see in this passage two distinguishing differences between misguided religion and true religion.


Misguided religion is concerned about laws, rules, and regulations while true religion is concerned about people (Verses 1-13)

      Verse 1

“And” – This word ties the events of chapter 7 with what occurred at the end of chapter 6.  This is significant because there is, as we shall see in a moment, a deliberate contrast between the actions of the people in chapter 6 and the Pharisees and scribes in chapter 7.


“…the Pharisees and some of the scribes…” – The Pharisees were Judaism’s religious fundamentalists of the 1st century.  They were harsh, judgmental, legalistic, and viewed themselves as the keepers or protectors of Jewish law and tradition.  The scribes were experts in the law, and the Pharisees looked to them for interpretation of the law.  Upon reading this verse, one person quipped anytime you see a group of religious zealots followed by a pack of lawyers heading your way, you know you’re in for trouble!


“...they had come from Jerusalem…” - To this point in time Jesus' ministry had been pretty much confined to the area around the Sea of Galilee.  However, His reputation as teacher and miracle worker had spread to Jerusalem, the seat of religious power, about 60 miles to the south of Galilee.  By this time the religious leaders were always following Him to find fault (cf. 3:22; John 1:19). They apparently were an official fact-finding committee from the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin was made up of 70 ruling priestly families (Sadducees), local religious leaders (i.e. Pharisees), and local wealthy land owners.[1]

Verse 2

“…had seen…” – They were looking for something to criticize.  The only way they would have known the disciples were eating with “impure hands” would have been to have followed them around.  For the impurity was not outward dirt but a failure to wash according to Jewish custom.

“…impure…” - This is the Greek term koinos, which means “common” or “available to all.” It is the name moderns give to the common Greek of Jesus’ day. [2]  It was a technical term among Jews denoting whatever was contaminated according to their religious rituals and thus was unfit to be called holy or devoted to God.[3]


Verses 3-4

These verses constitute an extended parenthesis in which Mark explained, for the benefit of his Gentile readers who lived outside Palestine, the common Jewish practice of ceremonial washing.

The ritual washing regulations were observed by the Pharisees and all the Jews (a generalization depicting their custom) as part of the tradition of the elders which they followed scrupulously. These interpretations, designed to regulate every aspect of Jewish life, were considered as binding as the written Law and were passed on to each generation by faithful Law teachers (scribes). Later, in the third century a.d., the oral tradition was collected and codified in the Mishnah which, in turn, provided the foundation for and structure of the Talmud.

The most common ritual cleansing was the washing of one’s hands with a handful of water, a formal practice required before eating food (cf. tdnt, s.v. “katharos,” 3:418-24). This was especially important after a trip to the marketplace where a Jew would likely come in contact with an “unclean” Gentile or such things as money or utensils.[4]

Their question had nothing do with hygiene..  It had to do with the disciples failing to observe the laws regarding ritualistic washings which supposedly set Jewish people apart from non-Jews.  The Jews were very serious about such ritualistic washings.  One of their books contained 35 pages of instructions on just how to wash in proper, ritualistic way dishes.  They were even more radical when came to washing of one's hands.


Verse 5 - "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?"  To understand how silly, ludicrous,  and superficial that question was, we need to look back at what was happening at this time in Jesus ministry.  The last paragraph of chapter 6 tells us this was a time when many people were being healed.  The blind were receiving sight, the lame were walking, and lepers were being made whole.  And in midst of such astonishing events, all these religious inquisitors could think to ask was, "Why don't your disciples was their hands in the approved way before they eat?"  When these "theological hit men" from Jerusalem looked at Jesus ministry, they didn't see the people being helped.  They saw the rules being broken, and they cared more about rules and regulations than about people.


Verses 6-13 – The response of Jesus to their question was withering.  Instead of answering their question directly, quoting from the prophet Isaiah he accused them of hypocrisy.  They gave more weight to their religious traditions than they did to the Word of God on which they claimed their traditions were based.  As a result, they ended up serving their traditions rather than God!  Notice the downward regression in their thought process:

1.      They neglected the commandments of God, instead focusing on human traditions.  Instead of looking at what the Word of God said, they looked more at what their teachers said about the Word of God. (verse 8)

2.      This led them to set aside the commandments of God in favor of their traditions.  If there was a conflict between the Word of God and their traditions, traditions always won out. (verse 9)

3.      The result was that they were no longer governed or controlled by God’s Word but by their traditions. (verse 13)

Beginning in verse 10 we find an illustration of their hypocrisy. The word “Corban” in Hebrew means “gift.” One of the Ten Commandments requires that honor be given parents. This includes provision for their physical needs. Some were known to evade this parental duty by giving their estate to the Temple rather than to parents. It was easy from that point to find a loophole and keep one’s property, giving it neither to the Temple nor one’s parents. The hypocrisy is in saying one has given his property to God, and neither doing this nor caring for aged parents.[5]


Misguided religion focuses on the external actions while true religion focuses on the internal transformation (Verses 14-23)

1.   The Jewish religious leaders were concerned about external cleanliness...Jesus was concerned about internal cleanliness... the Jewish leaders viewed themselves as intrinsically good... Jesus knew that all people are intrinsically sinful...

2.   These two different views of the nature of humanity can still be seen in our world today...radical humanists and liberal theologians view people as being by nature good...they say there is nothing wrong with people that a better environment, more favorable living conditions will not cure...thus, in their thinking, the answer to all of society's ills becomes larger gov't programs and more effective social action...we can solve our own problems...we are our own gods...we need no help...

3.   While Christians should be concerned about the social ills facing our world...and while we should do what we can to meet the needs of people...we must never forget that our greatest need is not external but internal...the deepest needs of people and the greatest problems facing society will never be solved from the outside...they must be attacked from within because we have a bad heart!

4.   This is a recurring theme throughout the Scripture...

--Jeremiah said it this way:  "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?"

--Paul said it this say:  "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" and "There is none who is righteous, no not one."

--Jesus said it this way in vv.21-23: "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.  All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."  Notice how this list deals more with inward attitudes than outward acts.  The outward acts are simply the visible expressions of the inward attitude.  The Jews judged a man by his outward conformity to law. The spirit, attitude, and motive of an individual more clearly reveals his true nature. Man tends to look on outward appearances, but God ever looks on the heart.[6]

5.   We cannot change ourselves from the outside in; we must be changed from the inside out!  What we need is a radical change in our heart!  Education, culture, social reform, revolution, and a new world order will not do it...the only answer to the human dilemma is regeneration and transformation from within...and that's exactly what Jesus came to our world to accomplish...He came to die for our sins and to give us a new heart...and we can do everything we can to change ourselves...we can polish the outside...we can educate ourselves...we can do good things...we can keep religious rituals...but until we allow Jesus to give us a new heart, we are hopelessly lost...

6.   Misguided religion does not understand this...true religion does...   

[1] Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Vol. Volume 2: The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and I & II Peter. Study Guide Commentary Series (80). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[2] Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Vol. Volume 2: The Gospel According to Peter: Mark and I & II Peter. Study Guide Commentary Series (80). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.

[3] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Mk 7:1–2). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[4] Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1985). The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Mk 7:3–4). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

[5] The teacher's Bible commentary. 1972 (F. H. Paschall & H. H. Hobbs, Ed.) (624). Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

[6] The teacher's Bible commentary. 1972 (F. H. Paschall & H. H. Hobbs, Ed.) (624). Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers.