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Some passages the Lord makes so simple that you can’t possibly miss the main point. Here Jesus just repeats His Big Idea statement several times in the space of a couple of paragraphs.

This has always been the case. The most severe opposition that Jesus faced during His earthly ministry didn’t come from Gentile pagans. It was the Jewish religious leaders of the establishment, based out of their headquarters in Jerusalem, that felt threatened by the presentation of the truth and violently attacked Jesus and His ministry. These were the so-called experts in the OT, in the law given to Moses. When religious tradition collides with God’s authoritative revealed truth in His inspired Word, the confrontation is always intense.

Remember the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century – the establishment church reacted violently to its authority being questioned by the Sola Scriptura approach of the Reformers. Should faith and practice be based on the simple interpretation of the Word of God or should the authority of centuries of church tradition be elevated over the Scriptures? When I think of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the best modern day parallel I can find would be the self righteous and hypocritical leadership of Roman Catholic priests. They continue to undermine the authority of God’s Word by the legalistic rules and regulations imposed by the extra-biblical authority of the popes and the church fathers – it is their interpretation and application of the scriptures that take precedence in the Roman Catholic Church. Yet you find the ecumenical movement of today trying to minimize the differences between Protestants and Catholics. What has fundamentally changed since the days of the Reformation? Don’t be fooled into thinking the differences are minor.

Certainly both Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders understood that they were on opposing sides on the fundamental issue of who has the authority to determine matters of faith and practice.

But we can’t let ourselves off the hook so easily. Even within our own church circles where we understand the salvation truths of justification by faith alone apart from works … we still fall prey to the snare of religious tradition. Our battleground is not as crucial as the essence of the gospel message, but there are certainly volatile confrontations when church leaders blindly hold to the traditions of established practices and refuse to re-examine their position in the objective light of the authority of God’s Word.


A. (:1-5) Judgmental Spirit of Self Righteous Hypocrites

1. (:1-2) Self Righteous Hypocrites Look to Condemn Those Who Neglect Their Precious Traditions

“And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed.”

Hiebert: The Pharisees have not been mentioned in Mark since 3:6 where they were last seen plotting the death of Jesus. . . The passive voice indicates that they were motivated by their own inner concern to counter the popularity of Jesus.

By now we should have a pretty good understanding of who these Pharisees and scribes were.

The scribes were the religious professionals who were essentially the religious lawyers of the establishment. They were charged with being experts in the OT law. They copied the manuscripts, provided interpretation and teaching. They codified the tradition of the elders – that evolving documentation of rules and regulations that rabbis had added to the scriptures as a fence to protect the enforcement and application of the Word of God. But those traditions had come to supplant the simple meaning of God’s truth.

The Pharisees were the Jewish party of Separatists (the root meaning of their name); the religious conservatives who were the leaders in the practical implementation of living out the commandments of the law and the corresponding layers of oral tradition with its minute regulations. They were more concerned with the ethical practices than with the core theology. Jesus attacked them as essentially self righteous and hypocritical – laying impossible standards of behavior on the people that they failed to live up to themselves. They were extremely legalistic and concerned with outward appearances rather than the inward righteousness of the true law of God. Many scribes were also Pharisees – much overlap between the two groups.

Both groups had made the journey from Jerusalem to address this pressing issue with Jesus – Jerusalem was the hub for the religious leaders of the establishment – the ones most threatened by the growing ministry of Jesus; that is where the temple was; that is where the upper echelon of the religious hierarchy enjoyed their reputation as the top dogs and defended their authority; they had been closely monitoring the teaching and practice of Jesus and His disciples

Now they gather around Jesus – not with open minds and hearts to hear God’s Word, but with a critical, judgmental, attacking spirit – wanting to find fault and put down this movement that was gaining such popularity

Hendriksen: Most Pharisees and scribes hated Jesus, because:

a. he claimed divine prerogatives; taught with unique and powerful authority

b. he did not honor their traditions with respect to the Sabbath, fasts, ablutions, etc.

we will talk more about the tradition of the elders

c. he associated with publicans and sinners – had meals with them; friendships with them –

would have made them unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees

d. he exerted what they considered a baneful influence upon the people – they could not control Him; He did not recognize and bow to their authority

e. he was their opposite – all about internal righteousness; where they sought to elevate sacrifice and religious ritual, He as all about mercy and compassion and inward righteousness; genuine and authentic – not legalistic and hypocritical

Jesus made them feel very insecure – they reacted with great intensity in their opposition

MacArthur: This is a head-on collision between true and heart religion and false and external religion

What was the specific issue the Jewish leaders gathered around Jesus to address?

Matter not of hygiene or cleanliness – matter of ritual and ceremonial cleansing – not something governed by the scriptures but regulated by their body of oral traditions – the traditions of the elders – documented in the Talmud and in a later century codified in the Mishnah – in fact an entire section would be devoted to this topic

What is the big deal of not following the ritual cleansing?

Ron Daniel: You see, the Jews believed that a demon sat upon unwashed hands. If you ate before ceremonially cleansing them, they thought, the demon would enter your body through your mouth. So, they believed that the ceremonial cleaning was very necessary.

Grassmick: In reply Jesus made no reference to His disciples’ conduct. Rather He addressed two issues underlying the inquiry:

(a) the true source of religious authority – tradition or Scripture (:6-13) and [today’s sermon]

(b) the true nature of defilement – ceremonial and moral (:14-23) [next week’s sermon]

2. (:3-4) Self Righteous Hypocrites Have an Elaborate Code of Precious Traditions

“(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.)”

Our English translation puts these 2 verses in parenthesis as almost an aside – remember Mark was writing to largely a Gentile audience; these were ones that were not as familiar with the traditions of the elders; they needed some explanation as to why this issue was such a big deal; Matthew (15:1-10) writing more to a Jewish audience does not feel the need to include this explanation

Hendriksen: The marketplace, a gathering center for many people, was naturally looked upon as being especially defiling. A Jew might brush against a Gentile! Therefore, coming from such a place, these Jews did not dare to eat unless they had first of all complied with whatever it was that tradition demanded regarding hand rinsing.

We don’t necessarily understand all of the details regarding this particular washing ritual – but that is not necessary for grasping the import of the passage; these practices were of supreme importance to the scribes and Pharisees; they would watch others to see that they acted correctly – this is how one would appear spiritual before others – did you conform to these types of external practices

Can’t emphasize enough how elaborate these rules and regulations were:

– Sabbath keeping rules –

o You can’t look into a mirror

o You must be careful where you spit – on a rock vs on mud

o Wooden leg in case of fire – can you carry it out or must you take time to put it on

– Here we are talking about ceremonial cleansing

Not easy to be an expert in such an elaborate system – required extensive study; always policing the people to try to get conformity to these practices

Sprinkling would not have been sufficient – needed a baptizing of the hands; the mode was significant; [some commentators believe that the Pharisees held to bathing their entire body, not just the hands]

Christians can be judgmental and legalistic towards one another about many types of external practices as well; maybe they have certain traditions about how to raise your kids or what types of educational practices are acceptable or what types of dress are acceptable … or practices of a specific church or denomination that have no scriptural demand but have been a preference that has been enforced over time to such an extent that it seems obligatory

– Not using musical instruments in the worship service

– OK, you can use pianos and organs, but not drums

– You must conclude the sermon with a gospel invitation – an altar call for people to come forward

– Only the Senior Pastor can be the visionary for the church – God wants to speak primarily through his leadership – supported by some helping elders [we are talking tradition here and violent opposition]

– You must genuflect in a certain way when you enter the sanctuary or face the altar

– You can never drink any wine or alcoholic beverage

– You can’t play cards or dance [well some of us obviously can’t dance]

The list goes on …

3. (:5) Self Righteous Hypocrites are Always Pointing the Legalistic Finger of Condemnation at Others

“And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?’”

Tradition of the elders – like erecting fences around the law to protect it

Legge: people often willingly accept rigidity and ritual as a substitute for reality.

Grassmick: 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.

Parunak: See Edersheim, II.11ff, for the details on this complicated procedure, which regulated the history of the water to be used, the amount, the position in which the hands were held, how many rinsings were needed, etc. Not just an ordinary hygienic measure, but part of the Jewish genius for turning every aspect of daily life into a part of the religion. Great for preserving the identity of the nation, but superfluous from the perspective of obedience to God.

B. (:6-8) Judge of All the Earth Exposes the Fundamental Sins of Hypocrites

1. They Neglect the Word of God – which labels them as Hypocrites

“And He said to them, ‘Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites,’”

Is. 29:13 and Ex. 20:12

Ironic – these men should have been the experts in the OT scriptures – but they had missed the divine intent of so many passages; what Isaiah said so many centuries ago has direct application to their hearts today – that is why we preach the entirety of the scriptures

Hendriksen: The hypocrite is the man who hides or tries to hide his real intentions under (hypo) a mask of simulated virtue.

James Edwards: It would be a mistake to assume that in calling the Pharisees “hypocrites” Jesus accuses them of lack of dedication. . . On the contrary, it was their commitment to the oral tradition – and Jesus’ equal commitment to recovering the intent of the written law – that made their differences so earnest.

Would you go to a Roman Catholic church to hear good exposition of the Word of God??

Look at how much attention they give to all of their rites and ceremonies … to the pronouncements from the church fathers and from the popes – all of the papers that come out of the Vatican from different councils on different topics

They Neglect the Word of God

2. They Pretend to Worship on the Outside but Their Hearts are Rebellious

“as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips,

But their heart is far away from Me.’”

3. Their Self Righteous Attempts at Worship are Futile

“But in vain do they worship Me,”

Parunak: Elaborate buildings, vestures, and liturgies do not guarantee orthodoxy, and may even detract from it, just as the temple in Jerusalem lured the people of Jeremiah’s day into a false sense of security.

MacArthur: Vain worship…vain meaning empty, useless, pointless, lifeless, hypocritical worship. This characterized the people of Israel at the time of our Lord. And it wasn’t anything new, it was deeply imbedded into their religion. It was in the water. It was in the ground. It was in the air. It was in the fabric of how they thought and how they acted. They were literally the products of centuries of hypocritical, superficial, empty, useless worship. It was directed at the right God but in the wrong way. God does not accept worship, even worship in His name directed at Him done wrongly. It’s a problem, a serious problem to worship the wrong God, and it’s equally a problem, a serious problem, to worship the right God in the wrong way. And the Jews had turned this into a highly sophisticated art form. . .

[Examples: Isaiah 1; book of Malachi]

The prophet Malachi, that wonderful little prophecy that ends the Old Testament, again reminds us of an apostate Israel. That whole prophecy of four brief chapters, is an indictment on Israel for false worship, empty worship, for offering the lame and the halt sacrifice instead of the best lamb, for despising worship, for going through the mechanics of worship while at the same time cultivating iniquity in the heart.

4. They Elevate Human Traditions to be Divine Commandments

“Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

MacArthur: …they were not nearly so concerned about Scripture as they were their tradition. They had made their tradition equal to the tradition. In fact, they had made it superior to the Scripture, like the Roman Catholic Church, and like those false religions that have a tradition equal to the Scripture and a tradition that is the only legitimate interpreter of the Scripture.

5. They Choose to Follow Human Traditions Over Divine Commandments

“Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

Parunak: The Claim: you “lay aside” God’s commands and “hold” fast to human tradition. Somehow traditions that originate in human teaching and are expressed physically seem more appealing, more “religious,” than those that God enjoins, particularly when they are more inward. The point of the claim here is that the Pharisees give more priority to the outward and human traditions than to the inward and divine ones, which thus suffer neglect.

Cf. Sermon on the Mount – Christ exposing the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders who claimed to be the experts in the OT law – but were neglecting it at every turn


You cannot hide from God – He strips off the mask of the hypocrites and exposes them as self righteous frauds


A. (:9) Principle Stated – You Have Elevated Religious Tradition Over Obedience to God

“He was also saying to them, ‘You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.’”

B. (:10-12) Principle Illustrated by Specific OT Example

1. (:10) Clear OT Command – 2 Instances

“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and,

‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death’;”

Authority of Moses = the Giver of the Law – standing behind the validity of the commandment

Corroboration in 2 different passages so there can be no doubt regarding the intent of the command

Hendriksen: To honor father and mother means more than to obey them, especially if this obedience is interpreted in a merely outward sense. It is the inner attitude of the child toward his parents that comes to the fore in the requirement that he honor them. All selfish obedience or reluctant obedience or obedience under terror is immediately ruled out. To honor implies to love, to regard highly, to show the spirit of respect and consideration. This honor is to be shown to both parents, for as far as the child is concerned they are equal in authority.

Grassmick: Such responsibility included adequate financial support and practical care for their needs in their old age (cf. 1 Tim. 5:4).

2. (:11) Cunning Hypocrisy

“but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’”

James Edwards: In the case of Corban, a person could dedicate goods to God and withdraw them from ordinary use, although retaining control over them himself. In the example of v. 11, a son declares his property Corban, which at his death would pass into the possession of the temple. In the meantime, however, the son retains control over the property – and his control deprives his parents of the support that otherwise would have been derived from the property in their old age.

Parunak: Modern example: annulments in the RC organization. On paper, RCs have a strong stand against divorce. However, they have constructed an elaborate definition of what constitutes a “valid” marriage under canon law, making it possible for those who want “out” of a marriage to find a loophole to argue that they were never really married in the first place. Rome goes along with this game, rather than condemning it at the outset.

Current News: A Vatican document called for leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to do more to reach out to gay and divorced Catholics, striking a far more welcoming tone toward people living in conflict with Vatican teachings. . . Monday’s document raised the possibility of permitting, on a case-by-case basis, remarried Catholics to take communion after a period of penitence. It said that many bishops favored an acceleration of the long and complicated process of annulment.

3. (:12) Contradiction of God’s Commands

“you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother;”

C. (:13a) Principle Restated for Emphasis – You Have Elevated Religious Tradition Over Obedience to God

“thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down;”

Where is the regard for the Word of God? You are invalidating it

Hiebert: Making void is stronger than reject in verse 9 and means to deprive of authority, to cancel.

Grassmick: Nullify – used in the papyri for annulling contracts.

You are perpetuating this false dependence on man’s traditions because you continue to hand it down and validate it for the next generation

D. (:13b) Pointing to Additional Examples

“and you do many things such as that.”

Could have isolated a lot of other examples; this was just one case study to illustrate the point


When religious tradition is threatened by the Truth of God’s Word – the collision is inevitable; Jesus did not shrink back from that battle or mince words when it came to exposing the error of the self righteous and hypocritical scribes and Pharisees

Matt. 23:1-36