I did not grow up in a Reformed church. When I first began to interact with Reformed churches, I was exposed to various points of liturgy that were somewhat unfamiliar: for instance, a benediction at the end of the service, corporate confession of sin, even a slot for the pastoral prayer. One other characteristic of many Reformed (and Reformedish) churches is the reading of Scripture followed by the statement, “This is the word of God.” I think the first time I heard that was from theologian Don Carson—after he had read the first three chapters of Ezekiel before he preached them!
I remember being struck by this comment. It registered deeply that, indeed, what we were listening to was God’s authoritative word, and therefore, we need to take this seriously.
The text before us, like every passage in Scripture, is the word of God, which is to be taken seriously. But, in a unique way, the phrase, “This is the Word of God” is the theme of this passage.
The Pharisees and scribes, who confronted the Lord, claimed to believe the word of God when in fact they were denying the word of God. They were in fact guilty of usurping the word of God.
Jesus rebuked them in order to teach the onlookers that they must take seriously God’s word. In other words, when they were confronted with God’s word, they needed to respond with the conviction, “This is the word of God.” And, perhaps, even add, “Wow.”
As a congregation, we confess that we believe the Bible as our final authority for faith and practice. But when push comes to shove, in the cut-and-thrust of life—including church life—do we respond with the conviction, “This is the Word of God”? Or, like the Pharisees in the text before us, does “tradition” trump truth? Does human opinion trump God’s revealed commandment? This is what Jesus deals with here. It was a teaching moment providing a learning opportunity for his disciples. May we learn as well.
A Strategic Confrontation
The text opens with a record of the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees:
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and 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.) And 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?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honours me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
As the Good Shepherd, who would lay down his life for his sheep, Jesus was always on the lookout for dangers to his disciples. We saw some of this previously when we saw him protecting and praying for them (6:45–46, 48–51). In this new section (7:1–23) Jesus continued to train and to guard his people. But in this case, the opposition was not from a physical storm but rather from a Pharisaic storm. And, to be frank, the latter is often more intense, threatening, and painful than the former.
As Jesus’ popularity grew, so did the hostility from the religious powers that be (vv. 1–5). We saw something similar in 2:6, 23; 3:1–6 and 3:22ff. A delegation was sent from Jerusalem, no doubt with instructions to put an end to Jesus’ ministry and messianic popularity. They thought they could catch him out when it came to their oral traditions. It was becoming well known that Jesus was no fan of religious opinion and would not allow himself to be judged according to man’s traditions but rather by God’s word. For Jesus, the Old Testament was the only document that he would honour as the word of God. Anything in addition to this might be a good thing, but it was not a God thing. And, when it came to the Pharisees, this was the rub. For them, the tradition of the elders was on level par with Scripture.
As we will see, it was this that pointed to their character: They were hypocrites. And when hypocrites sense that their traditions and opinions are under threat, they often pick a fight. So here. As R. T. France points out, “The tension between Jesus and the religious leadership rises to a new level of mutual repudiation.” And so it will be from this point in Mark forward.
It is hard to imagine, but these Pharisees had so exalted their opinions that they viewed them as authoritative as Scripture. Since Jesus did not, they accused him of not being faithful to the word of God. Think about that: the Word not faithful to the word! Ridiculous.
Sadly, where the law was silent, the opinions of the Rabbinic scribes became vocal and authoritative, as if these traditions should be revered as truth. It is this wrongheadedness, and bad-heartedness, that lies behind these verses.
Hearing about the popularity and commendation of Jesus, the Pharisees “gathered,” not to worship Jesus, but to go to war with him. This scene helps us to understand something of what Jesus meant in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 by the phrase “synagogue of Satan.” When you reject the word of God, you are behaving like Satan (see Genesis 3:1–7).
The literary unit runs from vv. 1–23 and the recurring theme is that of defilement (see vv. 2, 5, 15, 18, 20, 23). In the context of the Pharisees’ concern about ritual purity, and therefore the need to avoid ritual defilement, the underlying problem came to the surface: They did not take God’s word as seriously as they claimed. Further, and most fundamental to the right understanding of this passage, is the matter of the heart (vv. 6, 19, 21, 23). We will not focus on this here, but simply note that Jesus wants us from our hearts to appreciate, “This is the word of God.”
The concept of defilement was very important to the Jews—especially to their spiritual leaders. This was not as much a matter of hygiene as it was a matter of religious, ritualistic purity.
The categories of clean and unclean were vital for an Israelite’s worship of God. God established this category for two reasons: first, to reveal his holiness and the people’s sinfulness so they would seek God’s gracious forgiveness; and, second, to separate Israel to be a distinct people from the surrounding Gentile peoples. God’s word prescribed this distinction along with prescribing many laws in order to keep this distinction (see Deuteronomy 4:1–8). In other words, God’s word made God’s people different. In fact, God’s word made God’s people (see Exodus 21–24).
Some of God’s words included laws of cleanliness (see Leviticus 12–15; etc.). But when it came to laws concerning washing, it has been observed that “the only hand washing required in the OT for purposes of ritual purity is that of priests before offering sacrifice (Ex. 30:18–21; 40:30–32)” (France). Despite this, the scribes and Pharisees concocted all kinds of additional washing traditions for all Israelites. And woe be to them if they refused to heed! This is what we see in this passage.
In their defence, the Pharisees were zealous for ritual purity. James Edwards comments, and I think rightly, “In the judgment of both Jesus and Mark they were gravely mistaken in the course they pursued, but they were not, as far as we can tell, either superficial or uncommitted.” That is, they were zealous for these traditions. But that was the problem, of course! We need look at what those traditions were.
The word “tradition” (vv. 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 13) translates a word that speaks of a practice or precept being passed down by word of mouth. It emphasises the process of transmission of an ordinance. The Jewish scribal leaders had collected these oral traditions into a book called the Mishnah. In some ways it would serve as a commentary on God’s inspired word. In fact, the early scribes would have defended its helpfulness as serving the function of a fence around God’s law. So, for instance, the fourth commandment enjoins God’s people to rest on the seventh day. The scribes wanted to help people to truly rest and so they came up with the tradition of what constituted a sabbath’s day journey. They regulated all kinds of things about this law in order to guard it—in order to fence it from being violated.
Their intentions were great but, sadly, the fence eventually became more important—more authoritative—than what was behind the fence. As someone once described it, the tradition was like a fence around a beautiful garden. But over time, people forgot about the garden and focused entirely on the fence.
So it was with these traditions of washing.
Again, they were not primarily concerned about hygiene but about ritual purity. The scribes and Pharisees were zealous to be sure that they were always in a place where God would look on them as being morally clean and therefore spiritually acceptable. They taught the people the importance of this external cleanliness. Are you beginning to see the problem?
These traditions were additions to Scripture, adding all kinds of rules about washings with a view to God’s people remaining clean. Mark alludes to this in vv. 3–4 for the sake of explanation to his non-Jewish Roman readers.
So yes, they were concerned about defilement, but as we will see in the next passage, they were focused on the wrong kind of defilement. While they were concerned about physical and religious defilement, Jesus came to deal with the defilement of the heart. And no amount of hand-washing (v. 3) or even full body-washing (v. 4) can change the heart. We need a new heart.
Of course, this is where the problem lies. It is all too easy to focus on externals—things we can control—and neglect the heart, which, because of sin, is usually out of control. We cannot change our hearts; only God can. And it is this principle that is at the heart of the matter.
You see, the scribes did not realise the depth of their sin. Despite all their exposure to the word of God, they failed to realise that man’s sin problem is so deep that no amount of ritual purity can ever make them clean. God’s word points to God as Redeemer; the traditions of the Mishnah pointed to what we can call “self-salvation.” Self-salvation remains the dominant religion in our day. That is why people remain in bondage to sin. What they need is a heart that will respond in submission to the reality: “This is the word of God.” And when they do, the truth will set them free (John 8:32).
To summarise, the problem with the Pharisees, who had “gathered to” Jesus, was that, for them, tradition trumped truth. But this is where it gets tricky. You see, they would have denied this. They would have claimed that their commitment to God’s truth drove them to be fastidious about these traditions. But the proof is in the pudding of life. That is, when push came to shove, what would win out in the end: God’s word or man’s traditions? We will see when we examine vv. 10–13.
But we need to pause to examine our own hearts. Geoffrey Grogan hits the jugular when he writes, “Cherished traditions can become so merged with Scripture in the minds of church-goers that they come to have some authority in their own right.” So, what opinions are you clinging to that have, in effect, usurped the final authority of God’s word?
Have you added some form of dress code to what God expects from those who worship him? I recently spoke to a pastor who told me that, because he did not wear a tie to preach when he first came to his church, some in the church concluded that he was not a godly man. (There were also a number who had a significant problem with his tattoos!) Some, particularly in hyper-Reformed traditions, think that it is sinful to sing songs other than the Psalms in corporate worship. You can probably think of a thousand other examples of how tradition and opinion can be added to God’s word, but Jesus would take issue with it every time.
We have recently experienced this reality as a congregation and have had to learn that, when you exalt your opinion to the level of Scripture, you effectively exalt it above Scripture—with harmful consequences. Be careful. Be warned. Unless we can say, “This is the word of God”, we dare not force our traditions or opinions on others.
Jesus would have none of this. He would not succumb to the traditions or opinions of men when to do so would compromise the authority and the priority of God’s word. Therefore, with courage born of conviction, Jesus confronted the critics. He did so primarily, I think, to protect his followers from hypocritical religious hucksters. But further, his disciples and would-be disciples needed to be taught the authority and priority of Scripture. They must not be controlled by those who reject the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
In Jesus’ response, he identified these religious leaders, who had added to God’s word, as hypocrites.
Jesus referred to Isaiah 29:13 and said that these men were just like those in Isaiah’s day. Then, the people offered sacrifices and claimed to love God and his law, but though they honoured God with their mouths, their hearts were far from him. And the proof, again, was that taught “as doctrines the commandments of men.” Therefore, their worship was “vain”: empty and useless; in fact, as God viewed it, folly. As the word “hypocrite” suggests, they were merely play-acting. They were wearing a mask. And God knew it.
When we replace God’s word with man’s word, we are no longer worshipping acceptably. Note the relationship between worship and the word in this passage. That is why we strive for God’s word to be central in all we do.
We need to keep pressing this point: Those who belong to Jesus Christ are faithful to his word above all things. This is a fundamental mark of a Christian and of a truly Christian church.
As Jesus made clear in this quotation, and in his comment that follows (v. 8), religious hypocrites abandon God’s word for man’s opinion. And usually the motive is fear of man rather than fear of God.
The Heart of the Matter
Note that Jesus connects one’s view of God’s word with the condition of their heart. When we do our religious ceremony, engaging in our religious traditions while at the same time not taking God’s word seriously, this is an indication of spiritual heart disease. I wonder how much of that there is in our churches today?
We need a daily dose of humility before God. Without this, we are merely going through the motions. We need a daily dose of gospel appreciation and gospel application. Apart from this, our hearts will harden. Don’t assume that church attendance is the same as wellness. Ezekiel 33:30–33 speaks directly to this:
As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, “Come, and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.” And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with lustful talk in their mouths they act; their heart is set on their gain. And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it. When this comes—and come it will!—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.
And what will come is judgement. Stop playing games. Stop rebelling. This is the word of God.
In summary, when we submit ourselves to God’s word, when we are of the conviction that “this is the word of God”, we will avoid hypocrisy, a hardened heart, and we will avoid doing harm to either ourselves or to others. Put positively, we will be the real deal, grow in spiritual health, and help one another. Is that you?
A Sarcastic Commendation
What happens when our opinions trump the final authority of God’s word? In vv. 9–13 we see what happens: harm to others because of the hardness of our own hearts.
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But 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)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother.
Christianity is not always characteristically nice. Sometimes sarcastic, biting words are used by our Lord, and later by his disciples. We have an example here.
Jesus is not nice about people being misled and mistreated by those who claim to be his representatives. He hates hypocrisy and he condemns those who practice it—as he did here.
He sarcastically responded to the Pharisees. To paraphrase: “Wow, you guys are excellent at gutting the Bible of its authority and replacing it with yours! You have made it a real skill to replace God’s word with your opinions.” I am sure that this got their attention, and that it riled their angst. Jesus then provided an illustration of how they had done so.
Quoting Exodus 20:12 and Exodus 21:17, Jesus showed how the Pharisees used tradition to trump truth. God commands children to honour their parents—to the extent that, if a child curse their parents, it was a capital offence. God’s word makes clear that he expects children to show great respect to their parents. But the Pharisees sought to bypass this in some circumstances by their tradition of “Corban.” Simply stated, they taught that if a child was financially supporting his parents, but made a vow to give that provision to God as an offering, he no longer needed to fulfil that material responsibility to his parents. But the Bible never allows for this. God does not give us laws that contradict each other. He expects children to honour their parents to the extent that they are to materially provide for them if necessary. The Pharisees found a way around this. But what must be seen was that their tradition did not even demand that the Corban was given to God. Rather, it could be used by the person for themselves if ultimately the intention was to give it to God. So the parents were dishonoured, the child was self-indulgent, and God was supposedly honoured.
To summarise, as Manson explains, “A man goes through the formality of vowing something to God, not that he may give it to God, but in order to prevent some other person from having it.”
What was the net result? God’s commandment was rejected, and tradition was established in its place. And this resulted in hypocritical and hard-hearted living. Consider how calloused this is! Consider that, whenever we usurp God’s word—whenever we fail to respond with, “This is the word of God”—relationships suffer. Jesus illustrates.
Christian, think about it. When we reject God’s word, not only do wesuffer spiritually, but others suffer as well.
God’s word declares that all people are made in the image of God; man’s opinion states, through social ills like racism and abortion, that some are more valuable than others.
God’s word defines the parameters for sexuality; man’s opinion rejects this and we have the mess we see all around us.
God’s word says that salvation is through Christ alone; man’s opinion allows for other ways.
The same can be said about how we are to treat one another in the church. God’s word calls for discipline; man’s opinion is that that is harsh. God’s word calls for unquestioning forgiveness; man’s opinion is that forgiveness is limited to certain areas. God’s word calls for submitting to one another; man’s opinion suggests that we should have our own way. God’s word details qualifications for leadership; man’s opinion is that those qualifications are debatable, and should be added to or removed from.
Be careful. Don’t become cynically or sinisterly skilled at avoiding what is clearly God’s word by substituting your own tradition or opinion.
A Serious Condemnation
The text ends with a serious condemnation: “thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do” (v. 13).
I can hardly think of a more serious error than for someone to make void the word of God—especially by their “tradition.” Sadly, this occurs all the time.
“Making void” means to invalidate, annul, or make of no effect. We can summarise its meaning in the phrase “to deprive of force and authority” (New Englishman’s Bible Dictionary). The term is found elsewhere in the New Testament only in Matthew 15:6 (parallel passage) and Galatians 3:17. In the latter case, we see that to make void is to render ineffective and therefore to disregard. What a tragic response to God and to his word!
We understand that God is sovereign, and therefore God will accomplish his purposes (Isaiah 55:11). Nevertheless, as Jesus used this phrase, it is indeed possible for us to respond to God’s word in such a way that it is ineffective in our lives—even in the life of the church. Just think of the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle and the Dark Ages!
Perhaps this malady happens most frequently on the first day of the week.
On any given Sunday, throughout the world, many thousands of people find themselves in so-called “worship services” hearing what is purported to be the word of God. Thankfully, in many churches, the Scriptures are handled faithfully, Christ is exalted, and the gospel is proclaimed with saints and sinners humbled before a holy God. And even though these churches have their various traditions, nevertheless, when it comes to the preaching, there is the heartfelt conviction, “This is God’s word.”
However, in many churches, tradition trumps truth and those in spiritual bondage remain so. Though it is not said so crassly, nevertheless the implication concerning tradition in such churches is, “This tradition is the word of God”. The consequences are tragic: psycho-babble rather than real and lasting help; unbiblical divorces rather than working through difficulties; dangerous practices, which lead to presumptive regeneration, rather than clear, gospel-grounded emphasis upon conversion; congregations that never obey our Lord’s mandate to discipline church members; congregations where membership is marginalised; congregations where false gospels are proclaimed with the result of eternally destruction in hell. Do you see how serious this is?
When it comes to the gospel, if tradition trumps truth, the consequences are eternally severe. We had better be sure, when a gospel claim is made, that it passes the test that “this is the word of God.” Paul exhorted the Galatians about this when he wrote,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Those are serious and severe words because Paul knew that any so-called gospel that can’t pass the test of “this is the Word of God” is false and eternally fatal.
Brothers and sisters, this is serious. There is only one gospel and anyone who believes another, which is not another, is under condemnation. Any message that is different from the message of the sinless Son of God, who lived a perfect life and who died a literal blood-shedding death in the place of repent sinners, who then rose from the dead three days later, is not the gospel—regardless of how traditional it might be.
So, let me ask, does the gospel you claim to believe pass the test, “This is the word of God”?
Second, if so, do you really believe it? If you do, then “this is the Word of God” will be far more than merely a traditional conclusion to a Bible-reading.
Just before Jesus said to those Jews who claimed to believe on him, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” he said these equally important words: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31–32). That is, those who truly believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will respond obediently to the word of God. They will respond with obedience to the realisation that “this is the word of God.” The implications and the applications of this are huge.
It implies that those who are born again will honour God’s word rather than annulling it with either their own words or the words of another. It implies that those who are born again will have a heart that is receptive to God’s word, not resistant to it. It implies that those who are born again will submit to God’s revealed truth rather than their opinions. It implies that those who are born again will lay their opinions aside when God’s word clearly addresses a situation. In short, it implies that those who are born again, and who live like it—i.e. abiding in God’s word—will be free: free from endless debates about matters that “this is God’s word” addresses; free from second-guessing every step. After all, God’s truth is a lamp to our feet and a light to our feet.
Negatively, this passage clearly implies that, for those who can say, “This is God’s Word,” will face opposition from those who make void the word of God by replacing the authority of God with either their own opinion or with the merely human opinion of another. Christian, be prepared that, when you follow Jesus, when you embrace the conviction, “This is the word of God,” you at times will be opposed by those who reject such a worldview.
Donald English helpfully observes,
Much the saddest part of this story relates to the way Jesus’ critics used the failure to follow certain patterns of ritual as a reason for not accepting the spiritual and physical liberation being made available to the needy by the very people the religious leaders criticized. The sick were being cured, evil spirits cast out, sins forgiven, but the critics fastened on failure to wash hands before eating. The signs of the kingdom were neglected in the interests of ritual ablutions.
The Pharisees had so focused on their tradition that they could not and would not enter what God was busy doing: bringing in his kingdom. Rather, they needled the flock with man-made religious burdens. While Jesus was offering freedom, the Pharisees were bringing them into bondage. This is always the case when people pay little heed to God’s claim that “this is the word of God.”
So, as Paul wrote to the Ephesian church, “Take up the whole armour of God” which includes “the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” Then, “having done all, stand” (Ephesians 6:10–17). Be courageously committed from the conviction that “this is the word of God.”
How do we guard against this malady?
Those who follow Jesus need to know whether what they hear, and what they profess to believe, qualifies for the claim, “This is the word of God.” In other words, we need to know our Bibles.
Of course, this was one of the major troubles in Israel when Jesus arrived. They were as sheep without a shepherd (6:34), which meant, among other things, that they were not being fed the truth of God’s word. They were malnourished because sheep can’t live on tradition: They need truth.
We are privileged to live in an era in which we, the sheep of God, can feed in the green pastures of sound biblical resources. But, most importantly, there are sound and biblical healthy local churches where God’s people can become committed members where they can learn the truth of God’s word, and to observe it in practice.
The point I want to make is that there is no excuse for you and me not to know the truth of “this is God’s word.” The challenge perhaps rather lies in, will we obey God’s word? To do so, we must know God’s word and never stop growing to know it. We must guard our conviction concerning Scripture (see Psalm 19). We must grow in our conviction concerning the authority of Scripture—by spending quality time in it, obeying what we learn, and gathering with those who likewise believe it.
That last point is the rub for so many. Be careful who you choose to spend time with. If you hang with fools, foolishness will probably rub off on you. Spend time with the wise and wisdom can be contagious.
Finally, learn and love the gospel of God.
When Martin Luther stood before the power-brokers of the monolithic Roman Catholic Church, he was asked to recant of his criticisms of that church. His criticisms arose because he did not make void the word of God. Rather, by the light of Scripture, he examined what turned out be mere traditions of men. Weighed in the perfect scale of Scripture, the gospel of the Catholic Church was weighed and found wanting. The opinions of men were what Luther was intent on making void. So, when asked to recant, Luther famously responded,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus, I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
In other words, Luther was saying, “This is the word of God.” May our Lord and Saviour give us the same grace to believe, say and live the same thing.