Chapter Seven Tradition Versus Revelation

Jesus Condemns the Traditions of the Pharisees (Mark 7:1-13)

To the spiritual mind it is a question of unceasing wonder that men should be so ready to follow and even fearlessly contend for the authority of human traditions, while they are just as ready to ignore the plain teachings of the Word of God. On many occasions we find our blessed Lord coming into conflict with the prejudices of those in Israel who exalted tradition to a level with revelation, and in some instances, to a higher level.

In Mark 7 we find our Lord dealing directly with the Pharisees’ exaltation of human tradition. Mark 7:1-8 has to do with the question of eating with unwashed, or literally, unbaptized hands. Certain of the Pharisees and scribes who were ever on the watch for something with which they might find fault in the words or behavior of Jesus and His disciples, noticed that some of the disciples ate bread with what they considered defiled hands. This was an unlawful practice according to a tradition that had been handed down from early days. The more rigid Pharisees went through a long process, not only of cleansing the hands from any uncleanness but also of ceremonial washing, before they would eat. We are told in the fourth verse that “when they come from the market, except they wash [or baptize], they eat not.” This is one of the many baptisms referred to in Hebrews 9:10. The word translated “washings” there is really “baptisms.” Many other similar rites were observed in the cleansing of drinking vessels, dishes, and tables.

The observant legalists came directly to Jesus, and inquired why His disciples did not wash according to the tradition of the elders, but ate bread with unbaptized hands. Observe, it was not a question of behavior contrary to the Word of God but behavior contrary to mere human tradition.

In reply our Lord referred to the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites.” This was strong language! A hypocrite is a man with a second face—really an actor, for the Greek actors appeared on the stage wearing masks in order to represent various parts and personalities. The Lord knew that while these hypocritical questioners were punctilious about such matters as ceremonial cleansing, they were careless in regard to laws definitely commanded by God and therefore carrying far greater weight. Jesus reminded the Pharisees that Isaiah had written of them, “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7). There is something very important here that we do well to take to heart. It is always a great mistake for those who profess to be servants of God to observe forms and ceremonial rites and traditions that have no Scriptural basis. Such traditions may seem innocent enough to begin with, but little by little they will usurp the place of the Word of God over the consciences of those who follow them, and this is most dangerous.

We are told in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly [or thoroughly] furnished unto all good works.” If Scripture carefully studied and obeyed will equip a man of God to do all good works, then it should be clear that nothing is worthy to be counted a good work in the sight of God if the action is not authorized by Scripture. The recognition of this principle would save us from a great deal of folly and worthless labor in connection with the things of God. The Lord applied the words of Isaiah 29:13 to the critics of His disciples by telling them that they themselves laid aside the commandment of God and substituted human traditions such as those dealing with ceremonial cleansing. He added, “Many other such like things ye do.”

Many Romanists and Protestants alike exalt tradition, directly or indirectly, to the level of Holy Scripture or even above it. How we need to get back to the place of teaching the Word of God! We need to inquire, “What saith the scripture?” when questions as to methods and teachings arise. For anything that is contrary to God’s revelation can never be looked on with favor by Him, however much good it seems to accomplish.

In so writing I would not for one moment ignore the fact that Scripture itself gives considerable latitude in regard to methods of reaching the lost and seeking to help believers. The apostle Paul declared, “I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). What I would stress is the serious mistake of substituting human authority for divine authority. We need to be sure that not only our doctrines, but also our practical ways are in accordance with the Scriptures. This alone is the path of safety.

Continuing His discourse the Lord pointed out how these Pharisees ignored the plain teaching of the Word while giving full authority to tradition. Observe how strongly He speaks in Mark 7:9: “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” The natural heart revolts against that which is divine but readily accepts what is merely human.

Jesus then cited a very definite instance of conflict between tradition and the Scriptures. God had spoken through Moses, commanding that His people honor father and mother. The penalty of death was attached to the violation of this commandment. “He that curseth [that is, in any way harms or wrongs] father or mother, let him die the death” (Matthew 15:4). This would surely involve caring for aged parents who were unable to provide for themselves. The least that sons and daughters could do would be to share with their parents that which God had given to them, but the rabbis had declared that a man might dedicate all his possessions to God, declaring it to be Corban—that is, a gift for the maintenance of the work of the temple. If his parents were in need, he would insist that he had nothing with which he could help them because all he possessed had already been devoted to God. This was the very essence of selfishness under pretended piety; and thereby the Word of God was made of none effect through tradition. This was only one instance of the violation of God’s truth by the substitution of human regulations. Jesus again added, “Many such like things do ye.”

Jesus Defines the True Source of Defilement (Mark 7:14-23)

We are told that after condemning the traditions of the Pharisees, Jesus took occasion to instruct all the people in regard to the true nature of defilement. Hitherto the more conscientious an Israelite was, the more anxious and concerned he was about what he ate or drank, lest he even inadvertently take in something that was ceremonially unclean. If he did eat something considered unclean, he would be defiled and unfit to join with the congregation of the Lord when gathered together for worship in the temple. In Mark 7:14-16 our Lord laid down a great principle and emphasized a tremendous fact. Jesus declared that moral and spiritual defilement comes not from outward things such as food or drink but from within the man himself. Defilement comes from one’s own heart, that heart which the prophet Jeremiah declared to be deceitful above all things and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).

It is evident that these words of the Lord astonished even His own disciples, so accustomed had they been to looking at things from the ritualistic standpoint. So when they had left the multitude and were in the house alone with Jesus, they asked Him to explain what He meant by speaking as He had done. Always ready to open up truth to sincere inquirers, He explained that outward things such as food and drink were only material: they could not affect the spirit of the man. Of course our Lord was not denying that there are hurtful and even poisonous foods that might seriously injure one physically. What He had in view here was defilement of spirit, which makes one unfit for fellowship with God. Food of any kind does not enter into the heart but passes through the digestive tract. Food makes no impression whatsoever on the soul or spirit of the one who has eaten or drunk.

“That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man”—that is, those things which come from his heart defile him, for the heart itself is like a nest of unclean birds. “Out of the heart… proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.” What a list! Who can say that these things have never had any place whatever in his heart? Of course there are some to whom several of these things are thoroughly repugnant, and yet every man is capable of falling into every sin here mentioned if he but allows his mind to dwell on evil thoughts. There are men who deny the depravity of the natural man, but they might well consider the list set forth here and honestly answer the question, Have none of these things a place in my heart?

When we speak of the total depravity of the natural man, we do not mean necessarily that all men are guilty of all the sins enumerated here. We do mean that all men are by nature out of touch with God and that the capacity for all these sins is found in all their hearts.

Once when Dr. Joseph Cook was challenged as to the scripturalness of the doctrine of human depravity, he used the following illustration. He said that he was in possession of a very fine clock. It was a beautiful piece of furniture and an adornment to the room in which it was placed. The works were very expensive; the face of the clock was beautiful to look upon; the hands were of excellent workmanship; and altogether it was an admirable clock. There was only one thing wrong with it: it would not keep time. As a timepiece it was totally depraved. So it is with the natural man. He is out of touch with God. His heart is at enmity with God and from within that heart come forth many different sins. Thank God there is a remedy for this condition! David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10), and this is what God delights to do through the new birth.

All the evil things enumerated by Jesus come from within. These defile a man. How important it is that we recognize the fact that these things naturally find lodging in the human heart, and that we judge all in the light of the cross of Christ.

Jesus Rewards the Faith of a Gentile Woman (Mark 7:24-30)

In these verses we see the grace of God going out beyond the nation of Israel. The Lord Jesus had gone into the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon—that is, in the course of His travels He had journeyed with His disciples to the northwest district of Galilee. Just beyond were the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon. The Lord Himself, so far as we have any record, never stepped over the border that separated Palestine from the Gentile lands, except of course when as a baby He was taken down into Egypt by His mother and Joseph, His foster father, to escape the wrath of Herod. Jesus came into the world, as Paul told us in Romans 15:8, as “a minister [or servant] of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.” While it is true that He looked forward to the time when the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy (Romans 15:9), during His life on earth He confined His ministry to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

But now we find Him in contact with a certain woman who was a Greek, a pure Gentile, a native of Syrophenicia. This woman had an afflicted daughter who was possessed with a demon. She had suffered terribly because of this condition. Though a stranger to the covenants of promise, the Syrophenician woman had heard of Jesus and she felt sure that He could deliver her daughter if He were willing to do so. She came, therefore, pleading that He would cast the demon out of the young girl. Elsewhere we are told that she based her plea on the fact that He was the Son of David. She had evidently learned through some of her Jewish neighbors of the Messiah who was to come in David’s line, and she rightly believed Jesus to be the Messiah. So she came pleading, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David” (Matthew 15:22). But He held His peace. As a Gentile sinner she had no claim whatever on Him as the promised Son of David. But finally, as she cried after Him, He said, “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.” This may seem to us to be a hard saying. But even as Joseph charged his brothers with being spies in order to probe their consciences (Genesis 42:8-14), so the Lord thus answered the woman in order to bring her to the place where she would recognize that her only claim to blessing was on the ground of pure grace.

She responded in a wonderful way. There was no ill-feeling on her part, as though He had insulted her or spoken to her in a discourteous manner. Humbly she answered Him, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs [and she used a diminutive here, the little dogs] under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” It was as much as to say, “Lord, I recognize the fact that I am just a poor, outcast Gentile, but give me some of the crumbs that the children of the kingdom are refusing; allow me to take the place even of a puppy under the table and so obtain mercy at Thy hand.” Nothing appealed to our blessed Lord more than faith coupled with humility. He replied by saying, “Go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.” She hastened to her home, doubtless with a glad heart and eager expectation. Entering the house, she found her daughter lying quietly upon the bed, the demon having left her.

Jesus Opens the Ears of the Deaf (Mark 7:31-37)

Leaving the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus crossed over the northern part of Galilee and entered into a boat, passing over the sea once more to visit Decapolis, the ten cities. It was in this region that the man from the tombs, the demoniac of Gadara, lived. After Jesus delivered him, He told him to go home and tell his friends what great things the Lord had done for him. So he spread the good news, we are told, throughout all Decapolis. Thus when Jesus returned, the people were ready to meet Him. Possibly the very ones who on the former occasion had besought Him to depart out of their coasts were among the eager crowd who came to hear His words and see His miracles.

We are told that they brought to Him one who was deaf and had a speech impediment. They begged Jesus to put His hands on him—those tender hands that had so often been lifted in blessing. At the touch of those hands disease and uncleanness had flown away. But the Lord dealt with this man in a somewhat peculiar manner. Recognizing the fact that opposition was developing, Jesus took him aside from the multitude instead of healing him openly before all the people. Jesus put His finger into his ears, and then spat and touched his tongue. We may wonder at this, but we need to remember that the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ was absolutely holy and pure, untouched by sin or corruption of any kind. He was evidently indicating that the healing came from within His own being. Looking up to Heaven He sighed as He recognized the ravages that sin had made; and then speaking in Aramaic He said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” Immediately the man was able to hear and also to speak.

Jesus charged those that were around Him not to spread this abroad. As we have noticed before, He had no desire to gain notoriety as a wonderworker. While always ready to minister to the needs of men, His great mission was to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom as He went from place to place. But the people were so enthusiastic about what they saw of His mighty power that the more He commanded them to say nothing about it, the more they published it abroad. Surely everyone who knows Christ in any measure will gladly join with these people of Decapolis in ascribing all honor and glory to Him who has done all things well.