Tradition – Mark 7. 1–13

The Pharisees and scribes had developed in the intertestamental period as a response of the godly to the threat posed by the spread of Greek culture and ways. By the Lord’s time, however, the attitude of many of these people to the scriptures had become merely external and formal. They paid more attention to their own detailed regulations than they did to the great moral principles of the Law. Those from Jerusalem in Mark 7 were appalled when they saw the disciples eating with ‘‘defiled’’ hands, and they immediately challenged the Lord, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?”. What they had in view was not hygiene but ritual. The word translated “defiled” in verse 2 is a themeword of the chapter. It occurs again in verse 5 (where the A.V. gives “un-washen”) and its connected verb occurs in verses 15. 18, 20 and 23. It has the sense of “ritually unclean”. The word “tradition” is used five times in verses 1 to 13 and nowhere else in Mark’s gospel. Undoubtedly, therefore, the ssue at stake was one of Jewish ritual and tradition. Before eating, the Pharisees performed an elaborate ceremony which had no authority from Scripture. It was on account of the failure by the disciples to observe this ritual that the Lord was questioned.

Verses 3 and 4 detail some of the minutiae of the other rules and regulations with which the Pharisees had bound themselves, “And many other things there be…”. These people had replaced the Scriptures with “the tradition of the elders” as a general rule of life.

It is interesting to observe that the incident recorded in Mark 7. 1-13 followed close upon the feeding of the 5,000 in the previous chapter. The bread mentioned in 7. 2 may have been some of that which had been taken up in the twelve baskets, 6. 43. If this was so then the concern of the Jews over the detail of how it was eaten only helped to blind their minds to the great miracle which had produced it.

The Answer

Our Lord’s answer falls into two distinct sections, namely verses 6 to 8 and verses 9 to 13. (Note “And he said unto them”, v. 9. Also the repetition of “kalos” - “Well” and “Full well” - in verses 6 and 9). In verses 6 to 8 He accuses the Pharisees and scribes of adding to the Word of God and of thereby “laying aside”, or abandoning, God’s commandments. In verses 9 to 13 He accuses them of opposing the Word of God and of thereby rejecting God’s commandment. v. 9, and invalidating His Word. v. 13.

Verses 6 to 8. The Lord began by addressing His questioners as hypocrites. Their whole lives were simply pieces of play-acting with no reality behind them at all. (The word translated “hypocrite” is used frequently outside the New Testament for an actor on a stage.) Their lips said one thing but their hearts revealed something very different. If we compare this passage with Matthew 23 we find that they often occupied the “right” place, Matt. 23. 2, said the “right” things, v. 3, wore the “right” clothes, v. 5, and meticulously observed the traditions of the elders. Mark 7. 5-13. Yet they lacked reality!

These men were further condemned by the Lord because they taught what were really only the commands of other men. Their oral tradition was intended to be an exposition and explanation of the Law: it was meant to be a “hedge” or “fence” to preserve the Law. But the Pharisees and scribes failed on at least two accounts. First, their method of interpretation was wrong. It was fanciful and arbitrary, obscuring the real, literal meaning of the Scriptures. Second, they proceeded to give their interpretations an authority of their own and, in practice, substituted the word of man for the Word of God Over time, the Pharisees had abandoned God’s Word in favour of the traditional interpretation of it. As a consequence they became increasingly concerned with non-essentials. Whereas their traditions were regarded as a “fence” to protect the Law from infringement, in reality they replaced it.

Verses 9 to 13. The Lord extended their “laying aside” of the commandment of God. v. 8, to their rejecting and nullifying it. Note that “the tradition of men”, v. 8, had become “your own tradition”, v. 9 The example that is given concerned the setting aside of a son’s responsibility to honour his father and mother. Note the contrast in the opening words of verses 10 and 11, “For Moses said … . But ye say”. Though they sat in Moses’ seat, they undermined his inspired words. “Corban” signified a gift specifically given to God. That which was offered became “holy” and was no longer available for ordinary use. The practice had developed, however, whereby things were treated “as though they were” Corban. In the case in point, a churlish son could evade his duty of assisting his needy parents by invoking “Corban”, as though he was going to give to God that which should have benefited them. Whilst the scribes taught that he was thereafter forbidden to use that money to help his parents, they did not require him to actually give it as a gift to God! In this way. the teaching of these men countenanced a son’s breaxing one of the laws of God. This is where traditionalism inevitably leads - to opposition to the Word of God. Our Lord always had scathing condemnation for a system which put rules and regulations before the claims of human need.

The conclusion of the matter is found in verse 13. where we are told that tradition made the Word of God “of none effect” The Greek word means to cancel or revoke and is used frequently in the papyri of annulling wills and contracts. See Gal. 3. 17, where it is rendered “disannul”.

In Mark 7 the Lord warns us against man-made tradition. It is associated with “hypocrisy”, v. 6, following “the commandments of men”, v. 7, abandoning and nullifying God’s command-mert, vv. 8-9, and invalidating the Word of God. v. 13.

Let us make it our aim to live in accordance with the teaching of Scripture and to avoid all forms of bondage which are occasioned by the traditions of men.


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