Tradition
Dr. Stephen Johnson
Mark 7:1-23
February 16, 2020

Traditions - they help us keep our balance.
We have traditions for everything
How to sleep - How to eat
How to work - How to wear cloths
We always keep our heads covered
We always wear a little prayer shawl
This shows our constant devotion to God
You may ask, how did this tradition get started?
I’ll tell you, I don’t know.
But it is tradition.

(From Fiddler on the Roof)

Traditions can have a powerful effect upon us, even if we don’t understand the source or reasoning behind a tradition.

Our text today speaks powerfully about traditions.

Mark 7:1-23
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 honors 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.”

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, ‘Honor 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, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand:

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.

And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.

All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
This is the Word of God.

The scribes and Pharisees ask in verse 5 “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

In order to understand the gravity of this question we need to look at the history of the people of Israel.

It was some 600 years before Christ walked on earth that there was a major crisis in Israel. In 587 BC King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

God’s people were devastated. For 70 long years they endured what is known as the Babylonian captivity.

Eventually the Persian Empire overthrew the Babylonians and Nehemiah and Ezra lead the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, the temple and the Jewish way of life.

Most of this you know. But while it was happening there was a major spiritual awakening underway.

People began to wonder why God had been so angry with His People? Why had God allowed His Holy City, His Temple and the Jewish way of life to be destroyed? What had they done to make God so angry that He would allow the Babylonians to destroy their nation?

And more importantly, what did they have to do to make things right and keep things right?

What safe guards could they put up so that this never happened again?

They needed to live lives of holiness.
But how do you define holiness?

Two groups arose.
One, focused on the readings of Isaiah and the other following Ezra.

The Isaiah group believed that the reason for all the trouble God's People had endured was because it had lost it's true love for God and for mankind.

They believe that the nation had forgotten to take care of the poor, the needy and the down trodden. That they had turned away from God and had embraced idolatry, greed and materialism.

They believed that part of the Abrahamic covenant compelled Israel to bring God to the nations. And they had failed.
Holiness demanded that they reach out to others with God’s mercy, grace and love.


The group that followed the teachings of Ezra believed that all the trouble had happened because they had not followed the strict letter of the law.

They believed that they had to go back to the very beginning and recapture every jot and tittle of the Torah and the Law of Moses. They believed if they obeyed every rule, every regulation and every precept of the Law that God would accept them, bless them and watch over them.

By the time of Jesus some 500 plus years later the Ezra group had pretty much won the hearts and minds of most people especially the scribes and Pharisees.

In an effort to protect Israel from the wrath of God they developed all those rules, regulations and requirements the Pharisees are famous for today.

Each of these laws they believed would help them discover God, enjoy His forgiveness and favor and live out a life that reflected His Holiness.

And one of those rules had to do with how you wash your hands before you eat.

So the question the Pharisees ask Jesus is not a question of proper hygiene - it is a question of holiness.

It strikes at the heart of the Pharisees who simply want God’s people to be protected from his wrath.

The question is not a bad question when you understand this background.

The text reveals to us three cautions concerning tradition which we do well to heed.

Traditions can create false example of spirituality 1-7

The tradition of washing hands before eating was steeped in a desire to be holy.

Since unholiness was catching - a dirty cloth doesn’t become clean by coming in contact with a clean cloth but rather the other way around.

The way you kept yourself pure was by keeping the law - and the way you kept the law was governed by tradition.

And the keeping of those traditions could be fairly easily observed - both by yourself and by others.

So the keeping of the traditions was one way that you showed your holiness to those around you.


But what bothered the Pharisees was that the disciples didn’t wash their hands the right way.

Among the Jews, you could have washed your hands with the finest of soaps, and scrubbed like a doctor preparing for surgery; but if you did not do it a certain way, you were just as unclean, ceremonially as though you had not washed at all.

There was a certain way to wash your hands to be ceremonially clean - and the disciples didn’t do it right.

The Jews preserved their religious and national identity through practices associated with food laws, hand washing, Sabbath laws and rules about with whom you could associate with or even touch.

These rules where made because they just wanted to help people demonstrate their love for God.

But, they created a false standard of righteousness. Their rules became a burden without providing genuine spirituality.
Accountability to God is replaced by accountably to men.

That is the problem with tradition. It presents a standard of spirituality which is false.

A standard which is based on tradition not scripture.

A example of spirituality devoid of a relationship with God.
It is actually an example of spirituality based on fear.

Fear the if we don’t do things exactly right God will strike us and our nation.

And lest we become smug in ourselves, we are often guilty of raising tradition to the level of what it means to be spiritual.

Whether our tradition demands early morning devotions as a mark of spiritual maturity.
Attending prayer meeting, attending adult Bible fellowship or any of a host of other traditional markers of spirituality.

Those asking Jesus about the tradition the disciples were ignoring are rebuked by the words of Isaiah.

Interesting that Jesus would go to Isaiah in light of the historical division between those who emphasized Isaiah over Ezra.

Essentially Jesus says - outward appearances aren’t what matters.

You can honor God with your lips while your heart is far from him.
“Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

Traditions can create a false example of spirituality.

The second problem with tradition is that:

Traditions can create an excuse for disobeying scripture 8-13

Notice what Jesus says beginning at verse 8

8 “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!

10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’

11 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)—

12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,

13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.
And many such things you do.”

They were guilty of building a tradition and using it as an excuse to disobey scripture.

They used spiritually sounding concepts to make scripture meaningless.

We do it with church attendance - saying we are following Jesus by getting alone in the mountains while forsaking the gathering together of believers.

We do it with tithing vs generosity - arguing against the concept of a tithe while ignoring the biblical mandate of generosity.
Hardly anyone considers a 10% tip to be generous!

We do it with songs we sing - setting the singing of hymns with four part harmony and as many verses as spiritual while the singing of contemporary songs as spiritually weak - even though the scripture tells us sing a new song

And we do it in the same way the Pharisees did it - ignoring the Biblical mandate to honor and care for our parents in favor of having the church, or worse yet, the government do it.

Traditions can create a false sense of spirituality.
Traditions create an excuse for disobeying scripture.

And finally,

Traditions can create a false experience of security 14-23

Key to the traditions of the Pharisees was a desire to live holy lives which would therefore keep God happy with them.

These are the things you do to prove to yourself and to others that you are secure in your relationship with God.
If you want to experience security, do these things.

In their effort to keep God happy they developed a great deal of respect for God’s law.

If God said, “you shall not do this or that,” it is likely that he meant it.

If God draws a line in the sand, not only don’t you cross it, you don’t come close to it.

So to please God, they added a bunch of traditions which would offer a sense of security that they were on God’s good side.

Things like how to wash their hands before eating.

And some very positive things as well.

One is to recite the Shema (Dt. 6:4 - 6) every morning as you wake up and every night before you go to sleep

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”

Another was to offer a prayer of thanksgiving after a meal - it is interesting that we usually do it before the meal.

Another, one is not to seek revenge - at least not on a law abiding orthodox Jew

Or how about this one: If you see a neighbor suffering under a heavy load you are stop what you are doing and help him as long as it is not on the Sabbath day

What each of these reveal is a transfer from a relationship with God to a relationship with tradition.

It was far more important to keep tradition than to commune with God.

The traditions became the way to express their relationship with God.

Keeping them provided a false sense of security.

The focus on keeping the law had not been wrong.

The commandments of God are important.

But note that Jesus focuses our attention on the heart of the law rather than the letter of the law.

He took the focus off the outward appearances of keeping the letter of the law and both reduced and expanded the law.

He reduced it to these two statements,
Love God and love others.
While those same statements greatly expand it.

So Jesus speaks of our tendency to observe things which are external to provide a sense of security.

But it is those things which are internal which really define our relationship with God.

Note the things which he says destroy or defile a man.


It is not whether you keep a tradition about the way you wash your hands, when you do devotions, what songs you sing or how you cut your hair.

Jesus says the things that defile a man are essentially internal.

Evil thoughts, sexual immorality,
theft, murder, adultery, coveting,
wickedness, deceit,
sensuality, envy, slander,
pride, and foolishness.

Thing is, you can wash your hands just right.
You can sing all the right songs.
You can Pray the perfect prayers.
You can attend a care group or Bible study

You can fulfill all the traditions laid down by mankind to offer a sense of spiritual security and still be far from God.

You can even publically confess your sin and remain far from God.

For confession without repentance is a dangerous road to travel.


The reason we like traditions, whether it’s washing your hands or dressing up for church, is that it is something we can do outwardly and feel good about ourselves.

Jeremiah (17:9) wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?”

Traditions can give you a false example of spirituality
Traditions can give you an excuse to disobey scripture
Traditions can give you a false experience of security.

Beware, lest you leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.



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