Here Mark introduces us to the religion of the Scribes and the Pharisees, which was full of hypocrisy, hardheartedness and hollowness. The Scribes and Pharisees picked faults, but Jesus picked disciples. The text reveals just how corrupt and shallow man can become in the area of religion. The same conditions exist in our day too in religious circles.
“Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables” (Mark 7:1-4).
The elders of the Jewish nation continually found fault with both Jesus and His disciples, but were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own sin. They had built up a vast system of rigid rituals, which supplanted the Scriptures, and imposed them on the people. They paid unswerving attention to outward ceremonies yet ignored the need for inward holiness.
No nation has been blessed as much as Israel. Unto them came the Law and the Prophets, and through it came the Scriptures and the Saviour. “Unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). But no people are as guilty before God as they, for they abused and rejected the gifts and privileges given to them by God. Instead of worshipping and honouring the Lord, they followed a religion of cups and pots. The religious leaders were “blind guides” who did not have the anointing to truly shepherd the people (Matthew 23:16, Mark 6:34). A religion based on outward observances can never feed the soul or sanctify the heart.
Once false doctrine and ritualism replaces God’s word, the church is ready for a terrible fall from grace. If we leave the King’s Highway of truth and holiness we will end up washing our own cups and pots of self-righteousness. Those who follow after ritualism and ceremony never preach the gospel or call souls to repentance and faith in Christ. As Bible-believers it is our responsibility to “Earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude :3), otherwise our religion will be as hollow as that of the Scribes and Pharisees. “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
“Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, 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. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do” (Mark 7:5-8).
Hypocrisy is found amongst those who pay lip service to the things of God. “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men” (Isaiah 29:13). This is what Samuel meant when he rebuked Saul, “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). The religious love external acts of piety, but “The LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
God is looking at our hearts as well as what we do and say. A true worshipper is not someone who rigidly observes external duties, but one who honours God from the heart, “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). How many take their bodies to church on Sunday, but leave their hearts at home in bed? We may sing like angelic choirs and know the Bible from cover to cover, but if our hearts are not in it, our faith is as vain as that of the Scribes and Pharisees, for they hid their sin behind their religion.
Our words and works must be united. God loves to hear the prayers of those who come to Him in true faith; in fact, they are the only prayers He answers. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:17). The problem with religious people is that they love their religion more than they love God and His word. We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and might (Deuteronomy 6:5).
“And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye” (Mark 7:9-13).
The religious leaders were guilty of rejecting the simple teaching of the Scriptures with confusing traditions. Religious people will generally say, “We’ve always done it this way” or “Well, this is what my church believes” when presented with what God truly requires according to His word. They always degrade the Bible to exalt their dogmas and practises until it is rejected and dismissed completely. Religious observances are the invention of Satan to rob God of glory and honour. He brainwashes people into thinking that all is well between them and God if they follow rules, regulations and rituals. He will have them denouncing others while never admitting they are sinners too.
The Scribes and Pharisees were willing to see their own parents starve to death just so they could bring a gift to the altar, and of course receive the honour and praise of men for doing so. Did they not realise that in doing this they were breaking the fifth commandment and thus were condemned by God? “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12). Because of their hardheartedness and self-righteousness they were under the wrath of God.
To suggest that fasts, pilgrimages and rituals save the soul is as bad as saying that the Scriptures are not perfect and that we know better than God. It is the whole Bible and nothing but the whole Bible which is the foundation and rule of faith and practice. All that God commands is necessary for salvation, but that which man commands robs God of glory and damns the soul to Hell.