It seems that the Pharisees were constantly on the prowl, for in their self-righteous eyes neither Jesus nor His disciples could do anything right or in accordance with their interpretation of the Law. They were the watchdogs of orthodoxy in those days and they made sure that everyone was aware of the fact. They wanted everybody to submit to their authority, but woe betide the person who thought otherwise! Instead of uplifting the Law of Moses though, they were guilty of exalting themselves and making the lives of those who wanted to serve God a misery. These religious leaders were so high and mighty that they looked down their noses at those who needed their help.
Doctrines of men
“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, brasen vessels, and of tables. 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 7:1-8).
The Pharisees thought they had something against the disciples, which automatically put Jesus at fault with His teaching. They put their ceremonial spotlight on the supposed need for hand washing before eating food bought at the market. This was not simply the need for personal hygiene, for it is highly unlikely that the Pharisees were concerned for the health of the disciples, instead they wanted the intricate and elaborate rituals to be performed. They were so concerned about the disciples’ hands that they failed to see that their own hearts were putrid in the sight of God. Their own hands were unclean too, for they would lift them up to murder the Lord.
The Lord Jesus made it clear that what they taught was mere tradition, the doctrines of men, and could not be found in the word of God. Like all religious people, they were more concerned with external matters, like washing germs away, than spiritual truths that relate to actual sin. They saw the hands, but God sees the heart. “For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The law-abiding Pharisees were as guilty as sin. Notice that Jesus did not focus on what the Rabbis taught but instead He revealed what the Scriptures said. He made them see that God did not want lip service but heart sacrifice. Then He turned the tables and condemned them for their hypocrisy and superfluity. His stinging appraisal of their teachings cut deep and revealed that they in reality had no understanding of God’s word. What a thing to say to religious people!
Defilement of men
“And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man” (Mark 7:14-15).
The Lord did not allow the Pharisees to slip away from the scene unnoticed, for they had tried to make a holy show of the disciples’ supposed fault, so now He put His spotlight on the truth. If He had not done this, the people in the market place might think that the Pharisees had won the day by accusing the disciples. Carefully He dissects the teachings of the Rabbis on the matter of hand washing and reveals the utter stupidity of the Pharisees doctrine.
While the religious leaders put their faith in sanitary laws, Jesus reminds His listeners that living for God is not skin deep but concerns the spiritual nature of man. Following the Lord is more than abiding by rules and regulations, for mere mechanical observance to laws is legalism rather than true faith. In fact, what the Pharisees believed and taught had very little to do with faith anyhow. There is absolutely no need for faith if all we have to do is tick all the ritualistic boxes, for it does not take much to make us feel good about ourselves.
Unwashed hands might indeed make the body ill, but germs cannot send a soul to Hell. It is sin, hypocrisy and self-righteousness that defile people and condemns them in the sight of God. A man’s holiness is not observed by how manicured his hands are, but by his nature and lifestyle. If his heart is defiled by sin, then he is already polluted and the evidence will be plain for all to see. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45) … “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:21-23). Once again, the real issue is not hands but hearts.
Jesus topples the traditions of the Pharisees and teaches a clearer understanding of what God requires. Holiness and purity are spiritual matters rather than mere duties that are imposed by self-righteous religious leaders. To be right with God we do not have to wear our Sunday best and polish our nails, for He wants something altogether deeper still. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Psalm 24:3-5). We have a song we sometimes sing that includes the words, “I’ve got Jesus on the inside, and He’s working on the outside, bringing about a change in my life …” That is the true order of things, but unfortunately, with all their knowledge, the Pharisees got it the wrong way around. Only those who have been purified by the Lord can truly be said to have clean hands.