Sunday School Lesson

MARCH 30, 2003


Bible Background—MARK 7:1-23

Focal Verses—Mark 7:1-15

Devotional Reading—PSALM 51:10-17




1.        We will realize how the Pharisees’ traditions, as well as some church traditions today, hinder true worship of GOD

2.        We will determine to avoid empty ritual in private and public worship.



“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornication, murders” (Mark 7:21).



The Pharisees and scribes, who observed extremely strict rules about washing hands and utensils, asked JESUS why HIS disciples did not adhere to the same rules (Mark 7:1-5). JESUS challenged the religious leaders with a quotation from Isaiah that castigated the people because they substituted human teaching for true devotion to GOD (vv.6-8). JESUS explained how they replaced GOD’S law with human traditions by citing an example based on the commandment to honor one’s own parents (vv.9-13). JESUS asserted that nothing one eats or drinks can defile a person, but impurity comes from within (vv.14-15).

The Pharisees believed that Moses received additional commandments that he communicated orally to the elders. These elders in turn handed down these extra commands through the generations. They regarded these traditions as equal in authority with the written word, the Law. For example, the Mosaic Law did specify different kinds of uncleanness, but the Pharisees took it further by adding their own. They stated that a person who went to the marketplace and touched an unclean person would himself become unclean. They even stated that certain cups and pots were unclean unless they were washed, when this was not in Moses’ Law at all. So they were extremists in keeping their self-made laws and expected everyone else to keep them as well.


By way of background, Several major events and miracles take place in Mark 6 leading up to today’s lesson: John the Baptist is beheaded upon the request of Herodias’s daughter during Herod’s birthday party; JESUS feeds a crowd of over 5,000; and the disciples see JESUS walk on water. JESUS’ ministry is reciprocal. As the Great Physician, HE touched and healed all that were sick, and in turn all that were sick sought to touch HIM. Verse 56 indicates that the people begged just to touch the edge of HIS cloak so that all that touched HIM were healed. While the infirmed touched JESUS and received healing, the scribes and Pharisees continued to remain detached and suspicious of JESUS.


1.       EMPTY TRADITION (Mark 7:1-13)

 The scribes and Pharisees held JESUS under close scrutiny constantly. They followed JESUS only to seek ways to destroy HIM and HIS message. In so doing, they were always asking JESUS why HE and the disciples exercised certain practices. In this case it was these religious leaders’ concern for eating with unwashed hands. What did it mean in biblical times to eat with unwashed hands? First, the washing of hands was not for personal hygiene but for ceremonial cleanness. It indeed was a ceremony because the hands had to be washed in a certain way. According to William Barclay (in his commentary entitled The Gospel of Mark) some rules for this hand washing ritual of the Pharisees consisted of the following:

A.      The hands had to be free of sand, gravel, or any other substance.

B.       The water for washing had to be kept in large stone jars.

C.       The hands must be washed with the fingertips pointing upwards, and water was poured over them.

D.      The fist of one hand was rubbed in the palm of the other.

So if a person failed to follow this ritual, the Pharisees considered the person unclean in the sight of GOD. Not only did the Pharisees and many Jews wash their hands, but they also added to the law by washing pots and pans, tables, and other utensils.

How did JESUS view the Pharisees’ hand washing ceremony? HE described their actions as only lip service and vain worship, for their hearts were impure. The word “vain” here means fruitless. Thus the Pharisees’ piety, or worship, was futile and rendered no honor to GOD. Worst still, they had “rejected” GOD’S law and were following their own rules. What a dangerous path upon which to travel, but many Christians today, like the Pharisees are trekking on the tradition trails. Many a churchgoer’s response is, “We cannot do it a different way. We’ve always done it this way.” Unfortunately, they do not stop to ask themselves, “Is this way GOD’S WAY?”

JESUS pointed to a specific example of the Pharisees’ vain traditions and laws when HE spoke of honoring father and mother. The Old Testament clearly stated that children should respect their parents (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 20:9), but the Pharisees’ law asserted a different obligation. In The Laymen’s Bible Commentary, Paul S. Minear explained the text: “If a son had made a vow to offer to GOD, or to the Temple, property which was later needed to support his parents, he should give this vow priority over his family obligation.” Thus, by changing the law to their own profit, JESUS declared that the Pharisees made the WORD ineffective.   


2.       INNER CORRUPTION (vv.14-15)

 Before this time, JESUS has been addressing the religious authorities in reply to their accusation against the Disciples (v.5). HE condemns them for their hypocrisy and religiosity. HE now calls for the attention of the crowd together around HIM (14). HE invites them to pay close attention to what HE is about to teach in answer to the Pharisees’ accusation. HE solicits their undivided attention to HIS teaching. JESUS informs them what does and does not defile or make one unclean. HE states clearly that what enters into a person—i.e., what one eats for sustenance, such as food—does not defile one, even if it is eaten with unwashed hands. (Such things do not, however, include intoxicated drinks, narcotics, poisons, tobaccos and other things that bind and destroy the mind and body.) Rather, what defiles a person, JESUS says, is what comes from within—a person’s motives, thoughts, and what the person says, desires and does—these are what make a person unclean.

Thus, while the Pharisees were concerned about washing their hands, cups, and utensils outer purity, JESUS confronted them with a deeper issue the issue of the heart and taught on inner corruption in Mark 7:18-23. These corrupt things that come from the heart include fornication, evil thoughts, adultery, murder, and foolishness. In conclusion, when we stand before GOD in judgment, HE will not look to see if we washed our hands and cups, but rather if our souls have been washed in the BLOOD OF THE LAMB.


In today’s lesson we learned about the useless traditions that the Pharisees followed. Reading about this religious group provides an example of what is still happening in the church more than 2000 years later. Many churches are holding on to rituals, but are not experiencing the presence and power of GOD. Some Christian leaders have made the WORD of GOD of no effect by using Scriptures to justify sins such as homosexuality and fornication. While other Christians feel they are religious solely because they go to church, pay large sums of money, or work on church committees. All worship that is rendered out of an impure heart is in vain. JESUS'’ desire for the church today is to be renewed in mind, heart, and spirit so that we worship HIM in spirit and in truth.




Spiritually Yours,

Rev. Chris Lowe, Sr., DD


  Email Dr. Lowe

LightStream    Streaming News   OUR SPEAKERS