Man’s Tradition or God’s Word? (Exposition of Mark 7:1-13)

Tradition has had a way of creeping up again and again throughout the history of the church. It was primarily the tradition of the church that Martin Luther reacted against during the Protestant Reformation. His writings infuriated the Pope and most of Christendom. At the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 convened by Emperor Charles, Martin Luther was called upon to recant (take back) his writings against the traditions of the church. When asked if the writings on the table beside him were his, he replied affirmatively. Then Dr. Luther was asked to deny what was taught in those books, to which Martin heroically responded:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

The “authority of the popes and councils” was the tradition of the church passed down through the centuries. Martin Luther rejected those in favor of “the Word of God” which alone bound his conscience. It is exactly the same kind of tradition encountered by Jesus in the passage we have just read together. As Thomas Dickson, a preacher from the last century, once said, “Tradition was the most constant, the most persistent, the most dogged, the most utterly devilish opposition the Master encountered. It openly attacked him on every hand, and silently repulsed his teaching.”

But the problem of human tradition is not just a 1st Century Jewish problem with which Jesus dealt, nor is it just a Middle Ages Catholic problem with which Luther dealt. It is a human problem that each of us must deal with: both in our churches and within our own hearts.

In Mark 7:1-13, Jesus exposes the tradition of the Pharisees as including hypocritical words, producing false worship, and rejecting God’s Word.

Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. (2) And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. (3) For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. (4) 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. (5) 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? (6) 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. (7) Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (8) 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. (9) And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. (10) For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: (11) 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. (12) And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; (13) Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

The conflict begins with the Pharisees and scribes who came from Jerusalem. They seem to be like the group that Paul writes about in Galatians 2:4 who he says came “to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage:” Immediately, in v. 2, we are told that they “spied” the disciples eating with unwashed hands, so they found fault with them. What does it mean that the disciples are said to eat with unwashed hands? Ray Stedman explained in a sermon on this passage:

Do not read this as though these were dirty disciples, as though they never bothered to wash their hands before they ate. This is not a problem of hygiene at all. I am sure they did wash their hands before they ate. I do not doubt it in the least. But what bothered the Pharisees was that they did not do it in the right way. You see, among the Jews, you could have washed your hands with finest of soaps, and scrubbed like a doctor preparing for surgery; but if you did not do it in a certain way, you were just as unclean, ceremonially, as though you had not washed at all.

In the same sermon, Stedman also explained the process of cleansing:

But scholars tell us that it was the rigid custom among the Jews to wash in this way: The hands had to be held out, palms up, hands cupped slightly, and water poured over them. Then the fist of one hand was used to scrub the other, and then the other fist would scrub the first hand. This is why the fist is mentioned here. Finally the hands again were held out, with palms down, and water was poured over them a second time to cleanse away the dirty water the defiled hands had been scrubbed with. Only then would a person’s hands be ceremonially clean.

This ceremonial hand-washing was a tradition (vv. 3 and 5), another one is described in v. 4, the ceremonial washing of pots, cups and tables. Verse 4 also tells us that there were many other traditions observed by the Pharisees. Their question in v. 5, “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” brings about the response by Jesus concerning tradition which is the focus of our consideration today. First, Jesus responds to the Pharisees by stating that man’s tradition includes hypocritical words.

I. Man’s Tradition Includes Hypocritcal Words. v. 6
Jesus’ immediate response to the Pharisee’s question was to call them hypocrites. The word for hypocrite here was used to refer to a stage actor. This word is used fifteen times in the New Testament and only in the Synoptic Gospels. It is always used by Jesus. Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13. I believe this verse is a great definition of a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who says one thing, but whose heart is in another place.

Jesus had summarized the law into two commands, in contrast, the Pharisees had invented developed a system of 613 laws, 365 negative commands and 248 positive laws. By the time of Christ it had produced a heartless, cold, and arrogant brand of righteousness. Joseph Stowell give ten results of this in his book, Fan The Flame:

(1) New laws continually need to be invented for new situations.
(2) Accountability to God is replaced by accountability to men.
(3) It reduces a person’s ability to personally discern.
(4) It creates a judgmental spirit.
(5) The Pharisees confused personal preferences with divine law.
(6) It produces inconsistencies.
(7) It created a false standard of righteousness.
(8) It became a burden to the Jews.
(9) It was strictly external.
(10) It was rejected by Christ.
outlined from Fan The Flame, J. Stowell, Moody, 1986, p. 52

II. Man’s Tradition Produces False Worship. v. 7
After quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus makes a further statement concerning their tradition. It produces false worship. The worship of the Pharisees was all external with no corresponding internal reality. Therefore, Christ declares it vain or fruitlessly. Their worship has no purpose, no fruit, and no importance. Jesus describes their vain worship as consisting of “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

A young man asked, “I am in earnest about forsaking ‘the world’ and following Christ. But I am puzzled about worldly things. What is it I must forsake?” The answer, “Colored clothes, for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don’t eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His Work.”

Elizabeth Elliot comments on the above dialogue, “Does this answer sound absurd? It is the answer given in the most celebrated Christian schools of the second century! Is it possible that the rules that have been adopted by many twentieth-century; Christians will sound as absurd to earnest followers of Christ a few years hence?”
Elizabeth Elliot, The Liberty of Obedience, Nashville, Abingdon, 1968, pp. 45-46

That’s a good question, isn’t it? How many of the things which we teach others to do. . . How many of the things which we practice in our churches are only traditions which will seem ridiculous to those who examine them in light of Scripture in the years to come?

Jesus concludes his response to the question by the Pharisees by saying . . .
III. Man’s Tradition Rejects God’s Word. vv. 8-13
This is explained, as Jesus states this (v. 9), and then illustrates this specifically. He shows them a specific commandment by God which they actually rejected by holding to the tradition of man. In Christ’s illustration, he uses the 5th Commandment from Exodus 20:12, “Honour thy father and thy mother.” and Exodus 21:17, “And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.”

How did the Pharisee’s tradition actually contradict God’s commandment? By the tradition of declaring money and resources korban. Mark preserves the Hebrew word and then translates it as a gift. Greek scholar A.T. Robertson explains, “The rabbis actually allowed the mere saying of this word by an unfaithful son to prevent the use of needed money for the support of father or mother.” To obey the fifth commandment means more than obeying them as a child in their household, it also extends to the care for the parents when they are unable to care for themselves. This was what God intended by giving this commandment in the first place. But by declaring their money or goods as korban (a gift or offering dedicated to God), the son or daughter were given a loophole from their obligation to obey the fifth commandment!

Thus, in the end, Jesus declares the tradition of the Pharisees to be not only a hindrance to integrity by producing hypocritic words and to worship by producing false worship, but also to be an outright rejection of the very Word of God. By the end of Jesus’ response the choice is clear: “Man’s Tradition of God’s Word?” Which will it be?

At the end of the day, may what was said of Martin Luther be said of us when the Catholic scholars reported concerning him:

We’ve tried to reason with Dr. Luther, but he accepts only the authority of Scripture.

What a testimony! If only our deacon boards and other leaders in the churches which God has entrusted to our care, if they would only be able to say that of us. There is a constant need for reformation in our churches, because of this human problem of drifting away from Scripture to tradition. For this reason God still wants to use men who will say, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God . . . . God help me.”


  1. Thank you, Pastor Steve, for this post. Tradition does indeed block our view of the clear teachings of scripture.

  2. I am curious how you can account for the doctrine of the Trinity. The reason I say this is the fact that the Bible is not explicit in its teaching regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are mentioned in certain passages, but what you believe about the Trinity comes from Tradition (e.g. The Council of Nicea and Athansius’ teaching on the Trinity and the deity of Christ). Certainly God was working through the men of this council to propose the proper view of the Trinity, and the Deity of Christ. Were it not for Athanasius, we would all be Arians. Especially since the Arian heresy was the predominant view of Christ around 300 A.D. It was Athanasius, almost all by himself, who changed the course of doctrinal history (albeit his doctrine of Christ was drawn from the Bible, his doctrine of the Trinity was not and could not have possibly been). I’m curious how you handle such issues. Can you help me understand? I have given you an example of “man’s tradition” that you would probably actually hold to. In fact I know you believe the same doctrine of the Trinity as it was espoused in Church History, or else you could not call yourself a Christian. I am curious to hear your response to this.

  3. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comment! Although the word Trinity is never used in Scripture, it is my conviction that the truths which the term “Trinity” implies are explicitly taught in Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity summarizes three essential teachings of Scripture.

    First, that God is one! This is clearly taught both in the Old and New Testaments (see Deuteronomy 6:4 and 1 Timothy 2:5).

    Second, that the three distinct persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist. In other words they are not modes of existence, but individually coexisting persons (see Matthew 3:16-17 and 28:19).

    Third, that each of these persons is fully God.
    The Father is God – Matthew 6:9
    The Son is God – John 1:1, 8:58; Hebrews 1:1-3
    The Spirit is God – Acts 5:3-4 (Lying to the Holy Spirit is equivalent to lying to God)

    Rejecting man’s tradition does not mean rejecting the use of all words that are not found in Scripture, it means rejecting traditions which are contrary to Scripture’s clear teachings.

    Since Scripture clearly teach the three propositions for which the word Trinity is shorthand, I gladly affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.

    What Athanasius and the Council of Nicea accomplished was a synthesis of the three truths stated above. They added nothing to Scripture, they merely organized the teaching of Scripture in a coherent way that manifested that Scripture was non-contradictory.

    I can say more. Let me know if that was not helpful! And “unmask” yourself!

  4. Ok, I am officially unmasked. I appreciate your response, and especially your answer (regarding the issue of Tradition). I was in one sense playing ‘devil’s advocate’ to see what your answer would be. I do firmly agree with your comment:

    “Rejecting man’s tradition does not mean rejecting the use of all words that are not found in Scripture, it means rejecting traditions which are contrary to Scripture’s clear teachings.”

    But the comment leads me to ask – if councils throughout Church history ‘line up’ with Scripture, and thus assert doctrines upon which all Christians (Catholic or Protestant) agree upon universally, then can you not see God actually working in and through the ‘Church’ in this fashion to propogate (for lack of a better term) Christian truths that are Biblically sound?

    I am firmly Reformed, however, I think many Protestant Christians dismiss tradition altogether simply because it is a ‘Roman Catholic’ view/doctrine. And that the idea of God working in and through men in councils throughout history is actually admitting to the idea that tradition is in one sense or the other ‘infallible.’ Which is a view I would reject (I hope that makes sense). As a Reformed Christian (member of a PCA Church) I am not altogether ready to dismiss tradition and its importance and weight on Christian Doctrine (neither do I believe Luther did this – in fact on many occasions he argued his point from tradition, but always in light of Scripture).

  5. Todd,

    Thanks for unmasking yourself! I agree with you that tradition should not be rejected merely because it is tradition. I do believe that God is at work in history in general, therefore in the church councils in particular. The church councils (as you noted) are not infallible however.

    In regard to the authority of tradition, I affirm what is called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”. The WQ sees four primary authorities in theological matters: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason (I use the acronym STER to remember these four.). All four authorities should be respected, but tradition, experience and reason may not trump Scripture. Instead Scripture is the ruling authority over all three. Most of the errors in church history have occured when tradition, experience or reason have been exalted to a ruling authority. Since Scripture alone is inerrant and infallible, all other authorities must be under its authority.

    In short, I don’t reject church tradition, I embrace it. However, tradition (like human experience and reason) must be constantly examined under the light of Scripture.

    What do you think?

  6. Steve,

    We pretty much see eye to eye here. There have been times in Church History where the Roman Catholic Church has placed tradition at the same level as Scripture (in weight of authority), and times when the Pope claimed he had final say on issues of tradition and Scripture (Pope Leo during Luther’s day) this is where I become ‘reformed’ and realize that Scripture must have authority.

    However, the view of tradition for the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is not that tradition usurps the authority of Scripture. It is just the opposite, Catholics believe and teach (via the Church) that Tradition never ‘overturns’ Scripture. However, they would say that there are times in Church History and during certain councils where doctrine arises that the Scriptures are not explicit regarding that particular doctrine (best example is the doctrine of the Trinity). As you pointed out, Scripture touches on this doctrine, but it does not delineate the details which Nicea did about the doctrine, and we as Protestants would ‘die in the ditch’ for the view espoused by Nicea regarding the Trinity.

    Moreover, even though the Trinity as espoused at Nicea is a detailed doctrine and not as replete in Scripture as Nicea delineated it, we still know that what the Scriptures say regarding the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together with Nicea are quite complimentary (neither contradicts the other in any sense).

    I guess I say that to say . . . I was raised Protestant, became a Christian in a Protestant Church, went to a Protestant Seminary and most all my friends are Protestant. However, I have several very close Roman Catholic friends and know on a personal level several well known Catholic scholars. And there is a misunderstanding, it seems, from Protestants, regarding the issue of Tradition (which I am in no way saying you are in error regarding the Catholic teaching of Tradition).

    It is difficult to delineate here in short responses to one another. But the best example I can give is the gospel itself. It began as a tradition of Christianity. It was spoken long before it was ever written. And people were converted into Christianity via the spoken gospel. When it actually became written it was written in much greater detail than when it was spoken (e.g. see Peter’s first gospel message in Acts 2:14-47) Here, Peter gives a very basic simple and short gospel message – repent and be baptized (2:38-39).

    Also, the books of the Canon were assembled via councils in tradition, we as Protestants read the Bible we do because of certain men in Church history who ‘decided’ that these particular works should be included in the Canon. If we as Protestants belive that the Bible is infallible (which we should), then I just don’t see how we can escape the fact that God had to have worked in and through these men/councils to assemble an infallible text.

    I am not sure if I am making my point well enough, but I am about to post a series titled a Protestant View of Tradition at my blog site which will at least give me the ability to be more detailed than I can be here in a quick response. I hope all this makes a little sense (?).

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