Have you ever sat and read Scripture with your sails set against the wind, your destination point already plotted on your map, the purpose is already settled in your heart and pen, and then…You stumble across something else completely and it blows your mind? This happened to me recently. As our church studies through Mark, I study ahead of the pastor a chapter or two in case he asks me to step in and teach. In this case, I was reading Mark 7.
This chapter is one that I have turned to many, many times in my stand against Fundamental Legalism. It simply fits the bill. In many Bibles the chapter is giving the title, ‘Traditions and Commandments‘ and it begins with a common theme in the early narratives of the Synoptic Gospels – the Pharisees are trying to condemn Jesus, and His disciples for not following all of their rules. The Commandments of Men.
In this narrative, Jesus’ disciples are eating without washing their hands and in that time, as the Scripture clarifies, the tradition of the elders was that no food was to be eaten without first purifying the hands to ensure nothing would enter into the body and defile the person. In Matthew 15:11 Jesus cleared up the waters on this, saying that it is what comes from the mouth that defiles the person, not what enters into the mouth. Yet, this small passage has some hugely significant clues as to where this is going.
Mark 7, verse 3-4: “(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.”
Right away we are treated to the truth that this was a tradition set by the Pharisee and Jewish elders – the handwashing. This was not a commandment of God, it wasn’t in the law of Moses. It was simply a tradition. For those in the Oneness Pentecostal system that I exited from (and I pray sincerely that God will lead all from), this is called ‘standards’. Things not written in Scripture but are deemed as wholesome and good lifestyle choices. And to be fair, ALL of the Fundamental systems/cults have these, just to be an equal opportunist with my criticisms. The problem is they always and eventually lead to ‘Commandments’.
And to be fair again – some of these things aren’t all that bad! Living in the days preceding the invention of antibacterials, cleanliness was important and could be life-altering. Yet, standards are not what we see here. Good choices and recommendations aren’t where this is coming from. These traditions had become ‘heaven or hell’ issues to put it into modern vernacular, understandable by the church-goer today.
And the latter half of verse 4 talks about ‘other traditions that are kept’ like the washing of pots and pans, etc. In verse 5, the condemnation really kicks in:
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?”
Now, one must understand that in this culture and time, ‘defilement’ was a huge issue. This wasn’t the Pharisees handing Jesus’ disciples a bottle of hand sanitizer saying, ‘Hey guys, you might want to wash up – this restaurant isn’t known for being clean…’ Rather, this was the Pharisees and the Jewish scribes declaring Jesus and his disciples defiled. To have a Rabbi declared ‘defiled’ along with his disciples was a slap in the face – a public declaration of humiliation and shame. They were to be avoided and kept at a distance until ritually purified. But Jesus had other words for these hypocrites – I word I use here very purposefully.
Mark 7:7 is a verse I have referenced often when combatting legalism, but verse six and where it led me is what blew my mind. But first, verse 6b and 7:
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. Mark 7:6b-7, ESV
While I don’t want to re-hash this today, the message from Christ is clear – every system that places their ‘traditions’ as being equal with the Commandments of God, standards that without being kept ‘defile‘ the person, systems that create ‘doctrines’ out of Unbiblical principles, they worship God in vain. In other words, their worship is meaningless, it has no value in the sight of God and produces no results. And, what results it may seem to produce, are not being produced by God Himself. That’s what ‘vain’ is. Something that was done for no good reason and with no good result.
In fact, Paul declares that the entire Gospel is worthless (in vain) if Jesus wasn’t resurrected. Without the resurrection, the Gospel has no meaning and everyone may as well find something better to do Sunday mornings. (1 Corinthians 15) That’s how powerful some of the words that are being used are. Vain and Defilement were not commonplace words that had small impacts on the audience. Like the use of the word hypocrite earlier – that sets people on edge and creates stress. The Word of God was doing the same thing here.
Connecting Jesus and Isaiah
To put this together, Mark 7:6 is where I’m going to bring you because from that leaping stone Jesus points us to something that the Pharisees and Jewish audience would have immediately recognized. And I can only imagine the gasps and sharp intakes of breath that would hiss from the rebuked mouths of those hypocrites – then and now.
6a And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. Mark 7:6a, 8 ESV
Recently someone left a comment on this blog from my article about Holy Magic Underwear, a look at the ‘traditions’ of the Mormon church and their sacred undergarments that they claim protect them from Satan, temptation and sin. That person said that I should be ashamed of myself for ridiculing them following the commandments of God. The only problem is, it isn’t a commandment of God, it’s a tradition of men.
In verse 9 Jesus says something that is 100% applicable to those within these cultic organizations and especially the Oneness/Pentecostal church I left; “You disregard and neglect the commandment of God, and cling [faithfully] to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:9, AMP)
They cling faithfully to these traditions – even after having them proven fallacious and unbiblical they are too afraid to let go of them. What if…becomes the motto. There seems to be no evidence but what if…And while that should not matter, it is exactly where this post is going and where Jesus took the crowd by reciting the prophecy of Isaiah.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people have admitted to me that in the ‘coming out’ phase of leaving legalism, their psyche was wracked with fear. They had been indoctrinated for so long that being cursed by God, rejected, or even cast into hell was the result of leaving these traditions. And of course, that’s exactly what we say the Pharisee’s condemning Jesus’ disciples with – defilement- unholiness.
Isaiah’s Prophecy of Fear
Isaiah 29 is what Jesus is quoting in Mark 7:7 that begins with the Siege of Jerusalem, called Ariel in this passage. Isaiah prophesies that Jerusalem will in great distress. They will make sacrifices to no avail. Their voices will be quenched and their count of their enemies will be like the particles of fine dust – uncountable.
Great distress and judgment will come upon Jerusalem, the people will be muffled and silenced. Their wise men will lose wisdom and most dangerous of all, those gifted with discernment shall have no discernment. Isaiah 29:10 says that the eyes of the prophet shall be closed, and the head (wisdom) of the seer will be covered. And finally, in verse 11/12 it says that all of the words of this will be hidden from them, like one being handed a book to read and saying, ‘but I cannot read!’.
This prophecy is frightful indeed – but verse 13 is what Jesus quotes in Mark 7:7 and where we are focusing;
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
Just in the midst of this terrible and frightful judgment upon Israel, we get a small glimpse into why they are judged and Isaiah 29 is nearly verbatim to the condition of Israel in Jesus’ day. The people were hypocrites, doing lip-service to God but in truth, they were creating a system of fear-based on their own traditions, as if they were the commandment of men.
As Jesus said in Matthew 23, people that teach these legalistic systems of false commandments shut the door of heaven off to those who would enter! They create a system of fear that is not based on the true commandments of God. Notice in that verse, Isaiah 29:13 that it says, ‘their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,’. The people didn’t fear God for His righteousness, nor did they fear God for his Holiness – they feared God because of the commandments of Man.
This is the rebuttal Christ gave the Pharisees when they called Jesus’ disciples unholy and defiled for breaking a tradition of man. And I would tell any modern-day Pharisee the same thing – when they create fear in a Child of God over something so stupid and trivial as whether they cut their hair, or wear makeup, or have facial hair or any one of the other hundreds of false commandments that have been made out to be the Commandment of God – they shut the door of heaven and create a false-fear of God that endangers their worship as vanity – something worthless and rejected by God.
The good news? Jesus promised to set us free from that nonsense! Even in Isaiah 29 came the promise that because false shepherds taught people false commandments and doctrines, and because these false shepherds led His people astray, he would come and do wonderful works among them to redeem them! This was promised twice, both in Isaiah 29 and in Ezekiel 34 which was a prophecy specifically aimed at bad shepherds.
As negative and bad as all of this sounds – it’s a joyful discovery that God KNOWS there are wolves in sheep’s clothing and HE is going to intervene on the behalf of His children!
Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: ~ Isaiah 29:14 KJV
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue[b] my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken. ~ Ezekiel 34:20-24, ESV