5 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?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“ ‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mk 7:4–9). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
The Indictment (7:6–9)
Jesus responded, not by answering the Pharisees’ question but by indicting them for their hypocrisy. He would later give an answer to His disciples (vv. 17–23), but to the apostate religious leaders He offered no explanation or excuse. Instead, He confronted the calloused unbelief that characterized the false system that they embraced.
Taking them straight to the Scriptures, Jesus began by pointing to the prophet Isaiah. He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites.” The Pharisees were hypocrites because, although they looked holy on the outside, their hearts were unrepentant and corrupt. As Jesus told them on a later occasion, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27–28). Like the Israelites of Isaiah’s day, the Pharisees and scribes emphasized external rituals and extrabiblical regulations while completely neglecting a genuine love for God. Quoting from Isaiah 29:13, Jesus said, “As it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ ” Isaiah’s words struck at the heart of the Pharisaic system, which pretended to love God, yet worshiped Him in a way that was superficial, contrived, unbiblical, and unacceptable. In case they missed the point, Jesus added, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” The Pharisees and scribes were far more concerned with upholding rabbinic customs than obeying God’s law.
First-century Judaism, like all forms of apostate religion, elevated man-made traditions above the teachings of Scripture. The Pharisees prized their rites, rituals, and regulations, allowing that which was merely external to take the place of true worship and heartfelt obedience. Outwardly, they paid homage to God with their lips, but inwardly their calloused hearts were far away from Him. Because they had never been transformed on the inside, their attempts to worship God were inevitably hypocritical. True worship, by contrast, flows from the soul that has been regenerated and eagerly seeks to honor and submit to the will of the Lord. As Jesus explained in John 4:24, the only worship God accepts is that which is “in spirit” (from the heart) and in “truth” (according to sound doctrine). As self-righteous hypocrites who rejected the Messiah, the Pharisees failed on both counts.
These archetypal fakes were outraged that Jesus disregarded their traditions. But the Lord knew that neither He nor His disciples were bound to follow rabbinic customs. Only that which came from Scripture was authoritative; where tradition conflicted with the Word of God, tradition needed to be overturned and its purveyors openly exposed. Consequently, Jesus was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” The Pharisees and scribes accused Jesus’ disciples of committing a serious offense. In reality, it was they who were guilty of the real crimes against God. They neglected the commandment of God and influenced many others to do the same. Their hands may have been washed and cleansed, but their hearts were not. Consequently, they and their followers were headed for eternal judgment (cf. Matt. 23:15).
5–8 To the question as to why Jesus’ disciples acted as they did, Jesus answered by quoting a passage from Isaiah, preceded by his own comment: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites” (v. 6). The word “hypocrite” (hypokritēs, GK 5695) originally meant “play actor” and refers here to people whose worship is merely outward and not from the heart. Though the term is common in Matthew (thirteen occurrences), Mark uses it only here. In saying that Isaiah had prophesied about them, Jesus did not mean that Isaiah had in mind the Pharisees and the teachers of the law when he originally wrote these words but that his denunciation of the religious leaders of his day fit those of Jesus’ day. The quotation (Isa 29:13) is from the LXX, which differs slightly from the MT in the last sentence. The MT says “their fear [or reverence] of me consists of commandments taught by men.” The LXX says “vainly they worship me, teaching human commandments and teachings.” Both make essentially the same point—that their traditions and regulations pay mere lip ser vice but show no true heart for God. Their outward appearance of piety is a lie, because it is not accompanied by a “total life commitment to the one who is the true object of religious devotion” (Anderson, 185).
In v. 8, Jesus contrasts the “commands of God” with the “traditions of men.” It is clear that this great body of Jewish tradition had failed to get to the heart of God’s commands. It was supposed to fence in the law so that the people would not infringe on it. In practice, however, the Pharisees were abandoning God’s law while holding fast to human traditions.
6–8 The question of the scribes receives a twofold answer. An immediate reply is provided by the pointed citation of Isa. 29:13, introduced with the ironic comment “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites!” This quotation is directly applied to the scribes and Pharisees in verse 8. A second answer is provided by the pregnant saying addressed to the crowd in verses 14 f., which exposes the deeper issue of the source of defilement which remains unaffected by cultic cleansing.
The quotation differs slightly in form from the Septuagint text and may have been drawn from a florilegium of prophetic passages used in Rome. It is probable that Jesus himself cited the Hebrew text or the Targum currently used in the synagogue. It has often been held that the charge of abandoning the commandment of God for the tradition of men (in verse 8) depends for its validity upon the Greek text where it differs from the Hebrew. This is clearly not the case. The Massoretic text contrasts formal lip-service to God with devotion from the heart and concludes, “this fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught (to them).” This is certainly relevant to the larger issue of the oral tradition which was diligently handed down to each generation of the Pharisees. It implies that even the concern to sanctify all of life, which is presupposed in the assumption of the priestly purity laws, rests less upon the commandment above all others, the love of God with the whole heart (Deut. 6:4; cf. Mk. 12:28–34), than upon a tradition which has been received and passed on as an expression of formal piety. This gives pointedness to the charge of hypocrisy which emphasizes the contradiction between what a man seems to be in the opinion of his peers and what he is before God. In the outward appearance of their piety the Pharisees were impeccable since they scrupulously observed numerous prescriptions and commandments. It was, nevertheless, a lie because they had not surrendered themselves to God.
Jesus’ sharp rebuttal sets in radical opposition the commandment of God and the halakhic formulations of the scribal tradition. Theoretically, the oral law was a fence which safeguarded the people from infringing the Law. In actuality it represented a tampering with the Law which resulted inevitably in distortion and ossification of the living word of God. The exaggerated reverence with which the scribes and Pharisees regarded the oral law was an expression of false piety supported by human precepts devoid of authority. Jesus categorically rejects the authority of the oral law.
7:8–9 holding on to human traditions … setting aside the commands of God. Jesus defines the oral tradition as merely “human” and shows it to be antithetical to God’s true “commands,” a major emphasis here (vv. 9, 13). When we live by external, legalistic decrees rather than the “spiritual sacrifices” (1 Pet. 2:5) of the heart that God demands, we fail. There is only one path to godly character: obeying God’s dictates in his word. The basic thesis is in verse 8, while verse 9 tells how they are practicing that very thing. The thing they do “best” is “abandoning” (“letting go” [v. 8]) and then “negating” (“setting aside” [v. 9]) God’s commands due to the priority of following their own “traditions.” They have turned against God in favor of their own ideas.
8. You let go the commandment of God in order to cling to the tradition of men. Pharisees and scribes were guilty of placing mere human tradition above divine revelation, a man-made rule above a God-given command. The rabbis had divided the Mosaic law or Torah into 613 separate decrees, 365 of these being considered prohibitions and 248 positive directives. Then, in connection with each decree, by drawing arbitrary distinctions between what they considered “permitted” and “not permitted,” they had attempted to regulate every detail of the conduct of the Jews: their sabbaths, travel, meals, fasts, ablutions, trade, relation toward outsiders, etc., etc. One finds an example of their hair-splitting, casuistic reasoning in Matt. 23:16–18. For many other interesting illustrations see A. T. Robertson, The Pharisees and Jesus, especially pp. 44, 45, 93 ff. Thus, having an eye only for the multiplicity of the decrees and of their myriad applications to concrete life situations, they had piled up precept upon precept (cf. Isa. 28:10, 13) until at last, by most of these scribes and Pharisees, the unity and purpose of God’s holy law—see Deut. 6:4; then Lev. 19:18; Mic. 6:8; cf. Mark 12:28–34—had suffered a total eclipse.
Jesus, accordingly, accuses his opponents of having relinquished the commandment of God in order to cling to the tradition of men. If anyone but Jesus had voiced this withering criticism against the religious leaders of the day, we might feel inclined to regard it as being possibly a bit extreme. What? Did these Pharisees and scribes actually set their oral law above the written law of the Old Testament? Was not this too harsh a judgment? The answer is: not at all. In fact, there is some evidence in support of the proposition that the rabbis themselves defended that position. They said, “To be opposed to the word of the scribes is worthy of greater punishment than to be opposed to the word of the Bible.” See Robertson’s work to which reference was made in the preceding paragraph, p. 130. They probably reasoned as follows: historically the oral law preceded the law in written form; therefore the oral law has precedence. It is clear, therefore, that the opponents were not in a position to maintain that what Jesus was saying was untrue.
How must it be explained that Jesus disagreed with the position of subordinating God’s written commandment to oral tradition? The answer is, apart from the obvious fact that, other things being equal, the spoken word is less durable, more subject to change from one generation to another, than the written document, the commandment came from the Holy God, and is therefore infallible, but the tradition, a tradition of interpretation, originated with sinful men, and is therefore fallible. In the present case, as has been shown, it was frequently wretched, misleading, corrupt.
It would be entirely wrong to draw the conclusion that Jesus was opposed to tradition, that he wanted to overthrow whatever was old and was in that sense a revolutionist. Passages such as Matt. 5:17, 18; 23:1–3; Mark 10:5–9 prove that he was not. What he opposed was any man-made teaching or rule that was in conflict with the divine law. He was “old-fashioned” in the best sense of the term, for he went back all the way until beyond faulty and misleading tradition he found his Father’s original revelation and commandment.
In the present passage Jesus refers to the commandment of God, using the singular. If he was even now thinking of the precept which he was about to quote (verse 10) we can see the reason for this singular. However, it may be generic, the one command representing the entire class.
7:8. Jesus made it clear there was a big difference between the traditions of men and the commands of God. True worship must come from the heart. It must be directed by God’s truth, not a set of ideas. These “traditions” were supposed to help the people keep God’s law, but they actually usurped God’s law and drove people from God. The Mishna, a collection of Jewish traditions in the Talmud, records, “It is a greater offense to teach anything contrary to the voice of the Rabbis than to contradict Scripture itself.” This is a clear example of how the “traditions of the elders” had become more important than the law—God’s Word.
 MacArthur, J. (2015). Mark 1–8 (pp. 343–345). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Wessel, W. W., & Strauss, M. L. (2010). Mark. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 800). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (pp. 248–249). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Osborne, G. R. (2014). Mark. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (pp. 117–118). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (Vol. 10, pp. 275–276). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 Cooper, R. L. (2000). Mark (Vol. 2, p. 117). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.