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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Fleeing the Pharisaical Spirit


"These people honour me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me."

Mark 7:6

As we move now into chapter 7, it’s clear that Jesus’ teaching and his miraculous actions, have become known further afield than in the area of Galilee only.


We can see that fact in verse 1. Apparently, Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law had made the journey from Jerusalem - not an insignificant one - to see what this man, Jesus, was up to.

And Mark, knowing his audience, explains who these characters are, which is useful for us. And he introduces them by their actions. He’s saying in verse 3 that they were the kind of people who were very zealous for the traditions of the elders.

Traditions are ideas, passed down from generation to generation that garner allegiance and gain prominence in the thinking of the people.


So, a tradition in our culture that fits that definition would be Christmas for example. Passed down from generation to generation, and which all the people collectively agree on because it’s become so prominent in our thinking.


Just like we observe the tradition of Christmas, so the Pharisees observed the traditions of the elders, you can see that in verse 4.

Traditions like, washing cups, and jugs, and kettles. Not only that but, when they’d been to the marketplace, they washed their hands before eating too (v.4).


Now that may not sound too odd to us. Keeping vessels used for drinking and eating clean, and washing hands before eating is kind of sanitary, so, quite right that those kinds of traditions got passed down and observed - you may think! But it’s not that simple. The Pharisees are about morethan hygiene with their traditions.


The washing they have mind, be it hands or vessels, is a ceremonialkind of washing (v.3). That means it was a washing invested with a religious or ritualistic significance.

This is why we read from Leviticus 11 earlier. It was to show that God gave the Israelites cleansing laws. And specifically, that they were designed to reflect his holiness.

They were designed to consecrate or set apart the nation of Israel from the ungodly, profane, defiled sinners around them.


His way of doing that was to give them instructions about which kinds of animals they could and couldn’t eat.

And if they ate the ones that were prohibited, they would be counted unclean.


The chapter anticipates some domestic challenges. After identifying the lizards that God deemed unclean, the law said that when one of those creatures died and fell on an article, or fell into a clay pot, then those items had to be placed in water until evening and had to be deemed unclean until then.


Ovens, cooking pots, seeds that were to be planted - all received the same cleansing treatment when they’d been in contact with the carcass of an unclean animal. And the people who touched the articles were also considered unclean until evening.


God’s concluding remarks, at the end of the chapter were that they were not to defile themselves by any of those unclean creatures for, he said, ‘I am the Lord your God, consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy’.

So, that’s the backdrop to the ceremonial washings that these Pharisees were obsessed with. They were sticklers for the law of God, for sure. But they were more than that, they were sticklers for the law of God plustheir own elder-traditions.


Nowhere, for example, did God say anything about the marketplace, like in verse 4. Yet the Jewish elders had taken the good laws that God had given them and added their own marketplace stipulation which God hadn’t intended.

And these tradition additions to the law is what brings these Pharisees into conflict with Jesus.

Gathering around Jesus, verse 2 says, they ‘saw some of [Jesus’] disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed’.


Knowing that the disciples hadn’t washed, prompted them to ask Jesus why his disciples didn’t live ‘according to the tradition of the elders’ (v.5). Notice they don’t say ‘according to the law of God’.

They use the terminology found in the law of God – they say ‘eating food with defiled hands’ – ‘defiled’ is law-of-God language from Leviticus 11. But they couple it with a stipulation that is an elder tradition (v.5).

This is how false religions start out – with an admixture of truth and tradition that leads to falsehood.

They expected Jesus’ disciples to observe the traditions of the elders, which in their minds, carried first-rank authority - a ‘command-of-God’ kind of authority.

And in asking the question of Jesus, you can sense a judgment - they haven’t stated it, but it’s there in their question. They think the disciples and Jesus are defiled unrighteous sinners because of their rules.

So, the elders - generations before these guys - took a good law - given by God - and they conveniently forgot the point of the command which was, ‘be holy, because I am holy’; they reduced the goal of the command to the method of the command - namely purity; then they expanded the definition of the command to include other things that, in their minds, defiled – like marketplaces; then they wrote it down and started holding people to it; and then, as it plays out here, they saw Jesus’ disciples eating without washed hands and called them out for it.

And by forgetting the point for the command, they minimised God. Did you see that? God said, ‘this is how you’re going to show that you are holy and therefore that you belong to me’. And they went and changedthe parameters, thereby nullifying God’s purpose and minimising God in the process!


Jesus’ Verdict on the Pharisees

Now I’m sure that they would have had a lot more to say to Jesus and his disciples were it not for what Jesus says next, because he is veryforthright with these men. Here are five things that Jesus calls them out for - to their faces - between verse 6 and 8.

First, he calls them hypocrites (v.6). And here’s how they are hypocrites according to Jesus, ‘they honour God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him’.


In other words, they call others out for being unrighteous - for eating with defiled hands - but they are the unrighteous ones. Because they talk of righteousness, but it’s their hearts that are defiled. There’s a disconnect between the lips and the heart.

Lip-heart disconnect, that’s number 2.


Third, that disconnect means that everything they think is worship amounts to vanity (v.7)! It puffs them up, but that’s all it does. It means ultimately nothing. It’s not received. It’s not effective. It’s not worship.


Fourth, all their teachings are useless because they’re merely human (v.7). Why should anybody take them seriously? They are relativistic nonsense. They have no authority. They don’t accord with the truth and therefore they mislead the people.


And fifth, by making their own commands they have forgotten and let go of the commands of God (v.8). They grasp for the human traditions, and simultaneously they’re careless with the commands of God.

The commands of God should be of first importance because they come from God, but they have given human commands the priority instead. That’s Jesus’ verdict.

And it’s not like they’re innocently making these mistakes. Jesus wants to show how cunning they are. He calls their approach ‘a fine way’ in verse 9. They are precise and cleaver with their human rules. They didn’t arrive at them by accident, and he shows it by example in verse 10.

By two commandments from God via his servant Moses which amount to the same thing: ‘hold in highest esteem your father and mother’.

‘But’, Jesus says in verse 11, ‘you Pharisees say that anything that might have been used to help their father or mother, if it is devoted to God, then it’s fine, you don’t have to give it to them’.

And the result is, the parents who should have been honoured with the help you could give them, end up being dishonoured, and left destitute because of your human rules!


That means that God’s command that was designed to look after the parents is undermined and emptied of its potency. And Jesus says to them, in effect, ‘that’s just one example’ (v.13)!

Now this is clearly serious, otherwise Jesus wouldn’t be giving them such a hard time about it. And so, I think it’s something that we should pay close attention to.


I suspect that the spirit of Pharisee is part of who we are in our human nature. In other words - the Pharisees had made a profession out of something that comes naturally to all of us. And if that’s true it should alarm us because we’re human and Jesus was so scathing of them.


So, let’s dig down a little and ask how this spirit of Pharisee might be at work in us and how it might manifest itself.


Religion on the Outside but Not the Inside

The first thing to think about is that Pharisee-ism is religion on the outside but not on the inside.

If you’re a true Christian here this morning, then your mind might shoot right now to the nominal Christian who has a good-works religion.

They believe in God; treat people right; give to charity; go to church as often as possible and they have a religion that to the average person, from the outside, looks noble.

And that would be true. That kind of person has an outward religion. They have this fundamental disconnect between the lips and heart, or the hands and the heart, that Jesus is talking about.


What they say and what they desire are two different things. The motivation for their outward performance is to get strokes from people for their noble behaviour. Or, their motivation might be to feel better about themselves. But the motivation is never the one motivation that really matters.


Because the one motivation that really matters is this: ‘I must have you God’! All the outward forms can look like ‘I want God’, but unless the heart actually wants him, then there’s no true religion. True religion that honours God, wants God, for God.

But that can be a problem for God’s rescued people too, right? You can go through the motions as you come to church Sunday by Sunday, but your heart isn’t really wanting to connect with God at all.

You can say I’ll hear God speak to me in his word, and then be one hundred percent heart disconnected as you read the words.

You can say, I would pour out my heart to God, only for your heart to feel nothing of what your brain is processing as you pray.

I know because I have this problem too!


So, even for the believer, there’s a battle going on within, for a true heart religion.

Remember, Jesus, quoting Isaiah here in verse 6 says, ‘they honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’. Maybe that’s us this morning, or this week.

And worship is at stake! We can call this worship, but that all depends on what our hearts are doing. Are they going after God? If not, then we worship in vain verse 6 says.

2 Deadly Motivations

I wonder what was motivating the Pharisees. I suspect it was one of two things, although it could have been both. Both are evil. They could have been motivated by the praise of God. Or they could have been motivated by the praise of men. Both are evil and both are deadly.


They could have thought that by their outward performance they could win the favour of God. God’s standard was exacting to be sure, but they could make it more exacting and then hold themselves and others to it, and that would win God’s favour.

Nothing could be more wrong! God goes to great lengths to show us that human merit - even when it’s in accordance with his standards - is death to us.

Only his perfect Son, Jesus, is qualified to perform a perfect work that satisfies his holiness.

And wonder of all wonders, he’s willing to do that on our behalf. In that case we’re counted acceptable because of him; but never because of us.

And then there’s the other deadly motivation which is human praise. In that case, religion is just a means to a human advantage.


Beware church never becomes either of these things. If you make the drinks on Sunday morning, or provide cakes, or teach Sunday club, or walk with a banner this afternoon, let it never be to add to the performance of Jesus on your behalf, or to garner the praise of people. Both notions are corrupt, and deadly.


2 Reasons Why Those Motivations are Corrupt

And they’re corrupt for two fundamental reasons. They serve to undermine two loves - love for God and love for neighbour. They are at root, love for self.

The self-love that says, ‘I can add a little to Jesus’ work here, robs God of the glory that is seen in his mercy and grabs some of the glory by self-merit.


And the self-love that says, I can get the praise of people here, robs people of the love that you should give them when you look outside of yourself, to the needs of others.


That’s why Jesus gave the example he did in verse 10. Instead of being a blessing to parents, the Pharisees self-love results in robbing parents of the loving help they need.


2 Ways to Become a Pharisee

There are two ways you can be a Pharisee according to what we’re seeing here. You can be a Pharisee by making rules and placing them on other people and then holding them accountable for them.

All manner of external behaviours that we consider questionable become rules in our own minds and then we judge others by them.

That’s the human rule bit, and it’s prevalent.


But don’t miss here the letting go of the commands of God bit! That’s Pharisee-ism too. And I think we increasingly see an Evangelical church that is forgetting that God has given us good and wise instructions for how to live and we mustn’t neglect them.


Here's Luke 11:28 - ‘Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it’. And 1 John 2:3 - ‘We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands’. So, we can have a Pharisaical spirit also, when we seek to minimise the commands of God.

Jesus really gets into the nitty gritty of this from verse 14 onwards.

Calling the crowds to him, he said, ‘it’s what comes out of a person that defiles them not what goes in’. At this point Jesus is zeroing in on the heart of the matter which is the heart of a person. 


In verse 21 he says that ‘it’s from within, out of a person’s heart that evil thoughts come’ - not out of their stomachs. And then he lists the evil thoughts that come from within, ‘sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice [that’s desire to harm someone else - in whatever conceivable way], deceit, lewdness [that’s indecency], envy [being discontent because of what someone else has], slander [a false report about somebody], arrogance, and folly’. These are the kinds of things that defile a person because they come from the heart - from within. God looks at the heart!


Jesus is saying, forget food no one should make peace with these things. If they do, they are making peace with the evil that comes from within.

And yet, these things do continue to come out of our hearts though we have been saved.

So how do we put it all together and what are the implications?


It goes together like this: It would be pharisaical to try to earn favour with God by conforming to outward rules - human or God-given. That’s true.

However, it would also be pharisaical to say I’m saved by Jesus, and I can’t do anything about all these defiling sins that Jesus just listed, so I’ll just sit back and make peace with them.


Both would be pharisaical. But it’s not pharisaical to stand in the reality of who you are in Jesus -purified - and strive to become that reality. That would be Godliness, not Pharisee-ism. And that might sound odd but let me show you what I mean.


Listen to the way 2 Corinthians 7:1 puts it: ‘Therefore since we have these promises [unbelievable promises of God to us his people from chapter 6], dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God’.

Can you hear where the emphasis is falling? This is something you do, because of what you have already been made. Because you are the sons and daughters of God - which he has made you, by the purifying blood of Jesus - purify yourselves, perfecting holiness! That’s radical Godliness according to the new covenant!


Or this verse from 1 Corinthians, chapter 5 - ‘Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch - as you really are. For Christ, the Passover lamb, has been sacrificed’.

This verse is saying the same thing. Christ has been sacrificed as your Passover lamb - thanks be to God!

Now because of that fact, you do something - get rid of the old leaven! ‘So that you may be a new unleavened batch - as you really are’.


So, we are not to nullify (v.13) the word of God - the command of God - which is designed to direct us to greater degrees of becoming what we already are, by having that pharisaical approach.

Rather, we’re to be a godly people who pursue purity for the glory of God.

Because God is glorified in supplying the grace for both justification - in Christ - and sanctification - progressive holiness - through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We have no part in justification, we have significant part with the holy spirit in sanctification!

Yes and No to the Body

As the emphasis of Jesus falls on the heart here in verses 14 through to 23, so it falls away from the body and what goes into it. Which is his point. Food does not defile.

And yet he knew, as we know, that some things we put into our bodies, affect our bodies negatively. He said elsewhere that if your eye causes you to sin gouge it out. Obviously, your eye can only cause you to sin by what your eye beholds, not by merely being an eye.

What goes in through the eye can cause a person to stumble into sin. Pornography for example, goes in through the eye.

But those things that go in from outside are not the root problem – and that’s what Jesus is getting at. The root problem is the heart.

The heart is deceitful and wicked above all things, who can know it! Jeremiah 17:9.

We shouldn’t think of the things that we put in, whether by eyes, or ears or mouth, as being the things that are responsible for the evil that comes out of us. It’s our hearts that are responsible. And that means that we are responsible.


But, it would, would it not, be stupid to think that we couldn’t helpourselves in our quest for purity by abstaining from something that we know tempts us to impurity. Satan did not whisper in the ear of Jesus the idea that he turn the stones he could see with his eyes into bread for nothing!


So, if we men find the seductive images of airbrushed women cleverlyplaced in the top right corner of our YouTube window problematically tempting, then it would be baffling if we didn’t take steps to do something about that.

And if a brother confessed that problem to another brother and they said, ‘have you thought about ditching YouTube’ - or some such advice - then that would be a far cry from pharisee-ism. That would be a helpfulencouragement in pursuing purity and one to be thankful for.

So, we need wisdom here. We don’t want to become a Pharisee either way - that would kill us, and those around us.

We need to avoid heaping man-made burdens on each other, and instead help each other to pursue the purity God has saved us to – which is revealed in his word.

 And by his grace we will do it.


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