In the spiritual conflict for truth, the Lord and His disciples faced differing ideologies. Herod’s “political” thinking meant that he rejected truth when his reputation was threatened, and the death of John the Baptist was the result. As we come into Mark chapter 7, Herod’s opposition gives way to a confrontation with the religious elite.
The Lord’s fame made Him a target for Pharisees and scribes “which came from Jerusalem” (v1). These fact-finders were, in reality, fault-finders, and the Lord exposes their enmity to the truth (7:1-13). Subjects of particular relevance to Pharisees are then dealt with. The Lord challenges externalism (7:14-23). He directs a blow at exclusivism (7:24-30). In healing the deaf and dumb man, He confronts the egotism that would refuse to accommodate to others’ needs (7:31-37). At the conclusion, He circles back to the topics of exclusivism and externalism as He feeds four thousand (8:1-9) and rebukes the Pharisees’ preoccupation with signs (8:10-13).
This chiastic structure places emphasis on the central point: the problem of Egotism. There is little doubt that the Pharisees’ root problem was pride.
The Conflict: Pharisees (7:1-8:13)
Most of us recognise the “political” thinking of Herod as being opposed to truth. But what may not be so obvious is that the “religious” thinking of the Pharisees, who enforced extra-biblical regulations to preserve from laxness in observing Scripture, was also opposed to truth. Mark begins by recording the Lord’s exposure of:
The Enmity of the Pharisees (7:1-13)
The critical eye of the Jewish fact-finding mission swept over the healing of the sick and the feeding of the hungry. It did not rest on the miraculous evidences of the Lord’s messianic identity or even, at a more basic level, on His blessing of the multitudes. Determined to find fault, they discovered an infringement of the tradition of the elders. They asked, “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” (v5). It’s important to understand that this was not an issue of personal hygiene. The Pharisees believed that observing a strict procedure in washing your hands made you religiously fit to partake of food. This strict procedure had not been observed by the disciples.
The Lord responded to their criticism robustly. After calling them hypocrites, or play-actors, He revealed Scripture’s view of them (vv6-7) by quoting from Isaiah: “This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Their religion was merely external and built upon the words of men.
He then revealed their view of the Scriptures (vv8-13). They may have been adding to the Scriptures their own traditions but, in doing so, they were “laying aside the commandment of God” (v8), rejecting “the commandment of God” (v9), and “making the word of God of none effect” (v13).
How were they doing this? They had become so occupied with the additions and traditions that divine truth was compromised and forgotten. Moses (in Scripture) had said, “Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death” (v10), but they said (in observance of their traditions) that this scriptural command could be practically ignored. Therefore they were “making the Word of God of none effect” by their traditions.
Enforced extra-biblical traditions mar the perfect balance and supernatural harmony of biblical truth. Whatever our motive might be for adding to Scripture, we must humbly accept that we cannot improve on God’s perfect Word. Adding our own ingredients to the signature recipe of a world-class chef would only spoil the dish. Adding our ideas to God’s Word will only detract from it. The Lord clearly exposed the Pharisees as enemies of God’s truth.
The Externalism of the Pharisees (7:14-23)
At this point the Lord turned to “all the people” (v14). The Pharisees may be completely committed to their traditions but the people could be influenced for good. “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (v15 ESV).
The Pharisees’ criticism of the disciples focused upon their hands, raising the topic of ceremonial defilement. The Lord’s challenge to the Pharisees focused upon their heart and challenged their moral defilement. With this background the Lord’s meaning becomes clear. “There is nothing” (no food or drink) “outside a person that by going into him can defile him” (morally). A ceremonially defiled piece of meat cannot make a person morally unclean, neither can a ceremonially clean piece of meat make the consumer morally pure. But “the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” A man’s source of moral impurity is found within himself, in his own heart. There is therefore no correlation to be drawn between ceremonial (external) cleanness and moral (internal) purity. Rather, as the Lord explains later to His disciples, “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (vv21-23).
This exposure of externalism should have led the Pharisees to seek what was internal and real. Their hearts were defiled, and no external observance could rectify that problem. Nicodemus, one of their number, found the answer when he came to the Lord and received the instruction, “Ye must be born again” (Joh 3:7).
Practically, we must learn that extra-biblical traditions invariably place undue emphasis on externals and, when enforced, become harmful. Hearts attuned to God, and actions aligned with God’s Word, produce a true reflection of God’s character of righteousness and truth, mercy and love. The Lord perfectly exhibited this. And this is supremely important.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.