Making Void the Word of God by Traditions | Mark 6:53-7:13

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (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. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 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?” 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; 
           in vain do they worship me, 
                       teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

            You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” 

Mark 6:53-7:13 ESV

The Assyrian Empire was brutal and seemingly unstoppable in its conquest of the world. Being what many call the world’s first true superpower, the Assyrians relied heavily upon might and terror to establish their dominion. The Northern Kingdom of Israel would learn that reality firsthand, as the Assyrians decimated Samaria and then either slaughtered or deported the people to be slaves scattered throughout the empire.

It is reasonable then that the rulers in Jerusalem were terrified of this looming threat. However, in their fear, they should have turned to the LORD as King Hezekiah would do once the armies of Assyria came to lay siege to Jerusalem. Instead of trusting in God’s deliverance, the rulers made an alliance with the other great kingdom of the ancient world, Egypt.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God denounced this alliance. Did not God deliver their fathers from the land of Egypt, and were they now retreating to Egypt for security? The LORD further denounced their supposed piety. Of course, they continued to pray to Him, pleading with Him for security, yet under the cover of night, they thought to further insulate themselves through the aid of Egypt. The profession of their lips was faith in God, but the evidence of their heart only revealed unbelief.

FAITH IN GENNESARET // VERSES 53-56

After describing to us the account of Jesus treading upon the surface of the water, Mark continues on:

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

Here again we have the popularity of Christ established. The rumors of Him had spread, especially through the work of His apostles and now with the miraculous feeding of the multitude. Even Herod wondered at this Jesus of Nazareth. Although they intended to go to Bethsaida (6:45), the wind had evidently drifted them off course so that they came to Gennesaret. This was, of course, according to the providence of God, for at Gennesaret they were met with an eager and believing crowd.

In fact, I say believing crowd because Mark makes an important distinction between this passage and the other passages of Jesus healing many. People coming from all over the land, as we see in verses 55-56, is nothing new. Jesus seems to be perpetually followed by a great crowd that longs to be healed. And in every place, except with the Gerasenes and the Nazarenes, Jesus did heal many people. Yet here we are told that the people beg to touch the fringe of His garment and are made well by that touch. Back in 3:9-10, we were told that Jesus needed to have a boat ready because the crowd that had gathered was pressing in to touch Him and threatened to crush Him. Mark notably does not tell us that their touch made them well.

Indeed, in Mark 5, we read of a great crowd that thronged about Jesus, yet only the woman with a discharge of blood was made well by touching His garment. Again, there is a great difference between those who press in upon Jesus almost as if demanding their miracle and those who by faith trust that even the slightest touch of His clothing can make them well. The fact that Mark tells us that the crowd at Gennesaret was filled with those who did not press in upon Jesus but implored Him to permit a mere touch, shows us that Gennesaret was filled with many who had faith like the woman in chapter 5.

Great indeed is the providence of God, for Matthew 10:21 tells us that Jesus had already pronounced woe upon Bethsaida for their unbelief, yet Gennesaret was evidently filled with belief.

TRADITIONS OF THE PHARISEES // VERSES 1-5

Entering chapter 7, another gathering occurs, yet this one is markedly less encouraging. Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem. The last appearance of the scribes and Pharisees as back in chapters 2-3 when we witnessed a series of encounters with Christ that led the Pharisees to conspire with the Herodians about putting Jesus to death (3:6) and the scribes of Jerusalem to conclude that Jesus was demon-possessed (3:22). Therefore, as these two groups enter the scene and together gather about Jesus, we should see a pack of wolves coming in close to see whether or not the shepherd will drop His guard. We continue to read:

they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (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. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 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?”

We should first note, and take warning of, the character of the Pharisees and the scribes. Notice their critical and fault-finding nature. Such cynicism is the symptom of a heart that has been deadened by sin. Of course, we must be ready to take a stand against false doctrine and licentiousness, as we are called to contend for the faith (Jude 3), yet we must take great care not to devolve into such petty judgments that stem from a heart of legalism. We should also make note that just as the Pharisees were plotting with the Herodians against Jesus, while licentiousness and legalism appear to be opposite extremes, they often are more closely bound than one might otherwise assume. Look no further than the sexual revolution, which claims to give license to all behavior (if it makes you happy, right?) yet has now become just as Pharisaical in dogmatically guarding its traditions as the actual Pharisees were. But let us watch carefully our own steps, lest we too stumble down that road of destruction.

Let us next consider the subject of their criticism. They accused some of Jesus’ disciples of sin because they did not wash their hands before eating. Sproul notes that “hygiene had nothing to do with their complaint… The washing in question here was merely symbolic. In fact, the amount of water that the Pharisees and the scribes used to wash their hands before eating was so slight that it would not have done much to promote good hygiene.”[1]

But why then did they wash their hands? Does Scripture command such a practice? No, it does not. The practice was done out of tradition, a tradition handed down by rabbis throughout the centuries. During the time of Christ, these traditions were passed down orally, but later they were written down as the Mishnah. These traditions were not commandments as found God’s Word; they were simply the teachings of men from the past. The fact that Mark felt the need to give a lengthy description of what all Jews do before they eat is a strong indication that his original readers were Gentiles. Otherwise, such editorial comments would not be necessary.

We will refrain from discussing the nature and danger of tradition for the moment; rather, let us consider a word that has been used only twice in Mark’s Gospel, once in verse 4 and the other time in 6:56: marketplace. In Gennesaret, Jesus evidently went the marketplaces in order to heal all who had faith to be healed. Marketplaces were the most trafficked portions of a town or city, and it was the place where Jew and Gentile were most likely to come into contact with one another. The Pharisees and scribes, therefore, washed themselves fully after visiting the marketplace in order to remove the filth of all those sinful people off of them. How different is Jesus, who gladly stood in the grime and had the diseased and afflicted brought to Him!

We should each be eternally thankful for this aspect of Jesus’ character. His readiness to enter into the chaotic marketplaces to heal is a micro-portrait of Jesus’ entirely earthly life. Although co-equal with the Father, Christ entered into our world, the Author of life wrote Himself into the narrative, to save us. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus was terrifyingly holy and radiantly pure. The Pharisees and scribes only imagined themselves holy and pure and believed it necessary to wash off the filthiness of their contact with the sinners around them. Jesus, however, came purposely to take on the filthiness of our sin. He came not to be polluted Himself but to erase our pollution in the blaze of His purity.[2] Let us praise our Lord that He was not ashamed to take our sin upon Himself and even now is not ashamed to call us His brothers.

LIP-SERVICE & VAIN WORSHIP // VERSES 6-13

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and scribes is direct and pointed:

 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; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.

You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your traditions! For Moses said, “Honor your father and mother”; and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” But you say, “If a man tells his father or his mother, ‘Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God) — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.

Notice that Christ first calls them hypocrites, meaning, of course, that their outward appearance and conduct differed from their heart. The Isaiah passage makes this quite clear. Hypocrisy in worship is giving God lip-service, while one’s heart remains detached. Isaiah originally spoke these words to the people of Jerusalem who continued to pray and sacrifice to God, even as they made an alliance with Egypt for their security. They outwardly spoke as though they trusted God to deliver them, but their actions displayed what they truly believed. They did not believe in the deliverance of God but in the security of negotiations. Their worship, therefore, was nothing more than a vanity. They traded away true security for a pale imitation.

So, it was with the Pharisees and scribes as they abandoned the commandments of God in favor of their traditions. They were forsaking the greater in favor of the lesser. Thus, their worship could be nothing other than vain and empty. They made it so.

Jesus then gives a specific example of how they forsook God’s commandments in favor of tradition. Corban was another of the rabbinical traditions “whereby a person could promise that at his death he would give all of his worldly goods to the work of God. That meant during his lifetime he would not be able to use his personal wealth for any other purpose, because it had been committed to God. So, in the name of piety, a person could escape the obligation of caring for his parents in times of illness or in their old age, when they might be too frail to support themselves.”[3] Of course, the person still needed to take care of himself while living, so he could use his wealth on himself. Thus, a ‘godly’ loophole was created for not having to provide for one’s father and mother.

Notice that the problem is not necessarily the tradition itself. There is nothing wrong with washing one’s hands before a meal, especially for good hygiene. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with devoting one’s wealth to God. The problem was the forsaking of God’s actual commandments in order to follow man-made traditions. Of course, the Pharisees would have never claimed that their traditions were more important than Scripture, but that was the effect. We see this today still within Roman Catholicism. They hold that both Scripture and church tradition are equally authoritative. The great problem is that whenever anything is said to be of equal authority with Scripture, the end result is always that Scripture becomes interpreted through the lens of the other authority. (Mormons have this same problem with the Book of Mormon.) In Catholicism, for example, the traditional view of Mary is that she remained a virgin perpetually; therefore, they wiggle away from the plain reading of Scripture that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were His half-siblings through Mary. Notice that is always Scripture that yields to tradition rather than the other way around, even though they say that both are equal.

The Pharisees would have thought something similar, but tradition can never be truly equal with God’s Word. To claim equality always means that tradition usurps the Bible.

Let us, however, be warned that we are just as capable of such hypocrisy. We may even be in a slightly worse position, for rather than making a theological argument for our traditions we often just blatantly acknowledge them as our preferences and use them to excuse ourselves from the commands of God. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples is how the COVID shutdowns have revealed how many are ready to forsake the Lord’s Day gathering with Christ’s body out of pure preference. Indeed, how many Christians this very day have elected to disobey the command of Scripture because they just can’t find the right church! There is no perfect church, until the day when we as the Church are made perfect.

The sorrowful reality is that people still leave the commandment of God to hold their own traditions. Of course, time would fail us if we tried to list all of our modern-day traditions, so let us work in reverse, focusing on the Lord’s Day gathering. What does Scripture command us to do as we gather for worship? Broadly speaking, we are to pray, preach, sing, and observe the ordinances. Beyond those commands, we enter into tradition. How long should the sermon be? How should the sermon end? How many times should we pray? How many songs should we sing? Are we allowed to use instruments or not? What does our meeting together the rest of the week look like? How often should we observe the Lord’s Supper?

Those are all questions that are typically answered by tradition or a breaking thereof. To elevate the answer to any of those questions into the place of a commandment is to make a tradition equal to God’s Word.

Of course, because Scripture is not specific on methods of worship, tradition is impossible to flee entirely, nor should we want to. Traditions themselves are not the problem, making them equal to and greater than God’s Word is. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ, Seventh Day Adventists, and others all started out of the Restoration Movement, where church leaders were abandoning all church tradition in favor of pure biblicism (a “nothing but the Bible” approach). The problem is that jettisoning 1800 years of church history left them quickly susceptible to ancient heresies long defeated. Thus, Arianism was reborn in Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness, and Pelagianism rose anew in the Church of Christ.[4] The reality is that many traditions of the faith are very helpful, so long as we do not give them more authority than they are meant to bear.

How should we then respond? First, since we cannot escape tradition (and it would be foolish to try), let us strive to hold our traditions in their proper place. Let us not give them more weight than they are intended to bear, and let us be charitable especially with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that practice different traditions yet still hold to the truths of God’s Word.

Second and most importantly, we must hold fast to the trustworthy Word in true faith and obedience. All our traditions and preferences must either bend or break when they come into conflict with what God has spoken. And let our submission to Scripture not be in word alone but also in heart and in deed. Let us not be like the rulers of Jerusalem who worship God with our lips alone, while withholding our hearts from Him. Instead, Scripture displays to us the wondrous gospel of Christ as our proper motivation for obedience. As Calvin writes,

God has manifested Himself as Father to us. If we do not manifest ourselves as sons to Him in turn, we prove ourselves to be extremely ungrateful. Christ has cleansed us by washing us with His blood, and has communicated this cleansing to us through baptism. It would be inappropriate, therefore, for us to defile ourselves with fresh filthiness. Christ has engrafted us into His body. We, therefore, who are His members must be especially careful not to fling mud or filthiness on the body of Christ. Christ our Head has ascended to heaven. We, therefore, must set aside earthly affections and wholeheartedly long for that place. The Holy Spirit has consecrated us as temples of God. We, therefore, must let the glory of God shine through us, and we must not pollute ourselves with sin. Our bodies and souls have been destined to heavenly incorruption and an unfading crown. We, therefore, must strive upward—keeping ourselves pure and incorruptible until the Day of the Lord.[5]

May we be like the people Gennesaret rather than the Pharisees, knowing the slightest touch of Christ is worth more than all the rules and regulations that man can offer.


[1] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 140.

[2] Somewhat how ultraviolet light destroys bacteria.

[3] Sproul, Mark, 149.

[4] I am, of course, not saying that all members of Church of Christ are fall under Pelagianism; only that it is common patten of belief among that denomination.

[5] John Calvin, A Little Book on the Christian Life, 9-11.

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