Legalism (Mark 7:14-23)

In this sermon, preached on Sunday morning in my church, I completed the account on legalism which spans from Mark 7:1-23. Here, Jesus answers the Pharisees’ accusation about why His disciples ate food with hands that were “defiled.” The Pharisees, in a misguided attempt to preserve their Jewishness in a culture and time that was not Jewish any longer, had built up an oppressive edifice of oral traditions that had come to almost take the place of the law.

The point of this account is that the Pharisees were concerned with external appearance, with cultic, ritual purity. They was no emphasis on internal purity of heart. The admonitions of Moses to love the Lord with all their heart, soul and might had been seemingly forgotten (Deut 6:5). The exhortation to be an Israelite in heart, not merely in outward show, was not being obeyed. God desired a not merely an external circumcision (Gen 17:11), but an inward circumcision of the heart as well (Deut 10:16). The outward conformity was supposed to be the fruit of an inward love for God.

Christ makes it very clear in this account that it is what comes out of a man’s heart that defiles him, not what comes from the outside (Mk 7:15). Our hearts prove that we are all morally unclean, and no matter what we do on the outside to try to clean ourselves up in the eyes of men, the very thoughts (let alone actions) of our own hearts betrays our sin and our moral “uncleanness.”

The inevitable conclusion here, left unsaid but Christ but implicit in His instruction, is that we are all morally unclean! We cannot make ourselves clean – we do not possess that power. We can only be cleansed by Jesus Christ, upon sincere repentance from sin and saving faith in Him (Mk 1:15).

The legalistic society of the Pharisees was perhaps as far from the love of God as it is possible to get. I spend a few minutes giving a handful of cursory examples of  just how legalistic normal life was like in Inter-testamental Judaism. The bottom line is that it was not a happy life. There was no love for God, no happiness or joy in serving Him. How could there be, in such an oppressive, tradition-bound society such as this!? A quotation from Emil Schurer makes the point pretty clearly;

Nothing was left to free personality, everything was placed under the bondage of the letter. The Israelite, zealous for the law, was obligated at every impulse and movement to ask himself, what is commanded? At every step, at the work of his calling, at prayer, at meals, at home and abroad, from early morning till late evening, from youth to old age, the dead, the deadening formula followed him. A healthy moral life could not flourish under such a burden, action was nowhere the result of inward motive, all was, on the contrary, weighed and measured. Life was a continual torment to the earnest man, who felt at every moment that he was in danger of transgressing the law; and where so much depended on external form, he was often left in uncertainty whether he had really fulfilled its requirements. On the other hand, pride and conceit were almost inevitable for one who had attained to mastership in the knowledge and treatment of the law. He could indeed say that he had done his duty, had neglected nothing, and had fulfilled all righteousness. But all the more certain it is, that this righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees which looked down with proud thanks to God upon the sinner, and pompously displayed its works before the eyes of the world, was not that true righteousness which was well-pleasing to God.[1]


[1] Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, 2nd division, vol. 2 (Peabody, MS: 2012), 125.

Laying Aside the Commandments of God (Mark 7:1-13)

Sermon notes – Mark 7:1-13

Here, we see the tragic and disgraceful results of legalism imposed upon a people. Some Pharisees and scribes come down from Jerusalem once more to hear and investigate Christ. They soon accuse Him of violating the commandments of the elders by eating bread with unwashed hands (Mk 7:5). Note, they took issue with Christ’s violation of the traditions of men, not of God! There is no OT command for everyday men to ritualistically wash before a meal!

I want to take a moment to emphasize a point – it is far too simplistic to simply call the Pharisees legalistic, evil men and move on to the next Scripture passage. Why were they so legalistic? The answer is that they were seeking to preserve their Jewishness in a distinctly un-Jewish world. The destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. completely decimated the social, cultural, political and religious structure of the Jewish state. Their national identity as a people of God had been abolished in one fell stroke. Even later, after the return from exile, the Jews existed as a mere vassal state of the Persian, Greek, and now Roman Empires. Even today, the modern state of Israel has not been reconstituted as it was before the fall of Jerusalem. The times of the Gentiles are still ongoing.

Consider these very important points:

“Rituals concerning cleanness and uncleanness reflect rabbinic developments more than actual Torah prescriptions . . . As Judaism’s encounter with Gentile culture increased in the post-exilic period, however, the question of ritual cleanliness took on new significance as a way of maintaining Jewish purity over against Gentile culture.”[1]

“[T]he defeat and exile faced the surviving Hebrews with the loss of their central national and religious institutions. They were without a unifying center of influence. They were forced to rethink the nature of God, his relation to them, and the viability of Old Testament religion. They were thrown into close contact with other cultures, and their traditional way of life became difficult or impossible. They, in a new way, confronted the relation between religion and culture. In every area the Hebrew race and its political and religious systems encountered a constant threat to survival.”[2]

Much like the erroneous and dangerous teaching of Roman Catholics who believe in two well-springs of divine authority, Scripture and tradition, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day fell into the very same error.

“The predominance of Pharisaism is that which most distinctly characterized this period. The legalistic tendency inaugurated by Ezra had now assumed dimensions far beyond anything contemplated by its originator. No longer did it suffice to insist on obedience to the commandments of the Scripture Thora. These divine precepts were broken down into an innumerable series of minute and vexatious particulars, the observance of which was enforced as a sacred duty, and even made a condition of salvation. And this exaggeration even made a condition of salvation. And this exaggerated legalism had obtained such an absolute ascendency over the minds of the people, that all other tendencies were put entirely in the background.”[3]

To bring this to a modern context, how do we fall into the same legalistic traps today? We are commanded to be in the world, but not of the world (Jn 17:15). Do we impose legalistic restrictions in our own circles? Consider what Christ has to say on this very important matter.


[1] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2002), 205

[2] J. Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001), 108-112.

[3] Emil Shurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ, First Division, vol. 1 (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2012), 2.