Surprised by Pharisaism

Mark’s gospel revolves around the interaction of a number of different groups. You’ve got Jesus. You have the disciples, who follow him and who are being trained to be sent out by him (6:7). You have the crowds; Jesus ministers among them, teaching them, healing them, astounding them. And then you have the Jewish leaders, who come into conflict with Jesus. Back in Mark 2-3, we saw an escalating tension between Jesus and the scribes. As Jesus’s ministry grows in notoriety, the scribes and Pharisees come to check him out, to ask questions, and eventually to trap him. And that escalating tension reaches its first climax in Mark 3, when Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, in full view of the scribes and Pharisees, and highlights how much they’ve misunderstood the law of God and the heart of God. After this incident, we’re told that the Pharisees and Herodians began to conspire together to destroy Jesus. But his ministry continues in Mark 4-6, as he continues to teach and heal and cast out demons, and perform miracles (walking on water, feeding 5000 people). The end of Mark 6 shows us throngs of people coming to Jesus to be healed—being brought on beds (like the paralytic in Mark 1) and being healed by touching his garment (like the woman in Mark 5).

Mark 7 revisits the conflict with the Pharisees, and shows that things are still escalating. The tension in Mark 2-3 is with local scribes and Pharisees, religious leaders in Galilee. Now in Mark 7, we’re told that some scribes have come up from Jerusalem. Jesus’s fame has spread so far that the capital has taken notice, and they’ve sent some people to check it out. They’ve heard that Jesus pays fast and loose with the Sabbath laws, that he has a big following, that the people love him, and the Important People want to know what he’s all about.

So today’s sermon is about Pharisaism. And when I say Pharisaism, I don’t mean that we’re only going to focus on the first-century group called Pharisees (though I will talk a bit about who they were and what they believed). There was a good deal of diversity among Pharisees in the 1st Century. And not all of them were hostile to Jesus. Some invited Jesus to dinner. Some like Nicodemus visited him to understand the gospel. But the Pharisees as a group are consistently presented as opponents of Jesus and I want us to understand Jesus’s indictment of them and its relevance for us today.

I think we’re often under a misconception about the Pharisees. We think of them fundamentally as really, really religious people who think they can earn God’s favor. They’re the super-holy ones who really care about God’s law. They’re legalists. They are scrupulous law-keepers. In fact they love God’s law so much that they miss Jesus. Now, there are elements of truth in that understanding of the Pharisees, but it’s incomplete, and a little distorted. And as a result, we can often miss Pharisaical tendencies in our own lives and in our culture.

First, the Pharisees are popular, cultural gatekeepers. There’s no job of “Pharisee.” They’re a sect, a religious and political party, not totally unlike political parties today. Some of them are professionals; they’re scribes. In fact, Mark 2 talks about the “scribes of the Pharisees.” They make their living as scholars and interpreters and promoters of the Pharisaic viewpoint. Think of them as the thought-leaders, journalists, scholars, and activists of their day. They’re the gatekeepers of culture and religion, the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy. And though they were likely outnumbered by the Sadducees (another sect) in Jesus’s day, they had a high-level of popular support. The people liked and admired them.

What did they teach? Pharisees looked back at biblical figures like Phinehas, who was zealous for the law and killed a faithless Israelite who flaunted his rebellion, and Elijah, the prophet who stood up to the wicked king and queen, and Ezra, who brought God’s blessing back to the people by insisting that they hear and obey God’s law. They believed that the reason that the Roman empire ruled over the Jewish people was that the Jews had been unfaithful to God. And if the people turned back to God and obeyed him fully, God would deliver them from the Romans. They embraced not only the Torah, and not only the prophets, but also the oral tradition which was handed down from generation to generation. Now there was a spectrum of belief even among them (just as there is a range within modern political parties). Some were followers of the strict Shammai; others of the more lenient Hillel. But there was a core of belief and action. And much of that action centered on Jewish distinctives: Sabbath-keeping, food and dietary laws, circumcision.

Now in Mark 2-3, we saw their concern for Sabbath-keeping, and we’ve also seen that Jesus challenges their version of Sabbath-keeping, as it was filtered through their oral tradition. And here we see something similar about their concern for ritual purity. So, they see Jesus’s disciples eating with unwashed hands. This is not about cleanliness; this is about holiness. What the Pharisees have done is taken the Levitical requirements for priests and bowls and vessels in the temple and applied it in their daily lives. In Exodus 30 and 40, God requires the priests to wash themselves before offering sacrifices. The bowls and utensils used in the temple are set apart and cleansed for use in sacrifices and rituals. And the Pharisees said, “We want to be set apart too. So we’ll follow those priestly regulations for washings and purification in our own homes.” If you go to the market, you might become defiled (e.g. by touching something dead); so when you go home, you need to purify yourself before you eat (cf. Lev. 7). And they would also be very concerned about what you eat and with whom you eat (in Mark 2, they are scandalized that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners).

Additionally, they would make dedicated offerings to God, setting aside property and wealth as “Corban.” This was basically a vow. If you said, “This is Corban,” you set it apart from common use, and committed it to holy, religious use. And according to their tradition, this was an unalterable vow. If you pronounce something Corban, you can’t then take it back later. And not only would the Pharisees practice these rituals themselves; they taught them to others. They were the thought-leaders, the influencers, the scribes and the scholars, and they wanted the common people to adopt their views.

Jesus’s Indictment

Notice how Jesus indicts them. First, he calls them hypocrites, meaning that the outside (the lip-service) is all there, but the heart is far from God. Second, he says that they leave the commandment of God to follow the traditions of men (7:8). Later he sarcastically accuses them of rejecting God’s commands to establish their tradition (7:9), and even more strongly: “you make void the word of God by your tradition” (7:13). How does this work?

Think about extending the Temple purity laws to daily life, basically compelling everyone to live like a Levite or a priest, and turning everyone’s house into a temple. When you take something that God intended for “here,” and you try to extend it “there,” what have you done? You’ve left the commandment of God. The commandment was over there; it was for the Temple. You’ve tried to bring it where it doesn’t belong. You’ve invented a tradition. And you’re holding to the tradition and leaving the commandment.

Or it can be worse. Not only can you leave the commandment behind, but you can trump the law of God with your tradition. Let’s say that supporting my parents in their old age feels burdensome. What do I do? I declare my wealth “Corban,” and then I’m exempted from caring for them. I can’t use God’s money for common purposes. But that means I can’t use it for myself either, right? This is where it gets really tricky. Corban can be very specific. You might exclude your wealth by Corban only from specific common uses, but not all of them. There’s one example in the rabbinic tradition of a man who excluded his father from his house by pronouncing it Corban. So his dad could no longer come into his house. But later, he wanted his dad to be able to come to his son’s wedding. But he’d pronounced the unchangeable Corban. So what did he do? He gifted the house to a friend, so that his dad could enter his friend’s house. So apparently, his property was still in some measure at his disposal, even though it was Corban from his dad. (In that case, the friend double-crossed him and pronounced his dad Corban from his newly purchased house!).

Now these are just two examples. Jesus says, “Many such things you do” (7:13). What’s the common thread? What type of thing is this? What’s the fundamental sin here? Pharisaism here is a hypocritical establishment of a man-made tradition that at best puts the emphasis in the wrong place and at worst enables you to avoid actually obeying God. Which means our popular notion of Pharisaism is off. The Pharisees were not scrupulous law-keepers; they were law-inventors. And they sometimes invented their own laws in order to avoid obeying God’s laws. And now you can see perhaps why they were so popular. For all of their holiness, many times, they made law-keeping easier. It’s hard to care for your parents; it’s easy to say “Corban.” Compared to obeying the 10 Commandments, washing your dishes is easy.


1) Sin is not about what goes in; it’s about what comes out. After his indictment of the Pharisees, Jesus turns to the crowds and gives them a brief parable that gets at the heart of the Pharisaical misunderstanding.

[14] And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: [15] 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.” (ESV)

The disciples (as usual) are a bit confused by this and they ask him to explain. He tells them that defilement is fundamentally about the heart, and since food doesn’t go into your heart, what you eat can’t truly defile you.

Now, at this point, Mark interjects an important implication of Jesus’s words here, an implication that wasn’t fully recognized until years after Jesus was raised. “Thus he declared all foods clean.” Since this is often a confusing issue for people today, let me make a few comments about it.

1)    This declaration by Jesus is different from the earlier indictment. Earlier Jesus was criticizing Pharisaical traditions that nullified and set aside the word of God. But here, it looks as though Jesus is doing the same thing. He’s establishing a new tradition that seems to abolish the law of God. Because Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 are clear that some foods were clean and others were unclean. Some foods can be eaten; and some can’t. Cows, sheep, goats—clean. Camels, pigs, predators—unclean. Trout and salmon—clean. Shrimp, catfish, and crab—unclean. Chicken, dove, and quail—clean. Hawks, eagles, and vultures—unclean. So here, Jesus is not indicting a Pharisaical addition to God’s word; he’s making a new declaration about God’s word.

2)    So why is this declaration not the same as establishing a man-made tradition that enables you to disobey God’s law? Because Jesus is the Son of God. He is the I AM who gave the Law in the first place. And therefore, as the God who gave the Law, he has the right and authority to change the law. And the entire gospel of Mark demonstrates Jesus’s identity as the living God incarnate, true God of true God, who took on flesh for us and for our salvation.

3)    Why would God through his Son Jesus change these food laws? There’s a lot to be said here. But fundamentally, the food laws were given to Israel for a specific period of history as a way of separating God’s people from the surrounding nations, and as a way of teaching them truth about himself and sin and holiness and death. (Pastor David has written a helpful article on the subject called “Thank God We Have the Meats.”) But the main point is that the food laws (along with many of the other ceremonial laws) were designed by God for a limited and particular time and purpose. They were part of the wall that separated Jews from Gentiles. But Jesus came to tear down that wall. He is Israel’s Messiah, but he is also Lord of the whole world. And thus, he came to fulfill those temporary food laws and restore to God’s people all of the good foods that God has made. The temporary nature of these commands is hinted at in the Old Testament itself. God says that the whole creation is good. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

And so, when someone tries to use eating pork as evidence of Christian hypocrisy (picking and choosing which commands to obey) or as evidence that biblical teaching can change (and thus can also change with regard to sexual ethics), you need to know that there are clear, obvious reasons in the Bible itself for why the food laws were temporary and Jesus declared all foods clean.

2) Sin gets into everything. This is the point of Jesus’s words in Mark 7:20-23.

[20] And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. [21] For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, [22] coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. [23] All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (ESV)

It doesn’t matter how holy or good something is, if there’s a person there, if there’s a heart of man there, evil can come out. External law is a good thing; it restrains evil; it instructs us in what is good. But external law in itself cannot fix what’s wrong with us. Because the problem is not fundamentally an external problem. It’s a heart problem. So take God’s law—his holy, good, and righteous law, given to us as a blessing. What will human beings do with those temple regulations, those food laws, those laws about vows? We will be hypocrites with them. We will find very creative ways to sin with them. We will use our own laws to avoid obeying God’s laws. So keep watch on your virtues, on the good things you do. Because if we can twist God’s good law, we can twist any good thing to serve our own traditions.

3) It’s a sin to invent sins. Put another way, it’s a sin to establish your own righteousness. This is why Pharisaism is popular in every generation, and comes in every size, shape, and color. There is great power in being the cultural gatekeeper. If you establish your own tradition, and you fulfill your tradition, and you can convince others to follow your tradition, you’ve got a lot of power, especially if you can convince them that your tradition is from God, that your commandments are the doctrines of God. You become the arbiter of guilt and forgiveness, the mediator of grace. You can pressure others, and manipulate others, and get your way with others, and absolve others of the guilt and thus earn their admiration and respect. You can make much of people (because they follow your tradition), so that they will make much of you. God hates this. He hates it in its 1st century Jewish form. He hates it in its conservative Christian form. And he hates it in its liberal, progressive form.

4) Beware of making personal opinions, practices, and convictions into divine law. We can do that with alcohol. Take a personal conviction and practice (“I don’t drink”) and try to impose it on others as an expectation. Or it can work the other way. “Alcohol is a good gift from God; why won’t you have any?” The same might be true of foods and diets. The Pharisees were very particular about food. And if you think that food laws are only a 1st century Jewish thing…Do you ascribe moral worth to what people eat? Gluten, no gluten. Organic, non-organic. Eating meat vs. Vegan or vegetarian. These are all personal, prudential, wisdom decisions. We go wrong when we take personal convictions and make them public expectations. And Jesus declared all food clean. “Food will not commend you to God. You are not any better or worse because you eat or don’t eat” (1 Cor. 8).

5) Real obedience is costly; Pharisaical obedience is cheap. Pharisaical obedience always masquerades as true virtue, true goodness. But it’s always an attempt to attain a moral reputation on the cheap. All you have to say is “Corban.” All you have to do is wash your hands. Pharisaical obedience loves to signal its virtue. Modern Pharisaism doesn’t shout “Corban;” it shares the right Facebook posts. It retweets the right opinions. It stands on the street corner of the internet with arms outstretched, repeating all of the right talking points. Now it’s not wrong to tweet things and to share posts. But the question is one of emphasis. Do we put the weight of our righteousness on our signaling? More importantly, do we use our social media signaling as a way of replacing actual, concrete faith in Christ and love for our neighbor?

6) How do we diagnose whether we’re being Pharisees, or being oppressed by them? Ask yourself a few questions.

Where do you feel cultural pressure? It might involve specific, written down laws. But it doesn’t have to. It could be oral tradition, something in the air, a general sense of pressure to conduct yourself in a certain way. Where do you feel that pressure at work? In your neighborhood? At church? What can’t you say? What can’t you do? What words or actions will get you a nasty look or an indignant question?

Is that cultural pressure rooted in God’s word or in our traditions? Cultural pressure isn’t bad. There ought to be cultural pressure in a church toward obedience. We’re called to exhort one another and to call one another to repentance. Jesus commissions us to teach people to observe everything he commanded. So cultural pressure flowing from the word of God is good. But if the pressure flows from our invented traditions, watch out.

Can we distinguish between giving advice and giving orders? Even in areas where the Bible doesn’t directly speak, we can still give each other advice and counsel. You can share your personal convictions with others and even urge them adopt your way of thinking or living. If the diet helped you, and you think it might help someone else, it’s okay to share it with them. That’s called giving advice. But you must not turn your advice into God’s orders. If they reject your counsel, they have not sinned.

And this is a place where we can be Pharisaical about resisting Pharisees. One of the commandments of modern Pharisaism is “You can’t tell me what to do.” And that attitude rightly applies when some modern Pharisee tries to smother you with their tradition. That’s what Jesus does here. “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands?” “Because God doesn’t care, and you can’t tell me or them what to do.” But we often have that same mentality, even when someone gives us advice. They exhort us with their wisdom, and we bow up. “Who do you think you are? You can’t tell me what to do.” “I wasn’t trying to tell you what to do; I was trying to give you advice.” And often, we react that way to the counsel and advice of others, because we’re insecure about our decisions. And so even the pressure that comes from advice feels like a legalistic burden. The problem there is not the advice; it’s the insecure, guilty, proud heart.

7) And this brings me to the good news of Pharisaism. Because believe it or not, the presence of Pharisaism in our midst, in our hearts, in our culture, points to something good and right. It points to our need to feel justified, to be vindicated, to be approved. We all want this. We want to know that we’re good people. And we all have a deep sense that we’re not. We know we’re guilty. We’re insecure. And we’re proud. The good news of Pharisaism is that in seeking to establish our own righteousness, we point to our need for righteousness. We subtly, if ironically, acknowledge our lack, our need, our guilt. If we did not feel the pangs of conscience, the condemnation and accusation that sits at the core, we wouldn’t try to establish our own righteousness. We wouldn’t invent our own traditions. We wouldn’t try to impose them on others. Pharisaism thrives on guilt, on a deep awareness of being out of accord with reality. We lower the bar so that we can quiet the accusation in our souls. We move the goalposts so that we can score a goal and silence the gnawing fear that we’re in the wrong. And wherever there is guilt, there is opportunity. Because the guilt of man cries out for the grace of God.

The pastors of this church want you to resist Pharisees. When they come with their accusatory questions, we want you to respond like Jesus with a backbone of steel reinforced with the indomitable grace of God. We want you to resist the progressive Pharisaism out in the culture. We want you to resist the Christian Pharisaism in the church. Most importantly, we want you to put to death the little Pharisee that lives in your own heart. And that brings us to the table.

The Table

This is the table where Pharisaism, in all its forms, goes to die. Here is the end of all food-fussing, all virtue signaling, all guilt manipulating, all tradition establishing, all Scripture marginalizing, all reliance upon externals. This is the table of no condemnation. This table shouts the forgiveness of sins and justification by faith. Here the broken body and shed blood cleanses you of your real sins, and answers every true accusation against you. What’s more, that same broken body and shed blood casts out every invented sin and silences every false accusation. Here is something that goes into your mouth, and signifies to you the grace that is shed abroad in your heart. So Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ.