Responding to a question as to why the disciples did not wash their hands before they ate, Jesus pointed out the severe error of elevating man-made traditions above the law of God. No one could accuse the Pharisees and scribes of lacking zeal for the Mosaic commandments, for the system of regulations these sects developed was motivated by their desire to help people not break God’s law. However, as we have seen, it was a zeal without true knowledge or obedience. These oral traditions created a situation in which people kept the traditions but broke the law. Thus, the Pharisees and scribes showed themselves hypocrites by painting themselves as obedient Jews. In obeying their extrabiblical customs, they treated the law of God with contempt (Mark 7:1–13).
Why our Lord went after the Pharisees and scribes in this manner after hearing a question about hand washing has not yet been made clear for us. After all, nothing we have read thus far has elaborated on washing hands or cleanliness in general. Today’s passage fills in the blanks. We read that after the condemnation of the Pharisaic traditions, Jesus taught that true cleanness pertains not to outer matters—what we put into our bodies—but to what comes from within (vv. 14–15). The implication is that the Pharisees and scribes exalted their standards of cleanliness to the extent that they ended up ignoring the Lord’s design for true moral purity.
Christ instructed His disciples that food and other externals could not make one truly clean or unclean (vv. 17–19). The allusion is to the existence of the regulations in the Mosaic code that identified which animals were clean for Israel and which were not (see, for example, Lev. 11). Israel was to live in a manner distinct from the surrounding nations, and having a different diet served as a clear reminder of this. But these unclean things were never meant to be seen as things that could render one permanently and irrevocably unclean before God. The food laws themselves tell us this, for ceremonial uncleanness related to food was a temporary matter, often resolved within a day or so (Lev. 11:27–28).
Like the rest of the law, one main reason the food and other ceremonial regulations were given was to teach sinners an important lesson—God’s demands for purity extend to all of life and are so exacting that we cannot make ourselves clean. Only He can make us clean, and that requires a radical change—even a new heart.