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“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’”—Matthew 15:1–2
However trivial the washing of hands before eating may seem, this question put to Jesus was far more significant than appears on the surface. It represents the direct clash between Jesus and Orthodox Judaism. Encased in this confrontation are the key issues that separate Jesus from Judaism and crystallize the principles of the New Covenant over the assumptions of the Old Covenant.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law had travelled from Jerusalem to Galilee, no doubt to investigate Jesus, to try to stop His ministry and prevent the growth of His influence. He had violated their traditions, giving them reason to criticize and condemn Him. The issue at stake was the ceremonial cleansing that had been instituted by the Law of Moses. The whole concern of Pharisaic law was with external behaviour and external activity.
Uncleanness was contracted by touching or eating what was regarded as unclean. For example, touching a dead body, touching a woman after birth and during her monthly cycle, touching a Gentile and certain animals was considered not only unclean but contagious. If a man touched something or someone deemed unclean, he had become unclean, and if someone touched him, they became unclean. This meant that one might unwittingly become unclean by touching someone on the street who was unclean. To combat this possibility, an elaborate system of washings had become mandatory in Jewish tradition.
Jesus turned the tables on the Pharisees and teachers of the law by exposing their uncleanness and stating the true nature of cleanliness. He replied to their question by first quoting Isaiah, who said of the Pharisees, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”1 He then called the crowd to Him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.”2
True cleanliness does not work from the outside of a person into their hearts. It works its way from the heart to the outside. Good behaviour can be externally imposed by a set of laws that demand and reward right behaviour, but this is not what produces true goodness. It comes from a cleansed and changed heart that is able to express itself in good behaviour, which is a result of true cleanliness, not a cause. If a system of rewards and punishment for behaviour is strong enough, it will induce conformity to the expected behaviour pattern, which may appear good enough, but true cleanliness of heart is derived from God.—Charles Price
Did Jesus neglect to wash His hands before supper?
In the first half of chapter 7 of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gets into a heated argument with a group of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem regarding the issue of hand-washing prior to eating. Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples were eating with “defiled hands,” whereas “the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands.”3 What is going on here? Is it possible that Jesus ate with dirty hands?
The hand-washing referred to in Mark 7 is not hygienic hand-washing for the purpose of cleanliness. We can assume that if his hands were indeed dirty, Jesus would have washed them! Rather, this is a ritual purification of the hands before a meal, somewhat analogous to the priest’s purification of his hands prior to performing a sacrifice, as described in Exodus 30:20:
“When [Aaron and his sons] go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die.”
The Pharisees did not serve as priests in the Temple, as this was mainly the domain of the Sadducees. The innovative ritual described here represents a Pharisaic attempt to bring the ceremonial standards of the Temple into the home. The radical implication is that every meal is like a sacrificial meal in Jerusalem. In Hebrew this practice is called … netilath-yadayim, meaning “lifting up the hands,” and it is still practiced today by Jews before eating a substantial meal; that is, a meal which contains bread.
But Jesus is not only bothered by the fact that the Pharisees have elevated the “tradition of the elders” to the same status as the written Law. He is bothered by the dishonest methods they use. In the continuation of the passage he quotes Isaiah 29:13:
“This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
Like Isaiah, Jesus stresses that inner spiritual purity is more important than outer ritual purity… The purpose of sacrifice is not to prove one’s faith by forfeiting something valuable, but to gain intimacy with God by bringing Him a cherished gift.—Jonathan Lipnick4
From ritual to worship
Even God had a hard time getting the children of Israel out of the idolatry of Egypt and had to lead them through Moses, with the Law as their schoolteacher, by rituals and material object lessons—the Tabernacle, the Ark, animal sacrifices, and the blood of beasts. These were types and shadows, mere pictures of the spiritual realities and eternal verities He was trying to lead them into. He had to take what they understood, the things with which they were familiar in the religions of Egypt and other heathen nations around them, in a fatherly attempt to audio-visualize for them the genuine spiritual truths of the mature adult worship of God Himself. As the apostle says, these were all “figures of the true,”5 mere visual likenesses or illustrations of the real unseen things of the Spirit.
The types and shadows, pictures of the Old Testament, are a whole study in themselves. As Paul says, “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” … “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”6
Paul was saying that even the gifts of the Spirit of this enlightened era are almost like childish toys—gifts from a loving Father to His children to help communicate understanding of Himself and His will. How much more, then, were the materialistic object lessons of the Temple worship of the Old Testament even more childish toys for even tinier children spiritually to help them understand the Father’s love.
Paul goes even further than this in his prediction to the Corinthians and says that the time is coming when we shall see Jesus face to face, and we’ll put away even these childlike gifts of communication in the Spirit. For “whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.”7 Even what we have now is only a sample of glorious realities to come.
In the Old Testament were the illustrations; in the present New Testament time are the spiritual truths which we have now by faith alone.8 But when Jesus comes again, we shall see Him as He is, and be literally like Him, face to face, actually experiencing the fullness of the realities of God and the world to come.9—David Brandt Berg
Published on Anchor July 2019. Read by Simon Peterson.
1 Matthew 15:8–9.
2 Matthew 15:10–11.
3 Mark 7:3 NRSV.
5 Hebrews 9:24.
6 1 Corinthians 13:10–12.
7 1 Corinthians 13:8–10.
8 John 1:17.
9 1 John 3:2; Philippians 3:21.