Once again we encounter the Pharisees and the teachers of the law “who had come down from Jerusalem.” We met this group or another just like it back in 3:22 when they came to evaluate the situation in Capernaum and proclaimed that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub. This time they have gathered around Jesus’ disciples and observed that some of them were eating their food without washing their hands first. In verses 3 and 4 Mark explains to his Gentile readers how the Pharisees, and indeed all the Jews, practice the tradition of ceremonial hand washing. He clearly states that it is a tradition of the elders and that they have many such traditions, washing cups, pitchers, and kettles. The Jewish legalists went to Jesus and questioned him about the careless practices of his disciples, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean hands?’” According to the tradition of the elders, eating with unwashed hands rendered a person ceremonially unclean.
The traditions of the elders were compiled in a book called the Mishnah. The major concern of the Mishnah had to do with ceremonial cleanness. The Law simply stated that priests were required to wash their hands before serving in the temple and before eating their food after serving in the temple. Eventually, the elders came to believe that if washing was good for the priests then it must also be good for them too. And if some washing was good, then lots of washing would be better. About two hundred years before Jesus the practice of washing hands before meals became popular among the lay people who wanted to appear spiritual too. Then by the time of Christ, everyone who wanted to be spiritually considered anyone lived by these rules of the elders. Of course, those who fell under the category of “sinners” didn’t bother to try to live by the teaching of the elders.
There is something very important for us to understand about God’s law here. So often we come to the portions of the Old Testament that talk about God’s laws and we try to read through them as quickly as possible because they don’t mean anything to us. God did give the Jews laws concerning clean and unclean. If a person became ceremonially unclean he was not allowed to go into the temple and worship. In effect, being ceremonially unclean cut a person off from his worship of God! But the thing we have to understand is that these laws, and there were many of them, had to do with God’s holiness, not man’s. A man could not make himself holy by avoiding things that were unclean. Remaining ceremonially clean simply allowed him to participate in worship. God is the one who was holy and the rules concerning ceremonial cleanness were intended to remind his people that he was not to be treated as common. He was not like the gods of the pagans. One could not simply walk into the presence of the Lord with all the dirt of the world upon him. To come into the very presence of God in worship is a holy thing! Yahweh was not like any other god! This is something we have completely lost! We are so accustomed to the freedom we have to come into the presence of God that we have lost the sense of awe that should go along with it! The Jews could not make themselves clean or worthy by ceremonial washing. Rather, it was because God is holy that they had to cleanse themselves and recognize his holiness!
You see, there was a reason for all these laws about ceremonial cleanness. Our first parents in the Garden of Eden sinned against God and a separation was established between God and the people he created. God was holy and man was not. In his holiness, God was completely “other” from sinful man. While at one time God walked with his people in the Garden, now men could no longer come into his presence. The separation between God and men was the very thing that required the ceremonial cleanliness laws. But when God finally revealed to the Hebrews that they were going to be his people he established a means for them to come into his presence and worship him. The ceremonial laws were established to make a way for men to come into the presence of God and pray and bring their sacrifices. They were still prohibited from coming into the Holy of Holies and the immediate presence of God. No matter how clean they were, no matter how long they had remained clean, they could not enter his holiest place. You see, man could never make himself clean enough to actually come into the presence of God. God had to come to him! This was the reason Jesus came to earth! When the Son of God came he transcended the separation between God and men! Because of Jesus, the Messiah, there was no longer any need for laws concerning ceremonial cleanness!