Jesus—His Life and Message: Conflict with the Pharisees (Part 1)

November 6, 2018

by Peter Amsterdam

All four of the Gospels speak of Jesus’ strained relationship with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a body of Jewish religious leaders who meticulously adhered to both the written laws found in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, as well as the oral laws—also known as the oral tradition or the “tradition of the elders,” as Jesus referred to it.1 The oral tradition consisted of interpretations of the Law, and the Pharisees believed that the oral tradition was needed to complete the Torah. Because Jesus separated these traditions from the Old Testament scriptures and didn’t consider them part of the Law, the Pharisees often challenged Him, pointing out that He was breaking the religious laws. Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees will be explored in this and the next three articles.

The Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus can be seen in their questions, attitudes, accusations, and actions recorded in the Gospels. A few examples are:

Some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”2

The Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.3

The scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies?”4

The Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.5

The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.6

In Matthew chapter 15, we read of one such confrontation:

Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”7

Some Pharisees from Jerusalem traveled north to Galilee, where Jesus and His disciples were, and their pointed question indicates that their purpose in doing so was to investigate Jesus’ teachings, since He was becoming quite popular in and around Galilee.

Their question actually represented an accusation. The behavior of Jesus’ disciples, in this case not washing their hands before they ate, was assumed to have reflected what Jesus must have taught them. The Pharisees interpreted the purity laws to include that people had to wash their hands before eating, though that wasn’t part of the Mosaic Law. Since the actions of the disciples contravened the Pharisees’ interpretation of the ritual purity laws, they blamed Jesus, their teacher. Jesus Himself had in fact broken the purity laws several times, such as when He touched a leper,8 visited the unclean Gentile region where He cast out unclean spirits from a man and into unclean pigs,9 was touched by an unclean woman with a discharge,10 and touched a dead body.11

Ritual purity was very important to the Pharisees. The Old Testament Law taught that the Israelites had to avoid becoming defiled if they were to be God’s people—which could happen by eating unclean food, through unclean bodily conditions, and being in contact with unclean things or people. A person who became defiled had to be purified by going through specific religious procedures and waiting for specific periods of time before they could be considered clean again.

Old Testament Law required ritual hand washing before the priests undertook certain religious duties or could eat the sacrificial food. Hand washing for a lay person was only required in some specific cases,12 none of which had to do with eating food. But it seems that by Jesus’ time, those eating with unwashed hands were deemed to be breaking the purity laws. When the Pharisees asked why the disciples broke the tradition of the elders, they weren’t stating that Jesus’ disciples were breaking the Mosaic Law, but rather the oral tradition.

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.”13

Jesus didn’t answer the Pharisees’ question; instead, He in turn asked them a question, and pointed out that their traditions, which they thought helped them to keep the Law, actually caused them to break the Law. Jesus quoted from the Law God’s command to honor one’s parents, and contrasted that to the traditions of the Pharisees, “but you say .…” In so doing, He showed that their traditions did not hold the same status as the Word of God, but were merely man-made rules, “your tradition.”

Jesus quoted two Old Testament Laws:

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.14

Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.15

The second verse adds force to the first one by making dishonoring one’s parent punishable by death. Jesus’ use of these verses indicates that honoring one’s parents isn’t limited to honoring them in word, but it also included providing and caring for them in their old age. We find this concept in the New Testament as well.

If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.16

Jesus then addressed a tactic commonly used at the time, whereby people dedicated food, money, or property to the temple treasury as a means of keeping it from others. (In the book of Mark, this tactic is called Corban.) While it’s not completely understood today, it appears that the one making the Corban donation would continue to have use of whatever was donated until he died, at which time it would become the property of the temple. This would mean that if a person had wealth and property which someone else might normally have some claim to (in this example, the person’s parents), the person could dedicate the property to the temple, and thus it would permanently be out of reach of other parties. Jesus made the point that this tradition made void the word of God.

This regulation is an example of how God’s commandments could be overridden by the Pharisees while they claimed to be scrupulously obeying God. Jesus exposed them through what He said next:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”17

Jesus considered the Pharisees of His day just as hypocritical as the Israelites Isaiah had condemned 800 years earlier.

By saying they worshiped “in vain,” Jesus referred to their worship as superficial, without meaning, and empty. They may have gone through the motions of worship, performing the various rituals and ceremonies; but they did so with little, if any, inward devotion or love toward God. Rather than teaching God’s Word, they instructed others with human teachings and doctrines, for they had substituted man-made rules and regulations for God’s commands.

He called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”18

While Jesus started by speaking to the Pharisees, He then began to address other people who were also present. He wanted them to pay attention, because what He was about to say was going to be a shocking statement. While there were a number of ways that the Jewish people could become ritually defiled and unclean, the most common way was by violating the Levitical food laws. However, Jesus was setting those laws aside by saying that the things which go into a person’s mouth—meaning the food they eat—does not defile a person. He abrogated the Jewish food laws, stating that no foods were to be considered unclean. Jesus also made the point that rather than being defiled by the food they eat, what is inside a person is what makes them unclean. (Later, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, all of the Old Testament laws were fulfilled and no longer binding on believers.)

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.”19

The Pharisees had been offended by what Jesus said, including calling them hypocrites, and presumably they left. What Jesus had said by way of explanation to the Pharisees and the public was very brief; however, once the scene changed and the Pharisees were no longer present, Jesus began to further explain His point to the disciples.

In speaking of the people of Israel as plants, Jesus referred to the Old Testament book of Isaiah, which includes mention of God’s people being planted by the Lord.

The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.20

We also find God speaking of the destruction of His vineyard when it failed to produce fruit.21

O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste.22

The Pharisees, as false teachers, and others who scorned Jesus, would be rejected because they rejected Him. We also see this point made in the parable of the wheat and the weeds.23

Jesus continued speaking against the Pharisees, saying:

“Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”24

These religious leaders prided themselves in their knowledge and interpretation of God’s Word, yet Jesus portrayed them as blind leaders trying to lead blind people. If these religious leaders had hearts that were far from God, worshipped Him in vain, and taught the commandments of men instead of God’s commands, then they could only lead others into the same pit or ditch where they were headed. Sadly, others were blindly following them.

Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”25

Peter, on behalf of the disciples, requested an explanation. Earlier in this Gospel, when speaking to His disciples, Jesus had said:

“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”26

It seems that Jesus expected His disciples to understand what He had said, yet apparently they didn’t, so He explained.

In the account of this incident in the Gospel of Mark we read:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)27

Jesus stated that it’s not what one eats but the state of one’s heart that matters. The apostle Paul made a similar point when He wrote:

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 28

That which defiles a person comes from the internal choices one makes which then manifest themselves in sinful actions. Thoughts which germinate internally, in the “heart,” can result in outward sinful action. He then listed a number of sins which proceed from evil thoughts. In the Gospel of Mark this list is fuller:

From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.29

While the Pharisees were focused on the fact that the disciples ate food without washing their hands, thus breaking the tradition of the elders, Jesus made the point that one’s external actions, whether good or evil, proceeded from what was inside the person, their heart, and had nothing to do with keeping the dietary laws and purity traditions. He instructed His followers to avoid the evil that spiritually defiles a person, rather than focusing on avoiding ceremonial defilement rules which have no spiritual effect one way or the other. As one author wrote:

Jesus is drawing attention to the fact that wickedness takes its origin in our innermost being. He is warning his followers against letting their personal desires and lusts be the guide to their conduct.30

While Jesus focused in this passage on the evils that can proceed from the heart (innermost being), it’s important to note that elsewhere, He also spoke positively about the good that can come out of one’s heart.

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”31

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.32

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.33

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.34

(Continued in Part Two.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1 Matthew 15:2, Mark 7:3, 5.

2 Luke 6:2.

3 Luke 6:7.

4 Luke 5:21.

5 Matthew 22:15.

6 Matthew 12:14.

7 Matthew 15:1–2.

8 Matthew 8:3, Luke 5:13.

9 Mark 5:1–19.

10 Matthew 9:20–22.

11 Matthew 9:23–26.

12 Leviticus 15:11, Deuteronomy 21:6.

13 Matthew 15:3–6.

14 Exodus 20:12.

15 Exodus 21:17.

16 1 Timothy 5:4.

17 Matthew 15:7–9.

18 Matthew 15:10–11.

19 Matthew 15:12–13.

20 Isaiah 5:7.

21 Isaiah 5:1–7.

22 Isaiah 5:3–6.

24 Matthew 15:14.

25 Matthew 15:15–20.

26 Matthew 13:11.

27 Mark 7:18–19.

28 Romans 14:17.

29 Mark 7:21–22.

30 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 400.

31 John 7:38.

32 Matthew 12:34–35.

33 Matthew 5:8.

34 Matthew 22:37.