JESUS SAVES FROM A DEFILED HEART
The last three chapters of Mark have given us a beautiful display of Jesus through his teaching and ministry. He has taught parables, calmed a storm, cast out a legion of demons from a man, healed a woman with a twelve-year discharge of blood, raised a dead girl, fed five thousand, walked on water, and healed the sick wherever he went. The twelve apostles were sent out and in his authority did similar things.
Yet we were reminded in chapter 6 that Jesus does not have a steady rise to fame unopposed. Mark told us that he was rejected by his family and hometown. We also looked at the account of his forerunner, John the Baptist being put to death by Herod. But what we have not seen since chapter 3 is the opposition of the Jewish officials from Jerusalem. If you remember back to 3:22, scribes from Jerusalem had come and accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan. Here in chapter 7 these Jewish officials show up again, and they come for controversy. This happens just at the time when Jesus is making a geographic shift in his ministry, moving outside Jewish territory to areas dominated by Gentiles, that is, non-Jews.
When Jesus experiences opposition like we have in our passage today, we must remember that this is not simply incidental to his ministry. This is the way the Messiah, the holy Son of God, encounters a sinful humanity that has risen up in rebellion against him. And this is all according to the plan of God. It is reminiscent of Psalm 2, where it says that “the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his anointed.” This opposition is all designed by God for the end of the redemption of his people. In the next chapter, 8:31, Jesus will begin to tell his disciples plainly, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” After this confrontation we are looking at today, the next time Jesus will encounter these authorities from Jerusalem is in chapter 11 where he himself goes to Jerusalem. That is the confrontation that will lead to his being crucified on a Roman cross.
The controversy we have here in chapter 7 reminds us of the controversy over the Sabbath at the end of chapter 2, where the Pharisees caught Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. There Jesus proclaimed his own authority over the Sabbath. The Pharisees left at that time seeking a way to destroy Jesus. Here the local Jewish leaders are joined by a delegation from Jerusalem whose aim is to catch Jesus breaking the Law of Moses. They have come to take issue with Jesus. And there are three truths I want to bring out of this conflict today.
1.Idolatrous Religion Replaces God’s Commands with Human Traditions (1-13)
As with the plucking of grain on the Sabbath, once again it is the action of Jesus’ disciples that becomes the point of dispute. Now we need to understand what it means that they were eating with unwashed hands. It helps that Mark uses another word to describe it: “defiled.” We live in an age of germ theory and we have the Center for Disease Control. But you need to get all of that out of your head for a few minutes to see what is going on here. This is talking about ceremonial washings, not hygienic. And because some of Mark’s readers are Gentile, he explains the practice a little. He says that the Pharisees and Jews wash their hands properly before eating. This isn’t mainly about getting dirt off of their hands. It is about ritual purity. It is a way of demonstrating holiness in contrast to things made unclean by sin. So they literally wash their hands “with a fist,” which is surely a specific prescribed method. And verse 4 tells us that when they come from the marketplace, there is so much contact with uncleanness that full immersion (literally “baptism”) is required. These washings extend not only to people, but cups and pots and vessels and even the couches they reclined on at mealtime. Archeology has revealed that the practice of these ritual washings was so commonplace that cleansing pools were considered a standard feature in Jewish homes of Jesus’ day.
But there is an important phrase at the end of verse 3: “holding to the tradition of the elders.” The Old Testament law prescribed washings for the priests at the tabernacle in Exodus 30 and 40, and for an Israelite with a bodily discharge in Leviticus 15. But we are not talking about a violation of Old Testament law here. What Jesus’ disciples are violating are traditions, rules of the scribes. In the time since the giving of the Law of Moses—or “Torah”—and especially in the 400 years of silence between the last prophets of the Old Testament and John the Baptist’s ministry, an oral tradition had developed. And it included these ritual washings. These traditions were put in place over time as a fence around Torah to keep people from violating God’s law. And these rules were assumed to have the same authority as the word of God. But Jesus did not share this assumption.
So these Jewish leaders ask Jesus in verse 5, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Jesus responds with his most public, scathing denunciation that we have seen so far in Mark. This is the only use of the term “hypocrite” in this Gospel: “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites!” He says that Isaiah 29:13 was written about them: “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.”
The original context of this verse in Isaiah is within a series of woes. It was an indictment against Jerusalem’s “blind” and “deaf” leaders. They earnestly perform religious duties at the same time as their lives run contrary to God’s word. God hates lip service. The leaders addressed in Isaiah 29 hold to human traditions. Isaiah says that they are living in foolishness that will surely lead to their destruction.
God will not be mocked. He refuses to accept the worship of those who disregard him. This hypocrisy is in one sense worse than the hard-heartedness of Pharaoh in the Exodus. Because Pharaoh did not pretend to pay any regard to the word of God.
The scribal religion Jesus is attacking is more concerned with external correctness than the fundamental attitude of the heart. It is more concerned with outward conformity to regulations than a relationship with God. This is in a word, idolatry: as one Bible scholar has put it, “replacing the divine with the merely human.” They abandon God’s commandments in favor of establishing their own. Listen to verse 8: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And verse 9 escalates it: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” Jesus says it again in verse 13: “thus making void the word of God by your tradition.”
Why do they do this? Don’t they want to please God? Outwardly, yes. But at the deepest level, no. Keeping the commandments of God is not easy nor is it convenient, nor is it what they truly want to do. They really want to serve themselves. That is what idolatry does. So they made rules they could keep, and found creative ways to get out of God’s requirements.
And Jesus gives an example of how they do this with the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” And he gives the consequences of breaking this from the Old Testament: “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” One important thing the command to honor your father and mother meant in ancient Israel was that when your parents get old and are no longer able to work, you provide for them. They didn’t have Social Security and pensions and 401Ks. Their 401K was their children.
What they did to get out of obeying the fifth commandment was to say that a son could utter the word “Corban,” meaning that his possessions were “dedicated to God.” Once he had done this, those things became off limits to his parents, though they remained at his disposal. He then denied his parents support because if he were to provide for them, he would be breaking a vow of Corban. It’s a little like “deferred giving” today, when a person says, “I am giving all of my possessions to Christ Community Church…when I die.” Until then they remain in his possession. The practice of Corban was not so much a positive statement of giving the funds to the temple, but it was a negative statement of denying them as support for father and mother. And because uttering “Corban” was a vow, it was binding and unalterable. This is why Jesus says in verse 12: “then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother.”
Do you see how crazy this rationalization is? A son is encouraged to functionally curse his parents, then if he changes his mind he is prohibited from going back. Following these traditions leads you to disobey the fifth commandment and invite the judgment of God. Listen to Exodus 21:17: “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.” And Leviticus 20:9: “For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.” Jesus says this is just the tip of the iceberg for these religious leaders: “And many such things you do.”
Brother, sister—How are you engaged in making more convenient rules to obey in place of God’s commands? What do you do that you pride yourself in doing? What do you abstain from and so look down upon others? Do you make your own rules about lifestyle, like eating or exercising? Do your personal rules have to do with how hard you work, or manage your home or finances, or how you raise your kids? Do your traditions have to do with the picture you paint of yourself on social media? Listen, if you are getting some kind of righteous satisfaction in your performance in any of these things, then you need to take stock of God’s commands. How are you doing with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind? How are you doing with loving your neighbor as yourself? Do you honor God with your lips, while your heart is far from him?
True holiness seeks to please God and do good to others, even at the expense of your own life.
2.Defilement Originates in the Heart, not the Diet (14-23)
In verse 14, we see that Jesus widens his audience to include the crowds. He also is going to widen the conversation from ritual washings to address the underlying principle of defilement by external contact. He is not only going to address the scribal traditions here, but even the purity laws of the Old Testament.
When Jesus says “Here me, all of you, and understand,” he is introducing a parable, just like in chapter 4. And again he tells the parable with a twofold purpose of hiding the meaning from some, and revealing it to others. So he says, “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.” And just like in chapter 4, the disciples receive a private explanation of the parable when Jesus entered the house and left the people. They don’t understand the radical implications of what he is saying, so they ask him about the parable.
I want to point out here that we have the continuing them of the slowness of the disciples to grasp Jesus’ teaching. We saw this last week in 6:52, when they didn’t understand about the loaves, and we will see it again. We are again reminded that what distinguishes the disciples from the crowd is not any inherent ability they have to understand the wisdom of Jesus’ words. Rather it is the fact that Jesus gave them privileged instruction. And so it is with us, brothers and sisters. If you are in Christ, you have nothing in yourself to boast in. The fact that you have turned to Christ while your someone close to you has not, ultimately has nothing to do with you. It has to do with God’s sovereign choice to work graciously in you.
And we see this instruction the disciples receive beginning in verse 18: “Then are you also without understanding? 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?”
The food laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 are built upon an underlying concept of ritual purity. To be “pure” or “clean” was a picture God gave to Israel of spiritual holiness. But Jesus is saying that food cannot defile a person because it bypasses the part of the person that really matters: the heart. The heart in the Bible represents more than just the emotions. It is regarded as the essential personality, where spiritual realities exist. It is where you think and ponder. It is the seat of the will, and is the fundamental part of you that relates to God.
Jesus says that food doesn’t matter in terms of purity because it never touches the heart. It goes in the mouth, through the digestive system, and is expelled into the latrine. This is why he calls the Pharisees and scribes hypocrites, because they are only concerned with these external sorts of things, while they fail to address the heart. A “relationship with God” that keeps all the right rules but has nothing to do with the heart is a mockery to God.
The end of verse 19 is a very short explanation by Mark of an implication of these words: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”
But Jesus continues. He says that though the food you put in your body cannot defile you, what comes out of your heart does defile you.
The truly defiling things originate in your heart. Jesus says that real defilement is a moral issue, not a ritual concern. The first thing he mentions is “evil thoughts,” which is an umbrella term for the evil schemes and plots that we devise in our hearts. Your sin does not come out of the blue. No, there are desires that ruminate and compete with one another in your heart, and these produce sin. Jesus then gives a list of twelve kinds of sins that defile you.
The problem with the Pharisees and scribes is that they thought of defilement too impersonally. They thought of it as coming from outside of themselves, so that if they just did the right things to keep “clean,” they would be okay. It is like saying, “If I hang out with the right people, and take care of myself, and watch the right kinds of TV and movies, and don’t drink alcohol, and don’t stay out too late, then I will be okay.”
But it doesn’t work like that. These external things are not what make Erik Schaefer unclean. I make me unclean. It is my own wretched heart that defiles me. Have you ever done something and then looked back and thought, “Why did I do that? I didn’t think I was capable of such a thing!” So we put nice terms on it like, “I messed up,” or “I made a mistake,” or “That was a bad decision.” But really, what is happening is that sin within you is capable of producing all kinds of evils.
Jesus has given us a description of a defiled heart. Listen to Jeremiah 17:9-10 on this:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? 10 “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
3.Only Jesus Brings True Cleansing and Purity (19c)
I am coming back to the end of verse 19 where Mark gives the implication of Jesus’ teaching and says, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” This is much more than a denunciation of the scribal rules and traditions. Because the food laws were given by God as part of the Law of Moses. And now Jesus is writing them off. He is doing something similar here to what he did in chapter two when he proclaimed himself to be “the Lord of the Sabbath.” Once again, Jesus is placing himself above the Old Testament law, or the Torah. Remember where the Law came from: God gave it through Moses. Jesus is again assuming the role of God. He is saying that his teaching has an authority that supersedes the Torah. His words take precedence over the food laws of the Old Testament.
He is saying that these ceremonial laws have fulfilled their function and so they are no longer needed, because he is here. Those laws set apart the Israelites as God’s people. But Jesus has come to constitute a new Israel—a new people of God, uniting Jew and Gentile in himself. And as it says in Ephesians 2, this new people is brought about “by the blood of Christ.” It is through his death on the cross, that he does this. 1 Peter 3:18 says that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
The irony is that the Pharisees and scribes are about to find themselves outside of the kingdom of God. They are realizing that their identity as Jews is greatly threatened by Jesus. They are seeing Jesus teach with an authority greater than that of Torah. And they can’t stand it. He must be put to death. And that is what they will do.
But it is in Jesus’ death and resurrection that we find the only solution to this problem of a defiled heart. We have already seen throughout this Gospel the purifying effect that Jesus has. He purifies as he casts out unclean spirits (1:23-27) even from an unclean Gentile (5:2-13), heals an unclean leper (1:40-42), forgives sins (2:1-12), heals an unclean woman (5:25-34), and raises an unclean corpse to life (5:41-42).
Jesus is pure and sinless and holy. But he died in place of the defiled, the sinful, the unholy. The righteous died for the unrighteous. Through faith you are the unrighteous he died for. Through faith you died with him. And through faith you have been raised with him to walk in newness of life. He has given you a new heart. He has sent his Holy Spirit to dwell in you. The presence of the Holy Spirit cleanses you. Only the Spirit of Christ dwelling in you can bring true purity. He forgives your sins. He produces the inner transformation that the Law of Moses in fact requires but could never produce.
If you are a believer in Christ today, this is reality for you. Praise God for it! And strive in faith after the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. By the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body, that you might live. You have a stronger man dwelling in you with the power to fight against your sin.
If you are hearing this as an unbeliever and are refusing to turn to Christ, your fight against sin is hopeless. Your defiled heart will continue to produce all kinds of evil, and there is nothing you can do about it. You must own up to your guilt before God and confess your helplessness to stand before him. Turn from your sin to God through Christ, and receive him and rely upon him alone for your salvation. Only Jesus can bring true cleansing from your sin and purity.