Dirty Hands and Defiled Hearts

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Mark 7:14-23

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 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.”17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him,  19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Mark 7 begins with an accusatory question that the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus when they saw that some of his disciples were not following the religious traditions regarding ceremonial purification. “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands” (v. 5). It was unfathomable to them how this supposed holy man could ignore these traditions for purity and piety.

Last week we noted that Jesus responded to their question first by attacking the hypocrisy of the religious elite. They had found a clever way to appear outwardly righteous without ever entering into genuine worship of God. Their traditions were merely ways to honor God with their lips, without having had to undergo heart change. But only heart change could make obedience to God’s laws joyful worship.

This is why religion is the perfect soil for the formation of hypocrites. Most people understand religion as ritual: there are certain ways of performing or behaving that make us right with God. But it is much easier to keep the rules and traditions and religious expectations than to change our rebellious hearts so that we delight in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Give me a checklist and I’ll always know exactly where I stand with God.

But Jesus will not leave us alone with our checklist. Here in Mark 7:14, he summons people to gather around him. “Hear me, all of you, and understand,” he says. He is about to reveal something very important, and he wants everybody to hear it. (This is probably why scribes inserted Jesus’ customary concluding admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” following verse 15, which is reflected in the KJV.) Jesus is now going to address the specific concern of the Pharisees, and his comments are going to radically alter the contemporary views of his day.


The issue at hand is the question of personal defilement. The Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus of eating their food “with defiled hands.” And so five times in verses 14 to 23 Jesus uses the word defile as he takes up the question of what it is that defiles a person. But what exactly is meant by this idea of defilement?

The word that is here translated defile is a word that can also mean “to share.” The idea is that things that are shared lose their value because they become common or ordinary. This is the meaning behind the word profane: when something becomes accessible to everyone then it is no longer sacred. It is defiled because it is not devoted, that is, it is not set aside for God and for God alone.  That’s the meaning of holiness, something that is set apart for God. Inherent in the concept of holiness, then, is both a separation from something as well as a dedication to something.

God himself is holy because he is separated from sin and evil and is dedicated to his own glory and honor. And he commands us to be holy as he himself is holy (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 1:16). He commanded the Israelites therefore “to distinguish between the holy and the common” or, as it came to be known, “between the unclean and the clean” (Lev 10:10). There were strict guidelines for maintaining religious purity, most notably the regulations regarding the clean and unclean foods. The Israelites were careful to remain pure by following these guidelines, because anyone who became unclean would be excluded from the public worship of God or perhaps even from the fellowship of the community (Lev 7:19-21).

So when Jesus gathers the crowd together to address this question of personal purity, it is a significant topic. It remains significant for us, too. Because here Jesus is telling us what it is that will separate us from fellowship with God.


Now that Jesus has the attention of the crowd, he delivers his speech. It is short and to the point. “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” (v. 15). This seems easily understandable, but Mark tells us in verse 17 that “when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.” How could Jesus say that a person could not be defiled by what he eats, when the Mosaic Law clearly taught that he could be?

Jesus’ parable has again left some puzzled as the audience is left to draw the conclusions from what he has said. Fortunately, Jesus gives his disciples a private interpretation of his teaching, something we have seen him do before (Mark 4:10). And again he chides them for their failure to understand what he has said (see Mark 4:13).

There are two basic parts to this parable, which are fleshed out for us in the explanation given in verses 18-23. Jesus explains that we far too often get this issue of holiness all wrong. The reason is because we misunderstand the source of defilement.


The Pharisees questioned Jesus because he permitted his disciples to eat with defiled hands. We inherently think that defilement comes from outside of us.  This is what religion teaches us. As long as we can stay away from certain people or places or things, we can remain pure and right with God. It’s all about overcoming bad habits and bad company because if we can remain separate from the evil outside of us then we will remain pure.

Every generation has their list of the kinds of things that “real” Christians do not do. No dancing. No drinking alcohol. No tattoos or body piercings. Or certain words that should never come from a Christian’s mouth. But Jesus says that things outside of us cannot defile us. They have no ability to do so. Why? Because, Jesus says in verse 19, things outside of us, such as the things we eat, do not enter into our hearts. In the case of food, which was the issue of debate in this text, Jesus gets specific. Our bodies know how to make use of what is nutritious and how to expel into the toilet that which is of no benefit. The slogan, “You are what you eat” may be true physically, but it is not true spiritually. As we read in 1 Corinthians 8:8, what we eat (or do not eat) will not affect our relationship with God. “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”

God cleanses everything

It is hard for us to imagine how significant this change of thinking would have been for a Jewish audience. But Mark draws the conclusion of Jesus’ teaching for us at the end of verse 19. “Thus he declared all foods clean.” The New Testament repeats this radical point. Paul says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14).

In Acts 10, Peter has a vision in which he sees all kinds of animals that Jewish law forbade God’s people to eat. But in the vision, God commands him to eat the animals. When Peter objects, God responds, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Peter was therein instructed that the entire Old Testament distinction between clean and unclean things was symbolic. There was no inherent impurity in anything God created. And as Peter was about to find out (and as we will see in the passage next week), under the terms of the new covenant expressed in the gospel, all symbolic barriers are now removed. Fellowship with God is made available to all people through Jesus, not through religious ritual.

This is an important point. We are all tempted to believe that our purity before God depends upon what we do with things outside of us. While we don’t usually see our diets as indicative of our spirituality, we view other things in that light. It can be as silly as how we dress when we gather for corporate worship or as serious as how we think politically. Our tendency is to judge spirituality on the basis of external practice.

Everything created by God is good

There is another major implication of Jesus’ radical view in the first part of this parable. In declaring “all foods clean,” Jesus is not only forbidding us from looking negatively at creation. He also does not want us to be neutral. He wants us to be favorable toward everything in the created order. Paul makes the point clear in 1 Timothy 4:4, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

It is far too common to find ascetic views of creation within professing Christians. But the clear force of the Scriptures is that nothing in God’s creation is to be forbidden on the idea that it is evil. It can’t be evil because God only creates things that are good. The Christian view of the world then is a pro-material view. All material things, be it the mountains or the oceans or food or gold or our bodies are created by God, belong to him, and therefore are good.

So we are encouraged to enjoy God’s creation and to take pleasure in it. Everything you have is a gift from God and intended to be used to bring you joy. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Yes, we are at the same time warned about setting our hopes on these gifts, “the uncertainty of riches.” And it is probably true that we are prone to fall into idolatry—loving the gifts more than the Giver—more than we are tempted to asceticism.

But joyless worship is no worship at all. God is not glorified when we ignore him in our feasting, but neither is he glorified when we ignore him in our fasting. So whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we should do it all for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31). We should explore his created world and worship him for the mountains and valleys and oceans. We should spend the money he gives us in ways that will increase our affections for him rather than make us feel independent from him. And we should see in the pleasures of food and marital intimacy that God gives us these temporary delights for our joy, to increase our expectations for the eternal delights that will be found in him alone.

Religion often does a fine job of robbing us of the joy of worship. If you feel like being a Christian limits your joy then you do not understand the gospel. You have mistaken the Christian gospel for religious expectations. The Christian gospel should enable us to see the good in everything that God has created, and to be able to enjoy those creations as God intends for us to do.


This is important because it is much easier to keep the outside clean. We can wash our hands quite easily. Religion and its insistence on rules, however, cannot change the heart. And yet this is how we are defiled before God, and this is what Jesus addresses in the second part of his parable. He is not saying that there is no such thing as defilement; he just challenges the popular opinion regarding its source. Defilement, Jesus says, does not come from out there. Rather, it comes from within here. It is “what comes out of a person” that defiles him (v. 20).

The sickness of the heart

In verses 18-19 we are told that nothing outside of a person can defile him “since it enters not his heart.” And in verses 21-23 we are told that out of the heart of man come evil thoughts and the sins those thoughts produce. According to Jesus this is why we sin. Because we are sinners. We are defiled.

Now when we talk about the “heart” we tend to think only about emotions. Here it is contrasted with the stomach, but not because the heart refers to the spiritual part of a person as opposed to the physical part of a person. Both Hebrew and Greek speak of the heart as the seat of all physical, spiritual, and mental life. The heart is used to summarize who we really are, and the way we relate to God. We typically refer to this as our “soul.” It is that which makes us who we are. Again, not that our bodies are not a part of the “real you,” but it is also self-evident that there is something more to us than our bodies. As C. S. Lewis noted, we do not have a soul. We are a soul. We have a body.

So if we cannot be defiled by things outside of us, then how do we come to be defiled to begin with? How does this defilement get into our hearts? Where does sin, evil, and defilement originate?

That is a great question, but it is a flawed question. Whenever we ask, “Where does sin come from?” we are suggesting that it has a source, an origin. But the Scriptures teach that God is the creator of everything, and that everything God makes is very good. So if God made everything and if everything God makes is good, then we cannot say evil ever was created in any meaningful sense. Evil is not an entity. The Bible defines evil not as a created entity but as a negative. Evil is not a presence but an absence. Evil exists wherever God’s good purposes are not realized.

We also cannot ask, “How does this defilement of sin get into our hearts?” We must not forget what Jesus said. Nothing outside of us can, by entering into us, defile us. If the defilement of sin does not come from outside of us then there is only one other place from which it can come. It must come from inside us. This is what the Bible teaches. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). Defilement comes from inside of us. According to the Bible, it is who we are. Have you ever heard someone apologize by saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that?” Paul Tripp points out that it would be more biblical to say, “Please forgive me for saying what I meant.”

This does not contradict the goodness of humanity as a creation of God. We are good in the sense that we are created, and all that God created is good. But we are at the same time fallen, defiled by the sin that is a part of our inherited nature. And this sin has defiled every part of us so that the Scripture can say that none of us are “good” in the sense that there is any part of us untouched by the defilement of sin.  

The essence of sin

This is why Jesus says in verse 21 that sin comes out of our hearts. The Times of London once posed the question, “What is the problem with the world.” The Christian journalist G. K. Chesterton replied simply, “I am.” We are the ones to blame for the evil in our world.

Look at the list of sins in verses 21-22. Jesus says they all come from our hearts. Before we ever commit sexual immorality with our bodies we do it with our hearts. Same with theft, murder, deceit, envy, and pride. These things are sinful not because God has made arbitrary rules to rob us of joy. They are not sinful merely because “God said so.” Here we see the “why” behind God’s prohibitions. God has created good things for us to enjoy. But sin is the temptation to highjack those good gifts. What makes things sinful is our hearts in rebellion against God and the good purposes he has for us in his gifts.


What can be done about our defiled hearts? The problem is much greater than we originally thought. I hear this quote on Twitter this week. “The wicked think their sin is nothing, the moral think it is small, and the religious think it is manageable.” You see, if the problem is dirty hands, that’s easy. We can manage that with a little religion.

But if the problem is a defiled heart we need more powerful medicine. The rules of religion can address our behavior. But dirty hands are nothing compared to a defiled heart.

The good news is that God has given us a promise. To those who are guilty of defiling his holy name, he says,

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezek 36:25-26).

Through the gospel we can be saved from our defiled hearts. God will give you a “new heart” that can respond to him, rather than your old heart of stone that stubbornly refuses to obey him. We come to Christ, then, not to rid ourselves of the impurities outside of us, but to find the only solution to the problem within us.  

Copyright © 2010 Crosstown Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
For more information about Crosstown, visit www.crosstownokc.org.

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