Mark 7:14–23 (ESV)
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.”
We keep on looking at the life of Jesus in the book of Mark.
We come to a controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day about the clean laws, about the dietary laws, and all the various regulations that had to do with ritual purity.
On the surface as you look at this, it would be very easy to believe that this controversy is just simply irrelevant for us now, maybe some kind of an antiquarian interest, but surely nothing that’s really important for us to know about now.
If you would think that, I think you’d be wrong, because that’s a very superficial analysis.
This text is talking about matters that are profoundly relevant for living the human life in any culture, in any century.
Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
The subject over which Jesus and religious leaders in this passage are arguing are the Mosaic clean laws.
If you touched a dead body (animal or human being), if you had an infectious skin disease like boils or rashes or sores,
if you came into contact with mildew (your clothes, articles in your home, or even in your house itself),
if you had any kind of bodily discharge like diarrhea or
a hemorrhage of blood and pus,
or if you ate food made of animals that were designated as unclean (like the pig),
you were considered ritually impure, defiled, unclean.
What did it mean to be considered ritually impure, defiled, and unclean?
It meant you couldn’t go into the temple. You couldn’t go in and worship God with the community. You were unclean. You were defiled.
You might say, “Well, what was that all about? What’s with that?”
The answer is it’s not as weird as it sounds if you think about it.
Think about it: Some people physically kneel.
For example, people physically fast. Why?
Some people physically fast.
It’s an aid to developing inner spiritual hunger for God.
Why? It’s an aid for developing inner humility toward God or anyone. So you physically kneel in order to develop the inner sense of humility.
In this case, what are all the washings?
What’s all the tremendous amount of effort to always be clean and free from dirt and free from disease and uncleanness? It’s an aid, you see. It’s a visual aid.
The ritual washing is a physical thing that enables you to develop the recognition that we’re spiritually and morally unclean, and we can’t just go into the presence of God unless there’s spiritual purification that goes on.
This isn’t as weird as you might think again. For example, if you’re going to go see somebody who is really, really, really important to you,
You floss. Oh, yes, especially before that big date.
What are you doing?
You’re getting rid of the uncleanness, of course.
You don’t want a speck on you.
You don’t want to smell bad. You scrub, and you floss. God says, “It’s the same thing with me.” Spiritually, morally, unless you’re clean, you can’t live in the presence of God, a holy God.
I want you to consider something.
Before we move on, we need to realize … In fact, I realized as I was studying this passage, it’s easy to miss this.
Jesus disagrees with the leaders of his day about the source of the uncleanness, and he disagrees with the leaders about what to do about the uncleanness.
The thing Jesus doesn't disagree with the leaders about is that we are unclean.
That is to say we are unclean before God. We’re not fit for the presence of God.
We All Have A Sense of Being Unlcean
We all have a kind of deep, profound, inescapable sense that if we were examined,
we wouldn’t pass.
If we were inspected, we’d be rejected.
We have a deep, profound sense we have to hide,
or we have to at least control what people know about us.
We have a deep sense that we aren’t acceptable.
In some way, we’re going to have to prove to ourselves and other people that we’re worthy or that we’re okay or that we’re lovable or that we’re valuable. Somehow you’re not up to specs.
You call it complexes. You say, “My parents didn’t love me enough.” You psychologize it, but there it is.
We all have a sense that we’re unclean. We’re covering. We’re hiding. We’re working like crazy to do something about it. We all have a sense, even us, even now, that we’re unclean.
The Jews of Jesus day had developed a very, very sophisticated external religious system to deal with the uncleanliness that they felt.
They have gone way beyond the Law of God.
They had adhered to the Law of God as much as was possible in the ceremonies and the rituals and the rites that God had ordained in the Levitical Law but they had added many others.
literally hundreds of other prescriptions to the things that were scriptural.
Out of that had come the notion that defilement was something outside of them. They were under the illusion that on the inside they were good and godly. You would have to say that’s what all Pharisees thought.
The Pharisee in Luke 18 who prays, thus with himself,
“I thank You that I’m not like other men, even like that wicked tax collector.
I tithe, I fast, I do all the right ceremonies and rituals.” That was the illusion they lived under.
The Apostle Paul had the same illusion, according to Philippians 3, where he says that according to the Law, he was blameless, he was zealous, he was a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, kosher, kept all the traditions, all the prescriptions. And he put that in the achievement column in his former unbelieving life. That’s the way they thought.
And so, they thought because they were good on the inside and everybody who followed them bought in to that theology thought the same thing, and that was pervasive all over the land of Israel,
they all thought that they were basically good on the inside.
they were righteous on the inside,
they went to the synagogue,
they observed the traditions of the elders,
they followed the ceremonies and the ritual washings that they were told to do and so they therefore were good and righteous.
And the only thing they had to be afraid of was something on the outside because the inside was fine. That was the illusion.
They were like modern psychologists.
The only thing that was going to defile them was something outside of them that might pollute them.
So they lived thinking that they were holy and pure and virtuous.
In order to maintain that, they just had to make sure they never got near any corrupting influence. And that is what is behind this particular lesson from our Lord Jesus.
Now remember, this is a pervasive viewpoint in the land of Israel and this is what the disciples of Jesus and even the Apostles of Jesus had always been taught, that the only thing to avoid is outside of you.
Their system of salvation by works is a system of self-righteousness where you earn your way to God by showing up at the synagogue, by giving deference to things biblical, by making sure you followed the traditions of the elders.
by going through all the symbolic ceremonies that were described, you therefore had made yourself right with God so you were okay on the inside, you just had to make sure you didn’t get touched by any polluting influence from the outside. That’s how they lived, that’s how they thought.
most important because it is so defining. And we’ll see that as we look at it.
Evil is pervasive throughout our society and that even ordinary people can do things that are extraordinarily corrupt.
What causes evil? Why does it happen? Where does it come from?
1. Pinpointing the Source of Defilement
Mark 7:14–16 (ESV)
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.”
Now the crowd is the object of His lesson. He calls the crowd again to Him and He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand.” I want to help all of you who have been basically under the teaching of these Pharisees and scribes. This is for every one of you to know. “Listen and understand, all of you.
The Bible says our problem is not outside of us, our problem is inside of us.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.”
That’s the collective heart. Men are wicked.
“There’s none righteous, no not one.” We are capable without any outside influences, according to James 1:14, of conceiving lust in our hearts, turning it into sinful attitudes that become sinful acts … deadly sinful acts. Sin works its way from the inside out.
What is “The Heart?”
As is often the case in Scripture (e.g., Deut. 6:5; Prov. 6:18; 22:15; Jer. 17:10; Rom. 1:21; 1 Cor. 4:5; Eph. 1:18),
The heart refers not to the physical organ but to the inner person—the seat of one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual being.
It encompasses one’s attitudes, affections, priorities, ambitions, and desires. The Lord’s point was that something physical and external, like food eaten with unwashed hands, cannot defile the inner person because it is physical, not spiritual.
The condition of one’s heart before God is not determined by what one eats.
That is a definitive Christian view of man.
The problem is not outside of you, the problem is inside of you.
2. We’re all trying to Cleanse Ourselves
Mark 7:17–23 (ESV)
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.”
Recognizing their struggle, Jesus patiently explained the truth behind the metaphor: “Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is expelled?”
What Jesus is saying is rather simple.
What’s wrong with us? What’s really wrong with the world? Why is the world a miserable place? Why do we have all this strife that we have?
It’s the heart. It’s the self-centeredness of the human heart.
He says, as hard as we try through washings or dietary laws or through external observances or trying really hard to be good, everybody tries on the outside to deal with the heart.
That won’t work. He says we’re all trying to go outside in.
He speaks very vividly here. I don’t know if you see just how vividly he says it in verses 18 and 19. He says,
“Even when you eat clean foods, it goes in the mouth, down in the stomach …” Then it says literally, “… out into the latrine.”
What he is saying is, “You know, the food goes in the mouth, into the stomach, out the anus. It never gets to the heart.”
External observances don’t deal with the soul, and all of these things you’re trying to do in order to cleanse yourself won’t work.
Outside in doesn’t work. “If you do all these things on the outside, somehow it will affect the inside soul.” It doesn’t work.
3. We’re all trying to deal with a Sense of Uncleanness
We’re all trying to deal with that sense of uncleanness. We’re all working outside in.
We’re all trying to cleanse ourselves.
We’re all trying to do something that Jesus says is basically impossible.
4. It’s Jesus who can cleanse us
(Thus he declared all foods clean.)
It reads, “… Jesus declared …” Jesus pronounced. You know, the Greek experts and commentators say Jesus is saying, “As of now, I make these foods clean.” Mark’s parenthetical note explains that in making this statement
Jesus in a moment obliterated the dietary laws of Judaism and declared all foods clean. The issue is not a person’s culinary choices but the spiritual condition of his inner person.
Given Mark’s close association with the apostle Peter (see Introduction: Authorship), Mark’s comment was likely influenced by Peter’s own experience in Joppa (Acts 10:15; cf. 1 Tim. 4:3).
The disciples probably understood what He was trying to say but it was so contrary to what they had always been taught.
Your whole life, what you’re trying to do is avoid bumping in to somebody who is defiled, avoid eating something that’s defiled because you haven’t gone through a ceremonial washing or rinsing, a very complicated kind of thing.
Their whole life the assumption was you’re good on the inside if you can just keep yourself from bumping in on the outside that’s bad, you’re going to be fine. This is all new
Could Jesus have been any clearer?
No foods cause spiritual impurity in a man, for the simple reason that whatever is consumed is digested or eliminated. It has no spiritual effect on his heart. The obvious implication was that no avoidance of particular foods could bring righteousness. Simply put, the whole dietary system of Israel was worthless in terms of producing righteousness.
With a catalog of sins, Jesus made His meaning perfectly clear.
The sins a man conceives in his heart and commits bring him into defilement, that is, into debt to God.
Food does not stain the heart, and refraining from various foods does not prevent it from being stained. Therefore, it is the heart that needs attention, not the diet.
In verses 17–23, Jesus transitioned from the physical analogy to clearly express the spiritual reality.
And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man.”
Spiritual defilement does not come from the outside but from the evil that resides in every human.
The source of all wickedness is from within, so that out of the heart proceed evil thoughts. The word thoughts(from the Greek term dialogismos) is a general term referring to a person’s inward reasoning or perception. Because the heart is evil, man’s intentions, designs, ideas, motives, and musings are also depraved (cf. Gen. 6:5; Eph. 2:1–3).
Out of the cesspool of the corrupt heart flow evil words, evil actions, and evil attitudes; the Lord enumerated six of each.
The Pharisees and scribes loved to produce legalistic lists of external things either to do or to avoid.
In response, Jesus articulated His own list defining the true nature of spiritual defilement by delineating the kinds of wickedness that live in and proceed from corrupt hearts.
We need to understand this because we all admit that we are sinners. Oh, we blithely say, “To err is human, to forgive is divine” and “Nobody’s perfect.”
When we say such things, we demonstrate that we see sin as something on the edge, something tangential, something peripheral to our existence. Jesus said: “No, defilement comes from the very core of your being.”
The book of Proverbs says, “As he thinks in his heart, so is he” (23:7a).
We usually think of the brain as being the organ of thought, but here it is the heart that is said to think.
We have all kinds of conflicting thoughts in our minds, but what we really believe is that which drives our behavior.
Ideas may go in and out of our ears, and we may entertain them for a while in our thinking, but that which pierces the heart determines how we live.
In short, a man is defined by that which he holds in his heart. If the heart is evil, there will be evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, and all the other sins Jesus lists here.
Eating or refraining from certain foods will not change this list one iota, nor will washing one’s hands. It is the heart that must be cleansed.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
God looks on the heart. God sees the reason we are good and the reason we are bad are basically the same: self-centered, wanting people to think well of us, wanting to control God, wanting to control other people.
1. You and I are not to fear the pollution that’s outside of you, you’re to fear the pollution that is inside of you.
And if you have a new heart and if you’ve been washed, and if you’ve been given the Holy Spirit, then all is well between you and God.
And that’s an eternal transaction, is it not? That’s an eternal miracle. That’s a new beginning that has no end. This is what the gospel offers when you put your faith in Christ.
This is why the Lord said, “I have to fully reject your religion because it’s a religion that makes a wrong diagnosis and therefore it can’t offer the correct cure.
If you’re good and all you need to do is control your environment, then you’ve missed it all together because you are bad on the inside.
You don’t need a different environment, you don’t need to create a different environment.
The Jews thought, “Well just like in Israel, keep the Gentiles out, get rid of the Gentiles.”
That’s why they hated the Romans so much. “We’ll just keep all the bad people out, we’ll keep all the polluting influences out. We’ll have enough ritual ceremonies to keep ourselves clean.
The fact of the matter was their pollution was all on the inside. They missed it completely.
You need a new heart. You need to be washed on the inside, and that’s what the Spirit of God does when you put your faith in Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel.
And you make no contribution to that other than under the prompting of the Holy Spirit to repent of your sin and embrace Christ.
2. Religion is outside in.
“If I do all these things, then God will come in and maybe accept me and heal my heart so I don’t feel inconsequential.”
3. The gospel is inside out.
The gospel is God, through Jesus Christ, at infinite cost to himself, has clothed us in costly garments. It cost him his blood. He loves us, and we’re beautiful in his sight now by sheer grace.
4. To the degree you know the gospel is inside out, that heals your heart.
Then you can move out into the world not scared,
not needing approval,
not over-needing power, not needing it at all.
Religion is outside in. It doesn’t work.
The gospel is inside out. It does.
You have something very specific in your past that you feel really bad about. You feel guilty about. It was a failure of some kind. You’ve been spending all of your life trying to atone for it. This is the sweet, oblivious antidote.
“The mark of the true Christian isn’t that sin never gets the upper hand—not that our desires are flawlessly Godward. The mark of the Christian is that at the root of our lives is this new treasuring of Christ over all things. John Piper
He has assumed a place in our hearts that pulls us back again and again to renew our devotion to him as supreme. Christians have discovered that the indwelling Spirit magnifies the worth of Jesus above all things, and moves us to repentance when we fail to feel that worth as we ought.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).”
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