Much of the opposition to Jesus’ ministry came from the members of the first century religious elite collectively known as the Pharisees. As mentioned earlier, the Pharisees were perhaps best known for their strict adherence to the letter of the Old Testament Law, especially when it came to things like tithing and the ceremonial aspects of the law such as washing and handling food.
When we last saw the Pharisees in Mark chapter three, we were told that these men had decided to observe Jesus closely in order to identify something that might allow them to bring an accusation against Him. In that particular instance, the question was whether Jesus would heal a man with a disability on the Sabbath.
Jesus responded by instructing the disabled man to step up where everyone could see him. He then asked a simple question: “Which is the right thing to do on the Sabbath day: to do good or to do evil? Is it right to save a life or to destroy one?” (ERV). In other words, “Is it right for me to do something good for this man on the Sabbath or should I avoid doing so in favor of your traditional beliefs?” In Mark chapter seven, Jesus will clash once again with the scribes and Pharisees over the authority of their traditional beliefs.
In this instance, the issue revolved around the long standing traditions and customs collectively known as the “Tradition of the Elders.” The Tradition of the Elders represented the teachings and commands of well-known religious leaders from the past and were strictly observed by the religious leadership of Jesus’ day. These traditions included many detailed interpretations of the Old Testament law that spelled out what was permissible and impermissible in various situations.
These traditions had built up over the years and had become the accepted standards of behavior by Jesus’ day. These rules were strictly followed by the religious leaders- but not necessarily by Jesus and His disciples. So not surprisingly, this led to a confrontation between Jesus and these men.
While it may be easy to criticize the Pharisees for assigning the place of highest authority to their traditional beliefs, their example should inspire us to examine the foundations of our traditional beliefs and practices as well. You see, it is often easy for those of us in the 21st century to replace the “commandments of God” with the “traditions of men” just as these religious leaders did. We’ll see how and why that can happen as we look at the opening verses of Mark chapter seven.
“Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault.
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches” (Mark 7:1-4).
This passage opens with the appearance of a delegation led by the Pharisees and the scribes, a group of men who served as copyists, editors, and teachers of the law of Moses. The fact that these men had come from Jerusalem indicates that they must have been leaders of some authority, not unlike a similar delegation that had already declared Jesus to be “possessed by Satan” in Mark 3:22. It was approximately 100 miles (161 km) traveling distance from Jerusalem to the area where Jesus was teaching during this time and at an average walking speed of two miles (3 km) per hour, this trip must have represented a considerable expense of time, energy, and effort for these men.
After presumably taking some time to observe Jesus and His disciples, we’re told that these men “gathered around Jesus” (ERV) during this exchange. Today we might say that these leaders “ganged up on Jesus” with the following accusation: “They noticed that some of his disciples were eating their food with hands that were ritually unclean—that is, they had not washed them in the way the Pharisees said people should” (GNB). So after traveling for approximately 100 miles, it seems that the worst thing these men could accuse Jesus of is the fact that His followers didn’t wash up “properly” before eating.
Now we can’t say that the scribes and Pharisees were wrong in seeking to evaluate Jesus’ life and ministry. After all, the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians advises us to “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 NIV). The problem was that these men were measuring Jesus by the wrong standard. Their interpretation of what it meant to obey the commandments of Scripture had become more important than the Scripture itself.
Of course, people today may also place more authority in books about spiritual topics or Christian living than in the Bible itself. While there may be some value in such things, the Scriptures are the standard by which our beliefs should be established, judged and measured, not the other way around.
“Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault” (Mark 7:2).
Many public restrooms in the United States feature small signs that encourage people to wash their hands before leaving the facility. These signs serve to remind us that the simple step of hand washing can help reduce the risk associated with various illnesses. For those who are familiar with such advisories, the objection of the religious leadership found here in Mark chapter seven may seem to be perfectly reasonable; after all, who could argue with the idea that it’s good to wash up before eating?
The problem is that the type of hand washing referenced in this passage had nothing to do with physical cleanliness. What these religious leaders had in mind was entirely ceremonial in nature. You see, the first century spiritual leadership observed a specific hand washing custom that was remotely based on the instructions found within the Old Testament book of Leviticus…
“If any of Aaron’s descendants has a skin disease or any kind of discharge that makes him ceremonially unclean, he may not eat from the sacred offerings until he has been pronounced clean. He also becomes unclean by touching a corpse, or by having an emission of semen, or by touching a small animal that is unclean, or by touching someone who is ceremonially unclean for any reason.
The man who is defiled in any of these ways will remain unclean until evening. He may not eat from the sacred offerings until he has bathed himself in water. When the sun goes down, he will be ceremonially clean again and may eat from the sacred offerings, for this is his food” (Leviticus 22:4-7 NLT).
By Jesus’ day these directions had developed into an elaborate hand washing ritual that was performed before every meal and sometimes between every course. A small amount of water (equivalent to the volume of 1.5 eggshells) was poured over the hands with the fingers pointing up. This water was then allowed to drip away while the person engaged in a hand washing motion. Then the process was repeated with the fingers pointing downward. Similar rituals were observed with kitchen equipment and dining areas as well (Mark 7:4).
So in reality, these objections had nothing to do with any lack of personal hygiene. The fact that Jesus’ disciples did not submit to their preferred practice is what these men really objected to.
“Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?'” (Mark 7:5).
When the visiting delegation from Jerusalem found fault with the actions of Peter, James, John and the rest of the Twelve, notice that they did not take up their complaint with these men individually. Instead, these religious leaders went directly to Jesus for an explanation. Since the disciples were followers of Jesus, He was the One who was held responsible for their conduct- and much the same is true for Jesus’ followers today. Since others will associate Jesus with the actions of those who claim to follow Him, its important to consider how our words and deeds will ultimately reflect upon Him. As we’re later reminded in Colossians 4:5, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (NIV, see also 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).
In confronting Jesus about the actions of the disciples, the scribes and Pharisees also used the term “walk.” When used in this context, the word “walk” is a figure of speech used to refer to a person’s general conduct or behavior. In this instance, the accusation revolved around the disciple’s failure to observe the extra-biblical set of rules (the “tradition of the elders“) that had been established for implementing the various Old Testament laws.
Now in fairness, these traditional interpretations undoubtedly began with a sincere desire to pursue a lifestyle that was good and acceptable to God. And just as it was in Jesus’ day, Christians today must also wrestle with the way that Scriptural teachings should be applied in everyday life. For instance, let’s consider the thought process that might have led to the establishment of the traditional hand-washing procedures that we read about here in Mark chapter seven…
- Everything we have (including the food we eat) is a gift from God (see Ecclesiastes 5:19)
- No one who is unclean can approach God (see Numbers 19:20)
- Psalm 18:20 tells us,“The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me” (NIV).
While each of these statements is true on an individual level, we need to look at the relationship between them before we can utilize them to establish a set of principles to live by. That’s because it’s possible to employ several good principles yet still end up with something bad. We’ll see how that can happen next.
“So the Pharisees and legal experts asked Jesus, ‘Why are your disciples not living according to the rules handed down by the elders but instead eat food with ritually unclean hands?'” (Mark 7:5 CEB).
The religious leadership of Jesus’ day examined the Old Testament requirements for cleanliness and responded with an elaborate set of rules and traditions to ensure that those requirements would never be broken. But in establishing this extensive set of “do’s” and dont’s,” these traditional beliefs eventually became requirements unto themselves.
You see, many of these oral traditions were eventually codified into a work known as the Mishna. This document went on to underscore the importance of these traditions in relation to the Scriptures by saying, “It is a greater offense to teach anything contrary to the voice of the Rabbis than to contradict Scripture itself.” (1) So it seems that the religious leadership of Jesus’ day placed a greater emphasis on their interpretation of what it meant to follow the Scripture than the Scripture itself.
While it may be easy to identify the problem with such an approach from our 21st century vantage point, it may be more difficult to identify similar tendencies in our own lives. For instance, we may establish traditions with regard to entertainment, dress, meals, or any number of things and categorize those things into those which are spiritually “good” and those which are “bad.” But how do we make such determinations?
Well, it might be helpful to look at our traditional beliefs in terms of relationships. Here’s how one scholar illustrates this concept from the perspective of “good” vs.”evil”…
“In some cases, though, evil is more easily explained as a case of bad relationships. If I pick up a good gun, put in a good bullet, point it at my good head, put my good finger on the good trigger and give it a good pull … a bad relationship results. The things involved are not evil in themselves, but the relationship between the good things is definitely lacking something.
In this case, the lack comes about because the things are not being used as they ought to be. Guns should not be used for indiscriminate killing, but are fine for recreation. My head was not meant to be used for target practice… Evil is a lack of something that should be there in the relationship between good things” (1)
Once the religious elitists of Jesus day placed their traditional observance above the Word of God, a bad relationship resulted. There was (and is) nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a traditional belief, but there was something definitely wrong in the relationship of these traditions to the Scriptures. We’ll look at strategies to avoid replicating that mistake next.
(1) Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament p.59
(2) Geisler, N. L., & Brooks, R. M. (1990). When Skeptics Ask (61). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
“Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, ‘Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?'” (Mark 7:5 KJV).
Traditions help provide structure in a changing world. They establish cherished memories and provide us with something to look forward to when times are difficult. Yet as with anything established by fallible human beings, it is possible for a tradition to turn into something exceedingly bad as seen in the case of the Scribes and Pharisees of the first century.
You see, everyone holds a worldview, an elemental belief about our existence that provides us with a way to understand, interpret, and make decisions in life. These decisions can include any number of things like the friends we choose, the way that we spend our money, or what we do with our time, just to name a few.
From there, our foundational worldview goes on to form our principles. In this context, a principle represents an individual standard or rule of personal conduct. These principles then help establish our traditions, or those customary observances that we keep in different areas of life. So our traditions are founded upon the principles that are supported by our worldview.
Far example, a parent may wish to establish a holiday tradition, something special that can be passed down to each succeeding generation. The urge to establish such tradition often proceeds from a desire to establish a warm, loving, secure family relationship, a desire that finds it’s origin in the Word of God (see Ephesians 5:22-6:4).
As long as that tradition finds it’s inspiration in a desire to honor God according to the Scriptures, it is sure to maintain its proper place. But once that basis for a traditional belief is lost, it may continue on as simply “the right way” to do something or even, “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” These foundations often represent a poor basis upon which to build a tradition.
As demonstrated by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, traditions determined by an individual may also be potentially damaging if prescribed for a group. The right balance for traditional observance in this regard is modeled by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament book of Romans…
“Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:4-5).
“Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Mark 7:5-7).
Jesus provided neither an explanation or justification for the actions of His disciples in this passage. Instead, He responded by quoting Isaiah 29:19 and said in effect, “Your tradition cancels out the direct commandment of God.” You see, the Old Testament law did require various washings but these men went beyond what the Scripture called for and created a tremendous burden upon the people. Jesus was not criticizing the law itself but He was criticizing the way that it was interpreted by those who placed their tradition on an equal or higher level than the Scripture.
But Jesus went further by identifying His detractors as “hypocrites.” A “hypocrite” is someone who pretends to be something that he or she is not. In the days of New Testament, the word hypocrite meant “one who wears a mask.” It was used in the ancient Greek theatre to describe actors who used masks to portray different emotions. This word eventually went on to be used to describe anyone who wasn’t really what he or she claimed to be. A hypocrite then, is really a “mask-wearer,” someone who is knowingly and intentionally different from what he or she may outwardly claim to be- and Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for such people among the religious elite…
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:2-4 NIV).
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13 NIV).
“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52 NIV).
Because the religious leadership excluded those who refused to follow their traditional beliefs, people were given the wrong idea about God and were discouraged from entering a relationship with Him. This was the destructive fruit of a tradition that did not find it’s origin in the Word of God.
“Jesus told them, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites in Scripture: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is pointless, because their teachings are rules made by humans” (Mark 7:6-7 GW).
It’s been half-jokingly said that it’s possible to put five people in a room, ask a question, and emerge with ten different opinions. So what is it that provides our opinions with weight, value, or significance? For example, some may develop an opinion through the process of testing and analyzing empirical data. Some may base an opinion on little more than a “gut feeling” or the perceived attitude of a peer group. Others may claim the approval of a higher authority- or in some cases, the highest authority.
You see, the religious leadership of Jesus’ day held their traditional beliefs to be the only appropriate manner by which someone might approach God- and their opinion carried authority due to their status as representatives of God. Yet Jesus identified these leaders as frauds or hypocrites; men who substituted their own opinions for genuine Biblical teachings. In some respects, its relatively easy to identify modern-day examples of such leadership for anyone who claims to have “authority from God” but holds a position that is clearly out of alignment with the Scriptures is really not what he or she claims to be.
Yet in certain circles of the church it is not uncommon to hear spiritual leaders say, “The Lord told me such and such…” or, “The Lord directed me to say or do this or that…” or other, similar statements. While it is certainly true that God speaks and provides direction for His people today, its important to be very careful about speaking for God in this manner.
For instance, the person who begins a statement with, ”The Lord spoke to me…” is really claiming to speak for God. In other words, that five-word preface asserts that whatever follows has authority from the Lord. This important to remember because the Scriptures tell us, ”Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge In him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar” (Proverbs 30:5-6 NIV).
It might perhaps be better to say in such situations, ”I believe the Lord has told me such-and-such…” or, ”I feel that God has spoken to me…” or, “I think that God is leading me to do this or that.” Such statements recognize that we are imperfect human beings who sometimes make mistakes (even honest ones) in humbly seeking to hear from God.
“‘For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men —the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.’ He said to them, ‘All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:8-9).
The MKJV translation of this passage phrases this portion of Jesus’ statement in the form of question to the religious leadership: “Do you do well to set aside the commandment of God, so that you may keep your own tradition?” (Mark 7:9). The implication was that they clearly did not. Other translations indicate that Jesus employed the literary device of sarcasm in delivering His message to the religious elite…
- “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” (NRSV).
- “Clearly, you are experts at rejecting God’s commandment in order to establish these rules” (CEB).
- “It is wonderful to see how you can set aside the commandment of God to preserve your own tradition!” (Phillips).
The scribes and Pharisees were surely unprepared for such a response when they challenged Jesus to explain,“Why is it that your disciples do not follow the teaching handed down by our ancestors, but instead eat with ritually unclean hands?” (Mark 7:5 GNB). But Jesus was ready to back up His assertion…
“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do'” (Mark 7:10-13).
The Old Testament book of Exodus established a child’s responsibility to honor his or her parents as found within the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother, that you may have a long, good life in the land the Lord your God will give you” (Exodus 20:12 TLB). For an older child who was no longer under direct parental supervision, that responsibility was usually discharged in the form of helping to meet an elderly parents needs.
However, the religious leadership established a clever loophole that enabled a child to evade that responsibility and neutralize any associated feelings of guilt- all while financially aiding these very same religious leaders. We’ll see how that maneuver played out next.
“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)– then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do” (Mark 7:10-13 ESV).
It’s important to note the clear distinction that Jesus established in responding to the religious leaders in this passage. Jesus began with a direct reference to the Fifth Commandment as found in Exodus 20:12 along with a second reference to Exodus 21:17: “…he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” He attributed both of these references to Moses (“For Moses said…”) and followed by placing the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees squarely on the opposite side of such Scriptural admonitions by declaring, “But you say…” (emphasis added).
Jesus implied that He could have chosen from among many examples to illustrate His point but the one He selected was a principle known as Corban. This referred to an amount of money or property that had been set aside and dedicated to God (and the religious leadership by extension) but was still in the possession of the owner. Anything declared to be “Corban” could still be used by the person who owned it, but it could no longer be sold or given away to someone else (such as a needy parent who was no longer able to provide for him or herself).
Why would Jesus reject such a principle? Well, we can answer that question by asking another: How was this principle likely to influence the perception of God? For example, if you were an elderly parent and your son or daughter invoked the principle of Corban at your expense, would that cause you to respond with an attitude of appreciation and thankfulness to God? The answer is probably not.
This nullification of God’s Word represented the kind of attitude that triggered a similar rebuke to another group of spiritual leaders through the pen of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel:
“As I live, says the Lord God, you abandoned my flock, leaving them to be attacked and destroyed, and you were no real shepherds at all, for you didn’t search for them. You fed yourselves and let them starve; therefore, I am against the shepherds, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… I myself will save my flock…” (Ezekiel 34:8-10, 15a, 22a).
“So you are teaching that it is not important to do what God said. You think it is more important to follow those traditions you have, which you pass on to others. And you do many things like that” (Mark 7:13 ERV).
A person who sought to designate something of value as “Corban” could base his or her appeal on a portion of Scripture found in Numbers 30:1-2: “…‘This is the thing which the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.'”
The problem was that anyone who sought to shelter his or her possessions in this manner effectively invalidated one portion of Scripture at the expense of another. Another problem involved the fact that the Pharisee’s traditional interpretation of this verse legitimized an ungodly attitude (the neglect of a needy parent in this instance) through the selective use of Scripture.
Jesus clearly saw through this charade and rebuked the religious leadership accordingly. But how can we avoid slipping into a similar mindset when seeking to apply various Scriptural principles in daily life? Well, there are a few ideas that may help us find the right balance between traditional interpretations of Scripture and the Scripture itself…
- We should recognize that there is nothing inherently wrong with long-held, traditional beliefs. In fact, the Bible speaks of the value associated with looking back at the examples of those who have proceeded us in order to duplicate their successes and learn from their mistakes (see Romans 14:5 and the New Testament book of Hebrews).
- We should recognize that traditional interpretations originate with fallible human beings while the Scriptures originate with God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
- Traditional beliefs must always be subordinate to the Scriptures.
- It is not necessarily enough to have Scriptural support for a traditional belief- it’s important to examine to motivation behind such belief. For instance, the religious leadership of Jesus’ day could point to the Scripture from Numbers (quoted above) to support their principle of Corban. But Jesus affirmed that any such interpretation was invalid since it effectively negated other portions of Scripture found in Exodus 20:12 and Exodus 21:17. The fact that their traditional interpretation was internally inconsistent between these Scriptures should have alerted them to a problem with their interpretation.
Remember that our traditional interpretations do not serve as the final arbiters for spiritual belief and practice. If necessary, we must adapt to the Scripture at the expense of our traditions, not the other way around.
When the delegation of religious leaders arrived from Jerusalem and questioned Jesus concerning the actions of His disciples in the opening verses of Mark chapter seven, they were surely unprepared for His reaction. These men were used to being treated with deference, reverence, and a certain degree of formality- and that must have made Jesus’ response all the more shocking…
“When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, ‘Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!'” (Mark 7:14-16).
Notice that “Jesus called the crowd together again…” (CEV) before issuing this conclusion. On one hand, we can say that these concepts were so important that Jesus wanted everyone to hear them and consider their application. But Jesus’ response must have also served as a public rebuke for these religious leaders as well. This was something that was sure to anger these men and further provoke them to take action against Him. In fact, this denunciation must have been so thorough that even Jesus’ own disciples questioned Him about it…
“Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’ He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit'” (Matthew 15:12-14 NIV).
One thing we can learn from Mark’s Gospel is that the Jesus found within it’s pages is not like the emaciated caricature of Jesus that’s often found within popular culture, spiritual literature, or even some religious institutions today. But while the disciples questioned Jesus about the character of His response, they also had some questions about it’s content as well…
“When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. So He said to them, ‘Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?'” (Mark 7:17-19).
The Old Testament book of Leviticus spends an entire chapter discussing clean and unclean animals- animals that were authorized to eat and animals that were unclean, or forbidden (see Leviticus chapter eleven). So how can we reconcile these teachings that are seemingly at odds? We’ll look at that answer next.
“‘Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. ‘Are you so dull?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean)” (Mark 7:15-19 NIV).
If we were to paraphrase Jesus’ message in these verses, we might say that people are not defiled by the foods they choose to eat. However, the Old Testament book of Leviticus goes into great detail regarding animals that were acceptable to eat and those that were unclean, or forbidden to eat. So how can we reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable teachings?
Well, we can begin by saying that Jesus was not undermining the Old Testament Law but He was making the point that sin comes from the heart. You see, the defilement associated with a choice to eat something declared unclean by God was not associated with that food itself but was actually the result of a defiant and insubordinate internal attitude (or “heart”) that motivated someone to eat something that God declared unclean or off-limits.
The word “heart” used in the passage quoted above is taken from the Greek word kardia and it forms the basis for our modern-day English word cardiac. When used in this context, the word “heart” refers to someone’s innermost being in a physical, emotional, or spiritual sense.
So in effect, Jesus said that it was not the lack of ritual cleansing that defiled someone, nor was it even the food that he or she ate. Instead, Jesus tied the concept of defilement to the corrupt thoughts and intents of our innermost being, for every moral evil finds it’s origin in the hearts of men and women. These internal thoughts and motivations are the real agents of defilement and they are what ultimately make us unfit for a relationship with God.
So in making these statements, Jesus effectively ended all religiously oriented dietary restrictions. While many cultures still observe (and enjoy) such traditional restrictions, its important to remember that such constraints do not make us better or worse before God. In the words of Paul the Apostle in his first New Testament letter to the church at Corinth, “…food will not commend us to God: neither, if we eat not, are we the worse; nor, if we eat, are we the better” (1 Corinthians 8:8 ASV).
“He answered, ‘Don’t you know what I am talking about by now? You surely know that the food you put into your mouth cannot make you unclean. It doesn’t go into your heart, but into your stomach, and then out of your body.’ By saying this, Jesus meant that all foods were fit to eat” (Mark 7:18-19 CEV).
In looking at this passage, its important to remember that Jesus was not criticizing the Old Testament Law itself. However, He was sharply critical of the way that the Law had been interpreted by those who placed their tradition on an equal or higher level than the Scriptures.
Jesus then took the opportunity to get to the point that was really important: the core issue involved in being “clean” and “unclean” before God is not a matter of washing up in a certain manner before meals because defilement is not really related to what goes into someone but what comes out.
So in answering the disciple’s request to explain His statement, Jesus’ response was to basically say, “Don’t you get it? What you eat has no effect on the heart.” As mentioned earlier, the “heart” represents the part of a person that thinks, feels, and makes decisions. When used in this context, the heart represents someone’s innermost being in an emotional or spiritual sense.
We can illustrate the idea behind this concept by contrasting a spiritual heart with a physical heart. You see, even though our physical hearts are not normally visible, we can easily die from a variety of unseen heart ailments. And while we can’t always see the fact that someone is suffering from a physical heart condition, we can often see the effects of it.
Like our physical hearts, our spiritual hearts are not immediately visible to others either. But like our physical hearts, a spiritual heart ailment eventually leads to death as well. In a similar manner, we may not always be aware that someone is suffering from a spiritual heart ailment but we can often see the effects of it. That’s because the heart represents who we really are- and under the right circumstances, those internal attitudes and motivations are often revealed. Remember that people generally act on what they believe and what someone does is often the best indicator of what that person really believes in his or her heart.
So what are those things that come from our hearts and defile us (or make us unclean) before God? Well, Jesus will go on to list a few of them- and we’ll take a look at that list next.
“And He said, ‘What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man'” (Mark 7:20-23).
So what are those things that come from within and defile us (or make us unclean) before God? Well, Jesus provided His followers with a short list of thirteen examples to help illustrate His point…
- evil thoughts or those destructive thoughts that are designed to cause injury to others.
- sexual immorality, a term that is taken from the Greek word porneia, the word from which we draw our modern day word “pornography.” This refers to any kind of sexual activity that occurs outside a marriage relationship. For example, the term “sexual immorality” would cover unmarried couples who are involved in a physical relationship, homosexual relationships, or involvement with pornography. Jesus also expanded these definitions to include internal expressions of sexual immorality as well (see Matthew 5:27-28).
- thefts, or the wrongful taking of another person’s property.
- murders, or the unlawful taking of another person’s life (see also Matthew 5:21-22).
- covetousness or greed, the intense desire to possess someone or something that doesn’t belong to you.
- wickedness, a word that refers to evil purposes and desires.
- deceit, a word that literally means “to bait or snare” someone.
- lewdness, or undisciplined and unrestrained behavior.
- an evil eye or envy. Words like jealousy, ill will, and spite all help to illustrate to idea behind “an evil eye.”
- blasphemy. As mentioned earlier, “blasphemy” involves cursing God or showing contempt and/or disrespect for Him. It can also involve speaking and/or living in a way that shows complete disrespect for God. A blasphemous person is someone who despises God in the things that he or she says or shows contempt for Him through his or her lifestyle.
- pride, a concept that would include someone with an inflated opinion of him or herself, or someone who looks down on upon others with contempt.
- foolishness, a word that carries the idea of senselessness, recklessness, or egotism.
While governments, law enforcement agents, and societal limits on social conduct all help to enforce restrictions on the external expression of these internal attitudes and motivations, only God can truly change the heart from which these things proceed (see Ezekiel 36:19-20 and 2 Corinthians 5:17-20).
“(Jesus) continued, ‘It’s what comes out of a person that makes him unclean. Evil thoughts, sexual sins, stealing, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, cheating, shameless lust, envy, cursing, arrogance, and foolishness come from within a person. All these evils come from within and make a person unclean'” (Mark 7:20-23 GW).
In addition to the list of internal attitudes that render a person unfit to worship God that Jesus provides for us here in the Gospel of Mark, the Apostle Paul picks up on this same idea a little later in the New Testament book of Galatians…
“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21 NIV).
The Apostle John offers a similar warning in the book of 1st John…
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. (1 John 2:15-16 NIV).
So to wrap up this section, Jesus established that it was not the lack of following a traditional interpretation of Scripture that hurts people spiritually. The real deciding factors are those internal thoughts and intents of our hearts. Those impure and immoral motivations that spring from within are the things that really defile men and women and make them unfit to enjoy a relationship with God.
So how can we address this issue and establish the right kind of relationship with God? Well, here’s the answer from the Apostle Paul in the New Testament book of Romans…
“For salvation that comes from trusting Christ– which is what we preach– is already within easy reach of each of us; in fact, it is as near as our own hearts and mouths. For if you tell others with your own mouth that Jesus Christ is your Lord and believe in your own heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in his heart that a man becomes right with God; and with his mouth he tells others of his faith, confirming his salvation” (Romans 10:8-10 TLB).
Remember Jesus’ promise to those with internal thoughts and motivations that honor God: “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 NIV).
“From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden” (Mark 7:24).
Tyre and Sidon were seaport towns located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea roughly 20 miles (32 km) apart and about 90 miles (145 km) north of Jerusalem. Today, the first century cities of Tyre and Sidon would be found within the modern-day nation of Lebanon. In those days, Tyre was famous for a purple dye that was made from the shellfish that could be found near the shoreline. The people of Tyre were also well-known for the glass and metal work that they produced. Tyre represented city of great commerce, a city of wealthy people who were responsible for shipping and receiving expensive goods from all over the world.
Like Tyre, the people of Sidon were also known for their artistry in working with glass and metal in addition to their skillfulness in various aspects of forestry. In fact, Israel’s King Solomon was once forced to admit that “…no one among us can equal the skill of the Sidon men in cutting timber” (1 Kings 5:6 AMP).
Its possible that the friction that had developed between Jesus and the religious leadership helped prompt His decision to withdraw from the Galilee area and travel to the largely non-Jewish region of Tyre and Sidon. It might also explain why Jesus, “…did not want people to know he was there…” (CEV). However, we should note that Jesus had just completed a message on the real nature of defilement in the previous verses. Since the act of traveling to an area with a large Gentile population was something that was sure to render an observant Jewish person ceremonially unclean, Jesus may have been simply been practicing what He preached.
Yet despite Jesus’ desire to remain incognito, one individual successfully tracked Him down following His arrival…
“For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:25-26).
Although this woman assumed a position of humility and respect for Jesus by falling down at his feet, the fact that she “…kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter” implies that Jesus had been unresponsive to her request- and when He did finally respond, His answer was surprising and perhaps even shocking. We’ll look at that response next.
“A woman whose little daughter had an evil spirit heard about Jesus. She went to him and bowed down. The woman happened to be Greek, born in Phoenicia in Syria. She asked him to force the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:25-26 GW).
The area of Phoenicia was part of a region that belonged to the Roman province of Syria during that time. The fact that Mark mentions this woman’s home town (along with the additional detail that she was Greek) reminds us that Jesus was not dealing with someone of Jewish descent. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel identifies her as, “a woman of Canaan” (Matthew 15:22). Since the Jewish people had driven many of the earlier inhabitants of Canaan out of that area at God’s direction during Moses’ and Joshua’s time, it’s easy to understand why the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish people might not be very good.
While these cultural realities did not deter this woman from seeking Jesus’ help, His disciples were not quite so accommodating. Matthew’s account of this event tells us that “…(Jesus’) disciples came and urged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she cries out after us'” (Matthew 15:23). So when faced with this woman’s desperate plea for assistance and His disciple’s recommendation that He simply send her away, here was Jesus’ response…
“But Jesus said to her, ‘Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs'” (Mark 7:27).
Calling someone a “dog” doesn’t seem like a very appropriate thing to hear from Jesus, does it? You see, the dogs of that era were generally unlike the loyal house pets that we know today. While dogs were sometimes kept as pets during that time, they were mainly scavengers that were looked upon in much the same way that we might view rats or mice today. Packs of dogs would sometimes roam the streets looking for food and attack anyone who got too close. In other words, dogs were hardly regarded as “man’s best friend” during the New Testament era and because of this, the word “dog” was often used in a derogatory manner when describing others.
Yet a closer look at Jesus’ response indicates that His answer was not as insulting as it might seem at first glance. You see, this Syro-Phoenician woman picked up on two important elements within Jesus’ response that encouraged her to press forward with Him. We’ll take a look at what she saw in Jesus’ response next.
“But Jesus answered, ‘Let us first feed the children. It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs'” (Mark 7:27 GNB).
There were two elements of Jesus’ response to this woman from Syro-Phoenicia that are important but not necessarily obvious at first glance. For instance, let’s consider Jesus’ use of the word “first”: “Let the children first be fed…” (RSV, emphasis added).
The idea behind this statement was that it would be inappropriate for a parent to interrupt a meal with a group of hungry children in order to feed the family dog. This did not necessarily mean that the dog wouldn’t get to eat as well, but that would not occur until after the children of the house had completed their meals.
In this context, the “children” represent the Jewish people, the people to whom Jesus initially brought His message of salvation. If we were to consider the implication of Jesus’ response in a spiritual sense, we could say that even though salvation was offered to the Jewish people first, this did not necessarily mean that it was offered exclusively to them. There would be a definite time and a place for the non-Jewish people (such as this Syro-Phoenician woman) to receive the message of salvation as well. In fact, the New Testament book of Romans will later go on to say much the same thing when we read, “I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe, first the Jews and also the Gentiles” (Romans 1:16 GNB).
The second critical element of Jesus’ response was found in His use of the word “dogs.” While it might be easy to assume that Jesus was referring to a dog in the common sense of the word, a closer look at the original language used to record His response indicates that Jesus was actually speaking of a little dog or a puppy. (1) This was a much more compassionate term than the commonly used word for “dog” and would be synonymous with a word that we might use to refer to a “doggie” or a house pet for which an owner has great affection.
So while some of the people of that era used the term “dog” in a derogatory manner in referring to others, Jesus chose to employ a related word with a different meaning- a meaning that was not lost upon the woman to whom He was speaking. Her reply (and His response) will go on to illustrate the critical importance of listening closely to Jesus and carefully considering an appropriate response.
(1) NT:2952 kunarion “a little dog, a puppy,” is used in Matt 15:26-27; Mark 7:27, 28. (from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.)
“But Jesus said to her, ‘Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.’ And she answered and said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs'” (Mark 7:27-28).
This passage represents the only instance within the Gospel of Mark where Jesus was addressed as “Lord,” a term that was roughly equivalent to our use of the word “sir” or “mister” today. So while Jesus’ teachings, healings, and miracles were largely performed among His own people, the only recorded person who actually referred to Him with this title of respect was this Syro-Phoenician woman, or someone who might be characterized as an “outsider.”
In effect, this woman replied to Jesus by saying, “I’m not asking for the portion of a meal that you would give to the children; I’m just asking for the equivalent of a crumb from the table.” It’s likely that this woman had heard of Jesus’ miracles; miracles that included feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish, healing the sick and the disabled, resurrecting a dead girl, and perhaps others. In light of this, she may have felt that her request constituted little more than a crumb when compared to the generous banquet represented by such other miracles. To borrow Jesus’ analogy, such “crumbs” would not deprive the children of a meal but like the scraps that fall from the dinner table to the feet of an eager house pet, they represented something of great value to those who received them.
This wise and humble reply led to Jesus’ response…
“Then He said to her, ‘For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.’ And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed” (Mark 7:29-30).
If we were to rephrase Jesus’ response in this passage, we might do so by saying, “In light of this answer (which demonstrates your faith and humility) your request has been granted.” For her part, this woman then went on to further demonstrate her faith by acting on Jesus’ response and returning home to find her daughter restored. Remember that this woman did not have the opportunity to physically see this miraculous event occur since Jesus performed this miracle at a distance. Nevertheless, she took Jesus at His word and was subsequently rewarded for her faith.
“Again, departing from the region of Tyre and Sidon, He came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee” (Mark 7:31).
The passage that we are about to read in the closing verses of Mark chapter seven is found only within this Gospel, an account that finds Jesus on a tour through the Decapolis region. This area consisted of ten cities with a largely non-Jewish population and if this sounds familiar, then it may be due to the fact that this location was previously mentioned in Mark chapter five when Jesus healed a man from the Gadarene region who was possessed with a legion of demons…
“And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.’ And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled” (Mark 5:18-20).
So Jesus followed His “advance man” so to speak- the man who had been previously demon possessed. This man had no doubt acted on Jesus’ instruction to report about what had been done for him so when Jesus now followed him into the Decapolis (or Ten Town) region, He was no longer just another traveler in a area where few people (if any) were anticipating a Messiah- Jesus was now a Man with a reputation. That notoriety probably helped lead to what we read next…
“Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him” (Mark 7:32).
While the people of the Gadarene area had previously desired to see Jesus depart, it seems that the report provided by the formerly demon possessed man had alleviated any reservations they may have held regarding Jesus’ miraculous ability. It now appears that Jesus was recognized not only as a man of power but of character as well- and as such, “The people begged Jesus to put his hand on the man to heal him” (ERV).
The need to place one’s hand upon another to facilitate the act of healing was something that was clearly ingrained within the people who brought this man to Jesus. But as we’ll see, Jesus chose not to act upon their request. Instead, He gave them what they wanted but not what they asked for.
“Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him. And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened'” (Mark 7:32-34).
The group that brought this man to Jesus had a definite idea about the way in which He needed to answer their request: “they begged him to place his hand on the man” (NIV). But while Jesus agreed to act on their request, He elected to do so in the manner of His choosing. These verses help to remind us that it is better for us to bring our requests to the Lord and allow Him to determine the proper response rather than tell Him what He ought to do on our behalf.
While the method in which Jesus chose to heal this man may seem highly unusual at first, there are some elements within His response that begin to make better sense once we examine them more closely. For instance, Jesus first began by taking this man away from the crowd of spectators. This was a compassionate gesture on Jesus’ part for it placed this man in a position to receive the ability to hear in a relatively quiet environment, a place away from the clamor, noise, and tumult of the surrounding multitude. Jesus next placed His fingers into the man’s ears, a symbolic action that helped communicate what He was about to do for the benefit of someone who couldn’t hear Him speak.
Jesus then spit and touched this man’s tongue. We’ll talk more extensively about Jesus’ use of saliva when we reach Mark chapter eight but for now, we might say that this action helped express the fact that words were about to begin to flow from this man’s tongue. Jesus next looked up to heaven, an act that served to indicate the source of this man’s healing. Jesus then “…sighed deeply” (NIV). While people may sometimes sigh out of sense of frustration, resignation, or indifference, it’s likely that Jesus sought to visibly communicate His emotional solidarity with this man in his suffering.
And with that, Jesus said, “Be opened” in Aramaic, the common language of that area- and at that moment everything changed for this now-formerly deaf man with a speech impediment.
“Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly. Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak'” (Mark 7:35-37).
While this man gained the ability to hear and speak clearly through this healing, this miracle was actually much more extensive than it may initially appear. You see, the ability to differentiate sounds, classify those sounds into words that carry information, and then process that information into a meaningful spoken response is a skill that normally takes years to acquire. Yet Jesus not only provided this man with the physical ability to speak and hear clearly but also the immediate cognitive ability to communicate and acquire language as well.
Jesus then followed this miraculous healing with a familiar piece of instruction: “Jesus told the people not to say anything about what he had done…” (CEV). Unfortunately, those who received this warning chose to respond in much the same way as someone else did when Jesus issued a similar advisory and proceeded to broadcast this news far and wide. This response to Jesus’ warning reveals a great deal about the people who received these instructions.
To help understand why, let’s consider this question: what was most important for those who decided to publicize the news of this miracle despite Jesus’ stated desire to keep it confidential? While there might be many possible answers to that question, we can say that listening to Jesus and following His direction was not one of them, for “the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it.”
In all likelihood, the most important thing for many of these people probably involved the need to be “first” with the news of this miraculous healing. It was about the recognition that would come with the act of telling someone something that he or she didn’t know. It was about the pleasure involved in possessing some information that others didn’t know. It was about the satisfaction derived from commanding the undivided attention of those who were eager to hear something they hadn’t heard and could only receive from those who were there.
Those things were apparently more important to these people than honoring Jesus’ request. That may help to explain why Jesus sought to limit these people from representing Him (and the miracles He performed) to others.