Jesus Christ taught with great authority. As the Pharisees own officers would attest, after failing in their mission to arrest Him, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:32-53). The preaching of Christ was radical because it stood in stark contrast to that of the scribes and Pharisees. The radical nature of Christ’s preaching was not rooted in His speaking style. It’s not that Christ was the innovative, creative, cutting edge communicator compared to the stale, staid, and boring Pharisees. Christ’s message was revolutionary because it stood in direct opposition to the graceless, moralistic, legalistic teaching that was common in the Judaism of His day. Jesus taught that God saves sinners by grace, whereas the Jews were taught that by definition sinners would not be saved. Jesus taught that uncleanness comes not from without the body but from within the heart. One commits sin, not as a result of his environment, but because of the evil within his own heart.
Mark 7:14-23 may be considered one of the most revolutionary passages in all the New Testament. This was a fundamental departure from the typical teaching the Jews received, but this was not a new message. The prophet Jeremiah had written long ago that “The heart [is] deceitful above all [things], and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (17:9)
A major error in the Pharisees’ doctrine was their purely external view of sin. They believed that in their lives sin had essentially been regulated out of existence, but as Sinclair Ferguson writes: “Their regulations were simply shutters which blinded them to the heart-searching nature of the law of God.” Christ’s message was certainly revolutionary, as well as offensive, to them, because they had willfully misinterpreted God’s Word, and replaced the truth of God with the tradition of man.
Based on the context of Mark 7 it would appear that the Jerusalem “fault-finding” delegation had cordoned off Jesus from the rest of the crowd. The people may have been listening in to the conversation between the religious elites and Jesus, but they were not invited to participate in the discussion until verse 14 when Jesus called all the people to gather around and to listen up. Jesus was concerned for these people who were being led astray by false shepherds. Christ wanted everyone to hear what He had to say – “Hearken unto me every one of you” – this teaching was important for everyone, and Christ wanted them to think through the implications of what he was about to say – “and understand.” What is Christ so concerned that the people hear and understand? Take another look at verses 15-23 and you’ll notice that one word is repeated five times. That word is the verb “defile” – koinoō in the Greek – it’s used twice in verse 15 and once each in verses 18, 20, and 23. It means “to make common; to make (Levitically) unclean, render unhallowed, profane” and it’s also translated as “call common” (Acts 10:15; 11:19); “pollute” (Acts 21:28), and “unclean” (Hebrews 9:13) The adjective form of the word – koinos – was used in the second verse of the chapter when Mark told us that the scribes and Pharisees espied some of Jesus’ followers eating with “defiled” hands. The fault finders considered their hands defiled because they had not been ceremonially cleansed.
Jesus and the Jerusalem delegation had just held a summit on pollution. No, they were not discussing varying methods of “going green”; this was not a confrontation over environmental pollution. Their disagreement was over something much more important: whether or not the heart was polluted from without (the Pharisees position) or from within (Jesus’ position).
Mark 7 is not the only place where defilement/pollution is mentioned in the Scriptures. In both Testaments this topic is widely discussed. The Bible has much to say on the matter of pollution; again, not environmental pollution, but personal, spiritual pollution and defilement.
Psalm 119:1 calls the undefiled “blessed”. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 reminds the believer that his body is the Spirit's temple, and as such it should not be defiled. 1 Corinthians 8:7 calls us to avoid a weak and defiled conscience. In Hebrews 12:15 believers are commanded to not be defiled by bitterness which will spring up and cause trouble and defilement. James 1:27 calls for pure and undefiled religion.
Plainly we see that God has called His people to lead a clean, pure, spotless, holy, undefiled, and unpolluted life. Since that is the case, believers must understand what pollutes, how they are polluted, and how to deal with pollution. This was and is an important issue, and this is why Jesus called the multitude to gather around, listen up, and understand God’s truth and disregard man’s tradition concerning defilement.
The Truth Stated - Mark 7:15
Nothing from outside a person that goes into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. Being undefiled before God does not depend on washing or not washing, touching or not touching, eating or not eating. That skin-deep religion is what the scribes and Pharisees taught and practiced, but it was (and still is) repudiated and rejected by Christ.
The truth which Jesus taught concerning defilement was radical yet nothing new; it was simple to understand but hard to accept. What goes into you is not what pollutes you, but that which comes out of you is the pollutant. In other words, sin, which is the defilement we’re talking about, is an inside job. Sin is always an inside job.
The Pharisees were completely committed to an external, outward religion. They considered one defiled for not observing the ceremonial rinsing traditions before each course in the meal. They viewed defilement strictly from the physical perspective, and gave no thought to the spiritual aspect. Jesus literally turned their theology inside out, and this dumbfounded the Jews.
It should not have.
Over and over again the OT declared that God looks on the heart. You can read it for yourself in Proverbs 4:23, 1 Samuel 16:7, Psalm 51:16-17, Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 9:25-26.
Jesus was teaching what the OT taught when He said it’s not what goes in but what comes out that pollutes you. The evil that is in us is demonstrated by what we say and by what we do. Jesus said in Matthew 15:18: “those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.” The mouth is an accurate symbol of the whole man as well as the utter sinfulness of man, because sinfulness is nowhere more evident than in what comes out of your mouth. Your mouth is a tattle-tale on your heart. If it’s in there (your heart) then it’s coming out here (your mouth).
Why were the Jews so hung up on ceremonies and rituals? In fairness to them I have to say “Leviticus”. The third book of the Bible is loaded with long lists of ceremonial observances the Jews were required to follow. It lists…
- Animals and birds they could and couldn't eat
- Things they could and couldn't touch
- Ways they could and couldn't cook
- Things they could and couldn’t drink
The Old Testament is replete with ceremonial observances, with do’s and don’ts that make one clean or unclean. For example, they were considered defiled if they had contact with the carcass of an unclean animal (Leviticus 11) or with any carcass (Leviticus 17). Bodily discharges, whether they were normal or abnormal, caused one to be defiled, as did contact with someone who was discharging (Leviticus 15). Therefore, women were considered unclean during their menstrual cycle and after childbirth. Anyone who touched a leper, a dead body or had contact with someone who touched the dead, and he was defiled. I could go on and on, but they had all of these things that made them ceremonially unfit.
Now understand that nowhere in the Old Testament will you read that these things were sinful. From what I’ve witnessed, giving birth is painful, but it isn’t sinful. Bodily discharges are never pretty, but they aren’t sinful. The Bible never classifies these things as sinful, but all the above did constitute ceremonial uncleanness. If any external defilement existed, as described by the Law, one could not worship God until he had followed the necessary cleansing ritual, as prescribed by the Law, which physically prepared him to worship God.
Why? Here's why. God was unfolding His redemptive plan; not making it up as He went but unfolding it according to His eternal purposes. Have you ever noticed how children’s books have just a few words but a lot of pictures? As the reading level increases so do the amount of words, and at the same time the pictures become scarcer. The Old Testament, the entire ceremonial system is full of pictures. Just as physical, ceremonial uncleanness prevented worship, an impure heart prevented spiritual worship. The whole ceremonial system is a picture of what God wants on the inside. Remember what David wrote in Psalm 24:3-4: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart.” The whole point of the clean hands was to demonstrate the need for the pure heart. As we read in Hebrews 10:1, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, [and] not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.” Ultimately, Christ is the substance of which all of those OT ordinances, sacrifices, festivals, and rituals foreshadowed.
Unfortunately, the substance was abandoned for the shadows. The reality had been rejected in favor of the ritual, and in so doing the ritual was stripped of any significance. Even worse, by Christ’s time, more and more lists, rituals, and observances had been added to the ones which were given in the Bible. This only placed heavy burdens on the back of the people; burdens they were unable to bear, and never meant to bear. Which is why Jesus invites people: “Come unto me, all [ye] that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke [is] easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)