The Real Source of Defilement
The seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel begins with the Pharisees and scribes coming to Jesus, complaining that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands.
While such behavior may offend twenty-first century sensibilities as well, it was really a much larger problem for the Pharisees that it is for us. We wash our hands before eating because we know how easy it is for germs and bacteria to travel from our dirty hands to our food and make us very sick. But they washed their hands as a matter of religious principle: eating dirt from unwashed hands violated their purification laws, and thus defiled a man. Therefore, they demanded that Jews not only wash their hands, but that they do so in a special way (v. 3).
Jesus responded to their silliness in three ways.
First, in verses 6 through 8 he quoted a passage from Isaiah to expose the hypocrisy of his opponents. For all their fuss about keeping various commandments and honoring God, they really had no interest in doing any of these things. In fact, they had replaced the commandments of God with the traditions of men. As a consequence of this, they had no right or authority to require others to follow their practices.
Next the Lord gave the Pharisees a specific example of how they did this in verses 9 through 13. God’s law is very clear about the relationship of children to their parents. The fifth commandment requires us to honor our father and our mother (Exod. 20:12), and the penalty for egregious contempt of one’s parents was death (Exod. 21:17). But the Pharisees, being more concerned about how to enrich the temple than submitting to the law of God, allowed a man to declare a part of his wealth Corban (i.e., dedicated), which meant that it could not be used to care for his parents. Thus, a man could claim outward religiosity while denying his parents the love, honor and respect that the law of God requires of them.
Our text for this morning takes us to the third part of Jesus response to the Pharisees, which begins in verse 14. Here the discussion goes right to the heart of the matter. If eating dirt does not corrupt a man, what does? What is the real source of a man’s defilement before God?
Defilement Originates in Man
In verse 14, Mark seems to make a point of the fact that Jesus, having challenged the reasoning of the Pharisees, summoned the multitude to himself to answer these questions. He said that he wanted every one of those present to listen to him and understand what he had to say. But why? Why would he draw the people unto himself for this particular discussion?
The answer is that this issue touches all of our lives. Being the sinners that we are, we’re all tempted to excuse our defilement by attributing it to something outside of ourselves. We behave a certain way, we might say, because our parents did. We learned our behavior from them. But that really doesn’t work. Jesus grew up in a home in which his parents sinned every day, yet the thought of him following their evil example never entered his mind. Or we blame our sin on the conditions in which we live: we’re too poor, we’re too rich, we don’t have a college education, we have too much college instruction, we have too little responsibility, we have too much responsibility. The list could go on indefinitely, but no matter what excuse we dream up it all amounts to the same thing. We just don’t want to admit the real source of the problem.
After summoning the people unto himself, Jesus cut right to the heart of the matter. He said, There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man (v. 15). A man isn’t contaminated by the things he eats. Nor does his sin originate in the things he touches. The things that a man sees and hears do not cause him to trespass against God’s law. No, a man is contaminated by what comes out of him, i.e., what he produces.
Here we have one of those classic moments that Mark records. Jesus could not have been clearer in what he said. The Pharisees were wrong. The traditions that they lived by were based on some really bad theology. But, of course, the people to whom he had been speaking had been taught by the Pharisees for quite a long time. Pharisaical traditions, although not rigidly observed by all non-Pharisees, still commanded the respect of many Jews. Jesus’ disciples were no different. They saw his teaching as so radically different than anything they had heard before that they couldn’t wrap their little minds around it. And so, after they had entered the solitude of the house (probably the house that served as their headquarters), according to verse 17, they asked him to explain to them this otherwise enigmatic parable.
The Lord Jesus, who is always merciful to the cries of his people, filled in the details that they lacked. The reason why a man cannot be defiled by eating with dirty hands, he said, is that the food he eats does not enter his heart. It passes through the mouth, goes on to the belly and is eventually eliminated into the latrine.
But how could Jesus say that what a man eats doesn’t enter his heart? Didn’t he know that it makes it way throughout the entire body, heart included, after the stomach digests it and before the bowels dispose of it? Yes, but that’s not what he meant. You see, the heart as used in Scripture is the seat of human life. Proverbs 4:23 says, Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. Likewise, Proverbs 23:7: For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he. Throughout the Bible, the word heart is used synonymously with such words as spirit, soul, mind, strength, will and life. Modern synonyms might include the ego, the self, and the personality. But, in any case, the heart is much more than an internal organ; it is the man. And no amount of dirt in a person’s food can change his character.
One result of all this is stated at the end of verse 19. We don’t know whether the words purging [or purifying] all meats were spoken by Jesus or whether Mark added them to clarify for us what Jesus meant, but it doesn’t really matter since Mark wrote inspired truth as certainly as Jesus spoke it. In either case, the point is the same: the dietary laws would soon cease to govern the lives of God’s people. They would continue to instruct God’s people as to their need for righteousness in every area of life, but they would not be strictly binding as a way of life. By identifying the source of corruption as man’s heart and not the food a man eats, Jesus emphasized the spiritual aspect of the law, which the Pharisees had long ago forgotten.
But there are two problems with this.
First, the dietary laws were not a fabrication of the Jewish hegemony. They were, rather, a subcategory of the Old Testament’s ceremonial laws, written down by Moses under the direction of the Spirit of God. They are, therefore, the Word of God. By easing the dietary restrictions, it looked as though Jesus was doing exactly what the Pharisees had done: replacing the law of God with his own ideas. If so, why should he be given a better hearing than they?
Well, a few things can and should be said in response to this. To begin with, we need to remember that Jesus is God. As God, he gave the dietary laws to Moses. I Peter 1:11 says that the Spirit of Christ testified through the Old Testament prophets. Therefore, unlike the Pharisees he has the right and the authority to change his own law.
Second, the dietary laws, like the ceremonial laws in general, were intended only to be temporarily binding upon the people. God had given them to the Jews primarily to prepare them for the coming Messiah, and they did this in three ways: 1) they showed that God will accept nothing less than a perfect purity of both body and soul, which no man has on his own; 2) they put a visible difference between the Israel and other nations; and 3) they identified the Messiah by describing the perfect righteousness of his life. Now that the Savior has come the dietary laws, which prepared for his coming in these ways, are no longer needed as a rule that continues to govern our lives.
And third, the easing of the dietary laws was also meant to teach us that the gospel itself no longer distinguishes between the biological seed of Abraham and others. A few years after Jesus spoke these words, the Lord gave Peter a vision of a sheet in which there was a mixture of clean and unclean animals being let down from heaven. The Lord commanded, Rise, Peter; kill and eat (v. 13). Peter refused. Three times this happened before the sheet was taken up into heaven. Peter was puzzled by this strange event. Didn’t he understand by then that Jesus had purified all foods? Probably, but that wasn’t the point. This vision had something to do specifically with his ministry, but he understand this until Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman, invited him to his house. Under the Pharisees, contact with non-Jews would have defiled a man. It was like eating with unwashed hands. But Peter explained that this was no longer so. He interpreted his dream as follows: Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28).
Every man, woman and child that comes into this world is defiled apart from Jesus Christ. It’s not our job to decide who should be the recipients of divine favor based solely on their connection to Abraham, but to proclaim the riches of Jesus Christ to all men indiscriminately, so that the Lord can use our evangelism to remove this defilement and equip his people for fellowship with himself.
Thus, the dietary laws were an object lesson that the Jews needed before the coming of Christ. It taught them the necessity of sanctification in the lives of God’s people. The removal of the dietary laws in the New Testament is just as instructive to us today. It shows us that the gospel is to be proclaimed in the entire world as a witness to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
The Heart of the Problem is the Problem of the Heart
Well, if contamination doesn’t come from the outside, then what is its source? There’s really only one other choice. Defilement must originate on the inside. In verse 21, Jesus said that it arises out of our own hearts. When you think about it, it doesn’t take very long to realize that the heart of man’s problem is the problem of his heart.
A few years ago, Ed Bradley of CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that owners of the Audi 5000 automobile had a really weird problem: their cars would suddenly lurch forward and accelerate even when the driver had his foot on the brake. When this happened, there was nothing the driver could do about it. This might be funny except for the fact that it caused numerous parking lot accidents and the deaths of at least five people. One fatality was a small child whose mother or father ran over him in his own driveway. When the problem was brought to Audi’s attention, the auto maker denied any responsibility and claimed that there was nothing wrong with their car. They said that it had to be the fault of the drivers who, for whatever reason, were all mistaking the accelerator for the brake.
The CBS report claimed that Audi’s response was simply preposterous. No other car was having this problem. The drivers who were experiencing this problem had never had this problem with any other car. No, the problem could not be outside the car; there had to be something wrong in the car itself.
As it turned out, the CBS report was completely wrong. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a two-year investigation, which failed to find any mechanical malfunction that could account for this. Similar studies were also done in Canada and Japan with the same results. Meanwhile, Audi’s car sales dropped to less than 20 percent of what they were before the CBS report.
Aside from the fact that CBS fabricated a lot of the information in Ed Bradley’s report, what made the story compelling to television viewers was that the fact that the problem seemed to restricted to one make and model of car. The only explanation that could account for this is that the car itself was defective.
The same thing is true of the human heart. We look around and it doesn’t take too long to see that all men are sinners. Psalm 53:3 says, Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Is it just a coincidence that all men happen to hate God? Is this sad truth the result of the food we eat, the water we drink or the world in which we live? No, evil isn’t imposed on us from the outside. It comes from deep within. All men are fashioned from the same mold — a mold that shapes a wicked and corrupt heart. Jeremiah 17:9 says, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
If there is yet any doubt that this is the case, just look at the list of man’s “wonderful” accomplishments: evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. There is not one thing in this entire list that can be attributed to eating with unwashed hands or any other cause exterior to man. Sin does not begin out there. It begins in the minds, hearts and souls of corrupt human beings.
The Pharisee had accused Jesus’ disciples of undermining the ritual law by eating with unwashed hands. But who was it that really undermined the law? The Pharisees believed that they could please God by scrubbing their hands before dinner. This made them righteous in his sight. Jesus said that it isn’t the hands, but the heart, that needs help. Washing one’s hands is easy. Purifying one’s heart is not. By their own testimony, the Pharisees both accused and condemned themselves. They seemed to honor God with their traditions, but their hearts were far from him (v. 6).
The sad truth, however, is that all men come into this world in the same miserable condition. We even try, as the Pharisees did, to rewrite God’s law to make it more agreeable to our fallen nature. But what comes out of us establishes the truth of God’s Word.
What is it that comes out of you? Look at the list of things that come out of the human heart one more time.
The first is evil thoughts or evil reasonings. Do you ever try to justify your sin? Perhaps there are occasions when you think that you had a pretty good reason for breaking God’s commandments. If so, your heart stands condemned before God.
Next we have adulteries and fornications. Here you might think your conduct is unspoiled. Maybe you’ve never actually committed an outward act of infidelity. But if that’s what you think, remember what Jesus said, viz., that when a man lusts after a woman, even though an act of betrayal never follows, he has still committed adultery with her in his heart. Sins of the heart are just as pernicious. That’s why Jesus said that all defilement begins in the heart.
Then we have murders, thefts and coveteousness — the sixth, eighth and tenth commandments. Coveteousness ties murder and theft together with adultery of the heart. That is, it is just as much a sin to desire evil as to act upon those desires. It doesn’t matter whether the sin is against person or property. A yearning to sin still condemns the heart.
Wickedness is depravity. It could also be translated as malice or spite. We could say that it’s just plain old meanness. Deceit involves dishonesty, deception and cheating.
Lasciviousness has many different connotations, depending on the context. It signifies such things unbridled lust, outrageousness, shamelessness and insolence. Here the basic idea is that the person who is guilty of lasciviousness refuses to control himself. We see a lot of this today. It seems that quite a few young people do the most ridiculous, and sometimes harmful, things for no good reason. Psychologists tell us that they want attention, which may be true in a sense, but real problem is that their hearts are overflowing with wickedness. Only the gospel can help them escape the dominion of their innate depravity.
In the Old Testament, a person with an evil eye was either envious or stingy. Blasphemy can either be directed against God (which is what we normally think of as blasphemy) or against man (which we call slander). Pride or arrogance involves exalting ourselves over others, often with an attitude of scorn or contempt. And foolishness is what we might call senselessness or even recklessness in one’s life. Fools are prone to misuse and abuse God’s good gifts, and why not?. They deny the existence of God and refuse to recognize themselves as his stewards. Instead, they think that they should be able to do what they want, when they want and how they want.
Now, this is the list that Jesus told us to look at. Is this a picture of you? Do you see yourself reflected in its mirror?
If you don’t see yourselves here, you’re not really looking. If you do see yourselves, then that is evidence that the Spirit of God is working to make you into something more useful in the service of Jesus Christ. And remember, you should not only see yourselves in these twelve things, but you should also hate the sin that stares you in the face and turn from it more and more each day.
As sinners, our greatest need is righteousness in the sight of God. Righteousness only comes to us in one way: through the grace of God. God the Father elects; God the Son redeems; God the Holy Ghost sanctifies. Three persons, one God, and one salvation from sin.
Only the grace of God can break through the corruption of our hearts and the massive defilement that our hearts naturally produce. Once it does then we not only have the power but the responsibility to see that our hearts produce something entirely new. They must produce good thoughts, marital faithfulness, respect for life and property, love, contentment, honorable speech, humility and a godly wisdom.
Do you see such things in your life? Ask God to make these things a reality for you. Beg him for more of his Spirit and grace. Wrestle with him in prayer until you have prevailed, just as Jacob prevailed against God at Peniel, although his hip was knocked out of joint. Don’t give up until the Spirit of God has given you everything he has promised. Amen.