- The Historical Setting
- Another Passover season has arrived and Jesus apparently remains in Galilee. On that memorable evening near Bethsaida He feeds 5,000 with miracle bread. The crowd's wild enthusiasm forces His withdrawal for prayer on the hillside. His disciples began a futile voyage on the sea and are almost destroyed in a storm. Jesus comes to them walking on the water. Returning to the Gennesaret plains, the latter part of Mark 6 mentions His conducting further healings. Directly following this, our text takes up the story of more conflict. This time the mounting tension takes a serious turn causing Jesus subsequently to spend more time with His disciples and less time with the great crowds.
- Jewish leaders from Jerusalem arrive in the Capernaum area to further investigate Jesus. They have not long to wait before traditions dear to their hearts are exposed by Jesus as being irreconcilable with the Kingdom of God. Two of these customs figured much into the lives of the religiously faithful. First, there was that of ritual washings. Lustrations were prescribed in great detail in the Halakhah, and it was not difficult for these who were seeking a point of accusation against Jesus and His disciples to find it here. In responding to that issue, Jesus raises another, more important one -- that of traditions which contradict God's Word. In a marked way, the whole conflict asks and answers the question, Exactly what is clean and unclean in the real sense -- in God's eyes? God says we must be clean, pure, holy because He is holy! How can we be made clean?
- Contemporary Setting
- In today's world there is much inter-cultural involvement. Worldwide travel and news coverage mixes the nations in a way never before possible. And, of course, missionaries represent a strong cross-cultural current. It is of vast importance then for the Christian to develop a proper attitude toward cultures which differ from his own. Whenever possible, when a Christian is the foreigner, he should cooperate with and be sensitive and respectful toward the new culture. However, in areas where any Christian essential is compromised or contradicted, the believer must stand against it.
- We shall presently see why Jesus could not be cooperative or even neutral toward the Pharisees' demands. They espoused a stifling legalism and laydened the adherents with compunctions of many kinds. Really, every culture has those who are over scrupulous and who might profit much from the Gospel freedom described in such sections of Scripture as Romans 14 or Galatians 5. On the other hand, the important text before us today does not invite the radical extreme of a false, exaggerated freedom. It strikes for the healthy middle ground between license and legalism. Just as surely as the hypocritical Pharisees missed purity of heart, so many modern libertines are far from it and are just as surely groping in darkness of misapprehension.
TEXT: Mark 7:1-23
THEME: Jesus teaches what is the true nature of purity of life.
I. TO THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS -- WARNINGS REGARDING HYPOCRISY, 6-13
- Heart Condition More Important Than Skin Condition
- The Jerusalem delegation of Pharisees and teachers of the Law were misunderstanding two important precepts. In the first instance, Jesus confronts their complicated system of ceremonial washings. This left them mired in hypocrisy and clinging to false notions about how to be pure and right in God's eyes. Having "let go of the commands of God" they clung to their own traditions as recorded in the Halakhah. It seemed obvious enough to them that Jesus' disciples were breakers of the Law.
- The hygienic issue was completely overshadowed by the fear of spiritual defilement of hands, which could render the entire body unclean. To the command to wash hands before meals was added the duty of after-meal washing, with many striving for extra merit by observing lustrations before each course. So large did the complicated legal system loom in their eyes that some rabbinic teachers pictured even the Almighty as engaging in daily study of their laws. The first point Jesus makes then is that man's spiritual heart condition is more important than his skin condition. This is enforced by His quotation from the prophet Isaiah 29:13. Lip service can never compensate for a wandering heart. God's eye is there, I Samuel 16:7.
- God's Word More Important Than Man's Tradition
- The law of Moses and the tradition of the elders must be distinguished. Even though the Halakhah was held to go beyond the Pentateuch, yet it was supposed never to contradict Moses laws. The blow Christ is about to deliver them is indeed devastating. He directs His thrust at the vulnerable spot of popular excesses in vowing. This amounted in many cases to a cheap form of bargaining with God and resulted in a widespread, general debasing of human trustworthiness. Eidersheim quotes a proverb of the day as saying, "In the hour of need a vow; in the time of ease excess."
- Quoting the Fifth Commandment of the Pentateuch, Jesus in typical rabbinic fashion attaches the due penalty for any offense. In contrast with the divine threatening of capital punishment, the custom of the day was to mouth a light, votive Corban." That was to say simply, it is all 'given to God.' Therefore I have no uncommitted material means left to help you, my parents. Thus Jesus shows them in clearest terms that they are very strict in the nonsense of declaring unclean the eating of God's good food on the one hand while very loose with God's serious commandment on the other. They, therefore, follow their own customs and set aside God's laws.
II. TO THE CROWD -- GENERAL PRINCIPLES 14,15
- Two Principles Made Clear
- Calling the crowd to Him for further instruction, Jesus cautions them to give careful attention as He expounds two principles in verse 15. Things physical and material do not in themselves have the power to alter one's spiritual condition. These outside things do not have that effect even when taken inside a man.
- A man may, however, be rendered unclean by what comes out of him. The outward expression of man's inward condition is indeed crucial.
- These principles must be properly understood. Both Matthew and Mark are careful to record further comments and explanations by Jesus. These give a balancing context to keep us from extremes.
III. TO THE DISCIPLES -- PARTICULAR EXPLANATIONS AND APPLICATIONS. 17-23 Let's be part of this inner circle and receive the full teaching.
- The Disciples Ask Further Help
- Matthew best sets the scene in 15:12-15. The disciples are weak and uncertain in their attitude. They are more concerned about what is popular and does not offend than they are with what is true and right. Peter puts their questioning into words and asks for further explanation. 12-15.
- Jesus refers directly back to His teaching given to the crowd in verse 15. The two principles are taken singly and commented upon in a very practical manner.
- The Spiritual Heart and the Physical Stomach Are Not Connected
- Material substance taken into ones physical system is discharged as waste, after necessary nutrition is absorbed. In no case does it reach one's spiritual life or heart. All foods are thus declared by Jesus to be clean. One does not gain or lose points with God by His diet. At Joppa, Peter learns that the divine consecration applies not only to food but to men. and, he testifies following his rooftop vision "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean," Acts 10:28.
- It does not follow from this teaching that injurious eating, drinking intoxicants, or taking drugs is of no spiritual significance. These do not pass from the body in a neutral manner. They leave a residual of physical harm to the body which is God's temple, lowered moral standards, general spiritual decline and a trail of hurt to others. It is not simply what these evils do on their way into the physical system, it is what they leave behind and the damaging expressions they bring forth -- quite unlike the neutral matter of eating food.
- The Critical Area is the Spiritual Heart
- When the heart expresses its native evil, then a man is rendered impure before God. The catalogue of evil in each heart is dark indeed, according to Jesus. His list begins with evil thinking and continues through all kind of immorality and other sins and ends with folly or an unthinkable condition. What a man thinks is so important! It is therefore clear why the wise Solomon urges us to place the guard right there. (Proverbs 4:23) The heart is the decisive battleground.
- As has been wisely pointed out, every man has within him the root of every sin. Good character, then, is not the absence of sin's evil root in the heart, but only the restraint of it. Sin in many hearts is kept down by the fear of consequences and the desire for respectability. However, all of this in the end is vain, if sin is not laid to rest by the grace of God. In the light of this malignancy, how sad then of the Pharisees to wash the skin only. Parents must ever keep in mind that their children are born with this evil potential in their hearts. It is not enough to keep them from evil environment, for the seeds of sin are already within. Here is where all of us need the grace of God.
- Ultimately, what we are will show in what we do. Actions flow from attitudes. It is, therefore, futile to burden a sinful man with legalistic requirements. His deep-down disposition must be dealt with. This brings us to see the grace of God in its finest light. It is both liberating from legal bondage and, yet, powerful and effective in altering man's very character.
- We must claim, first of all, the blood of Jesus Christ as a payment for all sin -- in actions and inner condition. Second, we are then privileged to claim from God the infilling of His Holy Spirit Who can bring us into a quickened state, enabling us to put sin to death and please the Lord as pure, consecrated children of God.
- Since it is often advantageous to be cooperative with the customs prevailing around us, why did Jesus openly teach counter to popular traditions of His day?
- What causes so much inter-cultural involvement today?
- How would you characterize the extreme of the Pharisees and Scribes?
- In what way are these same extremes represented in modern tendencies, movements and schools of thought?
- What is the way to test any human tradition?
- What are contemporary examples of improper vowing?
- Why are thoughts, motives, attitudes so very important, even though secret?
- How does God's plan of salvation work in changing man's heart?