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Mark 7:1-23 (Clean and Unclean)

INTRODUCTION: Tradition! There are all sorts of traditions in life. We have family traditions, holiday traditions, community traditions. And by and large traditions are a good thing. Traditions serve a useful function. They give us a sense of connection with others and continuity with our past. And that’s a good thing.

This morning we are going to be talking specifically about church or religious traditions. And once again, there is nothing wrong with having traditions in the church, they can be a good thing, but when it comes to religious traditions, there are some things you need to watch out for. And that’s what Jesus warns us about in today’s passage.

In this passage the Pharisees approach Jesus because his disciples are breaking one of their traditions about washing their hands before eating. And Jesus uses this opportunity first to give some instruction about traditions in general, and then to address the particular concern of the Pharisees about spiritual uncleanness.

I. Instruction about Traditions (verses 1-13)

    A. Do not judge other people by your traditions (1-5)

We will look at both sets of instructions this morning, but let’s begin with Jesus’ instruction about traditions. And the first thing we learn about tradition from this passage is this: Do not judge other people by your traditions. Look at verses 1-4:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) (Mark 7:1-4)

Now it is important to understand what Mark is talking about here. The “hand washing” in these verses was different from you and I washing our hands before we eat. When we wash our hands, we do it for sanitary reasons. We don’t want to touch our food with dirty hands that may be carrying germs or bacteria.

But for the Jews in Jesus time, this was not so much a matter of personal hygiene as of ceremony. They performed a ceremonial washing before eating, which may have involved dipping their hands and arms into water all the way up to the elbow. Mark says they had many other traditions as well, such as washing after returning from the marketplace, and washing various cups and pitchers and kettles.

And Mark says that in doing these things, they were holding to the tradition of the elders. Who were these elders? They were the leaders, respected men in the community, including such people as the scribes and Pharisees and synagogue rulers. And the tradition of the elders was a set of oral interpretations of the law that was passed down from one generation to the next.

It is important to understand that these traditions were not Scripture, but rather various applications of Scripture as interpreted by the elders. For example, in the Bible only the priests were required to perform ceremonial washings (Exodus 30:17-21, 40:12; 2 Chronicles 4:6), but over time the elders began to apply these rules to the people as well. And so by the time of Jesus Mark says that this was the common practice for all the Jews.

The problem arose when the Pharisees and teachers of the law saw Jesus’ disciples eating with unwashed hands. And so they bring their complaint to Jesus. Look at verse 5:

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with `unclean’ hands?” (Mark 7:5)

What was the problem here? The Jewish leaders were judging the disciples according to tradition rather than Scripture. And although there is nothing wrong with having certain traditions, you should not judge other people by your traditions.

Every church and every family and every community has traditions. We have certain traditions here at Agawam Church of the Bible. For example, we observe communion on the first Sunday of the month. We sing contemporary praise music during the service. We have a time of coffee and refreshments after the service. There is nothing wrong with us doing any of these things, but it would be wrong if we judged other people because they did things differently.

There are some traditions or practices that are causing a lot of stir in churches today. Some of the hot-button issues include worship style, dress, the use of media, and the number and format of services during the week. There is a shift taking place in church culture, and we need to be careful how we approach both old and new practices in the church. Younger people need to respect some of the older traditions, while older people need to open up and trust some of the newer practices. Just because we did it one way in the past, doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it today. John Calvin wore a hat while preaching. Why? Because the building was drafty and had pigeons! It would be silly for someone to say because Calvin wore a hat so should everyone else. There are good reasons to adopt some new traditions, there are good reasons to hold on to some older traditions, and there are good reasons to let go of some other traditions.

One of the wonderful things about the gospel is that it is for all people in all cultures everywhere. When we bring the gospel to a new people group in an unreached part of the globe, we do not need to teach them Western culture along with the gospel. We do not need to teach them our language or our music forms. Rather we share the gospel with them in their own language, and then we allow the gospel to penetrate and shape their culture accordingly. They will learn to praise God in their own language and write their own songs and adopt their own worship traditions that are appropriate to their culture.

So there was nothing wrong with the Pharisees washing their hands before eating. There is nothing wrong with a ceremonial cleansing. But the Pharisees were wrong to judge the disciples for not keeping a tradition. That’s our first principle this morning – do not judge other people by your traditions.

    B. Do not hold your traditions as sacred (6-13)

A second important principle about traditions is this: Do not hold your traditions as sacred. In other words, not only should we not hold other people to our traditions, but we should hold our own traditions loosely as well. Sometimes traditions outlive their usefulness. Sometimes a tradition that worked just fine in the past can become a snare in the present. So what are some of the dangers of holding traditions as sacred?

        1) You are in danger of hypocritical and vain worship (6-8)

Well for one, you are in danger of participating in hypocritical and vain worship. Look at Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in verses 6-8:

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“`These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13 here and tells the Pharisees that Isaiah was talking about them. “Look Ma, I’m in the Bible!” Well, that’s not always a good thing. Jesus uses some strong words for the Pharisees here. He calls them hypocrites. Here they were busy washing their hands before eating and observing all sorts of rituals and traditions, but they weren’t right with God in their hearts. Everything looked good on the outside, but there were deep spiritual problems within. When you hold your traditions as sacred, you are in danger of hypocritical and vain worship.

Where is your heart in relation to God today? Are you guilty of honoring God with your lips when your heart is far away from him? The traditions and customs and forms of worship are only that – they are just traditions and customs and forms. And when you neglect your heart relationship with God and rely on the outward traditions and forms instead, you put yourself in spiritual danger. As Christian novelist George Macdonald once wrote: “There is nothing so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.” (George MacDonald: An Anthology; p. 113)

God doesn’t want you just to go through the motions. He wants your heartfelt worship, repentance, obedience and prayer. God said through Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” Jesus said, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

        2) You are in danger of putting tradition above God’s word (9-13)

And that leads us to the second danger of holding traditions as sacred. You are in danger of putting your tradition above God’s word. Look at what Jesus says in verses 9-13:

And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother,’ and, `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:9-13)

When you hold your traditions as sacred, you are in danger of putting your tradition above God’s word, which is exactly what the Pharisees were doing.

Jesus gave them an example. The Bible says, “Honor your father and mother” in Exodus 20:12, and “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death” in Exodus 21:17. Those are some pretty clear commands of Scripture. The first one comes from the Ten Commandments, and the second one was one of the national laws of Israel that demonstrated the seriousness of obeying the first law.

But the Pharisees had a tradition or practice known as “Corban.” A gift that was “Corban” was dedicated to God by an irrevocable vow. It was put under a “ban” so that it could not be used for any other purpose. The Pharisees were allowing people to put certain gifts under “Corban” as a way of shirking their responsibility to their parents. Here was an example where a tradition was in direct contradiction to the Scriptures, but the Pharisees were going with the tradition rather than God’s word.

Traditions are fine, but we need to be careful that we never elevate our traditions to the level of Scripture. And we need to watch out that our traditions never take the place of God’s commands. It is all too easy to take our man-made rules and put them in competition with what God tells us in his word.

So, we should not judge other people by our traditions, and we should not hold our traditions as sacred. God’s commands always come before man-made rules and regulations.

II. Instructions about Spiritual Uncleanness (verses 14-23)

Those were Jesus’ instructions about traditions. Now he moves on to the specific concern of the Pharisees concerning spiritual uncleanness. And in these next verses, Jesus shows that spiritual uncleanness comes from within a person, not without.

    A. Nothing that enters you from the outside can make you unclean (14-19)

And here he makes two important statements. First, nothing that enters you from the outside can make you unclean. Look at verses 14-19:

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him `unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him `unclean.'” 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 man from the outside can make him `unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”) (Mark 7:14-19)

The Pharisees were concerned about hand washing because they wanted to be clean before God. But Jesus tells them quite plainly, nothing that enters you from the outside can make you unclean. So their ceremonial washing was not necessary. Any foods they ate went straight into the stomach and then left the body. It was all physical. But being clean before God is a spiritual matter. It is a matter of the heart.

Now Jesus was addressing the issue of eating with unclean hands here, but Mark draws out another important implication from Jesus’ words. If nothing entering your body from the outside can make you spiritually unclean before God, then that means there are no longer any clean or unclean foods.

This was huge for the church at that time. The Old Testament had detailed laws specifying which foods were clean and unclean and telling you what you could and could not eat. (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14:1-21) Those laws were important for Israel, and for centuries God used them to teach Israel about his holiness and to keep Israel separate from the other nations. But now that Jesus has come, the food laws no longer apply. Jesus is a savior for all people, both Jews and Gentiles alike. There is no longer a need for ceremonial food laws to separate Israel from the other nations.

    B. The evil that comes out of your heart makes you unclean. (20-23)

That’s Jesus’ first point: nothing that enters you from the outside can make you unclean. And the second is this. Rather, it is the evil that comes out of your heart that makes you unclean. Look at verses 20-23:

He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him `unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man `unclean.'” (Mark 7:23)

This is what we call a vice list. There are a number of vice lists in the New Testament, but this is the only one we find in the gospels (other than the parallel passage in Matthew 15:19). Whenever you see a vice list in the Bible, you are supposed to stop and take inventory. (Stop and look) Which of these is a problem in my life right now? Where am I falling short? Where do I need God’s help to grow as a Christian? You take a good look at the list, and you take inventory of your life.

I won’t take the time to go through each vice here. You can see them. Most of them are self-explanatory. But Jesus’ point is this. Jesus says that spiritual uncleanness is not physical or ceremonial. Rather, spiritual uncleanness is moral. Sin is not found in external things but within the human heart. Nothing that enters you from the outside can make you unclean. Rather it is the evil that comes out of our hearts that makes us unclean. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We do not need physical or ceremonial cleansing, but spiritual cleansing.

CONCLUSION: So what is the solution? How do you become spiritually clean before God? I want to share two things in closing here.

First of all, you need an initial cleansing. Spiritual cleansing begins with what Scripture calls the washing of rebirth. You must be born again. You must receive new life in Christ. Titus 3:5 says that “[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5) When you put your faith in Christ, your sins are forgiven and God gives you his Holy Spirit, to wash away your sins and to make you clean in his sight. Spiritual cleansing begins with the washing of rebirth.

Then, after this initial cleansing, you need continual cleansing. And this continual cleansing takes place as you continually confess your sins to God. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us (or “cleanse” us) from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Unconfessed sin will harden your heart and keep you away from God. You need to take constant inventory of your life and confess sin to God every day. Every day you need to ask, “God, what in my life is displeasing to you? Where do I need to change?” Use the vice lists of Scripture if you need to. Confess your sin to him, and then make a conscious decision to turn away from that sin. Do what you need to do to make things right, which often means apologizing to other people or making some type of restitution. Confess your sin to God every day, and allow God continually to cleanse your heart.

Now it is best to keep short accounts to God and confess your sins to him as soon as you have sinned. But it’s also good to take a “spiritual shower” each night before you go to sleep. When you lie in bed at night, stop and think about your day, confess any known sin to God, and then go to sleep with a clean heart.

The Pharisees were so wrapped up in their traditions, they were missing out on a heart relationship with God. Don’t just go through the motions of being a Christian. Give your heart to Jesus, and then give it to him again every day. There is nothing in this world that compares with knowing God and knowing God’s forgiveness in your life. There is nothing better than being clean before God. And that only comes through trusting Christ.

© Ray Fowler

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