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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:What Really Makes You Dirty?
Text:Mark 7:14-23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 28:1,4,5                                                                           

Ps 19:5,6

Reading – Mark 7:1-23

Ps 139:1,2,11,13

Sermon – Mark 7:14-23

Ps 51:1,4,6

Hy 28:1,2,5,6

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in the Lord, one of the greatest struggles of a Christian is our fight against sin. For any child of God, this is the daily concern: How am I going to resist the power of evil? How can I fight against my temptations, and pursue holiness in the sight of God? By his grace, that’s what we want to do.

This is such a struggle for us, because we face an opponent who is strong and cunning and close at hand. You could call it the three-headed monster: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. They work together so effectively to get us off track. There’s the devil—our original enemy—and he borrows heavily from the charms and attractions of the world all around us. He puts them in front of us, and our weak sinful nature is all too happy to accept his invitations. It’s a real struggle, it’s constant, and there’s a lot at stake.

This fight that we’re engaged in means that it’s important to have good strategy. Every fighter who goes into the ring or the octagon needs to have technique. How will he defend, and how will he attack? So for us: How can we resist the devil’s thrusts and jabs more effectively? How to identify our spiritual blind spots so that we can avoid getting hit? And how can we better do the will of God?

In our text, Jesus teaches us one of the most critical things we need to know in our spiritual fight. It’s one of those fundamental lessons that, if we grasp it properly and act accordingly, we’ll be greatly helped. In brief, it’s a lesson about where sin comes from. What’s the source of the evil in our life? Where does this defilement and pollution originate?

Let’s be clear, the answer that Jesus gives isn’t easy for us to work with. In a way, it sounds like obedience is going to be even harder. But Christ also points us to the way of hope and renewal. I preach the Word of God to you from Mark 7:14-23,

            Jesus explains what can really defile a person:

1)     not the things that enter from outside

2)     but the things which come from within


1)     not the things that enter from outside: Before we get into our text, we need to back up a little, and see why He’s talking about this. Why is Jesus being so emphatic about how a person gets defiled? The reason is that Christ has been arguing with the legal experts about what God wants from his people.

This isn’t the first time in Mark’s Gospel that a group of Pharisees and scribes have come to question the Lord Jesus. As they’ve done before, here they’ve put Jesus and his disciples under surveillance, and it hasn’t taken long to find something scandalous. The disciples are eating bread with unwashed hands!

Maybe some families have the same rule: You have to wash your hands before meals. But for the Pharisees, this was more than basic hygiene. This was about obedience, and what makes a faithful Jew. For beside the law of Moses there had developed an entire tradition of rules for maintaining your purity. Part of that was the need to thoroughly wash almost everything before you ate—and not just a cursory sprinkle of water and a wipe, but an elaborate rinsing and scrubbing and drying.

Mark explains: “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” (vv 3-4). It wasn’t in God’s law, but it had gained the status of law, and they said that if you didn’t do it, you were unfaithful.

So Jesus had argued with the Pharisees about the need for all this. He said it was wrong to obsess over man-made ritual, and to neglect true obedience. Because really, the issue isn’t tradition or no-tradition. Jesus probably could’ve accepted some of those old practices, if they really helped the people to serve the Lord truly. No, this was about being sincere before God, or being a hypocrite.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah to describe the leaders of Israel: “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (v 6). Still today we talk about “paying someone lip service.” It’s when we just say what they want to hear, agreeing with them, flattering them, but it’s only just words. That’s what their religious practice amounts to, says Jesus: it’s all outward and superficial. There’s a nice shell, but no heart.

That’s the background for our text: Jesus’ argument with the legal experts. But this wasn’t just an academic discussion, something the theologians worried about. This was real life, for everyone: What’s the key to holiness? If a child of God wants to walk with integrity and to be pure before the Lord, what should he focus on? Improving his handwashing? Making his tithing more exact, or something else?

This is why Jesus turns to the crowds. He has answered the false ideas of the scribes, now He wants to give reliable direction to the people. So, “When He had called all the multitude to himself, He said to them, ‘Hear me, everyone, and understand’” (v 14).

And then comes a teaching that would’ve been shocking to their ears: “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him” (v 15). Why would that have sounded so radical to them? Because it seemed to go against the very law of God! Didn’t the law say that lots of things could defile you from the outside? As one example, Leviticus 11 has that long list of animals that were unclean and could not be used for food. Pigs were unclean, of course, along with shellfish and birds of prey and many insects. These are unclean, God says, and “you shall not defile yourselves” by eating them (11:44).

It was a matter of personal holiness: If God had declared something unclean, then you had to reject it. To eat prawns or enjoy a side of ham would defile you, and make you impure. And the people of God came to take this very seriously. Just a few centuries before Christ there was a Syrian king who wanted to destroy the Jewish faith. So one of the things that he demanded was that the Jews eat pork, or be killed. And rather than go against God’s law, the Jews refused, and hundreds of them were murdered.

So this is scandalous—He’s minimising the laws for which God’s people had suffered and died! More than that, it sounds like He’s scrapping the very commandments of the Lord! But Christ has a different purpose. Remember that He wants to get the attention off the external. Outward things can’t pollute, because they don’t touch the heart of a person, who we really are. Physical things, however vile and rotten, in themselves cannot defile us.

In verses 18-19 Jesus asks something that should’ve been very obvious, “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?” You eat a piece of food: it enters our mouth, lands in our stomach, goes through the intestines, and whatever isn’t used by the body ends up as waste. Point is, it enters the belly, not the heart. So you can’t become evil through the foods you eat, just like you don’t become good through the rituals you perform.

Again, let’s appreciate how outrageous this sounded. The Old Testament child of God had an inner radar that was highly sensitive to all outward defilement. Alarm bells would go off for any impure foods, unclean people, or dirty skin—they steered clear of these things, because they thought this kind of impurity worked its way from the outside to the inside. But Jesus shows that the very opposite is true. Sin issues from the heart. It’s the inward part of person where we get defiled. Our greatest struggle is in the area of our desires, and our motivations, and our thoughts.

This didn’t mean that the law was wrong. The law had trained God’s people to see their great need for purity. They had learned to appreciate that the holy God wants holiness in all things: in what they ate, and where they lived, and who they married—in everything. And to be unclean or defiled in any part of life was symbolic of being out of fellowship with God. That’s why someone who was ceremonially unclean wasn’t allowed to go to the tabernacle for worship. Being defiled means you’re on the outside, you need cleansing.

But all the old laws are about to fade. Mark comments at the end of verse 19, that Jesus was “thus purifying all foods.” With this teaching Jesus is getting ready to remove the Old Testament rules about what you could eat and wear and sacrifice. Officially it doesn’t happen until the death of Christ, but in principle it’s already beginning now.

For one of the things Jesus came to do is to deepen the insight of God’s people, to teach the Father’s will for our lives. What does God really want from us? And He shows that those who get stuck on outward regulations are missing the core of the matter. They’re neglecting the deeper challenge, the challenge of being pure in heart and lowly in spirit.

True communion with God—a proper relationship with the Lord—is hindered more than anything by our evil desires. It’s our lying words and proud thoughts that make us impure in God’s sight. Listen again to what Jesus says in verse 15: “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.”

This is something that we also need to learn. Because it’s always easier for us to manage the outward side of our life with God. That’s what we see, of course, and it feels like we have some control over it.

So as Christians, this can become our focus. We want to do the right things, and stay on the narrow path, so there are certain outward things we’re suspicious of. For example, we know all the many dangers of money. We’re also familiar with the lure of sex, and how that can get you into trouble. We understand how alcohol can become a snare to us. We easily identify how TV, computers, mobile phones and other technologies can lead us astray, or how social media can be spiritually harmful.

It’s good to know the risks, and to see the potential for temptation. But notice how all these are external things. These are things that enter a person’s life from outside, and which in themselves cannot defile us. We would like to blame sin on something external, but Jesus forbids us. The far greater problem is what comes from within us.

Then there’s the outward behaviours that we reject. We would never blaspheme. We go to great lengths not to buy things on Sunday. We don’t lie. We don’t hit people. And then we train our children the same way, with a lot of attention for how they act. We want proper outward behaviour: they should be polite and work hard and give money to the church.

These things too, are good. They’re even commanded by God. But do you see how these are all still external? These are things that you can do, and have a heart that doesn’t love the Lord. These are things you can do, and still neglect what is most important. And we might still forget what is the real danger we face.


2)     but the things which come from within: Jesus has said something that’s hard to understand. We know that because after He’s done teaching, “his disciples asked him concerning the parable” (v 17). Notice how what Jesus has said is called “a parable.” We’re used to thinking of the parables as stories, but that’s not all they were. Parables could also take the form of something like what we’d call riddles, or sayings, or general rules—things that need interpreting.

So Jesus will interpret. He expands on what He has said, that for a child of God, the outward isn’t nearly as important as the inward. We shouldn’t worry about clean and unclean, because they can’t really make us defiled. And then it comes: “For from within, out of the heart of men, come evil thoughts” (v 21). Jesus is drilling down to the core of the problem: it’s the human heart, which is corrupted and which is in need of total redemption.

Jesus insists that anything we do—good or bad—comes from a source. Whatever we do or say has a cause; there’s a home that it’s traveling from, on its way to somewhere else. It’s true that sometimes the words we say feel like they come out of nowhere. We weren’t planning to be nasty or deceitful, it just popped out of our mouth. But those words are coming from inside us. We’re showing what we really think about other people, or about God.

Same for the deeds we do. Here too, we can’t always pull the thread of our actions all the way back to a specific decision, a plan or a motive. We’re surprised sometimes by what we do, shocked by the evil we’re capable of. Was that really us? But our actions too, are a direct result of what’s going on inside us. Maybe there’s pride in there. Or there’s bitterness. Or there’s a lack of faith. There’s a reason for what we do: it’s what lives in our heart. And the source is not good: “From within, out of the heart of men, come evil thoughts” (v 21).

In the book of Proverbs, our heart is compared to a well, or spring. We can relate to this, because probably some of us get our water from a well. A deep hole is drilled in search of a good water supply. An underground stream or spring is found. For whatever is used for bathing, drinking, watering, or cooking, it all flows from that precious well.

That’s what our heart is like too: it’s the source of so much that goes on in our life. And just like a well, our heart can be good or bad. For you might dig deep, hit water, but find it to be smelly and undrinkable, filled with all kinds of minerals or impurities. Without God helping us and renewing us, that’s what our hearts are like. Our hearts are poisoned wells, a fountain of corruption. You won’t get anything good from these hearts, but only evil.

For Jesus then explains what He means. He wants to expose what lives in our hearts, and it’s not pretty: “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” (vv 21-22). There are twelve evils here, words that illustrate the multitude of our offenses.

Now, some of these things can definitely be done physically, like when you actually commit adultery with your neighbour’s wife, or you steal cash from your employer. But Jesus’ point is that all these evils begin with our thoughts. Every outward act is preceded by an inward choice. And even when our thoughts stay inside, and don’t take shape with action, we’ve been defiled, and we’ve stepped outside of fellowship with God.

Take “adulteries” (v 21) for an example. You could seduce your neighbour’s wife or daughter, or you could pay money to visit a prostitute, but sexual defilement happens a lot easier than that too. Remember how Jesus sharpened the edge of the seventh commandment (and every commandment), when He said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27). Adultery is in our thoughts—it’s from within. It’s in the extra glance you take at the woman on the sidewalk. It’s in the images we choose to look at online. It’s in the clothing a woman wears to deliberately draw men’s eyes to herself. In all these scenarios, nothing has been “done.” No one has been hurt. But our thoughts have been polluted, and God has been deeply offended.

Another example is what Jesus calls an “evil eye” (v 22). What’s the evil eye? This is when we look on the success or happiness or blessing of another person, and we resent it: “Why do they get that?” Or, “Why can’t I look like that?” You’re not going to steal it, or damage what they have, or do anything to change how it is. But in your thoughts there is evil: displeasure, envy, dissatisfaction with what God has given you.

What about “pride?” (v 22). You might never show it. You never mock another person, never put on “airs,” never seek praise. But on the inside it’s different. You look down on people who don’t share your views. You’ve made judgments about who’s important, and who’s not. By your pride you’ve been defiled.

Or “foolishness” (v 22). This isn’t getting a horrible report card or forgetting details. A fool is someone who doesn’t fear God, and who doesn’t look at things according to God’s Word. Here’s the tricky thing: a fool might be well-behaved for the most part, and he might do what is expected, but he’s not too serious about serving the LORD or fighting sin. Once again, it’s internal—it’s about our attitude and approach to things. But it’s wrong.

Says Jesus, “All these evil things come from within, and defile a man” (v 23). Can you see how Jesus hasn’t made our fight easier, but harder? He tells the crowds that He’s getting ready to abolish laws about clean and unclean food, but that doesn’t mean He is lowering the bar of what God requires. Instead, He raises it by exposing the heart! This is where decisions are made, where motives are found. And if our enemy is internal, then this isn’t going to be easy. How do you control your thoughts? How do you get a handle on invisible sin, on our slippery feelings? We’re up against a real challenge, an impossible one.

Beloved, Jesus has come with a disturbing diagnosis. But we thank God that the Bible never ends there, telling the diagnosis and no more. Scripture always points us to the blessed cure. To be sure, when we come to the end of our text, Jesus doesn’t say anything about how to get help. He’s peeled off the shell to show our heart disease, but He hasn’t told us where to find healing. Not yet anyway.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus wants people to draw the conclusion for themselves. And that’s what we see some of them doing. They come to Jesus for help, and ask for healing. Even people that should not have approached him—like the people who were afflicted with leprosy and other skin diseases, and the woman with the flow of blood in chapter 6, and the Gentile later on in this chapter—according to the law they are defiled, but they know that Christ can do something for them. They know He can make them whole, not just in body, but in heart and spirit.

Jesus is making wholeness possible through his ministry, one that’s going to end with him on the cross: He is dying to pay for our sins, and rising up to bring us new life. The diagnosis is disturbing, but if we believe, it’s not a death sentence. For Christ is the cure.

So where does all this leave us? What are the consequences of Jesus’ words, and his teaching that sin comes from within?

First, let’s be very humble about the fight that we’re facing. This is beyond our ability to handle. The sins in your life will not be easy to root out, because they’re not external in the first place, they’re internal. They stem from somewhere deep inside you. This means that sin is more powerful than we know, and more deceitful than we realize. So we shouldn’t really trust our feelings to guide us, nor should we rely overly much on our instincts. Our heart can be so wrong, our feelings to twisted! We also shouldn’t have a generous view of our ability to say no to temptation, or to stay pure when we’re standing in places surrounded by sin. We’re weak, and we need help. We need strength. We need courage. We need wisdom. So humbly pray for renewal. Ask for the Spirit of the Lord, because He has promised to give it.

Secondly, we should be better attuned to the presence of sin in our life. We said that the Old Testament people had an inner radar that was highly sensitive to all outward defilement. They knew what would pollute them, and alarm bells went off when it came close. Our challenge is different than theirs—even more difficult—so we too, need to be clear about what in our life is an offense to God. Be aware of your evil thoughts. Pick up on those times when you’re envious or discontent. Pay attention every day to the movement of your heart, whether it’s moving toward pride, or lust, or anger, or greed, or bitterness. There might be a lot of things moving on that radar screen, but for our spiritual fight, we need to know what we’re facing. Be aware of them.

And thirdly, Jesus’ words teach us how much we need his saving work. This is not a fight we can win on our own. Sin makes us unfit for communion with God, and we will never be pure and undefiled in his sight—not in ourselves. No matter how hard and long we struggle, we will not escape the pollution of our words and thoughts and actions.

Instead, knowing how corrupt we are, let us depend more and more on Christ Jesus and his Holy Spirit. It’s only through faith in him that we can be made pure. It’s only through his work on the cross that we are made righteous. Christ is the cure for rotten hearts. So go to Christ. Again and again, go to Christ.  Amen.     


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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