Today’s passage can be divided into two main parts. First of all, in verses 1 to 13, the Lord Jesus responded to the criticism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem and who had noticed that the Lord’s disciples ate food with unclean hands. That is: they ate food with ceremonially unclean hands; they’re not talking about germs and personal hygiene; they’re talking about ritual cleanness and about what defiles us before God. And so they complained to the Lord Jesus about this. Then, in verses 14 to 23, the Lord went on to talk to his disciples about the the problem of the human heart. What’s the problem of the human heart? What’s wrong with it? Well, what’s wrong with it is this: the human heart is a house of horrors. It’s a house of horrors. And it’s the human heart which makes us unclean before God. It’s the house of horrors inside us, and not what we eat, which defiles us in God’s sight.
Verses 1 to 13
The Pharisees took a different view of the human heart. They didn’t regard it as a house of horrors. In fact, they believed they were basically clean. However, they also believed that it was possible for them to come into contact with something that was impure and unclean and which would make them unclean too. The uncleanness was catching. Just as a flu virus can be passed from person to person, so this uncleanness can be passed on as well from person to person. That’s what they believed. And so, these Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted to make sure that they avoided all contact with anything that might defile them. And so they separated themselves from all that was unclean. And that’s what their name means: Pharisee is based on a word meaning ‘separated’. They wanted to separate themselves from whatever is unclean. And, of course, this explains why they complained when the Lord Jesus mixed with ‘sinners’, because they believed that if the Lord was serious about wanting to please God and wanting to do what’s right, then he would want to avoid contact with sinners who are unclean. They believed that someone who wanted to remain right with God wouldn’t dream of mixing with sinners. So the Pharisees tried their best to remain separate from anything or anyone who might contaminate them.
Of course, like everyone else, the Pharisees needed to eat. So, like everyone else, they had to go to the market to buy food. And, when they were there, they had no choice but to mix with all kinds of people, including people who were unclean. There was no way to avoid them. But that was okay so long as they washed thoroughly once they got home in order to get rid of any contamination they might have picked up in the market. You’ve seen on TV people who have been working with radioactive material and once they’ve finished, they stand in special showers to wash away all the radioactive contamination. Well, once the Pharisees got home from the market, they made sure they washed themselves to get rid of all the uncleanness they picked up in the market. And if you look at verses 3 and 4, you’ll see that Mark adds a little note for his readers to explain that not only did they not eat unless they gave their hands this ceremonial washing, but they observed many other traditions as well such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles. So, they had to cleanse their hands and they had to cleanse their cooking utensils too. They washed themselves like this in order to remain ceremonially clean.
Now, before we move on, notice that Mark refers in several places to the tradition of the elders. He refers to the tradition of the elders in verse 3; and it’s there in verse 5; and we have the phrase ‘tradition of men’ in verse 8; and then in verse 9 there’s the phrase ‘your own traditions’; and in verse 13 we have the phrase ‘your tradition that you have handed down’. So, we have these references to their traditions; and their traditions are contrasted with the commands of God. Do you see the reference to God’s commands in verse 8 and verse 9? And in verse 13, God’s commands are referred to as ‘God’s word’.
So, their own traditions are contrasted with God’s commands or God’s word. And that’s an important distinction. You see, God in his word did not require his people to wash like this. In the Old Testament, priests were required to wash themselves before eating any of the holy food in the tabernacle; but God did not require the lay people to wash themselves like this. Washing their hands before eating, and washing their cooking utensils like this, was not something God had commanded the people to do. But along came the Pharisees and the teachers of the law and they decided that it would be good if everyone washed themselves like this before eating any meal. And so, over time, it became part of their tradition which they passed down from one generation to another. They said: in order to remain ceremonially clean, you must wash your hands before you eat any food.
So, that’s the background to their complaint. The Pharisees and scribes had come from Jerusalem; they noticed that the Lord’s disciples did not observe the tradition of the elders about washing before eating. Now they wanted to know: Why not? Why did the Lord Jesus not teach his disciples to pay attention to their traditions?
And how did the Lord respond? Well, he responded to them by making two main points. We’ll take them in reverse order. First of all, he pointed out how they let go of God’s word in order to hold on to the tradition of the elders. Do you see that in verse 8? They disregarded God’s word, or they set aside his commands, in order to observe and to keep their own traditions. That was his first point. And in verses 9 to 12 he gave an example to demonstrate his point; and his example concerned their obedience to the fifth commandment. God commanded his people through Moses to honour your father and your mother; and anyone who curses his father and mother must be put to death. That’s what God commanded in his word.
Now, when we think of that commandment, we think it’s about how children who must obey their parents. And that’s true. But the Lord is now thinking about the duty of adult children towards their elderly parents. The adult children of elderly parents have a duty to care for them and to look after them in their old age. However, it seems that the Pharisees and scribes had figured out a loophole in order to avoid their duty towards their parents. The Pharisees and scribes were saying to adult children that instead of giving their money to their elderly parents, they could say that the money which they might have given their parents had been devoted to God. If they say that, then they were free from any obligation to help their parents. In other words, they let go of God’s word which commanded them to honour their parents.
That’s the Lord’s first point: they disregarded God’s word, while being careful to observe and to keep their own traditions. And that’s not right. But the Lord’s second point was that their hearts were not right.
Look at verses 6 and 7 where he quoted from the Old Testament book of Isaiah where the Lord Almighty complained about his people. He said:
These people honour me with their lips,
but their heart are far from me.
And by quoting from this passage, the Lord Jesus was saying to the Pharisees and scribes:
You’re always talking about God. You’re always praising him. You’re always worshipping him. You’re always talking about pleasing him. But you know what? Your hearts are not right. Deep down inside, you’re far, far, far away from God. And all your worship and devotion to God is just a sham. It’s all just words, because your heart is not right.
They were making a fuss about washing their hands and washing their cooking utensils. But none of that was able to do them any good, because their hearts were not right. And that leads us to the second part of today’s passage, where the Lord talks about the human heart.
Verses 14 to 23
Let’s look at verses 14 to 23 now where the Lord explains to his disciples that the human heart is a house of horrors. You know what a house of horrors is, don’t you? When I was growing up, every seaside resort had a house of horrors: you’d pay your money and a door opened into a dark passageway. And as you felt your way around the passageway, monsters would jump out at you, and ghosts would sweep past your head, and a bodiless hand would scurry across the floor, and spiders would drop into your lap, and something would tap you on the shoulder and make you jump. And all the little children who enter the house of horrors scream with fear; they’re terrified because it’s so scary with all those monsters and ghosts running around. And the human heart is a house of horrors, because it’s filled with horrifying thoughts and ugly attitudes and shocking desires. Look how the Lord describes the human heart in verses 21 to 23. He said:
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.
The Pharisees were worried about what goes into us. They were worried that if you ate food with unclean hands, then that would make you unclean before God and unfit to come into his presence. But — the Lord Jesus says in verse 15 — nothing outside of us can make us unclean before God. Nothing outside of us — such as the food we eat — can make us unclean before God. And then the Lord repeats the same point in verse 18 and adds that whatever food we eat goes, not into the heart, but into the stomach and out again. So, whatever we eat and whatever we drink cannot affect our standing before God.
And what matters — you see — is what’s in our heart, because the human heart is a house of horrors and it’s filled with all of these evil thoughts. So, hidden under the stairs there’s sexual immorality and theft and murder and there’s adultery and greed and malice. Locked away in one dark room there’s deceit and lewdness and envy and slander. In another room, there’s arrogance and folly. It’s all there, says the Lord Jesus, lurking in the human heart.
And, of course, all of these evil thoughts in our heart leak out, don’t they? They leak out so that what’s inside of us gets out. That’s the Lord’s point in verse 21 when he says that from within, out of men’s hearts, come all of these things. So, they start off inside us; but they don’t stay there; instead they come out of us and they manifest themselves in what we do and say. And, of course, the world around us is spoiled by what’s inside of us. Families are spoiled because of sexuality immorality and adultery and deceit; neighbourhoods are spoiled by theft and murder and malice; friendships are spoiled by envy and slander and arrogance. Everywhere we go, everything is spoiled, because what’s inside of us in our hearts comes out.
Evil thoughts and all these other vices live inside us, the Lord tells us. And after listing all the vices in verses 21 and 22, he sums it all up in verse 23 by calling them ‘these evils’; these evils. And all of these evils, lurking inside the human heart, are what make us unclean before God and unfit to come into his presence. He’s the Holy God, the Righteous One, whose eyes are too pure to look upon evil. He’s the Holy God; and sinful men and women cannot come into his holy presence and hope to live. Think of Isaiah the prophet, in Isaiah 6, who saw the Lord in his temple; and the angels were calling to one another:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.
And the prophet cried out:
Woe to me! I am ruined.
He knew he was a sinner; and sinners do not belong in the presence of a holy God. Think of John the Apostle who saw a vision of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus, with his all-seeing eyes which are like blazing fire. And when John saw the Lord like this, John fell down as though dead, because he knew that he was a sinner; and sinners do not belong in the presence of a holy God. Think of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons. We’ve been thinking about them at the Midweek; and we read how they went into the presence of the Lord, without the right offering. And do you remember what happened to them? Fire came out from the Lord and consumed them so that they died. They were sinners; and sinners do not belong in the presence of a holy God.
It’s not what goes inside of us which defiles us and which makes us unclean before God and unfit to come into his presence. It’s what is already in us which defiles us and which makes us unclean before God. The human heart is a house of horrors and it’s filled with all kinds of evil thoughts and other evils which make us unfit to come into God’s holy presence and which make us liable to his wrath and curse, because he’s able to see into our hearts with his all-seeing eyes; and all the evils which lurk there make him burn with anger.
The Pharisees and the scribes used to wash themselves, because they thought that was the way to remain clean before God. But the Lord was able to see into their hearts; and he saw that their hearts were far from God. He saw that their hearts were not right. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ, God’s Anointed King, came into the world to put into action God’s new covenant. I’ve mentioned God’s new covenant before, but it’s been some weeks since I last mentioned it. But God’s new covenant is the answer to the problem of the human heart. Under the terms of the old covenant, which God made with his people through Moses, the Lord promised to be their God and to watch over them and to help them; and in return, the people promised to do all that the Lord commanded them to do. ‘We will do everything the Lord has said’; that’s what the people promised. The trouble was, they weren’t able to do everything the Lord said. They weren’t able to do what the Lord commanded, because the human heart is a house of horrors, filled with all kinds of evil thoughts and other evils which prevent us from doing what the Lord commands. And so, in the days of the Old Testament, the people disobeyed the Lord again and again and again.
But since the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, since he does not treat us as our sins deserve, nor repay us according to our iniquities, the Lord did not destroy them, even though that’s what they deserved. Instead he announced that he was going to make a new covenant with them. And do you remember the terms of the new covenant? Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord promised that he will sprinkle clean water on his people and make them clean. He said:
I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.
So, you’re unclean because your hearts are wicked and you continually do what’s evil in my sight. But I promise to cleanse you and to make you clean. And then he went to promise them:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.
Imagine that. Our original heart is a house of horrors; it’s full of all kinds of evil thoughts and other evils. But the Lord promises to give his people a new heart. And he went on to promise:
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
In other words, he’ll take away our old hard heart which is not able to love God or his laws, and he’ll give us a new heart, a soft heart of flesh, so that we’re able to love the Lord and his law like never before. And the Lord went on to promise:
And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
So, do you see what the Lord was promising? I will make you clean; I will give you a new heart to love me; I will give you my Spirit to enable you to obey me. This is what God promised to do for his people under the terms of the new covenant. And when the time was right, he sent his Son into the world to put this new covenant into action, because by his death he has paid for our sins in full in order to reconcile us to God; and when he was raised from the dead, he ascended to heaven from where he poured out his Spirit upon his people; and the Spirit comes into our lives and enables us to receive by faith everything that God has promised us in his new covenant: so we’re washed and cleansed and pardoned by God; and we become a new creation with a new heart, so that we’re able to love the Lord and his law like never before; and God’s Spirit living inside us enables us to fight against sin and temptation more and more and to do God’s will more and more.
And so, if Jesus Christ is your Saviour, if you trust in him alone for salvation, then you’re able to rejoice in this good news: because of Christ, God has been able to cleanse you; because of Christ, God has been able to give you a new heart; because of Christ, God has given you his Spirit to enable you to walk in his ways and to obey his laws. Whatever sins you have committed, whatever evils you have done, God has promised to wash your guilt away and he was promised to remembers your sins no more. And whatever temptations you face, whatever struggles you have with sin, God has given you his Spirit to help you to overcome temptation and to do his will.
And through faith in his Son, you have received a new heart, so that we’re able to love the Lord like never before. And with a new heart, we’re able to perform the rituals and ceremonies which God has given his church for our good; we’re able to perform them and we’re not wasting our time. Some believers dislike formality and they regard all ceremonies in the church as unbiblical. They think that ceremonies and formality only quench the Spirit and we should give them up. But they’re wrong to think that way, because the Lord Jesus Christ has given his church the ceremonies of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He’s given us these things for our good. And when we do these things with believing hearts, hearts that have been renewed by God’s Spirit, then we know the Lord will use these ceremonies to do us good and to build us up in comfort and holiness, while we wait for our Saviour to come again.