The Problem of the Heart – Mark 7:1-23
Good morning! If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. If you can turn to the Gospel according to Mark, we are going to be in Mark 7:1-23, this morning. I’m just going to read our passage, and then we will dive in.
Mark 7, beginning in verse 1: “Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ 6 And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’ 9 And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” 11 But you say, “If a man tells his father or his mother, ‘Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”’
“14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’ 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”
Back in Mark 1:1, Mark begins His Gospel with the words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And over the last six chapters Mark has been unpacking for us who this Jesus is, and that is, that He is the authoritative yet suffering Son of God.
The religious leaders don’t understand, the crowd of people don’t understand, the disciples of Jesus don’t understand, even Jesus’ own family members don’t understand who Jesus is.
We’ve seen Jesus heal many people of all kinds of diseases and demonic oppression. We’ve seen Jesus forgive sins. We’ve seen Jesus challenge the religious leaders on the issues of fasting and Sabbath. We’ve seen Jesus calm not one, but two storms. We’ve seen Jesus raise a dead girl back to life. We’ve seen Jesus feed at least five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. And we’ve seen Jesus walk on water.
Mark is showing us that these are things that only God can do. And so, that makes what Jesus is about to say to us here, very important, because if this is who Jesus is, then He knows more about me than I realize.
What Jesus is going to teach us here is something about our heart. Not the squishy thing that pumps blood throughout our body. But the center of what drives everything we do. Jesus is going to show us that we all have a heart problem, and that the reason for all the sin and all the problems and all the dysfunctions in the world is because of the heart.
I’m sure we can all agree that the world is broken. Whether you’re a Christian or a non-Christian, we can agree that things just aren’t right in the world. The world is not all as it should be. But what our culture tells us is that the problem with the world is due to someone else or something else. We’re told that the reason we have issues is not due to our own faults but because of someone else’s fault.
And Jesus is going to teach us something contrary to this. He is going to teach us that the problem with the world is not out there. It’s not someone else or something else that is the problem. Our problem is not external. The problem is in us. The problem is our heart.
And so, this morning we are going to look at two things: We are going to look at the problem of the heart and the solution of Jesus. That’s going to be our roadmap for our time together, this morning.
And so, let’s jump right in, by looking at verse 1. The Pharisees have come together to Jesus, along with some of the scribes from Jerusalem. Apparently Jesus is creating quite a stir that they’re calling in the big guns. And when they’ve all gathered together, they see that some of Jesus’ disciples are eating with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.
Now, just to clarify, that’s not unwashed, as in, the disciples never washed their hands. It’s not like they were disgusting. They were sanitary. They knew to wash their hands before they ate.
What the Pharisees are disturbed about is that the disciples didn’t ceremonially wash their hands before eating. The wording in the original language is kind of tricky, but apparently, there was a way to wash your hands that the disciples didn’t follow. And Mark conveniently elaborates for us what this means.
In verse 3, Mark says, “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders.” Mark is saying that the religious leaders had developed a system of handwashing that was deemed as proper. And if you were Jewish, this was just something you did.
But notice that Mark doesn’t say that their system of handwashing was rooted in Scripture, but rather, rooted in the tradition of the elders. And that is because there is nowhere in Scripture that God requires His people to ritually wash their hands before they ate.
We read in several places in the Old Testament that the priests were required to wash themselves before entering the tabernacle. And in Leviticus 15:11, we read that anyone who touched a bodily discharge was to wash their hands. But there is nothing about God’s people needing to ritually or properly wash their hands before eating.
It was simply tradition, and the religious leaders had put tradition on the same level as Scripture. And the scribes are a key reason for this. The scribes were the ones who interpreted the Scriptures. What they would do is they would look at the Law of God given to Moses, and they would interpret what the Law was saying. And scribes after them would form opinions on those interpretations.
And after years of all of these opinions and interpretations, they put them all together and they made laws for the Jewish people to observe. This was the tradition of the elders.
In verse 4, Mark notes that they had become so rigid in their tradition that they would wash themselves after coming back from the marketplace, in case they came in contact with a Samaritan, or bumped into a Gentile, or touched something that a defiled person had touched. They had become so caught up in this ceremonial washing that they even had specific laws for washing pots and pans and cups.
It’s all fine and good to have convictions about certain things, but if those convictions aren’t rooted in Scripture, then it’s just arbitrary rule-following, and that gets tedious real quick.
And in verse 5, all of this comes to a head. The religious leaders have had enough with Jesus’ blatant disregard for their laws, so they say to Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
It should blow our minds that they have the audacity to confront God in the flesh about what is right and proper for Him to do. What we’re seeing here, from the Pharisees and the scribes, is that they think God’s Word on the matter of handwashing is incomplete. And so, they add and they add and they add to God’s Word, essentially creating a god after their own image.
And what is truly heartbreaking is that they think that they know better than God about what God was after. And they miss it. God wasn’t after their external behaviour; He was after their heart.
It’s like King Saul in 1 Samuel 15. God tells Saul to destroy all of the Amalekites and all of their animals. Everything of the Amalekites was to be destroyed. And so, Saul goes up against them, but instead of destroying everything, he spares the best of the livestock, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord. And we think that he’s doing a good thing, right? God likes sacrifices. God would appreciate what Saul had done.
But when the prophet Samuel comes to Saul, and Samuel hears the bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the cattle, he says, “Why did you not obey the voice of the Lord?”
And Saul says to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil to sacrifice to the Lord your God.”
And Samuel makes this striking statement, in 1 Samuel 15:22. He says, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.”
It sounds like exactly what we’re seeing here with the religious leaders. And Jesus wastes no time in responding to them. Verse 6 says that He said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
How much of our church life is wrapped up in saying the right words and doing the right things? How often do we sing the words of the songs, without fully realizing what we’re singing? How much of what we do is wrapped up in lip service, rather than true worship?
In John 4, when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, He says to her, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
What God is after are true worshippers, not hypocrites. The Pharisees and the scribes missed this. They thought that God wanted clean hands, but what He really wanted was their heart. It’s what God has always been after.
He’s not after your church attendance. He’s not after your Bible reading. He’s not after your good behaviour. He’s after your heart. He wants you to know Him and love Him and desire Him above all else.
One commentator writes, “It must not content us to take our bodies to Church, if we leave our hearts at home. The eye of man may detect no flaw in our service. Our minister may look at us with approbation. Our neighbours may think us patterns of what a Christian ought to be. Our voice may be heard foremost in the praise and prayer. But it is all worse than nothing in God’s sight, if our hearts are far away.”
We are not perfect. We will never be able to come to God with clean hands. But God isn’t after our perfection; He’s after our heart.
The problem with the religious leaders is that they left their hearts at home. Jesus tells them that they mistake traditions as commandments, and as a result, they neglect the Word of God. They miss what God is after, and Jesus goes right back to the Ten Commandments to point this out.
Exodus 20:12 says, “Honor your father and your mother.” But then, we see what happens to the one who disobeys this commandment. Exodus 21:17 says, “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.”
We are to honour our parents, respect our parents, love our parents, support our parents. But here is what Jesus is saying they would do: They would tell their parents that they couldn’t help them, if their parents were in need, because the money that could be used to buy food for them, well, it was already all devoted to God. They would have loved to have helped their parents, but unfortunately, you can’t give to someone else what has already been given to God.
The only problem was: They didn’t actually give it to God. They simply devoted these things to God, pledged them to God, but they still held on to them and did with them what they wanted. So, they’re coming across as pious, but they are actually hard-hearted. They’re disobeying the Law of God for the sake of their silly, ungodly traditions, and Jesus calls them out on it.
We see an excellent example of this in history. In 1536, William Tyndale was burned at the stake. His crime? Translating the Bible into English. Much of the King James Version comes from William Tyndale. The fact that we can read the Bible in English is owing in part to his efforts.
But there was a time when the Church had made it illegal to translate the Bible into English. There were those who held on too tightly to their traditions that they denied the Word of God to the common man and woman.
Tyndale’s last prayer was, “Lord, open the King of England's eyes." And that prayer was answered in part when three years later, in 1539, Henry VIII required every parish church in England to make a copy of the English Bible available to its parishioners.
The Pharisees and the scribes had missed what God had commanded. They had placed tradition above the commandments of God. They made their traditions commandments that were to be obeyed. And Jesus is going to say that the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.
This isn’t just something that affects the Pharisees and the scribes; it affects everyone. Everyone has this problem with the heart. The very thing God is after is the very thing that leads us away from Him. It’s the very thing that makes idols out of traditions.
Jesus gathers the crowd of people together, and He says to them, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And then, He goes inside the house. It’s like the ultimate mic drop.
But what’s Jesus saying? He’s saying that our wickedness is not a result of anything external. Our sin, our problems, our dysfunctions, they’re not a result of bad company or bad examples or particular temptations or the snares of the devil. Our wickedness is a result of a wicked heart.
All you need to do is observe a bunch of toddlers in a room to discover that this is true. If a toddler comes over to another toddler, and pushes them down, and steals their toy, they aren’t doing so, because the other children made them do it. They’re doing so, because of the wickedness in their heart. They wanted that toy, and they were going to do whatever it took to get it.
When my kids do wrong, it’s not because they were hanging out with Johnny and Johnny is a bad influence on them. It’s because they have within them the capability to do every wrong thing under the sun. And if it weren’t for the grace of God they would.
They know how to do wrong, instinctively. This is not something that needs to be taught to them. It’s why we need to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord,” according to Ephesians 6:4. We need to pray for their conversion. We need to pray that their hearts would be renewed by the Holy Spirit. We need to pray for real heart change in our children.
After I graduated from High School, I got a job working at Walmart. And I was a pretty shy and quiet kid. I basically just did my job and went home. I didn’t really talk to anyone. I wasn’t really interested in getting to know anyone.
But there was a guy who worked at Walmart who really wanted to be my friend, so eventually we started hanging out. I enjoyed playing pool, and he had a pool table in his basement, so we hung out fairly regularly.
And he would always try to get me to go to the bar with him. And I wasn’t interested at first, but eventually, just to get him off my back, I went with him to the bar. And what followed after that was a year of mistakes. There were some weekends when I would go to the bar on Friday night, take Saturday to recover, and then I would play bass guitar in church on Sunday morning.
I was living this duplicitous life, where on the one hand I was drinking and having a good time with my so-called friends, and on the other hand trying to witness to them about Jesus, which I will just say is really hard to do at the same time.
But here’s the point: I could blame my bad life choices on the bad company that I kept during that year, but the reality is that those bad life choices in actuality sprang up from my bad heart. Now, did that bad company help me to make bad choices? Absolutely. But my problem, first and foremost, isn’t out there; it’s in here. It starts and ends with me.
And unless our heart is changed, we carry within us a heart that is ready for any sin. Look at verse 21. Jesus says, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
All of us, whether rich or poor, old or young, men or women, all of us have by nature such a heart as Jesus here describes.
And this is what makes the gospel so glorious. 1 John 1:7 says that the blood of Christ “cleanses us from all sin.” It doesn’t matter what kind of person we were before the grace of God entered our lives; what matters is the sufficiency of Christ to change our sinful hearts to clean hearts.
After the prophet Nathan confronts King David on his adultery with Bathsheba, David writes, in Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
David understands that he needs external help to deal with his internal problem. This is not something that will be solved by looking into himself. The only way that David’s problem and your problem and my problem with the heart is solved is by looking to Christ. The only solution to the problem of the heart is Jesus.
You will notice that Jesus doesn’t give them “7 ways to become a better person.” He doesn’t give them a list of things to do. And it’s because He is on the way to being the solution for them.
Jesus would eventually go to the cross, and He would die to pay the penalty for sin, and He three days later He would be raised from the dead in victory over sin and death, so that our hearts could be made new.
In Ezekiel 36:26-27, God says to His people, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
Notice who is doing the action throughout every stage of that process. It’s not you. It’s God. He makes your heart clean. We can’t change our heart. Only God can do that, and He provided a way for your heart, through the death and resurrection of His perfect Son, to be renewed.
Tim Keller said, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
If you have never repented of your sin, if you have never asked God to change your heart, to remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh, I encourage you to do so today, because until you do, you will be no different from the Pharisees and the scribes who believe that some kind of external action will fix their problem, and it never will.
The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart, but the solution is found in Jesus. Let’s pray…