In the Old Testament God instituted a distinction between clean and unclean things (Lev. 11). But of what use is this distinction to us today? In Mark 7 Jesus applies this important biblical teaching to His hearers. In no uncertain terms Jesus says that all of us have become unclean because of our defiled hearts. The good news is that Jesus shows His compassion toward the unclean by making them clean.
The first half of Mark 7 (vv. 1–23) contains the last narrative describing Jesus’ focused Galilean ministry. Jesus will be back in Galilee again but not as consistently as before. It is telling, then, that before Jesus exits Galilee, He is subject to yet another attack from the scribes and Pharisees, this time over the issue of ceremonial cleanliness. This is the seventh such confrontation that Mark records.1 Seven is the Bible’s number of fullness. Strikingly, in the next two narratives Jesus ministers among “unclean” Gentiles.
The Source of Uncleanness (7:1–23)
In this confrontation with the Pharisees Jesus first publicly exposed their hypocrisy. In so doing He provides opportunity for us to examine ourselves and to repent of our hypocrisy.
The Pharisees’ Accusation (7:1–6)
For true fault-finders, opportunities to criticize are never lacking. A delegation of religious experts who recently arrived from Jerusalem found fault with the disciples for—of all things—failing to wash their hands in the traditional way. As Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish religion this criticism provides sad commentary on the legalistic bondage (cf. Gal. 4:25) and “slavish doctrine and worship into which [first-century Judaism] had degenerated.”2 The disciples had recently traveled the countryside preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick only to hear the Pharisees say, “You don’t wash your hands right!”
The kind of washing prescribed by the scribes and Pharisees wasn’t meant to remove germs but to remove spiritual defilement. The Old Testament did require people to wash after becoming ceremonially unclean (Lev. 15:11). Through the law God was teaching His people the principle of purity. But the Pharisees went beyond God’s law and elevated their own law above His, instituting special washings the Bible never required; it is “the tradition of the elders” that the disciples had undermined (7:3, 5). 3 Jesus’ response is scathing and should cause us to closely evaluate our understanding and use of tradition.
Jesus’ Response (7:6–23)
Instead of simply defending his disciples for not washing their hands Jesus uses Isaiah 29:13 to expose the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and legalism. Hypocrisy is the lip service of a disinterested heart. A hypocrite is literally one who wears a mask. The Pharisees wore a mask of religion to cover their lack of true piety. The great danger of religiosity is that one can go through the motions—attempting to placate God with sacraments, church attendance, tithing, and so forth—while wandering far from Him. John Calvin put it well: “Nothing pleases [God] that is not accompanied by the inward sincerity of heart.”4 God calls hypocrites to de-mask by confessing their sins to God and others. God can already see behind our masks. Confession shows that we agree with Him about what He sees.
Second, Jesus charges the Pharisees of being legalists who teach “as doctrines the commandments of men” (7:7). There is a great difference between law keepers and legalists. Legalists require what God does not require or forbid what God does not forbid, and they make human tradition of greater weight than God. The Bible nowhere condemns tradition per se. Traditions can help keep us stable, keeping us from making crazy mistakes on a whim. But they can also blind us from God’s will, keeping us from exploring alternatives to our well-worn paths. In an honest moment in Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, “Because of our traditions every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Therein lies the problem. We should know who we are and what God expects us to do not through tradition but through Scripture.
The Pharisees’ hypocritical legalism is illustrated by the way they understood obedience to parents (7:10–13). The Pharisees taught that monies properly set aside for parental support could be designated as “Corban” (meaning “a gift to God”) and then used at one’s personal discretion. In denouncing the practice of Corban Jesus got to the heart of filial obedience and obedience in general. To “honor your father and mother” (Exod. 20:12) requires more than legal compliance; it requires heart devotion. In fact, there is no such thing as selfish, reluctant, feigned, or coerced obedience.5 A legalistic attitude undercuts true obedience by focusing attention more on the rules (and the human audience) than on God. With such a mindset, it is possible to develop an ethic that strains out gnats and swallows camels (Matt. 23:24).
Not surprisingly, Jesus’ words offend the Pharisees. Matthew says that the disciples came to Jesus privately saying, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” (Matt. 15:12). Of course they were offended (cf. 1 Peter 2:8)! The disciples had yet to learn that those who are living contrary to God’s Word need to be offended. We must be sensitive toward the weak but strong toward the obstinate and rebellious (Jude 22). By contrast, Jesus tenderly shepherds the people who were not being shepherded by the religious leaders. “Hear Me, everyone, and understand” (7:14). The consciences of the multitudes had been burdened by so many non-biblical, Pharisaical stipulations. Strangely, Jesus’ announcement of good news sounds, at first, a lot like bad news. Jesus says that defilement comes from within, not from without (7:14–23). In so saying, Jesus makes clear that the dietary and other ceremonial laws are not binding in the New Covenant. In fact, Jesus makes clear that the distinction between clean and unclean in the Old Testament was primarily meant to teach a spiritual and ethical distinction, not a hygienic one.6
Jesus then gets to the heart of defilement by listing twelve sins that flow from the heart. He first mentions evil thoughts. Our minds were created to be creative; after the fall, they tend to create evil. Second, Jesus highlights three sexual sins. When Jesus talks about “adulteries” He has in mind “all unchaste actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires, and whatever may entice one thereto.”7 Closely connected to adulteries is lewdness, or a failure to bridle sexual or sensual passions, but instead giving free play to perverse impulses.8 “Fornications”9 describes sexual deviancy in its most general form. Human sexuality is to be expressed between a husband and his wife. All sexual expressions outside of these bounds are sin. Third, Jesus mentions sins that specifically hurt others. Jesus understands “murders” not only as the taking of life but as maliciously harm (Matt. 5:21–22). Sinful hearts also “thieve” or take to themselves what rightly belongs to others. “Deceit” is the selfish use of trickery. “Blasphemy” is injurious speech against God or religion. Fourth, Jesus speaks of three defiling attitudes. “An evil eye” refers to envy, or displeasure over another’s gain. Covetousness is the unholy desire for what we have not. “Pride” refers to unduly elevated thoughts of self. Finally, Jesus provides the two general terms of “wickedness” and “foolishness” to sum up the list.
Jesus’ conclusion is stunning. This list of sins leaves the profound impression that unrinsed hands are the least of anyone’s problems! Rather than finding fault with those whose tradition differs from ours we should take inventory of our own hearts. Jesus’ exposé demonstrates how wrong it is to impose on the freedom of others because we have our own ugliness to deal with. The good news is that real purity is not only possible but it is promised by God in Christ. With joy we hear God say, “Come now, and let us reason together . . . Though your sins are like scarlet they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18). Real purity is achieved as we repent of our sins and are washed by the blood of Christ. Bring your defiled hearts and hands and exchange them for the perfect righteousness of Christ. In the next two narratives Mark shows two Gentile sinners doing just that.
The Source of Cleanness (7:24–37)
Mark now begins to write about Jesus’ “retirement ministry.” From now on Jesus withdraws more and more from the crowds, spending instead more time with the disciples, preparing them for His departure. He also withdraws from Galilee, spending more time in Gentile lands. Some Galileans would never again see Jesus’ face, hear His rebukes, or experience His compassion. Eventually they would get back into their routines and forget about His ministry. Many missed their window to come to him in repentance and faith. For good reason God says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7–8). According to God’s plan, often when some harden their hearts to the gospel others have a new opportunity to hear it (cf. Mark 6:11). This was the situation for a woman from Tyre, a city situated in Gentile lands on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
The Syro-Phoenician Woman: A Picture of Bold Faith (7:24–30)
Once again Jesus sought peace and quiet, now among people who would have been less affected by His popularity. Again, He could not be hidden (7:24; cf. Matt. 5:14; John 8:12), “For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him” and requested His help. The woman’s request for healing is striking in three respects. First, we notice her humble posture; “she came and fell at His feet” (7:25; cf. Mark 3:11; 5:22–33). Her prostration is a twofold recognition, first of Christ’s sovereignty and second of her own inadequacy.
Second, the woman’s request is persistent in the face of Jesus’ repeated and potentially offensive denial. “She kept asking him” (7:26; cf. Matt. 15:23–26). Jesus responds to her persistence with a mini-parable: “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (7:27). The Jewish people were the children of God’s house. He had adopted them, raised them from their days of infancy in the time of the patriarchs, made promises to them (Rom. 9:4), toddled them through the wilderness into the Promised Land, nurtured them by the prophets under the protection of the kings, and endured their rebellious teenage years during the exile. How can Jesus, the bread of life (John 6:35, 48), now give Himself to Gentiles? God’s plan was to bring the gospel first to the Jews (Rom. 1:16).
Third, the woman’s request was bold. She takes the words of Jesus’ parable about bread and daringly tosses them back at Him. “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs” (7:28). She acknowledges herself as an unworthy dog begging for crumbs. She’s saying, “Even the table scraps of your mercy would be sufficient for me.” How beautiful! What do we want from God? As a start, we want to have healthy bodies, good social skills, a happy church, a beautiful house, clear skin, reasonable intelligence, community respect, an easy life. This woman says, “Just give me some crumbs!” The one who eats crumbs of God’s mercy is still eating the bread of life; because of her faith, the woman’s daughter is restored. When we have Christ, we can be content regardless of how little else we have (Heb. 13:5).
The Deaf and Mute Man: A Picture of Regeneration (7:31–37)
After leaving Tyre, Jesus met a deaf-mute man in the Gentile territory of the Decapolis. Three times already, in Mark, Jesus has said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 10 In the subsequent narrative Jesus asks His disciples, “having ears, do you not hear?” (8:18). According to Jesus having ears is not enough; your ears must be tuned to the voice of God. Now, here is a man who has ears but cannot hear; he has a mouth but cannot speak; a perfect illustration of what Jesus has been teaching.
Today there are tremendous opportunities for the hearing and speaking impaired, including cochlear implants, sign language, and texting. But this man was almost totally excluded from human communication. He had a huge need. At first Jesus’ method of responding to the man’s need seems strange (7:33). Upon closer inspection Jesus is using a form of sign language to work faith in this deaf and mute man. The man couldn’t hear, but he could feel Jesus’ fingers enter his ears and touch his tongue. Jesus then looked to heaven to signify to this man from where the healing would come. He sighed to signal His compassion for sinners and regret over sin. Finally, Jesus did something you might not expect. He stood face to face to the deaf man and spoke. “Ephphatha,” He said. “Be opened” (7:34). How many people had tried and failed to speak to this man? Jesus spoke one word and the man was totally healed (7:35).
Christ’s healing of the deaf-mute illustrates that only God can give spiritual understanding. This man could have slept through a house fire unaware of the shouts of his friends. He could have been in the presence of the most beautiful music and heard nothing. So it is with natural man apart from the healing grace of God; their ears are plugged by depravity (cf. Mark 4:12). God communicates all the time, but until He unstops the ears His voice does not penetrate to the heart. How is your spiritual hearing? If you are spiritually deaf, ask God to give you ears to hear.
When those present saw the miracle they disregarded Jesus’ command “that they should tell no one” (7:36). Sometimes we puzzle over why Jesus desired to keep His healings a secret (and why the people often disobeyed). But Christ knew the temperament of the people. They were looking for a physical healer and king. He told them to keep quiet to minimize His popularity. This verse also teaches us to obey God even when He seems wrong. It seemed so right to these people to tell others what Jesus had done for them. But Jesus had expressly commanded the opposite. Their actions do not demonstrate enthusiasm, excitement, or uncontrollable gratitude but a failure to submit to God’s word.
Every so often someone in Scripture makes a statement that is loaded with meaning beyond that person’s understanding.11 In response to the healing of the deaf-mute the people said, “He has done all things well.” They may simply have been expressing their astonishment at Jesus’ healing power. But what a statement! Everything Jesus ever did was right. He never had a lapse in judgment. He never did anything out of mixed motives. He never made a mistake. He never committed a little sin. The perfect purity of Jesus is exactly the good news that unclean sinners need to hear.
1. Mark 2:7, 16, 18, 26; 3:2; 22.
2. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 140.
3. Translations vary on the meaning of the adverb translated “in a special way” in the New King James Version. The point seems to be that the Pharisees were overly rigorous in their washings.
4. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), vol. 2, 253.
5. Hendriksen, Mark, 277.
6. Cf. Acts 15; Col. 2:16–17; Acts 10:11. Even theonomist R. J. Rushdoony acknowledged that “the primary principle of division is religious, of which the medical and hygienic is a subordinate aspect” and that “the dietary laws are not legally binding on us” (The Institutes of Biblical Law [Craig Press, 1973], 300, 301).
7. Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 41; cf. Matt. 5:28.
8. Hendriksen, Mark, 288.
9. The Greek word is pornea, from which we get “pornography.”
10. Mark 4:9, 23; 7:16 (the latter is omitted by some translations).
11. For example, when Caiphas advises the Jewish leaders that “it is expedient that one man should die for the people” (John 11:50). He was saying that it would be better for Jesus to die than for the commotion caused by His teaching to bring problems on the Jews by the Romans. But his statement is inspired by the Spirit to mean much more.
12. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, vol. 2, 252.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Commenting on Jesus’ denouncement of the Pharisees’ Corban rule, Calvin gives the example of people who considered violating Lent as “nothing less than a capital crime, while theft or fornication is regarded as a venial fault.”12 How does this happen?
2. In what ways might we be guilty of “laying aside the commandment of God” to “hold the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8)?
3. How does Jesus’ list of contaminating sins (Mark 7:21–22) compare with the Ten Commandments?
4. The Syro-Phoenecian woman is persistent in seeking Jesus’ help for her daughter. Are we pounding on the doors of heaven for those who need God’s help?
5. Can you find illustrations from the Psalms (or elsewhere) that encourage the believer to be bold with God?
6. Jesus sighed over the deaf-mute’s fallen condition. How should believers sigh over human fallenness?
7. What does Ephesians 4:29 say about how we must use our tongues? Does it suggest also how we should use our ears?
8. How might Mark 5:20 account for the fact that while Jesus was previously asked to leave Decapolis (5:17) on this return trip He is welcomed by those who looked to Him for healing?