We're turning to Mark chapter 7, and we're going to read from verse 1 through to verse 23. The title I have taken for this study is: 'The Heart Of The Problem'.
Verse 1 then of Mark 7: "Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye. And when he had called all the people unto him, he said unto them, Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. If any man have ears to hear, let him hear. And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man".
Now throughout Mark's gospel we will have noted, I hope, that Mark's emphasis is primarily on what the Lord did - it's the great gospel concerning the doing of the Servant of the Lord. It was written, of course, to Romans, who were a very active people, and nation, and empire at this time - and so Mark, of course guided by the Holy Spirit, thought that they would themselves be enthused by Christ, looking at His earthly service and ministry. However, this section that we're looking at this morning deals with what the Lord said rather than what He did, and it's a very important teaching at that. It speaks of the heart of the human problem.
Religious, political, social problems we see all around us, and they have plagued the history of humankind. They are essentially problems that stem from a misdiagnosis of a heart complaint. There is, the Bible teaches us, a spiritual disease of the primary internal organ - not, of course, our literal heart, but as the heart is spoken of in the Bible as the seat of our affections and personality, that is where the problem lies. But religion in particular - and when I speak of religion I speak of man attempting to get to God in his own way, not the true faith of the Bible, which is God by grace coming to man, and man believing in Him by faith - but manmade religion, and indeed all human institutions, diagnose the human problem as an external problem. Therefore they believe that this external problem can be treated without any intrusion into the heart.
Of course, this is a classic case of misdiagnosis - that is, mistaking the symptoms for the cause. So religion, and the institutions of mankind, treat the symptoms of man's problem rather than curing its primary cause. The heart is the heart of the human problem. A classic example of this is religious malpractice, and we see it here in this chapter - perhaps like no other place in the whole of the scriptures. An official delegation of theological hitmen, if you want to call them that, came from Jerusalem to visit the Lord Jesus to trap Him. We read in verse 2 that 'they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen, hands, they found fault'. Now all the boys and girls who are still with us in the building this morning, this isn't biblical legislation to not wash your hands before you eat your dinner! The disciples were not indulging in unhygienic practices, what is being spoken of here is an elaborate ritual, religious rite, that was prescribed by the tradition of the Jews - and it has no biblical foundation whatsoever, except to say that in Exodus chapter 30 the priests were required to wash ritually. But for 200 years this was taken from Exodus 30 and practised by all pious Jews.
It eventually became a requirement of ceremonial purity, and so before any meals Jews would pour just a little bit of water on their hands, and they would elevate their hands slightly so that the water would run down to the wrist, and eventually down to their elbows, and then they would rub their hands together. Next they would lower their hands, and rinse them, allowing the water to drop off their fingertips - now that was only for meals. In verse 4 we see that if they were in the marketplace, the inference we believe is that they actually bathed themselves from head to toe ceremonially, when they came from the market, to be clean. Now this extended to more than just the body, as we see at the end of verse 4, that various eating utensils were also washed ceremonially: pots and pans would be dipped - the word, actually, I think, is to 'baptise' - these were ceremonial baptisms that were used in order to make the user of these utensils ceremonially pure.
So these Jews that the Lord Jesus was standing before, they were of the inclination not to eat, rather than to eat with unwashed hands. Indeed, it was reported that around the time of our Lord Jesus, or a little bit after, that there was a rabbi who suffered imprisonment under the Romans, and he nearly died because he used his ration of drinking water to ritually wash up - he did it so often, he had nothing to drink himself! So this was their rule, the Jewish tradition of the elders: unless you washed to your elbows, you were ceremonially defiled. The belief was that you could transfer this ceremonial uncleanness to others, and even to holy things. So these religious Jews asked the Lord Jesus, questioning Him in verse 5: 'Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?'. They were questioning our Lord not on the grounds of scripture, but on the grounds of their own manmade traditions.
So here we see a collision of two different views on what man's chief problem is, and a collision of two different approaches towards a solution to man's chief problem. It's still evident in our world all around us: in religion and in social society, the whole scene of our day, we see this collision. Religionists and social commentators believe you can effect a change on the inside by a change on the outside, whereas our Lord is very clearly saying in this chapter of Mark 7 that we do not effect a change from the outside in, we effect a change from the inside out.
So let us see these two views this morning. The first is conformity without; and the second is anarchy within. Let's take 'conformity without'. Now there are two problems with this. First of all, to have conformity without and the belief that it will change you internally, first of all we need to see that it fosters hypocrisy. The Lord Jesus made this very clear in verse 6. He quoted Isaiah, from Isaiah 29:13, and said that these people were fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy when he said: 'This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart', it would be good to circle, if you mark your Bible, the word 'heart' in this chapter, 'their heart is far from me'. While their external religious rite and ritual behaviour was clearly changing them in an external way, there was an internal nature that was hidden to the naked eye that remained unaffected by whatever went on the outside.
So the Lord said: 'You're hypocrites', and the word for 'hypocrite', of course, is derived from a Greek word that described an actor wearing a mask while he was on the stage. So really the Lord was saying: 'You are religious play actors. Your conformity without is not changing you within'. So what the Lord was really saying is that there is a deceitfulness with religion, and indeed any other institution of humankind that tries to effect a change on the inside by changing the outside. You are deceiving others, you're making out by your outward conformity that you're something you're not on the inside - but not only are you deceiving those around you, you're deceiving yourself, thinking that you're better than others because of your conformity without.
The first problem with outward conformity is that it fosters hypocrisy. The second thing that our Lord cites is that conformity without necessitates a multitude of man-made rules, which eventually come to supersede God's commands. The Lord Jesus said this in verses 7 to 9: 'Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition'. Their conformity without necessitated a multitude of man-made rules, which eventually - verse 9 says - came to supersede God-given commands. The Jews had this vast system of rigidly enforced traditions, and because they were based in some nebulous way upon the law of God they came to be interwoven with the law, and people no longer could tell the difference. These little rules that were man-made and added on to God's first five books of the Bible were perceived as acquiring equal authority to God's word itself.
These traditions were spoken of as fences that would protect the law of God, and the leaders of Judaism delighted in enforcing these upon the people - and yet, as our Lord Himself said, though they enforced them on others, they couldn't keep these laws themselves, speaking of their hypocrisy. The strange thing is with religion, and any human man-made institution, people often willingly accept rigidity and ritual as a substitute for reality. They can't get reality, so they accept a substitute.
Let me give you an example or two of this. Take the Sabbath for instance: on the Sabbath day it was forbidden by these man-made rules to look into a mirror. Now, I know some of you could toe that line alright - it looks like it anyway! - but this was forbidden. If on a Sabbath day you saw a grey hair, you weren't allowed to pull it - that was work, you see, to pull a grey hair. Therefore, to guard against the temptation of pulling a grey hair, they made this rule not to look into a mirror. You also weren't allowed to wear false teeth on the Sabbath day - now I'm glad we're not Sabbatarians in the Old Testament sense, because all the grey hairs and empty mouths wouldn't be very nice to look at! But the idea was that if your teeth fell out on the Sabbath day, you'd have to pick them up - and that would be working! You weren't allowed to carry a burden on the Sabbath day, so you weren't even allowed to carry a handkerchief - that would be bad news for me today! What you could do was wear a handkerchief - so if you were at the top of the stairs and you needed a handkerchief, you would tie it around your neck, walk down the stairs, and when you reached the bottom you would untie it and then blow your nose.
These were rules! In fact, on one occasion rabbis debated about a man with a wooden leg - and this is true, it's not a joke! If his home caught fire, could he carry the wooden leg out of the house on the Sabbath? You were allowed to spit on the ground on the Sabbath, but you had to be careful where you spat, because if your spittle landed on dirt and you accidentally scuffed that dirt with the side of your sandal, you would be working because they said you were cultivating soil and thus performing labour. This is the way they thought. In some cases, this is what the Lord Jesus' point was, they had added so many rules to God's law that they were now beginning to go backward, and contradicting Scriptures that weakened God's law.
Now to prove this to them our Lord Jesus invoked the fifth commandment, the law of God. 'You're wanting to obey the law of God, you Pharisees? Well, let's take one of the commandments, commandment number five: honour thy father and thy mother'. In verses 10 to 13 the Lord gave an example, and it's a bit hard to understand, perhaps, in our English version - but, of course, the commandment tells us to honour parents. Now that commandment is not just to be observed when you're children, but it goes right through into the old age of your parents, and you're meant to respect them and even care for them at that stage of their lives. Indeed, if you look at it, you'll see that the death penalty was what was incurred if you spoke even evil of your parents. But a Jewish man-made tradition had evolved to say that if your parents had need in their old age, and you as a son, a Jewish boy or a man, had the ability to meet that need - if you were to say: 'Corban', which means 'That is a gift, the gift of God', that portion of money would be reserved for the temple. You, therefore, would get out of giving it to your parents. Now, in effect what actually happened was: they said 'Corban', and they kept the money for themselves and never gave it to the temple, they used it for their own business.
Do you see what was happening? They were getting out of obeying God's law of honouring father and mother in their old age by actually invoking man-made traditions. Now, history reveals that the Jews eventually came to honour their own traditions above the word of God. Let me give you a few examples: Rabbi Eleazer said, 'He who expounds the scriptures in opposition to the tradition has no share in the world to come' - did you hear that? He who expounds the scriptures in opposition to the tradition has no share in the world to come. The Mishnah, which is a collection of traditions in the Talmud, records these words: 'It is a greater offence to teach anything contrary to the voice of the Rabbi, than to contradict Scripture itself'. Now of course the cults today are doing exactly the same, where the words of their new prophets and their new scriptures actually contradict God's Word in places, but they will take their new revelation to supersede God's infallible truth. You see it in Roman Catholicism: tradition and the pronouncement of the church has taken over the interpretation of the holy word of God; and you even see it in Protestant denominations today, often tradition is equal - if not in confession, certainly in practice - it is equal to the word of God.
But before we start shooting our theological machine guns in rings round us, I want to echo the words of Warren Wiersbe when he said this, listen carefully: 'Before we criticise our Jewish friends, perhaps we should examine what influence the church fathers are having on our own Christian churches. We also can be guilty of replacing God's truth with man's tradition'. Well, these Jews certainly were doing it, and they were so caught up with their little traditions that they had missed the weighty matters of God's law, God's truth: love, justice, and mercy. E. Stanley Jones says: 'Their eyes were big as they came to the Lord Jesus to trap Him, they were open wide to the little and marginal traditions - but those big wide eyes were blind to the truth'. The big things, they couldn't see the big things because their eyes were so open wide to the little things. We need to beware of that.
To highlight this again our Lord delivers a clear principle to them in verses 14 and 15 that all of us need to learn, look at it, He said: 'Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him', out of his heart, 'those are they that defile the man'. Now even the disciples didn't understand that! You have to remember that they were equally exposed to this legalism that these Pharisees were practising, and so they were confused. We see it in verse 17, when they entered into the house privately with the Lord Jesus away from the people, His disciples asked him concerning a parable. You've got to remember that these disciples grew up under the teachings of the Old Testament law - weren't allowed to eat pork, and rabbit, and shrimp, those were unclean animals, those would defile them ceremonially. The Lord had to fairly explain to them, verses 18 to 20: 'Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats? And he said, That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man'.
Now, in effect, what the Lord Jesus was doing was declaring null and void the entire Mosaic system of clean and unclean. You see, those were pictures to show to the Jews that which was holy and that which was unholy. Now there might have been hygienic and dietary reasons for it in the wilderness and all the rest, but primarily they were spiritual illustrations. What the Lord was saying was that there is a new era now in the gospel, there is a new dispensation - and in effect, as we see from Mark's gospel and the rest of the New Testament, what the Lord was doing was He was opening the way into the Kingdom of God for Gentiles to believe on Jehovah. Now we haven't got time to go into that, and our Lord didn't explain that radical truth at that moment - but we see how dull the apostle's hearts were in understanding it, when we witness that Peter, he didn't grasp this truth until after Pentecost. There on a housetop, a roof in Joppa in Acts chapter 10, the Lord gave him a vision of a sheet with all unclean animals on it, and he told him: 'Don't call anything that I have created 'unclean', kill and eat'. It was at that moment that it dawned on Peter's heart that God wanted to save Gentiles, unclean, ceremonially unclean people.
You see, the Lord Jesus was teaching us what we read in all of the epistles: that the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Conformity without cannot tame our hearts, because our hearts are at anarchy within. That's why conformity without doesn't work, because there is anarchy within. He alluded to that in verse 6, look at it: 'This people honoureth me with their lips', conformity without, 'but their heart is far from me', anarchy within. Verses 21 to 23: 'For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness', so on and so forth. Let me read it to you in the Amplified Version: 'For within, that is out of the hearts of men, come base and wicked thoughts, sexual immorality, stealing, murder, adultery, coveting (a greedy desire to have more wealth), dangerous and destructive wickedness, deceit; unrestrained or indecent conduct; an evil eye which is envy, slander which is evil speaking, malicious misrepresentation, abusiveness, pride which is the sin of an uplifted heart against God and man, foolishness which is folly, lack of sense, recklessness, thoughtlessness. All these evil purposes and desires come from within, and they make the man unclean and render him unhallowed'. Do you know what this is? It is the biblical doctrine of depravity: that man is sin-sick at heart.
Now I believe the context of verses 21 to 23, the Lord is implying that these man-made Jewish traditions that distract and detract from God's given law could be added to this list! They come out of a heart that is diseased, that's why they cannot effect a change. You cannot, by conformity without, affect the anarchy within, because it remains - and even that conformity without, which is only external, comes out of such a heart. Now I wonder, as Christians, do we really appreciate the desperate condition of our hearts? I have to say, I don't think we do at times. Even in our most moral moments, and in our most pious practices, we believe - at least we espouse to this belief - that the depth of the evils of our hearts is unfathomable.
Do you believe that? Well, all the scriptures agree on that score - both Old and New Testament. Jeremiah 17:19: 'The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?'. Paul in Romans 3:10-18: 'As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes'. Paul, the converted Saul, said in Romans 7:24: 'O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?'. Incidentally, Paul didn't invent this idea of depravity, as some liberal modern theologians would tell us today. The Lord Jesus in Mark chapter 7 said clearly: outward conformity will not work, whether it's religion, whether it's a social humanitarian institutions; because there is an inward anarchy, the sin disease of the heart.
Christians of old have agreed on this. Luther said: 'I am more afraid of my own heart than of the Pope and all his cardinals'. J. C. Ryle, Bishop of Liverpool, 'Sin and the devil will always find helpers in our hearts'. John Calvin: 'The recesses of the heart are so hidden, that no judgement can be formed by any human being'. C.H. Spurgeon: 'There is enough tinder', gunpowder that is, 'in the heart of the best of men in the world to light a fire that shall burn to the lowest hell, unless God should quench the sparks as they fall. There is enough corruption, depravity and wickedness in the heart of the most holy man that is now alive to damn his soul to all eternity, if free and sovereign grace does not prevent it'. He went on to say: 'But I think I hear you saying, O Christian, 'Is thy servant a dog that I should do this thing?'' - in other words, 'Am I really as bad as that?'. Spurgeon comments: 'So said Hazael when the prophet told him that he would slay his master, but he went home and took a wet cloth, and spread it over his master's face, and choked him - and did the next day the sin which he abhorred the day before. Boast not thyself then, O Christian'.
Sometimes I hear Christians say: 'Did you hear that on the news? Wasn't that terrible! I don't understand how people can do these things'. The implication is: 'I could never do those things'. Now I know there are things we think we could never do, but that's only in our thoughts, and our thoughts are not God's thoughts - for God knows our hearts. Jesus knew what was in man, but I wonder do we really appreciate the depths, the damnable depths that even the heart of a child of God can stoop to? Paul told the Corinthians: 'There is fornication among you that is not even spoken of among the Gentiles'. You see, we need to waken up to this fact that your outward conformity means nothing in the eyes of God. Now I'm not advocating that everybody rolls in a Sunday morning in their pyjamas - but you've got to realise that that suit you have on means nothing to God. I'll tell you this: that headcovering you have on means nothing to God if your heart is sour and sinful. I believe in head covering, 1 Corinthians 11 teaches it, and we need to adhere to it - but there's a lot of people coming in with their head covered, and their hearts are corrupt. That's not right, that's hypocrisy.
You see the Sermon on the Mount, it was so graphic in our Lord detailing that true holiness is a matter of an inward affection and an inward attitude, not just outward actions and outward religious associations. So we need to say this clearly in 21st-century evangelicalism: education, culture, social reform, politics, religion and religious practices are powerless to change the human heart. Do you believe that? Not all those things, in essence, are bad - but they cannot effect the change that is needed to the anarchy within. There's only one answer, and that's regeneration. It was the Lord Jesus who said: 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man or a woman, or a boy or a girl, be born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God'. Are you born again? I'm not asking did you grow up in the Iron Hall, or in some evangelical church, and go to Sunday School, and learn the verses - I'm not asking that. I'm asking: are you born again? Have you experienced a supernatural change in your heart?
You see, the Bible says a new heart is necessary, and only God can effect that. It's effected by faith in Christ: 'As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name', John 1 verse 12. You need a new heart! Ezekiel prophesied - though it was of Israel, we have come into the good of it - that He would give them a heart of flesh in place of their hearts of stone. You sang it at the beginning of our meeting: what is needed is a new creation, 'Therefore if any man be in Christ: old things are passed away; behold, all things are made new'.
Now I want to apply this as I close, very briefly: we as believers in this post-modern, post-Christian age in Western Europe, we need a revived faith in the power of the gospel to change the hearts of men and women. Do you believe that there is nothing else will do it? Do you really? Can we still say: 'I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power', the dynamite, 'of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek', also to the Gentile. This is the message for the masses, this is the message that the world needs, and it's the only thing that will work! But as believers, we personally need to rediscover the power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives as Christians. Sometimes I think people are saved by grace through faith, and they would go to the stake and die for that truth - but they live the rest of their life before God by law and not grace. That's wrong. You see, the law was to show you that you cannot live up to it and acquire the standards of God's holiness.
Paul had to speak to a very specific situation like that in the church in Galatia. These Christians were infiltrated by Judaising teachers, who said: 'Yes, Christ died for your sins, and faith is necessary for salvation, but that's not where it ends: you've got to be circumcised men, and all of you have got to follow the rites and rituals of Moses'. Paul said in Galatians 3:3: 'Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?'. It's a rhetorical question, the answer is: no! You begin in the Spirit, and you live in the Spirit. It's not a striving to live up to God's laws, but what it is is the very nature of God, through the new birth, put in your heart and soul, that is able to live out the law of God and fulfil it to absolute perfection just as our Lord Jesus Christ did, because it's His Spirit that is dwelling in you.
A lot of Christians don't get that. Paul tried to spell it out to the Romans as well in Romans 8:1-4, he says: 'There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus'. Now the condemnation he's talking about is the condemnation that the law brings, because we're all lawbreakers. Those in Christ 'who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death'. Now do you know what the law of sin and death there is in the context of Romans? It's the law of Moses, you study the book and you will see that. It's the law of sin and death, because it shows us our sin - and its wages, because we break it, is death; but we don't live by that law any more. It doesn't mean we go around breaking it, it's the opposite of that: we have the power to obey it in the Spirit, by the life of Christ in us.
Paul makes that clear, he goes on: 'What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh', there it is, no argument, 'God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us', not those who walk after the flesh, but those who walk after the Spirit. Are you struggling as a Christian, simply because you're trying to live up to a list of rules and regulations? That's not what the Christian life is about, it's about the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus that sets you free in the power of Christ to live a life that is beyond rules and regulations, a holier life than mere legalism. It's not a lesser life that's a shame, but it's a righteousness that is above the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
Let me leave you with this parting shot from Proverbs 4:23, Solomon said: 'Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life'. Keep your heart, for out of it spring the issues of life. We're going to sing these words now, listen, don't look them up, listen:
'Search all my thoughts, the secret springs,
The motives that control,
The chambers where polluted things
Hold empire o'er the soul.
Search till Thy fiery glance
Has cast holy light through all,
And I, by grace, am brought at last
Before Thy face to fall'.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the thirty-fifth recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "The Heart Of The Problem" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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