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Posts Tagged ‘Jerusalem council Acts 15’

The literary structure of Mark 7:1-23

Last week we began looking at Mark 7:1-23. In vs. 1-13 Jesus pointed out the problem of following mere human religious rules or the tradition of the elders. This week we’ll focus on the other point of dispute between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees –

The issue of impurity

Now, this isn’t the most exciting topic, but it’s important for understanding this passage. So here we go. In Scripture an object or a person becomes ritually impure in a number of ways, for instance by contact with a corpse, through various bodily discharges (which I will spare you listing them), or by touching someone who has these.

This creates a problem because God is holy and completely pure. So, if you are impure, you can’t come near to God. You can’t come near the temple, you can’t offer sacrifice (a real concern for priests) and also in some cases you had to stay away from other people. But you could be made ritually pure again by undergoing the proper ritual, which often involved water.

Well, the Pharisees (and their scribes) especially emphasized ritual purity. And in their traditions the rules for purity multiplied greatly beyond what Scripture says and they were applied broadly to everyone. The Pharisees’ goal seems to have been for regular people to maintain the highest possible state of ritual purity.

The Pharisees and those who were influenced by them, thought that this is what the people of God need; this is the agenda for moving forward for renewal and for once again receiving God’s blessing. And this is, no doubt, why they have condemned Jesus and his disciples in our story.

This bring us to –

Jesus’ parable on impurity

 14And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.”

He has a message for the crowd. And he begins by saying hear and understand. He’s saying, this is important. But also he’s saying this is going to be difficult to understand! It’s called “a parable” in v. 17, and it’s meant to be a cryptic statement.

So you have to put some effort into understanding it. v. 16 isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, but it emphasizes this point as well, “if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Here’s the parable –

15There 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.”

 Notice that there are two parallel halves to this. And each half contains a series of contrasts with the other. There is:

  • a contrast between the outside, and the inside of a person
  • a contrast between things that go in from the outside, and things that come out from the inside
  • a contrast between what cannot defile – what goes in, and what does defile – what comes out

So this much is clear. But what else in the world is Jesus talking about?? Thankfully we have –

Jesus’ explanation

17And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding?”

Like in other places in the gospels, Jesus explains his teaching in private to his disciples. First, he deals with the first half of the parable.

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him 19since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and goes out into the toilet – cleansing all foods?”

We’re reminded of the bigger context here. Jesus has been talking about eating food with defiled hands. But then something happens. When he tells us why the food doesn’t defile, he talks about how “it enters not his heart.” This is odd until you realize that Jesus has shifted the conversation from one on ritual purity, to one exclusively about moral purity – with a focus on the human heart. This is the key to understanding the parable. He’s not saying whether food does or does not defile someone. He just doesn’t address this. Rather, he’s saying no food can make someone morally impure. Hold on to this. We’ll come back to it.

A digression: At the end of v. 19 we have a dangling participial phrase that’s difficult to make sense of, and it shows up differently in different Bibles. In the earliest manuscripts it says literally, “cleansing all foods,” which can be construed in different ways.

The phrase, “thus he declared . . .” is not in the Greek text. It’s simply one way to make sense of this. Just briefly, my view is that using the phrase “thus he declared” is not the best solution. Rather, it’s best to see “cleansing all foods” as the conclusion of Jesus’ point here. He’s saying, the digestive process cleanses all foods, keeping the good and expelling the bad. Neither Jesus nor Mark is saying the biblical food laws or purity laws for Jews are nullified.

[Grammatically “cleansing” doesn’t have a close antecedent. So you can 1) go back to the beginning of v. 18 and find it in “he said to them” (or forward to v. 20) and come up with “Jesus, cleansing all foods” or as I said above, “Thus he declared all foods clean” or 2) you can take it as a grammatical oddity which sometime happens – an anacoluthon. And then the phrase works as I have interpreted it above. The KJV and NKJV are based on later manuscripts which also connect the phrase to the digestive process, but by means of a change to the word “cleansing.”

The second option is preferable for a number of reasons: 1) Jesus has just strongly rebuked the Pharisees for letting their traditions nullify the word of God. It is not reasonable to think that Jesus would then immediately turn around and nullify actual Scriptural commands to Jews. Jesus would be a law breaker and a sinner. And why is there no trace of him being rebuked by the Pharisees for this? And why would any Jew listen to him? He would be classified as a false prophet. 2) Jesus explicitly teaches that he does not nullify the Law – Matthew 5:17-19. 3) If the first option is accepted, Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples in v. 18 would overly harsh. How could they be expected to anticipate that Jesus would be nullifying Scriptural commands? 4) Jesus’ saying in v. 15 is a “parable” (v. 17). It’s not a halakic statement defining right observance of the Law. And we are told to be careful to listen to what he’s saying. 5) Jesus’ point in all this is that moral impurity is the key. He’s not trying to make a statement on Scriptural teaching on ritual impurity or clean and unclean foods. 6) Matthew 15:20 provides the right interpretation. At the end of this version of the story, Jesus says, “but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” That is he’s criticizing human traditions, not nullifying Scriptural commands. 7) If the first option is right, why did this saying not show up in the discussions of the early church on Gentiles and the Law of Moses in Acts 15? It’s because this passage was not interpreted as Jesus nullifying Scriptural commands by other Jews or his disciples. 8) The question of Gentiles and the Law was settled by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Jewish Christians continue to observe the Law (as Jesus interprets it), not for salvation, but as Jews. Gentiles do not need to keep the Law of Moses, except for the three things mentioned in the Apostolic decree from Leviticus 17-18. Other than that they simply follow Jesus.]

Next, Jesus explains the second half of the parable.

20And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.”

  • Also notice v. 21 – “for from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts . . ..”
  • And as well v. 23 – “ . . . evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

So food can’t make someone morally impure, but the evil that comes out from the heart does defile.

Again, Jesus isn’t talking about ritual purity. He has shifted to a conversation about moral purity. Why? Because the real issue for Jesus is not ritual impurity but heart impurity.

Having heard his explanation, here’s a paraphrase of his parable: There is no food that you take in that can make you morally impure. But the evil things that come out of your heart do make you morally impure. 

Next, Jesus goes on to talk about –

The evil of the human heart

21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

In v. 21 he speaks of “evil thoughts” and in v. 23 of “evil things.” And in-between these there are 12 things that Jesus mentions.

[The first six are all in the plural, and most are from the 10 commandments. The second six are all in the singular.]

Jesus certainly agreed with the words of Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”

Notice that “murder” and “slander” or it can also be translated as “blasphemy” are on the list Jesus gives. These are the things that the Pharisees are directing toward him. In chapter 3 we learn that they are seeking to “destroy” him (v. 6), and also we see them slandering or blaspheming him and the Holy Spirit (vs. 28-29). While Jesus and his disciples may be guilty of not keeping mere human rules of ritual impurity, the Pharisees are guilty of true impurity; moral impurity of the heart.

Let’s step back now and look at the bigger picture and –

Jesus’ central point

The Pharisees’ agenda for renewal is about outward rules of purity. They focus on ever more detailed rules for how to stay ritually pure. And they say that this is how God’s people will be renewed; this is how Israel will find God’s favor.

But yet as Jesus said in Mark 7:6, even with all this “their heart is far from God.” And that’s because the real problem is an impure heart and there’s no way a focus on more and more ritual impurity can solve this.

In contrast, Jesus’ agenda for renewal is the giving of a new heart. This is what was promised in the prophets. For instance in Ezekiel 36:25-27. The Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And 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.”

This is what God’s people need!! A new, clean heart, given by the Spirit; a heart that has right desires.

Now, he doesn’t talk about the positive part of this here, just what the real problem is. But this is Jesus’ whole mission in coming to us:

  • He died so that our sins might be forgiven; our moral defilement cleansed.
  • And he was raised so that we might receive the Spirit and a new heart that obeys the Lord.

Well, again, it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees, but –

What about us?

We don’t have ritual purity rules like in Jesus’ day. We have rules for purity, but they’re more about hygiene than blocking one’s access to God.

But sometimes we try to cover over our moral impurity by cleaning up the outside of our lives, often using human rules as opposed to what God is focused on. Things like how we dress, using the right words, attending extra church services or volunteering in the community. The outside, our lips, may honor God, but our hearts are far from God. Our hearts are still defiled and filthy. We are hypocrites.

Jesus is teaching us to deal with the real issue – our impure, evil heart. And we have to start within (Matthew 23:25-26)! Let Jesus cleanse away the defilement of your heart. Let Jesus give you a new heart by the Spirit. And let him do these things day by day as there is need.

And then as you’re renewed within, the outward can follow. Out of the abundance of your new heart will come right words (Matthew 12:33-37) and right actions (Matthew 7:15-20).

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