Posts Tagged ‘Mark 7’

Last week we began looking at Mark 7:1-23. In vs. 1-13 Jesus pointed out the problems of man-made religious rules; the traditions of the elders. This week we will focus on the other point of dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees –

The issue of impurity

Now, this isn’t the most exciting topic, but it is  important for understanding this passage. So here we go. In Scripture an object or a person becomes ritually impure 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.

The Pharisees especially emphasized ritual purity. And in their traditions the rules for purity multiplied greatly 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. Mark 7:3-4 says they “do not eat unless they wash their hands . . . 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.”

The Pharisees and those who were influenced by them, thought that this was what the people of God needed; this was the agenda for moving forward for renewal and for once again receiving God’s blessing.

This bring us to –

Jesus’ parable on impurity

v. 14 – “And 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. This is important.

But also he is saying – this is going to be difficult to understand! It’s called “a parable” in v. 17, and it is meant to be a cryptic statement. So you have to put some effort into understanding it. v. 16 is not in the earliest manuscripts, but it emphasizes this point as well, “if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Here is the parable: v. 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.” 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
  • 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 he talking about?? Thankfully we have –

Jesus’ explanation

vs. 17-18 – “And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And 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. v. 18-19 – “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and goes out into the toilet – cleansing all foods?”

We are reminded of the bigger context here. Jesus is talking about food. 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 is shifting 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 will come back to it.

A digression: At the end of v. 19 we have a dangling participial phrase that is 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 it’s best to see it as the conclusion of Jesus’ point here. The digestive process cleanses all foods, keeping the good and expelling the bad.

[I take it as a grammatical oddity – an anacoluthon. 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”).] [What is certain is that Jesus is not doing away with Mosaic food laws for Jews. He has just skewered the Pharisees for not holding to and nullifying the commandment of God through Moses. How could he then turn around in the very next breath and say that a large portion of Mosaic commandments are nullified? The issue of obedience to Mosaic Law for Gentiles was dealt with later in Acts 15 with the apostolic decree.]

Next, Jesus explains the second half of the parable. v. 20 – “And 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 or impurity. Why? Because the real issue for Jesus is not ritual impurity but heart impurity or defilement.

[The rhetorical move is indicative of his substantive position.] [This means he isn’t giving a ruling here on whether Jews should maintain the teaching of Moses on this – although he did know that soon the temple would soon be destroyed and so ritual purity would be impossible to maintain.]

Having heard his explanation, here is 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 at some length about –

The evil of the human heart

vs. 21-23 – “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All 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 actions that are forbidden by the ten commandments. The second six are more evil attitudes or dispositions of the heart. (See outline)

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

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. That’s why he doesn’t even talk about ritual purity. This is all beside the point. As he said, the food doesn’t touch the heart. Since ritual purity or impurity doesn’t deal with the moral impurity of the heart, there is no way that a focus on this can solve the problem. The Pharisees have the wrong agenda for renewal.

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!! Something that deals with the evil of the human heart – the problem. We 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 in this passage, 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 are more about hygiene than blocking one’s access to God. But we do sometimes try to be transformed by focusing on the outside, without dealing with our hearts.

Here are some examples:

  • Going to church just because you think mere attendance will bring about a spiritual change in you.
  • Dressing in a certain way, having good manors, or not saying “bad” words, because we think if we look like our life is together on the outside, it will fix what is on the inside.
  • Going through certain religious rituals, maybe it’s fasting for Lent, as if being more disciplined outwardly will deal with our heart issue.
  • Doing good deeds – volunteering, helping out in the community as the fix for our inner evil heart.

None of these things are bad, and with a new heart they can be helpful for sure. But like the Pharisees we can think the outward is the key to spiritual renewal; that we should begin with the outward without first dealing with our evil hearts.

Jesus is teaching us to deal with the real issue within: our impure, evil heart. Do you want a new life with God? Do you want to overcome a habitual sin in that you continue to struggle with? Start within!

– Let Jesus cleanse away the defilement of your heart.

– Let Jesus give you a new heart.

And then once you are renewed within, the outward can follow.

William Higgins

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We have looked at a number of stories from the gospel of Mark over the last year or so. And in the same way, now I want us to work through, here and there, some of the teaching of Jesus in Mark.

We begin today with an important passage – Mark 7:1-23. There are actually two issues going on in the passage – human traditions and the issue of purity. The plan is to deal with the first today in vs. 1-13. And we will look a the second, purity, next week.  The Scripture begins with Jesus involved in –

A conflict

vs. 1-2 – “Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.”

So some Pharisees and some experts in the Law from Jerusalem have come around. They’re checking Jesus out. What’s he up to now And lo and behold they see some of Jesus’ disciples not washing their hands before they eat.

Now, this isn’t about good hygiene. As v. 2 indicates, it has to do with ritual uncleanness or defilement; that is to say, eating this way makes you unclean before God.

Mark goes on to explain – vs. 3-4 – “(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 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.)”

[“All the Jews” is a bit of a generalization. Certainly the Pharisees who were influential held to the need for washing hands, as did the Essences another prominent group of Jews. One word in not translated. It comes at the end of the phrase, “they wash their hands . . ..” It says literally “with a fist.” No one knows for sure what this means. It might mean “carefully” or it might refer to how the hands are ritually washed. The very last phrase, literally “and beds” or “and dining couches” is not in all manuscripts. So if your bible doesn’t have it, that’s why.]

Mark here is helping his non-Jewish readers understand the situation. 1) Washing things was a big deal for many Jews. Especially the Pharisees. And 2) the command to wash hands comes from “the tradition of the elders” not the Law.

This body of tradition was followed by the Pharisees. It is sometimes called the oral law. The idea was that Moses wrote down the Law in the Bible, but other instructions were passed on generation to generation by word of mouth. (This tradition was later written out in the Mishna, and other writings.) So there are two sources of commandments, the written Law and the oral tradition of the elders.

v. 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?’” This is really an attack on Jesus. The charge is that his disciples are not faithful to God, which means, since he is their teacher, he is not faithful. (see Luke 11:38).

Their charge involves both the issue of keeping the traditions, and what purity means. We will focus on the first, ‘Why don’t you keep the tradition?’

Jesus on human traditions

Jesus’ first response is, You abandon true worship of God for your tradition. vs. 6-7 – “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; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

 Jesus is quoting Isaiah 29:3. And he sees this verse, on one level, as pointing to the Pharisees and their error here. (The quote is closer to the LXX, although the same basic point in made in the MT).

He is focusing on their relationship to God in this first part of his response. His point is that they look like they are honoring and worshipping God with their lips, or on the outside. But their heart is far away. That’s why he calls them hypocrites – with them it looks like one thing but it is really another.

Why is their worship “vain” or useless? Because it is only about teaching and following human rules. He is saying Isaiah hit it right on the head about you guys. v. 8 – “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

There is a contrast here between:

  • worship that is based on God and God’s commandment, and
  • worship that is based on men’s commandments, which is useless.

Jesus’ second response is, You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your tradition. v. 9 – “And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!’”

That is to say, when the two come into conflict, God’s commandment and your tradition, you go with your tradition for how to treat people. And this annuls God’s commandment.

Jesus then gives an example of their error. v. 10 – “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’” Jesus is quoting Exodus 20:12 the fifth of the ten commandments and Exodus 21:17.

It is understood by all that honoring parents (for adult children) means caring for them financially when they are older. The second reference (Exodus 21:17) shows how serious this issue of honoring parents is. Those who revile or curse them, deserve the death penalty.

vs. 11-12 – “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)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother . . .” Notice the strong contrast between what God has said through Moses, and what they say based on their tradition.

The word Corban is a technical term for a vow to give your resources to God (the Temple), but you still use them until a later time. Based on their tradition the Pharisees said that you must honor your vow, and not the commandment to honor your parents.

v. 13 – “. . . thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” They allow people to nullify what God commands, in order to keep a vow that is unrighteous in the first place. Indeed, they allow not only the breaking of the fifth commandment, but an action that is on a par with reviling one’s parents, which deserves the death penalty!

A summary of the argument. Their charge was – Jesus, you are not faithful to God because you do not keep the tradition. His response was – Pharisees, you are not faithful to God because you keep the tradition.

  • You abandon true worship of God, for your traditions (section 1)
  • You nullify true obedience to God in how to treat others by your traditions (section 2)

More specifically notice the word “honor” in both Isaiah 29 and Exodus 20. Jesus is saying, you neither honor God nor do you teach proper honor of parents.

And he makes his point, not based on the traditions of the elders, mere human teaching, but based on the Law (Exodus 20) and the Prophets (Isaiah 29). That is, based on God’s true word.

Well it’s easy to pick on the Pharisees,

But what about us?

What religious rules do you have that are not from God’s word, but things that you think are really important. So important that everybody should really follow them. It’s not hard to find them. For instance there are many connected to the way we worship at church. Do we sing old hymns or new choruses? Should the sermon be long and about evangelism each week – with an altar call, or not? Should there be shouting of praise and dancing, or not?

Maybe you would see “the tradition of the elders” as equaling doing things the way we have always done things. But maybe our religious rule is that we have to be on the cutting edge and always do something new in worship. It can work either way.

Now, for sure, we have to make choices on things to be able to worship as a community. It isn’t wrong to have some rules. The question Jesus raises is do we love our rules so much that we place them above God’s commands?

Let’s look at another example. The way we dress for church. You see how I am dressed today – old paint clothes and they are dirty as well. I have not conformed to the rules for how a pastor should dress for church according to our received religious rules.

But you know what? There is nothing in Scripture about how I am supposed to dress for church, apart from being modest. We are to cover our bodies in such a way that we are not a sexual temptation to others. (Which I think I have done.)

I know that many have the conviction that you ought wear your best to church in order to honor God. That is fine. If you are doing it to honor God then that is excellent!

But here is where we can cross the line. If you come to me and say, “Pastor, why aren’t you dressed up today? You have to dress up on Sunday to be faithful to God! You have to wear a certain kind of clothes to be a real pastor!” If you do this, you have put a mere human religious rule above God’s commands. Because you say I cannot be faithful to God unless I follow your rule. And I am condemned because of it, even though God does not condemn me.

And, of course, this can go the other way too. You can go to a church where if you don’t dress down, you are breaking the religious rule and are condemned.

Well, this is what Jesus is warning us about today.

  • Don’t let your worship of God be based on human rules. There are thousands of different ways to worship God faithfully – that look nothing like the way we do it here. So don’t say that if others don’t follow your rules that it isn’t real or faithful worship. It has to be judged based on God’s commands.
  • And don’t nullify God’s law, just so you can maintain your religious rules. Love and welcome your neighbor instead of wrongly condemning them because of how they dress, or whether they shout “Praise the Lord” during worship.

In every area of life, beware that your religious rules don’t take over and become more important than God’s word and commandment.

William Higgins

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Since last January, in an on again off again kind of way, we have looked at some stories from the Gospel of Mark. And the focus has been on Mark because it has wonderful, lively versions of many of the stories about Jesus.

I want us to pick this series up today and look at the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. This is an interesting story and I believe it has some things to teach us about our Christian lives. Let’s first look at –

The Story

v. 24 – “And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon.”

Jesus leaves where he has been in Galilee and goes into new territory somewhere around the cities of Tyre and Sidon. This would have been the southern part of the Roman province of Syria or what we call today Lebanon.

v. 24 – “And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.”

It looks like Jesus is trying to hide out so he can rest. He’s been involved in heavy ministry for a time now, and he knows the value of rest. Earlier he had told his disciples in 6:31 – “Come away by yourselves . . . and rest a while.”

So perhaps he thought that in this Gentile area he could take a break. He wouldn’t be known here. There wouldn’t be mobs of people clamoring after him here.

But, it says, “he could not be hidden.”

v. 25 – “But immediately a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet.”

Jesus was found out!

Some from this area had received ministry when they went into Galilee and so perhaps they spread word of Jesus and what he could do, including casting out demons (Mark 3:8;11).

In any case, this unnamed woman finds Jesus and falls down at his feet. She has obviously heard of him.

Her daughter is demon possessed. We aren’t given any more details about how this manifested itself, physically or mentally, the focus of the story isn’t really the daughter – it’s on the mother and Jesus.

v. 26 – “Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth.”

According to the way things were at this time, she had three strikes against her:

1.  she was a woman, and social contact with a man could be seen as scandalous

2.  she was a Gentile, not a Jew; not a part of God’s people, and

3.  she was a Syrophoenician, who were bitter rivals and enemies of the Jews.

But none of these obstacles stopped her.

v. 26 – “And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.”

“She begged” can also be translated as “She kept begging.” According to Matthew’s version it was so persistent and thus annoying that the disciples ended up begging Jesus to send her away – Matthew 15:23. This is quite the scene with everybody begging Jesus. Not very restful!

Jesus responds to the woman with a parable.

v. 27 – “And he said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’”

Jesus is drawing on common sense experience. Everyone knows that the children are fed first, and then the dogs are fed.

The application is that Jesus is focused on the Jews – God’s chosen ones who have awaited the promises and blessings of God. He can’t take his focus away from them. Ministry to the Gentiles will come later.

Now, this parable has been taken in the wrong way and it has upset some people. But Jesus is not saying that Gentiles are dogs. There is little or no evidence that this was a common way that Jews spoke of Gentiles (Mark Nanos – Paul’s Reversal, 2008). And besides, Jesus uses the word for “dog” that means pets or puppies.

The point is not a difference in kind – Jews are children and Gentiles are dogs. The point is a difference in timing – first the Jews, then others. This is made clear by the word “first,” a chronological marker.

This is what Paul meant, when he said in Romans 1:16 that he preaches the gospel “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

[Jesus has ministered to Gentiles already. But this is the only recorded story of Jesus helping someone outside of the boundaries of traditional Israel. Perhaps this is why he raises this issue.]

[If there is a connection of this story with the previous discussion of purity and a general Gentile theme just after this – it is to make the point that focused ministry to Gentiles will come after Jesus’ ministry to the Jews. Not that there are no longer Jewish concerns with Mosaic purity teaching.]

vs. 28 – “But she answered him, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’”

First, notice that she addresses him as “Lord.” This is the only time someone does this in Mark’s gospel and it shows her understanding of who Jesus is.

And then she shows her intelligence and wit. She gets his parable, which the disciples usually do not. And then she goes on to make her own point. Even though the dogs eat later, sometimes the children drop crumbs and thus the dogs eat at the same time as the children.

So based on Jesus’ own parable – it should be alright for her not to have to wait, but to receive some bread even now.

This woman reframed the discussion is such a way that allowed Jesus’ concerns to be acknowledged, but also allowed her to receive her request. She isn’t asking for Jesus to neglect Israel, or to take anything away from them. She is just saying, “Since you’re already here in Gentile territory, why not a crumb?”

v. 29 – “And he said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.’”

Her statement shows her humility. She accepted her place as not yet one of the elect; and not yet the focus of Jesus’ ministry.

And her statement demonstrates her bold and persistent faith. She did not allow Jesus’ apparent “no” to stop her. But continued to make the case for her daughter.

In response to this humility and faith, Jesus healed her daughter, and that from a distance. (Perhaps having to do with concern about purity with entering a Gentile home – Guelich).

And the woman, in faith, accepted this without confirmation.

v. 30 says, “And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.”


1. Be open to opportunities to help others. This wasn’t Jesus’ timing to minister to her. He was trying to get away from people and crowds, so he could rest.

What does he do when he is found out? He allowed his privacy to be invaded; he gave up some of his time of rest.

And we need to be open to this as well. You have one thing scheduled, and it’s a good thing. But someone comes along who needs help.

This is just like Tiffany shared today. She didn’t plan on ministering to the man in the hospital. She had other plans. But God gave her the opportunity.

And remember Kim. She needs people to sit with her as she is weak. Are you scheduled for the week so there’s not time?  This is an opportunity.

Also, this wasn’t Jesus’ focus to help her. God sent him to minister to the people of Israel (Matthew 15:24). She is not a part of Israel.

What does Jesus do? He raised the issue with her, but then he responded when he saw her humility and faith.

Things don’t always work according to our plans. In my church in Portland we worked at setting up a weekly meal for neighbors so that we could get to know them. We wanted all kinds of people to come. But it turned out that only the homeless came. We had not really planned on this; it wasn’t our focus. And I had no skills in this (although one of our workers did). But it opened up a season of ministry to this population in our area.

The same happened with immigrant Congolese Africans. We never sat down and said, “Hey, let’s begin this ministry.” It wasn’t our focus. But God gave it to us.

I challenge you this week – keep a look out for a Syrophoenician woman or man whom God might lead across your path. And take advantage of the opportunity, even if it is not your timing or focus.

2. Approach God like this woman did. When you pray, learn from her. She was successful. What do we learn?

She approached Jesus with humility:

  • she fell down at his feet
  • she accepted that she is not yet part of the elect and has no claim on him
  • she calls him “Lord,” an expression of submission.

She approached Jesus with bold, persistent faith:

  • she searched Jesus out while he was in hiding
  • she kept begging
  • she called him “Lord,” an expression of faith
  • after Jesus seemed to say no, she responded boldly
  • and she knew that for him, casting out a demon was only a crumb – a small thing for him to do.

This morning I want to give you and opportunity to approach God like her. I know that many of you are carrying burdens, concerns for yourself or others; that you are seeking after God’s will; that you want spiritual renewal in our congregation. I invite you to come to the front an offer up your prayers.

Perhaps coming to the front is embarrassing for you. See it as an expression of humility. Perhaps coming to the front seems quite bold. See it as an expression of faith.

William Higgins

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