Sermon: Mark 7 - Legalism and Evil's Source

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We've been going through the Gospel According to Mark here as a church for the better part of this year so far. From the very first verse in Mark, we're told that this contains the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of what Jesus has come to do for sinners, people like you, people like me. We've seen Jesus preaching that the kingdom of God has come with him. He's been authenticating this message with miracles, with healings, with exorcisms. Just last week in chapter six, we saw Jesus take a couple fish and a few loaves of bread, and multiply them to feed thousands of people. To top it off, he walked on water afterwards.

That brings us to today, where we're going to see the Pharisees, the religious leaders at that time, be remarkably picky about a small area of tradition with the guy who walked on water and has done miracles, and has basically beat them in every conversation they've had so far. Let's dive in and look at chapter seven.

The Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. They observed that some of his disciples were eating bread with unclean, that is, unwashed, hands.

And then Mark is going to explain the significance of this for us, because his audience likely wouldn't have understood it either, just like we're likely not to. And he says,

for the Pharisees and all the Jews, do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, keeping the tradition of the elders.

When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they have washed. And there are many other customs they have received and keep, like the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles,

and my personal favorite, “dining couches.” Do you have one of those? I do at my house. It's just a normal couch that we eat dinner on. I think theirs was slightly different. But nonetheless, I love that that's included there.

So, the Pharisees and the scribes asked Jesus, why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with ceremonially unclean hands?

This probably strikes us as a little bit silly. They're so concerned over if people are washing their hands? And why aren't Jesus' disciples washing their hands before they eat? Isn't that a little weird? My mother used to get onto me about that all the time as a kid.

Well, let's put this passage in its context, and more broadly speaking, against the backdrop of the Old Testament law. God, all the way back in Exodus, took his people, the Israelites, out from under Egyptian captivity. He said, you will be my people. I will be your God, and you will live this way. And he gave them his law. 613 individual things they needed to do. In spite of that being so detailed, it doesn't answer all the questions.

We have many more laws than that on the books today. I've heard that if you printed them out on paper, they'd stack this high. And yet, we still have questions of, is this legal, is this not? And that's why we have the courts. They interpret the law for us, or they're supposed to.

Well, back then, they had similar issues. They needed to interpret the law, and understand, what is meant by “don't work on the Sabbath.” What is work? What does it mean to do work? And so the religious leaders and the rabbis and the Pharisees had come up with traditions of how to understand what the law actually required. There's a second century collection of these traditions and law interpretations called the Mishnah. And what it says is, tradition is a fence around the law. Because the Jews took the law of God so seriously that they didn't want to break it. So, if the law is here, and we're not always sure where here is, let's make a fence so that we are sure. So that we never break the law.

Now, I think this started out as a well intended type of thing. But as we'll see in this passage, it definitely doesn't end up that way. But I do think there's something noteworthy here. Today, in our culture, we ask the opposite question. Instead of saying, how far can we stay away, we ask, how close to the line can I get? Instead of saying, let's build a fence so we don't break God's law, we say, no, where's that line? I want to come right up to it. Or at least, often, that's the question it seems like every dating couple asks. How close can I get?

And yet there is some wisdom in setting up some fences, but they took it too far, and we'll look at that. And what happens when the Pharisees took their personal interpretations and raised them to the level of rules that applied to everyone? Legalism. That is legalism. When we take our personal rules that are not in the Bible, and elevate them to the level of scripture, and say you have to follow these or you're not good with God, that is legalism. And that's one of the main issues in this passage today.

Let's see how Jesus replies to this rebuke this his disciples and he just got from the Pharisees. In verse 6, it says:

He answered them, Isiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written. This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine human commands.

So, in spite of these fences the Pharisees had set up, Jesus has a stunning critique. Their hearts are actually far from him. He calls them hypocrites, and he explains what he means. They look like they're one thing, but on the inside, their hearts don't beat for God.

So, their actions actually made them look like they were the pillars of religious society,like when you want to know who's a holy person, look at the Pharisees. And what does Jesus say? No. It's not that their actions are wrong in and of themselves, it's that their hearts are far from God. And because of that, their worship is in vain. Now, both of those problems—hearts far from God and worshiping in vain—those are kind of personal issues. Now, they'll effect other people, but they tend towards being personal issues. His third critique here, I think, is his strongest. Because what he says is, they've elevated their own teaching to the level of God's command, and in so doing they have mislead many, many people.

Whenever we elevate our own personal interpretations or tradition to the level of God's command, we have erred. So, let's continue on and see how Jesus explains what he means, and how they've done this.

In verse 8 he says:

Abandoning the command of God, you hold on to human tradition. He also said to them, you have a fine way of invalidating God's command in order to set up your tradition. For Moses said, honor your father and your mother.

He's quoting from the ten commandments.

And whoever speaks evil of father and mother must be put to death,

Quoting from the Levitical law.

And he says, but you, you Pharisees, you say, if anyone tells his father or mother, whatever benefit you may have received from me is corban, you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you've handed down.

And it's as if he's anticipating going another round. He says, and if that's not clear enough, I've got a list:

You do many other similar things.

This wasn't their only example of this problem.

So, Jesus says their hearts are far from him, they worship in vain, they've elevated their own doctrine to the level of scripture, and then he takes it a step further and says: And your own doctrine contradicts scripture. So, it's an even larger issue. They've invalidated God's command with their own traditions. And he quotes from the ten commandments here, saying honor your father and your mother. And he quotes from the Levitical law and saying, whoever speaks evil of father and mother should be put to death. Yes, that was a law that God gave his people. Which shows just how seriously he takes disrespecting, and not honoring, father and mother. Does that punishment apply today? No. Does the idea behind the law of how seriously God takes that still apply? Certainly.

I think it's important for us to remember, Jesus is not against the law. Jesus was not anti-law. He gave the law. The Jesus of the New Testament is the Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, who took his people out of slavery, said you'll be my people, I'll be your God, live this way, here's my law. He gave the law. And if Jesus hadn't lived under the law perfectly when he came to Earth, fully God, fully man, he couldn't have been the perfect sacrifice for sin on the cross. So, Jesus was not against the law. He affirms those laws here.

But then, he goes on to say that the Pharisees have basically weaseled out of keeping them. And so, let's talk about that word, “corban.” That probably struck you as an odd word. It's an odd word to me. It's a Hebrew word that refers to a possession that had been dedicated to God's service, but which was still in the possession of the person who originally owned it. And so, let's talk about how this worked. The ten commandments, the laws say you have a responsibility to honor your father and your mother. And clearly, Jesus is saying that requires taking care of them when they're older. I think that's something our generation today needs to understand.

And he's saying that they were basically behaving like this: “They would say, I can't take care of my parents.” “Well, why not?” “I don't have the resources.” “Don't you have this pile of resources over here?” “Yeah, but those are corban. They're dedicated to God.” “Don't you still have access to them?” “Well yeah, but they're dedicated to God.”

It's like the first accounting loophole, or something like that. They still own the things, they're still at their discretion, but they're able to say “yeah, I don't want to use them for that because they're dedicated to God's service.” They created this tradition that contradicted God's desire for people to care for their parents. And that is where he's getting on to them.

So, let's recap. Where did this start? Well, the Pharisees tried to pick a fight with Jesus and his disciples because they didn't wash their hands—a man made tradition, probably a healthy one, but a man made tradition. And then Jesus says, you've actually created a tradition that contradicts scripture. What's the bigger problem here? Well, the bigger problem isn't just the tradition, but the hardness of their hearts. I think that's important for us to remember. Because many of us today have this tendency to fall back on our routines, and our schedules, and our Christian actions, whatever those are. And think that they're the sum and substance of the Christian life. So, it's that if we do this list of things, we'll be good with God.

Maybe for you that looks like, well, if I just go to church three times a month, unless it rains too much, and I read my Bible some during the week, I'm good with God. Well, I think that's what the Pharisees said, only they would have said, “I’ll be at church every Sunday. I will read my scriptures, every day. I will pray multiple times during the day.” And we know that they did those things. And yet, Jesus says they worshiped in vain, because the issue wasn't what their actions were, so much, it was what their heart was. And Jesus is gonna make that clear as we read through this passage.

So, two points of clarification so far. It would be easy to read this and think, well, rules are bad. There's no place for a non-Biblical rule in a Christian life. And I would disagree with that. The issue here is legalism, not simply non-Biblical rules or practices. So, for instance, let's make this a little more clear. The Bible says, don't get drunk. It doesn't say, don't drink. So if we make a blanket rule that says, if you drink, it's a sin, we have erred. We have elevated a man made tradition to the level of scripture. However, there is probably a place for individual people saying, I am not going to drink. I am going to create a rule for myself, a fence around the law, not getting drunk, so that I don't sin.

So, if you're a recovering alcoholic, you should probably have one of those rules. If you struggle with drinking and getting drunk, the wise thing to do would be not to drink, or be in those situations, or have some people around you who will say, “you've probably had enough.” Right? Is that legalism? No, I'm not applying that to other people. I'm saying for me, if that's my struggle, this is the wise course of living.

Another example might be, maybe you and your girlfriend, whenever you're alone in a room with a bed, you have sex. Well, wisdom would dictate, don't be alone in a room with a bed, and you'll be less likely to have sex. Does it mean it's wrong to be alone in a room with a woman who is not your wife? No. Is it wise? No. Okay? So I hope you see there's a difference in legalism, when we create our own rules and apply them to everyone, and personal wisdom or discipline, saying what individual fences do I need for me to live a holy, Christian life?

The second clarification I want to give is how we, today, invalidate the scriptures. Now, there are religions, some of them even have the name “Christian” in their title, which elevate human tradition and human words to the level of scripture. I think that's a clear case example of something that is condemned by what Jesus is saying here. But, more than that, we have a more subtle, a more insidious way of doing that: with our feelings. How many times have we all probably heard people say, or said it ourself, “you know, I know scripture doesn't talk about this in a positive way. I know Jesus said we shouldn't do this. But I feel like God would be okay with it, because ... fill in the blank.“

What's that person just done? What have I just done if I say that? I have invalidated God's word with my own feelings, my own personal tradition. I think we have to be careful and look out for that. It's not so apparent as when there's a rule known by everyone, like the ceremonial washing rule, it's more subtle. And it may only happen in our hearts and our minds, and yet we often do the same thing.

So, we've looked at the first half of this passage. We've seen Jesus on the backdrop of doing miracles last week, get chastised this week for his disciples not washing their hands. He's made the point that they have hard hearts, they've invalidated the scripture, and as if to drive his point home more, he summons the crowd, who is probably standing back at a distance as the religious heavyweights duked it out. And so now he's going to make his final critique in front of the crowd, to make a point.

And here's what he says in verse 14:

Summoning the crowd, he told them, listen to me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.

Well, thanks Jesus. You summoned us over here and said one sentence. And that's the end of his conversation with the crowd. At least, it seems that way. And I think it's important for us to remember when we read the gospels and read the New Testament, that we don't always get full transcripts. So, I fully believe Jesus said more than one sentence. But Mark gives us the important part. He gives us, probably, the important sentence in what Jesus said. Or maybe even a summary. For instance, in Acts, Luke will write down that Paul spoke from sunrise to sunset, and he only has two paragraphs written down for what he says. I don't think Paul spoke, like, one word every ten minutes. So, we have to remember that when we read our scripture. That's just a little thing that sometimes sticks out.

But, in order to understand what Jesus means here with this one sentence, which probably appears a little cryptic to us, a little difficult to understand, we need to keep reading. And we're going to see the scene change again. So, a conversation with the Pharisees, a conversation with the crowd. And now, Jesus is gonna retreat to a house with the disciples.

And he shares more information with each group, and he consistently, throughout his whole earthly ministry, shared more with the disciples than anyone else. And I think what this shows us is that God is under no obligation to reveal anything to anyone. He reveals consistently different things to different groups of people, and any revelation of God to us is an act of grace.

So, the fact that we have a Bible in our language is a profound act of grace and love by God, which we often take for granted, but which not everyone has around the world. I think it's something important to remember. But let's continue on, in verse 17, where Jesus is going to explain the “what comes from outside, what comes from inside” type of concept.

He went into the house, away from the crowd, and his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, are you also lacking in understanding? Don't you realize that nothing going into a person from the outside can defile him? For it doesn't enter his heart, but it goes into his stomach and is eliminated. For he said, whatever comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of peoples hearts, come evil thoughts. Sexual immoralities, theft, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and even foolishness. All of these things come from within and defile a person.

This is the main point of Mark's inclusion of this whole couple paragraphs in his gospel.

You don't become unclean before God of what you touch, or what you eat. You become unclean before God because of what comes out of your heart, or your mind, you might say. And this might seem somewhat common sense for us, right? How is it sinful to touch a fish, or something? Well, this was revolutionary back then. And we can kind of understand this, because the disciples don't understand it. You would think the people who had been with Jesus the longest would understand that sentence or two he told to the crowd, but they don't get it. Because it was fundamentally a different way of thinking for the Jew in the first century.

Because they had this view of sin, that it was like a virus. You could touch someone and contract it. So, if you touched a Gentile, you got this uncleanness. This unclean virus, or something like that. But they totally missed the point that the source of sin, of uncleanliness, is in the heart. So, they could wash their hands and their dining couches in case they had touched something that would make them unclean, but they neglected the state of their hearts and their minds. I like to think if the Pharisees had had Purell back then, that alcohol based hand sanitizer, they would have probably used it so much they would have decided to by stock in it. That's how seriously they took this whole washing thing.

We actually have recorded in an ancient document that there was a Pharisee who was arrested and imprisoned in Rome. And, like any prisoner, he would get a ration of food and water. And he almost died, because instead of drinking his water, he used it to wash his hands in the ceremonial way. That's how far this tradition was ingrained in their minds. And yet, what is Jesus getting at here? What's the most important point? It's not the touching of things, or the practice of unclean actions, as they viewed them, that makes you sinful. It's your heart. Food can't make you unclean, but disobedience can.

So, did God really, in the Old Testament, outlaw certain actions and certain foods? Yes. But was it the food that made you unclean? No. It was the disobedience before God that resulted in your uncleanliness, your sinfulness. And I think Jesus' teaching here is something our culture and our world desperately needs to understand.

Because if you were to poll people on the street, and this has been done, people think that mankind is basically good. We're basically good people who sometimes do less than good things. Right? Who make mistakes, who have “oops.” That's how we often talk about things we do wrong. Society is increasingly uncomfortable with moral language like wrong, and right, and evil, and holy. But we think, as a society, oftentimes, that we're basically good people.

I remember a news story from several years back. There was a school teacher who was being interviewed on the nightly news about vandalism that had occurred on her campus of the elementary school where she taught. And she said, “you know, it's not really their fault. They come from a low socio-economic neighborhood.” Well, is her view compelling? Does it have explanatory power? Does it make sense of the world? No. It doesn't explain why wealthy people vandalize things, and they do. It also doesn't explain how the society these children are in was bad. How do basically good people come together in a sufficiently large size and make a bad thing? Good people make a bad society? It doesn't much make sense.

But at the core, she has this view that people are basically good. Now, why does this matter? I think ultimately it matters because of how we talk about sin, and how we understand our world. And it also has ramifications for how we share the gospel.

Almost everyone will acknowledge that there's something wrong in the world. Everything's not as it should be, but we disagree about the source of that. And there's been this tendency in recent years to talk about man's problem before God as brokenness, or a lack of peace, or maybe that someone has a Jesus sized hole that only Jesus can fill in their heart. Well, none of that is actually Biblical language. And I would also suggest to you that it kind of misses the mark of how the Bible talks about sin.

A person may or may not feel broken when they don't know Jesus. Sin feels good. The Bible even acknowledges that, it feels good for a time. But nonetheless, there are plenty of people who do not have this subjective feeling of brokenness, such that they need Jesus to fix it. So, the good news of the gospel doesn't sound good if the bad news is, well, “maybe your life isn't what you want it to be.” What does the Bible say? It says that our problem is that we're sinful. That we've rebelled against a holy God, that we have hearts, which is where our actions come from, that are evil. I can't repent of brokenness, but I can repent of sin.

And so, how we talk about sin, I think, as Jesus discusses in this passage, is remarkably important for making the good news of the gospel actually seem good. In order for the light to seem brightest, like it is, the dark needs to be accurately portrayed as just as dark as it is. Because man has a heart problem. His heart doesn't naturally want the things of God. In Romans 8, Paul even tells us, it can't want to. It doesn't treasure God. So, it's not that we're basically good people. It's that we're basically bad people, who do basically bad things. So, yes we do sin. There are actions we take which are sinful. But we actually are sinful. We don't only have an action problem, we have a heart problem. We have a who we are problem.

In fact, the desire to do something evil is itself evil. Not to get all “Inception” on us so early on a Sunday morning, but murder is wrong, yes. And the desire to murder is wrong. And the desire to desire to murder is wrong. Evil actions come from evil desires. The desire for evil is, itself, evil. And where does Jesus tell us that this comes from? From our hearts. So, why is there so much evil in the world? Because we have hearts that are bent on evil. It's easy to blame other people, but we commit evil every day. Where does that come from? It comes from our hearts.

And yet, today, when we have this view that people are basically good, we arrive at the wrong solution to the problem people think is in the world. And it's kind of like how I used to pull weeds as a child.

So, I've been pulling weeds around my house recently. 'Tis the season for that, it seems like. And it reminds me of growing up in central Florida when I was a kid. So, summer break comes, and you're all excited, and then you live on three acres and your mom says, well you've got a summer full of chores to do. In the 90 degree, 100% humidity central Florida heat.

Well, one of those chores was pulling weeds. And we don't seem to have this type of weed up here, but in central Florida, New Smyrna Beach, where I grew up, we had these things called dollar weeds. Maybe you know about them. They're about the size of a silver dollar, and they have these white roots, which are really stringy, like spaghetti. And they go everywhere underground. You will never find the end of a dollar weed root, I promise you.

So, she would send me out there to get rid of these weeds. And I would finish the flowerbed in fifteen minutes, and I'd come back inside, and she knew something was wrong. One, at that point, I did not have a good work ethic, but two, that many weeds, that quickly? Not likely. Well, two days later, it was very obvious what had happened when all the weeds, somehow, were back. Because I had just broken the tops off. I hadn't dealt with the spaghetti of white roots underneath the ground. And therein lies a parable, I think, for how we look at sin, and sinfulness, and the wrongness in our world today.

We often take an approach that just says, someone needs behavior modification. Life isn't good, well go to church more. Read your Bible more. Well, if a person doesn't know Christ, if they haven't dealt with the root problem, they're just breaking the heads off of weeds. They still have the same problem that all of us had before salvation in Christ. They have a heart problem.

So, mankind's biggest problem, his biggest need, is not a superficial type of thing. You can't wash your hands and get rid of sin. It's not an external type of thing. We need a transformation at the heart of who we are. And that's what Jesus shows us, that we have an internal problem, and we can't change that on our own.

Now, you may be thinking, okay, that doesn't sound like good news. What's going on? Pastor Dean's out of town, this guy gets up here, not preaching the good news. Well, like I said before, in order for the good news of what Jesus did to actually seem like good news, the bad news needs to be accurately portrayed. And this doesn't sit well with us in our culture today, when we often are told that we should have a positive self image. Isn't that what the media constantly tells us? If you hurt someone's self image, well then, that's a very bad thing. But Biblically speaking, we should want to have an accurate self image. If we see ourselves in our condition any differently than God sees it, we have not understood who we are.

So, our goal should be to have an accurate, God informed self image. And God doesn't so much want us to feel good about ourselves, as he does want us to rejoice in him, in his salvation, in the glory of who he is and what he's done. And that leads us to what the good news is. So, the solution to our sin and our sinfulness is Jesus.

All the way back in the Old Testament, before Jesus came to Earth in human form, God told his people how he would solve their biggest problem. How he would solve their sinfulness problem. And we read this in Ezekiel 36:25.

I will cleanse you, God says, from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you. I will remove your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my spirit within you, and cause you to follow my statutes, and carefully obey my ordinances.

It is God that cleanses us, if we trust in him. Behavior modification won't do that. Washing our hands won't do that. Breaking the tops off of the weeds doesn't work.

So, what about our hearts that didn't want God? Well, thankfully God gives us a new heart. What about our inability to do the things that please God? Well, thankfully, he gives us his Spirit, that causes us to walk in his ways and do things that are pleasing to him. So, the good news of the gospel is not that we can fix ourself. That doesn't end well. You can never do enough good things to be good with God. Scripture says that all of our hard work, all of our righteousness, is like filthy rags before God.

The good news of the gospel is that it is God who fixes us, God who gives us a new heart, God who cleanses us, God who clothes us in his perfect righteousness. And why is that important? Because only perfect people go to Heaven. And none of us are perfect when we are not clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus. The only way to be seen as perfect in God's eyes is to trust in Jesus, not ourselves, for our salvation.

So, maybe you're here today, and you realize, you know what? I go to church on Sunday. I read my Bible, and sometimes even post it on Instagram. But I have a heart problem, my heart doesn't actually want to do things that are pleasing to God. I'm trying to skate by in God's eyes on my own made up traditions and actions. Well, today could be the day you change that. Today could be the day that you realize that Jesus is the solution to your sinfulness, and your sin, and that you believe that he was fully God, and fully man, and came to Earth and lived under the law, the law he gave, and was found to be perfect and blameless, and so when he went to the cross and died, that he actually paid for sin. And that everyone who trusts in him for salvation and not themselves, not their works, not their social setting or stature, will find him to be a perfect savior.

No one, no one has ever come to Jesus and been turned away when they repent of their sins and place their faith in him for salvation alone. So, if that sounds like you, I would encourage you to not just let that set. Do business with God today. There are people in our care room out through the lobby who would love to talk to you about this, to tell you more of what it looks like to have God take out that heart of stone, and put in a heart of flesh.

So, I think there are three quick takeaways we can have from this passage today. We've looked at a lot. We've looked at the issue of man made tradition and hearts that are far from God, and the elevation of our own traditions to the level of scripture, and worshiping in vain. But what does that, where does that leave us?

Well, I think one important takeaway is that right actions, done apart from a heart that beats for God, that loves God, ultimately amount to nothing. So, if you're not a Christian, and you're trusting your actions to make you look good to God, God says they won't. God says he's the only solution for that problem.

I think for the Christian, though, we also kind of fall back on this. It's easy for me to get into my routine of “I go to church, and I read my Bible when I think about it, or when I don't ignore the push notification on my phone.” And I think that these things make me good with God, but if my heart is not desiring to follow God, those are just empty actions. I think we need to remember that.

The second takeaway for today is, for the Christian, we need to speak clearly about the problem in the world. There are too many false, comforting lies out there today, for us to not be clear where scripture is clear. Man's problem is not his subjective feeling of life not being what he wants it to be, man's problem is that he is sinful at the core, just like everyone was, apart from Christ. We need to be clear about that.

The solution, the gospel, will not seem compelling unless the problem, sinfulness, is accurately presented. But I also think understanding that the problem is at the heart of things should drive our prayer life. It should drive us to, one, pray for God to give us more of a desire for him. To move our hearts to have affection for him more, to cause us to work more, and live out more, his commands. Not because we're trying to earn our salvation, but because he's already given it to us. As an act of love, we want to do these things for God.

And the other reason that understanding our sinful hearts is helpful is because it should give us patience with people. When you share the gospel with your neighbor, and it doesn't go anywhere, you realize, I need to be faithful here. I'm gonna keep sharing. But it's God alone who takes out the heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh. And that should lead us to pray that God would do that. That he would soften our own affections, like I mentioned, but also that he would fundamentally transform the hearts of people who do not know him. Pray with me, please.