While many today warn us about cholesterol, saturated fats, transfat, salt, sugar, pork, red meat and various other things that go into our mouths and stomachs, Jesus warns us about the wicked things that come out of our mouths and hearts. While many Americans labor to prevent coronary heart disease, Jesus has provided a cure for spiritual heart disease. While many search for a magic diet that will reward them with a sickness-free life for their bodies, Jesus gives eternal life for the souls of all who hunger and thirst for Him.
The Bible was not written to tell us how to avoid coronary heart disease. It was written to tell us about the heart disease of sin. Coronaryheart disease is a hardening of the arteries that leads to physical death, but spiritual heart disease is a hardening of our hearts that leads to eternaldeath. And the latter is much more serious than the former. The Bible was not written to save us from getting sick and from dying. It was written to save us from sin and hell.
Our priorities in America are wildly out of balance. We are obsessed with our bodies, while we neglect our souls. Newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, TV programs and commercials, movies and books are overwhelmingly focused on our physical bodies, not our souls. We hear a lot about how to exercise, how to lose weight, how to stay looking young, and what to eat; but we hear very little about how to be saved from sin and reconciled with God. Unfortunately, the church today has too often taken its cues and priorities from the world, instead of from the Bible. Do not be deceived! The highest priority, the one thing needful, is to have a soul that is right with God and to grow in our love and knowledge of Him. Jesus’ words in Mark 8:36 are as relevant now as they ever were: "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
"And He said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.) And He was saying, ‘That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.'’" — Mark 7:18-23
In Mark 7, Jesus corrects two serious errors of the Pharisees: 1) Their belief that we are defiled by things outside of us, including food; 2) Their ignorance of the importance of a pure heart. Let us consider each of these errors.
In Mark 7:1-23, we see one of the many confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees came to Jesus and complained about the disciples’ failure to wash their hands before eating bread. They considered the hands to be impure if unwashed. Impure hands would defile food, which in turn would defile anyone who ate such food. The Pharisees were offended that the disciples and Jesus were ignoring this time-honored tradition of the elders. In verses 3-4, we see that they had other traditions as well: “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.”
The Pharisees were not merely concerned about germs and sanitation. Rather, they had turned the hand washing practice into a religious duty. In their view, the hands and cups and pitchers and pots needed to be washed for ceremonial purity. Failure to do so would result in defilement. The Pharisees did not appeal to scripture to support their practice, for scripture had never commanded these kinds of washings. They appealed to the traditions of men.
After severely rebuking the Pharisees for setting aside the commandments of God in favor of their traditions, Jesus called the crowd to Him and made a crucial point about the source of defilement, in verses 14-15: “After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, ‘Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.’”
Jesus wanted the crowd to understand what the Pharisees failed to understand. Neither food nor unwashed hands defiles a man—sin does! It is not what goes into your mouth that corrupts you. It is what comes out of your mouth that makes you impure. It is not what goes into your stomach that makes you unclean. It is what comes out of your heart. Note carefully Jesus’ words. He uses the word nothing. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, outside a man, which can defile him if it goes into him. This is a comprehensive statement. Jesus is not merely speaking about unwashed hands and unwashed pots and cups. He is also speaking about food. We know this because of what follows in Mark 7:17-19:
"When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)"
Jesus is here indicating that the time of the food laws is coming to an end. In Chapter 3 of this book, we saw why they had come to an end. God was removing the dividing wall that existed between Jews and Gentiles. The animals that God had declared unclean in the Mosaic covenant had symbolized the uncleanness of Gentiles. This prohibition on eating various foods had created a natural obstacle for fellowship between the two people groups. But with the arrival of the new covenant, the Gentiles would be brought into the kingdom of God and cleansed by faith. Therefore, the foods that had once been declared unclean were now clean.
In Chapter 3, we also addressed the question of how animals that were unclean in the Old Testament could suddenly become clean. The forbidden animals of the Old Testament were unclean because God declared them to be so, not because of any inherent physiological or nutritional deficiency. God has the power to make something unclean simply by declaring it to be so (for instance, the forbidden fruit). Likewise, He has the power to make something clean by declaring it to be so.
An Israelite would become unclean by eating unclean foods, not because food defiled him, but simply because disobedience defiled him. If an Israelite were to eat or touch a pig, he would become unclean, simply because it was disobedience to do so. But there was nothing inherently defiling about pork. This is why Jesus saidin Mark 7:18-19, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated? (Thus He declared all foods clean.)”
Jesus was making a point about the essence of food, and the essence of defilement in general. His point was very clear. Nothing outside of a man could defile him, because it did not go into his heart, but into his stomach. It did not remain with him; it was eliminated. This was as true in the Old Testament as in the New Testament.
Beware of teachers that advocate abstaining from certain foods because they will defile you or because they are bad for you or because to eat such foods is poor stewardship of the temple of God. Nothing that goes into the mouth defiles you. Neither pork nor catfish, neither packaged food nor processed food, neither fast food nor fatty food nor any kind of food can defile you. Of course, Jesus is not dealing with the subject of balanced nutrition here. Though nothing can spiritually defile you, too much of a certain kind of food might negatively affect your health. Excess sugar or salt, for instance, may cause health problems. Just because all foods are clean does not mean we should be gluttonous with any kind of food and ignore balance in nutrition.
(This is an excerpt from a book I recently published entitled, "To Eat or Not to Eat? Examining Modern Nutrition Wisdom in the Light of Scripture." It is available at the sermon audio web store.)