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The Life of Jesus - Series 6: Episode 9

True cleanliness

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 7:1-23
Matthew 15:1-20

Jesus challenges the man-made laws of ritual cleansing and explains that outer religious observance is not as important as heart attitudes.

Jesus challenges the man-made laws of ritual cleansing and explains that outer religious observance is not as important as heart attitudes.


Hello and welcome to Series 6 and Episode 9 and it's entitled ‘True Cleanliness.’ We're going to be studying Mark 7: 1 - 23.

Introduction and Recap

We've been in Series 6 for some time. This is the third tour of Galilee and we've seen some very dramatic events. We've seen the Apostles go out in pairs, travelling around Galilee preaching. We've seen the story of the sudden execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas and we've seen the remarkable story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus walking on water. Then we studied, through John's Gospel, the subsequent discussion that took place in the synagogue in Capernaum with members of the crowd from the Feeding of the Five Thousand about Jesus' true identity, about his mission, about discipleship, about his divine nature and about the call to follow him.

A lot has happened in Series 6 and now we move to a different event that took place a little after all those major events, which is part of another aspect of the story of Jesus. We're now returning to the ongoing debate with the religious authorities and Mark 7 (and a parallel passage in Matthew 15) gives an account of a discussion between Jesus and some Pharisees about obeying religious rules and religious laws. This is an important dialogue and discussion in a wide-ranging conflict that is going on between Jesus and the religious establishment.

The Jewish Authorities

Perhaps a few preliminary comments would be helpful. In this passage, which we're going to read in a moment, we see that the protagonists (those who are arguing with Jesus) are Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. We've come across these on quite a number of occasions already and we'll see a lot more of them as the story progresses. Let's think about their role and their function. The primary religious authority in the nation of Israel wasn't the Pharisees or the Teachers of the Law, it was the ruling council in Jerusalem, known as the Sanhedrin. Seventy men gathered together and were appointed to watch over, and rule over, the Jewish religion. These seventy included some Pharisees, some Sadducees, and priests and were presided over by the High Priest, who was the most senior religious authority in the country. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law were, however, very influential. It was a very religious society. We've come across them before and we've seen their huge influence - particularly the Pharisees, who were a sect of devout Jews who were very focused on exact observance of religious law and external acts of righteousness like prayer, fasting, and giving. These were things that Jesus discussed in, for example, the Sermon on the Mount.

The Old Testament Religious Framework

The context of this religious establishment is the Old Testament framework for Judaism, which is much more foundational, much more fundamental This Old Testament foundation had a number of covenants built into it. At the beginning was the covenant that God made with Noah, which was a covenant of God's blessing and protection on the whole human race - irrespective of faith - that took place after the Great Flood in the time of Noah. Then came the covenant with Abraham, which is the beginning of the shaping of the Jewish people. Abraham and Sarah were chosen; Abraham was to be the father of the nation which was to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Then, within that Abrahamic Covenant, came the Mosaic Covenant - the covenant that God made with the Jewish people on Mount Sinai when the Jews were under the leadership of Moses (hence the term Mosaic Covenant). Subsequent to that, came the covenant with King David, which is the foundation for the expectation that a successor of David, a biological succession of David, would one day come and be a greater king than him and would be the Messiah of Israel. Then came, in Jeremiah 31: 31 - 34, a promise of a New Covenant that would replace the covenant with Moses. That's essentially the background, put very briefly and very simply.

Within that framework, from the Jewish point of view, the covenant with Moses was incredibly important because this covenant - represented particularly by books like Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus which described the legal framework - formed the structure of the nation. It formed the religious activities, the sacrificial system, the priesthood, the Tabernacle, and subsequently the Temple that followed it; it gave it's moral codes, it's social ethics and this covenant was foundational. The Law of Moses was held in high esteem amongst the people of Israel. The problem with the Law of Moses was that, in total, there were only just over 600 commands. It might sound a lot to you but it's not very many commands if you want to regulate all of your life, in every detail, and by no means did the 600 plus commands help you to know what to do in every situation. What had happened over the years, over the centuries, before the coming of Christ, is that there had been developed what became known as the ‘tradition of the elders’ (or sometimes known as the ‘oral law’) which were a series of regulations that the religious establishment added into the Law of Moses in order to define it more specifically, apply it more extensively and give guidance for Jewish people to obey in every circumstance of life.

The Pharisees, particularly, were great champions of this tradition of the elders and they added a lot of their own thoughts as rules into this mix. When Jesus is dealing with issues of religious law, which is what we're going to talk about in this episode, he's dealing with two things and we have to understand there's a difference between these two in order to understand what he's talking about. He's dealing with the Law of Moses, still in operation in his ministry, and he's dealing with these human traditions (the traditions of the elders, the recently added religious laws). Jesus drew a total distinction between the two. He honoured and obeyed the Law of Moses but he rejected the many additional laws that the Pharisees, and others, had added in. It's worth giving you this background because it's the only way we can make sense of what is discussed in this particular passage. Let's read it in sections. Mark 7: 1 - 5:

‘The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”’

Mark 7:1-5, NIV
Ritual Cleansing

The issue here is over a particularly strong religious tradition. It's over ritual hand washing and ritual cleansing. It was very common practice amongst the Jews to wash your hands in order to avoid spiritual contamination - particularly after being in public places where there was a risk of being spiritually contaminated - particularly by contact with Gentiles, non-Jews, or contact with other Jews who were ritually unclean, such as those who had a skin infection or women who were having their period, or just after childbirth. There are a number of different situations in which men and women could become ritually unclean as Jews and so there was an extensive custom of hand washing. It's important to realise how significant this was in order to understand what was going on here because, as you can see from reading the text, Jesus' disciples did not follow this tradition.

An interesting example of the significance comes in an earlier account in John 2 when Jesus turns the water into wine. (we studied this much earlier on) In that story, you'll remember that Jesus took some stone water jars and asked for them to be filled with water and then miraculously that was turned into wine - that was the essential miracle. John 2: 6 gives an interesting detail:

‘Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.’

John 2:6, NIV

That's about a hundred litres, very approximately. A hundred litres of water in a stone jar and in this house there were six stone jars. That's six hundred litres of water and the purpose of water was to facilitate ritual hand cleansing and other ritual washing. Can you see this is quite a serious issue and took up a lot of water? The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, are depicted as coming down from Jerusalem - we've already seen them come down from Jerusalem in the past and now we see them again. They're following Jesus; they're tracking him; they're challenging him very deliberately - and they're challenging him here over this issue of ritual hand washing. They knew that Jesus' disciples did not follow this tradition because Jesus was breaking with this tradition. It wasn't in the Law of Moses; it wasn't in the divine law in the Old Testament - it had been added in and Jesus firmly resisted any tradition that had been added in and put people under pressure to feel that their spiritual life is linked with a particular form of ritual. He was against that. Not only did his followers not carry out this ritual washing, Jesus actually touched unclean people and the Pharisees had seen him touching them. What do we mean by unclean? We mean ritually unclean, not literally, not in any sense that we should be concerned about but in terms of their culture, these people were not to be touched and not to be in contact with by human connection.

Here are three examples: a prostitute should not be physically touched because she was considered to be a sinner in a full sense and yet, on one occasion in Luke 7, when Jesus was at a dinner party reclining at a table, his feet on the floor behind him, leaning on an elbow eating the food, a prostitute came into that event and broke open a jar of perfume and washed his feet and actually kissed his feet while he was eating. That would have made him unclean in the terms of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law but Jesus allowed that to happen. Another interesting example is in Matthew 8, leprosy was another example of ritual uncleanness where people weren't allowed to touch people with that skin condition. But a very interesting thing happened in Matthew 8: 2 - 3:

‘A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 3Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”’

Matthew 8:2-3, NIV

That's immensely significant - he touched the ritually unclean person! Then there was the situation in the crowd once, where a woman who had a long-standing condition of bleeding which made her ritually unclean, touched Jesus, touched his cloak, and he stopped and said, “Who touched me because the power's gone out of me?” (Luke 8:45) He allowed that to happen. He allowed these human contacts to happen and all of these challenged this religious framework which wanted to divide people between the clean and the unclean - those who follow the rules and those who don't.

They used ritual hand washing and other ritual cleansing as a means of keeping the separation. This attack by the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law follows on from their already existing denunciation - because we've seen in Matthew 12: 22 to 37, a major confrontation in which they come from Jerusalem and the Pharisees denounce Jesus as a false messiah, operating under demonic power and deceiving people. Everybody knew what the score was. They were totally against him. They were trying to trip him up and trying to prove that he was an irreligious leader.

Jesus' Challenge

Jesus answers them very firmly and counter challenges them in the next passage, Mark 7: 6 - 15:

‘He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:“‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ 8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” 9And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— 12then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

Mark 7:6-15, NIV

Jesus goes on the counter-attack. He's not prepared, at all, to accept the criticism that he is being irreligious and disobedient to God's Law by this issue of not obeying the tradition of the elders concerning ritual hand washing - he doesn't accept that at all. He goes on the attack and he describes them as hypocrites using Isaiah 29: 13, which describes the nation of Judah at the time that it was being attacked by Assyrian armies:

‘“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”’

Isaiah 29:13, NIV

Jesus is saying, “Like the people in the Old Testament, you're just the same. You're actually hypocrites. You are talking religious language but your heart is far from me.” He points out that what they have done is, they've let go God's commands in order to replace them by human traditions. They're not just adding on to the Law of Moses (which is wrong in itself as I explained earlier on) but Jesus said here, in some cases, they're actually denying the Law of Moses by creating another rule which contradicts the Law of Moses. He goes on to give an example: this rather intriguing story of the Corban gift. This is the tradition that they allowed: a person was allowed to dedicate his inheritance and his wealth to the Temple in Jerusalem so that it would be transferred to the Temple during his lifetime bit by bit, or maybe all at once, rather than being used to help his family and, particularly, his parents. People very often made a declaration that their wealth was going to be handed over to the Temple, which basically means put in the hand of the religious authorities who control the Temple treasury (the priests and the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees were all part of that setup). When people made that declaration, they often didn't follow through; they didn't actually give all their money over to the treasury but it meant that, as their parents, or other family members, were in need, they then didn't have to give them financial or material support because they said, “Well actually my money is dedicated for religious purposes so I can't give it to you.” Jesus is saying that that tradition is wrong, and not only is it wrong in general, it's wrong specifically because it means that you have to disobey one of the Ten Commandments - one of the most foundational commandments of the Law of Moses, which is to honour your father and mother to give respect for them and to give support to them. He describes this as

‘“...nullify(ing) the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like (this).”’

Mark 7:13, NIV

You're nullifying what is written in the Word of God, in other words the Ten Commandments and particularly the one about your parents. You're cancelling out the significance of that because you're saying, “Well actually, we've created something else which means you don't have to follow that.” Interestingly enough, the new rule that had been created was going to benefit the religious establishment financially to the extent that that money was given but it was not always given in full. Jesus basically said, “You know, spiritual uncleanliness isn't going to come from the outside - from lepers, from unclean people - it's going to come from inside.”

Outward Show versus Inner Conviction

Then he starts talking, in conclusion, to his disciples more privately and here I'm going to add in a little section from Matthew's account which we haven't got in Mark. I'm going to read Matthew 15: 12 to 14, then I'm going to read the concluding section in Mark 7. Matthew 15: 12 - 14:

‘Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” 13He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”’

Matthew 15:12-14, NIV

Then going on Mark 7: 17 - 23:

‘After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don't you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?19 For it doesn't go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person's heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Mark 7, 17-23, NIV

Here, Jesus is roundly condemning the Pharisees. They're like the blind leading the blind and they're going to fall into a pit. God didn't call them; they're self-appointed religious leaders and they're doomed to failure; they're doomed to be rooted up; they're doomed to give people wrong leadership - like the blind leading the blind. You can't be clearer than that! Jesus has already been very clear about his criticism of the religious establishment - of the Pharisees in particular - and again he is clear. He now goes to the centre of the issue and he redefines the question: a question that humanity wrestles with all the time, and that is the desire to be spiritually clean. He says that it's the heart that is the key - the inner attitudes, the inner thoughts, the inner motivations, right in the depth of a person that matters far more than anything external that we put an awful lot of significance in. He said they're very secondary compared with what's going on inside a person; the heart is the inner being, the inner life of the person. Jesus is pointing out, that even the food laws that were in the Law of Moses are going to become redundant. He's declaring all foods clean. This is a prophetic statement about what will happen when he dies on the cross and then at that point the New Covenant comes in and the Holy Spirit is given to all believers and the Law of Moses becomes redundant; it becomes obsolete, it's no longer needed. Jesus lists the common sins of the heart: sexual immorality, murder, adultery, greed et cetera. Selfish attitudes, selfish actions, selfish thoughts that are common to all humanity.

What significance do we put on this particular discussion? You have to know quite a lot of the background to make any sense of the conversation, that's why I've spent time explaining some of the context of these regulations. These are ancient history now to us and so it's difficult for us to always appreciate what's going on but I hope the explanations enable you to see how important the conversation was at the time.


Here are some reflections for you that I draw from this passage. You know, mankind is universally religious. The modern trend in the secular West towards atheism will only go so far. Man's religious instinct is deep and profound and so we'll always be looking for religious meaning - meaning for our lives. We're looking for the divine; we're looking for God; we're looking for some purpose in life that is spiritual. My observation is that whenever mankind, in any society, creates a religious culture, what we do is we create a system of rules and regulations - religious laws, many of them. This is what the Jews had done. There were some divinely sanctioned laws in the Law of Moses but there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other man-made laws that they added in. The focus of these laws is always on external behaviour - always wanting to shape human behaviour by religious laws. The focus of the Gospel and the Kingdom message that Jesus brings is fundamentally different. The focus is that an inner transformation takes place by us being born-again, forgiven of our sins and, particularly, the Holy Spirit coming to live within us - and that is the dynamic of change that is not subject to a whole series of rules and regulations.

My other observation is that here we have the problem of the heart. The inner life of human beings is tainted with sin and selfishness. Sometimes it appears only very modest and sometimes it appears to be really severe in it's impact on people but everyone is tainted with this sin and this cannot be washed away by external rules and regulations. You've still got the same human heart within the person who is trying to be religious and trying to be moral. It can't be washed away. Something more radical needs to take place and that is the radical regeneration that comes through Jesus Christ.

This passage also tells me something about judgementalism. We love to judge other people by external things; we do it all the time. Religious people do it very commonly and very deeply. It's a risky thing to do; Jesus warned against it. Don't judge just by the external; some of the most unlikely people in Israel in his time became part of his discipleship community. Jesus is speaking against religious guardians who were not divinely appointed - the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law.

Finally, I would say that this is a very interesting prophetic occurrence marking the beginning of a transition between the Old Covenant (the Law of Moses, the Mosaic Covenant) and the New Covenant. The Old Covenant is still in place and Jesus still obeys the Law of Moses - but its days are numbered. It was for Israel, for that era between the time of Moses and the time of Christ, to shape the nation and to prepare the nation to receive Christ. That Old Testament Law of Moses is no longer in force in its original form - not for us who are living in the New Testament era and are disciples of Christ. We'll explore the significance of how this works out more in other contexts but the essential dynamic is this: the coming of the Holy Spirit and the atoning death of Jesus, opens up a completely new way of relating to God in the New Covenant that is not based on religious law.

I'll conclude this section by reading the primary prophecy in the Old Testament that speaks about the coming of the New Covenant. It comes in Jeremiah 31: 31 to 34. It's quoted extensively in the book of Hebrews, by the way, where it's explained to be fulfilled through Christ but let me read it in its original context. Jeremiah 31: 31 - 34, speaking to Jews and speaking about the Law of Moses:

‘“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,”(that's a reference to the Law of Moses, he's not going to make a covenant like that)... 33“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. (I'll) be their God, and they will be my people. 34No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”’

Jeremiah 31:31-34, NIV

This is about writing God's Law in the minds and hearts of people - that's what the Holy Spirit does in the New Covenant era. Thanks for joining me.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. ‘Mankind is universally religious.’ Is that true in your society?
    2. How does Christianity differ from other religions about laws and motivation?
  • Discipleship
    1. How often do you judge others by outward signs?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Read Jeremiah 31:31-34. How do you understand that to be true of Christians today?
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