How is a man to be clean before God? What puts a man right before God? What are the marks of true and false religion?
How can a man be clean before God? This is a question of great concern, not only of religious people, but of everyone who will someday stand before God to give an account of how he has spent his life.
Job 15:14 ESV What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?
Job 9:2-3 ESV “Truly I know that it is so: But how can a man be in the right before God? 3 If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand times.
The psalmist, King David, prayed,
Psalm 143:2 ESV Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.
Psalm 130:3 ESV If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
Religion is man’s attempt to make himself right with God. But what can we do to undo the wrong that we have done? What can we do to make the wrongs right? What can we do to wash ourselves of clean from the filth of our sin?
The world’s religions have attempted to answer that question in various ways.
1. Religion’s Attempt to Clean Us Up
1.1. Islam’s Concern with Clean
In Islam, for example, there is a great concern about being clean before praying to Allah so there are washings called “wudhu” that are observed before prayer.
- The hands are washed three times, the right hand then the left.
- The mouth is rinsed three times using the right hand.
- The nostrils are washed by sniffing water up into them three times, followed by blowing it out.
- The face is washed three times.
- The arms are washed three times up to the elbows.
- The head is wiped once.
- The ears are cleaned inside and out once.
- Finally, the feet are washed up to the ankles three times.
So there is a concern that one be clean before approaching Allah.
1.2. Clean and Unclean in Judaism
The Jews of Jesus’ day, especially the Pharisees, were very concerned about cleanliness. This is what we find in Mark’s Gospel chapter 7.
Mark 7:1-5 NIVO The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” 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. 4 When 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.) 5 So 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 ‘unclean’ hands?”
We have seen growing opposition to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
- Mark 2:7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming!”
- Mark 2:16 “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
- Mark 2:24 “Why are [his disciples] doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
- Mark 7:5 “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Here in chapter 7 of Mark, we have a head-on collision between Jesus and the Pharisees over what makes one clean. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this passage is more about what defiles a person. In Judaism, there was a long list of things that defiled a person:
- Human excretion of any kind, such as spittle or urine
- Decaying flesh of dead animals
- Creeping things
- Idols The list would also include certain classes of people:
- Lepers, like the one that Jesus touched and healed (1:40)
- Tax collectors like Levi (2:13)
- Gentiles, like the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes (5:1)
- Menstruating women, like the woman who had the issue of blood for 12 years and who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment (5:25)
- The dead daughter of Jairus, that Jesus raised from the dead (5:35)
But this passage is not simply about personal hygiene. It is not about germs, though there were Old Testament regulations that certainly helped to prevent disease and the spread of germs. No, this passage is all about being defiled and what one must do to be clean.
Mark describes in detail the traditions of the Pharisees.
Mark 7:3-4 NIVO (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When 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.)
So the Pharisees could watch people to know if they were holding to the traditions of the elders. They saw that the disciples of Jesus ate without washing their hands.
Mark 7:5 NIVO So 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 ‘unclean’ hands?”
One of the marks of false religion is the emphasis that it puts on the external. It stresses appearance. False religion says that what really counts is what one sees. “Here are the rules. Follow them and you’ll be all right. You’ll be in the group. Follow the rules and God will have a place for you in His kingdom. So…”
- Do you go to church?
- Okay, what day do you go to church on? Do you go to church on the Sabbath or on Sunday?
- Do you fast?
- Do you pray five times a day?
- Have you gone on a mission?
- Are you wearing the right clothes?
These traditions make it very convenient. With these traditions, we can think ourselves very righteous before God. We can see ourselves as better than others. We can look down on people who do not live according to our traditions. It gives us such a wonderful feeling of superiority!
This enables us to determine whether others are right with God. We can watch them to see if they are following the rules.
And to that, the God said to Samuel,
1 Samuel 16:7 ESV …the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
MUSIC: Kathryn Scott – Search Me, Know Me
2. Worthless Religion
The Pharisees want to know why the disciples of Jesus do not live according to the traditions of the elders. This is an indirect attack on Jesus himself. The reason that his disciples did not live according to the traditions of the elders is that Jesus himself did not live according to those traditions as we will see. The disciples were simply following the example of Jesus himself.
But Jesus has very strong words for these religious leaders who see themselves as righteous because everything looks so good on the outside.
2.1. First, Jesus calls them hypocrites.
Mark 7:6 ESV And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites…
The word hypocrite first simply meant an actor. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites because their whole lives were “a piece of acting without any sincerity behind it at all.” So what is religion for you?
- A list of rules and regulations?
- Certain rituals or practices that you have to observe?
- Certain tabus that you must avoid?
Then you, my friend, are a hypocrite. You are acting a part. You believe that you are good if you do certain things and avoid other things — and here’s the key — no matter what your heart and thoughts are like.
Legalism puts the accent on outward appearance, outward conformity to a code or list of rules. It does not take into account what is in the heart.
William Barclay tells the story of a Muslim — it could have been a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew or anyone — but it’s the story of a Muslim…
Who was pursuing a man with upraised knife to murder him. Just then the call to prayer rang out. Immediately he stopped, spread out his prayer mat, knelt, said his prayer as fast as he could; then rose and continued his murderous pursuit. The prayer was simply a form and a ritual, an outward observance, merely the correct interlude in the career of murder.
Going to church, reading your Bible, singing in the choir, giving in the offering — these things will not make you right with God. The question is, What is in your heart toward God and toward your neighbor?
Jesus said that the Pharisees were hypocrites. They were simply acting a part. Next, he said that…
2.2. Their worship is worthless.
Mark 7:6 ESV …as it is written, “’This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
These religious people honor God with their lips. They say the right things. They’ve got the vocabulary. They can talk about spiritual things. They can quote Bible verses. They sound very spiritual.
These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
They do not love God. They do not delight in God. Going to church is a chore. They pray because it is their duty. If they read their Bibles, it is because they are supposed to. But they know nothing of rejoicing in the Lord. They know nothing of hunger for God:
Psalm 73:25-26 NIVO Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Their worship, Jesus says, is all external. It does not come from the heart, so it is worthless.
Mark 7:7 ESV in vain do they worship me…
It is a waste of time.
Then Jesus said that…
2.3. Their teaching has no divine authority.
Mark 7:7 ESV in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
That is part of the quotation from the prophet Isaiah. The New Living Translation puts it,
Mark 7:7 NLT Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’
This controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees was all about the traditions of the elders. Six times this passage refers to the tradition of the elders which prescribed how they were to prepare to eat, what they were to do when going to market, even how to wash their dishes! These were teachings that were added to the Word of God.
Today churches are replacing the Word of God with the words of men. Oh, they may still have the Bible. They give it lip-service. But when they explain it, they explain it away. They wrestle against the plain reading of the Word. They have their own ideas and have elevated them above the Word of God.
We have our churches, our denominations, our committees, our councils and conferences, and it is so easy to just vote and do what we want to do. We make our decisions and ask God to agree with us and bless us.
Jesus gives a strong rebuke to these Jewish authorities:
Mark 7:8-13 NIVO You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” 9 And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Jesus gives an example of how they overturn the Word of God. One of the ten commandments was to honor our parents. But one could avoid helping a parent financially in need by saying that he had vowed to give the money to God. Jesus sarcastically accuses them of having a fine way of setting aside, making void, nullifying or invalidating the Word of God in order to observe their own traditions.
3. Jesus Turns Religion Inside Out
This was not a matter to be left to the religious authorities. Jesus called the crowd together.
Mark 7:14-15 NIVO Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.
Wow! Jesus wants us to understand this!
15 Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ “
The Pharisees had criticized the disciples for not washing before eating. Jesus calls into question the whole religious order. Outward appearance is not what is important. What is in the heart?
3.1. Jesus and His Disciples
This is revolutionary! Even the disciples have not grasped it.
Mark 7:17-19 ESV And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
A right standing with God is not based on what we eat. You are not defiled or made unclean by what you eat. What you eat goes into your digestive tract and is expelled; it never enters the heart. What you eat has no effect on your heart or on your relationship with God. Notice carefully what Mark tells us in verse 19:
Thus he declared all foods clean.
Jesus is Lord. In Mark 2, he is Lord of the Sabbath and can declare his intention for the Sabbath: “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (2:28).
As Lord, he here declares that from that point on, all foods are clean. This truth is repeated later in the experience of Peter when in a vision, he sees a sheet coming down from heaven, containing all kinds of beasts. The Lord tells him to “Kill and eat.”
Acts 10:14-15 NIVO “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans,
Romans 14:14 NIVO As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself…
Romans 14:20 NIVO … All food is clean…
False religions put the emphasis on the external, but they have nothing to do with true spiritual life.
Colossians 2:16 NIVO Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.
Colossians 2:20-22 NIVO Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.
1 Timothy 4:1-5 NIVO The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
Romans 14:17 NIVO For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,
3.2. Dirty on the Inside
The problem is not dirt on the outside. The problem is dirt on the inside. False religions are trying to clean up the outside but they have no way of cleaning the inside. We read in Luke 11 of another time…
Luke 11:37-39 ESV While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.
The problem is not dirt on the outside but filth on the inside. Dirt under your fingernails will not make you unclean. Mud on your feet does not defile you.
Mark 7:20-23 NIVO He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”
This is what makes what defiles us: impure hearts.
- Evil thoughts and plans
- Sexual immorality: a broad term including all sexual activity outside of marriage.
- Theft: Stealing, taking from another what is not yours (the eighth commandment, Exodus 20:15).
- Murder: Taking an innocent life (Exodus 20:13).
- Adultery: More specific: violating the marriage covenant — your own or someone else’s, either physically or mentally (Matthew 5:28; the seventh commandment, Exodus 20:14).
- Greed: coveting, desiring more at the expense of others (the tenth commandment, Exodus 20:17).
- Evil actions: wicked behavior, behavior with harmful intent.
- Deceit: deception, dishonesty
- Lewdness: Promiscuity — lack of moral discernment or restraint
- Envy: jealousy. Belief that God is withholding His best.
- Slander: speaking evil of man or God.
- Arrogance: Pride.
- Folly: senselessness, spiritual insensitivity.
Mark 7:23 NIVO All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’”
Did we leave anyone out?
Romans 3:10 NIVO As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;
Isaiah 53:6 ESV All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way…
“Internal impurity… cannot be washed away by external rituals.” These impurities cannot be washed away with soap and water.
What are we to do?
4. Jesus Touches the Unclean to Make Us Clean.
In the Old Testament, people would become unclean by simply touching someone or something that was unclean. Lepers warned people not to get near because they were unclean. Jesus was never afraid to touch the unclean. Instead of being defiled by our uncleanness, his holiness overcomes our filth.
- The unclean leper came to Jesus. Jesus touched him and the leper was made clean.
- The woman with the issue of blood touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was instantly made whole and clean.
- The dead daughter of Jairus did not render Jesus unclean when he touched her. Instead, his touch raised her from the dead.
All of us have thought and done things that have defiled us and made us unclean. There are no religious rites or actions that can make us clean. The religions of this world say, “Do this. Do that. Do it again and again and again.”
Jesus says, “Done.” “It is finished.” On the cross he did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He wiped the slate clean.
Colossians 2:13-14 NIVO When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.
If you will come to him, he will make you clean. And he will begin his work in you to make you a new creation in Christ so that the old way of living is gone and the new has come.
***And you can say, “I am clean!”
MUSIC: Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir: “I’m Clean”
 William Barclay, Mark, p. 168.
 William Barclay, Mark, p. 168.
 William Barclay, Mark, p. 168.
 Akin, Daniel L. (2014-06-01). Exalting Jesus in Mark (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (p. 156). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 David E. Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel, p. 133.
See also “Gospel of Mark”:
- Mark 12v01-12, Parable of the Wicked Tenants
- Mark 11v01-33, The Triumphal Entry and Judgment on the Temple
- Mark 10:46-52, “The Man Who Stopped Jesus”
- Mark 10v32-45, Walking with Jesus on the Way to the Cross
- Mark 10v17-31, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
- Mark 10v01-12, “God’s Plan for Marriage”
- Mark 09v30-50, Defining Greatness on the Way to the Cross
- Mark 09v14-29, “Weak Faith and a Strong Savior”
- Mark 08:38-09:13, “A Risk Worth Taking”
- Mark 08v34-9:1, “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?”
- Mark 08v27-38, “Who do you say that I am?”
- Mark 08v22-26, “Men As Trees, Walking”
- Mark 08:01-21, “Do you not yet understand?”
- Mark 07v31-37 “He does all things well!”
- Mark 07v24-30 “Jesus among the Gentiles”
- Mark 07v01-23 “How Can I Be Clean?”
- Mark 06v45-52 “The One Who Walks on Water”
- Mark 06v06-13 The Global Mission of the Church
- Mark 04v01-24, The Parable of the Sower
- Mark 01v01-11, “The Gospel of Mark”