“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. They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’ He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”(Mark 7:6, 7, 20-23 NIV)
Today as I was reading Mark 6-7, this passage where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their traditionalism jumped out at me. The Pharisees have just criticized Jesus and his disciples for ignoring the tradition of ceremonial hand washing before eating, which symbolized spiritual cleanness. Jesus responds by rebuking their philosophy of traditionalism and their propensity toward substituting their traditions for the commands of God. He also states that it is not what one brings into their body which defiles a person, but what comes out of their body which defiles a person.
Since this passage mainly deals with the errors of traditionalism, I have often missed a more subtle but profound truth hidden in these verses. Jesus says that sin–and he cites the examples of adultery, sexual immorality, murder, greed, etc.–comes from the heart, not from things external to oneself.
This reminds me of a very helpful sermon illustration that I believe John Piper once used. I have adapted it here. Imagine going to a doctor because of a fast heart rate. You tell the doctor, “Doc, I think I may have high blood pressure or something. I just can’t seem to get my heart to calm down.” The doctor reviews your symptoms and takes your blood pressure. He replies, “Well, your blood pressure is a little off, so why don’t we run an MRI just to see what we can find.” You feel that’s entirely unnecessary–you’re guessing that you just have high cholesterol and need to eat better and exercise more–but you consent because the doctor says so.
A few days later, the Doc calls you into the clinic to discuss the results. Imagine your horror to discover that it’s not high cholesterol, but a deformed, diseased heart which is causing your symptoms. Most of us would agree that this discovery is very bad news.
Here’s the thrust of what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, and to you and me: we have a dangerous tendency to downplay the severity of our sin. We tend to think, like the Pharisees, that we can simply perform a few ceremonial rituals (i.e., go to church, tithe, etc.) and be declared clean in God’s sight. Or, like the cardiology patient, we tend to self-medicate our sin with diet and exercise in a futile attempt to lower our blood pressure or relieve the symptoms. If we are willing to admit that we have sin–and often we are not–we usually fail to see its severity and, therefore, resort to inadequate means of dealing with our sin. We go to church, read self-help books (even Christian ones!), and we try to eliminate external temptations for our sins. All of these things are good, but they fail to address the root of the problem of our sin. By themselves, they’re no more effective than taking ibuprofen for a brain tumor or changing your diet to fix a deformed heart.
Jesus said that our sins cannot simply be washed off in a ceremonial cleansing. The horrible news is that our condition before God is far, far worse than we could have ever imagined. We have a sinful, deformed heart. We don’t need medication, we need a heart transplant. Without such a transplant, the result of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Do you struggle with “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly?” Jesus says “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come.” You and I struggle with sin because we have sick hearts and we are in desperate need of the Healer.
While this is decidedly bad news, there is an element of hope in it. At least now that we know the severity of our true condition we can properly treat it! At least now we know better than to expect diet and exercise alone to fix our heart. What you and I need is for God to give us a new heart. We need new desires, new passions, new eyes to see and new ears to hear.
The good news? That’s exactly the business in which Jesus thrives.
When we give our lives to Christ, Jesus gives us a new, restored heart with new desires and longings. I was, at first, puzzled by the name of John Piper’s ministry: Desiring God. I used to think it was an odd name for a ministry. But, I’ve since come to realize that a burning passion and desire for God is exactly how you and I can live our lives in such a way that brings us the most happiness and God the most glory. Why? Because we desire sin least when we desire God most. But, unfortunately, that heart is still often plagued by sin. We live in a fallen world, and until we are reunited with Christ in heaven, we will always struggle with sin. But, rather than give up, we ought to pray for a renewed heart every day–a heart for God and His glory.
I struggle with sin every day. I battle it. And, I need those external temptations removed; I need diet and exercise for the soul. But that alone will not suffice. Washing my hands won’t clean my heart. My external religious observances are necessary and good, but they are worthless unless they proceed from a clean and pure heart. Let us recognize the severity of our state before an almighty and holy God, lay aside our futile efforts to wash away our sins externally, and pray as David did when he had sinned:
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me … You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:9, 10, 16, 17 NIV)
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart… (Psalm 24:3, 4 NIV)
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. (Matthew 23:25, 26 NIV)