2019-6-09 True Cleaning

True Cleaning
Mark 7:1-23
June 6, 2019

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 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 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?”

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.’ 

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “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 mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 11 But 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)—12 then you no longer let them do anything for their 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.”

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 

17 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.”[1]

The grass withers and the flowers fade but the Word of the Lord stands forever.

Prayer of Illumination

O gracious and most merciful Father, you have given us the rich and precious jewel of your holy Word. Assist us with your Spirit, that it may be written in our hearts to our everlasting comfort, to reform us, to renew us according to your own image, to build us up into the perfect building of Christ, and to increase us in all heavenly virtues. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We are returning to our series on Mark this morning. Bill did a commendable job tackling a difficult doctrine last week while I was away. Today, we pick up Mark in the same place we left him. Two week ago, we looked at the first half of this passage and discussed Jesus’ view of the bible. We saw that he has a very high view of the bible and that it should be authoritative for us in all we say and do and how we organize ourselves as Christians.

Today, we’re going to look at something that was an issue 2,000 years ago and is still an issue today. As we examine this passage, we’ll see that we all have a sense of uncleanness, we’ll see that we all try to clean ourselves but it doesn’t work, and we’ll see that Jesus is the one who cleanses us.

Our Sense of Uncleanness

This passage begins with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law seeing that the disciples didn’t wash their hands. As we said two weeks ago, this isn’t clean in the sense of hygienic. This is clean in the sense of ceremonial and moral.

There were plenty things that would render someone ceremonially unclean. If someone touched a dead body, they would be ceremonially unclean for the rest of the day. Or if someone had a bodily discharge like pus or diarrhea they would be ceremonially unclean. There are dozens of more examples found in Leviticus. When someone is unclean, they are cut off from the community. They are unable to interact with friends and family until they are clean. More importantly, it cuts them off from the worship of God.

Why? Why would this be part of the worship of God as found in the Old Testament? As odd as it seems, these cleanness laws are an aide to help create desire and longing for God. Let’s think about this, have you ever knelt down to pray? Why? People kneel when they pray as an aide to develop humility. The cleanness laws in the Old Testament were a way to help develop a longing for God. They were an aide to help people realize their sin and that they needed spiritual cleaning.

That was why the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were so adamant that people wash their hands, their utensils, and furniture. They recognized that they were in need of spiritual cleaning.

Maybe you’re thinking, “That was back then. We’ve moved past this whole spiritual uncleanness idea. We’re more advanced.”

I’m not so sure of that. Imagine you begin a relationship with someone. When you go on a date, what do you do? You shower, put on some nice clothes, maybe put on some cologne or perfume. On the date, you talk and share things about yourself but not everything. Why is it? Because you recognize there are things in your life, maybe they’re things from your past or certain behavior that you don’t want them to see. You know that if they see those parts of you, they might not see you as squeaky clean anymore; they would see your uncleanness.

There’s a line from a song that was popular about twenty years ago. “I don’t want the world to see me, because I don’t think they’d understand”. Doesn’t that line perfectly encapsulate this? We don’t want people to see us because we’re afraid they’ll see things in us they don’t like. We’re afraid they might see our uncleanness and not like us.

I see that often when I’m counseling someone. They will come in wanting to talk about something. And then when they get to the thing they need to talk about, they lower their head, and take a few moments before they finally say what they came to say.

Each of us have this sense of uncleanness. Some of us are more open about the fact that we have this sense of uncleanness, while others of us are less open about it. For some of us, even admitting that we this sense of uncleanness is admitting too much. It is tantamount to admitting the things in our past or the behaviors that make us unclean.

We all have this sense of uncleanness. So what do we do about it? We try to clean ourselves.

Trying to Clean Ourselves

To deal with our uncleanness, we try to clean ourselves from the outside in. The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, and their disciples tried to clean themselves from the outside in by washing, by keeping the traditions of the elders.

The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, and their disciples thought that they could clean themselves by keeping their traditions. Their thought process was “if I do this, if I am more ceremonially pure than what the law requires then I will be clean”.

We do the same. We try to clean ourselves from the outside in by doing good works. We think “if I do this, then I’ll be clean”.

About thirty years ago, a movie came out called The Mission. The movie starred Robert De Niro and a few other actors. The film is about a Jesuit mission in northeastern Argentina in the 1740s. Robert De Niro’s character is a former slave trader who has killed his brother in a fit of rage. He goes to the mission seeking guidance about how to clean himself from the guilt of kidnapping and selling people and for killing his brother. De Niro’s character thinks that if he carries his armor and sword up a mountain then he’ll be clean from all of his sins. That’s cleaning from outside in.

We recognize we are unclean and we try to clean ourselves. We may not do it in the way that Robert De Niro’s character did in The Mission but we try to clean ourselves. Maybe we try to clean ourselves by being the best parents and hoping that by being a good parent we will wash away our uncleanness. Maybe we try to clean ourselves by volunteering. Or maybe we try to wash ourselves by never admitting that we’re unclean.

But the problem is that we are unclean because of something on the inside. Jesus says, “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.”

What makes us unclean comes from our hearts. The problem is that from our hearts come unclean thoughts and actions.

J.C. Ryle, an English bishop of the last century, said this. He said, “Human wickedness is often attributed to bad examples, bad company, unusual temptations or the snares of the devil. It seems forgotten that everyone carries a fountain of wickedness within. We need no bad company to teach us, and no devil to tempt us, in order to run into sin. We have within us the beginning of every sin under heaven.”[2]

Sometimes we say, “People learn to sin. They have bad examples, they’re part of bad environments, and they learn those sinful habits”. But that’s not true. Most of us have kids and grandkids. How many of you had to teach them to lie? How many of you had to teach them to treat people badly? How many of you had to teach them to envy?

You don’t need to teach them to do any of those things. Every child is born with an innate ability to sin already in them. David writes in Psalm 51, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me”. What David is saying is that even in the womb, even at his very birth, sin had affected him.

This is what we call total depravity. Total depravity says that sin has affected everyone, at all levels, even while they are in the womb. Sin affects us at every level, physical, mental, spiritual. It affects all parts of us. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re as sinful or depraved as we could be; that would be utter depravity. We are not as sinful as we could be; we are not as depraved as we could be. That is thanks to the grace of God.

Out of our very hearts comes the desire to be sexually immoral, which is sex outside of a one man – one woman marriage. Out of our hearts comes the desire to steal and take things that are not ours. Out of our hearts comes the desire to rebel against God and his ways. The seed of all of those sins is in our hearts. That is what makes us unclean. That is what defiles us.

That is why outside in cleaning doesn’t work. It never gets to the real issue. It’s like seeing that your yard has weeds popping up, so you go and mow them down. In a few days, those same weeds will be popping back up. Why? Because you haven’t dealt with the real issue. The root of the problem is still there. The same is true when we try to clean ourselves from the outside in.

Trying to clean ourselves from the outside in is like try to clean a coffee cup but only washing the outer part of the lip. That doesn’t work. That doesn’t actually get the cup clean.

If outside in cleaning doesn’t actually clean us, if that doesn’t get to the real issue, then what will? What will clean us?

Clean in Jesus

Earlier, we read Zechariah 3. Zechariah is one of the post-exile prophets. Zechariah is given a glimpse of the heart as the way God sees it. He has a vision of the high priest Joshua ministering in the holy of holies, the innermost part of the temple. There was only one day a year when the high priest could enter the holy of holies, the Day of Atonement.

What’s so shocking about this vision is that Zechariah sees Joshua in filthy garments. That was completely and utterly unacceptable. The high priest was required to be completely clean. That process started a week before the Day of Atonement. The high priest would be separated from everyone so that he wouldn’t be contaminated with anyone’s uncleanness. Someone would bring food to him in his quarters.

Then the night before the Day of Atonement, he would stay up all night praying, preparing his heart. He would wash himself. He would make a sacrifice for his sins. He would wash again. Put on clean, linen garments, and make a sacrifice for the sins of the priesthood. The high priest would wash himself for a third time, head to toe, put on clean, white linen garments for the third time, and then finally he would make a sacrifice for the sins of the people. And all of this was done in public at the temple. The reason that he washed so many times was because he represented the people to God. And our God is a holy God. Sin and uncleanness cannot stand in his presence.

That’s what is so shocking about the vision that Zechariah has. He sees Joshua the high priest, ministering in the presence of God, in garments that are covered in excrement. How could that be? An entire week was dedicated to making sure that the high priest was as ceremonially clean as possible. And yet, Zechariah sees a vision of Joshua the high priest covered in dirty, unclean garments.

That is what God sees when he looks at us. He sees the uncleanness in our hearts; an uncleanness that we cannot wash away ourselves. But notice what God says to Joshua. He say, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”[3] God says he will be the one who cleans us.

500 years after Zechariah, there was another high priest named Joshua; another Joshua who spent the night before the Day of Atonement in prayer in a garden. But instead of having food brought to him, he provided food to others. Instead of needing to be washed, he washed the feet of his disciples declaring that if they were in him they were clean. Instead of offering a sacrifice, he was the sacrifice that would clean us. On the cross, Jesus took on all of our sin and shame. On the cross, Jesus was made unclean so that in him we would be clean.

While Jesus’ death is what cleanses us, the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts. He takes our unclean, sinful hearts and replaces them with clean hearts. Hearts that desire to glorify God and keep his commands. Hearts that are broken over their sins.

Even though we have these new hearts, we will continue to sin. Sin still affects us. But the good news is that we are cleansed from sin’s defiling effects. Christ’s death on the cross completely and utterly cleanses us from all sin. That doesn’t mean we should go on sinning. No, absolutely not. We should not intentionally go and sin.

This should be a comfort to us. It should comfort us to know that if we are in Christ, we are cleaned from all sin and defilement. And even when we do fall into sin, we are clean. We can be confident knowing that Christ has cleansed us and the Holy Spirit has given us a new heart.

In those moments when Satan tempts you to despair and tells you of the guilt within, when he tries to say you’re unclean, look to the cross. Look to the cross and know that Jesus has taken all of your uncleanness and given you his cleanness. Know that the Holy Spirit has given you a new heart, a clean heart.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Mk 7:1–23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] Ryle, J. C. (1993). Mark (p. 104). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[3] The New International Version. (2011). (Zec 3:4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.