Jesus teaches an amazing point about sin that changes everything about what it means to be his disciple. Before we read what Jesus is about to say that is startling, we need to remember the prior teaching in Mark 7:1-13. In that paragraph the Pharisees challenge Jesus because his disciples do not wash their hands according to the tradition of the elders. Jesus responds that the religious leaders are hypocrites by elevating their traditions to the level of God’s law while devaluing what God’s law actually taught. They had made God’s word void by their traditions. When we add fences and rules to God’s law we are actually rejecting God’s law and our hearts are far from God. Now listen to the shocking teaching Jesus gives to the people after this encounter which is recorded in Mark 7:14-15.
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:14–15 ESV)
Now I want you to think about this for a moment. This is a startling declaration because God did command that there were certain foods that the people of Israel were not to eat because they were unclean. Many foods were counted as unclean under the Law of Moses. But Jesus says that it is not what a person eats that is defiling but what comes out of a person that is defiling. But notice what Jesus does next. He does not explain himself. He simply says this and leaves the crowd. We have seen this procedure with Jesus many times. Jesus will tell a parable or declare a teaching and then walk away. We learned in Mark 4:11-12 that Jesus does this to see who is going to come to him for understanding. Who is truly seeking spiritual things? Who will try to understand the message Jesus is giving?
What Defiles (7:17-23)
So the disciples come to Jesus and ask him about this parable. I love the spiritual pursuit of the disciples. They leave the people and enter the house and they are not going to talk about the weather. They want to know more. They want to know what Jesus is saying because what he just said sounds so contrary to what the Law of Moses declared. Jesus challenges the disciples’ thinking in verse 18. “Do you not see what whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?”
Jesus indicates that this should have been something obvious for his audience to understand. The concern needs to be what affects the heart. Food does not touch the heart but touches the stomach. Therefore it cannot be defiling. The Mosaic laws were a picture book about defilements and sins. But Mark highlights for us the stunning nature of his teaching. Jesus had just pronounced that all foods were clean. The kingdom of God had come with Jesus as king and the food regulations had come to an end. So now Jesus teaches what the real issue is in verses 20-23.
And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20–23 ESV)
Notice that Jesus says the real issue is what comes out of a person. It is what comes out of a person that defiles, not what goes in a person. Jesus says that food comes in and goes out. But Jesus says that out of the heart, from within, comes evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. Now this is not a new idea to the New Testament teaching. The Hebrew Scriptures said the same and the prophets declared the same.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV)
Friends, this is a devastating picture. This is really hard to hear. Our problems are heart problems. Our problems are not external but internal. The issue is not outside of yourself but inside yourself. The issue is not everyone else. The issue is you. Our sin issues are not because our spouses, our friends, our parents, our children, our co-workers, our employers, or anyone else. Our sin issues are inside of us. This is why we cannot run from our issues and sinfulness because our sinfulness and evil are inside of us, not outside of us. This is why external solutions do not work without heart change. The reason we continue to struggle with certain sins, even though we may change the external circumstances, is because the problem is inside of us. The issue is a heart issue. This is also why fixing the externals is not what God is looking for. The external acts are not the problem but symptoms of the problem. The problem comes from the heart.
You cannot tempt me with a glazed donut. When I was a kid two or three times I got sick on a glazed donut. So now I do not have a heart for a glazed donut. You can offer a plate of them and you can offer them hot. But I do not want one because I do not have a heart for it. There is no desire for it. You cannot tempt me to eat liver and beets because I have no heart for it. Sin is a reflection of a heart problem.
William Lane made this point so well. This teaching “attacked the delusion that sinful men can attain to true purity before God through the scrupulous observance of cultic purity which is powerless to cleanse the defilement of the heart.” Shaping up and flying right is not the avenue for entrance into the kingdom of Jesus. But how often is God presented in this way! Getting your life to look right is not what God wants. Whitewashing the outside of our lives to look Christian is not the call of our Lord. Going to church and trying to be a good person is not the call of the Lord. External and physical actions come from the internal source, the heart.
Now hear this key truth. This is why getting in touch with your feelings, listening to your heart, being true to yourself, or finding yourself is never going to be the answer to your life. Rather, this pursuit will bring you to your spiritual destruction because your heart is the problem. The heart is dark and depraved. Listening to the heart and being governed by the heart equals our destruction. The problem is in us. The solution is not in us. The reason we are sinners is because of our hearts. All of the sins that Jesus lists, in fact all sins, come from within us.
Therefore, true holiness is internal and not external. This is something that Israel missed within all the regulations given. Following Jesus is not about stopping sinful things exclusively. Stating that following Jesus is simply stopping sins presents the completely wrong focus. We can try to stop all the externals of sin and still be completely lost before God because we have not changed the heart nor have been seeking a relationship with God. No outward act can fix the heart. Each of the sins that Jesus lists is a problem of the heart, not something else. This is why telling people to stop sinning is an insufficient and non-biblical answer. Stopping sin that is not rooted in knowing the love and grace of God is going to fail. This is the reason we fail in our efforts to stand against sin also.
Think about what has happened. The message that is frequently presented is that if you stay away from bad movies, try really hard to be good, pray and read your Bible, then God will actually love me and help the pain in my life. But what happens with this method? We never feel good enough. We are trying to change our heart through these external changes and we can tell that it is not working. The outside in approach only makes us feel more confused. So then we become more discouraged and feel further from God because our external changes did not change our heart to keep us from the sins and weaknesses we were trying avoid. What we may not realize is that ultimately we are still trying to be good enough. If we can just make enough changes, then God will be pleased. But this is not the gospel message. That is the message of the Law of Moses that God gave to show Israel and the world that such a system of righteousness cannot work.
This is hard for us to accept but we must listen to this truth: whatever sin we are struggling with reflects a problem in the heart. I want to think that is simply an external problem that I can correct by changing the external. But anger is a heart problem. Lust is a heart problem. Malice is a heart problem. Greed is a heart problem. Deceit is a heart problem. Pride is a heart problem. “All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (7:23). We simply do not love Jesus enough so we seek to fulfill our desires in sinful ways. Our satisfaction is not in what God is offering us. We do not want what he is giving to us for these desires. We want to shortcut these desires for the flesh rather than for the spirit God has given us. Jesus made this very point in the Sermon on the Mount.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:21 ESV)
This is a devastating thought. What you are treasuring in your life is where your heart is at. If your heart is involved in these things then these are things we are treasuring. We are treasuring anger, lust, pride, malice, greed, and the like. Our desire for God is not greater than our desire for these behaviors. The answer is that we must address our hearts. Now it is important to remember at this moment that the heart in the scriptures is not only the emotional element of our being, but also the rational, intellectual, decision-making element in us. The heart represents the whole of our being: the logic, the mind, the rational, and the emotional. Our whole being must be changed toward a full pursuit of God. If we continue to treasure worldly things, then our heart will continue to be worldly. If we continue to treasure sinful acts, then our heart will continue to be darkened and sinful. What we treasure is where our heart will be.
So if we truly want our hearts to be in the light and no longer polluted by sin, what must we do? We must treasure things that are not polluted. I hope that we are able to see the difference between just stopping sin and treasuring things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). We will not stop doing something that we treasure. We do what we want to do. We can make all the excuses we want but we do what we want to do. So when we do not desire to pray, desire to worship, desire to read God’s word, desire to study together, desire Bible study, or other spiritual disciplines it shows where are heart is located because we are treasuring other things.
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7–8 ESV)
So how would God change hearts? God would demonstrate his love for you repeatedly. God would show his love for you in common grace. As the scriptures say, the Lord brings the rain on the just and the unjust. God does good for all people all the time to show the world that he loves them. We are breathing now because God has allowed it. We have what we have because God has allowed it. Further, God shows his love for you by offering eternity with him which is paradise. Not only this, God sacrificed his Son so that you would be able to be in relationship with God. What God did was work to win our hearts. Guys, think about when you were trying to woo your future spouse. Think about all the different ways you try to show her love to gain her attention. From flowers and dinners, movies and long walks together, you did all you could to show your love so that she would respond with love and do likewise toward you.
God did has done this over and over again so that we would respond in love for him. What is amazing about the love of God is that God kept passionately pursuing us even when we kept saying no, turning our backs on him! He is working to win our hearts through Jesus. Let the love of God melt your heart to hear what he is telling you and what he has done for you.
The world says you are what you do. Jesus says you do what you are. Your actions reflect your heart. Your words reflect your heart. Your decisions reflect your heart. Desire God because he first loved you and gave himself for you. Draw closer to him and get to know him. Only then, as you treasure him, your heart will be transformed, which will then change your actions so that can stop the sins that we commit.