Sometimes, church can be like that. Churches very quickly create activity and behavior codes that are really human codes. It can so quickly become a focus on all the activities, the rules, the attendance. Every church has implied behavior codes, and if you fail to adhere to them, you know it very quickly. You can feel it, even if you’re not sure what code you just violated. Understanding this is so important, and it is why Jesus amps it up so quickly here. We should be careful that what we require of ourselves and others is really what God asks and not something that we have created, because we are always tempted to create cultural mores that end up replacing true, biblical faith.
This is the huge personal implication: we can look religious and pious on the outside yet be far from God. And that can be true even if we have been in church for many years. Most Pharisees had been careful Jews from birth. They were from good families, had been in synagogue from before they could remember, did exactly the right things, and were respected by everyone for it. Theirs was a careful faith, a pious life, and a good, solid, respectable religion. And Jesus says it was a rejection of God (Mark 7:6–9).
What Does It Mean to Be Right with God?
It’s easy to have a careful piety but to have the wrong heart inside it and actually be alien to God, even if we’ve been in church our whole lives. Attempts to change—either others or ourselves—from the outside in always fail. Jesus tells us why in verses 14–23 as He turns to the inside out.
In Mark 7:14, Jesus turns to another set of religious laws that Jews of the day kept—the food laws. In other words, Jesus is still talking about the same basic question: What does it mean to be right with God? Judaism of the time had food laws, based on the Old Testament regulations in the Pentateuch, and Jesus resets our understanding of those laws. Those laws had a point and a purpose, but Jesus says that the people of His day had missed it. They had started to think that rigidly keeping the food laws made them right with God. He says: “What you eat just goes on through you. It cannot make you right with God in your heart.”
Outside-in righteousness always fails. It fails because sin is inside us, and it’s indelible. The problem is not “out there.” It is inside our hearts. Consider verses 20–23:
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)
Jesus says that merely cleaning up the outside is no better than taking the battery out of the smoke detector while the fire rages. It cannot truly fix the problem; the fire of evil still burns inside us.
And that sin inside us is indelible, not something we can fix by controlling outside factors. In verses 21–23, Jesus lists thirteen things that come from the heart, six that deal with our behaviors and seven that deal with our attitudes. In other words, the problems are more than skin-deep, more than just following the rules and the letter of the law. Not only must we avoid murder; we must not be angry or jealous of our neighbor. Not only must we avoid adultery; we must put to death every inclination that leads us to lust or envy.
The people in Jesus’ day looked up to the Pharisees because they believed that they had a high view of the law, but Jesus says that the religious leaders didn’t have too high a view of the law; rather, it was too low. To truly keep the law, we must obey more than just the letter of the law; we must keep it in our motives, in our attitudes, in our minds—even before thoughts become actions. And when that is the bar, who can clear it?
We do not need a bandage. We do not just need a change in diet. We need heart surgery. Even more than that, because apart from grace our hearts are permanently unclean, we need someone to give us a new heart. We need a heart transplant. And as Mark’s gospel will go on to declare, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, that is what we receive. It’s what the prophet Jeremiah foretold:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31–34)