In a previous post, we looked at the role clean and unclean foods played in establishing the holiness of God’s people. Fast forward several thousand years and we see Jesus using those same categories to teach where true defilement comes from. Let’s follow up our previous post with this look at Mark 7:1–23 and notes from the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible.

Check out the previous post in this series: Holiness Code: Clean and Unclean Creatures.

True Holiness and the Inclusion of the Nations (7:1—8:21)

At the heart of the first exodus was God’s command that Israel be holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44–45). So too in this new exodus. Holiness/purity has been a concern for Mark from the very beginning of his Gospel, expressed by the promised baptism with the Holy Spirit (1:8), Jesus’ casting out impure spirits (1:2128; 3:11), Jesus’ curing leprosy (1:40–44), and Jesus’ eating with impure sinners (2:16). Now it inevitably becomes prominent in Jesus’ replacement of ritual purity with purity of the heart (7:1–23), which prepares the way for his ministry in impure Gentile regions (7:24—8:10) and culminates in his warning to avoid the impure “yeast” that defiles the hearts of Herod and the Pharisees (8:11–21).

That Which Defiles (7:1–23)

This passage’s length, fieriness, and concentration of weighty Scriptures (vv. 6–10) emphasize the importance of Jesus’ teaching on ritual purity and food laws. In cancelling them Jesus anticipates the later mission to the Gentiles and their inclusion in God’s people simply through faith in him.

Jesus Rebukes Some Pharisees and Teachers of the Law (7:1–13)

There is now a return of official opposition from Jerusalem not seen since the Beelzebul confrontation (3:22–30). There they accused Jesus of an unholy alliance with the “prince of demons” (3:22). Here their question concerns ritual purity, which was inseparable from Israel’s conception of holiness (Lev 11:44) and thus Israel’s relationship with God (e.g., Lev 20:25; Num 9:13).

The Pharisees and Jews made a particular point of their Jewishness. In explaining this practice and later the meaning of Corban (v. 11), Mark reveals that his audience includes a significant number of Gentiles. The Pharisees knew that the law required hand washing only of the priests eating the holy food (Exod 30:18–21), but to show their piety, they extended it to ordinary people eating ordinary food. The marketplace, from which Jesus and his disciples had just come (6:56), was potentially a major source of ritual contamination.

Hypocrites and Human Tradition

For the first time, Jesus publicly denounces Jerusalem’s teachers. Previous critics from Jerusalem had blasphemed the Holy Spirit, making God their enemy. While these teachers of the law see marketplaces as a source of impurity (v. 4)—though they love the praise garnered there (12:38)—Jesus, the true Shepherd-King, sees marketplaces as places to bring God’s promised restoration to his people (6:56).

Israel was already under God’s judgment for its idolatrous disobedience (Isa 6:9–10), and Isaiah had already denounced Israel’s faithless and blind leaders (Isa 29:9–10) for pretending to worship God while they pursued their own agendas (Isa 29:13, the text Jesus cites here). For Jesus, Jerusalem’s present leaders are in exactly the same position. The Pharisees and teachers of the law are “hypocrites” because by requiring people in general to do what God himself had only required of the priests in their temple service, they had put their merely human tradition above the revealed word of God in the Scriptures. Only those whose “hearts are far from [God]” (v. 6) would presume to do such a thing.

Avoiding the Fifth Commandment (7:10–13)

This commandment (Exod 20:12) is the first with a promise: long life in the land (Deut 5:16; cf. Eph 6:2–3). In Jewish tradition honoring parents was the weightiest commandment governing human relationships. Failing to do so risked disinheritance and exile.

“Corban” (v. 11) was the practice of allowing someone to devote something to God (cf. Num 30:1–2). It could result, either by the vower’s intention or by legal ruling, in an adult child avoiding or being unable to meet their obligation to support their parents. Either way, the parents were denied what was their due according to Scripture. In Jewish tradition, those who forsake their parents are like blasphemers (cf. 3:28–29); one could only dishonor one’s parents if one had already dishonored God (cf. vv. 6–8).

It Is Not Food but the Heart That Defiles (7:14–23)

That Jesus has just done what only God can do (6:30–56; cf. 2:5, 10, 28; 4:35–41) demonstrates his divine authority to summon the crowds and to redefine the nature of holiness for God’s people.

Jesus’ sweeping declaration to a Jewish crowd effectively repeals the entire framework of food laws and since nothing exterior can defile, ritual purity (see v. 19; cf. Matt 15:11; Rom 14:14). Since those laws directly related to God’s holiness (Lev 11:44), only someone exercising God’s own authority could rescind them. Mark’s readers already know that Jesus has this authority; he is the authoritative Son of Man (2:10) and embodies God’s presence upon the earth (1:2–3).

Jesus explains the parable privately to his disciples (cf. 4:11, 33–34). The numerous parallels with the parable of the sower/soils (4:3–20) suggest that the teaching here is of similar importance for Mark. If that parable concerned the secret of the kingdom (i.e., Jesus’ identity), then this parable explains the complete and radical implications of Jesus’ identity as it relates to the entire system of ritual purity (2:21–22).

The disciples’ failure to understand links Jesus’ redefinition of purity with his identity. It would be several years before the disciples fully understood the implication of Jesus’ statement (cf. Acts 10:1—11:18). Mark’s editorial comment makes Jesus’ intention crystal clear: no longer does food or an unwashed hand “defile” one’s relationship with God; only the impure heart does so (cf. Rom 14:14).

Jesus’ conformity to God’s life-giving character is the hallmark of true purity (cf. 2:27; 3:4). Mark’s readers might recall the very different actions of Jesus’ opponents (3:5, 22).

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