It is possible to have all the outward trappings of religion and still lack a genuine love for God and desire to do his will. Others may applaud you, and life may seem to be going well, all the while you may still lack the heart of pure religion. In this message from Mark 7:1–23, David Platt points us to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day as a warning of what it looks like to miss a heart for God. Like them, we’re capable of missing God’s purposes for us when we become focused on justifying ourselves and pleasing ourselves. God’s Word, not preferences and traditions, must be our final authority.
If you have a Bible—and I hope you or somebody around you does that you can look on with — let me invite you to open it to Mark 7. As you’re turning there, I want to welcome you; it is always good to be together around God’s Word, which we don’t take for granted.
Before we dive in today, I want to encourage every one of us to make a plan for inviting someone to come to one of our Easter gatherings. Invite somebody who doesn’t know Jesus to come with you on Easter Sunday; most people will come to church on Easter Sunday if someone invites them. So invite them. Start inviting them now. Make a plan for who, how, when—and remember why. Invite people to hear about Jesus because you love them and you know their eternity hinges on trusting in Jesus as their life. Because you love Jesus and because you love them so much, you need to introduce others to Him. So make a plan and let’s pray intentionally between now and Easter Sunday for our family members, friends, neighbors and coworkers to trust in Jesus that day—if not before then—as we have opportunities to share Jesus with them leading up to Easter.
Mark 7 is a chapter that starts with an accusation about Jesus’ disciples having unclean hands. So I did a little experiment this week with two of my kids, Isaiah and Mara, to see how clean their hands were after they washed them. Here’s a little homemade video of how that turned out.
David: All right, Isaiah and Mara, you ready for this? Okay, let me see your hands. Let’s put a little lotion on there and rub it in really good, like under your fingernails and on both sides of your hands. There we go. Okay, now we’re going to turn the lights off and see if there are germs on your hands. Are you ready? Here we go. Let’s look at those hands. Turn off the lights (black light comes on).
Isaiah: Wow, that’s weird.
David: Yikes. Okay, turn them over. Oooh. Those are germs. Now, let’s turn the lights back on and we’re going to wash your hands again. All right, wash them really good. Do you feel like you’ve got them washed pretty good? Let’s see how well you washed your hands. Here we go. Turn the lights out. Hmm. Turn those around. Ooh, Isaiah. I thought you washed your hands.
Isaiah: I did!
David: Mara, what happened? Turn them over the other way. Whoa. Look at that. Look at your fingers. Yikes.
So that will make you think twice about shaking anybody’s hands today—my kids’ or otherwise. Now the discussion of clean hands we’re about to see in Mark 7 was not between a dad and his kids; it was between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees who were looked at as experts in pure religion before God, as kings of religious cleanliness in that day. But in Mark 7 Jesus flat-out tells them that in their infatuation with what they thought was pure religion they were missing the whole point. This was bold.
Imagine me telling LeBron James that he doesn’t know anything about basketball, or telling Ronaldo that he doesn’t know anything about soccer (or what the rest of the world calls football). Imagine me telling Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates that they don’t know anything about business, or Carrie Underwood and John Legend that they don’t know a thing about music. Imagine me telling the Rock he knows nothing about muscle gain.
Mark 7:1–23 Speaks to the G.O.A.Ts of Religion:
Well, in Mark 7 Jesus is talking to the spiritual athletes, the spiritual elites, the spiritual body-builders of that day—the people everyone looked to as the G.O.A.Ts of religion (the greatest of all time). In this conversation, Jesus tells them they don’t know anything. In the process, Jesus totally redefines the heart of pure religion before God in a way that not only had massive implications for them then, but also has massive implications for every single one of our lives today. So let me show it to you, starting in Mark 7:1: “Now when the Pharisee gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem…”
Let’s pause here for a minute and look at the context here. The Pharisees were the teachers of God’s law; the scribes were an official delegation that had come up from Jerusalem specifically to question Jesus. They’ve done this already in the book of Mark and now they’re doing it again. The picture is clear: don’t be surprised when religious people come after you. Don’t be surprised when religious people try to trap you in your words or accuse you for your actions, which is exactly what they do, starting in verse two:
2 ….they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Let me pause here and make sure we understand what we just read. The religious leaders were saying the disciples’ hands were defiled, unwashed, unclean as they were eating. But this was more than just a hygiene issue like you saw in that video. This was a matter of religious ritual cleansing according to tradition—the tradition of the elders specifically. See, over time, oral tradition had developed alongside God’s Word. As scribes studied God’s Word and saw, for example, a picture of priests in Exodus 30 and 40 being commanded to wash their hands in a certain way, they would then apply those commands to everybody. Before long, everybody was washing their hands in a certain way before meals, because that’s what was taught by the religious leaders, even though there was never a command in God’s Word for everyone to do that. There were other traditions like this, such as how to cleanse yourself after you returned from the marketplace, or specific rules for washing cups and pots and other things.
So the Pharisees and scribes asked Jesus, “Why do Your disciples disobey and not walk according to the tradition of the elders, eating with defiled hands?” Jesus replied to them in verse six, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written….”
So Jesus went for the jugular with a group of people who were attacking, trying to trap and accuse Him. He said, “Hundreds of years ago, Isaiah talked about you hypocrites, you religious fakes.” Again, these are the spiritual elite of their day. Jesus said, “You’re a bunch of imposters,” then He quotes from Isaiah 29:13, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
That last phrase is so important. “You are teaching as doctrines for people to follow commandments and ideas that come from men, from people.” In the process, look at verse eight, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” They were leaving the actual commandments of God while they were holding onto the traditions of men.
Next, Jesus starts to pour it on: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” Then Jesus gives them another example in verse ten:. “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’” Those were clear commands from God’s law.
11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.”
Let’s look at a little background here. God had clearly commanded children to honor their father and mother and to help provide for them. but people in that day had come up with a tradition to basically get around that. The word “corban” here is used about 80 times in the book of Leviticus, Numbers and Ezekiel, referring to an offering that was dedicated to God. People who wanted to hold on to their possessions would actually dedicate them as Corban to God, meaning as long as they were alive, they could enjoy and use those possessions however they wanted, then after they died, those possessions would belong to the temple. So if somebody didn’t want to provide for their aging parents, they would dedicate their possessions as Corban. They would say, “Sorry, Mom and Dad. I’d share with you, but I can’t, because my possessions are Corban. They are dedicated to God.” In this way, they were going around God’s command to honor and help their parents, following a tradition that totally voided the Word of God.
“And many such things you do,” Jesus said at the end of verse 13. This is just a couple ways they were so focused on their traditions and their thoughts that they were ignoring God’s word. Hold on to that—we’ll come back to it in a minute.
Let’s keep going here in verse 14. By this time Jesus was shocking everyone. He was confronting the religious leaders in a way that nobody did, and the people—including the disciples—were saying, “What is going on?”
14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 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 7:1–23 Redefines Pure Religion Before God:
This is where Jesus starts to redefine pure religion before God. Going back to handwashing, Jesus says it’s not fundamentally what you do on the outside that makes you clean or defiled, unclean or undefiled. No, defilement starts with what is inside you, that which comes out of you from inside. Then, much like we see at different points in the book of Mark, Jesus brings His disciples specifically aside for more private conversation with them and here we get some elaboration on what this means.
17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
What a statement. Jesus just made a revolutionary claim. He just said that spiritual transformation happens, not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Realizing this changes everything, not just about the way we look at religion or even what we’re doing in this gathering right now, but realizing this has eternal ramifications for your life, right where you’re sitting, and my life standing before you.
Follow this. I want to show you five dangers of empty religion according to Jesus. Even as I use this language, I want you to think with me who this is possible. Is it possible for you or me to be religious, to do religious things—like going to church, reading our Bible or all sorts of good deeds—yet miss the whole point? According to what we just read, the answer is absolutely yes, it is possible. These were the religious leaders who went to the synagogue all the time, who studied God’s Word all the time, who did all kinds of good deeds. But Jesus called them hypocrites, pretenders, fakes.
Hollow religion is to miss the whole point in dangerous ways. Let me show you five dangers.
1. They elevated their thoughts and traditions above God’s Word.
This is pretty clear from what we just read. These religious leaders had added so many rules and regulations to God’s law that in the process those rules and regulations—their thoughts and traditions—became more important to them than what God had actually said. Just think about what was driving this. This is so important to see. Let’s get below the surface here. By elevating their thoughts and traditions above God’s Word, they began to justify their self-centeredness. Think about their approach to Corban, these offerings. They created a way to hold on to their possessions while ignoring parents in need. Their thoughts and traditions enabled them to live for themselves instead of God’s law and living for the good of others.
Then second, by elevating their thoughts and traditions above God’s Word, they fueled their self-righteousness. They had come up with a whole set of teachings to follow that would make people righteous before God. In other words, as long as they did what they thought was right, they could be considered righteous before God.
Then third, by elevating their thoughts and traditions above God’s Word, they served their self-interests. Think about these religious leaders and their teachings on ritual washings. They created a whole religious system that was dependent on getting additional rules from themselves, not from God’s Word. If what Jesus was saying was true—that righteousness is found in following God’s Word and not the teachings of religious leaders—then these guys were out of a job.
Now, all of this can seem pretty far removed from us. We don’t have teachings about Corban or ritual washings today. But let me give a couple examples of this danger in more recent history. Let’s think about the dangers of empty religion. In the last couple centuries in our country religious were people going to church weekly, reading their Bibles daily and doing all sorts of good religious things, all while seeing people with black skin as less than them. For years religious people subjected other people to slavery and abuse, by buying and selling them as property, only to be followed by years of segregating, demeaning and disadvantaging them, only to be followed by years of denying these disparities. How is that possible? Well, for many reasons, and I certainly don’t want to oversimplify the past or the present. At least part of the problem involves religious people and their religious leaders holding so tightly to their own thoughts and traditions in ways that justified self-centeredness, fueled self-righteousness and served self-interest, all to the detriment of generations of people made in the image of God. The danger of empty religion.
Let’s take another example. God has given us a clear command—a great commission that we say at the end of all our gatherings—to make disciples of all the nations, of all the people groups of the world. Jesus said, “This is what I am leaving you on this earth to do.” And God has given Christians and churches across our country’s landscape billions upon billions of dollars to do it. Yet we spend a minute percentage—far less than 1% of our collective resources—on getting the gospel to unreached nations, on doing what Jesus clearly told us to do. Why? Could it be that one of the reasons, if not the primary reason, is because we’ve created an entire religious system that justifies self-centeredness. Even when we give leftover money in our churches, we use most of that money on making church comfortable for us in ways that fuel self-righteousness as we serve self-interest.
We practically define the Christian life as a safe spin on the American dream, coasting it out here while we turn a deaf ear to billions of people on their way to an eternal hell who have never even heard the good news of how they can go to heaven. We have convinced ourselves that this is Christianity. The danger of empty religion is when thoughts and traditions focus on making life great in our nations, but then trump Jesus’ command to make His name great in all nations.
We could list many more examples of how we can so easily elevate our thoughts and traditions to avoid God’s clear commands to care for refugees and sojourners, the poor and the oppressed, orphans and widows—the kinds of things God defines as religion that is pure and undefiled. Beware of the dangerous tendency that resides in every one of us to hold tightly to our thoughts and traditions, even our opinions or convictions, resulting in actually making void the Word of God.
2. They performed religious actions for themselves apart from spiritual affection for God.
This wasn’t the only evidence of empty religion in Mark 7. This is Jesus quoting from Isaiah, who had called out God’s people for hollow, hypocritical worship. Notice the connection here between vain worship and teaching as doctrine the commandments of people. Don’t miss the connection here between the first and second dangers of empty religion.
If what brings us together in this gathering right now is our collective thoughts and traditions, our opinions, convictions and practices that we’re most comfortable with, then who are we worshiping in our gatherings? Ourselves, under the guise of worshiping God? If what unites us is our thoughts and traditions, then we’re united in the worship of ourselves, yet we think we’re worshiping God when we’re not. It’s exactly what Jesus was saying to these religious leaders. “You’re not worshiping God. Your hearts are actually far from God. This is why the Word of God must be that which brings us together. not my thoughts or your thoughts. Not my opinions or your opinions. Not my convictions or your convictions. And certainly not the prevailing thoughts, opinions or convictions of a particular country, party, ethnicity or ideology. Only the Word of God, clearly and plainly taught and understood, leads to true worship of God.
What happens when this Word is truly elevated above our thoughts and traditions? Spirit affection happens. This Word leads to spiritual brokenness and contrition over sin, as our thoughts, traditions, opinions and convictions are put in their proper place. True elevation of this Word leads to spiritual fear and awe before God in His greatness. It leads to spiritual gratitude and thanksgiving for God’s grace. It also leads to spiritual hope and strength in God’s promises, like we saw last week amidst the storms in our lives. It leads to spiritual celebration of His salvation. This is true worship and this is what happens when we elevate God’s Word far above our own thoughts and traditions.
What did God say through Isaiah later, in Isaiah 66:2? This is God speaking: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” True religion trembles at the Word of God and is followed by a humility and contrition that leads to spiritual affection for God. How easy it is for any one of us to come into a setting like this today, singing songs, praying or listening to a sermon, while our minds and hearts are actually far from God.
Just so you know, I can be guilty of this just as much as anybody else. Those who work in the church are most susceptible to this temptation, because it’s their job to be religious. The reality is that it is possible for any one of us to perform religious actions for ourselves apart from spiritual affection for God.
This leads right into the third danger of empty religion. I’m actually going to cover these last three back-to-back-to-back, because they build on each other and everything we’ve already seen.
3. They saw uncleanness in others that they refused to see in themselves.
These religious leaders were literally on a mission to point out uncleanness in others—in the disciples and ultimately in Jesus. Religious people will use people close to you to come after you.
By the end of this conversation, Jesus was saying to them, “You’re the unclean ones,” but they couldn’t, and wouldn’t see it. Throughout the rest of the book of Mark, we’re going to see these Pharisees and scribes, again and again and again, arguing with Jesus and eventually plotting and implementing a plan to kill Him—all while thinking they were in the right.
4. They ultimately thought they could make themselves clean.
They thought they could make themselves right. These religious leaders created a whole way of thinking and a pattern of living that they thought would make them okay before a holy God. Let me say that again, just to make sure you don’t miss it. These religious leaders created a whole way of thinking and pattern of living that they thought would make them okay before a holy God.
I repeat that because it leads right into the fifth danger, which I believe is the most important one. So don’t miss it. By the end of this story, we have a pretty negative impression of these religious leaders—and for good reason. They elevated their thoughts and traditions above God’s Word in ways that fueled self-centeredness, self-righteousness and self-interest. They performed religious actions for themselves with hearts that were far from God. They were pointing out uncleanness in others that they refused to see in themselves. And despite all their wickedness, they thought they could make themselves clean. All of this leads to the last danger that we need to see about these religious leaders.
5. We are them.
We are them. By “we,” I mean every single one of us in this gathering today. You, right where you’re sitting right now, me, all of us—we all elevate our thoughts and traditions above God’s Word. This is actually the essence of sin in each of us. We all think our ways are better than God’s Word. This is the first sin ever in the world. “God, I know what tree to eat from, no matter what You say. My thoughts are better than Your Word.”
We all assert our ways over God’s Word. It looks different in each of our lives, but we do this in ways that fuel our self-centeredness, self-righteousness and self-interest. We can all perform monotonous religious actions apart from authentic spiritual affection. We all have a keen ability to see things in others that we refuse to see in ourselves. We can all create a way of thinking and a pattern of living that makes us think we’re okay before God. The clear point of Mark 7:1-23 is that it doesn’t work. The point of this passage is that the people who tried the hardest and did the best, who were the most respected, spiritually-elite athletes of their day, couldn’t do it.
Now follow this because this is where this passage comes directly into your mind and heart. What we don’t need, then, are all of our attempts to clean our hands. Jesus said, “Understand this.” Like, get this. It’s not what goes into a person from outside that defiles him. You can’t make yourself clean on the outside, no matter how many times you wash your hands. These Pharisees and scribes were so focused on the outside that they were completely bypassing the heart—and we can do the same thing.
Again, it looks different in each of our lives. Just think about all our individual efforts on the outside to be happy, good, right, successful through work, education, appearance, money, possessions, status, religion. We can do everything we can, but our problem is deeper than any of those things can solve. Our problem is at the core. Deep down inside, all of us are unclean before a holy God. What we don’t need are our relentless attempts to clean our hands. What we desperately need is Jesus to change our hearts from within.
Mark 7:1–23 Highlights the Root Cause of Sin:
Jesus lists all kinds of sins here in Mark 7 and His point is that all these things proceed from the heart. Evil thoughts come from an evil heart. Sexual immorality proceeds from a sinful heart. Theft comes from a heart of greed, a heart that is not content with what you rightfully have. Murder is an attitude of the heart before physical action. We could keep going: adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. These are all heart issues that start within. No matter how many times you wash your hands on the outside, you can’t make yourself clean on the inside. But, good news, this is why Jesus came. This is what God promised centuries before Jesus came.
God said through Ezekiel, in Ezekiel 36:25-27:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
This is revolutionary. Stop focusing on the outside to make yourself right. No, God says, “If only you will let Me, I will.” See how He says “I will” over and over and over again: “I will do this work, deep down inside you. I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart. I will put a new spirit you that wants to obey My rules, My statutes and My Word.” How is that possible? How do we get a new heart?
Only through Jesus. Only through the One Who has lived a life of no sin, no uncleanness, no defilement. Then, though He had no sin or defilement for which to die, He chose to die on a cross to pay for our defilement. Then He rose from the grave in victory over death, so that anyone, anywhere, no matter what defilement is in the heart, can confess their sinfulness and turn from their attempts to make themselves right. Anyone who trusts in Jesus to make them right, to change their heart from the inside out, God Himself will forgive and cleanse of all your sin. God, Himself will fill you with His Spirit and enable you from the inside out to experience eternal life with Him. This is the gospel. This is why the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Has this happened to you? Have you let Jesus make you a new creation? Have you trusted Jesus to change you from the inside out? If not, I invite you to experience this miracle today. Your life, now and for all eternity, depends on this miracle happening in your heart. It doesn’t depend on you being religious, or making yourself right, good, happy, successful on the outside, but on trusting Jesus to totally transform you from the inside out.
Then for all who have trusted Jesus in this way, let’s live this from the inside out, not in lives of empty religion with all its dangers, but in pure religion with all its blessings. Let’s meditate on, memorize, study and digest God’s Word, so that it is elevated far above all our thoughts, traditions, opinions and convictions. Let’s turn aside from all our tendencies to justify, fuel and serve our ways, instead of obeying God’s Word. Let’s worship Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Let’s love our neighbors are ourselves, caring for the poor, the oppressed, the disadvantaged and displaced, for the orphans, widows and many others in need. Let’s make disciples of all the nations, knowing this is what our God calls pure and undefiled religion.
Will you bow your heads with me? Just a moment ago I asked if have you experienced the miracle of becoming a new creation, receiving a new heart through faith in Jesus as the Savior Who died for your sins, Who rose from the dead and reigns as Lord over your life? If the answer to that question is not a resounding yes in your heart, then I invite you right now to experience the miracle. By faith, simply pray from your heart, “God, I trust that even though I have sinned against You, You love me and desire to cleanse me of all my sin and give me a new heart. I want it today. Cleanse me. Forgive me my sin and fill my heart with Your Spirit. Today I put my trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, as my life.” The Bible says that all who call on the name of Jesus in this way will be saved from all your sin, brought into the family of God, filled with His Spirit and given a new heart.
God, we praise You for this miracle. We confess our need for it because we can’t make ourselves clean or right before You. We can’t make ourselves happy or good apart from Your grace in our lives. We praise You for making this miracle possible—the miracle of a new heart and a new creation possible.
So for all who have experienced this miracle, we pray that You will keep us from empty religion and all its dangers. Keep us from elevating anything in our minds, traditions, opinions or convictions above Your Word. May Your Word be supreme in our hearts and lives, in our families and in Your church. We pray for true spiritual affection. We don’t want to waste our Sundays together and our lives on monotonous religious motion.
God, we pray that You would ignite our spiritual affections for You in deeper and deeper and deeper ways, now and in the days ahead, in ways that overflow into extravagant love for You and extravagant love for our neighbors in need around us. We pray all of these things in Jesus’ name, the One Who alone can change our hearts. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”