Dirty Hands or Dirty Hearts? Mark 7:1-23

Is the human heart good or evil?

During the Cold War, in 1955, the CIA built a plane that could gather intel on the ground while flying high enough to be out of reach of enemy missiles and fighter jets.  The plane was called the U2. With an 80 foot wingspan the U2 flew higher than 70,000 feet while snapping pictures of the earth below. After returning from its first trip over the Soviet Union on July 4th, 1955, the pictures sent off alarm bells in the CIA, and then the upper echelons of government.  The problem? The US had been using bad maps. The pictures showed that all our missiles aimed at Soviet targets were off by at least 20 miles. In the horrific event of nuclear war we would have been missing all our targets.  

We need a good map when it comes to our hearts too.  We may think we know what the terrain of the human heart looks like, but, do we have good maps?  Or are we off? It is commonly believed today that our hearts are basically good and noble. The Bible tells us different.  “The heart”, Jeremiah 17:9 said, “is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Before drowning the world God described the human heart this way in Genesis 6:  “The LORD saw great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”

The passage today in Mark 7 begins with an indictment over dirty hands.  Jesus, like the U2 plane was going to bring an accurate picture of where the filth truly lies.


Jesus is confronted by Jewish religious leaders because some of His disciples were not washing their hands before eating.  Jesus responds by rebuking their hypocrisy and charging them with valuing the commands of men more than the commands of God.  Speaking to the crowd Jesus clarifies that it is not what goes into a man that makes him “unclean”, but, what comes out of him.  The passage ends with Jesus explaining that statement to His disciples in private. Jesus said a man is unclean because of all the unclean things he does that come up out of his heart.  He goes on to list many of those evils.


Breaking Tradition (1-5)

Teachers of the Law and Pharisees from Jerusalem headed north to Galilee to investigate Jesus.  Who are these leaders?  

Teachers of the law were essentially lawyers who were experts in the law of Moses and experts in the whole body of traditions.  

Pharisees came from the teachers of the law, and derived their name from a word meaning “separate”.  They were very careful to avoid religious defilement and emphasized a very strict adherence to the religious law.  

Both were found in the highest echelons of Jewish leadership and both had regular run-ins with Jesus.

So once they arrive it came time for a meal, and they were horrified to see that some of Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands first.  According to the tradition of the elders, Jews were supposed to wash their hands as a religious ritual before every meal. It was for ceremony, not for hygiene.  The procedure went like this: hold your hands out fingertips pointing up and have water poured over them, let the water run down and drip off past the wrist. That water was now unclean for touching the hands, and, if it were to run back over the hands you’d have to start over because it’d make the hands unclean again.  Then turn the fingertips down and have water poured over again and clean each hand with a closed fist. The better Jews would do this between each course at each meal! Mark also explains that they were supposed to wash many other things as well – pots, pans, silverware, cups, etc.

Understanding this obsessive ritualism however means you have understand that the fundamental thought in Judaism from the beginning was whether one was “clean”.  Leviticus 10:10 says, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean.” Over the centuries this idea was taken way beyond God’s commands into absurdity.  Some rabbis taught that if you do nothing else but wash your hands according to the tradition of the elders you will be guaranteed eternal life. One rabbi said it’d be better to walk four miles out of the way to get water than to eat with unwashed hands.  Then there was the rabbi who was imprisoned and was given his small ration of water. He would use it to wash his hands rather than drink it because he said he’d rather die than eat with unwashed hands. (MacArthur 451)

Aghast, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees demand of Jesus an answer for such a gross violation of their tradition.  

Hypocrisy Rebuked (6-13)

Jesus is severe in answering them.  To their face He calls them hypocrites and charges them with putting the teachings of men above the teachings of God.  Their hypocrisy was that they lived by their own rules all while pretending to be following God’s.

Hypocrisy is a heart issue (6)  Quotes Isaiah 29:13, Hypocrisy is the outward mask to cover up the inward reality of our hearts.   read Isaiah 1:11-16. God hates religious hypocrisy: God I’m pretending to worship you outwardly but inwardly I could care less about you.  

Worship is an obedience issue (7-9).  The heart of what Jesus is saying here is that there is no worship of God without obedience.  The fastest way to cause God’s impatience is to offer Him ceremonial worship but not moral worship.  Ceremonial worship is the outward forms of religion. Moral worship is obeying the moral requirements God spells out in His Word.  A perfect example is King Saul. Turn with me to 1 Samuel 15:22-23.  

Hypocrisy Example (10-13)

Then Jesus goes on to give an example to demonstrate His accusation.  Read verses 10-13. So two things are in conflict here: God’s command to honor your parents, and, man’s command of Corban.  Why are these two in conflict? What is Jesus saying here?  

Honoring your parents is a command God made 5th on the 10 commandments.  He takes this seriously. Our memory verse in a few weeks from Colossians 3 will say this:  “Children, obey your parents for this pleases the Lord.” While under their roof and dependent on them it means obeying them, respectfully following their rules, not defying them and showing them proper respect and love and gratitude.  If you’re older and independent, it means respecting them, appreciating them, speaking well of them and in their older years ensuring they are properly cared for. This command comes before stealing, murder, adultery and lying. Think about that.

Corban refers to a gift devoted to God.  The teachers of the law taught that if a son had money to help his needy parents, but, he didn’t want to use that money to help them, all he had to do was verbally declare it to be Corban.  He could say to his parents: “This money is Corban, it is devoted to God.” And just like that, according to the religious authorities, he was free of any obligation to help his needy parents.  What makes this so sinister is that its a man-made rule that undermines God’s rule all while masquerading with the authority of God. The worst hypocrites are religious hypocrites. What all man-made religious rules ultimately end up doing is providing ways to get out of obeying God’s commands while pretending to have God’s authority behind it.  Every time.

The tendency we have as humans is to make two mistakes when it comes to God’s commands.  First is we want to take certain rules and make them more strict than what God does. The other mistake is the opposite, we want certain commands to be less strict than what God commands.  

Application:  The goal is to be calibrated to God’s word.  This means I am no more or no less strict than God is on issues.  This takes time, and constant exposure to Scripture, and humility.  

From The Inside Out (14-16)

After scorch-earthing the Pharisees in front of the crowds, He now turns to the crowds and corrects their misunderstanding about what makes someone clean and unclean.  The key verse, I find, is 16, “it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean.” Now, this statement can be easily misunderstood. Is Jesus saying that eating food doesn’t make you unclean but vomiting that food up does?  Now you may laugh at that, but, remember they interpreted Jesus very literally, like when Nicodemus thought he had to go back into his mothers womb when Jesus said born again. And thats what they did here: notice his own disciples didn’t get it in the next verse and He had to explain it to them.  Jesus’ teaching tactic is to use the physical things of life to pronounce a spiritual truth (e.g., “I am the bread of life” in John 6 after feeding the 5,000……”I am the light of the world” John 8, while standing beneath the temple lanterns)

So what does Jesus mean by this?  If what goes in doesn’t defile, then what is it that comes out that does?

The Heart Of The Matter (17-23)

Jesus does two things in this passage.  First He declares all foods clean, and second, He explains that the heart is the real culprit of impurity.  

First:  So all foods are clean.  To us, big deal. To Jews, a whole new world.  Bacon is on the menu. This verse is important for greater reasons than bacon.  For one thing it showed the Jews that no food is intrinsically unclean. You can’t become “defiled” by eating with unclean hands, and, you can’t become “defiled” by any food.  This was like telling a Jew that water wasn’t wet, and, if you were to read the rest of the NT the Jews struggled with this new food freedom. Second, this verse is important because it shows us Jesus divine authority to now terminate a command God installed long ago.  Finally, in anticipation of the Church that He was going to build, where Jews and Gentiles would be brought together, Jesus was removing food restrictions. These were rules for one group (national Israel), but would not transfer into the new group (the Church). Anyone who is in Christ is no longer bound to the Law, including the food regulations.  Bon appetite!

The 2nd and most important part of this section now is Jesus’ teaching about the heart of man.  Essentially what He says is that its our heart-vomit that makes us unclean. He says that its not what goes into you, but, in verse 20, “it’s what comes out of you that makes you unclean.  Because what comes out of you comes from your heart. (This means that we shouldn’t say anymore that we can’t know a person’s heart. We can by watching and listening to them. We can know ourselves the same way. Proverbs 20:11 says, “Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right.”).  Well then Jesus goes on and gives us 13 things that come out of the heart.  

(Now no list anywhere in the Bible is comprehensive.  Sometimes for instance we think that the “fruit of the Spirit” is only 9 fruits.  But, that’s not an exhaustive list in Galatians 5, its a sampling. The same thing here:  Jesus is giving a sampling of what comes from the sinful heart of men. You’d be better to do what I did and combine a bunch of these kinds of lists from other passages.  I combined Mark 7, 1 Cor 6:9-10, Gal. 5:19-21, and Col. 3:5, 8-10. Adding them up I had a total of almost 40 different types of sins. A lot huh? That’s because the heart is really, really wicked.   “The heart”, Jeremiah 17:9 said, “is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Before drowning the world at Noah’s Flood, God described the human heart this way in Genesis 6:  “The LORD saw great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”

Our heart is polluted with sin, and, that sin that has ruined our hearts comes out.  It comes out in all sorts of ways. And its all those things that come out of our hearts that make us unclean to God.  Let’s look at this list Jesus gives. 

  1. Evil Thoughts are just that – evil, base, reprehensible motions of the mind.  We are instructed instead to think, Philippians 4:8 says, on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” 
  2. Sexual Immorality is the Greek word porneia and it is a phrase the encompasses all sexual sin.  It is not specific to one kind of the many sexual sins, but, all. The point is that any kind of deviation from sexual activity that God has prescribed comes from a person’s polluted heart:  from sex outside of marriage, to pornography, to same-sex relationships to adultery to incest to a whole long list of more sexual sins. Instead, we are to follow the command in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 (turn and read)
  3. Theft would include taking anything that doesn’t belong to you, as in breaking into a house or car and robbing it, or mugging someone.  But theft can also mean withholding from someone what is due to them. You can rob the government of taxes you owe. God told Israel they were robbing Him when they withheld their tithes (Malachi 3:8).  Not paying debts can be seen as theft, since money we have belongs to creditors (Lev. 19:13; Pvb 3:27-28; Ps. 37:21). Instead, Christians are to be careful to have integrity in all their dealings. We are not to take or keep what does not belong to us.
  4. Murder is, well, murder, and, it is condemned in the 10 commandments also, ranking sixth (Ex. 20:13).  Killing someone who did not deserve to be killed. Killing someone you have no right to kill. In Matthew 5:21-22, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus may also be saying that anger was committing murder in your heart. 
  5. Adultery is stepping out on your marriage and sleeping with someone not your spouse, or, stepping in on someone else’s marriage and sleeping with another person’s spouse.  Listed as 7th on the 10 Commandments (Ex. 20:14). There are other kinds of adultery as well. Jesus says if you look lustfully at a woman or a man you’ve committed adultery in your heart (Mt. 5:28).  He also says that if a person gets an unauthorized divorce and remarries they have committed adultery (Mt. 5:32). Adultery does violence to the marriage covenant and Christians – married and single – are to “keep the marriage bed pure” (Heb 13:4)
  6. Greed is the unrestrained obsessive want of more.  It most certainly applies to money and material possessions.  It also may have a sexual meaning too as the word shows up in many lists of sexual sins (“Therefore put to death whatever belongs to your sinful nature:  sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed which is idolatry” Col. 3:5)
  7. Malice is active wickedness.  Malice comes out as active and dangerous opposition to all that is good.  Malice means to actively destroy what is good and of God. “Hey, that guy is a good Christian guy.”  “No he’s not, he’s a terrible, awful, pathetic person.” Jesus was describing the malice of Satan when He said in John 10:15, “[He] comes only to steal, kill and destroy.”  The malicious heart guides the hands that murder.
  8. Deceit.  The 9th Commandment says “You shall not give false testimony.”  Satan “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). Christians are to worship God in truth (Jn 4:23-4) and speak the truth (Eph. 4:15). 
  9. Lewdness is unrestrained sexual instinct (Wuest), or open debauchery (Gundry).  Lewdness describes someone whose appetite for sexual things so overpowers them that they show no restraint in how they talk or act.  The most “religious” of people can be the as lewd as the irreligious when their religion is not Christ, “such regulations have the appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility, and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Col. 2:23).
  10. Envy literally translates as “evil eye” and describes someone who is always looking to pounce on someone – either for gain or just the thrill of it.  Che Guevara, the Marxist killer for Fidel Castro, was perhaps the most bloodthirsty Communist ever – certainly in Cuba. He wrote his wife while in Cuba and said, “alive and bloodthirsty.”  He loved to watch executions so much that he had a wall of his office removed so he could watch when business kept him from being able to attend. Che once killed a man on the mere suspicion he was an informant, then gloated by saying, “I killed him with a .32 caliber…now his belongings are mine.”  Perhaps the father in Proverbs 1 was warning his son to stay away from such people when he said, “My son, if sinners entice you do not give in to them. If they say “Come along with us let us lie in wait for someone’s blood …[so] we will get all sorts of valuable things” This crowd is always looking for ways to harm others for their own benefit.
  11. Slander is the Greek word “blasphemia”, and it is usually translated as blasphemy, which means to speak evil of.  The word “devil” means slanderer, underscoring the likeness of our own hearts with that of this enemy of God.  Slander basically means to ruin the reputation of someone unjustly by maliciously misrepresenting them.  We certainly see a lot of this sin in politics today.  Slander is the verbal equivalent of murder, for slander unjustly kills a person’s good name. 
  12. Arrogance is a word that means “to show yourself above”.  (Wuest)How perfectly this describes us in our arrogance:  we think we are above everyone else; we think everyone else is beneath us.  We feel like we’re better than those around us because our self-esteem is built on top of the condescending criticism we level at others.  “All your pomp has been brought down” God said to Satan (Isa. 14:11). “Your heart became proud” He said again in Ezekiel 28:17, “…so I threw you to the earth.”  Jesus promised, “A man who exalts himself will be humbled; but, a man who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11).
  13. Folly means “senseless, foolishness, moronic.”  (Wuest). This is not just a person who is “clumsy” at life, but, who makes unwise, insensible decisions as a way of life.  This is a moral issue. Folly describes someone who won’t yield to wisdom, who won’t seek God’s will in matters, who lives causing one blunder after another.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, but, he’s never begun in wisdom since actually it is not the Lord that He fears, or, seeks to please.  

The human heart is full of all these.  To one degree or another they ar all present.  The reason is because they come from the sin nature inside of everyone of us and that means we are all capable of all these sins.  To answer our question at the beginning: Is the human heart good or evil? The answer is evil. Jesus said “No one is good but God.” (Mk. 10:18).  He said again, “You, being evil, know how to give good gifts.” (Lk. 11:13).

Are you stained by one or more of the sins on this list?  Are you unclean before God because of the things like these that come out from your heart?  How will you be made clean? The answer is not in reforming your heart, which you can’t do. It isn’t in changing your ways either, since our ways are directed by our hearts, which we can’t cleanse.  The answer is in the Lord Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1 says He “made purification for our sins” when He died on the cross. There He took all our sinful filth on Himself and paid the penalty that we deserved for our crimes.  He was the Substitute who stood in our place. Now, because of His death, our sins are washed away, and we are made clean by God and for God. “Do not call anything unclean” God said to Peter “that I have made clean” (Acts 10:15).  Right now all your sins can be cleansed. All you have to do is put your faith in Jesus and believe that He died for you. He lives now to give you eternal life. 


  1. When you are walking with Jesus Christ you won’t care about impressing others.  The disciples were not concerned about impressing the Pharisees by following their rules.  The reason they weren’t intimidated is because they were with Jesus.   
  2. Don’t depend on man-made rules to have a pure heart.  
  3. Don’t add to God’s word.  What you add is not what God said, and, in short time you will treasure your words over God’s.
  4. Don’t depend on man-made rules to be right with God.
  5. Be careful that you don’t allow man-made rules to be a mask.

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