Evil Things Come from Within | Mark 7:14-23

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.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 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, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 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 7:14-23 ESV

As we will see with the first verse, our present passage is a continuation of the scene that Mark began last week. We saw that the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem gathered about Jesus to question Him about why some of His disciples ate without first washing their hands. Jesus proceeded to denounce them as hypocrites who elevate the traditions of man above the commands of God. We, therefore, spent most of the sermon addressing our relationship to traditions, namely, that we cannot escape from them, but we must submit them to the ultimate authority of Scripture.

You may have noticed, however, that the inciting incident of the accusation that Jesus’ disciples ate with defiled hands was not specifically addressed. Jesus addressed the subject of traditions in general, but He did not pointedly address the issue of ritual defilement. That is, nonetheless, precisely what Jesus sets His sights upon in these verses.

HEAR ME, ALL OF YOU // VERSES 14-15

Thus far, in Jesus’ interaction with the scribes and Pharisees, the moment appeared to be fairly isolated, since we were not told that a crowd surrounded Him at the moment that they gathered around Him. Indeed, it seems to be the pattern of the scribes and Pharisees to avoid the commotion of the public. When Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins, they accused Him of blaspheme within their hearts. As Jesus ate with Matthew and other sinners and tax collectors, they seemed to have whispered their questioning of Jesus’ company only to His disciples. As they sat in the synagogue on the Sabbath, they waited like wolves to pounce on Jesus if we did the ‘work’ of healing a man with a withered hand. Like the children of darkness that they were, the scribes and Pharisees seemed to prefer the periphery and the shadows. Jesus, however, repeatedly calls them into the light and into the public, which is exactly what He also does here:

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.”

We also see here a warning that a rejection of Christ’s teaching never ceases the proclamation of the kingdom, as the scribes and Pharisees would no doubt have desired; instead, the word of truth is merely taken to others. The gospel goes forth until every ear one day will hear; however, the pearls of the good news will not forever be cast before and trampled upon by swine.

The fact that our Lord called attention to His teaching is very important. Geoff Thomas explains:

This is obviously the preface for an important pronouncement. You do know this fact, don’t you, that not everything contained in the Bible is equally important? It is all inspired by God, but some of it is more important for the earlier dispensation and for different functions. For example, the six chapters that begin the first book of Chronicles are not remotely as important as the six chapters of the letter to the Ephesians. Those Old Testament lists of names teach a couple of basic lessons. They are the molehills of the Bible while Ephesians is the Himalayan range of Scripture. So it was with the Lord Jesus’ words: they were not all equally important. That is why we have preserved for us only a millionth part of what he said during his 33 years. Christ did not say, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this . . . Herod is a fox.” He did say, “that fox Herod,” but without any preamble. It was a throwaway line, though true and inspired, about the cunning and cruelty of that king. But there were other words of Jesus which are of awesome significance which he might introduce in this manner: “Verily, verily I say unto you,” and the words of his that follow such an introduction we must know and understand and then do whatever Jesus says.

By saying, Hear me, all of you, and understand, Jesus accenting the tremendous importance of what He was about to say. He then very succinctly demolishes the way that the scribes and Pharisees (and consequently all of the Jews) understood defilement. They viewed defilement as a kind of outside contagion, something that must be caught, yet Jesus informed them that defilement was an internal problem that proceeds outward. He wanted everyone around to both hear and understand this crucial truth.

ALL FOODS CLEAN // VERSES 17-19

Mark then tells us that and when he entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. Is it not interesting that the disciples called verse 15 a parable? Indeed, their reference could be why some manuscripts also include a verse 16 that says simply: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” However, after spending over a month studying Jesus’ parables in chapter 4, we should know that this was not a parable in the sense of the others. Hendriksen does note that the term could be used here “in the sense of a pithy saying,”[1] which may be so.

Of course, the parables of Mark 4 were explicitly used for both revealing and concealing the secret of the kingdom of God. More understanding was given to those with ears to hear, while even what understanding they had would be stripped away from those whose ears were dull of hearing. Verse 15, however, does not seem to carry any intent of concealment. The point that Jesus made, while difficult to accept, was quite clear. Yet because the disciples did not understand, it seems that they assumed a level of concealment.

Jesus begins His response with two questions:

Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?

Here we see again the disciples’ lack of understanding. At the beginning of the parables in Mark 4, Jesus asked a similar question: “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables” (4:13)? After the calming of the sea, they expressed their inability to understand the very identity of their Lord, asking one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him” (4:41)? Finally, the disciples were again perplexed by Jesus’ treading upon the sea, which Mark noted as because “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). Even as they were devoted to Christ, their understanding was lamentably lacking.

Here is the counterbalance to Christ turning away from the scribes and Pharisees. Our God is gloriously patient even toward those who whole-heartedly reject Him; how much more toward those who desire to follow and understand but are simply dull of hearing and plagued by a stiff heart! Since we continue to see only in part and since our understanding is not yet complete, we should take great comfort in the continuous grace that Jesus gives to His disciples. He is ready and willing to explain things slowly for we who are slow to understand.

The second question expands further upon the first part of verse 15. Nothing consumed can defile someone because it only goes into the stomach, not the heart. The significance here is that the heart, not the literal blood-pumping organ, was the very core of a person. Proverbs 4:23 rightly warns to “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Food, however, does not go into the heart but the stomach. Therefore, Paul would write later to Timothy, saying, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). Food like all created things are not innately sinful; we make them sinful by our improper use of God’s good gifts. As Paul also wrote, “to the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled” (Titus 1:15).

Mark then gives us yet another editorial comment, saying, Thus he declared all foods clean. The immediate issue was, of course, eating with unwashed hands, which was a teaching from the traditions of the elders, not a command of Scripture. However, Jesus’ teaching has now left the realm of traditions and moved into the actual law of the Bible, for the Pentateuch outlined many foods that were unclean to eat, foods that Jews still avoid today. Yet by declaring that food itself cannot defile because it does not enter the heart, Jesus effectively declared that not even ceremonially unclean foods could defile a person.

Let us pause for a moment to consider the nature of the law under the New Covenant that Christ has ushered in. While I find the dividing of the law into moral, civil, and ceremonial helpful as categories, I do not think those categories work well for explaining why we still obey some laws and not others. Indeed, I believe that every law is still meant to be obeyed, although not necessarily in the manner that it was under the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus Himself said that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He has taken each law down to its deepest level, fulfilling them through His perfect obedience and giving us His Spirit to enable us to actually desire obedience.

Paul gives two examples of this by using the command. First, he takes Leviticus 19:19’s forbidding of mixing different kinds of cattle and uses the principle to warn the Corinthians against being unequally yoked to nonbelievers (1 Corinthians 6:14). Likewise, Paul took Deuteronomy 25:4’s command to let oxen eat grain while they work and applied the principle to compensating ministers of the gospel.

My favorite example, however, is Deuteronomy 14:21: “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” How can a law as strange as that one still apply today under the gospel of Christ? The underlying principle of this command is that it is wrong to use instruments of life as a means of death. Mother’s milk is life-giving. Perhaps the only substance more life-giving is blood, which was also forbidden to consume under the law. Abortion and euthanasia are the two most standout examples of how this principle could be applied today. Both are doctors, who have committed themselves to life (after all, even poison such as chemotherapy is still ultimately used as a desperate measure to preserve life), become death-dealers. In a broader sense, we can see this principle generally playing out in our society where parents, who are meant to be life-sustainers, more and more sacrifice their children’s needs on the altar of their own convenience, often shrugging off our actions with phrases like, “kids are flexible” or they’ll be fine” (as if fine is the goal that Christian parents should strive toward!). But most importantly, we see how Christ has turned this law on its head by using an instrument of death (the cross) as the means for bring us life everlasting.

Again, Christ has not abolished the law; He has fulfilled it. Therefore, even this declaration that all foods are clean, the commandments that God gave have not passed away. Instead, the core of those commands has been fulfilled at the deepest level. Under the Mosaic Law, God likely forbid certain foods as a sign of the distinctiveness between His people and the nations of the earth. Just as God is holy, so His people were called to be set apart and even their diets were meant to reflect that distinction. God’s people in Christ, however, are no longer a particular nation to be distinguished from all the others. In fact, God now commands that the good news of the kingdom of God be proclaimed to every nation with the marvelous summons to repent and believe in Jesus as the Christ. Thus, there is no longer a need for such outward displays as avoiding certain foods; rather, God’s people are now distinguished by their inward transformation by the indwelling Spirit of God, fruits such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. In short, Jesus did not erase the dietary commandments; He took them down to their most basic element: that we must be distinct from the world around us.

DEFILEMENT FROM WITHIN // VERSES 20-23

But if what goes into the body cannot defile a person, where does true defilement come from? Jesus answers that question with the final verses of our passage:

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.”

This is a terrifying reality. Corruption is easier to manage if it plays by the rules of the scribes and Pharisees. Sure, it might be a pain to observe each letter of tradition without fail, but they presumed the basic premise that corruption is an external element, that we are essentially good as long as we avoid corrupting behaviors. Jesus, however, shoots down that notion, tracing the source of corruption down to each and every person’s heart. Sin and defilement come from within. Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness are all products of the heart. Addressing this vast list of sins, Ryle comments:

Let us distinctly understand when we read these words that our Lord is speaking of the human heart generally. He is not speaking only of the notorious profligate, or the prisoner in the jail. His is speaking of all mankind. All of us, whether high or low, rich or poor, masters or servants, old or young, learned or unlearned,–all of us have by nature such a heart as Jesus here describes. The seeds of all the evils here mentioned lie hid within us all. They may lie dormant all our lives. They may be kept down by the fear of consequences, the restraint of public opinion, the dread of discovery, the desire to be thought respectable,–and, above all, by the almighty grace of God. But every man has within him the root of every sin.[2]

We like to assume that we are good people who occasionally do bad things, and even then, we convince ourselves that our intensions are generally pure. Sin, therefore, is simply a problem of behavior. Indeed, the world around us is not far removed from the scribes and Pharisees, for they too believe in defilement by outward actions. But Jesus shatters this thought by stating that we do bad things because we have bad hearts, and if our heart is bad, we are bad. Sin is not a behavioral issue; it is a being issue. We are not righteous people who occasionally sin. We sin because we are sinners. Our heart is corrupt, and since the heart is the core of our being, there is no aspect of ourselves that escapes corruption, behavior included. This problem of defilement, therefore, requires a solution far greater than behavior modification. We cannot simply make sure that we wash our hands before eating and rest assured that we have avoided corruption before the face of God Almighty.

What hope then do we have of being able to stand before the sinless, holy God when our hearts are fountains of transgression and iniquity? God gave the answer long ago through the prophet Ezekiel, saying:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 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. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Ezekiel 36:22-32)

Notice the wonder of that promise: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.” This is nothing less than a spiritual heart transplant. We cannot properly obey God because the very core of our being corrupted, so God will give us a new core and cause us to walk in His statutes and to carefully obey His rules.

But how could such a wonder be achieved? This was the work of Christ, the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus is the only one to ever live a life of perfect, sinless obedience, and He did so in our place. Yet He also (as the second half of Mark will focus upon heavily) died the death that our sin justly deserved. Our sin, of course, bears an eternal weight because it is an offense against the eternal God, but Jesus’ physical death was able to pay that debt, to be our ransom, because He is the Eternal One, God made flesh, as well as being entirely sinless in His humanity (meaning death had no claim on Him). And with our sin-debt paid for upon the cross and assured by the resurrection, Christ then sent the Spirit of adoption to His people, to dwelling with us, make us new, and testify within us that we are children of God the Father through the work of Jesus Christ. This is how the Triune God worked the miracle of giving us new hearts. The Father ordained. Christ accomplished. The Spirit applies.

Brothers and sisters, let us never shy away from the reality that our hearts are fountains of sin (and we still wrestle with contamination of our flesh even after being reborn); however, in Christ, we receive new hearts through the trinitarian work of salvation. Outside of Christ, our hearts are dead in sin, but in Christ, they are alive behold to the excellencies of His marvelous light. We must rest entirely in the finished work of Christ that reconciles us to God and grants us “peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). We have no hope in and of ourselves, but Christ is a sure and steadfast anchor of our souls.


[1] William Hendriksen, Mark, 281.

[2] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 113.

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