“What Makes You Clean?” (Mark 7:1-23)

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During my time at a Christian university in Texas, I encountered an interesting policy—no dancing was allowed at school events, except for cultural dances from other countries. The intent was to discourage unhealthy sexual behavior. While the university eventually relaxed this rule, it may still seem overly conservative to many, including Christians.

This memory resonates with today’s sermon. In our quest to please God, we can sometimes veer to extremes, as seen in the Pharisees’ misguided approach. Their misinterpretation of God and the Bible led their religious devotion astray.

Let’s delve into the passage and explore three common mistakes to avoid in our pursuit of obedience to God.

[Read Mark 7:1-23]

Mistake 1: In our efforts to please God, the first mistake we can avoid is creating rules that are unnecessary, burdensome, or that contradict God’s values.

One common mistake in our pursuit of pleasing God is the creation of unnecessary, burdensome rules that may contradict God’s values. An example of this can be found in the practice of “corban” among the Pharisees. Corban involved vowing to give money to the Jewish temple, but this vow prevented the use of the money to support one’s parents. Jesus pointed out that this practice violated God’s command to “honor your father and mother,” as it allowed people to appear religious while neglecting their elderly parents. Essentially, the Pharisees elevated their own rules above God’s commands.

Jesus emphasized the importance of distinguishing between God’s commands and human traditions by urging us to read the Bible and learn what God actually says, rather than blindly following human interpretations. While human rules and traditions can be beneficial, helping us organize, be fair, protect people, and worship and obey God, there are times when Christians create burdensome or harmful rules that hinder our relationship with God. In such cases, we should question whether these rules truly help people know, love, or obey God.

According to Jesus, true obedience to God is not merely external actions but an issue of the heart. He quoted Isaiah, saying, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” This reveals that worship based solely on human rules and traditions falls short of a genuine connection with God.

So, how do we cultivate a heart close to God? It begins with experiencing God’s goodness and love towards us, mirroring how human relationships often require mutual affection. Christianity isn’t about rigidly adhering to principles but about developing a personal relationship with God, resulting in gradual character transformation to resemble Him.

As an example of unnecessary rules, consider tithing. While tithing involves giving money to God, it’s important to note that Scripture doesn’t mandate a specific percentage that Christians ought to tithe. Instead, it emphasizes caring for one another’s needs, which can include financial support. As God is generous, we should also learn to be generous, giving according to our financial capacity.

Scripture doesn’t specify precise amounts or frequencies for financial giving; it emphasizes giving cheerfully and sincerely. God values the condition of our hearts more than the quantity of our contributions. A generous heart naturally leads to generous behavior.

Therefore, Jesus’ teachings focus on nurturing our moral character and the condition of our hearts, rather than providing detailed behavioral guidelines for every situation. For specific situations, we rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, seeking wisdom to navigate them.

Mistake 2: Moving on, the second mistake to avoid is thinking that we’ll be good enough in God’s eyes if we just follow all the rules.

The Pharisees had numerous rules alongside the Old Testament laws, and while Christians may not have as many, we still grapple with our own notions of being “good enough.”

God’s words, “They honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from Me,” are a sobering reminder. Imagine God saying, “They attend church, pray eloquently, give generously, sing worship songs, study Scripture, and work hard for their families, but their hearts are far from Me.”

Pleasing God isn’t merely about adhering to rules or behavioral expectations; it’s about knowing and loving Him. It begins with the state of our hearts toward God.

When asked about the most important commandment, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” followed by, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, none of us has perfectly kept these commands, as Isaiah 64:6 tells us, “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”

This is why we need the righteousness of Jesus. He exchanges our filthy clothes for His spotless robe. In God’s eyes, only Jesus is “good enough.”

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus aimed to reveal not just as a moral teacher or miracle worker but as the very Son of God. He didn’t come solely to judge us but to provide a path to declare us innocent and cleansed.

Mistake 3: The third mistake to avoid is fear-based obedience.

Jesus doesn’t want us to obey God out of fear; instead, He calls us to obey God out of reverence and gratitude.

Fear-based obedience is when we obey because we’re scared of punishment. The Pharisees, for example, believed that their ancestors’ failure to follow Old Testament laws led to their exile, which is true. Their exile to Babylon six centuries earlier was a painful event in Jewish history. To ensure they kept God’s laws, they added extra rules to interpret them for specific situations. This was their way of pleasing God and avoiding punishment again. When they saw Jesus, a popular teacher, not following their purity rules, they worried that He might mislead other Jews.

Fear can be helpful, like when we lock our doors at night. But excessive fear, like never leaving the house or making friends, steals our joy and life. For some, God seems like a stern punisher. For many, religion is just a way to avoid bad luck or punishment and gain favor through donations and good behavior.

Sometimes we hesitate to approach God because we think He’s not pleased with us. We say, “I haven’t been a good Christian. I haven’t loved God. I need to be a better person first.” The truth is, even if we’ve let God down, He’ll always treat us as a friend and a Father. We parents can speak sweetly to our children when they behave well but angrily when they don’t. God isn’t like that; He’s patient and calm, understanding our weaknesses. He speaks to us with love, even when we fail, though He may have to correct us gently.

While a healthy fear of God is good, we were created to have a loving relationship with Him. We’re not just His creatures or servants; we’re also His sons and daughters. If we’re very religious but don’t feel His love, we might become unloving toward others, as Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing. Serving God becomes joyless and resentful duty.

The only way we can serve with joy is when we experience anew that the goodness of God. When we are amazed and grateful, we are filled with new desire to know and serve God. We serve because Jesus first served us.

Jesus fulfilled God’s commands on our behalf

Let me end with a few comments about the Old Testament laws.

When you read the Old Testament laws, you notice that it often talks about clean things and unclean things. For example, in the Old Testament food laws, pork and shrimp are considered unclean and therefore forbidden (that would be very hard for Japanese people!).

But Jesus said that now all food is clean, including the foods considered unclean in the Old Testament. Some of the old rules are now obsolete. Why? The Old Testament laws about food, cleanliness, and animal sacrifice—called ceremonial laws—were actually temporary. Ceremonial laws were just a symbol pointing to a deeper reality. Their purpose was to help Jews understand that God desires purity. Most of all, a pure heart.

After Jesus died on the cross as the final sacrifice, the old system of animal sacrifice ended. Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws on our behalf, by giving himself as the perfect offering.

When he talked to the Pharisees in today’s passage, he showed that he wasn’t just a moral teacher who could interpret the Old Testament. He exercised authority as God to declare that the ceremonial laws were now obsolete. How can he just change the laws like that? He can, because he is God. But he was not actually changing the laws, but rather fulfilling them.

Today we are no longer asked to follow ceremonial laws, but we still follow the moral laws of the Old Testament. Moral laws are laws about human relationships. For example, behaviors that were prohibited in the Old Testament such as lying, stealing, sacrificing children to the gods, adultery, incest, and same-sex relationships are still prohibited for Christians today. Moral laws are about how we treat each other. We are still called to keep our hearts clean by treating other people rightly, according to God’s values and his design for human relationships.


From today’s passage we see that God desires our hearts to be clean. What makes us clean is not religious rituals but what is in our heart. But since none of us can perfectly love God with all our heart—or perfectly love our neighbor—we need the perfect, spotless righteousness of Jesus to cover us. Lastly, God makes us clean, not because we deserve it, but because he wants us to be near him. He wants us to come to him—not out of fear or selfish gain—but to find life, love, and joy.

Let’s pray:

Almighty and Gracious God, we bow in Your presence, seeking understanding from Your Word today. Teach us, O Lord, that it is not what enters us, but what emanates from our hearts that truly matters. Grant us grace to distinguish between human traditions and Your divine commands. May our worship be genuine, springing forth from sincere hearts, not mere external acts. Purge our hearts from impurity, malice, and hypocrisy. Instill in us purity, love, and alignment with Your purpose. Guide us, Holy Spirit, to discern right from wrong, to choose kindness over judgment, and to embody Christ’s love in our daily walk. May these words take root in our hearts, bearing fruit for Your glory, as we commit to follow our Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

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