Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #746 ------- March 29, 2018
The superstition in which we grew up,
though we may recognize it, does not
lose its power over us -- not all are
free who make mock of their chains.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing [1729-1781]

Stomachs, Sewers & Pork Purges
Christ Confronts Religious Ceremonialism

Although it disturbs and distresses some disciples of Christ, it is nevertheless true that there are a number of biblical passages that tend to confuse us somewhat, and even challenge us in our personal or party perspectives and practices. We love our religious "comfort zones," and we have a tendency to discard or disregard whatever might "rock the boat" with respect to our convictions. Jesus repeatedly, and intentionally, rocked the religious elite who held rigidly to their traditions. It wasn't that these manmade traditions were necessarily wrong in and of themselves (many, in fact, were quite good); what was wrong was that they had, over time, become venerated, so much so that they were cherished above the truths revealed by God. In the first half of Matthew 15 and Mark 7 (both of which deal with the same event in the ministry of Jesus), we find Jesus confronting the scribes and Pharisees over their countless religious traditions. He would do so many other times as well, with Matthew 23 being perhaps one of the most forceful and pointed. Jesus told these ancient legalists that they were hypocrites, and that their worship was "in vain," for they were "teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (Mark 7:6-7). "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!" (Mark 7:9) ... "thus making void the Word of God by your tradition that you have handed down" (vs. 13). Because of these leaders, as well as those who followed them blindly, and their misdirected religiosity, Jesus regularly and powerfully attacked these traditions and those who promoted them. He trampled them under His feet, violating them at every opportunity in order to gain the attention of the spiritually blind.

The Welsh theologian and author Matthew Henry (1662-1714) rightly observed, "One great design of Christ's coming was to set aside the ceremonial law which God made, and to put an end to it" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Thus, it was not just the many restrictive regulations and traditions formulated by mere men, but also the ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses that Jesus sought to bring to an end, for they were contrary to that greater light He was bringing into the world. The ceremonial aspects of God's Law were never intended to be permanent. Just the opposite: they were imposed upon the people only until the time of the new covenant (which Jesus was now introducing). The author of Hebrews makes this point very clear: "The first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary" (Hebrews 9:1), yet these were never designed to "make the worshipper perfect," ... but were merely "regulations for the body (relating to food and drink and various washings) imposed only until the time of reformation" (Hebrews 9:9-10). That time had come, says the Lord Jesus. It was here! To the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, Jesus declared, "But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers" (John 4:23; see my studies on this statement in Reflections #112: "The Nature of True Worship" and Reflections #252: "The Woman at the Well" and Reflections #661: "Daring Dialogue with a Dame." The following should also prove helpful: Reflections #33: "Worship Reformation").

It was not the intent of Jesus to abolish the moral aspects of the Mosaic Law, but only the ceremonial aspects. The many rules and regulations governing how the ancient Jews expressed themselves worshipfully, and even the dietary restrictions and the sacrificial system, were no longer bound upon God's people. Their purpose had passed; they were no longer required. Change had come. God's people were free. And this both terrified and infuriated the religious elite of our Lord's day (and, frankly, it still terrifies and infuriates legalistic disciples to this day). I deal extensively with this major shift from legal regulation to freedom in Christ in a series of lessons that were recorded and are available on a special CD, for those who might be interested (Law to Liberty). This shift was both radical and revolutionary; indeed, it was designed to be, and Jesus knew it would be met with some powerful resistance. Yet, it was vital to the application of the new covenant that these prior elements of the Law, as well as the countless human traditions that arose around it, be set aside (or at the very least not made equal to divine decree, and not made conditions of salvation or fellowship). The time of reformation had come. In Mark 7 (and the companion passage: Matthew 15), Jesus "is a critic of Moses as well as the scribes, and He introduces a religious revolution" ... because so many at that time "were under the spell of the Pharisaic theological tradition and outlook" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, p. 148-149]. "The teaching of our Lord Jesus was often in opposition to that of the religious leaders of His age and nation. They practiced, and they inculcated upon the people, the observance of religious forms and ceremonies. They laid great stress upon the outward, but they were careless of the spiritual. Our Lord's teaching, on the contrary, exalted the spiritual, and insisted upon the supreme importance of a true, a pure, a reverent heart. It was a contrast between ceremonialism and spirituality" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16, p. 297]. It was the "moral code" that Jesus emphasized: one's heart must be pure, and this must overflow visibly in one's daily attitudes and actions. Those aspects of the Mosaic Law that were focused on diet and ceremony were no longer of any significant spiritual concern; they had served their purpose.

In Matthew 15 and Mark 7 we find Jesus making this point to those who were listening, and He did so by examining the contrast between the inward and the outward aspects of what made one either "clean" or "unclean." To illustrate this, Jesus alluded to the dietary restrictions of the Jewish people. "And He called the people to Him and said to them, 'Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person'" (Matthew 15:10-11). The disciples struggled with this (as most people do when their previous understandings, and the traditions and practices that attach to such understandings, are challenged), and so Jesus explained again: "Are you still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person" (Matthew 15:16-20a; cf. Mark 7:18-23). The apostle Paul takes up this truth and makes this application: "Therefore, let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink. ... Why do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!,' which are in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?" (Colossians 2:16, 20-22). One isn't perceived by God as spiritually "unclean" because he or she "touched, handled or tasted" something. Such regulations and laws are now abolished, said Jesus, for "there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man" (Mark 7:15). Jesus is trying to shift the focus of the people away from the mouth, stomach and intestines to the heart (from the literal/physical to the figurative/spiritual).

With the above background information "under our belt," so to speak, we need to examine a parenthetical statement in Mark's account of this discourse that does not appear in Matthew's account. It is a very brief observation, presumably by Mark himself, to something Jesus said. Mark does a bit of interpreting (perhaps with some input from the apostle Peter) that has perturbed a number of biblical scholars. That brief statement is found in Mark 7:19 - Jesus says, "Whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated." It is here that Mark inserts this statement: "Thus He declared all foods clean" (NASB). There are some who speculate this may have been a scribal addition to the text, but there is really no manuscript evidence for this view. All textual evidence points to this statement actually being part of the original text penned by Mark. So, we can't solve our problem by simply "tossing the text." Mark wrote it. But, what did he really mean by it? On the surface it seems rather clear: Jesus has lifted all dietary bans; ALL foods are now approved for consumption by the Lord. So why didn't Matthew mention this? And are there other possible meanings here that we may have overlooked because the statement, on the surface, seems so obvious? Let's take a look at this passage more closely, and let's begin by comparing a number of versions and translations, for there is a great deal of diversity in how this verse is rendered.

Obviously, many other versions and translations could be listed, but these are very representative of the ways this verse is rendered. As you can quickly perceive, some ascribe the final comment to Jesus, making it part of His teaching, while others regard it as a comment by Mark about the teaching of Jesus. Grammatically, either is a possibility. It clearly is a puzzling passage on a number of levels, and both translators and commentators have struggled with it for centuries. Much of the difficulty centers around the Greek word "katharizon," which means "to make clean, to cleanse; to purify; to purge of dross." Dr. Thayer, in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, indicates one of the meanings is: "to pronounce clean in a Levitical sense" as per Acts 10:15 and Acts 11:9 [p. 312]. Those two referenced passages, by the way, are quite enlightening, for they deal with the vision Peter received prior to being sent to teach at the home of Cornelius. A large number of "critters" were presented to Peter in a vision, and he was told, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat!" He refused, saying, "I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." To this he was told, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." This was repeated three times. The word for "cleansed" is the same in our text in the gospel account of Mark. Now, back to the question as to why Mark includes this comment and Matthew does not. Most scholars believe that Peter may have contributed greatly to, or at least had a major impact upon, Mark's gospel. Thus, this parenthetical statement in Mark 7:19 may very well have come from Peter through Mark, whereas Matthew likely would not have been as privy to that perspective. But, back to the Greek word itself: "Many modern scholars, following the interpretation suggested by Origen and Chrysostom, regard 'katharizon' as connected grammatically with 'legei' in verse 18, and take it as the evangelist's comment on the implications of Jesus' words concerning Jewish dietary laws" [Dr. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, p. 95].

Those who believe the phrase is actually spoken by Jesus, rather than being a comment by Mark (influenced perhaps by Peter), feel that Jesus is saying that the body itself purges all foods of whatever is not needed by or good for the physical body and casts it off through the natural process of elimination. In this sense, then, foods are "cleansed or purified" by this natural purging of the dross. Dr. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) took this view, writing, "The meaning is: that the economy or process by which life is supported 'purifies' or 'renders nutritious' all kinds of food. The unwholesome or innutritious parts are separated, and the wholesome only are taken into the system" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "For the first time, the human body is used as a parable. Everyone can understand the physical functioning of the digestive system that takes in a variety of foods, purifies the needed elements for digestion, and passes out the remainder as waste" [David McKenna, The Communicator's Commentary: Mark, p. 155]. "The process of digestion is a cleansing one. Whatever is impure is separated from the food and carried off, leaving whatever is nutritious to enter into the blood and become part of the body" [C.E.W. Dorris, A Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, p. 175]. Most Greek scholars, however, argue against this view. "The words do not come from Jesus, but are added by Mark. Peter reports this item to Mark, probably with a vivid recollection of his own experience on the housetop in Joppa when in the vision Peter declined three times the Lord's invitation to kill and eat unclean animals" [Dr. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword].

When one examines the context of this teaching from Jesus, however, one will quickly perceive that our Lord is not really making a forever-binding divine proclamation pertaining to dietary matters. He is not saying that man can go out and eat anything he desires; that everything and anything can be consumed. Clearly, there are some things that simply react negatively with our bodies, and anyone with an ounce of common sense will eat and drink wisely and responsibly. I can't help but think of Paul's statement: "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable" (1 Corinthians 6:12a). In the very next breath, Paul says, "Food is for the stomach, and the stomach for food" (vs. 13a), yet he quickly points out that our bodies are gifts from God and we should not abuse them in any way, but rather care for them and make good use of them. This becomes even clearer a few chapters later. Paul again says, "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable" (1 Corinthians 10:23a). He then immediately advises: "Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience' sake; for the earth is the Lord's, and all it contains" (vs. 25-26). Paul is actually making the same point that Jesus did: what you eat, or don't eat, has no real bearing on whether one is ceremonially or spiritually clean/pure in the sight of God. Yes, eat wisely for the sake of your physical body, and also eat wisely with regard to the sensitivities of others around you, but know that such eating is not what defiles us in God's sight. Eating is for the stomach; it has no bearing on the heart. It is from the latter that things arise that can and do defile us.

Again, the context of our Lord's remarks (as recorded by both Matthew and Mark) is the matter of what causes one to be seen as either "clean" or "unclean" in the sight of God. What defiles us? What renders us unclean? The Pharisees were saying it has to do with whether or not one washes his or her hands; it has to do with what one eats; it has to do with whether or not one touches this or that; etc. Jesus points out that these are all outward and external; they are not the source of the type of pollution with which the Father is concerned. God is not checking the contents of our stomachs, nor is He looking under our fingernails for grime. God examines the heart, and foods and washings have no impact on our heart. When Mark opines that our Lord's illustration declares "all foods clean," he is talking about the countless restrictions and regulations of religious ceremonialism. Spiritual purity is not about what is in the stomach, but rather what is in the heart!! In this sense, therefore, Mark is right: The Lord has made it clear that NO foods will render us "unclean," and so ALL foods are "clean" in that sense! "The contrast between ceremonialism and spirituality is exhibited in this passage in several particulars" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 16, p. 297].

Yet purity is not about ritualistic washings and abstaining from certain foods. "In contradistinction from all those ritual purifications, our Lord laid stress upon the true 'baptism,' the washing and purifying of the thoughts and intents of the heart" [ibid]. "The distinction (between foods) which the Jews had so rigidly and rigorously observed was hereby abrogated for the New Testament" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the NT, vol. 1, p. 201]. Jesus is, in this discourse, just as we find Him doing elsewhere, "abolishing the ceremonial distinctions of the Levitical law" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 389]. "It is in the heart that the true issues of life lie. In Semitic expression, the heart is the center of human personality that determines man's actions and inaction. ... Mark 7 is perhaps the most obvious declaration of Mark's purpose as a Christian living in the Greco-Roman world who wishes to publicize the charter of Gentile freedom by recording in the plainest terms Jesus' detachment from Jewish ceremonial and to spell out in clear tones the application of this to his readers" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 680]. Yes, treat your physical body with respect; care for it well; it is a gift. Be sensible in what and how much you eat, for there are serious physical consequences when you don't. However, in all areas and endeavors of life, never forget: it is what is in your heart, and the attitudes and actions that arise from that inner source, that can either define us (as clean) or defile us (as unclean).


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, I enjoyed your article "Carpentry or Stone Masonry? The Earthly Work of the Eternal Word" (Reflections #745). As an engineer who specializes in the analysis of structures made of non-isotropic materials (wood being one of these), I hope one day to study the staircase at Loretto Chapel in engineering detail. In your article you mention the synagogue at Nazareth. As you know, Nazareth in Jesus' day was very small, both in terms of population and land area. Pat Boone and the owners of Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri (as well as others) have acquired ownership of the entire first century land area of this site, and have rebuilt the synagogue. It remains as the only ancient synagogue in Israel to have been rebuilt. It is an indescribable experience to enter that synagogue (which I have done), for one is standing where our Lord attended synagogue as a child and as an adult. Shalom, Brother Al.

From an Author in Arizona:

"Carpentry or Stone Masonry?" was a good one, Al. I am personally convinced that my Lord was both a carpenter (Builder) and a mason (Stone). But, whatever He is, has been, or will be - He's my LORD. Be blessed, my brother.

From a Reader in California:

I really, really loved this message ("Carpentry or Stone Masonry?"), from the beginning appraisal of Santa Fe, to the Loretto Chapel with its spiral staircase and accompanying lore, right down to the ending suggestions of physical strength and working with stone. Jack Palance, long ago, hosted a program that showed this staircase. I was fascinated that it has no central pillar, but hangs like a Slinky and feels springy when you walk on it. Yet, it holds up! But what I found profitable was your brief mention of Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. I read through several of its many chapters and found that it directly addresses something I've been thinking about this week. Stephen Hawking's paralysis gave him a cache with both academic and common people. They thought of him as somebody who sat motionless year after year, meditating on the universe and whether God had a hand in making it. They considered him to be like an oracle, and his philosophy as coming from beyond the scope of ordinary humans. But, in fact, his contributions to mankind were in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology. He was swimming outside his lane when he made philosophical pronouncements. His skill set really gave him no insight into God whatsoever. The Dialogue with Trypho addresses this. Justin got nowhere when he hired and sat under Stoic, Peripatetic, Pythagorean and Platonic philosophers in an attempt to learn their understanding of God. At last he reasoned that no amount of thinking and philosophizing could tell him what an animal in India actually looks like. To find out, he would need to talk to somebody who had actually been to India and seen the animal. Thus, by trusting the eye-witness accounts of people who were actually with Jesus, plus the prophets who had spoken truths revealed by God, rather than in human philosophies, he came to accept Jesus. If you ever get the chance, I would love to see you reflect on the distinction between revealed religion and Stephen Hawking's philosophy.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Wow! You do such a good job of bringing "life" into the Scriptures! Imagining the personal experiences of Jesus as a "craftsman," having perhaps worked with both stone and wood, gives extra insight into His use of the illustrations of "yoke" and "plow," as well as His role as the "corner stone." This is not something one would pick up on just from a casual reading. Thank you for pointing this out! Surely, it doesn't impact any salvific theology, but it surely does bring about a heightened sensitivity to the choice of words in such passages of Scripture. Also, I like the mention you made of Jesus being in good physical shape. Leading by example: that's how He rolled. Blessings, brother!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Al, it is great to see that in your latest Reflections you have left no stone unturned, in your typical style! Very good!! One thing I find increasingly helpful to me, and hopefully to others, is the realization more and more that God has always required the very same means by which men are to be saved: Faith!! It was necessary before the Law, under the Law, and even now. It is liberating when we come to understand and realize that all God requires is saving faith. The book of Hebrews, and the writings of Paul, concur. In Hebrews, the expression "by faith" is mentioned 19 times, and it covers hundreds of years of history. There is one common denominator, and God wouldn't have it any other way. Abel was justified by faith, as was the widow of Zarephath. There is one God and one thing He is looking for: a heart of faith. How else can grace be received?! By the way, I really appreciated the readers' comments in your most recent Reflections. Very appropriate! God bless you.

From an Elder in New Mexico:

Al, how does Matthew 22:31-32 apply to Christians? I'm thinking this passage should be a great source of comfort when a loved one who is a Christian passes away. This passage reminds us that God is the God of the living, even though their dead bodies are decomposing into the various chemical elements. In my case, I'm looking at an urn containing my wife's ashes, but faith assures me that she has already begun eternal life with God: i.e., she is alive and enjoying heaven. My assurance seems consistent with Matthew 22:31-32. What are your thoughts?

From a Retired US Army Chaplain:

It is such a pleasure to read your Reflections! I especially like your opening comments in your most recent article where you shared a family insight from your time in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My wife and I have also visited the beautiful Loretto Chapel. In my studies I have come across references to the very real possibility that Jesus was a stone mason by family occupation. My father often told me stories about the stone mason work of his grandfather and the "mysterious" skills passed on from father to son (unfortunately, he did not pass them on to his grandson, or to me). Recently, I viewed one of the episodes from Ray Vander Laan's series "That The World May Know" in which this issue was addressed from archaeological evidence suggesting the likelihood that the Greek word "tekton" referred to a stone mason rather than a carpenter (worker in wood). The uncertainty on the meaning of the term is a common problem for biblical translators on rarely used words, since such words often have multiple meanings depending upon the context. By the way, we get the modern word "technician" from "tekton." I also found the following meanings for "tekton" -- a builder, craftsman, workman, planner, contriver, plotter, poet, song composer, or even an author. So, Al, I find you, my friend, are a skilled "tekton." P.S.: I'm sending you my new mailing address (in Indiana). One lesson I learned well in the military is that moving targets are harder to hit! (LOL) With much love, brother!

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