The Battle of Ai raises some big questions. This is the battle that occurred in Joshua 7. But one of the main questions it raises is a directional question. From which direction does our greatest threat come? Israel, at the time of this battle, has finally come to the place where they are occupying the land that God had promised hundreds of years before. They have just come off of a battle that they miraculously won, the Battle of Jericho, where they marched, trumpeted, and shouted, and the walls fell, and they conquered this massive city. And then they came to this tiny city called Ai. They didn’t even send their whole army because they figured they didn’t need it. And they got routed, killed, chased, humiliated.
So, Joshua and the other elders of Israel fell on their faces and tore their clothes and put dust on their heads and cried out to the Lord. God, what are you doing to lead us this far and then put us in such a humiliating place? What are the other nations going to say about us and about you? And the Lord answered their prayer. And basically God said, “You didn’t lose that battle because of an enemy out there; you lost that battle because of an enemy in here.” And the sin of Achan was exposed. When the inside problem was dealt with, the outside problem was no problem. They won the battle easily.
Joshua 7 could be titled, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This statement comes from a Pogo comic strip created by Walt Kelly in 1970. He published it on Earth Day to highlight the danger of pollution. The original statement was made in the War of 1812 when the U.S. Navy won a decisive battle on Lake Erie against the British Navy. The Master Commandant Oliver Perry wrote, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” In 1970, Kelly turned that phrase, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” His parody well summarizes the point of Joshua 7 and of Mark 7. From which direction does our greatest threat come? The way Jesus answers this is difficult for us because he uses words we don’t use anymore. He uses the word, “defile” seven times in verses 1-23. And it is a moral category that our culture is currently rejecting.
Jonathan Haidt, who is a social psychologist, not a Christian, explores our reasons for moral judgment in his book, “The Righteous Mind.” Big fan of David Hume, writes from an evolutionary perspective. But he compares our moral receptors. I’m not totally comfortable with this analogy, but his point is well made. He compares our moral receptors to our taste receptors. He wrote this before the pandemic, but a good analogy would be, Western culture is currently doing to our moral receptors (Thank you, John) what COVID does to our taste receptors for many people. Many people, when they get COVID, they lose their sense of taste.
And so, what Jonathan Haidt argues in his research is that the more — and he himself would most likely call himself a progressive — but he says the more progressive we become, the fewer moral receptors we have. What does that mean? Think about how are things defined as right or wrong today. He says there are basically two receptors: harm and fairness / oppression. Was someone hurt? Was someone treated unfairly? If the answer is no, anything goes. If the answer is yes, it’s wrong. And to test this, he did some really uncomfortable research. He and his team asked questions of groups of people to explore their moral framework.
Let me give you just two disgusting examples. The first one occurs in a lab. His team says, let’s say you have a lab technician whose job is to incinerate cadavers. So, they’re not killing anyone. The people are already dead, but their job is to incinerate these cadavers. And a lab technician looks at these cadavers and realizes this is a waste of flesh. And so, he cuts off a bit of flesh, takes it home, cooks it up, and eats that flesh. Is that wrong?
Second scenario, brother / sister in France on vacation, having a great time, decide to be sexually intimate, are careful, no chance of disease, no chance of pregnancy, one time, never again, helps them feel closer. Is it wrong?
So, they interviewed these people, and the people in Dr. Haidt’s words, “began to flail.” They felt like it was disgusting, but when pressed, “Tell me why? On what basis are you defining that as either right or wrong?” No one was treated unfairly. No one was harmed. So, why is it wrong? Dr. Haidt then outlines seven different moral receptors that have existed. As I said, only two still exist for many people. But one of the ones he mentions is what he calls sanctity degradation, a moral category of sanctity. And it’s really close to what Jesus is talking about here in Mark 7. Jesus is describing what he calls defilement, which in our culture, that category is quickly disappearing. And yet we need to stop and rethink. Is this a category we should be eliminating?
Many evangelicals even will read Mark 7 and just basically conclude; Jesus just wants us to chill. Stop being so picky, you bunch of Pharisees. Is that his point? If you conclude that from this text, you’ve misread the text. Jesus is not denying a category of defilement, he is relocating it. He is explaining from what direction our greatest threat comes. Let’s see if we can see this in the text. Let’s walk through what is written.
First of all, you’ll notice the concern of the religious leaders, verses 1-5. You can see a summary of their concerns in verse 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?’”
Where did this question come from? If you look back up at verses 1 and 2, Mark 7:1-2, the Pharisees and the Scribes have apparently been conducting ongoing surveillance of Jesus and his disciples, and they noticed a violation. The disciples did not practice ceremonial hand washing. Hand washing was a part, just one part, of an elaborate cleansing ritual. Verse 4, “Other traditions … such as washing cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.”
The Mishnah, which is the oral tradition of the Jews, devotes — It wasn’t recorded until later, after Jesus, but it is in force at this time, the traditions are — The Mishnah records 30 chapters given over to how to clean vessels. If you have insomnia, I have the cure. Just read the Mishnah. About 25% of the Mishnah includes rules about purity. The Pharisees had taken the Levitical rules / rituals, like priests washing their hands before they go in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 22), to a completely different level. The more Jewish people lived among Gentiles, the more they were convinced, the Pharisees were convinced they had to wash themselves.
For example, if a Jewish person is out in the marketplace, there’s a good chance that they will come in contact with something that has come in contact with a Gentile, who is impure. And so, your hands can become impure. You could brush up against somebody, and the really strict ones would wash their entire bodies when they came back in from the marketplace. Archeologists have discovered mikvah, which are cleansing pools from the 1st century. When they returned from the marketplace — and this has nothing to do with the medical. We’re not talking about “COVID contamination.” We’re talking about ritual, ceremonial contamination. And they would wash their entire bodies so that they could be pure. They even, let me give you one other example. Some even mandated that if a scribe were translating the Old Testament and came to a couple of passages like Daniel or in Ezra that are written in Aramaic. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, but there are a couple parts that are written in Aramaic. When they translated those parts, they had to wash themselves, because they were translating a pagan language. They were translating the Bible, but it was written in a pagan language, so they had to wash themselves.
So, what’s the direction of the threat? Outside in. You people out there defile me people in here. That the direction of the threat. That’s the concern of the religious leaders. Look at #2, the concern of Jesus, verse 6. He is quite direct.
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’”
Jesus is saying, you have grossly misrepresented the direction of the threat. It is not outside in; it is inside out. You have missed the heart problem. And he calls them hypocrites. That word comes from the Greek theatre. It literally means to put on a mask, to pretend. You have divorced your outside from your inside. You’ve got worshiping lips and a wandering heart. Verse 6,
“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
Their external appearance is one thing; their internal reality is another. How did they get there? Look at this second statement he makes from Isaiah. You’ve placed your words above God’s Word.
“In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Now, we need to double click on this because in a few minutes we’re going to be worshiping God with our lips. But what if you’re worshiping God with your lips, but you’re wandering in your heart? What’s going on there?
There are times we feel like, “Well, you know, I just get bored easy. I don’t like that song.” And what Jesus is getting at is, when we are hypocrites, when our outside is sending one message that our inside is not connected to, the problem is not that our hearts have gone limp, like we have passive hearts. The problem is, we are believing a different soundtrack than God’s soundtrack. We are believing a different word. As he says in verse 8, “You leave the commandment of God,” you “hold to the tradition of men.” Hypocrisy has its own doctrinal statement. When I’m not worshiping from my heart, I’m believing something about God, I’m believing something about me. I may be bored and think I don’t need this. That’s a soundtrack that I’m believing. And I’m worshiping — maybe worshiping myself, my culture, my cravings — but I’m worshiping. But what I’m saying on the outside is different from what I’m worshiping on the inside.
So, Jesus shows a tight link between the hypocrisy of empty external worship and how we respond to God’s Word or our own words, our own lies, our own scripts. Verse 8 again, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to” your own tradition.
And then he gives a specific example from that day, verses 9-13. He quotes Exodus 20:12 where God commanded us to “honor your father and mother.” Exodus 21:17, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” And he refers to a practice known as Corban, which literally means offering or dedicating.
The use of Corban started nobly. If you had many possessions that you wanted to devote to God’s use in the temple, you could call them Corban and commit them to the temple. But what had happened over time, they degenerated into a dubious charitable trust. In other words, if I had a lot of assets, I wanted to lock them up for my use. But then when I died, they were given over to the temple. So, I get the best of both worlds. I get to use all my stuff now; I get the benefit of being spiritual after I die. And so, when I devote all my assets to God, they go into this trust called Corban; and therefore, they cannot be used by anyone else. But I can use them as long as I’m alive.
So, back then, life was pretty cyclical. There was no Social Security. Parents took care of their kids, and then kids took care of their parents. And that’s the way it worked. But if somebody did Corban, and their parents became old and disabled, they could no longer work, had no place to live, the adult children may have large assets, homes, fields, possessions. But they could honestly look at their parents and say, “Hey, I really want to help you, but Corban. Sorry, it’s all given to God.” So, then you get the benefit of looking really spiritual and ignoring what God said, “Honor your father and mother.”
What Jesus says in verse 13, “Thus making void the word of God by your tradition.” And he even explains, this was not an exception. End of verse 13, “and many such things you do.” Present tense, you are doing. But rather than listing all these things, Jesus calls his listeners back to his main point. The primary direction of our problem is not outside in; it is inside out. Verse 15, you don’t get defiled by food or exposure to unclean people from the outside, by what’s coming toward you.
The disciples continue to struggle with this in the next few verses. Then they ask him in private. And so, Jesus gets real earthy. Verses 18 and 19, he provides us with a gastrointestinal lesson. When you eat food, where does it go? Does it go to your heart? Does it go to the core of your control center, your causal core, which is your heart? Where does it go? No, it goes to your stomach. And then where does it go? It goes out to the toilet. Earthy example to illustrate the fact that that is not defilement. That does not damage you spiritually. Verse 19, Mark then adds a little editorial comment. “Thus he declared all foods clean.” Now, to us Gentiles, that seems small. But that was huge. Only God can declare all foods clean. Jesus just declared all foods clean. Jesus is God.
Look at the climax. Verse 20,
“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.’”
And then in case we thought that Jesus really doesn’t care about this category of defilement, he gives us twelve examples in verses 21 and 22. We could break them down — six and six, because the first six are plural, the second six are singular — into evil actions and evil attitudes. It doesn’t break down perfectly.
But evil actions, verse 21, that are the overflow of these evil thoughts. Sexual immorality is the word “porne,” which is all extramarital, unnatural sexual intimacy. It would include fornication, adultery, homosexuality, prostitution, theft, murder. Adultery is a specific version of “porne,” marital unfaithfulness. Coveting, which in the plural is referring to cravings for self-gratification. The next word, wickedness, which is active malice or seeking ill toward someone.
The second six: deceit, which interestingly is a kind of falsehood that can manifest itself as hypocrisy. So, Jesus is saying, that hypocrisy I confronted you about earlier, where does it come from? It comes from a heart given to hypocrisy. Your worship hypocrisy flows from your heart of hypocrisy. Sensuality — these are shameful sexual thoughts and desires. Envy — the Jews had an expression, an evil eye. That’s what that is. Slander is when we use our words to harm our neighbor. Pride is an inflated, swollen sense of self. Foolishness — he’s not talking there about a lack of knowledge, but a lack of wisdom. You’ve become a moral moron.
Verse 23, “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We have met the enemy and he is us. Notice, Jesus doesn’t reject the category of defilement, but he does relocate it, and he will redeem it. He fills it up to its true meaning, its true direction. He’s not minimizing — let me be clear about this — he’s not minimizing the danger of external threats. If you’re in a house that’s burning, it’s not the time to look at your heart. It’s time to run for the door. If you’re in an abusive marriage, you may need to separate yourself for your safety. He’s not minimizing that. But even in those obvious external situations that threaten us, what Jesus would say is don’t believe the lie that your heart is passive. There’s not a passive heart in this room. The core of who we are, the causal core of our personality is active, always producing good and evil; and therefore, Jesus consistently goes for the heart.
So, what does this look like today? Let me give you three quick examples: a personal, political and cultural one. The personal one, if you’ve been around here for a while, you’ve heard this before. This week my wife and I were talking again about when the dramatic change occurred in our marriage. And it came down to this shift from an outside inside to an inside outside. At the beginning of our marriage, I was very concerned about getting the speck out of her eye and totally missed the beam in my own.
Do you see that same directional shift that Jesus is calling us to? And as God was exposing, and we talked through again that specific time when God just showed me what a selfish jerk I was and how much I really believed the lie that if she would change, we would have a happy marriage. And God made it really clear, “Peter, you don’t need a new wife, you need a new heart. That’s where you must start.” And God broke me, broke her, and we stopped trying to change the other one. That is an outside in mindset that is delusional, and he takes us in to our hearts, and he transforms us from inside out. He pours his Spirit in us, first of all, in conviction and devastates us. But then he pumps his grace and love into our hearts. And then it starts coming out of our pores before we realize it — love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control — the fruit of the Spirit. But the outward manifestation doesn’t come until the inward devastation has occurred. We realized, God, I need you. I need a new heart.
And that’s what Jesus does. That’s what he’s doing here. He’s shifting the focus from outside in to inside out. That’s where we have to begin. And when he does that, please don’t misunderstand, it’s not a quick fix. I think many of us have come to the place where, “Yeah, I know I need a new heart, but I’ve tried that, and she didn’t change. I need something that works. Brother, have you got something that works for me?” You don’t get it. “If she would just respect me. That’s what I need. The Bible says I need that.” “If he would just love me. The Bible says I need that.” Yes, he has designed us for that, no doubt. But where do we begin? What is our greatest threat? What is the greatest threat to your marriage? What is the greatest threat to your friendships? Where do you begin in a workplace that is so difficult?
Many of you remember when G.K. Chesterton wrote his response to the question that the Times — this was in London, when they asked famous writers to write what is wrong with the world. They were supposed to write this big essay. And he so famously wrote two words. What were they? “What is wrong with the world? I am.” That was his essay. I am. That’s where we have to begin. That’s where Jesus calls us to start. And it is counterintuitive, because we’re convinced, “God, if I do that, she’s going to win. She’s going to think…” Or, “He’s going to win.” Or, “They’re going to get their way.” It’s so counterintuitive. Some of us are fighting, grasping, clinging to the life we think we need, and we will never get it. Because if you try to find your life, you’re going to lose it. You try to cling to it. But embracing the life, the death, burial, resurrection of Jesus, he raises us up to new life. He provides what we could never produce, because he goes into the inner parts of us, and he guts us and transforms us from the inside out.
Second example is political. I don’t have time today to develop this; we need to soon. I haven’t watched the news in a long time, but if you follow the news, read the news, watch the news, it’s all outside in. They’re stealing your country. If you don’t step up right now and stop them, they will destroy everything. You need to. The threat is all outside in. Don’t misunderstand me. [Are] there real “outside-in” threats? Yes. Do Christians need to be concerned about those and pray about those? Yes. Do they need to be involved at times in very active ways? Of course. But what is Jesus saying here? What is the greatest threat? And I want to challenge you this week when you hear another news report, you hear another talk show host telling about how you’ve got to do something right now — they’re destroying, they’re taking, they’re stealing. I challenge you to think about what’s going on in your heart right then. What is happening in your heart right then? And how are you responding, and how are you thinking about those people in a different party or a leader? It is scary where our hearts go at that point.
And if you don’t start with your heart, it doesn’t matter what you do, it will be wrong. This is the part I wish I had time to walk through the examples. But it will end up causing more damage than good even though you’re sincere and want to help. That’s why we’ve got to go for the heart. What our country needs more than anything is for God’s people to repent and come to Jesus in our hearts. Start there. I’m not saying that’s all we’ll do. But if we don’t start there, everything we do will make it worse.
Third example is a cultural one. A few weeks ago, The New York Times published an article entitled, “How Do I Define My Gender If No One Is Watching Me?” Subtitled, “Without a Public Eye, Who Are We?” The article was written by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, who is a woman transitioning into a man. Alex started taking testosterone at the beginning of the pandemic up in the Northeast. So, complete lockdown. And Alex was alone except for a couple of trans friends. So, Alex imagined that all the difficulties that she had encountered would now evaporate. But look what Alex wrote.
“So I was surprised by how much my gender instead seemed to almost evaporate… I felt, suddenly, amorphous [formless] and undefined.”
Think about it. If gender, as we are told, is completely a social construct, what do you do when there’s no “social”? Even more, who are you when there’s no one watching? (audio missing here) What happens if there’s not a that, what is the this? Alex writes,
“I would have imagined this new expansiveness would be freeing. Instead, it was at first disorienting. With the gender binary [male, female] … with the binary all but gone, what did it mean to be nonbinary? How do I define my gender when I — accustomed to how visible my gender usually makes me — am no longer being watched?”
I think this is related to what Jesus is talking about in Mark 7. This is an “outside-in” view. Yes, Alex would say, I’m forming my identity inside out. But the inside out is a reaction to the outside in. And what’s interesting in Mark 7 is Jesus rejects both repressive social norms — you do us — and expressive, individual norms — you do you. He rejects both. And in the power of the Spirit, his Word goes deep within us and transforms the core of who we are into his image. Not mine, not ours. His image. Let me show you an example of this. Hebrews 4:12.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
That word “discerning” is the word in Greek, “kritikos.” It’s the critic of the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The thoughts and intentions of the heart aren’t the critic of God. God’s Word is the critic of us. Verse 13,
“And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all our naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So, we live in the presence of God, whose Word is living and active and penetrates deep to the core of who we really are and transforms us not into the image of ourselves or the image of our culture, but into the image of God, our Creator. This is what Paul is describing in Colossians 3 when he talks about our new life that is hidden in Christ. And he goes on to say later we are to put off what his earthly,
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts.”
And then verse 12. I’m sorry, verse 9,
“Do not lie to one another, [In other words, cut the hypocrisy.] seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
That sets us up for next week when Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman. Suddenly, the barriers between people that used to be divided are no longer barriers, because Christ is transforming our identity into the image of the One who made us for himself.
Let’s pray. Father, help us to see honestly the condition of our hearts. You tell us that the heart is deceitful above all things, that apart from your transforming grace, we will make a move on ourselves. We will deceive, dupe ourselves. We will have the appearance of godliness but deny the power. We will worship you with our lips and wander with our hearts. So, we beg you, Lord. We’re coming to you because we can’t even change our own hearts. We don’t even know our own hearts. We can’t even figure out what our motives are. And you haven’t even commanded us to do that. We place ourselves before you, Lord, as the heart knower, the heart convicter, the heart forgiver and redeemer. Lord, when we when you call us away from hypocrisy you are offering us something far better. We beg you to transform our desires away from what is garbage to what is a feast that only you can provide.
Father, I ask now that as we at home through livestream or here in Taylors, wherever we are, Lord, that as we continue to cry out to you, you would by your Spirit through your Word do your heart work, Lord. As you convict us, we want to say “Yes, Lord, yes!” We turn from the lies, the soundtracks that we often don’t even realize are running behind the scenes and are leading us to reject what you have said and cling to these lies. So, do your work now. Help us to see the real direction of the threat to our friendships, to our church, to our marriages, to our country. Thank you for using your Word in our hearts today. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.