“The Heart of the
Matter” Mark 7:1-23
This passage is an important conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.
It is clear in the Gospels that the Pharisees were mostly a lost cause—
they were past listening to Jesus or repenting of their unbelief.
What Jesus says to the Pharisees he says primarily for the sake of his disciples.
This is for your benefit and mine.
INTRO: I was once watching two children—brother and sister.
Brother, who was older, was being mean to the sister—picking on her.
Then he hurt her and she started to cry.
The mother came over, grabbed him by the arm and said:
“I saw you hit your sister, tell her you’re sorry!”
Well, he was not about to do it. So she made a threat of some kind.
And he said, “Sorry.”
She said, “Say it like you mean it!”
He said, “Sorry.” And she let him go.
She was raising a good little Pharisee.
The Bible spends a lot of time talking about our hearts.
The heart is the term the Bible uses for the inner person.
Abraham Kuyper, great Dutch theologian defined the heart this way:
“that point of consciousness in which life is still undivided.”
In other words, your heart is real you
before divided up by your outward words and actions.
Anybody can look and act a certain way on the outside
if he wants people to think well of him,
or because he fears punishment or expects a reward.
But that’s all external behavior.
Down in our hearts we are what we truly are.
Christianity is a religion of the heart.
God does not want formal obedience.
He doesn’t want just good behavior—he wants your heart.
He wants the deepest, truest you to be turned toward him.
And it has always been that way—even in the Old Testament church.
Who does Jesus quote in his argument with the Pharisees? Prophet Isaiah.
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
God wanted the hearts of the people of Judah, not their prayers and singing.
You see this theme throughout the prophets:
“Rend your heart and not your garments.”
“Circumcise your hearts, and do not be stiff necked any longer.”
“Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.”
And Jesus brings this home again and again.
God desires intimacy with us—he wants our hearts.
He wants obedience from the heart.
But like the Pharisees, we focus on outward behavior at the expense of the heart.
Even as Christians, there are long periods of time when we attend
much more carefully to our outward behavior,
than to the thoughts, and motives, and attitudes of our hearts.
And if truth be told, we like just focusing on behavior. It’s comfortable to us.
It’s so much less demanding and less threatening
than giving our hearts fully to God every day.
But outward obedience is not the life we’ve been called to.
Living that way for any length of time robs us of joy and intimacy.
Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees was complicated.
There are things they talk about that don’t apply to us directly.
But if you look at what was driving them—
you will see many of the same tendencies in your own life.
I do. I read this story and I see myself.
So let’s use this story as a way of looking at ourselves more closely.
Want us to see three tendencies we have—even as believers—
that we are going to have to fight against every day,
if we are going to know and obey God from the heart.
1. We like choosing rules.
2. We like maintaining control.
3. We like cleansing ourselves.
MP#1 We like choosing rules.
We like to choose rules that we find easy to keep personally.
And then we like to look at our rule-keeping,
and the failures of others, and think we’re doing fine in our walk with God.
Jesus says that when we do that—
we are just obeying God outwardly, not from the heart.
Let’s look at the Pharisees doing this, then we can see it in ourselves.
The first conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees over handwashing.
Just so you understand—this was not about hygiene—this was religious.
The Pharisees and all the Jews would wash their hands before meals.
They noticed that Jesus and his disciples did not.
The only time hand washing commanded in OT was when priests
about to eat a special sacrificial meal.
It was a symbol of repentance, need for God’s cleansing.
So the Pharisees said, Let’s start doing this in our homes.
Homes are like little temples where God is worshipped.
Wouldn’t it be a good faith lesson to do this little washing ceremony
in our homes before we ate—show our need for repentance.
That’s how it started—and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But in time they started looking at their hand-washing
as evidence of their faithfulness to God. And that was a problem.
It took the place of opening their hearts to God.
Christians do the very same thing.
We like to choose rules—and make those our confidence before God.
As a boy, my parents sent me to a Christian school, connected to a church.
There were five rules that I heard over and over and over.
No drinking, smoking, dancing, going to movies, listening to rock music.
Can remember chapel speakers saying:
Alcohol has never passed these lips.
I have never spent a dollar supporting the immorality of
There was a lot of confidence in those rules.
It’s easy to see it in other Christians because it bothers us—
it’s much harder to see it in ourselves, or if we are in a church
where everybody is marching to the same rules.
What are the rules that you are good at keeping?
It’s so easy for those to become your confidence.
Fifteen years ago Allison and I committed to tithing.
We’ve been blessed. One of the blessings of tithing—learn to budget.
We’re good at it. We save. We live within our means. Give over the tithe.
It’s a rule I find easy to keep. And it’s a rule I find easy to judge people by.
I’ve found myself thinking: I have perfected the financial.
I’m faithful—here’s the proof—look at the rules I’m keeping.
But that’s not giving God my heart.
What about you?
What are the rules of the Christian life you find easy to keep?
What are the rules that you find easy to hold up to other people and judge?
Maybe it has to do with child rearing. You are successful, it’s been easy.
You have good, obedient children. That’s your confidence.
Maybe it is in devotional life or in marriage or in finances.
Jesus says: If those are your confidence, your heart is far from God.
What does God want? He doesn’t want you to choose some rules.
He wants you to love him with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.
He wants you to see every part of his word as a pathway to loving him.
So we don’t pick and choose—but constantly search our hearts
and ask—Am I loving God? Am I giving my heart to him.
Or am I substituting outward obedience for real relationship?
It’s hard to keep that up. But it’s the great task of the Christian life.
Challenge you to look at your rule-keeping, things you are good at—
Has this become my walk with God?
God I want to seek you and find you.
MP#2 We like maintaining control.
A second tendency that we have is that we like maintaining control.
If we worship God from the heart, that means he can demand anything.
And who knows what he will demand from us—what sacrifices.
And so we go through spiritual gymnastics to maintain control.
But when we do that, not giving God our hearts.
Let’s look at the Pharisees, and then at ourselves.
Jesus takes them to task for setting aside the commandments of God for traditions.
He picks the 5th commandment: Honor your father and your mother.
This is an interesting command because it doesn’t say: Thou shalt not.
Just says “honor” and leaves it wide open.
God doesn’t say specifically what it means to honor your parents.
Do this, don’t do that.
To honor speaks of the attitude of your heart, worked out in practical ways.
The Pharisees wanted to maintain some control.
This open-ended command, made nervous.
Honor your parents? What does that mean?
Where does it stop? How far does it go?
There had to be a way for them to say—this far and no farther.
So they had the Corban vow.
Corban meant devoted to God.
If you swore property was Corban, could not give it to other people.
Didn’t deed it to the church either.
You just kept it, ready to use it for God if necessary.
So when aging parents, or other relatives came and needed financial help—
I’m sorry, my property is Corban—I can’t give it to you.
I would be breaking a vow I made to God.
I can give you this—it’s not Corban.
But I can’t give you that—it’s off limits.
We don’t have the Corban vow—but we do the same thing with God’s word.
There are certain commands—especially open ended ones—that make nervous.
Instead of saying: Lord, I have a problem with this,
but want to open my heart and let you lead me.
Instead of that we rationalize.
Say: God, I’m serving you in other ways—so this doesn’t apply to me.
Let me give you a personal example where I’ve applied the Corban vow.
There’s a passage in Luke 14 that bothers me. Jesus says:
“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”
Jesus is saying that we should make time to reach out to the physically
and emotionally needy people he brings into our lives.
I don’t want to do that.
And so I say—this doesn’t apply, I do that all the time, it’s part of my job.
I deal with spiritually and emotionally sometimes physically needy people.
So my time off is my time.
I need to spend it with people who are able to pay me back.
I need to spend it with people able to give to me emotionally, and spiritually.
If I use my time on a needy person—
that’s just going to drain me of the things that I need.
I don’t want to give God my heart when it comes to this command—
because where might that lead? So I close my heart to him.
My guess is that all of you have portions of God’s Word that you rationalize.
Maybe it’s what the Bible says about sacrificial giving.
Read those passages and say: It can’t mean that!
If I gave that much money, how would I get the things I need?
Maybe it’s what the Bible says about marriage.
“Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.”
It can’t mean that. Lord, you don’t know my husband.
“Husbands, live with you wives in an understanding way.”
Lord, I gave up trying to understand her 10 years ago.
Jesus says: Give me your heart. And give up control.
I won’t abuse you.
But I will lead you to challenging places and to a deeper walk with God.
MP#3 We like cleansing ourselves.
A third tendency that we have is that we like cleansing ourselves.
We like to think that we aren’t so bad that we can’t clean ourselves
up morally and make ourselves better.
When we do that, close our hearts to God.
Running throughout this discussion—not only matter of heart, obedience.
But this matter of cleansing. Washing hands, being pure.
It’s the recognition that there is something wrong with us,
that must be dealt with before we can come to God.
As Christians we know that we are only cleansed and changed through Christ.
But we like to think that we can cleanse ourselves.
We like to be our own saviors.
If I stay away from dirty movies, and profane people.
If I quit drinking so much, yelling at my children.
If I read my Bible and pray and go to church.
Then God will come and bless my efforts—I’ll be better person.
But Jesus says it doesn’t work.
Compares all those efforts to eating food—it goes from mouth to stomach,
and then out of the body—literally says—into the latrine.
It doesn’t affect the heart at all.
No matter how hard you try to cleanse yourself through religion and morality—
or any other way—it will not make you better. In fact, look at verse 21:
“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils
come from inside and make a man unclean.”
Jesus is saying that the source of evil is not outside of you—it is within you.
Everything bad we do and think has its starting point within us—not outside of us.
You may ask, but what about our new hearts?
Doesn’t the Bible say that when we are born again, get new hearts?
Yes, it does. That’s very important.
Regeneration means a new heart—a new you, a new center.
Any place the Bible talks about virtues—fruit of Spirit—love, joy, peace.
That’s evidence of a new heart. All those virtues in you in seed form.
So the new heart is very important.
But Jesus doesn’t talk about the new heart here—responding to Pharisees.
This is mostly negative. Talking about old hearts.
The sinful nature—original sin is still with us.
Still corrupting and generating evil.
Our new hearts are still tangled with the remains of our old hearts.
Why is this important to know and believe?
Because the only way you will ever learn to give your heart fully to God
every day is if you are willing to see your heart as it really is.
Seeing your heart as it really is enables you then to look at
the things you do—even the good things you do—and judge them rightly.
And give up all attempts to cleanse yourself.
When you do that—can open your heart to Jesus every day.
William Beveridge was a 17th century Anglican bishop:
He was a joyful man, known for his prayers and generous giving to the poor.
But listen to what he wrote in his journal:
“I cannot pray, but I sin. I cannot give alms, but I sin. I cannot hear or preach a sermon, but I
sin. Nay, I cannot so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are still aggravations of
them. My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears need washing, and the very washing
of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.”
Why would Beveridge say such a thing about himself?
Did he have a case of poor self-esteem?
No, he was simply evaluating his outward behavior from the vantage point
his heart. He took Jesus’ words seriously.
Notice the effect it had on him—it didn’t make him depressed and suicidal.
It drove his heart closer to God.
What does he end up saying that he needs—the blood of my Redeemer.
His prayers and alms giving and preaching and confessing
didn’t cleanse him. In fact, caused him to see deeper sins.
Sinful attitudes and motives, invisible to everyone else.
Jesus wants you to let every part of His Word search you and pierce you.
He wants you to see that his law is so demanding,
so comprehensive—that it reaches even to the attitude of your heart.
Even your best rule keeping doesn’t come close to his perfect law.
When that sinks in, you have no choice but to turn to Christ—Jesus, I need you.
CONC: We’re all like that little boy I told you about—
glad to get by with outward behavior—
and not going through the difficult work of examining our hearts.
But our heavenly Father does not care so much about our behavior—
he wants your attitudes, your motive, your thoughts turned toward him.
When that happens—the words and deeds that come out of that heart—
truly make him happy.
And so let us move into this new week,
not content with superficial devotion to God—
but making it our business to honor God with our hearts.