In this series of articles we have examined statements of Jesus Christ that when understood correctly are surprisingly different in meaning from the way they are commonly understood. In the case of dietary restrictions recorded in the Bible, the surprise may be the result of understanding not just what Jesus said but what He did not say in the Gospel of Mark.
Many believe that in His encounter with the Pharisees recorded in Mark 7:1-23 Mark 7:1-23 1 Then came together to him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem.
2 And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashed, hands, they found fault.
3 For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.
4 And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables.
5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not your disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?
6 He answered and said to them, Well has Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
7 However, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things you do.
9 And he said to them, Full well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your own tradition.
10 For Moses said, Honor your father and your mother; and, Whoever curses father or mother, let him die the death:
11 But you say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatever you might be profited by me; he shall be free.
12 And you suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother;
13 Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which you have delivered: and many such like things do you.
14 And when he had called all the people to him, he said to them, Listen to me every one of you, and understand:
15 There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.
16 If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.
17 And when he was entered into the house from the people, his disciples asked him concerning the parable.
18 And he said to them, Are you so without understanding also? Do you not perceive, that whatever thing from without enters into the man, it cannot defile him;
19 Because it enters not into his heart, but into the belly, and goes out into the draught, purging all meats?
20 And he said, That which comes out of the man, that defiles the man.
21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:
23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
American King James Version×, Jesus abrogated the laws of clean and unclean meats revealed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. In fact, many modern translations of the New Testament insert additional words into the text of Mark 7:19 Mark 7:19Because it enters not into his heart, but into the belly, and goes out into the draught, purging all meats?
American King James Version×to reflect this understanding. For example, the New International Version ends the verse with: “(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean').”
The New King James Version has “thus purifying all foods” and includes the marginal explanation: “NU [an abbreviation for the text used by many New Testament translations] sets off the final phrase as Mark's comment, that Jesus has declared all foods clean.”
But is this textual variation correct? Does it capture the meaning of the passage in question? What exactly did Jesus mean by His statement?
Context provides the answer
One of the foundational principles for understanding a scriptural passage is to examine the context. What is the topic of discussion here?
We should first notice that the subject is food in general, not which meats are clean or unclean . The Greek word broma, used in verse 19, simply means food. An entirely different Greek word, kreas, is used in the New Testament where meat—animal flesh —is specifically intended (see Romans 14:21 Romans 14:21It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 13:8 1 Corinthians 13:8Charity never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
American King James Version×). So this passage concerns the general subject of food rather than meat. But a closer look shows that more is involved.
The first two verses help us understand the context: “Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault” (verses 1-2). They asked Jesus, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” (verse 5).
Now we see the subject further clarified. It concerns eating “with unwashed hands.” Why was this of concern to the scribes and Pharisees?
The covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai was based on many laws and other instructions that ensured ritual purity. Jewish observance, however, often went beyond these in embracing the “oral law” or “tradition of the elders”—passed on by word of mouth and consisting of many additional man-made requirements and prohibitions tacked onto God's laws. Verses 3-4 of Mark 7 provide a brief explanation of the specific practice the Pharisees and scribes were referring to in this account: “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders …”
Notice that food laws are not in question here. The topic is ritual purity based on the religious traditions of the oral law. The disciples were being criticized for not following the proper procedure of ceremonial hand-washing prescribed by these revered religious traditions.
The Jewish New Testament Commentary, explaining the background of verses 2-4, offers a description of this custom: “Mark's explanation of a … ritual handwashing, in these verses corresponds to the details set forth in Mishna tractate Yadayim [the Mishna is a later written version of the oral tradition]. In the marketplace one may touch ceremonially impure things; the impurity is removed by rinsing up to the wrist. Orthodox Jews today observe [ritual hand-washing] before meals. The rationale for it has nothing to do with hygiene but is based on the idea that 'a man's home is his Temple,' with the dining table his altar, the food his sacrifice and himself the cohen (priest). Since the Tanakh [Old Testament] requires cohanim [priests] to be ceremonially pure before offering sacrifices on the altar, the Oral Torah requires the same before eating a meal” (David Stern, 1995).
By the time of Christ many had made these additional practices a top priority and in so doing sometimes overlooked and even violated the fundamental principles of the law of God (Matthew 23:1-4 Matthew 23:1-4 1 Then spoke Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:
3 All therefore whatever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not you after their works: for they say, and do not.
4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
American King James Version×, 23-28).
Spiritual principle of purification
After decrying the hypocrisy of this and other religious traditions and practices of the day, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. He explains that what defiles a person (in the eyes of God) comes not from the outside —by what one puts into his mouth—but from within (verse 15).
He said it is far more important to concentrate on what comes out of your heart than what you put into your mouth. Jesus explains: “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (verses 21-23).
Some of these same qualities are listed in Galatians 5:19-21 Galatians 5:19-21 19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, jealousies, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
21 Contentions, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
American King James Version×as “works of the flesh.” They are contrasted with the “fruit of the Spirit” (verses 22-23). “Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self-control” are qualities of a spiritually purified heart.
The ceremonial washings and purification practices of the Old Covenant were physical representations of the spiritual purification to be offered in the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:11-14 Hebrews 9:11-14 11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;
12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.
13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh:
14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
American King James Version×). Hebrews 9:23 Hebrews 9:23It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.
American King James Version×tells us: “Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens [referring to the tabernacle, altar, priests, etc.] should be purified with these [ceremonial purifications], but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” So the apostle Paul writes that Jesus “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14 Titus 2:14Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
American King James Version×).
Unwashed hands don't defile the heart
In Mark 7 Jesus explains that ceremonial washing is not necessary for spiritual purity or sound spiritual health. He points out that “whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods” (verses 18-19).
Jesus is simply stating here that any dirt or other incidental impurities not removed through elaborate hand-washing will be purged out by the human digestive system in a manner that has no bearing on the heart and mind of a person. Since spiritual purification involves the heart, ceremonial washings are ineffective and unnecessary in preventing spiritual defilement.
Several Bible scholars recognize the error of interpreting this passage as an abrogation of the laws of clean and unclean meats. Certain grammatical factors, as well as the context of Scripture, determine how to properly translate verse 19. The Greek word translated “purifying” is a participle and must agree in grammatical gender with the noun it describes. Because this participle has a masculine ending, it cannot refer to “stomach,” which is in the feminine gender in Greek. Thus many scholars instead relate “purifying” back to “He said.”
However, another alternative provides a better explanation. The expression “is eliminated” in the New King James Version is a euphemistic rendering of what the original King James Version translates as “goeth out into the draught.” “Draught” (draft) is an archaic way to translate the Greek word aphedron, which means “a place where the human waste discharges are dumped, a privy, sink, toilet” (BibleWorks software). Aphedron is a masculine-gender noun, so “purifying” can refer to the end result of human waste, the toilet.
The Commentary on the New Testament: Interpretation of Mark explains the passage on the basis of this pertinent information: “The translation … 'This he said, making all meats clean' makes the participial clause ['purifying all foods'] a remark by Mark … that Jesus makes all foods clean— a remark … that we cannot accept … He is explaining to his disciples how no food defiles a man … As far as this thought is concerned, Jesus expresses it already in the preceding clause: 'and goes out into the privy.' What he now adds is that the privy [the end result of the digestive process] 'makes all food clean' … for all foods have their course through the body only, never touch the heart, and thus end in the privy … Since the disciples are so dense, the Lord is compelled to give them so coarse an explanation. In this, however, he in no way abrogates the Levitical laws concerning foods” (R.C.H. Lenski, pp. 297-298, emphasis added).
The Jewish New Testament Commentary, in its note on verse 19, summarizes well the overall meaning of this passage: “Yeshua [Jesus] did not, as many suppose, abrogate the laws of kashrut [kosher] and thus declare ham kosher! Since the beginning of the chapter the subject has been ritual purity … and not kashrut at all! There is not the slightest hint anywhere that foods in this verse can be anything other than what the Bible allows Jews to eat, in other words, kosher foods …
“Rather, Yeshua is continuing his discussion of spiritual prioritizing (v. 11). He teaches that tohar (purity) is not primarily ritual or physical, but spiritual (vv. 14-23). On this ground he does not entirely overrule the Pharisaic/rabbinic elaborations of the laws of purity, but he does demote them to subsidiary importance.”
Peter's testimony is significant
Can we find other biblical evidence that this view is correct, that Jesus never changed the biblical food laws? We find a telling event from the life of Peter well after Jesus' death and resurrection.
Peter is a central figure in the early Church. Jesus charged Peter to strengthen the brethren (Luke 22:32 Luke 22:32But I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not: and when you are converted, strengthen your brothers.
American King James Version×). Peter delivered a powerful sermon that led to the conversion of thousands (Acts 2:14-41 Acts 2:14-41 14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said to them, You men of Judaea, and all you that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known to you, and listen to my words: 15 For these are not drunken, as you suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. 16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; 17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, said God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: 18 And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: 19 And I will show wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke: 20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come: 21 And it shall come to pass, that whoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. 22 You men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the middle of you, as you yourselves also know: 23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: 24 Whom God has raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be held of it. 25 For David speaks concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: 26 Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: 27 Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you shall make me full of joy with your countenance. 29 Men and brothers, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day. 30 Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; 31 He seeing this before spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. 32 This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. 33 Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he has shed forth this, which you now see and hear. 34 For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he said himself, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit you on my right hand, 35 Until I make your foes your footstool. 36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made the same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ. 37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers, what shall we do? 38 Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. 39 For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call. 40 And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. 41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls.
American King James Version×). His boldly claiming the name of Christ resulted in the miraculous healing of a lame man. He powerfully preached on repentance to those who gathered to witness the miracle (Acts 3:1-26 Acts 3:1-26 1 Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour. 2 And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple; 3 Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms. 4 And Peter, fastening his eyes on him with John, said, Look on us. 5 And he gave heed to them, expecting to receive something of them. 6 Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. 7 And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. 8 And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. 9 And all the people saw him walking and praising God: 10 And they knew that it was he which sat for alms at the Beautiful gate of the temple: and they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened to him. 11 And as the lame man which was healed held Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the porch that is called Solomon’s, greatly wondering. 12 And when Peter saw it, he answered to the people, You men of Israel, why marvel you at this? or why look you so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk? 13 The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his Son Jesus; whom you delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. 14 But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted to you; 15 And killed the Prince of life, whom God has raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses. 16 And his name through faith in his name has made this man strong, whom you see and know: yes, the faith which is by him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. 17 And now, brothers, I know that through ignorance you did it, as did also your rulers. 18 But those things, which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he has so fulfilled. 19 Repent you therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord. 20 And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached to you: 21 Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began. 22 For Moses truly said to the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you of your brothers, like to me; him shall you hear in all things whatever he shall say to you. 23 And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people. 24 Yes, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days. 25 You are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, And in your seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. 26 To you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.
American King James Version×). Later the mere passing of Peter's shadow over the sick resulted in dramatic healings (Acts 5:15 Acts 5:15So that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.
American King James Version×).
Surely Peter would have understood something as fundamental as whether Jesus had repealed the laws of clean and unclean meat. Yet, years after Christ's death and resurrection, when he experienced a vision of unclean animals accompanied by a voice telling him to “kill and eat,” notice Peter's spontaneous response: “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (Acts 10:14 Acts 10:14But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.
American King James Version×, emphasis added throughout).
Ironically, many believe the purpose of this vision was to do away with the dietary restrictions regarding clean and unclean meats. Overlooked is the significance of Peter's initial response. He obviously did not consider these laws as having been rescinded by Christ!
This strange vision came to Peter three times, yet he still “wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant” (verses 16-17) and “thought about the vision” (verse 19). Peter did not jump to conclusions as too many do today. He already knew what the vision did not mean. Later God revealed the true meaning: “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (verse 28).
Peter came to realize that the significance of the vision was that God was opening the way of salvation to gentiles (non-Israelites), so Peter shortly thereafter baptized the first uncircumcised gentiles God called into the Church (verses 34-35, 45-48). Peter was never to eat unclean animals, but he did learn this vital lesson in the plan of God.
Lessons for today
The moral of this story is that food laws and righteousness are not mutually exclusive. God gave His food laws for sound reasons. True righteousness entails submission and obedience to all of God's Word (Psalms 119:172 Psalms 119:172My tongue shall speak of your word: for all your commandments are righteousness.
American King James Version×; Matthew 4:4 Matthew 4:4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
American King James Version×; 5:17-19). GN