Great Themes of the Bible (#27-Our Hearts)

"[Jesus] went on: ‘What comes out of a man is what makes him "unclean." 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." ' "

Have you ever wondered why some of the Jews of Jesus' time made such a big thing of legalistic rules about hand-washing and ritual purification? "It's in their Bible!" did you say? Not really. There are some rules about hand-washing for priests handling the holy articles of worship (cf. Ex. 30:19-21). And there are rules about ritual purification for both the priests and their families who ate portions of sacrifices presented at the altar of Yahweh (cf. Num. 18:8-13).

Somewhere along the way, some highly scrupulous — and I suspect well-intentioned — Jewish scholars began to teach that these rules should be respected by every man and woman who wanted to be holy to the Lord (not just the priests) and to all food handling (not just the devoted offerings). They quoted texts such as this one in support of their intent to expand the obligations about ablutions and purity to every Israelite: "Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false" (Psa. 24:3-4).

Eventually a party (i.e., denomination) within Judaism bound these rules and many others like them with scrupulous zeal. They came to be known as the Pharisees. While most Christians know the Pharisees as "hypocrites," that is an unfair generalization based on the unpleasant exchanges Jesus had with some of their leaders. Either Jewish or Christian scholars would tell you that, for the most part, the Pharisees were simply conscientious literalists who wanted to be right in everything they did in their religion. I can't be too critical of that spirit. To the contrary, I could wish that more people had such an attitude. Or should that be my wish?

Jesus' Antipathy to Legalism

Jesus never once distinguished the motive of the Pharisees from their excesses of legalism and judgmentalism, as if to congratulate the former while criticizing the latter. He appears to have made no distinction between motive and outcome, and he roundly condemned their legalisms. He warned his own disciples against adopting their ways. And we still have wound up looking more like them than him across history.

When we are painfully honest, you and I must admit that Christians often display a pharisaic tendency to place great importance on avoiding relatively trivial things. Did anyone else grow up in a church culture like mine in which dancing was forbidden — along with card-playing, going to movies, and mowing grass on Sundays? Yet we never seemed to notice how racist our churches were. While we fought theological battles over financial help to widows, orphans, and the poor through "the church treasury," I know of no battles that were fought over our widespread neglect of helping society's most vulnerable by some means rather than letting them suffer or feel dehumanized by some of the agencies to whom we abandoned our duty.

Our churches were more generally known for refusing to use pianos and organs than for helping alcoholics get sober or sheltering children from abuse. More people said of Churches of Christ that "They're the ones who think everybody but them is going to hell" than "They're the people who will treat you with dignity and kindness — the way Jesus treated people."

Why have both Jews and Christians erred in this matter of majoring in minors and minoring in majors? Can you envision Jesus mounting the pulpit of this church and saying something like this:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matt. 23:23-24).
Listen to these same verses from a modern translation now:

You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God's Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment — the absolute basics! — you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that's wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons? (Matt. 23:23- 24, The Message).
I can envision Jesus saying the same thing to us. I've heard the words ringing in my heart now for years. And I've tried to echo them to others — only to be labeled as a compromiser, false teacher, and heretic. One preacher recently told me Woodmont Hills isn't a "true Church of Christ." A lady upbraided one of our shepherds about our "Divorce Care Class" and happy Children's Ministry and demanded to know, "Where will this lead?" Straight to heaven — for those who meet Jesus here!

Jesus is like those who want to run the church for those who do not yet attend. How do we include them into the family rather than exclude them? His teaching had a direct impact on Christian missionary practice when Paul advised the Corinthians to eat whatever was set before them (1 Cor. 10:27) and told the Romans "that no food is unclean in itself" (Rom. 14:14). Quit judging others (14:4,10,13). Quit putting stumbling blocks in their way (14:13). Learn to live in harmony (15:5) and build up one another (14:19) rather than walls of separation. [1]
The biggest obstacle to faith in our unbelieving time is the church. The greatest handicap God has in reaching the lost is dealing with the people he has already saved. We become turf- protective of our church, our heritage, our beliefs, and our positions.

We know and understand that the church is supposed to be "distinctive," but we get confused about what makes us authentically unique. We choose the easy way of being distinctive — even peculiar — about card-playing, movies, dancing, instrumental music, weekly communion, and a dozen other things. Not one of these things requires any significant heart adjustment in us though. So we don't dance but let children suffer abuse because of a lack of safe foster homes. We sing a capella and continue to play the race card against blacks or whites or Hispanics. We eat the Lord's Supper every week and sow discord among members of the body of Christ. We've strained out a gnat and swallow a camel — a two-humped camel at that.

Beer and Pornography

Let me tell you about the last beer I drank. I was in Croatia and visiting a family where three generations lived together in one house. During the Serbian occupation of their village, soldiers shot up their house with automatic weapons, dismantled the tractor they had used for years to farm their few acres, and raped the younger two generations of women. This church had sent relief funds to help the 32 families in that village rebuild their houses and lives after that terrible period.

When I was driven to the village and my identity discovered by the people working to put tin roofs back on houses and to till their land again, they began coming to thank me for what you had done. I blushed, told them how horrified we were by what they had gone through, and said we were grateful to be able to help in some small way. The family whose situation I just described in greater detail insisted that I come into their house. They had no electricity but wanted to receive me. A man in his eighties put four bottles of warm Croatian beer on the table and proceeded to pour from them into the seven glasses there. His wife opened a package of sugar wafers. They cried that they didn't have anything better to offer in thanks for what our church had done for them. And they toasted me with warm beer — after which we were all expected to drink what had been poured for us.

The rules by which I had been reared in the Church of Christ and my own personal conviction said I didn't want any beer. My heart said I needed every drop in that glass out of respect to my hosts. I received the toast and put the glass to my lips — praying for God to give me the grace to get it down without puking all over the table!

Rules don't always reflect the essence of righteousness. Hearts are sometimes pure in breaking what Jesus called "the traditions of men." The flip side of this is that all the externals can be in perfect working order and the heart be depraved.

God does not always respect the boundaries we create and carefully protect. Drawing lines in the theological sand may serve our purposes; separating good guys from bad guys can be helpful, because it is hard to know that you're on the inside unless you know who is on the outside. But God has a studied disregard for anxieties of this sort. Prodigal grace keeps spilling over into alien territory. [2]
A certain preacher I know filled a pulpit for over three years by preaching legalistic orthodoxy, defending the distinctives of the Church of Christ with vigor, and making a reputation for himself as a "sound gospel preacher" in this state. Much of that reputation was built on attacking others.

Then his addiction to pornography broke over his head, when his wife found him at his computer at 2:30 a.m. one Tuesday. He had dabbled with pornography since high school, and the Internet had become his portal to everything he could imagine and more besides. Chat rooms. Prostitutes. Affairs with three women in his church. The externals were in perfect working order. The heart was corrupt.

"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (Psa. 51:10).


In today's text, Jesus challenged not purity but legalism, not obedience to God but defensiveness of human tradition. While not saying that all tradition is bad or unhealthy, he did say the ultimate test God will apply is to our hearts. And you don't need a system or set of legalistic rules to protect your heart. You need a relationship. You need to be so filled with love for him that the idea of cherishing any evil thing in your heart that would offend him would become unthinkable to you.

"Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Prov. 4:23).


[1] David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 284.

[2]Donald W. McCullough, "Serving a Wild Free God," Christianity Today 39 (Apr. 3, 1995), p. 17, quoted in Garland, Mark, p. 285.


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