Spring 2002

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 10

Clean Hands, Clean Heart

David Hulme

Jesus taught that true religion demands a deep commitment to spiritual values rather than to ritual customs. 

The scribes and the Pharisees were about to have a lesson on the playacting of their spirituality.

They had tried to entrap Jesus over Sabbath observance, saying that He was breaking the rules. He had shown them that it is the law of God about the Sabbath that must be kept, not the laws invented by man to surround it.

Now the scribes and Pharisees were in Galilee trying once more to catch the Teacher off guard. This time their questions dealt with the Jewish practice of ritual hand washing before eating. It was the custom of the strict religious parties to wash up to the elbow before eating. Only then were they ritually clean.

When they asked why Jesus’ disciples did not follow this tradition of the elders, He told them that they were fulfilling a prophecy of Isaiah, which said: “ These people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men” (Isaiah 29:13, New King James Version). In other words, the law of God was being obscured by the tradition of men.

To demonstrate the point, Jesus said: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’. . . . But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:9–13; Matthew 15:3–6).

What Jesus was objecting to was their means of circumventing the clear responsibility of children toward their parents as prescribed in the law. So once again we see that it is so easy for human beings to think they are being religious, even pleasing God, when they are doing the exact opposite of what His law requires. The heart is where God’s interest lies, as Jesus went on to show.

He said that it is not what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but rather what comes from the innermost being. This passage is often mistakenly thought to mean that we can eat anything, including what the Bible says is unclean. But it’s clear from the context that Jesus’ point related to human motivation, not food. The subject under discussion was not whether a person should eat pork or shellfish, but what comes from the human heart.

He concluded His remarks this way: “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:20–23, NKJV).

It’s often thought that Jesus did not believe in keeping the Bible’s food laws. That’s an illogical conclusion.

The subject of clean and unclean food is an interesting one, of course. It’s often thought that Jesus did not believe in keeping the Bible’s food laws. That’s an illogical conclusion. He was, after all, born into an observant Jewish family. We read that His parents raised Him according to the ways of God, that He was obedient to them, and that He grew in favor with God and man. There’s no evidence that He was disobedient to the laws of God. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17).

The scribes and the Pharisees would have had a case to make if Jesus and the disciples were eating unclean foods, but the issue they raised was about ritual washing according to their human traditions. They never raised a question about what the disciples ate. And neither should we.

The Miracle Worker

Sometimes Jesus traveled outside the territory of Judea and Galilee—for example, to the Mediterranean seacoast cities of Tyre and Sidon in what is Lebanon today. Jesus went there with His disciples and tried to keep His presence secret, but it was impossible. Soon a Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia approached Him. She begged that her daughter be healed of demon possession (Mark 7:24–26).

Jesus knew that His immediate mission was to the children of Israel. He didn’t respond to the woman until she demonstrated her understanding of God’s relationship to Israel. Her humble admission that it was only indirectly, by contact with Israel, that the gentile peoples were to be blessed, convinced Christ that she did understand. He healed her daughter at a distance. When the woman returned home, she found her daughter in a normal frame of mind (Matthew 15:21–28).

Next, Jesus and His disciples went to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and the 10 Greek cities known as the Decapolis, where He healed a man who couldn’t hear and who could barely speak. He told the crowd who witnessed this not to tell anyone. That proved difficult, and the more He asked them not to, the more they spread the word. In the end, great crowds came to see Him in the area southeast of the Sea of Galilee (verses 29–31; Mark 7:31–37).

At this point in the Gospel account we find Jesus repeating a miraculous event that had occurred only recently with another large crowd. Jesus said to His disciples: “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance” (Mark 8:2–3).

Finding that the disciples had seven loaves and a few small fish, He asked God’s blessing on the food and fed 4,000 men, plus women and children. This was the second time that He had fed multiple thousands miraculously (verses 18–20). As before, the disciples picked up several baskets of scraps at the end of the meal.

After this Jesus went back to Galilee, only to be met by hostile questioning. Now the Sadducees, another religious party, joined the Pharisees in their criticism of Jesus. This time the critics were asking Him for a sign from heaven.

He told them that the signs they did see from heaven on a regular basis, like a red sky at night or in the morning, seemed to present them with no difficulty. They could understand that certain weather was on the way when they saw such signs. Yet when they saw the works of Christ, they couldn’t recognize them but wanted some other miraculous display.

Jesus said they would see no other sign than the sign of the prophet Jonah (Matthew 16:1–4). He had told them this very same thing earlier in His travels. Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, symbolic of Christ’s three days and three nights in the tomb after His crucifixion.

Going back across the lake, Jesus took the opportunity to instruct His disciples about the teaching of the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians. He compared all three parties to leaven, or yeast, the effect of which spreads quickly in dough. He warned His disciples that wrong teaching spreads quickly too.

The disciples at first didn’t grasp Jesus’ meaning when He said, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees” (Mark 8:15). They thought He was speaking about the fact that they had brought no bread with them. When He reminded them that He had been able to provide enough food for thousands of people on two recent occasions, they realized that He was speaking of something quite different.

Landing at the northern shore near Bethsaida-Julias, Jesus healed a blind man, telling him to say nothing in his village but to simply go home. Once again Jesus sought to avoid public attention (verses 22–26).

A New Phase Begins

Next we follow His footsteps to Caesarea Philippi in the northern part of the territory of Israel, beyond the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist. This was the territory of Herod Antipas’s half brother Philip. This ruler didn’t have the same suspicions as his brother about Jesus. His territory was populated by gentile peoples who would not have had such antagonism to Jesus as the Jewish religious parties did.

Surrounded by His disciples, Jesus now began to probe their understanding about His own role and responsibility. He asked, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He pressed them: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:13–16).

The evidence that this was no ordinary man had become overwhelming; not even charisma could account for the extraordinary things He said and did.

This was the beginning of a real recognition of Jesus’ unique identity by the disciples. They had been in Jesus’ company for some time. They had witnessed many miraculous events that strained their normal capacity for disbelief. The evidence that this was no ordinary man had become overwhelming; not even charisma could account for the extraordinary things He said and did. It was not by human reasoning that they came to accept Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus made that clear when He said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (verse 17).

It was a significant part of Jesus’ teaching that no one can accept Him unless the Father causes a change in the normal human perspective. Jesus had made that plain to His Jewish audiences more than once before. Here again He stressed that the understanding that Jesus was the Christ to come was a revelation from the Father.

He went on to make a prophetic statement about the founding of the New Testament Christian Church. He said to Peter, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (verses 18–19).

This has been commonly understood to indicate Peter’s leadership over the Church as it developed after Christ’s death. Certainly Peter would have an important role to play. There is something to be learned, however, from the different Greek words used here. When Jesus said, “You are Peter,” He used the masculine form, petros, which means a rock or a stone. When He said, “. . . and on this rock I will build my church,” He used the feminine form, petra, which means a large stone, a rock, a cliff, a ledge, a crag. It is understood that by the second rock Christ was referring to Himself. He was the rock on which the Church would be built.

Peter was to be given the keys to the kingdom; that is, certain authority symbolized by keys. The apostles would ultimately have authority in the Church to guide it under Christ toward the kingdom of God.

Jesus strictly warned His disciples not to tell anyone else what they had recognized about Him. 

Having introduced these new concepts, including the fact that there would be a church, Jesus strictly warned His disciples not to tell anyone else what they had recognized about Him. This episode marks the beginning of a new phase in Jesus’ disclosure of His purpose.

The Things of God”

Next, Jesus had to prepare His disciples for His certain death at Jerusalem and His resurrection on the third day. This was difficult to understand, let alone accept. Peter’s response was to rebuke Jesus for saying that He would be killed. He said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus had to rebuke Peter in return, reminding him that he was acting under the sway of the evil one to say such things. Jesus used the same language in addressing Peter that He had used in the temptation battle between Himself and Satan. He said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:21–23).

Then Jesus called the crowd to Him and taught an important lesson about commitment to the things of God. He said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34–37).

It’s a famous passage that lays out the utter seriousness of the commitment to follow God. Jesus was obviously committed to God to the point of giving up His life for all of humanity. He expects nothing less in terms of willingness on the part of His followers. Some have thought that the Christian way requires nothing but a vague commitment to knowing something about Jesus and somehow accepting that He lived and died—believing in Him, in that sense. It is, of course, much more. It involves a commitment to His way of life. It means putting away the self for the sake of others. It means seeking to behave as Christ Himself behaved as a human on this earth.

The Christian way means putting away the self for the sake of others. 

Transfigured

Notice what Jesus taught next about His own second coming and the Judgment. He said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (verse 38).

Looking beyond this life, Jesus began to speak of His own return to the earth. What He said next was a mysterious reference to how He will appear at that time. He said: “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1).

It was a prophecy that would be fulfilled about a week later, probably on nearby Mount Hermon, rising over 9,000 feet above sea level. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus took Peter and the brothers James and John with Him and went up a high mountain. There He began to pray, and as He was doing so, His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.

Two men appeared and talked to Jesus about His impending death. They were two well-known Old Testament figures, Elijah and Moses. The disciples were drowsy when this was happening. They came to their senses as the men were leaving. A cloud surrounded them all and a voice was heard confirming the identity of Jesus. The voice said essentially what had been said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:2–7; Luke 9:28–35).

When the cloud cleared, only Jesus and the disciples remained. Jesus instructed them, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” (Matthew 17:6–9, NKJV).

The vision caused the three disciples to ask a question about one of the Old Testament figures they had just seen: “Why is it said that Elijah must come just before the Messiah?” They knew Elijah had died long ago, yet they had just seen him, as if alive, in a vision. It was no doubt very puzzling. Jesus explained that “Elijah” had already come a second time in the form of John the Baptist. In other words, Jesus was showing them yet another indication of who He was. Then, looking toward His own impending death, He also pointed out that ultimate suffering was in His destiny just as it had been for John.

Once down the mountain they found the other disciples surrounded by a crowd including some teachers of the law. They were arguing with the disciples. A man had brought his demon-possessed son for healing, but the disciples had been unable to help. The boy was often convulsed and ended up in the fire or in the water.

Jesus rebuked the spirit, which, after shrieking, convulsed the boy for a few moments and left him. The boy looked as pale as a corpse, but Jesus took his hand and lifted him up.

The disciples were puzzled as to why they could not rid the boy of the demon. Jesus said that their faith was lacking and that some demons come out only after prayer and fasting (Mark 9:14–29). In other words, there are some tenacious evil spirits who respond only to those who are especially close to God and fortified by His strength.

It was another important lesson for the future when the disciples would not have Jesus physically by their side.