“How Does A Heart Get Clean?”

(Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – Pentecost 15 – September 2, 2018)

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – 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. 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. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and 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. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men – the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”… When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile 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.”

Dear Redeemed in Jesus Christ,

Most people like to be clean. After a day’s work or play and getting all dirty, how good it is to get cleaned up. We like to go deeper than just surface cleanness though. Think of all the deep-cleansing products out there. You do not just want to wash with ordinary soap that clogs your pores and traps dirt in; use this product to cleanse deeply and leave your skin naturally healthy.

If you are concerned with getting outwardly clean, have you thought about inner cleansing? We are told that our bodies can build up toxins and become hosts to undesirable organisms, from exposure to pollution, processed food, etc. This buildup inside affects our liver and other organs, leading to low energy, headaches, and sickness. Doctors warn of heart disease and buildup of bad cholesterol, which can lead to a heart attack. We are told that we need this or that product to detoxify and clean out the bad stuff, or we need to eat certain foods as a preventative measure.

People like to be clean, inside and out. There is often a link between cleanliness and good health. Our text speaks of cleanness and uncleanness; but here we are talking about spiritual cleanness, as we ask the question: “How Does a Heart Get Clean?” As we will see, it is 1) Not by outward cleansings and foods, but 2) Only by the spiritual cleansing Jesus gives.

1) Not by outward cleansings and foods

Sometimes the methods prescribed for bodily cleansing and improving health really work. But there have also been bogus claims and products out there. Their effect is no better than a placebo. You may feel good about using a product or following some advice, but there is no real change. You do not really get any cleaner; you do not really get any healthier.

In our text, we meet the spiritual equivalent. Jesus exposes a band of quack spiritual doctors – doctors of the law – who are making bogus claims about how a person gets a clean heart before God. They obviously have no clue. For inner spiritual heart-health, they are actually prescribing outward physical cleansings and eating of foods!

It says: “The Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to [Jesus]… Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault.” They challenged the divine Physician’s practice, asking Jesus: “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”

They were not just concerned with washing dirt off hands, but with inner spiritual cleanness with regard to eating. In the Old Testament God had given ceremonial laws that classified certain foods as clean, which the Israelites could eat; and others as unclean, which they were forbidden to eat. These laws had their place, to point Old Testament believers to the coming of the Christ. He would fulfill all the ceremonial laws and bring true cleansing of the heart to the people of God. So such laws about eating and drinking are called, in the New Testament: “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

However, the Pharisees and religious doctors clung to their obedience to laws rather than to Christ for cleanliness before God. In addition to God’s written laws, they had developed many rules of their own – some 613 traditions that regulated Israel’s religious life to the smallest detail. They included this one, that if someone came into contact with an “unclean” person or thing, their hands were considered “unclean.” They needed a ritual washing to avoid contaminating the food the food they ate, and to keep from making their inner person “unclean.” Their tradition went so far as to specify how much water must be used to purify one’s hands, and how it must be applied. Other traditions included fasting frequently; tithing down to the tenth of their garden herbs; wearing conspicuous boxes on their forehead and arm containing small scrolls of God’s law, as if to influence their intellect and heart, and prescribing how many steps a person could take on the Sabbath to avoid work. The problem was, they considered such traditions to be as authoritative as God’s written law. In practice, their traditions took precedence over God’s law, and they took false security in them. It all became just an outward show of purity, without faith in the coming Christ.

After all their hair-splitting rules for outward conduct, Jesus pointed out in Matthew 23:23: “You… have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.” That is, they were still unclean in matters of the heart. And Jesus says here: “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. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'”

The Pharisees just wanted to be clean, inside and out. But how could they think the heart, the inner spiritual self, got clean by outward traditions like hand washing and eating? The answer had to do with a faulty belief about the natural condition of the heart. Like many people today, the Pharisees believed that they had a basically good heart by nature. In their thinking, sins were not something in the heart but something done outwardly. So as long you did right actions, you could stay pure before God. That is why they tried hard to follow many rules and avoid outward sins that “unclean” people committed, like adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts,” etc. They believed the only kind of uncleanness they might acquire would be by accidental brushes with “unclean” people. So if they went to the marketplace where they may have touched an “unclean” gentile or something a “sinner” had touched, they made sure to do this deep cleaning hand washing ritual to remove those foreign spiritual toxins before eating. So they believed they kept their heart naturally clean before God.

But Jesus sets the record straight: “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile 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.” So uncleanness is not just something that comes from outside influences to defile us. Uncleanness is within our own heart. That does away with any pharisaical notions about being naturally pure in heart before God!

Do we ever have such notions? We tend to think of sin as actions people do on the outside. So we tend to feel clean if we can avoid wrong words and actions and say and do what is right. The man who once was in trouble with drugs and crime has become a model citizen, counseling drug addicts, giving money to charity. The woman who once lived a loose life, now keeps the cleanest house in town and has her life in spotless order. These people may have cleaned up their lives, outwardly speaking; but are they, by all their efforts, really clean inside, any more than the Pharisees? Jesus puts our sins on the inside. He says they proceedout of the heart.”

Jesus says we cannot keep ourselves clean by what comes out of us in word or action, because we are not clean inside to start with. It is like a volcano that is sometimes seen spewing out hot lava. Just because it does not always erupt does not mean it has no more seething mass of lava inside. Just because we may control ourselves enough to prevent outward sins does not mean we are clean inside. In our heart there is still that same old seething, unclean sinful nature. It is just waiting to spew forth, if not in sinful words or actions, then in hidden evil thoughts.

What shall we do? No amount of trying to clean our heart by the strictest observance of rules will help. The Pharisees and teachers of the law have already proven that. All attempts to clean our heart from the outside in are nothing more than a placebo effect, a deceptive feeling of cleanness, with no real change in spiritual health before God. If left in our unclean state, we could not live with the holy God, but could only expect to be cast out of His presence forever.

2) Only by the spiritual cleansing Jesus gives

So how does a heart get clean? In our text, we meet the true Physician of the soul. Jesus exposes those quack spiritual heart doctors who prescribe outward cleansing and foods to cure the inner self. He leads us to see that our hearts get clean only by the spiritual cleansing He gives.

1 John 1:7 tells how He does it: The blood of Jesus Christ [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin.” The blood of God’s Son, shed on the cross for us sinners, takes away all our sin. His precious blood cleanses away all the ways we make ourselves dirty. It cleanses away all the corruption that dwells in our sinful nature. Jesus makes us clean, not just from our outward sins, not just from our grossest sins; but “from all sin.” Here is true deep cleansing, right to our inner heart and soul.

We are reminded of King David, when he desperately wanted a clean heart. He had committed detestable sins of lust and adultery, then murder to cover that up, and then more lies to cover lies. When he was at last confronted with his sin, David made no more excuses. He confessed to God in Psalm 51:3-5:I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight – that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” David confessed both his outward sins and his inner sinful nature.

Then, with confidence in God’s heart-cleansing remedy, he prayed in Psalm 51:7-11: Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow… Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Under Old Testament ceremonial law, the priest used a hyssop plant to sprinkle sacrificed blood and water on a person, to pronounce them clean. This signified the real heart cleansing David received by the blood of Jesus as he knelt in repentance before God’s throne. And he was renewed in faith by God’s Holy Spirit.

How does your heart get clean? Look to the cross and nowhere else. “The blood of Jesus… cleanses us from all sin.” As Christians we do not look inside our hearts to feel good about ourselves. Sure, Jesus now dwells in our hearts by faith. But still we do not look for Him there. When we look inside, we will see how unclean we are. But as we look to Jesus crucified for us, we will never be disappointed. As we kneel at the foot of the cross with David, confessing our uncleanness before God, He applies the blood of His Son and cleanses us from all sin.

He brings His cleansing to us today in His means of grace. In Baptism, Jesus applies His “washing with water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26); that “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). In His Holy Supper, He gives us His Body and Blood, once sacrificed on the cross, to us in the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sin (Matthew 26:26). Each day, each week, Jesus applies His blood atonement for sin to us in His Word of forgiveness.

As long as we live this side of heaven, we will have our sinful nature. Despite our best efforts, we will still sin. But Jesus cleanses us of all our sin. The writer to the Hebrews said: Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Who will live before the heavenly throne of God forever in peace and joy? It is not those who have provided self-cleansing remedies for their own heart; but it is all “who washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14-15). As our hymn invites us:

Come to Calv’ry’s holy mountain, Sinners, ruined by the fall;
Here a pure and healing fountain Flows to you, to me, to all,
In a full, perpetual tide, Opened when our Savior died.

Come in poverty and meanness, Come defiled, without, within;
From infection and uncleanness, From the leprosy of sin,
Wash your robes and make them white; Ye shall walk with God in light.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.