He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
In the days of the Old Testament, Judaism and it’s laws were practiced mostly as a set of exterior rules. You can’t eat this or that, you have to wash your hands in this specific way, etc. Now that’s not to say this was the extent of pre-Christian Judaism, that would be a gross underestimation. The theme, however, of external rules is one that did in many cases dominate the attention of many ancient Jews – even some that still practice these today.
A great example would be the Pharisees. These were the teachers and leaders of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. He consistently rebuked and rebutted them for their obsession with the external. They focused on cleanliness and rule following rather than righteousness and love. They were more worried about the contents of their dinner plate and how good and right it would make them look than they were about what was in their hearts.
That’s where Jesus is directing us with this verse. It’s not about what you eat or how you clean yourself, impurity comes from within. To the Jews that were listening to him, this was probably quite confusing, as they were used to keeping purity rules that had everything to do with what you ate or how you clean yourself. Jesus flipped it upside down. He says it doesn’t matter what you’re eating if what’s inside of you is lust and greed and malice. Those things make you impure, regardless of what ceremonial washing rules you’ve followed.
Jesus’ goal was to change peoples’ focus from the skin-deep level thinking of just following the rules to the spiritual level of understanding that informed the rules to begin with. Righteousness isn’t dependent on the food you’ve eaten or how well you’ve washed yourself. Righteousness comes from what you feed yourself spiritually and how you’ve allowed the blood of Jesus to wash you clean from your sin. It is the state of the heart, not of the body, that makes you pure or impure. It’s the thoughts in your head and the desires of your heart that reflect your purity or lack thereof.
As Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but… against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Our calling is not so meager that it could be summed up in laws of diet or cleanliness. Our calling is for a spiritual righteousness that goes beyond the flesh, into the heavenly realms. Our struggle is not against what food is legal and not legal for our consumption, but against what the world is trying to feed us spiritually, versus what the Holy Spirit is trying to feed us.
The real struggle goes far beyond food and water. The real struggle is what goes in to our hearts from the culture, media, and people around us. Those things fill us and make us impure. But, fill yourself with the Spirit and you will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Help me not to turn my faith into a set of worldly rules, but to see it for what it is, a struggle of the spirit. I know that on my own I could never win that battle, but I know that you’ve given me the victory through Jesus. Thank you, Father, for saving me. Help me to feed myself the good things of the Spirit rather than the things of this world.
In Jesus’ Name,