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Jesus was the Messiah—Yahweh’s special Servant whose coming was foretold by Yahweh’s prophets hundreds of years in advance. Better yet, Jesus was God. Now you’d expect that God in human form would obey God’s Laws for humans, right? After all, we’re told that Jesus was perfect and sinless. Well, obviously the definition of “sin” was bent where Jesus was concerned because Jesus not only broke Yahweh’s Law, He felt free to publicly renounce it. Wow. We can see how devoted Yahweh followers would have had some serious hesitation in accepting Jesus’ claims to be perfectly obeying Yahweh in everything He said and did.
In both Matthew 15 and Mark 7, we find Jesus making a very shocking statement about God’s dietary laws. Under the Old Covenant, there was a long list of foods that Yahweh considered unclean. To eat them was an act of rebellion which would make a person spiritually unclean until he presented proper sacrifices to atone for his sin. Well, Jesus couldn’t be bothered with all of that. He just blew the food laws off as irrelevant—and He did it in front of a large crowd of people. What a great example of…rebellion? Hm.
At this point in Jewish history, Mark lets us know that the teachers of Yahweh’s Law had interpreted His cleanliness requirements to mean that people should wash their hands before they touched their food. ALL Jews washed their hands before eating (Mk. 7:3). Today, we just call that good table manners. Back in Jesus’ time, it meant more than that. If a person ate with dirty hands, it was considered an offensive sin. Guess what? Jesus didn’t wash His hands. Not because He couldn’t find water, but because He was a rebel who liked to stir things up. Not only did He not wash His hands, but He taught His followers not to wash their hands, either, which means He had to unteach them the good manners they had learned as children. So here’s God teaching people to be rude instead of polite. Hm.
Our story begins with some Pharisees and teachers of the Law coming up to Jesus and observing that His grubby disciples are eating with dirty hands. Yuck and rude. They appropriately call Jesus out on the fact that He’s encouraging bad manners among His followers.
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Mt. 15:1)
We get the feeling that Jesus has been waiting eagerly for this moment to come. He’s obviously trying to start trouble by having His disciples act so offensive in public. It takes effort to go against cultural norms. No doubt this isn’t the first time someone has complained. But as always, Jesus is ready with a harsh comeback. Mark and Matthew record Jesus’ two part reply in different orders, but the elements are the same. Here’s Matthew’s version:
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother to be Corban (which means ‘devoted to God’), then they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition!” (Mt. 15:3-6)
This Corban business was a handy little trick. Suppose a man receives a lot of money. His elderly parents fall on hard times and need some financial support. Instead of coming to their aid as God would want him to, the greedy son says, “What a shame. I’d love to help you, but all my money has been dedicated to God so I can’t use it on you.” Declaring something as “Corban” was simply a way to get out of having to share with anyone else. It was a very sly way to shirk your responsibilities and look spiritual all at the same time. Naturally God is pretty ticked about His people using Him as an excuse to shaft their parents. He’s also mad about the way they’ve made a hypocritical game out of giving sincere offerings to God. While the Pharisees smile on this Corban garbage, they’re going to act like hand washing is some kind of major moral offense? Jesus isn’t buying it. He goes on to say:
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” (Mt. 15:7-9)
Jesus is quoting Isaiah 29:13—a passage in which a very angry Yahweh is prophesying doom and destruction against a rebellious people who think that they can sin without God noticing.
Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” (Isa. 29:15)
Jesus knows all about the games the Pharisees are up to and He calls them out in public just as they have tried to call Him out. Whenever Jesus gets into an argument with someone, He always wins, and before the Pharisees can think of a witty comeback, Jesus calls out to the crowd of people who are watching the scene and shouts:
“Listen to Me, everyone, and understand this: What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Mt. 15:10)
Whoa. This is a very shocking statement. If you read this account in Matthew, you’ll miss it. But if you read it in Mark, he gives us a heads up about what has just happened. Jesus has just said that it doesn’t matter what you eat—nothing you put in your mouth is going to make you unclean. Um, hello—this is a direct contradiction of God’s Law. There are a ton of things that would make people unclean. Fat, blood, pigs, camels, rabbits, dead things, any sea creatures that don’t have fins and scales (such as lobsters and crabs), eagles, vultures, bats, owls, storks, and most insects—God gave His people a long detailed list of what they couldn’t eat in passages like Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. And yet here Jesus has the gall to just fluff off God’s holy ordinances like they’re some kind of outdated fashion. It’s like Jesus has just said, “Forget about what Yahweh has told you. I’m telling you that there is no such thing as an unclean food.” WOW.
It is totally insane the way the Christian Church today promotes Jesus as a kind, loving, gracious, humble Man who drew people to Him with His magnetic Personality. When we make these claims, we just prove how much we don’t know our Bibles. Jesus was incredibly obnoxious and the things He said were beyond arrogant. How dare He suggest that a massive part of Yahweh’s Law was simply passé? Who on earth would say such a thing unless that person’s ego was so out of control that He actually thought He had the authority to overrule God? Suppose some self-proclaimed prophet stood up in your church next Sunday and announced, “Hey everyone, listen up: that stuff about Jesus being the only way to the Father? That’s old school. Forget about Jesus. God will grant salvation to anyone who asks.” Would YOU believe that such a person was obeying God? Not hardly! And suppose he then claimed that he never spoke his own words, but only ever said EXACTLY what God told him to say. Would you believe him? Of course not! If anyone tried to tell you that Jesus no longer mattered, you’d be convinced they were from Satan. This is exactly how the Jews felt about Jesus. There was no way in the world that God’s chosen Messiah was going to go around discounting God’s holy Law. Jesus had to be under the influence of demons. He was a blasphemous, arrogant, rebel who had the audacity to think that He and His followers were excused from having to obey Yahweh’s Law. This is how Jesus would have come across to the Jews. It didn’t matter how many passages of Scripture He could quote—His teaching in this moment was directly countering what the Scriptures said.
We mustn’t minimize just how scandalous our Savior really was during His time on earth. Just when His disciples would start to feel confident that He probably really was the promised Messiah, He would pull a stunt like this and completely blow their minds. Jesus was a theological nightmare. To side with Him made you feel like you were siding against Yahweh, and yet Jesus claimed that He and Yahweh were totally unified.
Could it really be that Yahweh had suddenly changed His mind about His dietary Laws and Jesus was the first to know? That is a serious stretch. At this point in our story, everyone is feeling super awkward. The crowd is shocked. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law are outraged at how people keep following such a blaspheming lunatic. And the disciples, well, they’re understandably uncomfortable. Mark tells us that they wait until Jesus leaves the crowd and goes into a house. For once the mob doesn’t follow. The disciples are feeling very confused and disturbed. Surely Jesus couldn’t really have meant what it sounded like He meant.
Then the disciples came to Him and asked, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
He replied, “Every plant that My heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Mt. 15:12-14)
Notice how Jesus is claiming association with Yahweh again—the same Yahweh He’s just overruled in public. What a brazen Fellow! And now He’s insulting the Pharisees by calling them blind guides. Is there any authority figure that Jesus actually respects? It doesn’t seem like it.
Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” (Mt. 15:15)
You can feel the tension in the room. Peter doesn’t want to lose Jesus, but he needs some serious help if he’s going to hang on theologically. Jesus is talking so crazy.
“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. (Mt. 15:16)
Both Matthew and Mark record this zinger. Jesus is a really sweet Guy. He knows that He’s just scandalized His closest friends, yet He still has to make the condescending cracks. You can just imagine what must be going on in Peter’s mind: “You think that we’re the ones with the problem? You’ve just insulted Yahweh in public!” Everyone’s waiting on pins for Jesus to justify His behavior.
“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 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.” (Mk. 7:18-23)
It’s interesting how Matthew specifies that it is Peter who first asks Jesus to explain Himself. Later on in Acts, it is Peter who has a vision of a sheet coming down with all kinds of unclean animals on it. He then hears God telling him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). As a good Jewish man, Peter adamantly refuses. Obviously at that time, he still hasn’t been able to accept Jesus’ radical declaration that Yahweh’s dietary Laws were no longer in effect. It is only after God repeats the vision three times that Peter is finally persuaded. Changing our core beliefs about who God is and what He wants from us is extremely uncomfortable.
In the Church today, many Christians like to say that God never changes His mind. They have good Biblical support for making this claim, and it’s clearly what the Jews thought about Yahweh as well. Speaking about Himself in the third person, God says through the mouth of the false prophet Balaam: “God is not human, that He should lie, not a human being, that He should change His mind” (Num. 23:19). Later on, the prophet Samuel says in 1 Samuel 15:29: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change His mind; for He is not a human being, that He should change His mind.”
God certainly is not a human, but He does change His mind, and not just about little trivial matters. He makes huge changes. One minute, He demands sacrifices for sin and sets up a whole elaborate system of priests, tabernacles and rules for how to keep everything sacred and clean. Later on, He throws the whole system out and announces that Jesus is a sufficient one-time sacrifice for everyone’s sins. One minute, He lays down a bunch of picky Laws about what people can and can’t eat. He says that anyone who breaks His dietary Laws must suffer serious consequences. The next minute, it’s “Never mind, eat whatever you want.” If the God who is never supposed to change His mind changes His mind on such fundamental issues like salvation and righteousness, then who can say what theology He will revise next? Before Jesus came, no one knew that there was another Being in existence who was equal to Yahweh. The Jews were CONVINCED that there was only one God because that’s what Yahweh had been telling them for centuries. So when Jesus came along claiming to be a second God who was equal to Yahweh in every way, of course they rejected Him. Of course they wanted to kill Him. We would have been right there with them, demanding Jesus’ execution, unless we were willing to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading into some very new and frightening theological territory.
Jesus was radical. He said the most blasphemous things with such Authority in His Voice that sincere souls just didn’t know what to make of Him. If He was who He claimed to be, they certainly didn’t want to reject Him. But if He wasn’t, and they went along with Him, then they could end up on the wrong side of eternity. Yahweh was vehemently against all forms of idolatry. Jesus said “Believe in God. Believe also in Me” (Jn. 14:1). That’s a pretty tall order. We have to appreciate the courage of men like Peter, John, and Thomas. Without the revelation of a New Testament or the aid of four Gospel books filled with explanatory notes, they decided to take a major leap of faith and stick with a Guy who felt free to declare that portions of Yahweh’s Law were null and void. Would YOU have been as brave as they were? Are you willing to learn from their example and stick with God today even if He starts talking crazy? If the Holy Spirit were to suddenly announce that portions of God’s Word don’t apply anymore, would you try to believe Him or would you accuse Him of being a demon? God reserves the right to change His mind and His methods anytime He wants to. As God, He answers to no one. If we’re going to stay in alignment with Him and not get trapped by closed minds and rigid theology, then we have to learn to expect the unexpected.