You are what you eat. This saying comes from a French lawyer who lived in 1826, who said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Eventually, it became common in English in the 1930s when Victor Lindlahr published a book called “You Are What You Eat: how to win and keep health with diet.” Simply, you eat bad food. You will have bad health. Today many people talk about diets. People are willingly or told by medical professionals to diet for their health. They seek to lose weight. They want to lower their blood sugar or cholesterol. However, diet in Jewish culture was not about health but a community and religious meaning. We see medical advice in the Bible, such as Paul telling Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach (1 Tim 5:23). One of the markers, which the Jews held in high regard, was what they ate. You are what you eat to us has a physical meaning. To the Jew in the 1st Century, it had religious and societal significance. Some have tried to argue that unclean animals carried disease. I do not disagree. However, this was not the main reason that they focused on. Like the handwashing last week, it was not centered around hygiene.
I. Historical Context
Before looking at the words of Jesus, we need to understand the dietary laws of the day. Many times, we can have a massive disconnect because of the differences in thought. Today’s diet is a personal thing. You might find a community surrounding a particular diet, e.g., Atkins or others at the gym. However, this was a marker that set the Jews apart from others. Before it was personal, it was communal. The most similar aspect of this today might be heritage and cultural foods. However, this has more to do with a family’s origins compared to religious significance.
The distinctions of clean and unclean appear in Genesis chapter seven when Noah is commanded to build the ark and animals come on the ark. There are to be one pair of unclean animals and seven pairs of unclean animals. This is explained in Leviticus, which gives classifications of the animals that are clean and unclean. “Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat” (Lev 11:3). The law explains animals that live on the land, creatures that swim, birds that fly, insects, and swarming things. This distinction is made between clean and unclean so that the people of Israel know what may be eaten (clean) and not be eaten (unclean). Cf. Lev 11:46-47. Blood is not to be eaten in any instance, even in clean animals (Lev 17). Before concluding verses in chapter eleven, God gives the reason for these clean and unclean distinctions in Leviticus 11:44-45:
“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground, for I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
God explains two reasons for the dietary laws; 1) God brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt, and 2) the nation of Israel should be holy because God is holy. The nation of Israel was to distinguish itself from the neighbors because of this divine law. They were to be set apart in the ordinary and mundane, such as what is put on the plate. This was to be done for the glory of God. Throughout the law, we see two significant divides, holy and common. Holy is set apart for use in the temple, such as priests, furniture, etc. The common does not mean everything else but has two categories under this heading: clean and unclean. This distinction made focused on those in the covenant community and those outside. The clean and unclean difference was for the glory of God.
This was a critical community marker of the Nation of Israel, so much when Peter is told to eat all kinds of animals in Acts chapter ten, his response is, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). In his whole life, he has never eaten an unclean animal.
II. To be clean or not clean (14-15)
Jesus calls the crowd to him, which we need to remember that before this, Jesus was talking about the commandments of God and traditions of men with the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus tells the crowd, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:14–15). We are reminded of Jesus’ teaching of the parables in Mark chapter 4. The disciples even call this a parable in Mark 7:17. Jesus takes the Pharisee’s teaching and uses it to explain his point. The Pharisees washed their hands; Mark 7:3 literally would translate, “[they] do not eat unless they wash their hands with their fists…” They wash the inside of their hands with the outside of their hands. They wash the inside of cups, bowls, and kettles because, in their tradition, flat surfaces are not as dirty as hollow or cupped surfaces. Because the inside of a cup, bowl, or kettle would hold uncleanliness. You do not focus your energy on washing the outside of a bowl or cup but the inside. However, they did not apply this principle to their lives. They did not clean their interior, their heart. Matthew shows this teaching in the Seven woes to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you, clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matt 23:25–26).
III. Explanation of Inside/outside (17-19)
We see again that the disciples do not fully grasp what Jesus is saying. They do not have understanding (Mark 4:10-12). They ask for Jesus to clarify this parable for them. The insiders (Disciples) ask for Jesus to explain the parable while inside the house, and the crowd (Outsiders) are outside. He explains that food doesn’t go into the heart but the stomach. The great commandment is not “love the Lord with your whole stomach…” but heart. As Jesus explained about the Pharisees, they were hypocrites, actors. They looked like they were honoring God because of their lips, but sadly their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:6-7). The Pharisees saw the distinction between clean and unclean, but not common and holy. Paul explains that his righteousness, as a pharisee under the law, was blameless (Phil 3:5-6, Acts 23:6, 26:5). The law was a mirror to show their sin, pointing them to the Holiness of God, but they thought it was a mirror to reflect how good they are. How can eating something make someone unclean? Because in the end, it is expelled from their body, therefore after it leaves their body, they would no longer be unclean but clean. Eating with unwashed hands does not defile someone more to the point because if it were to make them unclean, once the food has passed through their intestines, they would be clean. Mark explains Jesus declared all foods clean. We will come back to this at the end.
IV. From within (20-24)
The main point is not what you eat but what comes from within. The heart is the key, not the stomach. It is out of the heart that sin comes. Jeremiah 17:9 explains, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” The Ten commandments speak of many things. We often think about it merely as do this, don’t do this. However, focused on what you do with your hands, we often do not think about it as commandments to the heart. The tenth commandment speaks directly to the heart. Coveting is not something we do with our hands but an internal thought. Jesus explains this in the sermon on the mount. Anger is murder. Lust is adultery. The list continues. Sins are not only things we do but start at heart. Just as toothpaste comes out of a tube of toothpaste, sin comes out of the heart. Jesus’ point is not only the origins of the sin, i.e., the heart, but also the foolishness to think that washing your hands before eating will fix all of this sin. When confronted with the holiness of God, we realize how common we are, how unclean we are. This Paul’s point in Romans chapter 3, he explains that “none is righteous no not one, no one understands, no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12).
The problem of the traditions of man, ultimately, are band-aids. They cover the wound. But more importantly, putting a band-aid on cancer. We often think of sin as something we do to others, yet David, when he commits adultery and murders Uriah, explains that it is against God and God alone that he sins (Ps 51:4). Richard Alleine has an excellent explanation sin:
“Sin is insurrection and rebellion of the heart against God. It turns from Him and turns against Him; it runs over to the camp of the enemy and there takes up arms against God. Sin is a running from God and a fighting against God; it would spoil the Lord of all the jewels of His crown. It opposed the sovereignty of God. A sinful heart would set up itself in God’s throne; it would be king in His stead and have command of all. Sinners would be their own gods: Our tongues are our own, who is Lord over us?”
The outward sins we see are from the sinful heart from within. There is an essential difference between what Jesus was saying and what the Pharisees were doing. The Pharisees thought if we keep the law, then we will not sin. If you don’t sin, then you don’t need a savior. Yet Jesus was explaining that sin is within everybody. As Paul continues in Romans, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:22b-23).
V. All foods are clean
Mark mentions in verse 19 that Jesus declared all foods clean. Although the disciples did not understand this comment at the time, they would. In Acts chapter 10, Cornelius was a Centurion, possibly meet him in Mark chapter 15, Cornelius is told to visit Peter by an angel of the Lord. While he is going to Peter, Peter also has a vision when God puts all kinds of animals (Clean and unclean) before him. Peter is told, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Cornelius comes to Peter. Peter explains to Cornelius, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). This is the great dilemma of the first General Assembly held at Jerusalem. You had some believers from the party of the Pharisees that explained it was required to circumcise the believers and order them to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). Peter stands up and explains, “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8–9). Their hearts were cleaned not through the traditions of man or keeping the law because no one was able to keep the whole law perfectly. This is Paul’s argument in chapter four of Romans. That Abraham was a gentile when he believed it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). Abraham was not circumcised until chapter 17. Paul was zealous for the traditions of his fathers (Gal 1:14). Paul would have had clean hands but a sinful heart. However, we need someone with a clean hand and a pure heart (Ps 24:4). Paul explains to the Philippians that with all his clean hands and keeping traditions, he counts all of these things as rubbish (dung).
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7–11)
There is not enough hand soap to wash away our sins. No diet can save us from our sinful hearts. If there was Christ came for no reason. The only way is to believe in Christ. We cannot achieve our righteousness, but we need alien righteousness, which can only come from Christ. Christ did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17).