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Doug Van Meter - 3 Mar 2019

Avoiding Skin-Deep Religion (Mark 7:14–23)

Superficial views of Scripture produce superficial views of sin, which results in superficial views of salvation, which leads to superficial views of the Saviour.

Scripture References: Mark 7:14-23

From Series: "Mark Exposition"

An exposition of the Gospel of Mark by Doug Van Meter.

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“Sheep without a shepherd” is an apt description of the nation of Israel that Jesus came upon. Politically—and most importantly, spiritually—the chosen nation of God was in a mess. For the majority, their relationship with God was merely skin-deep. They merely went through the motions of a skin-deep religion, as so many do today. The courageous rebuke of Jesus applies today, as it did in his day: “This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8–10). Jesus made clear that skin-deep religion is a plague with horrific ramifications.

The purveyors of this religious perversity were from among the scribes and pharisees. These teachers of Torah had “a fine way” of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish their tradition, thereby voiding the word of God by their traditions handed down. Sadly, Jesus could conclude, “And many such things you do” (v. 13)—as we so often do. That is, we are sometimes guilty of disregarding the word of God with the result that our religion—our professed worship—is merely skin-deep. As we saw previously, we have met the Pharisees, and they are us. If so, then it is time to stop such hypocrisy and to start honouring God not only with our lips, but with our hearts as well. O that God would deliver us from vain worship. O that God would deliver us from merely skin-deep religion. May we avoid skin-deep religion while embracing, experiencing, and responding to the deep, deep love of Jesus. Today.

In the text before us we will look at the danger of skin-deep, or what we could equally call superficial, religion. And dangerous it is, for superficial views of Scripture will lead to superficial views of sin, which will result in superficial views of salvation, which will lead to superficial views of the Saviour. We need to avoid this, like the plague, which it is.

Superficial Views of Scripture

First, we see that the religious leaders had superficial views of Scripture: “And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘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’” (vv. 14–15).

The Context

Verses 1–23 form a unit in which the first part records an intense confrontation (vv. 1–13) and the second part records an essential correction (vv. 14–23).

In the first part, Jesus confronts the Pharisees about their replacing the authority of Scripture with their opinions. This is always dangerous. Though they claimed that the Old Testament was God’s word, and therefore their authority for faith and living, their sloppy, irreverent, and ultimately superficial way of handling it exposed their true view, which revealed their true spiritual condition. It is always like that (John 8:31; John 15:4–6; I John 2:24).

Don’t miss this: Jesus’ strong words to them were precisely because they did not treat God’s word with the reverence with which it is due. It was for this reason that Jesus called them hypocrites.

The Issue

The issue was defilement (vv. 2, 5, 15, 15, 18, 20, 23). For the Pharisees, defilement was all about the external; it was all about the ceremonial. They superficially read Torah with the result that they assumed that the nation of Israel could make itself clean, not only by obeying the law (good luck with that!) but also by adding to God’s word. After all, it’s easier to obey manmade rules than God’s rules.

Fundamentally, they missed the whole point of the law. They failed to read it closely for, had they done so, they would have realised that these laws detailing cleanliness were grounded in grace. It was only after the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, by his grace, that he gave them laws (see Exodus 20–24). Had they taken Scripture seriously, they would have been humbled by God’s grace realising that Israel was not the bee’s knees of moral superiority (Deuteronomy 7:6–8). Had they taken Scripture seriously, they would have seen that the law of God pointed them to Jesus Christ, who was standing before them!

In other words, their superficial view of Scripture hardened their heart and blinded their spiritual eyes. So it is with you and me. Therefore, we need to be cautioned and corrected, which is precisely what Jesus is doing here in this passage. He wants his disciples and would-be disciples to guard their hearts. Jesus wanted to deliver them from the path of hypocrisy. He wanted to rescue them from the prolific skin-deep religion of the day. He still does. That is what he wants to do today.

The Call

Our text begins with what we might call a prophetic call: “Hear me.”

Protecting by Proclaiming

Jesus passionately called his listeners to pay attention to what he was about to say regarding the erroneous doctrine of the Pharisees. He wanted them to “understand”—literally, “to put together”—in their minds what the Bible teaches about defilement. Jesus was confronting a culture of scriptural superficiality—just like ours.

One can appreciate the government’s concern about men and women who manipulate people with a superficial understanding of the Bible—like the recent staged resurrection by a Charismatic pastor here in South Africa.

There is a good lesson for us here: if we will avoid superficial views of Scripture, then we need to be well taught from Scripture. We need the corporate teaching of God’s word if we will with confidence be able to respond, “This is the word of God.”

Verse 15—“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”—is like a cannon shot: It’s explosive. In this one statement Jesus was saying, “These religious leaders have misled you. They have mis-taught you. These ‘experts of the law’ don’t have a clue. They have completely missed the point.”

Keep in mind that Jesus was confronting a major religious tradition with these words. He was, in effect, bringing in a completely new era (v. 19). He was confronting, head-on, centuries of well-entrenched tradition. He was confronting a religious culture built on dietary and cleanliness laws. He was courageous. He was seeking to shake up in order to wake up a spiritually slumbering people who had been put to sleep by superficial views of the Bible.

I recently read a historical account of Roman Catholic clergy in Panama being upset that holy water was removed from hospital rooms so as not to attract mosquitos and perpetuate malaria. Reverence for “holy water” betrays a completely superficial view of Scripture, as, no doubt, doe many of the things we revere.

Brothers and sisters, when the Scriptures become superficial to us, they ultimately become useless to us. That is why many Christians don’t even open their Bible between Sunday services.

Ears to Hear

Verse 16 is missing in the ESV, and in most newer translations of the Bible. I think this is unfortunate because there is good reason to accept the inclusion of the words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (NKJV). It fits with Jesus’ other context of prophetic teaching (see 4:9, 23). If we will move beyond a merely skin-deep appreciation of Scripture, we must ask the Lord to teach us, “Speak LORD, for your servants hear” (see 1 Samuel 3:10).

The rest of our study will address the evidence of a superficial view of Scripture, but let’s ask and answer two important questions related to this.

First, what leads to a superficial view of Scripture? The answer is simple: taking Scripture for granted.

We take the Bible for granted when we fail to think about what the Bible is; that is, where and whom it comes from. This is the word of God! We take the Bible for granted when we approach it as a teacher rather than as a student. That is, rather than sitting under the Scripture, we place ourselves above it. We dissect it rather than being devoted to the God who wrote it. We take the Bible for granted when we fail to see it as a book that must be treated, in many ways, like we treat other books. For example, in any book, we should understand that there is an overriding theme or plot. When we fail to see the bigger story, we end up missing the point.

We take Scripture for granted when we treat the Bible like a rule book rather than as a revelational book. Then, it becomes a book we treat with mere skin-deep reverence. The Bible has rules, but fundamentally it is a book that reveals God!

If we treat the Bible superstitiously, it will become superficial in its effect. If we neglect to read and to study God’s word, its impact will only be skin-deep—if that. You may think that you know the Bible because you read it once, but even if you have a photographic memory, that misses the point and your knowledge will be surface only. A husband may think that he really knows his wife after ten years of marriage, but decades later he will realise that his knowledge then was merely skin-deep. Exposure over time moves us to a deeper appreciation, a deeper reverence for God’s word.

When we neglect to gather to hear and to learn God’s word, our view of Scripture is already superficial—and if we continue this neglect, our view of Scripture will become increasingly superficial. When we make the Bible about us, we develop a superficial view of it. That is why, once someone is illuminated by the Holy Spirit to believe what we affectionately call “the doctrines of grace,” the Bible becomes a different book to us. But, more on that later.

Finally, and perhaps most essentially, the Scriptures become superficial when we think they are only speaking to someone else and therefore we fail to apply them. Again, we must humble ourselves, place ourselves under the authority of Scripture and say, “This is the Word of God.”

Second, how do we avoid superficial views of Scripture? One way is to avoid avoiding corporate gathering to learn God’s word. If corporate worship is not a priority, you can be assured that you have a superficial view of God’s word. Discipline yourself to gather to be exposed to God’s word. This requires effort: effort to say no to other things—beginning with your flesh (stop secularising the Lord’s Day) and effort to listen once you gather and to listen and to learn and apply. I am deeply concerned at the biblical illiteracy of many who call themselves Christians—even “Reformed” Christians; even members of BBC. We need to submit to Jesus as our teacher.

Superficial Views of Sin

In the second major section of our text (vv. 17–23), we read about superficial views of sin:

And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

(Mark 7:17–23)

Superficial views of Scripture produce superficial views of sin. This is a tragic place to be, as this text so clearly reveals. These religious leaders were loud but lifeless; they were externally clean but inwardly corrupt. And they were so blind to this! What about you? I’ve asked, as I’ve studied this text, what about me? Am I like these religious leaders?

Dulled Disciples

It is interesting that Jesus made his bold and categorical statement (v. 15) and then dismissed the crowd. They went home pondering his bold and radical statement. But the disciples accompanied Jesus into “the house” (v. 17). Once inside, the disciples, revealing their own superficial understanding of Scripture, “asked him about the parable.”

Some have observed that the disciples heard this one verse statement (v. 15) as a parable when, in fact, it wasn’t. It was a straightforward statement. But when spiritual obtuseness sets in, even the simplest of truths seem so difficult; all exposition becomes an enigma.

The disciples were much like you and me. We too can fall into the trap of having only a superficial understanding of Scripture and therefore missing what it is pointing to: God who is holy and we, human beings, who are not holy. Yes, superficial views of Scripture produce superficial views of sin.

If we view the Bible as a guide book with rules, then we are prone to believe that God is probably okay with us. After all, we haven’t killed anyone. We haven’t kidnapped anyone or robbed or raped. (At least, I hope not!) But even granting the rule book mentality, it is equally true that we are selectively forgetful about some of the rules (such as lying, bitterness, and unforgiveness). Of course, the problem is that we cannot keep God’s rules—not entirely, and not internally.

We are so sinful that it goes to our heart. This was Jesus’ point. He explained to his dulled disciples, and to us, just how sinful we are below the surface.

What leads to such dullness? For one thing, listening to those with a superficial view of Scripture: theologically liberal pastors and counsellors, etc. For another, an unwillingness for self-examination and thus assuming a victim mentality when we should be identifying ourselves as perpetrators—against God, and against others.

The scribes and Pharisees, men who claimed to know God and therefore who claimed to be able to prepare their listeners to meet their God, knew nothing about God, as evidenced by the fact that knew nothing about mankind. They had no concept of how holy God is and how sinful man is. They had completely misread the Bible.

Defiled Disciples

As they arrived back home, and the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable, he began to teach them.

The Heart of the Matter

Jesus explained that, when it comes to being declared clean before God, the problem is much deep than the surface. Rather, our problem is way below the surface. The heart of the matter is the heart. And, like someone drilling for borehole water, Jesus hammered rod after rod of truth into the somewhat hardened hearts of this disciples. Though they would not grasp much of this truth at this point, they would later get it, and this would make them radical preachers of the gospel. They would be done with superficial views of Scripture and would leave far behind their erroneous and superficial views of sin.

Essentially Earthy

Jesus here expanded on his words in v. 15 by making an important distinction between the physical stomach and the non-physical heart. The heart, of course, is used in Scripture to describe the core of a person—who she is essentially. Jesus made what should have been an obvious point: that food goes into the stomach and not into the heart (either physically or spiritually). Therefore food, even defiled food (by unwashed hands), cannot make a person spiritually unclean—or clean, for that matter. He was trying to help them understand how serious a problem sin is, and that no superficial solutions—like washing hands and body—can solve it.

Jesus explained, rather graphically, that the problem with man is not the entrance, but the exit. To be quite clear, what goes into our bodies is not what makes us unclean but rather what comes out makes (see Levitical laws in chapter 15, etc.; Deuteronomy and the shovel [23:13]). In other words, when it comes to our spiritual condition, the problem is neither with our hands nor with our stomachs (nor with what we eat). Rather, the problem is with our heart.

Of course, this would have been revolutionary teaching to a society wrongly instructed that externals are more important than internals. Truth is always revolutionary when one is accustomed to superficial views of Scripture.

We need to be clear that God did instruct the nation of Israel about matters of cleanliness and uncleanliness, including what they could or could not eat (Leviticus 11). But the point was never that these things were inherently sinful and thus able to contaminate the soul.

A functional reason for these laws was to make an external distinction between Jew and Gentle (so as to point Gentiles to the true God who graciously delivered a nation). But the fundamental reason for these laws was to remind them that, apart from a work of God, they had an impossible sin problem.

Sadly, the Jews had been led to believe that their relationship with God was all about external, ceremonial cleanliness. As long as they obeyed these rules, they assumed that all was well with their soul.

Jesus was addressing an essential matter here. He was not contradicting the Levitical laws concerning cleanliness. Instead, as he did in the Sermon on the Mount, he was making clear that the law of God goes beyond the surface (see Matthew 5:21–48). The law of God was a pointer to God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. He was going below the surface. He was warning his hearers that their relationship with God must be more than skin-deep. It must go to the heart. As Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 6).

A New Era

Mark inserts an editorial comment (which comes out better in the ESV than in the NKJV) concerning these words of Jesus: “Thus he declared all foods clean” (v. 19). He was helping his readers to understand that, when Jesus the King came, the rules would change. After all, since these ceremonial laws all pointed to Jesus, there is no need for them once he arrived.

Remember that Peter was Mark’s material witness. This is interesting, since it was to Peter that the Lord revealed that the food laws were abrogated with the coming of Jesus (Acts 10:9–16). Anyway, the point we need to grasp is that, with the coming of Jesus, there was soon to be a new world order. Thank God!

Desperately Wicked

Jesus then dropped the hammer, as it were. He made it clear that, just as with the physical stomach—what comes out is filthy—so with the human heart. That is, the ugliness that arises from our lives reveals that there is something fundamentally ugly within. As Hughes observes,

These are hideous words. “Evil thoughts” are evil reasonings within oneself. “Sexual immorality,” “theft,” and murder are also condemned. “Coveting” is an appetite for what belongs to others. “Wickedness” is a heart that is completely equipped to inflict evil on any man (Bengal). “Deceit” means to bait, to deceive people. “Sensuality” involves plunging into moral debauchery in open defiance of public opinion. “Envy” refers to an evil eye that watches another’s possessions. “Slander” can take the form of blasphemy against God or slander against man. “Pride” is the sin of a self-praising person who has contempt for everyone but himself. “Foolishness” describes a person who is desensitized morally and spiritually…. This is how Jesus viewed the heart of man apart from his grace. Jesus himself taught the doctrine of depravity—that every area of life is tainted with sin, which originates in man’s heart.

The first six seem to indicate defiled and defiling, sinful actions while the second set of six indicate defiled and defiling, sinful attitudes. But all these arise from evil thoughts; that is, a wicked disposition. As a man thinks, so is he. Or, as Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9).

There is nothing superficial about Jesus’ description of the sinful condition of man. When we consider this description, our only response can be, “Woe be to us!”

Jesus was driving home the foolishness of any idea that mere ceremonial rules can confront a problem of this magnitude. We are defiled, unclean by nature, not by nurture.

By way of application, we need honest and faithful physicians of the soul if we will get the help we need. We need to hear hard things. We need to hear the heart things. That is, we need to see that our problem is deep, with an equally deep solution. We must not treat sin lightly—either individually or corporately. We need to move beyond a superficial view of sin or else we will not see our need for a profoundly powerful work of God. We are not intrinsically good; we are intrinsically bad, which leads us to the next point.

Superficial Views of Salvation

All the above relates to how we view salvation. That is, superficial views of Scripture produce superficial views of sin, which results in superficial views of salvation.

Sin produces death, and there is nothing superficial about that. There needs to be a powerful solution. Something much greater is called for than ceremonial washing. Sadly, superficial solutions abound: baptism; Communion; church membership; social justice; Reformed theology. These things are good and right in themselves, but as a solution to our sin problem, they fall woefully short.

Again, if our sin problem is only skin-deep, then the solution need only be skin-deep. If we have superficial views of sin, then salvation will not be all that important. After all, if we are not all that lost, we don’t need to worry about being found. If we are not wicked, then we don’t need to worry about being found righteous. If we are not sinners, then we must be saints. If sin is only a surface problem, then the salvation we seek (if we seek it) will only be surface deep. When it comes to the Christian’s struggle with sin, surface solutions will suffice rather than the radical amputation that Jesus and the apostles called for. Perhaps this is why so many Christians are flippant about the means of grace and the covenantal commitment required of growing church members.

If sin is a superficial concern, we will assume that it does not require much power and therefore we will try to overcome it on our own, rather than leaning solely on Jesus. But our only hope is Jesus Christ!

How seriously are you pursuing holiness? How seriously are you pursuing Jesus? This brings us to final point.

Superficial Views of the Saviour

We now come to our final point, and to the heart of the heart of the matter. That is, if we embrace superficial views of Scripture, we will embrace superficial views of sin, leading us to embrace superficial views of salvation, which can only lead us to embrace superficial views of the Saviour. In the words of James Edwards, “The disciples are like a dog looking at the pointed finger at its master rather than the object to which the finger points. They are like people looking at the stained-glass windows of a cathedral from the outside. Their sight and understanding are correspondingly dull and lifeless.”Can you relate? I can.

As we will see in our next study in Mark’s gospel, desperation leads to confession of complete dependence (vv. 24–30). So it is when it comes to dealing with the filthiness of our hearts. If we see our sin problem (rebellion against God, polluted lives, ruined relationships) as merely superficial, we will not be driven to the Saviour. Rather, self-salvation, as embraced by the Pharisees, will be our skin-deep default condition. However, when we see that our hearts are desperately wicked, we will run to him as our only hope. We will not view him as one among many saviours, but rather as the only Saviour.

Unbeliever, only as you see the evil of your heart and the depth of your sin will you view the work of Jesus on the cross with a seriousness that produces trust in and devotion to him. A superficial view of sin will always produce a superficial gospel. Jesus will not be central; he will not be the only way. Jesus and his work will not be all that important. After all, if the problem is merely skin-deep, the Saviour must not be all that marvellous. If salvation is nothing serious, you won’t take the Saviour seriously.

Christian, this applies not only to the unbeliever, but also to the believer. We need to give serious consideration to where we would be without Jesus Christ our Saviour. We need to give serious thought to how precious and praise-worthy he is. We need to give serious thought to how serious he is about our salvation! He will glorify us, whatever is required, including discipline. He will bring us home.


Superficial views of Scripture produce superficial views of sin, which result in superficial views of salvation, which lead to superficial views of the Saviour. But they also lead to superficial views of those the Saviour saves. In other words, our view of Scripture lays a foundation for how we will respond to Jesus and to those who belong to him.

May God give us grace to grow in the grace of the gospel, becoming more gracious to one another, to the glory of God. The Pharisees and scribes were anything but gracious, because they were graceless. Jesus expected more from his disciples. Eventually, they would get it. May we get it as well. May our religion be more than skin-deep. Rather, may we have a relationship with God through Christ that goes deep into the heart. This is not an option, for this is the word of God.