Some believe Jesus’ comments in Mark 7 overturned God’s laws about clean and unclean meats. But does this idea stand up under scrutiny of the context?
In the January/February issue of Discern we asked a pointed question—did Jesus eat pigs? (We’ve since rephrased that online to read, “Did Jesus Eat Pork?”) That article discussed the biblical laws concerning meats found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) and gave three reasons Jesus never ate unclean meats like pork or shellfish.
But there is an account recorded in Mark 7 that some believe shows Jesus abolishing the food laws. They argue that this proves Christians can now freely eat anything they want.
Here’s what Jesus said: “Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” (verses 18-19).
There you have it, some say. Jesus purified all foods—so all meats are now lawful to eat. Of course, if this were what Jesus was saying, it wouldn’t just mean that swine and shellfish are clean to eat. This would also include meat from all creatures, including snakes, roaches, dogs and rats.
But was Jesus really saying that now a Christian can completely disregard the Old Testament food laws and eat literally anything?
A look at the context
One of the most important keys of Bible study is to consider the context. When we come to passages like we find in Mark 7:18-19, we have to determine if the context supports what we think the scripture is saying.
Many inaccurate ideas about the Bible have come by interpreting a passage in a way that doesn’t fit the context or the message of the rest of the Bible. In this case, an isolated reading of these verses has led people to believe Jesus was saying all meats are clean—but is that really what He was saying? Could He have been making an entirely different point?
The immediate context begins in the early verses of the chapter: “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” (verses 1-2, emphasis added). So the issue they were raising was being ceremonially defiled (koinos in Greek). An unclean animal was not described as defiled, or common. (In Acts 10:14 Peter distinguishes “common”—koinos—from “unclean”—akathartos.)
Verse 3 gives a little more detail: “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.”
That last phrase—“the tradition of the elders”—is an important key to what is being discussed here. After being taken captive to Babylon for breaking God’s laws, the Jews genuinely desired to never allow the same thing to happen again.
Over time, the leaders added a detailed body of oral traditions to the law to make it (in theory) harder to break. The idea was that additional man-made laws built around God’s laws would help prevent Jews from getting anywhere near committing sin. These laws were later preserved as the Talmud, which continues to guide the lives of Orthodox Jews today.
The Pharisees and scribes were prominent groups of religious teachers at Jesus’ time who heavily emphasized the oral traditions. These traditions included laws on ceremonial hand washing that Jews were supposed to meticulously follow. Since these regulations came not from God, but from men, Jesus didn’t strictly mandate them to His disciples.
When the Pharisees and scribes encountered Jesus’ disciples, they noticed they weren’t washing their hands according to the strict specifications of the traditions—which included pouring water on both hands, lifting them up so water ran down the wrist and forearm, and then rubbing the hands together.
Jesus warns about religious tradition
Jesus used this accusation against His disciples to teach an important lesson. “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. … All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (verses 6-9).
They were so focused on nit-picking about man-made traditions, they were ignoring the laws God had actually given.Jesus’ point was simple: The Jewish leaders were so focused on nit-picking about man-made traditions, they were ignoring the laws God had actually given. Their focus was totally skewed! They had made “the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down” (verse 13).
Again, this was all within the context of hand-washing traditions, not God’s laws about what meats a person should eat.
The real lesson
Understanding the context, let’s return to Jesus’ often misunderstood question. Jesus said, “Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” (verses 18-19).
The context makes it clear what He is referring to as entering a person. The issue had nothing to do with pork or shellfish. He was talking about what could enter a person’s digestive system as a result of eating with ceremonially unwashed hands—perhaps a little dirt. The issue was clean or unclean hands—not clean or unclean meats! Matthew’s parallel account makes it even more clear that Jesus was talking about the stomach purifying foods through digestion (Matthew 15:17).
Jesus was essentially saying: You are totally fixated on a small issue that doesn’t really matter. The digestive system is well designed to eliminate a few particles of dirt!
Instead, they should have been worried about the issues that actually matter: character issues, such as “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders. … All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (verses 20-23). They were so concerned about correcting people on physical issues, they gave little attention to the more important spiritual issues.
The main takeaway is that we should be focused on the real teachings of God’s Word—not man-made traditions. Using Christ’s statements in Mark 7 as justification to eat what God’s Word says not to eat is totally missing the point.
To learn more, read “Mark 7: Did Jesus Purify Unclean Meats?” and “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?”