The absolute necessity of the new birth is one of the chief distinguishing marks of true religion from false. Of course, the reason the new birth is necessary is because the heart is depraved. The glorious New Covenant promise of hearts of flesh for the people of God (Ezek. 36:26) presupposes hearts of stone that rebel against the Lord, reject His authority, and whose affections love the wrong things in the wrong way.
Interestingly, one of the effects of this wicked heart is to deny the authority of God through the Word to define right and wrong, and to also take it upon oneself to reject His prescribed remedy for spiritual cleansing. The Jews of Jesus’ day—in an amalgam of wanting to preserve their distinctiveness during the Diaspora, and an increasing legalism that sought to “help” God by raising tradition and application to the level of unassailable orthodoxy—did just that by straying from a legitimate hermeneutic in their applications of Scripture, and by confusing the means of cleansing (the external sacrificial system) with its ground and cause (the free grace of God). This overemphasis on externals spiraled out of control so that by the first century, an elaborate, oppressive, and fantastically misguided approach to spirituality predominated in Jewish life. The pathological obsession with ceremonial cleansing had created a legalistic, overbearing misunderstanding of the whole point—one that even went so far as to judge God incarnate for not following their man-made rules!
Jesus uses this encounter to unfold important truth about the sinful human heart. It’s that very heart that produces both the ungodly, rebellious legalism of the Jews that rejected God’s grace, and the fleshly libertinism of our day that shirks holiness and the comprehensive authority of Scripture over every detail of life. This text shows three ways Jesus overturns the distortions of the Jewish leadership, and lays the foundation for repentance and restoration for all who would hear.
A. A Clear Explanation (vv. 14-16)
After rebuking the Jewish leadership for their legalism and hypocrisy, Jesus turns to the crowd of onlookers that has already gathered and blatantly contradicts the teaching of the Pharisees! You see, the Jewish leadership taught a very wrong understanding of defilement. Rather than teaching what the OT Law said—that contact with a short list of clearly defined things made one temporarily ceremonially unclean and in need of cleansing to approach God at the Temple, only as a picture of the deeper cleansing of heart required in regeneration—they taught that even potential contact with any number of things required elaborate and obsessive, even meritorious, cleansing. So potential “contamination” by Gentile dirt or food that might have been sacrificed to idols or handled by Gentiles necessitated a total bath upon returning home—or else one wasn’t really a serious, obedient Jew.
Jesus turns this on its head. Nothing physical that enters us, at least on the level of food, can make us spiritually unclean. Why? Because the real issue is the heart. Jesus is not saying all consumption of all possible substances (e.g., drug use) or all physical behavior (e.g., sexual immorality or violence) are okay; He is attacking a very specific and wrong aspect of legalism that overemphasizes certain external things and completely bypasses the real problem—the heart.
This is also not saying that we can engage in any questionable (or even sinful) behavior as long as the heart is right. Quite frankly, if the heart were right, these behaviors would be assiduously avoided, not reveled in!
Real defilement, Jesus says, does not depend on the food that is consumed (or brushed up against, or smelled, or walked past), but on the heart and its affections, attitudes, and mindset. Ironically, it is exactly that sinful mindset that is making the Pharisees think their legalism is not merely okay, but pleasing to God! And far worse things flow out of the sinful human heart. Jesus is not saying externals and behavior do not matter, but he is saying they are the expression of the real, central issue: the heart.
B. An Exclusive Clarification (vv. 17-19)
After leaving the crowd, Jesus retires to a private home (probably not Peter’s home, but likely one of another disciple or friend of His ministry). Matthew records for us that the apostles, led by Peter, are questioning Jesus’ teaching on defilement. After all, the radical emphasis on the heart that Jesus teaches is quite a divergence from the make-or-break, meritorious, our-tradition-is-unquestionable environment in which they have been raised and learned to know and experience God. What Jesus is saying does not make sense to them and may even seem unorthodox or wrong.
But God incarnate, the Master Teacher, does not shy away from rebuking (even if gently) their lack of understanding. They, of all people, ought to know better. As the New Covenant prophet, our Lord wishes to reorient the attitudes and understanding of His people—not in a lackadaisical, simpering, “externals don’t matter” sense, but in a far more radical, fruitful way: external behavior does not secure standing or merit with God, but it certainly denotes the quality (or even existence) of relationship with God, and thus points a laser beam on the heart of the problem: the problem of the heart! God claims all of His people, from the depths of the heart on out.
A note here about the meaning of “heart” in the Bible: “Heart” denotes the depths of the inner person, the command center, the part of us that thinks, wills, has affections and inclinations, plans, desires, etc. It is not immediately clear whether this is the same thing as the soul and spirit (I tend to see shades of difference between all three terms), but it is clear that “heart” denotes the deepest part of the inner person. That part, and all the other parts and their components and behaviors besides, needs to be radically transformed and renewed by the free grace and love of God.
That’s the problem. External behavior is merely an expression of what is already in the heart. And the very issue about which the Jews were so concerned—the effect of physical food on the spirit—is misguided. Not because behavior does not impact our spirit, but because the physical food makes no contact with our heart. The heart is spiritual; food is physical. Food is eaten, goes into the belly, and then goes into the latrine. The problem with food is the attitude or reasoning behind the eating, not the physical stuff itself. To confuse them is to make a very foolish and eventually destructive mistake.
By saying this, incidentally Jesus declared the ceremonial prohibitions on certain foods to be null and void—a reality that would be very slow in adoption by the early church, but one that would open the doors wide to all the Gentiles who joyfully found forgiveness and hope in Israel’s Messiah.
C. Penetrating Implications (vv. 20-23)
Continuing His hammering emphasis on the wickedness of the fallen heart, our Lord explains in no uncertain terms what defiles a person before God: Not the food they eat, but what is already in them and is expressed; not what goes in, but what “comes out.”
Like with most of the vice lists in Scripture, we are not to take this one as exhaustive. But it is certainly comprehensive, likely one of the most comprehensive in Scripture. That is because each of the items Jesus lists are more or less broad categories, with subgroups and numerous attitudes, expressions, and behaviors that fall under each. This complex of wickedness, not the food one eats, is the problem. The “for” at the beginning of verse 21 is the support or explanation for Jesus’ “thesis” statement in verse 20. The heart is the problem, for out of it continually proceed…
Evil thoughts. This is the topic item of the whole list that follows. All of the other things fall under this broad category. The idea is, “Evil thoughts, such as…” “Thoughts” here denotes the reasoning or perceptive capacities of the human mind/heart. It denotes that these things have evil reasoning and perception behind them to justify them, and flow from evil reasoning and perception in that it evaluates these thoughts and calls them good. Here is a strong confirmation of the reality that the mind controls and directs the will, and thus that the depravity of the human person is a moral unwillingness. We are still able by nature to trust and obey Christ (we have minds, and wills, and a conscience, and can interpret the world around us to understand the existence of a Creator, etc.), but we simply do not want to because our whole inner person is turned away from the Lord in total depravity. This is why we can still be responsible and justly condemned even though we are depraved.
Fornications. This is the general term for sexual immorality of any kind. It encompasses every expression of illicit sexuality, whether mental or physical.
Thefts. This is any illegitimate taking of anything that is not yours.
Murders. Unlawful deliberate killing of a human being, though it includes the hateful, etc. heart attitudes that often precede and enable it.
Adulteries. More narrow than “fornication,” this word denotes any and every sexual and romantic betrayal of the marriage covenant, whether mental or physical.
Deeds of coveting. This word describes both the feeling of greed (an unsatisfied, illicit demand for more of something) and the deeds one does to satisfy it.
Deeds of wickedness. Literally “wickednesses,” this covers everything God considers malicious and evil expressed in word, attitude, thought, or action.
Deceit. Here, we come to several words that broadly describe the attitudes behind these other thoughts and actions. The word for deceit refers to a lure or trap. Sinful people lie to get what they want, they lie to themselves, and they entrap other people to get from them what they want.
Sensuality. This refers to a demand/desire for unrestrained sensory (not necessarily sexual or erotic) pleasure.
Envy. This is lit. “evil eye,” and refers to eyes full of jealousy and contempt over other’s blessings and favor.
Slander. We get the word “blasphemy” from this word. These are abusive, irreverent, false words spoken to or against God or man that damage and defile their reputation.
Pride. Only used here in the NT, this word denotes a haughty or superior attitude.
Foolishness. That grand theme so condemned in Proverbs, “foolishness” is a moral senselessness that lacks ethical perception and neglects religious duty.
This is the problem, Jesus warns all the world. These ugly things continually emerge from the heart and constantly defile men and women. We are born with these hearts, shaped by our environments and choices into unique expressions of spiritual harlotry. And we cannot save ourselves. The heart needs to be changed for the life to change. Only as we are gloriously regenerated by the free and sovereign grace of God can we have the hearts God means for us to have: fully devoted to Him and His ways, seeking His righteousness in all things, and exchanging expressions of unbelief for those of faith that say He is enough and His ways are best.