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How to Stay Pure in an Impure World

Time magazine recently published an article about the largest body of contaminated water anywhere in the United States of America. In that story they told that this huge lake of contaminates would be big enough to hide an eighty-story skyscraper. Now it contains some 26 billion gallons of toxic, acidic water that is very, very dangerous, and people in that community are very, very concerned. We're only 60-65 miles away from that, because that lake is in Butte, Montana, just blocks from downtown. It's a lake that people are concerned about because they wonder, How can we stay free from this kind of contamination and this kind of pollution. There's a mist and a fog that sometimes merges off of that lake and there are a lot of people wondering, "What happens if I breathe this? How can I stay healthy while living in this environment?"

Water is continuing to seep in and fill up that pit, and some people are concerned that the day may come when the water begins to seep out and begins to pollute and to contaminate a lot of other sources of water and water supplies. People are wondering how they can protect wildlife because recently 342 geese flew in and landed to get a drink. Eventually their carcasses washed up on shore.

If you think about it, that's the same kinds of concern that we have about another source of contamination that's right here in our valley. It's as close to you as the people with whom you rub shoulders. It's as close to you as your television set or the magazines that you read. The concern and the question that we often have is "How can I stay pure in an impure world? How can I stay free from the contamination that is all around me in my culture?" That's a major issue, and if you have children you are wrestling with that issue on a parental level. "How do I protect my children? How do they stay pure in an impure world?"

Because it's so easy for our thought processes and our emotions and the choices that we make to be influenced by anger and by adultery and by violence and by gossip and by cheating and by all kinds of other contaminates that we have to face every day. Whether it's in our school, our workplace, or with the family members or the friends with whom we rub shoulders, that is a huge issue. How do we stay pure in an impure world?

How we stay pure in an impure world.

The Lord Jesus dealt with that question because there was a group of people in his day who were very concerned about that issue. How do you stay pure in an impure world? Jesus had a very interesting conversation with them that I think might help you be able to answer that question. In Mark chapter 7, we can find this conversation that Jesus had with a group of religious leaders on this very issue.

Here's how this question came up. Mark chapter 7 verse 1 says that the Pharisees and some of the teachers of the Law had come from Jerusalem. These were the heavyweights, these were the folks from the holy city, from Jerusalem. They gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were unclean—unwashed. The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. They observe many other traditions such as the washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles. So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law ask Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating their food with unclean hands?"

If you go to a restaurant and use the restroom, you probably see a sign that says: Employees must wash hands before returning to work. The concern is for personal hygiene. That's not the concern here. These folks from Jerusalem were not health inspectors from the Department of Sanitation. They were religious leaders; and instead of being concerned about hygiene, they were concerned about ceremonially tradition, about some rituals that Jesus and his disciples were ignoring. The operative phrase in verse 3 and then again in verse 5 is "tradition of the elders.'"

A couple hundred years before Jesus came on the scene, the religious leaders in Israel had a huge concern that people in Israel would never again disobey the Lord and violate his commands as they had been doing throughout their history. Their concern was, How can we help these people stay pure in an impure world? And so they decided that they would take the laws that were in the Old Testament and add to them some traditions, what they called "traditions of the elders." Some traditions that would help people stay pure, because after all, they knew as you know, that the Bible doesn't address every situation in life. So they decided they would help people out.

Now in this case there happened to be a couple of commands in the Old Testament Law for priests. Unless you were a priest these laws did not pertain to you. If you were a priest, Exodus chapter 30 verse 19 says that before you go into the tabernacle, eventually the temple complex, that you needed to wash your hands. Again, some kind of a ceremonial wash—it wasn't a hygiene thing, it was a tradition thing.

Exodus chapter 40, verse 12, made the same provision. If you're a priest and you enter in to perform your priestly duties, the first thing you would do is to stop and to engage yourself in the ritual washing of your hands. Now, the Pharisees and other religious leaders looked at that and said, "Okay, let's do that one better. If that applies to the priests when they go to worship let's make a tradition that everybody does that. That everybody will have to engage in washing and not just when they go to worship, but every time they sit down to eat a meal. Every time they are going to use a particular utensil let's ask them to go through a ceremonial washing."

Now, whatever you think of that tactic, their motives were right. At least when they began, their motives were to help people stay pure in an impure world. That's a very common tactic and that's a tactic that we still use today. As we look at the principles in Scripture we say, "Okay, I am very concerned about living God's truth and I want to stay pure in an impure world." So what we do is we take God's Word and we add some of our own traditions that are intended to be helpful and intended to help people honor God.

I've been around church all of my life and I've seen a lot of these traditions. One of the traditions is that when you pray you bow your head and you close your eyes. Another common tradition that Christians have is no debt, no debt at all. Some have rules that say no playing cards. You can't play games like Poker. Others say you shouldn't listen to music that has a rock beat. Others say if you are a guy you shouldn't have a ponytail or if you read your Bible you should read a chapter a day. And on we go. If you believe in the sufficiency of Scripture you won't go to see a psychologist. You see we've put a lot of rituals and traditions in place to try to help us live out God's commands and to remain pure.

Now the question is, how well does that approach work? How effective is that? Well, let's listen to Jesus. In verse 6 he replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites." Doesn't sound very good, does it? A hypocrite was a person with a discrepancy in his or her life. They said one thing and maybe went through some outward traditions, but if you really got looking at their lives it didn't match up. Jesus said, That's where you folks are at. Then he quoted Isaiah the prophet. He said, "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain. Their teachings are but rules taught by men. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."

The Pharisees believed that if you kept the traditions of the elders that you were keeping the commands of God. Notice that, though the Pharisees called them the "traditions of the elders," Jesus said of them, "They are traditions of men." They believed in them, and Jesus came along and said, "No, wait a minute, it doesn't work that way. Your traditions of men are in fact working against the commands of God." Then he gave them an example of that.

He said in verse 9, "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions. For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother and anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But, you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is korbon, that is a gift devoted to God, then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.'" The concern here is over a tradition that was called korbon. Now that's not the foam insulation that's in your walls. It's a word that meant "dedicated." It referred to the practice of taking maybe a piece of land or some funds that you have, and earmarking those funds or that piece of land to be used for the Lord's work.

Here was the problem: Jesus said that when you practiced that, you set aside the fifth commandment. The fifth of the Ten Commandments that said, "Honor your father and your mother and anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death." We are so used to seeing the fifth commandment tied in with Ephesians 6:1, "Children obey your parents and the Lord for this is right. Honor your father and mother." We are so used to seeing that version, sometimes we forget that the commandment was originally given to adults. As God's people gathered around Mount Sinai in the wilderness and were given the Ten Commandments through Moses, he was speaking to a lot adults. So, when he said "Honor your father and mother," one of the main emphases was to take care of your parents. When they get to the place where they can't support themselves any more, you honor them. Don't send them off. Don't look the other way and neglect your responsibility. You take that responsibility seriously, and you honor your parents.

And Jesus says, "Look, you've got this tradition—this korbon thing—that really works against your biblical responsibility." Some people would use korbon to skirt their responsibility. Their parents would be in desperate need, unable to work to support themselves, and the children would say, " I would love to help but I can't. I have got these funds, but these are devoted to God and I can't use them."

It's even possible that some of the people were willing to respect their obligation, but were unable to do so. They would go and talk to a religious leader and say, "Hey, I've got a problem. I've had some funds that were designated to be given to the temple, but my folks are in need. I've got to help them." The religious leader would say, "You can't do that. You've made a promise. You would dishonor God if you took those funds that you had dedicated to the temple and use those." And Jesus is saying, "Now wait a minute. What you've done is pay so much attention to your own traditions that you ignore the big issues. That you ignore my commands."

That's the problem with this kind of an approach. So often, what we want to do out of good motives is to try to maintain purity by setting up traditions and our own regulations. But Jesus comes along and says you better watch out, because it is very easy for those traditions to take on a life of their own, and to put you into a position where you are ignoring some of the basic commands of God. I've seen that happen and I'm sure you have too.

We get so hung up on some of our traditions that we ignore the big sins like anger, like gossip. Oh, we wouldn't play poker, we wouldn't listen to music with a rock beat, but we have a critical spirit. We wouldn't dress a certain way, but yet we don't have any qualms about being selfish. That's what Jesus is after here. It's not so much that he's bothered by washing hands before he eats a meal, he's just saying that's really not the solution to this problem of living in an impure world. That's not going to work.

What is the source of impurity?

The reason that's not going to work is what he pursues next. The Pharisees had asked the right question: How do you stay pure in an impure world? But they got the wrong answer because they got the wrong answer to another question and that is: What's the source of impurity? That's what Jesus is after in verse 14 and following.

"Again, Jesus called the crowd to him and said, 'Listen to me everyone and understand this. Nothing outside of man can make him unclean by going into him, rather it is what comes out of man that makes him unclean."

So the basic principle is what? Impurity starts on the inside, not on the outside. If you are going to deal with impurity then you've got to get beyond the outside and go to the inside. Verse 17 says that, "a little later after he had left the crowd and entered the house his disciples asked him about this parable. 'Are you so dull?' he asked. 'Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean? For it doesn't go into his heart, but into his stomach and then out of his body.' In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean."

Now this is difficult. You have to follow what Jesus is doing here. He's actually moving beyond some of the rituals and traditions about washing hands and even talking about eating food. Of course the Jewish people had a lot of laws related to what could be eaten and what couldn't. Some of those were even in the Bible, in the Old Testament Law. Jesus came along and in his ministry he wanted to make the point that those were pointing forward to him and now that he was here there were some things that you didn't have to do anymore.

In the process he really raises another example here. He says, "When you eat something, don't you see that it enters you and it doesn't make you unclean. Because it doesn't go into your heart. It doesn't go into your heart, but it goes into your stomach and than out of your body. It's eliminated as waste." People in Jesus time, the religious leaders, believed that while human waste was offense it wasn't ritually unclean. I don't know how they arrived at that. They said it wasn't ritually impure.

Jesus says, "Okay, let's use your logic and let me show you what's wrong with all of these strict laws that you have." He says, "If what goes out of your body isn't considered ritually unclean, then why is it unclean when it goes into it? No, no, that just doesn't work." In verse 20 he goes on to diagnose the problem. Again he says, "What comes out of a man is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of man's hearts." Now, he's been talking about that all through this discussion hasn't he? He quoted Isaiah who was dealing with people who would honor God with their lips but their hearts were far from him. In verse 19 he talked about this food not going into the heart. And now he says, "For from within, out of man's hearts come..." and he gives a whole list of things.

The heart that Jesus is talking about here is not the physical organ that pumps blood. The term "heart" was used as a way of describing your inner control center, your thought processes, the decisions that you make, the feelings that you have, the emotions. Jesus says that is the source of evil thoughts or evil devising—that's the heading for this list. Then he mentions six items that are actions that come out of the heart. He says sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed and malice. Malice is evil scheming to do evil to someone else.

Then he follows that up with six items that are more attitudes that are behind some of those actions. He says, deceit, lewdness or what we call sensuality. Envy—literally, envy means an evil eye. In ancient times, an evil eye was considered to be an eye that was envious but also stingy. So stinginess is in view here too. Slander—saying things about other people that are destructive. Arrogance and folly—folly or foolishness and in the Bible foolishness is used in a moral sense. It's a choice to reject God.

He's saying, "Look, all these evils come from inside and make a man unclean." So he's telling them, "Look, you set up all these outside rituals, but they don't get to the root of the problem. The root of the problem is the human heart. That's where all this ugly stuff in your culture comes from. This stuff that you want to protect your kids from. You know where it really originates is in the human heart because that's the source. That's the source of impurity."

If that's the source of impurity, then that changes things doesn't it? Back in verse 13 he had said, "Lest you nullify the Word of God by your traditions that you have handed down, and you do many things like that." He says, "Your approach is not working."

How do you stay pure in an impure world? Jesus is saying you've got to pay attention to your heart. You've got to go deeper than just outside rituals and traditions that you set up. You've got to pay attention to your heart. That's the issue here.

How to pay attention to your heart.

The question now is: How do you do that today, in the times you're living in? If you look around you and say, "Yeah, I'm concerned about staying pure in an impure world. How do I pay attention to my heart?" I'd liked to leave you this morning with just a couple of suggestions. I think these will help you get on the road to attacking what Jesus identifies as the source of impurity.

First of all, I encourage you to learn to refocus on heart issues, not just on outside issues. I'm convinced that we have been conditioned, even as Christians, to look at outside traditions and rituals and that's the way that we evaluate other people and ourselves. We look at people's appearance. We look at what they wear. We look at how long or short their hair is. We look at how baggy or how tight their jeans are. I'm not saying that those things have nothing to do with attitude, because they can. I'm just saying that if we think we can see what's in a person's heart because of outward things, it doesn't work.

Of course the real issue is us. It's very easy to say, "Well, I've honored the Lord this week. I've put x number of dollars into the offering plate. I have a Christian haircut. I've read so many chapters in my Bible." And yet, we don't really have the courage to look at the things in verses 21 and 22, 23. That's where Jesus is saying we've got to focus. That's what we've got to look at.

You know it's a little bit like listening to yourself on a cassette tape or listening to your message on your answering machine. You say, "Boy, I don't like to hear my own voice." Well, try looking at your heart. Jesus is saying you've got to go look at your heart. There's an evil eye there, there's envy. I envy my neighbor for what she has. I'm being stingy with the resources that God has given to me. You say, "Have I been arrogant this week in the way I've come across to people?" Or "Has there been murder in my life?" Maybe in the sense of being very, very angry with somebody else.

If we are really going to deal with the heart issues, we've got to redirect our focus, because we are conditioned to look on the outside. Jesus says, "You need to look at the inside. You need to think about attitudes."

There's a second step can take to pay attention to your heart. That is to establish some disciplines that allow you to maintain a pure heart. Some of you are saying, "Wait a minute, now you are back into the very legalism that Jesus has been criticizing." Well, maybe not. After all, there are rules in Scripture aren't there? The problem is not rules. Jesus is not suggesting that people have no traditions or rules. I would argue that instead of slackening off the requirements, he's tightening them.

A discipline is something that you do after you've looked at your heart. When you see what your heart is like and you realize that you need to take great steps to guard your heart and watch over it. So, you look at your life and say, "It would be very easy for me to be a thief." "I'm really tempted to be deceitful." "I have a problem with arrogance. So here are some steps that I'm going to take in my life to try to overcome that." Nothing wrong with that. That's what you and I need to do.

The problem is when we take those things and we get so focused on them that we forget what they are trying to accomplish. Or when we look at those disciplines and we say, "This is the only way that I can avoid being a deceitful person. So I think everybody else should do this too." Quite frankly, there are some things that I need to do in my life to guard my heart that maybe you don't. And I imagine that there some things that you need to do in your life to guard your heart that probably I don't.

How about helping our children establish disciplines? Oh my, they are the ones who are growing up in a world where impurity seems to be snowballing and escalating. It's getting uglier. We need to help our kids establish disciplines. I think what that means is that we need to have the wisdom to know what battles to fight and what not to fight. I was thinking about it this week: What if one of my kids came home with purple or orange hair—how would I respond to that? I wouldn't be very excited. But you know what? I'm not sure that matters all that much. I'd have to ask myself, "Is that a battle that I want to fight? Is that going to help deal with the heart?"

On the other hand what if one of my kids would come home with a movie that is full of violence, nudity and all kinds of immorality. Should I enforce some standards there? I think so. We are talking about heart attitude issues. Those are the kinds of things that we have to wrestle with in our lives. Because the only way—the only way—that we can stay pure in an impure world is to pay attention to our hearts.

Jesus says, "Look, you set up all of these outside traditions, but eventually all it becomes is a pile of stuff that takes you away from the deeper commands of Scripture." Yeah, it's important to stay pure in an impure world, but you better have the right strategy. That strategy is to pay attention to your heart.

My encouragement to you then this morning as you try to stay pure in an impure world is—above all else, watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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Sermon Outline:


I. How we stay pure in an impure world.

II. What is the source of impurity?

III. How to pay attention to your heart.


It's important to stay pure in an impure world, but you need to have the right strategy.