Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”
Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”
He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”
“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”
—Matthew 15:10-20, NIV
If we want to understand Jesus’ impact on the Pharisees in this passage, we must imagine someone standing up in a meeting of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (which vehemently opposed alcoholic beverages of any type) and saying, “It doesn’t matter what a man drinks.”
Pharisees in that era were nearly fanatical about keeping a kosher kitchen—that is, obeying all the dietary laws of the Torah. They were scrupulous about what they ate and about with whom they ate; for even the most kosher of meals is defiled by the presence of a gentile or a heretic. This is, incidentally, something we must keep in mind when we examine the relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, because in the gospels we often find Jesus as the invited guest at a Pharisaic dinner party.
So when Jesus stood up and said what He did about the dietary laws, it is no wonder that the Pharisees were offended.
Jesus says that it’s what comes out that counts.
Recently there were two world leaders. The first one experimented with drugs while he was in college, he had a mistress, he loved a good cigar and fine brandy, and he was famous for getting drunk at parties, even while he was in office. The second one was a vegetarian and a nonsmoker; he only drank beer in moderation, and he was faithful to his girlfriend. The United States Congress bestowed the first one with the greatest honor it had at its disposal, while we all revile the second one to this day. The first one was Winston Churchill, and the second one was Adolf Hitler.
So Jesus is right, it’s not what goes into a man that defiles him; it’s what comes out that counts.
In Luke 18 we read about the rich young ruler who came to Jesus, seeking eternal life. He claimed he had obeyed all the commandments. He claimed that he had never committed adultery, that he had never murdered anyone, that he had never stolen anything, that he had never borne false testimony, and that he had always honored his parents. Most of us would expect Jesus to inform him that salvation is not by works, or to rebuke him for claiming righteousness by the Law. But that is not what Jesus says. Jesus tells him it isn’t about his passive holiness; it’s what comes out of his holiness that counts.
In Mark 5 we read that the demons who called themselves “Legion” confessed Jesus as the Son of the Most High God, but Jesus did not say, “Oh! I perceive you are a Christian demon. You may remain.” Rather Jesus said, “Come out of him, you evil spirit!”
If you base your righteousness on your abstention from alcohol and the purity of your personal habits, how are you different from Adolf Hitler who did the same things? For it isn’t what you put in your body that makes you holy, if that’s where the matter find its conclusion, it’s what comes out of your body that counts.
If you base your righteousness on your faithfulness to your spouse, the good upbringing you gave your children, and the love you have for your friends, how are you different from organized crime? For even the Mafia prizes family values and looks out for their friends. For it isn’t what you put into your soul that makes you righteous, if that’s where it finds its prison, it’s what comes out of your soul that counts.
If you say that Jesus is Lord, that is a good thing, but how are you different from the demons? If you say that Jesus is the Son of God, how does that make you a Christian? For even the demons said as much. For it isn’t the faith you put into your heart that matters, if that’s where it finds its grave, it’s the faith that comes out of your heart that counts.
You are not saved by faith expressed in theology, but by faith expressed in obedience. The demons believe more correctly than we do, but they are not saved, because they are in rebellion. So if we agree with our minds but rebel with our bodies, how are we better than demons?
Paul, who taught us that salvation comes by faith, also taught that saving faith necessarily expresses itself in our conduct. It was Paul who said:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
—Romans 1:16-17, NIV
It is true that we are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is not stillborn within the heart, nor is it imprisoned in the soul, nor is it codified in the mind; it comes out of our body, and in coming out of us, it saves us.
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
—Galatians 5:16-26, NIV
Paul agrees with Jesus, it is what comes out that counts. James puts it more bluntly:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
—James 2:14-19, NIV
Jesus says that it’s what comes out that counts. Paul agrees, and James insists upon it.
So I enjoin you to examine yourself, to make sure that you are not a moral black hole, where virtues go in but nothing comes out. What is the point of purchasing and wrapping Christmas presents, if we never send them out?
Have you forgiven someone who sinned against you? That’s a good and virtuous thing. But what good does it do a sinner, if you forgave him, but he does not know about it? Why should you get credit for forgiving a sinner, if the sinner never receives your forgiveness? Is your forgiveness real, if it never comes out in deeds? Therefore, go out and be reconciled to all the people whom you have forgiven in your heart.
Do you love someone who is your enemy? That’s a good and virtuous thing. But what good does it do your enemy, if you love him, but he does not know about it? Why should you get credit for loving an enemy, if the enemy never receives your love? Is your love real, if it never comes out in deeds? Therefore, go out and be reconciled to the enemy you have loved in your heart.
Do you have faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High God? That’s a good and virtuous thing. Why should you be saved by faith, if Jesus never receives your trust? Is your faith real, if it never comes out in obedience? Therefore, go out and surrender to Jesus’ Lordship, not just by knowing what He commands, but by doing it as well.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
—Matthew 7:21, NIV