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Commentary on The Gospel of Mark chapter 7

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Jesus begins To Reach Out To Gentiles (7.1-8.21).

At this stage in His ministry Jesus begins to reach out further afield, for from this point on He spends much time preaching in territory which is mainly Gentile, although still containing many Jews. He prepares His disciples for it by His words to the Scribes and Pharisees, and then to the people, on what is truly essential, and then moves on to Tyre and Sidon where a Syro-phoenician woman’s simple faith brings home the right of Gentiles to partake of God’s table. The result is that He begins a campaign in Gentile territory. While this may partly have been due to pressures in Galilee, it is a clear expansion of His ministry.

Analysis of 7.1-8.21.

  • a Jesus challenges the Pharisees and Scribes with the fact that they pay more heed to tradition than to the word of God (7.1-13).
  • b He points out to the crowds that it is what is within the inner man that defiles a man (7.14-22).
  • c Jesus gives the Syro-phoenician woman bread from God’s table and heals her stricken son (7.24-30).
  • d He heals the deaf and speech impaired man, a picture of the need of Israel (7.31-37).
  • c He feeds the four thousand in Gentile territory and gives them bread from God’s table (8.1-10).
  • b The Pharisees reveal what is within them by seeking a sign, upsetting Jesus deeply (8.11-13).
  • a Jesus tells His disciples to beware of the leavened bread (the teaching) of the Pharisees and of Herod (or of the Herodians), and to hear and understand (8.14-21).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus exposes the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, while in the parallel He warns His disciples to beware of it. In ‘b’ He points out that it is what comes from within that defiles a man, and in the parallel we have an example of this in the sign-seeking Pharisees. In ‘c’ Jesus gives the Syro-phoenician woman ‘bread from God’s table’, and in the parallel He gives bread from God’s table to four thousand who gather in Gentile territory. Centrally in ‘d’ He heals a man who is deaf and speech impaired, a picture of the failure of Israel, and of the world, which He is now here to remedy.

The Scribes from Jerusalem Return To Learn Some Home Truths (7.1-16).

Jesus’ continued impact is now brought out by the reappearance of the Doctors of Law from Jerusalem who have come down to investigate Him again. It may well be that they had heard of the new widespread preaching activity. They recognised that this was becoming something serious. This incident brings out vital differences between Jesus’ approach and the approach of ‘the Scribes’. They were concerned with ritual detail, and much of that ritual detail was with respect to non-Scriptural ritual based on men’s promulgations. Jesus was more concerned with men’s inner hearts. In the end it was all a question of where the emphasis should be laid.

And it was a burning issue, both for the people who lived in Galilee in the time of Jesus, who were mainly looked down on by the Pharisees but in their hearts were desirous of knowing God, and by the church of Mark’s own day which was constantly under harassment by Judaisers who claimed that their way was the way of Jesus.

We must not be unfair to these Doctors of the Law. By their own light and in their own way they were desirous of serving God, and they were seeking to be obedient to the covenant made through Moses. But Jesus’ point was that they were putting the emphasis in the wrong place, and thereby in danger of missing the main point of the Law. They believed indeed that God had chosen them to be His example to the world, and the best of them strove to be just that. But they had become so hidebound in their attempts to interpret it, that they had become slaves to the ritual which they themselves had set up in such a way that other more important things became overlooked. For being sure that eternal life could be received by faithfulness to the covenant as the Old Testament had said, they gave their whole lives to its fulfilment. But then in seeking to understand it they laid their emphasis on the ritual rather than the moral, something which has always been attractive because it gives a sense of security, however false, while not making huge moral demands. So they built up ritual rules to enable its fulfilment, in order to provide a clear way of doing so. But this had sadly led them away from the heart of their religion as found in true worship and compassion and mercy, and it had resulted in the building up of a religious system which, although they had convinced themselves it would help to ensure their fulfilment of the covenant, sadly prevented their true fulfilment of it, because it made them concentrate on inessentials. And one of those inessentials was to do with ritual washing. Ritual had become overwhelmingly important. They could look with equanimity on a man’s greed and pride, but not on his failure to ‘wash his hands’.

Thus this incident was centrally important because it was a challenge to how the Kingly Rule of God was to be seen, what lines it was to follow and what should be considered as central to its message. Having begun the establishment of the Kingly Rule of God a crisis point had been reached. The question was, on what basis were the rules of the new kingdom to be determined? (The writer knew that this was a challenge for the church as well. They too needed to be certain about the basis of their behaviour). Was it to be based on Pharisaic rules, or was it to be based on Old Testament principles and Jesus’ reinterpretation of them in, for example, the sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?

We must not misinterpret this confrontation. There were many points of agreement between them. Jesus was not arguing about the maintenance of rules of cleanness and uncleanness as found in the books of Moses. He was not trying to establish that the laws of uncleanness no longer applied. Indeed He scrupulously observed these requirements Himself. What He was seeking to look at was the fundamental question of what really made men defiled in the light of the particular demands made by these Legalisers, and to establish the fact that men’s ways under the Kingly Rule of God could not be determined by the rules that the Pharisaic teachers had made. It was the whole basis of living under the Kingly Rule of God that was at stake, and on what men should set their hearts. The old was passing away and the new had come.

But because Mark was writing to Gentiles he had first of all to try to demonstrate to them what the problem was, for many of them had little knowledge of the regulations that covered Jews.

The placing of this passage here after the success described in the previous passages can be compared with the placing of 6.1-6 after the successes of chapter 5. It was a coming down to earth. It was always necessary to remind those who read or heard these words that the way was not totally smooth, for after all it led to the cross. It is also an important passage in that it explains in some depth precisely why Jesus disagreed with the Scribes and Pharisees.

But this passage is also preparatory for what is to come, for from this time onwards Jesus’ ministry will reach out into Gentile territory. Many a Jew would have frowned at the thought of a Jewish prophet wandering among the Gentiles (in spite of the example of Jonah) and would have been concerned about the fact that He would become ‘unclean’. Thus Mark makes clear from the start that far from that being so, it really marks a new beginning in understanding. He is indicating here that for Jesus what really mattered was not outward conformity to religious requirements, but the transformation of the inner hearts of men. And that was why He could move freely among the Gentiles, and was His purpose for them. He was not going among them in order to turn them into Jews, but in order to transform their inner lives.

The passage slits into two sections, the first dealing with the question of tradition (7.1-8), the second with the way in which the Scribes sometimes misused the Law (7.9-13).

Jesus Faces Up To The Scribes From Jerusalem And Warns Them Against A False Emphasis On Their Traditions Instead Of On The Commandment of God (7.1-8).

Here Jesus makes clear that ‘the traditions of the elders’ are not binding on men because they are not a part of the Scriptures, but are the traditions of men. All societies build up traditions, but all need to recognise that in the end they have no binding force, and do not apply to all. It is otherwise with the word of God.


  • a And there are gathered together to Him the Pharisees, and certain of the Scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashed, hands (1-2).
  • b For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands diligently, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders (3).
  • c And when they come from the marketplace, except they bathe themselves, they eat not; and many other things there are, which they have received to hold, washings of cups, and pots, and brass vessels (4).
  • b And the Pharisees and the Scribes ask him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands?” (5).
  • a And He said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men” (6-8).

Note that in ‘a’ the Pharisees and Scribes grumble because His disciples do not follow the traditions of men, and in the parallel Jesus cites Scripture demonstrating that the traditions of men lead men away from the commandments of God. In ‘b’ the Pharisees and all the Jews wash their hands, holding the traditions of the elders, and in the parallel they ask why His disciples do not do so. Central in ‘c’ is the list of some of the things that they do.

7.1 ‘And there gathered together to him the Pharisees and certain of the Scribes who had come down from Jerusalem.’

The fact that these men approached in a body demonstrated the official nature of the investigation. They were there to test His orthodoxy and to find out more about the new expansion of His ministry. The Pharisees, who were relatively few in number but had an importance beyond their numbers as ‘observers and teachers of the Law’ (there were altogether around six to seven thousand of them), had called in these Doctors of the Law to support their case against Him. They wanted to discredit Him in front of the people (verse 14), and who better to do it than the experts from Jerusalem.

7.2-4 ‘And had seen that some of his disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashed hands. For the Pharisees and all the Judaisers do not eat unless they ceremonially wash with the fist, holding the traditions of the elders. And when they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they douse (or ‘purify’) themselves. And there are many other things which they have received to hold, drenchings of cups and pots and brass vessels.’

The first thing that caught the attention of these ‘pious men’ was that some of Jesus’ disciples were not observing the correct ritual with regard to cleanliness of the hands. And because they considered that to lie at the heart of being righteous it offended them deeply. It made them ‘hot under the collar’. For someone who failed to fulfil the correct ritual would almost certainly end up ritually unclean.

The initial point to note here is that this criticism of ‘some of His disciples’ brings out that Jesus Himself did observe these religious requirements. He did not set at nought these people’s cherished beliefs. Nor were they directly accusing Him of such a failure. Outwardly they had no case against Him Himself, as they acknowledged.

But what did stir Him to the attack was the fact that these great men of the Law, who were responsible for the teaching of the Jews, were laying more store on their own ritual requirements than on what mattered far more, fairness, human sympathy and obedience to God’s word and certain other aspects of the Books of Moses, and were intent on making their own requirements the basis for any future kingdom.

And He was also well aware that they had not come to give guidance in a positive way, but in order to attack and undermine His ministry. They were not saying, ‘let us come together and discuss how best the Kingly Rule of God can be established’, but rather ‘you are guilty of going about it the wrong way and are therefore fit only to be condemned’.

‘With unwashed hands.’ This lay at the centre of the argument for it was not of course a question of whether to wash the hands before meals for hygienic purposes (although it undoubtedly aided hygiene), but rather was a question of ritual washing to remove ‘religious defilement’, that is, the contact with what was ritually doubtful and ceremonially unclean. Indeed they laid great stress on these requirements. But in fact this particular ritual washing described here was an addition to the Law, for it was nowhere commanded in the Old Testament.

So these men were not excited about this new interest in God which was being aroused, and the new sense of sin which was bringing men to repentance and morally and spiritually changing their lives, they were simply out to maintain the status quo, and were there to drag people back into a pool of ritualism.

Mark then briefly pointed out to his Gentile readers some of the other similar requirements of the Pharisees to do with the washing of pots and cooking and drinking vessels.

Of what then did such defilement consist? To the Pharisees all Gentiles were unclean for a start, for they did not observe any of the rules of ‘cleanness’ (Leviticus 11-15) and were not careful about contact with dead things. Furthermore anything touched by them also became unclean (hollow vessels only if touched on the inside). And what was true of Gentiles was also, although not to the same extent, true of ‘sinners’. A ‘sinner’ was someone who did not tithe rightly or follow the strict purification requirements of the Pharisees. While they may mainly observe the requirements of the Books of Moses, they did not do so in the terms laid down by the Pharisees. To come in contact with either of these two groups, Gentiles and ‘sinners’ was to be defiled. The Scribal views thus excluded them from close contact with the majority of people.

According to their ideas if a man went to the marketplace he may well accidentally be ‘contaminated’ by contact with such people (although he would make every effort to avoid them) and would therefore need to make himself clean in accordance with the teachings of the Pharisees. In order to do so he would need to follow out the procedures for ritual washing before he ate his meal. It was a world of religious isolation.

It should be carefully observed that this argument is not about the Levitical requirements with respect to cleanness. There anyone who touched a dead body became unclean, as did anyone who touched a woman after child birth or a skin-diseased person, or a woman during her period, or a leper, or an unclean animal. And anyone who touched anyone who had touched any of these was unclean, and so on. If such an unclean person had touched cups, or pots (measures) or brass vessels these utensils too might have become unclean depending on where they were touched by something or someone unclean. These too had to be specially cleansed. And of course, if there was any doubt at all about whether they were clean, they had to be cleansed. In some cases, such as contact with death, the cleansing took seven days, for others it only lasted until the evening, but this is not what the argument is about. Both sets of people conformed with these requirements. There was no dispute about that. It was the question of ritual washings of the hands and of cooking utensils that was in question here, and of whether this should be central to the teaching concerning the Kingly Rule of God.

The Pharisees believed that because of the possibility of unknown contamination by persons who were ritually unclean or by some other unclean source it was necessary to wash both before every meal and in between courses. And this involved a complicated process. The water for washing had to be taken from large stone jars which had been kept ‘clean’ so that the water itself was kept ‘clean’. Such water could be used for no other purpose. First all dirt had to be removed. Then the hands might be held with the fingers pointed upwards and water was poured over them, having to run down to at least the wrist. Then while the hands were wet each had to be cleansed, seemingly with ‘the fist’ of the other, probably by the joint action of rubbing the palm over the fist. But the water was now unclean so the hands were then held downwards and water poured over them again so that it began at the wrists and ran off the end of the fingers. That was one way of doing it.

Alternately this might all be done by dipping the hands up to the wrist in a vessel containing clean water, again apparently rubbing on ‘the fist’. Then the hands were clean.

And if you went on a journey you had to ensure that you had the means to do this. This was what the Pharisees required, and this was what these accused disciples had failed to do (the phrase ‘some of the disciples’ may not mean that the twelve were included. ‘Disciples’ can mean the twelve, but it can also include the wider group. It is not a strictly defined number).

‘By the fist.’ (pugme). Various alternative renderings are suggested, ‘up to the elbow’ - ‘diligently’ (so a Syriac version) - ‘often’ (pukna) as in some MSS, but rubbing the palm on the fist seems quite natural and we can therefore accept ‘by the fist’. The alternatives are clearly to avoid the difficulty when looking at it generally.

‘The Pharisees and the Judaisers.’ The Pharisees and ‘the Jews’, those who followed Pharisaic teaching on the matter and saw themselves as true Jews, and saw those who did not agree with them as not being true Jews. Any of the common people who did not do this were seen as ‘sinners’.

‘The traditions of the elders.’ These included past decisions of Scribes, some made long before the time of Christ, on the teaching in the first five books of the Bible (‘The Torah or Law’). These formed the oral law and had been remembered by rote and passed on, and were subsequently recorded (as considerably expanded later) in the Mishnah in the second century AD. They covered many aspects of life in great detail and had to be assiduously learned by the pious Jew to ensure he always did the ‘right’ thing. Not necessarily morally right as we shall see, but religiously right. There were over six hundred of these ‘instructions’.

But what began as a helpful interpretation of Scripture had slowly developed into a hotchpotch of regulations which so interpreted the Law as to make it seemingly attainable, although only with great effort, and crowded out consideration of more important matters. It was a manipulation of the Law so that they would be able to ‘keep the covenant’ faithfully, and establish their own righteousness to their own satisfaction.

Paul had been like this. He pointed out that he had striven to attain ‘the righteousness of the Law’ and had seen himself as almost there, as blameless (Philippians 3.6). And then he had come across the commandment, “You shall not covet” and had looked in his heart and had discovered that he was still guilty (Romans 7.7), and that all his carefully built up righteousness had come crashing down. He had recognised that all his careful observances of ritual law had not made his heart and will pure, and that all his efforts had been in vain.

7.5 ‘And the Pharisees and the Scribes ask him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands?” ’

We can be sure that the Pharisees and Scribes here were not the most amenable ones like Gamaliel (Acts 5.34). They had not come in order to be helpful. If they had Jesus would have responded accordingly. Rather they had come in order to find fault. We already know that they had thought in terms of His death (3.6), and that certain Doctors of the Law, possibly these same ones, had accused Him of being in league with Satan (3.22). So they were waiting for an occasion to attack Him.

But having said this we need not doubt that seeing some of Jesus’ disciples eating without going through the proper ritual would undoubtedly have sent shivers up their spines, so strongly did they feel about it. Thus it was not just a technical question but one put with deep feeling. And the blame was laid squarely on Him in front of the crowd. The inference was that He was being deficient, that He should have ensured that His disciples observed the sacred traditions of the elders. And the crowds would be listening and watching.

It was a challenge that had to be met head on. Unless He answered it He would be seen as accepting that all Who followed Him would have to be bound by the traditions of the elders, something which would certainly have taken their eye off what was most important, and would have limited His message.

Of course, had He thought that they were right He would have acknowledged it. But His view was rightly that there were other things in God’s word which were more important than arguments about a particular sect’s interpretation of the Law, especially when the people involved in that sect were not themselves outstanding examples of godliness and morality.

7.6-8 ‘And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.’ You desert the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men.” ’

Jesus then cited the words of Isaiah which indicated how hypocritical men were. With their lips they gave great honour to God, but in their hearts they were far from Him. For rather than assiduously following His genuine requirements, they only did so in terms of their own interpretations, many of which were simply the teachings of men. Thus they were ignoring the commandment of God, and were holding fast to man’s traditions.

So Jesus’ reply was that they were asking for observances that were not required by Scripture, rather than looking to what would please God most. By concentrating on trivia which they had themselves invented they were missing the main point. He was never in any doubt about their attitude and opposition. And while He was willing to conform to their practises Himself He was grieved that they cared more about ritual activity than about the things that mattered most, justice, compassion and mercy. As He declared here, they were exactly the type that Isaiah had prophesied about (Isaiah 29.13). They spoke in a hushed voice about God and gave a great show of being concerned about His Law, but they then altered it to suit themselves, and laid great emphasis on those interpretations of their own, while ignoring its most basic demands. They deserted God’s commandment, which was pure and simple, (and yet demanding, and speaking to many occasions at the same time, as He Himself in His teaching was revealing), and instead expanded it and changed it to fit in with their own preconceptions, giving it their own limited significance and emphasis, and as a result ignoring the greater matters because they were too busy with minor details (Matthew 23.23-26). We can see more of what He means by studying Matthew 5, where He takes what was said by ‘men of old’, and demonstrates what they should have said.

The decisions of the Rabbis, growing in complication and often subtly twisting words and meanings, had come to mean more to them than the word of God. Thus He pointed out to them that with all their show of piety their worship was in vain. For in many of them their hearts were so tied up with rules and regulations of their own devising, that they left no room for open-heartedness and compassion. Paul had described it exactly in Romans 7. He too had been so taken up with keeping the Law that he had failed to recognise the covetousness of his own heart. And when it had suddenly come home to him he had been appalled, especially when he had recognised that he could not get rid of it.

Then Jesus went on to illustrate it by example. This issue was of vital importance. The vital question was, what was to be the authority that man recognised as totally binding? Both would agree that the Law of God as contained in the Bible was binding as being from God. There was no argument about that. The question then was, was the interpretation of that Law which was made by the Rabbis, which not only explained but also reinterpreted and thus altered that Law, equally binding? The Pharisees said ‘yes’, although they even disagreed among themselves whose interpretation was the most binding, thus demonstrating that they did not see all as binding, for there were different schools of thought. But Jesus said ‘no’, that they were the traditions of men not of God, and had to be judged accordingly. What mattered more was to love God and obey the inner heart of the Law.

‘Hypocrites.’ Those whose lives are an outward show, a play-acting, making out that they are what they are not, whether consciously or unconsciously. (The word was used of play-actors).

The quotation from Isaiah is very similar to LXX apart from the last section. But that is an interpretation of the Hebrew text. Assuming Jesus was speaking in Aramaic this might be Mark’s way of translating, based on his knowledge of the LXX text (the text being used by his readers) but deliberately altering it to take into account the Hebrew rendering where he felt it necessary in order to give the true sense of Jesus’ words. Or it may have been quoted from a text of which we are at present unaware. The discoveries at Qumran have revealed that there were then Hebrew texts more in line with the LXX than with the Massoretic text. Either way he was satisfied that it brought home the true significance of what the Scripture was saying.

Jesus Illustrates His Point From A Specific Example (7.9-13).

Here Jesus takes one outstanding example of their attitude which may well have had in mind a recent case known to all which had become infamous.


  • a And He said to them, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, so that you may keep your tradition (9).
  • b For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”, and, “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him die the death” (10).
  • c But you say, “If a man shall say to his father or his mother, “That by which you might have benefited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God” (11).
  • b “You no longer expect him to do anything for his father or his mother (12).
  • a “Making void the word of God by your tradition, which you have delivered: and many similar things you do” (13).

Note that in ‘a’ they are seen as rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep their traditions, and in the parallel of thus making it void. In ‘b’ He cites what the Law said about parents, and in the parallel how they actually behaved towards them in particular instances. Centrally in ‘c’ He gives an example of one of their interpretations.

7.9-13 ‘And he said to them, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’, and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother let him die the death’. But you say, ‘If a man shall say to his father or his mother, “That by which you may benefit from me is Corban”,’ that is to say, given to God, you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or his mother, making void the word of God by your tradition which you have delivered. And many such like things you do.” ’

Jesus pulled no punches. He called on an example of what their tradition was actually doing. It was in effect rejecting God’s commandments, even though it appeared to be honouring God, for it was altering them to fit in with their ideas. Then having done that they fixed all their attention on observing the particular rules that they had determined, even though it resulted in breaking the main principles that lay behind it. (This is something of which we can all be guilty).

Note Jesus’ emphasis on ‘what Moses said’. They claimed to honour Moses and yet set aside his teaching. The quotations are taken from Exodus 20.12 and 21.17, the latter demonstrating how seriously the matter was to be taken.

The principle described here is that by which a man might avoid his obligation to his parents by a religious device. Jesus may be referring to a case that had actually recently occurred and was the talk of Galilee. The man would declare that his possessions were ‘Corban’, ‘given to God.’ Corban constituted a solemn Jewish oath. Once a gift was ‘corban’ it was dedicated to God. Thus while useable by himself he would not be allowed to use his possessions to support his parents, for those possessions now belonged to God and when he died they therefore had to go to God. Meanwhile he retained free use of them for himself, except perhaps for a portion devoted to religious use, but could avoid his responsibility towards his parents. It was a device which could be used to get out of obligations. And as certain Rabbis had declared on this, had ‘delivered’ it, if he did it he was actually looked on by them as righteous, even though he was failing to honour his father and mother, and breaking the serious requirements of the word of God.

(The Rabbis themselves would in fact later accept, as recorded in the Mishnah, that no oath could so abrogate the command to honour father and mother. That may even have been as a consequence of the publication of this criticism by Jesus although they would never have admitted it).

Alternately Jesus might be indicating a situation where a man had in a rash moment made his goods ‘Corban’ as against his parents and now wished to restore the position but was being told by certain Rabbis that he could not withdraw his oath. Their decision being that the goods were dedicated to God and could not be used for the parents. Either way God’s prime commandment was being thwarted, whether by the man with the connivance of certain Rabbis, or by the Rabbis themselves.

We note again that Jesus saw ‘the Law’ as the commandment of God. It had to be obeyed. In contrast He saw the traditions of the elders as the traditions and precepts ‘of men’, as against the Pharisees who considered them as almost of equal weight. To Jesus the word of God was primary and inspired by God, but its interpretation, where there was doubt, He saw as secondary and not so inspired, simply being men’s ideas about it. To the Pharisees the interpretation as made by them was equally the word of God, and equally inspired (and often thereby supplanted it). This was the main point Jesus was contending against. He was fighting for an unadulterated acceptance of the word of God.

‘Which you have delivered.’ The word means ‘handed down, passed on’. The traditions of the elders were both passed down by the Rabbis and also passed on in their verdicts. They were wholly of their making. ‘Delivered’ often refers to a legal verdict.

Jesus Calls On The Crowd To Consider The Heart Of The Matter (7.14-17).

Jesus now turned His attention to the crowd and asked them to consider what was at the heart of the matter. For the fact was that what truly defiled men were not outward things, which simply passed through the body and came out again, but what came from men’s hearts, which was a part of what they were. It was thus the heart that needed to be cleansed.


  • a And He called to him the crowd again, and said to them, “Hear me all of you, and understand” (14).
  • b “There is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him, but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man (16).
  • a “If any man has ears to hear, let him hear” (17).

7.14-15 ‘And he called to him the crowd again and said to them, “Take notice of me all of you and understand. There is nothing from outside a man that going into him can defile him. But the things that proceed from the man, they are those that defile the man.” ’

The crowd had been gathered round listening to the dispute which had been intended to discredit Jesus in front of them. Now Jesus drew them into the conversation. He wanted them to consider the truth for themselves, and it was important to Him that they recognised that He had good grounds for His argument. He stressed that the only thing that really defiled a man in God’s eyes was what was inside him and came from him, not what he himself partook of. What He was countering here was the idea that because a man had not ceremonially washed himself (as some of His disciples had failed to do) what he was eating necessarily defiled him. What He wanted to turn attention to was that what men thought and how they behaved morally was more important than what they ate, and that what really mattered was moral rightness, as He explained later to His disciples (verses 18-23).

At first sight this seems to suggest that Jesus is discounting the Old Testament teaching on foods which were ‘unclean’. But nothing was further from His mind. His statement was not intended to deal with that question. It was intended to be general rather than specific. There is no doubt in fact that He did abstain from, and would at this stage have accepted that other Jews should abstain from, ‘unclean’ food as described in Leviticus 11. That assisted men to live wholesome lives. But what He had in mind here was the food which some of His disciples had been eating which was not unclean of itself, and was only seen to be so because of Rabbinic rules. He was speaking of an obvious general fact, that it is not what is eaten that makes a man sinful, but what comes from his heart. That what really makes a man unclean is the sin that comes from his inside him. And while it contained the seed of the idea that no food was unclean of itself, that was not what Jesus was intending to indicate here. Such a thought was not explicit. He was rather contending with overbearing requirements which were then claimed to be commandments of God.

Of course, if wrongly applied Jesus words could be criticised. All who heard Him knew that to eat something poisonous would be foolish and could even be fatal. But Jesus’ point was that it would not defile him before God, not that it was all right to eat anything.

‘Take notice of me all of you and understand.’ He did not want them to go away just thinking they had heard a technical argument. It was an important lesson for them to consider, that they should consider their own hearts.

7.16 ‘If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.’

This verse is omitted by a few good authorities (including Aleph and B) but has strong support. It may well have been accidentally omitted in copying (see 4.23), or alternatively introduced to emphasise the importance of what was being said. It will be noted that it is supported by the balance of the passage and by the usual Marcan chiastic pattern. It emphasises the importance of the truth that Jesus had just expressed and demands response to it as something to be carefully followed through. He did not just want people to consider a technical point, He wanted men to consider the state of their inner hearts. It reinforces ‘take notice of me all of you’ (compare 4.3 together with 4.9).

Jesus Explains His Meaning to the Disciples (7.17-23).

Once they were back in the house that they were staying at the disciples broached the question again and Jesus explained things in more depth to them.


  • a And when He was entered into the house from the crowd, His disciples asked of Him the parable, and He says to them, “Are you so without understanding also?” (17-18a).
  • b Do you not perceive that whatever from outside goes into the man, it cannot defile him, because it goes not into his heart, but into his stomach, and goes out into the draught?” (18b-19a).
  • c This He said, making all meats clean (19b).
  • b And He said, “That which proceeds out of the man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness” (20-22).
  • a “All these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man” (23).

Note that in ‘a’ He asks them if they are without understanding, and in the parallel explains what is at the heart of the matter and will bring understanding, that it is the evil within a man which defiles him. In ‘b’ He points out that what enters a man from outside cannot morally defile him, because it passes through the body, but that what comes from His inner heart, of which He gives numerous examples, does defile him. Central in ‘c’ is the clear principle (probably a comment by Mark) that logically by His statement He was declaring all foods ‘clean’.

7.17 ‘And when he had entered into the house from the crowd his disciples asked of him the saying.’

It was quite understandable that the disciples should want His enigmatic statement to be expanded on. They wanted to learn, and never more so than now when they had a responsibility to go out preaching. So they asked Him what His illustration meant. The gentle rebuke of verse 18 confirms that they really did ask this question. No one would later have invented this about the honoured Apostles.

7.18-19 ‘And he says to them, “Are you also so without understanding? Do you not perceive that whatever from without goes into a man cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and goes out into the latrine, purifying all the food.” ’

It is clear from this that Jesus was beginning to expect more of His disciples and was a little disappointed at their slowness. The point was that only what affected the heart of a man, the essential man, could really defile him spiritually. But food merely goes into the stomach, and the resulting waste then goes into the latrine (toilet, cesspit). So if we see the final words as spoken by Jesus He is saying that it is clear from everyday experience that in this way the food has been purified and any defilement removed, for it comes out at the other end. That makes it clear that that it is not what he eats or how he eats that makes him sinful, it is what he allows to come from within his heart.

Some, however, see ‘purifying all the food’ as a comment added by Mark signifying that the assumption must therefore be that all meats are clean. RV translates it as, ‘this He said making all meats clean’, but ‘this He said’ is not in the text, it is read in to make the sense and may be wrong. The principle is, however, correct. Essentially in what He was saying Jesus was saying that food cannot defile a man.

7.20 ‘And he said, “That which comes out from a man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, debauchery, an evil eye, blasphemies, pride, foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” ’

Jesus then expanded on His words. What He was speaking of were the sins that came from men’s hearts and ruined their lives. These were what came ‘out of the man’, revealing him to be sinful. And He emphasised that central to all are evil thoughts. As a man thinks in his heart, that is what he is like (Proverbs 23.7). We may not all be adulterers and murderers, He is pointing out, but we have all considered it at one time or another. This argument is expanded on in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). ‘Evil thoughts’ is distinguished in the Greek, denoting that it includes all that follows.

Examples are then listed covering a wide range of human sin. Many are referring directly to the ten commandments, but expanded to include thoughts as well as acts (although ‘you shall not covet’ had already done that). Sexual misbehaviour, theft, murder, coveting (wrongly desiring what others have), deceit (or guile) all refer to direct commandments. ‘Wickednesses’ cover any evil behaviour that causes harm - the Devil is ‘the wicked’ one. Debauchery refers to uncontrolled living, especially drunkenness and its consequences, but ranges wider. Such a person shows little restraint. The ‘evil eye’ in a Jewish context means an eye that sees sinfully (see Luke 11.34; Matthew 20.15), and thus is envious, or full of hate, or mean and miserly. Blasphemies and slanders (the carelessness and wickedness of the tongue especially with regard to God), pride (‘showing oneself above others’) and foolishness (especially religious insensibility - it is the fool who says in his heart, ‘there is no God’ and shows it by how he lives- Psalm 14.1; 53.1) are all sins regularly condemned in Scripture. But note that even the thought of these is sin (‘evil thoughts’ - compare Jesus teaching in Matthew 5.28). All the words but one are found in the LXX demonstrating that the list is typically from a Jewish background.

Mark drops the matter there because the main point has been made, and we are left to ponder the main point that Jesus was making. But the emphasis of the whole chapter is on the need to see all things from a new point of view that gets to the heart of what sin really is, and that that is what the preaching on the new Kingly Rule of God had to do.

Excursus On The Impact of Jesus Which Would Replace Unnecessary Ritual.

There can be no doubt that Jesus’ argument here went further than just what was being determined in the context. It went to the root of the whole question of ritual law. It makes us rightly ask what the intention of ritual is and when it can be seen as irrelevant and superseded. And it contributed to releasing the Christian church from certain aspects of the Law which had gradually become superseded.

Humanly speaking this was the genius of Jesus. Time and again He brushes aside extraneous matters and gets to the heart of questions which have puzzled men in all ages. It is not a question of whether anyone had ever had such ideas before, it is the sheer breadth of His coverage and the depth of His understanding that amazes us. And His teachings are full of examples of this very thing. By a simple story He dealt with racial and religious prejudice at a stroke leaving no excuse for anyone to be racist (Luke 10.25-37). He defined moral goodness in terms of doing to others what we would that they would do to us (Matthew 7.12), something which simply brings home moral truth to everyone without having to go into greater detail. We all know what in our inner hearts we want for ourselves. He summarised true religious attitude in a simple prayer (Matthew 6.9-13). He told stories which left men in no doubt of the direction in which they should go. And here He deals with the question of how ritual is to be seen at a stroke. And in every case we have to agree with Him. We have no choice. He knew what all men wish to know.

And these are but a few examples of His genius. He gave out a moral teaching that has been acknowledged in all ages as being supreme, both with regard to its coverage and with regard to what He omitted. Those who doubt it do but make fools of themselves. If we calculated its extent we would discover how little we have of it, but when we study it we are amazed at the vastness of the ground He covered.

Some foolish men have tried to deny that He ever existed. But how then to explain this incredible range of moral teaching given in so small a scope which suddenly arrived in the 1st century AD and has changed the history of the world? To suggest that it came from the early church is ridiculous. Had they not remembered it word for word they would soon have destroyed it. To suggest that the Gospel writers invented it is to produce four geniuses instead of one. For the truth is that none had the ability or the understanding. In truth if we refuse to acknowledge the existence of Jesus, we must postulate an unknown genius who lived in Palestine at the same time and did exactly what Jesus did. And then acknowledge that He was called Jesus.

That Jesus was a Jew comes out clearly in all His teaching. His deep knowledge of the Old Testament and of Judaism comes out in almost every word He uttered. But His importance morally speaking is that He transcended both. While He lived faithfully as a Jew, here was someone Who was unique in history, and could see through the failures of Judaism. And once He had existed nothing could ever be the same again. But the great problem that He posed for mankind was that He would not stop there. Had He done so He would have been buried and finally have been revered by all good men as an outstanding Jew, and as easily ignored. But unlike other moral geniuses such as Confucius, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius and so on He did not leave it like that, He put right at the heart of His teaching claims about Himself that revealed His claim to be that He was more than a man.

There is no trace of madness or megalomania in His words, but He clearly believed and taught that He had a unique relationship with God that was like that of an only Son with His Father, and that by their response to Him all men will be judged. Without any arrogance He pointed all men to Himself and His unique status. In all humility He constantly set Himself above the most revered names of history (e.g. Matthew 5.21-22 and following; 11.11; 12.38-42; John 8.56-58). With an ordinary man this could have been dismissed as eccentricity, but with a man of the stature of Jesus it could not be dismissed at all. And then He made clear that He had come in order to die. We cannot avoid the idea. It lies imbedded in His teaching. And He made clear that His death, unlike the deaths of other men, was not to be His end, but would in some way change the world. All this is really indisputable to anyone who fairly considers what He taught, even if they make certain exclusions. For nothing of this can be eradicated from His teaching without almost eradicating all.

Furthermore the reason that the message about Him did reach out to the world was certainly because of belief in His resurrection. It was because they believed that Jesus had risen again and was carrying on His kingly rule. And they did not do so on the basis of some mindless ‘faith’, they did so because they believed in an empty tomb which had been witnessed by others, and the testimony of trustworthy people Who had seen Him alive, and not singly but in groups, one of which was over five hundred strong (1 Corinthians 15.3-8; Matthew 28.9-20; Mark 16.9-20; Luke 24.13-53; John 20.11-21.22). And a large number of these were eventually put to death because of their testimony, rejoicing because they knew that it was so.

And this teaching on religious ritual was an example of what we are talking about. For good reason Old Testament law had required certain ritual behaviour in order to teach a new born nation how to live and what to believe, to lift it from the morass in which it found itself, and from unwholesome living. This ritual was provided and laid a solid foundation for the future which resulted in this nation becoming a moral example to the world, not so much by its general behaviour but because of its holy books and their general conformation with their teaching. The laws of cleanliness pointed in the direction of what was wholesome and good. There is no question but that they contributed to good hygiene, but even more important than that was the fact that (until they were given undue emphasis) they had a wholesome influence on life, which made men almost unconsciously aim at a higher good. They helped to keep men from the degradations of life, and to fix their minds on God and His ways.

But by the time of Jesus that influence had been marred by over application. The ritual no longer lifted men up, it burdened them down. And it had been given a prominence that excluded more important matters. Nothing was more clear to Jesus than this fact. He had grown up with it, and He had submitted to it, and He had watched its impact all around Him. And now He had begun His mission which would among other things free men from the chains with which ovdr-zealousness had bound them.

Thus His teaching here concerning what really mattered in men’s lives was the beginning of a move which would lift these restrictions from men while continuing to stress the need for true wholesomeness. To the end of His life He would observe the requirements of the Pharisees, for none knew better than He that replacement of them by something better was important before they were removed. It was not something to be achieved at a stroke. To lose them would have left many not knowing where to look. But by gently shaking their foundations He ensured that one day it would be so. It could, however, only be achieved when there were those who had a strong willingness to follow after wholesomeness even when the ritual was removed.

Thus when the early church became largely Gentile, although retaining a large Jewish base, it became recognised that they need no longer be bound by this ritual, firstly because they were unacquainted with its significance, secondly because it had been replaced by something better, and thirdly because it was now unnecessary to distinguish a certain nation from all others. It could thus be laid aside without destroying their moral roots. For what it pointed to was now far better exemplified in Jesus Christ, Who had indeed largely fulfilled the significance of Old Testament rituals. The new had come and therefore the old could be replaced.

This process outwardly began here, and it was given a great forward impulse when Peter had his vision from God before preaching to Cornelius and his men (Acts 10.9-16). There he learned that what was approved of by God could not be described as unclean. And it finally resulted in the decision of the Jewish-Christian Council that Gentile Christians were to look to Christ and not be restricted by Old Testament ritual (Acts 15.13-21). And it was confirmed by Paul in his letters where he specifically links it with the Kingly Rule of God (Romans 14, see the whole but especially verse 17). Under the Kingly Rule of God lesser restrictions were unnecessary. But its logic lay in what Jesus had taught here. This is why, although we should be careful what we eat, we are not restricted by the restrictions found in Leviticus, although doing well to take heed to their principles (see our commentary on Leviticus). And that is because it is not the outward which can defile us, but what lies deep within our hearts.

And it should be noted that such a view of much of this ritual of the Pharisees is not only acknowledged by Christians, but by the vast majority of Jews as well, for they no longer consider it necessary to follow these regulations of the Pharisees.

End of Excursus.

Jesus Ministers in Gentile Territory - the Syro-phoenician Woman - the Feeding of Four Thousand Men (7.23-8.26).

Having made His point strongly Jesus now moved to Gentile territory and seemingly remained there until 8.10, where after a brief visit to Galilee He again returned to Decapolis. But first he moved to the borders of Tyre and Sidon. Then from the borders of Tyre He travelled through Sidon down to the Sea of Galilee ‘through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’. All this was Gentile territory. There would seem to have been a specific intention of avoiding Galilee.

Various reasons have been suggested for this. Firstly that He was avoiding Herod’s threatening, secondly that He was removing Himself from the attacks of the Rabbis, thirdly that He was seeking privacy, possibly so that He could concentrate on teaching His disciples, and fourthly that He wanted to move on into other regions with His message. The first is never even hinted at and is unlikely as a main reason because Jesus’ only reference to Herod’s later intentions against Him were answered with quiet defiance (Luke 13.32). At this stage Herod still thought of Him as John the Baptiser returned from the dead and probably wanted to keep well clear of Him. The second is also unlikely as a main reason as nothing is suggested of further intentions to kill Him and He was not afraid of their criticisms. The third, seeking privacy, is one stated reason (7.24), although there is no specific indication that at that point He was concentrating on teaching His disciples. The fourth is very possible, although interestingly His preaching there is not mentioned but assumed (8.1). All four factors may have contributed to His decision with the last probably being finally the main factor, especially after the incident with the Syro-phoenician woman.

But we must also bear in mind that it may be Mark himself who is intending to bring this out. That what we have here was rather an impression that Mark was seeking to convey as he illustrates the expansion of Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus’ words and logic had now opened the way to His ministry in Gentile territory, rather than that He was avoiding Galilee.

Moving to Tyre - The Syro-phoenician Woman (7.24-30).

That this incident was a turning point in the ministry of Jesus cannot be denied, and there are good grounds for arguing that Matthew’s Gospel revolves around it. For from this point onwards Jesus ceased ministering only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and engaged in a wider all-inclusive ministry.

That it was deliberate we need have no doubt. It was a recognition by Jesus that He had now received a message from His Father that there was a Gentile world waiting to be incorporated into the house of Israel who in God’s eyes were an essential part of it. It had now been made apparent to Him that while a multitude of Jews were ready to respond to His teaching, a limit was being placed on this by the intransigence of the religious authorities, while outside in the wider world there was a welcome waiting for His message. And He acted accordingly. That He had previously had this in mind comes out in His earlier words to the Gadarene ex-demoniac when He had told him not to join Him in Galilee, but to go out among his fellow-countrymen and proclaim what great things the Lord had done for Him and how He had had mercy on Him (5.19). That could surely only have been with the expectancy that one day He would be following up that witness by Himself returning to Dalmanutia.

Yet at the same time it was not an outright ministry among the Gentiles, for in the areas that He visited were many Jews who flocked to hear Him, but the idea that no Gentiles did flock to Him is beyond belief, for whatever other motive they may have had in mind, a successful healer and exorcist could hardly be ignored. Thus was He able to commence His ministry among Gentiles while at the same time preserving the recognition that His prime ministry at this time was to the Jews.

This explains why His Apostles after His death took so long to recognise that what He had done was also open to them. It was quite understandable that with their rigid backgrounds they found it difficult to recognise that the Gentile world awaited their ministrations. They had no doubt seen the ‘conversions’ of Gentiles under Jesus’ ministry as a prelude to them becoming proselytes (Gentiles officially welcomed into the Jewish faith by being circumcised and committing themselves to observance to the Law, a position recognised as early as Exodus 12.48-49). But they were to learn that it went further than that.

The sequence of events from here to 8.38 is revealing. First the Syro-phoenician woman is offered a taste of ‘bread’, because of what Jesus is going to do (7.24-30), then the ears of the deaf man are very vividly unstopped and the dumb speaks (7.31-37), then the mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles are offered abundant bread which symbolises what He will do for them (8.1-10), their ears are being opened, then the Pharisees are revealed as virtually deaf and blind because they require signs (8.11-13), then the disciples are depicted as short of bread and as both deaf and blind in their understanding of what bread they should receive, (8.14-21) then a blind man is healed, at first partially and then wholly (8.22-26), and then comes the self-revelation of Jesus as He draws from His disciples that He is the Messiah. At last their eyes are partially opened and they are no longer deaf, and they can feed on Him (8.27-38), and the inference is that one day they too will see clearly, as will especially Peter, James and John on the mount of transfiguration (9.1-8).

And all this follows the fact that Jesus had been criticised because His disciples had eaten bread with defiled hands. As Jesus had pointed out such bread eaten in His presence was not defiled. If only the Pharisees had reached out and taken His bread they too would not have been defiled, just as those who were spoken of subsequently, who did reach out, were not defiled. But they were blind to His bread and would not take it because they saw it as defiled. And so paradoxically His bread was now going in earnest to those whom the Pharisees saw as defiled, and who would not be, because they would receive it, while in contrast His disciples must avoid the defiled bread of the Pharisees (8.15) and receive the true bread. The whole section is a mass of vivid illustration, with the bread of God central, the Pharisees depicted as blind and hardened, the mixed peoples of Decapolis being abundantly fed, and the disciples being led from darkness to light. It was a period of amazing change.


  • a And He arose from there and went away to the borders of Tyre and Sidon. And He went into a house and would have no one know it (24).
  • b But He could not be hidden, for immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of Him, came and fell down at his feet (25).
  • c Now the woman was a Greek, a Syro-phoenician by race. And she pleaded with Him that He would cast out the demon from her daughter (26).
  • d And He said to her, “Let the children first be filled, for it is not the right thing to do to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little dogs” (27).
  • c But she answered and says to him, “Yes, Lord. Even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs” (28).
  • b And He said to her, “For this saying go your way. The devil has left your daughter” (29).
  • a And she went her way to her house, and found the child laid on the bed and the devil gone out (30).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus went into a house, and in the parallel the woman returns to her house. In ‘b’ her child has an unclean spirit, and in the parallel the demon has left her daughter. In ‘c’ she is a Syro-phoenician and seeks help from the God of Israel, and in the parallel the dogs under the table may eat of the children’s crumbs. Centrally in ‘d’ the children have first right to be filled.

7.24-25 ‘And he arose from there and went away to the borders of Tyre and Sidon. And he went into a house and would have no one know it. But he could not be hidden, for immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of him, came and fell down at his feet.’

‘From there.’ A general statement meaning ‘from where He was’ i.e. in context from Gennesaret - 6.53 (or from the house - 7.17). But there is no indication of how much time had elapsed. It is significant that Mark puts this account immediately after Jesus’ statement about nothing from without being able to defile a man. That was a first move necessary for welcoming Gentiles.

‘The borders of Tyre.’ In the plural the word can also mean ‘region’. He actually entered the region of Tyre (not Tyre itself). Some good authorities add ‘and Sidon’. Either way the thought is merely that he crossed the border into that region, not that he visited those towns. There is no suggestion anywhere that He entered a town until He reached Bethsaida in Decapolis, and in general he seems to have excluded the idea.

‘Into a house.’ Jesus was given a welcome and hospitality, presumably by a Jew who lived in the region (there were many Jews in the area), and His wish was for complete privacy. He did not want His presence to be generally known. It would seem that His main purpose in being here was to have time for rest and recuperation.

No mention is made of the disciples by Mark, although they are mentioned by Matthew. But He was too well known for secrecy to be possible (‘He could not be hidden’ - compare 3.8) and word had clearly got around that the new Jewish prophet was in the area and was staying at this house. For within a short time a woman whose daughter was ‘possessed’ sought Him out and fell before Him in supplication, an action acknowledging her recognition that He was a man of God.

Matthew lets us know that she did not come to the house but waited until Jesus and His disciples went out for a walk. For a woman, and a Gentile one at that, to come to Jesus in the house would have been heavily frowned on. It would have been seen as bad enough that He spoke to her outside (but Jesus did not feel bound by such prejudices. Compare the Samaritan woman in John 4).

7.26 ‘Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race. And she pleaded with him that he would cast out the demon from her daughter.’

Mark, like Matthew, makes absolutely clear that the woman was not of the Jewish race. She was ‘a Greek’, although not by race for she was a Syrophoenician. So ‘a Greek’ probably simply means a Gentile. Alternately it may signify Greek in culture and language.

‘A Syrophoenician by race.’ A Phoenician of Syria in contrast to those of Carthage.

‘Pleaded with Him.’ That is, described the situation and earnestly begged Him to accompany her to rid her daughter of this dreadful demon that was possessing her.

‘That He would cast out the demon.’ In verse 25 it was described as ‘an unclean spirit’. That was Mark’s way of describing it. This was the woman’s, ‘a demon’. ‘Unclean’ would mean nothing to her. And that is the point. If Jesus had just responded without further comment she would simply have gone away and thanked her gods. But Jesus gently made her face up to the fact that there was only one God Who could help her, and that she must first acknowledge Him.

7.27 ‘And he said to her, “Let the children first be filled, for it is not the right thing to do to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little dogs.” ’

Jesus used a well known picture. The family meal, the children round the table and pet dogs waiting for scraps of food to be tossed to them. In order to clean the hands (there were no forks) they would often be wiped on a piece of bread and this would then be tossed to any pet dogs. But for someone to take the children’s bread so as to give it to the dogs would not be right. ‘The children’ represented the people of Israel, the Jews, the bread His message and ministry, and the little dogs the Gentiles.

‘The children first.’ His point was that His first ministry was to the Jews and that He represented the God of the Jews. It was they who were primarily chosen by God even though they had turned aside from Him (Exodus 4.22; Deuteronomy 14.1; 32.6; Isaiah 1.2). His first aim was to restore those of them who would come. It was only once this was fulfilled that the Gentiles could benefit as well if they responded to the true God. Thus He confirmed that His first ministry was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10.6; 15.24).

Here then it was stressed that Jesus had come first of all to win Israel to God. All His preaching up to this point had been to Israelites (including, rarely, Samaritans, who also worshipped the God of Moses) and He saw that as His basic mission. As the Servant of the Lord He must raise up the tribes of Jacob preparatory to being a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49.6). But it also stressed to her that it was only in this God that what she wanted could be found.

‘The children’s bread.’ Bread had early been closely connected with the children of Israel. The ‘bread of the presence’, the twelve loaves of showbread in the Tabernacle, which was placed on a table in the Holy Place, clearly represented the people of Israel in their twelve tribes. And it was eaten by the priests in order to demonstrate that they all belonged to God. But it ever continued before Him. To take of that bread and give it to the Gentiles would have been seen as an act of the grossest sacrilege.

But bread was the very staff of life, and when the thought came for His people to be fed (Psalm 28.9), and no picture of the shepherd was in mind, the thought would be of bread. See Isaiah 55.2; Jeremiah 3.15; Micah 5.4 (in Hebrew). Thus did bread represent the word of truth. And when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, ‘give us today the bread of tomorrow’ His meaning may well have been the bread of the coming Tomorrow, the Messianic banquet. This is why Jesus could reveal Himself as the bread of life (John 6.35) and finally symbolise the fact at the Passover meal in the Upper Room. That Jesus even hinted at giving this bread to Gentiles would have come as a huge shock to His Apostles, but it did demonstrate that He was ready to do so once the woman acknowledged its source.

‘The little dogs.’ The Jews described the Gentiles as ‘dogs’, and those dogs were not the little pets in some households but the scavenger dogs who roamed the streets and gathered outside towns in order to find scraps. Nothing ‘holy’ must be given to them (Matthew 7.6). They were dirty, disease-ridden and semi-wild. But in His illustration Jesus softened the description, speaking of little pet dogs, while knowing that she would be aware that He had the Gentiles in mind. The illustration left the door open for the woman to come back with a response. All knew that pet dogs would sometimes receive food from the table.

7.28 ‘But she answered and says to him, “Yes, Lord. Even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” ’

The woman recognised humbly that what Jesus said was right and proper. He was a Jewish prophet and His message was to the Jews and concerned the God of Israel. But she had caught on to the opportunity He had left open and applied it accordingly. The pet dogs do not eat at the table but they are allowed the crumbs. Would not then the God of Israel have compassion on her despite her race?

The Pharisees had criticised the eating of bread in His presence by defiled hands, because they wanted to be rid of Him, but this woman was happy to receive even His crumbs.

‘Lord.’ Here meaning ‘sir’, but Mark wanted his readers to see its double meaning.

7.29 ‘And he said to her, “For this saying go your way. The devil has left your daughter.” ’

Jesus recognised her faith, and, what was more, that she acknowledged that her hopes lay in the God of Israel. But He tried her yet once more. Instead of going with her He informed her that He had cast out the devil at a distance. What a remarkable thing that was. He did not need to confront these evil spirits directly. He could send His command over a distance. It revealed that He was truly Lord over all, the true Son of God, as Mark intends us to realise. Once again His great authority is revealed.

7.30 ‘And she went her way to her house, and found the child laid on the bed and the devil gone out.’

Her faith was up to His test. Believing, she left Him, and found it was even as He had said. His authority had reached over the miles. For such faith compare Matthew 8.5-13; Luke 7.1-10; John 4.46-53). That it was a genuine miracle comes out in that a demon would not leave the one it possessed of its own accord. But no wonder Jesus had then to leave the place where He was staying. The news would soon have meant great crowds of Gentiles gathered round Him and He was not ready for that yet. Everything had to move in God’s time. But from that time on He began to preach in Gentile country as 8.1 demonstrates. There were of course many Jews there. But He also recognised that some Gentiles were ready to receive the bread of life as eagerly as the pet dogs received the crumbs. They too had a right to receive the bread of life.

There is a good case for seeing this case as a major turning point in His ministry, especially in Matthew. Up to and including this point he has stressed the mission of Jesus to Israel. After it the door gradually opened to the Gentiles, and He fed a crowd of both Jews and Gentiles as He had previously fed the crowd of Jews only, and the exclusiveness was not again mentioned, a changed situation already previously hinted at in the visit of the Magi to Jesus (Matthew 2). Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus sending His disciples out into the whole world, to ‘all the nations’ (Matthew 28.19-20). Mark’s ending emphasises the same message (16.15). The Kingly Rule of God reaches out to the Gentiles.

The Healing of the Deaf and Dumb Man (7.31-37).

Continuing His ministry in Gentile territory Jesus entered the region of Decapolis where He had exorcised the Gadarene ex-demoniac and there performed a remarkable healing. His method of healing by using physical methods in a public way, draws attention to the unusualness of this incident (especially in the light of the previous healing at a distance) and we must ask if there was any special reason for it. When we consider the opening of the blind eyes, healed in a similar way (8.22-26), which is placed just before the disciples’ ‘eyes’ were opened (8.27-31), and the cursing of the fig tree, which demonstrated the barrenness of Israel (11.12-14), we look for a specific message in what He did. And that message undoubtedly was that He had come so that through His ministry spiritually deaf ears would hear, and tongues would begin to speak because of His impartation of blessing. As Isaiah had said of the day when God’s blessing would be revealed, ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped, then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing’ (Isaiah 35.5-6). That day was now here, and on Gentile territory. The ears of Gentiles were about to be opened, and their mouths so as to give glory to Him.


  • 7.31 a And again He went out from the borders of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the border of Decapolis, and they bring to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech and they beg Him to lay his hands on him (31-32).
  • b And he took him aside from the crowd privately (33a).
  • c And He put His fingers into his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven He sighed and says to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened” (33b-34).
  • c And his ears were opened and the bond of his tongue was loosed and he spoke plainly (35).
  • b And He charged them that they should tell no man, but the more He charged them the more they spread it widely (published it everywhere)’ (36).
  • a And they were astonished above what can be measured, saying “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak” (37).

Note that in ‘a’ they bring a deaf man with a speech impediment, and in the parallel He makes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak. In ‘b’ He took the man aside privately, and in the parallel He enjoins silence on all. In ‘c’ He says, ‘Be opened’, and in the parallel the man’s ears are opened.

7.31 ‘And again he went out from the borders of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the border of Decapolis.’

The strange route taken is often commented on, for Sidon is to the North of Tyre and the Sea of Galilee to the South. It clearly contains a part of His life which was not well known, but which Mark mentions in order to stress His continued presence in Gentile territory. This may well have been a period of recuperation and private teaching of His disciples. No doubt it also enabled Him to spend time alone with His Father. He had to move on from the region of Tyre because He was apprehensive of the crowds that might seek Him out, and North was the best route in order to be incognito. Then He eventually moved South through Decapolis, still avoiding Galilee. It would appear that He moved along the territory just inside Decapolis’ Western border until He reached the Sea of Galilee.

Consideration must also be given to the thought that both Tyre and Sidon were within the land promised to Israel (Joshua 19-28-29) and that Jesus was as it were possessing these lands in God’s name.

7.32 ‘And they bring to him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech and they beg him to lay his hands on him.’

The fact that Mark deliberately brings out that all present expected Jesus to ‘lay His hands on Him’ stresses the unusualness of the healing, because He actually did not do that. This suggests that Mark wants us to see significance in what He actually did do. The one who was brought was stone deaf as revealed by the resultant inability to speak properly. Had he had slight hearing he could have learned to speak properly. It may, however, be that the man was a deaf mute.

We do not know whether the man was a Jew or a Gentile. The fact that Jesus used Aramaic in His healing is hardly decisive. When He spoke the words the man was still deaf. Probably he is intended to represent both Jew and Gentile, for all were deaf to God and His word.

‘An impediment in his speech.’ The Greek ‘mogilalon’ is rare. Interestingly in LXX it occurs only in Isaiah 35.6, confirming the suggestion that Mark has that passage in mind. It indicates that an example of the presence of the Kingly Rule of God is about to be demonstrated. Its prime meaning is speech impediment, but it can mean dumb. Verse 35 ‘he spoke plainly’ would suggest the former meaning here, although ‘dumb’ in verse 37 would support the latter. But as Mark is intending reference to Isaiah 35.6, where it does mean dumb, the double entendre is understandable.

Thus Mark (and Jesus) intends us to see the man as symbolising man in his deafness to the divine message (like the disciples would be seen to be - 8.18). And because man is deaf he can only stutter when speaking about God. Jesus was concerned for His disciples to receive from this the message that they too were deaf and stuttering, and that the One Who would unstop the ears of the deaf and make the tongue of the dumb sing was now here. (If we can assume that the disciples were with Him this was a message for the disciples, He did not want the incident to be passed on outside - verse 36). He was working up to Caesarea Philippi (8.27-31) which would come after the time in the region of Sidon.

7.33-35 ‘And he took him aside from the crowd privately, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven he sighed and says to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened”. And his ears were opened and the bond of his tongue was loosed and he spoke plainly.’

‘He took him aside from the crowd privately.’ It may be that this was from compassion as He recognised the man’s sensitivity, but it also demonstrated that what was to happen was for the disciples’ eyes alone. But more, it signified what He had done with the disciples. He had separated them out so that He could open their deaf ears and enable their tongues to speak. And shortly that would be so.

‘Put His fingers into his ears.’ The finger of God is a feature in the Old Testament. The ten commands of the covenant were written with the finger of God (Deuteronomy 9.10) and the non-Jewish (therefore ‘Gentile’) magicians themselves recognised in the miracles in Egypt the finger of God (Exodus 8.19). It is probable then that Jesus wished His disciples later to see that God’s message through both word and miracle (both ‘fingers of God’) was applied to the deaf ear so that it heard, and that it was first a message of what He was doing for them also and secondly what He would do for both Jew and Gentile.

‘And he spat and touched his tongue.’ It was from the mouth of Jesus that the man’s tongue would be loosed. Again the whole symbolism demonstrated that God through Jesus’ power and words would unstop first the disciples’ ears and tongues, and then the ears and tongues of both Jews and Gentiles, and would make them speak freely as promised in Isaiah 35. It was a physical demonstration that He was here to introduce the new age.

‘And looking up to heaven He sighs and says to him, “Ephphatha”.’ The fact that Jesus looked up to heaven was significant. For the idea of looking up to heaven see 6.41; John 11.41; compare Job 22.26. In each case He was looking for the miraculous power of God to work in extreme cases. It was symbolic of calling on God. Only God could unstop men’s ears and loosen their tongues. ‘He sighs (or groans)’. This was because He had in mind mankind in its deafness and what would be involved in its relief. ‘And says, “Be opened”.’ This was the longing of His heart. First that the ears of His disciples might be opened, and then through them the ears of all of those given to Him by the Father. He saw in this man, and wanted His disciples to see, the whole future of redeemed mankind.

‘Ephphatha.’ Mark regularly gives us the Aramaic actually spoken by Jesus, compare 3.17; 5.41; 7.11; 11.9; 14.36; 15.22, 34. At important moments he wants to record Jesus’ exact words. A translation was not sufficient.

‘His ears were opened and the bond of his tongue was loosed and he spoke plainly.’ The man was made whole and fully restored. His ears were opened and he could hear and speak plainly (see Isaiah 32.4).

‘The bond of his tongue’. His tongue was as though it had been bound. Now it was free to speak freely. There are really no grounds for connecting it with the man needing to be freed from a demon. Jesus’ whole method used here is against that. He never touched those possessed by evil spirits, He exercised His authority with a word of command.

Many commentators connect the healing methods used here with the fact that saliva was seen in those days as having natural healing, or even magical, qualities. But Jesus had no need for such methods. On the other hand it may be that as this was Gentile territory he did use the spittle partly as an aid to faith, compare also 8.23, also in Gentile territory. It would identify the man more closely with Him.

7.36 ‘And he charged them that they should tell no man, but the more he charged them the more they spread it widely (published it a great deal).’

The restoration in this manner was intended to be a lesson to the disciples, while the miracle was for the man’s own good. But Jesus did not want great crowds coming for miracles. So He firmly requested the people there that they would not tell others about it. But what He asked is contrary to what men are, and they went out and told everyone they knew what had happened.

7.37 ‘And they were astonished above what can be measured, saying “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.” ’

The result was huge astonishment all round. This was the first experience they had had of Jesus.

‘He has done all things well’. Mark may intend here an echo of Genesis 1.31. ‘And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good.’ The Creator was at work again.

‘He makes even the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.’ Certainly we are to see here reference back to the Old Testament promises of restoration, especially Isaiah 32.3-4; 35.5-6. It indicated that the Kingly Rule of God was here.

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