Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Common Argument: These verses (listed below) are commonly used to say that Christ made all animals clean.
Think it Through: The context is washing hands before eating. How can that have any bearing on the biology of an animal? All things were made through Christ (John 1:1-3, Col. 1:13-16). Why would Christ make animals this way and then change it?
Short Answer: Christ affirmed keeping the commandments of God, not negating them. He taught that eating with unwashed hands did not make someone unclean. The issue of what to eat was never addressed.
Longer Answer: We will start by looking at the verses.
“1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the Law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were ‘unclean,’ that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the Law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?’ ”
The Pharisees and teachers of the Law had a tradition of ceremonial hand-washing that had to be performed before meals. This ceremony is not found in the Bible. It was a tradition of man. In Mark 7:1-23, Jesus and His disciples were confronted by the Pharisees for not participating in this ceremony before they ate. In verse 2, we learn that the disciples were eating with hands that were “‘…unclean,’ that is, unwashed.” The Greek word translated as ‘unclean’ is koinais and it refers to something that is physical dirty. The root word is koinos; it is translated as common (Acts 2:44, 4:32, Titus 1:4, Jude 1:3) and even as unholy (Hebrews 10:29). It means something common or polluted through external treatment. The text itself even tells us that this Greek word means they were eating with unwashed or physically dirty hands.
The issue of eating unclean animals is an issue of spiritual uncleanness, not physical uncleanness. Akathartos is the Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to the moral and spiritual uncleanness that comes from an unclean animal. Akathartos refers to something that is unclean by nature or unclean of itself. To read more about this, read the article “How Does God Define Food?” (CLICK HERE to read) The fact that this language is not used in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 means that the passage has nothing to do with the dietary commandments.
The issue is that the disciples were eating with unwashed or dirty hands. Said another way: the Pharisees were not angry as to what Jesus and the disciples were eating, but how they were eating. In Mark and Matthew they were eating with unwashed or unclean hands. In Mark 7:9, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of “setting aside the commandments of God to observe their own traditions!” When you read this passage in its entirety, you will see that over and over again Christ referred to the Pharisees exalting man-made traditions over God’s commandments. Jesus explained the meaning of His words over the next few verses.
“10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother. ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12 then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
The Pharisees of that time allowed people to give their time, money, and resources to the Temple instead of giving these things to their elderly parents. When the time came for them to help their parents, they would simply say that their time and resources were Corban. Corban is a Hebrew/Aramaic word meaning “offering”. Therefore, they did not help their parents. In verses 10-13, Jesus explains to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law that they were hypocrites. They were rigidly enforcing man-made laws such as the hand washing ceremony while at the same time ignoring the commandments of God—specifically, the commandment to honor one’s mother and father. Jesus upheld the commandments; He did not negate or do away with them. In the Matthew account of this story, Jesus said in Matthew 15:13 that “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.” Jesus’ purpose in this passage is to uproot everything that is contrary to God’s Law and not rooted in the Father. In this case, Jesus was challenging the traditions of the Pharisees; they were rooted in men, not God.
Since through Christ all things were made, He was the one that made animals clean and unclean in the beginning (John 1:1-3, Col. 1:15-17). These animals have the same biological characteristics to this day. How could Christ have done away with unclean animals if these animals are exactly the same as He made them in the beginning? Did not Christ say that “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall” (Luke 11:17). If Christ tried to do away with the clean and unclean distinction he made in the beginning, His Kingdom would be divided against itself and not stand!
So what is Jesus really trying to tell us when he says that nothing going into a man makes him unclean? Let’s examine the end of the passage from Mark.
“14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ ” 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.”* 20 He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ ”
*(Some translators add to verse 19 “(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’).” This section of the verse was added by translators and is not found in the original Greek text. Some translations, like the NKJV, do not have this addition. [Besides, as we have already pointed out in our article “How Does God Define Food” (CLICK HERE to read), the distinction is not between clean and unclean food, but between clean and unclean animals.])
When you look at these verses, you will notice from verse 17 that not even His disciples completely understood His words. They were not sure. Jesus then had to repeat Himself. He closes the passage by explaining that the ritual of hand washing did not keep your body from physical impurity.
At the end of Matthew 15:1-20, Jesus concluded by saying: “These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean’” (Matthew 15:20). In Mark 7:23 and Matthew 15:20, the Greek word translated as unclean is koinoi. Its root word is koinos, and we discussed it as the word meaning physical defilement. The purpose of these two passages, as Jesus points out, was to show that eating with unwashed or dirty hands does not cause physical defilement.
In Mark 7:1-23, the traditions of men are mentioned seven times. Jesus clearly argued against man-made rules and defended the commandments. He warned us in this passage not to make up rules that contradict the commandments (Matthew 5:6-8, Mark 7:9).
If Jesus was addressing clean and unclean animals, He would also have to address the issue of touching the dead body of unclean animals. He does not. It would be contradictory for Christ to spend an entire chapter defending the commandments while at the same time doing away with one of them. Jesus said that He did not come to do away with the commandments, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17-18). This literally means that He came to fill their meaning to the full or tighten their requirements (CLICK HERE to read an article on Matthew 5:17-18).
If Jesus were to abolish the distinction between clean and unclean animals, He would literally have to re-arrange creation and change the biology of many creatures. Jesus’ blood was not shed to change the biology of an animal. It was shed so that our sins would be forgiven (I John 1:7). Each animal in creation was uniquely made by Christ himself. The physical composition of these animals is what makes them clean or unclean. The unclean animals were made unclean in the beginning, and they will always be that way.
We will conclude with a simple example: In Leviticus 11, God said that if an animal does not chew the cud and have a split hoof, then it is unclean. To this day a pig has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud. That means a pig is still unclean. As long as a pig does not chew the cud and have a split hoof, it will always be unclean in God’s sight. These animals have other uses in creation; they are simply not food.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org