You Are What You Eat: Mark 7:15

The most often quoted passage to excuse eating unclean foods is Mark 7:15. In this verse Jesus tells the Pharisees it isn't what goes into a man but what comes out of a man that defiles him. But is this verse actually giving us permission to eat whatever we want?
The most often quoted passage to excuse eating unclean foods is Mark 7:15. In this verse Jesus tells the Pharisees it isn't what goes into a man but what comes out of a man that defiles him. But is this verse actually giving us permission to eat whatever we want?
Mark 7:15/Matthew 15:11
There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man. Mark 7:15 KJV


Photocredit: Lawrence
It's not what goes into our mouth that defiles us, but that which comes out of us. This is the go-to explanation for why we can eat whatever we want as Christians. It makes sense if you don't think about it too long, but when I stopped to ponder it for a minute, it wasn't what it seemed.

Permission to Eat Anything?

To argue that this gives us permission to eat unclean flesh, you have to interpret Mark 7:15 to mean we can ingest anything. After all Jesus is saying nothing external to us can enter and defile us. Can you drink bleach? How about tar? No? Certainly Jesus didn't mean we could just go off eat any and everything we see. Paul reaffirms this in 1 Corinthians 10:23.

Let's think about this. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, what actually happened? Did they die right then? Did it bar them from enteral life? Did they become defiled? Adam and Eve suffered, but it wasn't the fruit's fault. Adam and Eve weren't punished because the fruit was bad, but because they chose to eat the fruit. Remember, the action of eating the fruit didn't start with the fruit, it started inside Adam and Eve, in their mind. Their disobedience to God is what defiled them and caused problems.

Putting it in Context

In the previous section, when I asked if you could drink bleach or tar, you may have rolled your eyes at me and thought I was out of line making such a comparison. After all, who would eat something that isn't even food? That's dumb, right? If you stayed the night at my house and I said feel free to eat anything you find in the house, you would automatically restrict that to that which you consider edible, right? You wouldn't attempt to eat my couch or cleaning supplies. Similarly, when Jesus spoke to His audience in Mark 7, they probably would have assumed Jesus was referring to things designed to enter the body. Unclean foods were never designed to enter the body. The Jews (which includes Jesus), would not have considered unclean flesh to be something to eat!

If we read the verses leading up to that passage, we see that the squabble was over Jesus allowing the disciples to eat bread without washing their hands. There are no unclean foods in the passage.

The Pharisees claimed the disciples had defiled themselves by eating clean food before washing up. Jesus chastises the Pharisees for following man made laws (washing of hands before eating) and not believing in their hearts. They followed the details of the law, but never made a relationship with God and had weak faith. This is the very definition of legalism. To make the situation even clearer, Jesus explains that whatever the people eat, it will eventually pass through the body and disappear. However, the evil thoughts in their hearts would stay within them; that is what defiles them.

We have to remember that while Jesus' comments hold truths for us today, He was talking to a specific group of people. Jesus was essentially telling the Pharisees that they were worried about something as trivial as washing your hands before eating bread, meanwhile they were rotting on the inside with unclean thoughts and desires. Matthew 23:24-25 expounds on this. The Pharisees were concerned with the pots and pans they put the food in and making sure a fly wasn't in the water, but they would eat a camel (unclean) and take part in shady dealings. Jesus was calling them out for sweating the small stuff when they needed to be looking inward.

Matthew 15

Matthew 15 provides another reference for this encounter. As we continue through to the end of Jesus' explanation, He summarizes His point at the urging of the disciples. In this He specifies that He is permitting the eating of food with unwashed hands. Jesus' critique was not about clean and unclean food but about the tradition—made up by man—of washing up before eating foods already declared clean!
These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.Matthew 15:20 KJV

Proof of Understanding

When Jesus has this conversation, there are two groups present, the Pharisees and the disciples. The Pharisees were always at odds with Jesus, but the disciples spread and followed His teachings. This means, if the disciples understood Mark 7:15 to mean they were free to eat anything, that is what they would have taught.

However, in Acts 10, some time after Jesus' crucifixion, we find Peter appalled that God would command him to eat an unclean animal. Yet, Peter is the one who asks for more clarity in Matthew 15:15. Peter vehemently denies ever eating anything unclean. Clearly, Peter didn't think Jesus had given them permission to eat unclean food when He told them it was the stuff within that defiles men.

Up Next: Acts 10

It's only natural that since we brought up Acts 10 we talk about that next. In the next post, I'll discus God commanding Peter to kill and eat unclean animals.

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