Lips and Hearts


The contextual force of this text has important implications for our grasp of the doctrinal coherence of the canon of Scripture. Jesus gives a clear rejection of human tradition when it impinges on the moral law of God and leads to a practice and preference of the human over the divine. In addition, he shows the permanent relevance of the moral law in its relation to the ceremonial law, as well as Israel’s civil law, in his purpose and consummation of redemption.


I. Jesus rejected human tradition in favor of the moral law.

A. (Verses 1-5) – The Pharisees criticized the disciples of Jesus for not following their tradition of washing. This was not a matter of ceremonial law that Jews regularly observed, but traditions introduced by Scribes.

B. Jesus applied to them the words of the prophets about preferring human mandates over divine mandate. (Verses 6-8)

C. Jesus illustrated this through their sophistry concerning the fifth commandment. Due to one of their traditions about pledging property to God—without divine warrant to do so—and refusing, therefore, to give aid to one’s father and mother was a violation of clearly revealed law. That was pushed aside for the human tradition.


II. Jesus rejected the ceremonial law of clean and unclean things in favor of the moral law.

A. Jesus relegated the ceremonial laws about foods to irrelevance. They have served their purpose and now only hide the real issue. He is not saying that a person cannot harm their body with poison or unhealthy food. He is saying that ceremonial provisions, positive commands concerning foods and animals, in Israel have served their purpose. The efforts to impose regulations concerning foods lingered in the Jew/Gentile relation in the church (Romans 14; Colossians 2:16, 20-23).

B. He listed a variety of sins that arise from within the heart and included violations of all of the ten commandments.

  1. The first table of the commandments, those that concern the right worship of God are violated by the final two words—pride and foolishness.
  • Pride comes from the rejection, in some form and to some degree, of our dependence on God for our being and for every good.
    • We exist because he has created us.
    • We live day to day because he sustains us.
    • We have access to truth about the world, ourselves, and eternity because of his revelation.
    • We can look with hope to the future and even to death because of redemption.
    • Pride is a denial of the necessity of worshipping the one true God and an effort to find pleasure in ourselves rather than in the knowledge of Him. Pride leads, therefore, to foolishness.
  • Foolishness – Paul wrote of the decline into deeper sin in this way: “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools” and drove themselves into idolatry. (Romans 1:21, 22). This kind of foolishness is a purposeful ignoring of the evidence the world, conscience, and providence gives for the knowledge of God.
  1. The second table is broken in a variety of ways.
  • The sixth commandment – Murder, wickedness
  • The seventh commandment – Sexual immorality, adultery, sensuality
  • The eighth commandment – Theft
  • The ninth commandment – Deceit, slander, evil thoughts
  • The tenth commandment – coveting, envy

C. Breaking ceremonial law does not defile. Breaking moral law shows a defilement from within.

  1. The distinctions between the civil, ceremonial, and moral law are important to observe. Jesus here clearly distinguished between the ceremonial law and the moral law. In principle, he abolished the ceremonial in this interaction and fulfilled it completely as great high priest in his work of redemption. The moral law, the eternal rectitude of which he enforced by dying under the curse justly imposed on those who transgressed it. Freed from its curse, Christians now see it as the “perfect law of liberty,” the obedience to which conforms us in holiness to the image of Christ. It remains, therefore, as the absolute standard by which all thoughts and actions are to be judged and to which our love of God and neighbor is to be conformed.
  2. Paul argued regularly against those who sought to impose the ceremonial law on the Gentiles. Two classic passages should suffice.
  • In Galatians Paul said that should one submit to circumcision “He is a debtor to keep the whole law.” (Galatians 5:3). Those who do so have “become estranged from Christ.” Why?- because if one believes that submission to the ceremonial law is necessary for salvation, much more is complete submission to the moral law necessary. But the moral law brings a curse, a curse which Christ alone has undergone in his crucifixion (Galatians 3:10-14). If you, therefore, submit to ceremonial law, then in effect you obligate yourself to the moral law which already has condemned you. You have severed yourself from Christ’s payment of the curse and have the load on yourself.
  • In Philippians 3, Paul again warns against those who would impose the ceremonial law of circumcision on Gentiles. He argues that such has been fulfilled in regeneration. “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3).
  1. Observance of the civil law—built on social implications of the moral law—and the punishments enacted upon its violation defined Israel as a nation.
  • The spiritual truths within the civil law were to be applied to the new people of God in the church. A good example of that is found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, where physical punishment in Israel is replaced by spiritual discipline in the church and the covenantal status of Israel is given over to a Gentile congregation: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
  • No longer are the people of God defined by an ethnic or national set of regulations. Beginning with John the Baptist and continuing through the ministry and teaching of Jesus, the shape and citizenship of God’s people are defined in terms of the work of the Spirit giving faith in the Son of God: “This is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit; . . .You must be born again; . . . True worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth; . . . He who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life; . . . Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in me has everlasting life; . . . It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 1: 33; 3:7; 4:23; 5:24, 47; 6:63).
  • The particularities of the civil law that defined Israel as a nation are irrelevant and the citizens of God’s kingdom. Paul counted as loss his circumcision on the eighth day, his genetics of the stock of Israel, his identity with the tribe of Benjamin, his pursuit of the righteousness of the law as a Pharisee in order to find his only claim to life in the righteousness of Christ and his only citizenship as heaven (For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior” (Philippians 3:5, 6, 9, 20).


III. Jesus acts as Lord to an “unclean” woman. (Verses 24-30). “Lord” is the covenant name by which he presented to Moses a small and minor display of glory: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious” (Exodus 34:6). Even in her address to Jesus, she is assuming a part in his covenantal goodness.

A. Jesus went to this Gentile-dominated place to find rest but could not. “He could not escape notice.”

B. A Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon came to ask for healing.

  1. The language indicates that she established a conversation with Jesus. “She kept asking and he was saying.” Matthew indicted that at her first approach to him, he simply remained silent as his disciples urged him to send her away (Matthew 15:22, 23). She obviously was annoying them for she kept crying after them. This silence on Jesus’ part was only the first test of the insistent genuineness of her faith.
  2. When he spoke, he argued that the benefits of the Messiah were designed first of all for the Jews. As Matthews recorded, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Up to this time, they singularly were the children of God, and his bread was designed peculiarly for their consumption. She has won her way to get a hearing from Jesus, but finds that his first words are off-putting and exclusivistic. “I am a Jewish Messiah, prophesied by Jewish prophets, and expected by Jewish fathers and mothers and priests; you are a Gentile.”
  3. Even this did not deter her. Willing to accept the designation as a puppy dog, a pet, she pressed forward with the observation that pet dogs eat food that the children spill [“falls from their masters’ tables” Matthew 15:27.] In giving this answer she called Jesus “Lord,” the only person in the gospel of Mark who does so [except himself].
  4. Jesus allowed her, by his series of resistant responses, to demonstrate the sincerity of her desire, the fulness of her faith, and her perception that even the Gentiles would find in Jesus their Lord. As Simeon had rejoiced, “MY eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32).
  5. Her perception of this status of Jesus, [“Because of this answer”] she obtained her request and her daughter was healed, freed from the oppression of the demon (30).


IV. “Hear him ye deaf, his praise ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ!”

A. Jesus returned to the region where he had cast out the legion of demons and had sent the freed man back as an evangelist to tell “what great things the Lord has done for you and has had mercy on you” (5:19). News of Jesus’ return obviously had preceded him.

B. “They,” probably friends or family members, “brought to him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty.” Jesus had stilled a storm, had cured the lame, raised the dead, and cast out demons; surely, he could give words to a mouth and sounds to the ear.

C. Simulating the way in which God formed man from dust and fashioned woman from Adam’s rib, so Jesus, touched the ears and the tongue of the deaf-mute and then spoke a precise word that would be relevant for either tongue or ear—“Be opened.” As the elements had obeyed the voice of their creator, and demons had followed the command of their sovereign defeater, so the ears and the tongue of this man were healed by the touch and voice of Jesus.

D. How ironic that wind, waves, demons, tongues, ears, eyes, and death itself obeyed the voice of Jesus, but those blessed with his mercy counted his instructions as nothing. “The more he ordered them, the more widely they continued to proclaim it. Their disobedience was well-intended for they wanted to talk about one who “did all things well,” but disobedience it was still. Here it seems, we have a strange manifestation of the prophecy Jesus applied to the Pharisees earlier (6): “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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