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God’s Word for You

Mark 7:1-4 pitchers, kettles, and dining couches

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, November 11, 2019

I beg the reader’s indulgence as we turn to one chapter of Mark’s Gospel. I will not neglect our devotions on Acts for much longer.

MARK 7:1-4

Clean and Unclean

7 The Pharisees and certain scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus. 2 They saw some of his disciples eating food with unclean hands (that is, not ceremonially washed).

Mark presents four incidents in this chapter; the fourth (the healing of the deaf and mute man by the Sea of Galilee) is a transition into chapter 8. The three connected stories are (1) the question about ceremonial washing (Mark 7:1-13), (2) the true nature of clean and unclean (Mark 7:14-23) and (3) a question as to whether the Gentiles can expect Jesus’ ministry (Mark 7:24-30).

The “certain scribes” were probably the more scholarly teachers of the Law of Moses, the ones who were clever with their arguments and who could quickly remember passages. They were going to confront Jesus on a difficult point, and the Jewish leaders had “brought out the big guns.”

This passage won’t make any sense to someone who doesn’t understand the concept of being ceremonially clean or unclean. God told Moses, “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses” (Leviticus 10:10-11). The distinction between unclean and clean is similar and sometimes identical to that between sinful and acceptable. The term “ceremonially clean” is often used to distinguish someone or something that is physically clean (not dirty or soiled) and something or someone who is religiously acceptable (“ceremonially clean”) in God’s sight.

There were various categories, and my list is probably not comprehensive:

1, Food. All fruits, grains, vegetables and almost all beverages were clean. An unacceptable example is blood, which was forbidden to the Jews. “Wherever you live, you must not eat the blood of any bird or animal. If anyone eats blood, that person must be cut off from his people” (Leviticus 7:26-27). Animals are covered under sacrifices below.

2, Sacrifices. A great many animals were forbidden as unclean, but even some clean animals which could be eaten as food were unacceptable as sacrifices (see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). All five categories of living creatures are covered in these chapters: Swimming creatures (Leviticus 11:9-12), flying things (Leviticus 11:13-25), domestic animals (Leviticus 11:2-8,26), wild animals (Leviticus 11:27-28), and crawling things (Leviticus 11:29-38). These regulations included household articles like pots and pans. “When one of them dies and falls on something, that article, whatever its use, will be unclean, whether it is made of wood, cloth, hide or sackcloth. Put it in water; it will be unclean till evening, and then it will be clean (Leviticus 11:32).

3, Clothing. There was no restriction on the style of clothing, but since undergarments were generally not worn in the days of Moses, they were forbidden from building altars that were too high. “Do not go up to my altar on steps, lest your nakedness be exposed on it” (Exodus 20:26). Priests were to serve in bare feet (Exodus 3:5).

4, Disease. Certain diseases would make a man unclean and unable to approach the Lord either to serve in the temple or to bring an offering there. The most famous of these is the spreading skin disease, leprosy (Leviticus 13:1-3).

5, Sex. Sexual contact (specifically, a man’s seminal emission or a woman’s issue of blood during her period or during childbirth) made a person temporarily unclean. A couple who had intercourse would be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:18). A woman’s period was considered to be over after seven days (Leviticus 15:19). Sex itself, a gift to husbands and wives, was never considered unclean, except that at times it exposes some blood. Perhaps God’s regulation about being unclean until evening also encouraged a duration of intimacy. We see an echo of this in the law permitting a newlywed man to avoid military service for one year after his wedding, “to be free to stay at home and bring happiness to the wife he has married” (Deuteronomy 24:5).

6, Mildew. Mold and mildew were a special problem and are covered in Leviticus 13:47-59 (clothing and fabric) and Leviticus 14:34-57 (the walls of houses).

7, Death. Contact with a dead body (not a sacrifice) caused a person to become unclean (Numbers 5:2). A person who came into contact with a corpse was unclean for the rest of that day until nightfall.

The point of this was to show that God is holy, and something that is unholy is not to approach God. “If any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 22:3).

3 The Pharisees (indeed, 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 there are many other traditions they observe, such as the ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, kettles, and dining couches.

Here Mark illustrates the problem in Jesus’ day. The Jews had gone from obeying the Law of Moses to a super-observance, adding many laws on top of Moses’ laws. Ceremonial washings were added willy-nilly to everything, as if to say, “I don’t trust anyone to keep God’s commands except me. I will assume that everything around me is unclean, and I will do everything I can to be clean.” This was not God’s will, nor did it please God at all. Jesus will show this in various ways throughout the account here in Mark 7.

Of special importance to us is the word for “wash” throughout this chapter. It’s βαπτίζω (baptizo), “baptize.” This was one of the words in New Testament Greek for washing a thing. There was also louo (λούω) “bathe,” but baptize is our word here. Louo was more often used for general cleaning, and baptizo for ceremonial washings, and then specifically for baptism. Note that the items that might receive a ceremonial washing here include “pitchers, kettles, and dining couches.” Not all Greek witnesses have “dining couches” (κλινῶν), but in a typical kitchen washbasin of the first century, it would be impossible to immerse a pitcher or large kettle, let alone a dining couch. The argument that is sometimes made that baptism must be done by immersion to be a valid baptism is not based on the text of the New Testament. It isn’t surprising that the Holy Spirit included this detail for us in the chapter which discusses rules invented by humans.

It is not sinful to baptize by immersion, and it is a wonderful picture of the way God brings us from spiritual death to spiritual life. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). But to say that baptizing with some other application of water such as dipping, pouring or sprinkling is not valid, is itself a sin. It is robbing the beautiful sacrament of all its comfort. It’s also taking what should be nothing but pure grace, the giving of the forgiveness of sins, and turning it into a law or a rule to be obeyed. This destroys the sacrament utterly, and says to Jesus, “You cannot say, ‘Be baptized in my name for the forgiveness of your sins.’ You have to say, ‘Obey the extra rules we’ve set up all around the sacrament and think of it only as a sign and not as forgiveness at all.’” This is nothing else than subtracting from what God has commanded (Deuteronomy 4:2). It earns the Lord’s wrath: “If anyone adds anything to the words of this book, God will add to him the plagues described in this book” (Revelation 22:18).

Sometimes pastors rant about things that seem to be trivial to ordinary Christians. I suppose this is like a flight sergeant checking over the parachutes and harnesses of his soldiers before the jump out of the plane into combat: lives depend on getting this right. That’s what Jesus was doing with the scribes and Pharisees, and this is what we’ll keep doing as long as anyone tries to change the Law into something it’s not, or the Gospel into something it’s not. The Law shows us God’s holiness and exposes our sins. The Gospel is the grace of God that binds up our wounds and soothes suffering consciences. Your sins are real, and they condemn you before God. But through Jesus, you have real forgiveness for those sins; every one of them. Trust in Jesus.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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