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encouragement theology

It’s the Inside that Matters

Thoughts from Matthew 15…

Many people think about Jesus Christ in terms of religion, which, to them, is a list of do’s and don’ts. Do good things and God will be happy with you. Do the wrong things and expect His guilt and punishment. 

This idea is nothing new. Even in the first century, when Jesus was on earth, people still thought along these lines. The Greeks and Romans had a pantheon of gods and goddesses who would curse and destroy you if you dared to cross them. Even the Jews, though they knew of the one true God, had forgotten what He required of them. 

There was a scene in the life of Jesus Christ, when He was confronted by the religious leaders. He had fed 5,000 people, yet the leaders were more concerned that they didn’t wash their hands properly! They didn’t purify themselves before eating.

There are some scenes in the Bible that we quickly skip over. Why spend time on a scene that we can’t relate to? How could this possibly apply to my life?

But more than any other, this scene captures the core difference between the religious leaders and Jesus Christ. What can you do to be accepted by a perfect God? What makes you ugly in his sight? 

What can you do to fix it?

Matthew 15:1-20
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

The Argument 

Traditions were violated 

Matthew 15:1-2
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”

Mark 7:1-5
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

As the rejection of Jesus Christ intensified, the Pharisees and scribes brought in the leadership from Jerusalem in order to confront Him.a This is no longer a local dispute, nor are they simply asking questions about their law. The Pharisees are already seeking to destroy Him, and they are looking for any way to discredit him. 

They had already challenged Jesus and His disciples regarding the law in Matthew 12, but this time they drew a clear battleground regarding the traditions of the elders. Jesus was showing no regard for their precious traditions!

These traditions were very important to the religious Jews. They had built an elaborate “oral law” based on the sayings of previous rabbis, which they considered to be even more valuable than the written Word of God.b Many of these traditions had no Biblical precedent, including this tradition regarding washing.

The devout Jew would run his hands under water when returning from contact with “lesser” men and women, especially gentiles. They would take elaborate care to ensure that the water ran down their wrists, and thus wash themselves from the sins of others before they ate. If he was especially pious, he would then wash his hands again after eating.

This ritual of washing had nothing to do with personal hygiene, but was rather how they were trying to show themselves to be pure before God. But the most that any washing can do is to clean up the outside. This tradition also has an attitude of self-righteousness when returning from the marketplace. The Jews were intent on making sure that they were not polluted by any contact with a Gentile or a “sinner”, such as tax collectors.c

Jesus had already shown that this myriad of traditions and laws had obscured the real law of God, and their relationship with Him. He then used their challenge to show that the outside reflects the inside.

God’s law is greater

Matthew 15:3-6
He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.

Mark 7:9-13
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

Jesus answered their charges with two points. First, He showed that God’s law is greater than their traditions. They are breaking His law when they use a tradition to bypass what they know they should do. 

He showed them how they used the tradition of Corban to get around their duty to their parents. God’s law clearly taught that children should honor their parents, including sharing their possessions, yet the Jewish tradition allowed them to keep things for themselves if they first labeled them as “dedicated to God”.

It is interesting to note that Jesus responded to their charges with a different tradition than the original issue (washing). In effect, He didn’t answer their charge; instead He charged them with breaking God’s law and hiding behind their traditions. 

They were using these traditions to try and be pure before God. But Jesus used this to show that their traditions caused them to hide their true impurity and selfishness.

“Here it must be remembered, that it was an admitted Rabbinic principle that … no Halakhah (traditional law) might contradict Scripture. When Christ, therefore, next proceeded to show, that in a very important point – nay, in ‘many such like things’ – the Halakhah was utterly incompatible with Scripture, that, indeed, they made ‘void the Word of God’ by their traditions which they had received, He dealt the heaviest blow to traditionalism.” – Edersheim5

“It is true that some traditions are helpful as reminders of our rich heritage, or as “cement” to bind generations, but we must constantly beware lest tradition take the place of truth.” – Wiersbe4

“Jesus made it clear that obedience to tradition made a person disobedient to the Word of God, and this proved the tradition to be false.” – Wiersbe3

Empty worship is pointless 

Matthew 15:7-9
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

Mark 7:6-8
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

His second point is to show that Isaiah’s prophecy against them (Isaiah 29:13), delivered over 600 years earlier, was still just as valid as when it was first given. They have an outward show of religion, but no commitment from the heart.

Just like in Isaiah’s day, the Jews had taken man-made commandments and taught them as if they were from God.

“That worship which they professed to give to Him was empty and formal, for instead of obeying the Word of God they substituted the commandments of men.” – Ironside2

God has no value for insincere praise!

The Response 

You are polluted by your own heart, not by what you consume!

Matthew 15:10-11
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”

Mark 7:14-15
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

After responding to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus made a public announcement: It’s not what goes into you that pollutes you but what comes out of you. 

“He means that pollution is not a physical issue but a spiritual issue.” – MacArthur8

This statement, while sounding innocent to our ears shocked the crowd!

This is scandalous!

Matthew 15:12-14
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

The Pharisees were offended by Jesus’ statement. Literally, the word is skandalizō (σκανδαλίζω). This was more than a passing insult. They were scandalized!

It is interesting to note that the Pharisees were more offended by this statement (regarding how a person is defiled) than they were about Jesus’ direct rebuke from Isaiah. They cared more that Jesus shot down their traditions of purification than they did when He attacked them personally. Why was that?

In the first statement, when Jesus showed their inconsistency in keeping the law, and when He applied Isaiah’s prophecy to them, the Pharisees had little cause for concern. They could argue about whether they were correctly keeping the law, but nothing threatened their religious system.

But the second statement attacked the very foundation of their beliefs. They believed they needed to be good on the outside. Clean themselves up, and then God would accept them. But Jesus just told them — publicly — that their cleanup is pointless. There is no point in cleaning up the outside because their insides are filthy. 

Even the disciples were concerned by this scandal. While they may have not agreed with the Pharisees, they still held these religious leaders in respect and wanted their favor. But Jesus simply says to “stay away from them!”8 They are blind leaders, bringing destruction on both themselves and any who follow them. Jesus would later refer to them again as “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16).

“It was undoubtedly a disappointment to the disciples to have the Pharisees, the religious leaders, scandalized by the teaching of their Master.” – Ironside2

Jesus compared the Pharisees to His earlier parable of the weeds among the wheat. Just like the weeds (tares) in the parable, these false teachers will be pulled up by the Father. God will judge them.

“… only those who were subject in heart to God and His Word would abide as disciples of the Lord. The rest, no matter how encouraging their attitude might be at first, would eventually turn away.” – Ironside2

This is hard to accept!

Matthew 15:15-20
But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

Mark 7:17-23
And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

It may seem unusual for us, but the disciples needed Jesus to explain His statement.d Even His own disciples were so entrenched in ceremonial purity that they needed a clear explanation. This was a new and radical statement — external purity is pointless when your heart is impure!

But after all of the disciples’ lessons, they should have understood Him by now. Jesus gives them a mild rebuke for not understanding, but then explains. It is not what you eat that makes you unclean, rather, it is the evil within your own heart that defiles you. It is when you let these evil thoughts come out that you are polluted.

“Food never touches the heart. But what comes out of the mouth begins in the heart, and these things defile a person.” – Wiersbe3

The Solution 

The core difference between the Pharisees and Jesus Christ was this single question: What makes you unclean before a Holy God?

This scene and confrontation occurred almost 2,000 years ago, yet this question is still just as important. What must we do in order to please God? What would make Him turn on us and destroy us?

After this scene with the Pharisees, Jesus showed that there is nothing we can do to look good in God’s sight. Even the most elaborate and religious actions only serve to cover up a filthy heart. 

So what is the answer? Matthew never gives the answer in this single scene. Instead, he is showing us the answer across this entire book:

We can never be good enough for God! 

This is restating the same point that Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount: unless you are perfect, you can never reach God’s kingdom! 

Matthew 5:20
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

But Jesus came to save us!

He didn’t come for the religious and the pure, but for those who were broken and lost without Him.

Matthew 9:12-13
But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Luke 19:10
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

And He bought our forgiveness!

Jesus Christ didn’t just come to earth to teach and heal people. He came so that we could be forgiven for all of the filth and pollution within our own hearts.

Matthew 26:28
for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

1 Peter 3:18
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,

John 5:24
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

We accomplish nothing by trying to clean ourselves up on the outside. But may we come close enough to Jesus Christ so that we can take His forgiveness and be washed clean from the inside-out!

Previous post: How do you respond to crisis? 


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 15:1-20, pages 192-194

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 15, The King Denounces Hypocrisy

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 15:1-20, pages 43-44

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 7:1-23, pages 108-110

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXXI: THE CAVILS OF THE PHARISEES CONCERNING PURIFICATION, AND THE TEACHING OF THE LORD CONCERNING PURITY, THE TRADITIONS CONCERNING ‘HAND-WASHING’ AND ‘VOWS.’ (St. Matthew 15: 1-20; St. Mark 7: 1-23.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxxi.html

[6] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 8. https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/17-the-collapse-of-the-galilean-campaign.html

[7] John MacArthur, Confusing Man’s Traditions with God’s Commandments, Part 1, Matthew 14:34-15:9, Jul 11, 1982

[8] John MacArthur, Confusing Man’s Traditions with God’s Commandments, Part 2, Matthew 15:10-20, Jul 18, 1982


Notes

[a] “It will be noticed that the religious leaders are from Jerusalem and not merely a local synagogue. This indicates the impact of Christ’s ministry and also the extent to which the opposition of the Pharisees had been aroused.” – Toussaint1

[b] “Where did these traditions come from? They were handed down from the teachers of previous generations. These traditions were originally the ‘oral law’ that (said the rabbis) Moses gave to the elders, and they passed down to the nation. This oral law was finally written down and became the Mishnah. Unfortunately, the Mishnah became more important and more authoritative than the original law of Moses.” – Wiersbe3

[c] Some reformed commentators have used Mark 7:4 (And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing [βαπτισμός baptismos] of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches) to argue against baptism by immersion. Since the same root word for baptism is translated as “washing” here, they argue that the term for baptism must therefore be interpreted more broadly than simply dipping. The problem with this argument is that this passage in Mark is describing excessive religious actions and their failure to please God. This does not describe the full extent of the Pharisees’ perversion of the law, nor is there any model here for what we should do.

[d] It is interesting to note Peter’s rise as the “mouthpiece” of the disciples. He becomes the first to speak when the disciples have a question for Jesus. For this reason, many commentators consider Peter to have been the leader of the apostles.

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