In Matthew 15:1-2, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat.” We spent all of our time last week taking a look at the endless ways the scribes and rabbis through the centuries created rule after rule after rule for the people of God to follow. God gave us 10 Commandments, but the Jewish rabbis identified 613 mitzvot, commands or laws, in the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. They knew the Word of God frontwards and backwards, but their focus on rule writing, rule keeping, and rule breaking distracted them from the heart of God’s Word, which is the heart of God. Their fixation and preoccupation with their traditions, their rules, ironically and tragically blinded them to the true meaning and significance of the Word of God. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning, found in Matthew 15:10-20, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.'” 12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” 13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” 15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'” (Matthew 15:10-20 NIVO)
I mentioned to you last week that time after time God sent His prophets to His people to try to turn their hearts back to God, but they wouldn’t listen. Jesus’ assessment of the Pharisees was the same as God’s assessment of His people in Isaiah’s day. Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13 in Matthew 15:8-9.
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.'” (Matthew 15:8-9 NIVO)
Now, here’s something we need to understand. God is the One who gave His people the list of “clean” animals they were allowed to eat and “unclean” animals they were never allowed to eat. You can find the lists in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. God also gave His people feast days and new moon celebrations which we can find throughout the Hebrew Bible. Why did God give His people these ceremonies and lists to follow? That’s a great question and there are several answers that have been offered.
God’s people were coming out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. They were moving into the Promised Land where there were other people groups who didn’t serve God. God wanted His people to be set apart, different from all of the other people on the planet. They weren’t to eat like the other groups ate, they weren’t to worship what the other people worshiped, and they weren’t to live like other people lived. God gave His people a lifestyle, a way of living, that gave them constant reminders of who they were called to be and who God was as their God. Now, this is a simple explanation for sure. There are other explanations, and far more technical descriptions, as well as a wide variety of interpretations about why God did what He did, but this is a simple way for us to think about what God did as we take a look at what Jesus had to teach.
The problem was not what God had given His people, but instead, the problem was what His people did with what God had given them. Another illustration of the problem is the sign of circumcision which God gave to Abraham in Genesis 17:9-14. God told Abraham every male among them must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. God had “cut” a covenant with Abraham, an everlasting covenant, and circumcision was a constant reminder to every male of the covenant God had made. In Genesis 17:11 we read,
11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:11 NIVO)
For the Jews, the sign of circumcision became a badge of pride instead of a humble reminder of what God had done and who they were called to be as the people of God. As a result, God sent His prophets to tell His people,
1 “If you will return, O Israel, return to me,” declares the LORD. “If you put your detestable idols out of my sight and no longer go astray, 2 and if in a truthful, just and righteous way you swear, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ then the nations will be blessed by him and in him they will glory.” 3 This is what the LORD says to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem: “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns. 4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done– burn with no one to quench it. (Jeremiah 4:1-4 NIVO)
“…circumcise your hearts…” Walking with God, reflecting the love of God, the righteousness of God, the holiness of God, and the mercy of God is an inside job–it’s a matter of the heart. If you are like me then you might have trouble connecting with how not eating shrimp, pork, and other foods can make us more holy, more pleasing to God. You might not be able to connect the dots like the Jews did as to how washing our hands might be pleasing to God, even though as I mentioned last week, God never told His people to wash their hands before they ate their meals. We might not be able to understand how any man could turn circumcision into a badge of spiritual arrogance. We might not be able to wrap our minds around these things, but let me use two “ceremonies,” or what we call sacraments as a modern-day illustration.
Baptism is a good thing right? Well, that depends. Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples, followers of Jesus. Once a person becomes a follower of Jesus they are to be baptized as an outward sign to the world of an inner-transformation that has taken place. Baptism is a sign, it signifies death to our old way of life and rebirth in Christ Jesus. We are raised to new life in Christ. Baptism is a sign and yet, there are those who have made baptism into something much more than a sign. I’ve asked folks, “Are you a Christian? Are you a follower of Jesus?” Sometimes I hear, “I was baptized when I was a child.” I didn’t ask when he or she was baptized, I asked if they were a follower of Jesus.
Communion is another sacrament, or ceremony, and it is good right? Jesus told His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Every Sunday we share communion at Britton Christian Church, but why? Do we feel “safe” because we’ve had communion? Do we feel “unclean” when we miss communion? I hope not. Communion is another sign, a sign that points us to the cross, the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior. It’s a sign that reminds us of the price Jesus paid on our behalf so we might be reconciled with God.
You can be baptized and share communion each and every Sunday of your life, for the rest of your life, and be far, as far as far can be, from God. Being dunked under the water has never saved one person. I can hold you under the water for as long as you can hold your breathe and you’ll not be one bit more holy. Baptism is an outward sign. Whether it’s the ceremonies we observe and hold dear or the ceremonies and laws the people of Jesus’ day clung to so tightly, we must know that what God truly desires is our heart. Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but it’s what comes out of our mouth, or out of our heart, that makes us unclean. In Matthew 15:17-20, Jesus said,
17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'” (Matthew 15:17-20 NIVO)
Just last Sunday, in our Sunday morning Bible study, we took a look at Paul’s letter to Timothy. There were those who had come into the church in Ephesus that were teaching the people that if they really wanted to know God then they must not marry and they needed to stay away from certain foods. Paul called the teachers “hypocritical liars.” He just put it out there didn’t he. Paul then wrote,
3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:3 NIVO)
Those early followers of Jesus continued to deal with the problem of focusing on outer appearances to the neglect of the heart. In Galatians 2, Paul talked about a time in Antioch when he and Peter were eating with some Gentiles. All of a sudden some men, Jewish followers of Jesus came into the room, and Peter quietly slid away from the table with the Gentiles. Paul confronted Peter by saying,
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16 NIVO)
Peter knew better. In Acts 10, Peter had experienced a vision from God while he was asleep. In the vision a sheet full of all kinds of animals, clean and unclean, was lowered down to Peter. He heard a voice that said, “Get up Peter. Kill and eat!” Peter said, “I’ve never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Then we read,
15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. (Acts 10:15-16 NIVO)
Peter knew better and yet he still struggled with the external. Peter’s not the only one who has struggled with the external. I would venture to say most of us are drawn to checking the boxes and tabulating our good deeds at the end of the day. “Had my quiet time this morning?” “Check.” “Have I prayed today?” “Check.” “Went to church on Sunday?” “Check.” “Went to Bible study on Wednesday night?” “Check.” “Tithed 10% of my check this week?” “Check.” You know what’s interesting? All of those things are good as long as they are done from a heart that loves God, wants to serve God, and wants to make Him known in our daily life. If they are done as some kind of insurance policy to guarantee our good standing with God, then they become idols, worthless idols. William Barclay wrote,
If religion consists in external regulations and observances, it is two things. It is far too easy. It is very much easier to abstain from certain foods and to wash the hands in a certain way than it is to love the unlovely and the unlovable, and to help the needy at the cost of one’s own time and money and comfort and pleasure. (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, 139)
This is such a powerful reminder for you and me. Do you remember when Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the greatest? He said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” He went on to say the second greatest commandment is like the first. What is it? “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus said, “All of the law and prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40). In verses 18-20, Jesus said,
18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.'” (Matthew 15:18-20 NIVO)
It’s interesting that of all of the things Jesus could have mentioned as illustrations of the evil that comes from the human heart, He chose the list that He did. Jesus chose them straight off of the bottom of the list of the Ten Commandments, those commandments that have to do with our relationships with those around us. Commandments 6-10 are:
- You shall not murder
- You shall not commit adultery
- You shall not steal
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
- You shall not covet
Many will take a look at the list and say, “I’ve never murdered anyone. I’ve never committed adultery either.” We have to remember, Jesus is more concerned with what is taking place in our hearts than He is with the externals. Jesus told the crowd,
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28 NIVO)
There it is again. Jesus is most concerned about our hearts. What is going on in your heart this morning? What is going on in my heart? We can greet each other with smiles and kind words, but there’s something of greater importance that lies deep, deep inside of us. We are so prone to draw our conclusions by what we see and experience, but God is not like us–God looks at the heart, the intentions, the motivations. Let me give you an example. God sent Samuel to find the first king of Israel. He went to the house of Jesse because the king would be one of Jesse’s sons. When he saw Eliab, Samuel thought, “That’s the one!” He’s got to be the one!” God had other plans.
7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NIVO)
And what can we say about our heart? The Bible makes it clear, we’ve got heart problems, terminal heart problems, heart problems that no cardiologist can ever hope to fix. In Jeremiah, God spoke these words,
9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NIVO)
I want you to try something with me. It’s going to take a lot of courage, a lot of honesty, but it will be worth it if you will join me for the next couple of minutes in allowing the Lord to examine our hearts. Let me ask you a few questions. Have you ever said one thing, but in your heart you felt totally and completely different? You were nice to someone, but in actuality you can’t stand the person? Have you ever misrepresented yourself to someone, but in your heart you knew what you were saying wasn’t actually, factually true? Are you one of those people who says, “I’ve been faithful to my spouse since the day we were married, but you know in your heart you have lusted after other women or men? Have you ever said you forgive someone, but you know in your heart you will never forgive them, not in the way God has forgiven you? I could go on, but I don’t want to torture us with the truth for too long. It’s painful isn’t it? Is there anyone here who can honestly say you are not guilty of any of the scenarios I’ve just presented for us? I didn’t think so.
So the question is, “What can we do?” What can we do? Well, we can continue to play charades and try and convince ourselves that we aren’t nearly as bad as the next person, not even as bad as we used to be, but where will that get us? We can just give up, throw in the towel, and confess with many others, “This is just me. It’s just the way I am. Take it or leave it.” Or, we can get serious, buy some self-improvement books from Amazon, and commit ourselves like never before to improve our thoughts and behaviors. I’ve been down that road before and all I can say to those of you who choose that path is, “Good luck.” It’s going to be a long and frustrating journey my friend. So, if those paths are dead ends then what are we to do?
There’s a better solution, a fail-proof solution, and it comes with a promise from God. In Ezekiel 36, God spoke to His people and said,
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27 NIVO)
If we will turn to Jesus in surrender, God will take our deceitful, sin-bent heart, and give us a new heart. He will cleanse us, forgive us, put His Holy Spirit within us, and begin to do a work in us that we can’t do for ourselves. Does this mean we will never sin again? Does it mean we will be done with hypocrisy? “No” and “no.” We will have to battle for the rest of our lives, but here’s the difference–God gives us the tools of His Holy Spirit and His Word so that we can fight the battles when they come our way. I pray the Holy Spirit has quickened your heart this morning to your need for Jesus. If so, then I’d like to invite you to humble yourself this morning, pray and ask the Lord to forgive you of your sins, and to give you a new heart. Won’t you come?
Britton Christian Church
July 7, 2019