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Study Notes:

Matthew 15:1-20
Defilement Comes From Within

Summary: The greatest issues of life are things that happen within us, not things we bolt on to the outside of us.

I want to begin this morning by asking a question: Do you think you’re a good person? And if so, how do you know? How do you measure that? What are the things you use to keep score? Are there certain things you do? Most people answer the question by pointing to things they do or things they try to do as proof that yes, they’re a good person.

Well, this morning we’ll see a collision between people who thought they were doing good things, religious things, and Jesus who wasn’t doing the same things as they were. Along the way we’ll learn some important lessons about what it means to be good and where the bad things in our lives come from and when we’re done I’m going to encourage you to meet with God, examine your heart, and ask how these things might apply to your life.

It’s going to seem a little foreign and perhaps confusing at times, because it involves religious practices that aren’t familiar to us, but stick with me and I promise it will all make sense in the end. We pick things up where we left off last week as we continue our look at the Gospel of:

Matthew 15:1 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

The scribes and Pharisees were religious people that took religious rules very seriously. They’ve come to take a look at Jesus and His ministry and decide: are these good people, and is Jesus a good teacher? When they arrive, they’re troubled by what they see. They want to know: if you’re good people, why don’t you act like us? Specifically, why don’t you wash your hands the right way before eating?

Now, I know that might sound a little odd – it probably never occurred to you to make a moral judgment on yourself or anyone else based on how they wash their hands. But you need to know, this was important to them. It isn’t like your mom telling you to wash your hands before dinner; this isn’t just about hygiene.

The Jews looked at the world through a framework that classified things as clean, that is good and unclean, that is bad. The Jews are not the only ones to have religious rules like this. You’ve heard of Jewish kosher foods that is, foods that are clean, and prepared in a clean manner but in Islam you have foods that are halal. Think of the way some Hindus will bathe in the filthy waters of the Ganges because they think it has holy powers to wash away their spiritual uncleanness.

Well, God gave the Jews this clean and unclean framework to help distinguish them as His special people. But over time, they came up with additions to what God said, and slowly those additions came to have as much force, or more, than God’s original instructions and that’s where this question of washing comes in.

For the scribes and Pharisees it wasn’t enough to simply make sure you were eating the right foods, now they wanted to make sure they prepared themselves to handle food. They reasoned it out like this: you don’t want to make good food bad by touching it with your unwashed hands because your hands might have dust on them and that dust might have touched something that was not ceremonially good, and now it’s on your hands, and your hands are about to touch the food, and if they do and the bad dust gets on the good food, well, then you’ve suddenly ruined the whole thing, and yourself in the process and what’s worse: you may not even realize you did it. You can see how this is an OCD nightmare just waiting to happen, right?

And again, we’re not talking about the dangers of food borne bacteria or germs; we’re talking about ceremonial status, answering the question: am I a good person, by asking how do I wash my hands?

Over time they began to standardize things and develop all these “best practices” that told you exactly how to do things like wash your hands so you could know, am I a good person, or not? They wrote them down in something called the Mishnah, which is like a guidebook for proper Jewish living. So, if you look up hand washing you read “If a man poured water over the one hand with a single rinsing, his hand is clean; but if over both hands with a single rinsing, R. Meir declares them unclean unless he pours over them [2.5 fl ou] or more” (M. Yadaim 2:1).

It’s all very specific and precise, so you can know exactly how to live if you want to be a good person; you know exactly what rules to keep and how. Again, I know this all sounds very foreign to us, but you have to understand what’s going on, these people took pride in the things they were doing, because they thought it proved they were good people.

The problem is, over time, it becomes very mechanical and thoughtless and it’s easy to find yourself going through the motions. So now Jesus is about to point out that all their religious enthusiasm wasn’t getting to the core issues of the heart, and in some cases it was even leading them into conflict with what God had said about how to live.

3 He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?
4 For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”— 6 then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.

God commanded that parents be supported and respected. But the religious traditions these people developed created a conflict. They said it was possible to dedicate things to God – above and beyond His requirements – to show how good you were. But then, let’s say you suddenly needed those things back in order to support your parents. Well, the scribes and Pharisees would say, sorry – you dedicated that to God, you dedicated that land for example, you can’t sell it. Your parents are going to have figure out something else.

Pretty harsh, right? Following their religious traditions actually made God look cold and uncaring which is so far from the truth. They got themselves into this bind by adding all these traditions to what God originally said. Things have obviously gotten out of hand and they’ve lost sight of the original intent. They were going through religious motions, but it was having little impact on their souls. So Jesus goes on to criticize them, saying:

7 Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying:

8 ​‘​These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
​​And honor Me with their lips,
​​But their heart is far from Me.
9 ​​And in vain they worship Me,
​​Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”

10 When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”

Do you see the point Jesus is making? It’s possible to go through all kinds of religious or spiritual motions and make no movement toward God – to say one thing, and yet worship in vain because your heart is not in it.

One of the first things you have to know about God is that He is always most concerned about the motives of your heart, not just the mechanics of your life. He’s more concerned about the process than the end product. He cares more about Why you do things than What you do. He’s more concerned about your heart than your hands. And that’s because if your heart’s not in the right place, it doesn’t matter what your hands do.

The scribes and Pharisees had all kinds of external evidence that they thought meant they were good people, but Jesus called them defiled hypocrites. Friends, how many of you could this apply to? I have met with so many people lately who have stories of being in church and going through the motions, but not truly being saved until later in life. Their bottom-end was present in a chair or a pew, but their heart was not. Until, one day, it seemed like a light came on and they suddenly understood – their heart came alive.

Do you have a before and after story? Has there ever been a point of conversion in your life? Does God have your heart? Or, are you going through the motions? God doesn’t give points for attendance, you must be saved, you must have His will written upon your heart. You must have Him breathe new life into you. Don’t comfort yourself with external evidence if you don’t sense any internal life.

Jesus says these very religious people were worshipping in vain. Which, yes, is a little harsh as the disciples point out:

12 Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”
13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”

So, did you pick up on this? God is not impressed by externals. In fact, Jesus says something that is absolutely frightening if you think about who He is and what He’s saying – He says, “let them alone.” He’s done with them. He’s not going to go after them, He’s not going to chase them down and say He’s sorry; He’s going to let them go.

God is merciful, patient, kind. He is, as we noticed last week from Romans, showing us kindness that leads us to repentance. But, He will not be patient forever. God is loving, but He is also just. He will not put up with our wandering and our own philosophizing about religion forever. So how will you recover if God says to ‘leave you alone,’ and to let you keep going your own way?

You won’t go your own way in ignorance; you’ll do it in defiance. Notice, the scribes and Pharisees came, they heard the things Jesus had to say, and they saw the things He did, but they persisted in their rejection and rebellion and denial and eventually Jesus says, ‘Very well, let it be.’

The Bible says Christians should give to everyone who asks, a reason for the hope that lies within us, but it also says don’t cast your pearls before swine. Jesus says there are plants My Father didn’t plant and they’ll be plucked out of the field like weeds in the garden.

This was hard for the disciples to hear no doubt, because everyone else though the scribes and Pharisees were like the major leagues of faithful Jews, they were the religious elite, the pros. But now Jesus is peeling back their cultivated public image to reveal a pock-marked heart.

There’s been a lot of that going on in our own culture over the past decade or so, hasn’t there? We’ve seen technology and communications platforms used to expose the once secret misbehaviors, harassments, molesting, immorality, lies, and deception of all kinds of people. The curtains keep getting pulled back to expose the wickedness and shamefulness, the compromises, the despicable behavior and beliefs of all kinds of people who looked good from outside.

Scandal after scandal is exposed because suddenly people who know what’s going on behind the scenes or in the shadows have a voice and an audience – there are very few secrets any more and for whatever you may think of that socially and politically, it helps us see a stunning truth theologically: God has always known. He has always had 100% visibility on what’s going on. No one is hiding anything from Him. God knows what you’re Googling. God knows what you’re covering up. God knows what you’ve got hidden. He knows everything and one day He will bring it all out and set it before you and ask: now, what should we do about this?

But things only show up on the outside because of what’s already on the inside. In the past, it was possible to create a public face that was curated, polished, put together, and that masks the reality. But God always saw through it, and now the internet makes it easier for other people to see too.

Let me make two pointed applications of this truth – one to singles and one to parents. Both of you need think particularly about what this means for your context. Singles, you need to ask yourself: am I seeing people of the opposite sex, especially people I might be attracted to or evaluating as a potential spouse, am I seeing them clearly? Do I see them as a highly esteemed religious scholar when Jesus sees them as a blind leader of the blind? Do I see them as a good person? What is the true orientation of their heart? What is Jesus’ assessment of them?

And parents, the same is true for you – the goal is not to raise quiet and compliant children. Children who know all the religious rules and go through the motions. The question you must ask is: do they worship from the heart? Is their heart far from God while they sit there quietly next to you? Don’t be satisfied with external conformity. You don’t want good church kids; you want kids who have been transformed, given a new heart – and only God can do that. Don’t be content with external things, ask God to show you, and if they’re the right age, talk with them about what’s going on in their hearts. They need a supernatural encounter with the living God and not just your good rules and perfect attendance in Sunday School, AWANA, or youth group.

You see, the point for both singles and parents, and for all of us really, is: don’t be fooled by external appearances, look for what is really happening in their heart.

All of this can be a little hard to digest, difficult to receive, and if you feel that way, if you’re not quite sure you’re understanding, you might be relieved to know you’re in good company. It was hard for the disciples to accept too:

15 Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.”
16 So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.

If you’re familiar with the Ten Commandments you might be interested to take note of the pattern here. Jesus pointed out the need to honor your father and mother which is the fifth commandment. Now He mentions evil thoughts which can lead to murders which is the 6th commandment, adulteries and fornications belong together – adultery is sexual activity with someone else who is not your spouse when you are married, fornication (Grk: porneia) covers everything else and so here you have the 7th commandment, then thefts which is the 8th commandment, and bearing false witness that is, lying in your testimony or telling lies about someone or something, that’s prohibited by the 9th commandment. And then Mark who also tell us about this interaction in the 7th chapter of his gospel says Jesus also mentioned covetousness which is the 10th commandment, along with wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, pride, and foolishness.

All these things are found inside us, they don’t have to come at us from the outside no matter how we wash our hands before we eat – they can bubble up all by themselves from within. So Jesus goes on to make the big point:

20 These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”

We end with this perfect summary of it all, a reminder that God is always more concerned about the internal than the external. He’s always concerned most about your heart.

The imagery of the heart is mentioned over 1000 times in the Bible, that’s more than any other body part. The heart represents the center of a person’s life physically, emotionally, intellectually, morally, it’s what makes you, you and not just a chunk of flesh like an animal.

According to the Scriptures, we understand with our hearts (Matt 13:15). Jesus has already told us the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart (Matthew 12:34). Peter tells us the heart is the source of a Christian woman’s true beauty (1 Pe 3:4) and it will become more compelling over time as her physical beauty fades.

The Bible says genuine obedience and worship spring from the heart, and that the sacrifice God really desires is a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8)

God also tells us we can have bitter envy and self-seeking in our hearts (James 3:14). We can deceive our hearts (James 1:26), and our hearts are deceitful, even after our conversion. Proverbs warns us (Pr 4:23) above all else guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

JC Ryle whose book Holiness is one that I heartily recommend to you says: “Let us never forget that our chief danger is from within. The world and the devil combined, cannot do us so much harm as our hearts will, if we do not watch and pray.” JC Ryle

You cannot just go through motions in serving God and count on the fact that you give to the church, or that you attend regularly, or even the fact that you’ve got things to say in the Bible Study group or that you’re leading the group for that matter – don’t point to the externals, ask the question God asks: Where is your heart?

What does your heart look like to you this morning? You know things about yourself that no one else knows. What do the things you see inside of you tell you about you? Do you agree with God’s assessment that there is darkness inside each of us?

Have you ever looked at your life and thought your problems are “too deep” for anything but a professional counselor to handle, and even then you’re not quite sure that would work? My friend, you actually have your thinking backwards. Your issues are too deep for anything but Jesus. He can change you from the inside out and that’s what you really need, isn’t it? You don’t just need to bolt some braces on from the outside, you need a complete teardown and rebuild, you need to work from the inside out.

We’re told the greatest commandment is that we would

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Matt 22:37

And you can’t do that if your heart is given over to all these other things. You need Christ to cleanse your heart, no matter what your life looks like from the outside.

Christians are told that

the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus Phil 4:7

If you lack that peace today, I want to encourage you to run to Christ to find it. Maybe you’ve never done that before and you see the junk that lives in your own heart, no matter what your life looks like on the outside. Maybe you’ve tried bolting on certain habits and practices from the outside, tips and tricks and lifehacks you’ve picked up along the way. Friends, those things may work for a season, but what you really need is to come to Jesus and ask Him to cleanse you from the inside out. If you do that, He promises that He will not cast you out, He won’t send you away, He won’t recoil in disgust. He will receive you, He will hear you, if you confess your sin, your wrong, to Him He will forgive you and wash you clean.

But maybe you’re already a Christian, but you notice you’ve been more focused on going through the religious motions lately than focusing on your heart. You’ve got your rhythms, your routine, your radio station, but God is convicting you: your heart is far from Him. Well, agree with Him about it. Ask for forgiveness, and ask Him to continue His transforming work in you today, tell Him you don’t want to be a religious professional, you want to be a changed man or woman, boy or girl. Tell Him you want be cleansed from the inside out because working from the outside in isn’t working.

Let’s pray.

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