Matthew 15:1-20 – Preaching from ChristChurch London’s Sunday Service
SLIDE 1: TITLE SLIDE
If you are new, then each week we are looking at a different aspect of the Kingdom of God, from Matthew’s gospel and this week’s theme is freedom. Let’s read from Matthew 15 and verse 1:
1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
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 the blind lead the blind, 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 a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
So the Pharisees were saying: “you get free from sin, by washing it away, by ritual, by ceremonially cleansing yourself, by keeping all the Jewish rules and regulations.” And Jesus is saying, “No – that won’t work, because even if you obey all the rules, even if you become the most ritually, ceremonially clean person in your town, you’ve still got the problem of the words that come out of your mouth.”
Imagine I was there trying to obey all the Jewish laws. And imagine if someone recorded all the words I said 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for a year. When I play that recording back, I’d be able to work out fairly quickly that I am unclean. Because no matter which year of my life you chose, you’d find that I said some terrible things at some point, which proves there is still unclean-ness left in me. So it doesn’t matter how much ritual hand-washing I’ve done, or how many laws I’ve obeyed, it’s all superficial. It’s only skin deep. It hasn’t cleansed me after all. It doesn’t work!
Which is devastating news for Judaism. Because this ceremonial hand-washing was part of a huge machine that was supposed to deliver purity, and the key part of the machine was the continual sacrifice of animals in the Jerusalem Temple in an attempt to wash away people’s sins with the blood of goats.
But if the Jewish sacrificial system doesn’t cleanse you – doesn’t get you right with God, what will?
Jesus is highlighting the problem, because he wants to lead us the answer. Jesus wants to point us towards a perfect sacrificial lamb, a perfect person. Jesus wants to point us towards the only person who has ever lived, who if you listened to a recording of what they said, you’d find they never sinned. You can choose a year, any year, you listen to this man’s tape, and you find . . . sinless perfection.
Jesus is pointing us towards himself. Jesus Christ is going to present himself as the solution to the problem every world religion is trying to solve.
Jesus knew that he was acceptable to God.
So if Jesus made himself the perfect sacrifice, then if we could get into him, then we would be acceptable, not on the basis of our own righteousness, but on the basis of his.
And that would be THE answer to the question, which both Jesus and the Pharisees were addressing, the question of ‘how can sinful people be put right with a holy God?’
And so our passage this morning, directs us on towards the most sublime idea you and I have ever heard, which is that Jesus, by living a perfect life, fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law, so that we don’t have to, and that by becoming a perfect sacrifice, he absorbed the punishment for our sin, so that we don’t have to.
So the last 5 minutes of this sermon, when we get onto all of that, will be truly glorious.
But first let’s look at the problem, which I’m going to divide into two parts – the first nine verses, I’ve titled . . .
1. The hypocrisy of man-made religion in society (vs 1-9)
and then the last part I’ve called . . .
2. The reality of original sin in our hearts (vs 10-20)
So let’s start with the hypocrisy of man-made religion.
In verse 1, we see a high level delegation of Pharisees and teachers of the law who are dispatched from Jerusalem, to travel 100 miles to ask Jesus a question.
What question? Well, maybe they’d been impressed by the fact that Jesus was healing all who came to Him. They definitely would have heard the news that in Galilee, the blind saw, the deaf heard, and the crippled walked. Or maybe they’d been awe-struck by a report that he’d calmed a raging storm by talking to it, or maybe they just wanted to ask him about how he’d managed to walk on water. Or perhaps they just wanted to ask: “Jesus, look, about Jairus’s daughter. Jesus, how did you do it? How did you raise her from the dead?” Instead they ask:
SLIDE 5: verses 1-9
“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?”
I mean this is almost unbelievable pedantry.
But the Pharisees were totally in earnest about this. (Even though they would have admitted that there is no verse in the Bible that requires what they were requiring of Jesus disciples.)
For them that didn’t matter, because over the centuries they had added to the Old Testament, a huge body, of subsidiary laws, the oral law, referred to here as ‘the traditions of the elders.’
These Pharisees regarded this oral law as equally binding, and as more or less indistinguishable from the real laws of the real Bible.
They’d added a huge legislative fence of hundreds of do’s and don’ts around the laws of Moses, and they’d built it up with case studies, and with their own interpretations and extensions of the real Scriptures.
And this hand-washing thing was a classic example. In Exodus chapter 30, priests were commanded to wash their hands, when getting ready to make a sacrifice by fire at the altar.
Fair enough, it’s a command for priests at the altar. But these Pharisees were using that verse and others like it, to require these Galileean fishermen to ritually cleanse themselves every single time they ate anything. This is nothing to do with hygiene or soap.
Now it just so happens that we know quite a lot about this ‘tradition of the elders,’ because about 200 years after these events in Matthew, the Jewish oral law, was written down in what’s called the Mishnah. In the English translation it occupies 876 pages, but one commentary, the Babylonian Talmud took up no less than 60 volumes.
And it’s clear that this extreme mentality was already developing during Jesus lifetime, among the stricter scribes and Pharisees, probably of the school of Shammai. (? Pronounciation?)
There are some famous absurdities in the Mishnah and the Talmud. For example, you couldn’t look into a mirror on the Sabbath, because if you did, you might see a grey hair and pull it out, and that would be performing work on the Sabbath. So it was illegal to look in a mirror on the Sabbath.
The Mishnah said you couldn’t carry a handkerchief on the Sabbath, but it said you could wear one. So if you were upstairs, and wanted to take the handkerchief downstairs, you’d have to tie it around your neck, walk downstairs, and then you could blow your nose downstairs.
And Jesus thinks all of this is ridiculous. Jesus is outraged that the glorious heart religion of Abraham, has been turned into a dry list of do’s and don’ts. As if God were more interested in ticking boxes, than he was in heart relationship with people. And so in verse 8, Jesus quotes Isaiah, where God says: “these people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” That was Jesus’ damning verdict on the Pharisees.
What would this ritual rather than relationship look like today? Well imagine a man gets married, and on his honeymoon, he takes up golf. He discovers that he’s rather good at it, and he becomes somewhat obsessive about it, playing all the time. And on his wife’s birthday, he gives her a present. It’s an enormous box. She just cannot imagine what might be inside. She excitedly tears off the wrapping paper, opens the box, and it’s a set of golf clubs. Now the point is, she never asked for that.
And in the same way, God never asked for this. He never asked Galilee-an fishermen to ceremonially cleanse themselves before every meal.
But the Pharisees had re-defined relationship in terms of what they were good at, and what they were good at was ritual. So in verse 2, they ask Jesus: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?’
But in typical rabbinic style, Jesus doesn’t answer, instead he comes up with a counter-question: ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?’ Jesus is challenging the validity of the oral law. And he gives a powerful example. The fifth commandment, that you and I should honour our parents, was originally backed up by the death penalty. (Can you see that there in verse 4?) I mean you can’t get much more serious than that. Yet the Pharisaic ‘Korban’ laws overrode the Biblical obligation to honour your parents! Here was an outrageous example of The Pharisees viewing their human tradition as being more important than the actual Scriptures. So Jesus concludes: ‘In this way, you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.’
And the Mishnah tells us all about this Korban vow that Jesus is attacking in verses 3 to 6. The Korban vow was all about promising that, when at some future point you die, your property and finance would go into the temple treasury — But this promise or vow was considered by the Pharisees to be so sacred that it could not be revoked, even in order to care for your parents in their old age. But it was agreed that you could continue to use your Korban money yourself during your lifetime! But everyone else was banned from using it, except you! Folks, this was a pious fraud, which ripped the fifth commandment out of the Bible and threw it in the bin.
Now here’s how it could have worked today. It just so happens that my parents are in their 70s, and let’s imagine that one day in 10 or 20 years time, my Dad phones me and she says: “Look, Adrian, the truth is, your mother needs 24/7 care, I’m too old and weak to help her any more, so she needs to go into a nursing home, but it’s going to cost £600 a week. Can we please split the cost between us, you and I?
Now imagine I replied: “I’m sorry, Dad, I can’t give you any money to look after Mum, because that money is Korban.”
He says: “What on earth do you mean?”
I say: “Well, whatever help you might otherwise have received from me, is a gift devoted to God.”
He says: “What are you talking about?”
I say: “You’re asking me for £300 a week, but I can’t give you anything, because I’ve made a vow to give my money towards the upkeep of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem.”
My Dad says: “But Adrian, your mother doesn’t need a temple in Jerusalem, she needs a nursing home.”
I say: “Sorry, Dad, look I’d love to help, but to care for you and Mum would be to go against my conscience.”
My Dad can hardly believe his ears: “Your conscience?”
I say, “Yeah, look Dad I’d love to help, but you’re asking me to break a vow I’ve made to God. Dad please don’t ask me to go against God and break my vow to God.”
At which point, my Dad would hang up the phone. And he’d think – ‘Adrian, you’re a hypocrite. All your talk about God, all your sermons it’s just play-acting.’ Which is what Jesus calls it here in verse 7. That’s a literal translation of the word for hypocrite, a play-actor.
So that is firstly, The hypocrisy of man-made religion in society (vs 1-9)
Now Jesus talks about, secondly,
SLIDE 6: verses 10-20
The reality of original sin in our hearts (vs 10-20)
Jesus says in verse 11 that all this ceremonial washing cannot wash away the original sin in our hearts.
And we see Jesus labouring the point in verse 17. Jesus says: “Surely you can see that food comes into the mouth and goes down into the stomach, through your body and out the other end. It goes straight to your stomach and out, not straight to your heart!
So if you take the heart as being figurative, as Jesus takes it to be, of your will, your spirit, your soul, the real you, the real me. If unclean foods go to the stomach, and not to the heart, then, we cannot use the unclean stuff we allow into our bodies as an excuse for our sinful speech and behaviour.
So here is a huge application point for you and me.
This means, I can’t blame my circumstances, for what comes out of my heart. According to verse 18, I am responsible for what comes out of my heart!
For example, let me tell you about a time when I exploded with anger. I cannot even remember exactly what it was about, but I do remember that it was something trivial. But at the time, I was so angry that I slammed my hands down on a bookcase and actually tore the skin from my knuckles. This fit of anger lasted about 15 to 20 seconds. You’ll be pleased to know that it was nothing to do with Christ Church, London. But I was shouting at the top of my voice, I was pacing back and forth, slamming my hands down.
So let’s do what Jesus is trying to do, let’s attempt to get to the root, to the heart of my problem. Now you and I live amongst 21st century educated, progressive, liberal western Europeans, who believe that people are fundamentally good, not fundamentally bad. And so, such people, having witnessed my fit of anger, would be asking these kind of questions:
“Adrian, tell me about your childhood? – Were you brought up in a home where your father was given to fits of rage?”
I answer: “No”
Did you ever see your Mother or father hit anything, bookcases perhaps? Perhaps there is a long tradition of bookcase hitting in your family?
I answer: “No”
“OK, perhaps you had a deprived background?”
Again the answer is: “No”
“Was it perhaps that you have had a very hard life, and have suffered lots of terrible injustices?”
I answer: “No”
“Was it a lack of education?”
I know, you’re watching a lot of violent films?”
“How about soap operas, perhaps you watch EastEnders, where everyone’s constantly having stand up rows?”
I reply: ‘certainly not!’
So where did the anger come from?
Answer: It came from within! It came from me! It came from the real Adrian Holloway. It came out of my heart.
In those 15 to 20 seconds what was inside me came out of my mouth and into the public domain.
Verse 19: means I can’t simply blame society, or the media, or even my circumstances. Because apart from the grace of God, what’s going to come out of my heart are evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander.
And someone says: “Yeah, Adrian, but look you probably haven’t done half those things.” That is not the point. The point is that everyone who has ever done even one of them started off thinking about it. You think an immoral thought long before you ever follow through and do the immoral action.
So Jesus, here in Matthew 15 shows us that we are responsible for our sin. But Jesus has deliberately shown us how deep a pit we’re in, so that he can show us a glorious way out.
And here’s how it starts . . .
Of the many offensive things Jesus says in this passage, there would have been one sentence that Jesus spoke that would have jumped off the page for the Pharisees. It’s verse 11, when Jesus says that what goes into someone’s mouth does NOT defile them. Now that for any Jew is massive. It’s such a big deal that in Mark’s gospel, Mark’s account, (now Mark, unlike Matthew, hardly comments on anything in his gospel, Mark just tells the story) but here Mark adds a rare comment, Mark says that “in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”
Now even today, saying that all foods are clean would be one of the most explosive things any Jew could possibly say. Because Jesus, here, was in essence announcing the end of an era, the end of the Mosaic purity laws, as well as these ludicrous added laws. Jesus was even announcing the end of the legal external covenant of which they formed a part, the end of foods clean and unclean, people clean and unclean, of Jew ceremonially separated from Gentile.
It was all coming to an end. Why? Because the Kingdom of God was breaking into this world! Jesus knew that soon by his death, the veil of the temple would be torn in two. And the barriers that physically stopped unclean Gentiles like me from the entering the presence of God, from entering the Holy of Holies, would be literally ripped apart by Jesus death on the cross.
Just before that, Jesus would announce at the last Supper “a new covenant, in his blood,” that is a new deal. Jesus would be the last priest, offering the last sacrifice, and the sacrifice would be himself.
And as for the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus is saying here, they’re had their day. And rather than being exemplary guides for the blind, as they liked to think of themselves, Jesus says they’ve become blind guides, who are about to fall into a pit. Then changing the analogy, Jesus says they are like plants in the ground, which are about to be pulled up by the roots. Ouch! Verse 13.
‘But hang on a minute’ . . . someone says . . . ‘Jesus declared all foods clean, that’s not just Jesus going against the tradition of the elders, that’s Jesus also going against the Old Testament law that said that some foods were unclean.
‘So,’ someone says, ‘you can’t have it both ways Jesus.’ A few verses ago you were hammering the Pharisees for ripping the fifth commandment out of the Old Testament, but here you, Jesus, are ripping all the food laws out of the Old Testament.
Someone says: ‘Jesus, you’ve contradicted yourself!’
This is a valid objection isn’t it?
Jesus, you said in Matthew 5, that not one jot or one tittle of the law will pass away until all it all is fulfilled! Which literally means, not one letter or not even one part of one letter of the written law would pass away until it is all fulfilled.
Well, Jesus is saying here, it is all about to be fulfilled. Jesus is saying: “I’m about to die. All the righteous requirements of the law are about to be fulfilled. Because when you examine my life for holiness, I tick all the Old Testament boxes.
So Jesus hasn’t contradicted himself.
On the contrary, he’s been true to his stated aim. Remember, Jesus said: “I haven’t come to abolish the law, I’ve come to fulfil it.” And this is a key part of understanding the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God has come now in the sense that King Jesus has now fulfilled the rigorous requirements of the laws of Moses. Jesus has passed the test for us! So it’s no surprise that at the end of his holy life, he cried out in triumph: “It is finished!”
Now, you remember 10 minutes ago, there I was banging my hands on the bookcase with no excuse for my sin, with no way of getting rid of my unclean-ness? No solution? Well, there is a solution. Jesus says: “Adrian, there’s another way to be clean.”
He’s saying, “yes, sin does defile you but there’s another way to be clean,”
OK, as you know, at the heart of the Temple was the most holy place, and behind the veil was the holiest of holies, and no-one went in there except the high priest, and he only went in there once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
And on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest immersed himself 5 times and washed his hands and feet 10 times, because the people needed to know that their representative was absolutely clean.
And at crucial moments on Yom Kippur, he didn’t wear his normal priestly garments, he changed into perfect white linen, absolutely pure.
And first, he made a sacrifice for his own sins. And then he’d go and bathe, and cleanse himself, and get changed.
In total, during a long and exhausting day, the High Priest sacrificed two lambs, one bull, two goats, and two rams. Multiple cleansings, multiple sacrifices to atone for the sins of the nation.
OK, hold that picture in your mind, if you would, and now consider Jesus. Here is a perfect High Priest. The only person who has ever lived, who if he had gone into the holy of holies any day, he would not have needed to offer a sacrifice for his own sins, because He never sinned.
But, as Tim Keller points out, when Jesus arrives, to be our high priest, when he showed up to make the sacrifice for us, what happened to him was exactly the opposite of what happened to the High Priest on Yom Kippur.
Because when Jesus sacrificed himself, he was not clothed, no Jesus was stripped.
Jesus didn’t get a lovely bath, no he got his back torn to shreds and a crown of thorns pressed down onto his head.
He did not get beautiful garments. No what was laid on him was the sins of the world.
And where was he killed? In the holy of holies? A place fitting for the King of Heaven?
No, Jesus was sacrificed outside the Temple, outside the City walls. At The place of defilement. The place of dead things. At Skull hill, they called it. And he was killed there.
Jesus, the heavenly high priest, had exactly the opposite experience to the earthly high priest.
So that we could be clothed in fine linen!
In Revelation 19, John has this wonderful vision in which you can see yourself in heaven. John he says: “Let us rejoice and be glad, for the wedding of the Lamb has come, and the bride [that’s you] has made herself ready – fine linen, bright and clean is given for us to wear!”
We’re cleansed because Jesus was abused.
We’re cleaned because Jesus was dirited
We’re clothed because Jesus was stripped.
We’re seated in heavenly glory, because He was pinned to a wooden cross.
And now, we can stand before the Father, absolutely beautiful. Fine linen, bright and clean is given you to wear! That my friend is how you look before God right now.
You are as forgiven now as anyone could ever be.
You are as loved now as anyone could ever be.
In God’s eyes, you’re as holy now as anyone could ever be, and you’re as pure as anyone could ever be.
How come? Because you’re in Christ now. You can’t get pure-r than Jesus. You can’t get cleaner than Jesus.
And God made him (that is Jesus) who knew no sin, to become sin for us, so that in him, you here, sitting on these seats at the Mermaid Theatre, could become the Righteousness of God.
You can wake up tomorrow morning and say out loud: “2 Corinthians 5: 21 I am the righteousness of God, in Christ.”
That’s how good it is!
Band come forward?
So what have we seen today? We’ve seen that declared all foods clean,
We’ve seen that there’s a better way. There’s a better priest. Who made a better sacrifice.
Jesus the perfect high priest comes to live inside of you. It’s an inside out, cleansing.
If there is any hypocrisy in your life – get rid of it, because you don’t need to live like that any more. You don’t need to do any play acting. You’re free.
Comments on Freedom & Galatians
Comments on Romans 7 – Yes you were married to the law, and it was a dreadful marriage because your spouse the law was always right, and you were never good enough. But guess what, your dreadful marriage to the law is over. Why? Did the law die? No, clearly not, you can still read it today, it’s not dead. What then? Surely a marriage continues as long as both parties are alive. Paul says in Romans 7, the law didn’t die, you did. When you died with Christ. That was what was happening symbolically when you got baptised, you died with Christ, when you come out of that water, you’re not married to the law anymore, you’re married to Christ. If you died with him, you’ll live with him.