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The Heart of Man

Date: May. 8, 2016

Author: Michael Mark

Matthew 15:1-20

Key Verse: Matthew 15:19

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Last week we saw how Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of more than 5,000 people with 5 small barley loaves and two fish, and the next day, very early in the morning he literally walked a few miles on water across the sea to his disciples.  The disciples were astonished, and even afraid, but when they realized it was their Lord they bowed down and worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  They confessed that Jesus is God and they worshipped him.  Out of the overflow of their hearts, their mouths spoke.  God is to be honored, and he is to be worshipped.  Why did he come to earth?  Why was God telling us that he is here, by feeding so many with bread barely enough for one, and by accepting the worship of his disciples?  As most of you know, Jesus came to deal with our sin.  He came to offer himself up as a pleasing sacrifice to God, so that our sins might be laid upon him, and his righteousness may be credited to us.  From this, we learn something about ourselves, something we find hard to admit – that deep down in our hearts we are wicked, and we are evil.  If this was not the case, Jesus did not need to come.  But this is the truth: out of the heart of every person come evil thoughts.

First, we will see how the heart of man is far from God, in v.1-14, and how the heart of man causes evil toward our fellow man in v.15-20, and then we’ll learn about the remedy for an evil heart.  Look at v.1-2, “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’”  These Pharisees and teachers of the law came from Jerusalem to see Jesus.  Jesus’ fame, his words and his deeds spread all over the region of Israel, and these people traveled more than 60 miles to come see Jesus.  They may have come to see Jesus for themselves, maybe to see if this man from Nazareth doing these great things was acting according to their laws, or maybe to spy on him to look for a way to arrest him.  They came to see Jesus for a reason, and they may have even witnessed his feeding of the 5,000.  But when they came to Jesus, what did they say?  Did they say, are you the Messiah?  No, they said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders!”  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, you and I have seen how Jesus proved that He is the Son of God, so how could these ordinary men, mere men, come to God and rebuke him?

They rebuked Jesus because he did not instruct his disciples to wash their hands before eating.  This was not an ordinary washing of hands, this was a ceremonial washing of hands.  In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and all Jews give their hands a ceremonial washing before eating.  They also observe many other traditions, such as washing cups, pitchers and kettles (Mark 7:3-4).  See now the Jews had two sets of laws – the written law, given by Moses, which we can read in the first 5 books of our Bible.  Then they have the oral law, which at the time was not written down, but was handed down from generation to generation orally.  It was only written down around 200 years after Jesus’ death, and these laws ended up spanning multiple volumes, like an encyclopedia set.  If you think the written law was complex, in the first 5 books of the Bible, imagine the oral law contained in all of those volumes.  The purpose of these oral laws were to prevent people from breaking the written laws, so they were supposed to be like a fence to prevent you from breaking other laws.

The origin of the practice of washing the hands may have come from trying to avoid defilement in eating special offering food, but once the elders established the tradition everyone had to obey it and for every meal.  Washing required using naturally pure water without color or impurities.  This was done so frequently that special jars, often large jars, kept water for the ceremony.  The water would be scooped up in a cup that could hold at least enough water to fill one and a half egg shells.  Any less was unacceptable.  The water would be poured on each hand, one at a time.  The hand needed to be lifted up, so that the water would run down to the wrist, so that the water polluted by the hands would not run down to the fingers.  If any water did not go past the wrist, the hand would be considered unclean.  Then you repeated for the other hand, and you have to rub that hand with the hand that was first cleansed.  Water should be poured on each hand at least twice, and the people did this before and after meals.  In the oral law, washing the hands was so important that neglecting the duty was considered defilement, and could result in divine punishment such as destruction or poverty.  In addition to this, the traditions were held in such high esteem that it was said, “The words of the Scribes are lovely beyond the words of the law, for the words of the law are weighty and light, but the words of the Scribes are all weighty.”  The words of the Scribes are the traditions, and they are seen as more lovely than the law, which is the written law.  Here we see that the Jews had given more weight to their traditions than to the written law given by God.  That is why the Jewish leaders were so indignant when they saw Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands, and they rebuked him.

Jesus then responded, exposing the truth about the traditions and those who enforce them.  Look at v.3, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”  Jesus gives an example of just how they do that, starting in v.4 he says, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’”  This is the fifth commandment, issued directly by God, and this law is so important, that it carries with it the death penalty.  That is how serious this law is.  Also as you know, today is Mother’s Day, so God wants to remind you to show even more special honor to your moms today.  Moms – are your kids treating you right?  Kids, are you treating your mom right?  Not just today, but every day – God commands it: honor your father and mother.  And there is a good reason, you would not be here today without them. 

Now how do the Jewish leaders cause others to break the commandment?  Look at v.5-6, “But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it.  Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”  Jesus is referring to a vow that Jews make to give an offering to God.  Sometimes Jews would make vows and break them, so much that Jesus once warned, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. (Matt 6:37)”  They would say things like “I promise not to talk to this guy,” or, “I’m going to give 25% of my money to the temple,” but to discourage them from breaking their vows, they made them binding as soon as they made the oral statement.  There didn’t even have to be a document.  So if they said “I’m going to devote all of my money to God,” they didn’t have to give all of their money at that time, but now that money was pledged to God, and because of the vow, it could not be used for anything else.  The original intent was to avoid making foolish vows, but it was quickly abused.  And because the Jewish leaders honored the tradition more than the law, anytime the tradition came into conflict with the law, the tradition would win.  So imagine that the father and mother are old now, and cannot work, but the son has made a vow to give his money to God.  Here is the conflict: break the vow and honor my parents, or dishonor my parents and keep the vow?  The Jewish leaders would instruct the son not to break his vow, so he would have to tell his parents that he cannot help them.  For the sake of their tradition, they made void the word of God.

It is no surprise then, that Jesus rebukes them and exposes them.  Look at v.7-9, “You hypocrites!  Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”  Isaiah was actually writing about the Israelites 700 years before Jesus came, but Jesus teaches us that this was also a prophecy of these Jewish leaders.  Even after 700 years the sins are still the same.  Jesus teaches us about the hearts of these Jewish leaders: that they are far from God.  Their hearts are in rebellion against God, and they prefer men’s rules to God’s.  The Jews are the chosen people of God, given the words and laws of God, and instructed in the proper ways to worship God.  But here Jesus tells us that their worship is vain, it is useless, and superficial, because they do not honor God or his word.

It’s not just the Jewish leaders, but the heart of all people are far from God.  They are opposed to God’s law.  We are all naturally rebellious.  When we were young, there are times we rebelled toward our parents.  Many people rebel against the law, and against authority.  But what do we like to rebel against the most?  We like to rebel against God’s law the most.  When given a choice between God’s law and man’s law, we prefer to be under man’s law.  We prefer man’s rules.  That is the case here with the Jewish leaders.  Outwardly they look like they are honoring God with their traditions, but inwardly they have rebelled against God’s word.  We too have to be especially careful about this, because naturally we tend to look mainly at the outward things, and it is hard to tell when something good, even good traditions, are bad for us.

The washing of hands was not necessarily a bad tradition.  Obviously, it made the hands physically clean, even if it was a ceremony.  Culturally, it was a way you identified a Jewish brother, like a kind of privileged custom.  And spiritually, it could be honoring to God, if it was done with a reverent and right heart.  Jesus did not forbid it.  At the wedding in Cana in Galilee, early on in Jesus’ ministry, there were six stone water jars, used for Jewish ceremonial washing, holding 20 to 30 gallons of water (John 2:6).  Jesus didn’t overturn these water jars.  In fact, he turned the water in them, which was likely pure, into wine, the best tasting wine at the wedding.  So why now, why here, did Jesus rebuke the Jewish leaders so harshly for requiring the washing of hands?  It was because they held their traditions as greater than or equal to God’s word.

Certain customs, rules and laws, if they are good, are ok when they take a secondary place to God’s law.  Traditions become a problem when they are elevated to a level that can condemn someone.  God’s law convicts us and condemns us.  We can never please God by obeying God’s law, God’s law was given to show us how sinful we are. Since we are unable to obey God’s law, how much less will obedience to man’s law please God?  Even if we were able to obey man’s laws, we cannot please God.  The problem appears when people are judged and condemned for not obeying the tradition.  Traditions should be optional and voluntary.  When they become mandatory, it becomes a problem because it binds the conscience.  People feel guilty in their conscience for something they should be free about.  It also blinds the heart, because now people are distracted from God.  It ruins the purity of their faith because instead of thinking about pleasing God they become consumed with meeting the requirements.  That is why Jesus railed against the traditionalism of the Pharisees.  It led to two things: legalism, or licentiousness – and licentiousness happens when people are burned out by the rules and turn away from the faith.

Legalism is when we elevate man made rules over the true worship and service to God.  For the Pharisees, it was their tradition.  For them, the heart of worship didn’t even matter, it was about doing the ceremonial deed.  We are all prone to this, for out of the heart come evil thoughts.  We might not have traditions like the Pharisees, but we have the tendency to elevate man made rules over genuine worship and service.  This may be touching on a sensitive topic, but I want to be honest and I want us to be honest with ourselves.  I will bring up a couple of issues from UBFs past, which I believe we have learned from and do not do anymore.  One issue is that of evangelism.  Evangelism is an essential to our Christian lives.  I would even go as far as to say it is required of a true Christian.  I came to this church through evangelism.  I would not be here if someone did not invite me to this church.  The problem is when it became to be about the numbers, and evangelism numbers became displayed on charts fellowship by fellowship.  What happens is that some people become competitive, and it becomes about getting higher counts than about true evangelism.  Others become quite burdened, sometimes registering false numbers in desperation.  I will say again, this practice is no more in our church.  The lesson here was, man-made rules, quotas were being enforced, and required – to the point where the numbers were more important than the service of true evangelism through true worship.  But that is not the natural state of our hearts.  Out of the heart come wicked thoughts.  Sometimes my heart wants to make man made rules to see people listen to me and obey me.  On the other end, sometimes my heart wants to excel in man made rules, or even when I do a good job, sometimes my heart takes pride in myself, or over others.

Our hearts are desperately wicked, and they are inclined to elevate ourselves over God.  It is hard for us to admit that we want to be God, and we want God out of the picture.  It is so hard to admit that our hearts are wicked and so deceitful.  We make up our own rules so that we can have it our way.  So what can prevent our tendency to slide toward legalism?  The gospel of grace.  Remember the gospel.  Remind yourself of the gospel.  The gospel tells us that nothing we do can please God, because of our sins.  We cannot help but always violate God’s law.  But the gospel shows us a Savior, one who obeyed all of God’s laws, and pleased God.  The gospel tells us that Jesus died for all of our sins so that they can be forgiven and remembered no more.  The gospel tells us that Jesus did it all – he paid it all.  The gospel shows us a righteousness that is not earned by us, but given freely to us by faith.  When we forget the gospel, when we assume it, or take it for granted, we drift into trying to do works to please God.  But when we remember the gospel, we see a righteousness, which pleases God, that can be found only in Christ.

As Jesus was in heated conflict with the Pharisees, there was a crowd around them.  They were all silent, perhaps out of respect for both sides, respecting Jesus, but also respecting the Pharisees.  Jesus, the good shepherd, now wanted to teach the crowd something new.  Look at v.10, “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand.  What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’”  Jesus begins with “Listen and understand.”  He is calling people to pay attention, and think carefully about what he is going to say.  He is going to teach something that may have been hard for the Jews to accept.  First he said, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them.”  The Jews had been taught not to eat certain foods, like pork, or shrimp.  It was ingrained in their culture to discriminate between foods.  These food laws were not even ceremonial laws, but are written in the book of Leviticus.  The purpose of these laws were to separate God’s people from the people around them, and one way God did that is by arranging a special diet.  This diet consisted of food perhaps the common people ate.  But now that Jesus has come, this distinction is no longer necessary, because God’s people will be identified by the Holy Spirit, and not by external things.  In saying this Jesus would declare all foods clean (Mark 7:19).  This would prove a difficult teaching, especially for Peter, to accept.  In Acts 10 we see that God had to give Peter a vision of unclean animals to eat, and tell him, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”  In Gal 2:11 we see that Paul had to confront Peter for not eating with the Gentiles on some occasions.  So for Jesus to tell this crowd, with the Pharisees and the disciples among them, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them,” was a radical teaching.

In verse 12, the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”  I would imagine that the Pharisees are no longer there anymore because they are talking about them now.  The disciples seemed to have some sympathy for the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were respected among the people, as they were the leaders of the Jews.  They may have been offended because Jesus called them hypocrites, but they also may have been offended because Jesus’ teaching about the food was contrary to what they taught about food.  This also shows you the heart of the Pharisees, and confirmed Jesus’ rebuke.  Jesus exposed their sin, he also exposed their hypocrisy of breaking God’s command, even though they were supposed to be the guardians of God’s law.  Still they did not repent, but instead became even more offended at Jesus.

Look at Jesus’ reply in v.13, “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.’”  Notice Jesus says “my” heavenly Father.  Jesus here again is declaring that he is the Son of God.  Here he refers to the false teachers of Israel, who are in the garden of God, but were not planted by God.  If you remember Jesus’ parable of the weeds in Ch. 13, these plants were planted by the devil, and they will be uprooted, removed and separated from God’s people.  Jesus then says, “Leave them; they are blind guides.  If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”  The Pharisees may have expressed some concern over their offence, but Jesus says to leave them.  He calls them blind guides.  They are blind because they show no respect or reverence toward the word of God.  They do not honor Jesus, who is the light of the world.  Jesus tells his disciples to leave them, and not to follow them.  If the blind follow the blind, both will fall into the pit.  Those who follow the blind obviously are not followers of Christ.  They will both fall into a pit, a deep pit, somewhere where they will be in danger and not able to get out. 

Peter asks Jesus in v.15, “Explain the parable to us.”  Judging by Jesus’ answer, Peter is not asking to explain what Jesus said about the Pharisees, but he is asking to explain what is meant by the parable of the mouth to the crowd.  Now you see that Peter was having a hard time with that, but here also you can see that there was still this desire to ask Jesus.  If anything is difficult to understand, seek Christ, and ask him in prayer for light and understanding. 

This seemed like a noble desire and great question of Peter, so how did Jesus respond in v. 16, ‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them.”  Wow.  Jesus was speaking to all the disciples, so Peter was asking for all of them on their behalf.  Jesus said, “Are you still so dull?”  Why such a harsh response?  It was because out of all the parables, that one seemed simple enough to learn.  And that is not the first time the disciples ate with him without washing their hands.  They had been with Jesus now for about 2 years.  This was near the time of Jesus’ 3rd Passover during his ministry.  The 4th Passover would be his death, so there is about 1 year left in Jesus’ ministry at this point in Matthew.  Just recently they had all confessed with their mouths that Jesus is the Son of God and worshipped him.  They had seen his miracles.  Still they didn’t have a depth of spiritual understanding, and perhaps Jesus just lamented this fact.  But it’s hard to blame them, very few of us would have that spiritual understanding if we were in the disicples’ place.  Spiritual understanding comes from the Holy Spirit.  Even still, Jesus can lament at how fallen we have become because of sin.

And Jesus, being their teacher and shepherd, explained to them the parable.  Look at v.17, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?”  Food is external, material – it does not have to do with the internal, the spirit.  It goes in through the mouth, and passes out the other side.  Jesus continues, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.”  It is out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt 12:34).  Before words or deeds, the thought existed in the heart first.  And here the heart refers to the soul, the mind, the spirit, the will, the whole inner man.  This is the heart.  So what kinds of things come out of it?  Can we all please read v.19, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”  Jesus reveals to us all what is inside of our hearts (our souls, spirits, minds and wills).  He revealed to the Pharisees, and to us, that our hearts are far from God.  This violates the first and greatest commandment: to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 

Now what do you notice about the list here in v.19?  Notice that all of these evil thoughts coincide with the second table of the Law, the law that has to do with loving your neighbor.  Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not covet (Ex 20:13-17).  What does this show us?  It shows us that our hearts can also cause us to do evil to our neighbor.  Out of the hearts come these things.  Can you verify this with your own life?  Have you lied?  Have you hated?  Have you coveted?  Have you lusted?  These come out of your evil heart, and believe me, you have the potential to do worse.  Everyone in the whole world has tried hard to fix things.  To feed the hungry, to give to the needy, to care for the sick.  These are good things.  People claim that science and technology will make life better.  And yes, we have longer lifespans.  Our lives are much more comfortable than 100 years ago in all aspects.  We enjoy TV, music and entertainment instantly around the globe.  We enjoy all kinds of cuisine.  But still, sin shows its ugly head.  Wars, killings, shootings, thefts, children disobeying their parents, even cursing them.  Sin has been a persistent problem since our first parents Adam and Eve. 

Jesus concludes then in v.20, “These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”   The defilement comes from the inside.  It doesn’t matter if we wash our hands, our hearts are defiled.  They are far from God, and out of it comes all kinds of evil thoughts.  As Paul says in Rom 7:24-25, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Ezekiel prophecies in Eze 36:26-27, “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.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”  Yes, that’s what we need, a heart transplant, a new heart.  Out with the old heart, in with the new.  And how will we get it?  God will give it to us.  God will put a new heart and a new spirit in us.  And what’s more, he will put his Spirit in us to move us to follow his decrees and keep his laws.  In Christ, you are a new creation.  Remember the key verse – out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  But in Christ, we bear fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Gal 5:22-23).  Our hearts are cleansed.  Our souls, our spirits, our minds, our wills are renewed and refreshed!  Yes, with an old, hard and dark heart, we could not obey any of God’s laws.  We violated the two greatest commandments: to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  But with the help of God’s Spirit, He will move us to follow his decrees and keep his laws.

I would like to close with a few verses from the book of Colossians, which give some practical applications to what we learned.  “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.  This is the gospel that you head and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant…do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ…”Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!  These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence…

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  Because of these, the wrath of God is coming…as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  And just to summarize the rest of Col Ch. 3, Paul tells us what good other good works we out to do: be good wives, good husbands, good children, good fathers, good workers and good masters, and devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.  (Col 1:21-23, 2:16-17,21-23, 3:5-4:2).

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