"The Source of Defilement"
(Delivered Sunday, April 22, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
As we've been studying the fifteenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel, we've been discovering biblical truths concerning the subject of religion.
Folks often say that, when talking to other people, one of the subjects you should stay away from is “religion”. But apparently, no one told Jesus that. In this passage, He gives us some of the most crucial principles we could ever learn regarding the topic of “religion”. And whose opinion on the subject should be given greater authority than that of Son of God?
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As you recall, this chapter tells the story of a conflict. It all started when the Pharisees confronted Jesus and His disciples for failing to keep to a religious “tradition”. They sought to rebuke Him for failing to keep their religious traditions; but all they did was subject themselves to His rebuke for having turned their tradition into a transgression of God's law. We read;
And so, the first thing this passage taught us about the broad subject of religion is that we must be on the alert against the danger that comes with man-made religious “traditions”. They can become so important to us that they actually lead us to disobey God's direct commandments. How important it is that we remember this. How tragic that so few do. Only God alone knows how many people have been spiritually “shipwrecked” on religious traditions.
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A second thing that Jesus' words teach us about man-made systems of religion concerns the teachers of those systems. There is great spiritual danger in following “teachers” and “leaders” who set up systems of religion that are in contradiction to the clear teaching of God's word, or that are contrary to the way of Christ.
Jesus, as you remember, went 'over the heads' of the religious leaders of the day, and spoke directly to the crowds that followed Him—countering the things that those scribes and Pharisees had taught;
His disciples were alarmed when they heard Him speak these words. They, no doubt, saw the anger and outrage on the faces of the scribes and Pharisees. We read;
And so, here we see another principle of warning about religion; we must beware of listening to the “spiritual” teaching and following the “spiritual” leading of someone who is “unspiritual”. Such false teachers show themselves, first, by the fact that they offer a system of supposed “spirituality” that is contrary to the clear teaching of the scriptures or that leads us away from obedient fellowship with Christ; and, second, by the fact that they are offended and angered when their false teaching is challenged.
Jesus here gives us a warning that, if faithfully followed, would save people from an eternity of misery: Don't follow someone who doesn't know where they are going! Such people are blind leaders of the blind—“teachers” of error who walk in darkness, and who are in arrogant denial about their spiritual condition. They are heading for a pit of destruction; and those who follow their path will also fall into destruction with them.
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This leads us, finally, to the last lesson Jesus teaches us about religion in this section of Matthew's Gospel. And in many ways, it is the most important. It's the lesson that stands behind the other things that Jesus has said in this passage about religious traditions—and the religious leaders who demand that those traditions be followed. It has to do with what I would suggest is one of the most fundamental of all religious questions. It is a question that, in some manner, all man-made religious systems seek to answer. It may, in fact, be the fundamental question regarding the whole nature of man's relationship to God. It is the question of “defilement”. What is it that truly makes a woman or man “unclean” before a holy God; and what must that man or woman do to become “pure” in His sight?
Now; remember the context. The Pharisees and scribe were defending a religious “tradition”. They were saying that it defiled someone to eat food without first washing their hands in a particular, ceremonial manner. They were defending the idea that religious “purity” before God had to do with external things. But Jesus responded to that argument by saying, in clear and bold terms, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (v. 11).
Jesus was, in effect, saying, “You scribes and Pharisees say that a man or woman is defiled before God when they don't wash their hands according to the rules that you have made up for yourselves. But I say to all that you have things going in the wrong direction! You say that a man is defiled by what goes in his mouth; and I—the Son of Man—declare to all that a man is defiled by what comes out of his mouth!”
I believe that what Jesus said to the crowds—and by implication, also to the scribes and Pharisees—was extraordinarily stunning. It was, in fact, so “shocking” to the normal, natural, human “religious” impulse that the disciples simply had to ask Jesus more about it. (Mark tells us, in his account, that all of the disciples wanted to ask Jesus about this; but obviously—as they often did—they allowed Peter to do the talking.)
And it's here that we find our passage this morning;
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In this one, simple, straight-forward principle, Jesus renders all man-made religious systems—along with their traditions, and the teachers who advocate them—utterly ineffective to meet the real need of people. I suggest that Jesus' words in this morning's passage are something like a spiritual “Copernican Revolution”.
You have heard of Copernicus, haven't you? He was the 16th century Polish astronomer who upset the religious and scientific institutions of his day by his proposition that the earth was not the center of the universe around which all things revolved. Rather, he proposed that it was the other way around—that instead of a geocentric universe, the universe was actually heliocentric; and that the earth revolved around the sun. His new way of seeing the universe challenged the outlook on everything.
Similarly, Jesus' words demand a radical change in our religious outlook. He is teaching us that true defilement before God is not a matter of external things—ceremonial washings or particular habits of diet. If defilement truly came through those things, then “purity” before God would be a matter that we could do something about all on our own. All we have to do is keep to the rules, and we'll be fine.
But instead, Jesus' words show us that true defilement of a person before God comes from that which is already 'inside' that person—and this change of perspective takes “defilement” out of the realm of something that we can fix in our own power. It puts us in the position of having to cry out to God helplessly for His saving grace—pleading that He would deliver us from our defilement, and make us pure in His sight.
Now; as we look at this morning's passage, we see, first, that this is . . .
1. A HARD PRINCIPLE TO ACCEPT (vv. 15-16).
I wonder if you detect—as I do—a little bit of agitation on the part of our Lord in the way He answered Peter's question. Peter came to Him and said, “Explain this parable to us.” And Jesus' answer seems a bit impatient: “Are you also still without understanding?”
Now, obviously they were without understanding. Why else would they ask Him to explain what He said. And on the face of it, they did the right thing in going to Him. If you want to understand what Jesus meant by what He said, what better thing could you do than to go to Him and ask? But Jesus' manner of answering suggests that something was wrong in their asking. In the original language, Jesus places emphasis on their state of being when they asked—literally saying, “Still [or “even now”] also are you without understanding?” It's as if He expected them to be beyond having to ask this question by now!
Don't let that shock you too much, by the way. There were times when Jesus was clearly unhappy with the place that the disciples were in terms of their understanding. In the next chapter, we'll see that He performed a second miracle of the feeding of multitudes of people, got into a boat, and sailed away with His disciples. And yet, in the context of that miracle, the disciples didn't understand Him when He said, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). They took this to be a rebuke because they had forgotten to bring bread for the trip. They should have known, by that point, that bread is not a problem to Him. And so, He had to rebuke them for still not understanding: “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread? Do you not yet understand, or remember . . .? How is it that you do not understand . . .?” (vv. 8-11).
I can't fault the disciples too much in this. I suspect that there are many more times than I'd like to admit when the Lord—after all He has done in my life, and after all He has taught me about Himself—would say to me, “O, Greg; you of little faith! Can it be that you still don't get it? Even still—even now—are you also without understanding?”
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What was it that the disciples were struggling with? I think that there are some clues. First, notice that Peter calls what Jesus says in verse 11 “a parable”. The word “parable” literally refers to something “thrown down together with” something else. It was a story or word-picture that Jesus paints—a snap-shot of everyday life—that He used to illustrate a spiritual truth.
But Jesus' words in verse 11 do not constitute a “parable” at all. They instead constitute a clear, plainly spoken spiritual principle. No one, in the context of what the Pharisees said, could have walked way with a “mystery” on their hands—struggling to decipher Jesus' hidden words. Rather, it was a “hard” saying—not a “hidden” one; but a “hard” one. I suspect that His words were so clear that Peter sought to take the edge off them by referring to them in a toned-down manner: “Lord, explain to us this . . . eh . . . this 'parable'.”
Second, notice that Jesus expresses frustration that they did not “yet” or “up to that point” understand. It was as if they didn't have an excuse for their confusion; and that they should have known better.
They had, after all, heard Jesus' teaching on many occasions; and particularly His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. They would have heard Jesus, in that sermon, repeatedly point to the outward, external observance of the law that the Pharisees and scribes had focused on; and then, hear Him articulate the true spirit of that law that goes beyond the mere externals. “You have heard that it as said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of judgment . . .” (Matthew 5:21-22). Or, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (vv. 27-28). Or, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all . . . But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'” (vv. 33-37).
Clearly, Jesus had taught them that God's concern was not with the mere external observance of rules—the mere 'letter of the law'. Rather, it was with the inner man—the keeping of the 'spirit' of the law from the heart. They should not have been shocked and surprised when Jesus taught them that a man wasn't defiled by mere externals, but by what was “inside”.
And third, notice that Jesus goes out of His way to specify the disciples in His words to them. He says, “Are even you without understanding?” And in speaking in this way, He was placing them in the same category as the Pharisees and scribes in terms of their presuppositions. In other words, they—even they—were still thinking like the scribes and Pharisees were thinking.
Now, Peter—along with all the other disciples—were, of course, Jews. They had grown up under the instruction of the laws of Moses as they were taught by the scribes and Pharisees. They had been raised under strict dietary principles and traditions of ceremonial washings. And when Jesus made the declaration that, in reality, it's not that which goes into a man's mouth that defiles him, this came as an utterly “new” thing to him—a radical departure from all that he had been taught to believe.
I think it's interesting that later on in the New Testament, when Peter was about to be given a missionary call to go to the home of a Gentile and share the gospel with him, the Lord had to break him free of his rigid adherence to traditions of ceremonial cleanness. The Lord, you may remember, put Peter in a trance; and gave him a vision of a sheet descending from the sky. When the sheet opened up, it contained all kinds of animals that were unclean for the Jewish person to eat; and the Lord said, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (Acts 10:13).
Peter actually argued with the Lord in this vision. “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (v. 14). At that time—in fact, three times in a row—the Lord had to tell Peter, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (v. 15). That's what the Lord had to teach Peter then. At the time of our passage, the Lord had not yet given that vision to Peter. But Peter's response during that vision shows us what a struggle Jesus' words must have presented to him in our passage this morning.
All of this suggests that the principle that Jesus is teaching us in this morning's passage is a difficult one for most people to grasp. It's hard—in fact, it's down-right 'radical'—to think that spiritual defilement comes from something other than things outside of us. It's a hard pill for most people to swallow; because if defilement comes from things outside of myself, then I can achieve purity before God by keeping from those things and following the rules. But if defilement comes from something within myself, then there's nothing I can do to help myself. I am utterly at the mercy of God's grace.
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A second thing we see is that this is . . .
2. A PRINCIPLE THAT REQUIRES A CHANGE IN OUR FOCUS (vv. 17-19).
Jesus' words completely 'flip' things in another direction than we are naturally inclined to think they should go. First, He leads our focus away from mere externals. Notice that He asks His disciples, “Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? (v. 17).”
Now, for the Jewish people at this time, certain foods were—indeed—forbidden. Jesus was introducing a new era in God's program for His people; and as Peter would be later shown, the time would come when the Jewish dietary prohibitions would be removed and all foods would be permitted. But though the Mosaic dietary laws still applied to the Jewish people, what the Pharisees had done was to add traditions to the laws of God—traditions that demanded certain ceremonial cleanings and washings. In an effort to put a “fence around the law”, and to keep people from ceremonial defilement, they developed elaborate “rules” about “washing”. They over-emphasized the principle of “cleanliness” to the point that eating anything with unwashed hands resulted in as much defilement as if a Jewish man had eaten forbidden foods.
Now; without being too graphic, Jesus' words show us that such “defilement” through the actual food itself was impossible. Whatever food someone puts in their mouth went into their gastric system, and was processed in such a way that what was good and needful was kept, and what was not good was expelled as waste. Even if someone were to get some dirt in their food—a phenomenon, by the way, that anyone who has ever had a picnic on the Oregon Coast knows all about!—the dirt doesn't stay inside that person's body. So, even if someone were to eat with unwashed hands, it would not defile them spiritually at all.
This, by the way, is a very freeing principle. God, in his grace, has given us a great deal of latitude with respect to “rules” and “regulations” about external things. To be very frank, you can go for days without washing your hands, can eat whatever food you want; and it will not affect your soul before God one little bit. (If you don't wash your hands for the whole day though, it WILL affect whether or not I come over to your place when you invite me over for dinner. But that's a different matter.)
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But second, Jesus' words lead our focus way from the mere externals and to the more important matter—that is, onto what is in the heart. He says, "But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man" (v. 18).
Jesus, here, specifies "things which proceed out of the mouth" (that is, words), simply as a contrast to "whatever enters the mouth" (that is, foods). Words are among those things that are an expression of our hearts. But His focus is larger than simply words. Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus said,
Last week, we were all shocked by the video clips that were shown from the recordings that were made by the young mass-murderer of students at Virginia Tech, and sent out in the mail between his first and second shootings. The hateful and malicious things that he uttered forth were horrible on their own; but they were particularly horrifying because they were quite literally expressions of a very real intent to murder. They were words; but they revealed the depths of evil and sin that was in his heart.
And so, Jesus goes on to show why it is that the things that come out of our mouths defile us. He describes seven expressions of evil—certainly not an exhaustive list; but enough to show the darkness that is within. First, He says, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts . . ." (v. 19). That expresses a broad category; but all evil words first spring forth from evil meditations and reasonings.
Then, it's as if He follows the pattern of the ten commandments; speaking of commandments six through nine in order1. He mentions many of these things in the plural form in order, no doubt, to express the various ways these evils in the heart manifest themselves. He mentions "murders", which reveal themselves not only in deadly acts of violence, but in brutal words and verbal expressions of hatred. He mentions "adulteries" and "fornications", which reveal themselves not only in acts of sexual immorality and unfaithfulness, but also in filthy jokes or impure comments or verbal expressions of lust. He mentions "thefts", which reveal themselves not only in actual acts of theft, but in expressions of intent to steal, or in expressions of desire for that which belongs to someone else. And He mentions false witness, which reveals itself not only in actual words of falsehood, but in misleading expressions of truth with the intent to deceive.
Finally, He mentions "blasphemies"—another broad term that may certainly include the idea of speaking wrongly of God's character or of misusing His name; but may also include the idea of slandering or railing against the image of God in other people.
How horrible Jesus' list is! And yet, how short and brief an inventory of the sins that abide in our fallen hearts. Truly, as God Himself says in Jeremiah 17:9-10,
These are the things that abide in the heart; and the mouth is simply the bucket that draws them up from the deep well of evil within us.
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This leads us to a third and final thing we learn from this passage; that this is . . .
3. A HUMBLING PRINCIPLE IN ITS SPIRITUAL IMPLICATION (v. 20).
After describing this list, Jesus says, "These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (v. 20). True defilement of a person before God comes from that which is already 'inside' that person; and how horribly misguided it is to worry about the cleaning of the hands—while ignoring the fact that the heart remains so filthy!
And so, here's the great problem that all 'man-made expressions of religion leave us with. We all know how to clean our hands. We know how to handle cleanliness and purity with respect to the externals. We can wash everything on the outside; decorate it all with gold; drape it all in clean, white linen; and surround it all with candles, and incense, and somber, sacred music. But how can we clean our own hearts? How can we rid ourselves of the impurities within? Every time we try; all we do is vomit forth more impurities.
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How, then, can "religion" ever make us "pure" before God? How can external "religious" practices ever keep us from that which truly defiles us, when that which defiles us is actually an expression of that which is already in us? How could people with such defiled hearts ever hope to stand before God in "purity"?
The Bible gives us an answer; but not in “religion”. It invites us to draw near to God through a relationship by faith in what He has done for us—that is, through the blood of Jesus Christ; through a new and living way which He has consecrated for us through His own death on the cross. It invites us to "draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith"—a faith in the full sufficiency of Jesus' death for our sins as all that is needed to make us acceptable in God's sight; "having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (Hebrews 10:22).
We must not come to Him in the pride of “religious” performance; but in the humility of deep need. Jesus illustrated this to us in a parable. He said,
How "religiously" pure he was! How confident he was in the externals! But how ignorant he was of the dark, black hue of his own heart before God! How very much like so many, who trust in the externals of "religion" to make themselves "pure" before God!
By contrast, Jesus speaks of the other man—a man who, by comparison, was a very vile man in terms of the religious "externals". Of Him, Jesus says,
Now there was a man who was humbled by the reality of what was in his heart! He had no hope but to cry out to God for mercy. And Jesus testified that it was he—rather than the religiously "pure" man—who went home righteous in God's sight.
Let's remember that true defilement before God is a matter of what comes out of us—not of what goes into us. May God open our eyes to what is in us; that we may cry out to Him, "God be merciful to me, the sinner!" And may we place our sole trust in the cross of Jesus Christ, where our sins were paid for.
1The list contained in Matthew 15:19 is different from that in Mark 7:21-22. Mark does not mention "false witness"; but adds "covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness," and "an evil eye". Because Matthew wrote primarily for Jewish readers, he may have been lead to select and arrange the order of sins from Jesus' list that most followed the pattern of the ten commandments.
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