Matthew 15:1-2 – Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”
At the close of chapter 14, we found Jesus in the town of Gennesaret, teaching and healing great masses of people. This amazing scene of mercy and grace is interrupted with the arrival of some Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was the seat of authority for the Jewish leaders. When we find Scribes and Pharisees coming from there to interact with Jesus, we know they came with the highest earthly religious authority possible. Unfortunately, because of their spiritual blindness, they were in opposition to Jesus at all times. Not surprisingly, they have come to once again question his actions.
In prior encounters with Christ, they had accused him of the following: blasphemy when he forgave sins (Matt 9:3), eating and drinking with publicans and sinners (Matt 9:11), disregarding times of fasting (Matt 9:14), casting our devils by Beelzebub (Matt 12:24), and breaking the Sabbath (Matt 12:2, 10).
Their latest round of accusations appears to center on washing or ceremonial cleansing. However, Jesus takes that accusation and uses it to address the real underlying problem – the traditions of the elders.
Where did these traditions come from? The word “tradition” comes from the Latin ‘trado’ which means to deliver; to hand down, especially from one to another.
The Jews believed that when Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai that God actually gave him two sets of laws. One was the 10 commandments written on tablets of stone by God himself, and recorded for us in the bible. The Jews consider this to be the “Written Law”.
The second set of laws was supposedly all verbal – never written down, but given by God to Moses, and then passed down from father to son for generations without ever being corrupted (or so the Jews believe). The Jews consider this to be the “Oral Law”, which eventually came to be known as the tradition of the elders.
The Jews have a very long string of specific people who supposedly kept this law intact. I am not going to record their whole chain-of-command here (it is much too extensive and boring!), but basically, they believed that Moses passed this verbal law to Joshua, who gave it to the judges, who gave it to the prophets, who kept it for hundreds of years until it was finally written down in a book called the Talmud.
The Talmud is divided into two parts: the Mishna, or the text and the Gemara, or the commentary on the text. Jews believe that the Oral Law interprets or explains the Written Law. Oral Law is essentially an immense collection of rules and regulations covering even the most trifling of issues.
The Jews have created a couple of major problems here. First, they regard the Oral Law (or traditions of the elders), to be more important than the actual written law of God. Second, these traditions supposedly protect one from breaking the law, but what they really do is cancel out the law or make the law ineffective.
The law that the religious leaders are accusing the disciples of breaking in Matthew 15, is that of hand washing or ceremonial cleansing. However, washing your hands before you eat is NOT (I repeat – NOT) one of the commandments written in the Old Testament. Rather, it is one of the Oral Laws or traditions of the elders.
It was the Jews’ belief that if a man goes to any place of business, court, market, etc, he might touch a heathen (Gentile) or he might touch something that had previously been touched by a heathen (Gentile).
Therefore, in order to stay ceremonially or religiously clean, they went to great lengths to wash. They had to wash before and after eating. The act must include total immersion of the hands. The water itself, as well as the cups or pots used to wash, must also be ceremonially clean. The regulations go on and on. Any Jew failing to properly wash, was considered to be sinning. The religious leaders felt that failing to properly wash was a sin on the same level as committing adultery!
Matthew 15:3 – He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
The common people may have feared the Jewish religious leaders, but Jesus certainly did not. He answers them with a question of his own. Why would the religious leaders choose to obey their traditions (man-made rules) over the true commandments of his heavenly Father?
Although Jesus did not come right out and say it, he implies that his disciples (and the Jews in general) were not bound by the traditions of the elders, because these traditions were in direct violation to the commands of God.
Jesus then gives an example of their hypocrisy:
Matthew 15:4 – For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whosoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’
In his example, Jesus refers to the fifth commandment:
Exodus 20:12 – Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
To honor means to obey, to respect, to treat kindly. It also includes an obligation to nourish and support one’s parents, should they need it.
So, let’s be clear – this is one of the 10 commandments. It was written on the tablets of stone by the finger of God, up on Mt Sinai. There can be no doubt – this commandment is the revealed will of God and should be obeyed by all the people.
Matthew 15:5-6 – But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.
The Scribes and Pharisees do not blatantly cast aside the command to honor their parents. That would be obvious rebellion against God. Their sin will be much more subtle in nature. They will acknowledge this command, but then use their traditions to override it, making it null and void. Their tradition is like a trump card that allows them to legally break the law (or so they think).
The Jews had a tradition of dedicating or consecrating their wealth and property to God by giving it for use in the temple. The common term for this was ‘corban’. Once something was dedicated or consecrated to the service of God, it could not be diverted to other uses (like feeding and housing your parents) because that was considered sacrilege.
The loophole in all of this was that there was no fixed time for fulfilling your vow of corban. This meant that you could keep all of your wealth for your entire lifetime, as long as you gave the church whatever you possessed at the end of your life.
Consequently, if a Jewish father and mother would approach their son and request assistance to buy food or shelter or some other true need, the son could refuse, saying that the money had already been dedicated to God – even though he still had possession and control of it. He could be sitting on a fortune while his parents were destitute or begging for food.
So, the son is acting pious and righteous by giving his money to the church, but in reality he is actually breaking the command of God by not providing for his parents. Thus, the tradition becomes a trump card that mocks the will of God by making it void.
Notice how the tradition and the true law of God are in direct opposition. This was often the case. Sadly, the Jews persist in rebellion by choosing to obey the tradition, rather than the law.
Matthew 15:7-9 – You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
The Jews of Jesus day were the same as the Jews during the time of Isaiah. They were in strict obedience to all outward forms of religion, but their hearts were far from God.
In Isaiah’s day, the Jews were careful to make the proper sacrifices, honor the Sabbath day, fast regularly and observe the feasts. But at the same time, they were cheating their workers by withholding wages, allowing dishonest judges and oppressing the poor (See Isaiah 58).
In Jesus day, the Jews were superstitiously careful to avoid outward bodily pollution by their constant washings, yet their hearts were filthy with pride, iniquity and hypocrisy.
This is true of many people (Jews and Gentiles), even today. Have you ever asked someone if they were a Christian and their response is, “Yes, I go to church” or, “Yes, I have been baptized” or, “Yes, I am a member of the church and I take communion”?
These are all outward signs of faith or religion. When people without a right relationship to Jesus do these things, they are nothing but empty rituals, void of meaning.
The true measure of a man is his heart; this is what God looks at. Only the blood of Christ can cleanse a man and bring him into right relationship with God. Rituals and religious observances cannot do this.
Remember our previous lesson about the wheat and the tares? How they both will grow together until the end of the age? This is a further confirmation of that truth. Sadly, there will be people who have been baptized, taken communion, and sit in church week after week but they will not get into heaven, because their hearts are not right with God. They are tares who look like wheat, but are not.
Are you reading this right now, feeling a little uneasy? Do you feel a need to make sure that you are right before God? There is no need to wait! Pause for a moment and pray this prayer:
Dear Jesus, I confess to you that I am a sinner. I am sorry for all the wrong things I have done and I ask you to forgive me. I believe that you are the Son of God, that you died on the cross and rose again, and that your blood paid the price for my sin. I invite you to come into my heart and life and to be my Lord and Savior. I commit myself to you right now. Thank you for saving me from death and giving me the gift of eternal life. Amen.
If you prayed this prayer and sincerely meant it, then you have received the gift of salvation from Jesus Christ and your heart is right before God. You will need to follow up on your decision. Join a local church with people who can rejoice with you and disciple you in your new faith.
Matthew 15:10-11 – And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
Jesus then turns to address the crowd. Unlike the religious leaders, the people are spiritually hungry and ready to receive instruction. Jesus addresses the original question posed by the Pharisees in verse two: Why do your disciples eat with unwashed hands?
The Pharisees believed that the tradition of the elders/oral law exceeded the authority of God’s written law. According to oral law, sin consisted mainly in the neglect of outward, physical rites and ceremonies (like washing). Therefore, sin begins outside the person, and then makes its way into the heart.
Jesus contradicts this view. In fact, he says the opposite is true – sin does not begin on the outside of a man and make its way to his heart; it starts in his heart and makes its way into his outward actions.
Jesus had already explained this to his followers in chapter 12:
Matthew 12:34-35 – For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of is evil treasure brings forth evil.
In God’s sight, purity and impurity are not qualities of the external body, but of the mind and heart – the inward man.
And it is the inward man that determines our thoughts, our speech and our conduct. Thus, those whose hearts are righteous before God, bring forth good actions and speech while those who follow Satan bring forth evil of all kinds.
Matthew 15:12 – Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”
Understating the relationships of that day can help us better understand why they were offended:
We have the common people, who had been taught their entire lives that the Pharisees were to be revered and respected; they were the keepers and experts of the law. To imply that they were wrong in their views was a thing unheard of! It was astonishing! No ordinary Jew would dare to question them on matters of the law.
We have the Pharisees, who are walking in the confidence and pride of their supposed knowledge of the law. As long as anyone could remember, the religious leaders had exercised complete control or supreme authority over the religious beliefs of the people. Unfortunately, they had abandoned the true laws of God for their own man-made rules and so they were actually leading the people away from God, not towards him.
Enter Jesus, who boldly confronts the religious leaders, rejecting and refuting their traditions and rules. He publicly exposes their hypocrisy and ignorance of God’s ways.
In essence, he is stripping away their authority over the common people, and they didn’t like it! Jesus is calling all the Jews to return to God and his ways. I imagine that most of the people present during this verbal exchange had their mouths hanging open in shock and surprise!
As painful as this must have been for the religious leaders, they desperately needed to hear it. The truth is that they were far away from God and unless they made some changes, they would suffer eternal consequences.
Meanwhile, the disciples are concerned about offending the religious leaders. Jesus responds with this:
Matthew 15:13 – He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.”
In this case, religious teaching or doctrine is compared to a plant. It is planted into the minds and hearts of the hearers and over time it will produce fruit. If the doctrine is sound, then holy fruit will result in the life of the hearer. If false doctrine is sown, it will bear evil fruits.
Jesus is saying that all those false doctrines planted by the Pharisees, which were not truly from God, must be ‘rooted up’ or removed, like weeds in a garden. Therefore, there is no need for the disciples to worry about offending the Pharisees. Their corrupt teaching is already doomed; it will be purged out by God, the true husbandmen.
Interestingly, some scholars translate the word ‘plant’ as ‘plantation’. It is their belief that Jesus is referring to the entire sect of the Pharisees as a plantation of trees which God did not plant; as such they must be rooted up or destroyed. These scholars point out that after the destruction of Jerusalem the sect of the Pharisees has ceased to exist as a separate body, and thus the words of Jesus were literally fulfilled.
Matthew 15:14 – “Let them alone: they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Blind or false teachers destroy not only themselves, but those who follow them. It is vitally important that each one of us read the bible for ourselves, and carefully weigh the words that preachers and teachers give us.
Warning bells should be sounding loud and clear in our minds, when we find things that do not line up with the word of God. If a certain preacher or teacher gives doctrines that are against the Bible, they should be avoided at all costs.
Matthew 15:15-16 – But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding?
At this point, Jesus and the disciples have left the crowds and are in a house together. Privately, Peter asks Jesus about the teaching in verse 11 [Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person].
Jesus answers their question, but also gives them a mild rebuke. They were his disciples and had sat under his teaching for over a year. They themselves had gone out to preach about the kingdom of Heaven, how could they not understand this doctrine?
The disciples continued to be somewhat dull of understanding until the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled them and gave them full understanding about the Lord’s teaching.
John 14:26 – But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said unto you.
We too, should seek the Holy Spirit. He is not to be feared, but loved and sought after. He is our constant companion and spiritual guide. He comforts, instructs and empowers us to serve Christ. Why not pray right now, and ask God to baptize you with his Holy Spirit?
Matthew 15:17 – Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?
The things you eat go into your stomach and then your intestines, where your body gathers up what is nutritious and gets rid of the rest. Food has absolutely no affect upon your mind/heart. Therefore, food does not have the ability to pollute your mind/heart with sin. Since this is the case, the teaching of the Pharisees cannot be true. Eating with unwashed hands cannot make you sinful.
Matthew 15:18-20 – But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
Jesus now proceeds to list the things that DO defile a man, or make him a sinner. All of these things take root in the heart/mind where they grow until they produce sin in the form of evil words and deeds.
The most important of these is probably evil thoughts, because our thoughts are the place where sin is conceived.
However, we can see from this list that there is no end to the evil and death that accompany sin. The only solution to the problem of sin is the blood of Jesus Christ!
So let me offer you a little bit of encouragement: I want to strongly encourage you to read the bible for yourself. You may not understand everything you read (no one does!), but you will still get knowledge every time you read. It is very important for you to spot false teaching when you hear it. Reading Christian books is a good thing, but it is not the same thing as reading the actual Bible. Reading books about prayer or fasting or prophesy is a good thing, but it is not the same as reading the scriptures. Find a bible that is easy for you to understand, and begin to read.
Let me offer you some relief and strength: God has provided help in understanding his word, and in recognizing false teaching. He has given us the Holy Spirit to assist us. John 16:31 tells us that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, and that he will guide us into all truth. We see evidence of this in the case of the disciples. In today’s lesson, Jesus gives his disciples a rebuke because they do not understand spiritual principles. However, after they were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were unstoppable! The Spirit of Truth had made everything clear to them.
The Holy Spirit will do the same for you and me. Ask him to help you understand the bible as you read it, and ask him to alert you when false doctrines or half truths are being presented to you.
So relax – The Holy Spirit is standing by ready to help you. The bible is a spiritual book; you will understand it correctly when you have Him as your spiritual guide.