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More of Jesus' Kingdom Miracles and Teaching, Part 4: Tradition or Commandment?

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 2, 1998

Matthew 15:1-14

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with to Matthew chapter 15, as we continue our study in the gospel of Matthew.  In chapter 14, we saw two of the great miracles of the Lord Jesus, the feeding of the 5,000 and His walking on the water to the disciples, in the Sea of Galilee.  And today as we continue in Matthew 15, we see the opposition to the Lord Jesus from the Pharisees that we have been watching still for the last several chapters.  Let’s hear God’s holy and inspired word, as we attend to Matthew 15, beginning in verse 1:   

“Then some Pharisees and Scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem, saying why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders, for they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.  And He answered and said to them.  And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother, and he who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.  But you say whoever shall say to his father or mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God.  He is not to honor his father or his mother.  And thus you invalided the word of God for the sake of your traditions.  You hypocrites.  Rightly did I say a prophecy of you saying, this people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts beats far away from Me.  But in vain, do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.  And after He called the multitudes to Him, He said to them,  “Hear and understand, not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth.  This defiles the man.”  Then the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?’  But He answered and said, ‘Every plant which My Heavenly Father did not plant, shall be rooted up.  Let them alone.  They are blind guides of the blind.  And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”   

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word.  May He add His blessing to it.  Let’s speak to Him now in prayer. 

Our Father, we ask that You would apply this truth to our own hearts.  May we not be haughty and superior even as we think of the Pharisees.  And simultaneously think that Your word does not speak to us.  But rather, may we be open before your word be corrected by its teaching, that we might walk in the way of truth and fellowship with you.  We ask that by the Spirit that you would open our eyes, that we might behold wonderful things from your word.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

We live in an anti-traditional age.  What’s new is good.  That why on all your detergents it says ‘new and improved.’  You wouldn’t ever buy a detergent box that said ‘old and unimproved.’  It’s all new and improved.  And so it is not the tendency of our culture at this time to preserve everything that came about in the past.  Nevertheless, this passage has important lessons for us for this very tendency towards the development of an unbiblical tradition began in a time just like ours where there were forces of afoot in Israel’s culture, tempting Israel to reject it’s religious history in favor of new concepts,  In that time, a group of well-meaning men, known as the Pharisees made their appearance on the pages of Israel’s history, and we know the rest of the story.  But in this passage, we have several very important lessons, which the Lord Jesus Christ wants us to learn about the nature of manmade religion. 

In the first two verses you will see a picture of man-made religion.  In verses 3 through 9 you’ll see Jesus’ response and His verdict on manmade religion.  In verses 10 and 11 you’ll see a warning of the Lord Jesus Christ against that man-made religion, and you’ll see the Lord Jesus tell you something very important about the nature of true religion.  And then, finally, in verses 12 through 14, the Lord Jesus will show why it is so important that we listen to sound doctrine because of it’s impact on true religion.  Let’s look then at this passage together.   

I.  Jesus confronts manmade religion.
First in verses 1 and 2, where we learn something about the Pharisees and about their tradition.  Notice again these Pharisees came to Jesus from Jerusalem.  These were not local Pharisees and Scribes.  These were Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem, who had made their way all the way to where Jesus was ministering for the express purpose of stopping Him in His tracks.  We may read between the lines as to what may have happened.  This young Rabbi was making great waves in Israel.  He was collecting a tremendous following, and someone in the region who had heard Jesus writes to some like-minded friends in Jerusalem, and contact some like-minded friends in Jerusalem, and says, “Look somebody has got to come up here and straighten this man out, because there are a lot of the things that He says that are right, many of the things are in direct contradiction to the Rabbis, and we’ve got to get someone up here who knows some theology.  And so off from Jerusalem go these Scribes and Pharisees for the purpose of setting the Lord Jesus Christ straight.  And when they meet Him, their first word of accusation to Him is this: You allow your disciples to boldly, openly confound and neglect the tradition of the elders.  Why they don’t even practice the sacred tradition of ceremonial hand washing. 

Now I want you to understand the nature of this charge that the Pharisees were bringing against Jesus’ disciples.  They were not charging Jesus with being, as it were, a bad mother who didn’t have his children wash their hands before a meal.  This is not a hygienic charge that they are bringing.  In the tradition of the elders, there was a great concern for the obedience for certain of the stipulations of the ceremonial law in the Old Testament.  One of those stipulations says that if you were to come into contact with something which was unclean, you were, therefore, unfit for worship before the living God.  And, therefore, you had to go through a purification rite before you were ready again to serve the Lord in worship.  Now, somewhere along the line the Pharisees decided, you know, you may be going through a marketplace and you might accidentally pick up unclean food.  You don’t eat it, you just accidentally touch it.  Or you might be going through the marketplace and you might accidentally brush by a Gentile, a filthy, unbelieving Gentile.  And then before you come to sit down for a meal, you’ve been defiled.  But we’ve got a solution for that, we’ve got a remedy for that.  We’re going to institute this new practice, the practice of ceremonial washing so that you lift up your hands before the mean, you have water poured over your hands, and therefore if you have been accidentally unclean or someone unclean, you will have been ceremonial ritually washed, and thereby able to partake of the meal.  Now the disciples were not doing that.  They were not ritually washing their hands, and the Pharisees basically say to Him, “Jesus, do you realize what a bad example these people are setting for all the other godly people in Israel?  They are not following the traditions of the elders in Israel. 

Now you need to remember something about the Pharisees and the scribes in the traditions.  The Scribes were a party within the religious establishment of Israel who prided themselves on separating themselves on all that was heathen in culture.  They lived in a time when there was a great deal of influx of unbelief, and even Roman ideas in the society of Israel.  And they wanted to have nothing to do with that because they wanted Israel to be pure in their devotion to God.  But along the way, in order to protect Israel from the heathen influence of other cultures, they began to add stipulations to God’s commandments in order to supposedly protect the authority of the word.  But what Jesus is going to show in this passage is that the things that they added actually took away from the authorities of God’s word.  And so these Pharisees are on the scene. 

The Scribes were once upon a time in Israel, the scribes for the civil government.  They would have written down laws and ordinances, but it had been a long time since Israel had had a king in David’s line sitting on the throne.  And so now these Scribes are actually the ones who write down the laws for religion in Israel and who write down the sayings of these rabbis.  And so the scribes, in Scripture, are part of the party of the Pharisees.  They are the one who teach the law and who write down the ordinances and the teachings of the rabbis.  You will see them referred to as Scribes or as lawyers sometimes.  But both of those titles, scribes and lawyers, does not refer to a civil function.  It refers to a religious function.  The tradition about which they were speaking were the teachings of the Pharisees about the Bible, and especially the first five books, the books of Moses, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  It was the teaching of the elders of the rabbis about the books of Moses which were so precious to the Pharisees.  This tradition was regarded as being equally binding with the word of God.  There’s a passage in the Talmud that says, “The teaching of the rabbi’s is more important than the Bible.  Now there’s a passage that just says it that straightforwardly.  This tradition of the elders was most often not only beyond what the law of God commanded, but it went beyond the law of God in the wrong direction.  It not only said more than God’s word said, but it actually took a person who obeyed it in a direction of denying something else God’s word did say. 

Furthermore, this tradition failed to do justice to the moral law of God.  It was very interested in keeping the ritual provisions of God’s law, the ceremonial code, but it neglected the moral law of God.  And this oral tradition spoken of here in Matthew 15 was eventually compiled into a book called the Mishnah, and then there was a commentary on the Mishnah that was eventually called the Talmud.  And those things are around still today. 

Now this exchange with the Pharisees and the scribes gives Jesus the opportunity to talk about the relationship between ceremonial law and true religion, true holiness, the keeping of the moral law.  And by the way, this exchange here also reminds us of another truth that our mother’s taught us when we were young: The road to destruction is paved with good intentions.  There is no doubt that the Pharisees, when they began their work of old tradition, did it with the best of motives.  You remember Israel had been sent into exile because she had not been careful in the keeping of the law, because she had not followed in the ways of the Lord.  And when Israel came out of exile, she was very interested that she not do that again.  And so there were many people who were teaching in the religious circles of those days who said, let’s make doubly sure that we don’t get in that situation again.  We’ll not only keep the law of God, but we’ll keep this hedge around the law of God.  So more and more and more tradition came between the people and the word of God.  Intentions are not enough.  We must submit ourselves to the authority of the word. We must learn to teach in the spirit of the word, and we must neglect no part of the word.  Remember, never in the New Testament will you find Jesus accusing the Pharisees or the scribes or the Sadducees, or any other party in Israel of caring too much about the word of God.  It is always that by their own manmade traditions, they have taken away from the authority from the word of God.  So this is the first thing that you see.  This picture of manmade religion in verses 1 and 2. 

II. Jesus critiques manmade religion.

In verses 3 through 9 we see Jesus’ reply to these Pharisees, and His critique of their teaching.  And we learn here what Jesus’ estimation was of the kind of holiness that they were preaching.  Jesus uses a phrase that exactly parallels the charge that the Pharisees had brought against these disciples.  Look at what the Pharisees had said to Jesus’ disciples in verse 2: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?”  Jesus’ response to them in verse 3 is, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God?” The Pharisees had attacked His disciples.  Jesus responded directly to them.  The Pharisees had attacked the disciples for beaching the tradition of the elders.  Jesus responded by saying, “Why do you break the commandments of God?”  And so in an exact parallel, Jesus responds to the Pharisees. 

And He juxtaposes God’s commandment in verse 4 with the teaching of the elders, a teaching that these Pharisees have either invented or endorsed in verse 5 called the Rule of Corban.  God’s command is that we honor our parents, that we take care of them in time of need.  This Law of Corban, the Law of Gift or the Law of Ban, is a very strange thing.  I don’t understand all of it, but here is apparently how it works.  If your parents who were needy saw something of yours, materially, furniture, money, other resources that might help them in their time of need, they might ask you.  But if you pronounce that that particular resource was Corban, that it was a gift of God or was devoted to God, then that gift could be legally and ethically withheld from your parents even though they were in need.  Again, I don’t know why such a practice would have developed, and I don’t know why moral people decided that such a practice was moral.  And the Lord Jesus says that by inventing that practice, you have actually circumvented the whole point of the commandment of God in honoring and caring for your parents.  And so, He says, by your traditions you have made the word of God null and void.  In other words, your traditions, rather than upholding the word of God, has actually undercut the authority of the word of God, by adding to God’s word, you have taken away from God’s word.  It is subtraction by addition.  They have subtracted from the word of God by adding to it their own manmade rules. 

Now I want you to see here that Jesus is not criticizing them for being old-fashioned.  Jesus is not saying, “Oh, you guys are just a bunch of traditionalists.  You just care too much about old-fashioned things.  That’s not Jesus’ choice, it’s the Pharisees’.  He is not saying, ‘You Pharisees love the Bible too much.’  Have you ever had someone say to you, “You know, you evangelicals, you worship the Bible.  That’s not what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “You care about the Bible too much.”  That’s not what He said.  Jesus is not saying, “You’re too concerned about God’s law.  Or, “You know what?  You’re just too precise in how you think God’s law applies.”  None of those things are Jesus’ criticism.  Jesus’ criticism, in fact, is that they have undercut the authority of God’s word.  They are ignoring God’s law, and they are undercutting their authority by adding to it.  Jesus is the one who is upholding the law, and He illustrates the reason why they are doing this is because their hearts are not right.  And he quotes these words in verse 8.  “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. 

In that passage, He tells them first that they prefer lip service over real worship of the Lord.  That their hearts, though they pretend to love the Lord are, in fact, far away from Him.  That their worship is empty, it is vain, it is mere form, and they are following a manmade religion to doctrines of precepts of men.  And so over against that, Jesus says I’m going to tell you what true religion is.  And I’m going to tell you truly means to love the Lord. 

III. Jesus explains true holiness to the crowd.

And that is precisely what He does in verses 10 and 11, as He begins to explain to the crowd in those words.  He says, “Hear and understand.  It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but it is what is proceeds out of the mouth; this defiles the man.”  Here Jesus is telling us about the nature of true holiness, and He’s warning the crowds about the teachings of the Pharisees.  ‘Hear and understand’ is a statement designed to warn you that something important is about to be said.  You need to really listen closely because something very significant is going to be said.  Jesus says something that would have absolutely horrified the scribes and the Pharisees.  He says that, “Moral defilement is more important than ritual defilement.”  Now these are the people who love the ceremonial law.  Thy love the ceremonial law.  They love the ceremonial code given by God to Moses.  And what’s more, they love all the additions to that code that has been passed down by their elders, the Rabbis.  And Jesus is saying, “Moral defilement is more important than ritual defilement.  The implication of Jesus’ statement is, by the way, is that He is abolishing the ceremonial code for His followers under the covenant.  Mark makes that clear in Mark chapter 7, verse 19.  Mark adds this comment after the passage in which Jesus says that it is not what comes from in from the outside that defiles you.  It is what comes out from the inside.  Mark adds this phrase.  By saying this, “He made all foods clean.”  In other words, He’s saying that no longer was the ceremonial requirement valid for all the followers of the Lord with regard to clean and unclean food. This is a very significant moment in redemptive history when Jesus Christ is announcing that the ceremonial law is no longer binding on His people.  But in this context, it means more.  In fact we are going to explore the meaning of this phrase as we look next at Jesus’ expansion on these words beginning in verse 15. 

But for the present, I want you to see what Jesus is aiming for.  Jesus, in verse 11, is aiming for the heart.  He is telling us that it is not what is superficial that makes this holy.  It is what is inside and deep and profound. It is that from which holiness emanates.  It from the inner man, the mind, the will, the whole man.  That is where holiness proceeds from.  It is a holiness that is from the inside out, and it characterizes all of our lives.  That’s the kind of holiness that Jesus is looking for in his disciples.  Listen to these words from J.C. Ryle:  “What is the first thing we need in order to be a Christian?  A new heart.  What is the sacrifice God asks us to bring to Him?  A broken and a contrite heart.  What is the true circumcision?  The circumcision of the heart.  What is genuine obedience.  To obey from the heart.  What is saving faith?  To believe with the heart.  Where ought Christ to dwell?  To dwell in our hearts by faith.  What is the chief request that wisdom makes to everyone?  My Son, give me your heart.”  The Lord Jesus doesn’t want merely superficial holiness in His people.  He wants a transforming holiness from the outside out.  And this is what he’s saying to the Pharisees.  That’s not what you are about.  You were about a superficial, a ceremonial, a ritual holiness.  It is a man-made holiness about which was about, but I want my disciples transformed from the inside out.  And so He warns the crowd that it’s not the things that enter into them that make them unclean.  It’s what’s on the inside that makes them unclean.

IV.  Jesus warns the disciples.

Finally, in verses 12 through 14, Jesus turns to His disciples.  You notice how this passage goes.  The Pharisees come to Him in verses 1 and 2.  In verses 3 through 9, He turns to the Pharisees and responds to them.  In verses 10 and 11, he turns to the crowd, and He warns the crowd.  In verses 12 through 14, He now turns to His disciples and speaks. 

And He warns His disciples about being too swayed, or too concerned with the Pharisees.  And even in responding to His disciples, He reminds them of the importance of right doctrine.  His disciples come to Him, and they make a clueless comment.  This is perhaps, in all the stupid statements of the disciples, the most stupid statement that they ever made.  “Master, are you aware that what you just said offended the Pharisees?”  Aware, He meant it to offend them.  That was precisely His purpose to show them that He had no time for their teaching.  That it was utterly wrong, that it was not what God taught, and that He was offended by it Himself.  Yes, He knew that He had offended the Pharisees.  So He goes on to say, “Let me warn you against being too swayed by what the Pharisees think.”  It’s very interesting to see how Jesus responds to the Pharisees.  At one point in Matthew, He reminds His disciples to honor their position and to be careful of them, not to be flippant in their response to them.  But in this passage He warns them against the Pharisees’ teaching, saying, ‘God will judge them, for what they are teaching is wrong.’  He is telling His disciples here that false doctrine kills.  It is like the blind leading the blind.  False doctrine leads us in the false ways of living.  Jesus is alerting us to the spiritual danger of false teaching here by reminding us of its two consequences.  False teaching leads to judgment by God, and unfortunately, false teaching leads many astray into false ways of living.  Bad doctrine will lead to bad practice.  And so the Lord Jesus Christ is very concerned that His disciples not be affected by the false teaching of the Pharisees. 

All these lessons are for us today.  All these lessons.  Are we satisfied with the superficial holiness?  Are we more concerned about our man-made customs than we are of the very commands of the word of God?  Do we long for and desire to sound truth of the word, so that it might work forth by God’s grace in transforming our lives from the inside out?  If we do, then we have the spirit of the disciples.  Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we would long for the truth to transform us from the inside out.  Protect us from caring more about the inventions of men and about your very truth.  Protect us from a superficial desire to look holy when we have, in fact, not been changed inside.  Make us to love the Lord with all our hearts, and all our souls, and all our strength.  We ask it in Jesus name, Amen.

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