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More of Jesus' Kingdom Miracles and Teaching, Part 5: Out of the Heart Comes Evil

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 9, 1998

Matthew 15:15-20

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If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 15. Last week we came to Matthew 15 and we've already noted that in the first 20 verses of this chapter we have one of those glorious teaching opportunities that the Lord Jesus was given by the Pharisees and scribes. For they had come to Him attacking the practice of His disciples and it gave Him the opportunity to teach something very important about the ethics of the kingdom of heaven. If you'll remember, looking back to Matthew 15 verses 1-14, the context of Jesus' response is the attack of the Pharisees and the scribes on His disciples' habit of eating without having ceremonially washed their hands. And so in verses 1 and 2 we have this attack against Jesus, and then from verse 3 down to verse 14, we have His response, first to the Pharisees, then to the crowd, then to the disciples. He makes it clear in His response to the Pharisees and to the crowd in verses 3 through 9 what His view is of the Pharisees man-made religion.

In fact, He indicates in that passage at least two things that are wrong with the Pharisee's and the scribe's approach to the Old Testament. First of all, they add to God's commandments and Jesus indicates that by adding to God's commandments, the effect of their actions has been in fact to make null the word of God. In fact, His words to them add weight to the dictum that when we begin to add to God's law it will not be long before we begin to take away from God's law. That's precisely what He said that they had done, though perhaps in the beginning they had added to God's law as a way of protecting God's law or heightening God's law, in fact, it had the opposite result. And by adding to God's law they had actually undercut its force. And that's the first thing that He criticizes them for is adding to God's law.

But we also see in that passage, that Jesus indicates that their over-focus, their stress on ceremonial or ritual, or merely external forms of holiness had led them to neglect the more important element of internal heart, moral holiness. So their concern for the ceremonial law had actually outweighed their concern for the moral law. And by their over stressing the ceremonial law they had ended up undercutting the moral law amongst the people.

And so, in verses 10 and 11, Jesus addresses the crowd and begins to explain to the crowd the kind of holiness that He wants in His kingdom, in the kingdom of heaven. And He speaks of a heart holiness. A holiness that comes from the heart and impacts every area of our lives. A godliness that flows from our inmost being and impacts our thoughts, our words and all our actions.

Ryle puts it this way: "What is the first thing we need in order to be Christians? 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 of every one of us? My son, give Me thine heart."

And so we see there the stress on heart in religion and in Christian life. And this is exactly where Jesus is pressing here in Matthew 15. And then finally in verses 12 through 14 we saw Jesus turn to His disciples and stress to them the importance of right doctrine. Because the wrong doctrine of the Pharisees was having a terrible effect on the lives and on the holiness of the people. And how often to we see wrong views of the law and wrong views of sin and holiness have devastating impact on Christians at a practical level in the Christian life? And Jesus is warning the disciples against that at this very point. Bad doctrine leads to bad practice and in verses 12 through 14 He warns the disciples against it.

Now today we are going to continue in our study of Matthew 15. We'll be concentrating on verses 15 through 20. But I want to go back to verse 11 because that is the verse which the disciples come to Jesus and ask Him about in verse 15 saying that they don't understand. So let's hear God's holy word in Matthew 15, we'll read verse 11 and then we'll being in verse 15.

Matthew 15: 11, 15-20

Our Lord, the words of Scripture are always important and they are sufficient for our up building in the Christian life. These words we read this morning are especially important because in them our Lord sets forth a central teaching of His about the kingdom of heaven. May we strive to understand them. And even more, O Lord, would You give us willing hearts to be corrected and instructed and led along the way of life even as we hear the word. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Christ takes the matter of the heart with the utmost seriousness and so should we. In this passage He shows us the origin of sin in our own experience. He diagnoses that situation and He sets forth Himself as the only remedy. And I'd like to look with you at this passage for a few moments, first beginning in verse 11 and then looking at verses 15 and 16, and I want you to see two or three things that come through clearly in Jesus' teaching.

First, as we look at His word, that dictum that He spoke in verse 11, "It is not what enters in the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man."  And then as we look at verse 15 and Peter's response, explain this parable to us, we see that Christians ought to seek their remedy for spiritual ignorance from the Lord and from His word. This truth that Jesus has spoken in verse 11 is very important. And the disciples are confused by it. Jesus has Peter approach Him, and Peter here is approaching, as usual, as a spokesman for the other disciples. Peter is not the only disciple who is confused by what Jesus says, but the other disciples have asked him to come forward and Jesus responds in the plural, to you all.

He doesn't just speak to Peter: He speaks to all of the disciples in explaining to them the meaning of His statement in verse 11. But they were struggling to understand what Jesus had just said, because what He said seemed to contradict God's ceremonial laws in Leviticus. You remember in those ceremonial laws one set of those ceremonial laws were food laws. And in those food laws some foods were clean and some foods were unclean. And if you ate unclean food it defiled you. And so for Jesus to stand up in front of the Pharisees and the crowds and in front of the disciples and say, “What you eat does not defile you,” seemed like a direct contradiction of what God Himself had said in Leviticus. And so the disciples were struggling. Now there may have been various reasons they were struggling. They may have been struggling because, you have to remember, they grew up under the teachings of the Pharisees and the scribes. These were the dominant, conservative teachers of their day. And we can imagine that it took them a long time to sort out the things that were wrong in the teaching that they had heard and to sort out those things which were right.

It's always a difficult thing to get away from wrong patterns of thought that have been repeatedly pressed into our minds through the process of education and indoctrination. And perhaps the disciples were struggling with breaking free from the way that they had thought in growing up, and learning to think in the way that the Lord was teaching them. On the other hand, the disciples could have been struggling with the very point that we just mentioned. They knew that there were ceremonial food laws in Leviticus and now Jesus is saying what you eat doesn't defile you. And they couldn't put those two things together.

But Jesus' words to them in verses 15 and 16 indicate that Jesus felt they should have been further along in their education than they were at this point. Jesus indicates that He had given them plenty of teaching that was plenty adequate to explain to them why what He was saying was true and why it was not in contradiction of God's will. But in His kindness He gently begins to explain to them again the principle. Are you still lacking in understanding also, He says to them, and then in the next verse He begins to explain again the principle that they were having such a difficult time understanding.

Now let me note in this very incident a big difference between the Pharisees and disciples. The Pharisees remained in their spiritual ignorance because they rejected Jesus' teaching and they were not willing to go to Him and to His word and submit their teaching to it. The disciples were brought out of their spiritual ignorance because they went to Christ and they confessed their ignorance and they asked Him to instruct their minds, their hearts, their consciences by the word. The Pharisees in their pride will not acknowledge their ignorance and so they remain ignorant. The disciples admit their confusion, they admit their ignorance, and they are instructed in the way of life. That is a very important principle for Christian experience. As Calvin reminded us so many years ago, "A teachable spirit is the first mark of a regenerate soul."

How do we respond when we come to teachings of the word that we don't like? Is our tendency to ignore them, to reject them, to change the word or is our tenancy to submit to the word even where we don't understand it and where we don't like? Is our tendency to say, "Lord you are Lord and master, I am ignorant, instruct me"? That is a very significant lesson for Christian life. There are a lot of professing Christians today who don't like a lot of things about the Bible and so they just change them. But that is not the teachable way of the disciple. That's actually the way of the Pharisees. The way of Jesus' disciples is to submit to the authority of His word and wait for His explanation of the truth. Even in areas that we don't like. And so we learn a great lesson in verses 11 and in verses 15 and 16 just from how the disciples respond to their own confusion. At least they knew to go to Christ and His word and to be instructed by Him.  And if we learn no other lesson than that from this passage we would have learned a very useful lesson for the Christian life.

But there's more in this passage for us. And I'd like to direct your attention to verses 17 and 18. Here we see a contrast between Jesus' teaching on the internal defilement of the heart and the Pharisees' teaching on the external defilement of the body. In this passage Jesus makes it clear to Christians that holiness is first and foremost a matter of the heart. Holiness is first and foremost a matter of the heart. Look again at His words: "Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated. But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart and those defile the man."  Jesus is teaching us at least three things in those short sentences.

I. Food defilement is temporary.

He is first of all showing us that food defilement is temporary and superficial by the very nature of our physiological process. Jesus is indicating that food can't touch your heart. Food goes into the stomach and it's eliminated. It can't touch your soul, your mind, your will, your conscience, your affections. It is superficial as opposed to being permanent and profound. Food defilement is of a different nature than soul defilement and hence Jesus is saying the scribes and the Pharisees have perpetrated a colossal blunder in their interpretation of the law, because they have tended to stress ceremonial holiness more than they have an appropriate moral holiness. So they misunderstand the whole purpose of the ritual law. That's the first thing that He says. He says you can look and see how your bodies work and you can tell just from nature itself that food defilement is not as important as moral defilement.

II. The ceremonial code does not replace God's moral commands.

The second thing that He teaches us in this sentence is that the ceremonial code was never designed to function in place of God's moral commands. Over and over Jesus expounds passages like Micah 6 and Deuteronomy 6 which speak of our obligation to 'love mercy and to do justice and walk humbly before the Lord.' Our obligation to love God and to love neighbor above all else as the great commands, and He picks those emphases of the Old Testament with the Pharisees' preoccupation with ceremonial law. The Pharisees, Jesus says, have misunderstood and thus they have misused the ceremonial law given in the time of Moses. And because they have misunderstood and misused that ceremonial law, they have unwittingly caused the people to think of sin in superficial terms. Rather than sin and holiness being profound things that permeate the whole of life from the heart out, they have encouraged people to think in terms of sin as being merely external actions. So if you want to get rid of that sin you simply do another external action which is opposite of that. They see no concept of the profundity of sin. And Jesus makes it clear here that that is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the ceremonial code.

III. The ceremonial code has no place in the kingdom of heaven.

The last thing, and perhaps the most controversial thing that Jesus teaches in these words, is that the ceremonial code itself was not going to have a place in the holiness of the kingdom of heaven. Now that was a tremendous announcement but it's very clear. Jesus is indicating, albeit it in a subtle way, that the ceremonial code would come to an end in the kingdom of heaven. It would no longer be followed by true followers of the Lord. And this is made clear in the parallel passage to this in Mark, chapter 7.  In Mark 7 Jesus makes the same statement that He's made in verse 11 in Matthew chapter 15. He makes the same statement in Mark 7:15, and the disciples ask Him the question that they asked here in Matthew 15 and Jesus responds like this, in Mark 7:18-19: "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from the outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated. Thus He declared all foods clean." 

Now Mark is saying to you parenthetically that this principle of heart-holiness as opposed to ceremonial external holiness is the root of Jesus overturning the ceremonial law for Christians. Christians do not have to keep the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. Does that mean that that law was not given by God? No.  It was given by God. But what Jesus is indicating here is that is was something that was temporarily given by the Lord and it no longer for the kingdom of heaven, it is no longer for the believers in God under the new covenant. Why? Because of this ultimate principle that it is not what goes into you that makes you unholy its what comes out of you that evidences a moral issue of holiness. And so this teaching of Jesus here in Mark 7 and in Matthew 15 is the basis of both Peter and Paul's rejection of the ceremonial law as something which is obligatory for Christians. You remember Peter struggled with this and when he was called to minister to Cornelius, God had to, in a vision, bring down a sheet from heaven loaded with all kinds of food, unclean food, food which was excluded by Leviticus. And you remember Peter's response? The Lord says, "Eat Peter.  And Peter says, "Lord I've never let anything unclean pass my lips."  And the Lord responds, "Don't call what I have made clean unclean." 

And so Peter learns that the ceremonial ordinances have passed away. Paul makes that very clear, not only in the book of Galatians but we see this in Luke, and the book of Acts and elsewhere in Paul's teaching. So that principle seen in both Peter and Paul's ministry actually originates from this passage here in Matthew 15 and in Mark 7.

IV. Jesus teaches heart-holiness.

Now over against the Pharisees preoccupation with ceremonial ritual forms Jesus stresses the heart because the kingdom ethic is a heart ethic. The heart here refers to that seat of our mind, our conscience, our will, our desires, our affections. Our mouth, which Jesus speaks of here, is simply an indicator of what is in the heart. What comes out of the mouth is an indicator of what is there, buried deep in our mind, our conscience, our will and our affections. Jesus is not using the word heart here to refer to feelings. Sometimes in our modern parlance we say head to refer to our mind and to our reasoning processes and we say heart to refer to our feeling or our emotion and sometimes to our wills. But this sort of bifurcation is not there in Hebrew thought. The heart is the mind, the will, the affections, the conscience, the desires. It is the seat of the soul. Here is what Easton says, "The heart is the center not only of spiritual activity but of all the operations of life."  Heart and soul are thus often used interchangeably in the Bible. The heart is the home of the personal life and hence a man is designated according to his heart.

The heart is also the seat of the conscience. It is naturally wicked and it hence contaminates the whole of life and character. Therefore the heart must be changed and regenerated before a person can willingly obey God. Salvation begins in the heart by its believing reception of the testimony of God. While the rejection of that testimony hardens the heart. And so Jesus wants us to wage war on sin. But if we're going to do that, we must seek the route and the route is in the heart. It's not in external performance, it's not in outward forms, it's not in rituals or ceremonies. Holiness is not about places and outward ceremonial action. It is about heart holiness. Thomas Manton says this, "There is nothing in the life but what was first in the heart."  And because that is true, and by the way, that's virtually a paraphrase of what Jesus has just said in this passage, because that is true, if we truly want to seek after holiness we've got to do more than go through the external motions of it. There has to be heart holiness in our lives.

Now Jesus goes on to teach us one more thing here in verses 19 and 20 because He speaks about the source of evil in our experience in the heart. And He stresses here again that sin is not something that is superficial. It's profound. Sin isn't just about individual, isolated, outward actions that can be taken off or taken on, done or not done very easily. Sin is something that is deep. It's rooted into the very nature of our souls, our character. And therefore holiness, if it is going to be profound, is going to have to deal with sin profoundly.

Jesus, in this passage and especially in verse 19 and 20, makes it clear that the source of evil in our lives is not in ritual defilement. And the way He does this is in a very forceful way. You'll notice there in verse 19 that He lists what is basically a catalog of sins based on the second table of the commandments. He starts with murder and He works all the way through false witness and slander. He walks you through each of the commands from the sixth commandment to the tenth commandment. And He says, "Those things don't happen because you ate unclean food. Those things happen because your heart is wrong."

What is He doing there? It's a brilliant illustration about how moral holiness cannot result from ceremonial obedience. The kind of ceremonial obedience searched for by God in the Old Testament was a ceremonial obedience which flowed from moral obedience. God was after the heart even in the Old Testament. Moses could say in Deuteronomy 10, "Circumcise your hearts, not your foreskins."  Isaiah could say to the children to Israel in Isaiah, chapter 1,  this is God speaking to Isaiah, 'I hate your sacrifices, your new moons and your solemn assemblies."  What is God complaining about there? He's the one who asked for the sacrifices, didn't He? Yes, but the people were going through the motions. They were not worshiping God from the heart and it showed in the fact that they were oppressing the poor. They were not caring for the widows and the orphans, their hearts were not right before the Lord and therefore He said, I hate the assembly even though I'm the one who commanded it. Jesus knew that and He's stressing here that moral holiness does not come from simply observing outward forms.

There are all sorts of people in the world today who are drawn by impressive pomp and circumstance and solemn performances in religious exercises in churches, that does not bring holiness. One of the reasons that the Reformed tradition has always set forth a simple pattern of worship is because it is not the forms that bring holiness. The forms are there simply as an aid to help us express a heart gratitude to God because of His grace to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus, of course, in stressing that ritual defilement is not the ultimate source of sin, also addresses some problems that we face today. There are many people in our world today who think the origin of sin is in the environment. We're all really wonderful but you put a nice person in a context of people who've done some bad things and have gone bad and it rubs off on them and that's where sin comes from. There was one of my professors who used to say to us, “Men, surely you don't buy that? Did you have to send your child off to Lying School. No, they knew how to do it perfectly well without any environmental assistance.” Then again there are some people who say that sin, evil in our hearts, is the result of circumstances. Oh, that person was under very difficult circumstances and that's what brought about that sin.

And then there are others who'd like to attribute the problem to genetics, “Well it's all in the genes. We just act that way because we've been genetically programmed.”  The Lord Jesus says, “No, that is not the source of sin in our lives. The source of sin is character illogical. It has to do with our character, with our heart, with our mind, our will, our affections, our desires.”  We do not deny the influence of these other things but the source of sin is not in them. Sin is seated in the heart and therefore if we're going to see sin eradicated in our experience we must begin with the heart. Jesus is calling all here to heart management and of course that drives us to our knees, in dependence upon Him by grace because we know we can't manage our hearts. So Augustine would cry out, "Lord, command what you will and give what You command."  Command me to do anything you want, Lord, but You enable me, you enable me to do that. Because we know that a heart is deceitful, it's desperately wicked, and we cannot control it.

The Lord is calling us to a focus on those hard issues. He's not saying, 'Okay, you do it on your own.' But He is calling us to a concern about heart issues so that we will not be superficial Christians who live at one level in church, going through the outward forms, and yet live as if God did not exist in the rest of our lives. God does not want us to live a dichotomized existence where we are Christian at one level but profoundly pagan at another level. He wants the heart.

A.W. Tozer once said, "Keep your heart with all diligence and God will look after the universe."  We usually get it the other way around. We want to help God with the affairs of the universe. We think we've got some suggestions which might improve the situation. But God says, 'Nope, you leave the universe to Me. Look after your heart. Guard your heart.'  J.C. Ryle says this, "Let it be a settled resolution with us that in all our religion the state of our hearts shall be the main thing. Let it not content us to go to church and observe the forms of religion. Let us look far deeper than this and desire to have a heart right in the sight of the Lord." 

That's what the Lord Jesus wants us to seek for this day. A heart which is right before Him. Now we'll only obtain that by the grace of the Holy Spirit. But if we never think about it and we never desire it, it'll never be there in our experience. May God enable you by His grace to seek after a clean heart before Him and may you find it. Let's look to Him in prayer.

Our Lord and our God we thank you for your word. We ask that You would make us to be not only superficial and merely professing Christians but Christians who have been transformed from the inside out by the sovereign work of your Holy Spirit. And then help us, we pray, O God, to desire above all else holiness, godliness without which no one will see the Lord. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.

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