Above All Else the Heart


Matthew 15:1-20

Text Comment

v.1       Given that Jesus was then in Galilee, the fact that these men came from Jerusalem may suggest that it was some kind of deputation sent to query Jesus about what they viewed as heterodox teaching and practice.  This then is some evidence of the stir Jesus was creating as well as the hostility growing against him among the religious leadership.

v.2       Fundamental to a proper understanding of the Lord’s remarks is the fact that the requirement to wash one’s hands before a meal (Luke calls this washing a baptism) is found nowhere in the law of Moses.  This washing had nothing to do with hygiene; it was for the purpose of removing ceremonial defilement contracted in the course of ordinary life.  The big jugs of water that Jesus turned into wine at the wedding in Cana, for example, were there to provide water for this ritual washing.  It was a rabbinical tradition, part of that body of interpretation of the law, and, in reality, additions to the law that had grown up over the centuries since the days of the prophets.  This tradition was thought to be based on the Mosaic law, to be a fair application and extension of it, but, in fact, it went far beyond that law and, as Jesus taught, fundamentally betrayed its spirit and intention. It eventually developed into the incredibly detailed regulations of the Mishnah that governed virtually every aspect of life.

This tradition arose because pious Jews thought the Law of God very sacred, as was right, and were concerned to keep it, as was also right.  But as time passed, their concern not to transgress and to keep the law led to a mass of definitions and interpretations that, however seriously the Pharisees took them, seem almost completely to miss the point.  They served to bury the real interest of God’s law under a mountain of regulations.  Take, for example, the list of rules in the tractate Shabbath in the Mishnah.  If we are going to keep the Sabbath holy and do not work on that day; if we are to obey the commandment not to go out of our houses on the Sabbath day (a law found in Ex. 16:29 concerning not going out to gather manna on the Sabbath day but which came to be taken absolutely by the rabbis), how may we then go out to take a gift to the poor?  Well, the pundits said, if you simply take your gift to them you have obviously violated the commandment – you have gone out of your house.  But, if the poor man stood outside your door and reached in his hand and you put your gift in the man’s hand, then you had kept the commandment. Or, you could also stretch your hand outside the house with the gift in it and the poor man could take it without violating the law.  In either case you hadn’t gone out of your house.  [Morris, 388] Now what a discerning reader understands when he reads the Mishnah is not only that these regulations go far beyond anything in the Bible, and, in their woodenness, are quite unlike anything found in the biblical law, they are contrary to the spirit and purpose of the biblical law as well.  The Bible does not descend to such particulars.  It is much more interested in the spirit and the consequence of our behavior.  It is not after regulation for the sake of regulation, but love for God and man. It leaves much, much more to the judgment of a faithful conscience than did the tradition of the elders.

By the time of Jesus the mass of regulation was so immense that it was beyond the common people even to know what was forbidden and required.  What set the Pharisees apart was precisely their desire to master this tradition and to practice it in detail.

In any case, a rabbi was responsible for the conduct of his disciples and their behavior clearly indicated that Jesus had taught them to transgress the tradition of the elders.  We have, of course, already been exposed to the Lord’s attitude to this legal tradition in the Sermon on the Mount.

v.3       The Lord does not deny the charge, but he turns the tables on his accusers.  It is a far more serious crime to break God’s law than to break man’s and the tradition of the elders was having precisely this effect: leading men to break God’s commandments instead of to keep them.

v.4       There is the issue:  “What God said…”  That is what matters; not what men say, however well intentioned.

v.5       The “you” is adversative.  “God says…but you say…”

v.6       The two commandments, from Exodus 20:12 and 21:17, are from the law as God revealed it to Moses.   The burden of those obligations, any willing heart would understand, included a child’s financial obligation to care for his aged parents.  But this responsibility was being evaded by a new application of the law governing oaths.  There is an entire tractate of the Mishnah devoted to these laws of dedication by oath.  A man could dedicate his property to God – a seemingly very pious thing to do – and, while keeping control of that property himself, render it unavailable to help his parents.  The Lord’s point is that such a pious fraud is in direct conflict with the will of God expressed in the law of God.  A tradition of this kind, that sets aside the Word and Law of God, Jesus is saying, has no authority. [France, 243] Jesus is clearly suggesting that this is often the result of the tradition of the elders.

v.8       That is, they profess a concern for God’s law but their behavior reveals an indifference to it.  Their heart is not in it.

v.9       They were hypocrites because they feigned a desire to please God while violating his commandments.  Their ancestors had often done the same and the prophets had to make the same point in their day that Jesus was making in his.  In this way we are reminded that this is not a new problem.  Hypocrisy is the perennial temptation of the human heart, especially the religious heart, and the Christian church has fallen prey to it since as often and as completely as Israel ever did.

v.10     Jesus now addresses the crowds, and gives them new teaching, contrary to what they were receiving from their accepted religious teachers.  But, as we learned was his practice back in chapter 13, he speaks in a parable, not directly.  It is a parable; we have Peter’s word for that in v. 15.

v.11     This cryptic epigram, which is not immediately clear in its meaning and the disciples had to ask him later what he meant, focuses on the essentially inward origin character of true faith and life.  It is in the heart, the center of a man’s life, where truth and godliness must begin.  The Pharisees, in their concentration on outward ceremonial purity, were missing the main fact about uncleanness.  It is a condition of the heart and it is there that a man must be made clean and be clean.  If he is clean there, the outward cleanliness will come; if he is impure there, all the ceremonial purity in the world doesn’t matter.

v.12     The Pharisees understood enough to know that Jesus was repudiating their entire view of true religion in rejecting their emphasis on the practice of washing hands before a meal.

v.14     Far from seeking to remove the offense, Jesus goes further and says that these religious leaders are false teachers who deserve and will receive God’s judgment and are leading others into that judgment as well.  This is, of course, precisely what neither the Pharisees believed about themselves nor the people believed about them. They were highly regarded for their religious devotion.  There will be more of this condemnation of the Pharisees later in the Gospel.

v.20     Sin is first a matter of the heart before it is a matter of the behavior.  And, in the same way, purity and godliness must first be in the heart before they will ever be in the mouth and the hand.  It is not the outward that tells the tale but the inward.  Once again, as in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord finds evil acts such as adultery, theft and slander as first and foremost states and conditions of the heart.  If they were not there first, they would not appear in the behavior.

Now give the Pharisees their due.  They had reverence for the law of God. Many so-called Christians do not.  They cared about obedience.  Many so-called Christians seem remarkably indifferent to it.  But, over time, they allowed their zeal for obedience to come to be governed by a false principle.  Instead of obedience being the expression of an inward devotion to God and love for one’s neighbor, it more and more became simply conformity to an exhaustive list of rules governing virtually every aspect of behavior.  The early Pharisees were moralists – that is, they came too much to think of obedience in an outward way – and that led them, inexorably, eventually to be legalists – that is, they finally came to think that they earned God’s favor and eventually their salvation by their obedience.  It always happens in that order:  first moralism and then legalism; first an overly outward or behavioral concept of obedience (no doubt unwittingly minimizing the thoughts and intentions and motives of the heart) and then a reliance upon that outward obedience for one’s peace with God.

Legalism is always built on an outward, superficial view of obedience; otherwise it would be impossible to think that one could actually earn one’s salvation by obedience.  It has to be something one can do or what is the point of trying.  It is when someone realizes that God requires purity within, in the motives and attitudes of the heart, that one realizes the enormity of his problem and begins looking for a Redeemer – someone who can deliver him from his sin, this raging power, this profound impurity within himself; for he knows he cannot deliver himself. The Pharisees were legalists because they imagined an adequate obedience to be within their grasp.  And they thought that because they had redefined obedience so that it was largely just conformity to outward regulations; something quite within anyone’s grasp.  It was this redefinition of obedience, this superficial view of obedience, that enabled the rich young ruler, in all seriousness, to tell the Lord that he had kept all the commandments from his youth.

Now, as I said, there is nothing unique in this move first to moralism and then to legalism.  It has been made countless times in the history of the church precisely because it is the natural tendency of the human heart.  Our hearts are proud and we do not want to believe that we are as bad, as helpless sinners as the Bible says we are.  We are proud and we want to be in control of our destiny and not utterly dependent upon the grace and forgiveness of God.  But the only way we can be so is to redefine our terms.  Obedience must be washing hands not keeping a pure heart if we are to indulge the illusion that our salvation lies in our hands to perform.

I grew up in a tradition that was in the midst of making that mistake.  It had not, to be sure, moved as far as legalism – a theory of self-salvation – but it had definitely embraced moralism, which would have ruined it had people not awakened to the error.  There was in those days among many of our people a generally accepted outward code of conduct by which someone’s righteousness was judged.  The outwardness and superficiality of this code led to the very same hypocrisy that Jesus exposes here.  One could not go to the movies, but he could watch hours on end of the same thing on television.  He could not play cards or dance, but he could indulge himself in other entertainment that was no less worldly.  He could, for example, be a sports fan who spent many more hours avidly following his favorite team than anybody ever spends playing cards or dancing.

Carl F.H. Henry, whom some of you will remember preaching here some years ago, wrote this years ago of the American fundamentalism in which both he and I were nurtured as young Christians.

“The code of fundamentalism emphasizes external adherence to a few arbitrary customs and external abstinence from a few arbitrarily prohibited things.  When a fundamentalist is pressed with this analysis, he will, of course, deny it.  He, too, is vitally concerned with inner moral integrity.  [By the way, so would a first century Pharisee have denied that charge!]  But one cannot escape the impression that his main interest is in his code…more concerned with his code than with the vast spiritual issues of life – love, kindness, patience, tolerance, pride, self-righteousness, bitterness, or humility… A thoughtful analysis of all factors involved may lead a person to abstain from smoking.  He may not like the taste of a cigarette.  The smoke may bother his wife.  He may not be able to afford the cost, or he may wish to use the money for some other purpose.  He might not like the looks of a person smoking.  He may be aware that others about him are sickened by the foulness of his wet cigar.  He may be fearful of the possibility of lung cancer.  He may feel that the possibility of harm to his respiratory system would be dishonoring to God.  He may not like the smell of tobacco clinging to his clothes.  He may not like the possibility of straining his teeth.  For any or all of these reasons he may choose not to smoke.  But this is a wholly different story from condemning smoking as a sin because – well, it’s a sin, that’s all.  And from the presupposition that it is a sin, the fundamentalist mind-set will use the above reasons to prove that indeed it is a sin….  The writer wishes to protest.  He is not arguing for drinking, for smoking, for dancing…even for movie attendance.  But he is concerned lest Christians confuse ethical living with an arbitrary legalistic bondage.  He is concerned less externals become so prominent that internal virtues and vices are not treated at all.  A proper emphasis must be restored to ethical thinking in evangelicalism so that the vicious sins of the spirit are seen as Jesus saw them.”  [Christian Personal Ethics, 425-426]

Here is Dr. Henry saying, in the 1950s, that American conservative evangelical Christians were making the same mistake the Pharisees made.  We too were fashioning an understanding of life and religion that emphasized certain behaviors to the neglect of the heart.

Now I make this point and cite Dr. Henry at such length because we are all tempted to dispense with the Lord’s teaching here because, after all, it concerned the Pharisees and we are certainly not Pharisees.  We are not legalists as they were.  We think of Pharisees as rather obvious frauds.  But, the fact is, they were the deeply religious people of their time and admired for their zeal by the common church-goer. The fact is, every Christian is subject to the same subtle temptation to make his life a matter of outward performance rather than inner devotion; to practice his Christianity more where it can be seen by others than down deep, where it is known only to God and oneself.  Oh it happens in many different ways.  Here is Alexander Whyte describing some of the ways in which this happens.

“There is a spurious conscience in all of us that winks at the most serious evils in our own hearts and in our own lives, and then it compensates itself by raging loudly against some things in other people that are not real sins in them at all.  Our counterfeit conscience will sometimes deal with the utmost scrupulosity and stringency with the most microscopic matters of church doctrine and practice; it will resist to the death the least departure from a traditional ritual, while, at the same time, it will allow and will abet the most flagrant insults and injuries to our neighbours.  James Fraser of Brea [the Scottish Covenanter], who was one of the profoundest masters of the things of the soul that ever lived, has set down this as the devil’s thirteenth device directed against his soul:  ‘When I could not be wholly deluded from laying to heart matters of religion, Satan, for the most part of my time, busied me with the externals and the formalities of religion, and made me all but forget the fundamental matters.  Nice points were much studied, and were much talked about by me, whereas the great matters of my own soul, and of other men’s souls, I forgot to think or speak much about.’ ”  [Bunyan Characters, iv, 209-210]

It is not far too often so with you, as it is with me.  Oh we don’t require anyone to pour water over his hands before a meal, but we look down on others for relatively minor things and largely ignore the pride, the self-centeredness, the evil-thinking, the lust, the greed, the unbelief that rages so often virtually unchecked in our hearts.  What is this but the sin of the Pharisees: an outwardness, a superficiality that betrays the truth about ourselves and about the grace of God to us.

Do you think I am overstating the matter in your case?  Let me ask you a simple question:  would you mind if others could look into your heart and hear your thoughts and see your attitudes and inspect your motives?

Godly men and women through the ages have been horrified at the very thought.  William Law, the Anglican mystic, said that he would rather be hung by his neck until dead and his body thrown into a swamp rather than that anyone should see what was in his heart.  And Luther said, “When a man like me comes to know the plague of his own heart, he is not miserable only – he is absolute misery itself.”  And, as I’ve told you many times before, the saintly Bishop William Beveridge, whose preaching and praying and giving to the poor were a lesson in godliness to all around him – nevertheless said about himself:  “I cannot pray, but I sin; I cannot give alms, but I sin; I cannot hear or preach a sermon, but I sin; nay I cannot so much as confess my sins, but my confessions are still aggravations of them.  My repentance needs to be repented of, my tears want washing, and the very washing of my tears needs still to be washed over again with the blood of my Redeemer.”  [In Ryle, Old Paths, 130]

Now why would Beveridge say such a thing?  Because he was evaluating his outward behavior from the vantage point of his heart and what was the case there, down deep inside him. He was evaluating his conduct in terms of what he knew to be his attitudes, his motives, his feelings, the strength or weakness of his commitments in his heart.

Abraham Kuyper called the heart, as the term is used in the Bible for the inner man, “the mystic root of our existence, that point of consciousness in which life is still undivided.”  That is, in the heart our entire life, our selves are compact, before being broken up into the thoughts, words, and deeds out of which our lives are made up every moment of every day. [In H. van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, 38-39]  We are what we truly are there and only there.  Anyone can look better and act better than he truly is because he desires to be well thought of, because he fears the repercussions if he does not, because he hopes to gain some reward for himself, and so on.  But down in the heart we are what we truly are, before artificial forces shape our behavior in this way or that.  But it is the sad confession of most every Christian that for long periods of time the outward behavior is attended to much more carefully than the thoughts and motives and attitudes of the heart.

The Bible was written first and foremost for believers.  Even at this moment, Jesus did not speak as he did primarily for the benefit of the Pharisees.  It is clear in the Gospels that he thought them, by and large, a lost cause.  They were past listening to him or repenting of their unbelief.  As the text makes clear, he said what he said about external obedience over against the heart primarily for the sake of his disciples, which is to say, for your sake and for mine.  We are the ones who need this message and who are to take it to heart.  We are the ones who are to be put on guard against this strong tendency, this great likelihood of our focusing on the outward at the expense of the heart.  We are the ones who must take great care not to honor the Lord with our lips while allowing our hearts to be far from him.

The 17th century Puritan John Flavel wrote a work on this theme which he entitled, “A Saint Indeed:  Or, The Great Work of a Christian Opened and Pressed.”  In this classic work, based on Proverbs 4:23 – “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” – Flavel wrote:

“The keeping and right managing of the heart in every condition is the great business of a Christian’s life.”  “[It] affords the Christian matter for labor, fear, and trembling to his dying day.”  [Works, v, 425]

Has it been so for you? Has keeping your heart been the great business of your life of late? Have you attended to your heart as the wellspring of your life? You will never cease to be serious about your Christian life if it remains for you a matter of the heart.  You will never content yourself with a superficial devotion to God if you make it your business to honor the Lord in and with your heart.

Over and again we are reminded in the Bible that “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart,” [Prov. 21:1] and “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” [1 Sam. 16:7]

The Scripture teaches us, as Jesus here, that the heart is the worst part of a man and that if a man is truly to become godly by the grace and power of God, his heart must become the best part of him.  If the heart is good, the life and behavior will follow suit.  Make the tree good and the fruit will be good.  Now the Lord has done that in the case of a Christian.  The Christian has been given a new heart. His old heart has been taken out and a new one put in its place.  That is the Bible’s vivid metaphor for what happens when God transforms a soul and makes of a human being a new creation in Christ.  But what has happened once for all must now become the basis for the Christian’s life-long work. This new heart of his is still encumbered by the remnants of his old nature, by sin.  And there, in the heart, the battle against the flesh and the sins of the flesh must be fought. The hand and the tongue always begin where the heart ends.  So spend less time working on your behavior and more working on your heart – your attitudes, your motives, your thoughts – and if they are made pure and loving and faithful, godly behavior will follow in train; truly godly behavior indeed, not the weak, insipid stuff that satisfies only the most superficial examination.

All the great virtues of Christian godliness and all the great experiences of Christian faith must happen first and foremost in the heart.  The love of God, the hatred of sin, devotion to Christ and his cause, a zeal to serve him and to obey his commandments for love’s sake, love for one’s brethren and for one’s neighbors, the assurance of salvation and the joy of it, hope for the world to come, all of this must be found in the heart or it will not be found genuinely in the life.  And so with humility, with sadness for one’s own sinfulness and one’s own sins, with shame for one’s failure to love and serve the Lord as one should, with lowliness of heart before God and man.  It must be really in the heart before it will ever be genuinely in the behavior and the conduct. You may fool others, but you cannot fool God!

What is the deepest longing of your life:  that you should acquire this or accomplish that?  That you should experience this or enjoy that?  Is it that you should live a deeply faithful and fruitful Christian life to the glory of God your Savior?  In the old days godly men would confide their deepest longings and aspirations, as they would confide their confessions of sin to their journal or diary in Latin.  It was a way of keeping such intensely personal matters somewhat more confidential and private.  In such journals, as, for example in that of Robert McCheyne, the saintly Scottish pastor who died at 29 years of age and was famous in his own lifetime for the extraordinary godliness of his life, you find this:

“Veni, Veni in animam meam, Domine!”

Come, O come into my heart, O Lord.”  You see, if the Lord is there, if he is known to you there; if you honor and serve him there; if your heart becomes his throne; then all is possible and wonderful things must become of your life.  Love, serve, and honor the Lord in your heart, where the issues of life are joined, and you will find out what a Christian life can become.  And to this end, these two encouragements.  In the first place, the Lord promises us:  “You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” [Jer. 29:13]  And, then the Lord turns to us and says, “My son, give me your heart.”  [Prov. 23:26]