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Draw Near With Your Heart Not Your Words

Updated: May 2, 2022

Matthew 15

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” Isaiah 29:13-14

Dear Christian,

I have often heard people describe God as two very different characters between the Old Testament and the New Testament. To these people, it seems that the God of the Old Testament is a wrathful God bent on judgment and destruction. For them, the God of the New Testament or Jesus seems to be kind, all-loving, forgiving, and compassionate with no room for wrath. From this perspective, it seems very hard to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with Jesus claiming to be that very same God. However, I'm going to propose today through our study of Matthew chapter 15 that starting from that perspective of God and Jesus is a misunderstanding of God's character and of His Word.

The God we meet in the Old Testament sets in motion not only His just response to sin but His ultimate plan for the redemption of those who will turn and follow Him through His Son. Jesus is the fulfillment of God's plan for redemption, but He will not hesitate to rebuke and condemn those who reject God's law and mercy.

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.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 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. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Matthew 15:1-9

If you read this and immediately get hung up on how gross it is that the disciples weren't washing their hands before they eat, I am right there with you! However, back in Jesus' day washing your hands before eating was a tradition handed down by the Jews for ceremonial cleanliness, they didn't know much of anything about all the germs we know about today. The cleanliness and the defilement that Jesus is teaching about in this chapter is Spiritual cleanliness or defilement before God, not physical cleanliness.

The religious leaders' criticism was that Jesus' disciples were breaking religious traditions handed down for generations. Jesus turns this criticism on its head by pointing out that the religious leaders are willing to violate God's Law for the sake of keeping their traditions. While they seem in the eyes of the world to be righteous because they honor God with their lip service and traditions, in the eyes of God they are the exact opposite. Here is where we get to the first point in our theme that God does not change from the Old Testament to the New Testament: Jesus applies a prophecy from Isaiah to the religious leaders of His day.

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” Isaiah 29:13-14

In context, God has just told Isaiah that there is going to be a siege of Jerusalem because of the many sins of the people and that God is going to shut the ears of the prophets and the eyes of the seers cutting Himself off from His people. This is a perfect example of the terrifying wrath of God that we see against sin all throughout the Old Testament. However, this should also draw to your memory Jesus' explanation for why He is teaching the people in riddles and parables saying, "He who has ears, let him hear."

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.” Matthew 15:10-11

These verses have been taken out of context by several different groups of people who may or may not have a legitimate point about what Jesus is saying here. What this passage is not about: physical cleanliness. Yes, you still could get sick eating with dirty hands because putting that food in your mouth defiles you physically. What this passage is not about: ceremonial cleanliness. Yes, there were still foods that the Jews were not supposed to eat because it was forbidden by the Law of God as instructions for ceremonial cleanliness and Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law of God living by it and honoring it all the days of His life.

This is about spiritual cleanliness. Eating your food with dirty hands doesn't make you a sinner in the eyes of God and for Gentiles who are not under the ceremonial instructions of the Law, eating bacon doesn't make you a sinner in the eyes of God. However, for all people, the vile things that come from our hearts through our thoughts and out of our mouths do make us sinners in the eyes of God because they reveal our attitude of rejection and rebellion against Him.

Isaiah's prophecy continues:

Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? Isaiah 29:15-16

The traditions of the religious leaders in Jesus' day did not supersede the Law of God, even though they treated these traditions as if they did. We should take warning from this in our own churches, we are not greater than our Maker and we do not know better in our worldly understanding than the One who formed us. We should not read the justification or excuses for why our sin should be acceptable in the eyes of God into His Word under the guise of changing cultures and traditions. Traditions will never supersede the Law of God.

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Matthew 15:12-14

How many times these days have we heard about someone being offended about something? How many times is it that you've heard they're offended by something that used to be accepted as universal truth and common sense? Our culture cannot even define what it means to be a woman or man and are deeply offended by those who say they do have concrete definitions of these things. My response to the current moral decay of our culture has gone from mild alarm to amusement, to annoyance, and finally to rage as I watch it destroy lives. Jesus' response: they will be rooted up; They don't know what they're talking about; Don't follow them. Compare this also to what God says in Isaiah about what is going to happen to those leading His people astray...

Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off, who by a word make a man out to be an offender, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right. Isaiah 29:17-21

God promises not to leave His people behind in the hands of these evildoers forever. Though they must suffer the consequences of their sin, God is going to cut off those who continue to lead them astray and He is going to renew their joy. Those who have ears but cannot hear will hear! Those who have eyes but cannot see will see! And again, these people who make out one who is telling the truth to be an offender or offensive... they will be cut off and be caught up in their own snares. God's final promise in this chapter of Isaiah is to redeem His people. So we see even in the Old Testament that God is still a God of mercy, not just wrath.

Jesus' disciples or at least Peter are still very confused by this exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders.

But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? 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.” Matthew 15:15-20

Jesus is not surprised or exasperated that the religious leaders who have rejected God in favor of their manmade doctrines don't get what He has come to accomplish. Now Jesus is not surprised by Peter's lack of understanding here, but He sure does sound a little bit frustrated. He rebukes Peter for his continued lack of understanding in something that should have been very clear to the disciples at this point. This is not even the first time that Jesus' disciples have been criticized for their eating habits! Remember back to Jesus' defense of His disciples when the religious leaders nudged John the Baptist's disciples into bringing their criticism to Jesus?! Or when the Pharisees complained against Jesus' disciples for breaking the Sabbath by eating grain as they walked through the grain fields?! What do all of these instances have in common? They really had nothing to do with food.

Continuing in that context what we read next is maybe one of the harshest interactions that we see Jesus have with any person in the Gospels.

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-28

Now if you're feeling as confused as Peter just was and like you must be missing something obvious here, you're not alone! Many Christians wrestle with Jesus' response to this woman.

First of all, this is certainly not the first Gentile or even the first Canaanite that has come to Jesus for healing. Jesus has even intentionally gone to non-Jewish regions where He has continued His ministry of teaching and healing.

Second, from the very beginning, this woman acknowledges Jesus as the foretold Messiah calling Him, "Lord, Son of David." As well as stating her problem with the confidence that Jesus has the authority to solve it. In the past, this would have been more than enough for Jesus to turn around and help her! Instead, we see that she followed them persistently begging Jesus to help to the point that the disciples asked Him to send her away (not help her, just make her go away)!

As we try to understand what is going on here, let's remember back to what Jesus has said about Tyre and Sidon in the past.

Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. Matthew 11:20-22

Though Jesus had done many incredible things in the regions of His own people they have continued to reject and despise Him. Jesus tells them that if He were to do these things in Tyre and Sidon their response would be drastically different! This woman certainly proves that point even before any miracle has occurred.

This is also not the first time that Jesus has made clear that His mission is first for the Jews. When He sent out His disciples only a few chapters ago, He instructed them not to go to any of the cities or regions of the Gentiles but only to the Jews.

Then this woman comes and kneels before Him pleading, "Lord, help me." However, you read Jesus' response to the woman, it is hard to stomach... though this interaction sets up a picture of what God's relationship is to the Jews as His children and with the rest of the world. The Jews' in Jesus' day looked down on and despised the Gentiles almost as much as they hated Jesus Himself. They would call Gentiles dogs as an insult because the dogs of their region were wild, vicious, dangerous animals that fought over scraps in the street. These creatures were more likely to tear you in two than let you pet them. This is the most common way I've heard this passage read or taught when trying to put Jesus' words in context. However, during the course of this study I learned that the Greek word Jesus uses is kynariois meaning "little dog" for the Gentiles this would bring up the picture of a family pet. Although still certainly humbling to compare this woman and her child to animals, Jesus was not using the term in a derogatory manner. He was reminding her of the place she currently held in relationship to God not being one of His children and testing her humble faith. As we see, unlike the religious leaders who claimed to be among the most righteous on earth, this woman passes the test with flying colors!

Why test this woman after she had already proven so much faith in coming to Jesus as Lord? It's really not about her, just as it's not about the metaphorical table scraps she mentions. It is an incredible image for Jesus' disciples and for us that Jesus' own people who had been invited to sit and feast at the table of God's wonderful love for them could do nothing but criticize and complain. Meanwhile, those whose time for blessing had not yet come would be content with even crumbs of God's love from that table.

From there Jesus returns to Galilee where like a never-ending sea of misery the crowds come to Him to be healed.

Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel. Matthew 15:29-31

The greater mystery is Jesus' continued compassion for the crowds of people that relentlessly pursued Him to receive their own miracles. Even after all of this, He looks out on the crowd that has been with Him in the wilderness and declares that He will not send them away hungry. Amazingly enough, His disciples still don't have the faith to look at Jesus and see the solution to this problem even though they were there when He fed the 5,000!

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan. Matthew 15:32-39

This chapter is difficult to read as we hear one rebuke after another coming from Jesus who surely is physically exhausted in His ministry by this time. Hence, the reason we so often see Him seeking solitude and rest. It returns us to our theme that Jesus still has wrath against the sins of His people and the world, but just as He did in the Old Testament God is pouring out His mercy on those who will seek Him. God does not change.

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