(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click here)
Pastor Scott L. Harris
Faith Bible Church, NY
January 2, 1994
Religion Versus Real Faith
PEOPLE OF LITTLE FAITH
Last week as we studied Matthew 14:22-33, we saw an example of the exercise of real faith. Peter may have only had little faith, but since it was placed in the right person he was able to do the impossible – walk on water to be with Jesus. When his faith was weak, he still knew who to call to for help and was rescued from sinking into the sea and brought safely back to the boat. (See: Keeping Your Eyes on Jesus)
As we conclude chapter 14, we will see the example of others who had faith in Jesus, but it is not the same kind of faith that Peter had. Look with me at verses 34-36. "And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent into all that surrounding district and brought to Him all who were sick; and they began to entreat Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were cured."
After Jesus brings Peter back to the boat and they get in, the wind that had been keeping the disciples from their destination stops and they quickly reach the shore of Gennesaret early in the morning. This is an area on the Western shore of the Lake of Galilee, just south of Capernaum. The area is a fertile plain about 3 miles long and 1.5 miles wide where intensive agricultural activity took place with orchards of walnuts, palms, figs, olives, grapes, and up to three crops a year of some field crops. A farming area with no towns or villages in it would have been fairly quiet and peaceful, a good place for a retreat. Possibly this was the reason Jesus landed there.
In any case, the men who had been working in the fields and orchards recognized Jesus and immediately sent into the surrounding area to tell everyone that He was there. The people then came to Jesus with their sick and they asked Him to heal them, and Jesus did.
The response of the men demonstrates that they believed something about Jesus. Possibly they had seen Him heal people in Capernaum or in their own village when Jesus had visited. They believed that Jesus could heal those who were sick among them, and so by faith they brought the sick to Him and pleaded with Him to heal them. Jesus again responds in compassion to their request and heals them of their physical infirmities. But we find out from John’s account that Jesus wanted to do more than just give them physical relief. He also wanted to minister to their spiritual need.
In John 6, we find that some of the people who had earlier followed Him to the "lonely place" in the north had now followed Him back south. Jesus warned them not to follow Him because He fed them from the bread and fish, but to come work the work of God, which verse 29 says is to "believe in Him whom He has sent." They demanded a sign like Moses giving the children of Israel Manna from heaven to eat. Jesus said He was the bread of life and that "everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise Him up on the last day" (verse 40). They began to argue with Jesus and eventually Jesus confronted them directly that some of them did not believe (verse 64), and so "many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore" (verse 66).
Jesus’ desire was to heal them from more than just their physical afflictions; He wanted to heal them of their spiritual deadness and give them life. But the faith of the people did not extend that far. They believed enough to come to them to be cured of their sickness, but not enough to believe that He was the Messiah. And so we find that they turn away.
That may seem strange to you. They had faith enough to be healed, but not faith enough to believe what the healing proved, that Jesus was the Messiah. But you see, for them to have faith that Jesus was the Messiah would require them to change the way they were living, for many of the things Jesus was teaching was against their traditions. How could Jesus be the Messiah if He did not uphold the religious traditions? They easily recognized that He was a miracle worker and an unusual Rabbi, but it was difficult for them to believe He was the Son of God.
Their response may seem strange, inconsistent even, yet the same response is often seen today. People still tend to pick and choose what they want to believe about Jesus. How many people say that Jesus was a good teacher, an excellent moral example, a superb philosopher, and yet deny His claim of deity. But think about it. If Jesus’ claim is false and He knows it, then He is a liar and is not a good moral example. If His claim is false and He is deluded about it, then He is a lunatic and certainly not a superb philosopher. Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord God in human flesh as He claims.
One of the things to keep in mind when thinking about these people is the strength of tradition in their lives. Their religious traditions were a very difficult thing to go against. Some of you who have backgrounds in liturgical religions understand the difficulty in setting those rituals aside to follow Christ alone. As we shall see as we begin our study of chapter 15, the religious traditions of Rabbis had become more important to these people than even the Word of God.
PEOPLE WITH RELIGIOUS FAITH
Matthew 15:1, 2 – "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.’"
Now recall that the Pharisees have been plotting to destroy Jesus ever since chapter 12. (See: The Lord of the Sabbath). But they cannot do it directly because the people still look upon Jesus with favor. If they are going to destroy Jesus, they first have to discredit Him. That is why we find that some of the Pharisees and scribes have traveled up from Jerusalem. They were much better educated than the local rabbis, so it was thought they would be able to do what the local religious leaders had failed to do – catch Jesus in some conflict with their law and so discredit Him before the people. Notice that they ignore what Jesus had been doing for the people in healing them, but instead, they immediately begin to question Him on the eating habits of His followers.
Now washing your hands seems like a very minor thing to us. Sure it is preferable to have clean hands before you eat for it is much better hygiene and even helps check the spread of colds and other sicknesses. But if someone eats with dirty hands, we consider the person a slob, but it is no big deal. But this was a very important consideration to them. Why? Because it was not a matter of personal hygiene, but a matter of ceremonial cleaning.
The Law of Moses had many ceremonies that were designed to remind the people of their need for God. Some of these ceremonies involved things that signified that they were set apart to God and they were to be separated from anything uncleanly. The Law of Moses was never intended to be a religion of liturgy, but one of ceremonies that reflected an inward reality. Even circumcision, the outward sign of being a Jew, was supposed to be a reflection of an inner reality.
Look at Deuteronomy 10:12. And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of thee, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command you this day for your good? 14 Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’S your God, the earth also, with all that is in it. 15 Only the LORD had a delight in your fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiff necked. (Deuteronomy 10)
Judaism was to be a religion of the heart, but the traditions of the Rabbis built up over the centuries changed it into an intentionally external and shallow religion that could be practiced outwardly with great enthusiasm and loyalty regardless of the condition of the heart. The most hardened unbeliever could follow it because it had become a system designed to cover up sin rather than exposing and cleansing it. It allowed the appearance of being righteous without the reality of being righteous.
The issue of washing the hands was a matter of ceremonial cleaning that was of great importance according to the "tradition of the elders." Notice it that does not say according to the Law of Moses, for the Law of Moses does not teach what they taught. But the "traditions of the elders," much like the church dogma in Roman Catholicism, traditions had replaced the Scriptures themselves in importance. This tradition was patterned after the ritual washing in the Law of Moses that were to take place after a person had become defiled by touching something unclean, i.e., a dead body, etc. (Leviticus 15:11; Deuteronomy 21:6). But the tradition of the elders went far beyond what Moses said with many more things added to the list of defilements. Some of the rabbis even taught that a demon named Shibtah would attach itself to people’s unwashed hands while they slept, and that if they had not washed their hands according to the ritual, then the demon would enter into the person through the food the person touched with his unwashed hands. The result was a demand to ceremonial wash the hands before every meal some even demanded washing between courses of a meal.
Ceremonial hand washing became elevated in importance with one Rabbi even teaching that "whosoever has his abode in the land of Israel and eats his common food with rinsed hands may rest assured that he shall obtain eternal life." Another rabbi taught that it was better to walk many miles to get water than to eat with unwashed hands. Another rabbi who had been imprisoned would use most of his water ration to wash rather than drink because he would rather die than violate the tradition.
Jesus answers them with a question and a stern rebuke in Matthew 15:3-9. Jesus does not deny they were breaking the tradition of the elders. Instead, He firmly shows that the traditions are subject to the Word of God which they were breaking and for which they would be judged.
"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 you have invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away form Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’"
The commandment of honoring father and mother is not only in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12), but is repeated throughout both the Old and New Testaments in a positive way. But it is also stated in a negative way in both Exodus 21:7 and Leviticus 20:9 that the child that failed to do so and cursed his/her parents was to be stoned to death. Yet this very command of God was overturned by the traditions of the elders through the practice of "Corban" (Mark 7:11).
This practice allowed a person to dedicate whatever he wanted to the Lord, but to continue to use them personally as long as he wanted. The dedicated items never had to been given to the Lord. However, since the items were now consecrated to God, then he could not use them to benefit another person, including his parents. In this way, a person could actually refuse to honor his parents by supporting them in their old age, continue to have the personal benefit of whatever might have been lost in supporting his parents, and still be considered very pious. It would be like if your parents were poor and in need of a car and you had two but wanted to keep them both, so you dedicate one to the church and you tell your parents that you can not meet their need because of that. However, you are the one using the car, not the church. It was given in name, but not in reality.
Notice in verse 6 that the tradition actually taught that they were "not to honor" father or mother. This is exactly opposite God’s commandment, and so Jesus applies Isaiah’s statement to them. They give lip service to God, but do not love Him. Their worship is in vain because they teach the precepts of men as doctrine from God. They were hypocrites – two faced. They pretended to be something they were not.
I like what MacArthur said about tradition: "Satan has no greater allies than hypocrites who go under the guise of God’s people. And hypocrites have no greater ally than tradition, because tradition can be followed mechanically and thoughtlessly, without conviction, sincerity, or purity of heart. Because traditions are made by men, they can be accomplished by men. They require no faith, no trust, no dependence on God . . . the appeal to the flesh by feeding pride and self-righteousness . . . that is why ritual, ceremony, and other religious traditions are more likely to take worshipers further from God than bring them closer. And the further a person is from God, the more vain his worship becomes." I also like what C.H. Spurgeon said to his congregation, "If there were no Sunday morning service at eleven, how many of you would be Christians?"
It is not tradition itself that is bad, for tradition can connect us with the generations past who served God faithfully. They can hold much meaning for us as they spur us on to faithfulness. But traditions that lose their meaning, and even more so, traditions that replace the Word of God, are not just worthless, they are evil. We must always be careful to think through and know why we do what we do.
The only thing sacred in the church is the worship of God, and everything else must be a reflection of it. The type of music, the number of services, the times when those services start and end, the order of service, and the things we do in a worship service can all vary tremendously if they bring our hearts and minds to focus on the Lord Jesus Christ. But if we are just going through the motions, then no matter how good the music, the prayers and the preaching may be by traditional standards, we have not given reverence to God and our worship is in vain. And if in any way we have taught either verbally or by example the doctrine of men over the Scriptures, then our worship is not just in vain, it is hypocritical and evil. Everything we do here is subject to the Bible, and by God’s grace, anything that does not match will be thrown out or changed to match it. That is what we did to our Constitution back last Spring.
Jesus went a step farther to explain this teaching and make sure the people also understood. Look at verses 10 and 11. "And after He called the multitude 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.’" The traditions taught that defilement came because a person ate something improperly and became defiled. Jesus put it plainly to them that the traditions were wrong. It was what came out of the mouth – what the person said, that brought defilement.
The disciples were surprised at the strength of Jesus’ words. Look at verse 12, "then the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?’" The disciples were still concerned about what the Pharisees thought and worried that they had not been very offended by Jesus. But Jesus is not concerned about offending those who teach false doctrine.
Verses 13 and 14, "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.’" The Pharisees boasted that they were the guides to the spiritually blind of Israel. They were the one that showed the ignorant masses the way to God. But they were actually blind themselves, and a blind man that claims he can see cannot be helped. They were hypocrites as proven by the fact that they were offended by the truth. People who love the light delight in correction so that they may live in the light. Those who love the darkness are offended at any exposure. And hypocrites who love the darkness are destined for destruction, so stay away from them lest they lead you astray too.
Let me throw a word of caution here to you. Be careful of what you listen to and what you read. There are many that proclaim to know the way to heaven, but they are leading you straight to hell. It is dangerous to listen to those who steadfastly reject and oppose the gospel of Christ whether that is open rejection, as in the many false religions and vain philosophies, or in those that pervert the gospel and are often heard on so-called Christian radio and television. Be a Berean and check out what you read and what you hear with the Scripture. That includes what I say. If it does not match the Scriptures, then seek to correct the one in error. If that cannot be done or they refuse to listen, then stay away from them, for such people always lead others into disaster along with themselves. Don’t you be caught in it with them.
PEOPLE OF GROWING FAITH
After these strong words, we find Peter asking Jesus for further explanation. That is a mark of his growing faith in Jesus. People of growing faith are not afraid of the truth. They just want to understand it more. Matthew 15:15f, "And Peter answered and said to Him, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ And He said, "Are you still lacking in understanding also? 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. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.’"
The things that Jesus was saying were hard for Peter to understand for He was very tied into the traditions himself. Even years after Pentecost, Peter still had trouble accepting the idea that all foods were clean if they were eaten with thanksgiving. It took a visitation from an angel in a vision (Acts 10:14), and then years later a rebuke from Paul (Galatians 2:11-12) to get it through his head. Yet we find Peter doing all he can to try to understand.
The Pharisees and scribes were absolutely wrong. It was not what a man ate that defiled him, for anything he eats will eventually pass through his body. It is the things that come out of his mouth that defile, for what he says will reveal his heart, and sin does not originate outside the body, but in the inner thought of the person. Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander and all other sin begin in the heart. Paul writes in Titus 1:15, 16, "To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed."
A man is defiled because he has an unwashed heart, not because he has unwashed hands, and the traditions of men can never wash the heart. The heart can only be cleaned through the blood of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. How can that happen? Confess your sins to Him, turn away from those sins and ask for His forgiveness, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Jesus can make us into a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17) with a new heart.
For comments, please e-mail Church office