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Jesus speaks of clean and unclean
Matthew chapter 15, verses 1-20
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ ” Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ” Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”
These were typical Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus rightfully was very critical of them. They were unwilling to accept the criticism they deserved, so they regarded Jesus as a threat to their authority in religious matters. They were determined to find a way to silence his criticism, and they were willing to stop at nothing. At first, they simply tried to discredit Jesus by asking him trick questions or accusing his disciples of conduct that was contrary to their traditions. That was what they did here. When they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat,” they were not looking for an explanation. They were making an accusation.
The hand washing before meals that they were talking about was strictly a ceremonial matter. It had nothing to do with removing actual dirt. According to their way of thinking, their hands might have become “unclean” by coming into contact with an “unclean” person or object, so a brief ceremonial washing before eating would make sure that they were not contaminating their food. The Law of Moses included many regulations about ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness, but this was strictly a man-made rule. The traditions of the elders were not God’s laws, and in some cases they even contradicted God’s laws.
Jesus pointed that out when he responded without directly answering their question. Instead, he asked them a question. He asked them why they held to traditions that were contrary to God’s clear commandments. The Fourth Commandment, which calls on us to honor our parents, is very clear, but those people found ways of disobeying that commandment in favor of one of their traditions. They would actually refuse to help their own parents in time of need and excuse themselves by saying that the resources they might have used to help their parents were going to be a gift devoted to God. They should have done the one without neglecting the other, of course.
We know that the kingdom of God should be our primary concern as Christians. But we must not define that term too narrowly. We need to remember that everything we do in obedience to God’s commandments is a service to God. Whatever we do for our parents or our children or for anyone in need, Jesus regards as a service done to him personally. We cannot love God without loving our neighbor as well. It is a contradiction to claim to love God and refuse to show love for other people, whether they deserve it or not.
When Judas Iscariot condemned Mary of Bethany for pouring costly ointment on Jesus’ feet instead of selling the ointment and giving the money to the poor, he went to the opposite extreme. But those Pharisees and teachers of the law and Judas were all hypocrites, as Jesus points out. The prophet Isaiah had foretold that there would be such people. Jesus quoted Isaiah chapter 29, verse 13.
Such hypocrites speak pious words and affect the forms of godliness, but their words and actions do not come from the heart. Their worship is empty, an abomination in God’s sight, because they are concerned about man-made rules, not God’s commandments and God’s truth. To this day the world is filled with religions that make their own rules, which contradict God’s Word, and claim that they have progressed to a higher level of spirituality. Some claim to have received revelations from God in addition to the Bible (Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, for example). Others make their own ideas of good and evil, right and wrong, the basis for what they believe and teach. Many who claim to be Christians, unfortunately, make their own minds a higher authority than the inspired Word of God. They make their own rules.
After Jesus so roundly condemned the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he called the crowd together to instruct them about cleanness and uncleanness. He urged them to listen attentively, lest they misunderstand. He explained that a person is not made unclean by what he eats. This was not a repudiation of the ceremonial laws of Moses, which classified some foods as clean and others as unclean. Jesus and his disciples carefully observed those laws, which were not set aside until after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Jesus was simply saying that clean foods are not made unclean when a person eats without first washing his hands. Perhaps we should interject here, especially for the sake of our children, that Jesus is speaking here about ceremonial washing and ceremonial uncleanness. Washing dirty hands before coming to the table is an entirely different matter. If you come to the table without washing when your mother has clearly told you to wash your hands for supper, that is sinful disobedience.
What comes out of the mouth, however, can make a person unclean. Sinful words make a person guilty or unclean. There are so many ways we can sin with our tongues. Words can express hatred or falsehood and can lead to all kinds of violent and sinful deeds. That is something we need to be concerned about at all times because we never completely succeed in taming our tongues.
It comes as no surprise that the Pharisees were offended at Jesus’ words, for Jesus had been very critical of them. Instead of being offended, however, they should have taken to heart the obvious, clear truths that Jesus expressed. Jesus pointed out their sins, not in order to humiliate or embarrass them but to call them to repentance. He was their Savior too. He was soon going to die for their sins, and he wanted them to receive the forgiveness and salvation that he was about to purchase for them and for the whole world with his blood on the cross.
In verse 13 Jesus uses the picture of plants that his heavenly Father has not planted. These plants might be understood as the traditions or teachings of men that are contrary to God’s Word or the people who hold to such traditions, but the two really cannot be separated from each other. The day of reckoning will finally come, and then false teachers and their teachings will both be exposed and destroyed. The false teachers will endure everlasting destruction in hell. They will suffer the torment of being separated from God for all eternity. In this world they insisted on going their own way, not God’s way, and in the world to come they will be cut off from God forever.
Those Pharisees and teachers of the law were religious leaders of the people, but they were spiritually blind—as were the people that followed them. When the blind lead the blind, there will surely be disaster sooner or later. If they are only physically blind, they may only fall into a ditch or some other hole in the ground. If they are spiritually blind, however, they will finally be cast into the bottomless pit, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth for all eternity.
Jesus told his disciples to leave those false teachers. At least for the time being, the disciples were not to make any further efforts to bring those Pharisees and teachers to repentance. They openly despised God’s Word, and now that Word was to be withdrawn from them. The punishment for unrepented sin is often a matter of being left under the power of that sin. If that is what people want, God may let them have it. Regardless of what that sin may be that takes control of someone’s life, the wages of sin is death. When God’s gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus is despised and rejected, there is nothing left but death. There is no other way to eternal life except through faith in Christ Jesus.
In behalf of the rest of the disciples, Peter asked Jesus to explain what he meant by plants not planted by his heavenly Father and blind guides as well as the whole matter of being clean or unclean. In response, Jesus admonished them for being dull or slow to understand, but then he patiently explained what he meant. He told them that the food we eat has nothing to do with causing sin. It simply passes through the body without any spiritual implications. It is true that food may be used or abused in ways that involve sin, such as gluttony or waste or failure to feed the hungry, but the heart, not the mouth, is responsible for such sins.
All sins originate in the heart. We are not speaking of the organ of flesh and muscle that pumps life-sustaining blood to every part of our bodies. The heart, as the word is used here, is the soul or spirit. The believing heart strives to overcome sin and to please God in all things, but the unbelieving heart is the source of every kind of evil.
Jesus mentions just a few of the sins that come out of the unbelieving heart. Evil thoughts are the beginning of all sorts of evil deeds. Murder includes anything one may do to hurt or harm our neighbor in his body. Adultery and sexual immorality include all kinds of indecent words and deeds as well as desires. Theft is the consequence of covetousness, the sinful desire to have something one has no right to have. False testimony seeks selfish gain or advantage at the expense of someone else. Slander is an effort to promote oneself by running someone else down.
The heart of a Christian will never be completely free of the power of sin in this life, so we must continue to strive against all the sins Jesus mentions here and to humbly ask his forgiveness when we fail. Those are the things we must be concerned about rather than about any man-made rules or human traditions like “unwashed hands.”
Man-made rules place a heavy, unnecessary burden on people. They bind people’s consciences. They actually cause people to sin. If you place yourself under the obligation of man-made rules, you sin when you disobey those rules. If you believe that a certain action is wrong and disobedient to God, then your disobedience dishonors God, and that is a sin. We need to learn God’s will from God’s Word alone.
Jesus casts a demon out of a Canaanite woman’s daughter
Matthew chapter 15, verses 21-28
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
Tyre and Sidon were gentile cities north of the land of Israel on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The Canaanites who lived there were descendants of those Canaanites whom the Israelites had failed to exterminate when they occupied the land. Most of them were gross unbelievers and idolaters, but this woman was an exception. We’ll see that Jesus commended the greatness of her faith. There was only one other instance mentioned in the New Testament when Jesus commended someone’s faith. That was the faith of another Gentile, a centurion, whose servant Jesus healed. Among the Jews we rather hear Jesus bemoaning the littleness and weakness of people’s faith, and Jesus even made such observations about his 12 disciples on more than one occasion. So let us look to the faith of this Canaanite woman as an example and an inspiration.
We don’t know exactly where Jesus was when this woman came to him. Some believe that he was in the territory of Tyre and Sidon, while others are of the opinion that he was only close to their border. At any rate, this woman heard where Jesus was, and she came to him to ask him to free her daughter from demon possession. She addressed him as “Lord, Son of David,” recognizing him as the long-awaited Messiah from David’s line.
Jesus’ response, or rather lack of response, may surprise or even puzzle us. We have never before seen Jesus treat anyone this way, and we wonder why he did this. The disciples did not understand either, and after a while they urged Jesus to send her away. They evidently wanted Jesus to grant her request and send her home to her daughter, but their motive was not so much mercy as the desire not to be bothered by this woman.
Jesus’ response to the disciples’ suggestion was, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” That was a general statement. Jesus’ personal ministry was to be limited to Israel, even though he came to redeem the whole world. But he never turned anybody away that came to him for help, Jew or Gentile.
The woman fell to her knees and persevered with her request: “Lord, help me!” At that point Jesus spoke to her directly: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” To us that may sound like an insult and a total repudiation of her request. Jesus compared her to a dog! But his words were not an insult at all. The word he used for dog referred to little lap dogs such as children would have in the house as pets. The woman understood that and felt encouraged rather than rebuffed. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” The crumbs included not only those that accidentally fell, but also some that members of the family would purposely drop for the dog’s benefit. Such crumbs were all that this woman wanted, and Jesus did not deny her request.
It is interesting to note the different ways that Jesus dealt with people who came to him for help or for healing. He often surprises us by the way he treats people. When we analyze each episode, however, we see that he dealt with each person in exactly the right way, for he could look into their hearts, and he knew what would be best for them. In this way he also teaches us that he deals with us as individuals. He knows our needs, and he is always concerned about providing for us. His primary concern is to keep us in the saving faith to everlasting life. Nothing could be more important than that. We need to remember that always, especially when our gracious Lord deals with us in ways that we cannot immediately understand or appreciate. Any difficulties we have to endure in this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us in the life to come.
Jesus feeds the four thousand
Matthew chapter 15, verses 29-39
Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan.
The hills to which Jesus went next must have been on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. There again he was looking for a place where he could get a little rest, but he did not rest for long. Soon huge crowds came to him again. The only reason for their coming that Matthew mentions is that they wanted Jesus to heal their lame, blind, crippled, mute, and many others. Jesus’ reputation as a healer had spread far and wide. And he never turned anyone away without granting the needed healing.
So Jesus healed all those people. We have no details. We don’t know whether he healed them individually or all at once, but we may take it for granted that Jesus also showed his concern for their spiritual welfare and spoke to them about the need for repentance and the salvation he had come to bring to the world. The result was that “they praised the God of Israel.” Evidently, many of them were Gentiles, but they realized that their heathen gods could not heal as Jesus did.
Then Jesus performed one more miracle for the entire crowd. He observed that the people were hungry, for they had been with him for three days with nothing to eat. (Three days could simply mean one full day in addition to part of the previous day and of the following day, just as Jesus’ three days in the grave were Friday evening, all day Saturday, and a little of Sunday morning.)
What follows reminds us of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Some Bible critics imagine that this is just another version of that incident, but it is very clear that this was a separate, though similar, incident. It may seem strange to us that the disciples did not know what to do, but it is typical that people forget God’s previous blessings when they face new problems. Remember Israel at the Red Sea? In spite of the great miracles God had performed to deliver them from Egypt, they were certain that he would allow the Egyptian army to destroy or capture them. After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground, they did not trust God to provide them with food and drink. And this happened more than once! So the disciples’ littleness of faith was more typical than unusual.
This time there were seven little loaves of bread on hand and an indefinite, but small, number of fish. This was more than they had on that previous occasion, and this crowd was smaller, but that does not diminish this miracle at all. Once again, Jesus had the people sit down. Then he spoke a prayer of thanksgiving and handed the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute among the people. There was plenty for everybody, and this time the disciples gathered seven basketfuls of leftovers. The Greek word for basket used here is not the same word as Matthew used in describing the feeding of the five thousand. These may have been larger baskets, but that really makes no difference. It would be wrong to rank one miracle as greater than the other, especially if we were to base that evaluation on the number of people fed or the volume of the leftovers.
This time Jesus sent the crowd away immediately, and there is no indication that they got any misguided ideas about trying to set Jesus up as their earthly king. They went home, and Jesus got into a boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. We don’t know exactly where that was, but it must have been somewhere on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus refuses to give a special sign to the Pharisees and Sadducees
Matthew chapter 16, verses 1-4
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
This was not the first time some Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus for a miraculous sign (see chapter 12, verses 38-41). Jesus had shown them many miraculous signs already. He had healed people of all kinds of diseases, made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. He had miraculously fed the five thousand and the four thousand. He had turned water into wine. But all those miracles did not satisfy those Pharisees and Sadducees. They implied that the right kind of sign would be acceptable proof that Jesus really was the Son of God. They wanted a sign from heaven.
Would they have been satisfied if Jesus had made the sun and moon stand still in the heavens as Joshua had done? Or did they want him to call down fire from heaven, as Elijah had done? We don’t know exactly what they had in mind, but we can be certain that they would have found an excuse to continue in their unbelief. Demonstrations of divine power may impress people, but they never bring people to faith. The French philosopher Voltaire expressed the attitude of stubborn unbelievers when he said, “Even if a miracle should be wrought in the open market place before a thousand sober witnesses, I would rather mistrust my senses than admit a miracle” (quoted by Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, page 610).
Ten terrible plagues did not bring Pharaoh to faith in Moses’ day, and fire from heaven did not convert King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to faith in the God of Israel. These Pharisees and Sadducees would not have believed in Jesus if he had caused the sun to skip across the heavens in reverse. They were not looking for a reason to believe in Jesus. They were looking for more excuses for their unbelief, and Jesus knew exactly what was going on in their evil minds.
Those people had learned to predict the weather by observing the color of the sky in the morning or in the evening, but the signs of the times meant nothing to them. In fulfillment of prophecy, John the Baptist had called the people to repentance and pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the promised Messiah, and Jesus had fulfilled many more Old Testament prophecies in the circumstances of his birth, his sinless life, and the many mighty miracles he had already performed. So Jesus told those people that they would not be given the kind of sign they demanded. Jesus himself would determine what signs to show them, and he told them that they could expect only “the sign of Jonah.” As Jesus had explained in chapter 12, this sign referred to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead after three days in the grave. We know that when that happened, they still refused to believe. Instead, they bribed the guards to lie about Jesus’ resurrection.
Jesus wasted no more time with those Pharisees and Sadducees. He had more important things to do and more fruitful ways to spend his time, so he left.
Jesus warns of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees
Matthew chapter 16, verses 5-12
When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.” Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Jesus and his disciples went back to the more desolate territory on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. As they went, he warned his disciples about the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They did not understand what he meant. In their efforts to figure this out, they reached a strange conclusion. The mention of yeast reminded them of bread and of the fact that they had forgotten to bring bread along (except for one small loaf, as Mark chapter 8, verse 14 reminds us). So they concluded that Jesus must be telling them not to get any bread (containing yeast) from the Pharisees or Sadducees.
Jesus was aware of their conversation, and he admonished them for the littleness of their faith. They had all been present and involved when Jesus miraculously provided bread for the five thousand and for the four thousand, so it didn’t make much sense for them to be worried about not having enough bread when they were with Jesus. If they did not have to be worried about getting food for the body from the Pharisees and Sadducees, what was it that they should be concerned about? The most dangerous thing those factions of the Jews had to give to the disciples was their ungodly doctrine. When the disciples thought over what Jesus had told them, they realized that he was warning them about the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The Pharisees took the Law of Moses very seriously and added hundreds of rules of their own to that law. They expected to earn their salvation by keeping all the rules, at least outwardly. But Jesus denounced them as hypocrites and called on them to repent, so they hated Jesus. The Sadducees denied the existence of the angels and did not believe in any kind of resurrection, so they hated Jesus for speaking about resurrection and even raising people from the dead. The doctrines of those two Jewish sects were at odds with each other, but these Jews were united in their hostility toward Jesus. As we study the rest of the gospel of Matthew, this hostility will become more and more vicious and unreasonable.