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WHAT MAKES A MAN UNCLEAN

Matthew 15:1-15:20
Key Verse: 15:19-20

In chapter 14 Jesus fed the hungry crowd of five thousand with five loaves and two fish, and he walked on the water to rescue his disciples who were straining at the oars in the dark night of the sea. He encourages all his disciples who walk on the water with faith, fixing their eyes on Jesus. Today’s passage deals with clean and unclean matter. In Jesus’ time it was a very serious issue. Even now from the sanitation viewpoint it is important. But let’s think about true cleanness and uncleanness based on Jesus’ teaching.

First, do not nullify the word of God (1-6). Look at verses 1,2. “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!” Some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus sent from the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. They did not come to Jesus to receive his mercy. They came to investigate Jesus and his ministry. These investigators did not find anything wrong with Jesus. However, they saw his disciples eating without washing their hands. It was a shock to them. According to the tradition of the elders, what the disciples did could not be accepted.

When we read the Old Testament, washing was very important to the Israelites. At the time of ordination Moses washed Aaron and his sons with water before putting priestly garments on them (Lev 8:6). It was a part of consecration. The Israelites were God’s chosen people. They received the Ten Commandments from God. But when they did not follow God’s decrees, they lost their quality as God’s chosen people. They were not even able to conform to the standards of the nations around them (Eze 4:7). Finally they were taken captive by Babylon. When they returned from Babylonian captivity after much suffering, they realized that they had to live as God’s chosen people. They wanted to live by the words of God. With this good motive, the traditions of the elders had been made. It was to apply God’s laws to their practical lives. But as time passed by, it was likely that they put more emphasis on the traditions of the elders than the very commands of God. Their washing turned out to be ceremonial washing (Mk 7:3). They kept the traditions of the elders, not knowing the true meaning of the traditions. What was worse, they became critical. They criticized and judged others according to their traditions.

They asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Certainly, Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands to intentionally break the tradition of the elders. They were probably just too busy and wanted to eat quickly at specific times. Yet, the investigators interpreted the disciple’s not washing their hands as breaking the tradition of the elders. It is true that one small mistake can be magnified in the eyes of those who want to criticize the person who has made the mistake.

How did Jesus reply? Look at verse 3. “Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” Jesus did not answer to their question directly. To Jesus, they had to find themselves. Jesus asked back with a “why” question. Jesus wanted them to be able to see themselves as those who were breaking the command of God for the sake of the tradition. Notice that Jesus asked, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” instead of “…for the sake of the tradition of the elders,” while they asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” It indicated that the tradition of the elders degenerated into their own tradition. Jesus told them one example. Look at verses 4-6a. “For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ (Ex 20:12) and ‘Anyone who cures his father or mother must be put to death’ (Dt 5:16). 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 honour his father with it.” Here ‘a devoted gift to God’ was called ‘Corban’ in Mark’s gospel (Mk 7:11). ‘Corban’ was misused as an excuse for not helping one’s parents. It was not the tradition of the elders from the beginning, but one made during a certain period of time.

Jesus continued to say, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of tradition.” How easy it is to nullify the word of God for the sake of tradition or any other changeable things as time passed by! In this world everything changes. Tradition changes, and culture and technology change. One’s value system changes and hair style also. Books are changed and there are continual editions for textbooks. Politics change. For decades people in GTA voted for liberals, and Liberal Part swept over Toronto region at each election. But this time Conservatives got 30 seats out of 47. It was surprising to me. I thought that Toronto would be the city for liberals forever. We cannot say that change is necessarily bad. Yet, we cannot rely on changeable things. A school atmosphere is changed, and a company atmosphere is changed. Men themselves are changed and gone. But the word of God never changes. We should know that there are the words of God and they never change. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least of stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Mt 5:18). He also said when he told his disciples about his second coming on the Mount of Olives, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Mt 24:34,35). Peter said in 1 Peter 1:24,25, “For, ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.’” Thank God or his words that are never-changing and stand forever!

Here we learn that word of God should not be nullified for anything but honoured and kept at all times. In our time we are vulnerable to nullify the word of God for the sake of humanism and humanistic teachings. God’s words seem to be too radical or sometimes scary or too good to believe, while human teaching, more reasonable and appealing to our human minds. Yet, God’s teachings in the Bible are very clear about God’s creation, the way of salvation through Jesus, God’s love, the kingdom of heaven, his coming again, and eternal condemnation. We must not nullify these absolute teachings of the Bible with any thing else. Paul said, in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world…” God esteems the one who trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2b) As the expression of our respecting God’s word, may we prioritize daily bread eating, daily Bible reading and sincere weekly Bible study and put God’s word above any human words and ideas and traditions and cultures.

Look at verses 7-9. “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honour 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 further spoke and pointed out their more fundamental problem, which was their heart problem. Jesus said in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Here Jesus said, “You hypocrites!” And he said in The problem of the hypocrites was to live and act before people, not God (Mt 6:1-2). They honoured God with their lips but their hearts were far from God. How can we know that one’s heart is far from God? Those whose hearts are far from God nullify the words of God to cover up their going away from God. One’s heart for God and one’s attitude toward God’s word are closely related. One whose heart is right with God respects God’s word, elevating it over all things. Those who honour God honour God’s word. They are sincere before God’s words. They tremble to keep and obey the word of God. But when one’s heart is corrupted, he nullifies God’s word and values human teachings more than God’s word. In worship service, God’s word should be honoured and proclaimed, not human teachings. When we accept God’s word through worship, we will not worship God in vain but in honouring him.

Second, what makes a man unclean (10-20). Look at verse 10. “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand.’” Jesus could see that the crowd were susceptible to the influence of the hypocritical Pharisees and teachers of the law. He said, “Listen and understand.” What simple and clear advice! In order to understand one should listen. We see that Matthew emphasizes the importance of understanding, especially the understanding of God’s word. In order to understand, one must listen first. With one’s own thinking only, one cannot understand. Then what did they have to listen and understand? He said, “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.’” This teaching seems to be very simple to everyone’s understanding, but it is not so. Let’s think about this. What goes into a man’s mouth is food. When we read Leviticus, one chapter, Leviticus 11, is about clean and unclean food. God said, “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten” (Lev 11:46). For example, of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, they might eat any that have fins and scales, but had not to eat any that do not have fins and scales (Lev 11:9). It was because God wanted them to live as his holy people. He said, “I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:45). So what Jesus said, “What goes into a man’s stomach does not make him ‘unclean’” was a revolutionary declaration at that time. In Acts while Peter fell into a trance, he saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” At this scene Peter replied, “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Ac 10:10-14). It was the response of a typical Jew toward unclean food. As we studied above, in the Old Testament outward cleansing only was never stressed. Outward cleansing implied that God’s people had to be different and holy because God is holy. The problem was that the people of God were only visibly clean; they were not serious about inner cleanliness. When Jesus said, “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,’ it was a radical teaching and at the same time stressing the importance of inner cleansing. In our days as well, people are very concerned about outward cleanness, beauty, and appearance, while paying no attention to intrinsic qualities. Body cleaning is prevalent but heart-cleaning is uncommon. Before God, if one’s heart is unclean, that person is unclean, although the body is clean. “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.’” What Jesus said is forever true. Our relationship with God is broken not because of outward uncleanness but because of inner uncleanness.

Look at verse 12. “Then the disciples came to him and asked, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?’” What Jesus said was shaking the ground of the Jewish belief. The disciples were surprised and worried a lot that the Pharisees were offended by Jesus’ radical teaching. At this Jesus 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.” In chapter 13, we studied about the weeds. At the time of the harvest, they will be pulled up and be burned. In the end unclean people are pulled up. People with unclean hearts are blind to see God. They cannot lead others. Both remain unclean, not being able to see God and finally fall into a pit.

Look at verse 15. “Peter said, ‘Explain the parable to us.’” At first Peter must have thought that what Jesus said was easy to understand. Now he realized that it was a parable with deep meaning in it, though it was just one sentence. So he said, “Explain the parable to us.” Look at verse 16. “‘Are you still so dull?’ Jesus asked them.” In fact all the disciples wanted to hear about the explanation of the parable. This time Jesus was not pleased with their question, saying, “Are you still so dull?” They should have understood the straightforward teaching of Jesus. Then Jesus spoke the same thing with a bit of more explanation in a question form. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?” This is part of our every day life. Then he said, “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’” This is also to be a part of our every day’s life, but not many are able to see it. When we see it, we want to be cleansed, but when we do not see it, we do not think that we need such a cleansing.

Jesus wanted the people to be able to see what come of the heart. Look verse 19. “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.’” In the list of what comes out of the heart, evil thoughts are first. This expression seems to be vague. But it is very meaningful. When we think of evil thoughts of men, many things can come across in our minds. But among them what can be the primary one? In the Garden of Eden when Eve allowed the serpent talking with her, her way of thinking was changed. In her thought God was not a loving God anymore but a God who prohibited something good from her, trying to restrict her. She could not acknowledge the loving God. God looked like a tyrant to her. This was evil and evil thoughts were planted in her. Then thankfulness disappeared. Rather she became bitter toward God. This made God so pained. The actual sin of eating the forbidden fruit came soon after. When the author of Genesis described the corruption of the world, he wrote first, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” The foremost evil is not recognizing God as God. All human beings want to be recognized as human beings, not as inferior animals. How much more God! God should be recognized as God! However, in their crooked and evil thinking people do not recognize God who created them. Rather they turn their backs to the Creator. So Paul wrote in Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile…”

All human hearts are evil before God (Mt 7:11). Evil thoughts come out of the evil heart. It is not easy to honour God as God. We easily take things for granted and do not thank God. We remember Jesus’ hometown people. He came to bless them with richly heavenly blessings. But they did not honour him or thanked him. Rather they were full of evil human thoughts and took offense at him. In his broken heart he lamented, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honour.” (Mt 13:56). Our hearts can be mixed. On one hand we want to come nearer to God and let him reign us. On the other hand we want to recognize God in a certain degree and then live freely as our own. It is not easy at all to acknowledge that God is the Creator God and all things I have came from him, and in him we live and move and have our being. We do not recognize the Sovereign Lord wholly, who is in control, and humbly ask for his guidance and his ruling in each path of life. We often do not keep in mind that Jesus is our Saviour and Lord. Evilness is still there in our hearts.

Then out of the heart come murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. Before actions all these things come out of the heart. About adultery Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). Some may think that as long as these things do not actually come into actions, they will be okay. But Jesus said, “These are what make a man unclean.” Whether one accepts this, the spiritual reality is that his or her heart becomes unclean. With unclean heart one cannot see God. More tragically, an unclean heart becomes the dwelling place of unclean spirits. And the condition of the man with unclean heart and unclean spirits will be beyond measure, going farther and farther away from God, however clean outwardly.

Then how can our hearts be cleansed? Cleanness does not come from people. Cleanness comes from God, who is holy. He wants us to come to him through his Son Jesus. He wants us to come to him with a broken spirit and contrite heart. For this the word of God helps us. 1 Peter 1:23 says, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” God’s word leads us to repentance. The word of God cleanses us. Jesus prayed for his disciples, “Holy Father…Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). This is the reason we should not nullify the word of God, but honour it and make every effort to obey and keep it.

In this study we learn what makes a man unclean and the importance of heart cleansing. As we come to our holy God respecting his words, he may cleanse our hearts that the heart of each of us be made pure, humble, submissive, and loving.

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