“Jesus’ Teaching On The Law”
Lesson Text:Matthew 15:1-11, 15-20
Background Scripture: Exodus 20; Isaiah 29:13, 14; Matthew 5:17-48; 15:1-20; Romans 3:31
Devotional Reading: Matthew 5:14-20
Matthew 15:1-11, 15-20 (KJV)
1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
5 But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;
6 And honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.
7 Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,
8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.
9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
10 And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:
11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
15 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable.
16 And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding?
17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?
18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.
19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:
20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.
To understand that our traditions should not conflict with God’s Word.
To explain that man-made traditions and outward actions cannot make us what we need to be before God.
To pursue righteousness with a humble spirit and right motives.
Telephone Game 2.0
My children came home from a youth group activity excited to teach my husband and me a new game that they had learned. Everyone sits in a circle, and each person writes a phrase on a piece of paper. Each then passes his or her paper to the person on the left, who draws a picture that represents the phrase. After everyone has drawn a picture, the papers are to be folded so that the original phrases are hidden, then papers are passed one person to the left. Each person then writes out a phrase that represents the picture he or she has received. Papers are refolded so that only this phrase is visible, then papers are passed again to the left to repeat the cycle.
This process continues until each person receives back his or her original piece of paper. Papers are then unfolded to behold the often comical transformation of the original phrases into something quite different. My husband and I recognized this game as a creative adaptation of the old “telephone game” that we learned growing up.
The principle conveyed by these games is that a message often changes over time as it is passed along. This is especially true when the message has been passed across changing cultures over a long period. By the time of Jesus, something like this had happened to the laws that God gave His people on Mount Sinai many centuries earlier.
Today's lesson focuses on a confrontation Jesus had with scribes and Pharisees over the meaning of the cleanness laws of the old covenant. Debates regarding these laws were common in the first century. Since the religious authorities tried to pull Jesus into these sharp debates, it is helpful to understand why they occurred in the first place.
The best way to understand debates of the first century A.D. regarding God's law is to sketch the contours of the law's complex history. God first revealed His laws, through Moses, on Mount Sinai; the recipients were the Israelites after their deliverance from bondage in Egypt. These laws were tailored to a people that God was bringing into the promised land to live as free people. Each tribe and family had its own God-given land, and God's law showed them how to use their freedom to reflect His holiness and justice. But the passing of the centuries saw the Israelites refusing to live according to God's laws, so He punished them by handing them over to other nations.
Since many of the laws delivered through Moses were directly connected with life in the promised land free from foreign domination, the first-century Jews struggled to know how to apply such laws under Roman occupation. For example, the Sabbath laws stressed the need for everyone to rest—whether slave or free, foreigner or native. Under the Romans, however, the full application of Sabbath laws was not always possible. Therefore, the common people relied on the scribes and Pharisees for interpretation and application of God's law.
Problems arose, however, when the religious authorities ended up placing their interpretations on the same level as the laws themselves. Today's text is an example of this. (Mark 7:1-23 is parallel.)
The Religious Leaders’ Question/Accusation (Matthew 15:1, 2)
1. Who were the men from Jerusalem who approached Jesus? What was their concern? (Matthew 15:1, 2)
Jesus’ conversation partners in our passage are Jewish leaders from Jerusalem. The designation Pharisees means “the separated ones,” and were members of a Jewish sect that had risen to prominence during the two centuries before Jesus’ birth. They are very strict in their interpretation and application of God’s law (compare Acts 26:5). However, they considered the traditions of religious experts—the “elders” mentioned in verse 2—to be equal in authority with the law. Scribes, who are often associated with Pharisees in the New Testament, study and make copies of the law as their occupation. It matters that they are coming from Jerusalem, for that city is the religious power center. Scribes and Pharisees from there see themselves as the guardians of proper religious instruction. So when they hear about strange teaching coming out of the small villages scattered about Palestine, they send envoys to gather information and, if need be, set matters straight. The fact that the scribes and Pharisees united in this attack, and came all the way from Jerusalem to speak to Jesus, indicates the seriousness of their purpose.
Jesus already has had head-on collisions with the religious authorities, and they are already plotting to kill Him (Matthew 12:14). Their presence in this passage is thus an ominous sign.
The Jewish leaders who wish to silence Jesus launch this particular attack at the level of the tradition of the elders (as mentioned, Matthew 15:2). The elders being referred to are probably the religious authorities back in Jerusalem; they are very careful to wash their hands ritually before eating (see explanation in Mark 7:3, 4). It is likely that these elders and/or their predecessors have developed this tradition out of genuine concern to uphold the cleanness laws of the Old Testament.
The book of Leviticus places great emphasis on ritual purity or cleanness, so the scribes and Pharisees are not without biblical support. Their problem is that the Scriptures do not require ritual hand-washing before eating (compare Exodus 30:17-21; Leviticus 15:11). Rather, this is a tradition above and beyond that of the Law of Moses. The religious authorities also miss the point of the original meaning of passages about ritual cleanness, as we shall see.
What Do You Think?
In what ways can a church tradition that was developed to address a genuine need become counterproductive or even antiscriptural over time?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Regarding resources needed to continue the tradition | Regarding witness to the community
Regarding changes in demographics of the church itself | Other
The Religious Leaders’ Transgression (Matthew 15:3-6)
2. What was Jesus’ response to the scribes and the Pharisees concern? (Matthew 15:3-6)
Before setting the record straight on the issue of ritual cleanness itself, Jesus confronts the larger problem of tradition: although these leaders present themselves as guardians of the Law of Moses, their traditions sometimes end up undermining that very law. Jesus is now putting this practice on trial.
Jesus picks as His case study two interrelated laws that are relatively clear-cut. The command to honor one’s parents is stated in Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16. The punishment of death for cursing one’s parents is recorded in Leviticus 20:9; the fact that the death penalty is invoked for such behavior emphasizes that this law is extremely important to God.
Though the religious authorities pay lip service to God’s command to honor parents, they also endorse a tradition that accomplishes exactly the opposite. Many Christians learn as young children the command to honor their parents. As children, we are taught to obey our parents, so we (ideally) do our chores, mind our manners, and do not talk back. But we must remember that the command to honor father and mother originally also included the idea of seeing to the needs of aging parents.
But the teachers of the law provide a loophole that enables opting out of this responsibility. In Mark 7:11, this loophole is called Corban, which means “offering to God.” They sanctioned sons and daughters devoting to God what they otherwise would have given to their parents (Matt. 15:5). In reality, what was supposedly being vowed as a gift to the Lord ended up being used for self-centered ends. In this way, the religious leaders endorsed adult children dishonoring their parents. Even worse, the elitists invalidated the divine command just to uphold their “tradition” (v. 6).
The religious authorities apparently do not believe that caring for parents is a deeply religious obligation, but Jesus disagrees. His rebuke is quite sharp. Paul follows Jesus in this by rebuking those who do not provide care for their own families. He even calls such care a way to show “piety,” the neglect of which is worse than the offenses of infidels (1 Timothy 5:4-8).
The Religious Leaders’ Hypocrisy (Matthew 15:7-9)
3. How did the scribes and Pharisees manifest their hypocrisy? (Matthew 15:7-9)
Hypocrites are those who say one thing but do another. Their words do not match their actions, and Jesus is about to explain why the scribes and Pharisees are in this camp. The prophet Esaias (Isaiah) encountered their same mind-set in his day, and the words he spoke in identifying this problem are timeless.
Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13, and the situation Isaiah faced in the eighth century B.C. has parallels to that of the first century A.D. To begin with, this quotation is part of a prophecy beginning in Isaiah 29:1, which addresses the people of Jerusalem specifically. In Isaiah's day, they worshipped God with great pomp and enthusiasm, but then they treated needy people unfairly in the courts and otherwise failed to address their economic situation as the law required (Isaiah 1:12-17). This is like the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees who teach high principles yet neglect needy parents. When words do not match actions, we can be sure that one's behavior is the real indicator of where one's heart truly is.
Jesus pointedly called the religious leaders “hypocrites” (Matt. 15:7). In verses 8 and 9, Jesus quoted Isaiah 29:13. 3. The original context applied to the people of Judah. Even though they rejected inspired prophecies made by God’s spokespersons, they were scrupulous in maintaining their religious practices. But Isaiah said that the people’s ritual honoring of God was mere lip service and their worship was nothing more than legalism. Just like their refusal to heed prophecy, this false obedience was a sign that their hearts were not turned toward God. We shouldn’t comfort ourselves with the thought that the error committed by the religious teachers ended with the New Testament era. Many professed Christians today go to great lengths in enforcing rules that have no basis in Scripture. The temptation to displace God’s Word with our own interpretations of it is always strong
Public Explanation (Matthew 15:10, 11)
Jesus addresses three groups in Matthew 15. First, He engages His accusers: the scribes and Pharisees; His word to them is one of judgment on their faulty teaching and example. Now He turns to the wider crowd to set the record straight. In verse 15, He will finish His teaching by addressing His most immediate followers.
4.What did Jesus tell the crowd causes defilement (uncleanliness)? (Matthew 15:10, 11)
In Bible times, “cleanness” and “uncleanness” rarely have to do with hygiene. Instead, they were religious concepts. Tragically, the teachers of the law developed complicated rules about uncleanness. For instance, after a pottery seller temporarily left his wares unattended in the marketplace, he would have to treat the pots as unclean. Since one of them might have been touched by an unclean person in his absence, he would have to wash the outsides of all his pots. Jesus declared that the teachers of the law had lost sight of the purpose for the clean and unclean distinction. That differentiation was designed to point to the need for inner cleanness and moral purity. Accordingly, in Matthew 15:10, Jesus directed a crowd of listeners to hear and comprehend what He was declaring. Moral purity, He revealed, was a matter of the heart.
Jesus’ lesson was simple and reasonable. The most basic understanding of the human body makes it clear that food cannot make us spiritually defiled (v. 11). We are not corrupted by what is outside us, but by what is within our souls. It is our hearts, not our diet, that may pollute us spiritually.
God wants us to give Him our hearts, and not just our lip service. We believe in the heart (Rom. 10:9-10), love from the heart (Matt. 22:37), sing from the heart (Col. 3:16), obey from the heart (Rom. 6:17; Eph. 6:6), and give from the heart (2 Cor. 9:7). No wonder David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10).
Jesus declared boldly to the multitudes that sin comes from the heart, not from the diet. It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles us, not what goes in.
Private Explanation (Matthew 15:15-20)
5.What did the disciples ask Jesus to explain? (Matthew 15:15)
As is their custom, Jesus’ followers press Him to explain His teaching (compare Matthew 13:36; Luke 8:9). We are fortunate to be able to read these follow-up discussions because some of Jesus’ richest teachings are found in them.
Jesus was surprised that His closest followers, despite having spent over a year with Him, were lacking in understanding (Matt. 15:16). Jesus explained that whatever people eat goes from the mouth to the stomach and eventually leaves the body (v. 17). The implication is that the food people consume does not spiritually defile them. Instead, they are morally tainted by the iniquities that originate from a corrupt heart (v. 18). Jesus revealed that the innermost being of people produces wicked ideas and murderous acts. Likewise, out of the depths of a depraved soul come such vices as “adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, [and] blasphemies” (v. 19). Jesus declared that the latter are what defiled a person, not eating food with ceremonially unwashed “hands” (v. 20).
What Do You Think?
As Christians, how do we make sure that our witness is primarily in light of what we do rather than in light of what we don't do?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Examining attitudes about God’s expectations | Examining attitudes toward other people
Examining traditional expectations about “correct” Christian behavior
POINTS TO PONDER
Tradition is something external, while God’s truth is internal, in the heart. People obey tradition to please men and gain status (Gal. 1:14), but we obey the Word to please God. Tradition deals with ritual, while God’s truth deals with reality. Tradition brings empty words to the lips, but truth penetrates the heart and changes the life. Actually, tradition robs a person of the power of the Word of God.
Beyond Telephone Games
The old telephone game and its contemporary successors are comical because of how bad humans are at passing along information accurately. Too much is “lost in translation” from one person to another. Human traditions are like this and religious traditions are no different.
Believers have been entrusted by God with the Good News of God's kingdom. We must be careful to pass this message along faithfully. We must humbly admit that we are prone to confuse important information. We must return to the Scriptures constantly to evaluate what we hear, even from respected teachers. The Christians in Berea did this for the apostle Paul (Acts 17:10, 11), and we should continue to do so today. Failure to do this may mean missing out on the profound teachings of Jesus.
Heavenly Father, please make us clean from the inside out. Purify us by the truth of Your Word and the power of Your Spirit. Give us ears to hear the simple truths of Your Scriptures and discernment to know when human traditions have taken their place. In Jesus' name, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Let God's Word purify you from the inside out.