AN EXPOSITION OF MATTHEW 15:1-20
1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
The Lord has been ministering in Galilee where a remarkable incident took place on the Sea of Galilee. Peter walked on water. He did not walk on water for very long before he lost his faith and began to sink into a watery grave. But Peter did have a tiny seed faith to step out of the boat and walk on water, unlike the other disciples. After that event, Jesus and His disciples ministered in the Land of Gennesaret where many people were healed.
While Jesus was there, scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem came to Him with a question. It was an astonishing question in light of the mighty miracles Christ was performing, but the question was important to these religious leaders. Their question was so important, the religious leaders traveled 80 miles, or about three days, to the area where Jesus was ministering in Galilee.
It is unclear but the religious leaders may have found Jesus ministering in Nazareth, or Tiberias, on the West shore of the Sea of Galilee, or Capernaum on the northwest shore, or maybe the town of Caesarea Philippi to the north. It does not really matter.
What is significant is that the scribes and Pharisees wanted an answer to their question because it would reveal whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. The presupposition being that the Messiah would not violate the Law of Moses, the Oral Law, or the Traditions of the Elders, and neither would His disciples.
Why then, do the followers of Christ, and by implication, Christ Himself, violate the Sabbath, if He is whom He is rumored to be, the Messiah.
First Question: Scribes and Pharisees
2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash [rinse] not their hands when they eat bread.
Over the centuries, the elders in Israel had instilled many traditions that the Jews were to observe. These traditions were intended to supplement and enhance the Moral Law of God, along with all the rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law of which there were 613 provisions. These traditions were not just important in the Jewish society; they were as important as the Law of Moses, and just as binding.
How many traditions were there? There were a lot. For example, the Law commanded the name of God not be taken in vain. The Jews made it a rule that the sacred name of God, YHVH (Tetragrammaton) was not to be used at all. The Law forbid work on the Sabbath. Thousands of rules were given to define “work.” There were lists of the various knots a person was allowed to tie and untie on a Sabbath.
One tradition was to rinse the hands while eating. This tradition has origin in the commandments in the Law regarding clean and unclean things. In Leviticus 11 only certain animals were to be eaten. Some animals were not to be eaten, such as the pig. Those of us who love bacon would be disappointed if we could not eat bacon, or enjoy a pork chop.
With the passing of time, many Jews became lax about keeping the Law. In His anger God judged Israel, and sent many of the people into captivity. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC. The Babylonians took the southern kingdom into captivity in 586 BC.
While in captivity, certain Jews became concerned about returning to the Law of God, and keeping the commandments of the Lord. Ezra was a leader of this movement.
A practical problem arose. How were the commandments of God to be interpreted? A serious debate arose. It was decided that when a consensus was reached, it would be passed on to the next generation. This resulted in an Oral Tradition.
Eventually, there arose documents, and oral traditions, which became known as the Mishnah (learning, or, repetition), the Gemara (to finish, or, complete), and finally the Talmud (to instruct).
There are two versions of the Talmud. There is the Babylonian Talmud, c. 500 AD. There is the Jerusalem Talmud, c. 70 AD.
The entire Talmud, consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara, has 63 tractates (treatise). In printed form, 37 volumes contain nearly two million words. The Talmud covers a variety of topics such as law, faith, medicine, magic, ethics, sex, humor, prayer, and matters of uncleanness. Everything was supposed to be rooted in the Mosaic Law.
In Leviticus 11, the Law said that the Israelites could eat meat, but only of those animals that parted the hoof and chewed the cud. First, they were to be cleansed from all blood, including any residual blood that remained on the hands during the butchering, or cooking process. The presence of a demon was also taken into consideration in the discussion about unclean food and ritual washing of the hands.
There was an alleged demon called Shibta. This demonic personage could sit upon a person’s hands during the night. If any person touched their food with unwashed hands then the demon would go and sit on the food and make it unclean. It was no longer Kosher, or fit to eat.
For their desire to give meticulous attention to the Law, the scribes and Pharisees should be commended. For their excessive zeal in binding others with rules and regulations, they are condemned.
The problem with many ideologies is not that they are intrinsically wrong-minded, but that they are wrongly enforced. Public shaming, open condemnation, labeling individuals with derogative words, and virtue signaling is not a good way to win friends and influence people. The religious zeal of the scribes and Pharisees compelled them to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee to question Jesus while standing in self-righteous judgment on His disciples.
Second Question: Jesus
3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
In a typical Jewish style, Jesus did not answer the question of the scribes and Pharisees directly, but posed a question of His own, followed by a detailed exposition of their own transgression. In a very clever juxtaposition, Jesus established the dichotomy between what man has said, and what God has said.
Man says that a personal relationship with God is based on rituals. God says that a personal relationship with Him is based upon gospel obedience to His will. God says to His children, “My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways” (Prov. 23:26).
An outward religious form is pitted against an inward personal faith in this contest between the scribes and the pharisees, and the Lord Jesus.
By saying, “ye also,” Jesus does acknowledge His disciples transgressed the traditions of the elders. However, the elders transgressed the commandments of God by their tradition. Specifically, the scribes and Pharisees did not honor the fifth commandment of God in Exodus 20:12.
4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.
The commandment to honor one’s father and mother is not difficult to understand. Parents are to be shown respect. If a child fails to honor his or her parent, that child was to “die the death.” The disrespectful child was to be stoned to death. If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother … all the men of the city shall stone him with stones, that he die …. (Deut. 21:18, 21). Many of the elders in Israel would qualify for a stoning because they found a way to dishonor their fathers and their mothers through the use of Corban.
The Corban Gimmick
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;
By pretending to dedicate their resources to the Lord, the elders of Israel found a clever way to dishonor their parents and not provide for their needs in their old age. By crying, “Corban,” or, “It is a gift!”, individuals came to believe they were relieved of their filial duties.
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.
While parents are to take care of their children, in the sunset years of life, children can show reciprocal love, honor, and respect, and take care of their parents, if help is needed.
Unfortunately, some of the adult children in Israel, including some of the scribes and Pharisees, pretended they could not help at home because they had vowed to give everything to God, and a vow was to be kept. The Law said, “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the Lord thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee” (Deut. 23:21).
7 Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying,
Jesus could have used one word to summarize the actions of the scribes and elders, and their use of Corban, “Hypocrite!”. However, Jesus had something more to say through the prophet Isaiah because He was not always meek and mild. At times, Jesus could roar like the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. This was such an occasion. Jesus spoke plainly to say something convicting.
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.
The quote is taken from Isaiah 29:13. Just like in the days of Isaiah, the effect of the traditions of men is that they became burdensome, and separated many people from God. Some devout Jews who were sincere about keeping the Law, and the traditions became self-righteous. Self-righteousness is wicked because it leads a person to abandon their personal relationship with God, based on dependency, to one of being independent of the Lord based on self-sufficiency. The form of religion was still present. The people came to the Temple to worship with their mouth, but their hearts were far from God. There was religious rhetoric without any corresponding heartfelt reality.
That problem exists today. People gather to worship, they sing the songs of Zion, they listen to the reading of the Scriptures, the sermon begins, and the mind wanders off to think about lunch, or a football game, or some other interesting activity. God is no longer in one’s heart in worship. Matthew Henry talk about piety being “from the teeth outward”, but not from the heart.
Jesus took the opportunity presented to Him to describe the traditions as the commandments, or precepts of men that made the Word of God meaningless. Beyond that, the traditions of men made God out to be a ruthless tyrant without love, mercy, or grace.
By way of application, the Church must be careful how traditions are viewed. At the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), it was decreed those Roman traditions were to be held, “with the same powers of affection and reverence as the Holy Scriptures.” The Reformers opposed this concept and cried, “Sola Scriptura”, Scripture alone is to be rule of faith and practice. Tradition is often added to the Word of God in order to avoid personal responsibility.
10 And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:
Time and again, individuals are commanded to hear God’s Word, and to understand what is said. There are some spiritual truths which can be perceived only by the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, such as Jesus being the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt. 16:17). There are other truths which the Natural Man can comprehend and appreciate such as the fact that moral defilement should be more alarming than concern about ceremonial defilement.
11 Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
There are foods to eat, and liquids to drink which may be harmful to one’s health, but they do not morally defile the person. In contrast, what comes out of a person can corrupt their soul, and lead them to an eternal damnation. The fool who has said in his heart, “There is no God”, blasphemes the Lord, and is defiled. The person who curses their father, or their mother, defiles themselves.
The conclusion of the matter is understood. Rather than become alarmed about someone transgressing the oppressive traditions of men, individuals should be more concerned about the heart, and having a right relationship with the living God.
Third Question: The Disciples
12 Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?
Though they asked the question, the Pharisees did not want to receive what Jesus had to say. Rather than change their religious bias, the Pharisees became offended by what they heard. What the Pharisees heard was the truth. But they could not handle the truth and demonstrated in an obvious way how angry they were. The emotional response of the Pharisees alarmed the disciples who were socially sensitive and wanted to be politically correct. Coming to Jesus, the disciples brought to His attention how offended the Pharisees were by His response. Jesus was not impressed, intimidated, or dismissive. Instead, Jesus used the response of the Pharisees to teach yet more gospel truths. In two verses Jesus will have something to say about the fear of man, the sovereignty of God in election, and Christian separation.
The Father’s Plant
13 But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.
The response of Jesus to the angry Pharisees was not to become afraid, but to teach His disciples about the sovereignty of God. According to His sovereign will, God the Father plants some, and uproots others. The implication is that these particular scribes and Pharisees were not plants of the Father, and so were to be rooted up and cast aside. Had the Father planted these religious leaders, they would have seen the errors of their way. They would have thanked Jesus for His correcting love. They would not be angry.
By teaching the truth of the Father’s planting, Jesus was not being unkind, or unloving. In fact, only “sloppy agape,” as Dr. J. Vernon McGee used to call it, will fail to correct doctrinal error. Agape love is not always sentimental, it is truthful and steadfast. Sometimes it is brutal. Agape love is only love when it is taught in the truth (2 John 1:1-13). Because there are religious individuals whom the Father has not planted, they are to be left alone.
Blind Leaders of the Blind
14 Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.
The counsel of Christ was to let the Pharisees alone, let them be angry, and do not try to appease them, or talk in a rational way to them. Later, the apostle Paul would obey this commandment and instruct Titus to do the same. “A man that is a heretic (hairetikos; schismatic) after the first and second admonition reject” (Titus 3:10). All of this is good counsel for Christians today. Do not be afraid of angry people, and do not acquiesce to their ideology.
15 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable.
Fourth Question: Jesus
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:
Seven Sins of the Heart
- Evil thoughts
- False witnessing
20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashed hands defileth not a man.
Poor Peter. Though he was passionately devoted to Christ, he was not always the first to understand what Jesus taught. Time and again the Lord had to take extra time with Peter in order for His disciple to fully understand something. Therefore, once more, Jesus tells Peter, and all of His disciples, that the reason the traditions of the elders can be violated with impunity is because any violation of tradition is without transgression. It might appear to be a great evil to some to violate tradition, but it is no sin.
By answering the question of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus did so without compromise. The Lord did not commend the religious leaders for their thoughtfulness. He did not say their binding traditions on individual was worthy of respect. Jesus completely destroyed their point of view, for that is the only way evil can triumph over good. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump (1 Cor. 5:6). A little bit of doctrinal error on any given subject, weakens the truth. To some, doctrinal error, a teaching or tradition not rooted in Scripture, is not a big issue because we believe what we want to believe, regardless of all else.
For this reason, many are willing to honor tradition over Scripture. There is the tradition of the Mass, the Confessional, paedo-baptism, Confirmation, the doctrine of papal infallibility, the Immaculate conception of Mary, and her bodily assumption into heaven. There is the tradition of celebrating Easter just one time a year, and the local assembly being led by one man as a pastor. There is the tradition of the altar call.
Traditions are well meaning, but sometimes they obscure the truth and take away from personal responsibility to believe and be baptized, and follow Christ as a disciple. Jesus insists that the Word of God must be exalted above tradition. And tradition is to be tested by Scripture.
“O God, help us to be subject to Holy Scripture. And enable us, O God, to have a relationship to Thee that is not a relationship of form and ritual, not of the outward only, but that is truly one of an inward nature by which we worship Thee in spirit and in truth from cleansed and redeemed heart through the blood of Christ. May grace, mercy and peace be with us as we part. For Jesus’ sake” (Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, “Human Tradition vs. Holy Scripture”).