“Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; 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. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:1-9)
In this passage the Lord Jesus confronts the religious system of his day head on. He confronts the scribes and Pharisees publicly, giving a scathing denunciation of their religion, its customs, traditions, and hypocrisy, drawing a clear line of distinction between false and true religion. This is a matter that God’s servants must deal with, and deal with plainly, in every age.
It is written, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Ex. 20:7). Obviously, that commandment prohibits profanity and vulgar language in which the name of God is used, as well as all flippant, irreverent usage of God’s name. How often we hear men and women, and even children, taking God’s name in vain, who would never think they are doing so! I cringe every time I hear someone say, “Gee,” “Gees,” “Gosh,” “Golly,” “Lord,” “my Lord,” “my God,” or “oh God” as a by-word. The name of the Lord our God is not to be used as a by-word! But the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” goes much, much deeper. It forbids all superficial, indifferent, insincere, half-hearted, hypocritical worship.
Someone said, “God’s name is taken in vain more often inside the church than outside!” Most of what we see in religion today is nothing less than the blasphemy of God’s name! The mechanical use of God’s name in repetitious prayers, songs, and rituals, while having no thought and regard for his honor and genuine devotion to him, is taking his name in vain.
Empty religious rituals and ceremonies, even when the outward form conforms to the Word of God is but the taking of God’s name in vain (Isa. 1:13-18). And most religious practices today do not even attempt to be outwardly conformed to the Word of God. Malachi declares that the offering of blemished, unworthy sacrifices is taking God’s name in vain (Mal. 1:6-7). God will not accept any pretended worship of him that does not arise from a redeemed, regenerate, believing heart. The very sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination before him (Isa. 66:2-3; Amos 5:21-24; Pro. 21:27).
Pharisees died out hundreds of years ago; but the spirit of the Pharisees thrives in every age. Most people think that religion is primarily an outward thing; but in our text and throughout the Scriptures, the Lord Jesus shows us that true religion is more inward than outward (John 4:22-24; Phil. 3:3). Pharisees in all ages love to make religion a show. But our Savior tells us plainly that we must never make a show of religion (Matt. 6:3-8, 16-18).
There are four things in these nine verses that need to be understood, remembered, and laid to heart. May God the Holy Spirit, who caused them to be written in his Word, now inscribe them upon our hearts.
First, we see here that formal, ritualistic, ceremonial, outward religion, without heart faith, is empty, useless religion. The complaint of the scribes and Pharisees against the disciples was not that they were evil, corrupt, covetous men, but that they did not, in keeping with Jewish traditions, wash their hands before they ate!
Obviously, it is always good to wash your hands, the more often the better, as a matter of personal hygiene. But the practice of always washing one’s hands before eating, as a show of religious devotion, had become a religious tradition with them, a tradition they would never dare to break, at least not in public. They washed their hands, whether they needed washing or not, because they vainly imagined that in doing so they showed spirituality and devotion to God. Our Lord’s disciples, following his example and instruction, felt no compulsion to obey religious tradition. “They washed not their hands when they ate bread!” Why should they wash them if they were clean? Tradition had no power over their consciences.
You may think, “What does that have to do with me? How does this apply to anyone today” There are multitudes who do much of what they do purely out of religious tradition, only to be seen of men, so that they will appear to others to be true Christians, spiritually minded, and devoted to Christ. How often have you heard people say, or said yourself, “I do that to show people that I am a Christian. I want people to know that I love the Lord.” ? The one thing our Lord Jesus tells us plainly that we are never to do is to try, by our dress, our public appearance, or our public behavior, to show that we are Christians. Read Matthew 6:3-18. You may say, “But I want people to see Jesus in me.” Lost, unbelieving people did not see Jesus in Jesus. They certainly are not going to see him in you and me.
Let us take care that we live as men and women who trust and worship the Lord Jesus Christ, in honesty, in labor, in conversation, in modesty, in love, and in patience. “Adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:10). But do nothing to be seen of men. Several years ago, I was in the company of several pastors in a restaurant. When his meal was served, the senior pastor among us began eating his meal without bowing to give thanks first (without publicly washing his hands). One of the younger men objected to his conduct, saying, “I could never do that. I always give thanks before I eat, especially in a public place.” When my older friend asked, “Why,” he said, “I want people to know that I’m a Christian.” The older, wiser pastor smiled and said, “If you want people to know you’re a Christian, leave the waitress a good tip.”
No man has any more right to institute a new religious duty in the kingdom of God than to neglect an old one. The issuing of commands is for the King alone. Yet these religionists wanted to know why the Lord’s disciples broke a law, which was never established by God as a law. Lost religionists in all ages love to invent traditions and then rest their souls upon them. Going about to establish their own righteousness, they refuse to submit themselves to the righteousness of God in Christ. They refuse to trust Christ alone for righteousness before God. They have a form of godliness, which they cherish, but deny the power of true godliness, which is the gospel of God’s free, saving grace in Christ (Rom. 1:16-17). That which our Savior said to the Pharisees of his day is yet true. — “Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
The washing of hands, like all other religious tradition, is nothing. “Faith which worketh by love” is everything. “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” All those things that men do to make themselves righteous in will worship “is abomination in the sight of God.”
Do not misunderstand either my doctrine or the doctrine of our Lord in this passage. I do not suggest that outward, public worship is insignificant. Nothing is more important in the activities of life than the worship of God (Heb. 10:25). Neither do I suggest that the outward forms of public worship is insignificant.
God’s saints vary in the way they conduct their assemblies of public worship. Some are more formal and some less formal than others. Some have instrumental music, and some do not. Some do not have music at all. But, with regard to the ordinances of public worship, if we fail to keep God’s ordinances in God’s way, we do but take the name of God in vain in our pretended worship.
Yet, even when the outward form of worship is right, that is not the principle thing – Heart worship is the principle part of worship. — “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me” (v. 8) The heart is the principle thing in the relationship of a husband and wife, parents and children, friend and friend. And in our relationship with, service to, and worship of our God, the matter of chief concern is our hearts (Isa. 29:13; Ezek 33:31; Rom. 10:13; 14:17).
What must we have to be saved? – A New Heart! What sacrifice does God require from us? – A Broken and Contrite Heart! What is true circumcision? – Heart Circumcision! What does God call for from his sons? – “My son, give me thine heart!” Where does Christ dwell? – In Our Hearts!
J. C. Ryle wrote, “The bended knee, the bowed head, the loud Amen, the daily chapter, the regular attendance at the Lord’s Table, are all useless and unprofitable, so long as our affections are nailed to sin, or pleasure, or money or the world.”
Our Rule of Faith
Second, in the church and kingdom of God our only rule of faith and practice is and must be the Word of God alone. That religion which either adds to or diminishes from the Word of God is empty, useless religion. It does not matter how sincere, zealous, and well received a religious practice is, if it is something that adds to or diminishes the Word of God, it is useless (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 20:18-19).
The Jews took this matter of washing hands before a meal very seriously (John 2:6). They had no biblical authority for it at all. It was nothing but the invention of some old Jewish rabbi. But it had become a matter of religious law and a test of righteousness in their eyes. The scribes and Pharisees asked, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” (vv. 2-3). All who treat the Word of God with such contempt make the Word of God of none effect by their traditions. — “For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; 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” (vv. 4-6).
Our only authority is the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Our doctrine is false doctrine, if it is not the doctrine of Holy Scripture. Our ordinances of worship are an abomination to God, if they are not the ordinances established by our Savior, performed as he performed them. And all prescribed religious duties, in what people call “practical godliness,” are but acts of ungodliness, if they are not prescribed in the New Testament (Isa. 8:20). We must never allow ourselves to be put in subjection to the commandments of men (Col. 2:16-23; 1 Tim. 1:1-6; Tit. 1:14; 1 Thess. 5:22).
Third, true religion, true spirituality is a very practical thing. False, empty religion will allow a man or woman to neglect and despise the most common duties of life – True religion, true Christianity causes people to cherish and faithfully perform the most common duties of everyday life for the glory of God.
In verses 5 and 6 our Lord declares that if a person refuses to take care of his parents, trying to excuse his selfishness, by saying that the only money he has has been devoted as a gift to God, he nullifies the Word of God, and proves himself a religious hypocrite (v. 8). The worship of God will cause a man to honor his parents, cause a father and husband to provide for his family, cause a believer to be a diligent employee, cause a Christian to be a faithful employer, and cause a woman to be a good wife and mother.
Fourth, true religion, true Christianity, true worship is a spiritual matter (John 4:24; Phil. 3:3; Rom. 14:17). It begins with the circumcision of the heart. It involves knowledge of and obedience to the truth. Christianity is a spiritual thing. It is, in its essence, rejoicing in Christ, believing him, loving him, and exalting him. It is a renunciation of all confidence in anything performed by or experienced in the flesh. “The Lord looketh on the heart.” All acts of worship, whether in public or in private, are utterly vain, if our hearts are far from him.