Jesus says our hearts are full of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies and blasphemies.” Jeremiah calls the human heart “deceitful” and “desperately sick.” If this is true, is it really a good idea to follow your heart?
All this is pointing towards one important thing. Jesus doesn’t say in these verses, but I read ahead, and it says that Jesus came to give us new hearts.
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Matthew #48 . Matthew 15:1-20
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Now to the text. In order to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 15, we need to remember a few things about the Jewish religion at the time of Jesus. Let’s start by comparing it to Christianity. Properly speaking, Christianity is based upon understanding and applying the Bible to daily life. Many traditions have grown up during the history of Christianity, but these traditions do not carry the same sort of authority that Christians claim for the Bible alone. For instance, many Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. This can be a meaningful way for believers to reconnect with the need to live in humility and repentance. However, Ash Wednesday and Lent are entirely optional for true Christians; one can observe them and be a good Christian, or one can ignore them and still be a good Christian. This is because Ash Wednesday and Lent are neither commanded nor taught by the Bible. If they help us in following Jesus, that’s great, on the other hand, it is not necessary to observe them.
What is necessary for followers of Jesus is to learn what the Bible says and to learn how to apply it to our daily lives. So for instance, it says in Hebrews chapter 10
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:22-25, ESV2011)
This teaches us to hold on to the truth we have learned about Jesus, and to continue to meet regularly with other believers for worship and encouragement. Reasonable interpretation leads us to conclude that it is talking about regular involvement in a church community. This is a passage directly from the New Testament, and it is something that all Christians should practice, and most Christians agree that according to the Bible we should be regularly involved in some sort of Christian church.
You see the difference? Ash Wednesday and Lent are traditions that may or may not be useful. They are optional. Regular meeting together with other Christians for the purpose of encouraging and equipping each other in faith is not a tradition, but a biblical command. Churches have not always been completely successful in distinguishing traditions from essential biblical teaching, but officially speaking, true Christianity is based upon Scripture alone.
The Jews in the days of Jesus were little bit different. Jews, of course, share common Scriptures with Christians: the Old Testament. But even by the time of Jesus, Jewish religion involved more than simply understanding and applying the Old Testament. Over time, various Jewish teachers had taught and written about different Old Testament texts, and various traditions had developed. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees insisted that these traditions were just as important as the Old Testament itself.
So, when some Pharisees came from Jerusalem to see Jesus, they notice that he is not observing all of the traditions taught by rabbis. In this particular instance, they see that Jesus does not engage in the ceremonial hand washing that most Jews thought was proper.
It would be a little bit like someone coming to me and saying, “How can you call yourself a Christian? You don’t even celebrate Lent!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Lent. It can be a very useful season for entering into true repentance and humility. In the same way, I don’t think Jesus was completely against ceremonial hand washing. But what did bother him was the fact that the Jews found such things more important than the essential truths of Scripture, and in fact, had replaced scripture with traditions.
To go back to our Lent analogy, it would be as if there were some people who felt like if you went to Ash Wednesday service and got smeared with ashes, and then avoided meat on Fridays, that’s all you had to do to be truly repentant and humble. You could act and think arrogantly, you could continue in a pattern of willful and deliberate sin, but as long as you observed Ash Wednesday and Lent, you were all good. That was more or less the attitude of the Pharisees – if you dipped your fingers in water in the proper ceremonial fashion, then it didn’t matter what happened in your heart. You were clean.
So, essentially, these Pharisees, who came from Jerusalem to check out Jesus, said, “Look, you and your disciples are not following the traditions, therefore you are not spiritually clean.”
One very important thing that we get from Jesus’ response is the understanding that the Bible trumps our own desires, as well as tradition. The Pharisees had a way of twisting biblical texts. Jesus points this out in the example of “honor your father and mother.” The Pharisees had found a “greater principle” in Scripture, namely, honoring God. And so they created a tradition that said if you are “honoring God,” you do not have to honor your father and mother. Jesus calls them hypocrites, whose hearts were far from God.
I think that this is very important for Christians today, because we have modern-day Pharisees who do the same thing, albeit with different topics. For instance, there are people who teach that the overall point of Jesus’ message was to love one another. Therefore, they say, you can do whatever you like in terms of sexual activity, as long as you are acting in a loving manner. In fact, some of these folks would say that anyone like me, (and also Jesus, truth be told) who repeats what the Bible says, that sex outside of marriage is a sin, is not acting in a loving manner, and therefore we are the ones who are sinning. In the same way as the Pharisees, these people are completely distorting the message of Scripture. They have replaced what the Scripture actually says with their own tradition, and their own desire. Jesus’ rebuke falls upon them just as surely as it did the Pharisees.
Jesus said something very important to his disciples:
But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matt 15:18-20, HCSB)
Part of my responsibility as a teacher of the bible is to point out and rebuke errors and false teachings. This is more important than ever in these days of the Internet when all kinds of false ideas about Jesus and his teachings are easily spread. I have read some theologians who use this verse to say that your external behavior does not matter – all that matters is what is in your heart. In other words, for example, you can commit sexual immorality as long as your heart is pure (!). You can lie or steal, as long as you do it for the right reason. They do not say it, but if they are right, it also means that you could commit murder without sinning, as long as you were not angry or hateful about it. But clearly, that is not what Jesus means here. Jesus is saying that the heart is the source of sinful actions, and fixing the outside won’t fix the heart. His point is not that external things do not matter; it is that external things come from the heart, and to deal with them we have to address the heart.
This may be surprising to some people. One of the persistent messages in our culture is “follow your heart.” I love how Rich Mullins captured this in a song:
They said boy you just follow your heart; But my heart just led me into my chest;
They said follow your nose, But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head.
And they said boy you just follow your dreams, But my dreams were only misty notions.
But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses And the Giver of dreams He’s the one I have chosen
And I will follow Him.– Rich Mullins, “The Maker of Noses”
Jesus says here that your heart is the source of all kinds of sin; it is the center of your separation from God. Jeremiah wrote:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer 17:9-10, ESV2011)
If your heart is deceitful and desperately sick, is it really a good idea to follow it? If our hearts are full of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies and blasphemies,” then maybe we should not simply “follow our hearts.”
All this is pointing towards one important thing. Jesus doesn’t say in these verses, but I read ahead, and it says that Jesus came to give us new hearts. We can’t fix our hearts by washing our hands, like the Pharisees. We can’t fix our hearts by attending Ash Wednesday services, or giving up meat for Lent. We can’t make sin go away by creating new traditions that change what the Scripture says in order to make it easier on us. Not even open-heart surgery can help us – we need an entirely new heart – a transplant. Jesus came to kill our sinful hearts, to bury them. And in that same transaction, he replaces those old sin-filled hearts with new, redeemed, holy ones.
But it all starts with the understanding and acceptance that our old hearts are indeed filled with the things that Jesus says they are filled with, here in this passage. Without the work of Jesus, our hearts are full of sin; our hearts are the problem, they are deceitful and desperately sick. I can’t follow my heart, and I can’t even reform it. Instead, I have to let Jesus kill it.
Once we let Jesus crucify our old hearts, he replaces them with new ones, hearts like his. That heart trusts the Father, and obeys. With that heart, I can follow not myself, but Jesus.
For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:6-11, HCSB)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. (2Cor 5:17, HCSB)
True purity starts in the heart. External behavior is important, but it starts with a new heart. There are several places to go with this. First, have you agreed with God that your natural heart is full of deceit, wickedness and rebellion against God? If not, that is where to begin. Next, have you asked Jesus to take that old heart and crucify it along with him? That’s the next step. Third, we need to agree with Jesus that we need a new heart, and receive the one he gives us. And with that new heart, we can (and should) trust the Lord, listen to him, and follow him.
Maybe you’ve been through the whole transaction with Jesus, but you feel like you are still full of sin and evil. To pursue the analogy, after we get our new hearts, we still have some blood left in our veins that is used to doing what the old heart wanted to do. Our bodies and minds are still sometimes influenced by the way we were with that old, wicked heart. We still sometimes fail to trust and obey. But our sins and failings are no longer central to who we are. We don’t have to live like that anymore. It is no longer who you are.
The bottom line? Jesus Christ came to clean us from the inside out. Actually, not just to clean, but to replace what was wrong. To receive it, we simply need to trust him, to believe it is true. Sometimes we have to believe in spite of what seems to be evidence to the contrary. In such cases, we make a deliberate choice to trust God’s word over our own experience. Over time, we will act more and more in accordance with what we believe.
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.