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.



To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 11

GALATIANS #11 . Chapter #4:8-11

8 But in the past, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things3 that by nature are not gods. 9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? 10 You observe special days, months, seasons, and years. 11 I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted.

The Galatians probably worshipped the Roman/Greek pagan gods, and this is mostly likely what Paul is referring to when he refers to their past. But this makes it an interesting statement. The Galatians are not trying to go back and worship pagan gods – they are trying to follow Jewish Laws and earn something from the true God. But Paul says, this would be just the same as going back to the pagan gods. He says “How can you go back again to these bankrupt elemental principles?” Elemental principles is that word “stoikeon,” which we talked about last time. It is the idea that one thing necessarily follows another; the idea that you earn what you get, and you get what you deserve. Although many things in the universe do generally operate this way, Paul explained last time that this is not how God operates spiritually with those who are in Jesus Christ. Last time we saw that what God says to us is this: “Stoikeon doesn’t work for you, because you aren’t able to do anything of real value to me. So instead, we’ll let Jesus do all the work, and through Him, I’ll adopt you as my dearly beloved children. Let’s have no more of this ‘you do something for me, and in return I’ll do something for you.’ Instead, through Jesus, I’ll treat you as my kids, and you treat me as your daddy.”

Paul says here that going back to that idea of trying to do something for God in order to get him to do something for us, is the same as going back to the old pagan worship that the Galatians used to practice. Even if they are following Jewish Law, they are doing it with the same attitude and relationship with God that is exhibited in their old pagan worship. Pagan worship was all about “stoikeon” or “sequential principles.” If you wanted the help of a god, then you made some sort of sacrifice or vow to the deity you need to please, and you got his or her help in return. Usually in pagan worship, you had to follow the rituals of worship precisely. You had to do and say the right things at the right time in order to get the desired result.

Paul says that when they seek to follow the Jewish law, the Galatians are doing exactly the same kind of thing. They are attempting to do things for God so he will do things for them. Jewish Law emphasizes following certain rituals, and doing things the right way. Paul says, “You observe special days, months, seasons and years.” And he says that the fact that they do this scares him. It makes him think they are losing their faith.

What were the special days and seasons they were observing? The entire letter was written because the Galatians were starting to believe that in addition to believing in Jesus, they had to follow the Jewish law. We need to understand a little bit about Jewish law. The Old Testament, of course, contains many rituals and laws that Jews were supposed to keep. But there is more to it than that. Over the years, Jewish rabbis taught extensively about the Old Testament, and their teachings were passed down orally from one generation to the next. These teachings, or commentaries on the Old Testament, came to be seen as an essential part of Jewish doctrine. Eventually, these commentaries were written down and collected, and today they are called “the Talmud.” So Jewish law came to mean much more than even just the Old Testament. Paul himself, before converting to Christianity, was a rising star in the Talmudic tradition of Hillel.

Though the Talmud was still in development during New Testament times, many of its teachings were already established at that time. So, for instance, the Old Testament commands us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Over the centuries, the Jews grappled with what exactly that means, in practical terms. By the time of Jesus, most Jews accepted to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, there were “sub-rules,” you had to follow, rules found in Talmudic teaching. For instance, you could only take a certain number of steps, or carry certain things.

I suspect that the Galatians were following both Old Testament commands, and also commands and rituals that were part of the Talmudic tradition. They probably followed a strict Talmudic interpretation of the Sabbath, and celebrated the Jewish events like New Moon, the first and seventh month and the Feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the festival of Booths. Paul writes about these things more specifically to the Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col 2:16-17, ESV2011)

Now, it isn’t that these things are bad in and of themselves. Our church, New Joy Fellowship, celebrates the Jewish Feast of Passover every year. But there are two important things to remember, and this is what Paul is getting at:

  1. Such things, in and of themselves do not contribute to our salvation or worth in God’s eyes. Celebrate the Passover, or don’t. Eat Pork, or not – it doesn’t matter, spiritually. You won’t be more holy if you do these things; you won’t be less holy if you do. Following laws and traditions will not get God to love you more, and they won’t manipulate God into blessing you. God doesn’t relate to us according to sequential principles.
  2. Such things are shadows; the substance is Christ. Sometimes they are helpful, but they are only helpful if they point us to the real thing, which is Christ. Tradition is nothing, Christ is everything. Tradition is great if it points us to Christ, it is inherently spiritually dangerous if it does anything other than that.

I heard a great quote last week. A pastor at a conference said, “Tradition is the living faith of dead people, but traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.” Tradition can be good. When we remember how people who have gone before us lived their lives in faith and hope, it encourages hope and faith in us. We can use memories and repeated traditions to remind us of those faithful believers who have gone on to their reward. We can use traditions to keep pointing us toward the substance, which is Jesus Christ. But sometimes our faith becomes tied to the traditions. We start to feel that we must keep certain traditions, and if we don’t, we haven’t done it right. We sort of get the idea not that traditions is there to help encourage us, but rather, that certain traditions are a necessary part of our faith. This is what Paul is so concerned about.

Let me give a few examples of good traditions that can lead us astray when we think they are necessary. One of those is the altar call. That is a tradition in most Baptist churches. Sometimes it is helpful. But if you find yourself thinking that no worship service is truly complete without an altar call, you are in danger. If you think the only proper way to get saved is to come to the front of church during an altar call, you are in grave of becoming traditionalist, of confusing living faith with tradition. Lutherans have a lot of traditions in worship too. Some of them can be helpful at times. But if we get the idea that it isn’t really a worship service unless we say the Lord’s prayer, or stand for the reading of the gospel, we are in danger of confusing living faith with tradition.

Our church typically doesn’t fight over these kinds of things, but there are thousands of churches that do fight over traditions; things that are not necessary to true and living faith in Jesus Christ. The reason it becomes such a big deal is that people start thinking traditions are the same thing as faith. They are not. They are only there to aid it, and when they are not useful, they should not be used. The danger of relying too much on tradition is that some people end up with only tradition, and no real faith that is active and alive.

Picture a battery powered radio, the kind of thing we used to call a “boom box.” Imagine someone brought one of these radios to a remote village in Papua New Guinea where there was no electricity. Picture the villagers amazed and thrilled as they hear the music coming from the radio. Imagine the hours they spend, uplifted and made joyful by the music. Every evening at the same time, after they are done with their hard work, the villagers gather together around the radio to listen to the music. They call it “music time.”

But as time goes on, those batteries will die. Picture a time when the music starts to fade, and then imagine one day, it is gone. Now, what will those villagers do? If they are sensible, they will make their own music and enjoy it, and perhaps hope for a time when someone will bring new batteries to the village, so that the radio may be refreshed. But it is entirely possible that after a long time of gathering together every night to listen to the music, they may retain the habit, even after the batteries die. The radio is no longer bringing them music, but still they gather and look at it. Eventually, the villagers may even forget why they gather each night to look at the radio. It’s just what they do. If asked, many of them will say they do it because of music. As they forget, they have started to think of the evening time gathered around the radio as their “music time,” even though music has long ceased to be a part of it.

That is how some of us are with traditions. Tradition is there to bring us the “music” of faith. But tradition itself is not the same as faith. It can bring the music, but it is not music in itself. Sometimes we continue to follow traditions long after they have ceased to encourage our faith. Sometimes we get mixed up, and we forget that our faith is something greater and more alive than the traditions that once helped us in it. We even sometimes start to think that the traditions are faith, or at least an inseparable part of it.

So, we think we haven’t worshipped if we didn’t say a certain prayer or have an altar call or sing a certain song. We think it is isn’t a real church if it doesn’t have candles, or an altar, or a cross, or if it is in someone’s home, or…[you fill in the blank]. We start to think you have to have a guitar, or you can’t have a guitar and many other silly things.

Now, let me be clear. When tradition brings you closer to Jesus and makes you more open to the Holy Spirit, it is a wonderful and useful thing. There is nothing wrong with embracing those kinds of traditions. We need all the help we can get. But we need to be careful that we do not start to think that traditions are necessary to faith, or that they are the same thing as faith.

This is a normal, human tendency, and this is why Paul was so frightened when he heard about the Galatians mindlessly following the Jewish traditions. They were perverting the true gospel, adding on requirements, as if what Jesus did was not enough. They were confusing things that were designed to help faith, with the substance of faith itself.