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Matthew 14:34-15:20

Kingdom Faith or Mere Tradition?

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We study through books of the Bible here at The Village Chapel, and today is no different. If you would like a paper copy to follow along with, hold your hand up and someone will get it to you.

We are going to continue our study this morning in the gospel of Matthew, what we call the King and His Kingdom, and we are about halfway through the gospel. It has been a good journey.

If you remember over the last couple of weeks, we saw Jesus feeding the 5,000. Malcolm Guite talked about how realistically, it was about 15,000 people when including women and children. Last week, Pastor Jim led us through the passage where Jesus is up on the mountaintop, praying by Himself. He sends the disciples on ahead in a boat, out onto the Sea of Galilee. Then, during the middle of the night, and in the middle of a storm, He comes walking on the water to them. Today, we are going to pick up where that story left off. We will be starting at the end of chapter fourteen and continuing through the first twenty verses of chapter fifteen.

We are going to join Jesus and the disciples as they land the boat on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, in a farming region called Gennesaret. Some scribes and Pharisees make the trip up from Jerusalem to confront Jesus and His disciples about the way they have been breaking the Pharisees’ traditions. We are going to see that Jesus sharply contrasts the way they talk about traditions and the commandments of God.

Three short conversations follow between Jesus and the Pharisees, Jesus and the crowds, and then Jesus and His disciples. All those conversations point to what Jesus is emphasizing: there is a difference between what occurs on the outside and what is happening on the inside, as it relates to matters of faith and the condition of the heart.

To help us frame the context of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees, I would like to pull the camera back and the focus of the camera lens way out, just look at the law of God for a second. Why was it given? What does it mean for us? Does it matter?

Has anyone seen The Rings of Power yet on Amazon? For those of you who do not know what it is, it is a prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is set in the second age of middle Earth about 1,000 – 2,000 years before The Hobbit. Evidently, $715 million dollars will make a good TV series, but it is good. We have been watching it, and so I am just in a prequel state of mind this morning.

The prequel to this story, where we find ourselves in our passage, is Jesus interacting with the Pharisees about God’s law, God’s word, and the traditions of the Pharisees. From the very beginning, God created us out of love. He created us to flourish and to live in perfect shalom, (that perfect relationship with Him, with each other, and with creation). We are created to flourish. That is God’s purpose. That was His purpose for us in the beginning, and it still is His same purpose, that we would live a rich life with Him and with each other.

As we know, then came the fall. Paradise was lost, but immediately, God began His plan of redemption, with a capital “R”, the relentless pursuit of grace. Part of that plan, of which we read about in the Old Testament, is the calling of Abraham, the birth of the nation, Israel, and Moses leading the nation of Israel out of bondage. God delivering that nation out of bondage is the story of redemption in the Old Testament. It shapes Israel’s concept of what redemption is and provides a template for both the Old Testament and the New Testament believers about redemption, and it points forward to the redemption of all mankind by Jesus Christ.

Part of this prequel is at the foot of Mount Sinai, as God is giving Moses the law that starts with the Ten Commandments. Here is the first sentence of those commandments, “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The law and the covenant do not start with a command or a demand, it starts with redemption. That is where the law and the covenant start. With God, provision always precedes obligation. God did not give the law to the Israelites while they were still in bondage with the demand that, ‘Okay, here’s the deal, if you perfectly live up to the law, then and only then am I going to rescue and redeem you.’ Nope. He gave them redemption first, and then gave them the law.

Christopher Wright says this in his new book, The Old Testament in Seven Sentences,

“The law is not a burden imposed by God as a condition of righteousness and salvation. The law is the gift of God to people already redeemed in order to enable them to go on living within the sphere of His blessing.”

The law is not a burden imposed by God as a condition of righteousness. It is a gift to people who He already redeemed. It is so important that we look at the law that way. God gave us the law not to enslave us, but to give us a framework for our flourishing. That has been God’s plan all along, our flourishing. That is why the Psalmist in Psalm nineteen can say, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.”

What does this look like for us some 2,000 years after the resurrection? What does God want from us? What does God want for us? In their book, Being Human, the authors Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs, put it like this,

“Sanctification, becoming holy then, is essentially an affirmation of life. The whole purpose of the Christian life is the recovery of the original image of God. In other words, the recovery of the kind of human expression, which God intended Adam and Eve to have before the fall.”

–Ranald Macauley & Jerram Barrs, Being Human

God is passionately for us. He is always moving towards us, ahead of us, and behind us to bring us life. His desire for us has not changed, it is for redemption, it is for flourishing.

Let’s pray Church, and then we will read our text.

‘Show us Your ways, O God. Teach us Your paths. Guide us in Your truth and teach us, for You, our God, our Savior, and our hope is in You all day long. Jesus’ name. Amen.’

So here we are, Matthew fourteen, starting at verse thirty-four, and going to go through verse twenty of chapter fifteen.

“And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret, and when the men of that place recognized Him, Jesus, they sent around to all that region and brought to Him all who were sick and implored Him that they might only touch the fringe of His garment, and as many touched it were made well.”

I love that this little pericope, this little bit, is included in this week’s passage because it gives us such a great scope of Jesus’ ministry. It shows us how great His compassion is towards those who are hurting, who are sick, who need healing, and it is a great contrast from what we are about to see with the Pharisees, and how they regard those who they consider unclean.

The boat lands and people start recognizing Jesus almost immediately. He has been to Capernaum before. In Chapters eight and nine, we read about the many miracles that He was performing there, so they recognize Him, and they are spreading the Word of His presence.

They spread the Word to all the region. They brought all who needed healing to Jesus. They were begging to touch His garment. They must have heard the story of the lady in chapter nine, who had a chronic issue of blood flow, and who just touched the edge of Jesus’ garment and was made whole. They had to be thinking, ‘If I can just get my pop there, if I can just get my dad there, he will be healed.’

Imagine that scene, hearing that Jesus is there and then running to your house, or your friend’s house, or your mom’s house, and grabbing loved ones to bring to Jesus. Just by touching the hem of His garment, they are healed. Lest you think this is a little bit of hyperbole, remember, this is Matthew talking. This is the accountant, the numbers guy. He is good with detail, and he is not given to hyperbole. This is an accurate recounting of what happened there.

On to verse one of chapter fifteen,

“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?’, [and that could be a transgression to break the tradition of the elders], ‘For they do not wash their hands when they eat?’“.

These Pharisees that are confronting Jesus, they are not local yokels. These are the big guns, the big dogs from “headquarters” down in Jerusalem. It is about a seventy- or eighty-mile trip. This is intentional, this is serious. Jesus and His disciples have been gathering grain on the Sabbath. They have been eating with unclean people, with tax collectors, and sinners. Jesus has been healing on the Sabbath, and now, they are eating their burgers and fries without washing their hands. Something needs to be done here.

You might think of the memory of your mom asking every time you sat down at the table, “Did you wash your hands?” This is not about that. It is not hygiene, (although wash your hands before you eat. It is a good idea), but the Pharisees, they did not know about germ theory. That is not what this was. This was taking a previous ritual for priests and incorporating it into their traditions, and then demanding that people just adhere to their traditions. That is what is going on here. The way that they accuse the disciples of transgressing or breaking their traditions is like they are elevating their traditions to an equal footing with the word of God, (which is not something that you want to do when you are talking directly to the actual word of God).

In verses three through six, Jesus answered them and says,

“Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition, for God commanded honor your father and your mother and whoever reviles father or mother must surely die, but you say if anyone tells his father or his mother what you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father, so for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God.”

In fine Socratic form, Jesus answers their question with a question, but then, He also does a little Socratic jiu jitsu. He turns the table because He takes the conversation, pulls it away from this thing about washing hands, and gets to the heart of the matter quickly with them. He brings up the fifth commandment, which is to honor your father and mother. What was going on with the Pharisees at this time, Mark talks about it in his description of this in his gospel, was that there was this tradition called Korban, where you could take some of your wealth, some of your possessions, some of your money, and call it ‘dedicated’ to the service of God. Well, then, if your parents needed help, you could say, ‘mom and dad, I would love to help, but I cannot because I do not have any money because it’s Korban. That money is dedicated to the service of God,’. Jesus is angry about this, because what is going on for their own selfish purposes is that they are dishonoring their mother and father. Jesus knows that they have abused the word of God for their tradition.

Verse seven,

“You hypocrites. Isaiah prophesied you when he said, ‘These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. In vain, do they worship Me, teaching His doctrines, the commandments of men?”

Even in Isaiah’s time, the condition of the heart, that’s what God is looking at. Jesus calls them hypocrites, and that word in the Greek, it means ‘play’, ‘actor’, ‘pretending’.

Jesus is saying this to the Pharisees from Jerusalem, He says ‘you guys are phonies, and you are just pretending to be holy’. He is getting in their faces, and you can imagine that the crowd at this point is stunned that Jesus is doing this with the Pharisees.

Verses ten through twelve,

“Jesus calls the people to Him, and He said to them, ‘Hear and understand it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a person.’ Then, the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?'”

Jesus is already bringing this back to the condition of the heart, telling the crowd with the Pharisees present that, ‘It is not washing your hands. It is not the outside that makes you unclean. It is the condition of your heart that reveals whether you are clean or unclean’. You would think that the disciples are cringing at this moment because they know the status of these men. You can just imagine them whispering to Jesus, ‘Shh, shh, shh. Those are the guys from HQ. Are you crazy? Don’t offend them.’

They are missing the point that God is looking for a heart that is yielded and given to Him. He is not looking for religious behavior. I love Jesus’ response here in verse thirteen. He answers them saying, ” ‘Every plant that My heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone. They are blind guides, and if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit’, but Peter said to Him, ‘Explain the parable to us.’ He said, ‘Are you also still without understanding?’ [You have got to love Peter, brash, and loud. He is always the first one to step right out of the boat, literally and figuratively. He cannot help himself.

I think by Jesus’ response, this is where the facepalm emoji was invented, right here. Jesus looks at Peter, (and if this were a movie, Peter asks Him the question, and then Jesus turns from looking at Peter and looks right at the camera and says, ‘You have got to be kidding me’). What does He tell Peter? He says, ‘Bro, how can you be so dim?’ Okay, let me give you an anatomy lesson here in verse seventeen,

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled, but what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person, for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander? These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”

I love verse nineteen, where Jesus is describing that what comes out of our mouth is what makes us unclean, because with this He is just quoting commandments six through nine here, you shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness. I love it that He worded it this way because He is doing a couple of things here. He is reminding us of the gift of the law of the Ten Commandments, and He is driving home the fact that those Ten Commandments are not about external behavior. The law never was about external behavior, it is about the condition of our hearts and how we live when our hearts are rightly related to God.

I have got a couple of points here this week that I have been thinking about in relation to this passage. The first is that Jesus does not want us to confuse tradition and faith, or the traditions of men with the Word of God. In other words, keep the main thing the main thing.

I love traditions. I come from a family where we were all about traditions growing up. We just had goofy little things. Traditions bond us as friends, as couples, as families, as a Church body. They are a great way to mark years and seasons, and part of the intimacy of shared life together. Growing together is having traditions that develop over time.

Most of us celebrate a holiday every winter that I heard a pastor refer to as the “Festival of the Incarnation”, in other words, Christmas. I love Christmas, with the sacred, the cultural, and secular traditional part of it. I just love the tradition and the meaning. Quick show of hands here, for those of us who give gifts at Christmas time, who opens gifts on Christmas Eve? Anybody? And who waits until Christmas morning? And who has unwrapped the present under the tree and looked, and then wrapped it back up so nobody would know? Oh, I love the honesty here. Thank you for your honesty. We have a tradition at our house. We will open one small gift on Christmas Eve, and then we wait for the rest until Christmas morning.

Here is the deal though, even though that tradition is lovely, and it has important meaning to our families, it is not a Biblical mandate. The universe is not going to stop operating if you decided to do it differently this year, even though you might say ‘you do not know my family’, but really, it is not a Biblical mandate, is it? It is a tradition.

Here is another thought that I had about traditions this week. It is interesting that some people who are not even believers still celebrate tradition. Sadly, what they have done is make the tradition itself the main thing, and they are not celebrating the main thing. This reminds me a bit of the Pharisees, who said that they loved the law, but they only embraced the performance of the law rather than the heart of the law. Michael Green says it this way in his commentary on Matthew,

“It is this totally different attitude to worship that separates the Pharisees from Jesus. Both believed in the prior grace of God, but the Pharisees’ response to this was a passion for detailed precision in worship. For Jesus it meant loving obedience, resulting in an intimate relationship with God whom he called Abba, ‘Dear daddy’. For the Pharisees, it was possible to honor God if the services were properly rendered. For Jesus, it was impossible unless people’s hearts were turned to God. Let us not persuade ourselves that this attitude to worship, which characterizes the Pharisees, died in the first century. It is alive and well in many a parish, church, and chapel.”

–Michael Green, The Bible Speaks Today

When we make the technique, or the form of our worship an idol, we begin to think that if we just perform a certain way, we have done our duty. In this case either God cannot ask more of us, or God owes us, blessing, favor, you name it.

At the outset, legalism kind of looks heroic, looks kind of more holy-like. You ask me to tithe ten percent, I tithe fifteen percent. If you ask me to pray thirty minutes a day, I pray an hour a day, but the result of that, (I do not pray an hour a day. I wish I did), but the result of this thinking is that our faith becomes a checklist. Then, when we have checked off all the little tasks, at that point, we think, ‘Okay, God, you cannot ask any more of me today. I am on my own time now. I am off the clock’. Or we get a little grumpy if somebody does not recognize us for our holiness, or if God asks us to do something in addition to what we have already got on our checklist. We can also fall into the trap of forgetting that we daily live by God’s strength and grace.

If my faith is just a checklist of things, I check that list off and I feel a little more holy and a little more in control. I am managing my life correctly; I do not need any help. That is the problem with technique-based religion. It eliminates the personal relationship with God. There is a difference between tradition and traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan says it like this, (I think Jim might have just used this quote a couple of weeks ago, but it fits today as well),

“Tradition is the living faith of those now dead.”, “But traditionalism is the dead faith of those still living.”

–Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition

I absolutely love the way we worship here at The Village Chapel. I love the prayer, the curated prayer, and then the way we finish with the Lord’s prayer. I love the calls to worship and the creeds. Tommy and the music team do such a good job with worship, and the way we worship with everybody sitting in the corner. I dearly love teaching through books of the Bible. I love all of this, but you know, these are just forms of our faith. It is just a way of doing church. It is not the way. It is God-honoring, and I think it is theologically sound. I think we try to offer a gift of excellence to the Lord, but it is just a form of worship.

There are other churches that have other ways of doing it. They are different from the way we do it here, but they are no less theologically sound. We can make an idol out of thinking that our way of doing it, our tradition is the way, and suddenly, we start looking at people that do it another way is like, ‘Eh, whatever. They are not great’, or even worse, ‘they are getting it wrong’. The form of our faith should always point to the object of our faith, Jesus, no matter what the form looks like. Is it pointing to Jesus? Because we can so easily slide into legalism, performance, and traditionalism.

Here is the second point that I think is important to take from today. Jesus wants us to understand the importance of the condition of our own hearts. The heart of the matter is the heart of the matter. One result of our dependence on technology is that we get into this habit of thinking that some technique is always going to solve our problems.

We are connoisseurs of the life hack, aren’t we? There is always some book, or podcast, or app to download some “Top Ten Life Hacks for a Better Whatever”: “Five Steps to a Flatter Stomach”, (which I could really use) “A Bigger Bank Account”, “A Better Quiet Time”, etc. The issue of the life hack approach is that it is not what is out there that is the issue. The issue is what is inside, what is in our hearts. That is the issue, and I know that that’s my issue. The issue is not external performance, the issue is a heart issue.

One of our professors at Covenant is Dan Doriani, and he says this,

“Unless the heart is right, holiness is impossible. Without love for God, the quest for holiness becomes legalistic. It substitutes human tradition for God’s law, and it substitutes human effort for God’s grace.”

–Daniel M. Doriani, Matthew, Volume 2

We need God’s grace. Jesus wants for us and from us, a heart transformation, not behavior modification. Behavior is the result of the condition of our hearts.

I will say that again, behavior is the result of the condition of our hearts. Sin is a condition of the heart long before it is an action of the mind or the body, and therefore, we need to get changed, healed, transformed from the inside out, not the outside in. Jesus wants to do just that by giving us a new heart. J.C. Ryle says this,

“The heart is the principal thing in the relation of husband and wife, of friend and friend, of parent and child. The heart must be the principal point to which we attend in all the relations between God and our souls. What is the first thing we need in order to be Christians? A new heart. What is the sacrifice God asks us to bring to Him? A broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). What is the true circumcision? The circumcision of the heart, (Romans 2:29) What is genuine obedience? To obey from the heart.”

–J.C. Ryle

The condition of the heart, that is the thing. Despite all that we have done in our lives, despite all we have left undone, Jesus loves us. Despite whom we are, and despite who we are not, and in spite of who we never will be, Jesus loves us. The Bible teaches us that while we were yet far off, Jesus loved us. That is exceptionally good news. The most important thing is the condition of our hearts, and yet, no matter the condition of our hearts, God loves us. We are not graded on our performance before Jesus decides whether He is going to love us.

I love the way Tim Keller expresses this idea,

“Religion says, ‘I obey; therefore, I am accepted.’ [That’s what the Pharisees were doing], “But Christianity says, ‘I am accepted, and therefore, I obey,'”

Tim Keller

Just like God did not demand that the Israelites obey before He redeemed them. Isn’t it amazing that He does the same thing with us? He loves us and accepts us even before we obey. Our obedience is just a response, not to get Him to love us. With God, provision always precedes obligation. We are loved and accepted before we come to Christ. We are loved and accepted after we come to Christ, and there is nothing that you can do today that is going to get God to love you any more than He already does. Even better news is that there is nothing, nothing that you can do today that is going to cause God to love you any less.

God is passionate for you. He is passionately for you. Come to Jesus and ask Him for a new heart, even if you asked Him just yesterday, or maybe already this morning, and already, you are back again saying, ‘Oh, Jesus, give me a new heart’. He is going to give you a new heart, and He is going to put His Spirit in you to give you both the desire and the ability to lovingly obey Him. If you fall, ask Him for forgiveness. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. His mercies are new every morning. Come to Jesus.

Let’s pray, Church.

‘Jesus, you are altogether lovely. Thank you for this new way of living that tells us we do not have to perform for you to be loved by you. You have done all the work needed, all the performance necessary. Thank You for the new heart you give us, the new life. Thank You for your relentless pursuit of us. Thank you for not letting go of us. We love you and we pray this in your name. Amen’.

(Edited for Reading)

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