It may surprise you to find out that some of the biggest threats to faithful discipleship come from highly esteemed religious traditions. The road we're on may be marked "narrow," but looks can be deceiving. We200 often fail to identify evil because we associate it with a pitchfork, but Satan is usually more subtle than that. Our adversary disguises himself as an angel of light, Paul tells us (2 Cor 11:14). And while some of our practices and traditions have a "reputation of wisdom," being a scrupulous rule-keeper in religion doesn't necessarily equate with godliness (Col 2:23). If Satan can't trip us up with outright immorality, he is more than happy to use seemingly good things to direct our attention away from Christ and the gospel. The Pharisees in Jesus' day presented just such a danger. They put on a good show, but Jesus' piercing gaze saw right through their flesh-fueled holiness. As we look at Matthew 15, we should be reminded that Jesus sees right through ours as well.
Our spiritual affection is not simply about raw emotions but is compelled by faith. That is, our response toward God, including our emotions, ought to be quickened by our trust in Him. J. C. Ryle said,
Authentic worship and true spiritual affection come about as our hearts honestly listen to and engage our great God.
A third admonition comes in verse 11: "It's not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." Though the disciples were stunned by what Jesus was saying, Jesus Himself was under no illusions that His message would be well received. He was throwing down the gauntlet with the scribes and Pharisees, men whom these disciples revered. Jesus was totally transforming their thinking.
The truth that Jesus goes on to communicate in verses 13-20 is foundational for how we ought to think about holiness. Our greatest need is not cleaner hands, that is, for physical cleansing. What goes into the body eventually comes out of the body, Jesus very candidly points out (v. 17). Therefore, dirty hands are not the real spiritual danger. These scribes and Pharisees were so focused on the externals that they had completely bypassed the internal. They needed to see that our greatest need is changed hearts. This is why Jesus said speech, which comes out of the mouth, defiles a person, for it proceeds from the heart. Jesus lists all kinds of sins in verse 19—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, stealing, lying, slandering—and all these are issues of the heart. Man's greatest need, then, is not to try to clean his hands or fix his life on the outside; man's greatest need is a changed heart on the inside. Holiness begins in the heart, and only Jesus can produce this kind of change.
Consider how heart change is actually brought about in our lives. It begins as Jesus forgives us of all our sin. The prophet Ezekiel had spoken of a day when God would cleanse the hearts of His people (Ezek 36:25), and this happened as a result of Christ's sin-bearing death. In connection with this forgiveness, heart change also happens as Jesus fills us with His Holy Spirit. Ezekiel's prophecy of a new covenant included the following promise from God: "I will place My Spirit within you" (Ezek 36:27). Only the Holy Spirit can change us from the inside out. This is the only way we can obey the exhortation in 2 Corinthians 6:17 (quoting Isa 52:11) to "come out from among them and be separate." We cannot be casual about holiness, but rather we must by the power of the Holy Spirit pursue purity. We must be holy as God is holy206 (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44) by cultivating our hearts. Once again, J. C. Ryle's comments are helpful here:
Everything revolves around the heart.
If our need is to cultivate holy hearts that have been changed by God's Holy Spirit, then the implication for our witness in the world is clear. What the world doesn't need is the spread of superficial religion, which is precisely what many false teachers offer. A lost world doesn't need more people monotonously carrying out religious rules and regulations under the banner of Christianity. The Pharisees may have been well respected, but Jesus told His disciples that false teachers are destined for judgment. They weren't planted by God (v. 13), which implies that they were planted by the evil one. However, they would be uprooted in due time. In addition to facing judgment themselves, false teachers are dangerous to others. They are the blind leading the blind, bringing their own followers into a pit with them (v. 14). This is why the church must guard against false teachings.
Don't think that you are immune to the attacks of the evil one, particularly his attacks through wolves in sheep's clothing (Matt 7:15). The world doesn't need the spread of superficial religion, but what the world does need is the spread of supernatural regeneration. We must never be satisfied with superficial holiness. Instead, we want hearts that produce holy lives, and this is the work of God.
The fourth and final challenge from Matthew 15 comes from a very interesting story in verses 21-28. Many people have been puzzled concerning Jesus' interaction with this Canaanite woman in these verses. Perhaps we will better understand this dialogue by noting two things207 about this encounter. First, geography is significant here. Verse 21 tells us that Jesus withdrew from Galilee, a predominantly Jewish territory, and went to the district of Tyre and Sidon, a predominantly Gentile territory. This is the only time in Matthew's Gospel that Jesus journeyed into Gentile lands, and the first person who comes up to Him is a Canaanite. The Canaanites were ancient enemies of the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament, making this woman's identity all the more significant.
Second, this dialogue makes more sense when we consider how the narrative is playing out from the perspective of the disciples. The disciples' world had just been rocked when Jesus turned their thinking upside down about what makes someone clean. Now He takes them into Gentile territory, a place filled with unclean people according to the standard Jewish view. Many Jews would have felt compelled to send this Canaanite woman away; yet this whole story, and the story that comes after this, is intended to be a reflection of the reality that Jesus' plan involved much more than Israel. His salvation would spread far beyond Israel to the ends of the earth, an idea that may have been shocking to these 12 Jewish disciples. Through His words and demeanor, Jesus was subverting the standard Jewish view of the Gentiles. According to Jews, the Gentiles had no right to the children's bread, for they were "dogs." Jesus aimed to change this mind-set.
In the midst of Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman in Tyre and Sidon, He was teaching these disciples an invaluable lesson. Even in Gentile territory the harvest field is ripe. Clearly Jesus did not ultimately ignore her or send her away. After all, He refused when the disciples pled for Him to do that (v. 23). Instead, He used this encounter as a teaching opportunity. He highlighted the persistence of this Canaanite woman's faith, a woman who cried out, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!" (v. 22). This Gentile actually recognized Jesus as the Jewish Messiah!
When Jesus responded in verse 26 that it wouldn't be right to throw the children's bread to dogs—i.e., take that which belongs to Jews and give it to Gentiles—the woman responded, "Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table!" (v. 27). This drew Jesus' commendation: "Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done for you as you want" (v. 28). She is one of only two people praised for their faith by Jesus in the book of Matthew, and the other one is the Gentile centurion in Matthew 8:5-13.
The fact that the harvest fields are ripe is closely connected to the truth that the divine plan is global. Yes, Jesus has come to save God's208 people, Israel, from their sins, but that's not all. He has come to save all nations, and this has been the plan from the beginning (Gen 12:1-3). God blesses His people for the sake of His praise among all the peoples of the world, even the Canaanites.
Jesus continued His journey into Gentile territory in verses 29-31. He healed many—"the lame, the blind, the deformed, those unable to speak, and many others"—and the text says, "they gave glory to the God of Israel" (vv. 30-31). Jesus was doing the same things in Gentile territory that He did among the Jews, and the disciples were taking it all in. Their perspective was challenged, and ours should be as well. God's worldwide mission ought to affect everything we do.
If we are to nurture a passion for the nations and be a part of God's global purposes, we must spend ourselves for the glory of God's name. We work and preach and serve among the nations so that they will give glory to God. Even today, there are many people groups who have never heard the gospel and are not giving God glory. Our churches don't exist for our immediate neighborhoods only; they exist to go and give and send people to the nations. Our task is to make disciples and multiply churches among the peoples of the world. This mind-set should be in our spiritual DNA, for we want the peoples to praise our God (Ps 67).
If you've been reading through Matthew's Gospel, when you reach 15:32-39 you may wonder whether you've already seen a miracle of a miraculous feeding. The answer is "yes"—see 14:13-21—but that's the point. The feeding of a multitude has reappeared, only now there are a few differences: the number of people, the amount of food, and other miscellaneous details. Notice that it wasn't the disciples who were concerned about the people's hunger; it was Jesus. You can almost picture the disciples asking, "Would Jesus perform the same miracle among a Gentile crowd that He performed among the Jewish people?" This mind-set was evident after Jesus' resurrection in Peter's vision in Acts 10:9-15. Peter received a vision from the Lord on his rooftop, where the Lord commanded him, "What God has made clean, you must not call common" (v. 15). God was referring to Gentiles and Peter's prejudice against them. This prejudice was keeping Peter from spreading the gospel outside of His own people. The Lord commanded Peter to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile centurion, to eat with him. Though this would have previously been unthinkable, the Lord had welcomed Cornelius into His kingdom. I imagine that on that day in Acts 10 Peter remembered this day in Matthew 15.209
Jesus made clear in this last section of Matthew 15 that He came to serve, satisfy, and save people from all nations. Part of the point of the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14 was to depict Jesus as the messianic host. That was a foretaste of the day when all of God's people, Jews and Gentiles, would gather around Christ for a banquet in the kingdom to come (Rev 19:6-10; Isa 25:6-12). One day all peoples will be represented around that table (Rev 5:9). This is what the disciples would later give their lives to. As followers of Christ today, our desire should be the same. We give our lives to the accomplishment of God's mission until we die or until Jesus returns.