Truth In The Church For The Nations


Truth In The Church For The Nations


Truth In The Church For The Nations

Matthew 15

Main Idea: Rather than superficial religion, we need supernatural regeneration based on the authority of God's Word, for this work of God produces holiness of heart and it reaches all peoples.

  1. Exalt the Authority of God's Word.
    1. Minimize the thoughts of man.
      1. They promote self-centeredness.
      2. They fuel self-righteousness.
      3. They serve self-interest.
    2. Magnify the truth of God.
      1. Let the Word consume your teaching and preaching.
      2. Let the Word drive your decisions and practices.
  2. Promote Authenticity in God's Worship.
    1. Worship is more than physical action.
    2. Worship is all about spiritual affection.
  3. Cultivate Hearts of Holiness.
    1. The truth
      1. Our greatest need is not cleaner hands.
      2. Our greatest need is changed hearts.
    2. The implication
      1. What the world doesn't need is the spread of superficial religion.
      2. What the world does need is the spread of supernatural regeneration.
  4. Nurture Passion for the Nations.
    1. The harvest field is ripe.
    2. The divine plan is global.
    3. Spend yourselves for the glory of God's name.
    4. Give your lives to the accomplishment of God's mission.

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.

Exalt the Authority of God's Word

Matthew 15:1-7

At this point in Matthew's narrative, a group of Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem (v. 1), likely an official contingency. Their goal was to find out what Jesus was teaching and how they could stop Him. They asked Jesus in verse 2 why His disciples broke the traditions of the elders by not washing their hands when they ate. In His response, Jesus teaches us to exalt the authority of God's Word. This is the antidote to accepting man-made authority.

Washing your hands in the context of Jesus' day was not a hygiene issue for the Pharisees, like a mother telling her children to "wash up" before dinner. This was a ritual-cleansing issue established by tradition. The "tradition of the elders" (v. 2) goes all the way back to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the book of the law was rediscovered. Scribes began to study it, and teachers began to explore all the ways that the law should be applied to specific situations in people's lives. The end result was something akin to two authorities: (1) the law of God and (2) the teaching of the elders. The teaching of the elders was mainly oral and it was passed down from generation to generation. By AD 200, these traditions were compiled in a book called the Mishnah.

As the scribes and Pharisees added all kinds of rules and regulations to the law, their traditions were eventually seen as authoritative and began to trump the law itself. Some considered it to be worse to disobey the teaching of the elders than it was to disobey the commands of the law. Part of the tradition of the elders dealt with ceremonially washing your hands a certain way before a meal. This background helps201 us understand Jesus' response. When these religious leaders questioned him about keeping their traditions, He turned the tables on them and asked them why they were breaking the commandments of God for the sake of their traditions (v. 3), as if to say, "You're one to talk!"

Jesus illustrates His point in verses 4-6 using the example of God's command for children to honor their father and mother (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). The Pharisees and scribes had come up with traditions that actually allowed children not to provide for their parents. If a parent needed something but a child didn't want to give it, the child could simply claim that what was needed was dedicated to the Lord.31 This tradition could be used to avoid honoring one's father and mother. In this and a number of other ways, the elders' traditions were trumping the Word of God.

Minimize the thoughts of man

Although most believers today don't have to address the issue of ritual washings or inheritance laws from the Mishnah, there are still some massively important takeaways for us in this passage. In order to be faithful to God's Word in our lives and in our preaching and teaching, we must minimize the thoughts of man. Men have no authority to shepherd Christ's church based on their own teachings. This danger is rampant across the church today, just as it was in Jesus' day. Consider some of the dangers of falling prey to the doctrines of men.

First, the thoughts and teachings of man are dangerous because they promote self-centeredness. We see this with the Pharisees in that children who didn't want to part with their resources could hold onto them instead of supporting their parents. However, when God's Word says to do something that is not easy, we shouldn't look for a way out; we should submit. Rather than being self-centered, disciples of Jesus ought to be God-centered.

Second, the thoughts of man should be avoided because they fuel self-righteousness. When we follow man's way of thinking we stop trusting in God and instead develop a prideful self-righteousness that has no202 need of Him. We stand on our own soapboxes instead of the timeless truths of Scripture.

A third danger of adopting man's thoughts is that they serve self-interest. Jesus was undercutting the role that the Pharisees and scribes played in Jewish religion. If the Word of God was held supreme, and not the teaching of the elders, then these scribes and Pharisees would be out of a job. Their thoughts fueled their own interests.

If we're not careful, the dangers of man-made teachings and the scruples of the Pharisees can sound somewhat distant. Their particular practices may not seem relevant today, so we miss the many ways in which the thoughts of man are exalted today. Here are just a few specific examples to watch out for:

Cultic teachers. Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons are examples of cults that are alive and well today. These religious groups are not part of biblical Christianity. For example, in addition to the Bible, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or the Mormon church) has three other books of teachings that it holds to be authoritative alongside the Bible: Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Joseph Smith, the founder of this movement, declared the Book of Mormon to be "the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book" (as cited in McKeever and Johnson, Mormonism 101, 118). Mormons also embrace a number of other errant doctrines. Wayne Grudem claims that they do not hold to "any major Christian doctrines concerning salvation or the person of God or the person and work of Christ" (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 865). A number of other groups could be listed that fall into this category: Christian Scientists, International Churches of Christ, Scientologists, Unitarian Universalists, etc. Error has a variety of manifestations.

Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church acknowledges three sources of authority: the Bible (including the Apocrypha32), tradition, and the Magesterium, or teaching ministry of the church. Bishops, in communion with the pope, interpret the Bible and tradition. All three of these203 sources are equally authoritative. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that they (the three sources of authority) "are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others."

Cultural traditions. The temptation to elevate man's thoughts above God's is not just a problem for established religions. We do things as Christians in the twenty-first century that are nowhere prescribed in the Bible. We only think certain things are biblical because they're a part of the tradition that's been passed down to us. This is why we constantly have to look at the authority of God's Word and ask God to reveal our blind spots. We must be on guard against areas where we have put our thoughts, preferences, and traditions above Scripture.

Contemporary trends. The truth of God's Word is also pushed to the side by the pressure we feel to adopt things and ideas that are new. We are bombarded with new ways to do church and new teachings to trumpet. Unfortunately, many of the conferences, books, and teachings that are spread all across contemporary Christianity virtually ignore what the Word of God says. To be sure, not all trends and traditions are bad; some are quite good and helpful, but only if they promote the authority of God's Word.

Magnify the truth of God

As we minimize the thoughts of man, we must at the same time magnify the truth of God. The primary way for pastors and churches to do this is to let the Word consume our teaching and preaching. If the pastor stops preaching the Word, the congregation should stop following him as pastor. Authority in the church doesn't come from any man's opinions or ideas, but only from Christ, the Head of the church (Col 1:18), who leads us by means of Spirit-inspired Scripture (2 Tim 3:16). This also means that we must let the Word drive our decisions and practices. Some of my favorite moments as a pastor happen when the other pastors and I are in a room with the Word before us, praying and seeking the Lord about a certain issue. It's like seeing the Word come alive, and I'm reminded again that this is how Christ leads His church.

Promote Authenticity in God's Worship

Matthew 15:8-9

Jesus addresses another element of faithful discipleship that is closely tied to exalting the authority of God's Word: we must promote authenticity204 in God's worship. Jesus quotes from Isaiah where the prophet called out the people of God for worshiping God in vain (Isa 29:13). Their hearts were far from Him, and in part this was fueled by the commandments of men. See, then, how the logic builds from the previous point: as long as the thoughts of man are central in the church, the worship of man will be central in the church. Alternatively, as long as the truth of God is central in the church, the worship of God will be central in the church. A Word-saturated church leads to God-glorifying worship.

Though Jesus' comments about worship are brief in this passage, there are a number of important implications. First, worship is more than physical action. The scribes and Pharisees were honoring God with their lips but not with their hearts or their lives. This is a danger for us today as well. You can stand, preach, pray, take the Lord's Supper, and any number of other things in worship, yet your heart can still be far from God. We must guard against this tendency in our churches and in our individual lives. One way to guard against false worship is not to be overly concerned with form, that is, what we do physically. This kind of preoccupation bypasses the heart. More important than what we do outwardly in worship is who we are; the heart is the real issue.

Second, as we think about authentic worship, we need to remember that worship is all about spiritual affection. It's about our hearts lifted high to God. Though some may go to unhealthy excesses, worship involves emotion and affection for God. This comes out in a number of ways: brokenness and contrition over sin, grief over our circumstances, fear and awe before God's greatness, gratitude for His grace, hope in His promises, and celebration of His salvation. All of these responses to God represent true worship. Isaiah 66:2 says, "I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and trembles at My word." That is genuine spiritual affection.

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,

Let it be a settled resolution with us that in all our religion the state of our hearts shall be the main thing. Let it not content us to go to church and observe the forms of religion. Let us look far deeper than this and desire to have a heart right in the sight of the Lord. (Ryle, Matthew, 129)205

Authentic worship and true spiritual affection come about as our hearts honestly listen to and engage our great God.

Cultivate Hearts of Holiness

Matthew 15:10-20

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:

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 a 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. What is saving faith? To believe with the heart. Where ought Christ to dwell? To dwell in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:17). (Ryle, Matthew, 126)

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.

Nurture Passion for the Nations

Matthew 15:21-39

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.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. What sources of authority and traditions compete with God's Word in the context in which you live?
  2. If not everyone who quotes Scripture speaks the truth, then how can you prepare yourself to discern truth from error?
  3. Answer the following question: "The Bible was written by men, so how can it be true in everything it says?" What passages might you appeal to in your answer?
  4. What contemporary trends are putting pressure on believers to compromise faithfulness to God? How can our response involve courage and humility?
  5. What is the danger of emphasizing emotions in our corporate worship without being driven by God's Word? What kind of spiritual affections should our corporate worship encourage?
  6. In your own words, explain the difference between superficial religion and supernatural regeneration.
  7. Jesus teaches that holiness proceeds from the heart. Practically, then, how do you cultivate such holiness?
  8. How do you identify false teachers? Is it unloving to reject their teaching? If not, why not?
  9. Like this Gentile Canaanite woman, what unlikely converts has God placed around you? How have you doubted God's power and mercy in relation to such people?
  10. How does Jesus' interaction with this Canaanite woman and His feeding of the Gentile crowd help forecast the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20?

In Mark 7:11 this practice is called by its name—Corban. Blomberg explains, "The Corban practice in view was that of pledging money or other material resources to the temple to be paid upon one's death. These funds could therefore not be transferred to anyone else but could still be used for one's own benefit while one was still alive (v. 5)." Blomberg, Matthew, 238.


The Apocrypha is a collection of Jewish books that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians include as part of the Old Testament canon. Protestants rightly reject these books as a part of divinely inspired Scripture. For more on the Apocrypha, see Clayton Harrop, "Apocrypha, Old Testament," in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2003), 81-83.