Clean and unclean: Matthew 15

This post continues a year of reading and blogging through the Bible, beginning with the New Testament. You can find a link to this reading plan here. Old Testament reading and posts will begin on January 1.


Today’s reading: Matthew 15-17.

“Was Jesus ignoring the Mosaic Law when he said unwashed hands didn’t make a man ‘unclean’?

First, a bit of review. The Old Testament laws were designed to allow an unholy people to come into the presence of the Holy God. The holy was separated from the common, and the common could be further divided into things that were clean and unclean. Unclean things or people could be purified, and made clean, but they had to be sanctified in order to become holy rather than common. Only the priests went through the consecration to become holy and serve in God’s house.

Cleanness is the normal condition of most things and persons. Sanctification can elevate the clean into the holy, while pollution degrades the clean into the unclean. The unclean and the holy are two states which must never come in contact with each other (pp. 19-20). Gordon Wenham, The Book of Leviticus

If you drew a picture, it would look like this:

HOLY <—-> Clean <—-> Unclean

God’s aim was to create the conditions where the unholy Hebrews would be able to sanctify themselves and come directly into his presence in the tabernacle. He was also teaching them about his holiness, and testing whether they would obey him.

Now, a thousand years and more later, the traditions of the Jewish leaders had added hundreds of human regulations to God’s law. Hand washing was one of those human additions. The Pharisees condemned Jesus for ignoring the hand washing regulation, but he turned around and condemned their rules which kept them from honoring God’s law. The Law had been designed to lead them to God. Instead, their traditions had become their God. Jesus used the episode to teach his disciples about true cleanliness.

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ” Matthew 15:17-20

True cleanliness is internal, not external. It is a matter of the heart and not the hands.

Uncleanness comes from sin (in thought or deed) rather than the inanimate world. Things are neither good or bad; it’s how we use them, or think about them, that determines their holiness or commonness.

Focus on the external is usually a sign that someone has neglected the internal. This is the hallmark of legalism. It’s so much easier, but wrong, to make our judgments based on appearance rather than the heart.

You should understand that the washing here meant was not such as you and I give our hands when we feel that we have soiled them with our labour; then, it is very proper to cleanse them. But this was a ceremonial washing which the scribes and Pharisees would have everybody give, whether his hands were clean or not, before he sat down to meat, and was a mere piece of absurdity, if not something worse. Yet they magnified it into a most important matter, and our Saviour here shows what an idle thing it was. – Charles Spurgeon

Here is the clash and the collision; here is the contest between two kinds of religion and two kinds of worship. To the Scribes and Pharisees religion was the observance of certain outward rules and regulations and rituals, such as the correct way to wash the hands before eating; it was the strict observance of a legalistic outlook on all life. To Jesus religion was a thing which had its seat in the heart; it was a thing which issued in compassion and kindness, which are above and beyond the law. To the Scribes and Pharisees worship was ritual, ceremony law; to Jesus worship was the clean heart and the loving life. Here is the clash. And that clash still exists. What is worship? Even today there are many who would say that worship is not worship unless it is carried out by a priest ordained in a certain succession, in a building consecrated in a certain way, and from a liturgy laid down by a certain Church. And all these things are externals. –Barclay, Daily Study Bible

Image by on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0


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