Thomas and the Resurrection of Jesus

Doubting Thomas putting his fingers in Jesus' side, painting

” Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'”  Mark 9:23-24

Faith is an important part of the Christian life, the doorway as it were by which we enter the Kingdom.  “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8).  But, too often, we turn it into a kind of coin of the realm, something we barter in exchange for mercies received from the King.  We see this attitude most often when prayers go unanswered.  “If you had enough faith, God would hear”, is the familiar rebuke that is leveled against us in these times.  To be sure, there have been men and women of great faith.  Their names make up the litany of faith contained in Hebrews 11….Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and more.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Most of us will be saved by our faith, but it’s not likely we will be remembered for our great faith.  But even a little faith is sufficient for Jesus Christ to work in someone’s life.  The man or woman who knows the limitations of their faith, that point where doubt, confusion, ignorance, or even unbelief creeps in to steal away the blessed assurance of God’s favor, is a person who can be transparent before God.  “I can go this far, but no further Lord”, they may say; or as stated in our opening scripture “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Such a man was Thomas the Apostle who is best remembered not for his great faith but rather as Thomas, the doubter.

Thomas’ name in Syriac means “Twin”, and that is why he is referred to in John 11:16 by the Greek equivalent, Didymus.  He appears in each of the four lists of Apostles found in the synoptic evangelists, but it is in John’s gospel that we catch a glimpse of his personality.  In John 11:1-16 we have the story of Jesus returning to Bethany to heal Lazarus, his friend.  His disciples were fearful, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You and are You going there again?”  Whether in the beginnings of true faith, or only in resignation Thomas says “Let us also go that we may die with Him.”  Thomas was always the optimist!  In John 14:1-6 as the Lord teaches concerning His imminent death Thomas questions Him saying “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”  To this Jesus replies directly to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also…”  This mild rebuke would have turned Thomas’ uncertainly back to the one thing He was most certain of, Jesus.  But the incident by which he is best remembered is found in John 20:24-29.  Jesus has appeared in His resurrected glory to the other disciples, but “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  When confronted by their account he responds characteristically “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.

We might think this the height of unbelief, but I see it more as an honest confession of the limits of Thomas’ faith.  He had been with the Lord during that last week as had the others.  He saw Him betrayed, condemned, put to death, and at last buried.  Lest we be too hard on Thomas remember that Luke 24:11 records the rest of the disciples’ reaction to the words of the women who had seen Jesus risen and alive,  “their words seemed to them [the disciples] like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”  But at just that point where Thomas’ faith was not yet enough to sustain him, Jesus came specifically to him.  “Reach your finger here and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  And as he touched the wounds of his Lord, Thomas’s faith was made whole so that he freely confessed to Him, “My Lord and my God.

This much but little more the Scripture reveals to us of Thomas.  When the general Jewish persecution came upon the early church the apostles and disciples were scattered over the whole world.  In the apocryphal work called “The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas” it says “we portioned out [by lot] the regions of the world in order that each one of us might go into the region that fell to him, and to the nations to which the Lord sent him.”   There is some truth in this account, for Eusebius, in his “History of the Church” Book 3 Section 1, tells us that “Thomas was chosen for Parthia.”  This is part of what we know today as Iran.  Tradition further tells us that he was also active in Carmania (southern Iran), Hyrcania (northern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan), and Pakistan, eventually extending his mission field to the southwestern coast of India.  At this location it is recorded that he established seven churches on the Malabar Coast.  The tradition seems to be confirmed since there have been a group of believers at that location dating back into the middle ages who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas” and who claim to trace their faith back to the first preaching of Thomas in Malabar.  It was at Calamine that Thomas’ faith was tried and found sufficient, as he suffered martyrdom by the spear.

Back to the question of faith.  How much is sufficient?  The Lord’s own teachings seem to indicate that if we could but have faith as the grain of a mustard seed, divine power might be ours to move even mountains into the sea.  But the Lord brings it into perspective in Luke 10:19-20 “I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy….. nevertheless do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  Thomas may never have overcome the limitations of his faith while on the earth, but in his heart he already knew “the way, the truth, and the life” and that was sufficient for the trials and work of each day.    His life may not have been a testimony to great faith, but it is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ to faithfully remain “the author and finisher” of his faith.  When the spears of martyrdom came upon him Thomas’ testimony echoed the words of St. Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12  “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.”  May our faith be sufficient for the day at hand, and may we never be afraid to confront our lack of faith.  It is only then, as we place our fingers in the nail-scarred hands of our Savior and look once more into his eyes that all of our doubt, confusion, and fear is swallowed up in the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.

Symposium on Preparing for Death

This event will take place at Red Door Church in South Royalton, VT, on Sunday, March 21st from 1:30pm to 5pm. We will be livestreaming portions of the event to our Facebook Page with scheduled posts and to our YouTube channel. You can watch them all here on our website.

This month we are putting on an event here at Red Door Church addressing a topic that most of us avoid: death.

Why talk about death?

For one, because most of us have been touched by death over the last year as the world has reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But also because experienced practitioners in fields like hospice care and funeral services who face death on a regular basis will tell you that greater harm is done when we avoid the topic.

Maggie Callanan, in her excellent book Final Journeys, says in the introduction that what led her to write the book was her father’s honest confession during his dying days: “I don’t know how to do this!”

Part of our ignorance is the simple fact that we avoid or completely ignore the topic until we are forced to acknowledge it through the death of a loved one or our own mortality.

This event is designed to help us begin thinking more about this daunting topic. We are bringing together experienced local practitioners from various fields to put on workshops about various topics to help us plan and prepare for death. Here’s a glimpse at the workshops and talks we have planned thus far:

-What is Hospice Care?

-Preparing for Life’s Final Journey? (Funeral Services)

-Walking Alongside the Bereaved

-General Estate Planning (POA and Wills)

-Advanced Medical Directives

-What Matters Most in the End (Faith and Death)

For those of you who cannot attend, we will be livestreaming and recording the event. We will also have a resource table with books and pamphlets available for purchase at significant discounts.


First and foremost, if you are feeling ill please refrain from coming and participating in the event. We have in place a handful of COVID-19 protocols to do our part in keeping everyone safe during the event.

-All of our workshop leaders and presenters have had their temperature taken upon entry.

-Signs will be put on display throughout the building to guide everyone through the building safely.

-Sanitizer stations are located in strategic places.

-Bathrooms will be wiped down between uses by our volunteers.

-Maps will be handed out to each attendee to ensure everyone knows where things are and where the appropriate places to enter and exit rooms are located.

-We will all be practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

We do hope you will join us for this event! It’s completely free to you thanks to the sponsorship of a number of organizations like Hope Home Care Services in Bethel, Vermont, Thrivent Financial Services, and Bayada Hospice.

“Faith in the Storm,” A Lenten Reflection

We have noted before that the opposite of faith is not disbelief, it is fear.  Faith makes us certain, it gives us confident direction in our choices, and it defines our destination and the path that leads to it.  Fear introduces questioning, second guessing, worry about what might be.  It leaves us wondering and wandering, paralyzed with uncertainty, unable to move forward.  Just when we ought to be declaring, “Thus says the Lord God Almighty…” we hear the devil’s challenge whispered in our head, “Has God really said…?”

Faith in the words of Scripture, is like a man building his house on the rock. The storms come, as storms must come in a fallen world, yet the house stands firm, not because of the house, but because of its unshakable foundation.  Faith in the completed work of Jesus places eternity in our hearts so that even if we suffer loss or pain in the short term, we understand that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus.  When the scriptures speak of placing faith in God, it often resorts to spectacular imagery. Trusting God is being led to a rock higher than our own frailty or failure, it is a strong fortress into which we run for safety, it is dwelling under the wings of the most High God, it is being surrounded by the angel armies of heaven, or knowing that God is like the mountains that surround and protect us.

There are two commands that are repeatedly used throughout the scriptures that give us a worthwhile goal to seek after during this Lenten season, “Do not be afraid”, and “Stand fast” (or “Wait on the Lord”).  Often they are used together as in Exodus 14:13, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the LORD rescue you today.”  If we can allow the Spirit of God to work into our hearts, and minds, and spirits a true faith in the promises of God made present in the work of Jesus, we will have gained something that will see us through the rest of our lives until that day when we stand in the presence of God and see Him face to face.  Begin today with this confession from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything that I need.”

The Ashes of Our Praise

In a few nights a small crowd will gather at Red Door Church for our annual Ash Wednesday service.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent,  a 40 day season (not counting Sundays) of preparation leading up to Easter.

Every year I’m overwhelmed with the sheer number of potential Lenten themes.  As a pastor, my mind races here and there as I think about what direction the Lord would have us go each year.  The possibilities seem endless.

Of the many threads woven into the garment of Lent, one stood out to me this year as we approached Ash Wednesday: the ashes.  Each year I gather up the palm branches used during Palm Sunday from the year before and burn them to make the ashes that are later placed on the foreheads of worshippers who come to our Ash Wednesday service.

But why burn the palm fronds from the year before?  What is the significance of placing those ashes on our heads?  Why not just employ regular ol’ wood ash from my stove at home?  Those ashes are certainly in abundance this time of year and it would be easier to take a few spoonfuls of those out of the stove rather than creating new ash from the palms.

The answers are not immediately obvious but are profound and worth contemplating for a moment.

Palm Sunday

A week before Easter on Palm Sunday Christians remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19).  The crowds welcomed him with palm branches and shouted a short portion of Psalm 118:25: “Hosanna!”1  The symbolic use of palm branches has a long and interesting history.   In ancient times palm branches were a symbol of praise and victory.  They were used to welcome military leaders when they would come home from battle victorious.  They were used on coinage alongside pictures of emperors and gods, on Jewish ossuaries, and to this day can be found on flags.

Maybe most interesting of all, however, is that just five days later after welcoming Jesus in kingly fashion into Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, the same crowds that praised him with great passion and asked for him to “Save us!” (which is what “Hosanna” means), were complicit in crucifying him with equal passion.  One minute they loved him and the next they scorned him.


Now, what about the ashes?  In ancient Jewish culture, ashes were used as a symbol of grief, mourning, or penitence.  For example, we read of Tamar, after being raped by her brother:

“Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.” (2 Samuel 13:19, NIV)

Or in the story of Jonah, we find the people of Nineveh repenting at the preaching of Jonah:

“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3:5-6, ESV)

Examples of this could be multiplied (see for instance Esther 4:1-3; Job 2:8, 42:6 or Jeremiah 6:26).2

Combining the Two

The combination of the palms of praise and victory with the symbolism of ashes has a significance that should not be lost on us.

The reason we use the ashes of the palms and not just any ashes is to remind us of how frail our praise is.  That we, just like those joyous crowds that day in Jerusalem, would have been calling for Jesus’ condemnation just a few days later.3

The ashes on our heads are a mark of our mourning of that fact.  We grieve that our praise is half-hearted.  We mourn that the flame of our devotion can be blown out with the slightest breeze of temptation or trial.  We grieve that our sins are so great, that only the crucifixion of the Son of God could wash them away.

Let the ashes of the palm fronds on our foreheads be a fresh reminder of these things.

  1. For a great discussion on the meaning of the word “Hosanna” see the article “Hosanna” at
  2. Ashes can also have other meaning in Scripture. See Isaiah 44:20.
  3. Bryan J. who writes at Mockingbird helped me to see this connection. Read his article “Burning Palm Sunday: An Ash Wednesday Reflection,” here.

What is Epiphany?

The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, and marks the end of the celebration of Christmas.  The night preceding Epiphany has been called the Twelfth Night, an acknowledgement that the twelve days of the Christmas celebration are at last complete.  The word “epiphany” means a manifestation or an unveiling of something that comes suddenly into view.  It derives from two Greek words that literally could mean to shine a light upon.  When it is applied to the coming of Jesus, the Epiphany refers to God the Father revealing His Son as the chosen Messiah or deliverer.

The season of Epiphany continues until the beginning of Lent and traditionally ends with a remembrance of the transfiguration of Jesus in which He was revealed to His disciples in His heavenly glory and as the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.  The entire season is intended  to focus our attention upon Jesus as if to say, “This one is the chosen one of God, pay attention to Him, follow Him where He leads you.  Do not look for any other, He is the Son of God sent to you.”  It also gives us some additional time to think on and understand the full meaning of the Christmas season we have just celebrated.  We begin to see what incarnation means, why the Father sent His Son Jesus at the fullness of time, and who this Immanuel really is.

Three Important Manifestations

Traditionally the scripture lessons for the season of Epiphany focus on one of three manifestations of Jesus to the world that He had come to save.  The first manifestation is the visit of the three Magi or wise men, pagan men from the east who came to Bethlehem seeking the one born King of the Jews.  The second manifestation, this time to Israel, was at the baptism of Jesus.  In the words of John the Baptist, “I did not know Him, but in order that He should be made manifest to Israel, I have come baptizing with water…and I saw and bear witness that this Jesus is the Son of God.” (John 1:31, 34)   And finally, the third manifestation was the first miracle that Jesus did at Cana, changing water into wine at the wedding feast.  As it records in John 2:11,“This beginning of miracles Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and He manifested forth His glory, and His disciples believed on him.” 

When we close the season of Epiphany with the celebration of the Transfiguration of Jesus, we come at last to the most real manifestation of Jesus in His true glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and once again the Father speaks from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Jesus is God’s Anointed One

In Luke 4: 18-19, Jesus goes into the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads from the scroll of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As Jesus Himself declared that day, He is the Lord’s anointed One who has come into the world. The sanctuary color for the season of Epiphany is green. Green is a reminder that God is at work to bring eternal life to those that believe in the One whom He has sent for the deliverance of the world.  We are reminded of this in the words of John the Baptist who simply proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (John 1:29)  The lectionary readings for the season of Epiphany remind us that God works this manifestation of grace through His Son Jesus.  Jesus is revealed to us as the Son of God, the One God has chosen and anointed for this work. 

*Much of this material was borrowed from Red Door Church elder Russ Rohloff’s helpful introduction to the season of Epiphany in the parent guide to our church’s Epiphany curriculum for children.

Go and Tell it On the Mountain

The Christmas story is simply the best story ever told and this for many reasons. 

First, it was written when the fullness of time had finally come round, and all the very best stories of humankind that had been told and retold throughout the ages found their fulfillment in it.  Then too, it was told in a language that all people could understand.  Its glorious message was proclaimed in the heavens by a star of unusual wonder that spoke through divine light to the small, still point in every person’s heart, deep calling unto deep.  The Christmas story came first to the descendants of Abraham who carried its essence in their hearts for hundreds of years, but its promises were for every person of good will, the nations who would find their true blessing through the seed of Abraham.

The first murmurings were heard in Paradise, its veiled glimmer of hope spoken in mercy to a fallen man and his wife as they passed the cherubim with the flaming sword.  It was repeated in the thunder on the cloud on Sinai and echoed in the ram’s horns of the priests and shouts of the people and the rumble of Jericho’s walls falling in upon themselves.  It was given a clear, jubilant voice in the psalms of David and gravely intoned in the halls of Solomon the wise.  It became a melancholy sigh in the breasts of the elders of Israel as they sat by the rivers of Babylon and thought on Jerusalem, their harps hanging still at their side.

The length and width and depth of the Christmas story were established in the highest courts of heaven, yet its working out was upon the earth as thrones and dominions and principalities were moved by the hand of God as characters in its plot.  Angels longed to look into it, and demons trembled at its telling.  Sometimes it was faint, as a small still voice might be upon the winds, other times strong and vibrant as the glory of the Lord bent near to touch the earth.  Yet it was always the same, the glorious promises of restoration, reconciliation, and deliverance. 

It was chanted into the whole world at its creation as the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.  Yet its universal message was somehow personal, it was as if each man’s, woman’s, and child’s name was somehow written into its telling.

And that brings me to the whole point of what I am trying to say.  If it remains only a story, even the best story which has ever been put into words by the inspiration of the divine Spirit, its words can all too soon fade away as the Christmas season turns, as the wonderment of light and evergreen and celebration gives way to the more pressing concerns of our lives.  It is just then that we must shake ourselves and remember that what gives this story an enduring meaning is the fact that it is true, and that somehow we were always meant to be a part of it. 

The Apostle John said it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled concerning the word of life….that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you may also have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”

-1 John 1:1, 3-4

Only when we wrestle with our doubts and expectations in this season, only when we search to find our own names written by God’s hand in His book of life wherein this story is fully told, only when we empty our hearts and turn them expectantly towards Bethlehem do we begin to grasp the magnificence of God’s promises to us in this season.  Emmanuel is come to us, and He bears gifts for us the like of which we have never imagined.  It is then, on that road to Bethlehem, bathed in a divine light that streams from the very presence of God that we must hear again the message the angels proclaim, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord…Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward me.”  We have no choice but to go with the shepherds to see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.

And having seen, let us believe.  And having believed, let us handle, and touch, and receive all that this Word of Life offers.  Let us share it with our families, let us instruct our children in its telling with reverence.  And then, when the season draws to a close and we must turn from its glory, let us go on, not forgetting, but carrying the story with us as a word of hope to a world in desperate need of its message.  And so we will become yet another chapter of the story, proclaimed this year with everlasting hope and peace into this time and place in which we live.

So Ro’s 44th Annual Christmas Pageant – 2020

Many of you have been asking about our annual Christmas Pageant.

The 44th Annual Pageant is a go! However, as you might have guessed, because of COVID-19 it is going to look a bit different than it has in past years.

Come join us from the warmth and safety of your own car while you travel around the Town Green hearing from a cast of characters who are portraying the events of Jesus’ birth as eye witnesses. Experience one of the greatest events in all of history in a brand, new way! You will hear the true meaning of the holidays with optional prepackaged cookies and treats to enjoy in the comfort of your own home.

The Pageant begins with a rolling start between 6:30-7 pm on Sunday evening December 20th . When entering the town of South Royalton, turn right towards the Vermont Law School (VLS) parking lot (Cameron Way) and proceed towards Magic Mountain Daycare. Cars will be released by traffic control to proceed around the Green. Below we’ve posted a map with a bit more detail so you can see how the flow of the event will proceed.

We do hope that you will come! Merry Christmas!

Don’t Fall Away During COVID

This post is a sermon manuscript from Pastor Josh Moore’s recent message on Hebrews 3:7-19 (originally preached on October 11th, 2020 at Red Door Church in South Royalton, Vermont). You can view the sermon here on the church’s YouTube page.

What do the names Marty Sampson, Joshua Harris, Ryan Bell and Derek Webb have in common?

These are all well known Christian figures–we might call celebrities–who have publicly renounced their faith in recent years.  I’m sure there are many others.  

I’m sure some of you know people who were once walking with God and now are no longer.

We should pray for these people.  

But we can also learn something from their stories and from their stepping away from Christian faith. Something that we will see in our passage today (out of Hebrews 3).

Here is what I hope we will see: that just because someone appears to be walking solidly in the faith does not mean that they always will.  We cannot take it for granted that everything is okay with a person or even that everything is okay with ourselves for that matter.  As we will see today, the Christian community plays an active role in the believers’ lives and the believer has the responsibility to be actively involved in Christian community. 

We will see from Hebrews 3 just how important community is and we will hear a clear warning from the passage today, not to forsake it.

‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.’

-Hebrews 3:12-14

Oh how I long for each of you to make it to the end of the race.  To cross the line, to finish the race and to hear those much anticipated words from the Lord on that day: “Well done.”

Let’s look at our passage this morning.

God Uses the Wilderness to Test Us

This passage in Hebrews starts with a quotation out of Psalm 95 verses 7 through 11.  What I want us to do as we start out today is to quickly read Psalm 95.  This Psalm does something really interesting.  

The first seven verses talk about worship, the ones that are not mentioned in our passage today.  They say:

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;

    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

For the Lord is a great God,

    and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

    the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

    and his hands formed the dry land.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;

    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!

-Psalm 95:1-7

But then in verse 8 we begin to hear something very different.  And this is the section that is quoted in Hebrews 3 this morning where it says:

‘Today, if you hear his voice,

    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

when your fathers put me to the test

    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation

    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”

Therefore I swore in my wrath,

    “They shall not enter my rest.”’

-Psalm 95:7d-11

The fact that these two passages are set side by side, the one about worship and the other section about having a hard heart and rebelling against the Lord is something we should pay attention to.

“Come let us bow down in worship” it says, then just two verses later, “Do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert.”

Some scholars believe that these two parts of the psalm belong to different psalms or different time periods because they are so different. If you just look at the themes it might be easy to draw that conclusion.  

But other scholars (wiser ones in my opinion) suggest that there actually is a logic here and that these two sections belong together.  One helpful writer that I was reading this week writes that it is:

‘a good thing to worship God, but acts and words of worship are acceptable only if they proceed from sincere and obedient hearts”

-Peter T. O’Brien quoting Bruce, The Letter to the Hebrews, 141.

Perhaps one of the point the Psalmist is trying to get across is that just because you have heard the voice of God and because you have seen great wonders like those put on display in the wilderness for Israel, you can still have a hard heart.  Moreover, just because you bow down in worship and kneel before the Lord, does not mean that you know Him.

And this is where testing becomes a useful tool in the hand of the Lord.  The Lord brings about tests–wildernesses–and begins to reveal what is really in our hearts.  The wilderness draws it out.  

And what did God find in the heart of Israel while they were in their wilderness as they left Egypt?

Hard hearts.

The Seriousness of a Hard Heart

Now I want us to pause here for a moment to think about this.  Look at verses 9 and 10 in Psalm 95.  It says:

‘when your fathers put me to the test

    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation

    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”’

-Psalm 95:9-10

Many of you no doubt know what happened during that time–those 40 years.  These people witnessed the Lord lead Moses into Egypt and lift up his staff against Pharaoh and perform all kinds of wonders eventually leading up to their release from bondage.

They witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and the pillar of fire that guided them.  They saw the thunder and the smoke upon the mountain and witnessed proof after proof that God was there. They saw that He was awesome and mighty and that He loved them and was going to do what He had promised to them and to their fathers.

Yet, despite all of that, they continually went astray and did not know the ways of God, the Bible says.  

A hard heart is a terrible thing.  It blinds you to reality.  Even when God is right before your very eyes displaying his might and power, the hard heart still turns from Him.  We see this in the time of Jesus as well.  Jesus would heal the sick, raise the dead, confound the teachers with his answers and did many other wonders, yet those who were hard in heart still would not follow him or listen to him.

The bottom line is this: the hard heart is not a heart that seeks after God.  It is a prideful heart and a heart that trusts in itself and not in the Lord.  It does not listen to the voice of God but only to its own reasons and desires.  

The Scriptures says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).  

So God is opposed to the person with the hard heart.

And it is in the wilderness that the hard heart is most clearly revealed.  It is in those times when things are not good.  When things are difficult.  When things are not going as you hoped or desired.  It is at those times when God often draws out what is in a person’s heart.

We are in a Wilderness

And at this present time we too find ourselves in a wilderness of sorts.  

Probably much like Israel after the Exodus many of us Americans thought that we were on our way to some great place just 6 or 8 months ago when the economy was strong and now, all of a sudden, we are in the wilderness.  Here we are in the middle of a desert and it doesn’t appear that we will be getting out anytime soon.

Could it be that God is testing us?  Could it be that the Lord is wanting to reveal what is in our hearts?  This prolonged situation which has gone on much longer than we ever anticipated has put our nation and our world to the test. 

What is God seeing?  What is being revealed about us?

As I said last week in the sermon I don’t think that COVID-19 is to blame for most of our problems.  Has it done damage–of course!  Many have lost their lives (I lost one of my aunts just two weeks ago to COVID-19) and it has brought entire nations to their knees, even our own.  Countless numbers have lost jobs and had to close businesses and we could go on about all the damage that COVID-19 has done.

But the greatest evil, far surpassing anything that COVID-19 has done, has been what has come out of us from within our hearts.

Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God, tells the story about how a newspaper once posed the question 

“‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G. K. Chesterton.’

-Quoted in Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God, 46.

Could COVID-19 be a Gift?

He’s right.  We are what’s wrong with the world.  Not COVID (though COVID certainly has not made things better).

Or has it?


If what G.K. Chesterton said is right, and we are the main problem with the world.  Could it be that COVID is a kind of gift or medicine?  Could it be that COVID is teaching us something deep and profound?  That God has stirred up this whole ordeal for our good?

If we are walking through this event with our eyes open then I think we will see that maybe this is in fact the case. 

How so? How has COVID been like medicine? In what way.

I think in the same way that Nobel Prize winner (in literature) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn saw prison as a gift and good medicine for his soul. He was thrown into Joseph Stalin’s corrective labor camps for eight years in the mid 1900s because he had made some disrespectful remarks about Joseph Stalin.

Later he would write about his imprisonment in a book titled The Gulag Archipelago.  In that book he says these amazing words:

‘I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”’

The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, 617. As quoted by John Piper here:

Solzhenitsyn saw prison as a gift, not because it made his life easier or because it was pleasant but because, in his words: his soul was “nourished” there.

I think that is the kind of effect that COVID can have for us if we will see it with the eyes of faith.

Right now, during this time, God is revealing things to us that we so desperately need to see. Many people today are seeing now more clearly than ever that the world is broken.  And that the solutions to that brokenness are not a particular political party or leader. We are beginning to see that freedom only goes as far as the people who are free. If the free people are not good, then the freedom will only lead to evil and destruction. I think we are seeing that play out very clearly here in America today. 

Our problems, in other words, are inside of us, they are in us.  They are us.  And COVID is drawing those things out once again.  

And I would venture to say that viewed this way, COVID is not harming us but helping us.

Because COVID is seeking to draw our attention up off this world and up onto the Lord–to help us see that there is something greater beyond this time and place.  

Do you believe that? 

Do you believe that for those who trust in Jesus Christ that there is something on the other side of this world that is greater?

I lost my grandmother to pancreatic cancer a month ago and my aunt died as a result of complications from COVID just a couple of weeks after that.  I miss them. I mourn their passing. But they both loved Jesus.  My grandmother made a remark to one of her daughters before she died that she wanted to go and get her hair done because she was going to see the Lord and wanted to look her best for her Savior. She loved Jesus as did my aunt Paulette. So while I miss them, I know that they are with God right now.  That is a rock solid hope in a time like this. 

And I want to ask you, do you believe that promise?  That if you believe in Jesus and put your trust in Him that you will be with God immediately after you die, forever in paradise? 

I’m concerned that some of us may have lost sight of that in the midst of the pandemic and all the other problems that we are facing.

Israel Lost Sight of the Promised Land

That is what happened to the Israelites. They lost sight of the promised land while they were in the wilderness.  

While we may think, “oh that’s Old Testament and that was way back then and has no relevance for us today,” the writer to the Hebrews, here in the New Testament thinks that it is very relevant for us.  

And in fact this passage before us today is a warning passage in which God wants us to be warned about these these things lest we suffer the same fate as they did.  

God had promised them a land, a place flowing with milk and honey, a place to rest and to call their own.  But that place was future and it required them to listen and obey to get there.  They had a wilderness to go through in order to get to the promised land.  

And, just to be blunt, they didn’t want to do that.  So they began to grumble and to turn against their leader and resist God.  They ignored his commandments and hardened their hearts.   

What was the result?  That entire generation died in the wilderness and never entered the promised land, the rest that God had promised them.

And God has done the same here in this present wilderness.  The promises that He has made to us in Christ are future.  We have grace now, yes, we are saved now, yes, we have relationship with God now and know the consolations of his love and joy, now–yes.  But the fullness of those things is future.

And if we are to fully enjoy those things we must not lose sight of the goal, the prize, the things that God has promised us in the future.  

COVID is helping us do that.  COVID is a daily reminder that this world is not our home and that here we have no lasting city but the city we seek is one that is future.  

The Danger of Falling Away

If you lose sight of that, your fate could very well be like that of that generation of Israelites that perished in the wilderness.  Look at verse 12:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 

-Hebrews 3:12

The book of Hebrews was written to Christians. When this verse was penned, the author had the entire congregation in mind. What this means is that he does not take for granted that every single person sitting in the pew is safe and secure in their faith. He doesn’t assume that warnings and cautions don’t have a place for the believer.  

Here in context this warning about falling away follows immediately after the story about the generation in Israel in the wilderness that rebelled against God and did not make it to the promised land.

Well, what’s he saying?  What is being implied here?  

Why would he warn Christians of the danger of falling away?

Because those warnings are actually part and parcel of how Christians finally arrive at their destination.  True Christians heed the warnings–they listen.

Just like all the kids who safely cross the road are the ones who listen and put into practice the warnings to “look both ways” and “wait until all the cars pass before you go” that were given by their parents.

Some Christians seem to think that just because true believers cannot really and finally fall away from the faith that implies that warnings are therefore superfluous and irrelevant.  But that is like saying that because you believe that your child is not going to get hit by a car that you don’t need to ever tell him to watch out for a car.  

That is faulty logic. It is in the warnings and in the cautions and the in teachings and even in the rebukes that the child learns how to avoid the cars and cross the road safely.  The warnings are a necessary part of the process.

So it is here. If you are a true Christian then you will heed the warning that is given to you today.  

Just to be Clear, What is the Warning?

What is the warning?  What exactly is the writer warning us about?

The essence of the warning is this: Christian, do not coast!  Do not put the car of your faith on autopilot!  Walking with God is a daily battle and you must be vigilant.  

Look at verse 13:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

-Hebrews 3:13

Do you hear that last part of that verse there?  “That none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

What does that mean?

Sin is a liar.  Sin is a deceiver.  Sin will tell you things like “just do it, it’s not a big deal, just this one thing and it will be okay.”  Or sin will make promises that it cannot keep.  It will tell you that there is life in disobeying God. That’s where it starts.  And often it is something seemingly innocent at the start–something that no one would think much of. 

Over time your heart becomes hardened and you begin to willfully, knowingly, outright do things that you never would have dreamed of doing before.  Sin deceived you and instead of giving you life it took you straight to the grave. 

Some of you think, “that would never be me!” I doubt any of the Israelites as they marched out of Egypt triumphantly having watched God deliver them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm under the leadership of Moses–I doubt any of them was thinking that in just a short time they would be worshipping idols and grumbling and rejecting that very same God. 

But that is exactly what happened.  So be warned Christian. We are in a wilderness right now just as Israel was, do not let the deceitfulness of sin take hold of you, lest you fall away.

The Anecdote: Community


How are we to do this?  Thankfully the writer doesn’t leave us in the dark.  He gives us an anecdote.  

Look back at verse 13 again with me:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

-Hebrews 3:13

Notice how community is assumed here.  He takes it for granted that the believers are in community together.  And not a little community either.  He says “every day.”  Every day believers are to be in one another’s lives, exhorting one another.

The Greek verb here that is behind the word “exhort” is the Greek word parakaleo. This word has a wide range of meaning that ranges from warnings like we have here to reproof and even encouragement and comfort.

So the main anecdote here in context that the author gives us as an aid and preventative measure against being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin is being in regular Christian community.  

And by community I don’t mean a social club.  I mean rich, deep, intimate community.  The kind of community that doesn’t assume that you are going to be okay and that you can cruise to glory.  It doesn’t assume that you can see all of your own problems and fix all of your own problems.  It assumes that you are quite dependent on others, especially in your spiritual life.  Listen to what it says in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. “

-Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

I need you and you need me. I need you to tell me when I am straying.  I need you to help me when I fall down.  When I am discouraged or doubting or fearful or not walking in step with the gospel.  I need you.  And you need me to do the same for you.  

God means for us to be in fellowship with people who love us enough to say the hard thing and to rebuke us when we need it.  And at the same time he means for us to be with believers who can and will encourage us and remind us of God’s promises when we are struggling or discouraged.  Community is vital–it’s not an optional choice.

And this is precisely one of the main reasons why this COVID crisis is such a harsh wilderness. Yes, there is the risk of getting sick and physical suffering and dying, but perhaps the even greater risk is being cut off from Christian community.  

Brothers and sisters, we need each other, now more than ever.  I’m afraid that some of us may be slipping into a comfortable habit of watching online or keeping your distance from the gathering of believers.  

Folks there simply is no substitute for in person worship.  We are thankful for the online option, but it’s not the same.

I know that for some of you it may be necessary for now.  I understand that.  I just lost one of my aunt’s to this and there are others in my family back in North Carolina that are still fighting for their lives.  I know it’s deadly.  It’s for real.  It’s no joke.  

But I also know that these warnings are no joke.  And you are not strong enough to live like a maverick and do the Christian life on your own.  The writer of the inspired text here assumes that you need others in your life. You don’t know better than God.  He made you.  He knows what you need and here He tells us–be in community.  Exhort one another daily.

And then notice that phrase in verse 13: as long as it is called “today.”

As Long As it is Called “Today”

You know that it won’t always be “today”, right?  Verse 14 speaks of the “end.”  What is the end?

The end is one of two: (1) either the end of your own personal life or (2) it is that glorious day when the Lord Jesus will come back for all of His people, whichever comes first.

All of us will die or see the Lord Jesus return.  All of us will stand before him for judgment.  Later on in this book in chapter 9:27 the author will say these words: 

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,

-Hebrews 9:27

You will stand before the Lord at the end.  

But the writer here in our passage today in verse 14 says that it is only those who “hold their original confidence firm to the end” who will be welcomed into the eternal rest that is offered to us in the gospel. 

That confidence is faith in the gospel, the good news about Jesus.  The good news that anyone who would repent of their sins–that means to turn from doing wrong–and put their faith in Jesus will be saved from the coming judgment of God and saved into eternal life and rest and joy and bliss in the presence of God forever.  No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve come from or who you are or were.  This offer is for you.  Jesus came for you.  Believe today.

And if you hold that simple faith, like a child, just resting in that promise until the end, you will immediately pass into the presence of God at the end.

But I need you if I’m going to make it to the end.  And you need me if you are going to make it.  We need each other.

Let’s pray.

Washing Your Hands Isn’t Enough

The following post is Pastor Josh’s sermon manuscript from August, 16th, 2020. The text he preached from was Matthew 15:1-20 which is copied below (out of the ESV).

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And 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. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is 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?” He answered, “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.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 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.”

-Matthew 15:1-20


To start our message today I want to bring up an ongoing issue in our home. 

Some of you who are parents will no doubt understand what I’m talking about here.

Here’s the issue: we make rules, but there are sometimes differences about how those rules are interpreted.  So take for instance, “no jumping on the couch.” 

Some of our more obedient ones in our home, take this rule as implying that there should be no standing at all on the couch… because if you stand, then you are inevitably going to jump or make a bouncing motion that resembles jumping.  So the “no jumping” rule also means “no standing on the couch.”  This additional rule was added to help people obey the no jumping rule.  Because if you are standing on the couch, you are probably going to be tempted to jump.

Some of our other little ones like to stretch the boundaries.  They think that this rule means that you can basically do anything on the couch that you want to, except jump.  You can run.  You can cartwheel.  You slam your brother or sister… Just so long as you are not jumping. This group will passionately insist that they were obeying the literal letter of the law and not being the rule breakers that the other group says they are.

Who is right? 

I think most of us would say that both groups are right about some things and wrong about some things. 

The Tradition of the Elders

As silly as this example that I’ve chosen this morning might seem, it actually is not too far from the way things were in Jesus’ day. 

For instance, take Sabbath observance.  God commanded that we work six days and that the seventh day be given to rest.  What does it look like to obey the Sabbath?  Is absolutely all work forbidden? Can you leave your house on the Sabbath day?  Can you perform a good deed on the Sabbath day? 

Much like the couch example in my home, there were respected and pious Jewish scholars who came up with their own interpretations about what Sabbath observance meant and over time these interpretations became a tradition.  This is what Jesus refers to here in verse 2 when he says the “tradition of the elders.” 

One example that I stumbled across in my study this past week dealt with the situation where someone wanted to give a gift to a poor person on the Sabbath day.  Given the command in Exodus 16 where it says that a person is not to leave their home on the Sabbath day, how would you give a gift to a poor person in need?  How can do this good deed without leaving your home and thus breaking the Sabbath command?  In the Mishna, which is a Jewish holy book, where much of this teaching is recorded, it wrestles with how exactly this transaction can happen. 

Leon Morris writes:

“If the householder stood inside his house and put his gift outside or if the poor person, standing outside, reached inside and took up the gift, in either case there was a transgression because a person had carried something out of a house on the Sabbath.” 

-Leon Morris in his commentary The Gospel According to Matthew, (PNTC, Eerdmans), p. 388

So these Rabbis came up with a solution. Morris continues:

“Neither person should cross the boundary carrying the gift.  But if the poor man stood outside and reached his hand inside and if the householder than placed his gift into the poor man’s hand, the poor man could withdraw his hand and neither had transgressed.  The same result of course was obtained if the householder stood inside and held his hand containing the gift outside so that the poor man, standing outside, could simply receive the gift… In this case there is no transgression: neither man has carried the burden across the line.” 

-Morris, Matthew, 388.

If you do this for the entire Pentateuch, those first five books of the bible, what you have is the “tradition of the elders.”

Now of course, here in our passage before us today, Jesus is not taking issue with their understanding of the Sabbath (though he does do that in other places), here he is taking issue with their teachings about the washing of hands. 

But maybe you’re asking what’s with the washing of the hands?

Hand Washing: Not About Hygiene

Now at the time, washing of hands was not something that was done for personal hygiene, it was done to prevent a person from becoming ceremonially unclean.  What that basically means is that these washings were to prepare a person to enter into God’s presence.  It was a way of acknowledging that a person was not worthy to be in the presence of the perfect Creator.  These washings were symbolic–not hygienic. 

We do these kinds of things all the time.  When I open the door for my wife, it is a symbolic act of love and respect and honor.  It’s not something I do because I don’t think that she is incapable of opening the door.  I do it to recognize that she has a special place in my life and as an act of service and love to her.  It’s an acknowledgment of something.

And so too these ritual washings were not actually about removing dirt or removing bad things from a person (they weren’t actually doing anything).  It was a symbolic acknowledgment that one was sinful and dirty and unworthy of entering into the presence of God which was a clean and holy and special place.  If one was to enter into the presence of the Creator, one must be clean.

In the book of Exodus (30:17-21) it was required for priests to wash their hands (and their feet) when they were ministering at the altar. In other words, washing of the hands was a ritual done at the altar to prepare the priest for his priestly service. If a priest failed to do this, he would be considered unclean and thus unable to minister at the altar.

But the tradition established by these ancient Jewish interpreters took this law and extended it to all people and into the realm of daily life requiring people to wash their hands before they eat.

In the Mishnah which is one of the places where these traditions are recorded, there is an entire section devoted to these laws that is just titled “hands.”  It talks about how this spiritual uncleanness can only be removed by running water so it must be poured over the hands and it discusses which parts of the hands are involved.  Some argue it’s up to the wrists while others believe only fingers are in view.

At first these many teachings were useful but over the centuries as more and more teachers added their contributions, some of whom were less wise, it had become an unhelpful and burdensome body of teaching. 

For most common people, all of this was just too much. 

So Jesus here in this story is going to address this group that has come all the way out to Galilee to speak to him about his disciple’s failure to wash their hands before eating.

This is Important

Now to us, on the surface, we see all of this as somewhat ridiculous.  Hair splitting nonsense.  We probably at first glance look at something like this and struggle to see the significance.  But if we are to really appreciate what is happening here, we must try and understand how this would have been perceived at the time. 

This was a very serious matter to pious Jews.  And there are a few things that Matthew records for us that give us indicators of just how serious this was.

Observe a few details with me in verses 1 and 2.

Notice how it says that the Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem.  In rural Galilee, to have religious leaders from Jerusalem, the holy city, the capital, would have been quite the ordeal. Their appearance would have been very noticeable and they would have been viewed by the locals as people of great authority.  Today, it would probably be something of the equivalent of a bunch of government officials from Washington coming to South Royalton to confront someone right on the street.  You know everyone would be out there with their smartphones out recording and taking pictures and it would be all over Facebook.  

Notice also that it says that they came to Jesus.  One commentator writes that it was not as though they came for a pastoral visit and happened to bump into Jesus.  No, they came with the exclusive purpose of confronting Jesus.  The fact that they would come so far outside of the capital to speak to Christ, tells us a little bit about the reputation of Jesus and also maybe just how opposed to Jesus they were.

Now finally observe with me in verse 2 that their critique is of Jesus’ disciples, not directly of Jesus himself.  “Your disciples break the tradition…” they say.  Of course, the critique of the disciples would indirectly be a kind of accusation directed at Jesus because he would have been the one teaching them to not regard the traditions of the elders.  This was more serious than just an occasional transgression of the tradition—someone accidentally not washing their hands for one reason or another or just some laziness…  (Just too tired at the end of the day to get up off the couch and wash your hands before shoveling down the pizza…)

Because Jesus was teaching his disciples to break the tradition, this was no accident, this was a systematic, principled practice.  So in the history and culture of the time, this was a serious infraction and we must try and keep the seriousness of this in front of us as we talk about something that to 21st century modernized people on the surface looks like a waste of breath.

So this was a big deal.

How Does Jesus Respond?

And Jesus’ response here is going to help us to see why all of this is so important.  Let’s look at how Jesus responds to their question in verses 3 through 6:

He answered them, “And 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. 

-Matthew 15:3-6

Notice in this response that Jesus totally ignores the handwashing issue—he makes no reference to it at all. Instead, Jesus goes much deeper.

Jesus wants to show them that in their zeal to help people obey God’s law, they end up breaking that very same law.  And he doesn’t point out how they do that exactly in the case of handwashing but instead uses this other example about honoring one’s father and mother. 

Why does he do that?

Well some suggest that Jesus does this because the command to honor one’s father and mother, was greater and more weighty than these minor regulations about the washing of hands.  Some rabbis would have even considered this command to be one of the most significant in all of the law.

So Jesus here is using the argument of the greater to the lessor and showing how the Pharisees need to stop pointing the finger at others for minor infractions and start looking at their own lives and how they have broken serious commands of God.  And in the history and culture of the time it would have been expected that a child care for their parents in their old age—this was a part of what it meant to honor them.  But what the Pharisees did was allow people to dedicate money to God that would have been used to care for their aging parents… and then the parents suffer. 

Morris writes:

“The tradition about the rash vow is honored, but the commandment of God is not kept.”

-Morris, Matthew, 393.

So what has happened is the Pharisees are enforcing laws that actually allow people to participate in the breaking of God’s laws.  The result is that they care more about the laws of men than they do the laws of God.  Which is more important?  God’s laws or man’s laws?

Some of us are so guilty of this too.  Oh how we look down at others for minor infractions and yet all the while are not fulfilling the more significant, weightier matters of God’s law.  We scoff because of the clothes someone wears or because of the music someone listens to or because they shop at Starbucks or vote in a way that irritates us.  Yet all the while, we are neglecting prayer and we are being unfaithful to our spouse or harboring hate in our hearts towards our neighbors. Oh, how guilty we are of this too.

Jesus says in verses 7, 8 and 9 that when we do that we are hypocrites:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

-Jesus in Matthew 15:7-9, quoting Isaiah 29:13

And Jesus says that is exactly what is happening here in this instance with the hand washing.

How so?

Real Defilement Comes from Within

Jesus is now going to explain to us how the tradition of the elders was not helping people to obey God but was actually leading people into disobedience.

So, back to the couch example from the beginning of the sermon. Those kids who want to create new laws like “don’t stand on the couch” to help the other kids obey the “don’t jump on the couch” rule, actually end up creating more problems in the end. Fights are breaking out and people are getting angry and other things that are more important are being ignored.  The intention might be good at first but the end result is really bad.

And I want you to listen carefully because this is where the rubber meets the road for us too.  This is not just about what was going on in that time and place, this has to do with us also.

Look at verses 10 and 11 now.  This is kind of a transition moment in the passage.  Jesus has been addressing the Pharisees and now he calls the common people up to talk to him.  Far from being an irrelevant triviality, this is something that everyone needs to know:

And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” 

So before I get into the meat of what Jesus is saying here, let me quickly talk about this word “defile.”  That’s not a word that we use today very much.  It’s an archaic sounding word.  Most of us probably think about pollution or something when we hear that word.  You know like a factory dumping chemicals into a river.  That’s polluting or defiling the river.  It’s no longer pure and clean.  And that’s actually pretty close to the biblical meaning as well.

To defile here in this text is speaking of making something impure and unfit for God. So a person that is defiled cannot come before God and cannot touch anything that is dedicated to God until they have performed the necessary purification rites. Those might be washing or waiting a certain amount of time or presenting a particular animal to the priest to be sacrificed.

Okay, so now, with that in view, what is Jesus saying in verses 10 and 11? 

He’s saying that it’s not things like food and unclean hands and such that make us unfit for God.  It’s the stuff that comes out of the heart. 

Defilement was not something that happened from the outside of oneself but was something that originated on the inside of a person.

Think about the implications of that for a moment. 


Jesus continues in verses 15 and following:

But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 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.”

-Matthew 15:15-20

This would have been mind-blowing to the Jews of the day.  This is so different from the common teaching and practice of the day that Peter can’t even get his mind around it.

Maybe most concerning of all is that everyone does these things.  Everyone has committed at least one of the sins on that list.  If you haven’t you are way better than I am. 

And what this means is that we are all defiled, all of us are unfit for God.  All of us are unclean.  All of us have fallen short of God’s standard are not worthy to be in his holy presence. 

And no hand washing can take away the uncleanness in our hearts.  Just as eating with unwashed hands does not defile, neither does pouring water over the hands and wrists clean off the evil deeds that you and I have done.

How Does a Person Become Clean in the Sight of God?

But if we can’t just wash our hands or present an animal to the priest to be sacrificed.  What can we do?  How does one become clean?

We need a more powerful agent.  Something that goes deeper than water.  Our sins are like scarlet which cannot be washed away with mere water.  We need something greater.  The Old Testament prophets foretold a way that God would somehow remove the stains of our sins.  Isaiah 1:18 says:

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,

    they shall be as white as snow;

though they are red like crimson,

    they shall become like wool.

-Isaiah 1:18

But how?  How is this dirt and sin to be cleansed?

Not through rule keeping and rituals.  Not through a perfect obedience to all the commands of God and doing the right things.  God has made another way. 

There’s a great hymn that says it well:

There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins

and sinners plunged beneath that flood

lose all their guilty stains.

-Cowper, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”

A modern rendition of that hymns says

        Hallelujah fountain full of love for us

        Poured out on us

-Shane & Shane

This same Jesus who taught that mere washing with water would not prevent one from becoming unclean went on to offer his life as a sacrifice for you and for me, in love.  And anyone who would put their faith and trust in Him will be cleansed from their sins and granted eternal fellowship with God.

So God is inviting you into relationship with himself today and the way is not through washings and rule keeping, it’s through Jesus. 

If you haven’t already I invite you to put your faith in Jesus Christ today.