Select Wisdom Brand

Click the image to watch the video.
Scroll down for more options.



Clean Hands or a Clean Heart?

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 15:1–20; Mark 7:1–23; John 7:1

The world always emphasizes externals—what people see and what impresses them. But Jesus teaches that no matter how perfect we might appear to others, if our lives are centered on the external and physical, we are nothing but empty hypocrites.


The Jewish leaders in Capernaum had not been happy at all with Jesus referring to Himself as the Bread of Life, come down from heaven. Their hatred toward Him was intensifying.  

In fact, John’s Gospel records that Jesus “would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him” (John 7:1). He came to die on a cross, but He was going to determine when and where.

In the meantime, some religious leaders arrived to try to find fault with Him. Matthew’s Gospel picks up their conversation in chapter 15: 

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.” (verses 1-2)

The Pharisees taught that if you ate your food with ceremonially purified hands, it was guaranteed that you would “eat bread in the kingdom of God.”[1] In other words, you got into heaven if your hands were clean—never mind your heart.

Now Mark’s Gospel tells us that these religious leaders “saw that some of [Jesus’] disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed” (Mark 7:2). Didn’t they understand that this handwashing business was, as verse 3 says, “the tradition of the elders”? “Elders” refers to ancient Jewish leaders. The disciples are not just breaking rules; they are breaking ancient ones.

Doesn’t Jesus understand that He is not obeying the rules? In their eyes He is a maverick; He is coloring outside the lines of religion, and they have come to set Him straight. But Jesus is the one who is going to do the straightening out here; He is going to refuse to let their tradition become more important than the truth.

So, He says to them in verse 6, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” Jesus is saying, “You Pharisees are wearing a mask before everyone who sees you.” Their hands were clean—there probably was no dirt under their fingernails either—but there was dirt all over their hearts.

Jesus isn’t finished either. He now reveals the hidden motive of their hearts in one specific area:

“Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, [dedicated] to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (verses 10-13)

Jesus pulls out this rather convicting illustration. The Pharisees did not want to part with their money, even though the fifth commandment was that grown children were to honor their parents. Frankly, that command was more about caring for parents in their old age than it was saying, “Yes, sir” or “No ma’am.” Now there is nothing wrong with saying, “Yes sir” and “No ma’am”—that is how my mother trained me as boy. But this commandment has more to do with financially supporting aging parents. And to get around using their money to care for their aging parents, the Pharisees were effectively saying, “Listen, Mom and Dad, we are so sorry, but all our extra money has been dedicated to God.”

No doubt that sounded very religious, but it was nothing more than religious baloney. It was make-believe piety.

At this point, Jesus addresses the earlier issue of eating food with unwashed hands. He says in verse 15:

“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”

Jesus is not making a scientific statement about germs; He is making a spiritual statement about sin. The scribes and Pharisees were concerned about externals—like clean hands and kosher foods. They thought that as long as they followed the right rules, they were clean and holy. Jesus says that the source of real defilement before God is internal—a sinful heart.

You cannot clean sin off with soap, no matter how many times you wash your hands. External acts cannot clean your heart. Only faith in Jesus can cleanse your heart and your conscience through His sacrifice for your sin. And you cannot rid yourself of hypocrisy by washing behind your ears or lighting candles in a sanctuary.

Let me ask this question: Is it possible for genuine believers to fall into the trap of religious hypocrisy? Absolutely. In fact, let me suggest a few things we need to watch out for.

First, we can become guilty of hypocrisy when we are more interested in religious traditions than biblical teaching. The favorite saying of a church bound by tradition is, “We are going to do what we do because we have always done it that way!

Religious traditions are like sacred cows; and it might do you or your church some good to barbecue one of those sacred cows every once in a while. It is very easy for any Christian or religious organization to start equating traditional practices with biblical teaching.

Second, we are in danger of hypocrisy when we are more concerned with the operations of a church than the objectives of a church. One very divisive issue in the church today is music. To many people, the music in the church is more important than the mission of the church. Who said you cannot have musical instruments in the church? And who said the only instruments cleared for worship are the piano and organ? I cannot find a verse anywhere on that tradition. And I cannot find a verse about the worship service starting at 11:00 a.m. instead of 10:30.

Beloved, I don’t think the devil tries to destroy a local church as much as he tries to distract it and divide it. Instead of attacking the church, the devil often simply joins the church, provides ammunition for both sides of a silly argument, and then watches the division take place.

We too easily forget that we have been given two primary objectives as New Testament churches: to evangelize the world for Jesus and to equip the saints for service. These are explicit commands given by God, and we must never allow ourselves to be distracted from them.

Third, we fall into hypocrisy when we are more interested in outward ceremony than inward commitment. When you leave that church service, if you are thinking more about how good it made you feel than how you want to be more obedient to Christ, it is very possible that you have slipped your mask of hypocrisy back on before you have gotten out of the parking lot.

Fourth, we are in danger of being governed by hypocrisy when we are more diligent about our external appearances before people than our internal motives before God.

The solution to hypocrisy in all its forms is genuine holiness—a heart that follows after God. Beloved, holiness began to work in you when you came to faith in Christ. He gave you a new heart and new desires to live a holy life. And as Jesus has explained to these religious leaders, a holy or clean life does not happen because you follow human traditions but because you follow the Holy Spirit who lives within you.

And what does your life look like when you follow the Spirit of God? The Bible tells us that the fruit of the Spirit’s presence in our lives is this: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

So today, beloved, let’s steer clear of hypocrisy, which focuses on externals and traditions of man, and let’s develop holy lives as we follow the Holy Spirit.

Add a Comment

We hope this resource blessed you. Our ministry is EMPOWERED by your prayer and ENABLED by your financial support.