The Heart of the Problem

Bible Reading: Matthew 15:1-20

Above the sink was a sign with illustrations and instructions on how to wash your hands. There were 12 steps! I’m not sure I did all twelve, but it’s a good idea to wash your hands—before you eat, after you visit the restroom, before and after a visit to the hospital, etc. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day practiced handwashing too. It was one of their most important religious practices. They did it in a certain manner. They would wash one hand with the other fist, then raise the hand so that the water might run off just at the wrists. An exact amount of water was specified. They would do so before eating, and even between courses. They washed their hands when coming home from the market and on many other occasions. Very particular rules were also established regarding the washing of dishes and other eating utensils. But their observance of these rules was not primarily about cleanliness. As with other traditions, it was all about establishing self-righteousness through their religious rule-keeping. 

The disciples failed to observe the practice (Matthew 15:2). The Pharisees asked “Why?” Likewise, a Pharisee was astonished by Jesus’ failure to wash his hands before eating (Luke 11:37-38). Both occasions gave opportunity for Jesus to communicate an important truth: the heart of man is the heart of the problem (Matthew 15:18-20). 

The heart of man is sinful by nature, and religious practice has absolutely no power to change that. There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth which illustrates the problem. Lady Macbeth encouraged Lord Macbeth to slay the king. But when he returned, his hand was covered with blood. So, she said to him, “Go, wash thy hand, a little clean water will clear us of this deed.” So, he went, but then looked at his hand and declared, “Will all great Neptune’s Ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, rather this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” 

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” The heart of man is the heart of the problem. The Great Physician alone is qualified to make a proper diagnosis (Jeremiah 17:10). The Spirit of God convicts of sin and reveals to man the gravity of the problem (John 16:8-9). Religious rule keeping, self-improvement efforts, or behavior modification only deal with the symptoms of the condition. A total heart transformation is what’s necessary. 

At the moment of saving faith, a person is cleansed from sin and forever changed. “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 6:11). Having been identified with Christ—in His death, burial, and resurrection—the believer in Christ is unalterably changed (Romans 6:1-7). He is a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), empowered “to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). 

The transforming work of the Spirit of God is an inside-out process. By His power, He works to transform us into the very image of Christ (Romans 8:29). His desire is that we be Christlike in every way—heart, head, hands. He patiently reveals our sins so they might be put off (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 8:13). His indwelling presence is revealed by those wonderful Christlike virtues: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Religious rule-keeping is no substitute for the inside-out transformation Christ alone can do (Colossians 2:20-23). It’s a good idea to wash our hands—for many reasons—but Jesus alone can cleanse us within! 

“Religious rule-keeping is no substitute for the saving and transforming work of the Lord Jesus!”

Jerry Conklin


I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small,
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

Lord, now indeed I find
Thy pow’r and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone. [Refrain]

For nothing good have I
Where-by Thy grace to claim;
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb. [Refrain]

And when, before the throne,
I stand in Him complete,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
My lips shall still repeat. [Refrain]

Author: looking2jesus13

Having served as pastor at Lewis and Clark Bible Church, in Astoria, Oregon, for almost three decades, my wife’s cancer diagnosis led to my retirement and subsequent move to Heppner to be near our two grandchildren. I divide my time between caring for Laura and working as a part time hospice chaplain and spending time with family and spoiling my chocolate lab.

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