Bible Reading: Matthew 15
Above the sink in the business restroom was a sign with illustrations and instructions on how to properly wash your hands. There were 12 steps! I’m not sure I actually did all twelve, but it’s a good idea to wash your hands—before you eat, after you visit the restroom, before and after you visit 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 numerous 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 their other traditions, it was all about establishing their own self-righteousness through religious rule-keeping.
The disciples failed to observe the practice (Matthew 15:2). The Pharisees asked “Why?” Jesus Himself neglected it (Luke 11:37-39). A Pharisee was surprised (Luke 11:38). 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 the heart of the problem. Religious practice has no power to deal with it. The heart of man is sinful by nature. How is it to be changed? 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 is alone qualified to make a proper diagnosis as Jeremiah 17:10 makes clear: “I, the Lord, search the heart.” The Spirit of God convicts of sin and reveals to man the gravity of the problem (John 16:8-9). The condition is dire—rule keeping, self-improvement, or behavior modification deal only with the symptoms. A total heart transformation is what’s necessary.
At the moment of saving faith, a person is forgiven and 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 inalterably changed (Romans 6:1-7). He is made to be 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. The work He intends is to transform us into the very image of Christ (Romans 8:29). His desire is that we be Christ-like in every way—heart, head, hands. He patiently reveals to us our sins that they might be put off (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 8:13). His presence in our lives 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 that Christ alone can do. It’s a good idea to wash our hands—for many reasons–but Jesus alone can work to cleanse us from all sin.
Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want Thee forever to live in my soul,
Break down every idol, cast out every foe;
Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.
Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow,
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.