DOING MORE WITH LESS
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 25, 2015
Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
— Matthew 15:32-39, ESV
An initial reading of this passage can be misleading in at least two ways. Those with a liberal, critical point of view tend to point out that Matthew is simply telling the same story twice with different details. Those with a conservative, literal point of view may point out that it is two different events, though the latter is not quite as great as the former. Both of these aims miss the mark.
This is most definitely a second episode in the life of Christ in which He miraculously feds a large number of people. Mark records both, Matthew eyewitnessed both, and the word of God would not contain both stories if both of them did not happen. The Bible says what it means and means what it says. You can either pick it apart or let it put you together.
In this second story, however, it does seem on the surface that Jesus does less with more. Whereas in the first instance He fed five thousand men plus woman and children with five loaves of bread and two fish (ref. Matthew 14:13-21), this time He feeds four thousand plus with seven loaves and multiple fish. Yes, Jesus’ popularity has probably peaked and does begin to decline at this point. Yes, it took more initial food to multiply into a meal for a few thousand less people than before. But no, Jesus did not do less with more here. He did more with less!
Applauding the Same
There was a wonderful sameness to this second miracle that bears repeating. Jesus looks out over another large crowd that has been following Him, albeit superficially, because of Christ’s divine power to perform miracles. After walking off the beaten path for days, the food runs out except for a little bit of bread and fish. It’s enough for one person or a very small family, but certainly not enough for a crowd of thousands. Motivated by love, divine “compassion,” Jesus is moved to use His supernatural power. The Lord turns a little lunch into a bountiful buffet for a miraculous number of people, with plenty of leftovers to spare.
The love of God goes a long way. The power of God can accomplish anything. Every miracle that Jesus performed, every parable that Jesus preached, every account of Jesus’ life and ministry tells this same tale, and it never gets old. God loves, God provides, and God saves, albeit with a different cast and script in every new episode.
Admiring the Difference
This story is the same, but there are differences, too, and not just in the numbers. Compared to the feeding of the five thousand, the feeding of the four thousand was on different turf with different turks using different tools. For the first miracle, Jesus was ministering to Jewish people in the region of Galilee. In the aftermath, after Jesus refused to be the kind of earthly king the Jews wanted Him to be, they all walked away from Him, except for the twelve.
After that, Jesus took the twelve on a messianic mission trip into Gentile territory. He healed a Canaanite woman’s daughter (ref. 15:21-28), performed other miracles for other Gentiles in that Gentile territory (ref. 15:29-31), then led thousands of Gentiles back to a setting near the Sea of Galilee for this second miraculous feeding. Even the word for “baskets” here is different, denoting the kind used by Gentiles, not Jews. What do these differences teach us?
God’s compassionate love for Gentiles was just as strong and powerful as His love for the Jews. Nowhere in history was the barrier between people any greater than the first century divide between Jews and Gentiles (we still catch a glimpse of it today in the Israeli-Arab conflict). Jesus crossed it, deliberately and repeatedly, to demonstrate that the New Covenant gospel, unlike the fading away Old Covenant, was universal in its scope, reaching out to red and yellow and black and white.
The door to reach more was opened wide, and Jesus did it, Jesus did more with less.
Accomplishing More with Less
Remember that miracles are parables. We cannot duplicate the miracle but we can learn from the parable. Not one of us can make something out of nothing the way God can. Not even any of the religious hucksters on television have even dared to fake a miraculous feeding like the ones in the Gospels. But while we cannot feed thousands with a sack lunch, we can learn something from the Lord about compassion, spreading the gospel, and doing more with less.
In Matthew’s continuing commentary on race, Christ shows that Christians’ compassion and care for people should be viewed with color blinders on. As this whole section of Scripture shows us, and while no apology is necessary for being homogeneous, we can never be exclusionary and we must sometimes be intentional. Hang with the homeboys, yet never discriminate, and occasionally get out of your comfort zone to deliberately do something Christian for a person of another color or class. With just a little time and money, you can participate in a mission or mentoring project in your own town, or take a mission trip or support a child in a far away country. You can do more, even with less of your time and money.
In the New Testament’s continuing commentary on evangelism, Christ shows us that strategic and smart social ministry is the seed planting of the gospel. I hate to whip out a cliche’, but people really don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Jesus did not take out an accordion and start playing “Just As I Am” while calling the previously hungry Canaanites to come forward and make a decision for Christ. Their allegiance to the Lord in the aftermath of the miracle may not have been much stronger than the large group of Jews who rejected Jesus after He rejected their offer to be their leader on their terms. But here, Jesus opened a door that would become a gate that would one day welcome a flood of Gentiles into the kingdom of God. This lesser miracle was part of planting that giant seed. Jesus actually did more, with less, and there are ways we can do more with less today with real compassion, smart programs, and an unwavering commitment to the exclusive gateway to Heaven provided by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
People with a relationship with Jesus Christ are largely responsible to witness to and care for the people they have relationships with already. This is where more of their time and resources go. But some time and effort needs to be given to others, others you don’t know, in other places you may never go. With less, you can do more.
But what about those with no relationship with Jesus, yet? Are you hungry? Jesus could feed your body if He was here, physically. But He is here, spiritually, and He is more interested in feeding your soul. This body of Christ has ways and means to put a box of food in a hungry person’s hands, but like Christ, we want you to sit down in the kingdom of God even more than we want you to sit down for dinner. Jesus feed people like this on two days, but every day He was preaching the gospel and calling people to salvation and eternal life. Turn to God and believe the gospel and you will be saved. Then, you will be amazed at how God takes care of your other needs, too. Christ really can do more, even with less.
A ROMAN HOLIDAY
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 18, 2015
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
— Romans 13:7, ESV
The context of Romans 13:7 is the Christian’s duty to be subservient to one’s government, insomuch as one’s government does not coerce Christians into disrespecting God or disobeying God’s word. In the case of those of us who live in the United States of America and the great state of Arkansas, this is not a daunting task, at least not yet. Taxes, revenue, respect, and honor are to be given by the church when required by the state.
Will you pay your taxes this year? I propose they are too high! However, the penalty for not paying is not worth the defiance in not paying, so I plan to pay. I hope you do, too.
Will you pay your revenue this year? If, like me, you recently purchased a used car, you must go to the revenue office and pay the fee to have it registered. After pushing my budget to the limit to get the car, I’m now over budget after paying the revenue. But, it beats walking, so it will be paid.
Will you pay your respect this year? I most certainly hope so, to every worthy form of authority our sovereign God has placed over us for His glory and our good. Love and respect are due parents, teachers, bosses, law enforcement officers, and even government officials. Love may be hard sometimes, but respect is automatic, unless they have forfeited said respect with illegal or immoral use of their authority.
Will you pay honor, to whom our state has deemed honor is due? Perhaps this will be a test for some of us. For the third Monday of our new year has been set aside by the USA and Arkansas to honor two important men: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and General Robert E. Lee.
These two mighty men could not be more different in many ways. One came to prominence in the 1960’s, the other in the 1860’s. One man is black, the other is white. One man fought valiantly to bring equality to the races, the other fought reluctantly to maintain a system of superiority of once race over another. One man expressed a very liberal view of theology and often failed to keep one of the most sacred commandments of the faith, the other was quite orthodox and conservative in his Christian views and was well known for the highest virtue in moral matters. One man championed a great cause and won, the other battled for a lost cause and, well, lost. One was murdered in cold blood by an assassin, the other died in relatively old age after a distinguished military and academic career. One is universally hailed as a hero by black people while many whites remain skeptical, the other is not really known or appreciated by black people, yet he is the patron saint of many whites. So, the differences are great, as are the similarities.
Both men professed to be Christian, and practiced their faith with active service in Christ’s church. Neither of them expressed personal prejudices and both advocated love and harmony between the races. Each was considered to be the preeminent leader of his people in his time, Dr. King as the spokesperson and de facto head of the Civil Rights movement, and Gen. Lee as the supreme commander of the armies of Northern Virginia and the Confederate States of America. Both men had faith, both men experienced failures, both men won great battles, and both men have an official holiday named after them. Our country, our state, and the word of God have asked us to honor them both.
White Christians and Martin Luther King
I became a follower of Christ in the early 1980’s, the very time at which people were pushing to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. There was much opposition, all white opposition, and some of it came from my own fundamentalist church. My pastor called him a communist and a womanizer, the man who was my first Christian mentor followed suit and followed through with the “n” word, and my impressions of the man were painted in nothing but negative colors. I can honestly say that I did not share their prejudice and scorn, but I must also admit I made no defense of the great civil rights leader.
As I grew as a Christian and eventually became a pastor, I took the time to read about Dr. King and occasionally included quotations from his sermons in mine. I’ve always been outspoken against racism and discrimination. My convictions are wrought mainly through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Bible, but no doubt they were refined and sharpened by the sacrificial work of Dr. King and others. Yet for all the biographies I’ve read in my lifetime, including a few on Robert E. Lee, I had never read one about Martin Luther King, until this past year.
After reading the biography, written by a great admirer, I was astonished. Young Martin was a rascal, even through his college years, with questionable morals and deviant theological views. He plagiarized the entirety of his first sermon, most of his doctoral dissertation, and some of his early books. When he began to travel incessantly for the movement, he frequently engaged in adulterous behavior in houses and hotel rooms, even on the evening before his assassination. I could not believe that what some white Christians with racist tendencies had told me was true, and then some.
But our government has mandated a holiday in his honor. U2 wrote a song about him. Major motion pictures are beginning to be made about his life. And after all, like me, he was a Baptist preacher. What am I going to do? I am going to give honor to whom honor is due.
I am going to honor Martin Luther King because his successes far outweigh his failures. If someone does a good or righteous deed, it should not be denigrated because of their erstwhile bad or inappropriate behavior. The Apostle Paul knew that some preachers in his day were charlatans and opportunists, but he praised God for anytime and through anyone that the gospel was preached. Martin Luther King was far from perfect, but I praise God for the courageous and sacrificial stand he took to awaken our country’s conscience against racism and for equal opportunity. His dream is still alive, and I still pray for the day when in every corner of our country,“People are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”
I am going to honor Martin Luther King because my race and ancestors were unequivocally guilty of racism and discrimination against people of his race. We are our forefathers’ sons, and we must always try to right any wrongs that they may have done. Dr. King’s sins are troubling, especially now that they are more and more made public. But perhaps if he had not been discriminated against as a black man, he could have had better theological mentors, stayed off the road and at home with his wife and children, and many of those temptations and sins would have never come to pass. Dr. King does not need me for an apologist, and I am not personally responsible for my ancestor’s sins, but I am mandated by God and inspired by Martin Luther King to pass on to my children and grandchildren a world view free of racism and discrimination.
I am going to honor Martin Luther King because he honored our Lord Jesus Christ by demonstrating faith and obedience to the greatest and hardest of God’s commandments. Try speaking up for truth when you know it will cause people to shoot at you, figuratively and literally. Try loving your enemies when they are beating you, dragging you off to jail, and killing some of your friends. Try non-violently turning the other cheek when your cheeks have been battered and bruised just because they are a different color than that fists that are plowing into them. Jesus did this, didn't He? Martin Luther King did this. One is worthy of worship, both are worthy of honor.
Now, let me address the other side of this Roman holiday coin.
Black Christians and Robert E. Lee
When states were pressured to approved the national holiday for Martin Luther King, Arkansas passed a resolution establishing the day of honor, with a caveat. They placed another man’s name alongside Dr. King, the late, great Confederate General Robert Edward Lee. It was part veneration, partly vindictive, and totally painful for many people of color. If you were a black person, would you want a holiday for your hero draped in a Confederate flag?
So what are black people, particularly black Christians, to do? Most will honor Dr. King and totally ignore Gen. Lee, which is completely understandable. But I would encourage them, and all of us, to take a look at Robert E. Lee’s life more closely, in its historical context and using colorblind glasses.
In an age where black and white youths alike idolize mindless music artists and moral-less professional athletes, a historical figure like General Lee offers a distinct alternative. His Christian faith was biblically sound and actively robust. He displayed supreme devotion to Christ and church, God and country (in his day allegiance to the State was higher than the Federal), family and friends, service and vocation, and duty. I believe he should be greatly honored, on MLK Day or any other day.
I am going to honor Robert E. Lee because of the way he revered God and the gospel. His high view of Scripture informed his deeply held faith. He kept the commandments of the Bible when it was convenient and when it was not. He loved his enemies, too, even the northern soldiers who ravaged his home state of Virginia. He modeled Christian virtue before, during, and after the war, after which he spoke out for forgiveness, freedom, and unity. He was a Christian first and foremost because He put Christ first without capitulation, compromise, or compartmentalization.
I am going to honor Robert E. Lee because of the way he reached out to black people. On this day it bears pointing out that while Lee fought in defense of states’ rights to legislate slavery, he and others like him, like General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, were well ahead of the curve on progressive race relations. Lee agreed with the great Arkansas General Patrick Cleburne that southern slaves should be freed, given full citizenship, and even allowed to serve in the army if they chose to do so. Along with Jackson he advocated integrating churches and society, albeit in moderate steps. When your dentist is pulling your abscessed tooth too slowly, it’s hard to remember that he is still on your side all the while. Lee was a product of his times, but a shining and sterling product in every way.
I am going to honor Robert E. Lee because of the way he touted personal responsibility. If people old and young, black and white, rich and poor, would simply pull their own weight the way General Lee did, the burdens of our nation would not be so heavy. The greatest thing one can do with one’s life, according to Lee, is your duty. This is true in the religious, family, governmental, vocational, societal, and every other realm of life.
And on the third Monday of January, it is all of our duty to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., General Robert E. Lee, as well as the rest of our fellow, fallen human beings.
All Christians and All People
All Christians should honor all people, for all people have been made in God’s image. Every person on this planet is covered by common grace and deserving of equal rights. Christians should understand that even people of other religions, or no religion, are loved by God and blessed by God to make great contributions to society, education, art, and government, and we should honor those who do.
All Christians should honor all people, for all people are eternal souls. Saving grace is what all people really need, and we cut off paths to preach the gospel when we denigrate other people personally or other races generally. The greatest thing you will every do for someone in this life is lead then to eternal life by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and honor and love can pave the way.
All Christians should honor all people, for all people are who Paul had in mind when he wrote this commandment. “Pay … honor to whom honor is owed.” For if we would humbly honor one another, we would have what Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee live for. We would have a more honorable church, a more honorable country, and a more honorable world.
PRIDE, PREJUDICE, AND THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 11, 2015
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters 'table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.
— Matthew 15:21-31, ESV
Most of Jesus’ public ministry was spent in the towns and synagogues that dotted the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He ventured occasionally into Judea and Jerusalem, being both a devout Jew and the Lord of the Temple. On rare occasions, Christ would venture off both the beaten path and the path less traveled to go where almost no Jewish religious leader would dare to go.
Here we find the Lord some forty miles north of His hometown in “the district of Tyre and Sidon.” He and His Jewish disciples find themselves deep in Gentile territory and harassed by “a Canaanite woman.” Why did Jesus go there? What purpose did it serve? What does it tell us about our life and work as Christians, today?
A Messianic Mission Trip
Jesus was raised Jewish, and His preference for Old Testament people is plain throughout the Gospels. He had Jewish family and friends. He picked Jewish men to be His first disciples. He wasn’t afraid to hang around tax collectors and prostitutes, but they were Jewish, too. The fact of the matter is that Jesus spent almost all of His time with people of His own particular race and culture.
It would be unseemly to say that Jesus was prejudiced against non-Jews, women, or people from different socio-economic classes. In the larger view, He certainly was not. However, He did prefer to hang around people who were like Him, for the most part. This behavior, named by the late missionary Donald McGavran, is called the homogenous unit principle. People tend to become Christians and congregate with other Christians without crossing barriers of race and class. It has always been this way, it will always be this way until we are united in Heaven (with some marvelous exceptions here on earth), and it is not necessarily a sin.
Having pride in your people is not a sin. Hanging around, even worshiping, with mostly your own kind of people is not a sin. But any belief that your own race is superior to other races, or any restriction of other kinds of people from entering into your areas of life and worship, is an abject sin. Pride is one thing, prejudice is another. Prejudice against another person because of color or class is a sin against humanity and God.
So what do we make of this situation when God became human, in Jewish skin, and seemed to shun a Canaanite woman? Christ even called her a “dog” and told her His “bread” (the word of God and the gospel) was for His kind of people, not hers. The disciples impolitely told Jesus to tell her to beat it. Have we discovered a sinful chink in our Lord’s otherwise perfect armor?
Heavens no! The Lord Jesus Christ, our sovereign God incarnate, did not venture north to discriminate against this woman, but to deliver this woman and her precious daughter. This was a messianic mission trip, one of a handful of Gospel stories in which Jesus went beyond the boundaries of the Old Covenant to make the New Covenant universal. Jesus went to her town intentionally, purposefully, and compassionately. Even His play on words was meant to be inviting, not insulting.
This lovely Lebanese woman understood, too. Her response to Jesus’ dialogue was witty and wise. Devoid of prejudice from either party, this unnamed woman made a most peculiar profession of faith in the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
A Peculiar Profession of Faith
Most professions of faith in Jesus Christ are just plain phony. They are made in response to a temporary excitement, guilt, or blessing. I’m sure twenty-thousand people professed faith in Jesus after He fed them with five loaves and two fish, but in the aftermath there were only twelve left who seemed to truly follow Him, and one of them turned out to be a traitor. I’ve witnessed more professions of faith than I can count in my experience as a Christian and pastor. Most of them turned out to be false. That’s why this Canaanite woman’s profession of faith is so peculiar. Jesus said it was the real deal!
Since Jesus said it was genuine, we really should take a very close look at it. The method of gospel call here is as peculiar, if not more so, than the profession of faith. But when God showed up at her doorstep, she stepped forward with a genuine profession of faith.
She was aware of the spiritual nature of life, albeit painfully because of her daughter’s demonic condition, and she knew she was on the losing side. She knew the only remedy was to plead for mercy to the Lord of Heaven and earth, and she recognized Jesus as such. She was humble, she was persistent, she was sincere. She trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord to deliver her from the tragic consequences of Satan and sin. Her God-given and self-professed faith was “great.”
It was grace that brought Jesus to her town. It was faith that saved her daughter and her soul. It was by grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That sounds like a great profession of faith to me, and the entire story presents a perfect picture of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A Picture of the Gospel
Jesus is the face of the grace of God in this and every story in Scripture. The Canaanite woman is the face of faith in God in this story. Many other faces appear in the aftermath. A large crowd of people apparently followed Jesus from this place of grace to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It was a crowd of Gentiles who, after witnessing the miracles and hearing the message of Jesus Christ, “glorified the God of Israel.”
As Christ left His “Israel” to make disciples of people of other cultures, so should we. We should do it corporately, by sending and supporting missionaries. We should do it personally, by breaking away from our routines to intentionally share the gospel with other people.
The Christian life is the gospel life, and the gospel life means sharing the gospel. It no doubt begins at home, with godly child-rearing and candid presentations of faith between spouses, children, and other immediate members of a family. Put your loved ones at the feet of Jesus, like this Canaanite woman did, and watch Jesus work.
Remember that the gospel is for all people, red and yellow and black and white. And the gospel makes enemies friends. It makes friends between Canaanites and Jews. It makes friends between blacks and whites. It makes lost people, who are at enmity with God, into friends and children of God.
We do not need more activists in this world. We need more witnesses, witnesses of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Grace is the only solution to the dilemma of race and the many other problems that plague us. It dissolves our pride. It destroys our prejudices. It is the dynamite of God unto salvation. It brings about peace with God and peace among those with whom God is well pleased. Grace and peace to you!
BUILDING TRADITIONS AND BREAKING COMMANDMENTS
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
January 4, 2015
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, ESV
Marking Matthew’s Gospel with chapters and verses makes today’s text the crossing of the middle line. It is really like arriving at a mountain peak. Having reached the height of Jesus’ popularity by the end of chapter 14 (with the feeding of the five thousand and His walk on the water), we now begin His descent in chapter 15 (in which He feeds four thousand and begins His walk to the cross). It starts with a conflict story, typical in the Gospels, between Jesus and the men who hounded, cast doubt, slandered, and conspired to end Christ’s earthly life, the Pharisees.
While the Beatles once brazenly claimed to be more popular than Jesus, the Pharisees would not have made this claim in vain. They were the most respected religious rulers of their day, especially within the confines of Judea and Jerusalem. They put Jesus down because He was from Galilee. They put Jesus down because His wisdom did not come from their particular schools of thought. They put Jesus down because He did not bend to their rules and regulations. But in building their traditions they had broken the commandments of God. So, this conflict story becomes a cautionary tale for us all.
The Gospels are full of conflict, or corner, stories. In one corner, with an average weight and dressed in white, Jesus of Nazareth. In the other corner, weighed down with hypocrisy and dressed in clothing as black as their hearts, the Pharisees and the Scribes. The bell sounds, the conflict begins, and the battle is for the truth of God.
The Pharisees claimed to have the truth, but tradition is all they really had. Instead of reading Holy Scripture with an open heart and seeking to obey it, they read it like a pack of unscrupulous businessmen looking for loopholes and angles to take advantage of other people. The result was an oral tradition that was eventually written down, an extra-biblical list of rules and regulations, a kind of old-style constitution and bylaws, that trumped Scripture when it came to telling the truth. Jesus showed them that because of their tradition, they were violating the truth. Building traditions can be a helpful thing, but they become most harmful when they are used to overrule the commandments of God, especially the greatest commandment of love.
The Pharisees had built traditions that broke the commandments of God concerning love for other people. They should have loved Jesus and His disciples. They could have learned a lot from them. But instead of learning from Jesus, they were always looking closely at Him to see if He would keep their traditions. When the Lord did not ceremonial wash His hands before eating like the Pharisees, they pounced on Him in an attempt to discredit Him among the people. Judging someone because they don’t keep your own extra-biblical traditions breaks the commandment of God.
The Pharisees had built traditions that broke the commandments of God concerning love for their own parents. They invented the concept of “corban” (ref. Mark 7:11), the dedication of a possession or sum of money exclusively for the Lord’s use. This sounds good on the surface. But the loopy loophole served the grotesque greed of the Pharisees. When their parents needed financial support (and in those days without Social Security and IRA’s, older parents often needed help from their children), they would declare their bank accounts “devoted to God” and piously refuse to help their parents. And in almost all cases, the money set aside for God never got spent on the things of the Lord. Turning your back on family and friends just to spend more money on yourself breaks the commandment of God.
The Pharisees had built traditions that broke the commandments of God concerning love for the Lord. I think Jesus said often, and John quoted Him, “If you love Me [the Lord], you will keep My commandments” (ref. John 14:15). Creating your own rules or looking for loopholes in the Bible is ultimately a lack of love for God. This breaks the greatest commandment of all.
The Pharisees were building traditions that broke the commandments of God. So God spoke. Jesus made a pronouncement, shed light on Scripture, then produced a parable, all of which deeply offended the Pharisees.
To the astonishment and confusion of friend and foe alike, Jesus pronounced publicly that the Pharisees were nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. He quoted Isaiah 29:13 and said it applied to them. Then, the Lord spoke a parable to the whole crowd. In the end the Pharisees were deeply offended by Jesus. But we should not worry when people get offended by God. We should worry when God gets offended by people.
God is offended by hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is exposed when people are found putting their traditions, or any other personal preference, ahead of the word of God. It is not that all traditions are bad. But building traditions that break the commandments of God is terrible. It is horrible hypocrisy. Washing your hands or doing certain things before a meal, being a Baptist or belonging to some other denomination, abstaining from or enjoying food and drink, giving to the poor or to missions directly or through a program, using the King James Version or a retractable screen in worship — these are traditions that express our faith, not the commandments of our faith. And when we judge and hurt people who are not keeping our particular traditions, even though they are by no means violating the word of God, we become horrible hypocrites, and God is offended.
Speaking of worship, God is offended by vain worship. The quotation Jesus recites from the prophet Isaiah makes this plain. What is not so plain to most people is that worship is not a one-hour experience on Sundays, but the sum total of our entire lives (ref. Romans 12:1-2). What you do at home, at your job, for your hobbies, and yes, in your activity in church (or lack thereof) is an expression of worship to God. It is either a valid expression or it is vain worship. Valid worship and lifestyles are based squarely upon Scripture. Vain worship is conducted by man-made rules. One is pleasing to God, the other is deeply offensive. Which way do you live, by the traditions you have built, or the commandments in God’s book? Keeping traditions requires a part of you. Keeping God’s commandments requires all of you.
God is offended by hypocrisy and vain worship. So, He tells us a peculiar parable that puts it all into perspective. Jesus said it’s not what goes in, but what comes out, that really matters to God.
Since this parable is told against the backdrop of a particular conflict over dinner, Jesus used food as a foretaste of what His kingdom is and is not. Remember that parables always highlight some aspect of the kingdom of God. The kingdom contains realities that are visible, and deeper realities that are invisible.
What you eat and drink, how you wash your hands, the clothes you wear, the entertainment you enjoy, the time and ways we worship God — these are all things we do that can be seen with the eye. They are visible. And if we claim to be Christian, they are visible expressions of our lives in the kingdom of God. God cares about the things we do with our hands, but perhaps not as much as we might think.
Yes, God cares about the hands. But what He cares about most is the heart. What goes into the heart is a matter of tradition. What comes out of the heart is a matter of truth, a revelation of who we really are. Choose your traditions wisely, and make sure they do not cause you to break the commandments of God.
Pharisees, hypocrites, and other unbelievers make unwise choices in regard to their traditions, lifestyles, and ways of worship. What goes in causes something unsavory and sinful to come out, like the list of sins that fell off Jesus’ lips in verse 19. Some people are quite good at washing their hands, but their hearts are rotten to the core.
It has often been said rightly that the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. Jeremiah knew this well when he said, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (ref. Jeremiah 17:9). This is a prophecy that applies to everyone. While Jesus was obviously picking on a particular group of people in the first century, this text has much broader application in the twenty-first century. For there is potentially a piece of Pharisee in all of us.
So what can we do to make sure we have a heart that does not offend the Lord? How can we have a heart that honors God? How can we have the kind of heart fit for the kingdom of God?
Make sure you have a new heart through the new birth (ref. John 3:3). The birth that makes you a child of the King and a citizen of the kingdom comes about by repentance and faith (ref. Mark 1:15). A child of God (ref. Mark 10:14) loves God, and because they love God they want to obey God from the heart (ref. John 14:15).
Make every day a new opportunity to learn and live by God’s word (ref. Psalm 119:105). The only way to discern between truth and tradition, holiness and sinfulness, Heaven and Hell, is by surrendering your life to Christ and submitting to the word of God. Easier said than done, mastering Scripture requires a daily, weekly, and lifetime commitment.
Make use of every tradition that helps you apply the truth of God. Tolerate or jettison the rest. Remember, tradition is not innately bad. Tradition supplies some structure, and some structure is necessary for proper worship, Bible study, and other Christian disciplines. But always remember it is the truth, not the tradition, that counts. Never build traditions that break God’s commandments.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org