Dr. Chris White Feb 16, 2014
For modern people raised in an era of germ theory, there may be no stranger element in our Bibles than the Old Testament definitions of clean and unclean. These ancient concepts originated in the need to stay clear of the pagan worship of Israel’s neighbors, so, for example, they steered clear of animals such as pigs, which were sacrificial animals in Canaan. To avoid these religious offerings was to deny their power and trust in God’s power instead. The Levitical code gives specific instructions for regaining purity before God when you sin, have a child, have an infectious skin disease, find mildew in your clothes, have bodily discharges, or ingest unlawful food (Lev. 11-17). Later generations believed that unclean items and people passed their uncleanness onto others, so one could be unclean by touch, by carrying an unclean item, entering unclean space, or even having contact with seven different liquids. How concerned were the faithful with clean/ unclean? There was belief that, if in the act of praying or reading Scripture one found himself unclean by these laws, the prayer and the reading should stop. Unclean blocked even the best we offered to God.
In this era of equating clean with God’s favor, the tradition of washing hands and dishes and bodies became a recognizable habit of the truly faithful. You knew the faithful by the water on their hands. It is to this world Jesus will speak this phrase from Matthew 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. It is a simple phrase, but a real strike against Jesus’ religious peers. They were very, very concerned with the outside of the body for clean living, what they would never touch for God’s sake, but Jesus moves to the inside, the heart. More than a physical organ, the heart was the seat of devotion. What we value there reveals our deepest faith. Which is why Proverbs 3:5 calls for us to Trust in the Lord with all your heart and why Jesus states that committing adultery with another in the heart is little different from the physical act (Matt. 5:28). So to be pure in heart is to truly begin to see God. When the heart is cleaned, the eyes of the heart see.
Which led me to think, What sin of the heart does Jesus regularly condemn? In Matthew 23 we have the most extensive criticism of the Pharisees from Jesus, and one theme is most obvious: hypocrisy. Read along with me: Matthew 23:1-7,25-28. The Pharisees carried the religious weight of the day, and their outward show of faith in their clothes, synagogue attendance, and washing was obvious. But Jesus points to a critical problem: they’re projecting clean, but they’re not clean. They are religious and steadfast in Levitical law, but they are not clean. They are beautiful on the outside, but dead on the inside. They are hypocrites—professing one truth while living another. And notice that Jesus never suggests that they are drunkards or gluttons or thieves. No, he cites them for being hypocrites on once point only: all that they are doing is to be seen by people, not God.
Let that sink in. We all know a fair bit about our own hypocrisy, of course. We all judge the sliver in a brother’s eye while walking around with a plank in our own. We are all likely to be common hypocrites that preach against bad food (and then eat it) or curse the guy making a left turn (and then get angry at the horn behind us when we turn left). And we know the high profile hypocrisy of people like Sen. Strom Thurmond who, in holding to segregation for decades, actually had a child by a black maid. All this remained secret until he died. We know it is hard to practice what we preach. Jesus here addresses hypocrisy, but with a twist. The hypocrisy of these Pharisees is that they are preaching religious practices as a way to show faith in God, as a means to be justified before God, but they are actually doing it all for the approval of people. They seemed to enjoy their religious reputation more than their religious commitment to God.
In Matthew 6 Jesus offers these warnings: Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heave (1); So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets (2); And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men(5); when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting (16). The hypocrisy that clouds the heart’s eye is to confess a radical allegiance to God for the hope of God’s favor while actually using that allegiance to earn the favor of people. The hypocrisy is to seek a reputation with God but enjoy more the reputation that comes with devotion to God. It is to be active with religious issues for the sake of a religious issue. It is to speak as one who wants to please God but actually using that piety to please other people. It is to believe that God is only concerned with appearances.
Jesus does condemn religion-for-show here, but he also gives us a first step toward seeing God. We are not justified by a majority vote of peers. Our standing before God is through accepting Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as the answer for our sins. The favor of people does not save us. We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), not by compliments and kind crowds. We need to clean from our hearts this notion that our real hope is to be discovered being faithful rather than just being faithful. We need to clean from our hearts that a religious reputation is our real hope. We need to clean from our hearts the fear that prayer or giving or serving that no one sees and honors is like the tree that fell in the forest and made no noise because no one was there to hear it.
It is not easy to stand with God despite the pressure of your peers. None other than Peter was called out by Paul in Galatians 2 for shying away from Gentiles when Jews from Jerusalem showed up. It is hard to stay faithful to God when others see your faithfulness as less than faithful. It is hard to stay faithful when no one is rewarding your faithfulness. But if it is God that hears, sees, knows your faithfulness, and God to whom you speak, then you need not use this faithfulness to prove your faithfulness to others. They will not finally decide if you were faithful to God. That is for Him to decide.
Your goal? Return to a quiet place and sort out the What’s and the Why’s of your life of faith. Know what you believe and know what must be done because of what you believe. But also know why you do what do. Speak to God as if he alone hears your prayer. Live for God as if His approval alone is your concern.