In Matthew 15, Jesus is confronted by Pharisees who have been officially sent to investigate why the disciples of Jesus weren’t washing their hands in accordance with their religious tradition. Jesus goes on to say that it is not unwashed hands that defile a person; rather it is their heart. Defilement—which is ultimately rooted in our sin—is an issue of the heart and we must run to Jesus for it to be dealt with correctly and rightly.
However, many times we run to our performance or our “hand washing” for our righteousness—for our defilement to be dealt with. In seeking righteousness through following a list of rules or focusing on our performance, we may feel superior or clean for a moment but that doesn’t make us a Christian any more than wearing a Joe Montana jersey makes us a good football player. Yet, how often do we do this throughout a typical day?
The point that Jesus is making is that you must go to God moment by moment for grace and mercy—not to trying harder or trying different things to make you feel more impressive. Jesus offers us grace upon grace that we can never discover or experience through “hand washing.” It’s not go do, but rather, Jesus has already come and it’s done. It is really finished! A healthy Christian is one who believes this more and more each day and learns to rest in this marvelous truth. Jesus has dealt with our heart issue through His work on our behalf. We must humble ourselves before Him, seek Him, and believe that He did in fact do enough for us to be declared righteous or good enough to be reconciled with God.
A Good Hand Washer
For years I lived a visibly “righteous” life and in the context of Matthew 15, I was the most consistent “hand washer” I knew. At the age of 18 I had a list of things that I could tell you about that made me feel so very righteous and superior and also would make you feel like you were a lousy Christian. Here are a few things I would brag about:
-I never smoked – or held a cigarette…unless I was cleaning up trash in front of the church building from all the sinners that smoked before and after church.
-I never dipped. If you don’t know what that is, you’ve never played baseball or operated a tractor.
-I never drank alcohol – or even held an open beer can.
-I never watched an R-rated movie…only three PG-13 movies. I protested when my class watched Last of the Mohicans in our school because it was rated R. So I righteously had a study hall experience in the library while all the wicked sinners enjoyed their hellacious entertainment.
-I never cursed…out loud anyway.
-I never dated a girl…never even kissed a girl.
-I never did illegal drugs…never even saw them.
-I never listened to contemporary Christian music. I remember being 15 and sitting in silent protest during a Point of Grace concert that our youth group attended.
-I rarely if ever lost a Bible Drill contest.
-I would always win any invite-a-friend competition—well, if the prize was worth gaining. Actually back in 1993 I had 28 guests with me at an all-nighter.
-I never missed church. I literally won pins for my perfect attendance! I never missed a single day of our Vacation Bible School. Of course I memorized all the verses and finished all the crafts.
(NOTE: Following this list may make you a jerk but it certainly can’t make you a Christian)
Clean Hands but Filthy Heart
Yet in spite of all of this—as impressive as it may be in some circles—I was going to Hell because I relied on these things for my identity and my right standing before God. It wasn’t until the Spirit allowed me to look beyond myself and look to Jesus and His truly perfect work for me that I saw what I was doing. And in that moment of gospel wakefulness I felt so helpless, yet so hopeful, humble, and grateful. Now I get to pursue the One who loved me and gave Himself up for me—in spite of my pitiful efforts that for years I looked to for my salvation.
For many in the ministry we can look to our results and listen to the praises of so many rather than find our identity and sense of righteousness in the finished work of Jesus. My hope and prayer is that those of us in the ministry will day by day learn to take our eyes of our hand washing, our results, and ourselves and place them solely onto Jesus. Then we will experience such freedom in our lives as we live to make much of the real Jesus—who is better than any hand soap we can find.