Pharisaism and Faith

Matthew 15:1-28.

It is a very sad thing, but that which ever has to be done, that God and man must be put in opposition one to the other. This refers to the natural state of man, of course. The constant labour of the Spirit, the whole business, so to speak, of the Bible, is to bring out distinctly the true relationships to each other of God and man, and to contrast the state of man with what we find in God. And this after all is blessed, because on one side it is a testimony to God's grace and goodness, as well as to His holiness.

Now this is the reason that "religion" and "religiousness" are the constant and greatest hindrance to truth in the soul. As all truth goes upon the supposition that man and God are as far as they possibly can be one from another, anything that supposes them to have dealings one with another, is therefore that which denies the first principles of truth. The Lord said plainly to the chief religionists of the day, setting all their religion aside, "The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." (Matt. 21) And we get the same testimony throughout the whole tenor of His life. The setting up of religion and religiousness assumes that man, such as he is by nature, can have to do with God; but "grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Consequently the thing set up against the Lord was not sin and sinners, but "religion." That which hindered Him, crossed His path, took Him to prison, put Him to death, cast Him out of the world, was "religion" - man's religion!

Sad is it, most sad, to see the sinner neglecting the great salvation, denying his lost condition, and concealing from himself his awful doom; but it is still worse to see forms of religion (in those who call themselves by the name of Christ) shutting out God. The power of Satan is shown more perhaps in religion than in any one thing else. And it has been so from the beginning to the end in man's history. The very first thing that takes place in the heart, the very first effect, when we come to the knowledge of self and of God (as the result of the Spirit's setting the conscience in the presence of God) is, that all our religion disappears. We cannot keep it up, when it is simply a question between the conscience and God. Let the conscience but be brought into the presence of God, and man's religion fails; we discover it to be something that may indeed hide God from us, but not ourselves from God; it all tumbles down when we find ourselves with our sins in presence of the holiness of God, and are really conscious that we have to do with our sins in the sight of God, and not with our religion. We cannot call our sins religion.

This is every day history. We get it brought out in a very strong light in this chapter; but it is not that which was true of the scribes and Pharisees merely. Anything will suit man, provided it is not his conscience in the presence of God. When God's light shines in, it detects what is in the heart. Man always seeks to conceal the heart, just because it is that which cannot bear examination; God opens up the heart, and brings into the conscience the evil of it, because, till that is right, all is wrong. In order that there should be peace in the soul, we must know both ourselves and God; that there is nothing but evil in us; that there is nothing but goodness in God. But then the thought of having our hearts known is terrible, anything rather than that; and we are so habituated to hiding them from ourselves, and from one another, that we seek to hide them from God, and fancy we can do so. We first set about to be righteous by commands which we cannot fulfil, and then, our conscience nothing satisfied, we add ceremony to ceremony, and tradition to tradition, to eke out a righteousness of our own. There may be a great deal of truth held along with this. Much that the Pharisees held was truth, though there was a great deal of error and superstition mixed up with it. Well, the moment the conscience is really awakened, there is no question of this kind at all; God so exposes the evil of the heart, that we are obliged to say, 'God knows me.' We find ourselves individual sinners in the presence of God, and we have to begin afresh - we have to learn what God's grace is. This is very evident, and it is a most material point.

"Religion" is just the thing that specially comes in between the conscience and God. Now what God is working at is to bring the conscience to Himself, without religion, or any thing else between. Until that is done, nothing is done. God is dealing with realities. He detects that which is in the heart, in order that He may make known complete forgiveness, that there may be entire and eternal removal of everything that would mar our fellowship. (See Heb. 9, 10.) This is grace. Nothing is more simple, though the heart of man is insensible to it. God may use man as an instrument in effecting this; but the object of the preacher of the gospel is, to bring the conscience of the sinner and God immediately into contact if his notion stop short of that, it is only setting them in opposition. We may merely like the truth, but that is all nothing; if a man is not brought to God, if he be not, in conscience, standing in the presence of God, he is brought no nearer than he was before; he has only got, so to speak, further from God, for he has more between his conscience and God.

Now it is this that is shown out in the chapter before us; we have the whole history of the feelings of the heart of man, until the Lord brings it down to the place of faith - I say down, because it is brought to the confession of its own nothingness, to say, 'I am a dog.' And then the Lord says, "Great is thy faith." And that is always the case. We shall never find 'great faith' in a man's soul, if he does not confess that he is a sinner, having no title to any thing at all - a mere dog.

"Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees which were of Jerusalem." (v. 1.) The scribes were persons learned in the law, and the Pharisees were religionists of the sect most esteemed in religion; as Paul says, "After the most straitest sect of our religion, I lived a Pharisee" (Acts 26:5); and they were "of Jerusalem," the very centre of God's polity, so that everything that could give the weight of authority to "religion" was there.

And they do come with authority; they say to Jesus, "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread." (v. 2.) But Jesus at once puts both scribes and Pharisees, and their tradition, in direct contact with God. He says to them, "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" (v. 3.) He does not go round about and battle the question of this tradition; it might be right enough in some sense; at all events it was reputable in the eyes of man, sanctioned by the learning of the scribes as well as by the religiousness of the Pharisees, and comely in Jerusalem; but He says, 'You are flying in the face of God by your tradition!' He at once closes the point, dropping elders and all besides. Man may plead tradition, the authority of antiquity and the like, but the fact is, he does so but to clothe himself with it. To the Pharisees, this tradition was the tradition of the elders; but to Christ, it was "ye" and "your tradition." He takes hold of them. They were using it to accredit themselves unto men, not to lay the conscience bare before God: Religiousness and ceremonial holiness accredit us with men; but faith lays us bare before God.

Then He goes on: "For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, He that curseth father and mother, let him die the death. But ye say" (it was their tradition that said it, but He substitutes 'ye'), "Whosoever" (no matter who, or how he says it) "shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; and honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition." (vv. 4-6.) It was for their profit; it matters not whether it was money or something else; religion is always turned to a selfish end in man's use of it. He clothes himself with it in order that he may give himself weight before men.

And now the Lord thus sets the condition of the whole people before them: "Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth" (they were not sinners, in the common sense of the word, i.e. irreligious, without any profession of thought about God; quite the contrary, the thing stated of them here is, 'This people draweth nigh unto me'), "and honoureth me with their lips; BUT their heart is far from me." It was not the sincerity of conscience, and yet the Lord could use the expression, "draweth nigh." "BUT" (He adds) "in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." (vv. 8, 9.) All this religion and religiousness is at once disposed of. There might be the semblance of what was according to God in the "washing of hands;" for the Lord Himself uses water as the emblem of purity; but it was to answer their own ends, and the Lord says, that, whatever it was, it was a commandment of men - that was all. And it was in vain. There is a worship which is worshipping of God in vain.

It is thus that Christ disposed entirely of what may be called "religion;" God's order, God's commandments, God's will, have been set aside by man in his drawing nigh in his own way to God. If he thinks to draw nigh with his heart, such as it is, what would be the consequence? This the Lord goes on to show. And here we see the awful character of religion without the conscience before God. "Out of the heart," He says, "proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies." These are what come out of the heart. Man may talk of drawing nigh to God with the heart; but with what kind of heart? How can he draw nigh, when "out of the heart" proceed all these things? There is the difficulty. If man will speak of drawing nigh to God, if he will have his forms of religion, his scribes and Pharisees, his Jerusalem, what is it all? Just what the Lord said; the drawing nigh with the mouth, the honouring with the lip; but with heart far from God. Religious forms, the intricacies of ceremony and tradition, even though in the abstract according to the truth of God, are to our hearts now what Jerusalem was to these Pharisees. All that was known of God, all that God had revealed, and He had revealed much in the figures of the law, foreshadowing better things, was there; but the flesh cannot be bettered by ordinances; and if it was a question of drawing nigh to God, while the heart was what it was, and while the whole character of their religion was that of self, Jerusalem was nothing whatever but a blind to the consciences of men. And have not hundreds of us been going on in the same way, with additional truth, no doubt? We may have liked the truth Christianity has introduced, because it had no power in the conscience and on the heart; yet in principle it was the same thing. The craft and lie of Satan is to take all these things, and to say that a man can draw nigh to God through them, while with his heart he does not. This has been ordinarily Satan's way; he acts more by subtlety, and upon the ground of the truth of God, than by an open and simple lie; aye, more than by infidelity and the denying of the truth of God. Religion is the thing he uses, and what meets it in the heart of man is the supposition (after all clearly hypocrisy) that man can approach God, put off God with these things, when in truth he is merely seeking to satisfy his own conscience. Satan's lulling conscience asleep through forms of religion, is a very different thing from God's awakening the conscience by the power of truth. There may be the form of truth, and that much insisted on; but where God has not awakened the conscience, religiousness and religion are only put between the conscience and God to hide from God.

Having spoken of religion in the flesh - the heart's religion,  as well as of its sin - the Lord now takes up what the heart itself is.

"And He called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand: Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." (vv. 10, 11.) There is deep instruction here. One might have begun and have argued with a man about Jerusalem until the end of time, he using the most specious arguments, such as that it was God that had established Jerusalem, it was God that had set up the sacrifices (for the sacrifices were in themselves, as to form, true), and the like; and. there we might have stood. The Lord sets all this aside. He calls up the "multitude" - no matter who or what they might be (we find it stated, Matt. 9:36, that they were "as sheep having no shepherd"); and He addresses Himself directly and completely to what is within. He passes by all that which Satan had known how to use to the blinding of the conscience, and He goes at once to the root of the matter, to this fact - 'You know that what comes out of the heart is not of God, and that is you.' This exposes the whole question. 'Talk not of washing the hands; it may have been the tradition of the elders, but it is your religion; that which comes out of the heart is evil, and what a man's nature is he is.' The Lord addresses Himself to the conscience: if the conscience had been before God, they could not have concealed this truth from themselves. They did not want Pharisees for that; they did not want scribes for that; their own hearts could answer it. The conscience of the simplest man, though hitherto led by ten thousand evil Pharisees, when it is before God, can understand that it is that which cometh out of a man, that which is himself, that defileth a man. "Then came His disciples, and said unto Him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?" (v. 12.) No wonder! all man's system of Pharisaism is good for nothing, when it comes to be a simple question about why all this evil goes out of the heart of man. No wonder, therefore, they were offended. Man has persuaded himself into the belief that he is not so really lost to what is good as God says he is, and that all this attention to ceremonial observances and the externals of religion is very holy and excellent. But, as it is explained here by our blessed Lord, both leaders and led are "blind" a simple thing; as the prophet expresses it. "The leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed." (Isa. 9:16.) "But He answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up." (v. 13.) There may be the "form of godliness," but if it is not of the Father, if not planted of God, it will be rooted up. God must have realities for eternity; and therefore nothing is eternal that God has not planted. "Let them alone" - a terrible saying, a terrible thing to hear the Lord of love uttering such a word as that, and I do not know that it is ever said about any but religious people. We never hear that lip of love saying, "Let them alone," or words of the kind, to any but hypocrites; He does not say so to the poor Gentile woman mentioned in the after part of the chapter, though her circumstances were those of the greatest evil. If He must put the heart of such an one to trial, He will do it, but He does not so speak. "Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch." (v. 14.) Jesus must be occupied with "the poor of the flock," so He turns and feeds the multitude.

"Then answered Peter and said unto Him, Declare unto us this parable. And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding?" (vv. 15, 16.) We see here a hankering after hearing something new, instead of the conscience before God - a step lower down, so to speak, of Pharisaism. He is their "Rabbi." They are looking at Him in this character, and therefore, their conscience not being in the presence of God, they cannot understand such a simple thing - the simplest thing that can be - that it is not that which goeth into the mouth, but that which cometh out of the mouth that defileth a man. They have something between the conscience and God. And mark where the "understanding," in God's estimate, is - always in the conscience. He is not making learned men (though He does speak wisdom to them that are perfect), but He is bringing sinners to heaven. His dealings are with the heart and conscience; and no matter what it be, a parable or whatever else, I have no "understanding" of it until my conscience is at work, and before God by faith; because, until then, God has not His place, and I have not mine. There is no understanding a single thing between me and God, if He has not His place. I might suppose that I knew a good deal about God, and might reason wonderfully, and explain Him as a lecturer would his subject; but would that be God? Where would be the respect due to Him as God? Would He be acting as Light to me, making manifest my darkness? Not at all. If He had His real place, as God to my soul, I should not be lecturing about Him, I should feel what I am in His presence. No man ever lectured about God in the presence of God. He might seek to explain fully what God is when He was not there; but let His presence be felt, and it would stop the lecture at the moment. That is wherein these disciples failed; they were quick to learn "parables," as no question of conscience. Therefore Christ puts it in the simplest manner; He says, "Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But these things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man." (They are part of himself.) "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts: … these are the things that defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man." (vv. 17-20.)

And what else proceeds out of the heart? Why really, when we come to the heart of man, it is like what we have in Deuteronomy (chapter 27) about the law of God. When the details are entered into there, where are the tribes for blessing? We read only of the curse. 'No doubt' (people say) 'bad things came out of the heart of man; but are there not good things also?' There is not a word about them here. "Out of the heart proceed" the evil things mentioned, and these are what God sees. It is not that we are denying that there are amiabilities of nature and the like; there are, but then we see them in irrational animals, as well as in man, with this difference - that there is no pride in the heart of the former about them, while there is in the heart of man. What man is morally in the sight of God is the question. Here the Lord closes with man. We have his history traced down from the scribes and Pharisees to what he is in himself. He is seen, in all the comeliness of "religion," to be completely setting aside the commandments of God, and it ends in the sad catalogue of what comes "out of the heart."

Now we get, in what immediately follows, the other side of the picture, the opposite of all this - the heart of God in its own eternal fulness of grace, brought out in the Lord's dealings with (not scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem, but) a woman of Canaan.

"Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto Him." (vv. 21, 22.) Tyre and Sidon were anything but Jerusalem; they were places proverbial for their wickedness. The Lord selects them as such when He says (Matt. 11), "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes." He holds them up as two of the vilest cities He could have named. Again: this woman, as a woman of Canaan, not only was a Gentile, a "dog" (v. 26) - that was her character in the eye of man, yes, and according to the truth of God also, so far as regarded the outward condition of things at that time - but a woman of that people concerning which God had said, "Cursed be Canaan." (Gen. 9:25.)

So that here we get evidently the very opposite to, and that which stands in greatest contrast with, the scribes and Pharisees (the religious persons) of Jerusalem, and indeed with everything that could claim authority in religion, or even the appearance of a fair show in the flesh, a woman of Canaan, out of the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.

But after all, how does this poor woman come? Her need brought her to Christ; so far all was right. But to have our need supplied, we must take the place that befits us. God cannot, so to speak, deny supplying our need; but He will deny till we take our true position. This is the great principle we have to learn here. "She cried unto Him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But He answered her not a word." (vv. 22, 23.) It was a case apparently greatly calling for the Lord's intervention, and she was entreating Him to interfere. Her daughter was grievously vexed of a devil, and He had come to destroy the works of the devil. She knew what His compassion was; but does she come simply on that ground? No; had she done so, she would have had the closest sympathies of the Lord. But she says, 'Have mercy on me, Jesus, thou Son of David!' Here was faith. She knew what mercies He had brought amongst the Jews; but had she anything to do with Him as the "Son of David"? No; none but a Jew had any claim on Christ, in that character.

The poor woman doubtless thought that, recognizing and confessing Him to be what He was, she might count on the blessing. She came in the way of promise. She owned the very truth of God contained in the promises, and she recognized Jesus as being the One who had come according to those promises. That was the case, and that was the simple reason why the Lord had nothing for her at all.

We may talk about the promises of God, and go away empty. When we talk about promises, they must be promises made to us; promises respecting which we can lay hold upon the truth of God, as the ground of His dealing with us. Now, suppose we come to God as though we were called by the most gracious promises, the moment we confess ourselves sinners, we say that we have title to nothing. A sinner has title to nothing; and therefore we are on wrong ground, just as was this poor woman.

There are promises made for sinners, but there are no promises made to sinners as sinners. Like this Syrophenician woman, we may linger about the promises, and have not a word. We must come as simple sinners, without any title at all but our need; that is the only title He admits. He will assuredly bless; for He has said, "Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." But He will do it by making us know that the depth of our need is just the reason why He does so.

When she cries, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David," her own language binds Him to exclude her; she has not, and cannot have, any claim or title to Him on that ground; He does not know such a person. Here is the point. And therefore, when the disciples come and beseech Him, saying, "Send her away; for she crieth after us" (only wanting to get rid of her as a troublesome beggar, as if they had said 'Give her what she wants, and have done with her'), He answered, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He holds to God's order. (See also Matt. 10:5.)

It is a most important thing to remember, that promises are not found out of Christ. There are most precious promises to the Christian, without which he could not get on for a day; but then "all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us." (2 Cor.1:20.) You may see a person going on lingering about promises, and, until the soul is humbled to the place of faith, until it submits to the truth and righteousness of God, the end of the story will be as the beginning, 'I cannot realise them.'

Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me." (v. 25.) Now this is a good deal more truthful, and it brings out an answer. Her first appeal had truth in it, but then it was (as we have seen) on a ground to which she had no title; it was just as much as to say, 'Do not answer me.' Now she gets an answer. But then the answer shows that Christ cannot go out of the way of the promises, out of the way in which God has sent Him. He says, "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." Here is a terrible thing - a terrible thing to be told this by a person in whom she had confided - to be turned away as a dog. And are not hearts now to be found in this condition? They have been sent to Christ for help; they feel their sorrow, and they go to Him looking for promises, and what do they say, 'I have got peace, I have got joy in God?' No, they come back, saying, 'I have got nothing!' They have not come down to the place where God gives help. They are, like this poor Syrophenician woman, Canaanites of Tyre and Sidon, and they have been talking to the Son of David, as though they had something to do with Him, and something to expect from Him.

"And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." (v. 27.) Here is her place; she abandons all title and claim in herself; but her need casts itself on pure bounty. The Lord's eye has all the while been watching the process of humbling that was going on in the heart, and now that He has brought her down to her real condition, He can accede to her every desire. It is not now, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David;" neither yet, "Lord, help me!" Until she gave up that ground (for He could not give it up) He tries her, saying, "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs." But when she says, 'I am a dog, yet?' - going upon what God Himself is in Christ, she gets upon the simple ground of the infinite fulness of God's love, and all is clear.

Her faith has pierced through dispensations; it has arrived at what God is. She can say, "Truth, Lord, it is to the Jews that the children's bread belongs; I make no pretence to the children's place, I am a poor, wretched sinner of the Gentiles, I know all this; I know that I have title to nothing, as regards promises; but there is plenty of help in God to meet my case; these dogs that are without eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." What can the Lord say more?

'There is no help in God for thee?' Impossible! "Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith." There is no need of being a Jew to have faith; the Gentile that believes in Jesus has reached up to the place whence even the children are fed. No matter what a man is, when it is a question of what there is in God for his need the case is simple. When there is the truthful admission that we have no ground of title whatever, when we meet God in the way of goodness, on the ground of what there is in Himself, all is well; for that goodness is in. God.

The Lord is not now looked at in the way of promise (be that never so true), and He cannot deny what God is, and what He is in Himself. He says, "O woman, great is thy faith," and then, what more? "Be it unto thee even as thou wilt." Whatever request she may have, based on the simple fact of the goodness that God had even for a dog, He cannot help answering. "And her daughter was made whole from that very hour."

Such is the difference between Pharisaism and faith. The poor, wretched sinner who comes simply on the ground of being nothing - a sinner without any title at all - to God, as He is, gets plenty of blessing. Then rest and peace are found. We prove Him to be love and nothing else. The soul turns away from self altogether, and feasts on the eternal fulness of grace that is in Christ. It draws on all that is in Him; its need is just its title to all that is in Him We never see the question rightly, till we see that it is only infinite need that can at all give title to the infinite fulness of God. The converted and unconverted both need to see this. Sinners do not receive Christ because they do not know themselves to be no better than dogs. Saints are often without peace, because they never really have taken the place of dogs. Many would gladly sail over the whole question, and just take the grace without the knowledge of their own vileness; but God will teach us all that is in ourselves, that we may really value all that is in Him. It was on this ground the poor woman could speak to Jesus, and the word is ever to such, "Even as thou wilt." Divine fulness is to be fathomed alone by conscious need and wretchedness.

This is where faith will bring us. We may admit the truth of all that has been said, but if it has not brought us there, down to nothingness in the presence of the infinite fulness of God, it is not truth to our souls; we have not really learned anything. We may have learned the story of the Canaanitish woman, but if we have not learned the story of our own heart in it, we have learned nothing about it. We may be able to explain the doctrines of salvation very clearly; we may be glorying in much that we have received from God; but if we desire blessing and riches (spiritual riches), it must be with us as with the church of Smyrna, of which Jesus could say (Rev. 2), "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty - but thou art rich." Is it so truly with us, or is it still the lingering about promises? Again, even if we are not Pharisees, is it with us as with the disciples, a question of "parables?" There are no parables in the conscience. When a man meets God in his conscience, that man knows himself; he cannot help it. It is not a parable when the conscience is touched, it is what we ourselves are in the sight of God. Let our state be what it may (perhaps an evil one into which we have got by sin, no matter what it is), if we have been broken down, in the humbling consciousness of what we are, to the place of our own nothingness, the only question that remains is, What is God towards us? And He is grace, and to be proved to be such exactly in proportion to our need. Need but becomes then the occasion of displaying the suitability of His grace.

All comes to one single point: if we are before God as what we really are, God is always what He really is - grace.

This is, in a certain sense, hard work - to live in the continual sense of our need, and of God's delight in supplying it. What constant watchfulness does it argue! what walking in the Spirit! what abnegation of self! The Lord grant us the continual sense of our emptiness, and also the continual sense of His fulness, that we may take our true place as dependent on His grace and bounty.