The scribes and Pharisees constantly tried to catch Jesus violating the law. On one such occasion, they asked Him, “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat” (Matthew 15:2, NLT). In response to their question, Jesus told the listening crowd, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11, NKJV).
According to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, the long-held oral teachings of the elders, passed down throughout the generations, held nearly the same authority as Jewish law. But Jesus found these manufactured interpretations of the law to be unreasonably heavy burdens placed on people’s shoulders (Matthew 23:2–4; cf. Matthew 11:28, 30).
The Pharisees and scribes believed that ceremonial defilement happened when unclean hands passed contaminated external matter into the body through the mouth. By neglecting the ceremonial rules before eating, Christ’s disciples broke the tradition of the Pharisees. But the actual law only required priests to perform ceremonial handwashing before service. The Jewish elders had saddled the people with a purifying ritual meant exclusively for priests (Exodus 30:17–21; cf. Mark 7:3–4).
Jesus turned the scales on the scribes and Pharisees, asking, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3). These religious leaders were guilty of far more severe offenses than failing to wash their hands. The disciples had neglected a tradition of the elders, but the Pharisees had disobeyed a direct commandment of God. They had created loopholes in the law—ignoring the will of God—to benefit themselves at the expense of the elderly and needy (Matthew 15:3–6). Jesus exposed these leaders for who they really were: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God’” (Matthew 15:7–9, NLT).
The Pharisees presented an outward purity that falsely represented their inner selves. They were religious pretenders. Their hands may have been clean, but their hearts were soiled. For this reason, Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth defiles a man.” Whatever is in our hearts comes out of our mouths through our words and reveals our inner condition, whether clean or defiled. Jesus clarifies, “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you” (Matthew 15:17–20, NLT).
Pharisaical, works-based religion is still alive and kicking in the church today. But God has not called us to a lifeless existence of merely following rules. God wants our hearts and not our lip service (Isaiah 29:13). He is interested in inner purity, not outward ceremony. Authentic worship flows from the heart. In His description of true kingdom worshipers, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). Purity of heart involves single-minded devotion to our relationship with God. An undefiled heart has no hypocrisy, duplicity, or hidden agenda. The pure in heart desire to obey God’s Word and please Him in all things. They do more than wash their hands and behave pristinely; they possess the innermost purity of soul.
To be genuinely pure and undefiled in heart, we must first be saved “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy . . . through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5–6). The apostle Paul explains, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Romans 10:9–10). It’s not what goes in but what comes out of the mouth that defiles or saves us, insofar as what comes out of the mouth reveals the true condition of the heart.