How not to be transformed!

By Rev. Dr. Brent Russett – Asbury Free Methodist

August 21, 2022 Matthew 15:10-28

            As you know, one of our prime values here at Asbury is Discipleship. Our story today, out of Matthew 15, highlights some very important truths about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

            Have you ever gone through one of those phases in life when you said to yourself, “self, I need to get to know God better. I need to improve my spiritual life.”

            Maybe you are there right now. Sometimes it is those phases that bring people back to church. They say to themselves, “I need to connect with God.” Maybe you are a follower of Jesus, but something has stirred you, and you feel this need to improve your relationship with God. You have been coasting along in your spiritual life, and you know it is time to do something.

            I think that is a fairly normal experience. There are times in your walk with Jesus where you know you love Jesus, but you also know you haven’t been moving towards him as you should.

            I have had a number of those times in my life. When I was much younger than I am now, I hit one of those times. I knew I needed to draw closer to God. I wanted to improve my spiritual life.

            So, what do you do when you have those impulses? By the way, that is a good impulse. It is a God-given impulse. You wouldn’t even want to move towards God unless God was putting that in your heart.

So, what do you do? I know what my younger self did; I made a list of the things that I needed to do and the things that I shouldn’t do. My list included that I needed to pray an hour a day. I needed to limit my television watching. I needed to memorize scripture. My list went on and on. I created a number of rules for myself in order to improve my spiritual life.

            They were good rules. If people saw my list, which no one ever did, they would say, “Isn’t he spiritual.” Maybe you have created a list of rules for yourself in order for you to become spiritual. If so, today’s Jesus story may help.


            Here is what I have learned over the years. That impulse to draw closer to Jesus is God-given. As your pastor, there is nothing I want more for you than to see you draw near to Jesus. But there are helpful ways to go about it and unhelpful ways.


            Come with me to Matthew 15. As you may know, the book of Matthew was written by the disciple Matthew. He was writing the biography of Jesus in such a way that the Jewish people of his day would understand who He was.

            That is helpful to know because when we get to this story, it is referring to a number of things that every Jewish person of that day would understand and many things we might miss.

            In the first part of Matthew 15, Jesus is talking to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were seen as the spiritual giants of the day. They were the committed people. They took their religion seriously.

            And their religion was full of rules. Not only did they have the scripture, but they also had over 600 rules in addition to the scripture to help them live out their spiritual life. Some of those rules were like fences to the real rules. The Scriptures say, “Don’t commit adultery.” So, they built a fence around that rule. Just to make sure they were behaving well with a woman that was not their wife, they made a rule that said that one could not spend any longer alone with a woman than it takes to run 3 times around a tree. (I don’t know – I was just out west, and there are some big trees)

            Building fences around the rules was only part of what the rules were about. Some rules were about interpretation. Those are the kind of rules Jesus was dealing with in the early part of Matthew 15. Here is the issue. Let’s say I have some money. My parents are in need of help in their old age. But I also want to give to God. Which is more righteous. So they had rules of interpretation – in this case, the rules said that if you gave to God, you didn’t have to give to your parents. Jesus took them to task on this. He says God’s rule is clear, honour your parents, and your own rule breaks God’s rules.

            But the real question is why? Why make up all these rules? Why jump through all these hoops. Well, they wanted the glory of God to come back to Israel. They wanted God to send his messiah. They believed that in order for God to do that, the nation had to be pure. In order for the nation to be pure, people had to keep the commandments and the rules. It was all about purity. It was about getting God to move. It was about being holy. It was about drawing closer to God.

            When you think about it, their motive was not all that much different from ours. They wanted to see God move. They wanted God to have his rightful place in their lives and in the lives of the nation of Israel. They wanted to see God fulfill his promises to send a Messiah. They wanted to be close to God.

            They understood some things about God too. They understood that God loves purity and is attracted to holiness. They understood that God hates sin. But what they didn’t understand was that no amount of rule-keeping was going to get them to where they wanted to be.

            I suspect that there is some Pharisee in all of us. We want God to do what we want him to do, and the best way to get him to do that is to keep the rules.

            I always found it interesting that, depending on what Christian group you belonged to, the rules changed somewhat. I was brought up with the idea Christians don’t drink alcohol. My Christian Reform pastor friends get bottles of wine for Christmas. Depending on the group, there are rules for what you can do on Sunday. There are rules about how you should dress.

            I recognize that we live in a culture that believes “rules are meant to be broken.” But if you are trying to get closer to God, you know, or at least I hope you know, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Sin is still a thing, although you don’t hear much about sin these days.

            We have lost the idea of sin in our culture. We get that we are broken or dysfunctional, or addicted, or stuck, but we don’t get that we are sinners.

            But here is what the Bible says, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” If you remove the concept of sin, you take away the purpose of the cross. And if you take away the cross, you take away the central fixture in Christianity, which makes the whole thing pointless.

            Now I don’t expect our culture to get that. Why would they? They have their own moral code that they have developed apart from Jesus. We are not required to judge them. We are called to love and pray for them that they will follow Jesus.

            But if you are a follower of Jesus, then you need to understand that there is such a thing as sin, and you need to know how to deal with it. The way to deal with it is not by making up some rules.

            Back to our story, the Pharisees had a rule about eating. They believed that if you ate without first washing your hands, what you ate made you impure, unholy. Now I get that we don’t believe that. We believe that if you eat without first washing your hands, you may get sick, but that doesn’t have anything to with your spiritual life.

            But by looking at this Pharisaical rule, Jesus helps us to understand ourselves.

Matthew 15:10–11 (NIV)

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

            Jesus uses this rule to talk about rules in general. I want you to note that with Jesus, defilement is still a thing. You can be made unholy, not by what goes into your mouth but by what comes out of it. In other words, Pharisees, your rules for holiness are useless.

            The Pharisees understood what he was saying.

Matthew 15:12–14 (NIV)

12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides.  If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

            Jesus says – I know they are supposed to be spiritual leaders, but they are blind spiritually. So, they cannot lead anyone. Then note he said, “leave them.” He doesn’t say argue with them. He doesn’t say post negative stuff about them on social media. Just leave them.

            Here is what you need to know. There are all kinds of things that claim to come under the banner of “Christian” that are as spiritually blind as the Pharisees. You will find that there are churches that don’t believe the bible and there are churches that are completely rule-based. Neither of those are going to get you to where you want to go spiritually.

            But here is the thing for us. Jesus didn’t take exception to looking for purity. He just took exception to how they were going about looking for purity.

Matthew 15:15–20 (NIV)

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

            Jesus says it is not what goes into the mouth that is the problem. What comes out of the mouth is the problem. The reason why that is a problem is that it comes from the heart. It is the heart that is the problem, and rules don’t change the heart.

            His focus is on the heart. If you get hung up on the statement “what comes out of the mouth,” you will miss the point. He lists a number of things that can defile us. Things like murder and theft. Those usually are things that you do – and not with your words. He is using the mouth as symmetry for the rule about washing before eating – but the real issue is the heart and rules don’t change the heart.


            One of the things that has surprised me as I have grown into spiritual maturity is how deep evil goes in my heart. One of the things that you have to come to terms with is we can’t change our own heart. That is why we gravitate towards the rules. Rules, with enough willpower, can be kept, and they change our outward appearance. But changing our hearts is on a whole other level. We feel like we have a level of control if we focus on the rules. But when we focus on our hearts – we just find them unruly.

            Let’s just quickly run through this list of things that Jesus says defiles us.

Evil thoughts

            Towards our neighbours, our enemies, our friends ourselves. These evil thoughts can range from jealousy, to power control and manipulation. And it comes from the heart. If you want to check out the state of your heart, watch what you think about those who have hurt you. Watch what you think about those who get ahead of you

Out of the heart comes: Murder

            You say I haven’t murdered anyone. And yet Jesus is clear in the sermon on the mount that hatred is kin to murder. That kind of hatred resides in the heart.


            A Married person having Sex outside marriage. Jesus broadens the term to include lust after a woman. Adultery is too common in our culture, and it starts in the heart. People, if you want to affair-proof your marriage, deal with your hearts.

Sexual Immorality

            The Greek word is porniea. The root meaning is treating other people like objects, especially sexually. Our culture seems to view sex lightly, casually. Sex was meant by God to take place within marriage. Because it was meant to take place within the context of a lifelong commitment.

            But Sexual immorality goes deeper than that. Whenever we treat people like objects, it shows the depth of depravity in our hearts.


            Taking what belongs to someone else. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as thieves, except when it comes to what is stored on our computers or how we fill out our taxes or insurance claims.

False Testimony

            That is basically lying about someone. Maybe you lie about yourself to make yourself look good. Or maybe you lie about someone else to make them look bad. Or maybe it is just gossip. Whatever the reason, it has a way of coming out of our hearts.


            This is basically undermining someone’s character.

            It is our hearts that are the problem.

             So what do we do? This morning we are going to celebrate communion. Our heart change starts there. Jesus died for our sin, according to the scripture. He paid the penalty for all we have done wrong and all that we will ever do wrong. Because of what Jesus did on the cross our sins can be forgiven. Those things that we have done that have defiled us have been taken care of in the eyes of God.

            If you have given your life to Christ, you are forgiven. That is a great truth. But it would be weird for God to say, your problem is your heart, and I have forgiven your sins, but I am not going to do anything about your heart.

            Or, to put it like some people believe, I am forgiven, and now I just have to keep the rules. When I break the rules, I need to come back to God and get forgiven again. We will keep this cycle until we get to heaven.

            But I want you to know that the power of the cross goes deeper than just forgiveness. The power of the cross can change your heart.


            The Church in Galatia was being told that you needed Jesus to forgive you but after that, what you needed to do was keep the rules. Keep the law. Here is what the apostle Paul said to them,

Galatians 3:1–3 (NLT)

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?

            The communion that we celebrate remembers that Jesus died for us. When we put our faith in him and his work, not only are we forgiven but we are given his Spirit. His Spirit at work in us over time, applying the work of the cross is how our hearts are changed.

            How he does that will take more time than I have today to tell you. But starting the Sunday after Labour Day, we are starting a series on Spiritual Formation – how God transforms our hearts.


            What I want you to know today is that God doesn’t just give you rules to follow and leaves you on your own. Because rules don’t deal with the heart. What messes us up is our heart. It is what comes out of our hearts that defile us and shove God off to the side. But Jesus came not only to forgive our sin but to deal with our hearts.

            Let me lay a few more verses on you. These two are from the Old Testament, where they were looking forward to what God was going to do.

Jeremiah 31:33 (NLT)

33 “But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.

Ezekiel 11:19 (NLT)

19 And I will give them singleness of heart and put a new spirit within them. I will take away their stony, stubborn heart and give them a tender, responsive heart,

            It has always been God’s plan not just to change our behaviour but to change our hearts. It has always been God’s plan that we live not in relation to the rules but to live in relationship with him, and out of that will flow how we live.

            One more set of verses

John 15:4–5 (NIV)

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

            You might remember that much of the fruit he is talking about is fruit that comes out of the heart. (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control.) He says apart from me, you can do nothing. Heart change comes out of this deep abiding relationship with Jesus.

            How about you? Are you trying to draw closer to God, or become a better person or get God to move in your life by keeping the rules? Maybe you have your own rules for yourself. You judge yourself according to those rules.

            As a follower of Jesus, there is a better way than living in relationship to the rules. That better way is living in this deep, abiding friendship with Jesus. He doesn’t change us by rules. He changes our hearts through his love and by his Spirit.

            Can you imagine a church full of these kinds of people? People whose hearts have been and are being transformed by the love and power of Jesus. Well, that is what we celebrate this morning. The power of the cross to forgive our sin and change our hearts if we let it do its work. My hope is that you will let God do the work he wants to do in your heart as we pursue him together.