CHARACTER MATTERS

 

Week of January 22, 2006

 

Bible Passages: Proverbs 4:20-27; 6:16-19; Matthew 15:16-20.

 

Biblical Truth: Because one’s character springs from the heart, believers should vigilantly guard their hearts in accordance with God’s truth.

 

Understand the Nature of Character:  Matthew 15:16-20.

 

[16] Jesus said: Are you still lacking in understanding also? [17] Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? [18] But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. [19] For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. [20] These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.   [NASU]

 

The last of the three conversations in verses 1-20 is between Jesus and his disciples, and it seems to have been private. The parable that Peter wanted Jesus to explain refers to the illustration of verse 11. It was not so much that the disciples did not understand what Jesus meant as that they found it hard to accept—just as had the crowd and the scribes and Pharisees. In what must have been a tone of grief, Jesus replied, Are you still lacking in understanding also? It is as if the Lord was saying: “With all I have taught during the last two years are you still like the multitudes who do not know what I am talking about? Do you still fail to comprehend the absolute superiority of spirituality over formality, of the internal over the external, of reality over the shadow?”

 

Jesus then replies with even stronger teaching. The fact that the Pharisees were offended is proof not only that they were false interpreters of the law but they were outside the kingdom altogether. This is what shall be uprooted [13] refers to. Then Jesus calls the Pharisees and teachers of the law blind guides [14]. So, in response to Peter’s request to explain the parable in verse 11, Jesus gives his explanation in verses 18-20. What makes a person unclean is not what goes into his mouth or whether he eats with unwashed hands. It is what comes out, for what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. What Jesus says here is that all sins come from the heart. The heart represents the inner person, his thoughts, attitudes, desires, loyalties, and motives. When the heart is filled with evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders, and other such ungodliness, these are the things which defile. Defile means to corrupt or contaminate the purity of something. Jews who were defiled were ceremonially unclean, meaning that they were forbidden to participate in certain acts of worship until the uncleanness was dealt with or removed.

 

Jesus presupposes that the heart is essentially evil. But the burden of this passage is not to be pure on the inside and forget the externals but that what ultimately defiles a man is what he really is. Jesus is insisting that true religion must deal with the nature of man and not with mere externals. What concerned Jesus was not so much the form of religion as human nature. He wanted to see people transformed and their hearts renewed because he came to save his people from their sins.

 

Thus the question that confronts us is do we stand before God with clean hands only, that is, with mere ceremonial religion, or do we come with a new, clean heart? For some this type of ceremonial religion means good works, perhaps giving money to help the poor or donating time to charity. A person like this supposes that he will be accepted by God for these works. Another person thinks in terms of religious observance, so they are faithful to attend church services. But these type things do nothing to change the nature of the heart. The problem that confronts all of us is where can a new heart be acquired? It is possible to talk about the whole of Christianity as possessing a transformed heart.

 

John Ryle wrote: “What is the first thing we need in order to be Christians? A new heart. What is the sacrifice God asks us to bring to him? A broken and contrite heart. What is the true circumcision? The circumcision of the heart. What is genuine obedience? To obey from the heart. What is saving faith? To believe with the heart. Where ought Christ to dwell? To dwell in our hearts by faith. What is the chief request that Wisdom makes to every one? My son, give me thine heart.” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. Matthew, p. 174).

 

Embrace God’s Values:  Proverbs 6:16-19.

 

[16] There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: [17] Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, [18] A heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, [19] A false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.  [NASU]

 

This teaching is arranged for easy memorization. The first five things the Lord hates are body parts set in a sequence that moves generally from the head to the feet (eyes, tongue, hands, heart, feet), and the last two are specific types of persons (the false witness and the troublemaker). Also, note that the first five items concern general moral characteristics (pride, deceitfulness, a violent or conniving character, etc.), whereas the last two specifically belong to a judicial or governmental setting. In each of the first five members of the list, some body part is associated with a particular type of sin. More specifically, the body parts that act out certain sins (e.g., hands that shed blood) represent the distorted personalities behind such actions. Thus it is that the verse uses such strong language in verse 16, saying that God hates these things.

 

Haughty eyes are eyes that are lifted up in arrogance instead of turning one’s eyes downward out of humility and respect. The position of the eyes describes the attitude of the heart. The arrogant spirit may vaunt itself against any and all people, but fundamentally this reflects haughtiness before God and refusal to reckon with one’s finitude and creatureliness.

 

A lying tongue represents a person who has no regard for the truth. To lie is to distort reality for one’s own purposes and describes a refusal to submit to norms of right and wrong. By lying, one seeks to rearrange not just individual facts but one’s just place in the world and so avoid having to live by the normal rules of life.

 

The phrase hands that shed innocent blood describes the violent personality and as such is one who would be prone to murder if circumstances were conducive. A lack of control over anger is implied, as is a profound lack of regard for the value of human life.

 

The heart that devises wicked plans describes a person who has no regard for anything but that which might work to their advantage. Rules and values are used when it is beneficial to do so, but they are disregarded when they are inconvenient.

 

Feet that run rapidly to evil describes a terrible enthusiasm for opportunities to do wrong. Such an individual regards the occasion to sin, when it appears, as a stroke of good luck and a terrific chance to get away with breaking a rule and perhaps get something for nothing. But the benefit that may come is secondary; like the vandal who destroys property that he cannot steal, the real object is the simple joy of wrongdoing.

 

The false witness seeks to subvert justice in the courts, while the one who spreads strife among brothers attempts to break apart the bonds that hold a society together. These two figures are fundamentally antisocial in that they break bonds of friendship, promote the decay of public justice, and ultimately bring a community into chaos.

 

Guard Your Heart:  Proverbs 4:23-27.

 

[23] Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life. [24] Put away from you a deceitful mouth and put devious speech far from you. [25] Let your eyes look directly ahead and let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you. [26] Watch the path of your feet and all your ways will be established. [27] Do not turn to the right nor to the left; turn your foot from evil.   [NASU]

 

In the closing appeal [20-27] the father scarcely concerns himself with specific moral issues. He simply urges  the son to stay true to Wisdom. Metaphoric use of body parts permeates this text. The eyes are to stay fixed on right teaching [21,25] as the feet are to stay in the right path [26-27]. The mouth and lips must shun using twisted words [24]. Above all, the heart must be guarded by sound doctrine [21,23]. If the son listens to his father, the whole body will be healthy [22]. The heart, verse 23 says, is the springs of life. Heart is the spring of life in that the capacity to live with joy and vigor ultimately comes from within and not from circumstances. The corrupt heart draws one down to the grave, but Wisdom protects the heart from that corruption. The fourth exhortation closes with a return to the image of the path [25-27].

 

The rules laid out in verses 23-27 constitute an invaluable safeguard for our Christian lives. Since we are attacked at every point, every possible place where sin may gain a foothold has to be guarded against – the heart, the mouth, the eyes, the feet. The heart must be known, so that it may be kept safe. Nothing is more difficult, but nothing is more necessary. If we do not know our hearts, it will be as if we knew nothing at all. Whatever else we know, to neglect this knowledge is to be a prize fool. If we do not know our weak points, Satan is well aware of them.

 

Then, when I know my heart and feel that it is in the middle of so many dangers, the question arises, can I guard my own heart? Certainly not. This is God’s work, though it is carried out through the agency of man. He works through our efforts. He implants an active principle and sustains the ceaseless exercise. When this is done in his strength and guidance, all the means of our preservation are greatly increased. Watch and pray. Nurture a humble spirit and a dependent spirit. Live in the atmosphere of the Word of God. Resist the evil world, even in its most plausible forms. This will be a conflict until the end of our lives. If the heart is captured, the whole man – affections, desires, motives, pursuits – will be handed over. The heart is the great vital spring of the soul, the fountain of actions, the center and the seat of both sin and holiness.

 

[24] As we guard our hearts, we must not forget to guard the outlets of sin. What a world of evil the heart pours out from the mouth. Commit, therefore, both heart and mouth to divine discipline. Then let prayer and faith be the way you keep watch.

 

[25] After the heart and the mouth we come to the eyes. The eyes are the lamp of the body. Yet, all too often they are a most dangerous inlet to sin. Therefore, like Job, we need to make a covenant with our eyes [Job 31:1]. Place them under heavenly restraint [Ps. 119:37]. The pleasures of sin and the seductions of a tempting world do not lie on God’s road. So they would not meet the eyes if his people were looking straight ahead. It is only when Christians linger, turn off the path, or turn back that they come into sight. Follow the motto of runners: get your goal in focus and concentrate on it.

 

[26-27] Lastly, guard your feet. Judge each step you take so that it is in line with God’s will. The pleasures of sin lie to the right or the left. So your eyes need to keep looking straight ahead in order to keep your foot from evil.

 

 

 

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.     What is the main point Jesus is making in Matthew 15:16-20? Why is “heart service” more important than “lip service”? How can we make all of our devotion and service to God come from a heart that is right with God?

 

2.     In the list of seven sins in Matthew 15:19, why is evil thoughts listed first? What is the relationship between our thoughts and the other six sins listed?

 

3.     What does it mean to “watch over your heart with all diligence” [Proverbs 4:23]? Why is this so important for the Christian life? What things can we do in order to become better at watching over our hearts?

 

4.     Solomon says wisdom brings health to a person’s whole body [Proverbs 4:22]. In your own words, restate his advice on using the body wisely: heart [23]; mouth and lips [24]; eyes [25]; and feet [26-27].

 

 

References:

The Gospel of Matthew, James Boice, Baker Books.

Matthew, D.A. Carson, EBC, Zondervan.

MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: Matthew 8-15, John MacArthur, Moody.

Proverbs, Charles Bridges, Crossway Books.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman.