The Religion of Hand Washing


The Religion of Hand Washing

August 7th, 1966 @ 7:30 PM

Matthew 15:1-20

Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever 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. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. 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. Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying? But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable. And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell 

Matthew 15:10-20 

8-7-66    7:30 p.m. 



On the radio, on WRR, the radio of the city of Dallas, you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the evening message entitled The Religion of Hand Washing.  Turn in your Bible to Matthew chapter 15, Matthew chapter 15.  We begin reading at verse 10, and we read through verse 20.  Matthew chapter 15, chapter 15, verse 10, and we read through verse 20, 10 to 20, and all of us reading out loud together.  Share your Bibles and read together.  Let us begin with verse 10:

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. 

Then came His disciples, and said unto Him, Knowest Thou that the Pharisees were offended after they heard this saying? 

But He answered and said, Every plant which My heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be plucked up. 

Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind.  And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. 

Then answered Peter and said unto Him, Declare unto us this parable. 

And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? 

Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? 

But those things which proceed out of the mouth cometh forth from the heart; and they defile the man. 

For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: 

These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man. 

[Matthew 15:10-20]


We begin at the first verse in chapter 15, and the message will be an exposition of the passage.  It will be sort of a homily.  We shall take the story and the verses and follow it here in the Word of God.  The story begins, "Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem, saying, Why do Thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" [Matthew 15:1-2].

When the people of Israel went into captivity in 605 to 587 BC, they lived for more than seventy years in Babylon and in the country around the Euphrates River.  They were, in that captivity, forever delivered from idolatry and from the examples and patterns of life of the Gentile world.  They were shocked and repulsed by the idolatry and by the immorality of pagan life.  And out of that captivity were born the canon; they collected the Holy Scriptures and the canon of the Old Testament was set.  Out of that captivity came the institution of the synagogue, and all of the things that followed with the pattern of worship in a synagogue, which pattern of worship is the one that we follow today.  A synagogue could be instituted, built in any city.  Only in Jerusalem was there a temple, sacrifice, a priestly mediation; but a synagogue could be found, could be organized, anywhere.  And according to Jewish law, if there were five Jewish families a synagogue was necessary.  So in that Babylonian captivity, the people, thrust into a heathen, pagan, idolatrous culture, gathered around and gave themselves to the word of the law. 

Now in the synagogue worship, the study of the law came particularly and especially under the purview of men who copied it.  They were called scribes.  And in their studying of the Word of God, and in their transcription of the Word of the Lord, they became versed in it and knowledgeable in it.  So as time went on, they increasingly commented on the Bible, and their commentaries became commentaries on commentaries.  And then there were commentators who commented on those commentaries.  Then there were commentators who commented on the commentators who had commented on the commentators who had commented on the commentators who had commented on the commentators before them.  And it went on and on and on and on, page after page, book after book, volume after volume.  All of this was written down in about 300 AD and it is called the Talmud; the Talmud, with its Mishnah and its Gemara.  And there are two of them, a Babylonian Talmud and a Palestinian Talmud.   Ah, the tradition of the elders was an astonishing development!  And the memory of mind of men that could hold all those words is almost unimaginable.  Not any of it was written down.  It was the tradition of the elders; and in time, it finally supplanted the very Word of God itself.   

So the scribes and the Pharisees, a sect among the Jewish people who were especially given to the observance of all of the tiny minutiae of the Talmudic law, they came to Jesus, and they have a case against Him.  Well, considering the magnitude of our Lord and the type of ministry of our Savior, when they come to attack Jesus we expect some noble impeachment.  We expect some mighty assault.  We expect some tremendous frontal confrontation.  What an amazement when we read this stupendous burst of feebleness, and of emptiness, and of nothingness.  They come with a profound assault, namely, "Why do You eat bread with unwashed hands?" [Matthew 15:1-2].  Now to us, that would be sort of insipid.  But did you know, in the Talmud they had written for a man to eat bread with unwashed hands is as though he had killed a man.  Oh, it was a big matter!  So they bring to the Lord this assault, "Why do You eat bread and not wash Your hands?"  

Well, now our Lord is a very learned and practiced forensic leader, and He, as you follow Him, He will turn and attack, Himself, by His own word of attack.  He believes that the best defense is an offense.  So when they brought to Him that attack, "Why do You eat bread without washing Your hands?"  why, He says, "Why do you transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" [Matthew 15:3].  Why do you subvert what God has said in the Holy Word by your commandments, and your mandates, your tradition?  Then He cites an instance:  "God said in His Book, Thou shalt honor thy father and mother [Matthew 15:4].  But you say if a man will come before the priest and use one word, Corban, Corban, ‘This is a gift consecrated to God,’ then he has no obligation to help his father or mother at all [Matthew 15:5-6].  He can see them die, he can see them starve, he can see them want care and attention and food, but if he has paid Corban, ‘This is designated to God,’ then he doesn’t have to take any part of what he has dedicated to the Lord and use it in the help, and succor, and comfort, and support of his parents."  What a perversion, Jesus says, of the plain mandate of the Almighty. 

I tell you, when you come to the Lord Jesus with a highly critical word, ah, you had better be prepared for the thunder and the lightning that follows after.  For when you come to the Savior to point out the mote in the eye of His disciples, you had better be prepared when the Lord points out the stake, the whole beam, the whole two-by-four in your own eye.  When you come before the Lord and point out the little crevice in the armor of His disciples, you’d better be prepared when the Lord asks you, "Is that your breastplate?  Why, it turns to rust when I touch it."  You’d better be prepared with a whole panoply of marvelous reasons when we seek to do battle in a forensic world with our Savior. 

And I feel the same way about modern pseudoscientific infidelity, and unbelief, and religious castigation.  I do not know of anything emptier, more sterile, than the arguments of modern men who seek to discount and to discredit the great fact of God in this world.  Why, there is not a scientist that lives who doesn’t believe, and there is not a philosopher who lives who castigates and repudiates the religion of God but who, when he stands to speak, talks and babbles like an infant.  There are no arguments and there are no final and ultimate reasonings that can stand in the presence of the light of the truth of Almighty God.  It’s because a man hardens his heart, and blinds his eyes, and closes his mind that rejection and infidelity have an appeal. 

So they bring to the Lord Jesus these traditions.  And with a sweep of His hand does the Lord brush them away as you would brush out cobwebs.  Then He addresses them, "Ye hypocrites" [Matthew 15:7].  Well, what an astonishing remark, "Ye hypocrites."  Why, I thought they were scribes and elders and Pharisees and teachers.  I thought people called them masters and princes.  I thought they referred to them as lords and as leaders.  He refers to them as hypocrites. 

Look at those people.  They were royal in their bearing and superior in their presence.  They wore their robes beautifully arranged, broad hems, and beautiful tassels, and they enlarged their phylacteries they bound to their foreheads and to their arms.  And they eyed and envied the first places in the banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and they enriched themselves by taking money from poor widows in prayer, and in a thousand other ways did they exalt themselves on thrones above the people.  Their heads were full of forms, and their mouths were filled with pious things, and their hearts were empty of any true and spiritual religion.  "Ye hypocrites," He says [Matthew 15:7].  They define religion in the monstrous lie of ritual, and litany, and service, and genuflection, and confession, and ceremony, and all of the things that go into the rigmarole and into the mechanics of the scene.  That, to them, was religion.  

I think it’s the commonest form of religion today.  I see it everywhere.  If I observe the ritual, if I follow the litany, if I attend the church, if I go to confession, if I do these things, this is my assurance of heaven.  Religion is defined as the keeping of certain rules, the religion of the washing of hands.  I one time read: two bank robbers who had violated the trust of the people, and with armed robbery had taken away the savings of the people from the bank; and in that robbery they had killed, in cold blood, the president of the bank.  And as they fled away, they stopped for a meal, and while they were eating that meal, one of those murderers said to the other, "What?  What?  We have forgotten, this is Friday!" and they were eating meat.  To murder, to rob, to steal, to violate the basic law of God is nothing, but to keep the form and the ceremonies and the rules and the regulations of religion is to buy one’s way into heaven.  "Ye hypocrites" [Matthew 15:7]. 

Then the Lord listened to His disciples as they came to Him and said, "Do You not know that the Pharisees were offended in what You said?"  Isn’t that something?  "Do You not know that the Pharisees were offended in what You said?" [Matthew 15:12].

Well, I suppose about the commonest thing that anybody ever hears, if he goes to church very long and listens to a preacher of the Word of God, is this:  "I didn’t like what he said.  I didn’t like that.  I didn’t like that."  Neither did the devil.  He didn’t like it either.  "I didn’t like that"; offended in the preacher, and offended in the sermon, and offended by the Word of God.  "Do You not know that the Pharisees were offended by what You said?" 

Well, I sometimes review that.  I live in that kind of a world.  I just kind of thought through tonight, whether I’d take about thirty or forty minutes and just outline here things that I have stumbled into in the years of my ministry, where people got mad and were offended by what the preacher said; and, so far as I know, just telling the truth, just preaching the gospel, but are offended by it. 

Oh!  I thought of that old story of the colored pastor who was a-preaching away, and he said, "There am twelve men here in this church that am chicken thieves, including Brother Johnson."  Well, Brother Johnson didn’t like that, so after the service was over he came up, had a go-round with the preacher, and the preacher apologized for calling him by name and said, "Tonight, I’ll make it right, I’ll make it right."  So when the evening service came, the colored preacher stood up and he said, "This morning, I say there am twelve men here in this church that am chicken thieves, including Brother Johnson; but I change that tonight.  This is what I am saying tonight: in this here church, there am eleven men who am chicken thieves, not counting Brother Johnson."  And Brother Johnson was pacified and mollified, and it was all right.  

That is such a common thing.  "Knowest Thou not that the Pharisees were offended by what You said?" [Matthew 15:12].  You know, the answer of our Lord is an astonishing thing.  He stands on the elective purpose of God.  "Every plant, which My heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up" [Matthew 15:13].  Nobody is going to come except the Spirit of the Lord God draw him.  There is an election unto life; there is an election unto death.  I don’t understand it.  I cannot enter into it.  But there are those that are going to be offended, and they’ll turn away.  There are those whom God’s Spirit will draw, and they will love God and be true even more vibrantly, and holily, and committedly.   It lies in the providence of God.  Saving souls and adding to the church is God’s business.  It is the true preacher’s business to announce the Word of the kingdom of heaven.  And if he’s not true, God has no opportunity to bless it; but if he’s the faithful servant of Jesus, God will always reach some, save some.   And Jesus stands on that elective purpose of Almighty God.  

Then He delivers His sermon on the religion of washing hands.  "Then answered Peter and said unto Him, Master, declare unto us the parable [Matthew 15:15].  We don’t understand.

Had you been trained all your life that religion is a matter of doing this and keeping that, observing this ceremony and following this rule, why, if a man had come and had said, "All of it is as nothing, it’s like webs of spiders, it’s like dust, it’s like gravel in the machinery, God is not reached by the great lordly thrills in the sky, by these rituals and these ceremonies"; had you, all your life, been taught that that is religion, and someone came and thrust it away, you also would have said, "Lord, I don’t understand.  I don’t understand." 

So the Lord speaks to them and this is what He says.  However the turn of religion may follow, either in ceremony or in ritual, however we may be taught, whatever forms we may observe, it is in the heart that God finds the ultimate issues of life, not in outside observances [Matthew 15:16-20, 23:25-26].  And in that message, the prophets of the Almighty spake and thundered again and again. 

I haven’t time to read from the prophet Isaiah: 


To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?  I am full of burnt offerings and the fat of rams, and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of goats. 

And when you come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand?" 

[Isaiah 1:11-12]  


And on and on Isaiah the prophet preaches. 

When I turn to Jeremiah, I find him thundering against the same definition of religion in terms of ritual, and ceremony, and keeping of mandates and rules and regulations.  "For," cries Jeremiah,


I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: 

But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people: and walk ye in the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you.  

[Jeremiah 7:22-23] 


Or if I turn to the glorious prophet Micah; I suppose the most famous of all of the passages in the prophets is in Micah 6:6-8:


Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God?  Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? 

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Yea, shall I give my first-born for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

Though He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee –

genuflection, and incense burning, and litany, and the observance of ceremony, and ritual, and rule?  No –

What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" 

[Micah 6:6-8] 


The religion of hand washing; you can wash your hands forever, says the Lord, but this doesn’t suffice to the saving of the soul, or the washing away of our sins, or the changing of our lives.  It is not in these things that we are saved. 

Well, does the Lord mean by that, therefore, that ritual and ordinance has no place in the kingdom of God?  No; we have an ordinance of baptism, and the Lord commanded it and placed it in the heart of the Great Commission [Matthew 28:19-20].  And for us, dutifully, and reverently, devoutly, commitedly, prayerfully to be baptized, lowered with our Lord in the grave and raised with our Lord in the likeness of His incomparable resurrection [Romans 6:3-5] – for us to observe the ordinance of baptism is an obedience that is pleasing unto God.  The Lord gave us the commandment that we observe the memorial of the Lord’s Supper.  "For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till He come" [1 Corinthians 11:26].  And for us to gather in a holy fellowship and brotherhood, break bread together, drink of the fruit of the vine together, honors our Lord.  "This do until I come."  

There is a place for ritual, for ceremony, for ordinance in the household of God.  But the religion that saves is not confined or defined or limited by these ceremonies that we observe.  They are rituals, and that’s all.  They carry what ritual is able to carry.  They teach what ritual is able to teach.  Here, His burial and resurrection [Romans 6:3-5]; here His crucifixion, suffering, and the expiation of sin [Matthew 26:26-28; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26].  They are memorials, they are canonizations, but the truth lies in the soul and in the heart.  So the Lord avows, these things of eating with an unwashed hand is a matter of physical, anatomical metabolism.  But the heart, it is in the heart that a man is changed; it is in the soul that a man is saved.  It is in the confession and the commitment of the life before God that makes a man a child of hope [Romans 10:9-10].  

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were certain things we could do, and it would assure us of heaven?  Certain ordinances we could observe, and we’d see God’s face when we die?  But it’s not like that.  It is in life that we sin [Romans 3:23], and it takes life to rescue us from our sin [Romans 6:23].  Had we sin skin deep, a skin-deep remedy would have sufficed.  But we sin in our souls.  Out of the heart are the issues of life, and these are the things that defile the soul [Matthew 15:18].  And it’s in the heart that the decision is made for or against God [Romans 10:9-10].  And it is in the washing of our souls that the atonement of Jesus is efficacious, powerful unto our salvation [Titus 3:5-6].  Religion, true religion, is a matter of the heart [Galatians 5:22-23]. 

In this little moment we have left that we’re on the air, let me make an appeal.  Some of you listening on the radio, in your bedroom, in the living room, maybe driving along in a car; are you depending upon some ritual, or some ordinance, or some form for your salvation?  God says it is as webs, it is as fragile fabrications.  The foundation could never lie in the observance of all of the rituals, of all of the forms of religion in the world.  You must be saved in your heart.  Have you given your heart to Jesus?  Have you come to God with your sins?  Have you asked God to forgive your sins?  Do you bare your soul naked and open before Him who knows all about us?  Trust in Jesus as your Savior.  Do it now.  Do it now. 

Maybe somebody you, was baptized back there in the days of your childhood.  Are you depending just upon that for you to be saved?  Have you been converted?  Do you know the Lord?  Have you trusted Jesus as your Savior?  Do you take your sins to Him?  Do you?  Search your soul and your life.  "Lord, have I met Thee?  Not in a ritual, not in a form, not in a ceremony, but Lord, have I met Thee in my soul, and does Jesus live in my heart?"  Have you been saved?  Have you been born again?  Do you know God? 

As you probe and search your soul, as God shall look, and see, and answer from heaven, respond with your life.  "Lord, I don’t think I’ve ever been saved.  I belong to the church, I was baptized sometime, somewhere; but I don’t think I’ve ever been really saved."  Come to the Lord; come to Jesus.  "Preacher, tonight I want God to come into my life.  I want to have Jesus in all of the glorious fullness of His saving grace; and here I come."  We’ll kneel, we’ll pray together.  We’ll ask God to come into our lives.  Whatever the Spirit of Jesus shall lay upon your heart, come.  "I want to take my family, and we all want to put our lives here in this church".  Or one somebody you, responding to the appeal of the Spirit in your heart; however God shall say the word, shall open the word which shall lead, answer, "Here I am, preacher, and here I come.  I make it now." 

You can come down the stairwell on either side, into this aisle and down to the front.  As God shall make appeal to your heart, answer tonight.  On the first note of the first stanza, come; stand up coming.  "Here I am, preacher," coming for prayer, coming to seek God’s face, coming to give your life to the Lord, coming to put your life in the church, coming to be baptized, coming to accept Jesus as Savior.  However God shall say the word, make it now, make it now, while we stand and while we sing. 


Dr. W.
A. Criswell




I.          Scribes,
Pharisees challenge Jesus regardingtraditions of the elders(Matthew 15:1-2)

A.  Out of Babylonian
captivity came the cannon of Scripture, the synagogue

1.  Traditions
of the elders a reaction against Babylonian idolatry, immorality

B.  To
them, eating bread with unwashed hands was as though he had killed a man


II.         Jesus knows the best defense is a good
offense(Matthew 15:3)

A.  He confronts their
transgression against commandment of God

      1.  The leave
father and mother to die of want(Matthew 15:4-6)

B.  There are no
arguments that can stand in presence of God’s truth

C.  He calls them

D. They exalted
themselves and were empty of any true spiritual religion

      1.  Bank robbers
who murdered, then wouldn’t eat meat

E.  They were offended
at what He said

      1.  He answered,
standing on elective purpose of God


III.        Jesus’ sermon on
the religion of hand-washing(Matthew 15:15-20)

All religious observances reduced to mechanical standards or arrangements

B.  Cheap religion

It is in the heart God finds ultimate issues of life(Isaiah 11:11-12, Jeremiah 7:22-23, Micah 6:6-8)

C.  Jesus does not do away
with all outward observances(1 Corinthians