What does Matthew 15:11 mean?

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By BibleAsk Team


To delve into the meaning of the phrase “not what goes into the mouth defiles a man,” we must explore its context within the teachings of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament. This statement, found in Matthew 15:11 (NKJV), is part of a larger discourse where Jesus addresses the Pharisees and scribes regarding matters of purity and righteousness. To fully understand its significance, we’ll examine the broader passage, explore the cultural and religious context, discuss its theological implications, and draw practical applications for contemporary believers.

Context and Background – Matthew 15:11

1. Pharisaic Concerns with Ritual Purity:

The Pharisees were meticulous about observing the ceremonial laws of Judaism, including rituals related to handwashing and ritual restrictions (Mark 7:1-5). They believed that outward actions and adherence to these rituals were essential for maintaining spiritual purity.

2. Jesus’ Challenge to Pharisaic Traditions:

Jesus, however, challenged the Pharisaic emphasis on external rituals and purity laws. He emphasized the importance of inward purity of heart and genuine righteousness over mere adherence to outward rituals (Matthew 23:25-26).

Exposition of the Passage

1. Matthew 15:10-11:

In this passage, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ criticism of His disciples for not observing the ritual handwashing before eating. He declares, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11, NKJV).

2. Jesus’ Explanation:

Jesus contrasts external actions, such as eating with unwashed hands, with the internal condition of the heart. He teaches that true defilement does not come from external sources, such as food or drink, but from the sinful attitudes and intentions that originate within the heart (Matthew 15:17-20).

Cultural and Religious Context

1. Jewish Laws:

The Old Testament Law contained specific rituals and restrictions. However, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 15 challenged the Pharisaic interpretation and application of these laws, emphasizing the spiritual significance over the external observance.

2. Ritual Handwashing:

The Pharisees practiced ritual handwashing as a ceremonial purification rite before meals (Mark 7:3). While this tradition was not explicitly commanded in the Law, it had become a significant aspect of Jewish religious practice.

Is it OK to Eat Unclean Meats?

Some wrongly apply Matthew 15:11 to eating unclean meats. They claim: since Jesus said, “not what goes into the mouth defiles a man but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Matthew 15:11), therefore, it is OK to eat unclean meats.

But the subject in Matthew 15:1-20 is eating without first washing the hands (verse 2). The focus, here is not on eating, but on washing rituals. The scribes taught that eating any food without a special ceremonial washing defiled the eater. So, Jesus responded that the ceremonial washings were meaningless as far as cleansing the heart from evil. And in verse 19, Jesus listed certain evils–murders, adulteries, thefts, etc. Then, He concluded, “These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man” (verse 20).

As for the clean and unclean meats, the Bible has plenty of evidence that there were clean and unclean animals from the very beginning of time. Noah lived long before any Jews existed, but he knew of the clean and unclean, because he took into the ark the clean animals by “sevens” and the unclean by “twos” (Genesis 7:1, 2). And after the flood, Noah’s sacrifice of clean animals (Genesis 8:20) showed that he understood the difference between clean and unclean.

In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, God very clearly pointed out the clean and unclean animals. For more information, check the following link: What are the unclean animals?

The death of Christ did not change or alter the health laws that were given in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Revelation 18:2 refers to some birds as being unclean just before the second coming of Christ. Further, the Jew’s stomach and digestive system in no way differs from that of a Gentile in the New Testament. These health laws are for all people for all time.

Theological Implications

1. Heart Condition Matters Most:

Jesus’ teaching underscores the primacy of inner purity and righteousness before God. He emphasizes that true defilement stems from sinful attitudes and actions that arise from the heart, rather than external observances or dietary regulations.

2. Grace and Mercy Over Legalism:

Jesus’ message challenges legalistic interpretations of religious laws and traditions. He emphasizes the importance of grace, mercy, and the transformation of the heart through faith in Him, rather than rigid adherence to external rituals.

Practical Applications

1. Focus on Life Transformation:

Believers are called to prioritize inner purity and righteousness by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their hearts and minds according to the teachings of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:2).

2. Avoiding Hypocrisy:

Christians should guard against hypocrisy by ensuring that their outward actions align with the genuine condition of their hearts. This requires humility, self-examination, and reliance on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit.

3. Liberation from Man-Made Traditions:

Jesus’ teaching offers liberation from the burden of man-made traditions. Believers are called to embrace the freedom found in Christ and live out their faith with sincerity and authenticity.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the statement “not what goes into the mouth defiles a man” encapsulates Jesus’ profound teaching on the primacy of inner purity and righteousness over external rituals of washings. It challenges legalistic interpretations of religious laws and man-made traditions and underscores the importance of heart transformation through faith in Christ.

Some wrongly use Matthew 15:11 to support their eating unclean meats but the focus in that verse is on washing rituals not on eating. As believers seek to apply this teaching in their lives, they are called to prioritize inner purity, guard against hypocrisy, and embrace the truths found in Christ’s grace and mercy.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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