Cleanliness is not Next to Godliness

Bible Book: Luke  11 : 37-41
Subject: Purity; Cleanliness
Series: What The Bible Really Says

I readily confess to you all that I am a member of the slob tribe. The slob tribe consists of all those people in the world who are absolutely comfortable in their clutter. We don’t mind the mess, and even if you clean it up, someone from the slob tribe will see to it that it is disorganized and dirty before you can put away the Pine Sol. Our patron saint is Charlie Brown’s friend, “Pig Pen”, and we are the reason mother’s carry hand sanitizer around in their purse. Because I am a card-carrying member of the slob tribe, it is with great pleasure that I dispel this particular myth. The Bible does not say that cleanliness is next to godliness. In fact, in Luke chapter 11, we read about an encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day in which our Lord disregarded a particular cleansing ritual. Luke tells us that Jesus sat down to a meal with one of the Pharisees, and verse 38 says, “And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that [Jesus] had not first washed before dinner.”

The Lord Jesus used this particular instance to confront the Pharisees about the hypocrisy of being outwardly clean but inwardly corrupt.

What we have in the text before us is a strong warning about the danger of thinking that what you do is more important to God than who you are. This passage reminds us that while man’s religion seeks to conform people on the outside, the gospel calls men to be transformed on the inside. What Jesus said to the Pharisees of that day was truly insightful, and it has implications for us today. Notice what we learn from the words of our Lord in this text. First of all, we see that:


As you read through the gospels, it is not long until you figure out that Jesus was not exactly popular with the religious leaders of the day. Rather than cowering to them, and seeking their approval, Jesus confronted them, and sought to expose the hypocrisy of their religion. Jesus defied all their traditions and restrictions, but not as an act of rebellion. His defiance was a revelation about the truth of God and the gospel.

Notice with me the religion Jesus defied in this text. First of all, note:

A. The focus of this religion

What surprised the Pharisee in our text was not our Lord’s hygiene, but rather His refusal to obey a set of ritual cleansings that the Pharisees strictly observed. Every Pharisee would go through a particular pattern of washing their hands before every meal, and even in between courses. These precise cleansing rituals were not so much for sanitary reasons, as they were for spiritual ones. You see; the Pharisees where terrified of being defiled by a Gentile, or an unclean meat, or anything else forbidden by the Old Testament Laws. They added all these ritual cleansings on top of the Law as necessary in order to make sure you were religiously clean. They felt that people who did not observe them were obviously not as holy as themselves.

When Jesus saw that the Pharisee was shocked by His refusal to carry out these rituals, notice what He says in verse 39. He looked at the man and said, “Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.”

In other words, Jesus defied the fact that all the Pharisees were focused on was the outside – the external things. So long as they remained clean on the outside, they felt like they were accepted by God. They cared only about the rituals; not about what was truly right. Unfortunately, there are still people today who think that because they are externally and outwardly good, God must surely approve of them and accept them. They are up-standing, sober, clean-living, tax-paying citizens. They don’t swear, spit, or steal, and they are sure God is pleased with all their glowing goodness. They are very much like the Pharisees Jesus offended in this text.

Notice something further about the religion Jesus defied in this passage. Notice not only the focus of this religion, but consider also:

B. The failure of this religion

Pay attention to the analogy Jesus uses in this text. He says, “Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter…”

Jesus compares the Pharisee’s obsession with ritual cleansing to someone who worries about washing only the outside of a cup or a bowl. It is not that the outside does not need to be clean, but it is by no means the most important part to be cleaned.

Do you see the point Jesus is making? Being pure in your habits is commendable, but you have failed if you are not also pure in your heart.

In Psalm 51:6, David confesses to God saying, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts…” In other words, God is not interested simply in right actions. God desires right affections.

Religion may adjust a man’s habits, and cause him to keep a set of rules or rituals. That, however, is like washing the outside of a dirty cup, and thinking it is fit to drink from. It is a failure to deal with the most important part, and Jesus defies the religion that misses that critical point.

I remember distinctly, the day we brought our son home from the hospital, we found termites poking their ugly heads out of one of our walls. When I saw that, I did not merely buy some spackle and paint, and try to cover over the holes they had made. That would have hidden the damage, but it would not have fixed the problem. I called an exterminator to come and deal with the problem inside the wall before I even worried about fixing the damage on the outside of the wall.

In many ways that is the same reasoning behind the Lord’s defiance of the superficial religion of the Pharisees in our text.

Notice a second truth we observe in this passage. We see not only that there is a religion that Jesus defies, but notice also that in this text:


If this Pharisee thought it was surprising that Jesus did not wash His hands, he must have been absolutely stunned by what Jesus said to him.

Look again at verse 39, and mark the boldness of what the Lord Jesus said to this religious man. Verse 39 says, “And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.”

Jesus not only took a shot at their superficial rituals, He also made a pointed statement about the condition of their hearts. Jesus not only saw through the vanity of their outward religion, but with His sovereign sight, He was able to discern the very state of their soul. This is an important truth for us to grasp about the Lord Jesus, and how He views you and me. Think with me about:

A. Where Jesus sees

Even if we think we know what is going on in someone else’s heart, we can never be truly certain. We can make judgments and assumptions, but all we really have to go on are the outward actions that we see from a person. This is not the case, however, with the Lord Jesus. When He said of the Pharisees, “…your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness,” He was speaking of what He saw clearly inside the hearts of those men.

I hope you understand that no matter how good you are at disguising what is really going on in your heart, you have never, ever deceived the Lord Jesus. He sees with absolute clarity into the deepest recesses of your mind. He knows what is going on in your heart, regardless of how proper and pure you may appear on the outside.

Jesus said in verse 40, “Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also?” The same God who fashioned the nose on your face also formed the heart in your chest, and the soul in your body.

In I Samuel 16:7, God spoke to the Prophet Samuel and said, “…the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.”

In 2001, President Bush got some criticism for something he said regarding his meeting with the Russian president. Bush said that he had looked him in the eye, and was able, “to get a sense of his soul.” Jesus doesn’t have to look us in the eye to see our souls. That is where He is able to see us with clarity. He sees into our souls. As we consider the reality that Jesus was able to discern in this text, consider with me not only where Jesus sees, but also:

B. What Jesus sees

Jesus looked into the “inward part” of the Pharisees, and there He saw that they were “full of ravening and wickedness.”

Those two words, “ravening and wickedness” speak of greed and malicious evil. Though these men were strictly clean on the outside, they were sinfully corrupt on the inside.

Now, we need to understand that these men were the most respected, most religious men of their day. People looked up to them as examples and leaders in the community. Yet our Lord looked into their hearts and saw, as one writer put it, that they were “as black as hell”[i] Lest we be too hard on these Pharisees, the reality is that the condition of their heart is the natural condition of our heart as well.

Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Ecclesiastes 8:11 says, “…the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.”

What Jesus saw in the heart of these Pharisees, is what He has seen in the hearts of every single human being that has ever lived. The reality that there is something wrong with our hearts! We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners. It is what is inside of us. Religion may seek to treat the symptoms, but Jesus diagnosis the disease. He discerns the reality of our hearts.

Perhaps you have seen the commercials that show what appears to be a totally healthy person. The commercial gives their weight, and how much they exercise. Then it reveals how high their cholesterol is. The point of the advertisement is that you cannot tell the true health of a person’s heart simply by looking at them.

The same is true spiritually. A person may dress up the outside in the robes of religion, but that will not change the sinful condition of the heart, and that is what Jesus sees.

That leads me to the third truth we draw from this passage. In it, we see not only that there is a religion that Jesus defies, and there is a reality that Jesus discerns, but notice also lastly that:


John 3:17 says, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

Even though Jesus was painfully honest about what He saw inside the hearts of these men, He did it so that He might point them to the truth that could genuinely change them from the inside out.

Likewise, for us, the bad news is that our hearts are sinful. No amount of external religious cleanliness can ever produce a genuine internal godliness. However, in the response that Jesus called for from the Pharisees in this text, we are pointed to the hope Jesus gives us of a genuine change within us.

Look at our text, and notice with me:

A. The part you must give to God

Look with me now at verse 41. Jesus says, “But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you.”

This is a difficult verse to translate, because in the original language, Luke uses a unique phrase. I think the ESV is helpful here. In it, verse 41 reads this way: “But give as alms those things that are within…”

Jesus has been talking about what is on the inside as opposed to what is on the outside. The Pharisees offered to God all the external religious rituals they were careful to keep. Jesus urges them to offer to God something from the inside rather than the outside. In other words, the response Jesus calls for is to give your heart to God. That is what the gospel calls for from those who would receive it. Now obviously, to do this, you have to confess to God the condition of your heart. In giving it to Him, you are opening yourself up to Him, and allowing Him to deal with you on the inside.

In Ezekiel 36:26, we find an important promise that relates to the New Testament, and to the work of the Lord Jesus. There God promises His people, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.”

This is the work of salvation! When we place our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, and we open our hearts to Him, His Spirit comes to live in us, and He changes us from the inside out! In this text, Jesus says, “Quit trying to clean up the outside before you have given the inside over to God, and allowed Him to do in you what only His grace and power are capable of doing.”

Friend, God doesn’t want all your religious efforts, and good works. He wants you to give your heart and life to Him, and let Him do for you what you can never do for yourself. That is part you must give to God, but notice also that Jesus points us to:

B. The peace you can get from God

Jesus says in verse 40, that if you will simply give God the heart within you, and let Him do His work with it, suddenly, “…behold, all things are clean unto you.”

The Pharisees were constantly washing, fearing defilement and pollution from the world around them. They wanted to try to stay clean on the outside. Jesus told them that if they would let God cleanse them on the inside, they would not have to be so worried about the outside. In much the same way, when you give your heart to Christ, and you let Him change you on the inside, you will no longer have to work so hard to keep up the outside. When you know you are accepted by God because of Jesus Christ, you don’t constantly have to try to please Him and appease Him with your good works.

Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The peace of God brings a liberty to life that suddenly cleanses our conduct in a way that all the religion in the world could never do.

One of my favorite hymns is Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be That I Should Gain”, written in 1739. The fourth verse says this:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

That is the hope offered to us in the gospel. Our hearts can be free! Free from sin, and free from the struggle of trying to please God through our own good works.

Jesus did not say that it was wrong for the Pharisees to cleanse their hands. For all of you neat freaks out there, He does not condemn their cleanliness. What Jesus confronts in this text is the notion that being religiously clean on the outside - doing all the right things externally - is all that is necessary for a person to be godly.

The truth is; cleanliness may not be next to godliness. A person may be squeaky clean on the outside, and sinfully corrupt on the inside. What all of us need is to open our hearts up to Jesus, trusting in His righteousness instead of our own, and allow the cleansing power of His blood to make us truly clean from the inside out.

[i] Barclay, William, The Daily Bible Study Series: The Gospel of Luke, (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1975), p. 156

(Sermon from - Dr. Terry Trivette)