The Pharisees' Leaven

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 16:1-12

What sort of warning do you think Jesus would give to the contemporary church? In a cryptic comment about the conduct of his enemies, Jesus told his followers to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Within that ancient figure of speech lies an important warning for us today.

“We want to see a sign from you; show us a sign from heaven.” For the second time in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ critics, the Pharisees and Sadducees, come to him and ask him to validate his credentials by performing some sort of supernatural act. These two groups – Pharisees and Sadducees – actually had very little in common. The Pharisees were the folks who took the Law of God with utmost seriousness. They were the Bible-believers, in other words. The Sadducees controlled the Temple and represented the more liberal elite of Jerusalem society.

But these two parties from opposite ends of the religious and social spectrums were united in their hostility toward Jesus, which is why we so often see them operating together in the gospels. What they were requesting was some proof that Jesus really did come from God. By “sign” they meant something more than an ordinary miracle, as if there is such a thing as an ordinary miracle. But what they wanted was for Jesus to engineer some direct intervention from heaven, something so spectacular as to be unmistakably divine. Jesus’ critics were saying then what they are still saying today: “If you want us to accept you, then prove to us beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are God.”

But it wasn’t an honest request. Even if Jesus could have complied with their demand to their satisfaction, the Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t really seriously seeking the truth. Matthew says that they asked this to test him (Matthew 16:1). Literally, the word there means “to tempt him.” It’s the same word used in chapter 4 to describe Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. Presumably, what Jesus’ enemies asked for was some sign that they were convinced he wouldn’t be able to produce. That left only two alternatives. Jesus could refuse their demand, or he could try to produce a sign and fail; either way, Jesus is discredited.

The Ultimate Sign

But Jesus has a third option. He does refuse to give a sign on command, just as he earlier had told Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” when the devil had urged him to jump off the Temple and float to the ground in front of the crowd (Matthew 4:7). On this occasion in Matthew 16 Jesus responds exactly as he did previously to the same demand in Matthew 12: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” he declares, “but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (v. 4). Those are strong words. Jesus calls his opponents “an evil and adulterous generation,” language that recalls the biblical prophets’ denunciation of Old Testament Israel.

In spiritual terms, adultery means idolatry. It’s funny, isn’t it? We tend to think that displaying supernatural signs is very spiritual, in fact, super-spiritual. Churches that promise miracles in every service, and televise them, are packed to overflowing. But Jesus refuses to engage in spiritual showmanship. He won’t stage a spectacular supernatural extravaganza in order to impress his audience.

So Jesus refuses to perform a miracle on demand. But he does go on to offer a single sign to all the world that will testify to his divine nature and mission. It is the greatest sign of all – the sign of Jonah. You remember the story of Jonah and the whale. What was the sign of Jonah? It was to be buried for three days and nights, as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, and then to be raised up again by the mighty power of God. In Jonah’s case, his death and resurrection were figurative, but for Jesus they would be as real as real could be. Bible scholar Dale Bruner has a fine comment on this sign of Jonah.

The resurrection of the . . . crucified Jesus will be God’s one great sensation, God’s single authorized sign, delivered once and for all. . . . After Jesus’ holy week, God is not in show business. . . . God will do one impressive thing in the world, not to please the sensationalist but to show human beings his approval of his Son: he will raise the executed Jesus from the dead.

(F. Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 1, p.575)

This is the one clear proof, for those with the faith to accept it, that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, that his words are true, that he is to be worshiped and proclaimed as Lord of all. God has raised Jesus from the dead. It’s the ultimate sign. If you believe this, you need no other proof. If you reject it, then nothing will be enough to convince you.

A Warning

Following this encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus once again travels with his disciples across the Sea of Galilee, where another little incident allows him to reinforce the message he has just delivered to the Pharisees and Sadducees. We read:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:5-12

There’s the little anecdote that Matthew relates. Once again, and typically, Jesus’ disciples have messed up. They have forgotten to bring bread along, they’ve made no provisions for the journey and now they have no food. When Jesus begins to speak to them about the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, they think he is scolding them for their mistake. But that’s not what Jesus means. Have they forgotten the miraculous feedings they themselves have just experienced? Why in the world are they worried about food when Jesus is with them!

So he isn’t talking about literal bread, he’s giving the disciples a warning. “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” he tells them. It’s a metaphor, an image, a figurative expression. Oh, at last they think, he means their teaching. Finally they get it. Jesus wants his followers – and by that surely he includes us – to avoid the mistaken attitudes and beliefs of these groups of his enemies.

So what is the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”? What sort of teaching is Jesus warning us against? As I noted earlier, those two parties represented the two extremes of the religious spectrum. Both the very conservative, biblical literalists (the Pharisees) and the liberal, accommodate-with-the-culture Sadducees are to be avoided in favor of a more balanced approach. Perhaps there is something to that. Certainly both conservatives and liberals – whether it’s in religion, society or in politics – do have things to teach each other. And truth is generally to be found in combining the good ideas and eliminating the bad ones from opposite points of view. But when read in context, I think what Jesus means by his warning about watching out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees is far more specific than just a general reminder to avoid extremes.

Remember what prompted this whole incident. It was the Jewish leaders’ demand for a spectacular sign. They wanted Jesus to do something sensational to prove himself. His preaching and teaching, his deeds of love and mercy – even the miraculous ones – weren’t enough for them. Even the resurrection would not do. They wanted more.

But Jesus refused, because spiritual sensationalism is a form of adultery, of unfaithfulness, idolatry. In fact, he did more than just refuse. Matthew says that he “left them and departed” (v. 4). If you want to be near Jesus, and more importantly if you want him to stay near you, don’t put him to the test.

Let me be frank. At Words of Hope we have a policy of never publicly criticizing other religions. But when need be, we can be critical of our own religion. And there is much sensationalist teaching sweeping through churches today everywhere around the world. Preachers boast of performing signs and wonders, and people demand to see and experience them. The so-called prosperity gospel promises a miracle to everyone – health, money, jobs, success. Folks are even made to think that if they don’t receive some kind of spectacular sign they must not be true believers or genuinely spiritual.

But God is not in the business of giving miracles on demand, and anyone who says or implies otherwise is dealing in the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Like yeast working in the dough, a little false teaching can have a big effect. Doctrine matters; how often today don’t we hear it dismissed as irrelevant and disparaged, even in the church?
Theology matters; how much attention are we paying to it? Good biblical teaching is crucial to the health of the church and the well-being of Christians; and bad biblical teaching is destructive of both. I wonder if we have been ignoring that truth for too long.

Here’s the bottom line. Listen to Jesus again. The only God-given sign we have or need is Jesus himself, Jesus only, the crucified and risen Lord. Christ alone is the gospel watchword. If that’s not enough for you to go on, maybe you should reexamine what you’ve been taught.