Leaven of the Pharisees & Sadducees

Posted: August 6, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 16:1-12, “Leaven of the Pharisees & Sadducees”

Last week brought frightening news from Uganda as the dreaded Ebola virus broke out in the country.  Thankfully, the news media reports that the virus has been contained, though 16 people have died and 176 were infected.  A nightmarish disease, one of the major problems of Ebola is how quickly & easily it spreads, usually in areas with poor sanitary conditions.

Any disease that can spread is dangerous – be it physical or theological.  The Pharisees & Sadducees had their own theological disease which Jesus labeled as leaven (yeast), and there was a danger it might spread to His disciples, so He gave a warning about it which was promptly misunderstood.

The context here is very important, and one that Jesus Himself addresses.  Over the last several chapters (likely weeks or even months in the chronology of Matthew), there has been a flurry of supernatural activity.  People have been healed, multitudes have been miraculously fed, Jesus & Peter have walked on water, demoniacs have been cleansed, amputees have been given limbs, and all sort of activity has gone on among Jews & Gentiles alike.  After the latest miracles among the Gentiles, Jesus is approached by the Pharisees & Sadducees who attempt to test Him.  Perhaps they were upset that the Messiah of Israel was ministering to the Gentile masses – perhaps they were just upset at Jesus in general…either way, they came to test Jesus & demand signs of Him.  Jesus responds, refusing to bend to their tests, and in the process He warns His disciples not to give into the false teaching.  God is the one with the authority; not man.  That’s something we either accept by faith, or we don’t.  Jesus had already demonstrated Himself to be God; that was something the disciples needed to be careful to remember.

Matthew 16:1–12 (NKJV)
1 Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven.

  1. First item of note: the Pharisees & Sadducees were working together.  This didn’t happen very often!  They were very different, theologically speaking.  The Pharisees (for all of their legalism) were much more theologically similar to Jesus than to the Sadducees.  The Sadducees were much more of the political class of theologians, who mainly comprised the priests.  They compromised much with the Romans in order to keep their place, and they didn’t hold to much to begin with.  They didn’t believe in the future resurrection, they didn’t believe in miracles, they didn’t affirm much of the Old Testament as valid, and more. (Very similar to much liberal theology today!)  On a normal basis, the Pharisees & Sadducees would be arguing against each other.  Paul actually used this to his advantage when he was arrested in Jerusalem.  He was on trial before the Sanhedrin council & when he saw that there were a mix of Sadducees & Pharisees, he said (correctly) that he was on trial for believing in the resurrection (Acts 23:6).  (He WAS on trial for the resurrection: Jesus’ resurrection!)  The Pharisees, on the other hand believed in the standard doctrines of the Old Testament.  They studied the Scriptures fervently and had a deep respect for the law and holiness of God.  Of course, the problem with the Pharisees was their legalism and hypocrisy.  They loved the law so much that they added to it immensely through their traditions and rituals.  In addition, they set themselves up as the experts, judging all those who got it wrong. … Apart from both groups believing in the God of Israel, and having authority among the people, there was very little they had in common!  The last time Matthew showed them together was way back during John the Baptist’s ministry, as they came to question him (Mt 3:7).  Now months (years?) later, Jesus has attracted so much attention, they join forces to test Jesus.  As it’s been often said, “the enemy of the enemy is my friend.”  They may have hated each other, but they were each threatened by Jesus more.  So they tried to put their heads together to discredit Him.
    1. The really sad thing is that Jesus was not their enemy; He was their God come to save them.  They were just too hard-hearted and prideful to look to Jesus for their salvation.  They were in His presence, but they never listened to Him.  They saw His miracles, but they didn’t care.  They didn’t want the salvation of God because (in part) they didn’t think they needed to be saved.
    2. Too many people today are in the same situation.  They don’t want Jesus because they don’t think they need to be saved.  Some don’t believe they’ve sinned (self-righteous) – some don’t believe God cares about their sin (because they can take care of it themselves) – some don’t believe in God at all (despite the evidence of the universe around us).  The reality is that everyone needs to be saved.  The person who is fast asleep in a burning house may be personally at peace, but is in a great amount of danger, no matter what they believe.  Those who are fine with their rejection of Jesus are fast-asleep in a burning house & they just don’t realize it.
  2. Second item of note: they came to test Jesus.  They hadn’t come to listen or to observe; they came with an agenda.  In their minds, THEY were the authority.  Keep in mind that they were standing before Almighty God, the 2nd Person of the Trinity.  At the moment, He was serving in His humility, but He would later be given all authority in heaven and on earth.  And the Pharisees & Sadducees are testing HIM. (!)  They had made up their minds about Jesus, and had set out to discredit Him.  Because their minds are made up, they miss out on everything Jesus has to offer.  They had the attention of the Son of God – they could have asked Him anything.  And what did they do?  Test Him.
  3. Specifically, they asked Jesus to “show them a sign from heaven.”  This would be downright hysterical if it wasn’t so pathetic.  Just going back to Chapter 14, we’ve seen Jesus heal multitudes, feed 5000+ with 5 loaves & 2 fish, walk on water & call Peter to do the same, go to Tyre & Sidon & heal a girl with His word, come back to Galilee to heal MORE multitudes, and feed 4000+ with 7 loaves & a few fish.  The signs Jesus had given were abundant!
    1. Some scholars think that they were actually asking Jesus to show them a sign IN the heavens.  They seemingly tried to raise the possibility that the miracles Jesus did could be counterfeit by Satan.  So this time, they’re asking Jesus to do something like stop the sun in the sky (per Joshua’s long day), or call rain/drought in the weather (per Elijah).
  4. It’s interesting that this is actually the 2nd time the Pharisees asked this of Jesus (though it’s the 1st time along with the Sadducees).  Earlier, after Jesus had healed a demoniac (freeing him from the demon & giving him sight & speech again), the Pharisees had tried to accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan.  After that didn’t work (with Jesus turning around the accusation back on them, warning them of committing the unpardonable sin), the Pharisees asked Jesus to show them a sign (Mt 12:38).  Jesus never stopped showing signs of His authority, yet nothing that Jesus did was enough for the Pharisees & they kept asking for more.
    1. For some people, it will never be enough.  No matter what Jesus does – no matter what miracles are performed, it will never be enough for them to accept the authority of God.  Even the resurrection (which is the only sign Jesus says He’ll give, and is authoritative) is not enough for some people.  At the end of the day, people will either surrender themselves to Jesus in faith, or they won’t.  Once God has fully revealed Jesus Christ to you, at some point you have to exercise your free will to respond to Jesus as Lord.  Lack of evidence is not the problem; ongoing willful rebellion is.

2 He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; 3 and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.

  1. This may seem a bit unusual of a response at first, but really it’s just Jesus calling them out on all of their hypocritical pretenses.  The Pharisees & Sadducees were attempting to hide behind the cover of religious piety in their questioning of Jesus, and it was a ridiculous attempt.  They claimed they wanted a sign (beyond everything else Jesus had already done).  They didn’t want a sign; they wanted submission.  Although Jesus had provided more than enough proof that He is indeed the Messiah (to whom they owed their allegiance & worship), they wanted Jesus to perform the miracles THEY believed were acceptable & authoritative.  (As if what Jesus had done wasn’t already enough.)
  2. That’s Jesus’ point in His response.  They could understand the signs of the weather, but they couldn’t understand the signs of the Messiah.  They could interpret weather patterns, but the pre-eminent theologians of Judea couldn’t interpret prophecy.  They could recognize coming rain, but they couldn’t recognize the Creator God standing right before their eyes.  Like a person who’s so happy to find a dollar bill in the street, he doesn’t look up to see the truck bearing down on him – the knowledge of what he saw was useless.  What he DIDN’T see was far more important!
  3. Again, this was sheer hypocrisy on the part of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  They would have claimed to have such concern for the Jewish people.  They would have claimed to revere the words of Scripture, and to truly worship God.  Yet they didn’t perceive God standing right in front of them. … 
  4. Worse yet, they were demanding that the Son of God bow to their own demands and perceptions.  If Jesus didn’t perform according to their standards, then they wouldn’t acknowledge Him as the King. …

4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed.

  1. This is when Jesus actually answers the request of the Pharisees & Sadducees, and He gives them exactly the same answer as He did back in Ch 12.  [Matthew 12:39-42] Earlier, Jesus went into far more detail.  Now, He simply reminds them of what He said before.  Basically telling them, “My answer hasn’t changed; stop asking the question.”
  2. What is the “sign”?  The resurrection.  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish, so would Jesus be in the heart of the earth.  By all respects, Jonah was as good as dead when he was swallowed by the fish – surely that was exactly the thought of the sailors when they saw him go down.  Even if the sailors never saw the fish, just casting someone overboard was a death sentence – it was leaving them to drown.  They had no hopes of seeing Jonah again alive.  The crucial difference between Jonah & Jesus is that Jonah was as good as dead; Jesus was truly dead.  Jonah was hidden away for three days, safe (if not a bit smelly); Jesus truly died upon the cross, which was certified by the Roman centurion.  He was laid in a tomb, trapped inside by a massive boulder, sealed with the seal of the Roman empire, with a guard on the outside.  Yet when the stone was rolled away, Jesus had already risen.  Jesus WAS dead, and NOW is alive.  That’s the ultimate sign of the Son of God.  If no other miracle would speak to the authority of God, the resurrection is the ultimate and final proof of Jesus’ identity.  Romans 1:1–4, "(1) Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God (2) which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, (3) concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, (4) and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead." []
    1. Even today, the resurrection is all the proof that we need to know and believe that Jesus is God.  If Jesus isn’t risen from the dead, then all of our faith is in vain.  Yet if Jesus is truly & historically risen from the dead, then there’s no other proof that is necessary.  It’s the ultimate declaration of God.  Sometimes we forget this.  We get caught up in important, but sometimes distracting, debates.  Creation – morality – philosophy…all these things are important, but none of those things are the crucial matter that is the resurrection.  The resurrection establishes Jesus as the Son of God, undeniably so.  Once we understand & believe that the resurrection is true, then all these other areas get sorted out over time.
    2. Make no mistake about it: the resurrection IS true.  The Bible accurately records the events – the eyewitnesses (both for Jesus & against Jesus) confirm the events – the Bible even predicted the minute details of the events centuries before it was even possible.  There’s more legal/historical proof for the validity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than for all ancient historical accounts combined.  This is a solid fact upon which our faith can easily rest.
  3. The Pharisees & Sadducees may have come to Jesus, but Jesus left them.  Some of the saddest events in the Bible occur when God turns away, or gives someone over to their own sin & delusion – and that’s exactly what happens here.  Jesus does not turn away from those who come to Him in faith, but that’s not what the Pharisees & Sadducees did.  They came to test the Messiah & force Him to bow to their demands; Jesus plays no part in that game.  HE is God; we’re not.  Thus He turns away & leaves them. …

5 Now when His disciples had come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. 6 Then Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”

  1. What seems to be a straightforward statement actually causes quite a bit of confusion for the disciples (which we’ll see in a moment).  But what Jesus is doing here is completely natural.  He wasn’t chastising the disciples for failing to go to the grocery store or pack properly; Jesus was just using the events of the conversation to move to a teaching moment.  Bread is made with yeast/leaven, so when the disciples discovered they didn’t have any bread, it’s like Jesus said, “Oh, and by the way – while you’re talking about bread, beware of the yeast that the Pharisees and Sadducees offer.”
  2. What’s wrong with yeast/leaven?  It spreads.  Leaven was typically used in the Bible as a picture of sin, being that it spreads and grows so easily.  What can start off small can infect a lot of people, and have big results.  Occasionally, that can be good (as with the Kingdom of God – Mt 13:33), but other times that can be bad.  The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees was something to be wary of…it was something that was in danger of spreading to the disciples, if they were not careful.

7 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have taken no bread.”

  1. The disciples missed the point (again).  The first thing they did when hearing Jesus was to jump to conclusions and turn the attention to themselves.  Jesus was trying to teach them something, and instead of actually listening to Him, they looked to themselves to see about solving a problem about which Jesus wasn’t even concerned.
  2. Note: they weren’t even listening to Jesus’ words.  There was no chastisement here.  There was no concern even for bread; Jesus specifically spoke about “leaven.”  Leaven is what you use when you want to MAKE bread; not when you’re looking to make a sandwich.
  3. Isn’t this the way it is with us so often?  We’re obsessed with ourselves, we jump to conclusions, and we miss out on what the Holy Spirit is actually saying to us through the Scripture.  We might read “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer & supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God…” (Phil 4:6), but while we’re so worried about our problems we keep saying we’ll pray, and we never actually get around to it. (We’ll keep telling others about it, and never God!)  Or people will read, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” (Phil 4:13) and jump to the conclusion that God will let us do whatever we want to do (make millions, jump off a roof, etc.) because of our relationship in Christ – and we miss what the Scripture is actually saying about how Jesus empowered Paul to walk through suffering. … Pay attention to what God actually says

8 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you have brought no bread?

  1. O you of little faith…”  That must have stung a bit!  Peter had little faith when walking on the water – the Canaanite woman had great faith when asking for her daughter’s healing – and now the disciples demonstrate little faith again when listening to Jesus.
    1. That’s not to say they had NO faith; they had a little.  A little is better than none & God can do much with little things.  That said, the disciples ought to have been maturing in their faith.  They were around Jesus 24/7.  Instead of taking the opportunity to trust Him more, they seemed to be trusting themselves more to solve their own problems.
  2. Jesus calls them out on the issue: it’s not about you.  Who cares if they hadn’t brought enough bread (one loaf, according to Mark 8:14)?  They were with the Creator God, and bread wasn’t a problem for Him!  Instead of looking to themselves, they ought to have been listening to Jesus & looking to Him.

9 Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? 10 Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up?

  1. Jesus did these massive miracles right before their eyes, and they still didn’t understand what it meant to be a servant of the Creator God.  They were the ones who had seen with their own eyes, how Jesus turned tiny portions of food into massive amounts, able to feed multitudes of people to the stuffing point.  They were the ones who had gathered up the leftovers with their own hands.  Each basket they brought back to Jesus was monumentally bigger than what they had originally brought to Him.  Other people perhaps could be excused for not understanding, but not the disciples!  They had seen with their own eyes; they ought to have known better.
  2. If the disciples didn’t understand the lesson from these major miracles from Jesus, how would they understand anything else? 

11 How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

  1. Jesus spells it out for them here: it not bread; it’s leaven…and specifically, it’s the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  The problem was never physical; it was always theological.  Jesus amply demonstrated His authority and power over the physical.  If Jesus wanted bread, He could turn to any rock & make it – or even make it appear out of thin air.  No…Jesus specifically connected this leaven with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The things that the Pharisees & Sadducees did were the things that the disciples were to beware.
  2. Finally, they get it.  See vs. 12…

12 Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

  1. Not physical, “the leaven of bread”; spiritual, “the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Interestingly enough, the disciples did not understand Jesus to be warning them away from sinful action, but from sinful teaching.  Again, leaven was often a picture for sin, but typically we think of sin as being actions – the things we do.  In this case, the sin in question was doctrine; the things that the Pharisees & Sadducees taught.  Their teaching was infectious, and their doctrine could spread among the disciples if they weren’t careful, so Jesus was telling them to beware.
  2. The million-dollar question: “What was the doctrine of the Pharisees & Sadducees?”  There are all sorts of things we could look to: the legalism of the Pharisees – the compromising liberal theology of the Sadducees – the hypocrisy of them both, etc.  But to get at what Jesus is referring to here, we need to keep our context in mind.  Jesus taught this to the disciples in direct response to what the Pharisees & Sadducees did when they demanded a sign from Jesus.  They looked past Jesus and set themselves up as the authority, rather than recognizing the authority of God, as proclaimed in the Scriptures.  DA Carson writes that it “is an attitude of unbelief toward divine revelation that could not perceive Jesus to be the Messiah (vv. 1–4) but that tried to control and tame the Messiah they claimed to await.”  THIS is a dangerous teaching…beware of this kind of leaven/doctrine!
    1. People take on the doctrine of the P&S when we subject God to our own tests. “God, I’ll believe in Jesus if You just do ___.”  We ask for just one more healing, or one more miracle, or one more interaction of God in our lives.  Of course the problem is that we don’t recognize the myriad of things God has already done for us – we just want this “one more” to meet our specific situation that we’re testing.  To be sure, there are occasions in the Scriptures when God met a test (Gideon being the classic example) – but those are the exceptions; not the rule.  The only test needed is the resurrection & Jesus has already given that.  At that point, He already proved Himself to be God, and thus not subject to our tests.
    2. People take on the doctrine of the P&S when we demand that God meet our expectations.  This is more than merely testing God; this is setting ourselves up as the authority.  WE decide which aspects of God we like & which we don’t.  WE decide which Scriptures are valid & which are not. “I can’t believe in a God who would ______.”  Be careful!  Who are we to dictate unto God what He can or cannot do?  God is the one who graciously reveals Himself to us; we are to look at what He HAS revealed.
      1. BTW – Christians can fall into this same error.  Some Christians act like they can take a big black marker & run it through the sections of Scripture they don’t like.  Sometimes it’s regarding actions the Bible specifically labels as sin…sometimes it’s regarding the compassion the Bible tells us to express to the widow & orphan & downtrodden, etc.  Remember that God is the authority; not us.
    3. Christians take on the doctrine of the P&S when we hypocritically focus upon minor matters when missing the main point of the gospel.  As Jesus told the group earlier, they could discern the weather patterns, but not the work of God.  It’s so easy to get caught up in debates and distractions over minor things.  Christians will go to verbal wars against each other for non-essential doctrines, and miss out on showing the love of Christ to each other.  Or we’ll look at the symptoms of sin & try to change someone’s behavior, without dealing with the cause of sin & bringing that person to Christ.  Don’t miss the main point!
  3. There’s good news with the warning.  If this was something the disciples were to beware, it means that this was something the disciples could avoid.  We don’t HAVE to engage in the same errors as the Pharisees & Sadducees!  The P&S may have been the theological “experts,” but we don’t have to engage in the same errors even as we learn more about Christ & grow in our faith.  And we certainly don’t have to keep engaging in those errors if we find ourselves slipping into them.  We can repent & get refocused upon what God has called us to!
  4. So how exactly do we avoid it?  By trusting Christ, keeping our eyes firmly fixed upon Him.  That’s what the P&S missed out on.  They could not recognize the Son of God before their eyes because they were too busy subjecting Jesus to their demands and tests.  The disciples themselves came perilously close to engaging in the same error when they missed out on what Jesus was telling them by getting self-centered & self-focused on their own problems & failings.  Don’t miss out on Christ!  Keep your eyes upon HIM, recognizing Him for who He is, and listening to Him as to the voice of God.  Hebrews 12:1–2, "(1) Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, (2) looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." []

Conclusion:
Don’t miss Jesus!  Don’t try to test God, and thereby miss His work in front of you.  The Pharisees and Sadducees would have claimed to have things all figured out, but they completely missed the Son of God standing right in front of them.  They demanded that Jesus bow to their own whims & tests, instead of honestly seeking the true revelation of God.  The disciples did truly seek God, believing in Christ Jesus – only still missing the point because they were consumed with themselves, rather than taking the time to listen to what Jesus was telling them.

Be careful to keep your attention upon the Lord Jesus, submitted to His authority.  It can be so easy to get distracted by minor matters – turning our attention away from the gospel, or putting our own tests in front of Jesus to match.  Christian: what has Jesus clearly told you in His word?  Do you remember whom it is you serve?  The disciples seemed to forget that they were walking with Almighty God & got distracted by minor matters…in danger of making some major mistakes.  God help us remember that we have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ, commissioned & empowered by Him to go share the news of His salvation to every corner of the world. 

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