Matthew 16:1-12 New King James Version (NKJV)
The Pharisees and Sadducees Seek a Sign
16 Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. 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.’ [a]Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of [b]the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed.
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees
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 [c]leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”
7 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have taken no bread.”
8 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves because you [d]have brought no bread? 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? 11 How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?—but to beware of the [e]leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the [f]doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
What if I said that what Jesus is talking about tonight is one of the greatest threats that the church faces throughout history and understanding this will prevent you from falling into one of two deadly traps that that the church can fall into.
Jesus talking about Leaven, and signs, seems a bit confusing, however, when we take a step back we see that he is talking about the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees and it is this that we must be on look out for in our own church and lives.
So, let’s dive in;
1. What is the Leaven?
Well, Jesus tells us that the level of the Pharisees and Sadducees is their teaching. But this poses a problem for us; because the Pharisees and Sadducees were very different; polar opposites in fact. The Sadducees were the Political elites of their day and were very progressive and accommodating of Rome and others. The Pharisees were more the religious conservatives of their day. One believed in miracles and the resurrection, the other was far more pragmatic and denied most miraculous ideas of Scripture and denied the resurrection.
So what about their teachings was the leaven that was so dangerous to the disciple that Jesus warns them of it?
Well, the context of the statement is them trying to trap Jesus and then asking them for a sign. Jesus calls them Hypocrites and wicked and evil for asking for a sign. Because they didn’t want a sign they wanted Jesus to be wrong, they wanted to trap Him. And they wanted to trap Him because he was presenting a God that wasn’t backing their agenda.
The Pharisees and Sadducees wanted the blessings of God, but by their rejection of Jesus and who he was had shown that they didn’t want God himself. This is most of us; we want the stuff of God without having to submit ourselves to God.
This is why the Sadducee and the Pharisee have in common; even though they are polar opposites. The Pharisee sees himself as morally superior and therefore because he is good God must bless him, the Sadducee sees himself as open and by nature of being a man God must bless him. Both see God as a tool to be used for His blessing rather than an end to himself. God is a tool to their agenda and not a reward within Himself.
Neither of these two groups really wanted God, if they had they would have embrace Christ; they used God for their own personal agenda, and have become hypocrites in the process. So the leaven of the Pharisee and the Sadducee is the hypocrisy of demanding God be on our side; of God being our own agenda rather than us seeking His agenda. The next question we must ask is;
2. Why we must beware?
Jesus uses this interaction as a teaching moment. Jesus was, “Hey disciples you see the interaction that just happened, beware of this; beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”. To which the disciples, ever dull, start discussing among themselves is Jesus talking about bread. I mean it is a logical connection – yeast and bread are intimately connected. But Jesus wasn’t talking about bread.
He was talking about how a little bit of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees will ruin the whole batch. Just a tiny drop of selfishness of demanding of God will ruin your entire faith. The ancient Church father Tertullian said, “"Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors…legalism and licence.” In other words, we are constantly in danger of making a God who is for our people, who are morally the same as us, for our tribe. The Pharisee, who was the legalist was just as in error as the Sadducee who was licentious. Both were missing God, both wanted the things of God but not God himself. The moralist is someone who says I have been good, I have followed the rules God owes me. The licentious says, I am tolerant, God made me this way therefor God owes me. Both hate God, both want to use God; they want the blessings of God without seeking Him first. And a simple glance through history will see that we tend to swing back and forth between these two realities always demanding that God be on our side. So, 50 years ago the great enemy of mankind was Humanistic Marxism – communism. And the good people were those who followed the rules, today the enemy of mankind is fundamentalist and the good people are those who are tolerant. Do you see the two extremes? Both think God is on their side. But we learn something very different in Scripture.
God is never on a side of mankind, God is on his own side; a story in the Old Testament that reflects this so aptly is Joshua as he enters into the Promise Land, Israel is led by a young man named Joshua, and is lead up to a great and famous City called Jericho. This is God’s chosen people going to conquer the Land that God told them to conquer and as they are entering the plains of Jericho Joshua goes up in Joshua 5 and sees a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword. Joshua went up to him and asked are you for us or against us? “Neither” the man replies, “But as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Are you kidding, this is the chosen people of God, going to do what God has told them to do and the commander of the Army of God says I’m not for you or against you. I am for God. And you will be with me or against me if you are on God’s agenda. The message is beautiful; God is not on our agenda, He is not for one nation and against another or even for one ideology and against another, God is for Himself, and doing His will and if we align ourselves with that we are with Him and if we resist His will we are against Him. Just because we have the name church and say we are Christ’s does not mean that we are with God and his agenda, it is only if we are with Him, if we are obedient to him.
The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees can corrupt anyone, and this is why Jesus gives it to us as a warning for all time. Beware, this can grow up in even the best of places and corrupt the whole batch.So, the danger is demanding God be on our side to assume God is for our agenda, the warning is that anyone can fall into it even the disciples. The final question is;
3. How we overcome
The danger is seeing and believing in a God who owes us; the answer is see and believing in a God who we owe. What do I mean? Well Jesus gives the Pharisees and Sadducees a sign; they demand a sign and he says the only sign given will be the sign of Jonah; now we have covered this in Matthew 12:38-45. The sign of Jonah is a prediction of his death and resurrection. It is a foretelling of the gospel hope. So, Jesus is saying that the only way to overcome a me-centred religion is to look at the cross and see one and for all a God centred one. Jesus didn’t die as an example, to show people to love their enemies. He didn’t die to teach mankind that passive resistance is the best form or resistance. Jesus died because there was something fundamentally broken in humankind. We had all rejected God and therefore by the demands of justice all under the curse of God’s wrath!
Essentially the only thing God’s owes us is His anger and wrath against our sin! Why, you may ask? It is because God loves that he is angry. CS Lewis in his book letters to Malcolm responds to a comment that Malcolm makes, he says, that he was uncomfortable with the idea that God gets angry, Malcom found it more helpful to think of God’s power like electricity, he says, “The live wire doesn’t feel angry with us, by if we blunder against it we get a shock.” Lewis replied, My dear Malcom: What do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? You have shut up all in despair, for the angry can forgive, but electricity can’t… Turn God’s wrath into mere enlightened disapproval and you turn his love into mere humanitarianism.”Lewis helps us see that if we do not look into the disapproval of God with sin, we will not appreciate His love in dealing with it. His love and his wrath are intrinsically linked. Both the Pharisee and the Sadducee both ignore God’s wrath and by implication both miss His love.
Someone who says I believe in a God of love therefore we must simply let everyone live as they please, stop judging, has made a God who is not worth loving and definitely not worth worshiping. If God is never angry with people, he doesn’t love them. It is because I love my children that I have rules for them and get angry when they live against those rules.
But it is equally true that the moralist who thinks that God is for them because they have followed all the rules, doesn’t appreciate the love of God or the wrath of God. He thinks God owes him love for his good life. The problem is that the cross shows us all that God owes no man anything. The cross shows us that we all owe God and infinite debt! No man can make God his debtor.
The cross, church, exposes us to the anger of God against our sin, His pure wrath for what we have done, and yet it is in that wrath, we see His infinite desire to forgive. So much so that he would not withhold his only son, But God so love the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believed would not perish by have eternal life!
As the song goes;
Oh, How deep the Father's love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
The only way to overcome our self-obsession church, the only way to move forward is to see how much was given for you, to let the all-consuming love of God pierce you, and to live your entire life in light of God’s mercy! God owes you nothing, but he gave you everything! Live in the light of that! Live every day, and everything you do in light of that!