Dangerous Leaven

Every so often, Jesus dropped a bomb on the disciples which left them scratching their heads. We find one of those in Matthew 16. 

The Pharisees and Sadducees demanded Jesus show them a special sign to prove He was the Messiah. He declined, saying the only sign they’d get was the sign of Jonah, an oblique reference to His coming resurrection. Then Jesus warned His disciples about the error of the Pharisees and Sadducees with these words, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” After Jesus cleared up their misunderstanding of what He meant by ‘leaven,’ Matthew says, “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.

In the parallel passage in Mark 8, he records Jesus as saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” There is no contradiction between the two passages, as we will see. The key lies in knowing what Jesus meant by leaven and how the Sadducees connected to Herod.

In my previous article titled “Love or License,” I examined the call of Progressive Christians to redefine sexual morality by aligning it with contemporary societal norms rather than historic, orthodox Christianity. Progressives support this change in morality by pointing to the command that we love our neighbor. They think love means going along with whatever our neighbors desire to do. But we saw that Biblical love is not a license to sin. The Progressive agenda is set by a desire to go along with the world rather than remain consistent with Scripture and what Christians have believed for the last two millennia. Cultural norms are the Progressivist hermeneutic. They bend Scripture to make it fit what they want it to say and give permission for the world to do its thing. That way, Progressives can call themselves “Christians” while at the same time facing no opposition from the world. 

It turns out it isn’t just Progressives who are being seduced by the world. So are a growing number of otherwise orthodox Evangelicals. This is where the leaven of the Pharisees ad Herod comes in.

In the first four verses of Matthew 16, Jesus responds to a challenge by the Pharisees and Sadducees. They demand a remarkable sign from Him, not another run-of-the-mill miracle of healing as they’d already seen many times. They wanted something more spectacular. Implied but not stated was IF He anted up and gave them such a sign, THEN they would believe. Jesus knew they wouldn’t. The proof of that is what He goes on to say – he would rise from the dead in the greatest miracle of all – and they STILL did not believe.

Here is where the leaven comes in. Only a small amount of leaven, also known as yeast, is needed to make a large loaf of bread rise. Though small, its influence is immense. Jesus used that trait of leaven to warn His disciples about the influence of the relatively small sects of Pharisees and Sadducees. They exerted an outsized influence in shaping public opinion. The Sadducees controlled the priesthood and dominated the Sanhedrin, Israel’s main legislative and religious body. They maintained control of Israelite society by working behind the scenes with officials like Herod. Set over against the Sadducees were the Pharisees, religious heavyweights regarded by the common people as ultra-spiritual due to their fastidious law-keeping. 

If someone wanted to rise in Israelite society, they had to court the favor of either the Pharisees or Sadducees. But both groups had settled into a formal opposition to Jesus. To align WITH Jesus was to oppose the influence brokers who acted as gatekeepers to societal advancement. Both groups claimed to be God’s real representatives. Yet when God showed up in the Person of Jesus, they rejected Him. It was the height of hypocrisy. So in Luke 12, we read, “He began to say to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” 

The center of Jewish social life was the local synagogue. Being banned from it was social suicide, to make oneself a pariah. The Sadducees and Pharisees had the power to do that.

His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.

Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue;

The leaven Jesus warned His followers about is the influence social gatekeepers have to convey either favor or disfavor, to say who is in and who is out. It must be rejected when that influence is brought to bear to diminish faith in Christ. 

I recently heard a pastor give a message on the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod that said the leaven was to divorce the moral law from the civil law. His message aimed at mobilizing Christians into political action. He used Jesus’ warning about leaven as the motivation for Christians to not allow the erosion of Biblical morality. But the leaven Jesus spoke of had nothing to do with the moral or civil law. Nothing! Jesus’ warning was to people being tempted to back away from their commitment to Him because it would cost them socially.

There are two ways to apply that, and they speak directly to the Leaven Jesus warned of. The first way we apply it is as the previous article, “Love or License,” spelled out. We cannot let the world pressure us into accepting its morality as a means of advancement. That be the way of the leaven of the Sadducees and Herod. The second way we apply it is to resist religious leaders teaming the rightness of our walk to how politically active we are. That be the way of the leaven of the Pharisees.

Photo by Karyna Panchenko on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Dangerous Leaven”

  1. Great insight, Lance. Thanks. There is ‘theology from above’ – the word of God that is meant to shape and form us. And there is a ‘theology from below’ – as you put it, shaped by ‘the influence of the social gatekeepers.’ A culture shaped by theology will look a lot different than a theology shaped by culture. This is seen in your statement: “Cultural norms are the Progressivist hermeneutic.” Again – good stuff.

  2. Hi Lance
    I’ve been reading in Isaiah lately..and I see in chapters 40 and 41…and how God hated lip service, hypocrites who went to the synagogue and then to the high places to worship the false, perverted idol worship…
    God gave the Israelites time to repent but sadly we know they didn’t..,
    Here we are in the 21st century and we as a people think we can change the narrative of what is right and wrong, then we think, God must do the same…
    But over and over in Isaiah, the LORD God states…he doesn’t change, and commands his people to repent…
    I pray your post will bring many to repentance and follow the Jesus of the Bible, and not from faithless, disobedient men in the pulpits !
    God Bless

  3. Jennifer Johnson

    That was a great job,very eyeopening..I enjoyed every bit of that reading..God is a good God.I love the Father,Son and Holy Spirit..

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